Luke spent ten minutes choosing a ship. It would have been longer, but Vader advised him that if they didn't leave soon, the Emperor might order them back to the banquet.
The ship he chose was a sleek, modified cruiser with multiple after-burners. After rotating it until it was facing the hangar bay exit, Vader glanced over at his son. His face was glowing with excitement.
"You might want to do up your seat restraints, young one," Vader suggested.
"Whoops! Sorry!" Luke said, scrambling to get himself strapped in. "Ok, I'm ready!!"
Vader revved the engine a few times, and then pushed the throttle all the way in. The ship shot forward, pressing them back against the seats. Vader gripped the controls, feeling a familiar rush of adrenaline.
A sky filled with speeders and ships of every description sprawled in front of him, and he plunged into the middle of it, swerving left and right to avoid a collision. They wove in and out of buildings, zoomed through tunnels, and dived into ninety degree stomach-churning mock-stalls.
Luke cheered the whole way, and pressed him for even more reckless stunts. When they cruised out to the industrial districts, he even suggested they fly through a power-coupling, which almost made Vader smile.
"You might survive it, Luke, but I doubt I would."
"I have a better idea," Vader suggested, pitching the craft upwards.
"Is that a noise of pain, or do you approve?" Vader asked, turning on the ship's heat shields.
"Can we fly around the sun?" Luke asked, excitedly.
"We will see what we have time for."
"Are you kidding?" Luke said. "Let's stay up here for the rest of the day!"
"You will get bored, eventually," Vader said, overtaking a string of slower ships.
"Never!" Luke insisted.
Vader could readily believe it. After circumnavigating the sun - from a cautious distance - they went for a tour of the various planets that shared this particular star with Coruscant. It was rare for a solar system to have one habitable planet, never mind two. But Coruscant was such a sought-after piece of real-estate, people would live anywhere just to be near it.
Luke wondered at the domed life support bubbles on a nearby asteroid, and wanted to know how people could live on a planet so far from the sun, it took a hundred Coruscant years to make one orbit. He tested Vader's knowledge of the Imperial fleet, when he wanted to know the names of all the star destroyers they could see docked at the huge orbiting station.
After they'd toured all the moons, and Luke had correctly identified all of them, Vader subtly suggested that it might be time to head back. They'd been out here for five hours, after all. But Luke had other plans - he'd spied a large canyon on the nearest moon, and wanted to fly in for a closer inspection.
As they cruised down closer to the brown, sandy surface, Luke pointed wildly across Vader's field of vision.
Vader did so, but did not see anything.
"What is it?"
"I don't know … looked like a huge cloud of steam shooting out of the ground."
"Ah," Vader said, swerving the craft to the left. "A geyser. They are common on this moon."
He brought the ship to a halt on the edge of a nearby crater, and they waited in silence. Every so often, a rush of steam would shoot upwards, sometimes sending rocks into the air.
Vader glanced over at Luke. "Tell me when you have seen enough. Then we will return."
"Ten more minutes?" Luke pushed.
"We have well and truly missed the banquet, Son. There is one final ceremony today - one I think you might enjoy."
"The fireworks," Luke said, grinning. "Ben told me about that."
"A lot of pointless noise," Vader said.
Luke stared at him for a moment, and then looked ahead.
"Father," he said, sounding a little hesitant, "why were you in such a bad mood today?" While Vader was considering how to respond, his son added, "I mean a badder mood than usual."
"I think you mean a worse mood," Vader corrected.
Luke frowned. "Let me start over. Why do you hate Empire Day so much?"
"Is it that obvious?" Vader asked.
Luke only smiled in response.
"It is nothing to do with you," Vader said. "Do not concern yourself about it."
"I'm just confused, that's all," Luke said. "I thought you liked the Empire. Isn't today supposed to be celebrating the dawn of peace and security?"
Vader breathed out slowly, wondering why Luke had an uncanny ability to reduce the most complicated things to child-like simplicity. His son clearly wasn't going to let this go until he had some kind of an answer.
"This day reminds me of how little I have accomplished," Vader explained. "Thirteen years ago, I was enthralled with what I imagined the Empire would be. It still has not come to pass. There will be no peace and security in this galaxy until the Rebellion is destroyed."
"Well, there's still time," Luke said. "Right?"
Vader glanced at Luke. "Patience is not one of my virtues."
Luke nodded, knowingly. "So that's why you hate Empire Day?"
There was a long, drawn out silence, and Vader released a heavy breath.
"No," he said, gripping the controls.
Luke was silent. Vader debated with himself whether to say anything or not, but he finally gave in. Luke deserved to know why his father had been treating him so badly. Today, of all days.
"It is the anniversary of your mother's -" He broke off, unable to say the word. He stared at the horizon for a long while, feeling hollow inside. Thirteen years of building an Empire … he would trade them all for one more second with her. He was incomplete without her, and always would be.
A disturbance in Luke's Force presence caused him to glance over at his son. Luke was rubbing his head, and emanating distress.
"Luke? What is it?"
"Why did I have to be born? It was my fault."
"What?!" Vader raised a finger to point at Luke. "Don't ever say anything so stupid again!"
"But she died … giving birth to me. If I hadn't existed, she'd still be here."
"It's the truth," Luke said. "I'm old enough to understand this now. Please, don't try and sugarcoat it."
"Your understanding is deeply flawed," Vader said. "Luke, there is only one person in this ship to blame for your mother's death, and it is not you. If I had been by her side, I -" Vader paused, struggling to control his feelings, "- I have no doubt … we would all be together today."
"I wish I'd known her," Luke said.
"I wish she'd known you," Vader said. "She would have loved you very much. More than you could ever imagine."
I've been so preoccupied with what I lost on this day, Vader thought. I have been blind to what I gained. A son.
Not just any son, but their son. Luke was the result of their love, a fusion of them both. The only thing he had left of her. Vader stared at Luke, scarcely able to believe that a few hours earlier he'd been seeing Luke as a threat. If anything, his son was his small glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark galaxy. He was the best thing he had ever had a role in creating.
"I wish you'd been there," Luke said. "When I was born."
"So do I, young one."
"Could you have handled me as a baby?"
"I can barely handle you now. I suspect things will only get worse, now that you are a teenager."
"I'll try and keep things exciting for you," Luke said, grinning.
"Of that I have no doubt," Vader said, reaching up to grip the controls. It was time they returned.
After arriving back home, his father gave Luke the task of choosing which speeder they would take to the fireworks display. He then disappeared into a nearby conference room, explaining he needed to use the holocom for a few minutes. The few minutes turned into half an hour, but Luke didn't mind. It gave him more than enough time to sit in the pilot's seat of all the most expensive speeders in the hangar bay. Unfortunately, it was wishful thinking to imagine he'd be allowed to stay in the pilot's seat once his father returned.
"Wow," Luke said, pressed up against the passenger window as they flew over the square. "Look at the crowds!"
Every platform was a moving sea of lifeforms, every rooftop was crammed, and every balcony was full of people waving flags and lights. The airways were jammed with speeders trying to find places to park. His father took a few shortcuts, and eventually took them to a landing pad behind the viewing boxes at the front of the square.
A cluster of stormtroopers and guards appeared as they climbed out, but hastily backed away as they recognized who the new arrival was.
"There must be every person on Coruscant here tonight," Luke said, excitedly.
"Not likely, young one," his father said, keeping a hand on Luke's shoulder as they walked across the landing pad. "This is only a very small fraction."
"But there's so many," Luke said, pausing to stare out over the square. "How many do you think? Five hundred million? A trillion?" Luke considered it for a moment. "You make decisions that affect all of them," he observed.
"As will you, one day," his father said, gently guiding Luke on.
They walked up a red-carpeted staircase, and made their way through two sets of security doors. Luke paused before the second set, and glanced up at his father.
"The Emperor is there."
"Yes," his father said, stopping and looking down. "You do not need to be nervous."
"I'm not nervous," Luke said. "I'm just wondering if he's going to say anything about us playing hooky."
"Not attending the banquet," Luke clarified.
"I have already taken care of that," his father said. "Fortunately, there are more important matters to occupy the Emperor's attention at the moment." He paused for moment, and then added, "Or perhaps not so fortunate."
He walked on, and Luke followed cautiously. On the other side, they entered a vast lounge, with massive viewing windows overlooking the square below. There were groups of various aides and officers socializing, mostly holding large cocktail glasses. One of them broke away the moment he saw them enter, and made a beeline for his father. Luke noted he appeared far more serious than the others.
"Lord Vader," the man said, coming to attention beside him, "I trust you have been informed about the assassination of Governor Iola on Haytini V."
"I spoke with the Emperor a short time ago," his father replied. "Is there an update?"
"The Imperial Base has been secured, for now. But riots continue in the surrounding cities. All nearby star destroyers have been reassigned to assist with the effort to restore order, but that entire region of space is unstable. I believe their reassignment will create holes in our defence that the Rebels may attempt to exploit."
"Has a taskforce been dispatched from Coruscant?" Vader asked.
The man looked aside for a moment, and then met Vader's gaze once again. "His highness does not wish to make arrangements until after this Empire Day display is complete."
Luke sensed his father's mood take a sudden dive. He glanced up warily, hoping they weren't about to lose all the progress they'd just made.
"His highness awaits you in his private viewing box," the man said, quickly. He obviously knew his father well enough to know a mention of a delay about anything wasn't good news. The officer stepped aside, and his father glanced down. The sight of Luke's expression seemed to calm him.
He walked on past the other guests, who gave him quick glances and then returned to talking among themselves. A few of them gave Luke longer stares, clearly curious. On the other side of the lounge, they reached a pair of large doors guarded by more royal guards. They stood aside immediately. At the end of a long corridor, they entered a lounge even larger than the first one. Quiet opera music was playing over the comm system, a counterpoint to the boisterous sounds of the celebration outside. There was a cluster of large, comfortable chairs by the viewing windows, and the Emperor sat in the center, accompanied by a couple of aides and serving droids. Luke recognized Chairman Amedda from the senate. He stood up at the sound of Vader's entrance, and his expression became cold when he saw who the new arrivals were.
"Lord Vader," he said, "you seem to be in need of a babysitter." He gestured at Luke, who had fallen behind his father and was attempting to blend into the walls.
"Are you volunteering?" his father replied. "After all, you seem to be an expert at babysitting the senate."
"Now, now," the Emperor said, glancing back. "Young Skywalker is my guest." He gestured at the seat next to him, where Amedda had previously been sitting. "Do join me."
Luke glanced at his father with an expression he hoped would communicate his reluctance. His father didn't return his gaze. He merely waved a hand for him to follow, and then walked over to occupy the seat the Emperor had indicated. Luke came forward slowly. Sitting with his father between himself and the Emperor was better than nothing, at least. Amedda had withdrawn to a seat on the other side of the room.
Luke leaned back into the chair, sitting somewhat stiffly in the middle. Then he caught sight of the view down below, and in a second, was up and out of the chair and pressed against the glass. A thousand dancers were moving in a sea of swirling color, perfectly in time with the grandiose music blaring over the speakers. He'd seen many wonderful things since leaving Tatooine, but nothing on this scale. In a moment, he'd forgotten all about the Emperor's presence.
"Sit down, Luke," his father said. "You can see from the chair."
"It's amazing," Luke said, looking back at his father. "How did they practice this?"
"With the threat of execution if anyone dared make a mistake," he said, in a dry tone. He then gestured pointedly at the chair. "Son."
Luke returned to the chair, deciding it probably wasn't the best idea to appear disobedient in front of his royal rottenness and his entourage.
The Emperor and his father began to talk about the assassination the officer had mentioned earlier, and Luke drifted off, becoming fascinated by the performance. The dancers were moving into circles. Planets, Luke realized. Then they all turned their banners over, creating a giant Imperial logo.
The hexagonal symbol then turned into a spiral with curving arms. As it began to twist around, Luke recognized a galaxy. It continued to change from one shape to another, sometimes three-dimensional, with the dancers rising up on hovering platforms. As Luke looked more carefully, he realized there were thousands of species represented among the dancers. Perhaps one from every planet in the Empire.
"He always expected a lot of adulation for someone who sat in a mansion being waited on all day," his father said.
Luke glanced over, wondering who his father was talking about.
"He did have his uses," the Emperor replied, "but there are others who will easily fill his gap. And I am sure you will enjoy punishing the perpetrators."
"I look forward to it," his father said.
Luke frowned, wishing he'd wait until he wasn't around before having this kind of conversation. He stood up.
"I'm just going to the refresher," he mumbled in the general direction of his father.
His father was still talking with the Emperor, and may or may not have heard. Luke quietly slipped away, deciding the guards would tell him where he was, if he should notice his absence.
They certainly kept a close eye on him. He'd barely reached the door before two of them stepped forward. He stared at their helmets, looking from one to the other.
"I'm just looking for the refresher."
One of them pointed down the corridor with his pike. Luke dutifully followed.
The refresher was as elaborate as the facilities in the Imperial Palace. The towels had a gold Imperial logo stamped into them, and silver trimming. He was almost tempted to take one home for his own refresher, but he doubted his father would be impressed.
After he returned to the corridor, he glanced back towards the viewing lounge, and then decided to take a walk outside. The guards did not stop him as he stepped out onto the balcony.
He spied a narrow staircase that led down to the level below, and onto a larger balcony. There was a stormtrooper standing at the rail, watching the display. Luke walked up beside him, and rested against the railing.
The last of the dancers were moving off from the square down below, to massive applause from the audience.
"What's happening next?" Luke asked.
The stormtrooper started slightly, and then looked at Luke in surprise.
"A troop parade," he provided.
"What kind of troops?" Luke asked. "Stormtroopers?"
"All kinds," he explained, "Pilots, naval troopers, army troopers. The royal guard as well." The trooper studied him for a moment. "Are you one of the Emperor's guests?"
The trooper started to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of a door sliding open. Luke glanced behind him, and saw another trooper was stepping out of a newly arrived elevator. He walked up to join the first one.
"Another senator claiming he'd lost his invitation," the trooper said. "I told the guards to hold him still and raised my blaster. Then he remembered he wasn't actually invited in the first place, surprise, surprise."
The first trooper made a noise like he was clearing his throat, and then gestured towards Luke with his thumb.
"Hi," Luke said, feeling awkward as the second trooper stared at him.
"Are you lost?" he asked.
"No," Luke said. "I just came down for some fresh air."
Marching music filled the air, and the noise of thousands of people walking in time caused Luke to lean over the railing for a better view. Every entrance into the square below lit up with the familiar white armor.
The cheering was enough to drown out the music. Even the troopers beside him were leaning over for a better view. Luke had to smile as a single squadron of crimson royal guard entered the square, standing out starkly against the thousands of stormtroopers. They were followed by a group of black-suited pilots. The display was incredible.
Beside him, the troopers' comlink crackled. Both troopers groaned in annoyance, but the crackling was cut short a moment later. False alarm.
"Is this your job for the entire night?" Luke asked. "To keep out uninvited people?"
"We're on balcony guard," the nearest one explained. "We only help out below when the un-invitees get too rowdy."
"What's so great about being invited?" Luke asked, staring down at the endless waves of troopers, marching across the square. It was hard to believe so many people could all move at the same time. "There must be other places to get a good view."
The troopers both turned to stare at him, and Luke had the distinct impression he'd said something odd.
"Do your parents know you are down here talking to us?" the nearest trooper asked. "It's a pleasure, but I don't want to raise anyone's ire."
"Yeah, it's very flattering that you'd rather talk with us than the most powerful people in the galaxy," the second one added. "What's your name?"
Luke grinned. "Luke. And don't worry, my father wouldn't mind. He would rather talk to troopers than politicians anytime."
Both troopers suddenly froze. They then stared at each other, and then back at Luke.
"Your father is Lord Vader?" the first one asked, finally.
Luke nodded, surprised they'd reached that conclusion so quickly. Apparently his father was the only person they knew who liked talking with troopers.
"Thanks … I think."
"Meeting you has made our night, Luke," the first one said. "I'll be telling my whole squad about this tomorrow. I'm TY-991." He gestured at the second trooper. "This is GJ-875."
"Can you please sign an autograph for me," GJ said, pulling a lightpen from his utility belt. "Just so people don't think we're making it up."
"An autograph?" Luke said, shocked. "Come on. I'm just his son."
"You are so humble," TY said, in admiration.
"How about a holophoto," GJ said, holding up his comlink.
"Well," Luke said, considering it. "I guess that could be fun. All right."
GJ handed the comlink to TY, and then moved to pose with Luke.
"If you take it at the right angle, you'll get the troop parade in the background," GJ said.
"I know what I'm doing." He held out the comlink. "Smile!"
Luke grinned just as the comlink lit up. Afterwards, TY handed it to GJ.
"Okay, now you take one of me."
Luke smiled to himself, wondering why they didn't just make a copy of the existing one. No one would be able to tell the difference between the identical stormtroopers. But he obliged, knowing from past experience that stormtroopers didn't like being thought of as interchangeable.
"How about one with the helmet off?" GJ said, once he'd finished taking the second holophoto.
"How about one where you are aiming your blaster at my head?" Luke suggested. "That would be funny! You can send it to me so I can show my friends."
"That doesn't sound like a good idea," TY said.
"Just put the safety catch on," Luke said. "Come on."
There was silence from the troopers.
"All right, how about one where we are bound together with your wrist binders," Luke said. "I can say I got arrested. Try and look menacing."
"I'll put this on timer," GJ said, resting it on a nearby support strut. "Then we can all be in it."
"Here," TY said, unclipping his binders.
Luke accepted them. Just as he was about to clip them over his left wrist, the sound of the elevator doors hissing open put a swift end to what was about to become a great holophoto. Luke didn't bother to look up, already knowing who it would be. He could feel his presence.
The troopers reacted in quite different ways. GJ hastily ran to grab the comlink, hiding the evidence in a few quick manoeuvres. TY came to attention, looking the picture of professionalism. Luke put the binders in his pocket, deciding GJ had the right idea.
His father walked the short distance across the landing pad, and stopped in front of them. His gaze wandered to the stormtroopers for a moment, and then fell back on Luke.
"Father," Luke said, "this is GJ-875 and TY-991."
Both the troopers and his father were silent.
"They're helping keep politicians who don't have invitations away," Luke said, deciding if that didn't impress his father, nothing would.
"Keep up the good work," his father said.
"Yes, sir," GJ said, sounding inspired.
"Permission to resume our duties, sir?" TY asked.
Both troopers quickly saluted and marched off towards the elevator. Luke gave a small wave right before the doors slid closed, hoping they saw it.
"Endearing yourself to the troops, I see," his father said, stepping forward to look over the balcony.
"They're big fans of yours," Luke said, joining him. The troop parade was showing no sign of slowing down.
"I sensed they were more fearful than admiring," his father said.
"Well, you can be a little intimidating," Luke said, with a grin. "Remember when we first met? I wasn't so calm."
His father was quiet, apart from the rhythmic breathing.
"I remember you were disobedient, stubborn, and wouldn't stop talking," he said, after a time. He glanced down. "If only I had realized that was only the beginning."
"If you're talking about the time you took me to the medcenter, that wasn't the first time we met," Luke said, with a smirk. "Come on, I know it's been a whole year, but I still remember."
His father appeared to be thinking. "Enlighten me."
"Outside the Emperor's throne room. You nearly bumped into me."
"Nearly bumping into you is hardly a meeting. If we are counting that, then I believe we saw each other at the court gathering earlier than that."
"Hmmm, true," Luke said. "I remember feeling something when I saw you. Like getting a mild electric shock. I just didn't know what it meant. Was that the Force?"
"Undoubtedly. I felt likewise," his father admitted. "If I had paid more attention, I would have realized there was more to you than first appeared."
"I wouldn't even have known who you were if I hadn't seen you in a news hardcopy when I first came here," Luke said. "The only news we had on the farm was the local Anchorhead community newsfeed. The headlines were usually about the weather." Luke stared blankly at the troop parade below, marvelling at how far removed this was from his life on Tatooine. It was hard to believe that he'd only lived on Coruscant for a little over a year.
"You have accomplished much in the past year," his father said, glancing down at Luke. "It was not easy for you to adapt to this new lifestyle, but you have overcome every challenge that life has placed in your path."
Luke smiled, feeling both shy at the praise, and amused at his father's dramatic way of phrasing it.
"I still don't understand a lot of things," Luke said. "Like why does the senate chairman hate me?"
"He believes children should not be heard," his father explained. "Or seen, for that matter." He paused for a moment, and then said, "I used to feel the same way. Now I am well and truly converted to the ranks of parenthood. The irony is not lost on me."
"I'm glad you are," Luke said, looking wistfully out over the square. "Who knows where I'd have ended up if it wasn't for you."
His father didn't reply. Luke looked up at him for a moment, and then back at the endless rows of marching troops. It was winding up now, and there were only a few groups of troopers left.
"I'm glad we made it work," Luke added. "I never imagined back then that we would get on so well now. Apart from the occasional argument."
"Perhaps we occasionally get on well between the endless arguments," his father suggested, dryly.
Luke groaned. A moment later, a loud bang filled the air, causing Luke to jump. An instant later, a huge colourful explosion filled his vision. Fireworks!
Luke shifted around his father, eager to get a better view. He had no doubt this was going to be the greatest fireworks display in the galaxy. A rocket whistled into the air, leaving a fluorescent trail behind it. In the air, it exploded into a red Imperial logo, brightly glowing against the night sky. It was joined by dozens of smaller explosions. Some formed pictures, while others simply released dozens of mini glowing balls. Luke was mesmerized.
His father didn't say anything further. Instead, he placed a hand on his shoulder, and guided him back towards the elevator. The sentiment was clear - he wanted him back in the royal viewing lounge, not out here on the balcony. Luke couldn't be bothered arguing. Besides, it was getting a little chilly outside. Not to mention the burning smell the fireworks left in the air.
"It will all be over soon," his father said, as they entered the lift. Another loud explosion sounded in the distance, and the sky outside turned green, and then disappeared as the elevator doors slid closed.
"Then what?" Luke said, stifling a yawn. "Another party?"
"More speeches," his father said.
Luke looked up in horror. His father glanced down, and met his gaze. It took a few seconds, but Luke finally caught on that he was joking.
"That's not funny."
"The finest operatic artists in the galaxy perform a concert at the Imperial Palace," his father explained. "However, my presence is not encouraged, so you and I will be free to do as we please."
"Can we go for another flight?" Luke asked.
"I am sure you have had more than enough flying for today."
"No, I haven't," Luke said. "Come on, it's my birthday!"
Luke grinned. He could get used to this birthday thing. And he still had several hours in which to milk it for all it was worth.
The Emperor's private viewing lounge was largely empty now. The Emperor was in an adjacent room, discussing something with his aides. His father gestured for him to return to the chairs. "Sit down, and I will have a serving droid bring you some food."
Now that someone mentioned it, Luke realized he was starving. He hadn't eaten since grabbing a fast meal at home, before they'd left on their space joyride.
When the food arrived, it was some of the best Luke had ever tasted. It seemed there were some perks to sitting in the royal viewing box. After he'd eaten his fill of the first course, still more food was brought out. Dessert!
His father didn't even make a disparaging remark when he ordered a second helping. He really should have a birthday more often. Once a year just wasn't enough if this was the result.
Finally, a droid brought him a sweet hot drink, and he settled back in the cavernous chair to sip it. The fireworks were showing no signs of letting up. The glowing lights began to blur as he felt increasingly comfortable.
After seeing to Luke's needs, Vader withdrew into the adjacent conference room, where the Emperor was discussing the situation on Haytini V with one of the Empire's senior military advisors. The fact the conversation was still going on was enough to alert him that the situation must have taken a turn for the worse. The advisor looked up as he entered, and his master turned to him.
"Lord Vader. When was the last time you were in the Haytini system?"
Vader studied a nearby holographic display. It showed a cluster of planets, with a detailed inset of the largest one.
"Four years ago, master," Vader said, thinking back. "Then it was a subdued collection of planets."
"No longer," the advisor explained. "A new, charismatic leader has risen to power on Haytini V. He gained popularity through secretly opposing the Empire. Until now, he was of little concern, but this assassination is a worrying move. If he should form a military alliance with the Rebellion, we could have a full-scale war in that sector."
Vader glared at the display, feeling his mood descend into darkness. There was always some radical disrupting their fragile peace.
"Did you have any plans for tomorrow, my friend?" the Emperor asked, grinning in pleasure at the sense of Vader's anger.
"Now I do," Vader said, with determination. "I will pay this would-be warmonger a visit."
"Give him my compliments," the Emperor said, his voice taking on a dark tone.
"I suggest pulling the first fleet away from the Ulundi campaign, accompanied by three back up destroyers," the advisor said, using a remote to change the display. "A massive display of force, designed to shock and frighten the populace - they won't consider challenging us again."
Vader listened as the advisor continued, but struggled to concentrate. There were odd sensations along his bond with Luke. When the subject shifted on to the likely reaction of the senate, Vader made an exit.
As he approached Luke's chair, he heard an odd sound like an engine warming up. It didn't take him long to place it, once he caught sight of his son. Fast asleep and snoring.
"Young one," Vader said, touching Luke's shoulder, "I know you are tired, but you cannot sleep yet."
There was no response. Luke didn't even stir.
Vader was about to shake him, but the peaceful expression on his son's face made him hesitate. It had been a very long day for a twelve year old. Thirteen year old, Vader corrected. He would have to get used to that.
Perhaps he could take the boy home, put him to bed, and then return and see to Imperial business. Vader studied Luke's position for a moment, wondering how to pick him up without waking him. After some careful application of the Force, he managed to scoop Luke up, with one arm under his knees, and the other supporting his back and head.
Luke's snoring faltered slightly, then he cuddled comfortably into his arms, leaning his head into the crook of his arm. In another minute, he was again breathing deeply.
Thirteen years old, Vader thought, looking down at his son, yet you sleep in my arms like a newborn baby.
For a moment, he wondered what a newborn Luke might have looked like. It was hard to imagine him looking more innocent than he did right now.
Vader brushed away his regrets, and turned to walk back towards the landing pad. He barely walked two steps before the Emperor appeared, slipping out of the shadows like he was part of them.
He didn't say anything, but the question was clear enough.
"I must take this child home, Master," Vader said, trying to keep his tone quiet, as not to wake Luke. "I will return shortly."
"Child," his master repeated, stepping closer. "No longer. He is an adolescent. Very soon to be an adult."
He reached out, and placed a deathly white hand on Luke's chest. Luke visibly cringed at the touch, but did not wake. Just as Vader was about to step back, his master dropped his hand.
"The Force is already strong with him. And it grows stronger."
"He will be a valuable asset," Vader insisted.
"I hope so." His voice was cold, and very unconvinced. But he waved Vader on. "We will discuss the Haytini situation when you return."
"Yes, master," Vader said.
The guards shifted imperceptibly as he passed by, and he could sense the sight of sleeping Luke amused them. It was fortunate Luke was asleep, as he would likely be mortified by this. It would take careful words to explain this tomorrow.
If he saw Luke tomorrow. By the sound of things, he would be leaving for Haytini immediately after his meeting with the Emperor. If things descended into war, he may not return to Coruscant for weeks. Luke would be disappointed, considering he'd only just returned. But it couldn't be helped.
After leaving Luke to sleep in the backseat of the speeder, he returned to the pilot's seat. He paused before starting the engine, and stared out over the Empire Day crowds.
In a perfect galaxy, he wouldn't have to leave Luke at all. Threats of war would not exist. All the more reason to wipe out its perpetrators, Vader reminded himself.
He started up the engine, consoling himself with the knowledge that every day he spent away from Luke meant he was another step closer to giving Luke a peaceful galaxy, to explore to his heart's content. His son would understand one day.
And perhaps one day he would be working by his side, helping him maintain that peace. The idea filled him with a deep satisfaction. It may be Luke's birthday, but he was the one who truly received the best gift that day.
Luke gripped the controls of the starfighter, willing the ship to go faster. The stars were streaking past like they were nearly in hyperspace.
"Faster," Luke mumbled.
The ship obliged, and the speed indicator crept up towards lightspeed.
"Faster," Luke said, louder.
A warning alarm sounded, causing him to sit up in surprise. He found himself looking at his bedroom. Beside him, his alarm was blaring. Luke switched it off, and then flopped back down. A school day. Why didn't they make the day after Empire Day a holiday too? This wasn't fair.
Luke cast his thoughts back to the night before, wondering when he had gone to bed. Strangely, he didn't even remember coming home. The last thing he remembered was watching the fireworks and sipping a hot drink. A glance down at his body revealed he was still wearing his clothes from the night before, although his boots had been left beside the bed. Luke rubbed his eyes, hoping this didn't mean what he thought it meant. Maybe it was better that he didn't know.
A flashing light on the bedside table caught his attention. The comlink was lying next to a data storage device. Luke recognized it as the recorder that contained the Empire Day school play. He quickly picked up the comlink, having a feeling this would answer a lot of questions. The projector lit up with a small blue hologram of his father. The date stamp at the bottom indicated this had been left at two am.
"Luke, I am about to leave Coruscant to sort out the mess in the Haytini system. I cannot predict how long this will take. I will be available by comlink."
Luke sighed. Gone again.
"I watched your little play. It bore no resemblance to any actual historical event. The dialogue was crass and obvious. You should be aware that the Emperor is far from the benign leader this type of propaganda portrays him to be. He is quite capable of defending himself."
"You take everything too seriously," Luke mumbled to himself.
"However, your lightsaber duel was very impressive."
"But I do not approve of you playing a Jedi I was supposed to have killed."
"It was just a play!" His father just didn't understand the concept of fun.
"From now on, I expect to be consulted honestly about your activities. Go to bed on time and mind your curfew. No more Jedi versus Sith in the corridors. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Also, be aware that my collection of ships and speeders is off limits. No random acts of rebellion. You are a teenager now - don't think I don't know what that means."
Luke wondered if his father would let him in on the secret. He was still trying to figure out just what it meant. He still felt exactly the same. He closed his eyes as the hologram continued speaking, almost dreading what was coming next.
"Now that you have reached this milestone in your life, I suppose I should give you some fatherly advice to aide you during your journey to adulthood."
"But I haven't enough time to do the subject justice, so I will leave you only with this. You have one chance at life." The hologram raised a hand and pointed at him.Do not make a mess of it."
Luke leaned back, considering the words. That was actually surprisingly good advice, coming from his father. Normally his advice involved vague references to destiny which made no practical sense. He glanced up when the hologram began speaking again.
"Finally, despite the fact that you are a teenager now, with all that implies, I am looking forward to many more years together. Even if my amateur parenting skills are no match for your attempts to try my patience, I can guarantee one thing:
I will remember your birthday next year."
The hologram flickered once, and then disappeared.