He could smell Alex in his lungs.

The soft scent of her skin flooded his consciousness with her intoxicating scent despite the fact that he was presently drifting in the limbo between sleep and wakefulness. He could feel her warmth against his skin, a gentle stroking sensation that moved across his cheek and filled with so much comfort that it chased away the demons that had plagued his dreams. Aspects of her swirled around his head, tantalizing him with the tasty morsels of her being until he was savoring each sensation with growing intensity and the unreality of his present state of mind began to evaporate with his diminishing unconsciousness.

Vin Tanner woke up and found Alexandra Styles next to his bed, her hand lazily stroking his brow as she closed her eyes, appearing to drift off herself as she continued the soothing motion. By the looks of it, she had been at his bedside for quite some time now and he wondered how long he had been unconscious. His body still ached but the pain was distant now, held in check no doubt by drugs and other remedies. Glancing at his shoulder, he saw that it was encased in bacta-pack. A mixture of cybernetics and bio-genetics, the bacta-pack ensured that his wounds were protected from germs and bacteria, while the cybernetics monitored the progress of his ministrations under surgery and made sufficient repairs if necessary once the patient was up and mobile.

He stared at her for awhile, enjoying the sight of her because it did much to alleviate the pain in his heart that no amount of surgery could heal. No matter what JD had said to him on the Tracker, Vin knew that if he had not rushed off on his own, perhaps Charlotte might still be alive. He was so determined to prove he could do it on his own, he had not only risked his life but he had cost Charlotte’s her. While the decision to face Vader had been entirely her own, Vin knew that she had been prompted into action because she had wanted to save his life. For all that he said to her and all that was no longer between them, she had still traded her life for his. He could tell himself forever that it was not his fault that she was dead but he would never really believe it.

Laying his head back on the pillow, he shuddered slightly as he felt the tears come freely. He did not want to sob or weep but he needed to mourn and with the shedding of those tears, felt his defenses lower. Vin sucked in his breath and tried to remain quiet, not wishing to wake up Alex but his sorrow reached her on a level that was not quite physical and she raised her head to look at him. Their eyes met and he saw the sympathy in her eyes as she reached over and held him in her arms, while mindful of his injury. For a long time, she held him close, allowing him to cry his tears into her shoulder, stroking his hair and whispering to him in a soft voice that everything would be alright.

"Its not your fault baby," she spoke quietly. "I know you don’t think that now, but it isn’t."

"I shouldn’t have gone after her," he cried despaired, his head still resting against her breast. "If I had….."

"Vin, if you had not gone after her then she, her child and her friend would all be dead," Alex replied. "You did what you thought was right and for that a little girl is free. I can’t say anything to you that will make this better except that the best thing you can do now is to get well. She would want you to keep her daughter safe."

Yes, Vin had to concede that. Alex was right, Lilith would need guarding and for what her mother had done for him, Vin was determined that the little girl need never worry about Vader or the Empire again. "How long have you been here?" He asked, glad to see her even though he was somewhat surprised by her presence.

"Mary contacted me during the Purgatory’s trip from Ithor," Alex answered, entwining her fingers in his. "She knew I would want to be here."

"I’m glad you came." Vin swallowed thickly, his throat felt dry and immediately prompted her into giving him a little drink of water.

"I had this feeling you know," she dropped her gaze for a moment when she had lowered the cup back onto the table beside his bed. "I don’t know how I knew you were in trouble, I was almost waiting for Mary’s call. I just knew you were hurt."

"I loved her once," Vin admitted readily, wanting no secrets between them on this matter. "I guess a part of me will always love her but that’s not why I went there. I went because I promised her that I would come if she ever needed me."

"Vin," Alex interrupted before he could go any further. She did not need him to tell her what she already knew in her heart. It was illogical to assume that before entering each others lives there were no past lovers or deep attachments. There were such things in Alex’s past and she was not about to hold it against Vin that he had loved before her. "You don’t have to explain it to me. I know how we feel about each other and I have to trust in that if there is ever to be an ‘us’. I’m in love with you Vin, I’m almost certain of it and whatever happens, I’ll be there with you even if I’m not always around. We’ll get through this."

Her confidence and her sincerity flooded his heart with affection and it was good to know that she understood his feelings about Charlotte and was not intimidated by it because there was no reason for her to be. When he had told Charlotte he loved her and he had meant it. Charlotte was someone from his past, in more ways than one now and Alex was his future. Still, it did feel good hearing that she returned the intensity of his passion. Almost as good as knowing that she had remained at his side since she arriving at the rebel base, keeping watch over him in his unconscious state. He had never had anyone care that much for him. Although now that Vin considered it a little more deeply, he had also underestimated how much Charlotte had cared for him too. Vin could not repair the mistake made by him in regards to his past love but he could ensure he did not repeat it with Alex.

"I love you Alex and I’m glad you understand," Vin said softly as he touched her cheek gently. Their eyes net and so much was exchanged in that single look that Vin knew that what he felt for Alex was strong and passionate, yet markedly different from his feelings for Charlotte. There was something to be said about knowing one’s heart so completely and with Alex, he felt a strange kind of confidence, he supposed, was his corresponding faith in her. "It means a lot to me."

"You mean a lot to me." She captured his hand on her cheek and turned her head just enough to plant a soft kiss on his palm.

They did not speak for a few seconds before something else filled his thoughts and despite how painful the subject or how tender the moment, he had to satisfy his curiosity. "Did they know what happened to her?"

Alex nodded slowly, anticipating the question at some point. "Our Ithorian informants report that after you and JD left Seleusa, Charlotte fought it out with Vader. After you took off, the Avenger sent the troops in and a stormtrooper who didn’t know better, shot her during the battle. Vader killed him for it."

"It was a Jedi matter," Vin said sadly, trying not to let the news of Charlotte’s end bring fresh tears to his eyes. All he could do to contain his sorrow and anger was to turn away from Alex momentarily while he composed himself. "And her body?" He almost could not bring himself to say the word. "I suppose they sent it back to Richmond?"

"No," Alex shook her head. "There was no body. Before she died, she threw herself off the herdship. I guess she did want them to have the satisfaction of having a trophy."

"At least that’s something," Vin retorted but in truth, he did not think that was much at all. However, he was pleased about one thing at least and that was the fact that Vader had been denied what he wanted.

The secret about Luke Skywalker was still safe.

Vin dozed off after being visited by a number of his friends, including Mary Travis, who offered him a suggestion about what was to be done about Maria and Lilith. Very quickly, they had both agreed that the rebel base was no place for a child and Mary thought it would be a good idea if Maria and her new charge traveled to Bakura in order to live with her own son Billy and his grandfather Orin Travis. Bakura’s proximity to the core worlds kept Imperial activity to a bare minimum and Mary doubted that the Empire would be all that concerned with a child. Still, Vin would rather not take any chances and agreed to the idea, pending on what Lilith and Maria thought about the idea themselves. He wanted to protect Lilith but he would not presume to lord over her just because he felt guilty about her mother’s death.

When he woke up again, he found that his latest visitor was not Alex, who had disappeared to get some rest herself , but rather Chris Larabee. The Jedi looked in almost as bad shape as he and the two warriors, both possessing their own battle wounds faced each other for the first time since this whole affair on Ithor had come up. Normally Vin could read the emotions radiating from the Jedi but on this occasion, Chris’ thoughts were a mystery to him. He thought that Chris might be angry with him and was shutting him out. Vin supposed that the Jedi was perfectly justified in that after all, he had run off foolishly, not to mention impetuously. It was the last time he would ever do that again. The consequences of his actions, no matter how small had serious repercussions on all those around him. Vin felt ashamed of what he had done but not the feelings that had inspired it. He had given Charlotte his word and if a man could not honor his word, what was he then?

"You’re not a man," Chris said as he lowered himself onto the chair that Alex had occupied earlier. "You’re a Jedi." Chris was still wearing his medical fatigues and was yet to be released from the ministrations of the base’s medical centre. His visit to Vin’s room had been accomplished by way of a crutch for he was still too weak to walk on his own and had ignored the medi-droid’s ardent protest that he remain in bed instead of pursuing such a laborious undertaking.

"I’m not even that," Vin retorted bitterly. "I faced Vader and got my ass thoroughly kicked. It took Charlotte to save me and she died because of that."

"She died because that was her destiny and she made the choice to intervene. Don’t lessen her gift to you by thinking you were not deserving of it," Chris reminded gently and then added. "Vin, I’m sorry about Charlotte."

"I shouldn’t have gone," Vin whispered unable to meet his gaze. "I made things worse for her by going Chris. You were right, I should have stayed."

"There are some things about which no one can tell us what to do Vin," Chris met his gaze with sympathy. "We all find ourselves facing moments like that and in the beginning we all make mistakes by following our heart instead of our heads. No one is exclusively immune, not even the Jedi. If anything, we follow our instincts too much sometimes only we call it adhering to our destiny when the simple truth is we just believe too greatly in being right. It’s a failing we all share so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much about it. You’ll learn as I learnt what risks are worth taking and what cannot be changed no matter what one might wish."

"If I ever get to be a Jedi," the younger man snorted. "At this rate, I’ll get myself killed first."

"Vin," Chris met his eyes firmly. "You faced your fear by going to fight Vader. I know how terrified you were of doing that but you went anyway because you wanted to save Charlotte and the others. You faced him and you fought him."

"And I lost," Vin pointed out.

"Being a Jedi is not about winning or losing Vin," Chris returned with a little smile. "Its about facing fear, about not letting it beat you or tempt you to the dark side. You may not have beaten Vader but you did face your fear and overcome it and for a Jedi, there is no more important obstacle then that."

"Are you telling I made it?" Vin stared at him in astonishment. "That I’m a Jedi now?"

"No," Chris shook his head. "You’re not a Jedi yet and honestly, you’ll know when you are without me having to mark the day. You still have a ways to go yet but you’ve taken an important step forward."

"I guess that’s something," he sighed and faced Chris again. "What happened to him Chris? What could have possibly happen to a man to make him turn out like Vader?’

Chris stiffened, knowing something of the tale but not enough to give Vin an answer. In truth, many Jedi had wondered about it but the answer was elusive and those who survived tried not to delve too much into the how, possibly fearing the answer might lead them to take the same path. "I don’t know Vin. Ben didn’t like too talk too much about it. I only know that the dark side can trick you into believing it can be controlled. Perhaps that’s what happened to Anakin. Maybe he thought he could use the dark side to help others. They say the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Perhaps he thought he could tame the dark side and discovered too late that it was he was being tamed instead."

"It’s scary thinking a person could get so bent out of shape to become what Vader has," Vin remarked. He hoped he would never find out what could twist a man’s soul so much that it would shape him the way it had shaped Vader. The memory of his duel with Vader would stay with him for a long time. It was not simply because he had almost died at the hands of the Sith lord but because it was a terrifying reminder of how never to underestimate the dark side of the Force. Vader was a living testament to that misconception and how horribly wrong things could become if one did not take the training of the Jedi to heart.

"I like to think there is some good in him," Chris replied, his own memories of the Vader and Anakin still haunting him on some nights, especially when he recalled the moment during their battle when he had almost succumb to the dark side. "But its going to take more than any of us can manage to bring it out again."

"I feel sorry for the poor bastard who ever gets saddled with that job," Vin declared sarcastically.

"Vin," Chris said suddenly, brushing the subject aside for the moment. "Its good to have you back. I was starting to think the worse for awhile there." Chris had known the instant Vader had delivered the blow that almost killed Vin. Chris could hear the scream in his mind, even so far away from Ithor. For a terrible moment, Chris had almost dared to consider the possibility that Vin was dead and that loss seemed unimaginable. If not for the threads of consciousness Chris could still feel emanating from the younger man through their close mental link, he might have feared that initial vision to be the truth.

It was not easy for Chris Larabee to admit his feelings like this and Vin was somewhat touched by the effort. Both were rather solitary men by nature but for some reason they shared an unexplainable kinship that was more than just the Force at work. "I know what you mean. Its good to be back Chris. I won't run out on you again, I promise."

"Vin you didn’t run out on me," Chris said firmly, not wishing the younger man to think that any point. "You did what you had to do and in your place, I might have done the same."

"Thanks Chris," Vin replied with obvious relief. "That’s good to know."

"However, if you do it again, I will kick your ass," Chris added with a little smile.

"Thanks," Vin gave him a look. "You’re a real friend."

The Modrek did not know how long he remained in his cell but was certain he was soon to die.

When Vader had taken all that he knew from Crawl's mind to learn all he could about Vin Tanner, the Modrek had resisted in the finest tradition of the his people's warrior culture, determined that the dark lord would not make him betray the young apprentice. Unfortunately, Crawl never really had a chance of resisting the Jedi who was willing to tear his mind asunder to acquire what he needed. Crawl liked to think that if he had been younger, he might have been able to withstand the mental assault but the truth was, Vader was simply too strong for him. It had taken less than an hour for him to betray Vin and when Vader was finished with him, he was dragged back to his cell in detention facility somewhere in Coruscant and left there to rot.

Imperial prisons were neither dank nor stygian. There were monuments to industrialization. Steel walls, hard floors, and dark metal surface that made one feel entombed inside a iron coffin with no way out but through the front door. There were no windows, no contact with other prisoners; the walls were sound proof so there was nothing to hear but one's own breath suffocating with loneliness. Food was dispensed through a slot in the wall and that soon became the only way for Crawl to mark time. After awhile, Crawl started to go a little crazy from not knowing how long he had been trapped inside this steel dungeon. Had it been days or weeks? The expanse of time became blurred in his mind and he started to believe that they had forgotten about him and he would die in here without ever seeing the sunlight again.

Crawl was actually starting to consider taking his own life when the doors slid open miraculously and he saw another being for the first time in so long, he could hardly remember. The new arrival could have been mistaken for being human if not for the indigo colored and his red eyes. He looked in every other way human except for those two variances. A regal looking man in his white Imperial uniform, the Modrek had never a uniform like that. He knew that since the Empire had come into existence, some would be demi-gods eager to show the galaxy that they were great military men, fashioned uniforms for themselves, usually encrusting their chests and collar with all kinds of decorative braids and medals that were probably bought more than earned.

The uniform of the man who entered was not encrusted with such adornment and all that marked his rank was the gold braids on his shoulders. The Modrek stared for a moment and observed him more closely when his visitor strode into the room. According to the rank insignia on his uniform, this humanoid was a Grand Admiral and he looked it too. Stony faced, hard but ruthlessly intelligent eyes studied him with even greater precision than even Crawl was scrutinizing him. For a few moments, neither man spoke as the Grand Admiral stood in the middle of the cell, his personal guard, Crawl assumed, waiting for him at the doorway.

"So you are the Modrek who delivered Vin Tanner to Vader?" He said coolly, his voice measured and indicative of a cultured upbringing.

Crawl did not speak suddenly having this premonition that this creature before him could be almost as bad as Vader, if not worse.

"Your people are a proud race," the Grand Admiral continued to speak. "It cannot have been easy to have fought so valiantly and still be defeated by a power you cannot see or touch. The Jedi are insidious in that way. They rob one of a fair fight."

Crawl did not react but he agreed with the Grand Admiral wholeheartedly on that point.

"I have no wish to kill you. Your records indicate that you have been a loyal citizen of the Empire since its inception and that your friendship with Vin Tanner originated prior to his acts of treason. You do not have any current links with the rebellion other than occasionally keeping contact with Tanner. You are for most part, a law abiding citizen of the Empire," the Grand Admiral declared. "I do not make war on civilians, Mr Crawl. Your infractions are minor and certainly not warranting an extended imprisonment in this facility."

Was this Grand Admiral letting him go? Crawl thought to himself, trying to quell the surge of hope that bubbled inside of him at that possibility. There had to be some price to all this, he told himself. The universe could not be so benevolent, at least not the one he knew. For the first time, Crawl allowed himself to speak.

"What do you want from me?"

The Grand Admiral's lips curled slightly. "I see we understand each other. Excellent," he said with a nod of approval at Crawl for letting him get to the point. "Vader is interested in Vin Tanner which I consider a minor matter. The Jedi and their kind are done in this galaxy. I seriously doubt that the existence of a handful of Jedi is any threat to the Empire as it stands so I will dispense with trying to wring more information about Tanner from you."

Despite himself, Crawl reacted enough to show that he was glad of that.

"However, while I consider the Jedi are non threat, the Rebel Alliance is another thing entirely. Great storms often announce themselves with the coming a small breeze and right now, the Rebellion is a small breeze. The Emperor has foreseen just how much destruction they can cause and wants the movement destroyed now, while we are still able to contain the situation."

"I don't know anything about the Rebel Alliance," the Modrek said sincerely. "I've only been in contact with Vin twice and the last time was when Vader took the information about Charlotte Richmond from me and made me send that transmission after she contacted me."

"Ah yes," the Grand Admiral smiled and his red eyes seemed to sparkle as he spoke. "So let's talk about that transmission, shall we?"

Less than fifteen minutes later, following his order to release the Modrek, Grand Admiral Thrawn was making his way back to his ship, the Chimaera, currently in orbit around Coruscant. Although receiving some initial protest from the warder of the facility, Thrawn saw no reason to go back on his word to free the Modrek after he was given the information needed. Thrawn had been right to keep him detained, as opposed to allowing the execution order that Vader had desired carried out, believing that the Modrek who were a claustrophobic race, would be more pliable after spending a good deal of time inside a cell. No doubt the Sith Lord would have some thing to say about this when the news reached him but Thrawn was not concerned because in exchange for the Modrek's freedom, he would be delivering Mary Travis to the Emperor.

His adjutant, Lieutenant Pallaeon fell into stride with him as he made his way back to his shuttle presently awaiting him at the launch bay of the prison facility. "Did he cooperate, Sir?" Pallaeon inquired even though he should have known better by now that Thrawn would have made him talk one way or another.

"Yes he did," Thrawn answered calmly. "I want our best code slicers on Bimmisari immediately. Tanner has some kind of a redirect at a transmission storage facility there, which sends all communications addressed to him through a scrambled frequency. Crack the frequency code and we not only have the whereabouts of his ship and but also the location of a Rebel Alliance base in the Territory."

"And Mary Travis," Pallaeon concluded.

Thrawn allowed himself a little smile, "and Mary Travis."

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