Darth Vader stepped into the filthy tent, his purpose in coming to the miserable planet overriding any disgust he felt for the squalor of the pirates' camp. His mind and purpose were as focused as the blade of his lightsaber.
The moment the Executor had come out of lightspeed and they had entered the Florrum system, Vader had been hit with a barrage of emotions—Luke's. The boy was either not yet aware of the extent to which his connection with his father had grown, or he was not currently in a fit state to shield himself. That suited said father fine for the present, but as soon as he had Luke in hand he would have to teach the foolish child not to broadcast his incredible presence in the Force for the entire galaxy.
Fear and trepidation dominated the surface of Luke's mind. Undoubtedly the boy had guessed who was coming for him—or Ohnaka had told him. Either way, anticipation and dread mingled freely in his son—along with, he was pleased to note, a sliver of subconscious curiosity, even excitement. Luke was more desirous of this meeting than he had convinced himself, of that his father was sure.
Along with this tumult of conflicting emotions was a curious, seemingly out of place dose of humiliation. The moment he laid eyes on his son, the source of the unpleasant feeling became clear to him.
The pirates had taken no chances with their prisoner. Luke had been trussed up like a dewback, his hands cuffed to a crude stake in the dirt floor, while his legs were restrained to one of the legs of what Vader could only assume had once been a bed. The Dark Lord took stock of the boy's condition—apart from some minor scrapes and superficial cuts, he appeared no worse for the wear...though when he pushed on his son's subconscious, it became obvious to him that Luke was dazed and probably recovering from being mildly drugged.
Skywalker's eyes shot open. Grogginess or disorientation might have spared the young man, in this case—but when he looked up into Vader's mask, the Dark Lord of the Sith could see that Luke Skywalker instantly understood the situation he was in. When Vader took a step towards him, the young man reflexively tried to crawl backwards. With his hands and feet bound, though, all he succeeded in doing was exacerbating the rope burns on his wrists.
"You would be better served saving your strength, young one," he said, dryly. "For a fight you can actually win."
There was a long pause.
"…I thought you were supposed to be on Malastare," the boy said, finally, and though Luke was trying to remain controlled, Vader detected a hint of accusation behind the words.
"Is that why you risked exposing yourself in this quadrant, my son?" Luke flinched at the possessive. "Because of some Alliance intelligence agent's dubious reports of my activities on the other side of the galaxy?"
"Of course not!"
"That was very foolish." You should have realized that a mere uprising would not keep me away from you. The boy mentally chafed against Vader's intense scrutiny. "The pirate tells me you have made several attempts at escape." Luke was silent. "Obviously unsuccessful."
"Hondo's smarter than he looks," the young man said, finally. "He…seems to have a lot of experience keeping people prisoner."
Luke gave him a sudden, curious probing look that he ignored.
Their last meeting—and everything, the monumental shift in the Force that that implied—hung in the air between them. Vader, not for the first time, was at a loss for what to say.
"Why did you come here, Luke?" he settled on, at last.
"I want to know why you are here." He paused. "On Florrum."
"What…" Vader took another step towards Luke, and he shrank back. "What does it matter?"
"You have eluded capture for nearly three years. That you would have fallen into a snare laid by this Weequay pirate now is—surprising." He tilted his helmet. "I wish to know why."
Instantly Luke's mental shields went up. He rallies quickly when under pressure…interesting.
"I don't have to tell you anything."
"And I," Vader rejoined, dryly, "Do not have to cut you down. I can just as easily transport you to my shuttle in your current condition." Whatever chance you have at escape rests upon the few advantages available to you, Luke.
Luke's eyes widened at Vader's mental suggestion, though whether he realized that it was intentional was unclear. The older man did not add that, considering the boy was weaponless, surrounded by mercenaries and in the custody of his father, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy, having free arms and legs was not likely to do him much good.
Let Skywalker see the value in cooperating with him. It was the first step on the path that the Force had laid before them.
Luke relaxed his mental shields—and with that, his father noted, pleased—his body language as well.
"It's…nothing to do with the Alliance," he admitted, letting out a shaky sigh. The only other sound in the room was the rhythmic breathing of the Dark Lord's vocoder. "It's nothing—it doesn't matter."
Vader could sense a single presence preoccupied the boy's thoughts.
"Captain Solo." Luke nodded, wearily. "What—"
"We received intel that Fett would be stopping here with Han," Luke interrupted, wincing at how his binders chafed when he tried readjust his arms. "I thought if I could just get here before him…head him off…" His voice dropped to a whisper. "It seemed worth a shot."
"Of course—Ohnaka and Fett know each other of old." The Sith's voice darkened, almost chastised. "Did it not occur to you that you were walking into a trap?" Luke glared at the dirt floor. "This was reckless—and to such a pointless end." Vader circled him, making the rebel commander feel more and more like prey. "Captain Solo is not worth the effort."
"I owe Han my life!" Skywalker burst out, furiously. "He's saved me more times than I can count! And what happened to him is…" The guilt rolled off of Luke in waves. "I had to try, at least."
Vader thought of the last time he had seen the smuggler—in the carbon freezing chamber, kissing Princess Leia Organa goodbye. The spectacle they had made of themselves conjured back several uncomfortable memories better left buried. He had been too lenient on Solo, as far as he was concerned.
The smuggler's connection to his son had, admittedly, lead the boy straight to him again. Any gratitude he might've felt towards Solo was wiped out by an unpleasant sensation not unlike comparative inadequacy.
He scowled under his mask. Oh, he did not like that feeling at all.
"Loyalty is a weakness your enemies will exploit in you again and again, Luke," he chastised, pointing a finger at the boy sternly.
"You would know," his son snapped back, and instantly realized he had gone too far.
"I am not your enemy," Vader said, his anger obvious. "And by coming here unaided, you all but handed yourself over to me."
"You think…I wanted this to happen?"
Vader observed him, frankly.
"Why else would you wander into a nest of vipers without even concealing your identity?"
"I had a cover story—I'm not a complete idiot!" Luke wondered how that expressionless mask could so clearly project skepticism."They were buying it. And I had gotten the information out of them—" He bit his lip in frustration. "I'd just missed Fett. I was about to take off when—well, Ohnaka offered me a drink, and as there didn't seem to be any reason why a 'humble supply trader' wouldn't take him up on it—"
Vader could guess the rest without hearing Skywalker's pitiful excuses for his own naïveté.
"This would explain your current…limited capacities."
"I didn't drinkwhat he gave me. I switched the glasses. But he—" Luke hesitated. "I guess he recognized that trick. He…recognized me, too."
"It is unsurprising." Vader reached out with one gloved hand and unfastened Luke's binders. He told himself he was doing this for practicality's sake, and not out of the paternal instinct to return a semblance of dignity to his offspring. "Your exploits have made you notorious the galaxy over."
"No, that's not it—he—" the rebel stumbled, before bolstering his courage and blurting out, "He told me that I reminded him…of my father."
Vader cut his feet down so suddenly that Luke fell to the ground with an undignified thump. He rubbed his wrists ruefully and looked up at Vader—could you call a mask dumbstruck?
They merely stared at each other.
"Is it…" The young pilot got to his feet, unsteadily. "Is it true?"
"..What else did Ohnaka tell you?" the Dark Lord of the Sith asked, after what felt like an unspeakably long moment.
"He said he knew Ben." More loud, uncomfortable breathing. "That he had encountered two Jedi knights named Kenobi and Skywalker several times during the Clone Wars—"
"And were you…prompting these discussions?" Vader could hear in his own vocoded but distinct discomfort painfully reverberate throughout the room.
"Yes—well, I don't know. He doesn't exactly shut up once he starts, does he?"
"Just…so." Luke was still rubbing his wrists. Suddenly the Sith was at a loss as to what to do with him—he should put the boy in handcuffs, at least, even if it did seem as though he realized he was in no fit state to run.
"So is it—"
"The past is irrelevant," he cut the repeated question off mechanically. Luke's incredulous expression suggested he disagreed—but before his son could press the point, Vader soldiered on. "…To your—earlier point. You were…not entirely wrong in your assessment of my whereabouts. But the rest of my fleet will be enough to quash a minor Dug insurrection. We will return to them soon enough." Luke let out a loud sigh of frustration. "And I would not leave retrieving you to anyone else," his father added, dryly.
"Gee, I don't know what I did to earn all this special attention—"
"Do not be deliberately obtuse," Vader snapped. "You know well why I am interested—" He stopped when he saw that Luke was rubbing his hand against a small blaster wound on his right shoulder—as it was just under his shirt collar, he had missed it in his first assessment of his son. The Sith reached out and clamped an iron grip around Luke's prosthetic arm, pulling him closer. "When did you receive this?"
"When I tried to get out of the compound by crawling through a disused ventilation shaft—one of Hondo's men nicked me as I was lowering myself into the hangar." He tried in vain to pull away. "I can barely feel it."
"You will need medical attention." All the more reason to leave this miserable backwater as soon as possible. Pressing Luke on which pirate had done this to him might've appealed under different circumstances, but he was eager to return to his ship. He could always bombard the planet before they went to lightspeed. The destruction of the base would likely sate his appetite for revenge against those that had dared damage his offspring.
Luke's scowl brought his attention back to said offspring. Even with his limited experience as a parent, Vader could recognize what that exasperated expression meant. He'd worn that look enough times when he lived in the Jedi temple with his old master.
"I get worse injuries than this on routine combat missions for the Alliance every day."
"Yet another reason to crush the Rebellion," Vader replied, without missing a beat. "Their inability to provide their own commanders with basic medical care is, thankfully, no longer a concern for either of us."
"As if you have ever cared about that."
As he was examining his child's new prosthetic limb, it gave him an extra moment to respond. This accusation from Luke should not have surprised him, but it did cause an unexpected pang somewhere in the upper third of his body.
"Do you…doubt my concern?"
Luke let out a near hysterical laugh.
"You're the one who put a bounty on my head so large half the galaxy is gunning for me!"
"You are the pilot who destroyed the Death Star," he explained, as though speaking to a dullard. "Such consequences should be of no surprise."
"And you were the one who—" He couldn't bring himself to say it, but his right hand involuntary balled into a fist.
"I gave you ample time to surrender," Vader answered him, after a moment. His deep voice was strangely gentle. "You refused to yield. I had no other choice."
Luke sucked in a hard, shuddering breath. Righteous indignation was rolling off him in palpable waves, but whatever angry rejoinder he thought his father deserved, it fizzled out after a few inarticulate stutters.
The boy had obviously inherited his mother's passionate convictions and his father's complete inability to articulate them.
"You bring this upon yourself," Vader finished, finally. "By continuing to deny your place, young one." By denying me. As though he could hear Vader's thoughts, Luke shook his head, fiercely—the action disoriented him, and he swayed into the much taller man. Vader caught him by the arm; instinctively, Skywalker struggled against the Sith Lord's iron grip. "Come. My shuttle awaits us outside the camp."
"Have you already paid them off?" Luke asked, clearly torn between panic and resignation.
"I will shortly." Vader practically dragged the young pilot along next to him. The sooner they were off Florrum, the sooner Luke could be healed and his training begun. He sensed the boy's hope dimly light up again—perhaps his naive son believed these negotiations would be some avenue for another attempt at escape. "Ohnaka is not so foolish as to challenge me."
"So you do know him."
"Whatever he told you about Obi-Wan and myself you would do better to forget." Luke gave a small shrug of mental defiance but wisely—for once—remained silent.
Vader steered him out the door and onto the muggy, wasted rock plains of Florrum. Captain Hondo Ohnaka approached the two of them, and even from a distance the Sith could see he was waving with an all-too familiar, irritating jocularity. The Weequay was as unchanged in person as he had appeared in the holo he sent to the Executor, the same pirate who'd met with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on this very dustball over two decades before to negotiate a price for a very different prisoner. Vader supposed he had the longevity of the Weequayans to blame. Never had the Sith Lord been more irritated by the biology of a species.
His son's existence alone reminded him too much of the past.
"Well, Lord Vader?" The pirate raised one hand as though he were about to slap Vader's shoulder—but thought better of it. "Skywalker, as promised. And you doubted me."
"Necessary prudence, pirate. There have been pretenders in the past." Just the memory of those who had falsely claimed to have caught his son fueled his rage. The glorious anticipation of having Luke in his grasp—taking his place at his father's side, where he was always meant to be—only to be met with crushing disappointment when his ship came out of hyperspace at the destination and he knew the boy was nowhere on the planet below.
Their deaths had been too quick—too merciful.
"There is—ah, the little matter of my payment, Lord Vader."
"The credits will be transferred to your camp," he said, dispassionately.
"Imperial credits…?" There was a needling tone in Ohnaka's voice that he recognized from his early, unfortunate years in the junk trade of the Mos Espa marketplace. It was that honeyed, cloying and false friendliness that always preceded parsimony and hard bargaining.
"As was the stated bounty." When Vader named the exact number, it was so astronomical that Luke let out an involuntary exclamation of disbelief.
"Bah! Imperial money," Hondo waved his hand in the airily and tutted. "It's worthless to me. You couldn't pay me to bring it into the Core systems and use it!"
"Your continued refusal to engage in legal commerce is not my concern, pirate."
"I thought that hulking floating battle station of yours got good reception—" He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Didn't you receive my… revised terms of payment?"
Luke was the only other sentient present with Force sensitivity—so the Dark Lord's son was forced to bear the brunt of his blackening mood and the dark anger practically poisoning the air.
"You expect me to hand over raw materials, stygium crystals and weapons," he rumbled, ominously. "When I am well aware you will only turn around and sell it all to the rebels at three times the price?"
The Weequay let out a long, bellowing laugh. The rest of his pirate compatriots, lingering on the edge of the plain—obviously leery of standing too close to the Emperor's infamous blunt instrument—muttered among themselves in low voices.
"I like you, Vader. You—remind me of someone I used to know." His smile morphed into a sudden, shrewd look straight into Vader's mask…and then a surprisingly delicate turn of the head towards Luke. "But I suppose…I would probably remember if our paths had ever crossed before."
Vader did not give Hondo the satisfaction of addressing the possibility.
"Ah, but my mind is wandering from our purpose. Forgive me," His smile turned grim. "If you won't accept my terms of sale, Lord Vader, then why should I not wait for a client who will? The…Rebel Alliance, perhaps?"
Luke's eyes widened in hopeful shock.
"They cannot afford your price, Ohnaka. As you well know."
"Then…what about…" Hondo's monkey lizard skittered nimbly up the pirate's arm and onto his shoulder. He stroked the creature fondly. "The Emperor himself?"
"The boy is the Emperor's prize," Vader snapped, his tenuous grasp on control slipping. "I act for him."
"Oh…I see. Forgive me, my lord, I'm afraid I might have been misinformed." He rolled a piece of dried fruit between his fingers and tossed it into the air—straight into his pet's gullet. "I was under the impression that you'd been looking for him for significantly longer."
The Sith Lord's fingers itched to reach out and cut the Weequay's words short.
"Fett will pay dearly for his indiscretion."
"Don't go blaming Boba!" Honda laughed. "He never said a word. He never does. It was just…a feeling I had."
Hondo Ohnaka surprised them both by stepped forward and gently grabbing Luke by the chin. The young man glared daggers.
"So many people are going to so much trouble for you, boy," he murmured, amusement obvious. "I wonder what you make of it?"
Luke jerked his head out of the pirates grasp.
"Occupational hazard of being a rebel, I guess."
The Weequay laughed again.
"You've got spirit, little one—I'll give you that." He tapped Luke's chin affectionately and stepped back again. Perhaps he sensed from the hulking Sith Lord's body language that touching the boy any longer would have gotten him his arm sliced off. "I'm starting to think I'd prefer to keep him. Especially if you're not willing to make a deal with me—"
"Be under no misapprehension, pirate," Vader rumbled. "I am taking him. There is no negotiating the point."
Ohnaka waved one finger, and suddenly all of his men were alert.
"Ah-ah—not so fast. Until I get paid to my satisfaction, Skywalker is still my property."
"He does not belong to you," Vader said, with sudden, violent passion, and he tightened his grip on the boy's arm with so little self-awareness that Luke actually cried out in pain. Instantly he relaxed his hold again, though he did not remove his left hand from his son's shoulder.
"And he does belong to you, is that what you're saying, Lord Vader?" Where other people would have cowered at the prospect of an erratic Sith Lord, Ohnaka seemed to actually enjoy rattling Vader. "I just want to be sure that we understand each other."
"All rebels are traitors to the Empire, and their capture is my—duty," Vader said, his deep baritone voice was suddenly controlled and tight.
"Come, come—it wasn't duty that brought you out here to the Outer Rim on such short notice."
"Your inferences weary me, pirate."
Luke looked between them, dawning comprehension lighting up his battered face.
He knows nothing.
Nevertheless, Vader unconsciously leaned forward in front of Luke in a defensive, nearly protective stance. He had the air of a predator ready to spring.
"It's just that you seem to be taking this all very personally, my lord."
"I am merely here for what is mine, captain," Vader rumbled.
"Oh-ho. Does that mean," he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You do have a prior claim to him?"
"…And if I did?"
Luke nearly did a double-take, but the black mask was pointed towards the pirate. Ohnaka shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Well, then—naturally I would hand him over. If you've just misplaced your—" He hesitated significantly. "—The boy, well…I would not stand in your way."
Vader reached out with one fluid motion and ripped the Kowakian monkey lizard off of Hondo's shoulder with the Force. Luke, Ohnaka and the thirty Weequay pirates watched in disbelief as the creature hung grotesquely in the air, pawing as its throat closed around it. The animal let out a few feeble squawks of pain before being tossed carelessly in the dirt, its open, mean eyes now blank.
Hondo bent down and experimentally lifted one clawed foot. It fell back into the dust with a sickening thud.
"…Poor Jupeel didn't deserve that."
"You are treading on dangerous ground, pirate. Take care," Vader seethed, hand resting on his lightsaber hilt—he could feel the boy at his side's fear spike, which only increased his desire to draw the blade. "Or you will meet the same fate."
Every single one of the pirate's men pulled out their weapons—in ten seconds there were thirty blasters pointed directly at the Dark Lord and Luke.
"Even a Sith Lord can't parry so many blaster shots at one time," Hondo chuckled, more warily than before. His pet's grisly end had shaken him.
"I don't need a lightsaber to end you, Ohnaka."
"Oh, I don't doubt that. But if you did, it wouldn't stop them from firing on you, Vader—or," he coughed, significantly. "The boy."
"Hey, hey—" Luke raised his one free hand between Vader and Hondo. "Let's not be so—I'm sure we all want to—to live here!"
It is not customary for the bounty himself to interfere with negotiations, Luke.
I'm just trying to keep us from getting shot!
"Skywalker has a point, Vader," He gestured to his men to lower their blasters—only some of them followed their leader's instruction. The rest didn't seem to trust Hondo not to push their dangerous guest over the edge. "And good sense—a cool head. Just like your father, eh?"
Vader could have snorted with laughter—if it were not an unseemly thing for a Sith to do. Hardly. He is nothing of the kind—and nor was I, as you well know.
"He is extremely naive. He does not know yet what a liar you are."
"I'm beginning to figure that out, actually!" Luke looked nervously between the weapon in Vader's gauntleted hand and the pirate captain—and up at where his father's eyes should have been visible. A small, impossibly innocent voice whispered the plea—
Then Vader did something he almost never did—he hesitated.
He is trying to make a fool of me.
Ohnaka was attempting to strong-arm him in front of his son. That alone would have been cause for the pirate's termination, and when the unsettling expression Luke was fixing him was so familiar…
He's like her. She used to give me that look.
He clenched his fist, anger and pain mingling freely. He latched onto the former—his anger, source of his strength, source of his focus for over twenty years. They deserved to die—they all did. Anyone who stood between him and what he wanted—
Would you really risk your own son's life just to avoid appearing weak?
The thought drenched the fires of his anger and left a cold emptiness in its wake.
He was saved from further unwanted self-examination by a disturbance on the western ridge of the camp. Rebel Commander and Sith Lord both sensed them; they turned their heads in unison towards a band of approaching brigands marching from the direction of the same flat mesa where Vader had landed his shuttle. Unlike Hondo's gang, who were all Weequayans, this group of forty or so was mixed, mostly human and Aqualish. Their leader was an irate, dark-skinned female humanoid holding a blaster only slightly smaller than her head.
"Where in the seven hells of Trandosha is my stygium, Hondo?" she yelled, still thirty meters away.
"Friend of yours, Hondo?" Luke muttered out of the corner of his mouth. Ohnaka ignored him, instead deepening his voice into something the aspiring Jedi could only assume was meant to be charming.
"Alesia—" He called back to the glowering woman. "Just the deadly ladyI was thinking of."
"I hope you were thinking about how excited you are to pay me." She brushed long, kinked braids out of her face and put her hands on her hips—clearly a warrior about to go to battle with him. "And that you were planning on doing it quickly—did you see that Imperial monstrosity hanging over the planet?"
"This explains a great deal about your desperation, pirate," Vader said. The woman turned her head from Hondo to the Dark Lord—her brow furrowed in confusion and trepidation—and as that gave way to recognition—fear.
"Alesia—you've never met Lord Vader, have you?" The mercenary stumbled backwards as she pulled out her blaster.
"You idiotic fink," Alesia snarled, waving her gun at the Weequay. "It was bad enough bringing the Empire into this, but him—"
"Change of plans, my girl—but it's all good business, you'll see," he informed the irate woman, breezily, and then turned back to Vader. "You see what I'm up against? Every woman in the galaxy trying to squeeze me for all I'm worth."
"I have a feeling you deserve it," Luke pointed out, gulping at the sound of another fifteen or so blasters being cocked. "You've obviously lied to her, too."
"Lying is such a hard word, Skywalker. I prefer the term… 'elastic circumstance.'"
"That doesn't even make sense!"
"Stand down, smugglers." Vader did a quick mental calculation—he had killed more than this before, and he was more determined than he had ever been during a mere military campaign—he had more to fight for than he had in over twenty years. His son's shoulders visibly tightened with anxiety. "If you wish to live."
He had more to lose than ever before, as well.
Alesia's eyes narrowed in determination. She locked eyes with Vader's helmet. This woman had good natural shields—but even still, he could sense that she too had realized how much she stood to lose today.
"It was a mistake to bring the Empire into our business, Hondo," she repeated, in a strained, low voice. "The last you'll ever make."
That was when the seven hells of Trandosha did break loose.