My Pillar, My Beacon

Chapter 22

Sarah woke, warm and comforted... in spite of the hazy, disjointed dream she'd been having. Again, Bastila, again the bridge of that ship. Warning klaxons, the sounds of combat, the smell of smoke, a chill wind and a plunging feeling, falling into a depth... and it was gone in the moment that she opened her eyes.

Carth slept next to her, on his side, turned to her. His hand was open on her belly, his head pillowed on his other arm. He was right where he was supposed to be, next to her...wherever she was. That was the interesting question...she slept on a mattress on a floor, not a real bed. She was not in a room, exactly, but in a private nook formed by several packing crates used as walls. She heard others around her, their voices were low...like soldiers on guard. It was 'night' still, or very early 'morning'. Quiet camp time in the Hidden Beks base. She sighed, rolling over into Carth's grasp and resting her forehead against his chest, breathing in his scent, memorizing his heartbeat.

Mine.

It was enough to make her chuckle. Hardly hers, like most men, he'd certainly not turned her down, but that meant little. Although he'd fallen seamlessly into the role of 'husband', it was simply an act. A very good act, but an act, nonetheless.

"Morning." He breathed, burying his face in her hair. "Or is it?"

"Don't think so. I had another dream is all. Go back to sleep."

"Ah, okay. C'mere." He wrapped his free arm around her back, pulling her close, into his warmth. It was welcome...it was chilly in the bay, the floors were metal and this span had never been designed to be heated for habitation. He made it easy for her to simply close her eyes and drift next to him.

She was in the arms of a man, he was tall enough to rest his chin comfortably on the back of her head. His stance was both protective, he radiated a sternly immobile aura...and loving...one arm slung around her shoulders, the other crossed over her hips. He was so big that he dwarfed her, engulfed her, shielded her. He was her bulwark, her redoubt, her shelter. The sane, strong one, an anchor in the chaos.

"Are you okay?"

He laughed at her concern, his voice rich and calm. "I'm okay."

"I'm going to kill them. Nobody, and I mean nobody, gets away with this!"

"Shhhh. I make bald look good, little one. Don't you think? Or does it turn you off?"

"Hardly."

He shrugged, "Then let it go, my love. Let it go, let it go."

She nodded, but her heart, her soul, and her gut all screamed the same thing. Never.

She woke up again, knowing that it was firmly 'morning'. The man next to her was smaller, less imposing than the one in her dreams, and was most certainly not bald, but he pushed most of the same buttons as the man in the dream had. He'd do.

"Plans for today?" He asked, and she sat up, tucking the blankets back down around him as she did.

"By now, they should have the accelerator installed. I need to..." Do what, exactly. "Make sure the bike is right..for me."

"Do you even know jack shit about bikes?" He flopped over onto his back, shading his eyes with his forearm, watching her from beneath his cuff.

"Um, yeah. Just don't ask me how. I think we used them...during the..." She snapped her fingers in frustration. "War. War? Yes, the War. We used them as scout vehicles. Recon. I...yes, damnit, I do know how to fly one...well." Better than any fool racer...she'd been chased by people trying to kill her, where her skills on one had been the difference between life and death. For her. For the troops counting on her. She could do this shit. They'd never know what hit them.

The doubt fled his features, they schooled themselves back into that earnest honesty she was used to. "That makes sense." He said, his relief obvious. "I mean, yeah...that makes a whole lot of sense."

Of course it did. And it better be right, because tomorrow she went on a track and put it to the test. But today, today she worked with mechanics. She stood, running her fingers through her hair. It was, as usual, happily straight and accepted finger combing in lieu of an actual comb. She tied it back, stretched, and yawned. She'd slept in her clothes, of course, as had Carth. "You know where you'll find me." She said, sliding into her boots and emerging out into the main bay to look for the mechanics.

"There you are." Mission called, as if the girl hadn't known exactly where Sarah was the whole damn time. "Over here!"

She stood at the edge of a maintenance pit, staring down. The bike rested in it, and Sarah was relieved to see that it was intact, every housing locked down. "You can fly one of these, right?" Mission demanded, and Sarah nodded. The details were not anything she wanted to get into, but yes, she was pretty sure she could.

"The accelerator is...finicky." The mechanic in the pit with the bike warned slowly. "I know it would be best if we could get you onto the track with it, but that isn't going to happen. Sorry. You'll get a couple of runs with it...no more. Make them count."

Mission's face fell, every emotion painted on it, but Sarah had heard phrases much like that before...and was still here. "Gotcha. I still want to at least sit on it. Test the grips, the weight, find out where my crouch is."

"Right. Let's winch her out of here, and you can have your time with it." It was lifted out, set on the floor, and Sarah ran her fingertips over the seat, listening to the voice in the back of her head. Good long seat, you'll be able to sit deep and low. Too far back, last rider was taller, you'll be top heavy like that.

"I can already tell you the seat's too far back." It was an ugly bike, mismatched, battered, exactly what she was used to. "Get it pushed up about 10 centimeters, and close up the angle on the grips. I'll be sitting low."

His return look with filled with a grudging respect and he nodded. "Right away."

How many times have I sat like this, supervising someone working on my gear? She wasn't certain, but it was an unusually familiar feeling. An odd tie to a life she didn't recall. "There." He said, stepping back and waving her up to the bike. "Just an eyeball at this point, get in a crouch and we'll see how close we are."

She mounted the bike, frowning instantly. "I'll need seat weight. At least 30 kilos, and drop the frame...about this far." She spaced her hands apart. "I'm still too short. And light."

"Thirty kilos? You're crazy. We want to strip her down lighter, not add weight."

"Oh, fucking great. Make it faster and less stable. No, just do as I say, damnit. Thing's skittery as hell, and that's at rest. And I want the pins taken out of the grips. I want them to fly."

"And that's even more crazy!"

"Give her what she wants, Timo. She's the one flying it. It's her life, and she obviously knows what she's talking about. Weight the seat, drop the frame, take out the grip pins. We don't have a lot of time." Gadon had appeared behind her, and Sarah gave him a slight smile. "So, you do know what you're doing."

"Yup."

"Good. Good. You know you're not our only entry, right?"

"Of course." It didn't matter, Sarah was going to be the only entry that counted. Let them throw fifty bikes in, and she'd still take it. She didn't lose.

"I've sent Mission on a search to dig you up some flying gear."

Sarah grimaced, looking down at herself. She looked like the lowest of the low, disreputable, cast off, and there was a certain level of annoyance there. She wasn't particularly vain, but this was just pathetic. It suited her current circumstance, but. "Thanks."

"You're under our sponsorship, gotta make this look good."

"Uh huh." Sarah was honestly afraid to ask.

She spent the entirely of the day working, arguing, tweaking...getting to know the bike as best she could without actually running it. It was a rare luxury, she was used to being tossed on the nearest bike and being told to make do...in the field, they hadn't had the time for this. They'd used stock frames...

"Sarah. Dinner. Now."

Dinner? It was dinnertime, already? Now that it was brought up, her stomach was growling, and whatever that was that Carth had looked amazingly good. "Don't ask...I don't know, either. But it smells good." He gave her that lopsided smile that she knew was him admitting to a failure in his own eyes. He was a caregiver, a supporter, but he was lacking the tools he was used to having to get that job done correctly.

"Thanks." She took it from him, ignoring her scraped knuckles and sitting down to eat with him. "I think we've done all we can with it, anyway. It's done. It's all tomorrow now."

"You'll do fine." He said, sitting close enough beside her that his knee touched hers. It was a friendly, companionable closeness, easygoing and relaxed. A balm to her fragmented soul. She wasn't alone. "Mission watches us."

So she did. "She thinks we're something that we're not. And she wants that. Yearns for it. Stability. Commitment. A family. Belonging. Never alone."

He looked like she'd punched him in the gut, and she clenched her teeth together. Talk about saying the wrong damn thing at the wrong damn time... They were just all this tangled mess of angsty shit... Mission craving parents, a family. Carth craving what he'd once had, and lost. And Sarah, desperately trying to put pieces back together, what a fucking mess. They could make up their own damn support group with this...

"Are you easily embarrassed?" He asked suddenly, his eyes narrowed. He was thinking bad thoughts, gloriously bad thoughts.

"Nope." She was certain she wasn't. She'd carried on a relationship, in the field, she was sure of it.

"Good." He pulled her into his lap, his lips finding hers, his fingers in her hair. "I...uh...was hoping..."

"Yes."

She stood out of his lap, taking his hand and walking with him back to their little corner of the universe, dropping the tarp 'door' behind them with a definite 'go away and stay away' gesture. "I've been...uh...watching you all day."

And she'd been oblivious, busy with the bike. What a fool she was. "Good. I hope it was worthwhile." She let him take her down to the rumpled blankets...he'd started this, in an adorably shy way...he could take it from there. His touch was gentle, a little hesitant, and she had to yank back on her urge to take over. No. She needed to let him find his own way through this. And she was curious, what sort of a lover was he when he did the initiating?

"It was." He shrugged out of that jacket, tossing it into the corner. "Sarah, I'd like to...see where we can go with this. If possible. No guarantees, but..."

"Works for me."

"Good. I'm not... comfortable...with this, unless that's how it goes." His voice was low, pitched to not carry far. "I don't...and you're not..."

"Stop talking, unless it's to tell me how beautiful I am, and how much you want me." Time to let him off of his own hook, she understood what he was trying to say.

"You are amazingly beautiful, and I want you so very much." He breathed, burying his face in her throat, his hand sliding under her shirt. She stilled, just watching him...trying to engrave his features on her memory, this bare, unguarded expression. His thumbs were warm against her nipples, the edges of his teeth teasing her neck. She arched into his grasp, covered by his weight when he shifted to rest over her, his fingers sliding into her pants, along her flesh. "Take it off. All of it." He whispered into her shoulder. "I like you naked under me."

She sat up, complying with the request...thrilled by the weight of his eyes as he watched her. His pants left little to the imagination, his hardness strained against the fabric as she undressed, kneeling nude over him. "Your turn." She breathed, resting a hand on his belly. "I like you naked...on top of me...in me."

"Oh, yeah." He grinned boyishly, stripping bare. "No hurry, though. No hurry." He ran his hands down her sides, cupped her ass, still curious, gentle yet firm. "We aren't kids anymore. It's not a race."

Funny how that worked. The less time one had in their lives, the more willing one became to slow things down... She trailed her fingertips down his chest, down his belly, wrapping around him. He gasped, his eyes very wide as she stroked him gently, pulling up, pushing down. No rush, no hurry, just this...intimacy. An attempt to reach into someone, to be there with them, to have them with you. Take joy where you find it.

No, she was not going there. That one didn't belong here, now. He was gone. If she expected Carth to be in her bed without his ghosts, she'd damn well give him the same back. And anyway, there was a living, breathing, aroused man with her, amusing himself by sliding his middle finger between her lower lips, testing, teasing. A man with the wherewithal to do something other than simply haunting her.

"Yessss..." She breathed, clutching at his shoulders, trying to tug his face closer to hers. He refused to budge, studying her expression from his higher vantage point. He added the width of his ring finger, delving deeply within her with them, his thumb moving along her clit with each push.

"I want to watch." He whispered when she tried to pull him down to her level again. "I want to see. Just relax."

"Okay." She pillowed her head on her arms, closed her eyes, and relaxed under his touch. Once she had calmed, relaxed, he used his other hand to spread her lips wide, holding her knee to his chest with the crook of his elbow, everything exposed to his gaze.

A gush, coating his hand, and she tightened around his fingers. She wanted him...not this teasing irritation... the orgasm startled her, it hadn't been there, and then it suddenly was... she felt her slack jawed response, possibly the least appealing expression she could have managed...spacey, empty... and then the rodent squeal to make it fully complete.

"Shhhh." He soothed, "Yeah, just like that..." The same fingers, holding her wide, and then he penetrated in one easy, deep thrust...pushing her immediately into the next orgasm, her head lolling bonelessly on her spine when he slid an arm under her shoulders, the other under her hips, bringing her tight to him. And all she could do was hold onto him, riding it with him until he was done with a shudder and a growling cough, collapsing next to her. "Wow." He marveled, pulling the blankets over them and holding her close. She sighed in joy...there was absolutely nothing at all wrong with the world. All of those doubts, those demons, and voices were gone... vanished.

And, not very far away, Bastila was yanked out of a deep sleep, a bright flush rising on her cheeks. What the hell? "You have got to be kidding me." She grumbled, turning over. She was bound to Revan, who was apparently having a much better time on Taris than she was. And tomorrow... well, Bastila didn't want to think about that, at all.

"You have got to be kidding me, Mission." Sarah growled, "I'm here to win a race, not..."

"Look good doing it? Look, it's racing gear. You have to have seen it before, right? You have raced before, right? Timo says you know bikes.."

Sarah was certain that she had not raced, or worn anything even remotely like this while she'd ridden a swoop on scouting missions. "This crap looks like it's painted on."

"Less drag...and it doesn't catch, fray, or tear like this. This is what everybody else will be wearing..."

That felt like a lie...or a near truth, and Sarah fixed her with a stare. "Okay, you're probably the only woman racing today." She finally admitted when the silence drew long. "It looks good on you."

Unfortunately, that it did. It was clean. It was new. It was the absolute correct size. It had not come cheaply, and Sarah reined in more complaints. "Devid is never going to let me live this one down." She muttered, pulling the tabs on the full arm gauntlets tight.

"Oh, after last night, I doubt that! I mean... Never mind. It's too late to find you anything different, anyway." Mission gave her one last look, fussing with one of the two vertically aligned tails she'd finally convinced Sarah's hair to stay in. "You sign up in less than an hour, and you can't be seen in public in what you were wearing."

"I could steal Devid's jacket. It's even the right color..." What were the chances that she'd race for a street gang...whose gang colors had that same orange in them?

"No."

That had Mission worried, because Sarah could do it...might even do it. "Fine, Mission. You win, this time." She sighed, picking up the goggles and hanging them around her neck. She would wear this, because Mission was correct...there was no more time, and it truly was more practical and protective than the clothes she'd been wearing. The helmet, gauntlets, neck and shoulder protection, even the outside of her legs, covered in ceramic mesh...everything else was skin tight compression fabric, dark green with orange piping and seam stripes. Even the jacket, which it did indeed have, did nothing to destroy the aura...in fact, when Sarah slid it on, it somehow made it more obvious.

"It's not like you're fat. Or..." Mission's hands described mountains over her chest. "I mean, you look good. He's got to like what he sees, right?"

"Who?"

"Devid, silly. You know, your husband. The guy you slept with last night."

Oh, boy. It was going to be one of those days. Sarah merely locked her fingers together...making certain her gloves were set right. The last thing in the world she wanted was to be discussing her sex life with a teenager she'd met only a couple of days before. "Let's go, Mission." She didn't need any more questions. Eventually, she'd be asked ones she couldn't answer correctly. And that's when things would start to fall apart. Better to just stay on target, here. She was about to do something she had never done before...race swoops...on a machine that was going to fail today. There had been no hiding that, nor even an attempt. She'd get only a handful of runs, and that was it. She had to make them count.

She followed Mission to the pits, catching sight of Carth immediately. Of course, a hangar jacket was colored that way for just that idea... He was standing with her pit crew, his back to her, when she walked up. "Hey." She greeted, and he turned.

"H..." And the rest of the word failed him, entirely. His expression was nothing but one very raised eyebrow and slightly lax mouth. "Hello." He tried again, and succeeded almost admirably. "Er...really?"

"Lodge all complaints with Mission. Are we still good to go?"

"Does Mission also get the compliments, sister, or are you taking those?" He asked, taking a long look, and not bothering to hide it in the least bit.

Mission laughed outright, nodding in vindication. "See. I told you..."

"So you did. Are we good to go, or not?"

"We're good." Timo stated, wiping his hands on a filthy cloth and shaking his head in bemusement. "Go register."

Ah, yes. The walk of the scantily clad.. down through multiple male pit crews to the registration desk. Oh, well, if she had to had...then she was going to do it with her chin up and a swagger in her step. Fuck them all.

"Sarah, flying for the Hidden Beks."

The registrar looked at her, looked at his data pad, then nodded. "All in order. Good luck, you're going to need it."

"Yeah, yeah." She was so not in the mood for those sorts of games. She spun, returning with the same panache as she'd left with, fixing Carth with a half smug, half challenging stare the whole way. He just smiled, giving her a sheepish half shrug. "Can I at least get a holopic? You...the bike? For memory's sake?"

"Sure. Sure." She leaned against the bike, giving him the smile she knew he was going to argue for. "Your turn." He looked startled for a second, then nodded, handing her the datapad and taking a mirror stance to the one she'd just used. She took the pic,

"Now, both of you." Mission crowed, holding her hand out for it. Sarah sighed, shaking her head, but relinquished it to her and moved to stand next to Carth. He rested an arm around her shoulder, and she rested her hand around his waist. "Oh, very nice. Nice." Mission handed the 'pad back to Carth. "Now, go give 'em hell, Sarah."

"That. And be careful, okay?" Carth breathed. "I want to get all three of us out of here. Lost enough on this run, already." His voice dropped to a whisper on the last sentences, before he spun and strode away.

"You're ninth in the order. It'll give you an idea of the times coming down. Any last questions?"

"No." She answered, straddling the bike. Watch this bitch not even start... Watch it start, explode, and kill us all. Well, at least Carth and Mission are clear... "I got it." It wasn't like the concept was dreadfully involved. Fly alone from one end of a straight course to the other. Avoid the obstacles. Hit the speed boost platforms, and post the best time possible. She settled the goggles, buckled the helmet on, and grasped the grips. They were loose as hell, a ton of play, just as she'd asked for.

She pushed along, in her place in line, fixing her attention on the time board. Twenty three seconds, twenty two. This was going to be short, hardly a long run from... no. Pay attention.

"Your turn. Give 'em hell, girl. Make us proud." Rescue Bastila by beating these pricks at their own damned game.

Calm. Breathe. Focus. The engine idled with a gravelly noise she was certain wasn't standard. Through clarity of thought comes true action, young learner... Ding, red. Ding, yellow. She watched the lights, double clutching on yellow and... Buzz, green... The bike ripped forwards, but she was tucked tightly in her crouch... First, second...hang for a heartbeat...third... slam into fourth and... the accelerator kicked in, and that gravelly noise became a hundred percent more pronounced. It had just better hold together, because... the first platform blurred underneath her. There is no fear. There is simply being, knowing, doing. She dodged obstacles, the throttle full down, her knee missing the edge of one by a hair's width. Another boost platform, dead on, an impossible speed. And it was over, just like that. 20.3 seconds. She was still alive. The bike hadn't exploded. It was alllll good. "Fuck, yeah." She exulted under her breath.

She puttered back along the slow return track, giving Timo and the pit crew a grin and a wave when she heard their cheers. "How's she holding up?" He demanded before she pulled to a complete stop, already leaning over to stare at the gauges. "Shit. She ran hot."

"Yes."

"How'd you pull twenty seconds out of your ass? The times have been fast this season already, I think you broke a track record. Ninth run of the season opener...and a record that's stood for six years, gone?"

"I'm good, and it's fast."

He only nodded, motioning for her to dismount. "Anything I should know?"

"That grindy noise is pretty alarming at high speeds."

"Well," He said, watching the visible shimmer of heat rising from the engine... "With twenty seconds, you probably won't have to run again. That could very well be the season opener, done, right there."

"Isn't that just the way of it? All dressed up, and done in twenty seconds?"

"Something like that. But you really threw down the challenge with that one. Where'd you learn to fly like that, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I do mind."

He chuckled. "Not surprised. But hey, you win, we win. Go into the lounge, while we work on her. Just in case."

"Right." She nodded, headed for the lounge where Carth and Mission would be waiting, watching the runs via a monitor. It was more crowded than Sarah had been expecting, and way too many of the people in it just wanted to stare...right at her.

"That was awesome! I mean, awesome!" Mission grinned. "Twenty seconds! Is that even possible?"

"Obviously, I just did it." And I hope I don't have to do it again.

"Congratulations, sister." Carth raised his glass. "Can I get you one?"

"That would be wonderful, thanks. Nothing alcoholic...just something to drink." She was suddenly parched, the adrenaline rush wearing off. He left, and returned with a tall glass, filled with a tart, purple juice. It was just what she needed, and she drank half of it in a few swallows.

"What are the chances that's won it all?" He asked, and she shrugged. Everything logical said that it had, but it certainly didn't feel that way. Let Mission gush and bubble, it wasn't over yet.

"I'll call it done when it's done. Until then, no."

And, for over an hour, it seemed to be done...until it wasn't. "Well, fuck me." She breathed, staring at the screen. No amount of denying it would do any good... 19.55 was faster than 20.3...by a sneeze worth's. She'd have to go again.

She sighed, gave Carth another kiss, gathered up her helmet and strode back. If I only saw Bastila, we could try to take her, but...no. Nowhere in sight. "You heard?" She asked the pit crew without greeting or preamble.

"We did. If you're willing to kill yourself, she's ready to go again. The first round runs are almost finished. Lots of people have scratched out after this, can't say I blame them. Why risk the run with times like these? Do you even have a chance?"

"Yes." She'd been fast, but she hadn't taken stupid risks. Now, she would be forced to. Just a fraction faster, just a hair closer... She remounted the bike, scooting up to the line again. Again, focus. Clarity. That state of being where every second was an eternity. I have to get Bastila back. Whatever it takes. She is...that important. Ding. Green. The gravelly growl of an engine on steroids. A deep breath. Pushing it all away from herself. You are not bound by restrictions, everything is possible. You comprehend, you process, what others do not, cannot. Ding. Yellow. The same fluid double clutch, rising from the seat, and... Buzz. Green. The bike ripped forward as fast as she could punch it through its speeds, her jaw clenched, her head rocked back into the neck protection she wore. Firstsecondthirdplatformfourth, just a litany of ever greater speed. Platform, platform...full throttle... hit it again. The noise screamed along with her, but it didn't matter. She. Was. Going. To. Do. This. Where before she'd missed an obstacle with a hair to spare, she let it graze along her armored legs. And then she was through the finish, scrambling to regain control...to get it stopped in time before she became a smear. She got it spun around, skittering across the floor, but it finally stopped... and when it did, there was no denying the underlying keen in the accelerator. Give me my fucking time! It had to be enough, because there wasn't going to be another run. She'd killed it. It would manage a legal finish...putter up the slow track...in first.

18.59.

Eighteen fifty nine. It was over. Done. She nodded slowly, feeling the first delicate hints of pain. And she'd managed to hurt herself, doing it. Big fucking surprise there. But still..that legal finish. She puttered cautiously back, over the line, back into her pit, killing the engine and holding her breath. It died gracefully, silently, and without an explosion... all she could have asked of it.

"We're done." She said, cautiously swinging a leg over. Her knees screamed in outrage, as did an ankle. "I killed it."

"Shame. But I think you got the job done. The Vulkar pilot can't beat that one. I don't think it can be beat...I watched it, and I'm not sure how you did it."

"I'm good. And it was fast."

"We can build another one. All that mattered is that one of our pilots won. You get the girl, we get the credit. Win win..."

"Win win." She agreed, sitting down. She felt light headed, dizzy, ill and now things throbbed unpleasantly in time with her heartbeat.


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