His heart thundered.
It raged even as Vader boarded (stole) a Lambda-class shuttle, even as the Force curled around the controls and guided the ship into space. The pacemaker on his suit whined, a high keen, but Vader ignored it in favor of punching in hyperspace coordinates.
Vader paid no mind to the numbers he entered. His thoughts were already consumed with more pressing matters, like the sunlight sweep of the Force, the sweltering wastes, the shadow of his mother's grave. Tatooine was far below them, and the great, terrible maw of space swallowed them whole, but the ghosts of the twin suns were still burned into his eyelids: ghosts.
His heart continued to roar. It had been a long time since it had stuttered in fear like this. His blood pounded, and the mangled fleshy quarter of his lung squeezed, shooting pain through deadened nerves.
He had been sent to negotiate Imperial occupation with Jabba the Hutt; surely, his Master had seen it as a sort of christening. A testing of the waters. You are the trash in the gutter. You were born on dust and wind. The desert has nothing to offer but waste, it said. Never forget. And Vader had knelt, as he always did, and obeyed, as he always did.
Then destiny had intervened. The stars had come through for him.
His discovery at the Lars abode had not been luck. It had been the will of the Force, showing him, guiding him, even after it had abandoned him on the banks of Mustafar's lava flows - at long last, the Force had returned to him. After two lonely years, it arose with a blessing written in the web of the galaxy itself: his son.
The second he had seen the child, he'd known. From a mile away, the feeling of the morning suns washed over him, the smell of warm leather filled his senses, an unshakable warmth ignited in his core; a Force presence, unlike any other. On some instinct, Vader's muscles had relaxed, and his eyes had drifted closed inside the dark mask - it was so painfully close to the real feeling of light that he could have stayed there forever, basking on the fringes of this beautiful sun in the Force.
Originally, he'd thought that they had missed yet another Force sensitive child born on Tatooine. He'd sought out the source of the light to destroy it, as he always did with wondrous things. But the disturbance had led him to the Larses, past his mother's grave, and into the very room where Padmé Amidala had once comforted a young Jedi padawan. The Force had thrummed, sire and child, as Vader's eyes had raked over a sleeping baby; father and son united, as it should have always been, as it would always be.
He'd pulled Luke into his arms and stole him back from the Larses, and now they rested in a shuttle Vader had stolen from his own fleet - admittedly , a rash decision, but necessary. The child would need the protection only he could provide. His son belonged with him.
For the Larses, he would come back, and they would look on him in fear and agony; they would pay the retribution for theft. He'd cleave them in two and leave them for the bonegnawers and the urusai.
But, for now, his eyes were for his son alone.
Destiny, Vader thought, as he stared down at the squalling child. He was holding destiny. His son, by his side, and his, by his son's; bound together, like strings in rope.
His pulse thundered in his ears. If his hands were flesh, they’d be shaking. If he wasn’t half durasteel, he’d have been moving around anxiously, like a tornado in a bottle. Anakin Skywalker had always been filled with nervous energy, but a hundred pounds of metal had weighed it down.
(His Master had lied to him. They had all lied to him.)
In his arms, red-faced and furious, sat Luke Skywalker. The sound of his screaming – even distorted through the helmet – tore at Vader's mangled heart.
Vader stilled. The breath might have caught in his throat, around the tubing. As it was, breath after breath was forced through the metal grate, cruelly.
A deep, rotting memory crawled out of the back of his mind; his mother, the midwife, swaddling newborns in the cleanest rags available, before handing them off to him - support the head, Ani, and rock like the morning breeze. He remembered the weight of a toddler pressed into his shoulder, terrified for her life as a Master came down on her mother.
Back then, it'd been like holding a star, right in his arms. Small, fragile, but with thundering hearts and strong lungs; true children of the desert. (A niggling thought: just like you.) He had long since forgone those days, and everything he'd stood for back then, but the memory still burned. The tingling of his fingers as he held this new child, now, was just another burn scar; but all scars had their uses.
He re-settled Luke in his arms, until he cradled the child, and then he swayed. Luke was not a newborn, but Vader's arms were broad enough to engulf him, and he was loathe to press Luke to the durasteel shoulder armor; so, he laid Luke in his arms instead.
Rocking was a strange feeling. It pulled oddly at the socket of his prosthetics, but not in a way that would tear the callouses off. The warm weight pressed against his biceps – the feeling of a breathing body so close to him – had feeling rushing to his nerve endings. It was so sudden, and so foreign, that it was painful, but it was a pain entirely separate from his desolation. Queer, indeed.
Strangest of all was Luke's Force presence. It was so bright; he could barely feel the world around him through the light. This was what stars felt like, what suns were made of, and Vader could scarcely imagine that he - a merciless murderer of children - would be lucky enough to experience this.
The waves of distress slowly abated as Vader rocked him. So naïve, he thought. How many children – even younger than this – had he slaughtered? How many had he destroyed, ripped from life, to save the one he held now?
Vader’s heart shuddered beneath his sternum, and then gave a rapid series of thuds. The monitor on his suit beeped angrily.
Luke, now only hiccuping, whipped his head around. He reached down to fiddle with the control panel, chubby fingers fumbling.
“That is not a good idea,” Vader rumbled, shifting so Luke was sitting on his forearm and the panel was out of reach. His mother must have once carried him on her hip the way Vader held Luke now, and the thought hit him like a blow.
Luke turned his head upward, eyes brilliant, widened in curiosity. Luke reached up to pat the respirator’s grate in interest.
It felt like someone punched Vader in the stomach – or, rather, the heart.
Luke grabbed one of the screws on the bottom of the respirator, working his small fingers around it. Once he got a good enough grip, he jerked at it; Vader’s head swiveled with the movement. Luke eyed the movement in interest, but then he brought up both hands and patted the jutting cheeks of the mask. The sound of Luke's small hands resounded oddly inside the helmet.
“I hope you are enjoying yourself.” Vader said. Luke only clambered higher, until he was standing on Vader’s forearms and working his fingers beneath the hood of the mask. Distantly, Vader worried that the fool child would lose his balance and injure himself.
“It will not come off, young one, no matter how hard you try,” Vader said. The position left Vader blind and open to attack, but something stopped him from reigning the child in. It might have been lump in his throat.
Luke moved to explore the eye lenses, leaving oily fingerprints. Eventually, he lost interest in the mask, and flopped back into Vader’s arms with a huff. The pauldron caught his eye, and he braced his hands over the burning metal. Luke slapped it, like one would a drum, and the metal rang dully.
“I am glad you are enjoying this, child,” said Vader, with a harsh edge of sarcasm. Luke jumped, and looked Vader straight in the mask, as if he had forgotten that Vader could speak.
“Hi,” said Luke, waving excitedly. It seemed, after he’d done enough exploring, he’d decided Vader was worthy of words.
Vader’s stomach flipped. Inexplicably, he wished that he could look on Luke’s face without the red film of the optical sensors. To see the exact color of his hair and eyes. He wished, deeply, that he could feel the warmth of Luke's skin; but the cybernetics remained cold, and unfeeling, and harsh.
But it would have to do; it had to. For both of them.
The mechanized monstrosity that counted as a chuckle rustled through the vocoder, but Luke didn’t flinch in fear. Anyone else would have, Vader knew. It was a disgusting, chilling sound, half of a screaming droid and half organic. As a Sith Lord, Vader had no need of laughter, and the suit disposed of it as best as it could.
But Luke had proven to be a fearless child.
“Hello,” said Vader. His voice was loud – too loud.
Luke waved again, slower this time. As Vader’s heart shook again, the pacemaker complained, this time with a warning light. Luke was distracting by the blinking red glow.
As if of its own will, his hand came up, and pressed against Luke’s back, steadying the child. He would never be able to feel his son's warmth through his hands, but if he closed his eyes, he could imagine how his angel used to feel, and imagine how her son would radiate with warmth. Someday, it would be enough.
Unconsciously, he pulled Luke closer to him. It would have to be.
Vader startled. He crushed Luke to his chest and pulled out his lightsaber, whirling to face Obi-Wan; the child grabbed the edge of the shoulder armor in surprise.
You were a fool thinking it would be that easy, Vader snarled to himself. He’d been so drowned in Luke’s overwhelming Force presence that he’d forgotten to be vigilant. An idiotic move, coming from a seasoned soldier.
But not one that would cripple him. Not this time.
“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Vader thundered, “At last.”
It was admirable, Vader had to admit, that Obi-Wan had maneuvered through the Imperial fleet to stow away on Vader's shuttle. Impressive , even, but that would not save the traitorous Jedi scoundrel now. Vengeance was at hand.
The Dark Side thrummed, not in Vader's fingers, but in his chest. He allowed himself a slow, cruel smile that tore at his skin.
Obi-Wan’s eyes were on Luke, wide and worried. The Force fizzled with it, and Vader felt the loss of his son's calm glow keenly. “Let him go, Vader.”
“You hid him from me,” Vader growled. The words came out sharp and harsh from the vocabulator, but they were not the words Vader had intended to say at all. There were much older grievances there. “My son.”
From the side, there was a soft, startled gasp. Vader whirled, and was shocked to find Lieutenant Piett, with a rumpled uniform and harried expression.
It would seem I am in store for all manner of surprises today, Vader grumbled to himself.
Vader backed away to keep them both in his line of sight. Betrayal and panic thrummed in his metal bones. Not again. “I never would have picked you, Lieutenant, to consort with a Jedi."
Piett looked fearful, and the man's hands shook. "My Lord, I - "
“You are overly paranoid, Sith. He tried to stop me,” said Obi-Wan, stepping forward. His shoulders shook. “And you will give me the boy.”
“You do not own him!” Vader snarled. His voice was so loud the vocabulator had a hard time translating it, and the words came out muffled by static and electronic buffering. Anger - cold, cold, he was always so cold - swept through him.
“You lost the right to him-! ” shouted Obi-Wan, his expression twisting in pain. The sentence broke like a glass window. “You lost that right when you destroyed Anakin Skywalker!"
The Force rippled with Kenobi's desperation, and Vader caught a snippet of ‘-not again-’ before the Jedi shuttered his mind away behind steel walls. The bitter aftertaste of being cut out tasted metallic and earthy: sharp.
Obi-Wan’s face curled into a snarl. "You have lost all claim to a Skywalker child."
Even the best of Jedi are laid low by rage, Vader thought, staring at the cruel slant Obi-Wan's face had taken. Even the best.
“How many Skywalkers will you destroy, Kenobi?” Vader rumbled. It was quietly said, but had an impact like a fist to the gut.
Obi-Wan flinched backward, eyes wide and furious. Vader stepped forward. “He belongs with me. I will kill you, and he will be mine – “
“Remember what happened the last time you promised my destruction?” Obi-Wan spat.
- the fire is loud and hungry, and it roars, it takes and it takes and it takes, and it rends your mistake - burning and twisting and melting -
Vader roared – a beastly noise that came through the vocoder as spare static. In the background, Luke’s cries bounced off of the metal walls of the shuttle.
He will set this shuttle on fire and watch as Obi-Wan Kenobi burned. Perhaps, he will even lament how much he used to love that traitor as Obi-Wan's flesh curled into ash, as his eyes screamed in pain, as everything from the inside of his lungs to his eardrums melted. He will sing his Master's praises as he curls to dust, as his screams bound against the walls, and Vader will say, "You were everything to me, Obi-Wan. I loved you."
And then Kenobi will learn the meaning of pain. Then the wretched deserter would know.
“Perhaps, ah –“ Piett began, quietly, “My Lord, the – ah – child… “
He will lock Kenobi away, in chains, in durasteel - it will be a prison. He will destroy the Master for all he has wrought, for every time he dared to entertain the thought that Obi-Wan might have cared; for every time he forgot what Master meant.
“I am the Master now,” Vader snarled. “I will destroy you, Kenobi. Your failure is complete.”
Obi-Wan’s eyes flashed. “Perhaps I have not destroyed enough Skywalkers."
Vader roared again, this time louder, more ballistic. You will not come near my son, or I will pull your spine out through your throat - and his lightsaber shot forward until a frustrated voice screamed, “STOP!”
Vader's lightsaber halted in mid-flight. Vader retreated, staring at the small, defiant child in his arms. Luke reached up and angrily slapped Vader over the respirator grate.
“Is mean!” Luke declared. Across the room, Piett gulped.
Vader stared at the child – something like shock, or admiration, or pride sinking into his chest as deeply as the control panel he was dependent on. The world held its breath.
Luke turned to Obi-Wan. “Say sowwy,” he commanded.
Obi-Wan sputtered. “He – you –"
Warmth spread through Vader’s chest. He is brave already, Vader thought. My child. The Dark Side tucked its tail and retreated from Vader's side, chased away.
“Sowwy!” Luke demanded. His tiny hands balled into fists, his little nose scrunched up, and the toddler folded his arms.
Behind the mask, Vader entertained a grin. Obi-Wan stared him dead in the eyes, snapped, “Sorry,” and then crossed his arms.
Luke shook his finger at Obi-Wan. “Is mean!”
Obi-Wan then went very red in the face.
Luke wriggled in Vader’s arms, and then leaned back so he could look up at Vader’s mask. “Say sowwy,” Luke said.
Vader stuttered, shocked. “Young one – “
“Sowwy,” Luke ordered.
He has his mother in him, Vader thought, with a petulant huff and a stab of grief.
“My deepest apologies, my former Master,” Vader said, with as much sarcasm as he could manage through the vocoder. Obi-Wan glared.
To the right, Lieutenant Piett choked.
Vader turned towards him. “Lieutenant, are you functional?”
Piett coughed, thumped his chest, and shook his head. “Uh, er... I am fine, my Lord.”
Vader knew this was a lie; Piett’s shock was ringing in the Force like someone had rung a bell. But it was of no matter to him.
Vader turned back to Obi-Wan, put off by his son's interference, but slavering for the chance to sink claws into Kenobi's heart and force him to say the words, and he will tear away at his pound of flesh until he gets them.
But Piett's alarm was ringing through the Force.
"Lieutenant," Vader ground out, "does there seem to be an issue?"
There was silence over the passenger hold of the shuttle, and then Piett shifted, steeled his resolve, and spoke: "Uh... my Lord, permission to speak freely?"
Vader, somewhat surprised, nodded.
"It would seem, that, uh, the hyperspace coordinates that were entered were... far. It will take nearly two weeks to reach our destination, given that we are not interrupted," said Piett, "The Lambda shuttle cannot be taken out of hyperspace without, er, combustion. Unless anyone would... appreciate the smell of rotting bodies, murdering each other is - ah - not a very agreeable option, sirs." The admiral looked nervously between the two.
"Quite frankly," Piett said, fiddling with the end of his sleeve, "we are trapped."
Obi-Wan slumped into one of the passenger bucket seats, holding his head. "This will not do. This will not do at all."
And as implausible as it was, Vader was inclined to agree with him.