Fingers closing tightly over the small glass cylinder in his hand, Ben completed his turn and advanced on the other man, his steps slow and measured, his expression wary. Stopping within a half-meter of the larger man, Ken'ba tilted his head back enough to meet his eyes and spoke. "Who in the hells are you?"
A ghost of a frown darkened Qui-Gon's eyes, then was gone, vanished like the mist outside. "I believe I could ask you the same question."
A muscle spasmed in the fighter's jaw, causing his face to twitch. "I am what life has made me."
"Aren't we all?"
Giving a scoffing laugh, Ben raised the vial, holding it up to the sunlight and examining the amber liquid inside. "Some of us have made more of our lives than others, wouldn't you say?"
The Jedi ignored the jibe, concentrating instead on the ampoule in the younger man's fingers. "I see you found what you wanted," he commented dryly.
"It is not a matter of wanting, but of necessity."
A fragment of a shared memory surfaced, bringing with it enlightenment. "If it is such a necessity, then why haven't you taken it yet?"
Ben's lips curled into a cynical smile and raw power flared, burning across the bond that still linked them. "Perhaps I am trying to decide if I want to or not."
"When will you come to a decision?"
"After you have answered my question."
"And if I don't?"
"Then, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, you leave me to my own devices. I would take care though. The Empress does not take kindly to those who come to her under false pretenses."
There was no point in denying the accusation. Ken'ba had plucked the truth - along with gods knew what other facts - from his mind the night before. Conversely, Qui-Gon had learned much about the younger man at the same time, though there seemed to be a point where the memories and impressions simply stopped.
"A bargain then. My life story for yours, does that suit you?"
"Does it include an explanation as to what happened last night?"
The Jedi couldn't totally suppress a chuckle at that. "You mean us having sex?"
Scornful silence met the attempt at levity.
"To tell you the truth I have no idea, I've never experienced anything like it in my life."
Disbelief radiated from the younger man, but he declined to comment. "I have to make a few calls. Get dressed and then we can 'discuss' whatever it is you feel you need to know."
Feeling as if he was a Padawan dismissed by the Council, Qui-Gon started back into the bedroom, then turned, testing the connection that still bound them as he studied the shorter man. "Should I expect the Empress' guards to be arriving soon?"
There was another burst of harsh laughter from the fighter. "Hardly. Whatever your motives are, if they involve discrediting the Bitch then you have my full support."
Ben waited until the other man vanished into the bedroom, then walked toward another door, careful to keep his pain and exhaustion from showing in his expression or stride. After pulling on a pair of light-weight exercise pants and settling the morning's first stim-stick between his lips, the fighter crossed to the comm panel and cued up yesterday's messages.
Credit transfers from the match, a challenge from some hopped up outlander determined to make a name for himself on the Sands, a reminder from Maryja that he needed to come in to have the work on his knee completed... The abused joint's ache intensified at that as if in recrimination and Ben levered himself into a chair, rubbing at the inflamed flesh.
"Get this done and you can take the time for regen..." he muttered, keying in various codes and watching information scroll across the screen. The depleted stim-stick was replaced several times before Ben finished with his session and the artificially introduced adrenaline sang along his nerves, adding a knife-edge his senses. Feeling as if he was once more in control of himself, the fighter rose, taking note of the duty schedules of three specific guards before making his way out of the room and sealing the door behind him.
Not many situations made the Jedi Master feel as if he was swimming in water beyond his depth, but this was definitely one of them. He could offer no explanation or excuse for what had happened the previous night. Even now, the memory of the explosive joining of body and mind sent shock waves skittering along his skin in a silent demand for a repetition of the event.
What I really need is time to meditate on this - that and a long soak in a hot bath...
Neither of these were likely to be forthcoming and so Qui-Gon went about the mundane tasks of cleaning himself up and gathering his clothes, the small protests offered by his body at each bend and stretch constant reminders of the way he had been taken. Taken? You gave yourself to him, and gladly, he sighed, running a hand through his shoulder-length hair, suppressing a wince as his fingers caught, then laboriously worked through, several snarls.
A search of the area around the bed finally revealed a short piece of leather and as he strode from the room, the Jedi confined his hair with it, clearing his vision. The outer room was still empty and Qui-Gon took advantage of the moment by engaging in a more thorough exploration of the large, airy space.
A meticulous examination of the room led to one conclusion: Ben Ken'ba invested little of himself in his living space. The impressions garnered from the Force resonance here were at best neutral, lending credence to the theory that the fighter did not stay in his lodgings often.
Resisting the urge to sift through the memories he had glimpsed the night before, Qui-Gon moved around the sofa to the massive windows. The sky was a pale blue wash overlaid with wisps of white and gray. Deeply shadowed foothills appeared purple tinged with gold as the sunlight illuminated the grain fields that covered their slopes. A small lake glittered like a discarded jewel in the distance, its banks shaded by thick stands of popanula trees.
A small tremor in the Force was the only indication Qui-Gon had as to his host's arrival but it was enough for him to offer up a comment without turning from the window. "An idyllic setting, did you choose it yourself?"
"It's secure and quiet, that matters more than anything else. I would be careful standing near the windows though. There are energy dampers but sometimes people get fool-hardy and try to take a shot at me through them."
Qui-Gon arched an eyebrow at that, studying the view a moment longer before turning to look at the fighter. "Shall I take that to mean that you have little use for aesthetic beauty in your surroundings?"
Ben's gaze drifted to the scenery and lingered there for the space of several heartbeats. "Whatever beauty I see is left on the Sands."
"The artistry of killing?"
"The task of staying alive, I would hardly call killing an art."
"Your public seems to think otherwise." The Jedi's tone was on the verge of condescension, hoping to get some kind of reaction from the other man.
Ken'ba merely shrugged and lowered himself into one of the chairs after setting a container of a steaming beverage and two mugs on the low table before him. "'My public' as you so quaintly call them, are fools who live vicariously through watching other fools risk their lives for sport."
After sitting and pouring himself a mug of the drink, Qui-Gon chuckled. "So you consider yourself one of the fools them?"
"Of legendary proportions." His expression bleak, Ken'ba pulled the rings from his hand and stacked them on the table next to the pitcher. "Five times the fool - you should have garnered enough from whatever it was you did last night to understand what I mean by that."
Champion for two and a half years, a feat no one else had managed in the history of the Games. A feat that the younger man clearly took no pride in.
"You wanted to trade life stories, Sar Jedi. I suggest that you begin before I grow weary of this conversation." After taking a long draw from his cup, Ben pulled out another stim-stick and leaned back, waiting with the relaxed watchfulness of a feline.
"My life story would take far too long to recount in one setting, shall we trade vignettes?" At Ben's shrug, Qui-Gon continued, not deigning to notice the rudeness of the gesture. "First memories then... I must have been two or three, it was just after I arrived at the Temple in any rate." The Jedi paused, waiting to see if the fighter would question the word, when he didn't, Qui-Gon continued, weaving a tale of one of his earliest experiences with the Force and the repercussions of his little adventure.
Blue-green eyes were focused on something far away and Ben unknowingly massaged his right wrist as he spoke. "The training sands." Unbidden, the bond flared into life once again, providing exquisite detail to the words.
There were no second chances in the Arena's classes. Those who failed at one of the tests were sent to the pleasure domes or to work in the huge agri-fields if they weren't purchased by one of the "patrons" who frequented the bouts, studying the young men and women like so much meat.
You learned early to keep people at a distance. Nothing pleased the instructors more than pitting two friends against each other in a test. If they refused to fight, both were shipped off, never to be heard from again - though there were rumors...
Even this second-hand viewing of this violation of youth made Qui-Gon's gorge rise and he drew a hand over his mouth, swallowing harshly as the bond relaxed once again. "That's your first memory? How old were you?" From what he could remember, the other students had seemed to be in their early teens, but surely that was not the first thing the fighter could recall, surely there had been some sense of a normal life in his past.
"Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, somewhere around there. I'm not really sure." From the younger man's tone it was apparent that the fact that he had no recollection of over half of his life didn't trouble him.
Qui-Gon opened his mouth to object - to what he wasn't certain - but was cut off by the other man. "I am what life has made me, nothing more, nothing less."
The Jedi drained his mug, silently contemplating that philosophy of life, then gazed at Ben steadily. "Tell me your happiest memory."
"Hasn't happened yet," was the curt reply.
"How do you know it will be your happiest memory then?"
The smile the curved the fighter's lips was terrifying in it's ferocity. "Trust me Sar Jedi, when what I want to have occur becomes a memory, it will be the happiest moment in my life."
Ripples in the living Force surrounding the smaller man washed over Qui-Gon, making him uneasy. Whatever it was Ken'ba had in mind for someone, it was not going to be pleasant.
"No need for you to tell me yours. When you became a Jedi Knight, correct?"
"Correct," Qui-Gon murmured, wondering just what the younger man had made of his memories of the ceremony. The ritual cutting of his braid by his Master, the pride he had seen in Yoda's eyes as his Padawan was confirmed a full member of the Order...
"None of you would last five minutes out there." Ben's sardonic comment cut through the Jedi's recollection, impaling him with pinpoint accuracy.
"Why do you say that?"
"Too soft, too forgiving. You'd be cut down before you made it out onto the Sands."
"And what you did for that family wasn't forgiving?"
The fighter scowled. "It is not their fault Elini chose them as bait in the madness she calls my life."
"Nevertheless, you did not have to visit them afterward, most wouldn't take any notice of them - besides the guards that is."
"I lied Sar Jedi," Ben said quietly. "There are three memories that I will count as my happiest: ruining the Empress, getting you off this planet, and dealing with the three dead men who misjudged my retaliation yesterday."
A proximity alarm went off at that, making both men look toward the window. A small skimmer could be seen in the distance though it was closing rapidly.
"And it seems the last of those three things is going to happen right now." The thin-lipped smile the fighter wore faltered as he stood and his knee threatened to give out before he had it under control once again.
"You can't fight three of them. You can hardly walk and you have poison racing through your veins, what kind of odds are those?" Qui-Gon bounded to his feet and planted himself in front of the smaller man, blocking his path.
Using a combination of upper body strength and the Force, Ben flipped the Jedi out of the way. "The best kind," he grated out as he stalked toward a smooth wooden chest, flipped it open and began removing weapons, buckling them into place on his body over the cloth trousers that were all he wore.
"Damn fool..." Qui-Gon growled, getting slowly to his feet. He could feel the determination and concentration pouring through the link that bound them, colored with the intimate knowledge of what the three men had done to the shop-keeper's daughter. "Going to get himself killed..." Without realizing he was moving, the Jedi raced back into the bedroom and snatched up his belt, pulling his lightsaber from it's loops as he did so. Hide in plain sight is a good trick at times like these, he sighed, feeling the familiar weight of his weapon's hilt smack into his palm. He wasn't ready to actively take part in whatever it was Ken'ba had planned but damned if he was going to stand by and let the other man get massacred - not before he found out just what had formed this bond between them and why.
By the time Qui-Gon emerged from the room, Ben was already out the door and waiting for his guests from a vantage point near his speeder. The position afforded decent cover as well as leaving the guards exposed and vulnerable on their flanks - if the fighter could circle around that far without them picking him off.
"Heard you were checking up on us, Ken'ba!" the largest of the three men growled from the safety of the skimmer.
"You know why, Landor."
"Ain't nothing she didn't want and you know it."
Qui-Gon could feel the anger and disgust wash over the younger man but the feelings were quickly released, leaving only the pure concentration toward the battle to come singing through the connection.
"If you believe that Chebek then you're a bigger fool then your friend Manok."
"You're the damn fool, Ken'ba!" a higher pitched voice shouted. "Live like some sort of fucking monk out here when you could have anything or anyone you want!"
"Heard you haven't gotten that knee fixed yet either," Chebek taunted. "Too bad for you."
"Perhaps." From the sound of his voice, Ben was making his way around behind the other men though they were likewise shifting their position in anticipation of the attack.
A sharp pulse of the Force pushed at Qui-Gon's nerves and a planter on the opposite side of the courtyard toppled over, drawing the guards' attention. Spooked by the noise, one leapt over the back of the skimmer, then collapsed, a throwing knife buried in his chest.
"But perhaps not," Ben said calmly. "One down, who's next?"
With a maddened howl, Landor launched himself in the direction of the fighter's voice, his sword swinging in a vicious arc that was cut short when it was intercepted by Ken'ba's blade. The two men battled back and forth in the small, enclosed space, weaving around the two vehicles as the third guard attempted to get an open shot with his blaster.
As the short guard brought his weapon to bear, Qui-Gon moved, streaking forward and igniting his 'saber at the same time. The blade whirred down in a smooth green arc, deflecting the red fire of the blaster bolt and sending it back in the direction it came from. The guard cursed and leapt aside, confused by this attack from a new quarter. Moving warily, his lightsaber held in a defensive posture, the Jedi moved forward, determined to keep the odds in this battle as even as possible.
"A little sore there, eh Champion?" Landor taunted, feinting to the left so that Ben would be forced to put more weight on his injured leg. "Too bad this isn't on the Sands. I could make me a freighterload of jinsas by beating you."
Ben remained quiet, totally attuned to his opponent, but aware of the struggle going on behind him in a peripheral way. Normally the guard would have been no match for him but between the slowing of his reflexes due to the poison and the drag of his bad leg, his timing was significantly off. "Maybe you should call up one of the holovid companies and have them tape it," he grated out, twisting to the side to avoid a strike and raking his sword over the armor of the taller man's breast plate.
"Maybe I will, there would be good money in this."
"Though the Empress won't like it if Manok there kills her pet Republic trade representative." Ben's breathing was rasping harshly in his ears and a dark aura seemed to surround everything in front of him.
"Time to die, Ken'ba..." the guard taunted, seeing the disorientation in the other man's eyes and driving in for the kill.
Can't they ever say anything original? Ben growled to himself before the world was incinerated in a flash of white-hot pain.
Qui-Gon heard the crash of swords behind him then the heavy thud of two bodies hitting the ground. Damn, I don't have time for this, he snarled to himself, deflecting another shot from the single remaining guard's blaster. Whether it was frustration or a flash of anger he wasn't sure, but the reflected bolt impacted solidly with the other man's chest, tossing him backwards to lie in a lifeless heap hear the side of his skimmer.
Running through a mantra to clear the communal pain from his mind, the Jedi raced over to the entangled forms of the fighter and the guard, prying the larger man off the smaller one to determine the extent of their injuries. The knife in the guard's throat precluded any thought of medical attention for him and even as he watched, Ben's eyes flickered open and he groaned.
"You need a medic," Qui-Gon stated calmly, reaching out to offer the younger man a hand up.
"Fuck," the fighter gasped, pushing himself to a sitting position but unable to move any father as his re-injured knee protested.
"Don't think you're quite in shape to do that," the Jedi joked, earning a harsher curse for his troubles.
Strength and stability were flowing through the conduit between them, giving Ben something solid to hang onto as his vision hazed in and out. "Get me inside... and call... Maryja..." he gasped out, biting through his lower lip as Qui-Gon eased him to his feet and started them toward the building. "She'll know what to do..."
"Damn fool," the Jedi whispered moving to support the smaller man as he totally collapsed, lifting the fighter into his arms and carrying him into the house.
"So why didn't he take the antidote yesterday?" The strident voice pulled Ben from his drug-induced stupor though he still couldn't manage to gather enough strength to move.
"I don't know." Both voices should have been familiar, but for the life of him he couldn't place either.
"Any longer and it wouldn't have mattered."
"And why is that?"
"Because he would be dead!"
The fighter gave up trying to move, but managed to open his eyes enough to make out two blurry forms at the foot of the bed. "There is no death," he muttered, the words slurred, "there is the Force."
"What did he say?" the medic exclaimed, dropping the argument and darting to the injured man's side to check his vital signs.
"Something he shouldn't know about," Qui-Gon replied, a troubled frown creasing his brow.
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