In which I continue to make things awkward and test the limits of readers’ tolerance for cheesy goodness. At least until the next chapter.
Chapter 5: A Stupid Question
They left the demolished shuttle thirty minutes later, protected against the freezing air with additional layers of gear, and made for Aitahea’s abandoned speeder. The Consular glanced at the wrecked ship as they walked away, feeling a new sense of appreciation for Erithon’s piloting skills. Judging by the shape – literally – of the shuttle, neither of them should have survived that crash, let alone the first one that Erithon weathered alone.
The added gear made the brief journey back to Aitahea’s speeder significantly more comfortable. In addition to the cold weather suits they wore beneath their respective uniforms, they each had a helmet and muffler that offered more protection for their faces, as well as provided a direct comlink for them to speak.
Night’s passage had left the speeder none the worse for wear, and it sputtered to a reluctant start when Erithon activated the engine. “Ready to go?” he asked, voice laced with static from the connection.
“You’re the better pilot, Major. You should drive,” Aitahea conceded, securing their last few supplies to the rear of the vehicle. “Everything’s ready. Let’s go.”
Erithon’s laughter crackled in her ears. “Well, thanks. I’m not sure last night’s trip qualifies as proof, but I’ll take what I can get.” The trooper climbed onto the speeder and adjusted a few settings before turning around and patting the space behind him. Aitahea caught a cheeky grin through his visor and couldn’t help but break into a smile of her own.
She mounted the vehicle quickly, settling her boots onto the footboard securely before reaching for Erithon. Aitahea hesitated for an instant before grasping tightly to his armored waist, pressing close to his back, and pointedly ignoring the fluttering feeling in her stomach. Erithon was unusually silent and started off smoothly toward the Republic base.
“Master Jedi?” the trooper broke in a few moments later. Aitahea started and had to readjust her grip.
“So… is it true Jedi read minds?”
Aitahea couldn’t help the laugh that pealed into the comm. It took her another moment to gather her wits and her breath before answering. “That’s a complex question, Major.” She felt rather than saw him blanch, then redden again with embarrassment. “It’s a gift some possess, but it generally isn’t used without permission, or in extraordinarily dire circumstances.”
“But you’re an empath, right? Your, uh, superpower is reading minds?”
This set Aitahea laughing again, an action which marginally eased Erithon’s nervousness. “Not precisely. I have a natural ability to sense emotions, feelings, and presences, but I actually expend more effort in not sensing them. Many Jedi learn these skills to a small extent; most can perceive living creatures through their presence in the Force. I can also observe and influence thoughts and memories, but I only do as a last resort.
I’m not in your head, Major, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Aitahea heard a self-conscious chuckle come through the com. “Yeah, I guess so. I don’t really know a lot about the Jedi, and I figure asking a stupid question is better than jumping to an even more stupid conclusion.”
On a sudden impulse, Aitahea leaned her helmeted head forward, resting her forehead against the trooper’s armored back, and closed her eyes. “Thank you, Major. That’s a kindness I haven’t often been afforded.”
Since the Sacking of Coruscant, the Jedi Order had managed to rebuild in strong support of the Republic, but that didn’t stop people from remembering – or blaming others for – the hardships of the Imperial attack and occupation. Aitahea and her contemporaries were revered and mistrusted in equal parts on many worlds. Erithon’s generous trust and innocent questioning touched a poorly healed wound in Aitahea’s heart, sending her emotions reeling. It soothed and stung all at once, leaving Aitahea breathless and struggling to unravel her feelings once again. How did he do this?
“Oh, and… Erithon. Just Erithon. You know, titles like that with just the two of us, kinda pointless.”
“Erithon. Thank you.”
The remaining flight back to Aurek Base was uneventful, and the handful of techs and soldiers waiting for them at the entrance cheered when the Jedi and the trooper arrived safely. Erithon was grinning and clapped Aitahea companionably on the shoulder after dismounting the speeder, causing her to laugh brightly, much to the surprise of their curious observers.
The commander rushed into the hangar to meet with them, pulling on a thick coat as he came in. He welcomed Erithon with a handshake and bowed politely to Aitahea. The base had fared well in their absence. The initial rescue team that was sent prior to the Jedi’s arrival had been able to be recalled within hours due to Aitahea’s quick access to the downed shuttle, and all were safe. The commander looked especially grateful when Erithon mentioned they’d almost been ambushed by pirates overnight.
“Commander, the shuttle is in a safe place now, and someone should be sent to recover the body of the pilot,” Aitahea added quietly. Erithon looked away but nodded in agreement.
“Thank you, Master Jedi, I’ll be sure it’s done as soon as possible. We’ll be checking out the pirate activity in the area as well, based on your report. Speaking of reports, Major…” The commander glanced apologetically at Erithon, who grimaced slightly but nodded.
“Yes, sir. I’ll need to talk to the quartermaster about another speeder and additional supplies, too; we need to get back out there as soon as we can,” the trooper explained. “Our quarry is still out there.”
The commander shook his head. “It won’t be for at least a day, Major. There’s a massive weather system coming in; we’re shutting everything down for at least the next eighteen standard hours.”
“That’s not possible, Commander. We need to leave as soon as we gather supplies,” Aitahea insisted, expression grave. The commander shrugged apologetically, but wouldn’t be swayed.
“There’s nothing to be done for it, Master Jedi, I’m sorry. Take the time to rest and recover; I’ve arranged private quarters for you. Just wait it out with the rest of us,” he finished, turning away. “I’ll leave you to your work; I have preparations to make for the storm as well.”
Aitahea’s shoulders fell with disappointment, but Erithon touched her arm and offered an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry, Jedi, the commander’s right. Come on, let’s get the ball rolling on our supplies and see what the weather looks like.”
Several hours and pages of paperwork later, Erithon tracked Aitahea to the stateroom she’d been issued. Finding the door open, he knocked politely on the threshold frame to let the Jedi know he was there. Aitahea turned from the datapad she was working on and welcomed the trooper into the private quarters with a wave.
“I’ve been updating the Jedi Council on our progress, as well as searching the archives for any additional information about Rakata influence on Hoth,” she explained, offering Erithon one of the utilitarian chairs that occupied the room.
“I’ve got the supplies we’ll need, along with two speeders this time,” Erithon replied with a chuckle, hiding the twinge of disappointment he felt despite the practical need for the gear. “Did you find anything useful?”
The Consular shook her head and passed the datapad to Erithon. “Some, information that will perhaps help us if she finds the location of the artifact first, but none of it will help us to track the apprentice herself more efficiently right now.” The Jedi looked frustrated and anxious for the first time since they’d met, and Erithon found himself more than a little surprised.
“What do we do?”
Aitahea paced the small room a few times before answering. “I can track her through the Force, but it’s risky,” she replied. “It gives away our position, though being here at Aurek generally guarantees our safety. One Sith apprentice isn’t a match for an entire Republic base.”
“I should hope not,” Erithon quipped, eliciting a nervous smile from the Jedi. “Does it cause any other problems?”
“Not specifically. Connecting with another Force sensitive is always uncertain, but dark side users pose unexpected threats,” she explained, fingers brushing the hilt of her lightsaber, secure at her hip as always. “It isn’t the same as facing one in person.”
The trooper set aside the datapad and stood, opening his hands. “Anything I can do?”
Turning to face him, Aitahea gazed at Erithon for a long moment, face expressionless. The trooper struggled against the desire to fidget or crack a joke, his usual go-to under serious circumstances. This was business, his partner needed help, and it was his job to be there for her.
And beyond that, he wanted to protect her. The thought was laughable, a grunt like him guarding a Jedi Master, a woman whose skill and power he could only barely comprehend. But that was what he did, who he was: a soldier, protecting what virtue and justice was left in the galaxy.
Erithon startled, jerked out of his reverie by her response. The Jedi was smiling quietly at him, gratitude shining in her green eyes. “Oh,” he stammered, recovering. “What?”
Aitahea stepped back, finding the center of the room, and motioned for Erithon to sit again. He obliged, giving her his full attention. “Just… stay,” she proposed. “Watch over me, in case something unexpected happens.”
“Done,” he agreed without hesitation, watching as she slipped off her gloves and stowed them on her belt. He noticed her hands trembling but didn’t say anything.
“It shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes, depending on how far away she is and how well she shields herself.” She raised a hand towards the door controls and the portal hissed closed, locking with a soft click. “It’ll be safer if we aren’t disturbed,” she added when the trooper raised an eyebrow. The Jedi gave him a last uneasy smile, and he returned a confident nod.
Erithon watched with interest while Aitahea knelt on the floor of the room, her robe flaring around her, and settled into a meditative position. Eyes slipping closed, she clasped her hands loosely on her lap and exhaled deeply. Her expression was beatific, displaying a remarkable focus, and even the Force-blind trooper could sense a subtle change of the energy in the room.
Long moments passed as Aitahea sought for the Sith apprentice. Erithon leaned his elbows on his knees and examined the Jedi’s serene face. It wasn’t like she dreamed; her eyes didn’t move beneath the closed lids. Erithon even thought he could detect a shimmer in the air around the Jedi, more visible in his peripheral vision than straight on.
The trooper became restless as more minutes passed and vacated his seat, glancing regularly at Aitahea while he paced. Her expression had changed subtly; brows drew together, lips pursed. Her posture stiffened abruptly, and Erithon dropped to one knee next to her.
“Jedi… Aitahea?” he whispered. He didn’t dare touch her, afraid the contact might disturb her control further and potentially harm her. Helpless, he watched in silence while her head dipped and her hands clenched.
Unexpectedly, Aitahea’s eyes flew open and she staggered precariously to her feet. Erithon followed suit, hovering a hand just under one of the Jedi’s elbows. Aitahea took a deep breath and put a hand to her forehead.
“I found her, but she was expecting me, apparently.” Aitahea dropped her hand and gave Erithon a wan smile. “She isn’t far. We should move quickly.”
“Are you sure? You don’t seem quite yourself yet, and besides, command says there’s a storm coming, remember?” Erithon questioned, searching her face carefully. “We won’t be able to travel until tomorrow at least.” The Jedi was pale, green eyes unfocused. What had the Sith done to her?
She shook her head, dazed. “No, you’re right, Major. Erithon. If a storm is moving in, she won’t be able to move either.” The Jedi’s expression suddenly hardened, a determined look stealing into her tired eyes. “We won’t lose her.”
Aitahea made to step away but stumbled instead, pitching forward with a soft cry. Erithon, ready and waiting, caught her and lowered them both to their knees. Keeping one arm securely around her waist, he cupped her face with the other, examining her exhausted countenance.
“I… I’m fine,” she murmured, but rested her face in his hand and leaned into his hold, eyes slipping shut.
“Like blazes you are,” Erithon growled, shifting their position to lift her into his arms. The motion elicited a weak moan from the Jedi, but she didn’t protest any further. She felt small and fragile.
Thankfully the small stateroom had a bunk at the back of the room, and Erithon carried the weary Jedi safely to it and settled her gently onto the cushion. He thought for a moment about calling for one of the Republic medics, but a glance at the locked door changed his mind. Instead, he studied Aitahea’s face again, watching for any other signs of illness.
She was paler than usual, long lashes starkly black against her ashen cheeks. Her breathing was calm, and when he checked her pulse it was only slightly elevated and falling fast. He had only the barest knowledge of field medicine, but what the Jedi seemed to need more than anything right now was rest.
“Erithon,” she breathed softly, surprising the trooper. Aitahea lifted a delicate hand, and Erithon quickly pressed it between his own, clasping her chilled fingers. Her lashes fluttered, eyes opening as she offered a brief smile. “Stay.”
“Of course, Master Jedi,” he whispered, watching as her eyes drifted shut again. Impulsively, he reached up with one hand to brush his thumb gently along her cheek.
“No,” she murmured, and Erithon froze, heart in his throat. He cursed inwardly, berating himself for not just letting her rest, daring to give into the temptation to touch her face.
“Master Jedi, I-“
“No,” she repeated, quieter now, and turned her head so her cheek pressed into the palm of his hand. Erithon didn’t dare breathe.