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What She's Worth

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“Ben! So glad you made it here safely.”

Ben Solo held his breath as his uncle walked over to pull him into a brief but tight hug. Ben’s shoulders seized. He had always been awkward when it came to human contact, especially when it came from a relative he had barely seen in the last fifteen years of his existence.

“You’ve certainly grown since I saw you last,” Luke Skywalker remarked after he pulled away. “How are your parents?”

“The same,” was all Ben could muster with a shrug. He didn’t really want to get into any small talk. “I’d like to get to my quarters now, Uncle Luke. I’m a little tired from the journey.”

“Of course,” Luke coughed, obviously sensing his nephew’s dismissal. The less he associated himself with his uncle, the better, Ben thought. “But you need to eat first. It’s dinner time after all. Come.”

Ben hoisted what little he brought with him over his shoulder. That he was hungry was unmistakable. He hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, in a silent protest against his mother insisting he start training in his uncle’s academy. Their last conversation had not gone very well, and he dreaded having to talk to her later via the holonet.

He started up the steps with Luke when he noticed something clinging to his uncle’s cloak. “Uhm...Uncle Luke...you’ve got er...behind you...”

“Oh?” Luke stopped and turned, then released a warm, bearded smile as he tugged on his cloak to reveal a human girl, clinging almost desperately at the brown fabric. She was a tiny creature, with expressive brown eyes and dark brown hair that was tied in two buns near the base of a scrawny neck. “She’s one of the newest additions to the academy. Our only resident youngling.”

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“The only youngling?” Ben parroted, his eyes darting towards the girl, who almost immediately hid herself from view again.

Luke scratched his beard absently. “Yes, well, recruiting for the school is not exactly as easy as it was in the old days. Parents don’t usually want to let go of their Force sensitive children. This one here...” he patted the girl on the head, “...she’s the daughter of a good friend. They left her to me for protection.”

His uncle mentioned a few things about the girl, probably her name and some such but all of it went past Ben. He was too hungry to care. “Dinner, Uncle?”

“Right, right.” Luke nodded and led the way up the steps and into the grounds, pointing every which way to indicate locations, directions and a little bit of history about the academy.

Ben nodded, feigning interest. His mother had always told him how proud Luke was about the Jedi Academy. It had always been her brother’s dream, Leia Organa Solo had said, to the point that he had forgone starting a family of his own to dedicate his entire life to this cause: to bring back the Jedi Order so as to help protect the galaxy from future threats.

Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw the youngling, who still clung to Luke’s cloak, trip on a protruding cobble stone.

She started to fall.

Ben didn’t think; just acted as he held out his hand and used the Force to stop her descent. Luke turned around just in time to see him ease the girl back to a standing position without so much as laying a finger on her.

“Well.” Luke’s brows rose in surprise. “Your mother did tell me you were already quite strong in the Force. I just might have to tailor your training to suit your needs.”

Ben cast his eyes down at the compliment. He wasn’t used to receiving them, so he could come up with no response to his uncle’s words.

Instead, he turned his attention to the girl. “You alright?”

She nodded, her eyes wide as she continued to gape at him. “Th-thank...you.”

“Just be careful next time.” Ben couldn’t stop annoyance from creeping in to his voice. He never did like children. Force, he didn’t even like anyone his age. “And stop walking behind Uncle Luke or you’ll trip again. Go walk beside him or something.”

“Ben.” Luke’s tone was rebuking enough that Ben stood up straight as though he had just been whipped. “She’s just a little girl. And she hadn’t had it easy in life so I’d appreciate if you didn’t use that tone of voice with her.”

Ben felt his cheeks flame but said nothing. Luke was clearly protective of the girl. She was hands off. Not that it mattered. All the more reason not to associate with the little thing.

An awkward silence fell upon them as he followed Luke into one of the buildings, the little girl now at his uncle’s side, thankfully hidden away from view due to the latter’s billowing cloak.

Ben closed his eyes. He just wanted this day to be over with, he thought. No more walking, no more talking; just a good meal, a nice bath and a good night’s sleep.

He should’ve known better than to think the day was going to get easier.

“Everyone,” Ben heard his uncle say, and he stopped in his tracks, surprised to find himself standing in front of the mess hall before fifty or so padawans of all manner of species. He hadn’t even realized they had arrived. “I’d like to introduce to you a new student to the academy. His name is Ben Solo, son of war heroes Han Solo and Senator Leia Organa, and my own nephew. Please treat him as though he were your brother.”

If his face hadn’t already been red then, it was now, and Ben wished with all his might he could somehow use the Force to make himself disappear into nothingness. Yet he remained standing there, with a stupid expression he was sure, surrounded by curious stares and now, hushed whispers.

He felt the clap of his uncle’s metallic hand on his stiff shoulder. “Go and have your fill now, my boy. And tomorrow, we discuss your training structure.”

His uncle left then, but his embarrassment from being introduced so publicly didn’t. He would never be Ben Solo, he thought bitterly. He would always just be the descendant of famous figures.

With his shoulders hunched, he trudged towards the counter, where a droid dished out a decent helping of food, which he took quietly to a distant, empty table across the mess hall. The stares and whispers continued to follow him, and shutting them out was near impossible. Not when his senses were so attuned to everything. He could almost hear their thoughts.

Him? A Skywalker?

What a joke!

Look at that dumb face.

I heard his parents are supposed to be good looking. What happened to him?

That’s some honker.

Have you ever seen ears like that?

Maybe he’s part Gungan hahaha!

He looks weak to me.

Probably is. One wrong move, and he looks like he might snap in two!

Ben’s fingers tightened around his tray. His mother was wrong. Being in an academy with fellow Force sensitives was no different than being in his old school. The other students were just as vicious, if not more so because they didn’t fear him for having Force powers.

He set his bag and tray down the table with a loud enough thud to make the whispers stop. He glared at anyone who dared to look. No point in making a good first impression when everyone was ready to hate him just because he happened to be born of a legacy.

Well...not everyone, as it turned out, when he saw at the corner of his eye, a head of brown buns making its way through the aisle and to his table before reaching up to slide her tray of food beside his.

In silence, he watched the youngling girl hoist herself clumsily up the chair, a victorious smile on her face when she managed to successfully seat herself. He’d almost forgotten she was still around.

“What are you doing here?” he muttered, his voice even.

“Eating,” she answered without looking at him and reached out for the utensils. Even with the chair, the table was still much too tall for her, and she had to stretch out her little arms just to grab what she needed.

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“Go eat somewhere else,” Ben grumbled and began to dig into his food. “This table’s too tall for you.”

“But it’s the only free table left.”

Ben stopped to consider the girl before looking across the hall. She was right. Every table was occupied except the one they were sitting on.

He sighed and continued eating. He tried his best to ignore her, but she was making such a ruckus beside him, little arms and hands clashing against bowls and plates that he had to turn to her again, only to find her face and hair decked with food particles.

How he managed to keep a straight face was beyond him. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to eat?”

“Mama and Papa used to spoon feed me,” the girl answered, not without a hint of indignation. “I’m still learning.”

Ben popped a piece of meat in his mouth. “How old are you anyway?”

He was surprised when she held up four, grubby fingers. She was small for sure, but he had expected her to be older, being as articulate as she was. “But I’ll be five very soon.”

He made note of her accent. “You’re from Coruscant, aren’t you?”

She nodded and stuffed a piece of bluish bread in her mouth, crumbs falling all over her tunic.

“And yet you eat like a Hutt,” Ben remarked. The girl didn’t reply, and he found to his surprise and unexpected shame, a few tears glistening in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered forlornly. “I’m still learning.”

He ran a hand across his jet black hair, fingers curling almost painfully at his scalp. He had the sudden urge to scream at himself, and after a moment’s hesitation, reached for a table napkin and began wiping the girl’s face and hair free of food.

“Well then,” he managed in a more gentle voice, “you’re going to need a teacher.”

Ben spent the rest of the meal teaching the girl how to properly use her utensils. Her progress, though evident, was so slow, that by the time they finished eating, all the other padawans had left for their quarters.

“Thanks for teaching me,” the girl declared as she jumped off the chair and patted her tunic free of bread crumbs. “Will you teach me again tomorrow?”

Ben blinked. ‘No’ was the first thing that came to mind. The last thing he needed in this forsaken place was to be forced to interact with anyone, let alone a female youngling. He was about to decline when a flurry of familiar beeps rang through the hall.

He looked up and sure enough, found the cylindrical blue and white droid making its way toward him. “R2?”

R2-D2 released a few more excited beeps and clicks. Ben started to smile but caught himself. “Yes, it’s been a while. Where’s Uncle Luke?”

Another whirr of noises from R2-D2. <Master Luke is in meditation. Sent me to show you your quarters.>

“Oh.” He nodded. He supposed he should be relieved, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling of...disappointment? “Lead the way then.”

“You can understand him?” the girl quipped, struggling to keep up with his pace as he followed R2-D2 along the darkened stone corridors of the academy.

Ben shrugged. “Don’t you?”

“I haven’t learned binary speak yet,” she revealed, then started running backwards to face him, her face bright. “Maybe that’s something you can teach me too—”

He knew it was going to happen even before it did. Once again, she tripped on a protruding cobblestone, and he had to use the Force to stop her from falling on her back.

“I’m starting to think you’re doing that on purpose just so I would save you,” he said as he eased her back on her feet once more. “I told you to be more careful.”

 “Sorry,” she giggled. “But yeah, that was fun.”

“Don’t make a habit of it.” Ben cracked a smile despite himself. “Using the Force should not be done so casually.”

“But if it’s done to save someone, isn’t that good?” the girl pursued.

“Well...yeah.” He scratched at the side of his face. The girl was certainly precocious. “But I wouldn’t have needed to save you if you were more careful.”

R2-D2’s beeping cut through the hallway.

“Alright, alright, I’m coming.” Ben stood straight and followed the droid further until they stopped by one of the metal doors, where R2-D2 promptly directed him to input his biometrics, in particular his hand print.

“Is this your room?”

Ben sighed at the most obvious of questions and turned to face the girl behind him again. It was clear to him now that she was trying to prolong the conversation. “Yes. This is my room.”

“Mine is just seven doors that way, to the right.” She pointed east.

Good, Ben thought. It was a little ways off. Much as he didn’t find their earlier encounter unpleasant, he really wasn’t looking forward to another one. “Okay. You best move along then. Good night.”

“Uhm...good night.” She looked down at her boots. Ben did his best to ignore the flash of disappointment in her eyes. “And thanks again.”

He watched her scurry off until she disappeared at a corner. He breathed out a sigh. So much for that, he thought. It was time to get on to better things. Like surviving the next few years of his exile to this hovel.

And talking to his mother. He shivered a little. He wasn’t looking forward to that, especially with the way they had parted earlier.

After dismissing R2-D2, he shut himself in his quarters, dumped his bag at the side of the bed before lying face down on the mattress. Time to get this over with, he thought, as he took out the holoprojector from his bag and placed it in front of him. A few button presses, and the three-dimensional bluish image of his mother appeared before him.

“I was wondering when you were going to call me,” Leia started, her smile tight across her face. “I take it you’re all settled in. How are your accommodations?”

“Adequate,” Ben answered, though he hadn’t explored his room yet. “There are only a few padawans so everyone gets their own room.”

“That’s good. And how was the trip?”

“Tiring.”

“And have you eaten?”

“Yeah.”

“Was the food good?”

“It was alright.”

Silence. Ben began absently tugging at the corner of his pillow until Leia finally sighed. “You still don’t want to talk to me?”

“I just don’t see why I need to be in this stupid academy,” he muttered, settling his head sideways on the pillow. “I was doing fine.”

“We both know you weren’t Ben,” Leia pointed out, and he grimaced. No point in hiding stuff from his mother. She always knew. “If anything, I should have sent you earlier.” Well, that stung, he thought. “You need more stability and order in your life, and that’s something I’m confident Luke and his teachings can provide. Speaking of which, how is your uncle?”

Ben felt his lip curl up in disdain. “He introduced me to the entire class as the son of war heroes.”

Leia chuckled at that. “Well, Luke has always been proud of you.”

“Proud of me? For what?” he spat. “Being born in to a famous family? It’s not as if I had any choice in the matter.”

“Ben!”

He looked up at the holoprojector with a start. That wasn’t his mother’s voice.

Sure enough, the image of his father, Han Solo, came up on the holo. “You don’t get to use that tone of voice on your mother young man. Now apologize.”

“Well, this is typical.” Ben gritted his teeth. What little control he had over his temper went flying out the window. It almost always did when it came to Han. “You only ever show up in time to scold me for one thing or another. Almost like you have a tracker for every time I mess up or something.”

“Watch your mouth kid,” Han warned. “If I was there, I’d—”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Ben cut in, his tone almost mirroring his father’s. “You’re never around! You weren’t even home earlier to see me off! Did you even stop to think how long it would be before we see each other again?”

“Ben—”

“I’m going to bed. Good night.” Ben practically punched the holoprojector’s button before flinging the device for good measure. It made an awful crunching noise against the stone wall before falling to pieces on the floor.

He started screaming. Yet even as he did, the voices—vicious whispers that have long since accompanied him since childhood—rang loud in his head.

They’re liars, both of them.

You know the real reason why they dumped you here.

Your father is scared of you.

Your mother is scared of you.

They never wanted you and you know it.

They were so much happier until you came along.

AND.YOU. KNOW. IT.

He began throwing things around. Anything he could get his hands on, but the room was sparse enough that by the time he was done, he’d only managed to throw around the pillow, the mattress and his bag. Barely any damage done except on the holoprojector.

After several minutes of catching his breath, he dragged his pillow and mattress back on the bed and settled himself for the night, knowing full well that as with the last five years, sleep would be full of nightmares—of children screaming and bodies falling, of venomous words and burning structures, and the image of one looming spectre, its pale face cut with deep, ghastly scars.

He didn’t know it, but outside his door stood the trembling form of a brown haired, wide-eyed little girl, the screams other than that of Ben Solo’s still ringing in her ears.