Half an hour later, Ennyria let her blade shrink out of existence with a hiss. She wiped the sweat from her brow and called on the Force to heal her minor wounds. Sion, more human than she ever would have guessed, had now met his very human death. He hadn't been terribly powerful in battle, once his will started to break down, but his words echoed still in her mind. She had no doubt that his warning about Kreia had been sincere; his loathing of his old master outweighed even his hatred of his killer. That was why he let himself fall to her blade. Knowing he was no more than Kreia's pawn, he was at last willing to accept the death he had held at bay for so long.
In that regard, he and I weren't so different. But I hope mine doesn't come today.
She turned to face the door he had deliberately been guarding, and it now opened obligingly before her.
She followed the narrow path that was her only way onward, letting her consciousness meld with the Force so her perceptions could reach farther ahead. She wanted a clearer idea of what she would be facing before she actually arrived there. Knowing Kreia, she knew better than to expect the best-case scenario. In Malachor's final hour, she felt, anything could happen.
Anything at all.
She was so deep in the Force, stretching so far ahead, that she almost failed to see his broken body lying off to the side of the path.
Her heart skipped a beat.
Oh, Force, no, it can't be…
She ran to him, all thoughts of Darth Traya and destiny forgotten. Digging frantically through her robes for a life-support pack even as she ran, she knelt at his side and looked him over, trying to judge how badly he was hurt.
Her hands went still only an instant later.
She couldn't deny it; he looked bad. His right arm was missing, his face was tinged slightly purple, his neck looked bruised, and he was lying in an awful lot of blood. It matted his dark hair in spikes that might have looked dashing if not for the circumstances.
She was just too late. He wasn't going to make it, no matter what she did now. Anyone other than Atton would almost surely have been dead already from such injuries, but he had something keeping him going that she had never understood.
And now I never will. Atton, Atton, what were you doing here at all?
"You're… alive," he murmured, startling her. His eyes blinked open one after the other, as if he couldn't quite make them obey. She thought she caught a flicker of a smile on his face. Despite whatever pain he had endured, his eyes still had the same defiant spark of life as always. A lump rose in her throat as she tried to smile back at him.
"Did… I… save you yet? Your eyes… that bad, eh?"
He turned his face away, no longer playing at humor. His voice was quiet, more strained, when he spoke again.
"Always was ugly… now the outside matches. Was waiting for this, but… 'S not fair… let you down…"
"Shh, you've lost a lot of blood," she tried to quiet him, unable to stand watching the terrible effort it cost him to speak. She brushed his hair away from his face, trying not to let her hand tremble. Was there nothing more she could do?
She called upon the Force again, and let a wave of healing flow through her fingers, but Atton only winced in pain. It wasn't fair; healing was her second-strongest skill, and it still wasn't enough. Maybe if she'd worked at it just a little harder she would have been able to save him, or maybe it was simply beyond the Force to replace so much lost blood. She didn't know, and now she would always wonder if it was her fault he died.
"Was s'posed to save you… 'S tired of living anyway… too many deaths," Atton went on, wincing again and ignoring her half-hearted attempts to silence him. "Never told you… lied to you…"
He gave a dark chuckle, the same dry laugh she had heard so many times, mocking himself just as much as the world.
"You did save me, Atton," she told him, his sincerity opening her own safely guarded heart for once. "It was you—more than anyone else. I couldn't ask for any more. I should be the one saying those things, not you."
His face fell, and his laugh died away. He only held her gaze for one more moment before turning away again. Somehow her words had only made his suffering worse. She didn't know how, so she didn't know how to comfort him.
"I don't want you to see me like this. I don't want to die in front of you. Can't bear it… Loved you from the moment I first saw you, thought you were a dream… meant every word… tried to play it off as a joke… wasn't funny…"
Her eyes burned and her vision blurred, and she realized that for the first time in almost a decade, she was crying. Impulsively, she reached out and eased him up just a little, so she could pillow his head on her arm, but she didn't dare move him more than that. She couldn't fake any more smiles now, just tried not to let too many of her tears fall on his upturned face.
"You never needed to tell me, Atton. I knew," she choked, looking him straight in the eye. She wanted him to know she meant it. "I always knew. I tried to tell myself I was imagining it; tried to tell myself I didn't love you… You know how Jedi are."
He chuckled again, and then grimaced when it hurt to do so. She felt horrible for forgetting; she shouldn't have made him laugh.
"Atton…" she began, and then trailed off. She couldn't remember what she was going to say. She just wanted to say his name, because now it still meant something. After today, it would only be a stab of pain through her heart.
She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the full sting of the painful irony. They both had loved each other and neither had said a word. She understood why he had been reluctant to tell her—a Jedi who had renounced all emotional attachments. And after all, his first attempts at flirting had been shot down almost immediately. But she should have spoken up sooner, rather than waiting until his last few breaths.
"Enn," he said quietly, a responsive echo. "I know… the irony, right? Story of my life…"
He chuckled again, wincing, and gently brushed the tears from her face with his only hand.
"Hurts when I laugh," he said, even more faintly, with just a hint of his old rakish grin. But in his eyes there was a depth of feeling stronger than any she'd ever seen, at least directed at her. The tears fell more quickly, and this time she didn't bother trying not to cry on him.
I don't deserve you. So I guess this is only fair, isn't it? Why, then, do I feel like this is the end of everything good in the universe?
She couldn't bear to look at him, but she couldn't look away either.
"Hurts… You… saved me… joke's on me…"
He winced again, and let his hand drop. She caught it just as one last chuckle escaped his lips, and only because of her Jedi reflexes. She held it tight, as if she could somehow keep him alive by holding on.
"Hurts when I laugh… Hurts…"
His arm went limp, and she watched the mocking gleam in his eyes die.
Atton, don't leave…
But he was already gone.
She lowered his body back to the ground, hating to lose yet another piece of herself to Malachor's greedy depths, but there was nothing else for it. She would come back for him, assuming she survived her encounter with Kreia.
She'd be happy now, wouldn't she? The "fool" was gone, and her precious protégé had learned her lesson: don't hold onto what you cannot bear to lose. Oh yes, Kreia would be so proud. Ennyria's "weakness" was at last removed, and she was fully prepared to resign herself to her selfless duty, regardless of risk or cost.
Ennyria felt sick.
Don't think about her; that's what Atton would have said. This moment isn't for Kreia. It's for him.
The weight that had seemed about to crush her lifted, just a little. It was replaced by a lump in her throat and a gaping hole in her heart, but those were nothing to be ashamed of. That was love.
"Good-bye," she whispered. As a final sign of respect, she untied the red band from her left arm, the only possession she carried that actually belonged to her, and pressed it into Atton's hand. She closed his fingers around it, and bent down and kissed his forehead.
"May the Force be—"
She stopped herself.
The loss of Atton finally, truly, and painfully hit home.
After taking a deep, shuddering breath and slowly letting it out, she began again.
"May you be with the Force."
Then she picked herself up off the ground, and set one foot in front of the other as she continued down the jagged path she was still destined to walk.
She didn't allow herself to look back.
But an echo of his voice came to her nonetheless. She didn't even remember when he had said it, but it didn't matter, and the memory brought a ghost of a smile to her lips.
"Well, don't get too attached to me—I don't like it."
She was glad that, for once, she had completely disregarded his advice.
I love you, you liar.