"Hello, Bennie...." Mocking, deliberate, the harsh voice echoed in the deserted hallway.
The young boy froze mid-stride. He recognized that voice, that hated, terrifying voice of his ever-tormentor. Raising wide frightened eyes, he watched as the merciless one, a tall, good-looking Padawan in his late teens, slowly sauntered toward him.
"Please not again." But the child's frightened whisper was lost in the mounting silence. He began to shiver in the warm air, his small shoulders slumping in defeat. The sure knowledge that he could not escape, that he was alone with this cruel veldt, cut into him with all the impact of a vibroblade. It had happened before; it would happen again. He could only endure the pain to come.
"Don't run, Bennie. Don't make me come after you."
Ben shuddered but stood his ground. He knew it was useless. Trying to run would only make him angrier.
As the Padawan approached with a light step and eager anticipation, it was clear that he was looking forward to the confrontation. The feral grin and hardened eyes made that all too obvious. The apprentice had seen the fear in Ben's face and the shudder that the boy had tried so hard to hide. The ruthless hunter reveled in it, wanted it. It would seem that the delicious taste of terror was infinitely satisfying to those who knew how to savor it; the craving grew with each sweet morsel. And now it appeared that the child, quivering in panic before him, was a blooded feast.
"Good boy. You've learned your lessons well."
With a brief laugh at the fear-filled sight - the sound so arrogant, so sure of conquest, the Padawan Learner closed the gap between them. He straightened abruptly, stretching tall and towering over the young one. Slowly, he lifted one careless hand, waiting for the panic to rise. When it did, when the child tried to hide the fear and could not, he smiled smugly. He lightly tapped the boy's cheek before completing the motion and sweeping his own midnight-dark hair away from his face. Tossing his black braid over his shoulder in a reckless display of Senior Padawan status, he glanced at the quivering boy. His sapphire eyes seemed to gleam with the victory in this battle of wills; somehow, the apprentice knew that he had already won.
"What's the matter, Bennie? Aren't you happy to see your old friend again? It's been a couple of weeks. Surely you haven't forgotten me so quickly..."
Terrified, the small initiate shook his head, stammering, "I...I haven't forgotten."
"I...I..." Leaning down, his face thrust into the child's own, the Padawan mocked, "I'm sure you haven't, Bennie. I know that you enjoy our time together... as do I."
The nine-year-old muttered something, half-stepping backwards in a small attempt at escape. The black-haired apprentice grabbed the child's arm, twisting it fiercely as he sneered, "What was that, baby Ben? Afraid of something?? Or maybe some...one?"
Ben struggled, trying to free himself. "You don't scare me, Xanatos. You don't..."
The large hand tightened as the fingers dug into the tender flesh. There would be bruises later. Glaring down at the child, he spat, "Not afraid of me? Oh, Ben, you should be. You should be..."
"Let go of me. Let go, Xanatos." Frightened, Ben tried to twist out of the durasteel grip, his soft-soled boots scrabbling for purchase but it was no use. Desperate, he tried to use his small knowledge of the Force, hopelessly grabbing at anything that would come to his aid. But the teen was too strong. With ruthless delight, he squashed the boy's futile attempt at using that awesome power.
Grabbing a fistful of copper hair, Xanatos yanked backwards, forcing the child to bend awkwardly. The small cry of pain seemed to amuse the bully. "Pitiful! Don't try that again, Bennie." Abruptly he let go of the strands and leaned down once more. "Never use the Force on me. Ever. Or I'll have to show you the true meaning of power."
Ben stilled at that. His green eyes flashing with intensity, the frightened child fought with the only weapon he had. "I'll tell on you - I will! You are a bad one. You shouldn't be doing this. I'll tell Master Jinn. I swear I will."
Xanatos snorted with derision. "Tell my Master, will you? He won't believe a word you say, little Bennie. He thinks I'm the best Padawan that has ever graced the Temple halls. He won't listen to you. Besides, he's always telling me to live in the moment. I am indeed."
His face pulling into an amused sneer, the teen abruptly grabbed Ben and lifted him high. The boy twisted and turned in a vain effort to break free, his small legs wheeling helplessly in the air. Xanatos laughed, watching little Ben struggle to escape, enjoying the pathetic drama and the panic. Oh, the panic was wonderful to see. Finally, when he was sure there was no more to be savored, he shook the child hard.
Ben quieted, biting at his lip to keep from crying out, his green eyes swimming in tears. With spiraling fear, he heard the Padawan say, "And if you do tell on me, I'll make sure that you regret it, you and your little friend Garen. And that fish girl...what was her name? Bant? It would be so easy to hurt her, don't you think?"
"Don't you dare hurt Bant. She never did anything to you. Don't."
The older teen laughed at the despair in the initiate's voice. "Hurt Bant? Why ever would I do that? You are so much more fun to play with."
Ben burst into terrified fury, kicking and clawing at Xanatos, and tried frantically to escape. Flailing about, maddened with fear, he grabbed onto the thin black braid and pulled hard. The apprentice jerked. Reaching for his hair, he yanked at the small fist that was entangled in the dark strands. Still held aloft by one hand and half-crazed with panic, Ben kicked out, the tip of his foot connecting with the teen's chest.
With a howl of pain, the Padawan let go, almost flinging the boy away from him. The child landed with a dull thud and a muffled cry. Trying to scramble out of the way, he was quickly pushed down as Xanatos dove into him.
Pinning him against the joint where floor met the wall, Xanatos drew back one elegant hand and jabbed a closed fist into the child's side. The exhausted groan spoke volumes of hurt. Ben was trapped.
"Stop struggling, you little fool." The boy tried desperately to wiggle out of the painful grip but the teen just laughed again. Grabbing one flailing hand, he forced it flat. Growling, Xanatos spat out, "Stop struggling or I'll break it."
Ben's breath caught as he froze. He couldn't win. He could only endure.
"Good-for-nothing little Bennie. You'll pay for hurting me like that. You'll pay. I'll make sure you're never chosen." Xanatos hissed as Ben trembled beneath him. "Oh, yes, I know what you really want. To be chosen as a Padawan and become a Jedi Knight. I'll make absolutely sure you never are. Clumsy little fool."
The child was beyond terror now, a numb grief filling his mind. Dazed, he asked, "Why are you doing this? Why?"
His tormentor snapped back, fragments of vicious delight in his voice, "Why? Because you have such fear that I can taste it in the air. It feels so good to hurt you, to see those frightened eyes fill with tears. To punish you."
Ben hiccupped in confusion and futility. "P...punish me? What did I ever do to you?"
Xanatos settled in, pressing the boy further into the wall. "Oh, little Bennie, Not for what you have done but for what you will do."
The heavy weight of the older boy was beginning to take its toll - Ben could hardly breath. Taking small desperate gulps of air, hoarse and dazed with pain, the child whispered back, "Will do? What will I do? What could I ever do that you would hate me this much?"
Hissing in rage, the teenager pulled fiercely at the captured hand, brutally slamming it back into the metal floor. The sharp pain tore through the boy. Ben whimpered as his palm began to throb with increasing agony. And the blackness moved closer.
"I've had visions about you, Bennie. Did you know that? Visions of you as a Padawan, visions of you and My Master, mine!" Xanatos's voice went flat, space-cold. "You will be my downfall... if he takes you as a Learner. I'm going to change that future, mark my words. Change it and make sure you never become his Padawan."
Ben tried to shake his head and deny the words. He could barely speak, his mind beginning to drift as the pain and terror sapped all his strength. "You're crazy. Master Jinn won't want me."
"Oh, but Bennie, I'll tell you a truth that no one else will." The Padawan pressed in, emphasizing his words. "There are only two kinds of people in the universe, the hunter and the hunted. Guess which I am."
Whispering into Ben's ear, soft and deadly, he hissed, "I may be crazy but you will never become a Padawan. Never. And if you ever say anything to him, anything at all, I'll tell my Master how you attacked me, how I had to defend myself against a little kid, how you have such anger in you that you need to get kicked out. So much anger that even the Agri-Corps won't take you. And I'll make sure to hurt Bant, too. Oh, yes.... I can and I will. So you just shut up and take it like a good little Padawan-in-training. Or else."
"Besides," Xanatos snickered softly, "My Master will believe me. He will. He believes anything I say."
"Padawan, what are you doing?" The ice-sharp voice came out of nowhere. Startled, too focused on his prey to pay attention to his surroundings, the apprentice had not noticed the tall Master towering over him.
Quickly, he scrambled to his feet and stood penitent, the black braid swinging forth in obvious reminder of his status. The steely gaze of moments past melted into genuine concern in an instant. Glancing down, waving one hand towards the still-cowering child, he sounded sincerely upset. "Master, it's a good thing you're here. Bennie is hurt."
Looking at his apprentice for a brief hard moment, Jinn turned toward the young one blinking up at him. Kneeling down, reaching for the boy, he asked gently, "Are you hurt, child?"
Ben flinched back, still dazed by the sudden turn of events. The soft sound of concern was not enough to wipe away the fear that still clung to the back of his throat. Shivering, hugging his injured hand to his chest, he struggled to sit up, his small body pressed hard against the cold metal wall. His voice hitched in slow relief. But when he looked up, the huge Master was blocking his escape. Drawing his legs in, a vain attempt at turning into as small a target as he could, he shook his head at the question. His hated enemy stood to one side, waiting to see how it would all play out.
Breathing hard, trying to calm his anxieties, Ben saw Xanatos staring down at him with cold eyes. That hard sapphire gaze told volumes of possible futures. Should he fail to convince the Master, he knew that his friends would pay. Speak the truth and only pain would follow. The fear began to spike once more.
"What are you afraid of, youngling? Surely, a Master is nothing to fear. "Jinn's voice was soft, inviting and calm. But Ben could not let his friends be hurt. He just shook his head in mute response.
Xanatos spoke once more, false sincerity in every note. "Master, he's rather clumsy and fell. I think he's just embarrassed about it."
Jinn didn't look up, just continued to observe the shivering boy in measured calm. But the voice was hard as durasteel. "Why were you holding him down, then? The truth, Xani."
Xanatos looked away for a moment. Then, nodding, he hung his head, his white teeth worrying his lip in apparent embarrassment. "I.. Master, I'm sorry that I lied to you. I thought it would be better than tell you the truth about this one." He nodded toward the frightened boy, the Padawan's darkened eyes glinting with concern. "I wanted to save him from punishment. He is so young. I don't think he really understands about anger and the Dark path it can take." He shrugged. "But I cannot protect him from his anger any longer. I know that now." Looking down at the child, he continued, "Master, I'm afraid that Bennie here tried to attack me. I'm sorry, but I had to defend myself, even against one so young."
"Attacked you? Why would he attack you?" Watching his apprentice, the Master's questing eyes took in all the truths, sifting through the morass of words and fear.
"I'm sorry, Master. I've seen Bennie around. He seems to struggle with anger every day. He's been in lots of fights as well. At the Healer's quite a bit, too. It seems that he's not very good at winning his fights." Xanatos saw the child tremble at the lies and tried not to smile. "I've seen him a few times and thought I could help him. I thought if he could talk to someone closer to his own age, instead of a Master, he might be able to open up. Maybe get to the root of his problem but he just got angrier and angrier and finally he hit me. I had to defend myself."
Master Jinn turned back towards Ben, watching his reaction to the accusation. Something was very wrong. Trying to draw the child out, he asked quietly, "Bennie, is this true? Did you hit Padawan DeCrion?"
Ben's green eyes were swimming in tears. He did not want to lie to a Jedi Master but what other choice did he have? At least, this wasn't a lie, sort-of..." It was an accident. I didn't mean to."
Qui-Gon felt the half-truth and the banked terror in the child. Realizing that part of that fear was directed at him, he leaned back and gave some space to the boy. He needed to learn just what was going on and his Xani was at the heart of it.
As gently as he could, Master Jinn reminded the child of the tenets of the Order. "You realize, youngling, that this isn't something I can just gloss over. Anger, even in one as young as you, is not acceptable. Anger leads to the Dark."
While Ben watched Qui-Gon, the boy's eyes pleading for understanding, Xanatos spoke up again. His voice was flawlessly solicitous as if he truly was concerned for the child. "Master, please don't start. I'm not hurt and he's just a kid. I'm sure with proper supervision he'll be good." The Padawan shrugged. "And I was angry at that age. It's part of growing and learning to accept the will of the Force, is it not?"
With that, Master Jinn stood and turned toward his apprentice. His voice was mild but his eyes saw far more than the Padawan would have wished. "Xani, your concern does you credit. But this young one needs to learn that fighting and anger are not the ways of the Jedi."
The teen began to whine slightly, his hand resting on his Master's arm. False sincerity was Xanatos's stock in trade and he played it well. "Please, Master, for my sake. He deserves a second chance."
But the Padawan would not be silenced. He had to make sure that it appeared he had Bennie's best interests at heart. His face was all artificial integrity. "Please, he's just a kid. He'll do better next time."
Jinn looked down at the still child, now sitting still, his shivering quieted. Their eyes met in a brief flash of understanding and Qui-Gon nodded slightly. Ben realized that the Master knew what his Padawan had done and was horrified by the knowledge. It reassured him in a way that made the pain almost worthwhile.
Qui-Gon leaned down once more. Watching Bennie struggle to keep his eyes from straying towards the hated apprentice, the Master reached forward and gently grasped the boy's shoulder. "Bennie, did you understand what Padawan DeCrion was saying? He feels that you will learn by your mistakes. We all must learn that every day."
The whisper was almost unheard. "Yes, Master Jinn. I...I will learn."
Jinn squeezed his shoulder in a fleeting show of support and then stood upright. "Good. I will be talking to your Clan Head about the fighting. Young one, it must stop."
Ben nodded once and turned away. "Yes, Master."
Xanatos spoke up hurriedly. He did not want his Master talking to Bennie any more than was absolutely necessary. Children were so stupid about keeping silent and this secret could mean his dismissal. Caution was his watchword, that and a few more moments of delivered pain. "Perhaps, I could escort him back to his Clan, Master. And speak with the one in charge. It might seem better coming from the one who was attacked."
His Master's mild blue eyes flicked toward him before resting on the child once more. "No, I don't think so. There has been enough anger between you for one day." The Padawan opened his mouth to argue further but Qui-Gon cut him off. "Xanatos, we have a transport leaving in an hour. I had tried to contact you but you had turned your comlink off and I had to search you out. You need to pack."
Now worried, Xanatos protested, "But Master, Bennie needs to go to the Healers. He may have hurt his hand when he hit me."
Qui-Gon shook his head. He would make sure that the hunter and his prey were not alone again. "I will take him myself. I shouldn't be long and I've already put my things in the transport. Go now."
Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed dangerously, a sharp frown etching his brow. "Go, Padawan! I won't tell you again."
The words held an edge that Xanatos has not heard before, an edge that told him to obey, an edge that hinted of long discussion and much meditation. He was in trouble and that little wide-eyed sneak was to blame.
What he needed was a story that was both foolproof and believable. Later, he could plan how to reward Bennie. Perhaps the time could be used wisely after all. In any case, it would not be a good idea to upset Qui-Gon any further. With a regal nod to his Master and a long dangerous look thrown at the child, he quickly walked away.
The Jedi Master waited until his foolishly cunning Padawan had disappeared around the corner. Then with a quiet shuddering breath, he looked down again at the frightened child.
Slowly, trying not to panic the boy more than he already was, Qui-Gon knelt before him. Watching the innocent one wincing in pain and apprehension, he moved deliberately and calmly to soothe him. With one tentative hand, he lifted the chin of the injured child and asked, "How long?"
Ben just shook his head. He couldn't cause his friends harm, even to protect his own life. He just couldn't.
Sighing, Qui-Gon let go. Leaning back and settling in for a lengthy talk, he asked again, "I need to know, Bennie. How long?" The despair was clear in his somber voice and his joyless eyes. Oh, yes, the Master knew what his beloved Padawan had done and it broke his heart. Trying to remain calm, he watched the young one struggle with his apprehension.
"I can't tell you. I..." Ben huddled inward, tightening his arms around his body as though cold.
"Or he'll hurt you again?" Gently asked, the despair tamped down, Qui-Gon had his own struggle for balance.
The childish mutter was scarcely above a whisper. "No, not me."
Ben shuddered again, and then nodded. He looked away, ashamed of his weakness. He should have been strong enough and smart enough to avoid the Padawan. Now he was afraid that his friends would pay for his bungling.
"Please Master Jinn, don't. He'll hurt them. I don't mind so much but them... Bant is just a kid. She wouldn't understand. Garen would fight back and that just makes him angrier. He'll hurt them both bad to get back at me. Please, don't..." The green eyes were bright with tears.
Qui-Gon started to brush his hand along the soft cheek but the child flinched back, the unconscious panic plain at the simple gesture. Withdrawing once more, he murmured, "I promise that he won't hurt them or you ever again. But I need to know, young one."
Swallowing hard, his eyes begging for understanding, Ben replied, "I...I was six when he started. So I guess it's been about three... umm.. years. I'm nine now."
Qui-Gon closed his eyes for a moment and tried to find some balance, to make some sense of this obscenity. The news that Xanatos has been hurting a child for so long sickened him. And no one knew. No one said a word about it. Force, he felt unclean with this revelation.
Grimacing with the pain of betrayal, Qui-Gon said nothing. He tried to center, needing to remain in control for the boy's sake. But Ben didn't understand. He thought that he was the cause of it all.
"I'm sorry, Master Jinn. I'm so sorry."
The Master quickly replied - there was no blame in this blameless child, only in the ruthless black-haired child of his heart. "What have you to be sorry about, my young Obi-Wan? You were as brave as any Jedi Knight - to protect your friends even at the cost of such pain."
The small hand brushed at his wet cheeks, trying hard to suppress the sobs even now beginning to burn in his throat. He felt such a failure. "I didn't mean for this to happen."
In an instant, Qui-Gon leaned forward, capturing the boy's face with his two large hands. He looked into the green eyes of the innocent child. "Obi-Wan, it was not your fault. Do you hear me? You have done nothing wrong."
Swinging around, sitting down next to Ben, Qui-Gon pulled the boy to him, engulfed him in a hug. Ben began to cry then, wailing as the terror and warmth confused and comforted. The Jedi Master knew that the storm would be over eventually; the adrenalin would leach out, leaving an exhausted child. He just sat there, holding Ben to him as the youngling let out his fear in tears and hitching sobs, as Qui-Gon whispered over and over again, "You are not to blame, little one. You are not to blame."
At long last Ben grew quiet, a few tears still hovering on the copper lashes. Qui-Gon looked down at the tired boy and murmured, "It's over now, Obi-Wan. He will not be hurting you again."
The tears were gone but the guilt had just begun. Ben said, "I'm sorry about your Padawan being so bad."
Master Jinn hugged him again, and quietly whispered into the copper hair, "Young one, I must take the blame for this. Others tried to tell me but I wouldn't listen to their wisdom. I thought I knew better. I should have seen the darkness in him. I'm so sorry that you paid the price for my foolishness."
Ben pulled back, looking at the sorrowful man. "It's all right."
Qui-Gon acknowledged the generous spirit of the boy, but he could not deny his part in this. "No, it's not. It's not all right. But perhaps it will be. This mission to Telos will give me an opportunity to begin anew, one where my eyes will be open and clear. Perhaps with stern guidance and a sure hand, he might redeem himself yet. I will have to make sure that he does not fall. Or hurt anyone ever again." Looking back towards the place he had last seen his beloved apprentice, he murmured quietly, "If I cannot, I will have failed as a Master and a Jedi. If I cannot, I will never teach again."
Now he rose up, pulling the child with him. Ben needed treatment and a comfortable bed in the Cr?che and Qui-Gon needed to start down the path towards redemption. "But that is in the future and we must always live in the now. And that means, my Obi-Wan, that we must get you to the Healers and see to that hand. Come now."
The boy was too exhausted to argue. "Thank you, Master."
For a few moments, he walked quietly beside the large man. But then, still confused and half-dazed with the events of the past hour, he asked, "Master Jinn, why do you keep calling me Obi-Wan? My name's Ben, Ben Kenobi."
The Master gave out a weary smile. Ruffling the child's hair, he replied, "But you are my Obi-Wan. It means Brave One or the One Who Waits in my native language. I will always think of you that way, til the end of my days."
"Obi-Wan," Ben tried it out and grinned shyly. "I like it. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Perhaps they'll let me keep it." He looked down for a moment, a slight frown now marring his face, "I don't like my own name much any more, especially since....umm.. since he kept calling me Bennie. Made it sound dirty, somehow."
Qui-Gon hid the anguish that rose at the simple statement. He would have much to atone for in the days ahead. Giving the child a quick hug, he said, "Yes, it does have a certain ring to it."
The relief that shone in the young boy's eyes helped to brush away some of the stench that was even now clinging to Qui-Gon's guilty soul. Ruffling the boy's hair once more, he watched as the growing serenity replaced the fear in the luminous green eyes of a child. Looking into the face of the future, Qui-Gon said, "Obi-Wan Kenobi, I'm pleased to meet you."
Original cover by Reihla. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.