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XIII.

For the crown you've placed

Upon my head

Feels too heavy now.

(Dido Armstrong)

***

The high priestess, Aethra, returned from the palace in the evening.

The talk with the queen had been brief, but she had had to wait for a long time. Even though she understood the safety measures, the dignified woman disapproved of being treated like every other petitioner. But the queen had assured her that the request for new Bacta supplies was of the highest priority, and that she would contact the republic immediately.

Aethra walked in deep thought among the high pillars, which were casting long shadows. Single leafs detached themselves from the proliferate creepers winding around the pilasters, and whirled through the mild air in a weightless dance ­ out into one of the many small gardens of Theed.

The steps and steep paths leading up to the temple seemed longer than usual to her.

There were so many things she had to think about. But her thoughts dwelled on the queen's decoy the longest. For a few moments she had almost forgotten that it wasn't Amidala who had stood before her. The queen's bodyguard impersonated the role so well that she demanded the respect of the high priestess. Amidala had decided wisely when she had chosen Sabé ­ the role of the highest ranking handmaiden was traditionally selected by the queen alone.

Nevertheless other things had caught the priestess's eye. Sabé's eyes seemed tired. The dark rings under her eyes weren't visible due to the traditional white make-up, but Aethra knew that they were there. The acting queen's hands were restless, her posture gave the impression of overexertion. Not that Sabé was carrying this visibly; not even the closest handmaidens had spotted the tell-tale signs. But to the priestess's stern, practised eyes none of this was hidden.

She wondered how long the handmaiden would be able to withstand the pressure. But not even she, Aethra, could take the burden off her shoulders. The ritual wasn't finished and taking the queen out of it before the time would mean to endanger the throne even more, and with it the whole planet. She had to trust in Sabés power of resistance.

Her steps carried her swiftly up the last steps and she entered the temple's cool halls with an inaudible sigh. The year had passed its zenith and the days slowly became cooler. The strenuous walk up to the temple had caused her to be out of breath.

She stopped in the portico for a few moments, then stepped up to a fountain under the dome shaped first roof. Quickly she immersed her hands in the cool water and washed off the dust which still lingered in the air and had settled on her hands and face.

Refreshed and calmed by the lights and the sounds of the temple, Aethra turned towards the eastern wing. She had to draw up ration plans. The tuition of the novice's must not be forgotten, despite the tense situation. The acolyte's had only a few months until they would be initiated.

Life went on. It had to go on. Nonetheless she decided only to do the paperwork with the highest priority. She mustn't forget that despite everything else, first and foremost, she was a healer.

***

Sabé looked down at the city and saw a tall figure clad in clear blue climbing the steps leading up to the temple hill. She took a deep breath. The high priestess Aethra was an impressive woman who knew exactly how to use her imposing figure and her cool, charismatic aura. Intimidating ­ even towards the queen. Sabé had felt uneasy under the scrutinising glances of the priestess, almost as though the older woman could look right into her soul, as though she could see all the weaknesses Sabé tried so desperately to hide. Of course, Aethra knew everything, knew that Sabé wasn't the queen. Maybe that was what caused the queasy feeling in Sabés stomach. It was enough that she was constantly aware of the fact that she was playing a role. Another person who reminded her of it with piercing glances was something she most definitely didn't need.

She eased her gaze away from the departing blue paint spot and allowed it to glide over Theed.

Tender evening light caressed the dome shaped roofs of the city and lured the long shadows out of the hideaways to start their nightly dance. Soon the city would be dipped in darkness and hundreds of little lights would illuminate the domed roofs like scattered will-o'-the-whisps, nodding kindly to the observer. An evening like all the others ­ if it hadn't been for the still rising cloud of smoke, abruptly dragging Sabé back to reality.

The republic. She had to contact chancellor Palpatine and speed up the Bacta-supplies.

Sabé straightened up, stretched her back and strode out of the empty audience room in the direction of the study.

Without her realising it, her hand moved to the small silver bracelet she always carried, hidden under the brocade decorated glove.

***

Subdued murmurs met Aethra when she stepped into the last one of the overcrowded rooms with the beds lined up under the windows at the beginning of the nightly hours. The hall was dipped into a quiet darkness, only at the beds of the patients small lamps lit the shadows with their warm glow.

An acolyte and a novice, a team as it had been assigned by her in the morning, stood in the middle of the room and bent over a bed of a young girl, whose burn wounds were just being cleaned. She was unconscious still, which was why this task had been appointed to the not fully trained girls.

The novice had a scared, almost defiant look on her face, while the acolyte tried to involve the younger girl in the work to take her attention off her insecurity. Aethra saw that the acolyte tried her best, but the novices face grew more and more shuttered.

The girls hadn't spotted her yet, so the priestess crept closer while she looked into the many sleeping faces in the beds. Only very few had already shaken off the effects of the sedatives and Aethra was glad about it. It meant a little delay for the overtaxed healers.

Two voices rose above the soft, reassuring murmuring and humming of the other healers in the hall. One dark and soft, the other bright and rebellious.

"Naara, please help me dress the wound."

"I'm helping you all the time, what else do you want from me?"

"You standing next to me, not even touching the patient doesn't help me at all."

A shadow flew over the novice's face. "I . .. I'm not ready. I haven't learned all of that yet." Her voice sounded softer, but no less defiant. Or was there more to it?

"Then watch me and learn. And follow my orders," the acolyte reprimanded softly.

Aethra was very close to them now. Only two beds parted her from the two dissimilar girls.

There was a rebellious gleam in the novice's eyes, but she followed the older girl's orders.

For minutes, there was silence and Aethra turned towards one of the beds to check on a sleeping patient's head wound, when a suppressed cry of pain reached her ear. It was followed by the bright clink of a metal bowl on the smooth marble floor.

Uneven breathing filled the hall which had suddenly grown deathly silent.

Aethra's gaze jumped to the two girls and saw that the novice stood rooted to the spot at the patient's bed and stared into her open eyes, horrified.

For long moments, nothing happened. Aethra saw that the wound had been cleaned and dressed, only the last few touches were missing to secure the dressing.

The acolyte had turned towards her patient once more and gently stroked over the young girl's brown curls. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Naara still hadn't moved.

With a quick movement she reached for the novice's hand and led it to the patient's hair, to create a reassuring situation by the soft caress.

Aethra smiled quietly. By instinct, the acolyte was acting correctly.

The girl in the bed was confused by the accident and by the sedatives, probably didn't even know where she was and the touches would give her back a little of the lost safety.

It seemed to work. When the girl with the burned arms felt the hands of both of the healers, a little of the tension left her body. The dark eyes flew upwards and stared straight into the novice's face. When she realised that the novice couldn't be much older than she was, a brave smile played around the pallid features of the patient.

But then something happened, the high priestess had not expected.

The novice had barely spotted the smile on the young girl's countenance, when she abruptly snatched her hand back and stumbled away from the bed with an ashen face.

The horrified blue eyes stared at Aethra for many seconds without realising who was standing in front of her. Tears pooled in her eyes. One made her way over the pale cheek of the novice.

"Naara!" The acolyte's voice had taken on a sharp, commanding tone, which didn't allow for any more objections.

But Aethra's gaze clung to the fragile novice almost unbelieving, when the girl ran through the long hall with loudly echoing steps and the door slammed shut behind her with a thunderous clank.

***

A gust of cool night air followed Obi-Wan into the sleeping chamber when he returned from his nightly round. He closed the door quickly. Outside an upcoming storm angrily shook the tree branches and caused them to pound on the level shingles of the roof with a dull sound. Despite the coolness, the air was heavy and moist - it carried the promise of rain. Thunderstorms. Severe thunderstorms, if Obi-Wan wasn't mistaken.

Exactly what they didn't need now.

The atmosphere between Padmé and him had been charged all day long. He understood. They had been out here for quite a while now, with only each other for company. That didn't stop a light feeling of worry from surfacing, though. She wasn't in the place which was destined for her. Did this cause her incalculable moods?

He glanced towards her sleeping form. The days were growing shorter and Padmé had gone to sleep earlier than ever. The day had passed without her exchanging more than the bare necessities with him. The silence gnawed at him. Had it been the same for her when he had been silent for so long?

Several times during the day he had caught himself watching her - watching her in a way he had never done before. So many details - how could he possibly have overlooked them?

With a tired gesture he sloughed off his cloak, slipped out of the tunic and the undershirt. In a automatic set of movements he folded the clothes - a nearly perfect little tower with nearly perfect edges. He shivered reverently at the thought of how often Qui-Gon had made him fold his clothes to refresh one of the dreaded lectures in tidiness.

With a crooked smile he took the pile of clothes and placed it on the simple stool next to his bed. His gaze moved on and stopped at a much more accurately folded tunic. A velvety blue tunic, velvet pants, a silky camisole.

He closed his eyes, thrusting back the feelings suddenly emerging inside of him. After his heart had found its normal rhythm again and the thoughts were pushed aside, he shook his head, grimacing. Was there anything she couldn't do?

He had expected her to be untidy, spoiled rotten by the constant presence of her handmaidens, but she was the complete opposite. Where Qui-Gon had already been tidy, Padmé was almost pedantic. He didn't envy her handmaidens.

***

Sabé's fingers wound the small silver bracelet so tightly around her wrist that she could feel the metal cutting into her skin. She welcomed the pain, especially since it brought the necessary distraction from the fact that she was very close to exploding.

Palpatine had been friendly. Compassionate. Appropriately horrified. And not the least bit helpful.

Inwardly, Sabé shook with rage. How could he have dared tell her that the Bacta-supplies would be delayed due to technical problems. Technical problems.

Enraged, Sabé stared at the place where the blue shimmering hologram of the chancellor had been a few minutes ago. She knew exactly what kind of technical difficulties Palpatine had been talking about. The senate hadn't changed at all since he was its head. It was almost as though Naboo's concerns were treated with even less interest than before.

She tried to breathe deeply and calmly. This train of thought led in the wrong direction. Palpatine couldn't restructure the senate within a few weeks. It was impossible, and she was doing him an injustice.

Nevertheless this ascertainment didn't make anything easier. How was she to explain to the healers that the direly needed medical supplies would arrive even later than she had promised?

***

In her doze, Padmé heard Obi-Wan stepping into the sleeping chamber.

Opening the door ushered in the resinous smell of the trees. Where did he come from, at this hour? Shouldn't he have been asleep by now?

***

A squall howled around the walls of the building in which they slept and filled the night with an eerie echo. He opened his eyes again and turned towards the open window.

A fleeting glance at Padmé revealed her slightly shivering form. With a fluent movement he rose and closed the window. On his way back he dragged his feet, coming to a stop at Padmé's side.

The subdued light of the sleeping chamber reflected off her hair and cast a warm glow on her face. Fine features, belonging to an Elven world, but not to this. Her breath was calm and steady. One hand lay next to her head, relaxed, while the other rested on her thigh. It was a picture of utter peace.

So what was he doing here? Why was he disturbing this peace?

***

Cold fell heavily though the open window and Padme futilely tried to suppress a shiver. Slumber had given way to a lazy dozy state in which she could hear and feel everything, yet was too exhausted to move, leave alone open her eyes. Gratefully, she realised that Obi-Wan closed the window. She counted how many times his feet touched the floor, knew exactly how many steps there were from the window to his bed. Fifteen steps. There should have been fifteen steps. Had she miscounted?

Her heart somersaulted and fatigue dissipated like a shadow in the light when her mattress caved in slightly and she sensed his cool, firm body sit down next to her.

***

Obi-Wan exhaled carefully, trying to make as little sound as possible. She mustn't wake up and find him here.

Questions bounced around in his mind. Why was he disturbing this peace? Why was he sitting here, at the edge of her bed? When had he sat down? He couldn't tell.

He almost flinched when his hand unintentionally brushed her naked arm. Warm. So warm. Despite the fine goose-flesh. Pale, velvety skin which was clearly contrasted by the dark blue sheets in the sleeping chamber's soft light.

This time, he couldn't break the touch. The meeting of their lips had been innocent, a delicate thanksgiving from him to her she would never know about. But this . . .

Obi-Wan knew that it was wrong to touch her. Like this. Knew it from the moment in which scorching heat rushed up his fingertips and settled in his stomach. But that didn't help. His hand tenderly trailed over her bare arm and with every centimetre he grew more aware of what he did. The touch of her velvety skin fired tiny explosions along his overly sensitised nerves.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Again and again he repeated those words, a desperate mantra against his racing thoughts. His left hand followed the curve of her shoulder and glided tentatively over the filigree silver necklace to her silky soft neck. Obi-Wan swallowed hastily. His heart started pounding in an erratic manner.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

His fingertips reached her face.

***

She already felt the coolness of his hand as it still hovered over her arm. Her innermost being tensed up in anticipation of this touch. *Yearned* for it. Invisible shivers danced along her skin when Obi-Wan touched her for the first time. An infinitely tender caress which sent an incredible wave of warmth tingling through her body.

Wrong.

Her heart raced as her brain finally woke from its trance. He had to know. They were too different, their destinies were set on different paths. Her brain kept coming up with more and more reasons why she mustn't feel what she was rapidly beginning to feel.

What he did was wrong.

Her breathing grew shallow. She mustn't indulge in this. Mustn't yearn for what his touch ignited in her.

Wrong. Wrong.

Then why were her feelings speaking a completely different language than her mind?

Padmé fought with conflicting emotions. She wanted to open her eyes and look at him, wanted to see what she would read in his eyes. But what would that be? Would he ever have touched her hadn't she been asleep?

His hand sensitised her warm skin. His fingertips left a cool, tingling trace on her arm.

In the quiet darkness she heard him expelling his breath softly, slowly, slowly. The warm, moist air moved her hair. She picked up his scent ­ unobtrusive, masculine. If he came only a millimetre closer she would be able to taste him . . . She fought a breathy moan.

If she showed him now that she wasn't asleep, he would leave and take his tender touch away with him. But her heart yearned for his touch. If this was everything she would get from him - shy, in the middle of the night - then she would, no she *had* to savour it.

The cool hand had found her face in the meantime and painted exotic patterns on it, discovered, caressed. She was hard pressed to fight a smile. So timid was the touch. So gentle. Padme was submerged in a flood of forbidden feelings.

***

Sabé barely recognised the novice when she rushed past her. A flash of blue colour, then the great door swung closed and the girl was gone. The high priestess shook her head, sighed and allowed herself a thin-lipped smile. Only then did she notice that Sabé was in the room as well. After she had recognised the face under the hood of the simple handmaiden robe, the slight bow came natural.

"Why have you come, mistress?"

They healer's eyes didn't leave Sabé's face, they scrutinised, tried to find the reason for the unusual visit before it was spoken aloud. And with the infallible instinct of the head priestess, she managed.

Sabé saw disbelief and anger flitting over the stern face of the priestess before she schooled a mask of calm.

"There will be no supplies." Not a question. A declaration. Sabé nodded and couldn't manage to look the older woman in the eyes.

"I have done all I could. But the senate hasn't decided yet. We can expect the supplies in three days, earliest."

Why did she feel as though she was ramming a sword into the priestesses chest? Sabé had read Aethra's reports. She knew of the situation of the medical supplies, knew what the piece of news must feel like. Would Amidala have achieved more? Was she, Sabé, not strong enough to negotiate with Palpatine? Should she have been more demanding? Should she . . .

"It is well, mistress." Aethra's clear voice disturbed her racing thoughts. Surprised, Sabé's head shot up.

In a gesture untypically gentle for her, Aethra placed her hand on the tense shoulder of Amidala's locum tenens and said calmly: "It's not your fault. I thank you."

With those words she turned and left Sabé in the soaring entrance hall of the temple. The handmaiden in the queen's role fought tears when she saw the upright figure of the high priestess disappearing down one of the long passage ways.

How much longer? How much longer would she have to carry this increasingly heavy burden?

***

The heat of her soft body was suddenly so much more than just a sign of life and his awareness heightened unmeasurably: Every single movement of a muscle, every sound, every breath became almost painfully cognisant to him.

Unexpected warmth coiled in his stomach. Her scent surrounded him. His heart hammered a rapid staccato against his ribcage. His breath leaked from his lips slowly, arduously.

Force, he had to get away from her nearness. But he didn't want to. His heart asked him to stay and deliver himself completely, to reveal himself, after those many times she had saved him from himself ­ no matter where this feeling might make him drift to.

But his mind warned him, suffocated the yearning to wake those luscious lips with a searing kiss.

Obi-Wan slowly pulled back his hand and moved it through his hair in a frustrated gesture. He must not read more into her innocent help than was intended.

He mustn't follow his feelings. They were dangerous. Maybe even more dangerous than anything the dark side could ever come up with. He had to ignore his feelings, fight them. He owed that to himself, to the order, and to her. Most of all to her. He couldn't and mustn't forget her origins.

But it was a tiny gesture of Padmé's which made him flee her bedside. Her left hand wandered to push aside a stray strand of hair in her sleep and rested on her forehead. This picture was so innocent and peaceful that the ice-cube in his stomach came back to life with a painful suddenness. She looked young. So *young*.

He was on his feet instantly and flung open the door to dive into the night. A cold squall met him and whipped over his naked chest. He welcomed it with a relieved hiss. How could he forget how old she was? What was he *doing* here?

***

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