~ 3 years later ~
Xanatos stood saying nothing under the setting Tatooine suns, bathed in the glow of the blue saber held at his throat, letting the moment wash over the sixteen year old boy standing in front of him. The Jedi master could see a well-deserved gleam of triumph in the crystal blue depths he had come to know so well. Anakin turned his head briefly, braid slapping across his shoulder, to acknowledge the passing cheers coming from Owen as he finished his chores before dinner.
"I knew you'd get him this time, Anakin."
It was a surreal moment, and one Xanatos really hated to spoil. He didn't want to see the wide, enthusiastic grin disappear from Anakin's face. Though it had been a long time, he still remembered how good it felt the first time he got past Qui-Gon's defenses, and recalled that he probably had wore a similar expression. And just as Qui-Gon had kicked his feet out from under him, dropping him unceremoniously to the ground to point out how vulnerable he had left himself, Xanatos knew there was still a lesson left.
"I won, Master," Anakin crowed smugly. "I won."
"I concede, Padawan. You won, but at what cost?"
Anakin furrowed his brows. "What do you mean?"
"Look down." When he heard a quick indrawn breath, he knew Anakin understood the precariousness of his situation. The hilt of Xanatos' saber rested firmly at his abdomen, one flip of the ignition switch all that was standing between life and being impaled.
"I would be dead," Anakin whispered, extinguishing his saber before sinking down to a sitting position in the sand. He hunched over, a scowl replacing the bright smile that had been there moments before. "It's not fair."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Anakin." Xanatos rested a hand on his back. "You fought very well."
"So well that I died," Anakin added sarcastically.
"The Archives is full of accounts of Jedi who fought valiantly, giving their best, and triumphed at the expense of their own lives. My own master included." Xanatos bowed his head. "That is why I would be failing you if I did not point out your weakness and challenge you to grow beyond them. And you would be failing me if you did not do the same. Remember, I had a saber at my throat."
"Yeah, you did," Anakin said, the sides of his mouth lifting in a smile again.
"I think I hear your mother calling. We should both wash up before dinner."
You made a promise … Padawan.
The words still echoed in Ben's mind, haunting him as he ran at Force-enhanced speed through the dense forest, heightened senses the only thing keeping him from plowing into trees as he went. He stopped inches short of the downed transport that had brought him to the planet, hurrying to stuff himself through the view panel of the wrecked cockpit. Though he was in no immediate danger, time was precious and he could nearly see the seconds passing. He fiddled with wires, sending a silent plea to the Force that the transport would cooperate to send one transmission as he cursed his inept skills as a mechanic. Anakin would have had this done in seconds. He nearly sobbed as the control panel danced to life, awakening in a skittering of lights and beeps. Wiping grime and tears from his face in a futile attempt to look presentable, he entered an emergency frequency assured to gain him direct access to the Council.
"Master Yoda," he cried out in childlike eagerness, momentarily forgetting his reserve as the image of the aged Jedi master came into view. He composed himself as Yoda was joined by Master Windu, the rest of the chairs in the chambers empty.
"An emergency you have Young Ben'dek?" Yoda asked. Ben didn't miss the glances to the side, his heart sinking at the thought of who the two masters were looking for.
"We were deceived about the situation here. Our transport was attacked during descent and we were forced down south of the neutral territory. We tried to proceed north on foot, but were ambushed. There were too many of them," he ended in a whisper.
"Where is your master?" Mace asked.
"We were overrun. He ordered me away … and I left him. My master was captured." He thought his heart would bust right through his chest, bile rising in his throat as the reality of what he had done began to sink in. He had left his master's side, abandoning him to the Force knew what fate. His body began to feel numb, and only his determination to reserve some sort of dignity in front of the two Councilors kept him from promptly vomiting. Aware that Master Windu was speaking, he tried to pull his mind back to the present.
"Padawan Itires, proceed to the neutral territory. We will send back-up for you and see that you are brought back to the Temple …"
"No!" he protested immediately. "I'm not leaving the planet."
His eyes widened in disbelief at the thought that he had just yelled at Master Windu.
"Distressed you are … possibly injured," Yoda soothed, as he motioned towards Ben's charred sleeve. "To someone more experienced this situation belongs."
"I won't abandon him again. Now that help is on the way, I am going back for my master," he stated, hoping some of his conviction was apparent despite his trembling voice.
"Obi-Wan would want you to be safe …"
He quickly shut off the transmission, cutting the dark-skinned master off, something he hoped they would later forgive. But, he sensed that those who were pursuing him had caught up, knowing he would return to the downed transport, and it was no longer safe to stay. He picked up his pack, shoving extra ration bars, water packets, and the transport's medkit into the bag before slipping back out the way he entered. The sound of his own breathing and the pounding of his heart was the only sound he heard as he ran as fast as he could until his legs could no longer carry him.
When he sensed he was safely away, he sought out a hiding place. Falling to his knees in a hidden clearing, he tore the pack from his back and opened a water packet, gulping it down greedily. Once his breathing had calmed, he ripped open his sleeve to treat his wound, surveying the damage for the first time.
It was the last thing he remembered from his mentor before their bond went silent, the urgency in a burst through the Force driving him to pivot. The blaster bolt meant to take him down had tagged his arm instead of hitting him squarely in the chest. His master had sacrificed greatly to save his life, and Ben was determined to not let him down. He didn't know exactly where they had taken Obi-Wan, but he could still sense his mentor's presence, and he intended for that to be his guide.
The clanking of dishes and lively chatter rumbled in the background as the Lars family, including Anakin, cleared the dinner table. Xanatos slipped to a chair in the sitting room and pulled a datapad from his bag. There was barely enough room in the kitchen for those there, let alone another body, and he had other things he needed to do.
"What are you doing, Master?" Anakin asked, approaching later.
"I am finishing the report for our last mission." He chuckled as Anakin let out a groan. "I don't like them either, Padawan, but I suppose they are necessary."
"Umh, Master," Anakin began, suddenly concerned. "How complete are you going to make this mission report? I mean, are you going to include … well, you know … that …"
"Am I going to include that you and the governor's son decided to go joyriding in the governor's official speeder after the local curfew?"
"Yeah … that," Anakin said, dropping his head.
Xanatos smiled lightly, giving his apprentice a moment to squirm. "No, I see no need for that to be addressed by the Council, especially seeing as you were already adequately disciplined for your actions."
"Thank you Master," Anakin said, letting out a sigh of relief.
"The governor did write again to thank us for our help in the negotiations. He also mentioned that the vehicles in his entourage have never looked better," Xanatos added, teasingly. He looked around the room, making sure the others in the household were still occupied. "I have something for you."
"What is it?" Anakin asked eagerly as Xanatos pulled a parcel from his bag.
"A gift for your life day."
Anakin tore at the wrapping, pulling it away to reveal soft, dark fabric. He let it fall to its full length, brows drawing together before he looked at Xanatos in question. "Master, it looks like the cloak the Chancellor sent me this year."
"I was very proud of you for sending it back on your own, but I saw the way you looked at it. This one is not quite as fine, but hopefully it is adequate."
"It's perfect. Thank you, Master."
"I should go to the transport and send this report off before it gets any later."
"Do you need me to come?"
"No, I shouldn't be long."
Master and apprentice stood back to back, the amount of blaster fire so dizzying they could only see it through the Force. Obi-Wan pushed back closer to Ben, raising his voice so the younger Jedi could hear.
"We cannot win this battle, Ben. I need you to go."
"Master?" He shook his head in denial. "No, I will not leave you."
"Ben, I need you to call the Temple for back-up and inform them of our situation … and I need to know that you are safe."
"We can run together."
"You need me to cover you or you will not be able to get away."
"You made a promise before I ever took you as my apprentice. You said if I ever ordered you to leave my side, you would obey. You promised me … Padawan."
The last word was spoken with such endearment that he felt his chest begin to burn and a lump rise in his throat. He paused and extinguished his saber, meeting his mentor's eyes one last time before running towards the cover of the forest, hearing a blurred host of voices intermingled with the rapid sounds of blaster fire.
"One of them is getting away!"
"We don't need him. Take him out!"
The last voice he recognized at his master's, a burst through the Force spurring him to move before their bond went silent in a burst of pain. The blaster bolt sizzled into his shoulder as he jogged to the left causing him to stumble and fall forward. He pulled himself up off the ground, chancing one look back. Obi-Wan was lying on the ground with several soldiers closing in on him. Ben reached out, calling on the Force to speed him into the forest.
The chirping of insects was a dull buzz in the background as the sun began to set. Ben lay on the ground, belly pressed against the earth, using a pair of microbinoculars to survey the base his master's presence had led him to. He pulled them away and chewed at his lower lip. This had to be insane. It was something Anakin would do - not him. But, Anakin wasn't here. He was.
He raised the binoculars to his eyes again. According to the mission briefing, the southern faction was poorly organized, lacking established bases. At least their structures were rudimentary. The perimeter fence wouldn't be a problem. He would have to wait a few more hours until he could approach in the cover of absolute darkness.
/Hold on Master. I'm coming./ he called into the still silent bond.
Xanatos entered the cockpit of their transport, touching a panel to illuminate the small space. He sat down in the chair, pulling the chip from his datapad so that he could send the report off to the Council. As he reached out to enter the appropriate frequency, a blinking light caught his eye. They had a message. He pressed the button to receive, wondering who it was from.