SETTING: During the last act of ESB GENRE: Family, Friendship, Drama, Hurt/Comfort SUMMARY: What if Luke had left Dagobah just one hour later? What would change? Repost/Rewrite from FanFiction.net Rated PG-13, just in case. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Part One The carbon freezing chamber was quiet. The steps glowed with an eerie orange light and an uncomfortably warm mist still hung in the air. It was nearly an hour since the chamber had been used to freeze a human being in a block of carbonite against his will...a use for which it was never intended. Now, that human was in the keeping of a notorious bounty hunter, well on his way to Tatooine to deliver his strange cargo to the crime lord Jabba the Hutt. The only one in the chamber stood so quietly in the shadows that he might not have been noticed, were it not for the glowing panel of lights on his chest box and the hiss of his mechanized breathing. Darth Vader was all but invisible. Skywalker was late. The towering Lord of the Sith had expected the young pilot to arrive quite some time ago. His trap had been well-set. As far as Vader knew, using Solo, the Wookiee, the droid, and the former Princess of Alderaan as bait had worked. Skywalker had sensed their pain through the Force and rushed to help them. Of course, things had not gone strictly according to plan. After Solo had been frozen in carbonite, Administrator Calrissian had gone back on their deal and betrayed the Dark Lord. The prisoners had been set free and escaped on the Millennium Falcon just before the star destroyer Executor had gotten a tractor beam lock on them. His bargaining chips were gone. Another Captain was due for a promotion and the incompetent Piett would soon be replaced. But Skywalker was coming. Vader could sense his harried, confused presence even as the boy made his way into the bowels of Cloud City, which was rapidly falling out of Imperial control. No matter. It had served its purpose. A less patient man would have given up and pursued the approaching X-wing. But that was not Vader's way. Skywalker would come, and Vader would test his strength. If he proved to be as strong as the Dark Lord suspected, then Vader would give Skywalker an offer. He was certain to refuse, especially with his friends gone, but with time and persuasion, surely the boy would give in. Vader shifted his weight from one armored boot to the other. The union between flesh and machine in his knees had grown stiff and sore. The attachment had been poor to start with, and as time went by Vader began feeling an age that he couldn't remember. That was a matter of perspective, of course. The former owner of this body- that weak, whiny child called Anakin -had been over twenty when he lost the battle to the Dark Side. That had been over twenty-three years ago. Anakin was still alive, however, trapped within a shell of armor and hatred. Sometimes he showed his face, but Vader fought him back and always won. A cramp worked its way from Vader's left knee to his hip. Though his face was hidden by a mask, Vader did not grimace or wince. He merely closed his eyes and meditated on dark thoughts...of how Obi-Wan had betrayed him and then cheated death...of how Padme' had been too naïve to embrace the power he offered...of how miserable this mechanical prison was...of how he wished to dismember that hideous, wrinkled abomination he called 'Master'... Thoughts of the Dark Side...they pushed back the ache...temporarily. Every kind of pain relief was temporary. The ache in his body would return later. The ache in his soul never went away. In touching the Force, Darth Vader touched something else...a presence, drawing very near...yes, that was Skywalker. The Dark Lord would never forget that unique Force signature first sensed in a trench of the Death Star three years before. To think that this was Anakin's son...his son...all that was left of Padme'...it was unthinkable. How had he survived when his mother had died? His mother...Padme...beautiful, sweet, gentle Padme, gone forever at his own hand- No. Vader pushed these thoughts away. Remorse was something he didn't need. But he still loved her. I lost Padme'. I am not going to lose my son. These thoughts made waiting easy. And so, Vader continued to stand where he was. * * * * * Luke felt his limbs tremble as he marched off the mini-lift into the dark room. He's here. A shudder ran through him, and the boy called on the Force for calm. Fear is of the Dark Side. Deep breaths...in...out...in...out. It wasn't easy. The room was dominated by a harsh chill that had nothing to do with its temperature. Then a light came on behind him, and he heard slow, ominous breathing. Luke flinched as the chill ran straight down his spine, making goosebumps rise on his arms. Slowly he looked over his shoulder. There stood Darth Vader, rising like a black monolith at the top of the orange steps. Fear faded, replaced by hatred. Here was the one who had killed Luke's father, killed his aunt and uncle, killed Ben, and tortured his friends. You're not going to leave this planet in one piece, thought Luke as he turned to face the imposing monster. The blaster in his hand was holstered. It would have been useless anyway. "The Force is with you, young Skywalker," said the deep voice. "But you are not a Jedi yet." I will be, thought Luke. Though his body fought against it, he turned to face the Dark Lord. "Where are they?" he asked in a voice that sounded much calmer than he felt. Steady, Luke. He can sense your feelings. He knows you're afraid of him. Luke took another deep, slow breath and felt the Force wash over him to take away his fear. Vader didn't answer. He just stood there, his loud breathing filling the chamber. Luke climbed the steps slowly. "I know they were here; Han and Leia and Chewbacca. Where are they?" he asked again as he mounted the stop step. "What have you done to them?" "You are too late to save your friends," growled Vader. It was true, of course. The Millennium Falcon was long gone and everyone aboard was safe...but Skywalker didn't need to know that. Vader needed him to stay and fight. No! The fear returned for a moment, and Luke beat it back. "No... you're lying." The waver in his voice betrayed his uncertainty, and he took another deep breath. Vader said nothing. He could sense Luke's doubt. Good. He will be easier to turn when he fears for them. "Where are they?" demanded Luke one more time. His brows knit in a scowl. If you're not going to tell me, I'll make you tell me. Luke drew his lightsaber and ignited it, getting into a ready stance. Slowly and methodically, Vader drew his own weapon and ignited the blood-red blade. The laser swords crossed, but Vader did not attack. He was counting on Skywalker to make the first move. And so he did; two quick swings at the head and neck, which Vader easily blocked. The next swing was at Vader's head again. Vader let Luke press in close, then shoved him back hard enough to knock him to the floor. It was the first test. Would the boy see how outclassed he was now or later? Luke was up with hardly a pause, pressing in again. Later, then. So be it.