It was later than usual that Luke came back to their apartment, but Vader wasn't concerned; he knew where he was, and he could sense him only a few klicks away the whole night.
And, despite Luke's weak but persistent attempts at shielding, he could sense the vibrations of joy and laughter reverberating down their bond as well.
One might even call it heart-warming.
Even so, Vader made sure to stay at home, and fully conscious, until Luke was back, well-aware that a lack of meditation may eat into his patience the next day if he was forced to wait for too long. He didn't have to: at approaching midnight, he sensed the little sun move and zoom back home, and then he heard the quiet growl of the speeder on the landing pad on the balcony outside, then the patter of feet as Luke climbed out. A droid whirred to life to pilot it into the garage under the penthouse, away from thieves' eyes, and Luke's footsteps headed for the great transparisteel doors.
They shut behind him with a hiss, then Vader—his respirator switched to silent mode—heard Luke's quick, quiet steps halt. Gentle fire and light bloomed out from his presence like a candlewick flower, yellow and gold, as he leaned against one of the walls and sighed.
Vader stood from his great-backed chair and turned to look at him. Luke had his eyes closed, his dark blue jacket folded over his arm, the red embroidery glinting as brightly as his boots whenever a speeder flashed past the vast windows and illuminated the room for a flash. His hair, so painstakingly combed before he'd gone out earlier that evening, was messed and ruffled over his head. And he was smiling faintly.
"You look tired," Vader said, and Luke screamed.
Admittedly, his booming voice might have been shocking in the silence. Vader switched his vocoder off stealth mode and switched the living room lights on simultaneously, letting out a huff of amusement at Luke's playful glare.
"Father, you nearly gave me a heart attack."
"You were clearly unaware of your surroundings. Or the time."
Luke flushed dark red, but he accused, "You were having fun with that."
Vader was silent for a moment, then he tilted his head. Luke snorted with laughter.
"Did you have fun?" he asked more genuinely, stepping forwards to take Luke's coat from him, seeing as C-3PO had since retired for the night to recharge. He ran a hand over the brass buttons and hung it from the hatstand nearby.
Luke put his hands on his hips, white shirt creasing. "Oh, you're interrogating me now?"
"Is it an interrogation to wish to know if my son is happy?"
Luke opened his mouth to think of a comeback—then closed it. He cocked his head, still thinking.
"You don't need to ask to know that," he accused, and Vader gave a small, satisfied nod. "I did. I did have fun."
Vader hooked his thumbs into his belt.
Now for the hard part.
"I would like to meet him."
Luke's expression shuttered. "No."
"You're gonna terrify him! The same way you did with—" He broke off, but Vader knew what he was talking about, and winced.
"Your previous boyfriend was a spice dealer behind your back."
"And he dumped me before I even found that out, because you scared the Living Force out of him!"
"Are you not glad you were not involved when he was arrested?"
"No, I am, but…" He sighed. The smile had dropped off his face, and that made Vader's heart twinge. "I really like Zev and I don't want you to ruin it."
"I will not."
Luke fixed him with a look.
Vader persisted. "I am aware that I was, as you say, terrifying last time. And while I maintain that certain amounts of that are necessary in order for your significant other to truly appreciate the duty and role he is taking on as someone I can rely on to protect you—"
"—I am aware that I went about it poorly. I ruined something for you. But these past few months, I have been doing all that I can to research a better way to respond, and I will not ruin it again. I like seeing you happy."
Luke flushed a little, the corners of his mouth inexorably tilting up, which somewhat belied the harshness of his tone when he said, "You had better not have been researching parenting techniques from Sith holocrons again."
"No!" Vader was offended. "This time it came from far more modern and reputable sources." Luke's personal tutor from school had directed him to resources about teenagers which seemed more effective than whatever the ancient Sith had been interested in.
Luke still looked sceptical.
So Vader pressed, "I simply want to meet him. You know that I worry. I want you happy, I am glad you are happy, and I want to shake the hand of the person who is making you happy. And also make sure he knows how to defend himself and you if an assassination attempt comes."
"I protected myself fine during that one!"
"The fact remains that I do not want you to have to defend yourself and a useless boyfriend if he happens to be present! I am well-aware of your self-sacrificing tendencies; if I cannot convince you to drop them, I will mitigate them."
Luke sighed. "You're not helping your case, you know that right?"
"Invite him for dinner. I cannot get out the lightsaber at the dinner table, that is an established rule."
"Nor can you eat!"
"I will sit and make pleasant conversation nonetheless."
Luke made a face at the phrase pleasant conversation but did not care to explain the issue with it. "You know it's not just the lightsaber that makes you deadly, right?"
Your lightsaber is your life flashed through his mind but he pushed it away, oddly warmed by Luke's words. "It is not. I am a fearsome warrior with no weapon but the Force—"
"And I don't want you bringing them to bear against Zev."
"I will not. I will simply make him aware that I could."
Luke looked one sentence away from burying his face in his hands. "Don't threaten my partner."
"Do not partner with easily intimidated beings."
He buried his face in his hands.
In fact, so dramatic was he, he marched over to the sofa and flopped onto it with a melancholy sigh, hands still facepalming. Vader couldn't help but snort.
"My answer is still no."
Vader could not sigh, not truly, but he took a moment to allow his respirator to cycle oxygen into his lungs, smooth and steady.
Then he tentatively walked over, sat down next to his son, and put a hand on his shoulder.
"I am being facetious, Luke," he said. It was approximately fifty percent true. "These things matter to me, of course. I worry. But… I fully intend to try and be more amicable. I would rather meet him and play agonisingly nice for two hours than continue to wallow in curiosity. I can judge his worthiness for myself without necessarily needing to terrorise him."
"Worthiness. Oh, stars." Luke removed his hands from his face to look up at him, amused. "If you could, you would hold some sort of tournament for any potential suitors, wouldn't you? Like in story books about knights winning a prince's hand in marriage."
Vader pretended to consider it. "In fact, that is an excellent—"
"Dad," Luke whined, whacking him on the pauldron. Vader chuckled and allowed him this respite.
"Perhaps I would," he conceded. "But I will not. I simply want to see what he is like."
Luke nodded. "I…"
Vader waited a long, long second as Luke swallowed, then nodded again. "Yeah, I guess I can ask him about it. We've been together a year now; I can ask him if he wants to. I met his dad, after all."
Vader ignored the blatant unfairness there and simply asked, "What is his name?"
"Zev. Zevulon, that is."
Vader scoffed. "What a pretentious Core world name. Is he from the Core?"
"We're on Coruscant, Dad. Everyone in my class is from the Core."
"I suppose." He pondered it discontentedly, but ultimately had to concede the point. "It is unfortunate that I did not take Naboo as my base when Palpatine offered, after all. You could have gone to school there and been spared all this nonsense. There are plenty of attractive young men on Naboo as well."
Luke looked like he would rather be anywhere else right now than listen to his father talk about this. "I like it here," he said.
Vader's eyes caught on a shadow, or mark, on Luke's neck and— no. No. He looked away. If that was what he thought it was, he would find himself hunting young Zevulon for sport after all.
"I know you do," he finished warmly.
It was a week later, on Taungsday evening, that Luke set the date to bring his boyfriend around for after school. From the way he'd reported it, the boy had been nervous but eager. Vader was not sure if that came from adoration for Luke (the most plausible; it was easy to adore Luke), bravery, or plain stupidity.
He supposed he would find out.
The boy arrived at 1856, several minutes earlier than the time set, and Vader begrudgingly had to cross lack of punctuality off the list of potential flaws his son's partner may have. Being early was still annoying, but he was not obnoxiously so, and he waited quietly on the landing pad until Luke buzzed him in at 1900 on the dot.
They met in the hallway, Luke briefing Zevulon last minute on what to potentially expect, but they had the sense not to engage in any forms of affection there and then. Vader gave them a minute and a half before he stepped out, fully aware that he was crowding the corridor with his height, bulk and flaring cape, and observed them both.
Zevulon was perhaps a year older than Luke—or simply did not have his same youthful vigour—with a clean-shaven face and enough height that Luke came up to his chin, or slightly above. Dark hair, laid over his head aggressively neatly as if attacked with a comb, a neat shirt and dark red tunic, severe enough that it could have been a uniform. Something about it seemed familiar, but he dismissed it.
Zevulon wore dark boots, but they were neither as long, nor as well-maintained, nor as shiny as Luke's, so Vader wondered what he saw in him.
The boy had one thing going for him, at least: he met Vader's searching gaze with a firm stare and raised chin, even as the hairs on his neck prickled, the hands passing his coat to C-3PO trembled, and his tension screeched in the Force like a nail scratching against metal.
Luke said with a slightly forced smile, "Zev, this is my father. Father, this is Zev, my boyfriend." There was slight reproach packed into that last word: keep your promise.
Zevulon held out his hand—another small act of courage on his part. Vader could cross petty cowardice off the list of potential vices, though cowardice in a crisis remained a major concern.
Vader took his hand. He didn't know how hard to squeeze; squeezing harder established dominance, he'd been told, but also his durasteel hands could crush flesh and bone if needed, and that would not be a good first impression.
So they shook once, then withdrew, and Vader had no idea what he had done. But he held Zevulon's gaze and said, "Threepio will serve dinner at the table momentarily. Go right on through." He made no motion to move out of the corridor.
Zevulon hesitated, glancing at Luke, but Luke rolled his eyes at Vader and pushed him forwards, shoving right past Vader's cloak. Vader watched them go—and when Luke shot him a look over his shoulder, he huffed and followed.
C-3PO was walking around the table, fussing over the silverware as some of the kitchen droids laid out two steaming plates of braised shaak roast, decorated with cabbage and other vegetables. Luke and Zevulon took seats next to each other and Vader sat in the third seat around the circular table, highly aware of Zevulon's glance at the empty space in front of him.
"Are you not eating with us, my lord?" he had the gall to ask. Luke laughed nervously.
Vader said, "I cannot eat."
Vader continued, ignoring his awkwardness, "I trust you are fond of the Naboo's cuisine, Zevulon? It is our chef's specialty."
"I am—I know it's Luke's favourite, we go to that Naboo place in Imperial City pretty often." Zevulon gave a crooked smile, and Vader crossed does not pay adequate attention to Luke off his list of vices.
Luke muttered, "You got sauce all over you last week."
Unclean and unkempt still seemed to be a potential vice, though—
Zevulon laughed. "You were the one who suggested we share the smoked kaadu ribs, of course it was going to be messy. You got even more sauce on you than I did," he teased.
Luke grinned. "Maybe I did."
"You know you did, and I can hardly believe you would slander me so after I gave you the whole muffin."
Vader chimed in: "Luke is somewhat obsessed with those berry muffins."
Zevulon nodded sagely. "It was gone in a blink and I was left with the cabbage slaw he didn't touch."
"Hey—!" Luke turned on him, then huffed. "Now you're ganging up on me."
"Purely out of affection, of course." Automatically Zevulon leaned forwards to peck Luke on the cheek—and froze, glancing at Vader. Luke had tensed up too, but laced their fingers together.
Vader pointedly looked down at his hands on the table and said, "Affection, of course, but ribbing you about your lack of vegetables is still my job."
Luke groaned while Zevulon laughed. "Ribbing? Really? That was terrible, Dad."
Vader didn't fail to notice the use of Dad rather than Father. Father was for polite company, in public, in front of the Emperor. Dad was in private, with family.
Threepio returned, two glasses in his hand, and placed them on the table. Zevulon frowned at them for a moment, turned to Luke and said, "Pallie juice?"
Luke grinned. "Got it in one."
Zevulon nodded, smiled, and took a sip, making an appreciative face before he put it down. "You weren't wrong when you said it was sweet."
"Why would he be wrong about that?" Vader asked.
Zevulon froze. "Uh… it was a figure of speech, sir. I wasn't doubting him."
"I am aware."
Zevulon blinked. "Oh."
Vader gestured to their meals. "Would you not like to begin?"
Luke didn't need to be told twice. Almost immediately he dug in, slicing open the shaak roast, wiping it in the sauce and popping it into his mouth eagerly. After a moment's hesitation, looking to Luke for guidance—good, so he was polite and mindful of his situation—Zevulon began eating as well, humming appreciatively. He could probably feel Vader's intent gaze on him, but he did not look up.
"So," Vader boomed, and Zevulon flinched. Luke thumped him on the back before he choked to death on his food. "Tell me about yourself. Luke has told me," irritated glance at his son, "very little."
Zevulon swallowed the chunk of meat that had nearly been his end, and said, "What… sort of thing would you like to know, sir?"
"How do you know Luke?"
"Well, we go to the same school. He's in my engineering and politics classes."
"I see. Do you intend to become as pilot as well?"
"Uh." Zevulon glanced at Luke, which made Vader think that perhaps he had not known of Luke's ambitions. That may be a strike. "No, sir. My father wants me to go into the army like him, but I'm also interested in perhaps working in politics."
"Politics?" Vader's heart twisted—Padmé…
"Perhaps in COMPNOR. Or… I'm not sure yet, but I know my skillset is not suited to the army."
Oh. Well, that was a problem.
"You do not consider yourself a capable warrior?" Vader asked. Luke's eyes widened and he stiffened at his tone.
You were doing so well, now you have to ask weird questions!? he hissed.
Zevulon looked gobsmacked, and more than a little afraid. "I… can fight, sir, but I am not interested in doing that with my life."
"Not even to fight Rebels? To protect people you care about?"
"Father…" Luke grasped for Zevulon's hand and shot him a warning look.
Zevulon said calmly. "I can defend myself and my loved ones if needed, sir; I have been put through mandatory self-defence and combat classes. I am simply not interested in—"
Zevulon blinked. "What."
Vader stood, and used the Force to push back Zevulon's chair; his eyes blew wide with shock at the motion. "Prove it."
"No." Luke shoved himself to his feet. "Sit down, Father, and stop threatening him. You promised you'd try!"
Vader itched to reach for his belt, but of course his lightsaber was not there; it was banned from the dinner table.
"Sit down, please."
Vader let his respirator rasp, and watched Zevulon swallow at the sound.
Then he sat down.
"Very well. I will not fight you tonight."
Luke slammed his fist on the table with his knife clenched in it. "You will not fight him at all."
"That is not how you hold a knife to stab someone with, Luke."
"I—" Luke spluttered. "I know that! I have stabbed someone before!"
Zevulon looked like he was trying very hard not to react to that exchange. Vader clucked his tongue in disapproval.
He made to take another bite of the meal, and coughed suddenly, tears sparking in his eyes. Luke turned, alarmed, thumping him on the back again, but Zevulon grappled for his drink and threw it down his throat, hissing when the acidity only made the issue worse. Vader watched it all impassively.
"Ah," he said. "You are accustomed to Naboo cuisine, of course. Our chef puts a slight Outer Rim spin on it."
Luke glared at him, grabbed the jug of water on the table, poured it into a spare glass and handed it to Zevulon. "I like the bottom of the braised shaak roast seasoned with peppers and spices from Tatooine," he apologised, all in a rush. "It reminds me of my aunt's bantha steaks. I forgot to warn you that they're a bit…" Zevulon coughed again, "strong… for outsiders."
Zevulon put a hand on his shoulder, and when he'd stopped bawling, croaked out, "It's… fine. I simply… wasn't expecting it."
Vader snorted. Zevulon glared—then realised who he was glaring at, and lowered his gaze.
"I am enjoying the taste of your favourite meal, however," he said, glancing at Luke with a lopsided smile. "It suits you."
"Suits me? How?"
Vader zoned out much of their conversation from there, simply observing the way they interacted. They were tender enough, he supposed, and joked around—and Luke was smiling a lot. After a while, Vader ceased inspecting Zevulon; there was not much more for him to see. He was an upright, respectable person, with enough spine to be a nuisance but not enough to be useful, and Vader disliked him. But he was… tolerable. Either because he simply wasn't awful enough to care about, or because…
When he switched to observing Luke, his smile was infectious.
It made Vader smile too.
It was not blinding enough, however, to distract from the fact that after a while he was constantly and consistently fidgeting.
"Luke," he interrupted whatever inane thing Zevulon was saying about hoverball, "do you need to go to the refresher?"
Luke stilled. "I… ah…" He turned to look at Vader, and the eye contact just made his lie worse. "No?"
"Go. Do not sit there and fidget."
He glanced at Zevulon, then back at Vader. "I—"
"I will not kill your partner simply because I am left in a room alone with him for two minutes."
Zevulon jerked his head up. Luke didn't look convinced.
Luke hesitated for one moment more, then sighed, stood up, wiped his hands on a napkin and exited the room, throwing a last suspicious glance at Vader over his shoulder as he went.
Vader let silence reign for several seconds. A minute. Two.
Then he said, "I do not like you."
Zevulon cut his gaze to his, face so taut he could be a model for a statue. "Sir?"
Vader ignored him. "I do not have time to waste on liking people, and so far only Luke holds any affection." That wasn't strictly true, he would count C-3PO and Piett and some others in the line-up, but he had no time to split hairs. "You have not failed, nor have you succeeded. I do not like you; I do not think you are worthy of Luke—"
Zevulon made a noise. Vader snapped his gaze to him. "What was that?"
He looked like he was debating saying something, but dismissed it. Instead, he said, "Sir, with all due respect, I don't think you will ever find anyone worthy of Luke."
His mind was open, so Vader could tell that was intended to be a jab about what was apparently textbook over-protective parenting, whatever that was supposed to mean, but it gave him pause nonetheless.
It was true.
No one in the galaxy had compared to Padmé—Skywalker had certainly not deserved her—and likewise no one compared to Luke.
It was simply highly improbably that Luke would ever find someone who was his equal. Zevulon appeared to be right in that regard. If Luke was to continue with his ill-advised dating shenanigans, which Vader had been advised to allow him to indulge in, then Vader would simply have to deal with this fact.
The fact remained, too, that Vader had already committed himself to such a trail of thought when Luke had made it clear that his approval was not something he sought. No matter how poorly this dinner went, Luke had no intentions of rejecting his partner.
So here they were.
Making sacrifices were easier on the battlefield, he grumbled to himself. At least then the body count was usually people he cared nothing for.
"That is precisely true," he said at last. "But that does not mean you should not try to be. I expect you to conduct yourself in an admirable manner, I expect you to respect him, and I expect you to cherish his company." He debated telling him that if he hurt Luke, he genuinely would challenge him to a lightsaber duel, but some of those parenting resources had said that the nature of teen dating was that it was ephemeral; Luke and Zevulon would not last forever, and while murder was a natural staple in Vader's life, it was not in most beings', including Luke's.
Still, he and Padmé had never separated, not until the bitter end, so perhaps…
He would think on it. If necessary, he would ensure that Zevulon received the message later.
"Sir, I don't need you to tell me how to love Luke," the insolent boy replied. The temperature dropped sharply. "I already do."
Vader… let the room warm again, somewhat.
Teenagers were idiots. But clearly they were happy idiots.
"Acceptable," he said.
Zevulon wrinkled his nose and raised a brow. "I—"
"He returns," Vader said, and turned to the door just as Luke rushed back in, hands still wet.
He paused in the doorway, glancing around. "What did I miss?"
"Nothing of import," Vader said flatly before Zevulon could. "Now, sit down before your food goes cold. Threepio will bring out the baha for dessert, soon."
The rest of the dinner flew by painfully quickly, and Vader was extremely glad when Luke finally put down his spoon, savouring the last taste of his dessert, and Zevulon said, "I should probably get going," before Luke had the chance to relax.
It made him bounce upright in his seat, eyes widened, nodding. "Yeah, that makes sense. You're good flying home on your own, right? Do you need me to—"
"No." Zevulon patted his hands, then stood up. "I'm fine. My father will be worrying about me and I should go."
Luke just smiled. "I'll see you out then—and I'll see you tomorrow, don't forget that presentation we've got to do…"
Their voices faded as they passed into the hallway and stopped at the end. When Luke leaned up on his tiptoes towards Zevulon's face, Vader looked away sharply, instead inspecting C-3PO as he removed the plates, glasses and bowls.
"Oh my, entirely clean," he noticed as he picked them up. "Did you enjoy your meal, Master Vader?"
"I did not eat, Threepio."
"Oh! Of course. Did Master Luke enjoy his meal?"
That remained to be seen, but— "He enjoyed the food very much, yes."
C-3PO would have beamed had his face not been unmoving metal, and he shuffled away laden with the dishes.
The door opened, Luke said something, then it slid shut again. There was a loud sigh; when Vader stood to approach the hallway, he found Luke sagged against the wall, already glaring daggers in his direction.
When he levelled one accusing finger at him, as fiercely as Vader in any meeting, he knew he was in trouble.
"What was that!?"
"He survived the meal, did he not?"
"You nearly threw hands with him! At the dinner table!"
"But I did not. He is still alive, is he not?"
Luke pushed himself off the wall and swayed on his feet for a moment. "You promised you would try, Father."
"I did try." Vader hooked his thumbs into his belt to disguise how he suddenly did not know what to do with his hands; he found himself unexpectedly… put off… but Luke's dismay. "It was significantly better than the meeting with your previous partner, was it not?"
Luke opened his mouth to say something undoubtedly scathing—then closed it again. "I… suppose that's true…" He glared again. "But still."
"What did you say to him?"
Could he feign stupidity? That had worked for Luke an embarrassing number of times before Vader had caught onto the trick. "Whatever do you mean? You were there."
"When I wasn't there. What did you say to him while I was in the 'fresher?"
Vader was silent for a few moments—and with every moment, Luke became more and more bug-eyed. But at last he conceded, "No threats. Nothing. I simply expressed that I expected him to treat you as you deserved, and he told me that he did not require my insight to know that he should do so."
In Luke's stunned silence, Vader fidgeted.
"That was the only approvable thing he had said all night," Vader added.
That broke Luke out of his shock. He worked his mouth, then all he could say was, "Really?"
"Indeed. He is polite, I suppose, he clearly had parents who raised him well…"
"His dad is General Veers. He works for you."
Vader raised non-existent eyebrows behind the mask. In that case, even if Luke made sure he never went near Zevulon again, he could still discuss any displeasures with General Veers. Or not; he doubted that Zevulon listened to the man any more than Luke listened to him, and he doubted that Luke would consider any type of meddling welcome. "Then I am surprised he did not turn out more respectable."
"By respectable, you mean warlike? He doesn't want to fight."
"He will have to fight someone at some point, if he wishes to be with you.
Luke rolled his eyes. "Father—"
"I am never going to like him, Luke," Vader said bluntly. "No matter what sort of a person he is. He will fall flat of my expectations, and so will anyone else you choose. I am never going to like him because he is just another thing in the galaxy that takes you away from me, little by little." He paused, the words difficult to say, then murmured: "You are growing up."
Luke closed his mouth, tilting his head. The kitchen lights gleamed in his eyes.
"But I do not dislike him. He is not a bad person, and he makes you happy." Vader tentatively reached up a hand to lay on his shoulder; Luke placed his hand on top of his glove and held it in return. "That matters more than my unassailable opinion. That is what matters to me."
Luke blinked, eyes glimmering, then nodded. "Thanks, Dad."
Vader lifted his hand from his shoulder to caress his cheek briefly, tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ear, then turned away.
"And I spoke to Threepio on the way back from the 'fresher," Luke called to his retreating back. "I know you intentionally told him to stuff the bottom of Zev's roast with as many Tatooinian spices as possible."
Vader chuckled to himself. "I admit to nothing."
"Sure you don't!"
But Luke was laughing too, now, and the sound lit up his chest with fireworks. Perhaps following such advice was worth it then. For Luke.
Only for his son.
It was, he mused, what Padmé would always have wanted.