They were being followed.
Although the storm troopers in the street behind them seemed to be merely conducting their usual patrols, Nathan could not shake the belief that somehow he and Mary were the reason for their sudden appearance at every corner. As the two of them tried to maintain their composure at the possibility of discovery, they debated whether or not to continue towards the rendezvous point to meet the third member of their party. Time was of the essence. The longer they remained on Cordoba, the greater the chance of being discovered as rebels, if they were not already. However, continuing onward and assuming that they were not being pursued was equally dangerous since they would be endangering the person they were going to meet.
Nathan knew that to make a premature attempt at evasion might further inspire the storm troopers' suspicions. Even though Cordoba was a planet located at the edge of galactic space, he did not underestimate the Empire's ability to secure the planet if they for a moment believed that rebels were on it. If they were to make an identification of Mary Travis as his companion, then there would be Star Destroyers bound for the system so quick that their chances of getting out alive would be next to impossible. All members of the Rebel Alliance topped the Empire's most wanted list and Mary had the dubious honor of being held in same demand as the Republic senators who were presently on the run from Imperial agents.
Mary was a member of the Rebellion's inner circle. She knew the locations of a dozen secret bases, the names of supporters in the Imperial Senate who fed them information, not to mention a wealth of data regarding the leaders of the Rebellion that the Empire could easily exploit. Nathan shuddered to think the crippling blow that would be delivered to the Rebel Alliance should they capture her alive. It was very possible that the Alliance might not be able to recover from it. The movement was still too new and fledgling to suffer an injury like that and Nathan did not even want to imagine what they would do to her in order to extract the information.
"Mary," Nathan whispered as they entered the surroundings of what seemed to be a street bazaar. Suddenly there were peddlers all around them, selling wares that ranged from live stock to spare parts for starships, all beneath the protection of brightly colored tents that kept the sun from the merchandise. Droids stood about expectantly as prospective owners examined them with deep scrutiny, taking stock of every bit of tarnished metal and faded plexiglass. There were colorful beads and stones shining on display cases, exotic foods wafting the air with its rich aromas and people pushing through the narrow walks between stores in frenzy for the ultimate bargain.
"I think we've been compromised," he replied as he lowered his lips to her ear.
"I know," she nodded grimly, giving no indication of anything wrong to those who might be watching. "I saw them."
"Josiah's waiting at the rendezvous place," he continued speaking, keeping a cautious eye for any storm troopers. It was difficult when there were so many people crushing them on all sides.
"We can't take the risk," Mary said abruptly. "We can't lead them to him."
Nathan could understand her apprehension. Prior to his arrival here, the local rebel base had changed venues in order to protect its secrecy should they be captured on route. Only the contact that they were meeting at the rendezvous point knew where it was and neither could continue to that meeting if they knew that they were being followed by Imperial agents. Their lives were an acceptable loss in the protection of their cause.
Nathan thought quickly because he knew Cordoba far better than she did. It took him a few moments to decide what was the best course of action and in honest truth, after further deliberation, Nathan realised that they had no other choice as well. "There's a little tavern not far from here." He glanced over the line of the crowd into a back street in the distance. "Buck usually goes there to meet his friend. If we can make it there, he might be able to smuggle us off planet until we can contact the alliance for new instructions."
"What's it called?" Mary asked.
"The Four Corners Tavern," Nathan answered automatically.
"I see." She considered their options. "I think we should split up here," she suggested.
"Split up?" Nathan did not like the idea of allowing her to venture beyond his protection alone. She was far too important to be captured.
"In this crowd, it will be easy to do," she said hastily, aware that his voice dripped with objection. "They're looking for a man and woman, if we split up it might confuse them long enough for us to get to Buck."
Despite himself, Nathan could not fault that logic and knew that it was the sensible thing to do. He had to remind himself that no matter how young she looked; she was still in charge and was appointed to the lead the rebellion in this sector for that very reason. "Alright," he nodded reluctantly. "We'll do it your way but I'm just telling you now, I won't leave without you."
"Yes you will leave Captain," Mary returned sharply. "You may not know as much as I do about the Alliance but you know enough. You're as much a prize to them as I am. So you will leave if I do not make it to this place."
"But....." Nathan started to protest but Mary silenced him with a look.
"That is an order Captain," she repeated herself forcefully, with no margin for confusion in her voice as her eyes stared at him.
Realizing he had no choice and with more and more Imperial troops flooding into the square occupied by the bazaar, Nathan realised that the question of whether or not they were followed had been answered. The storm troopers no longer held their casual countenance and appeared sifting through the bodies and stores searching for something specific. They had only a few seconds to lose themselves in the crowd before the soldiers noticed their hasty departure.
"Understood," Nathan agreed finally, unable to see any further discussion when she had put it to him as an order. "I'll wait for as long as I can and if you don't meet me there, I'll contact the Alliance," he said looking at her somberly, his dislike plain for all to see.
Whether or not he disliked it was of no concern to Mary. Being a member of the Rebel Alliance met tolerating a great deal which left a sour taste in her mouth. This was no different. They offered each other a parting look before finally turning on their heels and allowing the messy array of buyers and sellers to swallow them whole.
"Jesus Chris," Buck Wilmington said disapprovingly as he stared across the darkened booth at his friend. "What's that, the second one this month?"
Chris Larabee, formerly Jedi Knight shrugged his shoulders indifferently, not deigning to answer even though he knew it was closer to three. Ever since he had arrived here on Cordoba, Imperial agents, their hired killers and finally the newest classification of would be assassins, bounty hunters, had hounded him incessantly. A smart man would have quit Cordoba by now, disappearing into the wilderness of space beyond the Territory but Chris was in no hurry to leave. His destiny at this time was unclear and he was content to wait for something he knew was coming, even though he was not quite certain of what it was. He knew what he would like it to be and though it was unseemly for a Jedi to possess a death wish, he was aware that he was in ownership of such a desire.
Buck took a sip of his mug of beer and tried not to allow the anger in his voice to show even though he was certain Chris could pick up the strong emotions emanating from him. He and Chris went back a long time, all the way back to Corellia when they had met as teenagers. Chris was a padwan learner then, what the Jedi called an apprentice, while he had been a cadet itching for his first taste of star piloting. They had both been as young as JD here, who was seated quietly in his corner of the booth, trying not to stare in fascination at the Jedi.
"That last one had a look about him," Buck pointed out, remembering the edge he saw in the bounty hunter's eyes as he had made his hasty departure. Buck had the impression that Chris had taken him by surprise and it was not a mistake he was likely to make again. Something about him made Buck nervous and Chris' reaction to the man was equally puzzling. "He'll be back you know."
"I guess so," Chris answered, having made his way through another glass of beer and showed no signs of slowing. Buck had seen the pattern enough times to know that Chris would finally have enough when he was too drunk to stand.
"Damnit Chris," Buck swore with an uncharacteristic burst of anger. "How long is this going to go on?"
Chris raised his eyes and the look in there had a scent of danger that Buck was not about to heed. The warning to let it go was clear but Buck was beyond that now. He knew what it was to anger a Jedi, Chris could break every bone in his body without lifting a finger to do it but Buck did not care. Chris was his friend and he could not simply sit by and let the man disintegrate before his eyes.
"Chris," Buck met his gaze fearlessly. "I loved Sarah and Adam too. Maybe not as much as you did but pretty much I can tell you. I always thought you were so lucky to have her because she was the finest woman I ever met." He paused a moment and saw the hard green eyes speckle with something that could almost been sorrow for a few seconds before he continued speaking once more. "It would just kill her to see what you're doing to yourself because of her death. She would never have wanted you to be like this."
"Stay out of it Buck," Chris warned. This time there was no denying the menace in that voice.
"Mr Larabee," JD suddenly spoke up, interrupting a situation he could see was going from bad to worse. He did not know that even the mythical Jedi Knights could feel so much pain and yet knowing gave JD a great deal of empathy for Chris Larabee. "I know it isn't any of my business to say anything but I came here to Cordoba, running away from everything I knew because I couldn't stand being where I was without my mother."
JD paused for a moment, almost in anticipation of an invisible chokehold around his throat for speaking out of turn but decided to press on ahead since he had come this far when he felt nothing. "I came here looking for a way to Coruscant, chasing my dreams and if it wasn't for Buck I would have been stuck in a really bad situation. I know losing my mother can't compare to losing your son and wife but you've got to accept help sometimes, even when you don't think you need it but simply because its there."
Chris raised his eyes and met the boy's eyes, somewhat surprised at the depth in those youthful words and the courage that had been drawn from inside him to tell the truth. Chris could sense just how much fear had been overcome for JD to say what he just had and could not help feeling untouched even if the words could not remove the sting he felt. "There are some things a Jedi must handle alone," he said softly. "Sometimes, we follow our destiny wherever it takes us."
"Even if it leads you to getting yourself killed?" Buck countered, similarly impressed by JD's word and made a mental note to thank the kid for his efforts later on.
"Even then," Chris answered before he turned to the bar and noted a man walking into the bar. Unlike the previous visitor to the tavern who had entered the place in search of him, Chris could sense no such danger from the new arrival even though the nature of his business was no less urgent. The man consulted Inez at the bar for a few seconds before his eyes swept across the room and rested in the direction she was gesturing, the direction that would bring him straight to their table.
Buck noted Chris' stare and looked over his shoulder and recognise the man as he approached. He appeared to be in his late forties with graying hair and solid frame that still made him formidable should he chose to use it in combat. Worried eyes peered at them through heavy brows and though Buck could not place the name, he certainly knew the face from somewhere.
"I know this guy," Buck whispered.
"You should," Chris remarked. "He's looking for you."
Buck shot Chris a look as he saw the man finally reaching his table. He wore nondescript colors and looked like someone trying very hard to be anonymous even though his stature and his manner would always capture attention.
"Which one of you is the pilot of the Rogue?" The man asked with a deep resonating voice that seemed more appropriate in oration then it did inside such seedy surroundings.
"I am," Buck said uncertainly. "What can I do for you?" Despite his best efforts not to sound it, Buck's voice oozed with suspicion and under the table, his hand was resting on his blaster. He did not know this person but the familiarity gave him reason for caution and until Buck knew why, he was not about to take any chances.
"I understand you arrived this morning in Cordoba this morning," he replied. "Your passenger was a young woman."
"Obviously you don't know Buck very well," Chris drawled, perfectly aware of why the man was making the inquiry. "It's an event if he doesn't have a passenger who was a young lady of some kind."
Buck threw Chris a dark look before regarding the man again. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said smoothly. "I just came to visit an old friend. I had no passenger on my ship."
"Yes you did," the man returned. "A young woman whom you had to pick up at Alderaan with full diplomatic clearance from the highest office in the land. I believe you were provided with all the documentation to leave Alderaan customs without an on board search? She was wearing a portable bio-disrupter to mask the second life sign on your ship when you were being scanned?"
"If it makes you feel any better Buck," Chris spoke up. "This is Josiah Sanchez, formerly an Old Republic Senator representing Sollust."
Finally Buck understood and quickly answered in a low voice. "Sit down."
Josiah bowed his head gently in gratitude to the Jedi and took up a seat the table. "Thank you for your endorsement," he said gratefully towards Chris. "May I ask if we have met?"
"We haven't met really," Chris volunteered. "But I spent a lot of time on Coruscant and I have sat in on a few Council meetings."
"I see," Josiah nodded, wanting to question him some more but letting the desire to know slide because there were more important issues at hand. "I was supposed to be meeting your passenger and her escort some time ago," he turned back to Buck and responded. "They never arrived."
"They never showed?" Buck's eyes widened, realizing what the man was trying to say. Considering the nature of what Nathan was involved in, not to mention Mary as well, if they had not appeared at their scheduled meeting then something had gone terribly wrong.
"I waited at the rendezvous point but neither of them appeared," Josiah answered. "Nathan mentioned that in event of a crisis, this was a safe haven. I came here hoping that if something had gone wrong, they would have come here."
"I haven't seen them," Buck replied automatically. "I handed her over to Nathan as planned and they walked out of the space port without raising any trouble."
"Who Buck?" JD asked.
Buck did not answer but was clearly troubled by the predicament that Nathan and Mary had most likely found themselves. Somehow, somewhere, someone had seen them and had them flagged as members of the Rebel Alliance. It took no feat of genius to deduce what would have transpired if events had followed in that course. Nathan was his friend. They had served together and it worried Buck a great deal because he knew what would happen to Nathan if he was indeed captured by the Empire. At the very least, the former Captain of the Imperial forces would be executed and at worse, he would be interrogated mercilessly for every iota of information he had in his head regarding the Alliance.
Buck did not even want to consider what they would do to Mary.
"If they were captured, we would have heard something by now," Buck mused. "No doubt some Imperial goon bucking for promotion to Coruscant would be screaming it across the system. They could be trying to get here."
"Its possible," Josiah conceded to that point even though he did not sound very hopeful now that he had spoken to Buck. "They could be hiding until the search is over."
Chris did not offer any opinions as Buck and Josiah spoke about the subject of mutual concern to both of them. For Chris, he understood that the Rebel Alliance had a great deal of time before it fulfilled its destiny. Its time was decades away from reaching apogee and Chris knew that there were events transpiring throughout the galaxy at this time that would build the foundation for tomorrow. Sacrifices had been made and the destruction of the Jedi was only the beginning. The Jedi Qui Gonn had believed in the mythical vergence, the prophecy that a chosen one would bring balance to the force. Indeed it was Qui Gonn who had found Anakin Skywalker believing him to the be the chosen not realizing that bringing balance to the force would require the destruction of the Jedi.
Qui Gonn had brought Anakin to Coruscant and made Obi-Wan promise to train him as a Jedi. Chris often wondered if Qui Gonn ever considered the sacrifice that would be required to bring about that balance. Would he have still saved the boy? Chris could never answer that question because Anakin Skywalker had turned and become a Sith Lord and in his defection to the dark side, he not only condemned the Jedi to destruction, he also sealed the fate of Sarah and Adam. Buck was still an idealist, who believed that the good fight could turn the Empire back into the Republic but Buck did not know the secrets left to the remaining Jedi who had managed to leave Coruscant when the hunt for their number began.
Obi-Wan kept it a secret from most but the Jedi found it difficult to hide things from one another. Jedi Masters had the ability to shield their thoughts but not for very long and it took a great deal of control to keep another out. However, the advantage of not having any secrets was having being able to decide who one could trust and Obi-Wan had trusted his most important secret to a select few, hoping those who survived the slaughter would be in the position to help him. Unfortunately, with the exception of Chris, all the others were now gone, preferring to die rather than betray Obi-Wan and thus he stood alone with the knowledge of what awaited Vader some day in the future.
On a small moisture farm in Tatooine.
It took some time to find the Four Corners Tavern and it was hours after she had left Nathan in the bazaar that she finally walked through the dim confines of the establishment. Outside, Imperial troops were out in force and she knew that her continued presence on the streets of Cordoba would not last indefinitely. Although the possibility of capture still loomed heavily in her mind, it did not feel as urgent as the realization of what would happen to her if she should be captured alive. She prayed inwardly that Nathan had reached the tavern and had already left Cordoba. He had assured her that the owner of the Four Corners Tavern was a rebel sympathizer who would offer her sanctuary when she entered its premises.
Slipping through the main entrance, she looked over her shoulder and saw the evidence of Imperial troops in the distance. With her heart pounding in her chest, Mary knew that there were more of them than before. It looked liked the entire garrison was out searching for them. Taking a deep breath, Mary prayed that the captain had made it this far. He was a good man and was genuinely concerned for her life when she had ordered them to split up. At the time it was a good idea, Mary thought defiantly to herself, knowing the danger of questioning one's actions when it was too late to change things. Had they been together, she would not have made it this far. Fortunately, they were looking for a woman and with no idea of what she looked like, that search was long and tedious. Her cloak had kept most of her hidden but Nathan was easily distinguishable in his clothes and Mary feared that he might have been easier to apprehend than she. As she entered the premises, Mary made a beeline for the counter when suddenly she heard a voice call her.
To her utmost relief, it was one she recognized as belonging to a friend. Spinning around, she saw Josiah rise from the table he was seated at and also saw Buck Wilmington present as Nathan had guessed he might be when he directed her to come here. Forgetting all about the bar, she crossed the floor and was with him in a manner of seconds. The two old friends engaged in a warm embrace and Mary never thought she could be so happy to see anyone. Obviously Josiah had guessed that this would be the safe house Nathan would chose if they should run into any trouble and had left the rendezvous point to intercept them here.
"Thank the Force you're safe," Josiah exclaimed when they had pulled apart.
"Is Nathan here?" She asked, looking past his shoulder at the table he had been gathered around and saw no evidence of the tall black man that had been so determined to save her life. When she pulled back to look at Josiah in anticipation of his answer, she already knew inwardly what it would be.
"No," he shook his head sadly. "There's no sign of him. We've been waiting here for most of the afternoon hoping that either of you would show. We'd had storm troopers through the place already, I don't think they will be back."
"Mary sit down." Buck pulled out a chair for her as she sat heavily in it. Her disappointment at Nathan's absence felt like a lead weight and she swore inwardly at the whole idea of separating in the first place. Perhaps if they had stayed together, he would be here. He had been so determined that she be safe that he never once thought about the consequences to himself. Even though baser instincts told Mary that the safest course of action at the moment was to cut their losses and run, she could not bring herself to abandon the Nathan to the Imperials. That was the way of the Empire, not the Republic.
"Thank you Buck," she said gratefully. "I did not expect to see you again so soon."
"Neither did I." Buck tried to smile but could not quite manage it. "I never question the company of a beautiful woman but I wish it had been under other circumstances."
"We have to do something," Mary replied as she sat down and realised that there were other people at the table, notably a boy and a man in a dark hood. She could not see much of him in the dim illumination of the tavern but she could tell that his eyes were almost definitely on her. Upon realizing that they were not alone, she glanced at Josiah and Buck.
"Its okay," Buck replied. "This is my friend JD and Chris Larabee. They can be trusted."
The boy looked exactly like what he was, a fresh faced kid from the farm who was so green that Mary wondered if he was old enough to be in a place like this. He greeted her in monosyllables and gave her the impression that wherever he was from, there were not many women who look like she did, even though she did not consider herself a startling beauty. Mary nodded in acknowledgement at him and was a little amused by the young man's reaction, trying to remember when it was any man had looked at her that way and realised that it was simply too long. However, she did not remain distracted too long by JD's behavior and turned her attention to the stranger who had yet to say anything even though they had been introduced.
Chris said nothing because he was too busy staring at her. Sarah's death was almost a year behind him now and the pain was still raw and fresh. He closed his eyes and she flooded his mind, whispering her sweet voice in his ear and the Jedi memory allowed him to view it all in perfect detail. Each day since her passing and that of his son's, Chris had felt this gnawing in his heart, this painful sensation of teeth tearing at his flesh. He had become so used to this pain that it was almost a part of him and yet when this young woman had walked into the room and captured his gaze, for a moment, just a single pinprick of time, Chris actually felt it fade away.
She turned her eyes at him and for Chris became lost in the symphony of color that were blue eyes so astonishing that they seemed to sparkle when she raised her brow at his reaction. His throat felt dry at seeing her lovely features, remembering that gentle flutter of excitement in his heart as the same when he had first laid eyes on Sarah. His breath caught when she pulled down her hood, revealing the flaxen hair of white gold that framed her exquisite face. She was beautiful in a very old way, in the manner that inspired poets to compose their most lusty sonnets. He could love her. If he dared to, he could actually give himself to her.
But he could also lose her and if anything pushed all thoughts of her from his mind, it was that realization. A creature as lovely as she could never last. Her star was meant to burn bright but short and Chris was not going to ever be hurt that way again.
"This is your business." Chris rose to his feet abruptly, no longer looking at Mary. "I'll leave you to it."
She looked at him confused, uncertain why she felt unsettled by his observation but assured that she was not in any physical danger because of it. Buck trusted him and that was good enough for her.
"Chris," Buck spoke up. "We could use your help." He looked at Chris dismayed as Chris left the booth and headed towards the bar.
"I'm no good to you," Chris said abruptly and gestured at Inez to have a bottle ready by the time he reached the counter.
"You know better than that," Buck tried again but had a feeling that nothing would convince Chris because nothing could reach him any more. Not even him.
"No," Chris shook his head as he looked over his shoulder at the same time he extracted his bottle. "You should."
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