Luke was on a mission to Sullust when it happened. Vader was just finished reporting to Palpatine when suddenly something in his mind—something important, something central, an intrinsic part of him—snapped. A light went out.
And then he was falling.
The loss of the light, the connection, was staggering. Like fumbling around at night, a nighttime that had descended with Padmé's death, and now he'd lost his torch.
Luke was dead.
No—he shoved the thought away violently, tearing himself off the wall he'd stumbled into and charging down the hallway, ignoring the stares he received. Luke was not dead. Luke couldn't be dead.
He must have jumped to hyperspace, beyond the reach of their mental bond, all of a sudden. That would explain why Vader couldn't feel him, why there was an emptiness echoing in his mind; their connection certainly dimmed when far apart, so why not vanish completely with enough distance?
Except, their Master had sent Luke on a mission all the way to the Unknown Regions when he was meant to be following up a lead to discovering the Chiss homeworld, once, and Vader had still been able to feel him then. No matter the distance, they were connected.
So why. . .
It was the most likely thing. Palpatine had never dared put the cuffs on Luke himself, never wanted to alienate both father and son like that, but he'd used them plenty enough on those of the Inquisitorius. Vader knew what it felt like, a person's entire presence vanishing in the Force; perhaps it would be strong enough to block even bonds as strong as the father-son connection they shared. Yes. That had to be it.
But who would put Force binders on Luke?
The answer was simple, of course: the Rebels. Luke had gone to Sullust to kill or capture the Jedi he'd tracked to there.
But all the surviving Jedi nowadays were nobodies, weaklings, and Luke was incredibly strong in the Force. There was no way any of them had defeated him in combat. None of them were worth even mentioning in terms of the Force.
The Princess Organa was a Jedi. She'd been poor at keeping it a secret on the Death Star—the Force ebbed and swelled with her anger at Tarkin, her mental shields were impenetrable during interrogation—and since the destruction of Alderaan, she'd made no secret of it. Propaganda photos of her wielding a token blue lightsaber were everywhere.
She was still nowhere near as strong as Luke—not with his son's intense training from both Vader and the Emperor, when the Princess's had surely been limited—but with surprise on her side, and perhaps Luke had been caught off-guard, or injured. . .
It was possible.
The breath hissing in and out of his respirator invigorated his lungs, sending fell purpose through her heart and mind. He would obtain Palpatine's approval—or go regardless—then travel to Sullust, and find his son.
His hand drifted to his lightsaber hilt, and gripped it tightly.
Find Luke, he thought, or avenge him.
It did not take much to convince the Emperor to send him to Sullust. He had no specific duties to be getting on with anyway, and Palpatine wanted Luke back as well. He was a useful tool.
He'd even seemed. . . angry. . . that Luke had disappeared. Far, far angrier than Vader would have expected him to be.
So he arrived on Sullust less than a week after Luke's signature had vanished without a trace, and stared at the rocky surface with nothing more than disgust. The lava flows reminded him too much of Mustafar, of pain and betrayal and death, for his liking.
In any other circumstance, those bitter feelings would help him, help fuel the Dark Side he treasured so much. But not now. Now, he needed to find his son, and distractions wouldn't help.
All probes via the Force turned up empty. To all intents and purposes, Luke wasn't there.
But he had nowhere else to go. This was his only lead.
And he was going to follow it to whatever end.
So he landed on Sullust's rocky surface and forced his way past the checkpoints into the tunnels in the planet's crust that most beings dwelled in. Smugglers, usually—he contained a sneer at the thought of it—but he could also sense a little way away a group of unnaturally frantic people, even for smugglers worried about an Imperial ambush.
"Remain alert, and ensure your weapons are set for stun," he ordered the troopers accompanying him, then turned to the Sullustan man he'd cowed into acting as their guide. "You will take me to the Rebel base."
The Sullustan started chattering nervously in the species' language; Vader, with his limited knowledge of Sullustans and their culture, only understood one word every five. Luke, he mused for a moment, would be incredibly helpful in this situation—the boy had always shown an insatiable desire to learn about other cultures, rivalling that of Anakin's when he'd first left Tatooine; he would probably know what the man was saying.
But Vader didn't need to understand the language; he got the gist of the statement from the Sullustan's mind alone.
"I know there is a Rebel base here," he cut off the guide's mumbling, voice sharp. "My son was killed on a mission to investigate it, along with two other Inquisitors, all of whom carried lightsabers like this one." He patted the hilt. "I am here investigating his death. So I suggest you either show me to their base so I can destroy it, or show me to the site of the assassination. Because I will get revenge for his death," Vader promised darkly, watching with a dark pleasure as the Sullustan stiffened, "and it's your choice whether you'll survive it."
There was a heavy silence. Vader wasn't familiar with Sullustan expressions, but the man's shoulders were tense.
His hand drifted to his comlink at his hip, Vader noted, and turned it on. It was a subtle movement, likely evading the notice of his stormtroopers, but he caught it. Someone was listening to their conversation.
Someone who would need the forewarning of what was to come.
It was no matter. If the Rebels knew he was here—which they undoubtedly already did—then knowing their demise was imminent wouldn't save them. Nothing would.
Especially if Luke didn't make it out alive.
He probed their bond again, but it was still silent. Then the Sullustan straightened his back, and said in halting Basic, "Three people with the laser swords came through here, and were killed. I will take you to the place it happened."
"Good," Vader said, inclining his helmet in a mockery of respect. "Lead the way."
They'd been walking for less than a standard hour when the guide showed them to the chamber where he said Luke had been ambushed.
"Fan out," Vader told his troopers. "Scan the area, and allow no one in." The chamber, he noticed after a cursory glance, was perfect for an ambush. The jagged rock structures in the walls above his head made for excellent hiding places, and the fact there was only one tunnel in and out of it meant it would be easy to cut people off with no chance of escape. Any attack would be brutal, bloody, and unbeatable.
As it clearly had been.
The ground in the centre of the chambers was scorched by lightsaber burns.
He bent down to examine them more closely. The width of the marks, the depth of the cut, the wide area they covered. . . It had been a fierce fight indeed.
Most Inquisitors were vaguely competent—he'd have killed them long ago if they hadn't been. And Luke was incredibly talented. But they hadn't stood a chance in this situation, under unknown numbers.
So why put himself at such a risk?
Luke knew strategy. He knew where he was likely to be ambushed, and that he was at a fundamental disadvantage on this terrain. So what had led him to endanger himself like this?
Psychometry wasn't his strong point, but Vader needed to know. He reached out, pressed a hand against the floor—
—dark in the tunnels, unsurprisingly. The only light to see by was that emitted by the lightsabers; the bloody tinge to it cast the Inquisitors' grey faces into an unsettling relief. There was an opening up ahead, darkness beyond it, but Luke knew they needed to push on. Something was coming—something important.
They would find the Rebels if they went in there. He knew it for certain.
"We need to keep moving."
One of the Inquisitors—the Fourth Sister, he believed she was, a Mirialan with a missing left eye—scoffed. "We can't go that way. It's a dead end, and we'll be ambushed by our very prey."
"No," Luke insisted, shoulders tense. "There's something important in there—I can sense it." It wasn't a lie.
So he walked in despite their arguing.
They followed—he was the one in charge of the mission, after all, not them—and perhaps thirty seconds passed before someone spoke.
The other Inquisitor, a Rodian whose designation Luke had forgotten, made to say, "There's nothing here—" only to be cut off by a blaster bolt to the chest.
"What—" the Fourth Sister began, then she tensed at the sight of the Rebel soldiers who'd poured into the chamber behind them, trapping them inside. "Rebel scum," she sneered, holding her lightsaber to, but they kept swarming forward, Force, there were so many of them, he hadn't expected this many—
There was a door blocking the only entrance out. Why was there a door? This hadn't been part of the plan.
The hum of his lightsaber was suddenly something alive in his hand as it leapt into action, blocking a bolt meant for his head; he whirled, blocked another one, and another, and another, the Fourth Sister's cry a bell tolling his imminent death.
Then an agony in his back, darkness—
—and Vader was yanked back into reality, his rage now a violent, uncontrollable thing in his chest. A star going supernova, a roiling sea of lava, it reached out into the room and curled itself round its unsuspecting targets. The Sullustan guide was the first to go, neck throttled and snapped, then his troopers, then more of his troopers.
He didn't care.
Here, in this very chamber, a bunch of lowly, wicked, unworthy Rebel troops had ambushed his son, killed his son, and he—
He was apoplectic. He was—
There was a hissing sound, then a grinding.
He froze, head snapping to the entrance corridor. Just like he'd seen in the vision, a hidden door was sliding out of a concealed compartment, sealing the room closed; there was a hissing again as the place was pumped airtight, then another, harsher hissing began.
The hissing of something being pumped in.
His respirator kept him alive, filtered the oxygen he needed to survive, but it couldn't filter oxygen that wasn't there. Instead, his mask threw up danger warnings: an odourless, colourless gas was in high concentration in the room, known side effects of inhalation being nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. . .
Unconsciousness. . .
The rage, momentarily vanished in the face of confusion, returned. First the rebels killed his son, then they tried to take him, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, captive. He would not have it—
But the Force wasn't giving him any choice. The ground was spinning underneath him; it was less than a minute before it came up to meet him, the collision forcing his lungs to expel breath he didn't have.
He woke up in chains, blind, in the dark and helpless. He wasn't a fan of the feeling.
The last time he'd felt like this was immediately after Mustafar, after Padmé's death, before he'd found Luke. Missing four limbs, trapped in a suit and agony for the rest of his life. . . but at least then he'd had the Force. And, though he hadn't known it at the time, Luke.
Now. . .
Now he was cut off from the Force. The binders around his wrists were at fault, he could tell, but that didn't do him much good. He couldn't sense anything, not even his immediate surroundings. He assumed he was in a cell of some kind, but it didn't matter, because his prosthetics had been deactivated somehow—he couldn't move them, at least—and without the Force or use of his limbs there was no way he was ever getting out of here.
He bowed his head—the only part of him he could move—and couldn't stop the thought that trickled into his mind: At least I'll see Luke and Padmé again. The idea of an afterlife wasn't the way of the Sith, was a remnant from his Jedi past, but he couldn't believe anything else. Didn't want to believe anything else.
Because Padmé was dead. And Luke. . .
Even if that shot that had hit him in the back was to stun and not to kill, there was no way they'd let him live until Vader had come looking. More probable that he'd been treated to a short interrogation, before they disposed of him quickly. A personal agent of the Emperor was too dangerous to be left alive for long.
Vader wouldn't be left alive for long. . .
Or perhaps he was already dead.
He turned his head a little, left and right, but could still only see blackness, still only hear the rhythmic rasping of his respirator. Perhaps he was indeed dead, and this was hell. It seemed hellish enough, and it wasn't like he deserved anything more.
Perhaps he was doomed to stay here forever, wallowing in his final failure—
His head jerked up. Movement—there was movement outside. He could hear it.
And he could feel it, too, vibrations from the outside rushing through the stone with every step, shaking the floor and his dead, unresponsive limbs, shivering through the small fraction of him that was still flesh and bone—
The footsteps stopped somewhere in front of him. A creaking sound, then a sliver of light opened wider and wider, scarring his vision. Slowly, his surroundings came into view: a rough floor, a small square cell, light glinting off the chains and binders that held him. He blinked through the red haze of his eyepieces, the mask automatically compensating for the change in light intensity, only for that intensity to change yet again as a figure stepped into the room, blocking the light from the door, and again as light fixtures in the ceiling turned on with the movement. Holocams whirred.
Vader ignored them. His helmet was already tilted back, so he didn't have to move at all to fix his eyes on the newcomer. Whoever it was had a slim frame, short; the light in the room played off the dark blond hair—
If he'd been capable of movement, he would've frozen still. As it was, his heart stuttered in his chest as Luke knelt down in front of him, then sat cross-legged on the floor, a thoughtful, pained expression on his face. He had never been able to hide his emotions.
He just sat there for a long time, staring at Vader. Vader stared back.
This was. . . odd. Odd, and fundamentally wrong.
Because Luke was dead. With the situation as it was, the chances of Luke being alive were infinitesimal. So that meant Vader had to be dead as well. And if Vader was dead, then this was Hell.
And Luke did not deserve to go to Hell.
Or perhaps Luke wasn't here at all, he reasoned. The Force had never been shy about tormenting him with visions before—perhaps staring at the latest person he'd failed to protect was a part of his eternal suffering. Perhaps Padmé would be the next person to show up. . .
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
But there were a number of details that implied that this wasn't his son, and he clung to them. This wasn't real.
It couldn't be real.
For one thing, his hair was much longer than the Emperor allowed him to grow it, for practicality's sake. And true, Luke had been on a mission for two months before he'd disappeared, so Vader hadn't seen him in that time, but his son always made sure it was cut short. This hairstyle, long and floppy and scruffy, would be unthinkable to him.
For another, the lightsaber at his belt wasn't the one given to him by the Emperor, used to carry out his bidding. The hilt was different—in fact, Vader was fairly sure it was the lightsaber he'd lost on Mustafar, which just added to the surrealism of the situation. That lightsaber was long gone.
And finally, the most irrational, unbelievable thing: Luke was wearing Rebel fatigues. Complete with the Alliance's starbird sewn onto his shoulder.
If there was one thing Vader knew about Luke, it was that his son would never, ever join the Rebellion. Those terrorists, foolish idealists, threats to the security of the Empire—
"You shouldn't have come, Father."
Luke whisper was quiet, but it bounced off the walls of the cell, echoing and echoing and echoing. The echoes were harsh, unreal; Vader didn't miss than way his son shivered when he heard them.
The words didn't seem to require a response, just Luke voicing his thoughts aloud, but Vader answered anyway, voice hoarse, "I had to."
It was only after he spoke that he realised his vocoder had been deactivated as well.
But that wasn't the most interesting thing here. What was more pertinent was the way Luke jumped out of his skin at the words, jerking backwards and scrambling to his feet. A hand rested on his lightsaber as he demanded, voice sharper than he probably intended, "You're awake?"
Vader nodded, eyes fixed on Luke's face, his increasingly shocked expression. "I am. Could you not tell?" If this was a vision from the Force, then it was an incredibly strange one.
Luke shook his head. "No, I— The binders cut you off from the Force." His words jumbled together. "I can't sense you."
"Then remove the binders."
Luke shook his head. "I can't."
"Why not?" Something dark was rearing its head in Vader's chest, something that called back to a fiery landscape, Obi-Wan striding down a ramp, Padmé's desperate cries of I love you! before she clawed at her throat, unable to breathe. . .
And then Luke confirmed the comparison, his face grim, hand his gripping the lightsaber he shouldn't have. "Because if I do, you'll escape this cell and kill all the Rebels before they can evacuate."
If Vader could breathe for himself, he would've stopped. But he couldn't, so the rasp of his breaths continued, unflinching and undeterred, in the silence left behind by Luke's declaration.
"So," Vader said, trying to inject his usual anger in the word, but it just kept out hollow. It had been inevitable, he supposed. The mother had betrayed him—why not the son? "You're with the Rebels. And Princess Organa."
"Yes." Luke nodded unflinchingly, but there was something cautious about his manner. "I am. Leia's helping me train."
"To be a Jedi." The word was said with disgust, and Luke did flinch at that, a pained flash that evoked feelings of guilt and remorse Vader instantly wanted to quash. He was not the traitor here.
"I—" He took a deep breath, and lifted his chin. "I do not believe they're as bad as you say they are."
"You know nothing," Vader snarled, although words hurt his throat, and there was the anger he'd been searching for, the anger he'd held onto for so long. He reached for it greedily; even without the Force it made him feel stronger. He lifted his head to snarl something else, anything else, just to see the shock and hurt on his opponent's face—
—and then it vanished when he laid eyes on his son.
He had never been able to be angry at Luke.
Luke was all he had left. Now that he was a traitor, just like his mother, just like Obi-Wan. . . what was left for Vader?
"The Princess Organa kidnapped you on the Death Star," he growled, looking for something to say, "and now you join her?"
Luke squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. A wry smile curled the corner of his mouth. "Father, I wasn't kidnapped on the Death Star. I rescued her."
Vader blinked, the memories flashing before him—Tarkin ranting about the easy escape, panic over Luke's disappearance—and put two and two together. "I see." The Death Star had been over a year ago. "How long have you been a traitor?"
Luke winced at that word too—traitor—but continued doggedly, "A few years, now. I was one of their Fulcrum agents."
Vader nodded. The nebulous "Fulcrum" had been a thorn in his side since the Empire began, almost, with first Ahsoka, then Kallus, and countless more Rebel intelligence operatives proving to be the difference between victory and defeat.
And Luke had been one. For years.
One of the Emperor's personal agents, a Rebel spy.
The fact that he was being so open about it to the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy told Vader everything he needed to know: he wasn't getting out of here alive.
"I see," he said again. "But why—" and here his voice cracked, but he ploughed on anyway, "why reveal yourself now? Why fake your death?" His voice was definitely cracking now, by habit probing his bond with Luke—but of course he didn't have the Force. He was still empty. "How?"
"It was a trick Leia taught me," Luke said quietly. "Something her previous Master learned—learned when running from you, incidentally enough. How to block personal bonds through the Force so that it seems like the bond or the person doesn't exist at all."
Vader didn't think to consider why Leia Organa had ever needed to learn such a skill. It wasn't like she had any living, Force-sensitive family to hide from.
"As for why now," Luke continued, unable to meet his gaze, "I'd have thought that would be obvious. The Emperor was going to kill me."
That breathed some sort of feeling into his chest. "What." There was murder in the word—an instinctual response, despite everything.
"He'd figured out that I was a. . . traitor." Luke forced himself to say the word. "He sent me on that last mission to try and uncover where Leia was hiding, then the two Inquisitors I was with were ordered to assassinate me and capture her." He shrugged, though there was nothing casual about the gesture. "I managed to get a message ahead, so the Rebel cell ambushed us, killing the Inquisitors and stunning me. I woke up here."
"So you know where we are?"
It was a crude, half-hearted attempt to fish for information; Luke just smiled sadly. "Yes. I do."
"But you're not allowed to tell me."
"I'm not going to tell you," he countered. "You'd escape somehow, then bring the Empire down on all our heads before we finish the evacuation. You already came faster than we expected."
"So what will happen to me?" Vader pressed. Luke winced at the question.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I don't think they want to risk unchaining you in order to get you on a ship. They're worried you'd murder them all."
"As well I should."
Luke swallowed. "Other than that. . . I don't know." He swallowed again—that gesture, more than anything else, was what told him Luke was lying. He knew exactly what they were going to do to him. "But I'm sure they'll be more lenient if you cooperate, provide information."
He bowed his head. "Please," he whispered. "Cooperate. I don't want you to die."
The pitiful sight of Luke's distress stirred an uncomfortable mix of emotions in his chest—guilt again, the urge to comfort, but most of all, anger.
And it was anger that reigned as he said, "Then perhaps you should have considered what the consequences of turning traitor would be."
Luke just nodded, then a comlink bleeped and his glanced at the time. "I need to go."
He paused when he reached the door. "I'll see you soon, Father," he whispered, then added, almost inaudibly, "I suppose now you have a choice to make."
Then he left. When the door closed, the lights went out, and the darkness swept in again.
Contrary to what his dark flights of imagination had come up with, the Rebellion didn't choose to execute him then and there. They didn't have the time.
The Empire followed the trail Vader had left to find the Rebel base shortly after he disappeared; in the mad scramble to flee, the Rebels left him behind. He could only assume that they never expected the Imperials to be able to navigate the stone tunnels well enough to find him in time.
What they hadn't counted on—what Vader himself hadn't counted on—was Luke's interference.
The stormtrooper unit that eventually found him reported having found a scrap of flimsi first, with a hastily drawn map to the cell he was kept it. Vader had looked at it only long enough to recognise Luke's handwriting before destroying it.
"Luke Skywalker is a traitor to the Empire, and shall be treated as such," the Emperor informed him when he finally returned to Coruscant. "I am leaving it to you, Lord Vader, to use your powerful anger as the man most wronged to track him down and exert justice. I know you will do me proud."
Vader just looked at his Master's face and thought about how much he hated him. How much he hated his life in general, except for Luke.
Because he could never hate his son, just as he could never hate Padmé.
Luke was right. He did have a choice to make.