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XIV.

 

Am I ready for this?

Did I think I would be?

(Dolores O'Riordan)

***

Like so many times before, Sabé didn't find any sleep this night. Her failure in trying to organise new Bacta supplies gnawed at her. It was a depth of despair she had never known, and with every hour that passed, she began to understand better and better just *how* hard the life of a queen could be. Decisions were so much harder to make than they seemed.

Nevertheless they had to be made.

Sabé had sat in front of the holoprojector for hours, staring off into the distance. She had pondered pros and cons, had tried to think like Amidala in order to find out what the queen would have done. Yet, what cemented her decision had been the thought of the injured in the healer's temple and the proud High Priestess.

When she rose and stretched, she closed her eyes briefly and expelled the air from her lungs. Slowly, she breathed in again and allowed the nervous tension to drain from her body.

Amidala would have done the very same thing. Sabé was certain.

Gingerly, she touched the panels and began the holographic recording.

***

The knock was loud and hard. Before Naara could answer, the door was being opened. Naara rubbed her eyes, confused, and in the semi-darkness of the early morning tried to make out who had entered her chamber so rudely. She was just about to protest loudly when she recognised the tall figure. The light of the hallway highlighted the priestess' outlines sharply and she seemed even taller than usual. Naara swallowed and her hands clawed into her covers of their own accord.

"Rise, novice." Aethra's voice was restrained and there was no way of telling whether she was displeased or not. With shaking legs, Naara scrambled out of the warm confines of her bed and shivered in the cool air of the early morning.

"Get dressed. I have a task for you."

***

They reached the building as the sun sent the first rays of light over the temple walls. The waterfalls below glistened like seas of sparkling jewels and a fresh breeze caressed Naara's face. In the early morning hours a silence hung over the temple that wasn't to be found at any other time, not even at night. The light was soft and the air was clear ­ just as though it had never been breathed before.

On her way up here, Naara had tried to keep up with the long strides of the tall woman before her, but much too often it had resulted in her half running to not lag behind Aethra. The building in front of which they were standing was surrounded by high, densely foliated trees. The dark treetops offered shadow for the small garden in which flowers of every colour were blossoming. Naara remembered this part of the temple, although she had only been here once. This was the house of the new-born. It was situated in one of the most beautiful areas of the temple district. But why was the High Priestess bringing her here?

Aethra stopped in front of the high, ornamented doors and turned towards Naara. "You are surely wondering why I brought you here."

Naara nodded mutely. For a short moment she believed she saw something akin to compassion flickering in the priestess' eyes.

"I know what happened in the city, Naara." The eyes of the priestess grew soft at this. "Many died during this terrible day. I have been told what you have done for this woman, novice. Even an experienced priestess couldn't have done more."

Naara's lower lip started to quiver when she was reminded of the horrible events. "I couldn't hold her long enough. She was young, she could have seen so much more in her life. If only I could have held her until one of you . . ."

"There was nothing that could have been done for her. I have studied the reports."

Tears welled up in Naara's eyes. "But I should have . . ."

Aethra stopped her with a sharp gesture, but then placed both hands on Naara's shoulders. "Listen to me, child, listen closely. You helped this woman to end travelling her path in this world gently. No power we here possess could have helped her anymore. You have to accept this. We are healers, yes, but that doesn't mean that we can heal all the time. Sometimes it also means helping to let go."

During Aethra's words, the tears had slipped down Naara's pale cheeks. "How can you accept this?"

"It is the way of life. As a novice of the temple, you should know the true face of death. If you have never come in touch with it, it is a tragedy. There is nothing to be afraid of, it is merely a door . . ."

"What about her family?" Naara suddenly burst out. Aethra's last words had made her angry ­ angry about the way the priestess stoically accepted what to her, Naara, seemed too inequitable and incomprehensible. "Do you tell *them* about the true face of death, too?"

Aethra's hands slipped off Naara's shoulders. The foliage of the trees above them rustled softly in the cool morning breeze. High above their heads, birds sang. The waterfalls murmured.

Naara trembled. Had she really just yelled at the High Priestess?

Aethra quietly stared at her for long minutes. It was clearly visible that she was fighting her anger. The tall woman's inner struggle to regain her composure frightened Naara even more than shouting could have.

"You will learn your place, novice," Aethra finally stated, flatly. "This woman doesn't need your pity. And in this temple, there is no room for novices who pity themselves."

Naara bowed her head. Inwardly, she rebelled again the unfairness. She didn't pity herself. She never had.

"You will fulfill your duty in the house of the new-born during the next days. You will take care of the children, you will cut herbs for balms and concoctions in the Aborethum and you will follow orders. I will not tolerate another outburst like that. Have I made myself clear?"

Naara nodded reluctantly. Even though everything inside of her raged against her new task, thought of it as a punishment, she complied without another word.

With dragging steps, she entered the house of the new-born.

***

The answer reached Sabé in the early morning, after the first audience.

The dark-skinned man spoke only a few words, but it was those words that gave Sabé hope for the first time since this crisis had begun.

"A transport with Bacta supplies will reach Naboo within five days."

Sabé was hard-pressed not to cheer, and for a few precious moments she forgot her fatigue.

***

It had to be here somewhere. She had left the pad here before she had taken her break. But now the desk was empty and shone an innocent, clean brown. Padmé narrowed her eyes and glanced at the desk doubtfully. She was absolutely certain. It had been right here.

Those studies were important. Everything she had found out was the effort of almost two days. Where *was* the pad?

In her thoughts, she retraced the places she had been since she had last seen the pad. The sleeping chamber. She had changed her garments. The dining room, to get something to eat. Thoughtfully she chewed on the sweet fruit she still held in her hand.

All the information, every detail she had been able to find out about the ritual, had been on that data-pad. Two days of meticulous work ­ and now the pad was gone.

It had made her uneasy that day after day passed by without any palpable changes. The solution for that problem had been easy enough ­ the temple's library. This one was probably even older than the one in the main temple in Theed. Padmé knew that the priestesses often retreated here when there were difficult problems that could not be solved in the city's library. This was a refuge, and a place of sacred knowledge. If there ever should be a fire or another destructive power in the main temple, it was here that the knowledge of centuries would endure, and would be safe from enemy hands.

No one who didn't know of this old temple's existence would search for it here. Indeed, even she had never known exactly where it was located. It was a secret only know to the priestesses.

The buildings were in mint condition, but they purposely gave the impression of decay and desertedness.

Her thoughts returned from their short journey and came back to the pad. There was a way to quicken the ritual, that much she had found out. But it required an amount of trust and the willingness to open up to the other person she knew was not, or at least, not yet, existing between Obi-Wan and her.

He had been strangely nervous and unusually cheerful since that night. But since she had rebuked him so coolly, he had retreated. Yet she still felt his gaze on her neck and knew that he wanted to talk to her, though he had said nothing. But she wasn't ready. Not yet. She had to find out more before she did this, had to know more. About the ritual, about him, about herself.

Mostly about herself.

In the middle of those thoughts she suddenly halted. Obi-Wan had tinkered with something in front of the library before she had left.

She was certain that she had left the pad *exactly* where she remembered it.

That could mean but one thing.

But why? Why did he steal her pad?

She reviewed how she had avoided him during the course of the day, and thought back to the many little signs he had sent. Was this a pretext to talk to her?

But was she ready for this? Could she? Did she *want* to?

With reluctant steps she left the library and chewed thoughtfully on the fruit's stone. Finally, she stretched her shoulder and raised her head, until she had straightened to her full royal stance. She was the queen of a whole planet. A little conversation could hardly be more difficult than the crisis she had just mastered.

She ignored whisper of doubt.

***

Aethra waited at the high door until the young novice had vanished down the narrow hallway that led to the office of the priestess in charge of the new-borns.

A thin smile flitted over the stern face. The novice might not recognise it, but her irritation at the temple's methods would drive Naara further rather than let her despair.

Aethra knew the families of her novices. It was a common streak in Naara's family ­ determination and stubbornness. A rebellious streak too, but Aethra knew how to deal with that kind.

The thing Naara didn't see was something Reaja had pointed out to the High Priestess. Many novices would have collapsed under the sheer weight of the experience Naara had gone through and would have left the temple forever. But the rebel spirit of her family lived in Naara. She would not give up. She would fight.

Aethra smiled broadly when she strode back to the temple's main building.

Reaja and that novice - how alike they were.

***

After a long time of searching, Padmé finally found Obi-Wan at the hot springs. He swam calmly on the water's surface and seemed to be meditating.

Mutely, she sat down on the basin's edge. She took off the soft shoes and dipped her feet into the warm water, until her legs vanished in it up to her knees.

She took a deep breath, then, "Jedi Kenobi!" Her voice cut loud and commanding through the thick clouds of steam.

Obi-Wan didn't seem to have expected to be found so soon. He flinched and submerged due to the sudden movement. How he managed to come up without splashing and sputtering, Padmé couldn't tell.

"You shouldn't do that," Obi-Wan remarked when she swam up to her.

Padmé narrowed her eyes. "Neither should you."

Obi-Wan's eyes flashed. Then he retreated behind the mask of perfect innocence. "Whatever are you talking about?"

Padmé's foot came up and sent a wave of warm water splashing into his face. "Don't play dumb. It's unbecoming for a Jedi. You know exactly of what I speak."

"No, indeed. I don't. Do help me, please." The innocence on his face could have melted the heart of a Dyterian. Not so Padmé's.

"Obi-Wan Kenobi! Am I really the one to tell you that Jedi don't lie?"

A grin flitted over his face. "I would never lie to you, your Highness."

"Obi-Wan!" For a few moments, Padmé didn't know whether she should laugh or rage. "You are unbearable. If you insist playing dumb, I will . . ."

One eyebrow rose. "Yes? You will . . ."

Padmé's face turned curiously mild. She clasped her hands in her lap and lifted a slender eyebrow. "Where is it?" she asked, her voice melodious and dangerously delicate.

The Jedi wiped the water from his eyes. "I don't know what you're talking . . ."

Her fingers cracked audibly.

But Obi-Wan was too wrapped up in the role of the innocent to notice. "So, if we assume ­ hypothetically, of course - I knew where whatever you lost is . . . what would I get for telling you where it was?"

Padmé gasped. This was not happening. First he took her pad, and now he wanted something in return for giving her back her property?

"If all Jedi are as manipulative as you are, Obi-Wan, then I foresee a dark future for the Jedi Order." A shadow flitted over his face when she uttered those words. Immediately, she regretted what she had said. He had just fought the greedy claws of darkness. It wasn't a good idea to throw in his face how close darkness always was.

Willing to compromise, she laid her hands flat on her thighs and allowed her shoulders to droop just a little. She was the queen. She was in control of things. It was good to remind herself of that fact from time to time. "Right. What do you want?"

"So you really think I know where your lost . . ."

Padmé silently raised the second eyebrow. No more was necessary to hush him.

"Fine. I'm honoured by your trust in me."

Padmé snorted, but said nothing.

The water around Obi-Wan rippled lightly. "I only have a question."

"A *question*?" she asked, surprised.

He nodded. "And I want nothing but an answer."

An unpleasant tingling started in Padmé's stomach. Could she retreat now? She would get the pad back from him another way, she was certain . . . But no. She wouldn't back down now. She was no little girl anymore. She was the queen. One question couldn't be so bad.

She clasped her hands again. The knuckles turned white. "Well?"

***

Obi-Wan had been approaching this question for a long time. And no matter how much he condemned himself for last night, he had to know if she had truly been asleep.

She had been avoiding him all morning and almost all afternoon, had sought refuge in the library. They hadn't had a chance to talk to each other. And now matter how much he dreaded this conversation, he *had* to be certain. So when she had finally left the library, he had snuck in and had taken the pad she had been working on.

Just as he had expected, the trap had been perfect.

Obi-Wan was glad that the water hid his hands, which were shaking slightly. Again he hid behind the playful mask. "What did you dream about last night? You were smiling in your sleep."

Padmé lost control over her features before she could do anything to prevent it. "What . . . what kind of a question is that?"

"It's just a question. You promised to answer." The insecurity radiating from her took away some of Obi-Wan's own uncertainty.

She grew pale, and Obi-Wan almost dreaded the answer he would get. Her chest rose and fell quickly. The slim hands in her lap intertwined painfully tight.

"I don't think that this is any of your business. This is a not a question one asks a lady." She looked at him sternly. Royally.

Obi-Wan cocked his head and waited. His gaze slid over her bare shoulders. He remembered the velvety texture under his fingertips. The memory burned in his mind.

"Stop it!"

Obi-Wan flinched and stared at her. Had she realised . . .

"I will answer your question, but only if you stop being so unbearable."

So she hadn't noticed. A load slipped from his shoulders and left him with a dangerously light heart.

"Even though I really don't understand why I should want to give you an answer to a question this . . ."

A roguish smirk curled the corners of his mouth. " Padmé." The grin flitted over his face before he had a chance to suppress it. "Loosen up a *little*."

Seeing Padmé going white and opening her mouth without a single sound slipping past her lips, Obi-Wan knew he had gone too far.

"You . . ." She didn't even try to hide the fact that her whole body was shaking with indignation. "You . . ."

Delicate hands propped up on narrow hips. Dark eyebrows furrowed menacingly. Full lips turned into a thin, white line. Red spots appeared on her cheeks, replacing the paleness.

"You arrogant, narcissistic, insensitive, unfeeling, disgusting . . ." It was clearly visible that she was searching for the most horrible insult she could come up with. ". . . *Jedi*!"

Obi-Wan flinched, just like he had at all of the other adjectives thrown in his direction. But never in a lifetime would he have believed the word 'Jedi' could sound like such a vile swearword. He obviously was wrong.

Nevertheless he couldn't help an amused sparkling in his eyes. Now that the initial diatribe was over, he could allow himself to see things in a different light. Trust Padmé never to come up with something ordinary. With her angrily flashing eyes, the propped up hands on her hips and the flushed cheeks. she once again looked like the feisty handmaiden on Tattooine, walking behind Qui-Gon with a very disgruntled look on her face. Did she know how incredibly attractive those temperamental fits made her?

He looked up at her, flushed face with a crooked, half-excusing smile. Was it going to help if he looked at her with pleading eyes? Obi-Wan decided that it couldn't hurt to try.

"What's all this?" the sharp question came. "You look like an Eopie. Stop it."

His smile fell away and his face turned solemn. He hadn't planned for that reaction. Had he misjudged her?

"Padmé, that was a joke. Why are you acting like this?" Honest confusion knitted his brows.

***

Angry tears burned in her eyes. She fought viciously with herself, trying not to lose her composure and let them flow freely. And then she saw that patronising grin plastered on his face. How dare he? He of all people was telling her to loosen up? Obi-Wan Kenobi ­ of all people? The inventor of mental tension? In her anger she couldn't even find the fitting swearword.

Why didn't she just stop? All it required was getting up and leaving. Nothing more. Just leaving him and his incredible impertinence behind probably would be a good idea. But wouldn't that seem like she was running away?

Conflicting emotions clashed with the force of a small supernova. Expanded inside of her. Exploded.

"I'm so sick of this!" A bird in the treetops above them rose in a whirl of colourful feathers, when her voice cut through the air ­ loud, angry. Waves of her sizzling irritation surged over Obi-Wan. "If you want to play the game thus ­ fine. Have it your way. Because I, for one, am sick of always having to wonder about what I can say when you're around and what I cannot. This is *my* planet, you obtuse Gundark! One should think that it was *me* who . . ." Her hands cut through the air when Padmé raised them, frustrated, to push single stray strands of hair out of her face. The dark brown eyes were almost black with anger. "But don't expect me to go one more step into your direction. Your constant mood shifts are a labyrinth too unfathomable for me, and my feet hurt from all the times I've run after you ­ under the ridiculous assumption you would . . ."

Her tirade ended in a shocked gasp for breath when water-warmed hands suddenly closed around her feet. Slim fingers engulfed her narrow ankles almost possessively and pulled them underwater.

"What . . ." Much to her dismay, she realised that her voice wasn't holding half as much of its former anger and was sounding breathy and low now. Indignantly, she called herself to order. "What are you doing?"

Even though her voice sounded strong once more, she closed her eyes for a few seconds. Dizzying warmth climbed in her cheeks. His callused fingertips held her feet gently and moved over the soft skin with a slowness and carefulness that bordered on unreality. Goose bumps darted over her, closely followed by a fierce shudder. Heat coiled in her stomach. What . . . was wrong with her? Her breathing grew erratic. The touch had come so unexpectedly that now she had to fight a titanic battle with herself to open her eyes again and find any kind of coherent words. There was something inside of her intently trying to hush her brain in order to make the surprisingly sensual sensation last.

Padmé forced herself to open her eyes and gain some level of control. She repeated the question while her whole body tensed up: "What are you doing?"

"Do you trust me?" The calmly asked question sent Padmé into a whirl of utmost confusion. Why was he throwing her question back at her? Immediately her brain kicked in and her anger welled up anew. How dare he ask her this question?

Abruptly she pulled up her legs and brought her feet out of his hands’ reach. She rose and cast a cool, reproachful gaze at him, tripling its effect by the height from which she was looking at him.

Yet the distraught look on his face made her hesitate before she voiced the biting reply that was burning inside of her.

"Trust has to be earned, Obi-Wan."

***

Late afternoon had set in when Reaja made her way towards the house of the new-born on Aethra's wish.

She hadn't expected it any other way, and so it was no surprise to her to find a thoroughly overtaxed acolyte. When asking where the novice who had been assigned to her was, she only waved a tired hand towards the gardens. "I sent her to the Aborethum a few minutes ago. And I hope she'll stay there for awhile."

Reaja quickly bit her lip to suppress a smile, thanked the young woman, then strode calmly in the direction of the gardens.

The priestess wasn't astonished to see the fragile novice throwing little pebbles over the parapet.

"Last time I checked, the Aborethum was located somewhere else," Reaja said quietly when she sat down next to Naara on the broad limestone bench at the parapet.

The girl flinched and blushed crimson when she recognised the familiar face. "Healer Reaja, I . . . I really only . . ."

"Yes? Wanted to see if stones could fly?" Reaja raised an eyebrow. "They cannot, in case you hadn't noticed," she supplied dryly.

Naara looked at the priestess, hurt. Did Reaja have to make fun at her, after all that had happened?

Reaja noticed what was going on inside the girl. There was a little bit of tactic and a lot of honest curiosity in the question when she asked: "Why are you here, Naara?"

"I had to get out of there for a little while. I don't know how much longer I can stand that constant screaming."

The priestess nodded understanding. "And why are you *really* here?"

Again Naara flinched, but when she spotted the warm smile on the older priestess’ face, the tension drained from her body the slightest bit.

"I cannot tell you, healer. It would be disrespectful." Naara's face started to glow again.

"So this is about the High Priestess Aethra?"

The surprise on Naara's face was so sincere that it almost looked ridiculous. The girl nodded.

"What is it this time?"

The novice hesitated visibly. It was one thing to think those things, but voicing them was something completely different.

"You will only get a tummy-ache if you keep it to yourself, Naara. Out with it."

"She . . . she is . . ."

"Well, she is what?" Reaja was hard-pressed to suppress a smile when she looked into the flushed face of the young girl.

"She never leaves us alone. She is hard and cold like an ice cube, she's always testing us, never leaves us time to breathe, never shows us that she approves of what we're doing, always stands behind us with those sharp eyes of hers that see everything. . . . And then the way she looks. Gaunt and tall and cold . . . just like a wit--."

"Naara!" Even though she had found the girl's flow of words rather amusing, an insubordination like this went too far. Heaven alone knew how often she had thought about Aethra in exactly the same term Naara had just been about to use, but that didn't mean that she could allow the girl to voice it.

Naara stood facing her with red-rimmed eyes and cheeks glowing from excitation and stared defiantly into the landscape with its green rolling hills and lush forests stretching out in front of them. A light breeze ruffled her dark hair.

"Naara?"

The child's blue eyes looked back up to Reaja.

"You shouldn't think too negatively about the High Priestess."

Naara snorted with a humourless laugh and it surprised Reaja once again how much of a refreshing sarcasm was already to be found in the girl.

"I'm serious."

One eyebrow rose, and Naara stared at the older priestess doubtfully.

"But why? She's nasty to you as well. Why are you defending her?"

The smile couldn't be suppressed any longer. Reaja's kind face creased into many fine smiling wrinkles. Naara seemed completely lost.

"Come here, child," Reaja said and motioned towards the place next to her. She waited until the frail girl sat right next to her and then familiarly placed a hand on her shoulder. With a knowing smile, she bent down towards the novice.

"Let me tell you something about the High Priestess Aethra . . ."

Naara's eyes turned curious again and lost some of their prejudice.

After Reaja had ended, she stared at the priestess, unbelieving. "You can't *possibly* be serious!" she said loudly.

"Shhh." Reaja put her finger over her lips and smiled again. "Every single word."

"But, but . . . why? If she really is the way you say ­ why can't she show it?"

"Because without the cold of winter, the beauty and warmth of spring can't exist . And now ­ off to the Aborethum with you."

***

Her words made him recoil inwardly. His hands and his head sank down while she scrutinised him coolly.

Was that it? Had he really gone too far? Obi-Wan suddenly had the feeling of the floor being pulled away from under his feet. Where he had felt a warm connection to her, based on understanding, he felt nothing but emptiness and cold now. Her gaze drilled into the back of his head. Lost, he stared at the surface of the water rippling in small circles around him. It was quiet. Nothing but her erratic breathing broke the silence.

It cost him an incredible amount of willpower to raise his head and look at her again.

,If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well.'

Qui-Gon had voiced this sentence only once, but the significance of the situation had burned it into Obi-Wan's mind. He sent quiet gratitude to his master. When he had lifted his head completely, his gaze was strong and determined.

"How?"

A little of the visible tension leaked from her body at this question. Her shoulders sank into a more relaxed position. Confusion seemed to seep from her every pore.

"You said that trust had to be earned," he elaborated and knowingly pushed aside the implications of this sentence. "Then tell me how. How can I earn your trust?"

Something in her features changed but she whirled around before he could investigate it. He saw how she ­ with her back turned at him ­ wiped vigorously at her eyes. He held his breath and started counting. Minutes trickled by achingly slow, and a heavy silence hung in the air.

Finally she turned around and let herself sink towards the edge of the basin again.

Her feet submerged into the water close to his hands and moved lightly. A dark strand of hair fell forward and Obi-Wan was just about to smooth it back behind her ear when Padmé stared at him wordlessly.

Immediately he withdrew the dripping hand and let his gaze escape over her shoulder. He desperately hoped that the fiery blush in his cheeks wasn't too obvious.

Her feet splashed in the water, fidgety. The sound was deafeningly loud in his ears.

It seemed to him as though aeons had passed before he spoke again. "How, Padmé? Tell me how."

Dark lashes fluttered upwards when she looked him directly in the eyes. "Talk to me."

***

TBC

[1] Based on Ho Chi Minh.

P.S.: Thanks go out to Quiller and Baylor for the quick and thorough beta-read.

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