The first time it happens is on Telos, not that Meetra notices.
"Your... friend, has had combat training," Atris's white-haired follower tells her. Meetra doesn't even think to ask more, doesn't want to know anything, just wants out, away. Atris's harsh words echo in her empty Jedi academy, and Meetra shivers with them long after Atton's taken off.
It's only when they're on route away from Telos, fingers clenching in remembrance over a lightsaber hilt she'll never get back, that Meetra goes to Atton. Mostly she just wants some way to… to distract herself. From the council that exiled her, all missing; the Jedi that didn't want her anymore.
Asking Atton about his training seems inconsequential. But she's wrong, again.
"Look, sometimes you pick up things," Atton tells her, sullen. He won't look away from his consoles, the soft beeping of machinery telling them all's fine, the ship flying itself. "Sometimes pretending you know more than you do will get someone to back off, that's all."
Meetra's watching the readout on the navi-computer; little blips light up like stars, flaring bright then fading. She swallows. Focuses on Atton, uses his shadowed face as a shield from -- from other thoughts. She tells him, "I'm sorry. I just thought, if you'd been trained, then it would be an asset. It-- it helps to know what the people travelling with you can do, is all. I'm sorry I brought it up."
Atton blusters, but she can feel his pleasure at the compliment, disappointment at her easy acceptance that he's nothing more than the fool. Playing the fool, for sure, but Meetra thinks, in the part of herself that wants to sit in the co-pilot's seat instead of meditate, that really, he's playing her for the fool.
She sits down anyway.
"Are you going to backseat fly the entire way to Dantooine?" Atton asks, grumbling. "Because I have to tell you, that's gonna get old pretty quick."
"Where would you like me to go?" Meetra asks, genuinely curious. She knows she should be offended, but too much of her mind is intrigued by Atton. His irritation is just another piece of the puzzle, and she drinks it all in.
"I dunno, maybe go hang out with the other Jedi? Have a Jedi party?" he mutters.
Atton doesn't like Jedi. Meetra knows this. She stands, mumbling a courteous farewell, and ignores the burn in her stomach. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone -- not Atton, not Kreia, and certainly not Atris, who looked at her with a disgust reserved for insects -- that Meetra isn't a Jedi. Not anymore.
On Dantooine, everything is different.
She doesn't have a lightsaber, but somehow, can still feel the settlers' judgment, their angry eyes following her as she walks away. She wants to scream, wants to tell them, "We were the reason you aren't speaking Mandalorian."
She can't quite bring herself to argue, though, not when part of her agrees with them. No one remembers the good that Jedi do, they only remember the arguments, the arrogance. Meetra doesn't agree or disagree with anyone -- out loud or in her heart. She just asks settler after settler for information, offers to help.
"They really don't like Jedi here, huh," Atton comments. Meetra tries to bury the hurt, the sharp twinge that comes from Atton's smugness. Oh, he's buried it deep, but Meetra knows.
She turns away, says, "They have reason," because she's trying to be an open vessel, and, "and short memories," because she's trying to be objective. Walks, carefully, toward the government building. She says, trying to have perspective, "I suppose it doesn't matter in the end. We'll just, keep a low profile."
Behind her, Bao-Dur snorts, and she grins a little. He bore witness to the largest ripple in the galaxy she'll ever make, and Meetra's grateful that someone can joke about it. It makes her feel less of a monster.
Meetra walks the Jedi enclave grounds, walks through the enclave itself. Her feet tread the same paths as in her training, as a padawan, and Meetra loses her footing.
She stumbles over the same paving stones her old masters walked; the Jedi who cast her out. The Jedi who -- who feared what she'd become.
She can feel Atton and Bao-Dur are unsettled, uncomfortable. Fair enough. Meetra isn't uncomfortable. She feels what she is: a ghost, walking silently through the graveyard of a thousand Jedi.
The last hoarse whisper in an otherwise empty tomb.
The wildlife doesn't make the journey easy; it's tough, relentless attack after attack as they methodically search through the enclave. It's mindless, though, and Meetra falls into the rhythm of battle: push forward, swing, attack, swing, parry, push forward. Her breath comes in deep pants, but she feels herself calm, mind empty, inner waters still. Beside her, Atton keeps pace effortlessly, feet dancing and blasters a constant comfort.
He prefers the blasters because he doesn't want to get to close to his foes, Meetra realizes in sudden understanding. Watching him pull a blade out to defend against a particularly nasty laigrek, she sees the split-second of hesitation, the way he backs up to start shooting as soon as he's able.
The blade in his hand was an extension of his arm, though, the sharp edge flowing true, hilt resting in his palm.
Meetra stretches, a brief lull in attacks, and wonders if this is what the Echani mean by courtship.
"We should press on, General," Bao-Dur tells her. "No telling what might come around the corner."
"On this, we agree," she replies. Atton shakes his head, mock-disgust plain, but Meetra can see the satisfaction in him as he stretches, the flush of hard work. She watches him a long moment, watches the line of his back, the sway of his thighs as his muscles stretch.
"Get a room, you two," Bao-Dur murmurs, and Meetra flushes, glares at him a little. The Zabrek is unrepentant, but Meetra lets it go because Atton shows no sign of having noticed.
Meeting a man who years prior wanted to be her padawan is a shock of cold water, an upheaval so great she shudders with it. He would have been only a boy when they'd met, Meetra herself a young woman following her own path. She'd already decided to follow Kavar, Meetra remembers, listening to the young man. She'd already abandoned Mical before they met.
"Yeah, we don't actually need any more wide-eyed help, do we?" Atton asks.
His tone is sarcastic, brusque, but Meetra can hear real anger underneath. She steps toward Atton, who’s leaning against the library wall, pauses when he stiffens. Instead, she holds herself carefully, arms and shoulders relaxed with effort. Meetra tells Atton, "I could use a break. Do you mind if we take an hour, so I can look through anything in the archives?"
"Waste of time, if you ask me," Atton mutters, but he goes to begin securing the library door against possible intrusion, Bao-Dur falling in to help. The wildlife down here hasn't been too bad, though it feels like they've killed hundreds and the bastards keep coming.
"Would you -- I mean," Mical offers, "it would be an honour to help you find what you're looking for, Master."
Meetra swallows. "Please don't call me that," she murmurs. Glancing at Atton, she asks Mical, "What have you found?"
Mical takes her through his discoveries, showing her each piece of information and looking up at Meetra expectantly. His pleased expression, his gratitude, at any sign of approval from her sends shivers down her spine. Once or twice she finds herself reacting to him as if he were a soldier in the army she used to command, a loyal pawn to her General.
She tries to be more careful in her words, after that.
"Good riddance," Atton mutters under his breath as Meetra gently suggests that Mical should wait in Khoonda for her to finish investigating Master Vrook's disappearance.
Bao-Dur shakes his head, rolls his eyes. "You're as transparent as he is, Atton," he mutters.
Atton glares, and Meetra lays a hand on his forearm carefully. When he doesn't shake her off, Meetra asks Atton, "Do you really think it's a bad idea to ask for his help?"
Atton shrugs, looks mulish. "I just don't know why we're latching on to every wet-behind-the-ears boy who goes googly-eyed over you, is all," he replies. "But if that's how Jedi form ranks then hey, whatever. I just fly the ship."
Meetra drops her hand. Bao-Dur gives her a single, sympathetic look before moving out without comment, forcing her and Atton to follow lest the Zabrek risk being eaten by the wildlife. Soon enough they're fighting once more.
Not once since Peragus has Atton touched her back.
Vrook is the same as always, even when the entirety of Dantooine has shifted with the times. Everyone else on this miserable planet, from the settlers too stubborn to leave to the leader of the mercenaries hell-bent on taking Khoonda for themselves, are simply riding out the effects of the war. Meetra feels the cracks in Dantooine's skin with every footfall, and yet Vrook remains the same. Unchanging.
She doesn't react well to it. But the same old arguments will get neither of them anywhere, and Meetra, at least, is too tired to fight an old, stubborn Master whose inability to change has brought him to walk the halls of the dead.
After the battle, Administrator Adare asks her, "Jedi, if you would, we have several days' hard cleanup ahead of us."
The Administrator pauses, looks to Zherron, and inwardly Meetra sighs. Finally, Zherron says, "If you'd be able to give us another day or two, we could get most of the fortifications back in place and start working on a plan to move forward."
"After all the ungrateful--" Atton starts.
Meetra interrupts with, "We can give you another day or so, but then I have to leave."
Vrook responds, "As you always do," but it barely pierces Meetra's skin, barely hurts.
Instead, she says to Vrook, "Feel free to do what has to be done in my absence," and strides out.
Kreia isn't pleased they're staying. Mical, on the other hand, is impressed with Meetra’s compassion, her generousity, her--
"Does he ever stop fawning?" Atton mutters.
The two of them are rebuilding the stupid turrets for the fourth time, and -- having burned her fingers on the soldering iron four times -- Meetra is close to just offering to buy the damned settlement new turrets. Surely it would be less painfully frustrating than this. Focusing on not letting her internal grumbling out, she nearly misses Atton's snide comment.
Replaying the last few moments in her head, Meetra fights down a smile. "You don't like Mical," she answers.
"He seems pretty useless," Atton offers.
Meetra swears under her breath, as the stupid turret sparks and burns her finger again. "This turret is useless," she tells Atton. Throwing her bangs from her face and wiping her sweaty brow with her forearm, Meetra takes the moment to surreptitiously watch Atton.
His gaze follows her chest, the line of her throat. She flushes, arches her spine, just a little. It's a harmless motion, Meetra thinks -- Atton has made no secret he finds her body attractive. It's her powers, her training, her Jedi-ness he loathes.
He watches her stretch, transfixed.
It's only when she arches her eyebrow that he looks away, looks guilty.
Interesting. Against her better judgment, Meetra feels a flash of hope well up. Surely he wouldn't feel guilty watching her, unless he respected her, at least a little? Wanted her good opinion? Strange. Intriguing. Fascinating.
Meetra hops down off the turret, and dares to shove Atton's shoulder gently. A little playfully. "Come on, Rand," she teases, "it's not like you've never seen me in my underwear."
Atton recovers beautifully, even throws her a wicked grin. "The pinnacle of our working relationship, Surik," he counters. Just for a moment, he sways into a fighting stance, before casually slouching against the turret pedestal.
Meetra watches his hands and feet as he flows from fighting form to slouch, and, despite herself, is drawn in.
When they get to Nar Shaddaa, Atton seems more relaxed, more cheerful, more… more Atton.
The only reason Meetra knows it's a lie is because she's been watching, closely. Maybe it's for the reason Kreia wants her to watch, maybe she doesn't wholly trust him yet. Maybe it's because she knows people are never straightforward, always the sum of their parts and their memories and the scars the past have left on them, and Atton has deep scars.
It could be for those reasons, but mostly it's because in a universe gone mad -- a galaxy that believes her the last Jedi, no matter Meetra's protests -- Atton, even with his lying and deception and bluster, is one of the few things that makes sense. She clings to his admiration and dislike in equal measure. They're... small enough, to make sense.
"I have to admit, General," Bao-Dur says quietly, "that is an impressive smell you've found us."
"I do try to oblige," Meetra replies with a grin.
Two of the Exchange guards step toward them -- and Meetra already has her lightsaber out -- when it happens yet again. Atton drops the casual slouch, his hands-in-his-pockets ease, and steps up beside her, hands by his sides, palms tensed and ready for combat. His blasters are holstered.
If she hadn't already been covertly watching his hands, his hips, Meetra wouldn't have seen the instant transformation: Atton has purposefully, without conscious thought, put himself within hand-to-hand reach of her enemy.
"I'm sure we can come to an arrangement," Meetra says to the guards. She sees, out of the corner of her eye, his stillness, his stance careful and deliberate, and fights a smile.
It shouldn't make her feel good. But then, she isn't a Jedi, no matter what the galaxy believes, so she clings to the feeling, the secret thrill that perhaps Atton does care, is protecting her because he likes her.
The Exchange goons are easy enough to bribe. Atton relaxes only when the bulkhead closes behind them, and drops his stance. "That could have gone a lot worse," he tells Meetra and Bao-Dur. "I have to hand it to you, you can charm the leaves off the trees when you want to."
"The General does have a way about her, doesn't she?" Bao-Dur replies, which earns him a sharp look from both her and Atton. Bao-Dur just smiles, beatifically, and gestures forward. "Shall we go try and save some refugees, General?"
Meetra continues into the refugee compound, because she doesn't know how to answer that, and she knows Bao-Dur knows that. His respect was hard-won, and absolute, and because of her failings, not despite them. She doesn't know what to do with that, either.
The refugees are a mix of people: the poor, the destitute, the angry, the fallen. Displaced families and displaced veterans with no war to fight. Humans, from the Republic settlements on Serocco, whose eyes Meetra can feel on her even through the bulkheads. She manages to talk them down, keeps the refugees and war vets from each other's throats, keeps the peace anyway, but all the while feels sick to her stomach. So many ruined, so many lost, empty faces.
"Why don't we take a breather, General?" Bao-Dur murmurs, after she passes yet another family. He looks guilty, but presses on with, "You'll be no good to any of these people if you don't eat something."
It's said out of kindness, Meetra knows -- even if it's blatant manipulation -- but it still brings burning tears to her eyes.
She's never any good for anyone.
"Hey," Atton says. He hunkers down in front of where she's folded up, knees to her chest, nudges her foot with his own. His eyes are dark. Tells her seriously, "You didn't do this."
"No, I didn't," she agrees. Atton doesn't know how that's worse. She takes a breath, accepts the food Bao-Dur hands her. She chews mechanically, eyes watching a small child's vacant expression across the cargo pod. Swallowing her first bite, Meetra tells Atton, "None of the soldiers I fought lived," and has to lean over to dry heave.
It's Atton's hand on the back of her neck, gentle, but Bao-Dur speaks first. "We all have something too large to forgive, General," he tells her solemnly. "You help where you can."
Healing a sick man, helping one family find a ship to a better life, doesn't make up for killing a planet, she wants to argue, but doesn't have the energy. Instead, she looks up at Atton, desperate for the joke he's sure to tell.
Instead, he's watching her with eyes that give nothing away. He wipes his hands on his pants, tells her, "What he said," and Meetra closes her eyes.
They end up having to kill -- to assassinate -- the major Exchange leaders.
Meetra isn't sure she feels bad about it. But she does feel bad about her lack of guilt.
Atton fights with a fierceness Meetra hasn't seen from him before, he pulls her to the corner and keeps himself between her and their enemy. Bleeding out, Meetra wants to move, to help. She manages a few feeble efforts, power at half-mast but still something.
The glimpse she sees of Atton's snarling face is that of a stranger.
After the battle, she feels dizzy, stumbling to her feet. "I think I'm fine," she tells them, before blacking out.
Meetra wakes up to cold metal under her, and a quiet argument above her head.
"If we don't bring her to someone more skilled, she might--"
"I know what I'm doing, she'll be--"
"Atton," Bao-Dur whispers, "you can't be this blind. The General needs medical attention."
Meetra struggles to open her eyes, pushes herself up on her elbows. "I'm fine," she says, hoarsely. "What did I miss?"
Immediately there's a cup put against her lips. She blinks rapidly, trying to clear her swimmy vision. Atton's face floats into view from the blurry background. His brow is furrowed, mouth downturned in a rare anxious expression. "How are you feeling?" he asks, gently.
"Like I got chewed on by a kath hound," Meetra mumbles. Carefully, she scrubs her face. Her right side pulls a little, and she reaches down to finger tender ribs. "Fixed me up, huh?" she can't help but ask Atton, with a little grin.
"You know it," Atton quips. "Bao-Dur's only good with the mechanical parts. I got to sew up your squishy bits."
"Are you sure you're all right, General?" Bao-Dur asks.
Meetra studies him. The Zabrek is usually solemn, his humour tending toward wry if anything. Still, there's serious in the face of refugees with nothing, and there's this.
"What's wrong?" Meetra says. She gulps, ignoring how much it sounds like command.
Atton and Bao-Dur share a look. Finally, Bao-Dur admits, "We can't reach the Ebon Hawk."
They kill all the slavers.
Meetra watches the dock crew haul the bodies for disposal, and feels... nothing.
Kreia tries to give her wisdom, which Meetra smiles through. She thanks the older woman. She doesn't really hear any of what Kreia says, listens to her face and her thoughts, not the other woman's mouth. Meetra feels Kreia's pleasure in the killing, and dismisses the conversation. Perhaps it's just satisfaction at getting rid of slavers, but it doesn't seem like it. It makes Meetra wary.
Atton comes to sit beside her on the Ebon Hawk's ramp. "They're charging an arm and a leg to dispose of everything, but they'll do it," he explains, waving a hand at the sleezy dock attendant.
Meetra says nothing. After a moment, Atton starts, awkwardly, "Look, I know you probably feel--"
"I don't feel guilty," she interrupts. Off his look, Meetra shrugs, goes back to staring at the bodies. "I don't feel... anything," she tells him. "A Jedi would. I think."
"You aren't a Jedi?" Atton asks.
Meetra shakes her head. Sighs. Feels a… a hole, inside her, where sorrow and compassion should be. "I'm, nothing," she tells him.
"Don't say that!" he hisses, fiercely, and she has to turn. Atton's fists are clenched, eyes blazing, and he heaves a breath in. Quieter, Atton whispers, "Don't say that. You aren't nothing. You're-- you're a lot more than nothing."
Suddenly Meetra doesn't want to have this conversation on the docks, at Nar, where everyone can see them. She stands, hesitating only a moment until Atton stands with her and follows her into the cockpit.
Their boots echo on the Ebon Hawk's metal plating, and she stares out at the view of Nar Shaddaa, away from the prying eyes of, well, everyone. The lights of the smugglers' moon reflect against the pilot's console.
Only then does she turn to him, puts one hand on his chest.
Eyes closed, he covers it with his own. "You don't really know me," Atton murmurs. "I can't--"
"You don't really know me, either," Meetra whispers, and kisses him.
It's true. Atton can't feel the planet heavy in her gut, doesn't know that all the compassion -- all the good in her -- is born from guilt.
Turns out, Atton understands after all.
They have a few minutes of calm, a moment to breathe, while planning their next move. Meetra should check on everyone. Should force herself out of the cockpit. Instead, she asks Atton about it.
And he tells her.
Atton only side-eyes her once, says to her, offhand, "If you're going get revenge for the hundreds of Jedi I've killed, doing it while I'm flying your ship is a stupid plan."
Meetra chokes, her throat tight, unable to breathe for it. Eventually, she whispers, hoarse, "I bet I've killed more Jedi than you have," and watches Nal Hutta drift by the viewport.
Atton stands, and locks the cockpit door. Meetra watches him, unable to take her eyes off his back even as he refuses to turn, can't face her. She feels him fight his own trembling, hears him say only, "This is a terrible idea."
She offers one outstretched hand, feels desire grip her as he finally steps toward her.
They touch each other with trembling hands, and Atton mutters nonsense the whole time. Meetra is silent, as silent as possible to hear his every breath, but all she can make out is, "Not this, I won't, no, not again, not again, not again," a dirge, a litany in time with his movements, even as Atton's hands grip vice-like on her hips. Like he won't ever let go.
They should have known, no good would come from meeting the Exchange. Finding herself trapped on G0-T0's ship fills Meetra with fear, annoyance, and resignation, in that order; when the ship alarms start to blare, she can't fight the smile from her face. Fighting alone isn't a hardship; it’s barely a challenge, in truth. Still, something in Meetra's chest fills as Atton successfully cracks the security on G0-T0's bridge to let her free.
"I thought you'd never make it," she can't help but quip.
Behind Atton, Mira rolls her eyes. "Are you coming, or what?"
Meetra falls in step easily, feeling something in her skin settle as they start methodically taking the yacht apart. Droids fall, explode, as Meetra and Atton flow like water around each other, each step in turn. She feels a tug of contentment beneath her breastbone as he fights with a blade, standing tall at her back, his deliberate stance a joy to see and feel. She ducks under one swing as he blocks, each movement telegraphed to her like a sonnet, each movement as flawless and careful as a trained Master.
A rush of desire hits her, in the middle of the bridge, watching him still his body, breath by breath matching her exhalations. He leans over the console, muttering to himself about redundant systems or security or something. Meetra isn't listening. She's watching the rise and fall of Atton's chest as he works.
"Okay," he finally tells them, straightening up. His eyes dart to Meetra's, then away. He says, "Two options: one, we set the self-destruct on a timer, hope that it works, and that we can get out of range before it blows."
Atton's casual tone, his shrug, has Meetra grinning helplessly. Mira snorts, asks, "Option two?"
Atton waves his hand in the air, offhand, but Meetra can see the deliberate fighter's posture, the way his elbow is perfectly aligned. He isn't hiding, anymore, she thinks, and feels warmth spread through her.
"Option two," Atton admits, "is less flashy, and not as guaranteed to kill the ship. But, I can try and switch the important systems over to a back-up, then kill the power on them." He pauses, leans against the console. "The problem," Atton continues, "is that there's no guarantee it'll last long enough to cripple the ship and we might have to come back and do it again."
"Or have whoever's running the ship follow us," Meetra guesses.
Meetra looks at the console, chews her lip. She tells Atton, "Let's not blow up the ship yet. If the power transfer doesn't work, we can always go to plan B." She leans against a nearby console, and a massive spark shocks her, sends her tumbling to the ground before she can react.
"Are you all right, there?" Atton asks.
His tone is amused, but not smug, and it makes Meetra actually laugh. "I'll let you handle the rest, I think, but yeah. I'm fine."
Atton offers her a hand up. "You really don't know what the hell you're doing," he says in wonder. In awe. Meetra holds out both of her hands, palms up: no, no she doesn't. And he's the only one who really gets that. She has nothing to offer him. Nothing to give.
He shakes his head, says, "Wow, we are fucked," and looks totally okay with it.
He still lets Meetra show him the Force, still allows her to guide him. His hands and feet -- trained to kill -- flow with ease as he mimics her fighting form, follows her movements. They breathe together, and Meetra feels the weight of everything settle, steady in place.
It's still there, for both of them; a pit of guilt, a planet worth of shame. But it isn't moving so much, anymore. It's slowly sinking in, a concrete foundation slowly poured. Instead of pulling Meetra beneath everything to drown, it's sturdy. Like bedrock.