It was an easy matter for Buck and Vin to reach the spaceport because authorities at present were not searching for two men but rather a young woman and an infant girl. Although Nathan disliked the idea of their splitting up, particularly when the reason for the urgency seemed a closely guarded secret between Chris Larabee and Princess Leia's protector, he acceded to the wishes of the Jedi knowing that such requests were not made lightly. Nathan himself had never met Darth Vader in person but he knew of the Sith Lord by reputation and would decided that he was not eager to face the man either. Chris however, seemed extraordinarily wary of Vader in a way that Nathan had never seen before. The captain of the Rebel Alliance could see the anxiety in the Jedi's face even though Chris was trying to hide it from them, more than aware of what displaying his fears might do their morale.
Unfortunately, the fact that Vader was coming ended their ability to remain hidden for too long. Chris knew that the dark lord would hone in on him and that while he remained with the princess and his friends, he would be their biggest liability. With Vin gone, the secret of Anakin's children was for the moment safe. On Dagobah, Chris could be assured that Yoda would protect Vin as well as teaching him what he would need to know in order to survive the future. For now however, Chris' thoughts were not with Vin because his best friend was presently on his way out of the system, riding the currents of hyperspace towards Dagobah. His worries were with those presently in his company. With Buck gone, Nathan would have to pilot the Rogue with Josiah's aid and the princess still had to be delivered safely to the rebel base in order for her father to make the vote at the Senate with freedom.
Chris could feel the dark force that was Vader leaving his ship. He could feel the ominous approach even though they were separated by the vacuum of space and knew that their time was running short. Yosemite had been good enough to take Buck and Vin to his ship and had yet to return but Chris knew that they could no longer wait for him. Nathan had to take the others and leave, now. The group was presently deliberating their situation from within the below ground rooms Yosemite had found these when he had first taken up the place and assumed quite correctly that his business premises were once in use for something that was not as legitimate as his current vocation.
Presently, JD was entertaining the little girl with a repertoire of funny faces, to which she reacted with delightful giggles that seemed out of place considering their present situation. Josiah was gently stroking Yosemite's pet Synax, a furry animal with big round eyes and native to Endor. The woman Rayne was standing by the doorway to the subterranean hiding place, listening for every sound even though she had not moved an inch since Yosemite had disappeared up the stairs with Buck and Vin. Chris studied her briefly before noticing that Nathan was also trying to keep his gaze fixed on his friends, despite the momentary lapses when inevitably, his eyes would drift to her once more. The Jedi suspected Nathan's interest had nothing to do with suspicion.
One thing was clear however, the longer he remained with them, the more likely it became that he would lead Vader to them.
"Nathan," Chris gestured the captain over to him as he drifted away from the main group so he could talk privately with the man.
"What is it Chris?" Nathan asked, being not at all force adept and yet having learned enough about Chris Larabee to guess that the Jedi was about to drop something into his lap.
"I need to leave," Chris said quietly, beneath the earshot of the others.
"What?" Nathan stared at him, somehow not surprised despite his reaction. Chris had seemed anxious ever since Rayne had been force to knock Vin out cold. While Nathan could appreciate his worries since he had no wish to run into Vader himself, the captain guessed that when it came to the Force and those wielded it, nothing was as clear cut as one would like. "Why?"
"You know why," Chris returned.
"Yeah," Nathan nodded, unmindful of what Rayne had said about Vin giving access to the information that would allow Vader and his troops to find them. Chris had made some similar declaration that he had been in direct mental contact with Vader and even though his thoughts were shielded, the dark lord could nonetheless sense his presence. They were a beacon to each other, these Jedi, Nathan thought to himself. "I do."
"I have to go Nathan," Chris replied. "I have to go before I lead him here. Before I lead him to the child." With that, Chris glanced in the direction of the little girl with the dark red hair and closed his eyes a second because he was struck by how much the colour of it resembled Sarah's own wavy hair. In her innocence and youth, he could feel the force emanating from her. No doubt Vader would feel it too even if he could not understand why. She had a great destiny, this little Princess from Alderaan, Chris had foreseen it. Though future events were often clouded by emotions, as Master Yoda was so often fond of saying, Chris could see the future of the Jedi in the smiling eyes of the Leia Organa.
The era of the new Jedi order would begin with her.
Of course Vader would not see that. He would see that she was just a means to an end, a pawn to use against Bail Organa in order to solidify an unjust war and even if he did see, he was liable to kill her just to ensure that future died before it was even born. He would do so without having any inkling that she was his daughter and that the Jedi he would be destroying would be his own grandchildren. The irony of it would have almost amusing if it was not so tragic.
Nathan stared at Chris for a time, sensing something more behind the Jedi's words but appreciating that Chris was his friend who kept secrets because he had no choice in the matter. It took no measure of clairvoyance to know that whatever it was that Chris had chosen to confide in Vin about was something he now regretted in light of Vader's invasion of Vin's mind. The captain did find it odd that Rayne, whom before this day had never crossed the Jedi's path, apparently knew this secret. Her accent and her mannerism indicated that she was not from the pacifistic world of Alderaan and having seen the skill of combat ability, he was certain that although she played nursemaid to an infant, there had been a time when she was something else entirely.
"Chris, I know you have to do what you must but if he can find you, you're no safer than we are on Zhar.' Nathan countered. "You're too important to the Rebellion to lose." What Nathan did not say was that Chris was important to him as well. Chris was his friend and since the Jedi had joined the rebellion and pulled together the six men who had until that unity been lost and drifting, Nathan had found his universe did not seen as grim as it had once been.
"I know," Chris responded. "But if it is my destiny to die, then I'm not afraid of it. I am afraid for all of you and that is why after I leave, you need to get to the Rogue."
"I've been thinking about that," Nathan agreed with Chris' assertion even though he did not come right out and say it. "I've been thinking that perhaps we've been going about this wrong way. The Empire is looking for a woman and a child. "What if we split up?"
Rayne, who had excellent hearing and had been eavesdropping on the conversation with the Jedi and the rebel officer, immediately stepped forward. "What is your plan?" She looked at Nathan and for the first time, saw him as more than just an accident waiting to happen.
"You put Vin into one of those trances when Buck left," Nathan turned to Chris. "Can you do the same for Leia?"
"Why?" Rayne demanded, not at all happy that her young charge should be rendered unconscious.
"Because," Nathan glanced at Josiah briefly before turning his attention back to her. "She's small enough to hide inside the Synax's carrier."
"What?" Rayne stared at him horrified. "You expect me to allow you to carry the Princess Royal of Alderaan in an animal carrier?" she exclaimed. "Have you lost your mind? Such as it is."
"It will work," Nathan replied, now capturing the attention of both JD and Josiah. "That Synax isn't much smaller than Leia. I know it's hardly dignified but if Josiah takes her, he might be able to reach the Rogue. You'll come with me. We'll take a different route. They're looking for a woman and a child, not a couple on their way off world."
"He is right," Josiah looked at the woman. "It is undignified for the child but she will not be awake to notice and what's more, she'll be safely away from here if it works."
Rayne frowned dubiously and turned to the Jedi, having yet to hear his opinion on the matter even though her faith in him was dwindling considerably. After all she had done to ensure that Leia remained out of Vader's reach, this Jedi had simply led the dark lord here thanks to his undisciplined friend. "You have not mentioned what you think of this plan?"
Chris knew what she was thinking and could hardly blame her for her lack of faith in him but Nathan's plan was sound even though it was a touch unorthodox. "I think that it is your best chance of fulfilling your promises to old friends."
Rayne glared at him sharply, realizing of course what he meant through that veiled reference. He meant of course, her promise to Padme, to keep her daughter safe. She supposed she could keep nothing from a Jedi if he intended to learn her secrets but then could not deny that she was not been trying hard to keep it from hi. He needed to know how seriously she took her obligations to Padme and how completely willing she was to sacrifice herself if necessary to save Padme's daughter.
"Why do I have to go with him?" Rayne demanded, not giving Nathan's the courtesy of looking him in the eye as she asked the question out loud.
"Because I'm the only one who can put up with your winning personality," Nathan retorted sarcastically and drew an even darker expression from the young lady herself even though JD and Josiah were trying not to snicker and Chris merely stifled the glint of amusement on his face.
"Alright," she conceded after a moment, uncertain of whether or not she disliked this plan most because of the unseemly way the Princess would be treated or simply because she would be forced to journey alone with this captain of the rebel Alliance. For some reason, ever since they had met, he had burrowed under her skin and remained there. It was not just the fact that he was like every soldier Rayne had ever encountered, arrogant and thinking their way was superior because of their weapons and their training, disbelieving anyone else could do it better and had for centuries before that uniform of theirs ever existed. Even though Nathan was a member of the Rebel Alliance, he still wore that arrogance, not to mention the fact that despite all his flaws and weaknesses and he had quite a few; what was worst than all of that was despite it all, Rayne liked him.
Sometimes the Force had a very strange sense of humor.
Vin Tanner was not happy when he woke up.
It was not just the fact that when he opened his eyes and awareness had spilled into his world, his head was throbbing as if a dozen banthas were doing a dance inside his skull but rather the discovery that he was not where he had remembered being. Hell he was not even on Zhar any more. When Vin finally regained consciousness after the unpleasantness that had forced Rayne to knock him out senseless, he woke up to find himself resting in the passenger seat of an old junket of a fighter. Around him was nothing but the strange iridescent tides that existed within hyperspace and as the flurry of color rushed past him and the small ship, it seemed to amplify the headache that was starting to pound against the inside of his skull cap.
If one thing consoled him it was the fact that when he finally gained enough coherence to notice something beyond the obvious, he saw that he had not been completely abandoned by his friends because Buck Wilmington was at the controls. The pilot was busy flicking some switches and judging by the sequence of buttons and knobs he was pushing and activating, it appeared as if they were about to jump out of light speed, which only begged the question about how long he had been unconscious. Predictably, that question was soon followed by a rather rapid succession of other questions like how he had come to be here, who had hit him, where were the others and most importantly, where the hell they were going.
"Buck," Vin spoke and his voice escaped him as a little more than a formed croaked. Fortunately, Vin was not that vocal anyway so Buck was prepared to hear his soft spoken voice at some point in the journey.
"Welcome back junior," Buck greeted in his usual cheery way. Vin could not understand how the man managed to keep in such good nature all the time. Must be all those women, Vin thought as he sat up in the cushioned seat he was leaning against.
"Where are we?" Vin asked, articulating the most prominent of the questions that had risen inside him during the last few seconds since regaining consciousness and discovering where he was.
"About to jump out of hyperspace in the orbit of Dagobah," Buck answered as if Vin had just asked him the time of day. He figured he would soon have an argument on his hands but he had made a promise to Chris and Buck did not take his promises to the Jedi lightly.
"Dagobah," Vin whispered and suddenly a lot that had remained hidden in vague shadows before leapt out of the mists inside his mind and revealed themselves to him. He remembered that dark icicle inside his head, digging and probing, trying to invade the rest of him. He shivered inwardly, recalling the sound of heavy metallic breathing as it pushed his way through his soul and prepared to lay waste to everything he was as if he was nothing but a specimen to be examined and then discarded once the learning was done. Vin had seen a great deal of villainy in his life. He had met beings that did not deserve to exist, let alone breathe the same air as he but through all those times, he had never felt, cold, unrelenting evil, wet and slick against his skin as he felt when Vader entered his mind.
"I got get back there Buck! I got help Chris!" Vin suddenly demanded, forgetting all the others questions and winced when his head retaliated for the sudden action.
"Easy there Junior!" Buck shouted from the front half of the fighter. "We're not going anywhere. Chris wanted me to get you as far away from Zhar as possible."
"Buck, you don't understand." He did not know whether or not it was the Force or the fact that he was starting to get to know Chris Larabee very well that had inspired Vin with a sudden flash of insight but suddenly, it all became clear what the Jedi was planning to do.. "He's going to face Vader alone!"
"Of course I understand!" Buck almost hissed. "He's been my friend when you were still tugging at your mama's skirt!" The pilot's voice filled with uncharacteristic emotion. "I know what he was going to do the minute he asked me to get you away from Zhar. I also know that nothing I said could have stopped him from doing it once it got into his mind."
"We have to get back there!" Vin persisted. "We can help him!"
"Vin," Buck let out a deep breath. "Have you ever seen two Jedi fight?"
"No," Vin retorted, slightly annoyed because Buck ought to know very well by now that until Vin had met Chris, he had never even believed they were real, let alone seen one.
"I did once," Buck answered; his voice was hollow and drawn. "One of them was a rogue," Buck explained remembering the temple in Yavin where the Sith Lord Exar Hun had once ran supreme and where some of his followers still went to pay him homage. "I saw a rogue and a Jedi Master go toe to toe. I'll never forget it. They move like nothing you can imagine and when you hear those sabers slamming against each other, a part of you prays that the good guy wins because the bad guy just scares the hell out of you. Trust me Vin," Buck said quietly. "Unless you're one of them, when two Jedis get it into their minds to kill each other, there's nothing you can do but stay out of the way."
"Vader's not just any Jedi!" Vin replied. "He's a Sith Lord!"
"Vin," Buck spoke once again, this time he was serious and it was a tone he did not use often because most of the time people were used to hearing him affable and in good humor. "We're not going back. I have no idea what it is you know that terrified Chris so much at the thought of Vader finding out that he wanted you off world and the truth is, I don't want to know. Anything that can scare a Jedi is something I don't want in my head. Unfortunately you don't have that choice and only you can decide whether what is you know is worth risking by going back there to help Chris."
Vin swore under his breath because he knew the answer to that. Chris had charged him with the most important secret he had when there was no reason to believe that Vin could be trusted except for the fact that Chris considered him a kindred spirit. Ever since Vin had met the Jedi, his world had been filling up with people who cared about him, who were willing to risk it all to save his life and to his utter astonishment, considered him one of their own; a thing he had never been to anyone. Before Chris there had been loneliness and an existence that was not all living as he was now. Sure it was a life fraught with danger but for someone who had thought that there was nothing left to his life but an inevitable end at the hands of one bounty that wouldn't be claimed, Chris' friendship had been an unexpected joy. Chris had trusted him with the secret that was Luke Skywalker and Vin could not betray that, even if it meant standing by and doing nothing while Chris sacrificed himself by facing Darth Vader.
"I hate this!" he swore. "I hate being what I am! I hate knowing what I know! I wish I never stumbled on it!" the unflappable bounty hunter cursed in a surge of uncharacteristic anger.
"But you did," Buck returned knowing none of the specifics but was perceptive enough to know what to say to soothe the younger man's turmoil. "And you know what to do don't you?"
Vin swallowed and nodded even though Buck wasn't looking at him. "Yeah I do," he whispered. "I need to go Dagobah."
Rayne did not know where Josiah, JD and the Princess had gone but she was not all optimistic about this plan. Aside from the fact that Yosemite's choice of a disguise involved a garment so scanty and flowing with translucent waves of cryosilk, she must have been naked, she was certain that every man on the street was following her curves as she sauntered along at Nathan's arm. The captain seemed very pleased with himself and was wearing a smirk on his face that Rayne was certain no woman should ever have to tolerate and wished nothing more than being able to wipe it off with her boot. The gossamer like material that covered most of her face did nothing to hide her features but seemed to add the allure of this entire seductive collection of clothes.
When they had passed a contingent of storm troopers, she thought they were done for. However, all the Imperials had done was give Nathan a nod and let them go on their way, as if it was an unspoken rule among men that when one of them acquired a particularly delectable morsel of female flesh, they were required to show their respect. Rayne hoped that Josiah did not lose her normal clothes because she was eager to slip out of these ridiculous garments into something that did not make her feel as if she were a palace courtesan. It was not as if she had any difficulty being admired by men. Living in Bail Organa's house as his daughter's keeper had seen her required to attend the social functions that were held in the palace on occasion. She knew how to dress for the occasion, just as she had done when she had been in the court of Naboo.
It's just that her life had been placed in the service of the Queen ever since she could remember. There had been no time for young lover or lovers now that she was grown woman. Love seemed to complicate things and she had seen many guardians and handmaiden's before her who had died for the mistake. Besides, how could she devote her time entirely with Leia if she had to share it with a man? It was just so impractical. Still she was starting to realize that her lack of experience with the opposite sex had given her certain vulnerabilities. After all, there could be no reasonable explanation why she enjoyed the feel of this annoying captain next to her. How could she be attracted to a man whose greatest talent so far was the fact that he had managed to live so long without getting his head blown off with that ludicrous idealism of his?
"We're almost there," Nathan said under his breath, still wearing that insipid grin on his face of a man about to partake in some very unsavory actions with this beautiful creature next to him. The space port came into view and so far the Imperials had not given them much trouble as he had anticipated. They were still in search of a woman and a child, not a man and a woman whose dress gave no doubts at to her profession. Once they were lost amongst the crowds inside the space port, it would be a simple matter of finding the Rogue and blasting off Zhar. Across the street, he could see Josiah strolling along looking like one of those rich people who could never leave their pets alone at home when they went away on trips. Josiah gave no indication of recognition and once again, JD who was already entering the space port, played the role of the wide eyed farm boy perfectly.
"Thank the Force," Rayne muttered unhappily. "I cannot wait to divest myself of these 'things'." She glanced at her clothes distastefully.
"I think you look beautiful," he replied and it was not because of what she was wearing. She was beautiful. He had thought so from the first moment he had seen her and then later, when he watched her feeding Leia, cradling the little girl in her arms and whispering all the sweet things that children needed to hear in their infancy and was reminded of his wife and how he loved to watch her when she was teaching school. Her students who were never more than waist high had adored her and when she taught them, he could see her entire soul radiated with pleasure. She had wanted children so much and he had wanted to have them with her, so that he could watch her perform that special magic for their own child.
"Nathan Jackson." Rayne suddenly noted something in his eyes that reminded her of Bail whenever the Senator would lapse into a memory of Padme. "You are sad," she declared. "Why are you sad?"
"No reason," he shrugged, feeling the ache so profound that he thought he might die sometimes. He could not blame Chris for climbing into a bottle as he had. There were moments when Nathan was tempted to crawl in there with him. "It's nothing."
"It is not nothing," Rayne persisted, surprising herself with her need to know. What need did this idealist have to be sad, especially after making a statement about her beauty? "Your mind is clouded. I will not allow you to jeopardise our escape by allowing this unpleasantness to fester and hamper your judgement."
"Thank you for your concern," he said sarcastically. "I told you it's nothing."
"But it is," she stood her ground. "You will tell me."
Something inside Nathan snapped at that moment and he relented. "Alright, if you must know. You remind me of my wife Ana."
"You are married," she tried not to sound disappointed even though she did not know why she should feel that way at all.
"I was married," he said turning away, unable to risk looking at her when he spoke about Ana. "She died a little more than a year ago. She was a teacher and when you were holding Leia in your arms, you kind of reminded me of her."
Rayne felt her insides melt and wondered how she could be moved in such a typically feminine way. She did not like to see him sad and that too surprised her, just like everything else about Nathan Jackson.
"I am honored for the comparison," she responded with more than a visible hint of affection. "You must have loved her very much."
Nathan was still looking away when he whispered. "I still love her very much."
Chris Larabee left the others and wandered.
He did not have a particular destination as he moved through the streets, an enigmatic figure that everyone who saw had sense enough to step out of his way. Those who did not were sent on their way in a daze, made that way by a simple suggestion placed in their heads by a Jedi who had no wish to fight just yet. The ploy worked well even on Imperial stormtroopers who saw him and recognized that he was a Jedi. He knew that they would leave him alone even if they knew he was a rebel and a wanted criminal. The truth was stormtroopers were not equipped to deal with the Jedi and was usually advised by their superiors to report the sighting and leave the matter to those who could handle the situation. This was just as well because there were too many of them on the streets of Zhar and Chris did not want to create any more of an incident then necessary, at least not until the others had left the planet safely.
He looked at the sky above Oblai City and saw that the clouds were still pink for the moment. Following some predestined route, he turned a corner, ascended some stairs, took a lift in one of the city's spires and went straight to the top. When he emerged on the roof, he stepped out into the empty stretch of platform and knew without doubt that he was where he had was supposed to be. He crossed the floor of the platform and finally felt something click inside his head, tellling him that he was here and there was more need to keep wandering.
He found himself standing at the edge of the large platform, the one he had seen in his dreams and felt the same wind whipping at his hair when he raised his eyes and was greeted by the familiar amber sky. The twin moons did not wink when they gazed down upon him through the pink clouds. Gazing down past the edge of the platform, he saw the great drop that ended with the rushing waters of the Oblai Falls, the largest cascade in this quadrant of space. Chris took in the sight of everything that had been known to him for some days now and waited. He lowered himself to a kneeling position and occupied himself in silent meditation. There were no regrets, no sorrows but rather an acceptance of what was coming. He had seen it all happen and would change it if he could. If he could not, then he was content that this was the will of the Force and strangely enough, he was comforted by that.
When the doors to the lift slid open a few minutes later, Chris was not surprised. He had felt the approach in his mind, felt the darkness pressing in against his consciousness with each nearing footstep. Soon the mental approach evolved into a physical one and with the first echo of that hoarse, metallic breath, Chris rose to his feet and turned around finally, afraid of nothing.
Not even his destiny, wearing Darth Vader's face.
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