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While the senators from Da Sootha and Pho Ph'eah argue over the finer points of the bill currently under consideration, I check my messages. Still no word from Ben. I only allow myself to call him once a day, but that doesn't stop me from compulsively checking to see whether he's called back yet. It's so hard to wait. If only he'd call me, even if it was simply to say he's not ready to see me yet. It's hard not to take this personally, to think he's ready to move on. I know that's irrational, but I also know how hard it is to hold onto the heart of a padawan.
Now the Bothan senator indicates her desire to enter the debate. Terrific. She's sure to drone on for at least half an hour without stopping. I wish Senator Antilles hadn't insisted I attend this hearing. Arms folded across my chest, I lean back in my chair, trying not to show my irritation in case the hovercams catch me.
After ten minutes of the Bothan's rambling, I unhook my commlink from my belt. I may have forbidden myself from calling Ben, but that doesn't mean I can't harass T'nell. He's been very patient with me over the last few weeks. It's good to know Ben isn't the only padawan worth knowing.
He quickly answers when I call. When I identify myself, he doesn't bother to ask what I want. "He's not ready yet, Bail. You need to give him more time."
"How much more time does he need? He's been back for almost two weeks now," I snap. Closing my eyes I take a deep breath, trying to release my frustration, to remember that Ben is hurting. "I'm sorry, T'nell, but it's driving me crazy, not hearing from him. What happened on that mission?"
There's a pause before T'nell says, "I don't know the whole story. Obi isn't really talking to anyone these days; it's not just you. And it's not really my place to tell you even what I do know. Everyone has to learn to deal with these things in their own way. He will call you when he's ready, Bail."
I run my hand through my hair, hating how desperate I must sound. "Does he say anything about me?"
Another long pause. "I know he misses you."
"Did he say that?"
I can hear T'nell sigh over the comm. "He's barely saying two words to me at a time. But I know he misses you."
I shake my head, staring across the senate chamber, wanting to throw the commlink over the edge of my pod.
"Look," T'nell offers, "some of us are going to Rising tonight. Why don't you join us?"
"I hate Rising," I grumble.
"All right. But if you change your mind...."
"Thanks. Just - tell him to call me, all right?"
I flip the commlink off. Maybe I could just grind it under my heel. I'd like to break something right now.
Good old T'nell, lying through his teeth in order to make me feel better. Ben won't call me. I know he won't. And there's no way I'm going to Rising tonight, though it was nice of T'nell to offer. Looks like I'm on my own. Well, I do have one alternative.
Leaning forward, I switch on the commscreen and flip through the attendance roster until I get to the Nubian delegation. The camera shows Padmé and another intern in the pod, their senator nowhere to be seen. Padmé's hunched over a datapad, taking rapid notes. No doubt she's writing down everything the Bothan is saying. She makes an almost fanatical intern. Strange girl.
I activate the link. "Padmé?"
She looks up and sees me on the screen. Moving closer so that her face fills the viewer, she smiles. "Hey, can you believe this speech? What does the Islarian Rebellion have to do with Corellian trade routes, anyway?"
"I don't know. I haven't been paying attention."
"Some senator you are," she teases. "I'd make a much better senator than you."
"Why don't you get elected then?" I toss back. She makes a face at me and laughs. She really is quite pretty. "Look, are you still wanting to go to that reception tonight?"
She blinks in surprise. "Yes. Have you changed your mind?" I nod, and she beams back at me. "Great! I'll meet you at your place at 20th hour."
"I'll come pick you up instead," I offer. I've managed to keep her away from my apartment so far. It's kind of silly that I don't want her to come to my home, but it seems too intimate. It's my place, my retreat. I don't let too many people in.
Her lips purse in a pout, and I'm struck again by her beauty. Most of the time she's like a bratty little sister, but every once in a while I catch a glimpse of the woman she's becoming. A woman who will someday be my wife. "All right," she says, "I'll see you tonight."
I nod and shut off the screen. Leaning back in my chair, I fix my gaze on the still-droning Bothan senator, but my thoughts are elsewhere, and they are not with Padmé.
The reception is a small one by Coruscanti standards, only about a hundred people present. A new wing is being added to the Poli-Sci department of the University of Coruscant, to be named in honor of Senator Trebakk of Dunida, an outer rim world, and the model for the new building is being unveiled tonight. Guests mingle and talk, sipping champagne and lauding Trebakk whether they know him or not.
Padmé and I are standing side by side, perusing the model. I glance at her. "Do you want to study there someday?"
She twists a loose strand of hair around her finger, her gaze locked on the model. "No, I'm finished with school. I'm much more interested in the real world."
I continue to watch her as she reads the plaque about the architect. She's dressed conservatively tonight in a floor-length gown with a high neck and full sleeves. You'd never guess this modest young woman haunts the clubs at night dressed like a Twi'lek dancing girl. She's only been on Coruscant five months, and I've already hauled her out of more drunken escapades than I can count. But when she's on the job, she's all business.
She's obviously very ambitious, but I don't know what for. I suppose she would want to be a senator someday, but I doubt she wants to represent Naboo and the Outer Rim. She hates her homeworld. I have no idea if she'd like to represent Alderaan. If so, she'll have to wait. It will probably be years before I ascend to Viceroy, and she'll never represent Alderaan as long as I'm a senator. But I don't know what else she might be interested in. She doesn't really talk to me about her dreams and ambitions. Then again, I never ask.
A voice behind us interrupts our contemplation. "Ah, Miss Naberrie, I see you made it to the reception after all. I'm so glad."
We turn to see Padmé's "boss," as she likes to call him, smiling at us.
"Yes, Senator, I'm so grateful for the invitation," Padmé says. "And I'm doubly pleased, because now I am able to present to you my fiance." She lays a hand on my arm as she introduces me. "This is Prince Bail Organa, Junior Senator of Alderaan." Glancing up at me, she continues, "Bail, this is Senator Palpatine of Naboo."
We bow our heads in brief greeting, and Palpatine says, "I'm very pleased to meet you at last. Miss Naberrie has been most eager for me to make your acquaintance. She thinks very highly of you."
That's news to me, but before I can say anything, Padmé adds, "You're both very interested in streamlining senate bureaucratic procedures. If the two of you join forces, I'm sure you could have a tremendous impact in the senate."
I cast a startled glance at her. I'm amazed at how confident she sounds, and I wonder what she has up her sleeve. It's high time for me to find out about those ambitions of hers.
As if reading my mind, Palpatine smiles. "Our Miss Naberrie is quite passionate on the subject, as you no doubt know, Senator. She's written a two hundred page review on the Functions Committee by-laws. I have no idea where she finds the time for such monumental works of research."
She gives a little smile and says, "Senator, I see that your champagne glass is nearly empty. Let me get you a new glass, so the two of you can get acquainted." She takes his glass and disappears into the crowd.
I stare after her, still amazed by the competent woman she's suddenly become, and seeing me, the Nubian Senator chuckles. "I understand that you have not been long acquainted with your fiancée, but I assure you Miss Naberrie is a very promising young stateswoman. She will certainly go far. You are fortunate to have made such a match."
At last I find my voice. "Thank you, Senator. I feel quite blessed."
"I understand it's quite a break with tradition for the royal heir to be engaged to an off-worlder."
I take a sip of my champagne. I'm not about to go into that with Senator Palpatine. My father had been livid when I refused to marry an Alderaani, but since I knew my fate would be irrevocably tied to Alderaan, I saw marriage to an off-worlder as a way to broaden my horizons. My father picked Naboo because it's almost as isolationist and conservative as Alderaan. Padmé, the young daughter of a minor Nubian house, had seemed like a safe choice to him. If he saw her at the nightclubs, though, he'd probably try to break off the engagement.
"Then again," Palpatine continued, "it's quite a break in tradition for the heir apparent to leave home and serve as a senator."
I barely suppress a grimace. "My father is too much of an isolationist."
"And you are not?" Palpatine asks.
I shake my head. "Alderaan has grown stagnant, not unlike the Republic itself. We need new ideas, new ways. Padmé's right: I want to see changes in the Republic, and Alderaan could play a great role in those changes."
Palpatine's eyes narrow appraisingly at that. "Indeed? You are a reformer, then, Senator? I admire your passion. I, too, would like to see the Republic move into a new era. Perhaps we may work together?"
My smile is genuine. I have always sensed that Palpatine is more than the mild statesman from the Outer Rim that everyone thinks he is. "I would be honored, Senator," I say as a clasp his hand in a firm grip. I'm glad Padmé dragged me to this reception. It's given me the opportunity to make a new ally.
We stay for a couple of hours, working the room. Padmé's really quite good at this, and I'm almost enjoying myself. I never quite manage to forget about Ben, but this is better than moping at home alone.
The Devaronian I've been chatting with gets called away, and I glance around the room, finally spotting Padmé off in a corner. No one is approaching me, so I take the opportunity to slip out into the hallway. I find a shadowed nook and pull out my commlink. I dial in Ben's frequency and wait, my heart speeding up. Maybe he'll answer this time. Maybe he's home and he's waiting for me to call, and this time he'll pick up -
But he doesn't. I get his answering service. Why does it still shock me every time? I say what I always say. "It's me. Please call, Ben. I miss you." Part of me wants to be petty, to employ some emotional blackmail. But I doubt it would work.
I turn around to find Padmé standing a short distance away watching me, her expression unreadable. She knows about Ben, of course, but I don't know if she's aware of the mission and that I haven't seen him in a long time.
She approaches me, gazing up into my face. "I've had enough of this reception. Let's get out of here."
"I won't argue with that."
She links her arm in mine and we head down the hallway toward the entrance. "So what shall we do now?" she asks.
"Why don't I take you home?"
"Oh, that's no fun," she scoffs. "Let's go out."
"Dinner?" I suggest. Her company is better than returning to my apartment without Ben.
"Nah, I ate so much of that shaak paté, I'm stuffed. Let's go out dancing."
"Padmé," I groan. "Can't we just go to a holofilm or something?"
"That's boring." She clutches at my arm, bouncing on the balls of her feet like the teenager that she is. "Let's go clubbing!"
I almost groan again. Padmé's worse than Ben at the clubs. She seems determined to fuck every compatible species on Coruscant and to sample every drug that's legal. And judging from the state she's been in when I've picked her up some nights, she's probably sampled several illegal ones as well.
But then I remember that T'nell said he and his friends would be at Rising tonight. Maybe he could tell me something about Ben. "Rising?" I suggest.
She looks up at me in surprise. "You'd actually go to Rising? Without your boyfriend?"
"Some of my other friends might be there. They could keep me company while I'm babysitting you."
Her face wrinkles in a mock scowl. "You are so bad!" she pouts. "But then, you did bail me out of jail that one time, so maybe you do have your uses."
"And it had better stay that one time, too."
Outside, we hail a cab and head back to her apartment so she can change. I'll be dressed rather formally for Rising, but I'm not going to pick up anyone, anyway.
Padme's apartment is a bit larger than most senate interns', due to her family's wealth, but it still reminds me of my tiny dorm at university. She disappears into the bedroom, calling out, "There's beer in the cooler if you want some!"
"Thanks," I mutter, picking my way across the mess on the living room floor: stacks of files and datapads, clothes draped over the furniture, and plates bearing the remains of dinner perhaps a week old. "Your place is disgusting, you know that?"
"Oh, I know!" she calls from the bedroom. "But if I put things away, I'll never find them again."
I clear a spot on the sofa, pulling out a pair of underwear from between the cushions. The underwear is way too big for her. I toss it on the floor and debate getting up to wash my hands, but I doubt I could find the sink in all this mess.
"Which dress do you think I should wear?" Padmé asks behind me.
I turn to see her standing in the bedroom doorway, clad only in her bra and panties. I don't know if she's trying to shock me or seduce me, but I'm determined not to give in either way. She holds up two dresses, both of which would be small on a six-year-old. "The pink one, or the green one?" she asks, holding up first one dress, then the other.
"The green one," I say. It looks like it might be a few millimeters longer.
She looks at the two dresses, then tosses the green one on the floor. "The pink one it is!" and returns to the bedroom to change.
Ten minutes later we're heading to Rising. I'll give her credit: she can sure dress fast, and I don't know how she can put so much makeup on so quickly. She's sprawled in the back of the cab, her feet propped up on the seat in front of us. If I wanted to, I could look right up her skirt, except there's not much skirt to look up. "You might try wearing some actual clothes on occasion," I suggest.
"What for? They'd only get in the way."
I can't refute that logic, and since I don't really want to be her babysitter or her father, any more than I want to be her husband, I decide to make no more comments about her attire or her behavior for the rest of the night. I'm going out with her so I won't have to go home alone. I'll sit at the bar and have a drink and think of...anything that doesn't involve Jedi padawans.
When we arrive at Rising, the place is even more crowded than I remember. Padmé disappears quickly into the crowd of dancers. The music is pounding, the lights are flashing, and I already regret coming here. But there's no point in leaving. I'll only have to come back in a few hours and pick Padmé up again. If I stay, maybe I can keep her from getting so drunk she throws up on me.
I squeeze my way through the throng until I reach the bar. "Brandy, please." The tender pours me a drink, and I take a slow sip, turning to scan the crowd. I don't see T'nell or any of his friends, but it's still early.
I remember the first time I saw him. He looked like a slut of the sleaziest kind, pants so low on his hips you could almost see his pubic hair, liner thick around his eyes, smudged from sweat. His thin shirt was damp and it stuck to his chest. And such confidence. It wasn't arrogance. Arrogance is born of insecurity. No, he owned the place, and he knew it. He could have anyone he wanted. I watched them watching him, their dancing unconsciously synchronizing with his, their eyes glazed with lust. But he didn't care. It was his own lust he cared about. When he was ready to act on it, there'd be a line of people waiting for his pleasure.
Then he turned and I saw his braid and knew what he was. Gods, I'll never forget it: that searing bolt of lust and fear that shot straight to my groin. He terrified me, but I wanted him, wanted him so badly it hurt. Insanity, just the way it had been with Aubris. But different, too. This time I was determined not to give in. I would watch him. I would catch his eye and beckon to him. I would tease him and seduce him until he wanted me as badly as I wanted him. And then I would leave him cold. I'd smash that confidence. I'd break that stone heart if I could. I'd show him who really had the power.
Except it hadn't happened that way. And now here I am, as enthralled by him as I ever was by Aubris. And he never had to use any mind tricks at all.
Gods damn him, why doesn't he call me? He still terrifies me, except now I'm terrified he'll leave. He can't do that to me, I wouldn't be able to bear it. When the time for leaving comes, it will be me. And I hope that day never comes at all.
I restlessly scan the crowd again and finally spy Padmé. She's dancing with that Jedi she likes. The girl's hands are already up Padmé's skirt, kneading her ass. She's a friend of T'nell's. He must be here.
Leaving my glass on the bar, I weave my way onto the dancefloor, looking for T'nell. And then I see him. Not T'nell. Ben. My Ben.
He has no shirt. His chest shines in the flashing light, his pants riding low on his hips. It's just like the first time, that bolt of fear and lust, paralyzing and burning me. Force help me, but I still want him. For the rest of my life, I will never love anyone but this man. I'm lost.
He turns, and his gaze locks with mine. I can't move. His eyes hold me in place as he moves toward me, hips undulating, one hand running down his chest. I'm rooted in place, like a small animal about to be run over by a freighter. He'll roll over me and crush me, grinding my bones to powder, and I can't move, can't do anything to stop it. I'll welcome the destruction.
He's closer now, his face filling my vision. His lips part, but I can't hear him. I can't even hear the music anymore. He's right in front of me, and when he touches me, I know it will burn. I'll weep. I'll throw him to the floor and ravish him right in front of everyone. I'll run my fingers through his hair. I'll press my lips to his.
Then his gaze slides off me as if I'm not even here, and he walks past me, as if he never saw me at all. A man is following him, a trick. They're heading to the back room. Does he mean for me to follow? If I turn, will I see him beckoning?
But I can't. The electricity that was surging through me moments ago has drained away, and I feel exhausted. I'm trembling, and my knees can barely hold me up. I feel like I'm going to be sick.
I stumble through the crowds, trying to find the door. Dimly I remember Padmé. I ought to find her and tell her I'm leaving, but I don't care. I stagger through the door and out into the street, where the night air is cool against my heated skin. I gasp for breath, until my trembling eases and my heart ceases to pound. And then I go home.
T'nell calls the next day. He had seen me at the club. He didn't know what exactly had happened between Ben and me, but he saw me run out. He says all the same things: it's been really hard for Ben, he's not acting like himself, he just needs some time, he really loves me. I'm getting tired of hearing T'nell apologize for Ben.
A day goes by with no word. Then another. It's so hard not to call, but I'm tortured enough by all this. I don't need to torture myself further.
Then one afternoon my commlink chimes. I'm expecting a call from my secretary, but there's a silence on the other end when I answer, and before he even says anything, I know it's Ben. I bite my tongue to keep from saying his name, afraid that he'll cut the link. I wait.
Several seconds pass, and then he says, "It's me."
Now I'm the one who can't speak. At the sound of his voice, a sound I've not heard in a long time, a whole range of emotions rushes through me, and I'm momentarily overcome.
"I'm sorry I haven't called before now," he says at last. "I wasn't ready."
"It's all right," I say automatically. That's not really true, but then again it's not a lie, either. I'm just glad he finally called.
He sighs, and I can imagine the expression on his face, that line that appears between his eyebrows when he doesn't know what to do next. "Things have just been...."
"I know. I heard."
"What did you hear?" He sounds wary.
"Nothing, really. T'nell just told me you had a really rough mission and you needed time to recover."
"I understand you've been talking to T'nell quite a lot lately," he accuses.
"Only because you haven't been talking to me at all." I let some of my irritation creep into my voice, and he remains silent for a while.
"You're right," he confesses." "I know I've not been very fair, but it's just been so...."
Force, he still can't say it. It really must have been awful if he can't even admit it, and for the first time I begin to realize how bad it might be. I still have no idea what happened, but a Jedi faces all kinds of potential harm on a mission. He could have been badly hurt. Not just injured, but possibly tortured, or who knows what. What might it mean for a Jedi to fail on a mission?
With difficulty, I find my voice. "Ben, none of that matters now. I just want to know that you're going to be all right. I've been so worried about you."
"I'll be fine," he says, but he doesn't sound too convincing. He hesitates, then asks, "May I see you?"
I close my eyes, relief coursing through me. "Of course. Any time."
"That would be great."
"All right then. I'll see you tonight."
Somehow, the assurance that I'll see him soon enables me to concentrate on work for the rest of the day, but as I head home, my nervousness reappears.
I told the guards downstairs to notify me when he finally arrived so I could have advance warning. When the call finally comes, I almost jump out of my skin. I go through the room, lowering the lights and checking to make sure that everything is neat and tidy. Unfortunately my housekeeper is so thorough she leaves me with nothing to fret over.
But Ben doesn't appear. Minutes go by, and when I finally look at the timepiece, I realize it's been almost a quarter of an hour since the guards called me. I wonder if I should call them back. They couldn't possibly have made a mistake, could they?
Before calling them, I switch on the security monitor next to my door. And there he is, pacing back and forth in the hallway. I force myself not to open the door. T'nell's right: Ben needs time. He doesn't need me to force this before he's ready. I clasp my hands behind my back so I won't be tempted to reach for the door, and I watch him on the monitor.
He really has changed. He's not the same as he was even at Rising the other night. Gone is the confidence, that sexy swagger. He looks younger, smaller. This padawan doesn't own the world; he's been undone by it.
Several times he stops and stares at the door. Once he even reaches for the chime, and my hand rises to palm the door open in response. But his hand lowers, and he resumes his pacing. My heart breaks for him.
I don't know how long we remain like that, each of us nervous, desperate, only an arm's length away from each other but separated by this untouchable door.
At last he turns in his pacing and swiftly rings the chime, as if afraid he'll lose his nerve if he thinks about it. Even though I'm expecting it, the sound startles me. I close my eyes and count to five before reaching to open the door.
He's standing there before me now, but not like the other night. His eyes are huge, his jaw tensed, and for several long moments, neither of us says a thing.
Then I take a step back. "Come in." I'm pleased to hear how calm my voice sounds.
"Thank you." He enters the apartment, stepping past me. He doesn't stop until he's in the living room, up next to the large window overlooking the city. It's almost as if he would walk right through it and out into the night sky if he could.
"Would you like something to drink?" I ask.
I open the liquor cabinet and take down a bottle. I pour out two glasses, then cross the room to stand next to him, handing him a glass.
"Thanks," he says without looking at me. He takes a sip and suddenly chokes, sputtering, "What the hell is this?"
I smile. "It's Ventruvian cognac. It's so strong that it can't legally be imported to Alderaan. Naturally whenever I go home, my friends insist I bring a case of it share with everyone." I shrug. "I figured you could use something strong."
His eyes briefly meet mine, glittering in the lights from the passing traffic. "Yeah," he says. He takes another cautious sip and manages not to choke this time. "So you have a whole case on hand?"
"Not quite a case, but you're welcome to as much of it as you need."
He chuckles and sips at his drink, staring out the window. We stand in silence, shoulder to shoulder, just watching the traffic go by.
"It was a rescue mission," he murmurs at last. I turn to look at him, but he's still watching the traffic. "We were sent to rescue two Jedi. One of them was killed."
So that's what has troubled him so deeply. The Jedi have such incredible power, you don't really think about them getting killed. I wonder if it was someone he knew? Not that that matters. What a horrible thing to fail in. "I'm so sorry."
He swirls the cognac in the glass, watching the liquor spiral. Then he raises the glass to his lips and swallows the rest in one gulp. He grimaces again and says, "Gods, that stuff is potent."
"Do you want more?" I offer.
But he doesn't answer. He leans forward until his forehead rests against the window. I watch as his breath fogs the glass.
Softly he begins to speak. "It was my fault. We got Jal out, and I was sent in after the other one. But I made a stupid mistake, a serious error in judgment. Jal came back in to get us, but he was killed during the escape. It's my fault he died."
I don't know what to say to that. I don't know what to do. I'm hardly in a position to contradict him, and any words of comfort I can think of sound hollow to me. Reaching out, I rest my hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly.
He accepts my comfort for a few seconds before twisting out from under my grasp. Crossing the room toward the fireplace, he kneels on the carpet. "How do you turn this thing on?"
Raising my voice, I command, "Fire on." A blaze immediately springs to life.
"That's a great trick," he mutters, staring into the flames.
I fetch the cognac bottle from the liquor cabinet and kneel behind Ben, placing the bottle on the carpet next to him. He doesn't say anything, doesn't move, and I wrap my arms around his waist, cradling him against my chest. My lips brush across the back of his neck.
"Was that really you at Rising the other night?" he asks.
I grow still. Is he really not sure? Maybe he was high or drunk and didn't realize it was me. I could lie about it, pretend it never happened.
I'm still wondering if I could get away with it when he speaks up. "I thought so. Everything was so weird, and I wasn't expecting to see you there. I just wasn't ready."
I merely nod, not trusting myself to speak.
"I didn't fuck that guy. I intended to. I thought-." He catches himself, his body rigid. "I thought somehow it might help. But it wouldn't have. I didn't fuck him. I couldn't."
I close my eyes and press my forehead into the back of his neck, relieved. I've been telling myself that it didn't matter, that it would be natural after such a stressful mission for him to want to...blow off steam in that way. But that's bullshit. I can't believe how relieved I am that he didn't have sex with that man.
"What were you doing there, anyway?" he asks.
I can't tell him the truth. He doesn't know about Padmé yet. "T'nell had told me he would be there. I was hoping he'd be able to tell me something about you. I never saw him, though."
We remain kneeling in front of the fire, watching the flames. I'm so glad to have him back, so relieved that he's all right. I run my hands down his arms and then over his thighs, as I start to kiss the back of his neck.
Abruptly he turns in my arms and kisses me, his tongue plunging into my mouth, his hands clutching my shoulders in a bruising grip. He pushes me back down toward the floor, stretching out over me. His kiss is fierce and aggressive, lacking any tenderness. He's kissing me like a hormone-crazed teenager, and I can barely move beneath the onslaught. I raise my arms to wrap around his neck, but he breaks off the kiss, and then he's pushing himself away from me, sitting up and panting. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he gasps. He sounds distressed.
Confused, I sit up and place a hand on his back. I can feel his heart beating rapidly. "It's all right," I soothe.
"It's not all right!" His voice starts to break, and he buries his head in his hands. "It's not all right! I feel like I can't touch you anymore."
"Ben, what is wrong?"
He grows still, his face turned away from me. "I.... Things happened."
My hands clench into fists as I struggle not to snap at him. Why can't he just tell me? When I know I have control of myself, I calmly say, "What things?"
His shoulders jerk in a tense shrug. "Things."
I fight to keep my breathing even, but my hands clench even tighter, and my knuckles crack. Perhaps he can sense my tension, because he gets to his feet and crosses the room to the window again, his back to me. I watch as he twists his braid around his finger and pulls on it. I don't think I've ever seen him play with his braid like that.
At last he speaks. "The place where the Jedi were being kept was a...brothel. They were being held as sex slaves."
My eyes widen. I know such things exist in the galaxy, but they're so far removed from my life that it's hard to think about what they mean. I can't imagine what such a mission might mean for Ben. "Did you have to pose as a...," I can't quite bring myself to say it. "...a slave yourself?"
He winds the braid around his finger again. "We went in as buyers."
My eyes slide closed in relief and I slowly exhale, releasing some of my tension. "It must have been really bad for those Jedi."
Pulls on the braid. "It was."
"I'm so sorry."
He says nothing, just stands at the window, tugging on his braid. He's still so tense, it's unnerving. I push myself to my feet and go to stand behind him. My arms slide around his waist. He remains tense, but he leans back against me. I reach up and disentangle his hand from his hair, lacing my fingers through his.
"Things happened," he whispers, and I stiffen. "Things."
"Tell me, Ben," I urge him. "Just tell me."
He sighs, but he doesn't relax. His fingers flex against mine. "It's just fucking, right? That's all it is. And a rough fuck is a rough fuck, nothing more. We can take it. We're Jedi."
He must have seen something. Perhaps he was forced to witness something done to the captive Jedi. "Physically it may be the same act," I say, "but it makes a big difference if you're willing or not." And I should know.
"But why should that matter?" Ben protests. "We don't consent to being tortured, either, but it's a risk we take. I've been tortured before. It was bad, but I got over it. But this...why is it different? It's just a fuck. Force knows I've had rough fucks before. It was just another fuck."
It takes a while for his words to penetrate my understanding. But when I finally comprehend his meaning, my mouth goes dry, and it's a struggle to get the words out. "I thought you said you were posing as a buyer."
"I was." His voice is barely above a whisper. "We got Jal out, and I went in for Bruck. But I made a mistake. I thought I could smuggle my saber in, but they caught it. They captured me, and...things happened."
Realization slams into me with the force of a physical blow, robbing me of my breath. Things. I've already guessed it, but I still wasn't really prepared. I gasp for breath and hold tightly to Ben.
It can't be possible, that something like that could happen to Ben. I know that's a stupid thought, but it's all I can think of. Things like that just don't happen to someone like him. "Force, Ben."
"It's just a fuck."
"No, it's not! Even with a rough fuck, you have a choice. You can say no. I've never been tortured, but I've been -." I stop myself just in time. With a shake of my head, I continue, "But having it forced on you against your will, not being able to stop it...."
"I couldn't stop it." There's a hint of confusion in his voice, as if he's just now realizing it. "They put a Force-dampening collar on me. I couldn't feel the Force at all. There was nothing I could do. I was so afraid." He begins to cry. "And it hurt. It really hurt. It shouldn't hurt like that."
"No, it shouldn't," I whisper.
"He told me to scream, and I did. I screamed and screamed. It was the only thing I could do."
I bury my face in his shoulder. Bile rises in my throat, and I can feel sweat breaking out across my forehead. Against my will I'm back there again, in my room with Aubris. You don't really want to leave without kissing me good-bye, do you? Over and over I get up to leave. Over and over I return to him. I can't escape. I can't say no. "I couldn't even scream," I whisper. "He wouldn't let me."
For several long minutes we stand there, clinging to each other, each of us locked in painful memories. I don't think I can bear it, to think of what happened to him, to think of what risks the Jedi send him out to face on every mission. As bad as this was, it could be so much worse. He could die. I could lose him. And I'm powerless to stop it. So many things in my life are beyond my power to choose. It's not really even in my power to choose Ben, is it? But I want to, just as I want him to be safe. But that's not a choice that's mine to make.
Ben is leaning back heavily against me, cradled in my arms while I support his weight. I find some comfort in holding him like this, as if I can catch him if he falls.
Then he turns in my arms until he's facing me. For the first time all night he looks me in the eyes. I hate to see the pain reflected there, but there's something else there, too, something I never want to see extinguished. "You know what it's like," he says. "You've been there, too."
I don't want to remember it. It was so long ago. I should be over this. I am over it. But I can feel myself begin to tremble. Even now, years later, I'm still trapped in that room. I try to leave, but I never can.
With a tremendous effort of will, I find my voice again. "What happened to me wasn't the same thing. He didn't hurt me."
He raises a hand to cup my cheek in his palm, his thumb stroking lightly across my skin. "Not physically."
"No, not physically," I echo. But there are other ways to hurt a person, and I've been holding on to this hurt for a very long time. I wish I could finally let it go. I hope Ben can let it go, too.
My eyes meet his. He's still looking at me. Such pain, but such love, too. His hand slides along my jaw and around my neck, and he pulls me down to him. My lips meet his, just touching. His mouth moves softly against mine, not like that earlier kiss. This one is gentle, slow, as if there's nothing more important than this touch, this taste. His mouth opens beneath mine and our tongues slide over each other as his arms twine around my waist.
The tension in my gut uncoils, and I sink into him, letting his warmth penetrate me and fill me. My hands slide across his back. I want to surround him with my hands, capture him and keep him close to me forever.
His mouth leaves mine as he traces a path with his lips over my jaw and down my neck. I curve in toward him, his hot breath making me shiver.
"I wasn't sure how to touch you anymore after that," he murmurs, his lips tickling my skin. "It's never been just a fuck with you."
Oh, gods, I can't bear it. I can't control anything that happens with Ben, no matter how much I want to. Tears sting my eyes, but I won't let myself cry in front of him. Instead, my hands rise to tug his head back so I can kiss him again, harder this time. I can disappear into him, surround myself with him and not have to think about the things I don't want to think abut: Aubris, Padmé, my father. My universe shrinks down to Ben alone, and everything's all right. More than all right: it's good.
I take his hands and walk backward to the bedroom, pulling him with me. He follows, his lips twitching in a hint of a smile. You´re going to trip,’ he warns.
I shake my head. No, I won´t.’
He looks at me again and his eyes blaze with emotion. I feel his hand tighten around mine. Bail, I want you to take me.’
Oh, Ben.’ I wrap my arms around his waist, lowering him onto the bed, stretching out along the length of his body, covering him. His hands tangle in my hair.
I feel him shiver, but it´s not fear. I want you, Bail.’
Yes. I want so much to do this, to show him what he´s done for me. I want to reclaim what has been violated. We don´t have to remain trapped. We can heal and move on. It can be good again.
I undress him, slowly unwrapping the layers of tunics, removing Obi-Wan and finding Ben. I lavish each expanse of exposed flesh with kisses and caresses, tender, soft kisses, long loving laps with my tongue. I taste him and reclaim him, taking him for my own and giving him back to himself. His hands never leave me, clinging to me. I understand how much he needs this. I pull his leggings down and reveal the warm flesh beneath; his cock already throbs from my attentions to his upper body.
I take him in my mouth and subject every centimeter of his cock to my detailed attention. His hands tighten into my hair and he moans. I pull free and quickly undress before lowering myself onto him again, tracing my tongue lightly up his abdomen, his torso, his neck. I nuzzle against his ear. Are you ready, love?’
He nods. I reach down and caress his cock with my hand, sliding down its length until I cup his testicles. I knead gently, feeling him shiver again. I look up at him. His eyes are closed. I trace my fingers round to his ass, feeling for the muscle. I probe one finger inside him. He hisses and exhales a slow breath. I watch him carefully. I must do this right.
More,’ he breathes. I add another finger and he arches. All I hear is his slow breathing. I focus only on him, on reading what he needs. My fingers slide in and out, loosening him. He feels so tight, like he´s fighting himself. He makes a choking sound. "More, please.’
I pull my fingers free and grope blindly for the box of barriers I keep in the drawer of my bedside table. I pause, holding the packet in my hand, staring down at him. He usually tops, not me. I tear the packet and slide the barrier on myself, conscious of how few times I've done this with him. I belatedly remember the lube, fumbling with the bottle and spreading it generously on my cock. He lies back against the pillows, watching, waiting for me to give him what he needs.
I´m giving him what he has given me. I´m healing him and the intoxicating power of that heals me too. He doesn´t control me, and I don´t control him. We love, and that love liberates us both.
I push into him, slowly, carefully. His arms twine around my neck and he pulls me in, holds me close, nuzzling his face into my chest as though he wants me to engulf him, become part of him.
Bail,’ he breathes. My name said into my chest, with such need.
I reach for his cock and begin to rub and stroke it. He gasps in pleasure, and I feel it as my own. We're together now, and nothing else matters. Joy takes me, and I release into him, groaning. He grasps me hard and follows.
We cling to each other tightly. Whatever has happened to us, we´ll survive. Tomorrow I´ll wake with Ben in my arms.
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