Part Two Echoes & Reflections
Perhaps two hours later, Anakin and Tahiri sat in shared silence in the small refectory that served the administrative compound in Camp Dorn. She had turned inwards in the Force, but Anakin was still acutely aware of everything about her hypersensitive to thoughts, emotions, movements, and the moments of anguished stillness that lay between them.
She was huddled over the side of the long, empty table, as though for warmth elbows on the pearl-cool surface, hands cupping her mug of hot caf, spine curled forwards, ankles crossed below the bench. Head bowed.
She seemed utterly, hopelessly alone.
He couldn't help but feel it.
She took a sip of the gritty caf. It tasted muddy and cold, less bitter than it should.
They shared a scowl, but the moment of contact slipped away as she pushed the memory of the taste away.
Kaeer was still back in her bungalow, still asleep.
I'm sorry, he told her, not knowing if she could hear him. She didn't answer.
Then he heard her sigh, and realised that with that, she had spoken for both of them.
In response, he retreated away from the sphere of solitude around her, into the corner of her inner silence that was reserved for him. The dark place he had been lost in for so long seemed to have disappeared, but he could slide back, almost instinctively, into a small corner of her mind where, he realised, he had always been.
It was the place where her thoughts had once reached back and knotted with his own through their Force bond. The place where their minds kissed or had, once, seven years earlier. Now, it felt like a starring of old scar-tissue on her soul thick, folded and comfortably soft. A place where both of them could pillow their thoughts.
Come and join me, he almost whispered. It's comfy here.
But there was also something dark beneath the soft, nerveless surface. A quiet snarl of raw energy that ached like the stump of a phantom limb or the jagged, lightning-wreathed pylon of a malfunctioning power-converter.
Settling silently in place, he turned his conscious attention out and away from her, into the outer silence of the deserted room.
The refectory was designed to be shared by Ferroans, Yuuzhan Vong, and the handful of offwordlers still on Zonama Sekot and it had been constructed using the the living planet's organic technology, to create a place that would seem comfortable and welcoming to all who might use it. The clean, elegant aesthetic, all smooth planes and organiform symmetries, carried reassuring echoes of classic Old Republic architecture, but the underlying organic technology was very close to that of the Yuuzhan Vong, derived from the same ancestral origins on Yuuzhan'tar ...
All that came from Tahiri's memories, but he knew it all immediately. He tried to make himself small. He didn't want to hurt her didn't want to touch her but he couldn't let go. Not totally.
He saw her sitting alone at one long, abandoned table, very small in the empty, airy space.
So much for comfortable and welcoming.
Then, he felt the clench of tightness in her throat, the awful moment of uncertainty as she steeled herself to break the silence.
"It's my fault," she said, and he felt the sting of tears in her eyes, like heartache. "It's my fault, Anakin. I could hear you ... all these years, I could hear you. And I didn't recognize you. I didn't want to recognize you. Didn't want to look. You had gone and left me, and a part of me hated you for that. I ... I wanted you to stay dead." Her voice flattened. "It was easier that way. Self-pity is easy, Anakin. I hated you and I couldn't even see it. All you were trying to do was tell me that you were there. That you loved me. And I turned away."
"If we can hate and love each other all at once," he said, surprised to hear his own voice, not simply an unspoken whisper. "Then ... I'm sorry. I didn't know ... I don't know. I hurt you, Tahiri. It's my fault. Forgive me?"
"Maybe," she answered, her mind still several thoughts back and not sounding terribly convinced. "I ... just when I thought I'd sorted my life out."
"I could ... go," he told her. "I could just curl up back here, and go to sleep. Forever, if you wanted me to. This is going to sound weird, but you have no idea how comfortable I feel. Not with ... with this latest mess I've caused, just with this corner of your mind I'm stuck in. I could just lose myself in you. I could do that easily, for you ...."
As if to prove his point, he stretched in the Force, gently tensing the edges of his sense of self where they melded into her own mind, webbed in place. Like a part of her.
He curled inwards, made himself smaller.
"No," she answered. "That's just it. I don't want you to go. I don't want you to leave me not ever again, Anakin Solo. You've already died on me once."
"Kaeer," she sighed, her emotions flickering in a different direction for a moment. She smiled at a memory. "We'll think of something. I don't know ... does this sort of thing happen often?"
"Um, what?" he asked, teasing the slightest smile onto her face. "Boyfriend trouble, incompatible emotions? Triangles? I think that happens a lot, yeah. Sorry."
"I didn't mean ...?"
"A dead ex waking up inside your brain?" he asked, and smiled. "That's the sort of think that could only happen to you and me, I think."
"You're not an ex, Anakin," she said. "You're ..."
"Tahiri?" came another voice, intruding from somewhere very far away.
Slowly, they stood up and turned around, slightly unsteady uneasy with being disturbed.
Just when we were starting to get comfortable, she sighed
We were starting to get comfortable? he wondered back, not sure if it was an admission, or a lie.
Then he paused, and blinked.
It took a moment for Anakin to recognize the woman standing in the entryway as Danni Quee.
Tahiri frowned, the scars on her forehead wrinkling. Anakin understood she had shared his own moment of surprise. His memories whatever was left of them feeding back into her own thoughts.
"Sekot sent me," she Danni explained, walking in to join them. "You're walling us out, Tahiri. We're worried about you.
" "Yeah," Anakin asked, flashing his best lopsided Solo smile. "How the heck do you think I feel?"
It was worth it, just to see the look on Danni's face.
* * * * *
Danni Quee felt an awkward flinch from Tahiri as she eased the scanner band in place around the crown of her head, and sighed softly, glancing down to catch the younger girl's eye.
"Trust me, Tahiri," she smiled at her. "I'm an astrophysicist."
"Yeah," Tahiri muttered. "Anakin says that's the problem."
Danni just smiled in answer. Sekot supplied the inhabitants of Camp Dorn with almost everything they could reasonably need, but the one thing the living planet couldn't make up for on its own or at least, chose not to was the shortfall of trained personnel.
So Danni, whose wartime service with the Jedi had seen her venture far from her intended career as a stargazer, moving into diplomacy, exobiology, and the ways of the Force, had found herself evolving again becoming a medic and specialist in the shaping and repair of the planet's living biotech. At first, she had acted as Tekli's assistant and that was still, officially, her position but for three years now, she had been working independently alongside the Yuuzhan Vong shapers and the Ferroan healers, and the immense power of the planetary consciousness.
She still wasn't entirely comfortable with the flesh-worked physicality of some of the hybrid biotech they used, but in five years, she'd learnt a lot about bedside manner, and how to read patients' responses as well.
She offered Tahiri another smile of reassurance as she made the final fingertip adjustments to the fit of the strap, a smile with genuine warmth in it. But she kept her gaze calm and steady that ought to reassure her too, she hoped, on a different level than the smile.
Tahiri's answer green eyes turned upwards at her, a slight pout was a look she had seen from her before, when she was wrestling with a stubborn piece of malfunctioning machinery, stumbling in her hesitant love-life or, as now, simply trying not to be afraid. Even the way she kept her thoughts and feelings firmly masked in the Force was something Danni knew well intimately and intuitively, even.
But this time, her familiar reaction was accompanied by a flicker of something else, twined around Tahiri in the Force, tangled with her in places, but distinct and very different. It seemed unfamiliar and almost alien, but was just about recognizable as another human life-signature.
"Just hang on," she nodded, and as she turned towards the control console, it struck her that there had maybe been something of Anakin in Tahiri's expression as well, something of his stubborn, self-contained determination. She tried to remember if it had been there before, in the years they had known each other.
Perhaps it was just human?
She frowned momentarily, and glanced back again at the girl sitting on the medical bunk. It was odd to see her barefoot again, and there something tense in her posture, something to do with the way she held her shoulders and neck, as though she was being careful not to slip into a broody slouch.
As Danni watched, she kicked one foot against the instep of the other, then paused, glancing down at her toes, and looked up at her.
"This must be really weird for you," she whispered. "If it feels half as odd as how I feel."
"Yeah," Danni nodded, as calm as she could manage. Tapping keys. "Hang on."
Scans began scrolling up on the screens and flickering into view in the holo-choir projections maps of Tahiri's brain, laced by Yuuzhan Vong implants. She glanced back at Tahiri again, glossing her concern with another smile. Tahiri smiled back, weakly. Somehow, the awareness that Anakin was there for her didn't reassure Danni in the slightest.
They had all grown used to the sight of shaping grafts, but it was different for Tahiri. The Yuuzhan Vong had captured her at the start of the war, and used her as a damutek specimen, experimenting on her to learn how to shape and remake a human being with their biotech transforming her, body and soul.
The yellow-gold skein against the blue background of unshaped tissue marked where they had torn out a part of her very being.
True, it had been almost a decade earlier, and the blonde girl had come to terms with who she was long before she arrived on Zonama Sekot but she still carried the knowledge inside her that the Yuuzhan Vong had tried to destroy who she was, and with it, the unvoiced suspicion that they had succeeded.
And now, it looked as though she was carrying something else inside her. Danni felt her heart leap as she saw the white-hot spot flash alive on the screen in front of her another life-signature, brilliant in the Force.
Slowly, keeping outwardly calm, she made to adjust the monitor as if to shield it from the glare of the morning sun streaming through the rooflights.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the scars on Tahiri's forehead wrinkle with a frown the badge of the shaper-caste domain which had tried to break her on Yavin 4, and which, against the odds, she had come to accept as an adoptive family.
Danni froze, her thoughts turning to ice, and looked round to face the girl on the bunk. The voice was Tahiri's, but the question was Anakin's, and if he knew that Tekli, the Jedi healer the same healer who had tried to save his life at Myrkr had come to Zonama Sekot with them, that meant that Tahiri had been sharing thoughts and memories with him.
So if Anakin had asked the question that probably meant he already knew the answer.
"Anakin," she said, her voice calm, her eyes locking with Tahiri's, trying to hold her attention.
Tahiri seemed to flinch, and then her eyes narrowed in response, her brows furrowing as a breath hissed between her clenched teeth. That was all pure Anakin Solo but Tahiri, confronted with her boyfriend's feelings, didn't seem to be disagreeing.
"You did what?!" he whispered, horror and disbelief in his voice. "Danni ...?"
"Anakin," she repeated, taking two steps towards her patient. "Tahiri ..."
Far, far away, she felt a subtle, near-imperceptible shift in Sekot's massive consciousness.
Danni saw Tahiri's fingers tighten on the edge of the mat, and a flicker of wide-eyed alarm appeared in her eyes. Suddenly, Tahiri launched into a Force-powered backflip, landing behind the bunk, and coming up in a combat stance.
Behind her, the door slid open, and a cadre of hunters strode in, spilling into a loose skirmish line as they exited the narrower corridor. Danni smiled calmly.
"It doesn't have to be this way," she promised them.
"What are you doing here!?" Anakin yelled, not listening staring at her, staring at the hunters, starting to back into the corner of the room. A different sort of flinch in Tahiri's eyes, a hesitancy in the way she moved. Not fighting him, but not wanting to believe that his panic and horror were the right way to react, either. After the initial shock, she was getting herself back under control.
"Relax, Tahiri," Danni said, keeping her voice calm and controlled. An involuntary spasm, making the gun twitch nervously. "You too, Anakin. We're only trying to help."
Two reactions shaped simultaneously on Tahiri's face a look in her eyes that said how desperately she wanted to believe her, and a skeptical grimace that came straight from Anakin.
"Come on," she said, holding her other hand out, beckoning. "This won't take much time. We only want to help."
The tick of the gun in her other hand belied her words, and she frowned slightly, wondering if she was really lying.
Tahiri's eyes narrowed, and she looked from her to the hunters and back again. Her face and eyes now spoke of cold hostility and almost nauseous betrayal, and Danni realised she no longer knew which expression was Tahiri's, and which was Anakin's.
"No," she whispered, shaking her head.
Danni felt a wince of regret but by then, she had already pulled the trigger.
She remembered seeing Tahiri tense and move in the split-second before the storm of shots lanced towards her, but her mind registered no more than the slight drop of her left shoulder, followed by a blur of speed and movement and then she was punching back to her feet, ten feet away on the right.
She heard the Yuuzhan Vong snarl as they brought their guns round, and saw Tahiri feint one way, then the other she seemed to be grinning at them.
Anakin's grin, Danni had time to realise, as another volley of blaster-fire sang out.
Tahiri leapt this time, straight up, looping over their heads, twisting in mid-air, and landing behind them.
She he grinned again.
In answer, Danni fired again, but Tahiri was already darting out through the open portal on the far side of the chamber with fire kicking at her heels, slaloming along the curving corridor, dodging the volley of blorash balls that the hunters sent spinning after her.
"After her!" Danni yelled.
They hunters didn't wait to think they didn't need to, sprinting off in hot pursuit.
Danni frowned as the portal puckered shut behind them, then sighed softly, and turned back to her work. In her mind, she could feel the tingle of the security chime, but the hunters could take care of Anakin and Tahiri.
Sekot would take care of everything.
She could best contribute by making sure she was right about what the scanners had seen.
She settled back on the form-conforming stool, and looked again at the image on the display, the second life-sign blazing like a new supernova in Tahiri's soul.
Do you know, Tahiri? she wondered. Do you realise what this means ...?
* * * * *
Anakin and Tahiri ran.
That, at least, they could agree on.
They were out of the damutek now, sprinting across open grass. Somewhere behind them, at least one cadre of Yuuzhan Vong were in hot pursuit, but the threat they represented and with it the urgency and fear that had served as the catalyst for their flight was almost forgotten.
In the shared place at the back of both their minds, they could still feel their pursuers' hard-edged presence in the Force, but their thoughts were distracted by other things, senses saturated by the shining brilliance of the life around them, suffusing their shared body with weightless light.
It felt good to be alive.
They were running up a slight rise through a meadow of dew-bright grass strewn with delicate eggshell flowers, damp and warm and wonderful beneath bare feet. A scattering of bungalows were arranged around the edge of the open green, all intimately familiar to both of them from Tahiri's memories.
Away to the right, a sprawl of woodland. On the left, the ground dropped steeply behind the houses to a broad, flat plain, and in the middle distance, he could see low hills. Overhead, clear blue sky, the colour fading to white towards the horizon, small songbirds larking and wheeling on the air-currents.
Behind them in the east, Zonama Sekot's primary was clear of the horizon, but it was still early and in this part of the camp, not many people were up and about yet.
Anakin heard himself laugh, exulting in the sleek, gazelle-like grace of Tahiri's body as she ran. The wind in her hair, the leanness of her limbs, the sweat on her tanned skin, the smile on her face.
He smiled, and tried to ease the slight frown off her scarred forehead, querying the vague uncertainty which inflected her thoughts even though he knew full well that it was mostly caused by his own delight in her embrace.
The embrace of her body, wrapped around his soul.
Hey! he thought, answering her attempts to object with a boyish grin. I'm allowed to find you attractive, right?
She laughed in answer, and the smile on her face grew wide enough for both of them as she surrendered, not entirely reluctantly giving free rein to the impulses building inside her, allowing her own eagerness and enthusiasm to outstrip her doubts.
For a heartbeat, their souls came together in a single shout of joy, leaping like a memory of their first kiss.
Then, behind them, he heard shouts from the direction of the damutek. They both thought about glancing back to see how far away the pursuit was now, but a wild shot kicked up a quid of earth by Tahiri's left heel, and they kept running.
"Where to?" he asked, stealing space for his words between her huffs of breath, green eyes flickering as she ran looking for an escape-route.
My place, she answered, turning sharply, then scrambling and skidding on the damp slope, thrown momentarily off-balance by sudden awkwardness as the two of them tried to take their shared body in different directions.
Anakin grinned apologetically as she picked herself back up, relishing the easy strength with which she moved, the speed of her recovery. Tahiri smiled too, chuckling at his thoughts and then a frown crossed her face as she saw the three cadres of hunters at the foot of the slope.
They could have shot us by now, he thought, sharing her frown.
Not Sekot's way, she answered.
Yeah, Anakin scowled. Right.
But there was no time to disagree. They were slamming through the light, white-painted wooden gate in front of her bungalow. In the daylight, Anakin could see that the building was low and compact, built or more probably, grown to a sinuous, curved design that seemed to fold back in on itself. Spacious, but not sprawling. Unique, but in harmony with the other houses around the green.
To Tahiri, though, it was far simpler.
To her, it was home.
Through the front door, into the open-plan living area. Tahiri made straight for the shelves behind the desk, set in an alcove beside the open hearth rummaging amid the junk for something.
"Where is it?" she muttered. "Where is it? Ah."
She smiled as she pulled out a wooden box and flicked back the clasp. An elegant box, Anakin reflected, made from smooth panels of light, red-blushed wood, with hinges and locks cast in dark bronze, deceptively delicate.
Inside, resting on wooden crutches and a blood-dark velvet cushion, the brushed-steel hilt of a laser-sword.
Your lightsabre, she smiled, as Anakin hefted the familiar weight of the weapon. Your father wanted us to have this for ...
Before she could finish and before his thoughts could form an answering question a sound spoke behind them, and he spun on his heels, angry that he had been taken by surprise.
Someone else was in the room with them.
Anakin dropped into a combat crouch, thumb tensed on the ignition switch of his 'saber and saw a young, sleepy-looking Yuuzhan Vong warrior stumbling through from the bedroom, rubbing the tiredness from his eyes.
The same young man who had been sprawled on Tahiri's bed next to her when he woke up.
Kaeer, he remembered, her memories unfolding unexpectedly inside his mind.
Thoughts, emotions, the physical touch of his lean, strong body against her own. Joy and fulfillment, passionate longing and lingering satisfaction all tinged with sadness and desperation because of the hollow pit in her heart where she could not find room for Kaeer Saa, the empty place inside her where the silent memory of Anakin was lodged, like shrapnel.
For an awkward moment, neither of them said anything.
I'd best let you handle this, he thought, bringing a wry smile to her face.
Yeah, she agreed. "Hi, Kay. You startled me."
"Ree," the young Yuuzhan Vong nodded, glancing at the weapon in her hand. "Hunting?"
"Hunted, more like," she corrected, standing up with a shrug, moving across the room, green eyes flickering as she searched for her own 'saber. "I'm in trouble I have to go." She sighed, and tried to smile reassuringly, but it just came out rueful and regretful. "I'm sorry. Wish I could explain."
"I know," he nodded, speaking in accented Basic. "Sekot already told me you are carrying another's life inside your body. And you fear what Sekot will do because of this."
"Ah," Tahiri frowned, looking at him, chewing her lip awkwardly. "Anakin. Yeah."
Hi, Anakin thought, somehow managing to keep his thoughts silent without physically biting his tongue.
"I am on your side, Ree," he heard Kaeer say, with a sombre nod, a slight frown. "At your side, if I can be. I will not let anything harm you or ... or him. Not even Sekot."
Not wanting to interrupt or anything, but there are kinda quite a lot of hunters on their way up here ...
Tahiri didn't answer. Through her eyes, in the silence, Anakin looked at Kaeer.
Automatically, unthinkingly, they took two steps towards each other, and suddenly, they were in each other's arms, Anakin's thoughts starbursting in spectacular panic as they kissed, hungry mouths mashing hard together, twining themselves around each other holding tight, and never wanting to let go.
The moment seemed to last forever.
For Anakin Solo, it was a living hell.
"Thanks, Kay," Tahiri grinned as they broke apart, licking the blood from her lips, savouring the hot metallic taste on her tongue. The knowledge that she was sharing her pleasure with a helpless Anakin Solo only seemed to fan the lingering warmth of the kiss.
That's my revenge for earlier, she purred, grinning broadly, calmly hijacking his flailing feelings and trapping them in her gaze as she looked at Kaeer, laughing inwardly with delight.
"For luck," he grinned back, looking at her with a heat in his eyes that made both of them shiver, sidestepping towards the door. "I will hold them off, Ree. I am warrior. I will enjoy this. You you and the boy, you have to get away."
Hey! Anakin thought. I do have a name, you know!
But Tahiri just nodded, and turned away into the bedroom, still smiling.
I bet he did that just to annoy me! And you let him! Let me out of here!
I thought you said you liked it in there, she shrugged, slipping calmly out of her work clothes.
That was before I realised you'd turned into a raging nymphomaniac with a sadomasochistic psycho for a boyfriend!
He's a lot like you, you know, she smiled, ignoring his protests. That's why I like him, I guess. Now relax ...
Relax!? he spluttered helplessly, as she pulled on a pair of loose, multi-pocketed khaki shorts and a sleeveless Yuuzhan Vong tunic that belted around the belly. Laughing aloud at his reaction to the touch of her own fingers on her skin, she pulled a duffel bag from her locker and threw in a few things, smiling as she swung it over her shoulder.
Ah, she thought, smiling as she stooped to pick up a fat black slug that seemed to be shrugging its way across the carpet, tweaking the squirming thing between her fingers as she slipped it into the big hip pocket of her shorts. Wondered where you'd got to ...
"That's your lightsabre?!" he asked.
"Yeah," she nodded. "What's the matter."
I'll explain later, he said, with a mental shrug. Let's get out of here ...
As they came back out into the living area, they saw Kaeer stumble back across the meadow towards the house, followed by the hunters. Tahiri's emotions spiked in concern as she saw the bloody gash across his thigh, the new cut on his cheek. For a moment, she tensed, gripped by the urge to help him.
Instead, she stood rooted to the spot, watching the cadre leader and his lieutenant push through the gate, the others vaulting nimbly over the low wall to either side.
Kaeer watched them come, his knife in his hand. Then, as if he'd sensed her reappearance, he glanced back at her, his eyes level and steady.
"Now get out of here, Ree!" he snapped "Take care and take care of of Anakin, as well!"
Tahiri nodded numbly, sorrow in her eyes.
"Thank you, khora zhai," she whispered, acutely aware of Anakin's respectful silence inside her.
"Khora nai," Kaeer confirmed. "Always."
Tahiri turned away, eyes sparkling with tears, and hurried through into the kitchen area, towards the back door. Behind them, the sound of battle flared.
In spite of herself, Tahiri glanced back again to see Kaeer stagger away from the hunters, clutching a slick, sticky wound on his chest low on the left flank, bright blood seeping between his fingers.
She hesitated. She didn't want to leave him couldn't ...
For a moment, their eyes locked, and Anakin felt her pain, as sharp and keen as if it was his own. Her feelings for Kaeer Saa seemed very different to those she still held for him she had always had to negotiate them around the Anakin-shaped wound in her psyche, for one thing.
But you couldn't quantify and compare feelings like that.
For a moment, Anakin hesitated, ready to run with her to his aid.
For a moment, they held each other's gaze, the understanding in their eyes as deep and true as anything he had experienced with her through the Force.
Then, the moment was gone, and she looked away.
"Go, Riina!" Kaeer yelled. "I love you."
Tahiri choked suddenly, her only answer a desperate sob.
I know!" Anakin answered for her, slamming the heel of one hand against the lock-plate of the door, and when it wouldn't open, firing up his lightsabre, feeling the familiar thrum of the weapon in his hands, the sudden surge of Force-contact with the lambent crystal that focused the energy of the blade.
Thanks for keeping this safe for me, he told her, grinning as he sliced open the iris and stepped through the sagging gash into the open air, into the small yard at the rear of the bungalow.
She didn't answer, and through her tears, he saw milk-buckets and barrels of meal, a lean-to shed made from fallen wood from the forest. Small avians clucking as they pecked spilled seed from the cracked slate paving, and a four-legged milcher chewing, apparently contentedly, on some spiky, inedible-looking weeds in the overgrown plot.
I hope someone takes care of them, they both thought, the shared words backed by mismatched emotions as they scrambled over the the dry-stone wall that had defined Tahiri and Kaeer's privacy together for two years, and skulking away uphill, then round the back of the next house.
They made their way up the slope, then cut quickly across the green, and back down the row of bungalows on the other side, back towards the damutek. Darting between two houses, Tahiri saw the hunters still outside her own home, dragging Kaeer's battered, injured form out through the broken gate, sending him sprawling on the meadow grass. Snarling, one of them kicked him in the ribs.
He flinched weakly eyes glazed, drooling blood.
But she took it all in with a hardness in her eyes, and turned away.
Where now? she asked.
"Spaceport," he answered. We need to get off this rock.
Not in a Sekotan ship, she answered, shaking her head. "Sekot's presence is in everything here. We wouldn't even have the undercarriage up before the ship turned itself around and laid in the fastest course for Shaper City."
Everything? he asked, frowning in concern.
"No," she answered, smiling faintly. "Not me. I'm special. Sekot was never comfortable inside my mind. Left me to deal with the mess the war made of me. So long as I could control myself, keep outward calm, Sekot was happy. It meant I was never going to be Magister but Danni seemed better suited for that role, anyway. I had ... other uses ..."
Stars, Anakin breathed. After what they did to Tekli .... No wonder they didn't like me showing up in here. Guess that's my fault, too, huh?
"We can still go back, you know?"
"Silly," she chuckled, smiling softly, running the tip of her tongue along her lower lip, tasting the blood from the cut. "I've got you, Anakin Solo right where I want you. And I wouldn't swap you for a million Sekots. Not for the stars."
Not even for Kaeer? he almost asked, but he kept that thought to himself, as best he could. She didn't answer, and he tried to tell himself she hadn't heard.
Instead, in shared silence, they set off towards the woods. Somehow, they both knew that no hue of pursuit would follow them.
Isn't this just asking for trouble, though? he wondered, as they clambered through the undergrowth and vanished into the shadows. I mean, if Sekot ...?
He broke off the question, smiling at the smarting whip of sapling branches snapping against her skin.
She laughed back, and in mutual agreement, they stepped away from that thought.
I mean, if Sekot is in everything here ...?
You'd rather steal the fastest speeder you can find, hotwire it and fly like the wind? she answered, aware that they were both grinning. I'd indulge you if I could but your 'saber is about the biggest piece of off-world technology we have here.
Great, Anakin sighed. So we walk? Through the woods?! Tell me why this is better than letting me try to persuade a skimmer it's on our side?
We're safe here, she explained, her thoughts calm. Sekot has spent the past five years rebuilding her biosphere using genotypes preserved by the Yuuzhan Vong, and that means creating wild places like this. The planetary consciousness can't focus here in the same way it can at Dorn or Middle Distance, or in the boras. We'll be fine, though even if Sekot was tracking us, I know these woods better than anyone she could send after us ...
Let me guess? he grinned. You spend a lot of time out here on your own?
You know me too well, she smirked. I've missed you, Anakin.
I know. He remembered seeing her reflection in the mirror that morning, and had a sudden, impossible urge to reach out and touch her to trace the smooth contours of her face with his own fingertips.
In your dreams, she smiled, shaking her head. Come on, Anakin. If we hurry, we can make Middle Distance in a day or two ...
You sure you can put up with me for that long? he asked.
I'll try, she shrugged. Somehow, having a smart-mouthed seventeen-year-old boyfriend doesn't seem quite as cool at twenty-two as it did at fourteen ...
Yeah, well, he answered back. I've been kinda dead, you know?
* * * * *
Rolled in the blanket Tahiri had thrown into her kitbag, they lay together beneath the naked stars, curled and intertwined.
Anakin blinked, looking up at the grey-tinged shadows of the trees over to their left, and, directly overhead, the scatter of twinkling stars in the deep blue sky, the familiar constellations of Sanctuary's heavens.
He could hear the rustle of life in the woods around them, her soft breathing, and the even softer rhythm of her heartbeat. He wasn't sure if Tahiri was still awake, or if she had drifted off into sleep but both of them were lying very still, as though the slightest movement might end the magic of the moment.
Either way, it felt comfortable to share the silence with her. The smile on her face belonged to both of them in equal measure a smile she hadn't been able to share with anyone for too many years.
But she was starting to get cramp.
So, slowly, he stretched and shifted beneath the rug, adjusting his weight, and reaching down carefully with one tanned hand to rub the muscles on the back of her calves.
Can't sleep? Tahiri asked, as though in a dream.
"Yeah," he whispered, sharing her fragile pleasure at how wonderfully comfortable they both were but as he considered exactly what 'comfortable' meant for him in her body, he flushed, and grimaced slightly in apology, drawing back in on himself in her mind. Sorry. Didn't realise you were still awake ...
It's okay, she smiled back at him, shifting her weight slightly. "I can't sleep either."
My fault again, huh?
Would you stop saying that?
Would you love me as much if I did?
Tahiri didn't need to form an answer. She just smiled up at the stars overhead, rubbing the back of her left ankle, feeling the warmth of his presence in the Force, curled up inside her.
In the clear air overhead, the stars sparkled like little pinpricks of happiness.
Her gaze dropped to the tall spires of the conifers at the foot of the glade, and she remembered Hapes, seven years earlier Anakin's funeral, and the way the stars had seemed to glow a little brighter as the shower of sparks rose up from the pyre in the forest clearing. She felt a quick twist of emotion hers or his, she couldn't say and heard herself sigh as she remembered his body, and how still and peaceful he had seemed.
It wasn't an event she had thought much about she had never consciously associated Anakin with the stars overhead.
She had tried to focus on the good times.
Before he died.
She saw his rueful smile her memories muddling with his thoughts and smiled herself, feeling nostalgia and some other emotion she wasn't quite sure she could name.
Now, they were on the far side of the Galaxy from Hapes, and they were on the run, with no-one they could trust except each other. But somehow, lying here with him, in the light of the stars, the memory of that other forest glade seemed pleasant and reassuring.
A part of her mind wondered how a memory could take on such new meaning in retrospect, but instead of following up that thought, she tried to calculate how long it would take for that tiny glimmer of light to reach across the Galaxy, and realised to her delight that, beside her, Anakin was doing exactly the same thing.
"Ninety thousand years," he whispered. "Give or take."
"We'll be long dead by then," she answered, and suddenly, both of them were laughing. In the stillness of the night, she was sure that she could hear the clear chime of his voice alongside her own.
Eventually, they settled back into their shared silence, comfortable together.
A while later, Anakin shifted again, as though trying to move closer to her, deeper into the embrace of her shared bodily warmth.
I want to hold your hand, he frowned.
We share a perfect moment, and you go and spoil it by trying to make it better?
Ah, he grinned again. Yeah.
It's okay, she smirked, laughing at his thoughts. Suddenly, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, she was delighted to have a seventeen-year-old boyfriend again. You've got my heart. My love. All of me, Anakin.
There's slightly more of you than there is of me, he reminded her. Me being dead, and all ...
It has its advantages, she whispered back, smiling but feeling an odd uncertainty low down in her belly.
She'd never quite thought of Anakin like that. Not even when he had left her after Myrkr, when he hadn't been there ...
Except, she reminded herself, he had always been there.
She just hadn't been able to see him.
I couldn't see you either, he whispered, sorrow in his voice now. I didn't know ...
But you were trying, she smiled. Our love was stronger, Anakin.
He didn't answer, except to try to smile.
You never really left me, she thought, patting his lightsabre protectively. She hadn't even noticed she'd been sleeping with it held against her chest.
For a long time, neither of them said anything.
Overhead, the stars glittered.
After a while, the deep blue seemed to brighten with the first light of dawn, the black silhouettes of the treetops becoming sharper and clearer-cut.
Eventually, she blinked, and both of them realised that they were still awake.
Kaeer? Anakin asked. You're worried about him, aren't you.
She frowned slightly.
That was the truth, of course, even if she hadn't been prepared to acknowledge it consciously. She could feel a nameless, nebulous ache where her awareness of Kaeer should have been not so deep or soul-destroyingly dark as the Anakin-shaped hole that had torn open in her after Myrkr, but similar, nevertheless.
Kaeer Saa was far away now, and he was hurting.
That was what was keeping her awake, she admitted to herself. If it hadn't been for that if it hadn't been for Kaeer her and Anakin would have drifted off into companionable sleep hours earlier.
But she didn't answer.
Instead, she rolled over onto her side, and curled up into the warm embrace of Anakin's thoughts, wrapping the blanket tighter around them both.
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