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Mutual Benefit

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Slavers.

There were few things that brought him entertainment any longer, but he always took time to take out slavers when he crossed their path. Especially if their cargo was human.

He had not, however, expecting them to be so great in number or so well equipped. Their backer was clearly someone of import.

It would not help them.

He cut down men who dared charge him. Deflected blaster bolts into their own people. Threw attackers with the Force as though as an afterthought. As he passed by he cut or tore open cages holding people like animals. The freed ran to the nearest exit as the more foolish of the slavers continued to attck him, seeming desperate to keep him from a single room.

Interesting.

He cut his way thru them until he speared the last fighter with his saber, the blade melting the locking mechanism. Discarding the body, he Force pushed the door and slipped in.

A single cage stood in the middle of the room, with a single occupant. The creature looked tall, taller than he by more than a foot, and was bipedal but covered with fur and bearing a feline-like face. His helmet filtered the world in red, but he could tell that the fur was pale in color with darker stripes. The humanoid hands were tipped in claws nearly two inches in length. Delicate ears swiveled his way as the heart-shaped nose twitched, likely taking in the scent of him.

More slavers came up behind him. They ran up against a wall of Force.

The creature leaned forward in its cage, interested in what was behind him. Hands came up to the bars only to hold a moment before pulling back with a hiss of pain. Something in the metal of the bars hurt it.

The feline muzzle spoke in Basic, somewhat broken but clear, if touched with a near purr. “You pick up..” he did not know the next word, but it was spoken with venom. “Free me. I pick off.”

Hmm. Why not? He had never seen such a creature before. It was showing signs of starvation, the bones starting to be clear, but it looked deadly. If it attacked him, it might even prove an amusing challenge.

He raised his saber. It stepped away from the bars, muscles tensing as it waited. Vader sliced thru the thick metal, far more substantial in girth than the other cages as though they’d needed to take extra precautions to keep the beast locked up, then used the Force to rip the cage open.

The creature leapt over him, his instincts had told him that he was in no danger from it, and crashed into its captors as a whirl of fur, teeth and claws. Vader paused, observing in appreciation. It moved with obvious training and skill, using move a human would find useful and augmenting the attacks with its superior size, strength and ferocity. The violent dance was beautiful to behold.

His new compatriot of the moment drove back the underlings with its savagery, allowing him to concentrate on the rest of the ship. He resumed the culling, impressed by the number of men and droids they had at their disposal. This was a large and well organized operation.

Too large.

Too well organized.

Something was definitely off with this band of slavers.

He cut his way thru his enemies towards the command area. The data in their files could prove useful. Any group this well supported would be something with contacts in multiple areas, even within the Rebellion. He could feel the sweet thrum of fear pouring thru the station and smiled under the mask. He would later blame his failure to detect the traps built into the corridors on his own hubris. The world around him erupted in fire and roaring sound, and when it cleared he was lying in the rubble, his helmet split open, the breathing apparatus damaged and struggling for air.

The cat creature came into view, bounding over debris and bodies. With the red filter off of his eyes he saw now that the fur was grey with smokey black stripes. It crouched beside him, golden eyes roaming over him with an almost professional air before the clawed hands reached for what was left of his helmet.

Before the Sith could act to ward off any attack, the flesh of the creature shifted and moved. Muscle mass shrank, fur pulled into the skin and the overall size decreased. What removed the wreck of his helmet wasn’t a bipedal feline creature over eight feet tall but a human woman of slightly taller than average height, golden blonde hair and dark brown eyes. She seemed unbothered by her nakedness, the skin smeared with dirt, dust and the blood of her enemies,as she examined him. He felt the Force shift around her as she pulled it to her in a manner foreign to him, her lips shaping a curious chant in a language he did not know.

The Force pooled around them, pliant and obedient. She sent it into him and his breathing started to become easier. The pain lessened gradually, the burning becoming less intense. His eyes widened as he realized she was healing him. He turned his senses inward and could feel the damaged tissues starting to slough off the burn scars he suffered. No, not slough off. She was coaxing his body to absorb them. To utilize what little nutrition they contained to rebuild his healthy cells.

It went on for what seemed like an eternity, though it could have only been a few moments. He felt her begin to falter, felt the trembling of her hands on his skin. The flow of power began to wane until the slender woman slumped, losing consciousness, and collapsed against him.

Darth Vader drew in a breath on his own, then another. It wasn’t wholly comfortable, it still felt somewhat like he inhaled fine grit with each breath, but he did it on his own and without needing to be in a room of pure oxygen. He had not been able to do that for over a decade. He gathered his strength and pushed the woman off of him, getting to his feet and inhaling again. The smoke from the detonation was bitter on his tongue, but he could taste again. It might as well have been the sweetest wine.

His eyes turned to the remains of the computers. With effort he could likely pull useful information. However, to, him, what lay at his feet was far more valuable.

Vader pulled the cloak from his shoulders as he used the Force to lift her from the ground. He wrapped the black fabric around her before cradling her in his arms and carrying her a2ay from the ruins, ignoring the now freed slaves darting around. He would send a transport for them once he’d left the planet. The diplomats and propaganda specialists would take it from there, weaving a tale of how the Empire had routed another illegal human trafficking operation.

There would be no mention of the valuable prize he had found.

~***~

Andi woke with instant awareness.

Though she’d decided to follow her skills as a healer, that did not mean the wasn’t trained to be a fighter. All shape shifters were. It was part of learning self control, as well as part of always being ready to defend The Pack. Though they had enjoyed decades of peace, there were still many who distrusted and hated them based on their nature. As such, her people always learned to fight.

Add in that her mother was In-Shinar, and she’d pretty much been obligated to learn how to fight, not just with the natural weapons of a shape shifter but with swords and with magic.

So she woke alert and ready to do battle. Only to find no immediate threat. She lay on a comfortable bed made up with fabrics of black and red in a sparsely furnished room. The air was cold and metallic, but lacking the stench of sweat and waste she’d endured during her captivity. Everything smelled clean to the point of sterile, though she could smell someone lingering outside of the room as well as hear their breathing.

The felt something in her arm and looked to find that she’d been hooked up to an intravenous feed. The bag above contained clear liquid and overall the set up was remarkably similar to what she’d see back home. Somethings apparently didn’t change much no matter how advanced the technology was. A brief look internally ascertained that she wasn’t being given anything dangerous. Most likely fluids and electrolytes to offset the time spent without sufficient food and water.

She pulled the needle from her arm. The Lyc-V quickly healed the puncture.

Getting up she found that someone had bathed her. Her skin and hair were clean and she’d been dressed in simple, utilitarian clothing of loose fitting pants and a tunic. Both were black. Neither were skimpy or suggestive, which she found extremely comforting. So she had been bathed, dressed, given medical attention and put in a comfy bed to sleep. All in all afar better setup than the cage.

Okay, time to meet the locals.

She stood up and padded over on bare feet to the door. It took her a second to figure out how to open the damn thing, but when she did she found a wizened looking man in a black cloak waiting outside. He smiled thinly and bowed from the waist. She’d managed to pick up some of the main language observing her captors, but she wasn’t fluent. The best she could garner he was happy to see her up and about, grateful about something involving a “Lord Vader” and inquired as to if there was anything he could do for her.

Well, she was a shape shifter. There was always that one thing they would never turn down.

“Food.”

The man bowed again and beckoned her to follow. He led her to a dining room and on the way there she could tell that black and red were the prevailing color scheme of the building. The table and chairs in the room were carved of a dark wood and looked heavy. Growing up a Lennart has taught her what quality looked like, and this was definitely it. A bowl near to overflowing with fruit sat on a matching buffet. She did bother to ask, her stomach aching from lack of food for too long. She just grabbed something that looked like an apple, studied it long enough to determine if it required peeling or not, and bit into it. Sweet and tangy juice burst inside her mouth as she chewed the delicate flesh. It had to be the best thing she’d ever tasted.

Some of those funny robots, the ones they called ‘droids’, came into the room bearing covered dishes. The table was set and the old man, he said his name was Vanee, invited her to sit down. She continued to chew the fruit as she wondered if the roasted meats were safe for her to eat.

Her stomach roiled as she recalled what kinds of meat her captors had tried to feed her.

She stiffened as she felt a presence enter her mind, just enough to know it was there.

“Is the food not to your liking?”

She heard the words with her ears and only understood about a third of them. The full meaning came in her mind with the presence. She looked up to see the man who had cut her from the cage, his bald head pale without the black helmet. He was in her mind, making sure she could understand him.

That was convenient.

Now if only she could do the same. How to make her concern known. “What is...meat? Not people?” Please don’t let it be people.

She felt him rifling thru her thoughts. His brow creased. “They tried to feed you with the carcasses of slaves who died. That was why you were starving. You refused to eat them.”

He understood. Good. This might work. “Forbidden. Wrong. Makes you,” What was the right word, “crazy.”

“And generally frowned upon by most civilized cultures. You will never be served a sentient being at my table. Of that you have my word. Normal herd animals are acceptable? Fish and fowl?”

She nodded, relaxing.

He gave her a nod. “Then please, help yourself.” He took a seat across from her as she started to fill her plate. She was so hungry that everything looked good even if none of it exactly looked familiar. If her host was put off by the gusto with which she ate he showed no sign of it. He, himself, ate slowly and surprisingly little for a man his size. Once she had finished her first plate and was halfway done with her second she remembered that, on Earth at least, regular people often talked during meals. Shape shifters rarely did beyond ‘pass that, please’.

“Sorry. I am....”. She hadn’t figured out the right word.

“You are not being rude. You are recovering from an ordeal.”

“The others?”

“Imperial forces were sent to the planet to recover the other slaves and return them to their home worlds.”

Good. That was good. She wished she knew the language better. There was more she wished to know. Some of the captives suffered more than others and would likely need psychological care. She’d seen the slavers pass some of the women around amongst themselves. And some of the children.

The fruit bowl on the buffet shattered and Andi was out of her chair and crouched to attack in an instant.

“My apologies. Your memories...angered me. Rest assured that the Empire will ensure they have all they require.”

He broke the bowl. Well, he did have magic. She’d figured that much out all ready.

“The Force.” He waited until she was back in her chair and tilted her head inquisitively. “We call it the Force. It allows me to better understand you by reading your surface thoughts to help bridge the gaps in the language. It is also how I know your imperfect knowledge of Basic frustrates you, though that is hardly surprising. However, I’ve never heard of someone able to use it for healing quite the way you do.”

She shrugged. “Born like this.” And she had been, though her natural talent for healing had taken everyone by surprise. Her family had the strength for healing, but it didn’t usually come naturally for them. Med mages like her were rare in their bloodline. They weren’t exactly common to begin with.

“I am unaware of a population that has such talents. What is your home world?”

That was tricky. She said ‘Earth’, though he wouldn’t know the word. “They said...unexplored territory.”

His brow arched. “The unexplored territories. That makes things difficult. There is a reason they are called unexplored. Do you have any idea from which part of the galaxy’s edge they may ha e taken you?”

She sighed as she added more roast to her plate. “No. My world...no space flight. No life elsewhere.” She frowned over that. “Don’t know life elsewhere.” Though really, It didn’t surprise her. Space was just too big for there not to be other life forms. That so much of it looked human took her for a loop, though. She would have expected evolution to take different paths. Maybe with reptilian or insectoid variations. Or tentacles.

“There are those races as well, though the humanoid race is prevalent. Carbon based life tends to form along the same general design for the most part.”

Finding her way home wasn’t going to be easy.

She would not be able to do it alone.

Looking across the table she wiped off her hand and extended it. “Andrea Lennart. Andi.”

Her host clasped her hand with one of his, not a real hand but a prosthetic, her magic had told her that when she’d tried to heal him. “Darth Vader. It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady
Lennart.”

Ugh. Thanks to his magic she understood the title. “Andi. No ‘lady’.” She got enough honorifics and genuflecting back home.

She thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch in amusement. The mind reading thing was handy but would get old fast.

She noted he didn’t eat much and he ate slowly when he did. “The...metal. The suit. It sustains?”

“Yes. I was severely injured more than a decade ago. The suit acts as a mobile life support unit. Until yesterday I was not even able to breath on my own unless in pure oxygen. I thank you for that.”

Damn. The suit might as well be a prison. “Didn’t finish. Grew...weak.”

“You passed out from long term hunger, exhaustion and exertion. It is understandable.”

True. “Can finish. Metal...don’t know. Need to know more, but can heal lungs full.”

He paused, a brief hesitation. “Later. Eat your fill, now. Then I would be grateful if you healed my lungs completely. If you wish to try and heal me so that the life support is no longer required, I can provide you all that you need to learn how the procedures were done, but for now the lungs are enough.”

She nodded and resumed her meal. If he was shocked that it took a third and fourth helping to finally sate her, he said nothing.

Once she was done, he escorted her to a sterile room that appeared to function as a medical theater and spa for her host. To have had to live this way for so long ad not give up the will to live was a testament to his strength. Her father would approve of him. She watched as he made himself comfortable and a semi reclining chair and approached, trained eyes taking in everything.

“The skin, the scars, would need to make new to heal. Should use to make pain less.”

“I am used to pain. I require no anesthetic. Do what you need to.”

Okay, that was a bit uber macho, but far be it from her to tell the manly man that he was nuts. A droid brought her a tray of what looked like surgical instruments. Technically she didn’t need to wash first, what she was about to do would not allow infection to set in, but she was a stickler for following procedure when it came to her chosen profession. She hadn’t spent all that time in medical school for nothing.

She was scrubbing her hands when he spoke. “You are a physician as well as a Force healer.”

“Yes. I studied.” More than one round, too. When your family didn’t really do the whole aging thing very well, you had plenty of time for education, or to go back for another round if you wanted to pick up another specialty.

She dried her hands and selected an instrument that seemed less high tech and sharp enough for what she needed. With calm, deliberate motions she debrided the scars and the tissue around them on his face, head and neck. Blood ran scarlet, the metallic scent sharp in her nose. Vader didn’t let out so much as a grunt or wince as she worked. Once she was satisfied, she set aside the tool and extended her magic. Her lips formed the healing chant as she poured her will into it. Removing the surface damage was easy, but for the internal scars she would need to be more forceful with it. She’d done the lion’s share of the work the first time. This was more like detail work, taking care of the finer parts, but that made it no less taxing and she was still recovering from her captivity.

Under her guidance the skin grew a knitted closed over the wounds she had opened. Her magic vaporized the blood that had run and utilized it to assist in the process. The let her power flow thru his body, reminding his lungs of what she should look like and returning them to their proper state. She felt it as the last remnants of discomfort left his lungs and throat, allowing him to inhale without the burn that had been present for so long.

Finally she was done and she pulled back her magic. Stepping back she nearly fell. She had done this too soon, not yet fully back to strength. Vader was up on his feet and steadying her with a quickness that would have made a render proud.

“Careful. You have over exerted yourself.” He guided her to sit in his now vacant chair.

“That teach me.” She drew in a steadying breath. “How feel?”

He took in several lungs full of air. “Better than I have in years. Thank you, Andi.”

“You saved me. Welcome.”

He studied her closely. “You should return to your room and rest. You are still regaining your strength. This was...too soon.”

She wanted to protest, but her host was insistent. He had Vanee take her to her room and she was asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.

Nearly another full day passed before she woke again. When she did, Vanee advised her that Lord Vader had been called away by his duties and it was unknown when he would be back. It took a while to get the whole story with her poor grasp of the language, but she was to remain here as his guest and be provided everything she needed.

He’d also left her a droid whose assigned job was to help her master Basic and go over the his medical records with her as well as cover the technical aspects of his suit/life support/prison.

Well, it wasn’t as though she didn’t have plenty of time. She got the feeling her savior was a big deal, perhaps big enough to have the resources to help her find her way back home. It would, therefore, be in her best interests to help him in the best way she could.

Andi has the droid follow her to the dining room. She was still hungry and she always studied better over food.