My Pillar, My Beacon

Chapter 53

Manaan. Sarah stood on the spaceport walk at Ahto City and stared into the vast horizon of water meeting sky. Mission stood beside her, transfixed into rare silence. "Wow." Carth said from his vantage point on Sarah's other side, "That is pretty damned amazing, I'll give it that."

Water...as far as her eyes could see, blurring into a bright blue sky. And out there, she felt it calling... the fragment. Under those waves.

"It's wonderful!" Mission finally found her voice. "It's so pretty! And clean! Are you sure I'm allowed here?"

Sarah chuckled, the one who would draw uncertain Selkath glances today would have to be Carth, not Mission. The bruising had settled into lurid, patchy, purple and green splotches, only slightly hidden behind his glasses. He looked about as far from what he actually was as it was possible for him to manage, long haired, unshaven, battered and out of uniform.

"You'll be fine." Just don't steal anything. What a motley group they had here, Sarah paused to take a look at them without the comfort of knowing who and what they were, what they were doing. To see what others would see when they were looked at, and to judge what the Sith here might assume. Just a scruffy looking independent freighter crew, a little down on their luck, the galaxy was full of them, good. "Let's go get lunch, and then maybe...rooms." It would be great to just get off of the ship for a little bit, and perhaps manage to brighten Carth's mood. He'd been off since Kashyyyk, not really sulky, just a little distant and quiet. His pride had been wounded, he was afraid...

And he was not terribly difficult to read. He had been much more shadowed in the beginning, but as time passed, as they strengthened the relationship, it shone through with such clarity. He was afraid she thought less of him, found him less attractive. It was a laughable idea, but to even bring it up would just reinforce it. When he was well enough to play, she'd make him very, very certain that he knew better...

"Stop staring at him like he's some sort of dessert." Bastila grumbled under her breath, and Sarah chuckled outright. So uptight, so...naive. It hadn't taken Sarah long to realize just how uncomfortable Bastila was, bound to her during those moments. Sad, but Sarah had no intentions of denying herself just because it bothered Bastila. After this was all over, they'd just have to look into having it...if not broken, then lessened, for all of their sanities. Bastila had done nothing to deserve being bound to someone getting what she couldn't have. Except for the obvious... it was something that Sarah couldn't have had before, except...she had. Carth was not her first.

"Carth a la mode." Now, there was an idea... And she deserved the smack that Bastila gave her in reply. Carth's responding smile was more than worth the mock blow...even if he was shaking his head in a vehement negative.

"No. Too damned cold. You'll have to come up with something a little...warmer."

"Is that a challenge?" She hopped to keep up with him, and he shook his head, striding towards the spaceport entrance with a purpose, trailing a wide eyed Mission and a silent Zaalbar behind him.

"No. Your challenge is finding a place where we can all eat lunch together. I'm sure you can come up with something warmer with a minimum of thought."

Probably. No, definitely.

They strode into the expanse of the main Ahto City spaceport, a brilliantly clean, sparkling edifice of windows designed to show off the breathless views just beyond. "Oooooo." Mission whispered, suddenly clinging closely to Sarah and Carth's protective area. He responded by wrapping an arm around her shoulders, pulling her snugly up to his side.

"Visitor's kiosk." Sarah chuckled, moving towards it, and planting a wide, open smile on her face. The Selkath were sticklers for order, and unfortunately, they didn't have all of their affairs in nearly the level of order that the Selkath would prefer. She had two Jedi, one Republic Captain, a wookiee, one undocumented twi'lek teenager and an unregistered freighter. That was fine, the Selkath weren't particularly noted for their resistance to force persuasion techniques.

"Hey. Here to pay for the orange and white Dynamic. And crew. Estimated stay...one week." At least she hoped so. Manaan wasn't like the other worlds, she couldn't just walk to the fragment.

"Here for kolto?" The Selkath manning the kiosk asked, pulling dubiously at the dangle of flesh next to his broad mouth. He had a striking white and black pattern across his gleaming skin, and he stood a few inches taller than Sarah. "We have stringent restrictions on its export..."

"No...no kolto. Luxury goods, pearls." If she had a ring glowing with them, then obviously Manaan must source them. "Possibly passengers if the stars align. Mostly we're just transiting through. It gets old on the ship, you know?" She knew he didn't...Selkath rarely left Manaan. Mission was helping the charade, gushing enthusiastically over the view from the windows while Carth stood paternally beside her, occasionally nodding. "What's the point of working for yourself if you don't bother to see the galaxy while you're at it?"

"Indeed." She wasn't expecting a truly thoughtful answer from him, and she paused in her patter to consider him. "A view not shared by many who go beyond the horizons, but never stop to admire what they see. Welcome to Manaan. Any questions?"

"Restaurant for lunch? Not fancy...like to treat my crew to a sit down, so I need someplace that won't look sideways at the wookiee...or the Mando."

He nodded, quickly rummaging through a drawer and handing her a plastic card. "Good food. Good prices. No pretension."

"Thanks, just what I'm looking for." She took it, and waited for him to calculate their fees, taking the stub for that as well. "Let's go."

All one can eat seafood on the best planet in the galaxy for seafood, it seemed like a wonder and a recipe for disaster. Sarah was so stuffed on fried clams and broiled mussels washed down with a brilliantly matched beer that she had to concentrate on holding her eyelids open. All she wanted to do was curl up on the booth seat, her head in Carth's lap, and go to sleep. He wasn't much sprightlier than she was, his words were not slurred, but he spoke slowly, relaxed...the lines at the corners of his eyes had faded. Canderous had become more talkative, bantering back and forth with Mission. Only Bastila still felt stressed and distressed and Sarah eyed her thoughtfully. So much responsibility for one so young, and she seemed so attached to it, so unwilling to share it with Sarah.

"Do you feel it?" Bastila finally asked, and Sarah paused, listening. Yes, she felt it...the currents over water over it muted it somewhat, but laid over it was a grinding, angry mutter. It was close, but distant from the cozy, dark restaurant.

"I hear it. And I hear something else as well. Something hostile. Something very angry." Well, there went Carth's utterly relaxed demeanor. She squeezed his knee under the table, reassuringly. "Lightsabers work just fine underwater."

"You don't work just fine underwater." He grumbled, peering into his glass. "What is this stuff anyway?"

"Lemon shandy. A real manly man beer." She'd done the ordering, Selkath was yet another one of those languages that she grasped so well. "I'll be careful, Carth. I promise." As careful as she could be, while still getting the job done. They'd come too far already, too much rode on this... The Republic, the Jedi Order. All of it hung in the balance, depending on this carbohydrate sluggish handful of mismatched people.

"I'll debate if this is actually beer." Canderous laughed, a rare and wonderful sound. "Pretty sure it's actually lemonade masquerading under a beer label. Who're you taking down for this one?"

"I don't know. Depends on how I can get there. I'm less worried about watching the ship and more worried about keeping an eye on the Sith." It wasn't terrible down here, this area was heavily populated with Selkath, but up on the higher level, that was crawling with Republic officers who had a good chance of recognizing Carth Onasi and Bastila Shan, and just as many Sith officers around up there. They can recognize Carth and Bastila. But can they recognize me? Am I known? Bastila is known because she's served with the Navy, but didn't I? I went to the War. I was at Malachor... Why don't we ever talk about that?

"One thing at a time, Sarah. One thing at a time. Please. We will talk about it all, in due time." Bastila said, and Mission glanced at her as if she'd grown an extra arm, but Carth looked less than surprised at the seemingly random interjection.

"I feel like I'm trying to save the galaxy with only half of the instruction manual, Bastila. What if someone recognizes me? I don't even know if that's a danger. I know I should worry about you being recognized by the Sith. I know I should worry about him being recognized by the Sith. Should I be worried about me being recognized by the Sith?" She hissed, toning her voice to carry only far enough to be heard by the table.

Bastila went very pale, very still, and Sarah regretted the question. But there was no bringing it back now, it was gone. "Yes." Bastila finally spoke. "You should be worried, Sarah. Your instincts about this are correct. Please be careful."

Be careful. Go to Korriban. Be careful. Go to Korriban. Who was fooling who here? You'll be recognized...but go to Korriban.

"I know, Sarah! Damn it all!"

"Well, I'm all up for shooting Sith if they become a problem." Canderous stated blandly, breaking the heightening mood as if it was nothing at all. Carth twitched for a second under Sarah's hand before he laughed, shaking his head. "In fact, it sounds like fun. Which one of you would make the best bait?"

"Bastila. And no, it's not going to happen." Sarah said, sitting back. This would have just have to wait until afterward. "We're good. I'll stop pushing." For now. Nothing would change what was going on, for right now, this was counterproductive. And she sensed this wasn't Bastila's fault, this was the Enclave Council's doing. Whatever it was. They'd made it this far... it was just a little bit farther.

"Are we done here?" Carth asked, pushing his empty plate away. "I can't eat another bite, and that hotel idea is beginning to sound really good right about now. It was great, though. Thanks." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, burying his face in her hair. He seemed to be feeling much, much better, and she was relieved to see it.

"Agreed. I'm stuffed."

Sarah paid their bill and led the way back into Ahto City, casting her gaze across the brightly lit span. So many people here who didn't belong, this wasn't how she...remembered?...this place to have been. The Sith watched, waited, measured. Nothing new there. The Republic recruited. That was the part that felt off, even in these straitened times, why would the Republic throw such weight behind recruitment on a lightly populated, neutral world? The Selkath were not a recruitment pool, and most of the traffic on the world should be from kolto dealers. Something was off, something had attracted interest from a most unlikely of groups... mercenaries. Her eyes fell on the group trailing her progress. Canderous couldn't help but scream Mando, and he wouldn't attempt to look like anything else. Worse, he screamed veteran Mando, tightly integrated into the crew. Carth had lost weight and gained an edge that wore him well, watchful and protective. It was a stare echoed by Bastila, it seemed like the farther they got, the more focused she became. Mission looked like a child, and openly displayed a pair of blasters hanging comfortably at her side. And Zaalbar was a weapon. They attracted too much attention here, she could feel the interest of too many pairs of eyes. Manaan was supposed to be easy, damn it... What was the Republic up to, here? So much attention ran the risk of Carth being recognized. Of Bastila. Of...her?

"Let's go." She sighed, hopping into motion before any one of these people took her pause as an invitation to approach. She was full. She wanted a bath. Clean clothes. And a bed...preferably with her flyboy of choice doing more than his fair share of bed warming.

It was easy to get rooms, obviously the large population of mercenaries that didn't seem to belong on Manaan were not choosing fairly decent hotels on one of the upper levels. But then, they were also not financially supported by the Enclave, and probably had to watch their pennies.

"I ate toooooooo much." Carth breathed, closing the door behind him and surveying the room. It was a nice one, more than acceptable, and Sarah moved to the windows overlooking the ocean, feeling the pulse of the fragment call to her. So close. And yet, so far.

She felt him come up behind her, resting his chin against her shoulder, his hands on her hips. "It was good, though." She chuckled in answer, and she could feel him smile.

"I will never forget it." He promised and for some reason, he sounded almost melancholy. She reached up to him, resting her palm against his cheek and winding her fingers in his hair. She should be able to say something appropriately supportive to raise his suddenly flagging spirits. Instead, his words simply echoed in her soul.

"It's been...well, it's been my whole life." Other than a hellishly long stay in a hospital and a ridiculously short stay on the Endar Spire, this had been just that...Sarah's entire life, all wrapped up. Just a handful of months, and he had been at the center of it the whole way. "I love you."

His grip tightened on her hips, she felt his smile fade completely as he buried his face in the fall of her hair. "Sarah...I love you. When this is all over, I want to be with you. For the rest of my life."

"You are with me. There isn't a 'when this is all over', Carth. Now. Later."

"No, Sarah. I'm asking..."

"I know what you're asking. And I've already said yes." I am never letting go of you. Ever. "But yes. When this is all over, we can make it all pretty and official... put a flower and a bow on it. But that's all that will be, it won't make it more than it already is." You are mine. I...I am yours.

"You already have the ring."

"I do." And it was most certainly suitable. She wanted no more, she wanted no other. "Bath?" She'd popped for a room with a bath large enough for two and she fully intended to avail herself of it. With him. And then she intended to nap off her bellyful of food.

"Bath." He agreed, stepping back and shrugging out of his jacket, tossing it haphazardly over a chair in the corner. "Nap."

"Sounds like a plan."


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