Vader's long and confident strides conveyed determination and aggression. Beside him, walking slightly behind, the figure of a blond young man, accompanied the usually solitary Dark Lord. His self-confidence and dignity seemed out of place, for a hand-cuffed prisoner.
Self-confidence that was absurdly shattered after he slipped when his feet passed from the ramp to the hangar floor.
In a free man, the incident would have gone unnoticed, but his handcuffed condition forced the young man to make a few subtle contortions with his body to keep his balance. A heartbeat later, he marched beside Darth Vader, his shorter legs keeping up with the longer strides effortlessly.
To a keen observer, the young prisoner's small slip wouldn't have been anything worth noticing, but what would have made their eyes bulge would have been the sharp, tiny movement of the big armoured body, as if beginning to reach out and steady the prisoner.
As if. And it was the mere possibility of it that was staggering.
The incident lasted less than two seconds and no one was looking to notice. Vader acted as if nothing relevant had happened, and Luke pretended he hadn't noticed his father's automatic movement to help.
`And you still pretend not to care?' the young Jedi thought.
The two men walked up to the main lift that would take them to the Throne Room, where the darkest mind of the galaxy waited patiently for Destiny to begin to unfold.
"Lord Vader," a middle-aged Commander approached the odd pair, when they were five metres away from the lift.
"Yes, Commander," the deep, booming voice replied, devoid of all human emotion.
"The Emperor ordered for you to check on this when you returned," the Commander handed over a datapad.
Vader took it and read it. Then, he turned to the young man beside him.
"Wait here," was all he said.
"Do you want me to guard him, my lord?" the Commander offered.
"He won't try to escape, Commander. Even if he could," Vader replied cryptically, walking away.
The Commander looked from the retreating Dark Lord to the close-faced young man who remained frozen on the spot, his mind obviously light-years away. Finally, shrugging, he returned to his post.
A while later, two Imperial pilots walked past the young Jedi. One of them stopped in his tracks and turned sharply to the still figure.
"Luke Skywalker," he spat the name, facing him with a threatening pose.
Luke stared emotionlessly at the hate the man's soul emanated.
"I swore four years ago that I would kill you if our paths ever met."
The young man just blinked, but something moved behind his eyes.
"You killed my brother in the first Death Star," the angry voice faltered for a second. "You have no idea how much I prayed for this moment."
"I deeply regret your loss," Luke replied compassionately.
"Is that all you have to say?" The pilot leaned closer, baring his teeth.
"Any life is precious and invaluable, but we're at war," Luke reminded them all, his eyes conveying an infinite sadness. "I do not rejoice in murder. I pray for the day our two sides will co-exist peacefully and forgiveness will bloom across the galaxy."
A loud slap resounded in the hangar.
"You damn hypocrite!" The pilot hissed, bringing down his hand. "As if you cared!"
"I do care," the young man's eyes softened, even after being slapped. "Let go of your hatred and feelings of revenge. They won't bring back our dead and they will only consume your soul. Find comfort in your family and your friends, and work hard for this tragedy to never happen again."
"You bastard!" the man cried out, reaching for his belt and drawing out a knife.
What happened next was so fast, that no one could honestly explain how the blade that was about to embed itself in Skywalker's chest, disappeared from the pilot's hand, to be replaced by an enraged black beast that grabbed the Imperial by the neck, lifted him off his feet, and slammed him against the wall.
The mechanical hand began squeezing mercilessly.
Skywalker's reaction was even more extraordinary to watch, as he hurried to Darth Vader's side, his handcuffed hands up in an imploring gesture, almost touching the chest plate.
"Let him go! Please, F- let him go! Please!"
The only audible sound in the hangar was Vader's uncharacteristically ragged respiration. His hand increased the pressure, paying no attention to the prisoner's words.
"Don't take his life as I took his brother's! Let him live," Luke begged unashamedly, reaching out with everything he had. "Please, don't kill him. Please!"
Then, inch by maddeningly slow inch, the mask turned, until it was looking down at Skywalker's face, as if reading his soul.
The intensity of their mutual staring crackled in the electrically-charged atmosphere of the deadly silent hangar.
The young Jedi's eyes bored desperately into the mask's empty sockets.
"Please," he begged again, softly.
The black mask looked at him for another instant and then, just like that, the gloved hand opened.
The pilot collapsed to the floor, grabbing his throat with both hands, taking deep, painful breaths, filling his lungs with much-needed oxygen.
The Dark Lord and the young Rebel stared at each other for a timeless moment more, and next, Vader's head moved deliberately and looked down at the spared pilot.
"Be grateful. Be very grateful," the cold, unfeeling voice said, in a way that made everybody's skin crawl.
With his respiration back to normal, Vader turned towards his prisoner. The young man looked up at him for a heartbeat, and then, he turned about and walked up to the turbolift, followed close behind by the Sith Lord.
It took a while for the hangar to resume its usual bustle, but when it did, there was only one topic being discussed. The scene just witnessed.
"What do you make of that?" a stormtrooper asked another.
"Did you see *that*? Vader actually did what the Rebel asked him!" a young Lieutenant told a fellow officer.
"I've served on the Executor for seven years," the other replied, stunned. "I've seen Vader choke dozens of people without laying a finger on them. But this time, he used his own hands! To save Skywalker's life!" He looked at the lift both men had taken, in total disbelief.
"Perhaps he wants to kill him himself, and doesn't want anyone to interfere with his fun," the younger man offered unconvincingly.
"No, something is off," the older officer shook his head. "Did you see Skywalker's stance? I've never seen anyone getting that physically close to Vader, or ever wanting to. He was almost touching him as he asked him to stop. No one would dare to touch Vader, if they valued their own life."
"True. And the way they looked at each other afterwards..." the young Lieutenant looked away, flabbergasted, as it slowly dawned on him. "There seemed to be some sort of... familiarity between them."
"Familiarity?" his fellow officer raised an amused eyebrow.
The Lieutenant realized what he had just said, and shook his head in embarrassment, dismissing his own words.
"Don't mind me. I've been working eight hours non-stop and my brain is soup." He returned to his duties.
"Still, Vader obeyed him," the older officer muttered to himself. His gaze turned to the lift once more. "Uhm..." His eyes half-closed suspiciously.
As the turbolift began its slow ascent, Luke's mind touched his father's.
`Thank you for not killing that man.'
`Make no mistake, young one. You must not suffer any harm before I take you to my master.'
`Whatever the reason, thank you.'
`Spare me your maudlin sentimentalism!' Vader admonished with a disdainful sneer. `It will not save your life. This isn't about you or me, or even the Emperor. This is about choices.'
`I remind you that handcuffed or not, I'm still Force-sensitive. I could have pulled the knife out of that pilot's hands. You beat me to it.' Luke replied calmly. `But you are correct. It `is' about choices. Your choices, Father. And I trust you to make the right one.'
Vader kept silent, as the lift continued its slow ascent to the Gates of Hell.