Lean On Me
Rated T for violence and intense sequences
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic has been written in response to the "Vader MIA" challenge put forth by the Luke/Vader writer's group. The requirements of the challenge are to write a story in which Vader goes MIA, and Luke decides – or is ordered – to go find him.
Don't worry about slow updates to "Walk Like Men" – this story is going to be fairly short.
Katherine, a winner of the story contest on my blog back in March, was third runner-up and so had the opportunity to name a character. Commander Leola (which means "lioness") has been named by her.
Legend had it that the last time the sun had managed to break through the cloud cover that eternally enveloped the planet of Jabesh, the indigenous tribes had decided it was the end of the world, panicked, and committed mass suicide, leaving behind an entire nation's worth of ghost towns.
Whether or not the legend was true, it at least prepared the listener for two of Jabesh's main features – the seemingly endless overcast days and constant rainstorms, and the spectacular ruins that dotted the planet's sole continent, overgrown with greenery but still almost entirely intact.
The shuttle Amalthea touched down in a cobbled courtyard that was surrounded on three sides by tangled, feral jungle and on the fourth by a magnificent building that seemed to be a temple of some sort. Jabesh was an archeologist's haven despite its endless torrents of rain, and regular visitors to this region jokingly referred to the courtyard as "Temple Spaceport." The courtyard was so frequently used by arriving ships that only a petition from the Galactic Ancient History Preservation Society kept entrepreneurs from installing modern docking equipment and making a quick credit.
But the Amalthea carried no archeologists, and its passengers cared little for ancient history. Theirs was a more pressing mission, with a more tangible goal.
With a hiss the shuttle's gangplank lowered, and the gleaming steel boots of the Dark Lord strode across the rain-slicked cobblestones, crushing the greenery that had wedged up between them. Close behind came the cautious tread of stormtroopers, their every sense attuned to the jungle and ruins. Rain sloughed down from the iron-colored sky, pouring down black and white armor until the metal shone with a high gloss.
Vader paused to regard the abandoned temple, heedless of the rain even as it dripped from the edges of his domed helmet and soaked into his cloak. Except for a haze of green moss and ivy on the stonework and a toppled column on the left side of the doorway, the building was intact. It wasn't difficult to puzzle out the forms of the major deities of the vanished natives – lizards, serpents, turtles, and larger and more exotic reptiles were carved into the stone. Images of snakes and lizards wound around the columns and pillars, and twin statues of fierce bipedal reptilians flanked the open doorway. A winged draconian gargoyle crowned the peaked roof of the temple, and even the cracked, vegetation-rimmed cobblestones under Vader's feet had been carefully crafted to resemble the plates of a turtle's shell.
He turned and motioned for the troops to close in. Why a fugitive Jedi would choose to conceal himself in the temple of an extinct race of snake-worshipers was beyond his understanding.
Commander Leola stood at Vader's side, weapon-arm held loosely to one side, awaiting a command.
"Assign some men to guard the shuttle," he ordered. "I'll take four with me into the temple. Lead the rest in a sweep through the jungle."
"Yes, sir," she replied, nodding. Leola was one of the few female conscripts in the Empire's forces, and under normal circumstances she would have been the unwilling recipient of brutal hazing, pranks, and far worse abuse at the hands of her sexist officers and comrades. But Vader had recognized Leola's potential as a cunning strategist, and he had selected her to lead his personal troops, much to the disgust and shock of the entire Imperial Army.
"If I may ask," she continued, "what are we looking for?"
"Any sign of a Jedi," he replied. "Report to me if you find anything suspicious."
"If we find the Jedi, do you want him dead or alive?"
"Either is acceptable."
She nodded and strode away as casually as if she were walking through a shopping mall and not a sodden jungle where a renegade Jedi lay in hiding. Her relaxed stance could fool a potential target, but not her superior. No matter how casual or inattentive she appeared to be, she could assume a battle stance and be firing a blaster in each hand in less than a second. Another reason she had been appointed to her current position.
He left Leola and her men to their work and strode into the temple, followed by four alert stormtroopers. The hiss of rain on metal ceased as they entered the chill darkness, replaced by the hollow drip of a slow leak. Pale lizards no longer than his hand slithered over the damp stone, fleeing their sudden intrusion with thin hisses of dismay. A slate-colored snake as thick around as a man's leg glided away at a more sedate pace.
Vader ignited his lightsaber, the crimson blade illuminating their path and casting a red gleam on the damp walls and floor. Somewhere in these halls, a Jedi was hiding. How this Jedi had survived this long he didn't know, but that oversight would shortly be corrected.
Water sloshed beneath his feet as he progressed deeper into the temple. When his master had ordered him to Jabesh to seek out Jedi Knight Kolton Nova, he had initially balked at the order. Surely the search for young Skywalker took precedence over a single rogue Jedi on a backwater like this. Why not let a Death Squad or even Boba Fett handle this and let Vader continue his search?
"Skywalker does indeed pose a threat to the Empire," the Emperor had acknowledged. "But at this point, a half-trained teenage hotshot is less a danger to us than a fully trained, experienced Jedi like Kolton Nova. Find and destroy him, then you may resume your search for the boy."
Vader slashed through a thick, sticky web left across a doorway by some arachnid. Wherever Nova was hiding, he couldn't stay concealed for long. The sooner Vader was rid of the man, the sooner he could resume his search...
The deadly hum of another weapon coming to life cut across his senses, and he whirled in time to see a hapless stormtrooper bisected at chest level by a bloodshine blade. The remaining three soldiers turned and raised their weapons, only to be felled by laser fire.
So Kolton Nova has found allies, Vader thought, unimpressed. He hopes to be the slayer and not the slain. We'll see about that.
A robed and hooded form detached itself from the shadows and stepped forward, robes dragging in the water that layered the floor, scarlet weapon raised and ready. Vader did not question why a Jedi would be wielding red-bladed saber; he would have to solve that puzzle later. Lifting his own blade, he reached out for the Force, his ally, to aid him.
It did not respond.
Vader's opponent slashed at his chest. Stunned by his sudden inability to touch the Force, he barely blocked the blow in time. Put on the defensive, he was hard-pressed to protect himself from the frenzied hacks and stabs of his foe. Again he attempted to summon the Force, and again he came upon only a barrier. What was going on here?
Shattering pain exploded at the base of his spine and shot like lightning through his nerves and up his spinal cord. His legs folded beneath him, and he fell to the flooded floor of the temple like a toppled statue. He had no time to feel anger or fear – his world was going black already.
The last thing he saw was a hooded form regarding him, and the last he heard was the being's voice:
"Good work, men. Secure the area and leave none of his men alive. But leave HIM to me."
Hundreds of light years away, in a chamber hewn out of solid ice, a young man shot bolt upright in his heavy thermal wraps, drenched in sweat despite the freezing air, his limbs still trembling with the pain he had experienced moments before.
Luke Skywalker gasped for breath as he tried to focus on the nightmare. Somehow it had just seemed so real... as if it weren't just a dream, but a premonition... But the more he struggled to recall details, the blurrier the dream became in his mind's eye. All he could remember was rain, red light, and that horrible pain coursing through his body like fire...
At length he kicked away the thermal wraps and slipped out of Rogue Squadron's sleeping quarters and to the nearest refresher to change out of his sweat-dampened night clothes. No use giving himself hypothermia over this mess. And even if the dream had come as a warning of some kind, there was little he could do about it now.
He pulled on clean, dry night clothes, then snuck back into bed. Tomorrow he would inform General Riekkan and Princess Leia of what he had seen. Perhaps they could be of some help, even if they weren't Jedi.
"Missing?" repeated Leia.
"Missing," the Bith man fresh from an espionage mission on Empress Teta confirmed. "According to an official transmission sent to all Imperial bases and outposts, Lord Darth Vader is officially missing in action."
The gathered Rebels shivered, and not just from the cold that permeated every square meter of Echo Base. Any mention of the Emperor's deadly right-hand man was enough to give even the most stalwart member of the Alliance chills. Knowing what the Sith was up to was always unnerving...
But NOT knowing what he was up to was even more frightening.
"Did the transmission indicate how long he has been missing or where he might possibly be?" asked Mon Mothma.
"When the transmission was released, he was three days overdue from his most recent mission. That would make it about..." He paused to consider. "Five days now. As for location, he was last seen a week ago, boarding a shuttle at an Imperial shipyard on Ferron, accompanied by fifty stormtroopers. They, too, seem to have gone AWOL."
The gathered Rebels – Mon Mothma, General Riekkan Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca – exchanged questioning glances. Even though Luke was sure he was the only Force-sensitive in the room, he knew they all sensed something amiss.
"You think maybe he's gone into hiding?" he suggested. "That he could be planning a coup?"
"If he was plotting to overthrow the Emperor, don't you think he would have taken more troops with him?" asked Leia.
"Not if he's already got forces holed up somewhere," Han put in.
"He could very well be dead," Mothma offered hopefully. "Perhaps whatever mission the Emperor sent him on proved to be fatal."
"Speculation does us little good," Riekkan replied. "Lord Vader may be dead, may be injured, may be organizing a revolt. He may be stranded on some desolate world or held captive by someone both very powerful and very brazen. For all we know, he could be manning a sabaac table on Ord Mantell as we speak! But the point remains that we have no idea where he is or what he is doing, and THAT is enough to frighten even this old soldier to the core."
"Best not to let a crystal snake out of your sight, right General?" Han said with an arched brow.
Reikkan smiled grimly. "Exactly. Which is why I suggest we send someone out to find out just what happened to Vader. Not to capture or assassinate him," he added quickly when Leia opened her mouth to protest the wisdom of such an action. "Just to locate him to the best of our ability and ascertain what kind of threat he now poses to the Alliance. I don't know about the rest of you, but I think Vader is more dangerous as a free agent than as a lackey of the Emperor."
"I agree with your assessment, General," Mothma said with a nod. "We must locate the Dark Lord. And in my opinion, it should be Commander Skywalker who goes on this mission."
Luke's head snapped around to face Mothma. "Me?" he asked, startled.
"I would not ask this of you, Commander, if I was certain another member of the Alliance could handle this. But you are a Jedi, and while I understand that your training is incomplete, you are still better equipped and experienced to complete this task than anyone else. I pray that you will not be required to face the Dark Lord... but should it come to that..."
"I'd be more likely to survive," Luke finished for her.
She nodded. "I also think this could be pertinent to the vision you informed us about. After all, Vader has been missing for five days... and you experienced the vision five days ago."
Luke hadn't stopped to consider that. That Vader's disappearance could be linked to his vision...
Red light and pain... had Vader killed someone? Or been killed in turn? The last was too much to hope for; Vader was reported to be nearly impossible to kill. Apparently over the course of the last twenty years he had survived countless battles on land and in space, assassination attempts, and freak accidents. More likely was the possibility that Vader had destroyed a target and was now having difficulty leaving the planet – mechanical problems or the like.
He sucked in his breath. He had no love for Vader, the monster who had killed his father and now helped the Emperor maintain his stranglehold on the galaxy. And he wasn't at all sure he could defeat him in a fight. But the safety of the Alliance depended on this. They had to know what Vader was up to before they could make further plans.
"I'll go," he said at last.
"Thank you, Skywalker," Mothma replied.
"I'll go with him," Han volunteered.
Luke gave Han an incredulous look. "Are you sure, Han?"
"Hey," Han retorted, grinning, "you need someone to watch your back. We all know you're not going to."
"Thank you, Solo, for volunteering." Riekkan handed Luke a datapad. "Information regarding your mission can be found on this. And remember – no heroics. Find Vader and come straight back. Don't kill yourselves trying to be heroes."
"Yes, sir," Luke replied.