Part three of a continuance.
Breha. The tarla woods drifted fragrant yellow pollen through the open window and Ferus breathed in its aroma as he looked up at Aldera Royal Palace nearly five kilometers away. He thought of Bail's wife, the way she had welcomed Ferus' protection of her new daughter. Breha, I'm doing my best.
"You lived way out here?" Leia approached him as the rest of the class sorted backpacks, water bottles and lip protection. The wind was picking up this morning, though the sun warmed the view out Ferus' home's bay window. It was cold inside the one-story lodge, the heat turned off for years. With Jedi-like parsimony, Ferus refrained from turning it on for his botany study group's brief time here this morning.
"I needed a place to live and work both." At need, he could have Force-sprinted to his speeder and been at House Organa's aid in minutes. He supposed he could still Force-sprint.
"Living in the mountains is more, um, aesthetically pleasing."
She probably thought she was being subtle. "Princess, the grasslands that I originally studied are nearby. They were my focus."
"I see. But it's so flat around here."
Leia would not give up. Sometimes Ferus disliked her for that. "It is not all flat, Princess. See that rise? There are zaela trees and more tarla woods and a little stream on the other side. My nerfs watered there each morning and night." When Leia's range of motion was limited to trips to sunny playyards with ample supervision, Ferus could relax, make his etchings, tend to his nerf herd. Little by little, he had regained a smattering of peace. Roan's memory did not burn so much as glow and the nights became easier. Sometimes he slept all the way through the darkness until dawn. Onward. "Breha and Bail brought you here sometimes," Ferus burst out. "We played sabacc three-handed and you had guards to boss around." It was an awkward statement, something Fess would say to be funny. That it was true didn't matter. "Your mother nearly always won."
Leia considered, saying nothing. Fess and her mother and father, all friends and having sedate adult fun. Even then, Fess had been a third wheel, a hanger-on. Her mother and father were one example of love, but now that she had thought more on the subject, she knew there were many types. Why not try love with someone older for the first time? The young men in her age group played with toys, though they called them 'speeders' and 'swoops.' Someone older could converse with her and explain what he was doing, like a tutor or mentor would. Leia jerked her attention back to her surroundings. It is all so confusing. Politics will be easier to understand than this subject. I'm still a student and I need to be humble, but I don't like the taste of it on my tongue.
Ferus wished he knew Leia's thoughts as she swiped a finger along the windowsill. Sunlight turned the raised dust to a sparkling cloud. Leia shone through it. Ferus looked away. "Ready, ladies?" From all corners of his abandoned home they gathered, filled with potential, ready for his teaching. "We're hiking to that large hill," he said, pointing out the bay window, "which is the limit of my property, down to the stream at its base for aquaculture study. We'll picnic there and take another route back here. Stay together." What else? "Did everyone bring a datapad?" They all had. "Good. Take notes or record the day. I'll quiz you all at the end of the day and update your datapads with my grade and that's that. When your regular instructor comes back here with the transport this evening, he'll notate your records and we'll return to the palace by nightfall."
"Can we light a bonfire here before we leave?"
"And toast malla petal puffies?"
"And go back after nightfall? I never get to do that!"
They were far too sheltered. They spent hours in Madame Vesta's deportment class and mere minutes outside each day, except for physical training. He could see why they had next to no knowledge of the Living Force. Padawans of their age would have hiked mountains, snorkeled seas and body-surfed in rivers. Suddenly the responsibility of leadership hit hard as a meteor strike and he knew what he had to do. He had to delay. "We'll see," he said. "Let's go now, all together, you leave first and I'll lock up." They trooped out the door. As he closed the ablative windows, they turned opaque, the alarm light turned green and Ferus let his home of years turn to memory once more as he followed the group. Their outing resembled a Master/Padawan training in mutual trust exercise on Ragoon-6, but he would not allow the girls to lead him at any point. He would lead them. He felt up to the task in a way he hadn't before. Maybe it was seeing his old home again, he thought. Maybe it was the thought of Siri's survival lessons bearing fruit in this group of younglings.
As they hiked along, the day showed them cavorting frinker beetles by the swarm and tumblebunnies chasing each other with definite gleams in their eyes. Ferus wearied of explaining various mating behaviors. At odds with the cheery morning sun, his thoughts turned to Leia's retreat before his dominating step towards her in the corridor one week ago. This, this was the ridiculous part --- he enjoyed feeling dangerous to her. He enjoyed it! It was as if he had to protect her and she had to accept it. She had to know him as someone who could be dangerous, dangerous enough to protect her. It was the most ridiculous and the most alive he'd felt in some time. It brought him back to Roan, laughing at Ferus' naivete, and it was a very good thing that Obi-Wan was parsecs away or he would have given Ferus one of those looks. Obi-Wan doesn't belong in our world, not mine and Leia's. I can't help it if he's alone in his hut. I can't help it if he doesn't see rampant love affairs at the palace everywhere he looks. I'm just not that ascetic.
Flitterbugs flitted by, locked in mating clumps, and when their delight robbed them of the power to fly anymore, they sputtered to the ground. Ferus cursed. Was every single species he and the girls encountered going to be like this? He was glad he was teaching botany, quiet, subtle botany. At least pollens floating on the breeze had a small grandeur to them, vital as they were to the ecology of these lands. When he had lived here, the seasons ran together, the nerfs took up his time and their life cycles made little impression on him. Nerfs. There were some now, nibbling spring greens in a vale. Ferus cringed. The herd followed a bellwether ewe with not a ram in sight. Good.
The nerfs had younglings, though, bouncing and stotting in their youthful way. Twenty of them bounded over a log, reversed and bounded back, wave upon wave of fleecy, bleating creatures. Ferus should have known the duchesses and countesses and ladies and the princess would find them attractive. Everyone dragged out her vidcam.
"See the lone black one!"
"There's a runt, look!"
The sound of so much untramelled girlhood broke his unquiet thoughts and he smiled. "Come along, everyone."
After their picnic, Ferus gave a demonstration of living off the land as he sat tailor-fashion on their throw. "Suck it out, like this." He flattened his tongue and nursed up a white drop of nectar from the bottom of the cloudflower stamen. The patch of white blooms had the largest stamens he had ever seen. "Mmmmm, good." The blob stuck to his palate, dispensing its dulcet flavor slowly, like a lingering pallie.
"Like this?" Leia stabbed her tongue directly into the slot at the tip of the stamen.
"No, watch me, Princess." Ferus played the tutor, drawing out the lesson, his eyes on hers. "Slowly. The stamen will give you sustenance if you are lost in these woods."
Ferus broke off his attention when he saw Leia's tongue act as it should. "Hypothetically lost, Beka. We are exactly where we should be."
Beka bit off a piece of stamen, smacking her lips. Ferus winced at the sight. "No teeth, Beka. It won't give up its sweetness that way."
It hurt to sit like this too long. Lately, everything pouched out to his front when he was seated. Ferus sucked in his gut, adding a Force-strengthening of diaphragmatic muscles. His belt fit better. "Students, you are in the midst of a vernal equinoctial tarla deciduous forest. It is typified by a low canopy of thirty meters with a parklike appearance in the ground story. Today is" --- a Force-drenched day --- "a remarkably clement day." And it was. The sky was perfect, there was a light breeze to cool their skins in the midday heat. The girls removed light morning jackets and were clad only in their unisuits and boots. Notes were taken, stamens suckled tenderly and when it was time to hike back to his lodge, there was a bit of chatter interspersed with observant, respectful silence for minutes at a time. The day lengthened.
As he stopped to blow at the crest of the large hill, Ferus surveyed the pulchritude meandering down the slope ahead of him. If he were a shaak stud, he would have whinnied at his herd. None of them were out of breath. Morail straggled, Limn squatted beside a tumblebunny's burrow and Leia glowed somewhere in the middle of the group. They formed a charming troupe, all strong, all bright, their auras various complementary hues. The girls noticed the clouds on the horizon before he did.
A constellation of feminity came towards him and he could reach out and pinch each little star, but Leia stepped out from behind a taller classmate and she was the moon, rich and bright in the Force even though she did not know it. Full moon beautiful, Trever would have said. "Survival training," Ferus told them as they regrouped around him, ponchos already donned over their jackets. "Remember how it goes?"
"If there's lightning, get close to the ground."
"Don't seek shelter under a tree if there's lightning."
"Follow a stream downhill until it joins another if you're lost. And watch out for lightning."
"Keep your trousers inside your boots to ward off sucking parasites."
That would be Janis, slightly askew as to her surroundings and distrustful of insects. Ferus smiled. "More to the point, Janis, is to stay with the group. Don't let yourself get separated."
The growing wind blew Iyova's chic hat away and she scrambled for it until Leia grabbed her arm. Their pleasant breeze turned into a gale and they gasped like babies against it. Leia traded glances with Ferus. "How serious?" her glance asked.
Ferus called on the years he'd spent in the hinterlands surrounding Aldera. Thundersprites whirled up from nowhere, raged for an hour and blew themselves into oblivion. He met Leia's gaze squarely. "Not serious," his glance replied. She quirked her lips and he spent a moment wondering if she heard his words through any connection between them before he said aloud, "Everyone stay together and we'll be fine. Just a little wet." It would be un-Jedi-like of him to disparage Alderaan's lack of weather control, unlike Coruscant's timed showers and muted storms. Alderaan did its best to be completely natural, open to all things, priding itself on its peaceful strength. It was pride, not arrogance, he was certain.
The girls' hair flapped about them, braids unkinked, chignons unravelled. Fashion be damned, did they all have to wear long hair? They huddled until the rain began. Grimacing at the deluge, soaked within one minute, Ferus called on the Force, listening with all his might. He opened his eyes. "There! Past the redthorn bushes! Go!" Halfway down the hill, a smaller tarla tree unfolded, its pale brown ring of dry dirt their target amid the sticky burnt umber mud. Sliding in the mire, sixteen grateful beings pressed together underneath the tarla tree, its low stature making it a natural umbrella. Pressing tightly against Leia, Ferus laughed along with his charges.
"Princess, this won't last long."
Feeling like a Padawan again himself, temptation grew to reach out and touch the softness of youth that he wanted to mold, to deny the difference in their years, to throw away all that he and Obi-Wan had done for the Order, for the galaxy, and he couldn't help himself. In three lingering strokes, he caressed the underside of Leia's arm. The wet cascaded from them both, she turned to him, her questioning look turning to a knowing one. She moved away and the moment was gone. Her unnoticing friends clustered about her, squealing and giggling in the tepid downpour, unisuits doused to the skin, budding figures outlined.
Ferus gasped. He knew what Anakin had done. Anakin had thrown everything in his life away, all for this feeling. Ferus understood now. This is the difference between us, he thought, I'll never give in to the feeling, beyond this one touch. As the girls crowded under the umbrella of the stately tree, he backed out from under its shelter, heading blindly for another ten meters away. When he could see again, Leia had blended in with her coterie of friends, no longer special, at least any more special than another precious manifestation of the Force, at least for today. It was better that way. He would thank himself later.
He wants me, thought Leia, in that way, and it's not a bad thing, it's not, it's just new. She felt Winter's hand in hers, pulling her further beneath the canopy of the tree. She yielded to the tug, glancing sideways at her friend, but to Winter, this was simply another part of study to which she acquiesced, the way she did learning security and bodyguard tactics from Sabe. Winter's pale hair in strings, the others of the group similarly doused, what a bedraggled bunch they were. Leia laughed, put her arms around as many of her friends as she could, swaying them all back and forth, happy for learning about herself this day. Such an unexpected lesson, and from Fess, of all people. Leia controlled who she let get close to Leia and for the moment, Leia wanted only girls around Leia. Later on she would venture out to joust in male and female relationships, but in this moment under the tarla tree, the galaxy was simple.
"Speak up. I can't hear you."
Obi-Wan looked intractable. "I don't wish to. Turn up your gain."
Ferus grumped to himself as he adjusted the dial. "There. As I was saying, the fieldtrip nearly got rained out, but we made it back to the lodge all right. We even had some pleasant moments together, Laylay and I." And that was all he was going to say about it.
Still speaking unnaturally low, Obi-Wan asked, "Did something happen?" Through the parsecs, Obi-Wan's glance skewered Ferus.
"No." But something could have, perhaps even should have. The time had passed. Ferus met the Jedi Master's gaze steadfastly. "How's Wormie?" he waffled. The tarla blossoms had added to his mood. Spring and nerflings bawling and birds winging and bees humming and myrmins nesting, agh, it had infected his brain and this season in the Force enhanced his five senses and even his Force sense. Leia was like an unplucked flower, he thought, and wondered who would pluck her. In another life it might have been him.
"Wormie and I saw each other at a rain festival last week. He looks fine. But back to Laylay, you are certain she fares well?"
Ferus bulled his way through. "Yes, I said so, didn't I?" He would not give in to Obi-Wan's prodding.
"Mmm. Wormie's more sober now. It seems that breaking up with Gruesome matured him."
"Laylay seems the same to me," Ferus said defiantly. "She's as beautiful, as young, as pristine --- "
Obi-Wan almost laughed a real laugh, then clapped a hand over his mouth. "Of course she is!" he went on, still in muted tones. "She has you to protect her!"
Ferus couldn't smile back. "Protect her. Yes, I can do that." Something was off in Obi-Wan's usual backdrop to his communiques. Ferus leaned forward to see better.
"When does she leave with Turmeric?"
"In three weeks, directly after Empire Day." Ferus changed the subject. "What's that white thing behind you?" It looked like a thin lawn shift drying on a line stretched across Obi-Wan's plain sitting room.
"It rained again this morning. I had to dash out to the eopie pen unexpectedly to drive the foolish beast into cover."
"So something got wet with you, too."
Obi-Wan kept facing the holoemitter but snaked a hand behind him. There was a snap! and the white thing, along with its drying cord, tumbled out of range, to the floor, Ferus supposed. "You didn't need to do that. I lived with you for a while, remember. I've seen everything you own."
Obi-Wan sniffed. "Not everything. It was a gift from a kind citizen from the back alleys of Tosspot Station at the rain festival. She said I changed her luck."
"I thought you went all the way in to Mossy Esplanade last week."
"I stopped off at Tosspot, Wormie was there with his friends, I stayed in the background, listening and, and observing. I don't often get close to him, as you do with Laylay." Ferus knew that Obi-Wan didn't mean to sound pathetic.
"And this mystery lady in the alley gave you this as part of Toonie's customs? Why?"
Obi-Wan had always kept his Masterly dignity. "I sheltered her with my robe back to her dwelling. The storm had become a downpour."
"Her dwelling was in an alley?" This was intriguing.
"I've seen her at the station a few times before and yes, an alley. She is a simple, kind soul. She said I looked like I had only one suitable outfit to wear, night and day."
Over the spacelanes came that look to subdue a roomful of Padawans and sometimes even Anakin. "Witty comments aside, this was a gift and I am using it every night. It's pleasant to be thought of, even in this misbegotten ... place."
Their circumstances couldn't have been more different, even if their missions were the same. "Someday, O-Siri, someday --- "
Obi-Wan shrugged. "It is as the Power wills, Feri-Wan. I have no major complaints." Then, briskly, darting a glance towards the left, "If there is nothing else --- "
"There isn't." Ferus waited for Obi-Wan to disconnect.
Obi-Wan looked over Ferus' shoulder, avoiding Ferus' eyes. "Feri-Wan, we are alone and yet not. I would share anything important with you, you know that."
"Of course. The same with me."
Obi-Wan harrumphed. "Yes. Quite so. Well then."
"Well then," Ferus echoed, amused.
Years later, in the midst of a planetwide explosion of botanical growth, Han lay on his stomach beside Leia in a hut on the outskirts of the Ewok village, listening to the diminishing sounds of the victory party and the hiss of embers being doused. The fuzzballs gave the structure a wide berth. Han supposed his intentions were obvious even without speaking their language. On this night, there was all the time in the galaxy.
The majesty of the forests of Endor in spring reached Leia's soul like no lesson of Ilee's could, though he had paved the way. She fingered the arm that Fess had smoothed so long ago, healed now by the Ewok shaman with a smelly decoction of roots and leaves. There would be a scar, but she could live with that. She thought of the uses of botany and told Han the story of the field trip. Han brushed aside her unbound hair, nuzzling her ear. Leia felt a tingle.
"Was he your first?" Han rumbled. He sounded only curious.
"Him? No. But that time in the thundersprite, I looked at him, really looked at him and it was like, I don't know, there was a larger world and I knew my place in it. I didn't have to be so particular about who I let inside my gates."
Han rolled onto his side, face on the crook of his elbow. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Your Worshipfulness."
"Now you know that I don't mean you." The tingle turned into a sliding burn.
"No, I don't. Show me."
THE END OF THE FIRST SERIES.