Chapter 18: The End of the Beginning

Ahead of them, the Ebon Hawk gleamed in the bright afternoon sun. Shimmering in the heat of the day, it seemed almost as insubstantial as a mirage. Outside the ship, T3 was motoring around in a tizzy of excitement making a last-minute maintenance check on the hull.

Atton knew that ship was going to haunt his dreams. No other ship had given him the thrill he'd experienced when the Hawk swooped through space, executing graceful dives and hairpin turns at his every whim. His fingers still itched to grasp the controls.

Shira stopped, turning to gaze at him. "I guess this is it."

"It doesn't have to be. It's not too late to change your mind," he said. "I still don't trust that shifty little droid."

Her lips twitched into a shaky smile.

"I have to go, Atton, and I have to go alone. I can't stay here and pretend not to notice when the rest of the galaxy is falling to pieces. I love you, but if I don't at least try to help, I'm going to hate myself."

They'd already hammered out the arguments dozens of times. He'd tried to reason with her over the breakfast table or as they lay in bed, staring at the long crack in the white plaster ceiling. She always countered with the same objections and repeated phrases that frustrated him because they seemed to have been cribbed from some secret Jedi handbook. What disturbed him most was the fact she spoke about the Unknown Regions as though they were a death sentence hanging over her head.

He sighed. "Be careful out there. Don't do anything too noble or stupid. And try not to run around in your skivvies too much. I hear that attracts the wrong sort of guys."

His mind flashed to the time he'd gone sprinting across Nar Shaddaa like a madman, a couple of medpacs in hand. Of course, this wasn't just some meeting at the Jekk'Jekk Tarr. The evil she had to contend with now made a get-together with the Exchange seem as routine as a cup of caffa. Still, he'd felt the same sense of helplessness and the same desperate knowledge that whatever he offered her would probably not be enough.

"Noble and stupid. That's me alright," she said. "I'll try to avoid traipsing around the Unknown Regions in my underwear, but I can't make any promises."

She leaned forward and kissed him softly.

Her lips lingered on his for a moment and then he felt her draw away with agonizing slowness.

Torture. Like somebody was bleeding him real slow.

"Thank you for my vacation," she whispered. "It was everything I could have wished."

"We had a good run, didn't we?" he said. "I don't regret it. Any of it."

"Goodbye, Atton."

Her hand brushed lightly across his cheek. He caught a glimpse of her as she turned, the pale blur of a face that would not cry, and then she was moving towards the ship.

He watched her walk away, her blue robe whispering lies against her body.

His lips felt parched. His mouth was drying up. How many days now? Too many.

Damn, it didn't matter. Not anymore.

"Atton?"

Her voice jolted him back to the docks. She stood on the boarding plank.

"Yeah?"

"Did you ever plan on telling me your real name?"

He hesitated for a long moment, staring into the face of the beautiful woman who, for a time, had been his woman.

He didn't know why it was so hard to spit it out. It was three letters long. Two consonants and a vowel.

"It's nothing special," he said. "Just plain old Jaq. Never liked it much anyway."

"Goodbye, Jaq," she murmured.

And then, before he could answer her, before he could choke out another word, she melted into the shadows of the Ebon Hawk like a good dream.

He stood and waited, watching as the ship lifted off, as it passed over the spires of Aldera and the cloud-wreathed mountains, in a steep ascent to the stars.

"Goodbye," he said.

Author's Note: If you've been following this series, don't despair! This is where "Sun and Moon" ends but it is also where the bridge interlude, "New Order" and the sequel, "The Stars" begin! I will be posting chapters for "New Order" very soon.