He had anticipated it.
He had realized what his master’s demand for his son’s presence was.
He had been asked, even, if he wanted to watch.
He had, of course, turned the offer down.
But all the knowing in the galaxy did nothing to ease the pain of seeing his son, now.
The boy lay, crumpled and naked, in the middle of the Emperor’s audience chamber, spots of blood and semen surrounding him. He did not respond to his father’s entrance, still lay almost perfectly still, seeming barely to breathe.
He was so small. So small, curled on the cold marble floor. So helpless, unable or unwilling to move. So very at his father’s mercy. At Palpatine’s.
Slowly, Vader knelt, brushing fluid away from his child’s trembling body as the boy cowered, battered arms coming uselessly to his face as he struggled to hide from what Palpatine had done.
“Luke,” he said. He couldn’t let his concern into his voice, he knew that Palpatine knew how he would feel about this, about seeing his youngling exposed to what he himself had been, but he knew also that that would not forgive him his pain and upset. His master was not kind.
Luke didn’t respond. He was limp as a broken doll in Vader’s arms as his father pulled him upright, his breath barely catching as he was moved.
Still so helpless.
Still so small.
He had known his boy was not originally recognized as one, that the hospital had assumed him to be a girl in the way that all newborns with vaginas were expected to be, but the reality of it seemed crueler now that the boy was bleeding.
He had never seen his son naked before, he’d had droids wash and dress him, never taken his dignity as a form of punishment. He’d told himself that he was above that, that separate sides of the war be damned, he was still Luke’s father, and would let him keep the slim comfort of his shorts.
In the end, it hadn’t been enough to keep him from bringing Luke here, of course, and now that small mercy seemed pointless, because he had failed to offer to keep him from this.
There had been no point in trying, but he could have at least put on a show of it, attempted to protect his child and taken what came to him, trusting that Luke would be comforted by his effort.
Instead, he had led Luke to this without a word, selfishly choosing not to even warn him, to leave him unattended with the older Sith, and allow him to do what he wished. His boy had come willingly enough, taking his seat in the speeder next to his father with no more than the usual reluctance, just enough of a show of refusal to remind Vader that he was not happy to be captive.
It had only been when Palpatine had come down towards him, pulling him roughly away from his father, inspecting the clean lines of the rich Imperial uniform, that Luke had looked at him in worry.
His sweet eyes, now nearly-closed, one blackening slowly, puffing up, they had met Vader’s in anxious questioning, and all he had done was step back.
When Palpatine had asked, had asked if he wanted to see his son raped, had dared to suggest he could join in, Luke had finally struggled.
In a heartbeat, his resigned, stubborn refusal had been broken, and he had twisted away from the Emperor’s hand with a sound of horror, struggling not quite toVader, but not away from him.
He knew that Luke saw their conflict as it truly was, that all three of them knew the fight he longed for it to be. His son had even dared to smile at him over his meager meals, and say in as many words, ‘You hate him too. It wasn’t getting rid of him I was against.’
Luke knew that the struggle was not of two against one, precisely, but of one against one, and a chaotic element, which could be torn to fire at either side.
Force knew it wasn’t Luke’s fault that Palpatine had known his triggers this time. Force knew it wouldn’t have been the child’s fault even if he had.
“Luke,” he asked again, giving his child a slight shake.
The boy’s clothes were scattered, there was the distant scent of burned fiber, and Vader saw nicks in Luke’s skin that were too random to have been the master’s intention. Without giving his master the satisfaction of seeing that he was trying to scope the range of his brutality, Vader shifted his eyes only to a nearby scrap of black fabric.
The edges were charred, and jagged.
Sidious had not even allowed him the dignity of undressing himself.
“It may be some time before he answers,” Palpatine said, and Vader shook with anger, with unacknowledged fear, at his cold tone. “He is not so much after all.”
Of course, Palpatine would blame Luke for what had happened to him. Of course, he would find a derisive way to state how deeply he had hurt the child.
Vader wanted nothing more than to crouch here, ignoring the pain in his prosthetic mounts, ignoring the galaxy at large, until Luke safely awoke. Instead, he forced himself to stand, so he could face Palpatine from above, his one vestige of power.
As he attempted to straighten, though, Luke suddenly moved. It wasn’t a weak shifting, almost indiscernible from his slipping to the floor, though. It was nothing at all like Vader often found himself moving after his master’s attentions had been focused on him.
Instead Luke, usually the calm, gentle, rational one of their broken pair, moved with all the fury of Vader, freshly re-suited. But it was not fury, Vader realized, his heart further shattering, glass ground back to sand as he realized his son was only holding onto him.
His son’s shields had been ruined by the punishment, usually serenely opaque, they now only contained his agony in a wire cage, there to see, but not to be felt by mistake. Even in this state, Luke was trying, trying to make it easier for his father, trying to protect the elder man as he should have protected him.
Don’t leave me!The caged presence cried, a thousand conjoined carrion birds straining at the crude prison. Don’t leave me alone with him again! He stopped when you came back, he stopped-!”
He had returned at his master’s summoning, had not been able to ward the Sith off with his mere presence. If that were all it took…
For a brief moment, he found himself dreaming of being able to protect his son like the child deserved to be protected, but he had nothing to offer in that avenue.
It only spoke to Palpatine’s savagery that Luke was clinging to him at all.
It was not two on one. He and his master were not a united front, but neither were he and his son. Day in and day out, he treated Luke with all the harshness he could muster, forcing himself to pursue the intel Luke was hiding from him. It was torture, it was not kindness, and it was not excused by the pressure placed upon him.
His son was too generous to him. The boy was a prisoner in his home, more than expected to spend his time in his room, recuperating. Instead, he ventured out the unlocked door with childlike curiosity. He knew his boundaries, rarely tried to outstep them to get into Vader’s own intel, but he explored the castle, looking into the dark, empty rooms, before always, inevitably, returning to his father.
Always coming to him for the moments of quiet he could be afforded.
They were not a united front.
Vader was the controller, he owned Luke, could make him do… do nearly anything, anything but use the Force, anything but betray his friends. In a burst of anger at Luke’s casually willing contact with him, he had once demanded that Luke take over a chore that the droids were more than capable of handling, and although Luke had given him a small frown, the boy had left to do as he was told. Since, he had continued, assuring the droid whose task it had been meant to be, that it need not worry itself with it any more.
His son was obedient and kind, doing as he was told, within generous reason, but he was still the captor. He still beat Luke. He still interrogated him, pouring everything he still had into eliciting the boy’s cries for mercy, proving to himself, at least, that their relation was mere biological happenstance.
He knew it hurt Luke.
Not just physically, not only keeping him from comfortable resting, leaving welts across his back and arms, but more personally as well. The boy flinched from his touch, more frightened of it than he had been even after Bespin. He watched Vader with an affection and desperation tempered by anxiety, always ready to run, should Vader suddenly turn his violence against the child.
He did not cling.
He had his pride, not as abrasive as his father’s, but there nonetheless.
The pride itself contributed to his returns. There was a certain strength Luke drew from coming to his father with his meals, eating and occasionally resting in the Sith’s presence. It was showy, almost. He was performing, showing that he would not be frightened away by mere cruelty.
To hold him now, for the first time, said that what Palpatine had done had been worse.
Don’t go!The birds screamed, fighting one another in their desperation for freedom from their terrible fused mass. A screaming ball of feathers and beaks, nothing useful discernable from it. Don’t leave me again!
Hesitatingly, he found a way to fold the boy in his arms and stand. It was not graceful. It was not a show of strength, it was little more than holding a heavy and inconveniently shaped load, nearly enough to cause him to lose his balance entirely and spill them both back onto the floor.
As he met the eyes of his master, he wished he could have done so with the dignity of his child.
He wanted to ask permission to return home, where he could dress Luke and tuck him into a warm bed, perhaps have the droids prepare him a proper meal, for once, but he couldn’t find the words.
To his worthless relief, Palpatine gestured imperiously for him to go. “Remove him,” the Sith instructed.
Remove, the birds cried, the frantic clingings of his child seemed to wail, As in, to kill?
He wanted nothing in the galaxy more than to reach through the wire, to calm the monstrous creature, but knew that if he reached out in kindness, he could not control it as well as Luke did. His master would sense it, might punish the child’s broken body further in response.
So he only turned, cradled Padmé’s son, named for a favourite uncle from another life, and let his mechanical parts carry him from the Emperor’s presence.
It was not safe to love him.
He walked through the Emperor’s private quarters until he reached the closed speeder that they had arrived in, brushed a paper cup from Luke’s place in the passenger seat, tried to supress his reaction as the boy whimpered at being placed in it.
He allowed himself to draw crash webbing over his son before taking his own seat.
It was not safe to love his child.
The ship started with the same split-second responsiveness it always did, kept in prime condition by droids, and his own rare upgrades, but somehow, it was still a moment too slow.
In the passenger seat, Luke moaned, shifting in an attempt to alleviate pressure on his abused body.
He was not awake.
He was not awake, and yet he was not unconscious. He hovered torturously between the two, and it was not safe to love him.
Vader wished, for the first time, that his speeder had had a back seat, somewhere the boy could lay out. Even the second seat had previously seemed superfluous, a pointless nod to the traffic laws that expected there to be a driver’s side at all.
It was not as though anyone would dare to stop him.
As they flew through the crowded skyways, Vader couldn’t help but be immensely glad for the tinted windows, darkening the interior nearly enough that Luke looked merely asleep in the dim.
Again, he made a small sound of pain, and Vader watched in silence as the boy attempted to shift, the whimpers continuing, until he spotted tears on his baby’s cheeks, glittering in the scant light.
Luke was not a baby, he tried to tell himself. Luke was an adult, and he was of the enemy, even if he insisted on seeking contact. The fact that he bore her nose, the gentle shape of her eyes…
It meant nothing.
The fact that it meant something to Luke…
He jerked the control yoke, suddenly, turning away from his castle.
It was not safe to love Luke. It was not safe to love him, and it was not even safe to keep him. Luke was a rebel, and he did not belong in Vader’s castle, receiving torture from Vader alone, and quietly eating his meals with him.
No, prison was where Luke belonged. He was not a child, he did not need to be held in the custody of his father, there was less threat offered by a prison, where he would be only another body in a cell, not a potential leverage against Vader.
Palpatine would not call the prison to demand Luke’s service so directly. He would make… he would make excuses, he would find a way to take Luke again.
The speeder jostled, and Luke’s eyes sprang open with a gasp as it leapt a footpath, abandoned at this time of night.
“Father?” Luke asked, and oh, even his voice was wrong, even that undeserved title was changed by what Palpatine had done to him.
The speeder had settled against the walkway, he would need to increase the thrusters for it to move again, but his hands couldn’t find them, he couldn’t move.
It wasn’t safe to love Luke.
He was trembling.
It wasn’t safe to love Luke.
The birds had silenced, settling down in their frenzied heap, now only peeping occasionally, seeming questioning as Luke was.
It wasn’t safe to love him.
He felt the flicker of pain as his boy moved, gently touching his arm.
He should have never dared to love Luke at all.
More than that, he should have never dared to love Padmé.
He had brought them nothing but suffering.
He had failed them both.
“I want…” the boy ventured, his voice too low, and Force, Vader wished he did not know why. “I want to go home.”
He could offer nothing better.
He could not make a well-earned promise of safety.
He was not what his son deserved, and he did not wish to be all his son had.
“I can’t!” Luke said, and with that, his voice raised, distress normalizing it, then raising it. “Father, what he did to me - .”
“Will not improve,” Vader intoned. He didn’t look at his child, he couldn’t bear to see the confusion and hurt he could hear in his voice. “He will not grow tired of you.”
“You can’t expect me to run!” Luke cried, “I haven’t got anywhere to go! It’s late, I’m in pain, I want to go home!”
“It is not the home you deserve!” Vader said, and he found his voice rising in anger. He was aware he wasn’t being reasonable. He could not just park the speeder and expect his injured son to run off into the night to somehow turn up again, on the battlefield.
Again, the corvids were moving against Luke’s tattered shields, crying out, Don’t leave me! I need you, don’t make me go!
He couldn’t answer, but his hand found the thrusters, and the speeder suddenly leapt, jumping the walkway entirely.
“Father?” Luke asked again, but still, Vader could not bring himself to answer. Slowly, the boy’s hand slipped from his arm, falling back to Luke’s side.
Luke wanted to go home, and so Vader would take him home, and lead him back to his same empty room, and help him into the same unremarkable bed, and let him sleep until tomorrow when he would have no choice but to pretend this had never happened.
The idea of laying a hand on the boy again now was inconceivable. But he would have to, they were not a united front, he was only… only a weaker form of his master’s will. Only through extraordinary cruelty could he spare the boy from the unthinkable. Provided he kept Luke close to unconsciousness, close to death, Palpatine surely would not take the boy. Surely, if Luke was weaker than himself, it would not be the boy to take the next assault.
The speeder came to a halt, and Vader exited the vehicle, coming around to Luke’s side to offer him this fleeting help.
But the boy met him with concern in his countenance, made no attempt to free himself from the crash webbing and the speeder. “Father, this isn’t funny,” he said, his expression shifting to hurt, “This isn’t home.”
“Of course it - ,” Vader began, turning to take in his castle.
But it wasn’t the castle that loomed over them.
It was 500 Republica, long abandoned, and slated for demolition and replacement, before the population of the Imperial Centre had ceased to grow. It was Padmé’s balcony, where he had watched her brush her hair, where they had held one another on warm, breezy nights, where they had dared to whisper about their coming child.
It was decrepit.
The curtains hung in tatters, the gleaming floors now dirty, and stained with bird feces. The fountain had long since ceased to run. Inside, he thought duly, nothing would be the same. Everything would have rotted away, every happy memory’s location as ruined as the dreams they had inspired.
Still, something had drawn him back here. After two decades of knowing that it was not his to visit, something had led him back.
“It should have been,” he admitted. His hand fell to Luke’s shoulder, and he wracked his brain, searching for anything that he might have instinctively wanted to pass on to Luke, and had reason to believe was still here.
“It’s cold,” Luke murmured finally, leaning against Vader for what little warmth the armour could provide his naked body.
Home, the birds cried, though Vader could feel his son beginning to rebuild his shields already. Please, home.
“Soon,” he promised, stroking Luke’s head once before closing the door, leaving him safe in the warmth of the speeder as he dared to climb the steps.
It was all familiar, and terribly unfamiliar.
With his approach, the lights turned on. They were all still functional, they likely had not been triggered since Padmé had come to find him at Mustafar. A few of the decorative bulbs had broken, and they, too, were covered in bird shit.
There was nothing alive, here, and yet so many signs of careless living.
Still, the door to her quarters opened for him, and his feet carried him inside.
Their son was cold.
He was sitting alone in a speeder, naked and hurting, and he was cold.
Vader went to her closet and opened it with a soft puff of dust. Inside, the clothes were hung just as they had been, the last time he had dressed himself. The Jedi tunics were folded in a drawer between Padmé’s undergarments, and some of her personal effects, where they were unlikely to be found by mistake.
Perhaps they were what Luke would have chosen, were he here beside his father. A visual sign that he had not accepted what his father had become, that he was a Jedi still. But they were rough. Not uncomfortable to a healthy Jedi, but to Luke, now?
Hands shaking, he reached into Padmé’s clothes, looking through them, acutely remembering the texture of each one, the way it had felt against his cheek when he had leaned against her.
It was not a sign of derision, he told himself, choosing a long, light cloak that she had worn when not on missions, or dressed for the Senate. He was not implying that it was for Luke to wear moving forwards, it was only something soft, something to keep him warm for now.
Something to make up for the mistake he had made in bringing his child here.
He returned to his son slowly, not really taking in the ruin around him, but not rushing past it, either.
In the speeder, Luke had loosened his crash webbing, and seemed to have found a comfortable position, curled against the door.
Rather than open it, and risk spilling the boy to the landing pad, Vader entered the speeder again before pausing to lay the cloak over the boy. It wasn’t much, it was light and thin, but Padmé had always assured him it was warmer than it looked, and the boy blinked at it for only a moment before pillowing his head on his arm again.
He looked very small, again, covered by his mother’s cloak.
It wasn’t the same terrible smallness that he’d shown when he lay on the Emperor’s floor. This smallness was not heartbreaking in itself, it only made a great, protective determination swell in Vader’s heart. He couldn’t spare Luke completely. He couldn’t take back what had been done. He couldn’t even promise himself that this protectiveness would still be present when morning came, let alone strong enough to keep Luke from further pain.
“Home?” Luke asked plaintively. He hadn’t opened his eyes, hadn’t shifted from where he was curled.