There were very few worlds like Ithor.
The entire planet was encased in a fist of green vegetation, the product of a completely agrarian society whose belief in the sanctity of the land bordered almost on religious fervor. Inhabitants of the planet had long ago abandoned terrestrial living in favor of large floating cities called herdships. The move was made to protect the cycle of regeneration and growth of the planet's extensive forests. Ithor had become one of the richest sources of food crops in the entire galaxy, feeding billions thanks to the efficient management of its agricultural industry. It had been such during the day of the Republic and it was the same now that the era belonged to the Empire.
Vin admired the planet surface as the Tracker proceeded towards the capital city of Ithor. The capital, Seleusa Secanda was actually the largest herdship of all the floating cities and the only one equipped with docking facilities for private and commercial starships. The native Ithorians, or hammerheads as they were most commonly known, had no love for the Empire. They were generally a peaceful race, finding destruction a waste of time when theirs was the business of giving life to seeds and making things grow. They accepted begrudgingly Imperial rule although they did not go out of their way to be cooperative. The Empire tolerated their idiosyncrasies mostly because the Ithorians fed a great deal of the core planets and were reluctant to disrupt the flow of its production.
Vin could understand why Charlotte would have chosen Ithor as her hiding place. Most Ithorians did not look upon collaborators with any mercy and were known to kill them for their betrayal. All life on Ithor was precious and Ithorians took great efforts to protect those who came to their herdships for sanctuary. With such dislike of informants a matter of public knowledge; those who practiced the craft preferred to stay off Ithor, thus there was little danger of an informant giving Charlotte away during her stay here. Vin however, was not foolish enough to think that she could remain here indefinitely without arousing suspicion. Whether intentional or not, someone would give her away and the Empire was known to monitor their communications channels of planets they knew were unsympathetic to them.
The Tracker had been provided with the same false registration codes that the Rogue had been provided when it made off world trips. Since he had become a fugitive, his ship had become just as wanted as him and was on record at Imperial outposts everywhere. Although the space station on Seleusa Secanda was controlled by Ithorian authorities, their records still needed to be sent to the local Imperial stations for review and if they recognized the Tracker, it would only be a matter of hours before a destroyer was in orbit around the planet. Considering that he had had done this without help, he would prefer not to have a run in with a destroyer because attention like that would undoubtedly bring Vader as well.
Vin had discarded his Jedi robes for something more conventional with his lightsabre tucked beneath his jacket where it would not be seen. The weapon was a dead giveaway he did not really need right now and he hoped Charlotte would understand when he tried to explain it to her. From a bounty hunter to padwan learner was going to take a great deal of explanation but no more than why she was running away from Imperial agents he supposed. Entering Ithorian space dock proved to be without difficulty. The hammerheads took his registration codes as gospel and allowed him to land in a berth without incident. Something for which he was extremely grateful.
Most of the travelers to Seleusa were usually here for the business of trading so when he entered the city after departing the space dock, Vin was careful to blend into the groups of traders moving towards the commercial districts where the main body of lodging houses would be situated. If Charlotte wanted to be found, she would not make it difficult for him. Seleusa was like any busy city even if its traders were mostly farmers and large scale agricultural wholesalers. They came in every different shape and size; not even elitist policies of the Empire could contain the economics of interstellar trade. It was good to see that some semblance of the Republic was still alive and Vin felt strangely comforted by the chatter of so many languages. It allowed him to become just another face in a sea of faces.
He was moving through the city, confident that he was not discovered, nor his intentions known when he started to sense something on the edge of his consciousness. At first he thought it was his mental bond with Chris because Vin could sense the Jedi no matter what the distance between them. However, this was different. It was very close and also very familiar. There was a moment of stark terror as he approached the lodging centers when he thought Vader might be here but calmed himself because he knew how that sensation had felt and no way could the Sith Lord be here without him having more than just a feeling about it. The last time he had even felt the man's presence, Vin had known about it instantly and even then he was not as adept as he was now.
Through means he could not understand, there was a Jedi here.
Vin took a deep breath and told himself that there was nothing to be done about it now. The other Jedi would have sensed him just as surely as Vin would have felt his presence and he still had to find Charlotte. Hopefully, the Jedi would not get in his way of that and just to feel secure, Vin patted his jacket and felt the secure shape of his lightsabre hidden in its folds. There were a number of lodging centres in Seleusa when he finally arrived at the appropriate district but common sense told him that Charlotte would pick one of the less frequented ones. Thus Vin conducted his search in all the smaller facilities, ever mindful of the Jedi whose presence he could feel but made no attempt to contact. He guessed that if the Jedi wanted to hide, this was a good a place as any. The Ithorians were a spiritual people and their belief in things unseen also extended to the Jedi.
After an hour of searching, he was met with success and retained enough of his old skills as a bounty hunter to ensure that no one would be following his trail. He learned from an elder Ithorian who seemed to stare at Vin as if he knew more than he should; that a woman by the name of Maria was in fact lodging here. Vin wondered who Maria was and considered that it might be an alias but that would be too simple. He doubted that Charlotte would travel alone with a child but supposed six years could change things considerably and he had no idea what her life had been like since his departure from it. He did not wish to think too much about that because it would bring up feelings he had no business having.
As difficult as this all might seem to him now, the truth was; he had left Charlotte behind and he was in love with Alex. What he had said to Buck was not a lie no matter how confusing things might be right now. Even now, the thought of dying and never seeing Alex drove a knife through his heart despite the reasons that had brought him here. Vin tried not to think about her, aware that his survival from this point on depended on his being focussed. However, as he made his way towards the suite of rooms being occupied by the woman called Maria, Vin could not help thinking about Charlotte and how it would feel to see her again.
Unfortunately even thoughts about Charlotte became difficult to sustain when his sense of the Jedi became so strong that it was impossible to ignore. He came to the realization that the Jedi was close, allowing Vin to sense him but also blocking his thoughts so that Vin could not know any more than that he was here. Suddenly fears about Vader returned to him and Vin knew that whether or not Vader was here made no difference, he had to find Maria to find Charlotte and so he would continue. After what seemed an eternity of time, he stepped onto the corridor where her lodgings were and could feel the presence of the Jedi more strongly than ever. Vader had her, he thought to himself. Vader had her and was waiting for Vin to arrive.
It was so easy to turn around and leave. He was under no obligation to risk his life but to do that would be to condemn her and her child to death and Vin was not ready to do that. He made up his mind quickly as he stood in the corridor at what he would do. He would offer Vader his life to let Charlotte go. Once she was gone with her child, he would kill himself. It was not much of an alternative but that was better than allowing Vader access to his mind where the secret of Skywalker would be exposed. Vin thought of that innocent child on that moisture farm in Tatooine and knew just how much the future relied upon him to know that he could never fall into Vader's clutches.
And he would not. Vin would rather die first.
He reached the door and was about to activate it when it opened before him. If anything confirmed that Vader knew it was here, it was that one final act. Vin let out a deep breath and accepted what would happen as he stepped into the room. The first thing he saw when he entered was not a phalanx of stormtroopers or even the dark lord himself, instead he found himself in front of Charlotte. She was just as he had remembered her, soft eyes; a smile seemed to light up her face upon seeing him. Her eyes glistened with emotion as they faced each other for the first time in so long and suddenly, she was in his arms and they were kissing each other as if the years had never been.
He felt her mouth melt over his and for a short time, it felt as if they had never been apart, like he had never walked away from her so many years ago. However, he soon remembered that he had, that she had asked him to leave and someone else had picked up the pieces of his heart, someone he loved. The memory of Alex alone forced him to pull back and when he did, when his mind was not so clouded by his emotions, Vin was able to sense something else and the discovery drove him back in utter shock.
"Charlotte," he managed to say once the shock had dissipated enough to allow him speech. "You're a Jedi."
"What are you doing?" Mary Travis asked when she entered the confines of Chris' quarters in the Medical Center and found him attempting to climb out of bed despite the collective protests of the medical droid and Buck Wilmington.
"What does it look like?" Chris asked as he slowly attempted to get dressed, an action that produced a grimace on his face each time he tried to move.
"It looks like you're about to be put back into bed whether or not you like it," she said calmly, her arms folded as she stared at him critically.
"Mary, don't try and stop me," Chris retorted just as defiantly. "I have to go after him."
"And do what?" Mary came around the bed so that she could look him in the eyes. "So that you can help him? What exactly do you think you can do for him other than bleed profusely?"
"Vader's going after him!" Chris barked at her.
"And naturally you are going there because you are in perfect shape of course to fight Vader," Mary returned smoothly, her cool voice a stark contrast to the agitation displayed by the men present.
"Its like talking to a mynock," Buck grumbled, in complete agreement with Mary. "Chris, you go after Vin and youll do is give him something else to worry about."
"Im not discussing this with a committee," Chris retorted and struggled to slip on his shirt.
Buck opened his mouth to protest but Mary gave him a brief look, instructing him to let her handle this. "Chris we are not a committee and you are not going. Buck and I will go."
Chris shot her a sharp look over his shoulder and retorted. "This is supposed to make me feel better? So instead of Vin I have to worry about, Ill have you and Buck too?"
"Well thats awful sweet of you Chris but if youre so worried about us, maybe you wouldnt be behaving like a damned fool so wed have to go to these lengths to keep you from busting all the new seams you got inside of you," Buck glowered.
"Buck you dont know whats at stake." Chris stared at his old friend trying to make him understand. Vin knew the secret that the remaining Jedi were prepared to die to keep from being exposed. Above all else, the safety of the Skywalker twins had to be ensured. Chris knew with certainty that Vin would never willingly give up the information to Vader but that was not to say Vader could not extract it from him. Vin was just an apprentice and Vader was possibly the most powerful Jedi there was. Chris could not be certain that Vins mental shields would be able to keep Vader from stealing what he knew straight out of his mind.
"I know it's important," Buck returned firmly. "I know that it scares you to death that he may let Vader in on it but he might surprise you. To tell you the truth, Vin didnt seem all that eager to have a run in with the guy and hes smart enough to cut and run when he knows trouble is coming Chris."
"He may not get the chance," Chris muttered, still remembering the terrible vision where he had seen Vin and Vader do battle until the dark lord had struck the apprentice down. He remembered Vins scream of pain and the blood that washed the floor of their battleground.
"Thats why Buck and I are going," Mary stated firmly, bringing them back to the original point of discussion.
"Please Sir," the medical droid implored in its erudite tones. "You must return to bed. Your vital statistics are still below normal, you must recuperate from your injuries."
"Vins an apprentice Jedi and he may not be able to stand against Vader," Chris declared, finding his reserve energy starting to dwindle and knew the droid was right about that much anyway. He was weak but he was damned he was going to show it to either Mary or Buck. "What makes you think you two can?"
"Because were going in a warship," Mary responded aloofly. "And if we have to bomb the city from orbit to help Vin get away we will. If we leave now, we can get to him before Vader does."
"You cant be sure of that," Chris retorted, not about to give up yet but her words were starting to effect him and also he was finding it difficult to stand. Under the thermal gauze covering his wounds he could feel blood escaping through fissures in tender flesh and knew that he had reopened some of the medical droids intricate repair work on his body.
"No I cant," Mary returned coolly, sounding every much the commander and when she was in this frame of mind, nothing would make her budge from her set course. "But its still a better way of getting Vin back then you going after him because that has disaster written all over it."
"Sir, I detect fresh bleeding." The medical droid moved towards him and was soon overtaken by Buck who managed to catch Chris as the last of his energy withered and was about to sink to the floor. The big man helped Chris to his bed, taking note of the widening red stain seeping through the thermal gauze.
"Youre one stubborn son of a bitch you know that?" Buck shook his head as he and the droid both helped Chris into his bed once more.
"You should talk," Chris groaned as he was forced back into the soft mattress. As much as he worried for Vin, he could not deny that it felt heavenly to be able to sink back into its softness and realised though rather begrudgingly that Mary and Buck were right. He was in no shape to go after the younger man.
"Chris," Mary waited until he nestled back into the sheets before she placed a hand on his cheek. "Well find him, I promise you."
"You have to find him Mary," Chris held her hand against his face, liking her touch and amazed by how much comfort it seemed to provide him. "You cant let Vader get to him first. The consequences would be extreme, not just for him but for the entire rebellion and the galaxy. He cant know what Vin does."
Mary nodded in understanding even though she did not know the secret. There was something in the way he spoke that told her that it was the truth; that more than she could possibly know rested on Vader being denied what was contained in Vin Tanners head. The secret frightened her because it was a terrible thing to know so much rested on an unknown, one that was not even safe for her to be aware of. "I wont let it happen Chris," Mary said in the same tone of confidence that Chris had often used to allay her fears about things. "Well find him."
He had to believe that she could because if the consequences would be dire if she failed.
At last he understood.
All those times when she seemed to know what he was thinking, how she always knew how he felt without his having to say a word. Vin had thought it was because she knew like no other woman had ever done but now he realized that all that belief had been based on an illusion. Even his own insight into her feelings and her heart was now merely the connection engendered by two people who were Force adept, Vin almost felt cheated. In what other way had she used her abilities in the Force to influence him? Had falling in love with her been part of it too? A part of him felt betrayed and humiliated almost as if he had been subjected to the same invasive intrusion Vader had inflicted upon him when he had tried to extract information about Skywalker from Vins mind.
Charlottes expression of happiness to see him soon disintegrated into a mask of dismay when she understood what was running through his mind. She stared at him for a few seconds, eyes beginning to glisten at the anger in his thoughts that she could feel most clearly at the moment. Swallowing hard, it took a few second for her to come up with some kind of response although she was uncertain whether or not he was in any frame of mind to listen to her. Still she had to try, she had to explain why she had never told him the truth. It was as much for his protection as it was for her own. However, she had never used her abilities to produce some false sense of feeling for her. It was the one thing that had drawn her so much to him; that what he felt was from the heart and she could feel it.
"It wasnt like that," she said quietly.
"What was it like?" He demanded.
"I did love you and you loved me." The steps he had taken backwards seemed like a chasm of great distance but she held her ground instead of moving towards him, aware that he had reason to feel what he had. "Nothing about that was ever a lie. What we felt was real."
"I have no way of knowing that." He glared at her. "You lied to me about everything, right down to what I was. I thought you understood me. For the first time in my life, I thought that there was someone else in the galaxy that could understand what I felt but it was all a lie! You used the fact that I knew nothing about the Force to make me feel for you!"
"Vin it wasnt like that!" Charlotte exclaimed, horrified by the notion. "I didnt tell you because you had no idea that you had the Force and it was best that you didnt know."
"How could it be best?" He accused. "I had no idea what I was for the last six years. I went through my life having this feeling about myself but never knowing for sure. You could have told me that I was Force adept instead of hiding it from me."
"And what would telling you have served?" She asked. "Vin, do you have any idea how dangerous it is to be a Jedi now?"
"How can you be a Jedi and ask that?" Vin stared at her in shock, unable to believe that she and Chris Larabee were one and the same. How could they be so different? Whatever might have happened to Chris, even through the tremendous losses of his life, Chris had never abandoned his Jedi faith. He might have strayed from its path but to utterly walk away would have been incomprehensible to the seasoned Jedi.
"I have been a Jedi for as long as I can remember." She glowered angrily at having her faith challenged with such revulsion. "My mother was a Jedi and her father before her and if I want my daughter to become a Jedi or to know the Jedi ways, I have to protect her. If that protection required me having to walk away from what I was, I was willing to do it."
"You should have told me!" Vin hissed, unable to accept her explanation. If she wanted to protect Lilith by hiding that part of herself, that did not exonerate her from keeping secret what she knew him to be. "You had no right to keep something like that from me. I needed to know!"
"Vin if you knew, you would have insisted on finding the Jedi, is that not true?" She asked, refusing to believe that what she did was wrong.
"You know I would have," he retorted. "If you didnt, you would have told me the truth."
"If you became a Jedi, they would hunt you just as they were hunting me," Charlotte said softly. "I have seen so many friends and families die because of the Emperors insane desire to destroy the Jedi. Vader was one of us! He turned to the dark side and now hes obliterating every remnant of us across the entire galaxy. I did not want that for you Vin. I didnt want you to have to run."
He was still angry with her but he also understood that she was trying to protect him. Hadnt Chris Larabee been the same when they had first met? Chris was reluctant to have him become an apprentice because he feared that the Empire would come after him just as it had done with the rest of the Jedi. Why should Charlotte be any different? However, Chris had given him the choice. He had allowed Vin to decide for himself whether or not he wanted to be a Jedi or to follow the path. "You denied me the choice Charlotte." Vin stared at her mercilessly. "Whatever your reasons, you denied me the right to choose."
"Vin, please," Charlotte implored "I did what I had to do to protect you. I didnt want you to get hurt."
"Its too late," Vin declared. "Im a Padwan learner."
"I know," Charlotte nodded. "I sensed it the minute you came on board Seleusa." It was true. Though she had resisted the urge to look into his mind, she still sought his presence and she could sense in him the discipline in his thoughts that he had lacked before. "Vin, I know I cant make up for what I did but this is a new beginning."
"No its not," he shook his head, his eyes meeting her dead on. "I will help you Charlotte. I will help you get to the Rebellion but thats all I can do. What we had between us isnt possible any more."
Charlotte stared at him and swallowed visibly. "Is there someone else?"
Images of Alex involuntarily surfaced in his mind and he was certain she was privy to all of it. The rush of feeling that filled his soul whenever the lovely operative was near immediately gripped his heart and infused it with warm and longing. He wished things had been different because for so long he had awaited this day. Years ago, it was all he could think about. The irony that now she was here, he no longer wanted her because his heart had gone to someone else. In the last few hours, he had become certain of that fact despite all the confusion that had pursued him until this point.
"Yes," Vin nodded slowly. "Her name is Alex."
"Is she one of us?" Charlotte asked quietly. She had feared it but supposed she should not have been surprised by the revelation. She had continued with her life when she sent him away. It was pure wishful thinking to assume he would not have done the same.
"No," he shook his head in response. "Shes not Force adept and I dont need her to be. I guess I know she loves me because she doesnt need the Force to know me."
The obvious rebuke impacted on Charlotte with a sting but she said nothing because she did deserve it. "I understand," she responded not knowing what else to say, if there was anything to say in the face of his disclosure.
"Where is Lilith?" Vin asked, taking stock of the luxurious room and realizing that he had not seen the little girl for whom her mother had sacrificed so much.
"I had Maria take her to the Observation Deck," Charlotte responded glad to leave the earlier awkwardness for the time being. There was much for them both to deal with and it was best that they concentrate on getting to the Alliance in one piece.
Vin was all for leaving immediately. They had so far managed to avoid any Imperial entanglements but Vin did not want to gamble on their luck holding out indefinitely. It was tempting fate too much that they were all together in one place, too easy for some Imperial to capture them all and make a name for himself. "Pack enough to last you the trip to the Alliance," Vin ordered. "We're leaving."
"You have a ship?" Charlotte asked hopefully.
"Yes," Vin nodded. "She's docked in the space port. Once you pack, we're out of here."
Far above the twilight space beyond Ithor's atmosphere, a section of space no different from any other in the star system, began to cackle with energy. The shift was barely noticeable because in a vacuum, even energy seemed inert. A blue tendril here and there, almost like hairline fractures in the indigo canvas, converged at the fix point for a few milliseconds. Then suddenly, like a giant leviathan exploding out of the ocean, the great ship entered Ithorian space. Its entrance was dramatic; appearing as if it had dragged the stars behind it from whence it had emerged. Space seemed to contract around the ship and then expanded again, a dazzling array of a light and technological magnificence rolled into a one-second display that no one except a passing ship would ever see.
The super star destroyer Avenger hovered in place for a few seconds as across the floating metropolis, technicians and officers were ensuring that the journey here had been made with minimal incident. Following the fraction of a second it took to make this determination, the massive rear engines of the craft flared to life with blue intensity heat and sailed towards the Ithorian orbit. Through the observation window of its bridge, Lord Darth Vader contemplated the brief journey and gave orders to proceed.
The trap was sprung.
Now it was time to claim his prize.
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