Chris should not have been here.
It was dangerous and after what had happened on Doldur 3, perhaps even a little foolhardy but he had forced himself to journey here because it was something he had to do. After rescuing Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez from Doldur 3, Mary was more than accommodating when he asked to borrow a ship. Buck had offered to take him wherever he needed to go but this was a trip that he had to make alone. She had presented him with an X-wing fighter and Chris had the sneaking suspicion she had done so because she remembered how he had admired it. A Jedi needs his own ship, she had said to him and embraced him warmly as he prepared to leave and asked him to return soon because they needed him.
He looked into those blue grey eyes and knew that was not the reason.
Nevertheless, he accepted the ship and left the rebel base bound for Tatooine because he had a quest to make. In the last year, he had allowed himself to descend into a wilderness of the soul, forgetting all that he was and all that he had ever been. He had sullied the memory of Sarah and Adam with his self-pity and he had forgotten the most important aspect of his life; that he was a Jedi and that the Force was there to strengthen him, to heal the wounds within with inner peace. Chris had abandoned all that for a descent into a kind of purgatory where he had drowned himself in drink. He was mortified with his behavior but hoped his actions of late went some way to making amends.
The Dune Sea was an unforgiving place and those who came out here ill prepared usually died for their mistake. It was a barren wasteland of endless dunes and craggy rock faces where dangers waited behind every crest of sand that could kill as surely as the desert itself. Chris moved his eyes away from the image magnifier in his hands before squinting when he felt the terrible heat of the twin sun blazing down on him. The dwelling that made up the central nucleus of the moisture farm that Chris had chosen to observe was constructed partially beneath ground level to take advantage of the shade such a construct would provide from the heat. Most of the dwellings in Tatooine were built this way and the residence that Chris found himself looking at from a distance was no different.
The boy ran out of his home, no more than two years of age, giggling and laughing as children often do when they had no idea that the world was a place with teeth. He ran out into the flat plain and paused a moment, looking very serious indeed for a child his age when something of particular interest captured his interest. He was staring into the cloud, pointing at a formation that shaped itself as more than cumulous in his youthful imagination and smiled at it. Blond hair framed his small face and the blue eyes studying that cloud sparkled with hope, bringing a smile to Chris' face.
"He is his father's son," Ben Kenobi remarked as he pictured what Chris was seeing without the aid of the magnifier.
"Is that a good thing?" Chris asked as he reveled in the sight of the child and was reminded of Adam, who had looked at life in just the same way once upon a time. Seeing the boy in front of him brought those memories back with a surge and he had to swallow hard to compose himself.
"Probably not but there is no denying that Luke is Anakin's son," Ben sighed, remembering the things he had lived through and feeling an inordinate sense of guilt that so much would be pinned on this child when he grew to manhood. Ben could feel the sadness pouring out from his old friend who was staring across the stretch of land that separated them from the Lars moisture farm. "Its good to see you Chris," he admitted readily.
Chris turned to Ben and smiled, conceding that point as well in his expression. "Likewise Ben. It's been awhile."
"There are not many of us left," Ben said grimly, his voice soft. "I felt some of us die."
"So did I." Chris nodded somberly, having experienced that same sensation of extinguishing life himself. "We are dying out Ben. Perhaps the balance that the prophecy spoke of is this. That we need to die so that things can even themselves out."
"A question for philosophers Chris," Ben answered. "Although Master Yoda would most likely be able to answer that with ease," he added with a look of mischief.
"How is he?" Chris asked after uttering a soft chuckle. "Is he still taking sanctuary in Dagobah?"
"Yes," Ben nodded. "I know there are others who have gone the same way, who are trying to wait out the storm until the boy needs us."
"That may be difficult," Chris informed the Jedi Master even though he was certain Ben was well aware of these facts, if from his own experiences then by examining Chris' thoughts. Ben Kenobi was a Jedi Master and though Chris had the strength to keep him out, the Jedi was not so on guard in the presence of his old friend. "The Emperor is hunting us down with a vengeance and killing all those who could be Jedi."
Ben glanced at Chris and saw the open wound inside his friend's soul. "Chris, I am terribly sorry about Sarah and Adam."
Chris swallowed thickly, because Jedi or not, grief affected him the same way as it did any ordinary man. Being a Jedi did not give him any concession from that pain even if it should have prepared him to handle it better. "I let myself wallow in self pity because I could not stand going on alone and I've realised lately, that I'm only dishonoring them by living that way. Sarah would not have wanted me to give up and Adam was proud his father was a Jedi, I have to remember that."
Ben placed a gentle hand on Chris' shoulder and squeezed it warmly. "Did it help coming here to see him?" The Jedi Master glanced briefly in the direction of the child who was now retreating into the house.
"Yes," Chris nodded truthfully. "I needed to remind myself that there are things left that I need to do. The Rebel Alliance is young and it needs guidance and from there, I can help you in some small way. At least keep trouble from coming here or warn you if it does."
"It is appreciated," Ben replied gratefully, needing that advantage. He had accustomed himself to the hermit life he had chosen as Luke Skywalker's guardian but it was a lonely existence. "I've been keeping watch on him since the day he was born. My brother prefers it that I remain at a distance to not confuse the child with uncomfortable questions as to who I might be to him."
"And his sister?" Chris turned to Ben pointedly. "Are they never to know each other?"
"For her safety, its necessary," Ben replied automatically, having discussed this issue already with the twin's mother and then felt a wave of sadness almost as profound as the one Chris felt for the loss of his wife when he thought of Queen Amidala, or she would who always be known to him as Padme. "Amidala is no longer with us" Ben revealed after a moment.
Chris turned sharply to Ben aware that there were some deep emotions between the two that went unspoken for a long time. He saw the sorrow in Ben's eyes and for once found himself on the other end of the situation where he searched for something to say. "I'm sorry Ben."
Ben shrugged off the attempt because he had reconciled himself with her loss during his solitude here and continued speaking. "She cannot protect her daughter any more so I charge you to watch over House Organa, to ensure that the little girl is safe. Her anonymity is her greatest protection at this time but there are always unknown factors."
"Yes," Chris agreed and then turned to Ben and said with more conviction than he had felt in years. "I promise you she will be safe."
"Thank you my friend." Ben patted him on the shoulder. "Now you must go."
Chris nodded in understanding. It was dangerous for him to be here as it was and Ben Kenobi, formerly General Obi-Wan Kenobi who fought in the Clone Wars, had been extremely tolerant in indulging Chris' need to feel some measure of hope because the Jedi Master had sensed that he sorely needed it. However, by the same token, Chris also sensed that Ben wanted to see him once more.
"We're not going to see each other again are we Ben?" Chris asked softly realizing the truth and the sadness that seemed to fill Ben Kenobi's soul with a kind of remorse that even he, grieving for Sara and Adam, could not possibly imagine.
Ben took a deep breath and replied softly. "No, we are not. Your destiny lies upon a different path from mine Chris. You need to fulfil it and by no means is your time over, it merely evolving into something else."
"I miss what we were," Chris whispered softly, allowing that vulnerability to show to the one person who would understand. "We're fading into the mists Ben, we're becoming intangible." Chris thought of the Jedi who for thousands of years had brought peace and justice to the galaxy and it saddened him that people were already starting to forget.
"This one you call Vin," Ben said suddenly. "You intend to make him Jedi?"
"No," Chris shook his head automatically without even having to consider the question. "I have no wish to train Jedi and it safer for him if he does not learn our ways. I'll tell him what we were and what we tried to accomplish and maybe that will give him some kind of peace."
"And I will do the same for Luke and maybe," Ben remarked with a bittersweet smile. "We'll exist somewhere after all."
Ezra Standish found himself staring at Commander Colonel Tarkin and wondered if the man expected him to flinch. He did not. Ever the consummate actor, Ezra sat in front of the sprawling desk of the Colonel in charge of sifting through the mess that had taken place on Doldur 3 as far as the Empire was concerned, relatively unconcerned. An inquiry and an investigation had followed; Colonel Nabb was presently occupying a cell not unlike the one that he had placed Buck Wilmington while the powers that be considered his fate. There was a time when the worst punishment meted out to officers who acted questionably was merely discharge but the Empire had a more extreme reaction to such behavior and Ezra did not envy Nabb's position. Unfortunately, Ezra did not know for certain that he would not be placed in a cell himself after what he had done to aid Nathan's escape.
Tarkin's office was situated in one of the loftier parts of the large complex that acted as the military center of the Imperial fleet. The large picture window gave him a spectacular view of Coruscant Centre and Ezra soaked up the picturesque imagery in order to calm himself for the play he had to perform for Colonel Tarkin. Hawk like, the man watched him with dark eyes, trying to ferret out weakness. Ezra knew of Tarkin by reputation of course, anyone who kept abreast of things did. Tarkin was being fast tracked to becoming a Grand Moff because he was one of the Emperor's favored. While some may think that this had more to do with luck than it did skill and ambition, they would be wrong. Tarkin had reached the place of power he had because he was shrewd and as his eyes studied Ezra Standish like a puzzle that had to be dismantled to be understood, Ezra knew that he had to extremely careful during this interview between them.
"What do you think of Colonel Nabb?" Tarkin asked coolly.
"Is this a candid discussion?" Ezra returned his gaze and knew that he had to hold it. Tarkin's manner told him that maintaining eye contact was a method in which the Colonel gauged weakness.
"Of course," Tarkin replied with a little smile. "Perfectly candid."
"The man is a fool," Ezra said with enough vitriol in his voice to indicate how personally he felt in the manner. "He is ambitious but has none of the ability. He is a brutaliser and more at use as a thug instead of command."
"Yes," the colonel nodded, his own assessment of Nabb no too dissimilar. "I tend to agree with you."
Ezra did not show that he was relieved. "That is gratifying to know."
"The reports of several officers on the deck claim that you openly stood up to the Colonel, attempting to keep him from lowering the deflector shield."
"In my opinion, it was a foolish act," Ezra answered truthfully in this instance. "The rebel bombardment, though annoying at the time, did not offer us any real threat. Our deflector shield was more than capable of protecting us. We could have simply waited for help to arrive and take care of the Nubian warship. Lowering the shield left us wide open. It was tactically irresponsible."
"Yes," Tarkin answered. "It would appear that most of the bridge staff who escaped the station seemed to agree with you but that did not prevent Nabb from attempting to charge you with insurbordination."
"I had to speak my mind," Ezra replied, unashamed. "He compromised the station because he panicked."
"You are correct of course," Tarkin agreed and then picked up some data pads and studied it. "Well I find your actions were remiss of any misconduct, Captain Standish. You did attempt to prevent this fiasco from taking place and since the station was vaporised, we must rely on the word of the officers present to gauge what happened down there. I have taken statements from your comrades who assured me that you are to be exonerated in any complicity in the destruction of our base. The rebel's plan to free their prisoners would not have succeeded if the deflector shield had been maintained. As it is, we not only lost a ship of the line but our base and some very important prisoners, I understand."
"Yes Sir," Ezra nodded automatically. "Nathan Jackson was a member of the Rebel Alliance."
"You know him," Tarkin declared, with a hint of something in his voice that could be innuendo, if not out right accusation.
"I knew him," Ezra served back with just as much iciness, emphasizing the word 'knew'.
"I see," Tarkin nodded, accepting Ezra's demeanor as his true feelings on the matter and picked up another data pad and studied it a moment. "Now I see here you have requested transfer to Cordoba. May I ask why?"
Ezra paused a moment, rehearsing the speech he had concocted long before this meeting. "I want to find Nathan Jackson," he began. "I want to find him and bring him in. He has complicated my existence because he chose to become a traitor. Unless I bring him in, our friendship will be a blight on my military record that I shall never be able to expunge while he is still at large. For as long as I try to rise through the ranks, the stigma of always being associated with someone like that will accompany me. I wish to bring him in to settle all doubts."
"An admirable desire," Tarkin said with a little smile. "What makes you certain that he is in Cordoba."
"I am told that he may be with a rebel cell that exists in the Territory," Ezra responded. "As you know, the Territory is largely uncharted and sits on the border of the galactic rim, there are many enclaves where the rebels may chose to hide. If I take command of the Cordoba base, I may be able to make a detailed search, as well as giving us some valuable information about the area in the process."
"Do not underestimate Mary Travis," Tarkin warned, approving of Ezra's decision and of the transfer as well. "She destroyed our base and our Star Destroyer, through no mean feat. That kind of ingenuity is formidable."
"I'm aware of that Sir," Ezra replied. "But these thing hinge largely on luck and I have been told on occasion that Lady Luck and I are on intimate terms."
The tavern was quiet tonight but it was just as well. Even though the search for the rebel fugitives had been called off since the destruction of the Doldur base, it was not wise for them to be on Cordoba for too long. However, a private celebration of some sort seemed the order of the day and Inez was more than happy to host it. Those who frequented the establishment knew that it was not a place paid close attention and truth be known, those who would be a danger to them preferred more lively taverns than this, were the opportunity to spy was better accommodated by a large volume of patrons. In truth, the group seated around the table in the center of the room had no intention of spending the entire evening here. They had come for their celebration and once the time for that had passed would return to the safety of the rebel base.
Chris Larabee had returned mostly to collect some of his belongings left in the room he had occupied upstairs for the past year. Inez had been sad to see him go but he could tell when he told her why that she was inordinately pleased. He had kissed her on the brow and thanked her for everything and for taking care of him when most would have left him to rot. Inez and Chris went back a long way and it was good to know that not all his friends were gone, just waiting for him to remember them again. As he sat around the table, watching the sudden influx of new additions to his life, he felt a sense of peace that he had not felt in a long time. The pain of Sarah and Adam's death was still with him, he felt it rubbing raw against his heart each time the memory surfaced and the memory surfaced a great deal. However, for the first time in too long, Chris understood that was how it was meant to be and with the Force as his ally, he could perhaps weather it a little better.
"Damn it," Nathan swore at Buck as he dropped his cards onto the table where they were engaging in a game of sabbacc. "I'm sure you cheat. No way you could win all those games on skill alone."
"Hey," Buck protested in mock hurt as he reached over the table and collected the pot. "I learned to get good. You have to when you're used to playing with a Jedi." He gave Chris a conspiratory wink.
"Trust me," Chris drawled over his mug of beer. "I don't need the Force to beat you at sabbaac, right Inez?" Chris looked over his shoulder at the shapely bartender who was approaching with another round of drinks for the group.
"That's right," she arrived at the table and gave Buck a little wink. "If you want to know that whether Buck is bluffing, just watch his upper lip twitching his moustache."
"Inez!" Buck exclaimed as the table exploded into a roar of laughter. "That's confidential! You're giving me away!"
"And pray tell how do you know this so well?" Mary asked giving the lady a look as she posed the question. Mary and Inez had become fast friends since their meeting and when the men had chosen to make this trip, Mary had accompanied them so that she could share the woman's company. After all, Mary had very few female friends and it felt good to be around someone who did not regard her as any more than just another woman, instead of a military commander.
"Well....."Inez started to flinch uncomfortably and suddenly everyone at the table noticed that neither Buck or Inez could meet each other's gaze.
"Don't tell me that you and Buck....," JD exclaimed in astonishment.
"Well that's it," Vin sighed in with a little disappointment. He had been mildly attracted to the beautiful, sultry woman and would not have mind entertaining the notion of a brief dalliance. "I'm crushed."
Chris chuckled and remained silent, knowing the truth but not making any moves to disclose it.
"Inez," Josiah shook his head, unable to believe some one as level headed as Inez would fall for such a rascally womanizer. She seemed to be the last woman who would fall to such charms. "Are you telling me that you have managed to curb the rampant impulses of this connoisseur of women?"
"Oh please!" Inez exclaimed with a frown. "I'm just a bartender you know, not a miracle worker. Short of gelding, nothing could do that." She gave Buck a sarcastic look as more laughter ensued.
"Now wait a minute," Buck stood up, rising to meet the challenge. "I never cheated on you, not once!"
"Inez," Chris came to his friend's defense. "I'll have to side with him on this one. He was always faithful to you."
It was Mary who guessed it first by the reluctant body language being displayed by the duo as evidence of their affiliation became more and more pronounced. "I'll be Kesselled, were you two married?" Mary asked, with her mouth open from surprise.
"Yes," Both of them answered in unison.
"You were married to him!" Nathan laughed harder unable to imagine Buck Wilmington being married, let alone to some one like Inez who was no nonsense at the best of time and was one of the most level headed women he knew while Buck was the other extreme, a perennial rogue, just like his ship.
"We were young," Inez answered chagrined. "I liked the uniform."
"Well it was a little more than that." Buck gave her a devilish grin and earned an elbow in his stomach for his trouble. "Hey, you're not allowed to hit me any more. See why I left her?"
"You left me?" Inez whirled around and jabbed a finger in his chest. "I left you."
"Oh great," Chris rolled his eyes and faced his companions at the table. "You got them started."
"Yeah but they're not married any more right?" Vin wanted clarification on this while Buck and Inez continued on their 'discussion' on who left who.
"Subtle Vin," Josiah retorted with a grin. "Real subtle."
"Well she is a beautiful woman," the bounty hunter said out of earshot from the battling ex-spouses. "I'm just a marked man, not a dead one."
"Well the galaxy is full of surprises," the senator remarked raising his glass to his lips.
Chris was about to respond when suddenly, he saw a new arrival into the tavern and said instead. "Well brace yourself, there's another coming our way tonight."
The tavern went silent as the Imperial captain walked into the premises. Mary's eyes widened but Chris reached for her hand and told her with a look that there was no danger. It's all right, he said wordlessly in her mind and she knew that he was sincere. She felt the emotion of trust past through his finger tips into her skin like a warm glow washing over her and it was not an invasion but a feeling of enlightenment as it was explained to her through the Force, just why this captain ought to be trusted. In a second, her trepidation dissipated and she met his gaze again, feeling a hot flush in her cheeks that made her remove her hand because his touch had affected her more than she liked. Chris turned away quickly as well, feeling some thing in that exchange that was unexpected and was too raw inside for him to cope with at the moment. Judging by the expression on her face, the feeling was mutual.
Fortunately, their little interplay went unnoticed since most of the table was more preoccupied by the new arrival into the tavern. Buck and Inez immediately fell silent. Vin's lips curled into a little smile of pleasure seeing the captain, feeling trust already because of what they had been through together. Josiah and JD merely revealed their surprise but said nothing. The most animated reaction came from Nathan who looked over his shoulder at the entrance to see what had brought the room to a dead quiet so rapidly and found a pleasant surprise.
"Ezra!" Nathan rose to his feet in a matter of seconds and crossed the floor to his friend. They met in a warm embrace and Nathan never thought it could be so good to see his old friend in one piece, especially after how they had left each other at Imperial base. Nathan had spent a lot of time wondering whether or not Ezra had made it off the base alive.
"What are you doing here?" Nathan managed to ask once they had pulled away from their embrace.
"I am the new commander of the base here," Ezra announced as he walked towards the table.
"They promoted you?" Vin exclaimed with surprise, expecting the man to be placed in front of a firing squad after what he had done.
"Well posting to Cordoba is not exactly considered a promotion," Ezra remarked as he surveyed what was taking place at the table. "With the destruction of the base, any record of my involvement has been more or less wiped clean. All they seemed to recall is that I opposed the lowering of the deflector shield in the initial attack."
"And Nabb?" Josiah asked, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice for the officer who had tortured him mercilessly.
"Is no longer among the living," Ezra replied softly. "The Empire has begun executing its officers for gross incompetence."
"By space," Mary whispered in horror. "He was killed?"
Ezra turned to her and realised whom he was talking to. "Yes, he was." He was rather taken back by how young and beautiful the Hero of Jofa looked. He had expected an older person, certainly it would not be an unfair statement considering how she had resounding defeated Imperial forces on Doldur by taking out a Star Destroyer with one lone fighter. "I take it you are Commander Travis?" He asked bowing slightly.
"I am," Mary nodded, trusting in Chris' faith that this man was no danger to her. "Thank you for assistance in freeing my people," Mary said genuinely grateful.
Ezra cast a glance over the men and women at the table before resting his gaze on Nathan. "I told you at the base that I was not ready to become a rebel. I still do not know if I am but I will help if you I can, if that is enough until I am ready to make that final journey."
"Its good to have you back Ezra," Nathan smiled, speaking on behalf of all of them and not caring even if he did not. If Ezra gave Nathan his word that he would not harm them, then Nathan believed it because he had risked everything once before already to save their lives. "I missed you."
"I have missed you too Nathan," Ezra grinned and a general feeling of ease swept through the faces at the table before he added. "May I join you?"
Chris Larabee smiled at the Imperial officer and pulled a chair from the nearest empty table with his mind for Ezra to sit. "I don't see why not, it looks like we're all here now." And it was true, it did feel that way. Chris could sense it in the Force.
"Yeah, you might as well sit down and let Buck take your money too," Vin spoke up, finding it easier to invite this man into the circle and marveled at how suddenly, his world had become crammed with friends when he had been alone for so long. Perhaps, the reason he felt such a kinship with this Imperial Captain was because he sensed that Ezra had been in the same position himself until now.
Nathan uttered a short laugh as Vin made that remark being perfectly aware just how gifted a sabbaac player Ezra really was and almost felt sorry for Buck. "Yeah right."
"What's so funny?" Buck looked at Nathan. "You're just mad you lost all your money," he gloated.
Ezra looked at Nathan. who was trying to suppress his grin, and asked with a perfectly neutral expression. "The game I take it is sabbaac?"
"You play Ezra?" JD asked, noticing something in the way the two old friend were regarding each other about this particular subject.
"Oh," Ezra remarked with a grin as he sat down on the chair that Chris had provided for him. "Just a little."
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