The sight of his son, standing in a place that by all rational expectation was impossible for him to be, filled Vader with both surprise and fear. Was he still meditating? Had this entire board and capture operation merely been an elaborate vision, conjured by the Force? He stared at Luke, half expecting another four copies of him to come running around the corner.
The mental shout was repeated, and Vader knew instantly that this was indeed reality.
Luke?! What in the galaxy
Luke started to run forward, but his stormtrooper watchers pulled him back roughly. They pushed him forward with the tips of the blaster barrels, almost causing Vader to say something in protest. The group came to a halt in front of him and Commander Wing. Luke stared up with an unrestrained relief in his shining blue eyes, and then grinned widely. Vader could sense him trying to test his mood over their link. At the moment, he was feeling nothing but absolute and total surprise.
"Sirs, we found this one near the bridge," one stormtrooper said, completely oblivious to the family reunion going on in front of him. "He was unarmed. Should we put him in with the Rebel soldiers or with the officers?"
"A child," the commander said, staring at Luke. "How typical of the Rebel scum, my lord. Save their own skins while leaving children behind."
I can explain! Luke sent, I can explain everything!
Vader couldn't bring himself to reply, either to Commander Wing or to his son's erratic telepathy.
"I doubt he knows much," the commander continued. "However, if he is the son of one of the Rebel officers, he could be useful as a tool to make them talk. He should be processed with the other prisoners. Do you agree, Lord Vader?"
Vader gave Luke one last disbelieving stare, and then turned to the commander.
"I am ... familiar with this particular Rebel. Leave him with me. I will interrogate him personally."
The commander turned to the troopers. "You heard Lord Vader. Return to your patrols."
The troopers saluted, and marched off down the corridor.
"Commander, I will leave this ship in your hands," Vader said. "Take what crew you need, and see about making any necessary repairs. The Harbinger will provide escort to the Fondor ship yards, and then return to Coruscant."
"As you wish, my lord. I estimate we will be ready to detach in an hour. I will return to the bridge and supervise from there."
The commander saluted, and walked past Luke. Vader noticed he gave Luke a slightly sympathetic look as he passed by, clearly thinking he was going to be in for something very unpleasant. You have no idea, Vader thought, meeting his son's gaze. His surprise had reduced, and had been replaced with another, more natural emotion. Anger.
He looked Luke up and down, seeing evidence of reckless behavior from the bottom of his muddy boots to the top of his bedraggled hair.
Luke tried a smile. "Interrogate me. Good one." He held up his binder-clad wrists. "Can we get rid of these?"
"I wasn't joking."
Luke's smile faded and he let his wrists fall. "Listen, this isn't as bad as it looks!"
"How can it possibly not be as bad as it looks?" Vader said, incredulous. "I left you at the training camp, and now I discover you have joined the Rebellion! I realize you were upset, but this is taking things too far!"
"Will you relax?" Luke said. "I haven't joined anything. I didn't even know this was a Rebel ship until I got here. My friend Zev at the camp needed to escape, so I helped him."
"You helped him join the Rebellion? Is that what you are telling me?"
"I ... uh ... why do you always twist things around to make it sound worse?"
"I do not need to twist anything. It is already unbelievably bad. Luke, you never cease to amaze me. I always think you cannot possibly top your last stunt, and then you come right out and surprise me. I thought stowing away on a bounty hunter's ship had to be the high point in your crusade to drive me to insanity, but then I find you roaming the galaxy on a Rebel ship!"
"I have already said I didn't know it was the Rebellion," Luke said. "It was an acci-"
"Don't you dare," Vader said, waving a finger at him. If he heard those words one more time, something was going to snap.
Luke quickly shut up.
"You could have been killed! Do you have any idea what these people would have done if they'd known you were my son?"
"The captain knew," Luke said, quietly. "He was going to transport me back to the camp. It was the stormtroopers who nearly shot me, not the Rebels."
"You were nearly shot?!"
"They missed by at least three meters," Luke insisted.
Vader stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to release his anger into the Force. He could barely remember how to do that, it had been so long. A Sith did not normally have need for restraint. But, of course, a Sith normally didn't have to raise a teenage son. Eventually, Vader looked back down.
"What am I going to do with you?" He stared at Luke for a moment, and then said. "I feel like I have aged ten years in the last five minutes."
Luke stared at his boots. "I'm sorry."
"You are sorry. Is that all?"
"I don't know what else to say," Luke said. "Just that I'm really tired, hungry and wet. I thought I was going to end up in a prison cell. You've got no idea how glad I was to see you ..."
"Wet?" Vader said, confused. "How did you get wet?"
"Do you really want to know?"
Vader picked a piece of water-weed out of his son's hair, and then gave him a look that was a mix of sheer disbelief and ongoing frustration.
"Come with me," he said, finally, feeling more than a little weary.
Luke stayed close to his father as they moved through the corridors of the star destroyer. They appeared to be taking the back routes, as they encountered no one except droids and stormtroopers, who certainly didn't bother to stare at him or ask questions. At first, Luke was wary of his father's mood, and didn't want to make anything worse. But the excitement of being on such a huge ship soon became too much.
"Can I see the bridge?" he asked, quietly.
"It is good you have managed to maintain your sense of humor in all this," his father said, guiding him into a nearby elevator. He pushed the button for one of the upper levels.
"Come on ... please?"
"No. I will not have you endearing yourself to the crew with your farmboy-in-space routine. Your presence here has thus far remained between us, and I intend to keep it that way."
"Farmboy in space?!" Luke said. "That's not fair."
"I believe we established a long time ago that I am not fair."
Too true, Luke thought.
There was silence until the elevator reached its destination. His father gripped his upper arm as they walked into the corridor, and kept a firm hold until they reached his quarters. He entered the security code to release the doors, and then finally used the Force to release Luke from the binders.
Luke gazed around at the rooms, taking it all in. Ironically, it was more home-like than they had at home. There was actually a room resembling a lounge, with couches and tables. That alone told Luke that these quarters had not been designed with his father in mind.
His father sealed the doors behind him. "I suppose it is pointless to ask if you have a change of clothes with you."
Luke instantly reached behind him, only to discover his backpack was absent. The last time he remembered having it was when he and Zev were stowing away in the back of the freighter. A freighter that could be anywhere by now. Luke considered it, and then remembered Bran had told him the freighter's cargo had been dumped. Chances were that his belongings were among the crates.
"All my things are in my backpack," Luke said. "It's still on the Rebel ship ... most likely in the ship hangar, among the cargo. Maybe I should go back for it ..."
"You will not be leaving these quarters until we reach Coruscant. That is an order."
"Yes, sir," Luke said, sarcastically. Unfortunately, he'd become so used to hearing people say that at the camp, it came out sounding less sarcastic than he liked. Regardless, his father chose to ignore it.
"I will go back and retrieve your belongings. You will use the refresher facilities and go to bed."
"I'm starving!" Luke protested.
His father appeared torn for a moment, and Luke expected to hear some remark about having thought of that before he left the training camp. But he finally relented.
"I will have a serving droid tend to you. Now, go and remove those wet clothes before you become ill."
His father pointed towards a door, which Luke assumed must be the refresher. He gratefully moved towards it, looking forward to washing off the last of the mud and stagnant water. He was never going to jump in a river again.
Retrieving Luke's belongings from the Rebel ship took longer than Vader expected. Every three meters he was stopped by crew members and stormtroopers needing guidance. Their inexperience was an annoyance, but he had to admit the boarding operation had gone as well as he could expect. Perhaps it was his overriding concern with his son, but he couldn't bring himself to care that a few minor ships had escaped. The loss of Captain Flenn, who had taken his own life along with several troops in a thermal detonator explosion, was a far greater annoyance, but even that couldn't compare to the fact of finding his son in this place of death and violence.
He could only hope his good fortune would continue, and word of Luke's presence on the Harbinger would not be revealed. The last thing he wanted was "Darth Vader's Son: The Rebel!" headlines splashed all over the HoloNet. His master would not be impressed.
When he returned to his quarters, he retrieved some pajamas from Luke's backpack, while noting that his son had clearly packed without the intention of returning to the camp. Not that it surprised him. After today, he doubted anything Luke did would surprise him again. He walked over to the refresher door, and knocked once. When no response was forthcoming, he walked on in.
"Do you mind?!"
Vader looked over at the sound of the voice, and saw Luke was immersed in a circular pool-like bubble bath. There was so much foam, the only part of his son that was visible was his head. An empty plate rested on the side, along with a glass full of some kind of juice.
"I see you are taking full advantage of the facilities," Vader said, setting the pajamas down on the basin counter top. "Put your old clothes in the disposal unit when you are finished."
"Okay, okay," Luke said, sticking his arm out of the water to wave him towards the door.
"I am going to the bridge," Vader said. "Use my personal comlink if you need anything." He paused halfway out the door, and turned back to Luke. "And, in case you were wondering, young one, we have not finished discussing this incident. I will expect a full and complete explanation by the time we reach Coruscant."
"I wasn't wondering," Luke said, sounding dejected.
Vader spent three hours seeing to the aftermath of the boarding operation. Once the recaptured ship and the Harbinger had both entered the safety of hyperspace, he set about the task of going over the prisoner list. A few notable names that would keep him occupied when they returned to Coruscant. For now, Fondor was their destination.
Once satisfied everything was under control, he returned to his quarters. Luke was lying in the middle of the bed, curled up in a deceptively innocent fetal position. Vader hesitated in the doorway, concerned about waking him. But soon he entered the dark room, and picked up a blanket that had slipped onto the floor. It was cold in space, and Luke needed to keep warm, considering he had apparently been running around the galaxy in wet clothes for hours. He placed the blanket gently over his son's sleeping form, and then backed away slowly. Despite his anger over the reckless behavior, it was good to have Luke back where he could keep an eye on him.
Once he returned to the main room, he reached up to close the bedroom door. There was a holocom call he had to make, one he should have made a few hours ago, and one he didn't want Luke to overhear.
By his guess, it was past midnight at the training camp. But the commander answered his call immediately, never the less. Vader knew that he'd been expecting it. It was tempting to pretend that he didn't know Luke was missing from the camp, just to see if the commander would tell him, but such games would require more patience than he possessed right now.
"Commander Hayge," Vader said, "I understand my son went missing from your care earlier this evening."
"We are doing everything we can to -"
Vader held up a hand. "Fortunately for you, he managed to find his way back to me."
"I ... I'm glad to hear it."
"I should have you all executed," Vader said. "But then, I also have a personal insight into how hard it is to get my son to stay in one place. I congratulate you for keeping him there for as long as you did. However, he will likely be spending the rest of his summer break locked in a tower with a rancor standing guard."
"I understand, sir. It was a pleasure having him with us. Sir, if I may ask ... what of Cadet Veers? We assumed they were together, as they went missing at the same time."
Vader absorbed the words, realizing that 'Cadet Veers' must be this friend Luke spoke of that had joined the Rebellion.
"According to my son, he was last seen in the company of Rebels," Vader explained.
The commander frowned, and dropped his gaze. "His father will be devastated."
Vader was about to make some disparaging remark about said father's parenting skills, but a thought made him hesitate. It could just as easily be him in that position. Luke had expressed his dislike of the Emperor on more than one occasion. It wouldn't take much for the Rebel recruiters to spin their poisonous lies and mislead his naïve young offspring into their traitorous cause.
"Send him my personal condolences," Vader said. "And remind him that all is not lost. We have successfully reeducated Rebels before. And many come to see the error of their views and return to our fold."
"Very true, sir."
"This defection may hint of a new recruiting tactic among the Rebellion," Vader added. "Adolescents are especially vulnerable to Rebel propaganda. I imagine some would defect simply to spite their parents."
"The enemy truly has no honor," the commander said. "To prey on the young and vulnerable. I assure you, sir, there will be no further defections among my cadets. We will make sure of that."
"See that you do."
Vader cut the call. He stared at the blank holoprojector for a while, and then leaned back in his chair, considering the situation. Perhaps he should make more of an effort to discuss the political situation with Luke. Some part of him had wanted to preserve his son's innocence as long as possible. Even to give him the kind of childhood he never had. But if today's events had proven anything, it was that Luke was never going to have a normal life.
Presently, he became aware of something slightly odd in the room. A familiar presence ... his son was awake. He stood up and walked over to the bedroom door, as quietly as he could manage. When he pressed the door-release, one blonde-mop came spilling out onto the carpet.
"Eavesdropping," Vader said, looking down at his son. "Remind me to add that to the list."
"I couldn't hear anything," Luke tried, as he picked himself up off the floor. "Not really."
"Why aren't you asleep?"
"I woke up," Luke explained.
"Then go back to sleep," Vader said, pushing Luke back into the bedroom. "Unless you want to resume our conversation about why I found you on a Rebel ship."
"I guess it would be better to get it out of the way," Luke shrugged.
Vader placed a hand on his son's forehead, concerned the boy might have picked up some illness in all his wandering. Volunteering to listen to a lecture? This was not typical behavior.
"Are you feeling all right?"
Luke nodded half-heartedly.
Vader stretched out with the Force, searching for any sign of sickness. He was met with an immediate rush of pained emotions that threatened to choke him. He tried to mentally back away, but Luke had latched on to his attempt to link, and was trying to communicate something. An image of a dead stormtrooper, lying on the deck of the Rebel ship filled Vader's mind, and he sensed Luke's disgust and sadness at the sight. It was followed by Luke's memories of the day he'd dropped him off at the military camp, then his son's subsequent guilt over his lack of any goodbye. A confused rush of feelings and images that made little sense to Vader followed this, until Luke finally released the link, and sat back on the bed.
"I can't sleep knowing you're angry with me."
Vader was silent, trying to understand what he'd felt from Luke.
"You were certainly managing it before," he said, eventually.
Luke shook his head. "You still can't tell when I'm faking sleep."
Vader released a weary sigh. "Very well, young one." He sat beside Luke on the bed. "We will talk. Tell me about the camp. You were miserable?"
Luke nodded. "I thought the commander would have told you," he said, looking at the floor. "He said he was going to contact you."
"He did. He said you were unhappy about the weather. And what is this about you threatening to choke someone?"
Luke visibly cringed. "That was taken out of context. I was having an argument with someone about ... well, it was about you. He said something, then I said something ... anyway, it's not important. It wasn't the weather that was annoying, it was an officer who was always picking on my friend Zev. You'd have liked him, which says it all. Then the commander banned me from doing anything, in case I hurt myself, because you told him you were going to kill them if anything happened to me. Thanks for that."
"And that is when you decided to go chasing after a Rebel ship?"
"We just wanted to get away from the camp," Luke explained. "We stowed aboard a freighter. We had no idea it was going to a Rebel ship."
"Where did you think it would be going?" Vader asked, feeling his old annoyance flare up. Luke always offered such illogical explanations. "Did you expect to be taken back to Coruscant?"
"I don't know," Luke said, matching his annoyed tone. "All I know is that I helped out a friend in need. Maybe it got a little out of hand ... a lot out of hand. I'll learn from my mistake. If you want to disown me, then go ahead ... I'm sick of trying to meet your impossible expectations! You're always angry with me over something."
"And another thing," Luke said, folding his arms. "Let's talk about you when you were young. Okay, I admit I'm impulsive sometimes ... maybe even a little reckless. But so were you - I read this history of the clone wars at camp, and on every second page there was a story about you being impulsive!"
"You read what?"
"I had an entire list of ammunition for this argument, too," Luke said. "But I left it at camp. Blast it!"
"Ammunition?" Vader said, unable to believe the turn this conversation had taken. "You research history to prepare yourself to argue with me?"
Vader took a moment to breathe deeply a few times, and then spoke. "Very well. You have had your spiel - now I have something to tell you."
"Here we go," Luke mumbled, under his breath.
"Number one," Vader said, choosing to ignore him. "I am not always angry with you, and expecting you to not recklessly endanger your life is not impossible."
Luke made a vaguely disagreeable noise.
"Secondly, I have no desire to disown you. You are my son, and no amount of reckless behavior will ever change that."
This time, Luke was silent.
"Finally ..." Vader paused for a moment, recalling his last vision. He knew what he had to say. Even the subconscious characters in his mind knew what he had to say. It didn't make it any easier.
After a pause, he spoke again. "Luke, do you ever stop and think about how it makes me feel when you purposely endanger your life?"
"I know it makes you angry."
"Why do you think it makes me angry?"
Luke sighed, fidgeting with the bed cover. "Because you don't want to lose me."
"If your life should be lost needlessly ... it would devastate me. I can't imagine a future without you by my side."
Luke looked up, taken aback. "I ... really?"
Vader paused, taking strength from the Force. He met Luke's gaze. "When I lost your mother, my life was ... destroyed. I spent years trying to piece it back together. When you resurfaced it was like I was given a second chance. If I should lose you ..."
"It wouldn't be your fault," Luke said.
"I am your father. It is my job to protect you."
"You can't stop me from making mistakes," Luke said. "I can't live without endangering myself sometimes."
"You could try a lot harder."
Luke opened his mouth to argue, but then simply nodded. "Things just seem to get a little crazy sometimes."
"And sometimes I suspect you just want my attention," Vader suggested.
Luke looked away for a moment, not agreeing, but not outright denying, either. Vader knew it was hard for his son to admit to needing his attention. He liked to present himself as independent and mature, not needing anyone to watch out for him, but today's incident indicated more than ever that his son still needed his father. If only to bail him out when things fell outside his control.
"I think we need to reach an agreement," Vader said. "If we are to survive the rest of this summer vacation together."
"You will do your absolute best to stay out of trouble. That means thinking about the risks involved before you do anything. You will also listen and take heed when I chastise you."
"And what are you going to do?" Luke asked, his voice suggesting he considered this a pretty raw deal so far.
"Continue to show an inhuman amount of patience."
"And not ship me off to military camp?"
"As long as you stay away from bounty hunter's ships. And Rebel ships, for that matter."
"Okay, done." Luke extended his hand, and Vader shook it. After a moment, Luke let go and stared at him in a curious way. "I just hope you're not going to alter that deal tomorrow."
"You are very suspicious for someone so young," Vader said, standing up, and dragging the blanket back over Luke's shoulders. "Go to sleep."
"I've been living with you for a while now," Luke said, pointedly.
Vader stood in front of the elevator, marveling at how good he felt. He would almost go as far to say that he was in a favorable mood. It had been a long time since anyone could say that of him. This truly was a day blessed by the Force.
It was true that the galaxy was plunged further into war as each day passed, and his master grew more demanding by the day. It was also true that he lived in constant pain and isolation behind a restrictive life support device. His past may torment him, and depression and anger may be his constant companions, but none of that mattered today. Today was the day.
Down the corridor, a door slid open with a hissing sound. Luke stepped out, hanging his head like he was going to the dentist. A bag was slung loosely over his right shoulder. It was a slow journey down the corridor, as his son reluctantly put one boot in front of the other, until he was standing a short distance away from Vader.
"How is my favorite son this morning?" Vader enquired.
There was no response.
"You seem unusually dispirited," Vader noted. "What could possibly depress you on such a fine day?"
"And you seem in an unusually good mood," Luke said, giving him an irritated glance. "Stop rubbing it in. And don't play innocent - you know very well what's wrong. You've probably had this day programmed into your calendar for weeks!"
Vader tried, but he couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice. "I thought you liked school."
"Not the first day back after summer vacation!"
Vader revealed a black plastic bag from behind his back. "Here. Something to improve your mood."
Luke accepted the bag, and peered into it. When he looked back up, his eyes were wide with surprise.
"A packed lunch?"
"I had the droids make it with all your favorite foods."
"Thanks," Luke said, stowing it away in his school bag. "But nothing will improve my mood today."
"I have enough time to give you a ride to school," Vader suggested. "We could take one of the custom-built speeders and impress your classmates."
"Having you drop me off at school wouldn't impress anybody," Luke said. "Terrify people, maybe."
"All the more reason."
Luke shook his head, and then smirked. "You just want to make sure I actually make it through the doors."
Vader waved a finger at his son. "Can you blame me?"
"Come on," Luke said. "I haven't given you any grief since the Rebel ship."
"I know. It makes me suspicious. I wonder if there is some pending disaster on the horizon."
"Oh, I have something in the works," Luke said. "You know me. Full of surprises."
Vader joined him in the elevator, intent on seeing his son to the exit corridor, even if he couldn't take him right to the door of his classroom. Luke was right - that would cause more terror than good.
"By the way," Luke said, looking up. "I've been meaning to ask you something ever since I got back from camp."
Vader a funny feeling he knew what the question would be, but he played along.
"Remember that droid I built? The one you called REQ-Less 1? I haven't seen him since ..."
"Perhaps you should ask Artoo for an explanation."
"I did. He denies even knowing what I'm talking about. Why ... you don't mean ... he's gone?" Luke looked up in surprise.
"It might have been possible to piece the wreckage back together," Vader said, considering it. "However, it appears even the remains were destroyed while I was aboard the Harbinger."
"I don't believe this!" Luke said. "Artoo destroyed him?! The droid I spent three weeks building?! Why? How?"
"Go easy on him, son," Vader said, feeling his mood improve even further. "It was an accident."