AUTHOR'S NOTES: As always, I have to thank you for bothering to take a look at my thread. I hope the story is worth your time. That said, I think I'm insane. I saw a barely-two-minute-long trailer, and suddenly my muse is waltzing in with a basket full of bunnies. So unfair. Considering the length of time between my SW fics, I feel a little nervous about posting this. If I could bother you for a few more moments of your time to make a comment, I'd be ever in your debt.
Speaking of dept... my eternal thanks go to Miss LeiaN (who puts up with my insecurities, my random postings, and betas my fics) and to Leigh (who keeps me in line). You're both amazing.
I'll shut up now. Thank you once again for your time.
DATE BEGUN: November 6th, 2004, 3:15 PM
DATE FINISHED: November 6th, 2004, 5:50 PM
Falling Is Like This 1/1
by Meredith Bronwen
('The thought of not being with you... I can't breathe.')
Each day, she walks two heksameters through the snow, a silent, hunched shadow against the endless white.
There is no sunlight here, just the merciless bright of thick gray clouds. The trees are stark, black and leafless against the landscape-- bent question marks-- so frozen and fragile that their branches snap in strong winds. Padme moves quickly in her cramped, chilled apartment, pulling on layers of skirts and buttoning over-shifts with fingers that tremble. She crouches, skin covered but still only half dressed, in front of her tiny metal stove, staring at her unmarked hands and the effort it takes to move her fingers. With a few bites of tough, yellowed fruit in her stomach, she wraps her feet in thick swaths of fabric and ties up her boots, lace over tarnished silver hook.
'First hook for tomorrow,
Second hook for life,
Each hook, every day,
In plenty and in strife!'
The voices of Nubian school girls echo down her fragile spine. They sang that, young voices chanting, when she was at the Academy. She supposes they still do; or they would, if--
She ties the laces tight.
With her hair bundled close over her ears, she shrugs on her heavy cloak, pulling the rickety door closed behind her. The cries of new borns, the voices of children and the muttered complaints of wives echo loudly in the stairwell-- she takes the steps two at a time, staring at her feet. The slanted, rambling buildings that compose the village dwindle quickly behind her; she walks into the wind with her hands in her pocket. Each little gust of wind pricks needles through her clothing, a sliver of memory, of the dreams that wake her-- before the landlady even rings the gong-- and leave her gasping, watching the dying plumes of her breath with a special kind of fear.
It's a long walk, and she keeps her mind as blank as the snow.
Her pace is constant. She does not waver when the hardy, ugly black cranes cry out and take flight, shaking snow from the branches; she does not allow herself to move any faster, when the wind whistles through the narrow ravine and sounds like someone crying.
('I'm so cold,' he says softly. In her dreams, she is standing in the threshold of the ramshackle boarding house. Though her room is at the top of the stairs, she is the only one to hear the knock-- all the doors are closed, and even Old Madame Zhirstin is not settled, as she usually is, on the landing of the second floor. Padme is the only one there; she has to open the door.
'Let me come inside,' he says quietly, peering through the soft, straight strands of his burnt-gold hair. He's so small-- its so hard to believe that he was ever really that small. He curled himself so completely into that tiny corner of the ship's lounge, knees drawn close, eyes following her form.
'Don't forget me.' He's lying, Padme knows he's lying, but she can't look away. It's cold outside, he's standing barefoot in the snow, small feet red and blistered, just like--
--and all she wants to do is close the door. The cold has her too, though, it has everything on this miserable planet, sleepy and sedated in a winter that never ends.
'I love you,' he says, older now, reaching for her hands. He held her so tightly that last time, breath hot and ragged on her shoulder-- he bent over her, engulfing, and all she could do was hold on. She doesn't meant to think about that-- he sees it, he sees everything except that one, most important thing that she has locked away. 'I didn't want to leave you,' he insists, 'I never should have.'
She wants to tell him that there are a lot of things he shouldn't have done, so many things that she can not untangle the threads, can't find where she might have helped to set him on his path.
'Let me in,' his hand hovers, just above the skin of her cheek, eyes the deepest blue. She has seen them otherwise. 'I love you.'
She always wakes up under the harsh, oily yellow bathroom lights, sobbing into the sink. )
The ravine is closer now-- she can hear the sounds of children laughing, the faint trickle of the sluggish, icy creek at the bottom. The children look up as she approaches, waving their brightly colored, unmatching gloves in greeting. She smiles in return, slowing.
"Lady Teacher," one of the girls-- Yrsla-- cries, nearly tripping as she rushes through the thick drifts of snow. "Good morning, Lady Teacher."
"Good morning Yrsla," Padme wonders how it can be that each time she smiles, it hurts more than the last. Her eyes flicker towards the others, digging for stones in the thick snow, giggling as they toss them into the deep ravine. "Don't stand too close!" she cautions, knowing she can not stop them from playing this game. "Class starts soon and," the kind tilt of her lips takes any sting from her words, "I shall be cross if I have to come and fish you out." She pats Yrsla's thickly veiled head and turns, listening to the bitter, thick sound of her boots on the narrow ravine bridge. A ways more, and she can see the huddle of the Temple Complex, its back against the hill.
The gate is empty-- she enters by the set path despite the fact that most of the outer wall has collapsed. The smooth brown buildings sprawl all along the hill, most of them skeletons, staring empty eyed and roofless down over the valley. It is only the most central buildings that remain in use, far on the other side of the cracked and broken courtyard. Respectfully, Padme removes her gloves as she steps through the curtained doorway, setting them down on the small stand situated inside. She dips her hands into the basin provided, letting the hot water work its way into her bones, though she knows she won't be able to remember that feeling, even moments later. The whole of the building is heated by the treasure of a deep, bottomless hot spring; she wipes her hands and tries not to think about the yawning ebony pool, bubbling silently in the innermost chamber.
"Good morning, Lady Teacher." The voice smoothes into apologetic tones even as Padme startles slightly. The young devotee-- one of only three serving the temple's old Watchwoman-- smiles shyly, offering to help Padme with her cloak despite the fact the older woman always declines.
"It's alright, Bai," Padme says softly, folding the fabric over her arm. "Please tell Garthine that I'm here-- I'll go ring the bell for class."
The stairs to the belfry are narrow and twisting, lighted by crooked, melting candles set into the walls. The candles throw shadows, awful shapes that move when Padme glances at them from the corner of her eyes, but she is careful not to let the wind in as she opens the rickety trap door. The rope is thick in her hands. She looks at it for a long moment, as she always does, before pulling harsh and quick. The tone is off, but it echoes all across the low valley-- she can see the tiny figures of children, moving towards the school.
(I had a child once, she thinks, biting her lip-- I had children. That's a warmth that has not left her; the two of them, so small, curled against her breasts. Such tiny hands and fingers, such trusting eyes! They'd lie in their cradle, little fingers moving against each other, as if somehow confused by their bodies. A sudden separateness.)
Standing in the empty classroom with its uneven desks, Padme forces herself to breathe slowly, to halt her thoughts. Each memory shimmers in her mind, as cruel and hopeful as a mirage, and she gathers them, hides them, a Griffin with it's gold.
(One child, she reminds herself, heart breaking to the echoes of words like 'safety', 'hope' and 'hidden'. There was only one child. A boy. He was stillborn.
He had blue eyes, and she had brown; they were mine, I loved them. Love them, and will protect them.
So, there was only one, and it was born dead. Like some one else, who died and bore something terrible.)
"Hang your coats up properly!" she calls out as the first sounds of hurried boots reach her ears. The whispers and chatter are a poison-laced balm, comforting even as they open wounds she didn't even know she had. Their faces are so bright, flushed eager, filled with stories. Her smile is as real as it is difficult to summon.
('I can't breathe... you're in my soul...')
Each day, she walks two heksameters through the snow. She doesn't stop, she doesn't think; the monotony of endless white makes it hard to believe in any life before this. The trees all bent threateningly, cutting through the numbing chill, bringing whispers as if to an oracle tried of hearing omens.
He's closer, now.
She tries not to sleep during the deepest hours of the night; napping, instead, in the final, faded hours of the afternoon. She falls asleep-- fully dressed and still in her boots-- sitting in her lone wooden chair, before the stove. In her dreams, he is behind her, he asks her to turn around, to let him in. Gentle, pleading, his hand comes to touch the small of her back, the curve of her neck.
'Padme,' he says, 'Padme, please...'
She wakes to the gray of evening. In the narrow confines of the bathroom, she looks into the mirror, repeating her story, listening to the words clink on the tile. One child, dead.
('If the Emperor should ever find them, Padme-- we'd all be lost.')
Obiwan's face is so earnest in her mind; he believes it, and she believes it to. Her arms feel empty, her whole body is a cavern, yawning and echoing and knowing that it will never be full. She can see them so clearly, like spirits through the thin veil of incense. In her most secret dreams, she can see Leia playing, growing under a clear blue sky; while Luke is merely an abrupt end, a sharp, downward motion, like the edge of the ravine.
"Thief," she says, uncertain if she speaks to the advisor or the specter. She rests her forehead against the dull mirror. "The universe is full of thieves."
She can see her own breath, held there on the mirror.
'Come back to me, Padme.' He's so calm, so careful, barely touching her; but the trembling patience in each move lets her see the restraint. If she moves, just a little, he will take hold, and not let go. She's trembling, bones vibrating within her skin, because she didn't sleep at all last night and now, now she is lost, wandering the path of the ravine off towards north and the unknown. 'Come on,' he coaxes, as if he's right beside her, words warm and settling against her ear. 'It's cold-- come with me.'
No, she thinks at him with the viciousness born of a trapped, desperate bird. I can't and I won't. I saw what you did.
'What I do,' his voice is firm, even as she turns and purposefully walks back the way she came, back towards the bridge and the Temple. 'Some things can't be helped. You know I'd never hurt you, Padme. Never you.'
For the first time, she is late getting to the school.
Her lungs seize up. She's sitting on the narrow bench that serves as the teacher's desk, holding Yrsla's little sister on her lap. It's lunch time; the children are trading bits of food and talking, unwrapping their carefully packed boxes from home. For just a moment, the world spins, so wildly that she feels it leave her behind.
"Lady T'cher?" Keti's small, piping voice plays over her concern. There's a slight tug on Padme's thick braids, and she looks down.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," she says, smoothing toddler's dark curls. Lifting her chest seems to take so much effort. "I was thinking."
"You look pale, Lady Teacher," Farya says, looking up from her thinly sliced bird meat. Her words draw forth a soft wave of assent, questions, and concerns.
"I'm fine," Padme settles Keti back down on her own two feet, "really, I just--" There's not enough room in her throat, no room for the air to pass. Her body rests heavily against the wall, so that she actually jumps when the door slams open.
"Padme," Bai is breathless, words tumbling out despite the children's already wide eyes and fearful expressions. "One of the boys from the village came. He said there are troops there, Imperial troops." The peace of her moon round face is shattered, showing her true youth. Padme's lungs burn and relax, the rush of air as much a relief as it is a sick, twisting sense of guilt.
He says, 'I told you', but she does not answer him.
Out in the courtyard, Padme stands with the children clustered close around her, listening the marching, rote beat approach. She can't feel the expression on her face when the small platoon files in-- there is only white, piled high in drifts against the collapsing outer wall, and his darkness, moving, hissing across the stone.
"Go home," she says to the children, but her eyes are on him. The soldiers stand motionless all around, and Bai's hand is curled painfully around Padme's upper arm, pinching with fear. Gently, Padme takes off her cloak and settles it around the younger woman's shoulders, smoothing the dark, snow-dampening locks out of the way. "You too," she urges, and bends down to help some of the younger ones finish buttoning their coats. "All of you-- go straight home. Don't stop, don't dally. Just go." She can feel his eyes on her, focused and motionless, and the children move fretfully towards the gate. They give him and the soldiers wide berth, but he doesn't spare them a glance. Bai hesitates, as if to linger, but follows the force of Padme's helpful push. They are all down at the bottom of the hill now, the children, moving, turning their faces worriedly towards the temple's crumbling mass. Padme wishes she had told them not to look back.
Turning swiftly, she moves back towards the central building; the soldiers stiffen at her audacity, but she knows he will follow. The hiss of his breath is right at her heels as she ducks into the inner chamber, but she forces herself not to run.
"You are unwise to walk away from me in such a fashion." His voice is deep, strange, like the depths of the Temple's precious spring, going so far, dangerously far down. Padme turns away from the well-like opening, moving about the edges of the room, lighting the candles so that her hands will have something to do.
"I'm done a lot of unwise things," she manages. There is no silence, only his breath, harsh and unyielding. She can not turn to face him, instead fisting her hand around the small torch-- the candles are prayers, and her hands struggle to keep still, to light each one carefully. She needs all the help she can get. "Anakin--"
A hiss. "That name no longer has any meaning to me."
The motion of her body startles her-- she doesn't mean to turn, but, swiftly, she is facing him, and a small, glass-cradled candle is crashing, rolling on the stone floor. The reflection of the pitiful flame is in the ebony of his armor; she watches the color distort until the candle sputters out.
"Then I should no longer have any meaning to you." The strength of her own voice is reassuring, so that she does no retreat when he steps towards her. There's a strange fluidity in his movements, contradicting what must be the whir and oil of machines. He raises his hand just as he did in the dream, but now it is thick and black and he does touch it to her cheek, though she tries move away.
"You know that is not so." There's a chilling sense of eternity in that voice. A resolve that will not weaken or fade.
"Make it so," she says, biting down on the words, "just like you made your Master's orders of 'consequence' so. Warshal burned, and Naboo..." A step back, as far as the firm grip on her arm will allow. "The baby died-- stillborn," in that moment, wildly, she believes it. She believes it because it must be so. "There's nothing more you could want with me."
"Padme." Its the first time she's heard her name, filtered through Anakin's death and the black shadow that rose from it. Padme shivers, knowing the pain is in her face-- she can see it, after all, in the ebony of his mask. "You know that I will not let you be. The child, it doesn't--" he stops, the hiss making the pause more unnatural, "-- come with me, Padme. I will have it no other way."
Her laugh is a choked sob, "Then why are you even asking?"
"I love you." She could never have imagined those words uttered by that voice; it seems to deaden her heart, even as she hears its long ago echo in her mind. Closing her eyes does her no good; he is there, too, as he had once been, expression determined.
"Stop, please stop," she pleads, only to have him cup her face in his hands.
('The thought of not being with you... I can't breathe.' It is horrible, unspeakably so, to see this memory now; to have him conjure it, summon it before her so clearly. They are young and the Nubian evening is dusk and pink with the setting sun. His face is so earnest, but there are shadows in those blue eyes that give away the game. With his borrowed, flesh hands, he tilts her face up, thumbing away her tears even as he causes the very birth of more.)
In the innermost chamber of the temple, Padme stands while the corpse of her husband caresses her cheek. The shadows along the wall are manic and warped, swelling with the warmth of the room. Then, Vader drapes his cloak around her and begins to lead her away.
Padme shivers with the cold.