Ezra Standish was surprise to find that for the first time in his life, he was content.
True, he was almost a spy for the Rebel Alliance and should his complicity in their affairs ever be uncovered, a court martial would be the least of his worries. However, on the other hand, he was stationed at a place where he was absolute master. He had his own beverage mark and in and out tray on his very own desk where every morning his trust adjutant Claire would bring his cup full and hand him reports to peruse. His evening were spent in Cordoba either teaching the locals that the commanding officer of the Cordoba outpost also was quite capable of playing a savage game of sabaac when he got his mind into it. Lately, he had acquired the company of a most sultry and amazing woman and as far as Ezra could compare it with the rest of his life until now, this was about as good as it was got.
His relationship with Inez was still rather casual. Though their affection and attraction for each other was intense, neither were strangers to the matters of the heart and were sensible enough to proceed with caution. They took dinner together whenever she was available to leave the Four Corners Tavern and enjoyed in each other's company as they partook in the scant nightlife afforded by Cordoba City. Ezra did not mind, he enjoyed being with her and he liked to think she felt the same way about him. Oh it was not true love, both of them were too jaded for that but their relationship was warm and passionate and their intimacies were becoming more heated with each meeting. He was also glad that his station as Commander of the outpost ensured that the local Imperial authorities gave her a wide berth, though it was never required for me to make that statement verbally.
His relationship with Inez also had the added advantage of offering a suitable explanation for all his visits to Four Corners, which was the center of rebel activity on Cordoba. Fortunately, this was a fact known only to him at this point for Inez had been smart enough to keep her involvement low key and those who used her bar for their rebel activities were also similarly mindful of drawing suspicion to their oases in enemy territory. It was at Four Corners that Ezra was able to catch up regularly with Nathan Jackson, his oldest friend in the world and the rest of the men who had become just as close in the short time he had come to know them. Ezra knew that one day he would be cornered into making a choice between his loyalties and the career he had always looked to as a refuge from the unsavory life he had been borne of.
For the time being that day was still some distance away and Ezra picked up his cup of warm cider and took a deep sip before he turned towards the daily reports from all department heads under his command. He had no more than gotten through the report informing what ships were cleared to arrive at the Cordoba space port when the doors to his office slid open and the young woman named Claire hurried through the doors looking quite anxious indeed. Although Claire was unaware of his involvement in the Rebel Alliance, she herself had some affiliations with the group. Her husband was First Officer to the Purgatory, the bane of Imperial ships in local space whenever it was under the direct command of Mary Travis. While she did nothing to undermine the Empire presence or use her position to aid the rebellion, Ezra knew that she would die protecting her husband if it ever came down to it. He hoped if the situation arose, she would do the same for him.
"My dear, you look positively perturbed," Ezra remarked casually, setting down his cup on the desk. "Whatever is the matter?"
"You'll look just as perturbed when you read this," she retorted handing him a data pad.
"What is it?" Ezra sat up in his chair as he took the pad from her hand and studied it.
It took only a brief glimpse for him to memorize most of the text, a talent acquired from his sabaac playing skills. However, fast or not, the content clearly indicated that Claire had reason to be so concerned and judging what was coming at him, so did he.
"She gets here tomorrow." Ezra eased back into his chair.
"What do we do Sir?" Claire looked at him in question, hoping he would have an answer.
"What can we do Lieutenant?" Ezra returned her gaze. "She has been appointed by Coruscant. There is no higher court I can appeal to."
What Ezra did not mention that it was most likely that his new First Officer Lieutenant Julia Pemberton was most likely appointed to her position by Darth Vader himself. Even though Ezra had saved the dark Jedi's life, he had not been realistic in thinking that Vader would show any gratitude. Vader had stated most emphatically that he believed Ezra to be guilty of concealment. He supposed this was how the Sith Lord sought to find out. Although this was somewhat of an annoyance, Ezra knew he could get around any agent send to spy on him. Mostly because he knew how to be far more devious than any Jedi could possibly imagine, having learned from the expert tutelage of his mother, Maude.
"So we're just going to accept this?" Claire looked at him sharply.
"Unless you have some brilliant plan that will change Lord Vader's mind for that is the one who has appointed her to this position, I am going to do exactly that."
"Vader?" she gasped with dismay. He was right, there was no way to avoid this.
"Vader." Ezra nodded in affirmation. "I guessed he was not entirely convinced that I had the Empire's interest at heart."
"He thinks you're a rebel?" she asked with a hushed voice. Just the suspicion of that could ensure that Ezra be erased from existence.
"He does not know what I am which is part of the reason for his consternation I believe," Ezra responded. "It was probably why he dispatched the coming Lieutenant Pemberton."
"So what are we going to do?" She looked at him, waiting for him to find some way out of their predicament. In truth, he did not have one and he had no wish to be here to greet one of Vader's spies when they arrived. He considered his options and decided that perhaps it was time he made himself scarce for a time. He had more than enough furlough accumulated to take some time away. In the meantime, he could let the spy cool her heels and fidget awaiting for his arrival of if he threw enough breadcrumbs in her way, it might send her on a wild goose chase for a few weeks and keep her out of his hair.
"I think that I need to go see Inez." Ezra stood up abruptly from behind his desk.
"Now?" Claire exclaimed in disbelief. "Sir we have a crisis coming to us in a less than 21 hours, we need to formulate some kind of battle plan."
"It's only a spy Lieutenant," Ezra gave her a look. "Not an invasion. There is nothing here that would incriminate either of us, lest there is something you need to tell me about?" He cocked his brow at her.
"Of course not!" Claire sputtered almost mortified by the notion. "But we need to think this out!"
"No we do not," he said breezily as he sat his cap on his hat and adjusted into position. "I need to think this out. You need to go off and prepare the so far unused first officer's quarters as well as an office for the new lieutenant. I will be back later."
"Captain!" Claire tried once more to talk some sense into her commanding officer.
"Lieutenant," Ezra paused at the door long enough to add. "Trust me. I shall handle this."
With that he left the room and his anxious adjutant to panic without him. In truth, he had no real plan other than to disappear for a week or two for he was in simply too good a mood to put up with Lieutenant Julia Pemberton. Ezra thought he would never hear himself say this but at the moment, he needed to go visit with his mother.
Josiah Sanchez strode into the hangar bay shortly after the new visitor to the rebel had made her departure with JD Dunne to find Mary Travis, leaving Chris with a deep sense of foreboding that something was looming on the horizon. That feeling was further reinforced with the trouble expression on Josiah's face not to mention the dark stormy emotions that were emanating from the former Republic Senator. As a rule, Chris did not pry into the thoughts of his friend although he sensed strong emotions clearly, whether or not he wished to do so. It was a part of Jedi sensory perception that he could not deny for to close one aspect of it would be to dull one sense and that would inevitably lead to errors in judgement.
"Is she here already?" Josiah asked as he reached the table where Vin Tanner had more or less given up the notion of building his light sabre, at least for the moment.
"You mean tall, dark, wears leather like it was painted on?" Buck Wilmington asked.
Josiah rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Yes, Commander Styles. Is she here?"
"She's gone to see Mary," Chris quickly informed, sensing the urgency in the matter even if the others did not.
"Damn," Josiah hissed. "I was hoping to reach her before she got to Mary."
"What's going on?" Chris asked, rising from his seat. "Who is this Commander Styles."
Josiah took a deep breath as he collected his thoughts. There was no point keeping anything secret from a Jedi because if Chris wanted to, he could learn the truth with far more speed than Josiah was capable of hiding. Besides, Chris was the only person in this base who could match Mary Travis for will, if worse came to worse, he might be able to help avoid a situation from getting too much out of hand.
"She's a deep cover operative. Has been out in the field for the last year or so," Josiah explained. "Extremely high clearance. She also happens to be Mary's sister in law."
"Sister in law?" Vin Tanner remarked with more interest than normal. "She's Stephen's sister?"
"Half sister," Josiah responded quickly and moved on. "That's not the problem. Two days ago, she sent a report to Alliance high command of some information she's uncovered. Now she transmitted her message on scrambler frequency and headed straight for here to see Mary."
"What's the message?" Buck asked, guessing accurately that it had to be something big for Josiah to be so worried and to have an intelligence operative coming out from assignment to deliver it to Mary personally.
"Stephen Travis is alive."
Chris Larabee took the new surprisingly well considering that a thousand hopes unspoken by himself, hidden so deep away inside him that he dared not even admit its existence, suddenly shattered like a plate glass windows into a thousand fragments. He hid his disappointment well and told himself he was being foolish, all in the space of seconds that it took for Josiah's word to reach him. Mary and he had a relationship that was little more than friendship, he had no right to feel the pangs of jealously assaulting him upon realising that Stephen, Mary's husband was very much alive.
"Woah," Buck whistled softly. "That's big Josiah."
Buck did not trust himself to say anything to Chris, knowing the Jedi would not take the well- intentioned platitude well. Chris remained stone faced, revealing nothing which only proved to Buck just how much pain he was feeling at this sudden news. It was no secret that there was something developing between the Jedi and the Rebel leader. However, it was only in its beginnings and if Mary's husband were alive then it would die this minute. Chris did not fall for women frequently. The only woman he had ever remembered the Jedi caring about this much was Sarah and now Mary. Buck knew that though Chris did not say it and Mary was a non-issue, he had nonetheless fallen hard for the lovely woman they all admired.
"How?" Vin probed further, knowing Chris would not ask even though he wanted to. Vin was just aware as Buck about how Chris felt about Mary, if not better because they were both Force adept. As always, the former bounty hunter was tuned into the Jedi's mental state and suspected that Chris had a great deal of personal feelings in this matter because when Josiah had revealed his news, Vin found his senses slamming straight into a wall barring Chris' emotional state from him.
"We always believed that Stephen was killed as a warning to Mary when her loyalties started to become suspect," Josiah explained. "Billy was with him when it happened. Stephen had the housekeeper take the boy out of the house while he stalled the assassins. I think the plan was to kill Stephen and take Billy as hostage as a reminder of what she still had to lose."
"Real charitable," Buck said with open disgust. "I'm guessing that didn't happen."
"No," Josiah shook his head sadly. "The housekeeper got Billy away safely but by the time we got back to the house, there was nothing left. It was completely destroyed.. If there was a body, it was just a vaporised."
"Good way to hide it if they didn't kill him," Vin remarked.
"Exactly," Josiah agreed because that was precisely what had happened. "Apparently Styles stumbled onto the information that the attackers were not Imperials. It was the Empire that commissioned the killing with the belief that Billy would be brought to them but the actual assailant was a bounty hunter, named Glorith Daal."
"I know her," Vin declared automatically. "She's not a contract bounty hunter," he stated. The Bounty Hunters Guild was a small select group and unless you had the sanctioning of the Guild, you could not operate. Doing so without permission was a quick way to get a vibro-blade between the ribs. The advantage of being in such an organisation was the fact that each member was known to one another. "She works for Black Sun."
"Well apparently Glorith doublecrossed the Empire because she didn't hand Stephen over to them, she handed them to Black Sun," Josiah concluded.
"Ah hell," Vin swore under his breath and it was with enough fear to make the other stare at him. Vin was the one with the connections to the seamier side of galactic underworld. As a former bounty hunter, he had the chance to work for some of the most dangerous gangsters in the business, like the Hutts for instance. However even Vin knew well enough to stay away from the likes of the Black Sun and its leader, Laurel Chase. "Chase has got him?"
"You know Laurel Chase?" Josiah asked with surprise. The information the Alliance had on the woman was sketchy at best but one thing was clear; she was very dangerous and agents in the field were instructed to approach her with extreme caution if at all.
"I know her by reputation. She's not the like the Hutts at all. Likes having talent that's female. There are no men in Black Sun all and she is very selective about what she dabbles in. Mostly runs addictive substances to the core worlds. Spice, Crystals and a little pick me up which is apparently all the thing on the fight circuits, Venom. Makes anyone who takes it real strong and aggressive. I had to bring in a bounty hooked on the stuff once and it took just about everything I had to bag him. Her power base is mostly in the Corporate Sector. That's the only reason why Nal Hutta hasn't made a run for her yet, she's too far from the Hutt sphere of influence."
"Why would she want Stephen?" Buck muttered, asking no one in particular because it did not make sense that a gangster would have any interest in the husband of a rebel leader.
"Well think about it," Chris spoke for the first time. "He was supposed to be taken with Billy. The bounty hunter did not finish the job she was contracted to do and the Empire doesn't forgive mistakes."
"That's true," Vin agreed. "They were more than ready to put a price on my head just because I refused to bring in Chris. For something like that Glorith would have barely got out with her skin. So instead she brings Travis to Chase."
"She brings him to Chase who keeps him for a year." Buck was still puzzled.
"Well now she's asking the Empire ten million credits for him," Josiah continued.
"Why now?" Vin mused. "Why after a year?"
"That's easy," Chris answered, his insides hollowing at the top. "Mary was not a rebel then, just suspected of it. She's proven herself to be able commander against any fleet commander in the entire Star Fleet. She destroyed an Imperial base at Doldur 3 and took out an Imperial Star Destroyer. She's sitting on top of the Imperial wanted list, almost as highly placed at Mon Mothma or Bel Iblis. We all know what they'd do get their hands on her."
"So Chase was hanging on to him," Vin nodded in understanding.
"Yeah," Chris said grimly. "She was waiting to drive the price up."
When Mary Travis instructed whoever it was at her door to come into her office, she certainly did not expect to see a face from the past, nor one she held with such affection. She had expected it was a junior officer who needed yet another report signed, another requisition order filled, instructions from high command giving them more grim statistic regarding Imperial cruelty, everything except the face that appeared before her. It was a face that reminded her of simpler times when dreams were not something that left the taste of ash in her mouth and youth was something not to be looked back upon with regret and yearning.
"Alex!" Mary fairly squealed in delight upon seeing the face of her oldest and dearest friend, emerging from her desk with such un-commander like behavior that JD Dunne who had escorted Commander Styles to her office was still rather stunned. He did not normally think of Mary as a woman even though the young man would have to be just about blind not to notice. Mary was a very beautiful woman but she was also the leader of local rebel base, the infallible commander who could take on Star Destroyers and win. It was not often that he saw the person underneath all that.
"Hey!" Alex stepped away from JD and crossed the floor in seconds to meet Mary in the middle of her office in a warm hug. Both women laughed happily at seeing each other again, their mutual joy evident on their faces and left JD wondering what the connection between the two were.
"JD," Mary turned to their unwitting observer when she finally slipped out of the embrace. "This is my sister-in-law, Alexandra Styles."
"That's Alex to you kid." She smiled, realizing that the young man was one of Mary's friends and thus was deserving of her own consideration.
"Hi Alex," JD greeted her, somewhat uneasy about calling her by such an informal name when it was only a moment ago that she had ordered him to take her to Mary's office with all the rank and protocol deserving of one in her position.
"I think I scared him a little," Alex threw him a wink filled with playful mischief and suddenly the image of the stern commanding woman began to fade for something more palatable. It was obvious that she was just as delighted at seeing Mary again.
"Alex is a good friend JD," Mary explained barely able to contain her lovely smile. "We were at the Academy together."
"Oh," he nodded mutely and felt more certain than ever that he ought to leave in order to leave these two friends to get reacquainted. He felt a little pleased though because Alex's arrival certainly lifted the Commander's spirit and like every other soldier in the rebel base, they knew that moments when their commanding officer had time to herself were far and between. "Well I gotta be going," he said excusing himself and was hardly surprised that they noticed him leaving. Still, when he walked away from the closing door of her office, he hoped that Mary and her friend had a good time visiting. They probably had lots to talk about and catch up on.
When they were alone, Mary returned to her desk while Alex nestled herself in the chair in front of it. Mary fished out a bottle she seldom showed anyone she had hidden in the bottom drawer of her desk but was absolutely essential to her well being unless she wanted to steal Chris' light saber and hack everyone to death when she was in a bad mood.
"Oh refreshments." Alex grinned as Mary started pouring the contents of the expensive Alderaanian liquor bottle into two small glasses. She noted the label on the bottle and added. "You still love that expensive stuff don't you?"
"And you've been working on the fringes too long, you've gotten used to rot gut," Mary retorted as she sat the bottle down after filling both drinking receptacles.
"What's with the Jedi and the bounty hunter?" Alex found herself asking, aware that she was delaying the inevitable but Mary's spirits were so lifted at seeing her that she had no wish to bring on the grim news she had come here to impart in the first place, any sooner than necessary. Even the Hero of Jofa needed news like this broken to her gently.
"You saw Chris and Vin?" Mary stared at her with a raised brow as she slid one of the glasses in Alex's direction.
"They were with the kid," Alex said brushing a strand of hair from her face as she raised the glass to her lips take a sip. "I saw the light saber on the table."
"Oh the one Vin's been trying to build for the last week." Mary nodded in acknowledgement. "Not having too much luck with it. Poor thing seems to keep getting interrupted a lot."
"Are you saying Vin Tanner is the one who owns the light saber?" Alex exclaimed with surprise. She was certain it was the handsome blond god with the dark expression who was the Jedi. Alex was aware that this particular cell of the rebel alliance had among its personnel a Jedi Knight who kept company with the former bounty hunter known as Vin Tanner. Of course, Alex had never met Tanner herself until know.
"Do you know Vin?" Mary stared at her.
"Only by reputation," Alex declared. "He's meant to be the best damn bounty hunter in the galaxy. What's he doing here?"
"Believe it or not, trying to become a Jedi apprentice," Mary drawled as she savored the liquid in her mouth and let it warm her from inside out. "That is if he ever gets to build that light saber."
"You probably got a good story of how he came to be here," Alex commented not needing to hear if Tanner could be trusted. Mary was no fool and Alex had utmost confidence in the legitimacy of Tanner being here because of her faith in Mary. They had been at Jofa together and if there was one thing Alex trusted above all else, it was Mary's instincts. More than once, it had saved both their lives. "He looks nothing like I heard."
Mary knew the look of interest that Alex was trying not to show because she had been Alex's friend from the time she had her first crush, her first date and then her first love. She knew her friend as thoroughly as Alex probably knew her. "Are you telling me you still have a thing for the ones with the bad reputation and cute baby blues eyes?"
"I barely know the man!" Alex scoffed in amusement, which soon disintegrated when she remembered why she was here and that this conversation was not helping. Mary had to be told, no matter how much Alex did not want to do it. Before Mary was her brother's wife, she was Alex's best friend first and there was too much between them for Alex to keep this from her. Mary would want to be told. Immediately.
"I'm sure," Mary said dubiously and noted the expression in Alex's eyes, despite the bittersweet smile on her face. She had guessed Alex's visit here was not a social call and decided that she had better help Alex along with the reason for her arrival. "Now, you don't come out of the cold, to fly all the way here just to see how I'm doing, not that I am not terribly grateful if you did. What's up Alex? What is you can't tell me?"
Alex's face drained of all humor and her brow knitted to take on a very different persona, one that made Mary's blood run cold just seeing it. Suddenly, Mary felt her pulse racing even though she did not know why. Alex could not meet her gaze and continued to stare at the glass which immediately heightened Mary's anxiety at the scale of the news she was about to hear.
"Its Stephen," Alex spoke, finally realizing that there was no easy way to say it but to simply speak it in honesty and hope that the truth was enough comfort in itself. "He's alive."
For a second, it did not register. She stared at Alex, her fingers tightening around the glass, pressing up against the smooth surface until her blood rushed away from outer layer of skin and the overwhelming pressure by withdrawing into the rest of her hand. Her heart had gone from racing to stopping entirely in her chest and for a moment, she thought she heard it explode.
"Mary!" Alex exclaimed as the glass shattered in her hand.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN STEPHEN IS ALIVE!" Mary roared, ignoring the shards of glass in her hands or the blood dripping onto the desk from the cuts.
"Your hand....," Alex started to say.
"TO HELL WITH MY HAND!" Mary thundered again. "How is it possible that Stephen is alive?"
"All I know is that instead of sending out agents to kill him, the Empire sent a bounty hunter. When they didn't get Billy, they took Stephen alive instead of killing him like they were supposed to but the bounty hunter was afraid, you know how the Empire is these days with a botched job. The bounty hunter played it smart, instead of handing Stephen over to them, she turned him over to the Black Sun and now that you're one of the most wanted criminals in the galaxy, Black Sun is asking the Empire for 10 million credits."
"My husband is being ransomed by gangsters?" Mary gasped. The very thought of it was obscene.
"Mary, I've informed the Alliance," Alex explained. "I wanted to come here and do this face to face before you heard it over some transmission. I'm sure the Alliance will match that sum."
"My husband is not a thing to be bargained with." Mary stood up right, wiping her soaking hand on her shirt and leaving a bloody print mark on the material. "We're going to get him back right now," she said with steel in her voice.
"Get him back?" Even Alex was taken back by that response. Mary was not one who thought rashly. She had expected her friend to be angered by the news, perhaps enough to make voice of a rescue plan. Mary had always been the thinker of them both, the one who always weighed in decisions carefully before attacking. She was the best military commander in the rebel fleet, even Bel Iblis had conceded that fact. Iblis own prowess was as an intelligence gatherer, Mary was military, right down to the bone. She knew warfare and strategy better than any commander the rebels had and though her rage showed not often, Alex knew that Black Sun, presently residing in the Corporate Sector had every reason to fear.
"Yes," Mary rounded her desk and striding forcefully to the door. Her eyes fairly radiated crimson heat as she turned to Alex and stated. "I have a warship at my disposal and before I allow my husband, the father my child to be traded to the Empire like a sacrificial lamb, I will annihilate every last one of them"
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