A/N: Many thanks to Buttercup for her quick late-night beta help!
This story is in response to TFN's Jedi Council board's First Sentence Challenge #4. The first sentence is supplied – everything else is up to the author. This ficlet is a companion piece to my current WIP, Severing the Past, but it does stand alone. Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!
The True Challenge
The stench of garbage filled her nose as she scraped and crawled her way along the path and, for a brief moment, she wondered if this was where she would die.
Despite this thought, Leri Potan was peace. In some distant part of her mind, the part not consumed by survival, she was impressed with herself. Never would she have expected to have the emotional control that the Jedi so revered, in a situation like this. But she was calm as she contemplated her own death, as she contemplated becoming one with the Force. There is no emotion; there is peace. There is no death; there is the Force. She had railed against those time and again; her obstinacy had been a challenge for Master Lomar, or so he claimed, but now that she faced the ultimate challenge she found she passed it utterly.
Her nose wrinkled as a particularly pungent odor wafted through the air. She had to be close to the end of the covered path by now. The battle had been quick for their section - far too few Jedi against far too many droids, but they had simply been a diversion, and they'd all known it. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker led the other group, the group that set out to attack at the central command. It was an unexpected move, or so they hoped.
She hoped they'd been successful. From the sounds, or lack thereof, she guessed that the battle had ended while she crawled along the covered path, trying to find her way back to the rendezvous point. "It should be close," she muttered to herself, then giggled at the sound of her own voice. She realized at some level that she was becoming delirious from pain and loss of blood, but her immediate thoughts skittered and slid over a multitude of subjects. If nothing else, they could follow the trail of her blood to find her body.
Master Lomar would be proud, she thought, pulling her body with one arm, now. The other was numb, which was unsurprising, as the blaster bolt had landed perilously close to that shoulder. The opening was ahead, she could see it, the light bright and brutal. How did the inhabitants of this planet handle the three suns beating down on them? She'd wondered that so many times…
Pull. Drag. Reach. Her world became the routine of survival, and she continued on like an automaton, like the battle droid that had been too exact with his blaster rifle. The pain had faded, now a distant memory, and a terrific numbness had overtaken her shoulder and chest. That should, she realized, probably alarm her, but she couldn't summon the energy to care. Pull. Drag. Reach.
Finally the heat burst on her, the light of the suns a physical weight that forced her head down. With an effort, she lifted it, weak, and let out a long sigh of relief when she saw a man hurry towards her. Anakin Skywalker.
Determined blue eyes met hers and she smiled crookedly. He was safety. And his presence meant that his group – at least some of them – had lived. To judge by the elation and lingering worry in his eyes, he hadn't mastered the control of emotion as well as she had, and at that realization a strong feeling of pride welled up within her. He held out a hand, and she took it with her good arm, wincing as he pulled her upright. One leg didn't bend quite the way it ought to and she could feel the hot air against the open blaster wound on her chest. If she'd had the energy, she would have laughed again. His eyes, concerned, stared at her. His mouth, tight with worry, moved, but she couldn't hear over the buzzing in her ears. She blinked once, twice... and then, as he turned to call to one of the medics, she slumped against him. Cloudy wisps of light danced before her eyes, and – finally - she fell into blessed unconsciousness.
They were both raised to Knight within months of one another, and remained friendly. He told her of her time spent in the bacta tank, for which she had remained unconscious, and of the tunic he'd had to discard that was soaked with her blood. It had been, he claimed, his favorite, and had he known she would stain it so horribly he would have let someone else lift her from the dirt. Anakin often joked that once someone had bled on you, there was a certain bond that formed. She didn't deny it, because she felt a stronger camaraderie with him than with many of the other Knights. Of course, as was often the case with Jedi during the war, they did not meet frequently. They were sent to separate locations more often than not, but when they ran into one another in the field or on Coruscant, the camaraderie lingered.
Sometimes, when Leri returned to the Temple, she saw him, saw those blue eyes which had represented safety to her in her delirium. All too often, they brimmed with emotion, and she wondered at the cause of his lack of control, but never asked. He tried to hide it, but she knew, after seeing his wealth of emotion shining during and after the battle, what to look for. The minute signs that hinted at so much more.
Just two years after the battle where she'd almost lost her life, she saw him again in the Temple. He seemed strangely preoccupied, not noticing the many Jedi who nodded in greeting, not even acknowledging those that spoke to him. And, having just returned weeks before from a daring rescue of the Chancellor, many tried to speak with him. She saw him nod distractedly to a Master, and in curiosity, she turned to follow him. When he rounded the corner, she saw his face, and shivered, wondering why a cold tendril of fearful dread arced down her back when she noted the hollowed look in his eyes.
"Go, go with Master Lomar," she ordered the Padawan. Ayliana was reluctant, but the obedience was too ingrained in her to protest more than once. The urgency was overwhelming - this Padawan had to go free. Had to.
Leri had returned to the Temple for a short time with Master Lomar before their next assignment. And it seemed she had been one of the unlucky ones, as hell broke out around them. A late evening meal, a conversation about their preparations, had been cut short by screams and the sounds of blaster fire. Here, in the Temple. It was unheard of.
Ayliana's braid swung as she spun and left the corridor, and Leri sighed with relief before turning back to the battle. Master Lomar had always been able to see keys, opportunities, and had chosen Ayliana and one other – a Padawan of Master Dannew, a Historian – to assist with escape. If he could get them free, then he would come for others. Some had to survive. They had to.
As she fought, deflecting blaster bolt after blaster bolt, stepping past the bodies of fallen Jedi and Padawans and Younglings, she hoped Master Lomar had been successful in getting some of the Padawans out of the Temple. She hoped they'd gotten away. She hoped her old Master still lived.
A lump did form in her throat, then, and she realized with a jolt that her pride had formed too early, out on that path that bore the trail of her blood. Finally, she realized the true challenge. The most difficult test of emotional control wasn't fear for one's self, but fear for another. Her own death she could face; the deaths of so many others, so many friends and mentors, she could not.
Then, as she deflected a blaster bolt back at the last trooper in the meeting room, she felt something. Something familiar, but… not. Slowly, she turned.
The blue eyes were cold now, and she could see herself reflected in them, flat and distorted. They stared at each other for a moment, and then fire erupted from within those blue depths, anger and fear and loathing and betrayal, a strength of emotion such as she had never felt from a fellow Jedi before. Stunned by the sheer intensity, she was almost too late in raising her saber, almost too late to deflect his vicious swipe at her neck.
In disbelief, she parried, but found herself unable to attack. Unable to go on the offensive. The camaraderie they'd had was twisted and warped, but it still existed, and now a betrayal deeper than anything she'd believed possible assailed her. She didn't know if she was the originator or if he was, but it didn't matter. She defended herself against her comrade, her friend, and was not able to let go that bond to attack.
But her defenses couldn't hold. Not against the skills of the Chosen One, in all his fury.
His saber cut cleanly, dreadful heat slicing through her. She slumped against him and, for a moment, their eyes locked. It was a beautiful irony. Two times she had seen those blue eyes staring at her as her life's blood soaked his tunic, two times. The first time, he was savior. This time, he was executioner.