The message from Crawl was waiting for him when he returned to the rebel base on Siraj.
Thanks to Caseys skill as a slicer, she had created a veritable maze of scrambled frequencies and boosted signals riding piggyback on normal subspace chatter that made it virtually impossible for any communication between Vin and Crawl to be traced. In reality, all the transmissions waited for him in a small, barely functioning transmission storage facility on Bimmisari, which forwarded the latest transmissions directly to the scrambler on board Vins ship, the Tracker. It was more than a day after it had been originally recorded that Crawls message finally reached Vin but it did so without anyone being able to trace the signal and ascertain the location of the rebel base.
As always, upon returning to the base after being a way for a number of days, Vin made the obligatory check on the Tracker. Though no one came near his ship when he was absent other than technicians performing standard maintenance tests on the craft, Vin liked to make a personal inspection for his own benefit. The ship was the first home he had truly called his own and was not merely a vessel but a trusted companion. It had serviced him through numerous adventures and was his prized possession. Coming on board the craft, Vin nestled comfortably into the cockpit, settling into the command chair that had been molded to suit him after years of use.
It was good to be back in the cockpit of his ship. Here at least, there was no confusion. This was all his and as he stared through the cockpit window and saw the hive of activity bustling beyond the confines of the craft, it was good to know that he could escape the world briefly by wrapping himself in its familiar surroundings. He would have been here sooner but he had first visited Chris in the medical centre following their return to the base. The Jedi was still in no condition to leave and at present would require bed rest for at least a few more weeks. That he was too weak to protest this was an affirmation of how ill he was. Vin had remained at his side for most of the journey from Okanah, often being relieved by the others and by Mary who came and sat by the Jedis side when the bridge could permit her to the time to get away.
Mary was with Chris now and Vin wanted to give them some privacy, so he had left the Jedi in the lady's capable hands and took the opportunity to carry out some personal errands. The last had been to check on his ship. Vin noticed the light flashing on his communications terminal and realised that he had messages waiting to be read and felt a surge of anticipation at that discovery. When he first had Casey set up the system for him to receive external transmissions, he had done so in the hopes of hearing from Alex. He was painfully aware of how difficult it would be for her to make regular trips to the base, especially when much of her work required her to be deep under cover most of the time. This was the only form of communication that would pass between them during the periods when she was under deep cover.
Vin immediately activated his message viewer and eased back into his chair, prepared to bask in the sight of Alex on the holographic imager before him however, to his disappoint, it was not Alex who appeared but rather Crawl. The former bounty hunter sat up abruptly in his seat, aware that such communication would only not originate frivolously because Crawl knew his affiliations these days and would not risk contacting him unless there was something terribly urgent to be discussed. He hoped that Crawl was all right because he was fond of the old bounty hunter whom had given him his start in the profession and hated to see any harm coming to him.
The hologram crackled into being with a slight burst of static before the image steadied and the audio input began transmitting. "Tanner, I know that we had agreed that it was a good idea that I didnt try to contact you but this situation is something of an exception. I wasnt sure I wanted to pass this message on to you because you seem into be in enough trouble these days with the Empire without this little gem making things worse but I figured that it isnt my choice to make. Besides, you were crazy enough to become a Jedi, youre probably crazy enough to do this too."
Vin tensed. He could feel the tremor in the Force telling him immediately that trouble was coming at him and he braced himself to receive it. Crawls words seemed ominous and the sliver of ice that was slowly snaking up his spine conveyed the feeling most succinctly. The holographic image of the old bounty hunter before him disappeared in another eruption of mild static as Crawl encrypted a new message within his own. The face that materialised before Vin drove the air from his lungs when he realised whom it was. It was a face he had spent years trying to erase from his memory with little success and when she appeared before him again, the recognition of her brought with it a tidal wave of longing and regret of what had been and would never be again.
"My name is Charlotte Richmond," she introduced herself as Vin continued to stare, feeling his heart stop beating at about the same time he had forgotten how to breathe. "I am the wife of Governor Will Richmond of Commenor. I am trying to find Vin Tanner, he once told me that you were a person that could be trusted."
Vin remembered that, he remembered telling her that he trusted Crawl with his life and that the man was completely trustworthy, particularly when Crawl guessed the reason for his determination to stay by Charlottes side back in the days when he was still her bodyguard. Crawl had given him advice he should probably taken when he started to fall for Charlotte; that is to cut and run. Of course she was the first woman that Vin had ever truly loved and leaving was impossible for him then. He was young and he was head over heels. It was as perfect a recipe for disaster as any that had ever been created. It made sense that she would contact Crawl in an effort to reach him. Friendships like the one shared with Crawl lasted years, usually unto the death. It was probably the only avenue Charlotte had to find him, now that he had joined the rebellion and had dropped out from sight.
"I need to get in touch with him urgently," Charlotte continued her transmitted message to Crawl. "My daughter and I are in danger and we must find safe haven with the rebel alliance. I know that Vin has joined them and that perhaps you may have some way to contact him. Please, my life and that of my childs are in your hands. If you are able to contact him, please tell him that we are presently on Ithor, hiding in Seleusa Secanda, the capital city of Ithor. He may find us under the name of my companion Maria. Please," her face showed the lines of her worry and fear even through the holographic projection of her image. "We dont know how long we can keep out of Imperial hands. If it was just me, I could accept the dying but its not me they want, its my daughter Lilith and if all else, I need the rebellion to protect her. I care nothing for myself."
With that noble statement, the recording ended and for a long time after its demise, Vin could only sit in his chair, recovering in stunned silence. Even though he seemed statue like, inside he was a tidal wave of tumultuous emotions. What cruel trick of fate was this to bring Charlotte back to him now? He had yearned for this moment for years, had dreamed about it in the lonely nights that followed his separation from him. There were times he would have preferred to die then go on living without her. He had loved her that much and the intensity of that was still as fierce because his emotions at this time were in a confused frenzy. He thought of Alex and suddenly it became even worse, he was in love with Alex but now he was torn because Charlotte was back. Charlotte whom he always wanted, who had been the first person to love him and made him feel as if he was worth carrying about.
Why now, he asked himself in anguish? It was not fair!
Fair or not, she needed his help and that part at least was clear to him. He had to go to Ithor and bring her back here. Perhaps along the way, he would decide how he felt about her and how he felt Alex and be able to make a choice on what he wanted to do. For the first time, she had understood why she had never specified what kind of danger she had been in when he had been hired to act as her guardian. No bounty hunter in his right mind would have accepted a job protecting anyone that was wanted by the Empire. In the days of the Old Republic, such a thing was acceptable because the Republic was weak and was not extreme in its dealings with those acting against their wishes. The Empire however, was an entirely different animal, which was not weak but rather merciless. A bounty hunter finding himself pitted against the Empire would lose and lose big.
Had she trusted him so little even after they had crossed the line with each other that she could not tell him the truth? That angered Vin a little and he knew he was clinging to this little piece of outrage so that he could balance out the urge to be swept away by his emotions for her. He needed to think clearly because if he helped her (as if there was any question he would not), he would be coming face to face with Imperial hunters and that was a course of action that required extreme consideration before one embarked upon it. In the end however, it was a battle lost even before it began, he knew he would go. In fact, there was never really any doubt because of one thing;
He had promised her he would.
When they cast their final gaze upon each other and walked away for the eternity that had concluded just a short time ago, Vin had promised Charlotte that if she ever needed him, she could count on him to come to her aid. He promised that he would help her because he knew that she had enemies and that someday, not even Richmond and all his money was going to save her from her written destiny. Despite the fact that she had sent him away, that she had asked him to leave and never look back, Vin had made the promise using it an anchor to the dwindling hope that she might need him and he could have reason to see her again. Now she was holding him to that promise and no matter what the consequences to himself he would not let her down.
He sat in the cockpit of the Tracker understanding at last that this was what Chris had been referring to in his sick bed. This situation with Charlotte would undoubtedly lead him to face Vader and whether or not he survived the encounter was a secret Chris could or would not tell him. He should have felt angry at the Jedi but he could not. Chris had done everything required of a good friend trying to save his life. He seen the vision of Vin's fate and had almost died himself to bring Vin that revelation. What Vin did from this point on was no one's responsibility but his own. When Chris had spoken about a woman bringing him to ruin, Vin had expected it to be Alex. Never in all his imaginings did he conceive that it would be Charlotte.
Now that he knew the truth, it did not seem so surprising. Charlotte had brought him to the brink of destruction once before and it appeared she was going to do so again. He made his decision like a man going to his execution and yet he knew that even though it was easy enough to ignore her desperate cry for help, he could not. When he left Tatooine, Vin had barely the clothes on his back and a few credits in his pocket to get by but the one thing he had, worth more to him than all his meager possessions, was his word. A man could lose everything in life but he was still not destitute as long as he had his honor. He had given Charlotte his word that he would come when she needed him and for better or worse; he would keep that oath.
After making that decision, he realised that he would have to leave the base immediately. The message had taken days to reach him which meant that Charlotte was still on Ithor awaiting him. An ex-bounty hunter knew how dangerous it was to remain in one place whilst one was being hunted by Imperials. She could not stay there long even though she was no doubt taking great precautions to be anonymous. Eventually, the Empire would find her. He could not even get word to her that he had received her message and was on his way. Even though she said that she could be contacted via someone named Maria, Vin would not take the risk. The Empire was notorious for the traps it was capable of setting and he had no intention of finding himself in one. While his Jedi senses told him that the result of all this would be the confrontation that Chris had seen in his vision where Vin found himself facing Vader, Vin was going to nonetheless take every precaution to avert that outcome.
He just hoped Chris would understand.
Less than an hour later, Vin found himself standing at the paneling of glass that made up one of the walls to Chris Larabee's room in the medical centre. The Jedi was resting comfortably, still in critical condition and would remain so for several days until he regained his strength. Chris was asleep in his bed and Vin saw no reason to wake him up. In truth, Vin would rather avoid telling Chris what he was about to do, not simply to spare himself Chris' attempts to stop him from going through with this but also to save Chris from the refusal Vin would inevitably have to give him. The words the Jedi had spoken still weighed heavily on his mind, not to mention the plea for him not to act rashly. Vin was not acting rashly but he simply could not walk away from Charlotte. She needed him and only he knew just how much it took for her to ask him.
He stared through the glass at Chris, certain that he was taking the coward's way out by simply leaving but he knew Chris and if he were to tell the Jedi of his intention to go, Chris would either try to stop him or go with him. Vin would not risk the Jedi's life for anything. Chris was the best friend Vin ever had in his life. He was someone who had not only opened up a world for him but also revealed that a part of himself, he had always thought to be an aberration, as something to be proud of and to be celebrated. Chris had given him the world of the Jedi and for that, Vin would be at his side forever except for right now because he had to do this. A short time ago, he wondered if watching Chris being shot was the defining moment that transformed him into a Jedi. Now he knew better.
His trial would be to confront his fear of facing Darth Vader. So he would do that. He would confront that fear and accept the consequences of that, whatever it may be.
"Vin," Buck Wilmington's voice suddenly called out to him.
Vin looked up and saw the star pilot approaching him from down the corridor. Judging by the emotions of concern emanating from Buck, Vin guessed he must have heard about his departure. "Buck," Vin said shortly and faced front again, continuing his observation of Chris in his slumber.
"I hear you're leaving," Buck declared in a statement that was no surprise to Vin. "One of the techs preparing your ship made mention of it."
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I have some business to take care of on Ithor."
"Care to fill me in?" Buck asked, knowing Vin well enough to know that he did not just leave without good reason.
"It's a long story and I don't have time to tell it to you," Vin returned.
"I think you do," Buck answered in a tone that made Vin look at him.
"It's none of your business Buck." Vin stared at him. "I have to take care of things."
"Vin, you're a member of the Rebel Alliance, like it or not. We don't just leave, not when our capture means compromising the security of everyone in this place. I'm the last person to lecture you on that but you're planning on leaving without even telling Chris, which kind of makes me wondering what you got yourself into that you can't tell him, unless of course its something he won't let you do if he knew about it."
"I have to go." Vin turned around and started walking.
"Vin don't do this," Buck tried once more. He had no concept of the Force but his instincts were strong and everything he saw in Vin's face right now, told him the young man was skirting on the edge of disaster and it would harm Chris Larabee irreparably if anything happened to Vin. Buck would spare Chris that pain again, not when he was finally on the road to recovery. The bond between the two were strong and sometimes Buck envied it but he also understood that friendships evolved and that his and Chris had changed and it was in some ways stronger even if it was also more distant. He accepted it and he accepted that Vin had much to do with Chris' return to the land of the living. "If anything happens to you, he'll never forgive himself."
Vin paused and let out a deep breath, knowing that part was true. He turned around and faced Buck. "I gave her my word Buck, I told her that if she ever needed me, I'd be there. She needs me now."
"Are we talking about Alex?" Buck asked but instinctively, he guessed that they weren't.
"No," he shook his head. "We're not talking about Alex. We're talking about Charlotte Richmond."
Richmond. Buck went silent for a second as he tried to remember why the name was so familiar. After a moment, he lifted his eyes to Vin. "She got anything to do with Governor Richmond of Commenor?" Buck was almost afraid to ask.
"She's his wife," Vin said quietly.
"Hell Vin." He sucked in his breath. "Are you sure about this?"
"No," Vin replied honestly now that he was bearing his soul. "I'm not sure about anything. I only know I have to go. She needs my help and if she's asked, it means she has no one else to turn to."
Buck nodded in understanding. He knew better than any one what it was to be completely lost in the affairs of the heart. How many times had he risked being shot by an angry husband over some of his dalliances? If Vin had fallen for this woman as hard as he had fallen for Alex, then there would be no reasoning with him. Buck was not even sure if he should try because if it were he, no one would be able to convince him otherwise. Buck would already be on his ship and going to the rescue, no matter how fool hardy the exercise might seem.
"Vin this could get you killed," Buck pointed out.
It was not the first warning he had heard about this issue and Vin supposed that Buck was probably right but he still had to go. "I know."
"Let me come with you," Buck offered and he meant it too. Whatever Vin was embarking upon was fraught with considerable danger and his manner had all the indications that he did not expect to come back. This did not sit well with Buck at all. "You can use the help."
"No," Vin shook his head, not even considering it because he would not. There was no way he was risking any one of his friends where Vader was concerned. It was one thing to throw his own life away on some foolhardy mission to save an old love but he was allowing no else to risk losing their lives because of him. "I have to do this myself. Chris told me something of what's going to happen. You can't be there. None of you can."
"I hate this Jedi stuff!" Buck exclaimed angrily. "All of you are the same! You rush off alone and get into more trouble than you know what to do and you won't accept any help! Goddamn Vin let us help you!"
"You can't," Vin returned. "I'm going to help Charlotte and if I can get back here I will but you can't join me. Chris saw what was going to happen and I can live with it if it's just me but I won't be able to if any of my friends get hurt."
"Vin...," Buck started to protest but Vin stopped him from saying anything further by interrupting.
"Buck, I loved her once and I wasn't able to help her then. I have to do it now. I don't know whether I still love her but I can't say no to her." He started to turn away when suddenly he remembered something and faced the pilot again.
"Tell Alex I'm sorry." He met Buck's gaze. "If don't make it back, tell her I love her but I had to do this."
Buck wished he knew what to say but he did not. The Jedi's way were mysterious and the affairs of the heart were shrouded in even greater mystery. Vin's course was set and short of physically stopping him, which would have been a very bad idea even if Vin was just an apprentice, Buck knew that he could do little to prevent the younger man from leaving. He did not even know whether he should even try. All he could do was nod, offering Vin the silent promise that Alex would hear his final message if he did not come back from Ithor. Before Buck could respond with anything further, the Jedi apprentice turned on his heels and disappeared out of the corridor, leaving Buck alone.
When Chris Larabee's eyes fluttered open some hours later, he noticed immediately that something was out of balance. For a number of brief seconds, his consciousness struggled to find a reason for such an odd sensation. He was still weak and answers did not come to him with the speed he might have liked but he could feel the Force and at the moment it was telling him something was wrong. The memories of the past days immediately allowed his intellect to narrow down the possible causes even if his extra-sensory perceptions were lagging a little in his injured condition. He sat up in his bed and swept his gaze across the room, finally resting his eyes upon the empty space that should have been occupied by the Jedi apprentice since Chris had found himself interned in this room, he finally understood what was different.
Vin was gone.
Whatever wheels were set in motion during the battle of Okanah, it had finally reached the young man and despite Chris' warnings, he had gone nonetheless. Not only had he fled while Chris was too weak to stop him, he had also gone without even saying goodbye. Chris would have almost been angry if he did not understand why Vin had done it. The answer was simple enough; Chris would have tried to stop him and Vin, for whatever reason had been compelled to go, could not be stopped in this endeavor. Even now, Chris could sense him drawing further away until the bond between them existed by the filmiest threads of connection.
He sensed someone coming and immediately shifted his eyes towards the door. Buck Wilmington entered the room and Chris stared at him sharply because he could feel the emotions emanating from his oldest friend and as well as the memory of Vin inside Buck's mind.
"Why didn't you stop him?" Chris demanded as soon as Buck came through the door.
"I didn't have a choice," Buck replied softly, having anticipated the question the moment he saw Chris' eyes on him.
"Vader is after him," Chris said firmly. "If he has left Siraj, Vader will get him."
Buck swallowed, understanding at last why Vin refused to let anyone accompany him. "There was nothing I could do to stop him Chris," Vin replied. "It has to do with a woman."
"I know," Chris nodded. "Not Alex though."
"No," Buck answered. "Her name is Charlotte Richmond. She's Governor Richmond's wife."
Chris exhaled loudly and felt back into his bed, almost defeated. "She's also going to lead Vader straight to him."
"I think he knows that Chris," the pilot whispered. "I think he is perfectly aware of that."
Chris started to get up and immediately prompted Buck into action. "Chris what the hell are you doing?"
"What do you think?" Chris grunted as he pulled himself up into sitting position. "I'm going after him because if I don't, not even with the Force will he get out of this alive."
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