"Go ahead. Do it. I know you want to."
His blue-green eyes dark with blood-lust and disgust, Ben Ken'ba released his choke hold on Bruck Chun. Flinging the padawan against the bare wall of their prison, the fighter turned and stalked over to the far cot, sinking down onto it, his movements stiff in deference to his cracked ribs.
It was a tempting offer, and one Ben had almost succumbed to. How easy it would have been to tighten his fingers that small bit more, to stop the flow of air down Chun's trachea, to watch his complexion turn mottled and blue with lack of oxygen. Even now, the vision had a seductive call to it, one that was abetted by the hostile atmosphere in the room they were forced to share.
As he leaned back against the cool plasteel wall, Ben brought one hand up to his face to prod at his cheekbone. Despite his intentions to ignore Bruck while they were locked in here together, a solid day of the other man's steady taunts and derisive comments had worn at Ben's control until it finally snapped and he found himself going after the Jedi apprentice with an anger he hadn't felt in years. Apparently, Bruck had learned his hand-to-hand lessons well because he held his own against Ken'ba's attack - for a while. Now they both bore more injuries then they had when Master Yoda sealed them in this room and were no closer to resolving the differences that plagued them.
"Force, I think you broke my wrist," Bruck moaned, the fingers of one hand clamped tight around his rapidly swelling forearm. Both his eyes were nearly swollen shut and vicious bruises were visible through the tears in his blood and sweat stained tunic. "Should keep you in a cage, it's against the law for wild animals to roam free!"
"You seem to think I care about your opinion of me," Ben sighed, "when in fact nothing could be more wrong. Whatever problem you had with Kenobi is in the past. Deal with that or next time I won't stop myself. What's one more death to a wild animal?"
Bruck swallowed visibly at the cold certainty in Ken'ba's tone. Obi-Wan had been easy to bait and it seemed the fighter had some of the same hot spots, but that calm acceptance of the outcome of a future clash between them gave Bruck an uneasy feeling. "You kill me and even Master Qui-Gon won't be able to save you."
"I don't need Qui-Gon to save me," the fighter stated. "And I know what will happen. What you don't seem to understand is that I don't care - about what happens, you, or anything about this place."
Forgetting his various aches, Bruck looked hard at Ben, his brown eyes narrowing to small slits. "That is a lie."
The fighter bristled at that, then visibly calmed himself. "Think what you want, Chun. All I want is to get out of here."
"That makes two of us. If you ruined my chances to take the trials..." Bruck let the threat die off into a menacing silence that turned into a muffled groan when he rubbed at his nose, jostling the shattered cartilage.
"Blame others for your own shortcomings you should not," Ben replied, quoting Yoda with uncanny accuracy while looking around the infirmary room that they were confined in. Aside from the cots, which were bolted to the floor and the walls, and the recessed lighting, the space was bare. Clearly, the healers were taking no chances at supplying either of the young men with anything that could be used as a weapon.
Initial attempts to heal themselves by using the Force had shown the two men that there was a dampening field in effect around their quarters. There would be no enhanced healing or contact with others until they were released from the debilitating effects of the energy barrier.
Ben recognized that at least part of the reason he had finally attacked Bruck was because he was angry at himself for growing so dependent on Qui-Gon. The fact that he felt the Jedi's absence so acutely gnawed at the fighter, scouring raw patches on old wounds that had only begun to heal. On edge already, it had taken only a single day for Bruck's constant insults and taunts to send Ben over the edge.
"Don't quote Master Yoda at me!" Bruck snapped. "Damn troll always had a soft spot for you, and he took up right where he left off."
Slowly stretching his arms over his head, noticing and cataloging each twinge and pull, Ben folded his hands behind his neck, watching the white-haired man the whole time. There was little chance that Bruck was going to attack now, and if he did it would likely result in one or both of them lying unconscious on the floor. "If this is what being his 'pet' got me, I would have gladly been the one he disliked."
The padawan snorted at that, sending a fine spray of blood and mucus onto his tunic. "Do you know how many times I had to listen to what a fine example you were? The perfect initiate: first in most of your classes, darling of the instructors, on the fast track for apprenticeship and everything else."
"But look which of us wears the padawan braid." Ben's expression was cool, but there was a flash of old pain behind his eyes. "And look at who is the 'barbarian murderer'."
Bruck had the decency to flush. "I heard that you were forced to do those things."
"Forced or not, I still did them. Justification does not change the facts."
"But motivation does. We are taught to study the entire circumstances of a situation. I obviously did not learn that lesson well." Bruck idly twisted his long, white braid through his fingers, then looked at Ben again. "Just because I have this doesn't mean I'm going to be a Jedi."
"Planning on leaving the Order?" Ben asked sardonically.
Bruck remained silent for a long while and Ben had almost decided that this was all the answer he was going to get on the matter when the other man started speaking again. "The Council has postponed my trials twice already. After what happened yesterday, I wouldn't be surprised if they were canceled altogether."
Despite his wanting to feel nothing regarding the Jedi apprentice's situation, Ben felt a curious mix of sympathy and compassion for the younger man. The fighter knew all too well what it was to have your dreams die in front of you. "If you knew this, why did you come looking for a fight?"
"I didn't. But then while we were walking there Chev and Nester were talking about when we were all initiates and it all came back to me."
Pack mentality. It was the same as the people who came to watch the Games - timid folk in every day life, but when sucked into the microcosm of the stands, they became bloodthirsty.
"I'm not making excuses for what I did. I know that it was stupid - that I was stupid."
Now Ben stayed quiet, wondering just how truthful his adversary's words were. Without a grasp on the Force, he was unable to gauge the intent behind them. But if he was hindered in this way, Bruck was at even more of a disadvantage as he relied on the Force in more far-reaching ways.
"You weren't the only one, I allowed you to goad me into a fight. On Golgatha, that would have gotten me killed and rightly so."
"So... this is a truce?"
"It would seem so - or a cessation of hostilities at least. Maybe now they'll let us out of here."
Both men looked toward the door as if expecting one of the healers to appear and free them. When it didn't happen, they both sighed, wondering what they would have to do to escape from this torture.
(2 days later)
Blinding sunlight. Coarse sand sliding beneath his boots. Bloodthirsty chanting of the crowd. The familiar weight of his sword in his hand and the bone-jarring shock as the blade impacted with another, stopping a potentially lethal blow.
Ben backed off from his opponent and they circled each other, each on the look out for openings and weaknesses that could be exploited in the battle. The other fighter was good, the best he's faced in months, and this match had gone on far longer then any others this year. Both men bore numerous small cuts, though Ben's dead-eyed stare and his opponent's cocky smile never faltered, even through the most strenuous clashes.
Who was the other man? The half-helm covered most of his face, rendering him anonymous. He could have been one of the nobility or a ringer brought in from off planet to take on the Champion and bring him down. Either way, he was on the Sands with the Bitch's blessing and that made him fair game for Ben's sword.
The man hadn't said a word so far. That in itself was strange, as were the distinctive, flowing patterns he moved in. Although they seemed vaguely familiar, Ben could swear that he had never seen their likeness before. They gave against his attacks but never broke, and the other fighter always seemed to be a half step ahead of him in the timing of his blows.
Lightning fast strikes and parries were exchanged, the force of the altercation driving the two men from one side of the Arena to the other to the delight of the crowds. This was what they had paid to see, now they wanted blood and the death of one of the combatants to make their experience complete.
During another break in the fight, Ben flicked a glance up to the balcony where the Bitch presided over the carnage. There she was, looking like the ice queen she was, surrounded by her flock of toadying nobles. It was the tall figure to her right that almost stopped Ken'ba cold. Qui-Gon - here - sucking up to the Bitch like the rest of the dogs that chased after her. It seemed there wasn't anyone he could trust after all.
Fury filled the fighter at the sight of the Jedi blatantly flirting with the Empress, and it manifested itself in a renewed attack on his opponent. He couldn't feel anything from the older man, but it wasn't because his grasp of the Force was blocked. To the contrary, the power that grew under Ben's fingers was greater then any he could recall being exposed to before. Alive, addictive, it bound itself to the fighter's body and mind, driving him on in a vicious attack that left his opponent stunned and bleeding on the sand before him.
"What are you waiting for, my Champion? He deserves to die, finish him!"
The Empress's husky voice cut through the crowd's yelling as if it didn't exist at all. Slowly, Ben turned from the other man to face the woman who owned him, his eyes turning even more cold as he saw the way Qui-Gon was wrapped around the woman. "As you wish, Empress," Ken'ba rasped, spinning on his heel, his sword lifted for the killing blow.
As the blade fell, the man raised an arm to shield himself from the stroke, then screamed as the sword severed his arm mid-way between elbow and wrist then buried itself in his neck. Blood gouted out from the severed arteries, staining the sand beneath the dying fighter and Ben's face with a coppery spray. The other man gave a raspy gurgle, then died, his good hand clutching feebly at the mask he wore.
Oblivious to the cheers echoing through the Arena, Ben knelt down beside the dead man, his gaze riveted on the rings adorning the severed hand lying on the sand. Five slim bands circled the ring finger, alternating silver and black. Five times this man had fought to be named Champion of the Arena and five times he had won. But that was impossible, he was the only one to have claimed that dubious honor.
A knot of dread swelled in Ben's stomach and he turned his head to gaze at the corpse beside him, the movement feeling as if it would tear his suddenly stiff muscles from his very bones. Reaching out with numb fingers, he grasped the edge of the half-mask and flipped it upward, revealing the face of the man he had fought.
The strangled cry of anguish ringing in his ears brought Ben into instant wakefulness. A startled exclamation from the other side of the room proceeded the brilliant flare of the lighting by a split second, both making the fighter wince. He slowly lowered the hand that had risen instinctively to cover his eyes, amazed that it didn't come away covered in blood.
"What in the name of the Force is going on, Ken'ba?" Bruck demanded. The padawan was watching the other man warily from his bed, unsure if the hoarse scream that had woken him was in preparation of an attack or because of some other danger.
"Nothing," Ben spat out between harsh gasps for air as he stripped his sweat-soaked shirt from his body, then used it to dry his face and torso.
"Pretty damn big nothing if it has you that spooked," the younger man commented wryly as he sat up in his bed and leaned back against the wall. "Didn't picture you as the type to be afraid of anything."
The fighter rummaged through his meager supply of clothes, searching for another shirt and finally digging up a loose black sleeveless one. "I'm sure you'll be glad to know that I am. Anyone who isn't, is a fool."
"Master Yoda says that fear leads to the dark side."
"Master Yoda and I have had several discussions on that very topic - it's one we disagree on. Not acknowledging your fear is what's dangerous, not being afraid."
"So..." Bruck tilted his head, looking at the other man curiously. "What are you afraid of? Dying?"
"Hardly," Ben snorted, drawing up one knee and resting his forearm across the bent joint.
Ken'ba studied his hand, contrasting the movement of his fingers to the limp, lifeless ones his mind had conjured in his dream. "Living," he said quietly, barely aware that he had spoken aloud.
Bruck looked stunned at that. "Living? Why does that scare you? It seems you're doing it even as we speak."
Ben shrugged at that. "When you spend most of your life preparing for your death, being given the choice to live is... disconcerting. Being given the choice along with a past you never knew existed and someone who knows your thoughts and feelings is even more terrifying."
"So the fact that you know that you were Obi-Wan and that you're bonded to Qui-Gon is what's bothering you?" As he spoke, Bruck swung his legs off of his cot and leaned his elbows on his knees, watching Ben in fascination.
The other man's reply was a cool, steady gaze. "And what are you afraid of, Padawan Chun?"
Bruck shook his head, sending his long white hair tumbling over his shoulders. Without thinking, his fingers found the bound length of his braid and absently twirled it around them. After a long silence, he exhaled, then glanced over at Ben, his dark eyes wary. "Failing."
"Yes, or anything. I don't want to... end up like you." The last was added in a half-whispered rush as color flooded the apprentice's cheeks.
"Don't blame you, if I had a choice, I wouldn't want to end up like me."
Bruck looked up at that, his eyes going round at the half-smile, half-grimace that twisted Ben's lips. "Was that a joke?"
"Possibly," the fighter answered. "It was meant to be an attempt at one. Qui-Gon tells me that my sense of humor needs developing."
"I would have to agree with him on that count," Bruck said, though he was struggling not to smile as he responded. "I'm sure he could come up with some lessons for you if you wanted them, or you could ask Master Yoda for some tips."
"No!" Ben replied, more sharply then he had intended, prompting a burst of laughter from the younger man. "I don't need any more lessons from Yoda, thank you," he growled, frowning as Bruck just laughed harder until he collapsed on the cot, holding his sides.
"Just what is so funny, Chun?"
"You - you are!" the padawan laughed, trying to get control of his breathing so that he didn't hyperventilate. "The big, bad killer sacred of Master Yoda!"
Ben struggled to keep frowning, but a muscle in his cheek began to twitch, first faintly, then with more force, until finally he too was collapsed on his cot, caught in a fit of laughter. "And, and you aren't?" Ben gasped when he finally got a hold of himself again.
"I never said I wasn't!" Bruck exclaimed, swiping the back of one hand over his eyes to wipe away the tears that had gathered there. "Force, I haven't laughed that hard in I don't know how long."
"I know how you feel," Ben sighed, rubbing one hand across his ribs to try and ease the ache in them. "I'm not sure I've ever laughed that hard since..."
Bruck searched for an acceptable time frame. "Since you left?"
"Yeah," the fighter nodded, closing his eyes for a long moment. "At least that long."
"Feels pretty good, doesn't it?"
Ben nodded again at that. "Yeah, it does." He raked a hand through his hair, his fingers automatically seeking out the scarring under the white streak over his brow, then opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling. "Thank you."
"For what? Trying to beat you to a pulp? Didn't work to well as far as I can see."
"No, for this - for making me see that there is more to life then what I've been focusing on lately. More to me then I've let myself see."
"Qui-Gon going to be coming after me because of this?"
"I doubt it. He'll probably want to shake your hand or give you a commendation or something. Hells know that he's been trying to show me the same thing since we met. When we weren't fucking each other's brains out, that is."
Bruck looked away and flushed at that. "That was way more then I needed to know about you and Master Qui-Gon, Ken'ba. Way more."
"Sorry," Ben chuckled, "I guess it's so much a part of me now that I don't even think about it. I won't mention it again."
"Well..." Bruck began, a crafty grin lighting up his face. "I have been curious about one thing..."
"Are those rumors about Qui-Gon true?"
Yoda thumped his cane against the floor as he turned off the feed from the room the two young men shared. The sound echoed through his sleeping chamber with a strangely satisfied sound, and the ancient Jedi's soft laughter carried the same tone to it. Pressing a stubby finger against a button on his datapad, Yoda dictated messages to both Qui-Gon and Adi Gallia, telling them that Ben and Bruck would be released come morning.
Shaking his head, the Jedi master climbed into his bed, settling his small body under the blanket with a sigh. "Love my padawan I do, but that much I did not want to know about him."
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