CHAPTER TWO

The Whipid had been watching the duo of humans from the moment they had emerged from the docking bay. As an informant, he knew the wisdom of keeping an eye on things even if there was no reason to do so. Most of the time, his livelihood relied almost entirely on chance encounters, glimpses of the unusual and subtle shifts in the wind that bespoke more than was intended. The spaceport of Cordoba was one of the best places for such observations, for it was here that all creatures appeared their most vulnerable. If asked to explain why, the Whipid would be unable to do so. He would be able to say in his defense that the spaceport was a place of purpose for those who came here did so for one reason or another and the trick was in finding which reason was most valuable.

The tall, dark human with the lovely blond companion had a reason and it was an important one, if the body language displayed by the male was any indication. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of human physiology, the species came equipped with numerous facial expressions, which displayed the subtle changes in behavior and emotional states that allowed for easy interpretation by someone who knew what to look for. The Whipid noted the way the male's eyes darted about, searching the faces for that sign that heralded danger. When he noted none, he ushered the lady into the corridor and they made their way through the bodies, cautious and alert of everything before them.

The Whipid shifted from his position against the wall of one of the many busy corridors in the complex, appearing to most as little more than a beggar that did not even rate a second glance by the human as he hurried past with his lady. There was no doubt in the mind of the observer that the duo was engaged in something important, even illegal. Their body language revealed the tension that was running through both of tem and warranted the Whipid's continued interest. It was relatively easy for him to maintain his surveillance with the number of people that were moving in and out of the spaceport on their way to their respective destinations.

The observed humans were trying to make their way out of the space station, that much was clear which somewhat surprised the Whipid who thought that they might be attempting to make their way off world, since the male was so apprehensive. His manner indicated he might have been a soldier of some sort, certainly his body language reeked of discipline and control. However, the Whipid suspected that it was more than likely that he was not an Imperial agent. Imperial agents had no reason to feel fear and that set the Whipid's thought processes into motion. A rebel perhaps?

As an informant, it was impossible for the Whipid not to know about the rebel alliance as infant as it might be at present. Certainly, the Empire considered the movement a very real threat that would have significant impact on future galactic politics and stability. Much of the Empire's concern was due to the fact that most of its leaders were former members of the Republic Senate and their voices represented the silent majority that disliked the establishment of an Emperor in place of a Chancellor. Although Palpatine's reign was new, the destruction of the Jedi Order and the extraordinary powers being granted to regional governors were already giving concern to many.

Despite the fact that the rebel alliance was not well equipped, their benefactors were rumored to be powerful governments like Alderaan and Mon Calamari, industrially rich worlds that could soon alter that weakness by providing armaments and military support. Standing orders to all Imperial informants demanded the immediate notification to authorities of any data regarding the rebel alliance and its members. The Whipid was becoming more and more certain that the two humans he was following were apart of that organization. Unfortunately, it was not wise to observe rebels for an extended period of time and as they neared the edge of the spaceport, he saw a group of storm troopers about to switch duty rotations.

The Whipid waited until the two humans had left the main doors of the spaceport before making his way to the storm troopers. He had no wish to rouse their suspicion should he be seen. Rebels had no hesitation in dying for their cause and taking betrayers with them to the grave. Whatever business the rebels had in Cordoba, they would still have to return to the space to leave it once that business was concluded. Cordoba was not that large a community and it would be relatively easy for the storm troopers to uncover their whereabouts should a sweep of the city be made. Even so, it would be just as easy for them to catch up to the duo once he had passed the information on the information of their existence and his suspicions. However, there was the possibility that he might be wrong, that the two humans could have a perfectly legitimate reason for their manner. If so, it was of no concern to him. His job was the passing of data; it was someone else's responsibility to verify it.

Besides, he was not wrong.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner had done his research carefully before arriving on Cordoba in search of his prey. The Imperial agents who had hired him had provided some data about the man's whereabouts but Vin did not trust it to be accurate. He had his own contacts and although he was once Jabba's slave, Vin had resolved his difference with the gangster long ago to have access to the vast resources of the Hutt network. Thus before he had even set foot on Cordoba, the bounty hunter had a good idea regarding the layout of the city. Though he would be hard pressed to explain how he was able to commit so much information to memory, Vin was confident that he would have no difficulty navigating through the city.

He moved through Cordoba as if he was native to the place and every turn of road and path was already familiar to him. It was such skills that had allowed him to be known as one of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy. In truth, when questioned about his uncanny intuition, Vin often felt uncomfortable. He could not explain why he often simply knew when he was walking into a dangerous situation or how it was possible to be certain that someone was lying to him or not. The abilities had saved his life too many times than he could count but trying to understand what it was, frightened Vin more than any of the dangers he had ever faced in his life.

Returning his thoughts to the Jedi, it was not lost upon Vin how easily his thoughts were prone to distraction during this occasion and he told himself that if he did not stop, he would get himself killed. Taking a deep breath, he focussed himself, forcing his concentration to sharpen on the business at hand. Most of the reports centering on the Jedi were vague and uncertain but Vin had sifted through them to know where he ought to start looking. In truth, he did not expect it to be easy but then what ever was? The tavern where most of the sighting of the Jedi originated was called the Four Corners Inn and the informants believed that he was residing permanently at the establishment. However, for some strange reason, none of the informants were aware that Larabee was a Jedi and were genuinely surprised when told of that fact.

For some reason, that gave Vin pause.

The more he thought about this assignment, the more he disliked it. Everything about going after Jedi felt wrong. If it were not for the fact that his personal liberty was at stake, he would have turned them Empire down. Certainly, if he brought the Jedi in, he would be very well paid. Perhaps enough to buy that quiet little place he always-wanted on Iskalon. Vin had been forced to land the Tracker on the planet once during his trip through the system. Not only was it remote and beyond the reach of the main space lanes but also pristine and untouched. It was the kind of place where someone who did not like people could lose himself forever.

However, there was something else at work inside of him that made him anxious about the whole business of hunting Jedi. He could not explain it but it soured inside his belly and left such a bad taste that it was taking all his effort to ignore it. He knew he was capable of hardening his emotions to such impregnability that nothing could penetrate. One could not do what he did for a living without building such shields over one's emotions. The cardinal rule he had been taught from those who had introduced him to the business was simple; never feel for the mark. The moment that happened, you were as good as dead.

Shaking such negative thoughts out of his mind, he found himself at the tavern in question. As such places went, it was certainly not the most inviting establishment of its type in Cordoba. If anything, it looked dingy and seedy. The building was not far short of dilapidated and the sign that read its name was almost falling off the awning that hung across the door. The size of the building indicated that it probably took in lodgers but would not be the first choice of patrons who could afford better. As he approached it, he could hear the sound of the slight chatter of customers from within the tavern, with music emanating from the open door. Vin checked his blaster once more, even though he had primed it the moment he was within line of sight of the tavern. He had already enough reservations about this entire situation without being badly prepared as well.

The first thing that assaulted him upon entering the dim surroundings of the tavern, it must have been a galactic standard that they all be bathed in darkness, Vin thought as he passed through the doors. The layout of the room placed the tables in individual booths, lit only by a small lamp at the center of the table. It was not very busy and yet there was something about it that immediately forced Vin to drop his hand to his holster. A few patrons sat at the bar; the others hid in their booths, watching him closely as he entered the floor of the establishment. The clientele included both human and non humans. They jabbered at each other in their own language, or through the means of a translator that turned six millions forms of communication into Standard Galactic speak. However, upon his arrival, their voices lowered and thought they tried not to look at him, he was certain that he was the reason. Vin was accustomed to such reaction from the local populace because his reputation as a bounty hunter was not something he could hide but there was something more at work here. However, just what about it felt wrong was something he could not define despite the feeling of unbalanced that prevailed.

Behind the counter, the bartender gave him reason to stare for she was indeed very beautiful. Flowing dark hair and dusky skin, she offered him a little smile as he approached the stained wooden counter. Unlike her tavern, which reeked of alcohol and nickitaine, he could almost smell her perfume through the odor of intoxicants in the room. Vin did not have much experience with women and if one thing could be considered his weakness, it was his dealings with the opposite sex. There had been no women on the moisture farm where he had grown up and the first time he had actually seen a human female was shortly after he had escaped Tatooine in his late teens. After that, his relations with women had been scarce and he had never slept with one he did not have to pay for.

"What can I get you?" She asked with that devastating smile upon reaching the counter.

"Information," he said in his too soft voice.

"Sorry," she shrugged. "Don't deal in information, just drinks. There are plenty of informants elsewhere in Cordoba but not here. I don't believe in selling out for money. " She did not look offended as she made this speech, merely content to simply tell him the facts as they stood.

Vin's brow raised in surprise. He could tell that she meant it too. There were not many people who genuinely surprised him and despite the wisdom of doing so, Vin found that he warmed to the lovely bartender. "I'm sorry," he answered quietly. "I was looking for someone who lodges here."

"That I can help you with." She leaned forward on the counter and rested her chin on her hand as she looked up at him with her dancing eyes. "You have a name for this someone?"

"Larabee," Vin answered, leaning forward in kind. Despite his casual manner, he was watching her expression carefully.


She did not disappoint. Immediately, her eyes darted over his shoulder and Vin did not need to turn around to know that she had glanced at someone who was here at this moment. This troubled the bounty hunter somewhat, even though he showed no indication of it to the woman before him. Vin was further surprised that he had not sensed that. Usually, he could feel it when a bounty was close. He did not know how that could be but his intuition on these matters was almost always right. "Thanks," Vin said simply, not about to compromise her any more than necessary.

"Hey," she called out as he started to turn away. "I wouldn't bother him."

"I'm not going to bother him," Vin remarked.

"That's good," she returned. "Because he knew you were coming."

Vin stopped short and looked sharply at her. "What do you mean?" He asked, his voice now little more than a low hiss.

"I mean he was expecting you. Ten minutes ago, he asked me to bring him two drinks," she explained an expression of concern in her eyes. Vin could not tell whether her worry was for Larabee or him but intuition once again told him that it was a little of both.

"Thanks..." Vin nodded in understanding and looked at her to reveal her name.

"Inez," she volunteered.

"Thanks Inez." He offered her a small smile and turned around to deal with the Jedi who had been expecting him. Had the Imperial agents compromised him? How would the Jedi know that he was here? He supposed someone in Jabba's organization could have talked. Money was capable of loosening many tongues but somehow Vin did not believe so. Jabba's network was normally very reliable because Jabba's treatment of those who betrayed his trust was extreme to say the least.

The figure waiting for him at his booth was wearing a dark cloak with a hood that ensured that he was unrecognizable in the dim light of the tavern. Vin saw no signs of movement but observed that the contents in one of the glasses on the table happened to be the beer of his choice. His hand was now firmly across his gun, poised to draw if the moment arose. As he neared the table, the hood rose and a pair of eyes stared at him.

"Chris Larabee," Vin spoke recognizing the face that gazed up at him indifferently.

"What's left of him." The responding voice was a little more than a low hiss.

Vin paused at the table and studied the man whose eyes saw him and through him at the same time. The Jedi was not what he expected but then Vin had never met a Jedi, so preparation for the meeting was impossible.

"How did you know I was coming?" Vin found himself asking.

"You know the answer to that better than I do," the man answered, his piercing green eyes turning to the glass in his hand. He downed the drink without having any fear at taking his eyes off a potentially dangerous bounty hunter.

"I don't," Vin replied, unaware of why he was so defensive at what were harmless questions, despite their cryptic nature. "I'm here to take you in," he continued speaking, trying to get some kind of reaction from the man, to show him who was in charge here. "You can make this simple. You come with me now and I won't hurt you. Give me any trouble and I don't have any problem bringing in you dead."

Chris Larabee lowered the mug in his hand and stared at the young man whose power emanated strongly even though he knew nothing of it or at least did not wish to admit that it existed. There was a time when Chris would have cared enough to let the man know his potential but that time was long past. It was a pity too that he did not care about this faceless young man who in another time would have realised that he was apart of something greater than himself, that force burned strongly within him and he could someday take his place among others of his kind.

Others of his kind....

The realization that there would be no others for a long time left ash in Chris' mouth. It left ash as bitter tasting as the sorrow that kept his heart an open wound. He closed his eyes and tried not think of Adam, Adam whose light was extinguished even before it began because of Palpatine and Vader. He felt the shudder of the dark side ripple through his consciousness as he thought about the Sith Lords who now sat in places of uncontestable power in the galaxy. He thought of the Republic, crumbling from within and the end of the Jedi. He remembered fleeing from the remnants of the Jedi Council in Coruscant when news of the slaughter reached him. He had tried to get home to Corellia in time to reach his wife and son but it had been too late.

Insight had told him that it was too late for anyone the moment Skywalker had become Jedi.

"So bring me in dead," Chris answered raising his hand towards Inez to bring him another. In truth, he cared not one way or another.

"I don't want to kill you," Vin replied, becoming more unbalanced by the moment. How could he be so damned calm? "But you're coming with me now." He reached for his gun and aimed it the Jedi's face.

"I'll come with you," Chris said calmly, not even looking at him. "Just make sure when I get delivered to Palpatine and Vader, you're far away from them."

Vin blinked with confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Its' not insight or intuition," Chris retorted meeting his gaze while easing back into the leather of his booth. "You can tell yourself that its because you're an exceptional bounty hunter, best in the galaxy, isn't that what Jabba the Hutt says?"

"Shut up," Vin ordered, not liking the fact that Chris was absolutely right in his statement. Jabba the Hutt had called him that on numerous occasions. His reputation for being the best came with that tag. "Stand up."

Chris did not move. Incredibly, Inez stepped up to the table and served his drink, aware of the weapon drawn but barely raising a brow as she saw Vin attempting to exert himself over the Jedi. She served Chris his drink and then retreated, looking in neither man's direction as she departed. Chris reached for his glass and took another deep sip. "That little edge that allows you to see things ahead of time, to know when danger is around the corner. I hate to be the one to tell you this but if you plan on delivering me to the Empire, you better be aware of what could happen to you if the Emperor even gets a whiff of you."

"QUIET!" Vin shouted angrily, not liking what it was this stranger was alluding to because it felt uncomfortably like the truth he had wondered about all his life.

Chris ignored him and continued speaking. "I suppose being born outside Republic territory, it was only natural that we missed you. If you had been a citizen and not a slave, you would have been tested as a boy and then trained. I bet the midiclorion count in your blood is pretty high for it to exert itself without any training."

"What are you talking about?" Vin demanded uncertainly.

"The force is with you Tanner," Chris replied. "And if you go anywhere near Vader or the Emperor when you hand me over to them, you can kiss your life good bye too."

"That's crazy," Vin stuttered. "I don't have the force or whatever you call it."

"You don't have to believe it," the Jedi replied with almost a smile on his face as he spoke. "They'll know just as I knew the minute you stepped off your ship. You see a Jedi can hide among others but not among Jedi. We know each other."

"You're just trying to confuse me." Vin took a step forward, deciding to put an end to this matter once and for all. He was a professional bounty hunter! He did not get side tracked with words, even if they were coming from the lips of a Jedi!

"I don't have to confuse you," Chris answered indifferently. "If you want to take me in, that's up to you. I don't care."

"Too bad I do," a new voice said sharply.

Vin felt the barrel of a gun being pushed into the small of his back. A flash of insight told him that there were two people standing behind him. A man and a boy. His stomach hollowed when he saw the Jedi looking at him, perfectly aware of the ability that had allowed his mind to see it. With a sinking feeling, Vin suddenly realised that the man was right.

"Drop the gun," the new arrival ordered. "JD, pick it up."

The boy rounded the bounty hunter, his eyes trying to hide his fear. Vin sensed that the younger man was unsure of what was happening but was not about to question the order put to him. When Vin released the weapon, it dropped onto the table and the boy named JD immediately retrieved it. Vin watched his gun being handled by the boy who did not even look happy holding such a weapon in his hands and the apprehension in his eyes was clear enough to exploit.

"This isn't your concern," Vin spoke up. "I have an Imperial warrant to bring the Jedi in. You're interfering in their business. Do you know the consequences for that boy?" Vin stared at JD in particular when he asked that question. "Do you know much trouble you're getting yourself into?"

JD seemed uncertain but did not waver as he aimed the gun in Vin's direction, taking his lead from Buck Wilmington who had not only saved him from making an unfortunate mistake earlier with the Rodian but seemed genuinely concerned about him. Even though he had known the man for only a short time, he felt as if he could trust Buck Wilmington. And right now, he had the feeling that he really needed someone to watch out for him because he had stepped into a world he knew nothing about.

JD swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and met the bounty hunter's gaze, trying to inject as much bravery into his voice as he could muster. "No," he shook his head. "But I'm sure I'll find out later."

Behind the bounty hunter, Buck threw the young man a little smile of appreciation before regarding Vin once again. "Now you can walk out of here on your own or we can carry you out when you're dead. The choice is up to you."

"I thought Jedis fought their own battles." Vin looked at Chris with a hint of derision in his voice.

JD's eyes widened and he turned towards Chris. "You're a Jedi Knight!" The boy exclaimed. "For real?" His gaze shifted from Vin for a second which was more than the bounty hunter needed to retrieve his weapon from the inexperienced youth and grab him in an arm lock before Buck could pull the trigger on the weapon.

"Let the kid go!" Buck demanded furious at himself for not firing but he did not take killing a man lightly, despite how he some times behaved to the more loathsome varieties that seemed to be emerging everywhere these days.

Vin was not about to give up his advantage just yet and his arm pulled tighter against JD's throat, forcing a dry rasp from the boy's lips. Larabee did not seem to care very much how this went one way or another but his taller companion did and Vin silenced any struggles made by his captive by pressing the barrel of his blaster against JD's ribs. "I'll let the kid go when Larabee stands up."

Chris turned to the bounty hunter as he made that statement and said simply. "You'll let the kid go now." His voice was weary and sounded so very old and sad.

"That's not going to happen," Vin retorted.

"I think it is," Chris answered.

In the shadows of where he had been sitting, Vin saw the Jedi's hand move. At least, he thought he did. His fingers seemed to stretch out for a second in a small, neat arch but Vin's observation was cut short when he felt something tightening around his throat. For an instant, Vin was certain he felt fingers around his neck, pressing into his skin and forcing the air out of his lungs. He released JD involuntarily and as the young man hurried away, Vin dropped his gun and reached for his neck, more interested in removing the invisible talons strangling him.

This time Buck retrieved the weapon and stepped back, watching the bounty hunter struggling to breathe like every other person in the bar, wondering how far the Jedi was going to go with this.

"Chris...." Buck glanced at him anxiously. "Chris, you're not a killer." However, Chris was a changed man and as much as Buck might hate to admit it, Buck was not entirely certain that he would not kill the bounty hunter.

"I'm not a lot of things any more Buck," Chris answered dispassionately, seeming as if he cared little for the plight of the man seconds away from dying. By now the bounty hunter was on his knees, struggling for every breath of air he could take.

"But," Chris sighed, finally coming to a decision. "They'll come after him soon enough. Once the rest of us are gone, they'll find him." With that, he released the hold he had over the bounty hunter that promptly collapsed to the floor

"Get out of here!" Buck shouted at Vin who forced himself to stand. The bounty hunter was still too astonished to do anything but to hurry out of the place, holding his throat and coming to grips with what had almost happened to him.

When the bounty hunter had left, Buck regarded JD. "Are you okay?"

JD nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm sorry I let him get the drop on me Buck."

"That's okay," Buck replied amiably, more pleased that the kid was not hurt than angered by something he was ill equipped to prevent. He was so young and Buck had almost forgotten what it was like to look at the world with such new eyes. Perhaps, recounting his own experiences was one of the reasons why Buck had assumed responsibility for the younger man's well being because once, someone had helped him as JD needed help now. He stepped out to JD and ruffled the young man's hair, just to let him know that everything was genuinely all right.

"You know he'll be back." Buck turned to Chris after seeing to the welfare of his new charge.

"I know," Chris nodded.

"Why didn't you leave it so long to do anything?" Buck stared at Chris in disapproval. "You could have stop this from getting as far as it did."

Chris eased into the booth once more, hiding himself in the shadows before he whispered his answer. "I didn't care when it was just me."

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