The sound of Luke's voice sent a shockwave of awareness ripping through Callista's body, like lightning tearing into a tender sky. It actually felt like physical pain for an instant--electric currents ablaze beneath her skin--and it was all she could do to keep steady in the absence of the Force she still called out to by instinct, though she knew there would be no answer.
"Now, damn it! Don't try to be a hero, just go!"
His back was to her when he cried out to her. He must have sensed her presence--must have known that she had stayed, despite somehow managing to get the droids to safety amid the disorientation of the last few seconds. She heard the desperation in his voice and knew he wanted her to be as far away from here as possible, but she was not going to run away now.
Not without him.
"I'm not leaving you here!"
Rath's thin lips spread into a smile turned Callista's blood into ice water. It was the same smile he had in that small, musty room on Jeor's ark, and suddenly, she felt her windpipe tighten as it had then.
"Yes," he rasped, "this is where you belong, isn't Callista... And it scares you--it scares you to be drawn to me like this..."
She shook her head and stood her ground. He was not going to break her.
"You shouldn't have come, my fallen Jedi..." He never raised his eyes to her as he spoke, but she could feel the heat of his penetrating gaze nonetheless, just as she had on Chad. "You shouldn't have come..."
"No, it's you who should never have come, Rath," Luke said. His voice was steady, like that of a warrior who would not--could not--be intimidated. His face had turned blank: no fear, no anger, no emotion. The face that only a true Jedi would wear in the heat of battle. They circled each other in their deadly dance, each eyeing the other man like a hunter eyeing his prey. Their lightsabers crashed towards each other, snarling and hissing in the electric air: the brilliant green of Luke's blade clashing with the blood-red garnet of his enemy's, energy sparks littering the sky and stinging Callista's eyes.
She found herself instinctively reaching for the lightsaber at her hip, closing her hand around it, and wanting with everything inside her to ignite it. It would be so easy to strike him down, she thought. So easy to surrender to the impulse and unleash the darkness she had fought so hard to suppress all these years.
So easy to kill him.
How can it be evil to fight darkness with darkness? How can it be evil to help the one you love?
No. She would not let the dark side seduce her again. It had lied to her so many times before--over and over again--tricking her into believing it would be her salvation, and foolishly, she had listened to its false promises. But not again. She would not let it steal her hope again.
Her grip tightened on the cold steel. Oh stars, how she wanted to end this all now.
"This battle isn't between you and me, Jedi," Rath said to Luke, his eyes flicking towards Callista's for a second before returning to Luke's in the next instant. "You may think it is, but you're wrong... Do you actually believe you can keep her from her destiny? You can not protect her forever..."
Luke's battle cry sounded just seconds before he axed at Rath with a fierce swing, nearly catching the Sith's shoulder, only to be countered by his swift blade.
Rath smiled as their blades screeched upon contact, and his sunken eyes twitched with delight. "You do make a worthy opponent," he said, with the slightest hint of surprise in his voice. "I see the Jedi have managed to survive generations later." He leaned in and added, "And it will make killing you all the more satisfying."
Son of a...
Callista tore her lightsaber from her belt and brought it to life in its sun-yellow brilliance. Luke's head turned immediately at its snap-hiss--Rath tried to take full advantage of his momentary distraction by taking aim at Luke's torso, but Luke pivoted just in time to kick at Rath's shin and knock him off-balance.
"No, Callista!" he screamed out to her, seeing what she had done, knowing what she was about to do.
But she could barely hear his voice through the blood that throbbed in her ears. I'm sorry, Luke, she thought. I'm so sorry... She raised her blade to strike at a fallen Rath, but felt something snatch her lightsaber from her hands.
"I am not going to let you do this!" Luke screamed, and she saw her still-lit saber jump into his outstretched hand. With his own saber in his right hand, he made a clean swipe at Rath, who got to his feet with acrobatic grace and leapt out of the way of Luke's blade.
The Sith grinned--a cool grin that nearly resembled a smirk--and Callista saw a new blade suddenly extend from the other end of his lightsaber. He twirled the weapon around with brash arrogance, just the right amount to taunt his enemies.
Her hand cried out for her own lightsaber. Every Jedi instinct in her told her to fight; yet every fear in her told her not to trust the murmurs of darkness that followed.
I can help you, Luke... Please let me help you...
Luke showed no trace of panic. With command and authority, he countered each parry from Rath, weaving in and out of the Sith's swings in well-timed rhythm. And as Callista watched him she ached to end the stalemate right then and there--to silence Rath once and for all.
There is nothing holding you back... The power is yours to claim, if you would only stop resisting it... It is only the Force that you deny.
Only the Force...
Lies, all lies. She knew it, and yet she let it deceive her.
The darkness is never the key to the light... She chanted the words in her mind--a last gasp attempt at holding onto the Jedi inside her that was slowly being swallowed up by darkness.
I am a Jedi... I am a Jedi...
"Stop fighting it, Callista," Rath said to her, his laugh nearly making her head burst. She tried to quiet her mind and keep him from probing her, but he only invaded her thoughts all the more. "I can feel it in you, and so can your Jedi... You are one of us, whether you want to be or not..."
She didn't know how she was able to call her lightsaber back into her hand, but once it flew back to her, she wasted no time and pounced at Rath, slicing into him with a pent-up strength that had built up in the last few minutes and now exploded into a blind rage. She heard Luke scream--or maybe it was her own scream, but it was muted by the noise in her mind. She felt him pull her off, and as he did, she saw Rath double over in pain and collapse to the ground, his black cape clinging to his body, slick with blood that had soaked through the thick weave.
It was the last image she remembered before Luke pulled her to safety.
His blood was on her clothes. She could still smell its faint metallic scent, though it had long since dried and embedded itself in the once immaculate white linen of her blouse. Tiny, rust-colored specks, splattered all over her sleeves in a random design--the casual observer might have easily mistaken the constellation of droplets for dirt or residue from the ever-present cloud of dust in the streets, but even if people couldn't tell the difference, it didn't matter.
Callista knew the truth, and that was enough.
Her fingertips trembled as she traced the pattern of stains that were already turning brown in the heat of the low sun. Part of her wondered if the mere touch would corrupt her even further. She knew full well she had already been corrupted. There would be no wishing these stains away, no pretending they did not exist. It was his blood. His tainted blood, and it was on her, leaving its indelible mark, forever a glaring reminder of the horror of what she had done.
For a long time, she sat on the rocky ground as the sun dipped into the far-off horizon, giving way to the charcoal light of dusk. Slowly, the haze of the last few fevered moments began to clear, and the pieces began to come to her now: Luke's scream, and her own animal-like wailing at the sight of Rath's crumpled, blood-soaked cloak; the lethal hum of her weapon, and the blur of the next few seconds as she and Luke ran as fast and hard as they could--back to the abandoned canyon where they could escape to the safety of the ship, far away from the city and its townsfolk.
Far away from the pale, motionless body they had left for dead in the streets.
How can it be evil to fight darkness with darkness? How can it be evil to help the one you love?
She shuddered despite the warmth of early evening, and against her will, the tears came. She let them fall, letting them streak her face, mixing with the sweat from her struggle, stinging her mouth with their saltiness. Luke said nothing as she cried, and neither did she. She felt him beside her, sensing in the rhythm of his breathing that he wanted to reach out to her, but didn't--because it wasn't the right time or because there were no right words at that moment. After a while, she saw that his hand had been on her arm all this time, without her ever realizing it. She was surprised that she hadn't refused his touch; and neither did she refuse it when she became aware of it. She had never needed someone as much as she did at that moment, and she was not going to push him away now.
She felt him stir beside her, and though she knew he was about to speak, she couldn't bring herself to look up at him.
"Callista," he said softly, "what happened out there?"
His voice was gentle, far gentler than she thought it would be, than it should have been. It surprised her. She had expected him to be angry--to be outraged. She wouldn't have blamed him if he had unleashed all hell on her after what she had done. She had let him, and all who came before her, down.
Worst of all, she had let herself down.
Master Djinn would have disowned her. A mistake like this would have never been tolerated among her fellow Jedi, and she would have been ostracized by her peers--the only family she had known since leaving Chad.
But Luke... For some reason she couldn't fathom, Luke hadn't abandoned her like they would have. She had let him down, but he hadn't left her side. Instead, he slid his hand over hers and held it without the slightest bit of judgment or reproach, holding it with the gentleness of a lover. Of one who sought to only reassure, not condemn.
The warmth of his hand radiated through her, and at the same time, making her ache with guilt. She didn't deserve this--any of this! After what she had done, she didn't deserve any of his sympathy, much less his love. She was tainted. How could he still love her when she was tainted?
The words came slowly, laced with uncertainty and tentativeness. With not knowing where--or how--they could go from here.
"I don't... I don't know," she said, and it was the truth. She couldn't explain it, not even to herself, and least of all to him. The silence grew between them, but he didn't force her to go on; instead he continued to hold her hand while she tried to gather her thoughts. After a while she forced herself to look at him, despite knowing it would only hurt her to do so. The anguish on his face was all too obvious. Though he tried to hide it, it sliced into her nonetheless with the fierceness of a lightsaber blade, making her wonder if she could ever find a way to restore his faith in her--the faith she used to see so clearly in his eyes once upon a time. He didn't dare say it out loud, but she knew it even without him saying so: she had gambled his trust away the moment she struck out at Rath in anger.
He had felt the darkness in her, as she had felt in herself.
She swallowed hard and somehow found her voice. "This was a mistake... This whole thing was a mistake.. I should never have come back, Luke."
His hold on her hand tightened, and panic washed over his face. "Callista-"
"No," she said, "don't..." She stumbled to her feet and started to walk away, but he took hold of her arm and spun her around to face him. Still, she couldn't look in his eyes, even as he raised her chin up. "Luke... don't, please..."
"Don't what?" he said. When he spoke to her this way--in the way that made her feel as if she were the beginning and end of his universe--it always broke down her guard. "I can help you, if you just let me... It's not too late. It's never too late-"
She shook her head to stop him mid-sentence. "How can you still believe that?"
"Because I've seen it for myself, Callista. My father thought it was too late for him too--but it wasn't. You can't give up like he almost did..."
He caressed her cheek with thus thumb, and she brought her hand to his, pressing it closer to her face, then taking it away. "I can't do this," she managed to get out. "I thought I could, but... I don't know how I ever could have thought I could just come back into your life after all this time... after everything... It's too hard..."
She struggled in his arms, but he held her firm, the way he always used to. The way she could never forget.
And stars, how she hated herself for wanting him to keep holding her this way.
"You wanted to do the right thing... You risked everything to help us by coming back because you knew it was the right thing to do, and don't you forget that... Hang on to that thought for me, please... You wanted to do the right thing, and you did-"
"The right thing?" she said. She looked at him through the blur of newly-formed tears and let out a bitter laugh that sent a chill even through her. "The right thing... Luke, I just killed a man. Force help me, I struck out in anger and killed a man! I betrayed everything the Jedi have stood for for over a thousand generations--all in a matter of minutes!"
"It was in self-defense! You had to-"
It was happening already. Everything she had feared was slowly coming to pass, and she was going to be damned if she was going to take him down with her.
"Don't you try to pretend, Luke," she said. "Don't you stand there and look the other way, because I saw it in your eyes... I saw your reaction. I felt it. I gave into the dark side and there is no escaping that. There is no running away from the truth, Luke. Rath was right. You can't keep protecting me..."
His grip on her tightened. "I am not going to stand by and watch you throw away all hope, Callista! You mean too much-"
"No... Please don't do this..." She sighed and lowered her eyes. "You will do whatever you have to do to save yourself," she said. "Because Force help me, Luke, I am not going to be the cause of your downfall, do you understand? I did all this to keep you out of danger, not bring it upon you myself."
He stared at her for a long time. His eyes were red with tears he held back, hard with the realization that as much however he hated to admit it, she was right.
She was right.
At last, he said softly, "Why won't you let me help you?"
For a moment, she was tempted to let him.
She closed her eyes at his words. They both knew what he wanted to say, though he stopped before he could finish the sentence. And she felt him come closer.
"Whatever has gone on between us, you can still turn to me, Callista. If you don't know that by now..."
His arms slid around her waist, the way they had so many times before, and though every instinct inside her told her to resist, she found herself bringing her arms up to embrace him, to pull him towards her. She shut her eyes even tighter and felt his hand under her chin again, lifting her face up to his.
Five long years of longing for him, dreaming about him, wanting all of the blasted barriers between them to vanish--and for that one brief moment, she had never wanted so much to give in. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she needed to pull away, before she lost herself completely.
Because if she didn't do it now, she would never be able to.
"No," she said, and she turned her head so his lips brushed her forehead instead of her mouth, even as her hands stayed on his arms.
Betraying her words.
"Luke, I... can't... we can't..."
This time he let go of her, and after a long time, the light of understanding began to flicker in his eyes. "You're leaving again... aren't you? When this is all over, you're going to leave again..."
"Please, just... answer me, because I need to know."
The hardness of his voice surprised her for an instant, although she understood it completely.
She nodded, not wanting to say the words aloud, as if doing so would make the reality inescapable. "Please don't look at me that way..." She hadn't meant for the words to sound so weak, but they did anyway. Gathering what strength she had left, she looked him in the eyes. Part of her wished he could just hate her and be done with it--maybe then they could finally have closure and not have this lingering agony between them--but he didn't, and that made this hurt all the more.
"I never lied to you, Luke. I never pretended to-"
"No," he said, starting to back away. "No, that's right, you never pretended." He took his eyes away from her, severing their lifeline. Though something inside her had expected him to say the words, it still hurt to hear them.
"If I led you to believe something different--if I gave you the wrong impression, then I'm sorry... I am... But this is the way things have to be. Nothing's changed that..."
She couldn't believe she had to explain this again. It almost killed her having to tell him the first time--why was he making her say this all over again?
"I love you, Luke," she whispered, hoping the words would somehow soften the blow, but knowing nothing ever could. "I will always love you--please believe that. But if you love me you will not make me go through this again. I can not go through this again..."
She waited for him to look at her. When he did, she saw the tears in his eyes, and at last he nodded.
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