AN: This story has been sitting on my hard drive for years. I promised myself that I would never again post a fic that is not yet finished, but it seems that the fate of this story is to sit quietly until I accidentally delete it. Perhaps posting it will finally give me the energy to finish it. I've written a "lighter" Vader in this story. I wouldn't go so far as to call him OOC, but you might see him as such. This story is much more optimistic than many of my past pieces, so I see this shift in characterization as my pen turning a new leaf, so to speak. I'll do my best to finish this (and revise the later chapters, because- woo, they are a mess), but I can make no promises. So, here's to new life for my writing and hopefully some inspiration.
Special thanks to Deja Vu and Kitt- who betaed this years ago.
There is something indescribably beautiful about space. It is cold, deadly, mysterious...
Vader's eye caught his own reflection in the surface of the bridge's viewport; he and space had much in common. He stood with his hands clasped at the small of his back, his feet spread a little more than a half meter apart, and he contemplated what was to come. Everything was moving quickly now, and he was chagrined to acknowledge that he was not prepared for the challenges that he would soon face. He had little time to find the boy. He had even less time to prepare the boy and obtain his acceptance of his destiny in the entire scheme.
But Vader would find him, and he would teach him that lesson... thoroughly.
It was a frozen desert, the inverse of his childhood home. Luke adjusted his goggles over his face to keep the biting wind from his skin. He had thought he'd never feel helpless again after the Death Star. He had thought there was nothing that he couldn't handle.
He was wrong.
For the first time since Yavin, he felt the sickening feeling of panic creep up his spine and through his innards. He'd been attacked by some sort of monster. Its white fur had kept Luke from spotting it until it was upon him and his mount. He felt a twisting guilt; he had thrown himself from the tauntaun and fled as the monster dug its claws and teeth into the peaceful animal. Luke could still hear the tauntaun's screams in his head. The animal had saved his life. Luke had been able to flee while the creature was distracted by the easy prey, but he'd dropped his comlink and compass. He was lost and it would be dark soon. His vision began to blur as he looked ahead at what looked like an ice mountain; it was very similar to the one the rebels had carved their base into.
Was that it? Had he found his way back?
He clawed his way towards the mountain of ice. His chest heaved and his vision blurred more and more until he could no longer make out the ice from the sky. His eyes crossed and closed as he lost consciousness and fell into the snow drifts.
"Give me the microbinoculars, Xan."
Xanzio frowned and passed the view-enhancers to the woman next to him, squinting at the snow-swept landscape.
"Yeah, I see it too," she said, lowering the device from her eyes with a small frown. "Do you think he's with the rebels?"
"Who else do ya think he's with? You think he's a native?" Xanzio retorted sarcastically.
Kyallia glared at her business partner.
"What's goin' on guys?"
The pair turned as the third of their smuggling trio emerged from the cave. Kyallia held out the microbinoculars. "Look. Tell us what you think, Harrison."
Harrison snatched the offered device from Kyallia's hand and held it up to his eyes. "Well, well, well, one of them rebels wandered a lil' too far from home."
Kyallia smirked, "What d'ya think we should do?"
Harrison twisted his lip, turning back to face his companions. "Normally I'd say leave the bastard to his death, but with the bounties on some of those rebels these days, I think it'd be worth it to check this guy out."
The three smugglers exchanged smiles and headed into their ice-cave hideout to gear-up.
Luke groaned as his consciousness slowly returned to him. He blinked, struggling to bring his surroundings into focus. As he turned his head to stretch his sore muscles, he blinked some more and frowned; the female at his bedside jumped.
He attempted to sit up. "Leia?"
"No," a feminine voice returned coldly.
Luke frowned as his vision cleared; he narrowed his eyes as he studied the woman next to him.
"Who are you?"
She sneered. "That is the least of your worries."
Luke's frown deepened. "Are you an Imperial?"
The woman ignored him and walked off. Luke moved to follow her and found himself slammed back into the bed by his own force; he turned his head and frowned at the ropes tied firmly around his wrists. He closed his eyes, letting his head fall against the pillow again.
How'd I end up here anyway? he thought.
The last thing he remembered was being knocked from his mount in the middle of nowhere in the harsh Hoth wilderness... He broke from his internal musings as the woman reentered. Two men strode in behind her.
"Well, looks like Sleepin' Beauty finally decided to wake up."
The other man smirked in response. "What d'ya do to wake him up, Ky? Kiss him?"
The man was answered with a violent punch in his shoulder blade. "Shut up, Xan."
Luke struggled to move into a more dignified position, rather than remain sprawled out on his back as his captors stood over him, but his attempts were met with failure.
The woman looked down at him and sneered. "Think we can get any useful information out of him? Such as why Vader wants him alive?"
Luke frowned and spoke without thinking. "Vader wants me alive?"
One of the men laughed and grabbed a simple wooden chair, spun it in his hand, and straddled it as he sat; leaning over the back of it he grinned at the man tied down on the bed. "You do know about Vader's bounty on you, right?"
Luke nodded slowly.
The other man, who his companions called Xan, grabbed a chair and sat, leering at Luke also. "And you do know that the bounty demands you alive and unharmed?"
Luke unconsciously pulled at his restraints again. "Huh?"
The woman laughed; perching herself on the bed next to Luke's thigh, she leaned forward and smiled at him. "Well, isn't this interesting?"
Luke's frown deepened as the three leaned over him, grinning maliciously. He had a bad feeling about this.
The female rested her elbows on Luke's chest and studied his face intently. "I can see why Vader might want him alive... but why is he so worried about this rebel's well-being?" She glanced at the man next to her. "Whatcha think, Harrison? You were an Imp once."
Harrison shrugged. "Being an Imp doesn't make ya understand how Vader or the Emperor thinks."
Luke bit his lower lip, asking himself the same question: Why the hell did Vader want him unharmed?
"What does the bounty say specifically?" Luke asked softly. The three turned and looked at him in unison.
"What?" Xanzio leaned forward, peering at the young man curiously.
"The bounty, what does it say?"
Harrison raised an eyebrow in amusement as he reached into his jacket. After flipping through a pile of bounty notices, he finally stopped and pulled one from the pile.
He held it in front of Luke's face.
Luke's forehead creased as he read. "It's Vader's bounty... not the Empire's."
Harrison nodded, stuffing the bounty back into his jacket. "Yeah, we know. We also know that you're worth enough to buy a small star system."
Luke suddenly looked like a very small child; was there anything he could offer these mercenaries for his freedom?
No, he quickly concluded as he assessed the predatory stares of his captors.
"Harrison." The woman leaned forward, throwing a glance at the man on the bed. "Is there a contact number on the bounty?"
The other nodded. "Yeah, I think the call number is the Executor."
Luke noticeably paled.
"Well," she looked at Luke again, causing him to swallow uncomfortably, "I'd like to get acquainted with our little friend before we ship him off."
Luke's eyes widened, panic spreading through his chest.
Xanzio laughed as he stood. "Have fun, sweetheart, though I can't say he looks like he deserves ya'."
Luke tried to sit up as the two males moved towards the door.
Harrison turned at the threshold. "I'm going to contact the Executor. I'm sure it'll take days for 'em to get here. You'll have all the time you want."
As the door shut behind them, they heard a small whimper from Skywalker.
The imposing figure of the Empire's second-in-command turned away from the screen he had been studying and looked at the communications officer who now stood before him, panting.
The man drew in a deep breath, struggling to keep his voice steady. Vader allowed the man the few extra moments; he felt no fear in him, therefore it was good news.
"Milord, we have just received a communication from Hoth."
"Hoth?" Vader questioned.
The man nodded quickly. "Smugglers, Milord. They report that there is a Rebel base located there."
Vader lifted an interested eyebrow at the news.
"And," the man continued, "they claim to have in their custody a query of a personal bounty of yours."
Vader was thankful for his mask at that moment.
"Skywalker?" he asked so softly that the sound was barely projected through his mask.
The man nodded as Vader turned from him sharply.
"How far are we from the Hoth system?"
The navigations officer looked up from his post. "Two standard hours, Milord."
Vader nodded. "Good. I want this ship on full alert when we arrive."
Every officer on the bridge suddenly made a mad dash to prepare.
Vader grasped his hands behind his back and smiled.