It was a rare moment of stillness, the calm before the storm of Kreia's furious accusations and Sarai's regret. Atton knew that he would have to deal with these things later, knew that he would probably try to blur the memory of tonight with juma, but for the moment he was content to enjoy the feel of Sarai's body stretched out against his and the silence that enveloped them. Hoping to whatever force watched over scoundrels like him that she wouldn't wake up, he slipped an arm around her waist to caress her bare stomach. The texture of Sarai's skin was endlessly fascinating. There were soft, pristine stretches that dancers in the higher class of cantinas would have envied. Yet his fingers also brushed over toughened ridges, testaments of the battles she had fought, battles she had tried so hard to forget until less than a month ago.
So caught up in tracing the web of scars, it took Atton a while to notice that her skin didn't emanate its usual heat. Sliding his hand up to her chest, he realised that it didn't rise and fall in the steady rhythm of sleep. He panicked and gently rolled her onto her back. The first thing he noticed was her eyes; they stared up at him without seeing, an accusation locked in their frozen depths. The second thing was the livid ring of marks around her neck. He knew with utter certainty that if he laid his fingers against those marks they would fit perfectly. Bile rose in his throat, choking off the scream that threatened to erupt.
Atton woke abruptly, sliding off his chair and landing on the floor with a bump. There was no sign of Sarai, dead or alive, or even a bed. Only a cold cup of caffa and a scattered deck of pazaak cards. "Frack," he cursed, running a shaky hand through his hair. It took him only a minute to compose himself, carefully rebuilding those walls of strong emotion that had crumbled momentarily upon waking. While he erected them he picked up the cards, wiping off every piece of dust and dirt meticulously and checking them for creases. By the time he had collected and pocketed the pack, it was as safe as it could ever be for him to think freely.
Dreams of Sarai, particularly dreams where she was naked and in his bed, were common. They could even be useful; he was sure they would keep Sarai's new golden boy padawan from trying to dig into his mind. But the nightmare he had just woken from was a new experience. Everything had seemed so real. He had felt Sarai's flame hair tickling his face, breathed in her unique scent. It had been more like a vision than a dream. Seeing as he had never had a vision in his life, he was rapidly coming to the conclusion that it had been planted in his mind when he was at his most vulnerable. Who would have reason to do that, and who would have the power to penetrate his defences?
Despite his show of nobility, Atton was willing to wager a small fortune that Mical wouldn't mind getting rid of the competition for Sarai's affections. He watched her constantly: when she ate, when she fought, when she meditated. Force, Atton wouldn't put it past Mical to watch her while she slept. But there was the small matter of power. The day a trainee Jedi like Mical could get past Atton's defences was the day he hung up his blasters and took up farming for a living. Visas and Sarai might have the power but they certainly didn't have motive. That only left one person: Kreia. Sneaking into his head was the old hag's style, and she had more reason than anyone else on the ship. The dream was a warning. Protect Sarai but don't get too close; risk his life but never forget his place.
The voice startled him, and it irritated him that someone had managed to creep up on him unnoticed. Turning around, he found Mical standing in the doorway of the cockpit. Despite the fact that the sky only had a tinge of light, he had already donned one of his robes and was carrying two steaming cups of caffa.
"For me?" sneered Atton. "You shouldn't have."
"It's for Sarai," replied Mical calmly. Atton smirked. Of course it was for Sarai. He had been right; Mical really did watch her while she slept. "I have searched the entire ship and cannot find her. Have you seen her?"
Atton shrugged. "You know what Jedi are like. She's probably meditating by a stream somewhere."
"Her bed hasn't been slept in. I fear she did not return from her meeting with Master Vrook last night."
This caught Atton's attention. Sarai's meeting with the cantankerous old Jedi had been hours ago. The man seemed to like the sound of his own voice, but Atton was fairly certain that the meeting couldn't still be going on. "Sarai's a big girl," he said confidently, concealing his own concern. "She can take care of herself. But I need to see if there's anywhere I can stock up on juma before we leave, so I'll keep an eye out for her."
"Shall I accompany you?"
"I've told you already; I don't need your help," said Atton, pushing passed Mical and hurrying to the cargo ramp before Mical could insist on joining him. The air outside was cool and Atton wasn't sure whether it was this or the tense atmosphere surrounding Khoonda that caused goose bumps to rise on his arms. With its rolling green hills and trickling streams, Dantooine looked like it should be a peaceful place but it felt more like the refugee sector of Nar Shaddaa. The people lived precarious lives on the edge of existence while the scum of the galaxy tried to take what little they had. Yesterday that tension had exploded into a battle between the militia of Khoonda and the mercenaries. Sarai had been in the thick of it, fighting back the mercenaries and healing the wounded once the battle had been won.
Atton bypassed Khoonda altogether. There was little chance of Sarai being there as she had spent most of the visit shunning the place, and he had no hope of finding a merchant who stocked juma. The only way he was going to get his hands on any before reaching Nar Shaddaa was by stumbling upon a mercenary's hidden stash. He started in the direction of the enclave with some vague hope of finding Sarai there, but Khoonda had only just disappeared from sight when he heard voices. One was male, broken by sobs, and the other was undeniably Sarai's.
Rounding the corner, he saw them sitting on the damp grass. The man's face was haggard and tear stained, the hair at his temples grey. Sarai rested a hand on his shoulder as it heaved and shook. Atton began to back away, not wanting to witness such an intimate moment, but a flash of colour on Sarai's arm caught his eye. There was a jagged rip in her sleeve through which he glimpsed a bleeding cut, and beside the crying man a battered blade stained crimson. Atton had drawn his blaster and started towards them before he realised what he was doing. Hearing his approach, Sarai looked up sharply and shook her head.
What are you doing? he asked silently. She formed close connections easily with her companions, and as a consequence could sense their surface emotions almost effortlessly. It was a source of pride and worry for Atton that, with the exception of Kreia, he had the strongest bond with Sarai. It should have been Bao-Dur who still obeyed her as he had when she was a General, or Mical as her padawan, or even Visas with her force sensitivity, but instead it was him. However, he knew she wouldn't need the bond to read his emotions right now. The incredulous expression on his face said everything. In response to his silent question she shook her head again and held up a slender finger, ordering him to wait.
Rising to her feet, she extended a hand to the man, who quickly wiped his eyes on his sleeve and then took it. She pressed something into his hand, ignoring his vehement protests and hurrying over to Atton before he could return whatever she had given him. "What was that about?" asked Atton, reluctantly holstering his blaster when the stranger showed no sign of following them.
Sarai shrugged. "Nothing."
"Nothing? You just handed over a pile of credits to the man with your blood on his blade, and that's nothing? Not that-"
"You care," she snapped. "I know you don't care, Atton, you've made that clear. Why you're sticking around is a mystery to me."
Atton stared at her in silence for a moment, stunned. Sarai rarely lost her temper, and almost never with her friends. She hadn't said one harsh word to Kreia despite the old scow's hissed admonishments, and the only time he had sparked her temper was during their first meeting with his constant leering. Now her furious gaze burned into him with an intensity that was almost frightening. "I told you on Telos," he began slowly, defensively, "I might be able to help you out of a tight spot one day."
As quickly as it had arrived, the fierce anger left her eyes and her shoulders sagged. She didn't look intimidating anymore; she looked tired. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I'm not angry with you, not really. It's this place." She glanced bitterly at the blaster scorched walls surrounding Khoonda. "The man you saw me talking to lost his daughter in the attack four years ago. He saw the lightsaber clipped to my belt and… Well, you know how they feel about Jedi around here."
"But you saved this sorry little settlement," he said incredulously. "If you hadn't been here yesterday the mercs would have walked right into Khoonda and taken it."
"That doesn't matter. The animosity towards the Jedi is rooted too deeply to be eradicated overnight. In that man's eyes, it's the Jedi's fault that he has no family and he's barely eking out a living on his farm. Is it really a surprise that he attacked me when he saw me?"
Atton sighed in exasperation and prepared to launch into the now familiar argument about the limits of her good nature, but something made him hesitate. Something that Sarai had said struck him as strange. It took him a few seconds to pinpoint exactly what it was. "He's a farmer?" he asked.
She looked at him curiously. "Yes. Why?"
"You can fight off legions of assassin droids and mercenaries and barely break a sweat. How did a farmer manage to land a hit on you?"
He had meant it jokingly, and so was surprised when her pale cheeks darkened. There was no chance to question her further as they had reached the loading ramp of the Ebon Hawk and she pressed a finger against her lips. "Be quiet," she ordered. "If Mical notices that I'm bleeding he'll fuss. I'll take care of it myself in the medbay." Happy that she was trying to avoid Mical, Atton obeyed and followed her silently. But he filed her reaction away in his memory for further study.
They moved as silently as possible through the ship, Atton more successfully than Sarai. For someone so short and slight, who moved with unnerving grace in battle, she made an awful lot of noise. When they reached the safety of the medbay Atton firmly shut the door while Sarai hopped up onto a stool, easing her torn outer robe off with a sigh.
"I'll do that," said Atton in his best authoritive voice, plucking the cloth that she had been about to clean the wound with out of her hand. He was surprised when she made no protest and allowed him to clean and bandage the cloth. "So, what kept you so long? The cranky Jedi?"
Sarai chuckled softly. "No. I was only with him for a few minutes. I was hunting for lightsaber crystals, and one in particular." She pulled a gently glowing orange crystal from her pocket and held it up so he could see it. "Solari," she said softly.
"What's so special about it?"
"It gives me something to strive for. Only Jedi dedicated to the light can unleash it's full potential."
Atton snorted. "What's to strive for? Your good nature is sickening."
She was quiet and thoughtful as she rolled down her sleeve and hopped down from the stool. When she reached the door she turned and said, "You wondered how that man managed to land a hit. It was because I was distracted. I was concentrating very hard on not killing him." She sighed and looked away from Atton's shocked face. "When he attacked me, the anger was almost overwhelming. It's been a long time since I had to worry about reigning in my emotions. It's not always easy."