The holo Vader was currently studying was the one that would kick off the fiasco that was the turning point of his career in the Imperial Navy, and indeed the Empire at large. But he didn't know that. All he knew was that he recognised the item it was of—as well as who held it.
"...confirmation is still pending, my lord, but it's the opinion of the analysts and myself personally that the woman here is—"
"Mothma." Vader said it distantly, without much thought to it. The holo was blurry, at an awkward angle, but clear enough—and the fact that it had been forwarded to him by one of his spies in the Rebel fleet was damning as it was.
"Yes, my lord. Therefore, it is my opinion that the importance of this cannot be overstated—"
"Explain yourself. I do not see why."
The officer trailed off in her report. Her throat bobbed. "My lord?"
"Our mission over Ryloth is to crush this most recent series of uprisings. Your team's efforts were secondary to this aim. What relevance does this have?"
"My lord, our conclusion is again tentative, but we believe that the model of the blaster Mothma is holding, as well as of those in the crate in the background, are—"
"A1-180 blasters. Manufactured by a specific chain of factories on Coruscant, all under the jurisdiction of BlasTech." As a military commander, even one with a disdain for all weapons but the Force and a good lightsaber, Vader felt the need to keep updated on such things. "I see no reason why this is relevant."
"My lord." His comms officer swallowed again. The bridge was oddly quiet around them, especially in the pits. Her team was deadly silent. "BlasTech reported several thefts of such blasters from their factories recently. The Coruscanti police force believe that the culprit is the same petty burglar who's been an increasing irritation for them and the residences of the nobility on the planet—"
Vader lifted a hand, and she cut herself off.
"You mean to tell me," he said lowly, "that I should—or even that you should—pay attention to the theatrics pulled off by some petty burglar deluded enough to call themselves Angel?"
Fear spiked again—but she set her jaw. "I am an intelligence operative, my lord. I look for links, and patterns, in weeding out the Rebellion. Here is a potential link: items we know to have been stolen by this Angel—these items being highly effective firearms—have turned up in the Rebellion's hands. Forgive me for being presumptuous, my lord, but if Angel is working on behalf of the Rebellion..."
She didn't trail off of her own accord; she wasn't finished talking. She trailed off because she no longer had the breath to breathe.
Vader watched dispassionately as she reddened, hand coming to her throat in an almost instinctive movement. He did not understand why so many officers had been emboldened to the point where they thought they could get away with such insolence—
His gaze fell on the wrist of the hand at her throat. Just beneath the uniform, out the top of it, peeked a thin bracelet of braided thread. It was blue, this time. A shade of blue very close to that of the eyes of the person who'd made it.
Vader gave a quiet sigh, and released her.
That was why.
To her credit, the officer took barely a moment of working her voice and lungs to get back into the flow of things.
"...then it is my belief that the subject bears further investigation. Especially when one considers that Angel's attacks have always been against the Imperial elite, and no one else—their most recent was against Governor Tarkin, I believe."
Vader honestly did not care if the politicians were all robbed blind. It might teach them something about what was really important in this life.
"Furthermore, if Angel is in league with the Rebellion, the fact that they can so easily infiltrate such a major military leader's refuge and steal whatever they please is a valid concern—they might well soon turn to military targets."
That... was a valid point.
Vader didn't want to admit it—he didn't really care about what happened on Coruscant—but it was a valid point.
And, he was reminded suddenly, as of several months ago, he did care about what happened on Coruscant. Had a reason to want to return as frequently as possible, in fact.
"And what are you insinuating?" he pressed, hooking his thumbs in his belt. "Should I drop the task I've been assigned here to race back and root out this Rebel myself? Do what the police force should have done weeks ago?"
She stood her ground. As infuriating as it was, Vader was starting to appreciate that about her—it reminded him of Luke.
"I wouldn't presume to insinuate anything, my lord. My intention was only to point out that it may be something that someone would find worth investigating."
She had never implied that it should be him.
But it should be him, Vader decided. It was an irrelevant thing, minor—but clearly Coruscant's authorities weren't able to handle it. Put a Force-sensitive on the case, and he'd have it cleared before it was even a threat.
The situation over Ryloth was mostly cleaned up, anyway. And this was clearly much more vitally important than the stack of datapads on the desk in his office containing enough tasks to keep him busy for the next few months all over again.
He just wanted to get back to Coruscant.
"Captain Piett," Vader snapped. The captain, skulking down in the pits, jumped to attention and did an admirable job of pretending he hadn't been listening to every word. "Plot a course back to Coruscant and alert the Emperor of my immediate return. Clearly this is not business that can wait."
"Yes, my lord." He saluted, and Vader noticed the flash of colour at his wrist that denoted one of those infernal bracelets.
He huffed another sigh.
The moment he returned to Coruscant, he and Luke were going to have words.
Vader arrived on Coruscant several days later. He took one moment to reach out to the brightest spot of light on the planet and field the clumsy, wavering tap of acknowledgement he got in return, then he shut down the connection.
He could feel his master's attention on him, like a sleeping krayt dragon had opened its eye. He could feel his displeasure just as keenly.
So Vader didn't waste a moment of time before preparing a shuttle and heading down to the surface. He didn't need to exacerbate Palpatine's displeasure even further.
The Imperial Palace remained just as much a testament to excess as it always had, with all sorts of bejewelled decorations in colours Vader couldn't see bedecking the once-austere halls. The only satisfaction Vader got from it was knowing that the Jedi would despise what their precious temple had become—and even that he struggled to revel in today.
This was an important conversation. He wanted to get it over with, then go find Luke.
He waited patiently outside the throne room to be admitted, ignoring the way the red guards tensed to high alert at his unplanned, unexpected presence. Palpatine's paranoia was only increasing with his age; it was yet another reason Vader wanted to be on Coruscant in this tense time. He needed to protect his interests.
Finally, he was admitted.
Palpatine watched him ascend the steps of the throne room in silence. Dusk was falling over this part of Coruscant and the room wasn't lit thoroughly; Vader cast a long, deep shadow as he walked. They were both nearly shadows themselves.
"Why are you not on Ryloth?" Palpatine asked only once Vader knelt.
"The situation there has concluded, my master. Cham Syndulla—"
"Has been routed, all organised resistance crushed, yes, yes. I read the report. But you were not there when it was crushed. You were already on your way back—in fact, when you gave the orders for the commander to eviscerate Syndulla's troopers as you did, it was with the knowledge that it would bring about a swift but pyrrhic victory. We had vital interests on that planet, Vader."
"It was clear there was no way we were going to win with the current priorities. We needed decisive action—"
"And you needed to get back to Coruscant."
Vader swallowed. Here it began.
Palpatine sat back in his chair. "Tell me, Lord Vader: what was so urgent that you dropped all your responsibilities so quickly?"
Vader said, "This new thief—"
"I believe the denizens of Coruscant are beginning to call them Angel."
"—as you say, master, Angel is a serious threat to the Empire's security. I have sent you the holo—"
"And I have seen it. Moreover, I have seen no reason for alarm. A petty burglar sold to the Rebellion. They would not be the first."
"They were able to breach Tarkin's home and stronghold. And..." He paused. "I believe they may be Force-sensitive."
That made Palpatine sit up and take notice. His eyes widened fractionally. "Why?"
"I have sensed... flickers, master," Vader answered. It was true, but it would be going out on a limb to say that it was Angel he was sensing. At first he'd thought it might be Luke. "Sparks, in the Force. And I do not believe anyone but a Force-sensitive could breach Tarkin's sanctum so easily, unless they were of such skill that they would be a major security concern of ours anyway. Perhaps they are even trained. In any case, they are clearly a significant threat to all—"
"Ah. I see."
Vader blinked. "Master?"
Palpatine waved his hand in a short, sharp motion. "You worry for your son, with Coruscant's guardian angel roaming free." His lip curled. "Understandable. You are attached to him."
"I have no attachment to the boy," Vader said hurriedly. He winced at how defensive it sounded.
Palpatine just looked amused. "I am sure you do not." He pushed himself to his feet and approached the large window that dominated the western wall. It was slightly brighter there; the sunset tinted the transparisteel gold.
Once Vader reached his side, Palpatine gestured towards the many starscrapers of the Imperial City district, though Vader knew intimately which one he was thinking of. Luke glowed within it like the stars slowly appearing in the skies above.
"If you are so worried about young Luke falling prey to this petty thief, perhaps you should allow me to train him in the ways of the Sith. He is powerful; I am sure that within a few weeks, he could defeat this mere burglar singlehandedly.
Vader's insides froze up, but his suit forced his organs to continue to function normally. "He is not ready for such things, master."
"Perhaps not." Disgust turned down the corners of Palpatine's lips. "Certainly, the fact that he has ignored all my attempts to contact and support him in this vital stage of his life implies an immaturity unbefitting of a Sith Lord."
Vader took a moment to thank the Force and all its creations that his son was capable of sense, on occasion.
"As I said, master. He is not ready."
"I believe it." He shot Vader a glance. "Though I confess to being surprised at your change of heart, my friend."
Vader was treading on very, very dangerous territory, here. "My... change of heart, master?"
"I told you that the boy was not to be trained in the Force in any capacity until he was ready. And yet, when he returned to Coruscant after all these years, I found that he could shield, he could levitate objects, he could meditate. I know you taught him these things, Vader; one would only assume, in light of the terms you agreed to, you believed him ready."
"I agreed that he was not to be trained in any capacity until I believed he was ready unless absolutely necessary," Vader argued. "This was necessary."
Palpatine looked like he had a bad taste in his mouth.
"Teaching him to shield and transmit his thoughts," he drawled, "was necessary?"
"Assassination attempts have been made on him." In fact, Vader suspected his master had been behind them—they were a method of testing Luke's mettle. "He has been in danger before. It only felt prudent to give him a way to contact me from the opposite side of the galaxy, on a daily or twice-daily basis—for safety reasons, naturally."
"Naturally. But the levitation?"
"In times of heightened emotion, Luke would often accidentally fling objects around the room. Teaching him to control such a power was essential for the safety of his fellow students, and himself. So that he did not permanently injure a potential ally or himself in a way that could prove problematic once he takes his place in the Empire."
"Of course." There was an edge to Palpatine's voice now; it dripped with disdain. He clutched his cane tighter in his hands. "And meditation?"
"Purely to ensure he survived the stress and struggles of adolescence."
Vader paused, then justified: "So that if he touched the dark side, it would not control him."
Palpatine hissed out a breath. His disgust was evident in the Force.
"Clearly, master, everything I have done has enabled Luke to grow into a healthy, capable child so that he may serve you all the more effectively."
That was all it was.
His master sneered, "He would have to stop ignoring me to serve me."
Vader did not grant him a reaction.
"Nevertheless," Palpatine continued authoritatively, apparently sick of his apprentice's perceived weakness. "Young Luke is at the crossroads of his life. Having him raised at elite boarding schools around the galaxy has certainly helped him mature to this point, but he has now returned to Coruscant."
"Has decided to take a year off to consider his options for his future, yes, I know." Palpatine waved his hand. "But half of that year has now elapsed, and if his soul-searching has yielded any significant conclusions, he has not made me aware of them. Perhaps it is a good thing after all that you've returned to deal with this dangerous Jedi thief, Lord Vader." Palpatine looked amused, still, but his words were warnings. "It appears that your son may need you, your guidance, his own guardian angel," he sneered the term, "more than ever."
Vader had no idea what to say to that. "Perhaps he is simply out of ideas," he offered lamely.
"Well, if so, there is an excellent officers' academy right here on Coruscant I'm sure would be delighted to have him. If he attended there, the boy could be by your side in an official capacity within five years. You could assign him to your own flagship and teach him what his future responsibilities may look like yourself."
Vader would certainly like that.
Having his son with him, seeing him daily and in person—where he could make use of his great potential and power most effectively—was what he'd dreamed of since the boy was eleven and being shipped off to the other side of the galaxy for the first time.
But he did not think his master was suggesting it out of goodwill. He wanted something.
"I shall speak to him, master," Vader promised stiffly.
Palpatine smiled. "See that you do."
Vader nodded, then turned to leave—
He paused. "Yes, master?"
"This Angel is a minor threat. See that this errand does not take you too long."
His smile sharpened and sweetened simultaneously.
"I hate to think what will become of the fleet without you."
Vader arrived home soon after to find Luke in one of the hangars, feet sticking out from under an unfamiliar speeder, whistling off-key to himself.
He folded his arms across his chest, but his voice was amused. "You certainly seem busy."
There was a yelp, a clang, then Luke asked without emerging from under the speeder, "How long have you been standing there?"
"Not long," Vader admitted. "You did not sense me come in?" That would imply a heretofore unknown weakness in his son Palpatine could pick up on to use against Luke, which could set Vader's plans for galactic dominion back a few years.
"I'm trying not to listen to the Force too much right now." There was a winding or scraping sound, like Luke was unscrewing something.
"Why—" Vader cut himself off. "Are you going to come out of there at all or not?"
"One second and I'll be right with you," Luke promised. "Just—one—OW!"
A clang; a clatter; a string of curse words.
Something that was definitely not concern tightened Vader's chest. His suit must be malfunctioning.
"Are you alright!?"
"Fine!" Finally—finally—Luke wriggled out from under the speeder. His hands were stained with oil; sweat plastered his hair to his forehead. "Just a bash."
"Of course." The tight feeling in his chest did not abate.
Luke got to his feet and beamed up at him properly, then, and Vader's lips tugged into a smile in response. Daily holocalls or not, this was the first time he'd seen his son in person in months. Luke looked even more grown up than he had then—and so much like his mother...
Vader instinctively reached out to him through the Force—he was so powerful—only to come up short against his shields.
They were flimsy, and Luke lowered them instantly, but they reminded Vader of their previous conversation topic.
"You said you were trying not to pay attention to the Force." He planted his hands on his hips. "What did that mean?"
"I'm happy to see you too, Dad. I'm doing well, Dad. Thanks for asking, Dad. How are you?"
A finger sprang out to wag in his face. "Father."
The corner of Luke's mouth twitched valiantly and Vader had a sudden horrifying premonition of exactly what he was going to say next. Thankfully, Luke sighed and acquiesced.
"Yes, Father," he said mutinously instead, though the smirk threatening his face betrayed him. "How have you been?"
"You still haven't answered my question."
"You haven't answered mine."
It was Vader's turn to sigh. "I have been well, little one. Now, why are you ignoring the Force? It is a futile endeavour."
So caught up in the drama of the moment, Vader was almost let down by Luke's, "Coruscant's too loud."
He shrugged, a little self-deprecatingly, and said, "I'm still not used to it, in the Force. It's worse when I'm tired."
All the air rushed out of Vader as yet another sigh. "Luke—"
"I'm sorry, I—"
"—it is perfectly natural. You are strong with the Force. This problem of yours is a sign of that strength, not a weakness, or whatever you might be thinking."
"Oh," Luke said. He said it again when Vader touched his mind to build up his shields further, stronger, and the pain vanished: "Oh."
"I shall teach you how to shield more effectively," Vader decided, briefly dwelling on then disregarding the conversation he'd just had with his master about Luke's training.
Which reminded him...
"Now," he continued, hands going back to his hips. "I hear you have been ignoring the Emperor as well as the Force."
Luke actually groaned out loud at that, though semi-humorously. "Typical. Your first evening back and you're already telling me off for something you do regularly."
"Evidently it is an important part of how we bond." Luke snorted. "And once again, you are avoiding the question. It will not work."
Luke scowled. "I don't like him."
"I'd be concerned if you did, son."
"And you still haven't asked me how I am."
"I'd thought you'd answered that for yourself," Vader pointed out. "Albeit sarcastically."
Luke glared. "It's polite," he insisted.
"So is answering the messages one receives. Particularly when they are from the Emperor of the galaxy."
Luke crossed his arms.
Vader smiled. "Very well. How are you?"
Luke smiled as well at that. Vader had the fleeting and utterly ridiculous thought that it was worth it just to see that.
Luke reached out a hand; Vader accepted it, letting Luke clasp his fingers like when he was a baby and was just starting to figure out how his motor functions worked.
"Better now that you're here," he said earnestly.
Vader shifted where he stood, but Luke was still smiling that radiant smile of his, so he relaxed.
"Well, I shall certainly be here for a while," he promised. He reached out to touch Luke's cheek, then pat him on the shoulder, only for Luke to wince.
"What is it?" he demanded. That earlier ailment, the tight feeling in his chest, returned.
"It's nothing," Luke said quickly. "How do you know you'll be here for a while? How did you get permission to come back in the first place?"
"Intelligence dug up evidence that this petty burglar—Angel?—might be involved in the Rebellion," Vader told him, watching with a frown as whatever pained Luke made him tense up and wince again.
"Naturally," he continued, squeezing Luke's hand in a way that by no means could be called affectionate, "I have to stay on Coruscant to catch this dangerous Rebel and bring him to justice."
"You don't know it's a him," Luke pointed out, a little weakly. Vader's frown deepened.
"Them, then," he amended. "Luke, what happened?"
Luke quirked a smile. "It's nothing."
"I got into trouble with the traffic police again, alright!? They're just too afraid of you to actually report it."
"One would hope so," Vader said, almost indignantly. "I did not go to the effort of executing three corrupt officers for nothing."
"'Corrupt' is a strong word. I was going above the speed limit."
"You were fifteen, and fleeing from assassins at the time. It was quite understandable, yet they still attempted to press charges instead of pursuing the assassins." He folded his arms. "But what was it that happened this time?"
Luke mumbled. "I was going too fast again. They gave chase. I tried to escape."
Vader didn't believe that for a second. "Luke—"
"It's not my fault! You're the one who got me that rundown speeder and challenged me to make it go faster! Well, I succeeded!"
Vader regretted ever sending that sorry-I-can't-be-there-for-your-birthday gift before his brain caught up with him.
"Son, I know full well that is not how you were injured."
"It was! Ask them!"
"I have no desire to deal with those bureaucrats again and you know it."
"Then you'd better believe me."
"Perhaps," Vader purred. Luke's eyes narrowed at the sudden change in tone. "After all, I know going fast is your primary hobby. But considering how swiftly your monthly allowance has been disappearing recently, I suspect you've found more expensive, no less illegal ways of doing so."
Luke's eyes blew wide; he took a step back. "No."
"Luke, I am not a fool."
"That's not what I'm doing! I promise!"
"It's illegal and dangerous and egregious that you would willingly partake in—"
"I'm not going podracing!" Luke burst out. Then, under his breath, "Kriffing hells..."
The finger sprang out again. "Language."
"Oh," Luke bit back, "My sincerest apologies, Dad."
After a moment of staring, Luke burst out laughing. Vader tried to keep himself from chuckling in response, but failed.
He lowered his hand to rest on Luke's head and ruffled his hair. "I am serious, Luke. Please cease this hobby of yours or I might die of stress."
Luke seemed to accept that he wouldn't be fooling his father, and deflated. "Alright," he conceded, catching Vader's hand again and squeezing it. "I love you too, Father."
Vader opened his mouth... then closed it again and let the word slide.
"Have you eaten yet?" he asked instead. "I'll sit with you if you haven't. We have much to catch up on."
Luke smiled. "I haven't," he confirmed, then used his grip of Vader's hand to tug him out of the hangar.
After they'd caught up over dinner, Vader had to retreat to his meditation chamber for some much needed rest. He would have gone without it—had gone without it for the past few days, in fact, while he struggled to conclude the Ryloth campaign decisively and destructively—but Luke knew him well enough to ask how much he'd slept. When he got his answer, the disappointed look he gave him sent him right in there.
Sometimes, he mused, he felt less like the parent than the child.
"Besides," had been Luke's crowning point, "I didn't know you were coming back today, so I made plans to meet up with a friend tonight. I'm happy to cancel, but you need sleep."
Vader had just sighed. "One of your academy friends?"
"No. One I met on Coruscant when I first got here. You probably wouldn't like him."
"May I object to you meeting him, then? If I wouldn't like him—"
"You don't like anybody."
He considered that. "Point taken."
Luke headed out shortly after. He wouldn't let him see him out; he'd insisted he say goodbye while Vader was in his chamber, so his father didn't accidentally forget to head back to the chamber and sleep.
"What are you planning on doing?" Vader asked before he said goodbye.
"Just talk. That was his speeder I was working on earlier—I told him I'd fix it up for him a bit."
"Make it go faster?" Vader said drily, testing, testing—
"Exactly!" Luke grinned... then it dropped. He buried his face in his hands. "No, Father, not so he can go podracing."
"So you can go podracing?"
"Luke, you promised—"
"I did," he said, "and I'm not going to! Please, just trust me."
Vader's voice and gaze softened. So used to hiding behind his mask, it was a moment before he realised that the softening of Luke's expression in response was not, as usual, a result of his son's uncanny ability to read him, but because he could genuinely see his face. The breathing mask Luke wore inside the chamber, on the other hand, meant it was difficult for Vader to see his.
"I do trust you, Luke," he said. "Come home safely."
Luke smiled. It looked pained—no doubt his injuries were still acting up. "I will." He stood up, hit the button to open the chamber, made to head out—
"And when you're back," Vader added to his retreating back, "I still want to hear more about this friend of yours."
"I told you that you wouldn't like him," Luke threw over his shoulder.
Vader answered too late, after the meditation chamber had shut again, but he threw Luke's words at the walls nonetheless. "I don't like anyone anyway!"
The lingering sense of warmth that Luke's presence left, however, and the smile it brought to Vader's face, said otherwise.