Merry Christmas! I promised myself that I'd get this out by Christmas, and here it is. If you're sick of turkey and tired of carols by now, I hope this provides a ten-minute escape if nothing else.
Thanks again to my wonderful betas! And thanks for all the reviews. I'm only human: the encouragement keeps me writing.
A Hope in Hell
He was awake, crying into a muted darkness. Muffled sobs, struggling to gasp in breath to his young lungs, the air dry and hot. He could taste ash on the wind, and for a moment Vader flashed back to Mustafar and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh.
Then someone was grabbing him, lifting him up with shaking hands, brushing their fingers over his skin urgently, feeling his limbs for broken bones. A woman's face swam into focus: Dané, her face streaked with soot and sweat. Her eyes roamed over him rapidly before she let out a sobbing, shaking breath and clutched him close, rocking from side to side in agitation.
But Vader - or rather, Luke - kept on crying, unable to tear his focus away from the burning hole rent in his mind, unable to understand the sudden, violent loss. She was gone - Padmé was gone, and Vader felt the tearing pain that was mirrored in his own soul.
He remembered with vivid, brutal clarity the moment he had awoken from surgery after weeks of being incognisant. Remembered Palpatine standing ready with his shattering news - "It seems that in your anger, you killed her." - and remembered the horror ripping him apart, shredding apart the remains of Anakin Skywalker. That same horror, just as primal and instinctive, was echoing in Luke's mind. But though it tried to flood down another bond, another link to another lost parent, it failed, blocked by adamantine barriers that bore Kenobi's signature.
And Luke just wailed harder.
Dané stood, emerging from the shelter of a broken doorway and wandering down a fire-scorched street, her eyes desperate. She turned a full circle, with each step her breath hitching in her chest, her grip on him tightening. Devastation surrounded them. Even through the tear-blurred vision of Luke's infant eyes, Vader could see that the destruction was overwhelming. The buildings had crumbled as if battered by an unseen wind, and a firestorm had raced through recently, so hot and swift that it incinerated everything it touched, but moved on too quickly to take hold over a larger area. The road was buckled and cracked. Somewhere to the east, towards the river, there was the roaring sound of rushing water, drowning the distant screaming.
Then something must have caught Dané's eyes, because she lurched into a run. She fell to her knees, her grip on Luke tightening. And Vader, instinctively, tried to draw back, to disconnect from the image in front of him, from the bodies.
The horror wasn't unexpected. Nor, truly, was the sight of their burnt corpses. What shocked him was his reaction to seeing Obi-Wan's body, wrapped protectively around Padmé's smaller frame - as if, right to the end, he had tried to save her. How much easier would it have been for Obi-Wan to have abandoned her for dead? How likely was it that he might have escaped the city alive with Luke, had he not been protecting Padmé and Dané at the same time?
Vader drew back from those thoughts, aware that they would only lead him into spiralling possibilities that had long since passed. Through Luke's hearing he heard Dané's panicked sobs, stuttering her words - "No, my Lady. No... I... can't..."- and - "I don't... I don't know...where the ship... where the ship is!" - and saw her holding up the blackened beckon call and throwing it aside in despair.
Finally, after a meaningless amount of time, she drew back, regained her feet. "I don't know what to do," she whispered, addressing Luke with a look that was despairing and maybe just a little angry. "I don't know what to do."
Exhaustion lay heavy in his muscles, and Vader had neither the inclination nor the energy to move. He was aware, vaguely, of sitting on a smooth, cold floor, his upper body resting against the hard side of a bunk. The ship was unpleasantly cool; though the engine made the deck plates rumble against his injured thigh, the only source of warmth Vader could feel was that which pressed against his arm and torso - his son's body, close beside him.
Vader blinked, lifting his head and ignoring the spasm of pain that movement sent down his back. For a moment, he merely watched the steady rise and fall of Luke's chest, the rhythmic flash of the med sensors attached to him. He glanced at the overhead monitors, which maintained a steady flow of statistics and lacked the alarms signals that had flared to life when Vader had first lowered Luke to the bed.
He sighed, relief eclipsing his exhaustion. It worked, he thought, though he was uncertain whether he referred to the medical equipment or his own surrender to the healing properties inherent in the Light Side of the Force. His fingers brushed Luke's forearm, but the boy didn't stir.
How long had he been unconscious? He had no memory of the time passing. He recalled charging through the ship, barely sparing the time to raise the shields against any outside attack. Barrelling into the med bay, lowering Luke to the bed, firing up the system - and silencing the immediate medical alert sirens with a crushing blow to the speakers.
Then - triggering the anti-viral serums, the automatic life-support, the intravenous bacta. And the Force. Dropping to his knees, reaching out for strength. A voice in his mind -
"He could even keep the ones he cared about from dying."
And the blinding, stupefying realisation that had all been a lie, because the Dark Side did not, could not heal. But the Light Side... clearly, it could.
Strange how unsurprising that realisation was. Vader had made no conscious decision to use the Light. There had been no bowing at another's feet. No ceremonious name-giving. No deafening sense of finality. Turning his back on the Dark Side had been curiously simple.
With a determined flare of energy, Vader pulled himself away from the contemplation of that simplicity and pushed himself upright, crushing the pain that sparked from his injuries.
He looked down at Luke, satisfying himself of the boy's steady, gentle breathing, and turned away from the med station bed. He wanted to pilot them away from this planet as soon as possible, but first he should at least dress his wounds. Although he was drained by his efforts to heal Luke, he was also conversely invigorated. The Force flowed through him, breathing with him, the energy rising and falling like water from a breached dam readjusting to its new surroundings, lapping at the corners of his mind.
He moved to the 'fresher station, flicking on the clinically white light as he peeled the remains of the fabric of his flightsuit away from his thigh. The fabric had clotted into the blood and exposed tissue; removing it tore open the wound anew. He took hold of the pain with the Force, channelling it away as he cleaned the wound and stripped a bacta patch from its flimsiplast packaging, smoothing the gelatine fabric over the burn.
He closed his eyes briefly, leaning back against the wall, feeling the Force swirl around his mind and dissipate the pain. Undeniably, the touch of the Force within him was no longer as Dark as it had been, not as angry and violent. But it was not quite Light, either. More... balanced.
Vader forced his eyes to re-open and rested his right arm underneath the bright light. He peeled away the burnt fabric covering the prosthetic. Beneath it, a vivid black burn marked where the blaster bolt had hit, shorting out much of the circuitry. There was very little pain there now, the majority of the simulated nerve sensors having shorted out in the initial bolt. But the damage was extensive. Yet despite that, perhaps with his instinctual skills with mechanics, and the ships well-stocked tool supply, he might -
The sound of a loud crash echoing down the narrow corridor jerked him back to his surroundings, and he was striding from the 'fresher before he'd thought to move. Luke was sprawled on the floor of the small med bay, picking himself up after apparently having lurched up off the bed.
"Luke," Vader said, shocked that he hadn't felt the boy wake. He reached for him as Luke's head snapped up and he stared at Vader with huge, confused eyes. The boy reared backwards at Vader's approach. "Luke?"
"Wha'?" the boy asked, and looked around incredulously. "What's going on? This isn't right."
Vader frowned and stepped closer.
A look of fear and despair crossed the boy's features. "Wait - are you... are you dead, too? Did Jandon catch you?"
"... 'dead'?" Vader repeated, slowly.
"Or am I hallucinating? This can't be real." Luke looked at him with wide, sad eyes. "What's going on?"
Vader shook his head, crouching opposite his son. "No, Luke. You are not dead. You are very much alive. As am I."
Luke stared at him fiercely, a hundred different thoughts passing over his expression. "I don't believe you," he finally said. "I'm hallucinating."
"You are not -"
"You're not real," Luke said, turning his face away and swallowing thickly. "This can't be real."
Sympathetic pain clenched the muscles in Vader's stomach. He reached out, hesitantly, with his left arm until his gloved palm cupped Luke's cheek and he turned the boy's gaze around to meet his. "I am real," Vader said, and as he said it he stretched out with his recently restored Force sense, reaching for the bond that had been vague and indistinct for too long.
The power of that contact took Vader by surprise. He sucked in a breath, the respirator labouring. What he had seen of his son's Force signature whilst healing him had given Vader some idea of what to expect from this reciprocal contact, but the reality of that touch staggered him. And, apparently, it had a similar effect on his son, because suddenly the boy was clinging to him, wrapping his arms around his neck and clutching at him like he would never let go.
For a moment Vader was at a loss what to do with such unexpected, unfamiliar physical contact. His hands came up of their own accord, to protect him, but instead he found himself holding the boy tighter, his parental instincts stronger than his habitual aloofness.
Luke was crying, Vader realised numbly, uncertain what he should do. His mind flashed back to the memories of his dreams - of a crying infant calling out for the lost, broken bond to his mother - and Vader sent wordless comfort along their connection. If anything, Luke's crying only became fiercer and Vader weathered it out, struggling to remember what his own mother had done to offer solace during his childhood.
Just this, he realised. Just held him, and not questioned his tears.
The realisation allowed Vader to relax a little, and he closed his eyes, exploring with mental fingers the complexities of the bond to his son. It was... extraordinary. He was present within the boy, as Luke was present within his own mind. Where one ended and the other began was uncertain. The join was too tight to see, too well melded.
Eventually Luke pulled back, his face flushed with embarrassment, a mirror to the feeling echoing down the Force. "Sorry," he said, and then sniffed. "I just..." He trailed off, shrugging.
Vader had no response to that. Any words he might have said would have sounded too sentimental to his own ears, yet he also had no words of reproach for the display of emotions.
In the end, he opted for turning their joint attention to more practical matters. "You should not be up yet. The medical facilities aboard have cleared the infection, but you should remain in the bunk and rest," he said, pointedly.
Luke blinked then and something seemed to snap into place in his gaze. He looked around, for the first time appearing to really see his surroundings, and a flash of wonder sparked in his eyes. He turned back to Vader. "This is -"
"Yes," Vader interrupted.
Luke's expression erupted into a grin. He pulled back and tried to stand - managed it, for at least a second, before turning suddenly pale and stumbling slightly. Vader reached out and braced him. "Careful," he said. "Your body is still recovering, and will be for some time."
"I want -" the boy started to say, but Vader stood and shook his head.
"We should leave this planet. Once we have strapped you into the medical bunk harness, I can pilot us away -"
"I want to watch," Luke said, the words tumbling out in a rush as he resisted Vader's uncharacteristically gentle urging towards the bunk. "I've never been in a ship before. I want to see it when we lift off - please?"
Force save him from himself, but something inside of him had wanted to relinquish his convictions in the face of that plea. He quashed the urge with brutal willpower. "No, you need to rest."
"But I can help," Luke said, with a frown of confusion as Vader used his much larger body to manoeuvre his son back towards the med station bunk. "You can't pilot with your arm out of action."
Vader snorted at that. "I can," he said, simply.
Pressed backwards until his calves hit the bunk side, Luke sat down with an expression of disbelief. "Come on," he said.
"I do not need your assistance."
Luke went tight-lipped, and Vader wondered if he'd snapped that last sentence out too sharply. He sighed. A few minutes in the cockpit watching take-off could not hurt Luke, could they? So why was he so reticent to allow the boy up there? Perhaps because he might feel the echo of the memories pressing at Vader's own mind, might sense the ghosts of a lost past walking through the ship, their shattered dreams turning stale.
"Father," Luke said, quietly. "Father... I want to help. I can sleep when we're away."
Vader wanted to turn aside, or to swear viciously at his weakening resolve. The boy was irrepressible. The next few days - weeks, months, years - were going to be interesting. Yes - interesting.
"Very well," he finally said, shaking his head minutely. He proffered his hand and Luke took it, coming back to his feet. Before the boy could attempt to walk, however, Vader scooped him up and braced him with his good arm, a touch of the Force stabilising the boy as Vader turned for the med station door. "You may monitor the scopes whilst we lift off." A thrumming pleasure echoed across the bond, plucking at his nerves. Luke didn't reply, perhaps fearful that if he broke the sudden silence then Vader might suddenly change his decision.
"Oh! There you are!" A voice said - a very familiar voice. Threepio appeared in front of them when they exited the med bay; apparently he had been waiting, flustered, beyond the closed door since Vader had shut it on him earlier.
"Is Master Kenobi coming, sir?"
"No," Vader snapped, moving past him. Threepio followed.
"And... Mistress Padme?"
Vader paused, sucking in a deep breath. He closed his eyes. "Threepio?"
"Over-ride code 7283-623."
The droid went abruptly silent, frozen in position. Vader sighed in relief.
"Wow," Luke said, the words reverberating against Vader's shoulder. Then he laughed. The warmth of that sound crept through Vader's mind and pressed back the chill of too many memories that had long since turned to dust. Vader shook his head, moving for the cockpit.
Through the cockpit viewscreen they could see the dark undergrowth of the forest, the sunlight streaking down to the floor in bright shafts of orange light. It illuminated the members of Jandon's gang who stood around the perimeter of the ship and, even as Vader lowered Luke to the copilot's seat, one of the young men fired his blaster at the ship, the energy dancing across the shields. Vader snorted, feeling his fingers reaching for the weaponry - and sensing Luke watching him.
With a deliberate pause, Vader drew his hand back, flexing his fingers. It would be simple enough to kill them all. A flick of a switch, a press of a button. They would be dead in a heartbeat. They would all pay for what they had done to the son of Darth Vader, the son of Anakin Skywalker.
It would be simple enough - too simple. Much more complicated was the process of pulling back, resisting that urge, knowing that it came from an instinctive hatred and fear that he dare not allow purchase on his soul. There would be another time for dealing with men like Jandon... another opportunity, a better opportunity for putting right what had gone so wrong.
Vader sat heavily in the pilot's seat, flicking the sublight engines into a warm-start. He felt Luke watching him.
He turned back to the boy. "Do you wish them to die?" he asked him.
Luke started to answer, then stopped. "I... don't know," he finally said. "Should I?"
Vader felt the question turning over in his own mind. "Wanting rid of them and reaping your revenge are very different."
"Oh..." was all Luke said to that.
Vader concentrated on the controls for a moment, until the majority of red lights had flickered over to green. He felt a familiar thrill go through him as he rested his hands over the flight controls. He turned back to Luke to find the boy still watching him with ill-disguised awe. "Are you strapped in?" Vader asked.
"Then... hold on," Vader said, and channelled power to main drives.
The ship leapt upwards with graceful acceleration, bounding off the forest floor in a kick of dirt and leaves. Luke let out a delighted whoop and then laughed. Vader struggled to turn down the corners of his smile, unused as he was to smiling, but lost the battle at the sight of Jandon and his men scattering, the forest floor receding rapidly, the stars clawing for them.
Vader's eyes flickered over the different controls, using a touch of the Force to adjust those that his right arm was unable to control. He glanced at Luke.
He wasn't sure what he expected Luke to say about leaving the planet he had lived on for the past thirteen years. Maybe a 'Wow!' or a 'I can't believe this is happening!' But he didn't get either of those. Instead, Luke turned his face away to the stars, biting his lip. "We're free..."
And Vader had nothing to say in return to that. He lifted his hands from the controls, sitting back. Luke's words from earlier came back to him, echoing in Vader's mind: "We're both slaves then, you by choice."
And the boy had been right. But that would change. It had already changed. Palpatine had yet to discover that, though, and the thought of where the next few weeks would take them gave Vader pause.
He shook his head, turning to watch the scopes as they climbed steadily upwards, watching magnified images of landscape flicker across the screens.
Once the atmosphere was cleared, the last tattered remains trailing after the ship, he settled it into autopilot and turned back to his son. Luke was staring at the footage as it replayed over the monitor - the barren and broken landscape, the empty destruction broken by occasional, basic settlements well away from where the main cities had been. They were too high to be seen by the people who had re-made their homes there, but Vader could imagine their reaction to seeing their ship cutting a line through the burnt sky. Apparently, Luke could imagine it, too; an untouchable melancholy made him look much older than his thirteen years.
"I will have them relocated," Vader said, "to somewhere more habitable. If they will leave."
Luke looked up at him, dark circles cupping his eyes. He looked exhausted, suddenly. "'If'?" he said.
Vader inclined his head to the scopes. "Some of the settlements outside of the main destruction appear to be surviving quite well. They may choose to stay. They may not trust the Empire."
Luke snorted at that. "No kidding," he said. He paused. "But you might be right," he conceded. "Dané said that most of the people who were left escaped the city for the countryside. They thought it would be easier to live out there."
Vader considered the merits of that assumption, seeing in his mind's eye the panic of the people, the screaming, the dead who'd been left behind, littering the street - it would have made sense to run. And those who stayed behind had been those without the taste or the knowledge for rebuilding: the young, the destructive, the ones who perhaps saw an opportunity for feudal power.
"Yet Dané did not go with them," he said, almost to himself, thinking of a lone woman standing on a scorched street, a screaming baby in her arms.
Luke just shrugged and yawned. Vader turned the implications of that over in his mind.
Perhaps the handmaiden had not wanted to leave the city she had served in for most of her life. Or perhaps she had hoped for someone to come to her and Luke's aid - Yoda or Organa. But Yoda, Vader knew, had been discovered by Palpatine and destroyed as he emerged from hiding shortly after Vader had reawakened. Perhaps the events on Naboo had been the reason for Yoda breaking his solitude and risking detection - perhaps he had intended to come after Luke, but had not made it. Vader would never know. But, clearly, no one had come for Dané and Luke. Or if someone had, they had not found her.
Had Dané resented Luke for her situation?
Vader sighed, turning back to his son.
"Did you -" he started to say, but stopped, because Luke had slumped down in the chair, curled up against the armrest, and was dozing. Vader reached out a hand to Luke's forehead, his touch enhancing his connection to boy and alleviating the instinctive spike of concern.
Luke was sleeping, that was all. He was exhausted and under-nourished, his body drawn to the point of collapse by the virus that had raged through him. But he was alive. He was alive, and Vader felt an elation lift him, spiriting his blood, quickening it with the thought of a dozen possible futures that could stretch before them now.
He needed to decide what to do next, where to take them and what to tell Palpatine. But most of all, he needed to just pause for a moment and take stock of the changes that had led him here, to this turning point.
Vader drew his hand away from Luke's forehead, resting it back on the flight controls. Beneath the wings of the ship, Naboo slowly receded. He glanced back at Luke, considering how close the planet had come to claiming the boy. And why it had come that close. Not because of hatred, or fear, or aggression, but for the sake of love. And love, he realised, could be more dangerous by far.
"Next time you believe you must sacrifice yourself for me..."
He'd been thinking aloud, trailing off as the concept of that rolled uncomfortably around his mind. But Luke answered him with a groggy, "Yeah?"
Vader grimaced, and turned to look down on his son with conviction. "Don't."
Luke smiled sleepily. Vader shook his head, not for a moment believing the boy would heed him. With a touch to the flight controls, the ship leapt into hyperspace, streaking towards a brighter future.