The training ring Vader had had Piett set up outside was alive with clashing and clanking, interrupting the otherwise relative peace of the castle's innermost garden. There was an orchard to the north, a maze of rosebushes and stone fountains to the east, and the great iron gates to the wider lands of Vader's estate to the south. But here there was just a ring, dug in where there had been a shallow, dried out pond before, and now finally Piett had managed to wrangle enough sand and wood to construct a replica of the training rings knight novices trained in at Palpatine's palace, miles and miles from here.
Which meant that Vader could finally test his son's swordplay.
He lunged forwards, swinging his sword to collide with a crash. Sand kicked up as Luke went down. Vader swallowed whatever words were on his tongue, but that sand did its job; Luke rolled with a grunt, spitting blood and rolling to his feet. He was unsteady at first, the chainmail clearly heavy and unwieldy on him, the vambraces digging into his arms—they were all too big and too small for him, in all the wrong ways, and Vader found himself immediately making plans to contact his armourer to get him to make Luke a custom suit...
"You are unaccustomed to fighting with the extra weight," was all that he observed once Luke planted both hands on his sword and adopted a solid ready stance. The boy was skilled.
"Yeah, well," Luke said in his commoner's accent—Vader was almost growing fond of it, after all these weeks with him, even as he hated what it revealed about Luke's childhood—"you're unaccustomed to fighting without it."
Vader snorted, and began to circle Luke, lowering his sword slightly. A dare, perhaps, but also a genuine relaxing of tensions in a friendly sparring match with his son. "I am wearing chainmail, gauntlets, greaves—everything short of boots and a helmet. I am hardly without armour, young one."
"Yeah, well, you're unaccustomed to fighting in such little armour. I get that you're slow, old man, but you can move faster than this."
Luke darted forwards then, for a round of three quick parries, his expression scrunched in concentration. He was fast; Vader had to admit to slight exhaustion and trembling in his arms as he barely caught some of those blows, but rather than letting it anger him he let his pride swell instead.
Raised by lowly farmers as he was, trained as a swordsman by the petty Rebellion as he was, Luke was still so, so skilled.
Even if he was beginning to tire. Rapidly. One of Vader's hammered blows got past his defence to nick his shoulder; it was a shallow cut, but Vader watched it bleed with displeasure.
"You should practise fighting with armour more often. Get used to its weight." Vader lunged, then, and Luke yelped; he blocked the blow straight on but it took effort, sweat beading on his forehead. "It will allow you to easily get stronger, take more risks—well." He ran an unhappy eye over the scar on Luke's cheek, the one that cut down his chin and dug into his collarbone as well. That could have taken Luke's life, he remembered. He could have taken Luke's life, in the moment before he'd realised the boy had thrown himself in front of him.
There was a reason Vader did not wear his full armour in sparring sessions like these. His mask was terrifying, awe-inspiring, the stuff of legend... but it had been the subject of many of his son's nightmares in the years Luke had been raised with the Rebels and Vader had hunted them to find the child they had stolen from him. And he did not want his son to be afraid.
"It will allow you to take your ordinary risks without the damage that accompanies them," he said instead, doing his best to keep his snap out of his voice. He failed. Luke grimaced—they both remembered too well the time he'd nearly been gutted, trying to defend someone who did not deserve defending; nearly been beheaded when he'd annoyed Lord Maul and swatted like a fly; nearly fallen to his death when he'd leapt off a bridge into an icy river on one of the many close calls Vader had had when trying to find him. He was far too reckless anyway, and he knew exactly what his father thought about it. "Perhaps Obi-Wan did not teach you to invest money and energy in something that would save your life, but I would not suffer losing you so lightly, my son."
There—another one of those reckless attacks he so hated, as Luke's amiable, if nervous, teasing ratcheted into rage and he darted forwards to swing wildly like a fool. His blade skittered off of Vader's without Vader even having to put effort into it, and went flying.
Luke backed away from the sword at his throat, and fell to the ground with a thump and a puff of sand.
Vader sheathed his sword; offered him a hand up. Luke just glared, and pushed himself back to his feet without accepting it.
Sometimes, he forgot how much less intimidating he looked without his helmet on. With it, he was Darth Vader, the Black Knight of the Empire, His Majesty's most trusted lieutenant and the greatest swordsman alive. He was more wrathful spirit than man, a legend more than a mortal, and his stories could cut down resistance just as easily as his sword.
But he did not feel human in that suit—and while that worked best for the Empire, it did not work best for his son.
Yet without it, he was just a heavily scarred man with an intense gaze. It worked in his favour when he was usually interacting with Luke, especially since he'd finally found him and brought him to their ancestral home... but it meant that he was much less likely to be obeyed.
So Vader just watched, jaw twitching, as Luke staggered to his feet shucked off the chainmail. The white shirt underneath was stained and torn; bruises bloomed where blood did not.
"You need—" he tried to say, but his son gave him a look. Vader bit his tongue again.
His son was difficult. He was used to being self-sufficient. He... did not quite trust Vader yet, though he was beginning to smile around him, and he was not used to the dichotomy of an enemy who was also his father.
Obi-Wan had stolen him, and terrified him with tales of the Black Knight, the man who hunted them through night and day. Luke was fifteen, he was young and he was feckless, and this war was all he knew.
Vader had to be patient with him.
Luke was worth the wait.
"May I help you with your wounds?" he asked levelly instead, thinking of what Piett had told him. He'd never heard his manservant get quite so... uppity, but he supposed that it was Piett who had to deal with Luke's tantrums and despair when Vader was away and Luke was banned from leaving the castle.
He had to let Luke build the boundaries, and he had to take things slowly. Even as he disapproved of the Rebel propaganda Luke had swallowed. Even as he hated how Padmé's son glared at him, upset, when they inevitably clashed.
But they'd come this far. They were sparring—and Luke had had the courage to tell Vader that his iconic armour would be a problem, that he'd prefer it if it was gone.
They could—and would—go further.
Luke blinked, glancing at him with a furrowed brow when he realised Vader's intentions. "They're just scratches," he said, perplexed.
And your Rebel friends do not care enough to treat small injuries, even if they cause you pain?
But he gritted his teeth against that, making a point to control his facial expression; he was so used to being behind the mask that he broadcast his expressions clearly to anyone who could bear to look upon his face. And while Piett had theorised that after the helmet came off, that was part of why Luke had started warming up to him so much faster—he'd been able to see the tender, caring looks Vader gave him from time to time, been able to reconcile that into his concept of Vader, the enemy—he did not want that to betray his displeasure now.
So he just swallowed his words, and said: "Perhaps, young one, but I am sure they hurt, and I would rather not see you in unnecessary pain." Or they could get infected, or they could hinder him if he wanted to have another session later today—the logical part of Vader knew that pain could be worked through, as he worked through his own pain every day, but the paternal part of Vader knew that he did not want Luke to work through any more pain than he already had had to, in his short life.
Sure enough, Luke stared in confusion at him even more, then, but nodded. "Alright," he said. "What..."
"Come inside," Vader said immediately, and— at first he reached for Luke's arm, then before Luke could flinch he froze, and held out his hand, palm up, instead. "I can have some cold water run to clean and bandage the wounds."
"They're not even that deep," Luke grumbled, but Vader couldn't help but smile broadly when Luke took his hand. Luke saw it, blinked, and smiled shyly in return.
Vader's cheeks still ached from the smile—he'd been smiling more in the last few weeks than he had in the last fifteen years—once they were in the front room, Luke's torn and bloodied shirt dumped onto the floor to give Vader space to run a wet cloth over his arms, thoroughly. Luke stayed perfectly still, not flinching once, though some of those wounds were alarmingly deep; Vader should stop swinging his sword so hard when they fought... at least until he did commission that tailored suit of armour for him. Luke would still need the practise against opponents both older and stronger than he was.
Luke's face was creased in a faint frown. He gazed out the window, through the diamond panes, to where the training ground was still set up, should they wish to return. Vader finished cleaning the blood off of him and wrapping gauze around some of the deeper cuts—overkill, he knew, except this was Luke so it wasn't—and met his gaze.
Luke... shifted his hands off where he'd wrapped them, white-knuckled, around the slat in the back of the chair, and moved his gaze to the spare clothes Vader had asked to be laid out on the table next to him. His white shirt was ruined, so Vader handed him the darker jacket to wear until he could go and change—as always, Luke eyed the cogs of the Empire stitched onto the front, but he wore it more and more comfortably every day. And... as much as Vader wanted his son to accept the Empire, wanted him to fight by his side and take up his mantel as the Black Knight one day, he cared far more about his son accepting him.
But Luke wore the clothing—stitched with the intertwined sword and starflower sigil of Vader, too, and there was no way that he missed Vader's faint, proud smile. Not with the way he blushed, faintly.
Then he tilted his head and regarded Vader with an acute stare that was always... unnerving in its intensity, its accuracy. Luke looked at Vader—Vader let him look at him, at his face, in the way so many of his troopers who would follow him to the ends of the world didn't, and let him see the human there.
"I... got some hits in as well," Luke said nervously, playing with the ends of his sleeves. His cufflinks clinked together. "Are you..."
Vader blinked for a moment, in surprise. Luke's naked gaze was open and honest, looking up at him, heavy bags under his eyes—how much sleep was the boy getting? How much stress was he under?—and it was unflinching.
"I am fine," Vader said, perplexed. "I will heal."
Luke huffed. "And so will I."
A quiet challenge.
"I told you you're not used to fighting without heavy armour. You do all those reckless stunts and moves as well, opening yourself up in your confidence that it'll protect you. I just wanted to ask how you were feeling."
Luke had struck him in the arm or shoulder, the leg; even to the side of his face with the flat of his sword. He barely felt the injuries, in fact; the blood had dried and aches were a constant thing in his limbs, particularly his prosthetic leg, anyway.
He had got a few hits in. If it had been the other way round, Vader was self-aware enough to admit, he would not suffer Luke refusing to seek medical attention.
But Luke was wrong about one thing.
Confidence and being accustomed to his heavy armour were not the reason he took such wild risks in his swordplay—why he fought so recklessly.
He should change those habits, now. He had a son to protect. His life had meaning.
And that meaning was currently scrunching his face into a belligerent stare, his eyebrow raised.
"I will be fine, young one," he said nonetheless. He was willing to humanise himself to Luke but he was not willing to... make himself look weak. His burn scars were one thing—they almost looked fearsome, certainly to his enemies, though they also confirmed his backstory and made him seem more human than a mere mask could ever reveal. But for Luke to see the extent of the damage in his hands, the leg...
"I will be fine," he reiterated, turning away. Luke gave a quiet huff, and Vader winced.
Luke was about to be rebellious.
Of course he was. He'd been raised by Rebels.
"You're barely moving your right arm," Luke challenged, getting to his feet. Vader hissed from between his teeth—Luke should stay seated. His wounds weren't bad, but they were nasty, and he'd been limping slightly. "I noticed it when you were applying the bandages. How are you going to get the armour off when you can't move it?"
"I can move it, it is simply not ideal to do so," Vader replied, perhaps a little too sharply, but Luke was not cowed whatsoever. "When I remove the armour, it will hurt, yes, but it is nothing. It is necessary."
Luke blinked, and shifted where he stood. "What..." He frowned. "What if I help you?"
Vader looked at him, at the boy with the dark blond hair and his father's smile and his mother's gentle hands, and... he didn't know what he felt. He didn't even know if it was pleasant. It was so alien to him that he didn't know what to think of it at all... but he knew that it certainly wasn't unpleasant.
"I know how to remove armour," he said. "I have been learning something in those ridiculous lessons."
The corners of Vader's lips quirked up. He knew that Luke was still none-too-fond of his tutor's lectures on Imperial history and politics, even if he did enjoy maths. Geography. Some of the literature topics. He was a smart boy, as reckless as he might be sometimes. Vader wasn't sure what topic armour would come up under, but he was also sure that Luke and Veers probably strayed off-topic frequently.
He wanted to deny the request. He didn't want Luke to see his vulnerability—he could deal with this injury perfectly well on his own, but...
He knew that this was Luke reaching out to try and become closer.
And he was not going to pass that opportunity up.
They went upstairs, to Vader's quarters, where Vader moved to unpin his cape at his front. Luke raised an eyebrow at him and did it for him before he could. Vader marvelled quietly at how Luke's calloused fingers, built for fighting and forged in war, could be so gentle with the brooch as he extracted the pin, cradling in his palm the silver shield set, like the patterns on their clothing, with tiny diamond swords and starflowers—the symbol of the Naberrie and Skywalker union, of Luke's parents' marriage. A faint smile touched Vader's lips, and he shrugged off the cape, letting the dark grey fabric flutter to the floor.
"Father," Luke chided, especially when he noted that Vader even winced, minutely, at the motion; even that had aggravated the wound in his shoulder. Luke had landed a good hit.
Vader smirked. "It's just a cape." Obi-Wan would dump his robes all the time, he felt like saying, why does it bother you when I show equal disregard for clothing? It was on the tip of his tongue, even as he hated comparing himself to Obi-Wan in any way—but he did not voice it. Obi-Wan was still a touchy subject between them, and he just wanted to enjoy it.
And the way Luke had said Father certainly had an influence on that as well. He didn't do that often—though increasingly often, he'd noted with pleasure, in recent times.
"I know, and you have a thousand identical to it," Luke grumbled. "You have a disappointing collection of capes. But you still shouldn't treat it so badly. It's nice cloth."
Of course. He'd be drilled to appreciate what he had, raised by farmers in poverty as he was. And he was Padmé's son. "My collection is disappointing?"
"The point is that collections have range, Father," Luke observed wryly.
"And you know from your vast experience and knowledge?"
"I know your wardrobe is an eyesore." He placed the pin back into the brooch and put it to the table on one side, giving Vader a slight push to stand on the mat next to the rack. Vader's quarters weren't as large as one would expect for the Emperor's most favoured lieutenant, but there was space enough in the changing room for the two of them, even with the large rack that dominated the otherwise plain area. "You have a thousand different capes of varying shields of dull Imperial grey."
"Is that your main criticism of the Empire? Our colour scheme?"
"It's one of the many things that need work."
Vader laughed. It was a booming laugh, and tended to catch people by surprise—it certainly caught Luke, who flushed before he realised what was happening and grinned shyly back.
"If you wanted to work on it," Vader said gently, "I would not be opposed."
Luke gritted his teeth as he made to unbuckle one of Vader's gauntlets, and Vader immediately knew that he would not like whatever he said next. "It wouldn't matter. There's a reason for the grey, I guess. You'll just go to war again in a few weeks and get the capes all muddy and dirty and covered in blood."
Vader blinked at the... reproach he heard in Luke's voice, and tried not to scowl. He may be trying to ingratiate Luke into this world gently, and he may be doing his best to be the kind image of a father Luke expected, but that did not mean he had changed his nature! He was Darth Vader!
What did the boy expect?
"Of course I will, Luke," he said. It was easier to snap when he used the boy's name; the k sound was so much sharper than any of the sounds in young one. "I am the Emperor's enforcer. Going to war is my job."
"And when I take up this mantle you are so intent on me taking," Luke asked bitterly, "will wanton slaughter be my job as well?"
Vader took a breath. Took another breath. "Only if you wish it to be." And he hoped that Luke would wish it by then, know that it was more serving the security of the Empire than it could ever be wanton slaughter, but he knew that was a battle he was not going to win. He just had to rely on the tutor to properly educate the boy, until he clung less fiercely to the Rebel propaganda they'd been sure to feed him. "I will not force anything on you, Luke."
Luke gave him a look. It wasn't a glare, which he supposed was a bonus, but it wasn't thrilled either. "Except the Empire."
"I will not force the Empire on you either," he said levelly, as the gauntlet came free and Luke hooked it into its place on the rack. "I do not want you running with the Rebels in case you are hurt or killed. It would destroy me. Forgive me for worrying about you."
"You captured me," Luke said.
"Do you wish to go back?"
He saw his son freeze, consider the question.
Realise that there was a chance, however minute, that his father was serious.
Then he ran his gaze over the brooch on the table, the left gauntlet now opening under his fingers, the diamond-pane window and the garden beyond it. Then he looked at his father.
Vader smiled warmly at him.
Luke said, very, very quietly, "No. I don't."
Vader... breathed a sigh of relief. Saw Luke's brow furrow, and wondered what he was thinking.
"I just want you safe," he said. "I just want to know my son."
Luke nodded. "I know."
He didn't say anything else, but Vader was utterly sure that Luke wanted to know his father as well.
"Will I have to accompany you to the warfront when you next go?" Luke asked. "Surely the Emperor wouldn't be happy about you staying behind just for me."
Vader didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing at all.
"Surely he isn't happy about you and your Rebel son, either." Luke frowned. "Doesn't he want me to do penance, or join the Empire immediately to make up for my past? I destroyed that military base."
"You did." Luke's head jerked up in shock, nearly unbalancing himself as he made to put the second gauntlet on the rack, at the naked pride in Vader's voice. "It was impressive, certainly. I am sure His Majesty is more curious than angry, though I have no doubt he will want you to join some sort of program for Imperial youths soon—the cadets, or go to court, or COMPNOR. Or he may simply wish to meet you."
Luke knelt down to handle Vader's greaves so Vader missed the rush of alarm that he had no doubt swept over his face, but it didn't matter; he moved to instantly address it anyway. "I did not become the Emperor's most trusted servant by obeying him in everything, my son. He understands that I am protective of you, and I understand that you are not ready to do such a thing." Yet was left unspoken, and he knew Luke stiffened.
"I... alright." Luke decided not to press the issue, clearly. "I just... I worry..."
Vader stood there tense—what was it? Why was Luke worrying so? He was safe here, as safe as could be, and Vader knew that safety was not a feeling Luke was overwhelmingly familiar with, but...
He did not press Luke. He knew that it would be a bad idea—that he was pushing it by seeming expectant at all, that it was a miracle Luke was even choosing to confide in him.
But he waited on tenterhooks, until...
"I... worry," Luke admitted, "that I'm being swept into a larger game that I have no hope of understanding."
Vader frowned, and tilted his head down to meet Luke's eye, then back up again when Luke rose—pointedly avoiding his eye as he added that greave to the rack as well. Then he did look at him, and smiled weakly.
"I'm fifteen," he said. "I don't understand the Empire—I don't understand the philosophical arguments you keep throwing at me, I just understand that I've seen the Empire burn and hurt and destroy. And I've seen it double-cross, and stab itself in the back, and I know that was the only reason Tarkin was still there on the Death Star military base when I destroyed it. And you... you're a god in human form, to your troops; you're a demon in human form to the Rebellion... and..."
"And?" Vader prompted after a moment when Luke didn't answer. "What am I to you?"
Luke's lips curved into a smile.
"You're my father," he said simply, and Vader's heart... flopped in his chest before it restarted again, stuttering.
He couldn't stop his own beaming smile, and saw Luke duck his head, bashful at the sight of it.
"But..." Luke finished. "...what does that make me?"
A prince among men, Vader wanted to say. A blessing on earth, an angel in human form...
But he knew that would overwhelm the boy, and that he would not—could not—do.
"You're my son," he said simply. "That's all you need to be."
Luke hissed out a breath. "To you, maybe! But to your precious Emperor? To the Empire itself? To Piett, or any of your loyalists who give me looks whenever I dare deviate from the standard spiel? To the Rebellion I dedicated my life to before I knew what that life would entail?"
Vader sucked in a breath.
He... didn't know what to say.
"I don't want to just be a pawn," Luke said. "I'm tired of being lied to and manipulated, but I've heard about exactly what awaits me in the Imperial court if I go there. I'll be eaten alive."
He would be.
Luke was nowhere near ready.
"Then I will not send you there," he said. "I will not force you to do anything. I will not force you to stop spouting your Rebel opinions. I will not force you to fight in this war at all."
There was a clatter. Luke had dropped Vader's second greave, and stared at him with wide eyes.
"But then..." he whispered, "...what...?"
"I don't want another soldier, or another knight. I have plenty of those, though plenty are lacking in quality." Luke had to chuckle a bit at that. "I have one son. I would sooner keep him safe, where I can enjoy his company," he risked aggravating his injured arm to touch his thumb to Luke's cheek tenderly, and saw the way Luke closed his eyes to lean into the touch, "than lose him to the horrors of the world."
"You..." Luke swallowed. "You'd do that?"
Vader kept his gaze steady and level. "Of course I would, little one," he said softly. "You are young. You are safe here. And you can stay here, for as long as you wish. You can... leave..." He forced out the word, only half-confident that Luke would not take him up on the offer; he was not letting him go just yet, but the thought was important. "...if you want to, to see the world and form your own opinions, but until then you can learn and grow more confident in yourself and hone your skills until you are ready." Vader dropped his hand from Luke's cheek to his shoulder. "There is no need to worry, little one. I know you are used to worrying about everything the world will throw at you and I know that you have seen far more of the darkness in this universe than I would ever wish my son to see."
Luke nodded, looking up at him, transfixed.
"But you are safe here. You need not be afraid anymore. I am your father," he said, "and I will protect you."
Luke closed his eyes, tears crested his cheekbones, and he flung his arms around Vader.
Vader caught him with a grunt, and the pain was a distant echo drowned out by the joy.
"In the meantime," he said with humour, "if you object to the monochrome scheme of my capes, you are welcome to do anything to change it."
Luke huffed a laugh, drawing back. "Leia taught me how to embroider a few years back." Vader pointedly ignored the mention of the Rebel princess of a Rebel nation in exchange for seeing his son smile. "If I can get a needle and thread, I can experiment with some designs to brighten them up a bit. Make it a project."
Luke grinned. Vader suddenly had the horrible premonition that he might be striding into a war meeting wearing a cape adorned in bright colour in the near future.
But he said, "Your... mother... was very fond of embroidery. I am sure we still have some of her supplies." Now, Luke was blinking back tears. "I am looking forward to seeing what you make of it."
Luke's eyes sparkled; he blinked fiercely, and said, "Thank you, Father."
Vader knew he wasn't just thanking him for that.
"Of course, my son," he said, with an emphasis on the epithet, and Luke beamed.
One month later, sure enough, Vader strode into a war meeting, a crisscross pattern of swords and starflowers adorning his cape in silver and gold.