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***

Epilogue

-

 

***

 

There's a fault line in you now; a fissure that runs the whole length of your torso.

It changes the geography of you, all your familiar landmarks now sunken into this new landslide of a scar. The black mark Chewie punched out of you is gone, the old skin twisted around the places the new grafts are trying to grow -- same for the place where Rey scored your thigh, Finn your shoulder, back on Starkiller Base. You only know where they were by the weakness in the muscles beneath.

The signature Trel Ren left for you starts low on your hip and arcs through the rest of you, ending at your throat.

It should have severed you in half.

You have no idea how it didn't -- your spine somehow made it out intact. The rest of you wasn't so lucky, but honestly, you're used to this part.

"Was I even using that?" you ask, bleary, when Kalonia spins her holo to show you that this is the third time you've had to regrow a -- what-cha-ma-call-it, shaped like a bean?

(The new lung is amazing, though. The first time you drew in breath, tasting synthetics at the back of your throat, and felt it expand in all the space available, you'd gasped "oh" with such childlike shock that your mother leaned away from you sharply, shading her expression with her hand like it hurt.)

Kalonia warns you, "After a certain age, it becomes much harder for new tissue to integrate with existing systems," but you just smile at her, because you're pretty sure your days of getting blasted and sliced open are over.

They move you out of the medcenter once you're no longer critically close to dying -- you're so accustomed to it by this point that you can tell when your regrowing organs are about to fail and, sighing, try to flag down a med droid. You're put in a room deeper in the compound, without windows and, more importantly, without manacles to hold you in place. The door is pressure-sealed in a way that reminds you of Snoke's exhibits, hermetic and airtight.

No other security measures are taken -- but without the Force, the door alone is enough to dumbfound any escape attempt you would make.

It's not unpleasant; the walls are subterranean, the furniture economical, oft-recycled, the way most everything is in the Resistance. There's a fresher with walls that go opaque on command, a luxury you weren't anticipating. The same console that controls your lighting also gives you access to reading material (Resistance-approved, even!)

It is, you think, the kind of room that could house a prisoner for a very long time.

 

***

 

The Stormtrooper -- Finn -- comes to see you exactly once.

You're sitting on the duracrete floor, cross-legged, when the door opens with no warning and he barrels through it, led by the muzzle of a blaster that crosshairs you instantly.

Jolted, you're poised part-way through rising to your feet, and so you freeze like that.

You stare at the blaster and he stares at you, every feature of his face blunted and still.

For a long moment, neither of you move. The only sound in the room comes from the console by the door; you've programmed it to read aloud with the holo function turned off, an endless queued stream of information to keep you company. The quiet hurts you, otherwise, makes you want to dig at your ears even though you know that's not the problem. This way, you can imagine to yourself that you aren't alone, see, that's just someone's thoughts droning nearby, when really all it is is just a pleasant Coruscantian voice reading off encyclopedic facts about the creation of the Ilthorian xylophone.

There's a click, and the blaster whines, powering down. He drops his arm to his side.

"That didn't feel as satisfying as I thought it would," he confesses.

"Sir," you acknowledge.

"First of all, it's Finn. Call me that or call me nothing at all, got it?"

Slowly, you sink back onto the floor, and look up at your Supreme Leader's killer.

You are, the way you've been every single time thusfar, thrown by the lack of noise coming off of him. To see someone without immediately having a sense of what they're feeling, worried about, plan to do -- it's like seeing someone headless. It takes you a beat to remember the defect is with you, not him. He's the same, alive, wonderfully alive -- you're the one irrevocably changed.

As you watch, Finn rocks his weight, visibly wrestling with some emotion, and then he grabs the room's only chair, dragging it over to you and swinging it around.

You half-expected him to be wearing brown robes, his hair shaved down to the scalp, but he isn't -- when he sits, though, you spot the empty clip on his belt where a lightsaber would hang.

There have to be other lightsabers in the universe. If the Supreme Leader could find Sith relics for his Knights, Luke Skywalker could find something for his apprentices. Yours and Trel Ren's would be serviceable, you imagine, if they could replace the crystals.

But that's the problem, isn't it? That's what everybody's been trying to find.

You wonder if he and Rey share hers.

"Okay," he says to you, before the thought can make you smile. "Talk."

"About?" you ask, and he scowls.

"What do you think?" He squares his shoulders at you, and starts gesturing with his blaster. "We're not keeping you around for your dazzling personality, man. We want your information. You are only here so you can give us it, you don't get to stay rent-free. You want to buy your life back from us -- want to stay out of an airlock? -- then you better start -- oh for the love of -- why -- why are you smiling?"

Quickly, you put your fingers to your lips, pushing down, trying to suppress the helpless motion of them.

You don't need the Force to know what Finn is thinking -- it's all over his face, every emotion writ large. It's like returning to somewhere you've been before, and suddenly recognizing the landscape inside the changed bones of it. Here is bravado. Here is genuine bravery. Here is the love that drove one small lifeform in a vast universe to blast a crater in the Dark Side.

You lower your hands, saying, "Congratulations."

His forehead bunches up with confusion. When you were working for Ezra Bridger in the capital, you used to ask pointed questions just to see if you could catch people at an incriminating thought, and under Snoke, that became -- well, "information retrieval." Finn doesn't share your talent, clearly; if this is to be an interrogation, so far he's given you more information than you've given him.

His leadership position -- commander? Admiral? You'll have to ask -- and what he is to Rey.

"Oh," he says, nonplussed, and, "thanks," which just makes him scowl harder, disgusted with himself.

Before he can threaten you anymore, you say, "The Stormtrooper Academy on MISTA002 needs to be dismantled, down to the very stones. The breeding regimens need to stop."

"I agree," Finn says, hopping onto this track immediately. "How do you propose we do that? It's deeply ingrained in us, you know. I don't suppose you have a useful suggestion --"

"Of course I do," you say. "I spent twelve years overseeing the THAIN system."

His eyebrows make a dubious shape. "You? Bullshit."

You're a thug, his face tells you.

"Yes, me. Where did you think I was? I wasn't hunting Luke Skywalker the whole time I worked for the First Order. Twelve years with no result would have been inefficient," and his mouth pulls, acknowledging. "No, I was busy. Here, there's an organization on THAIN001 that will help you; we established it to help rehabilitate Stormtroopers deemed unsuitable for service, but it takes retraining to move valuable assets into civilian life. If you can get them to MISTA, they'll assist with demolishing --"

And that's how you start.

After a minute or two of parrying everything you say with questions designed to annoy you and trip you up, Finn says, "okay, you're serious," and swaps his blaster for a holopad.

The both of you stay like that for hours. You walk him through the beginning -- the foundation of propaganda and fear, the lure of amenity and routine, the structure on which the First Order grew its population. Finn asks for elaboration in some places and doesn't need it in others; he knows better than you some of the details of First Order life, but the only time he got to see how the average civilian lived would have been when something had gone really wrong.

You expect him to call a break, to go eat or sleep, but he just looks at you funny when you suggest it.

"Why," he says, "you got somewhere to be?"

You sit back down.

Questions of your own collect like grit in the back of your mouth. You want to ask -- what happened to General Hux? Was he captured? Or is he still out there, free of you and Snoke, ready to find someone new to be the antagonist in his glorious story?

The little girl on THAIN005, Ein -- did her face scar? Or did your people do their jobs better on her than they did on you?

Did your governors put more settlers in Coverleaf the way you told them to? Or did the Resistance's attack disrupt everything?

Speaking of the invasion -- how's everybody handling that? The thought that there could be a blockade grinding THAIN to a standstill makes your stomach hurt. Who's suffering most? Who's helping them?

What happened to your worlds?

You have no idea where the campaign stands; in the medcenter, you'd overheard things, conversations between neighboring prisoner-patients, officers who came and knelt down at your mother's side when they thought you were asleep. You're aware, vaguely, that there's a fledgling coalition growing from the empty stump of the New Republic -- it's not a stable government yet, but it'd taken a long time, too, for the Galactic Council to form the New Republic in the wake of the Empire's demise. Your parents always joked that it was easy to remember when the Inaugural Address was compared to the Battle of Endor; one was your birthday, the other your birthday minus nine months.

You focus on Finn again.

What's he going to do to your worlds, once they're his?

It's a sudden, hideous impulse, to scoot close to him and say, If you want to be in charge, now's the time to push for it. You could, you know.

You killed the Supreme Leader. You eradicated his Knights of Ren. You could take whatever position you wanted.

You know the only way it'll get done right is to do it yourself.

Rey would rule beside you. You know she would. She wants it fixed as badly as you do.

You watch him flick another note into a folder on his holopad, and imagine him an Emperor.

It would be so easy.

You open your mouth.

"Did you ever watch Ace's Adventures?" is what comes out.

Finn darts you a perturbed look. "You're kidding. Don't tell me the masked monsters watched the holodramas when they weren't out torturing people?"

"I liked the romance serial," you deadpan. "The Moors."

He eyes you sidelong for a beat, then says, "Okay, but what they did to Llynn'ook at the end of season one was a tragedy."

A startled laugh wings itself right out of your throat.

Finn snorts, unimpressed, and shakes his head. In an undertone, he mutters, "Did I watch Ace's Adventures, the man asks. Of course I did, I've got a beating heart, don't I? Why do you ask?"

"I knew the woman who wrote it," you say. It was one of the last things she ever worked on, staying up late and testing dialogue on you in that deep-space storage room. It didn't air until after she betrayed the Supreme Leader, and you'd been worried that Snoke would axe it as a contaminated growth, just for being Dhara's, but the very best she had to offer seemed saved for last.

Everybody wanted to be like Ace, who was so earnest, so real, whose moments of comedic incomprehension made the moments of stunning bravery all the more powerful.

You made the case to Snoke; Ace stands up in the face of opposition. Ace says, "not today."

It was cheaper and more efficient than any programming. No one, you told him, was going to let the Resistance just walk in and take a First Order world, because that's not what Ace would do.

So the holodrama stayed. But Dhara Leonis had written Ace's Adventures for her brother. She'd written it for the Finns she never got to meet. She couldn't reach everyone, but she could remind them in this one small way how great they were, how much they care, and then they would never forget themselves. That was the opposite of what Snoke wanted.

You tell Finn, "She would have recognized the Ace in you in a heartbeat."

"That's weird, please don't say that again," Finn responds, definitely not trusting that you could mean that as a compliment, but when you look away, he smiles to himself, quick.

Several minutes later, when you're definitely not drowsing with your back against your cot while Finn scrolls back through his notes, (you are absolutely drowsing,) he speaks up again.

"Oh, hey," and snaps his fingernail against his holopad. "Whack-a-Snoke wasn't into cloning, was he?"

Whack-a … you mouth, baffled, then make the connection: right, right, those practice droids. The ones Uncle Luke used in lightsaber training, that you had to hit blindfolded while they tried to zap you. Whack-a-droids. Hovering spheres. You get it.

You sit up, scrubbing at your face to get the itchiness out of your eyes.

"Uh," you say. "If we're still talking First Order citizens, no. Maybe with his creatures, perhaps, but …"

"Oh, okay. You said he liked collecting things. I just want to make sure we're not going to run into any replicas of your creepy Knights skulking around. Or you."

Ah, there it is.

"A clone of me?" you say, mouth quirking at the idea. "Hardly. That'd be a waste of First Order resources. I'm half-Han Solo, remember? I was only worth keeping if my undesirable traits could be bred out. He planned on it, but my partner was too smart for that."

"Oh, good," Finn says, nodding. His jaw shunts, and he worries at the inside of his cheek.

You can tell he wants to ask, but doesn't want to be the one who makes it weird by saying it out loud.

For most First Order citizens, regulated breeding mostly just meant signing over genetic material to a growth center and returning nine months later for an infant. You and Dhara had discussed, once, what to do if Snoke made you take that route, but Snoke saw only your capability and thought that was enough. Preference didn't occur to him, your own or hers.

Sex involves way too many naked, flexing butts for you to take it seriously -- evolution getting the last laugh, you suppose. You never did grow out of the impulse to giggle at it.

Feeling more amused by the minute, you tell him, "We played sabacc, mostly," and his shoulders hike up, caught. "We had a deck of those holocards that would yell curse words at your opponent every time you made a play, except they were cartoonish, so the curses were silly -- oh, what did they have on them? Nerfs --"

"-- wearing those funny bowties?" he finishes, eyebrows jumping. "We had that exact same pack in my squad."

You show teeth. "Did you ever have those cards that would wind down over time, so that you'd play some of them and they'd sound regular, but others would be," you deepen your voice to its lowest possible register, "outplay this, you space melt!"

"No ... we didn't have that problem, but we did have a suit card that had a broken volume chip."

You immediately know where that's going. "No."

"Yeah," he insists, and as he continues with the story (a cadet's tendency towards flatulence when nervous comes into play when trying to hoodwink a suspicious supervisor,) you think about telling him how, stamped to the underside of Captain Phasma's devotion to the Order, there existed a thought that floated belly-side up where you could see it in extreme moments. She found herself wondering, If FN-2187 were here, what would he do? The same way you've heard, so many times, what would Ace do? Ace wouldn't stand for this. Ace would say "not today."

Oppression, not opposition. Ace would look at oppression and say, not today.

Be more like Ace. Be more like Finn, you tell yourself, and draw your shoulders up straight. It pulls your new scar taut -- Finn's eyes move to it, where it cuts your throat above the collar of your shirt.

At one point, you look up to find him watching you, brows knitted together. "What," you say.

"I thought you were exaggerating when you said you ran THAIN. But you did, you really did. The whole thing."

"Yes?" you say, wondering if this is a trick question.

"And his Supreme Bouncy-ball told you that was just mediocre?" He whistles, low. "And just when I thought you all couldn't get more disturbing. Anyway, you were saying --?"

You open your mouth, then close it again.

You're not sure, but you think he might have just said something nice about you. Maybe? The Force can't tell you, but then again, if almost every other lifeform in the galaxy has to figure this out on their own, then so should you.

The THAIN system didn't care how much you resembled Darth Vader. It didn't assess your value based on your skills with the Force. All you wanted, every day, was to make sure that the people there wanted for nothing.

People like your reconstructionist and his husband Zare, people like their children, like Ein -- they deserved better than the New Republic.

But they also deserve better than the First Order, than you.

So you give the Resistance everything.

And when you've given the Resistance everything, you reach into that fissure that fractures you right down the middle and you give them more.

No. Finn. You give Finn more. If he asks -- if he interrogates -- if he reaches -- you'll give it.

You swear it, with the entirety of your newly-regrown heart.

 

***

 

When you have exhausted everything you think is most important, he stands and looks at you for a long, considering moment. If he had robes, you imagine he'd tuck his hands into the sleeves.

Then he turns toward the door and it flies right out of your mouth.

"Did --" and you clamp your teeth down over it, but it's too late.

Finn pauses.

He glances back at you. You've been grinding your questions down with your back teeth, keeping them to yourself, and now he knows that you want something. Desperately. Fine. That's an interrogator's job.

You swallow. "Did my ship -- did Captain Phasma and her crew survive the siege?"

An interesting number of things flicker across his face. Fear, worn smooth -- is Phasma still a fixture in his nightmares, then? And something that's almost smug; there's a part of him that wants to withhold the answer, to make you beg, to remind you that you can't take anything at all, in your state.

But that's not what Finn does. He says, "Yes," and your shoulders drop, relieved.

You pull in a breath to speak, then hesitate. He tilts his head curiously.

You don't know if this is your place, if this is welcome, if you're even the right person to say this -- you, the father-killer.

No, that doesn't matter. What matters is this:

"There's a man," you tell him, firmly. "Who would have been on that crew. A reconstruction-grade medic. He would be … he'd be very pleased to see you again, I think. He's spent a long time missing you."

Finn frowns. And then, suddenly --

His eyebrows spring apart, expression smoothing over. He knows what you're telling him.

He opens his mouth, then closes it. He blinks fast.

Then he offers in return, "We found the children," and your head comes up. "The, uh, the not-clones. Snoke had them at that stronghold. Three of them."

And he doesn't elaborate, but he doesn't need to. You can picture it exactly; Snoke trying to grow his Knights' offspring the way one does certain kinds of flowers, in a sealed enclosure with the right amount of light and the right amount of nutrition but not much else.

"Where are they now?"

Suspicion snaps his eyebrows back together, but you watch him dismiss it just as quick. There are a hundred and one Resistance officers between you and them, in case you had any ideas. "With Luke."

"Good."

Five new apprentices for your uncle. Three from MISTA001, and Captain Syndullah's two children, the ones you failed to retrieve over two years ago on that gaudy tourist world. It's a place to start, anyway.

You look up.

The Jedi looks back down at you.

He nods once, and you nod back, slowly. May the Force be with you, you think, quiet.

Then Finn leaves, walking straight into his future, and he does not come back.

 

***

 

You wait. You heal.

Your grafts go raw, pink and newish, and then scar over. Doctor Kalonia comes through and gives you physical exercises to do that will retrain your injured muscles. You try to read her expressions for practice, but the set to her face is unfathomable to you, a mystery you keep squinting at. When she catches you at it, she says, "All right, my patchwork patient, you need to blink, too," and wryness makes her voice creak.

So you do your exercises. You watch the door. The fake neighbor you created as a crutch is a boring person, but you're learning a lot about opera. The Kingdom of Aandir apparently did something revolutionary to the form three centuries ago; they're still talking about it.

You wake in the middle of the night and for a moment, you have no idea what woke you.

You'd been dreaming -- of you and Snoke on the library steps, you still small in Resistance colors and telling him about the way thunderheads built on the Lothal prairie while you were there, and Snoke said --

Are you not happy, Kylo Ren?

And, your parents would have kept you where they could always watch you. They waited your whole life for you to do something horrible, with a power like yours, but with me you've seen the galaxy and all its wonders.

And, why would you betray me?

And --

Then you weren't asleep anymore. The room's dark, and quiet -- not even the console makes sound. You lie still, and breathe.

Then a figure steps away from the wall.

The motion activates the lights, which sears haloes out of your unsuspecting eyes. You hiss, shocked, and bury your face in your elbow. Footsteps approach, and you flip over, squinting.

Rey looms over you, her arms folded.

It's the first time you've seen her since the fight on MISTA001, and as your eyes adjust, you steal urgent looks at her. Is she okay? Last you saw her, you had no concept of her physical condition -- she was made of pillars of Light, standing together with Finn and holding the Force up as the Dark Side crumbled all around, and that was all you could see.

But she's fine. Angry Queenie face. Limbs in mostly the right places, none of them missing. Jedi robes, cut and wrapped around to make room for a dozen pockets, and a familiar black vest pulled on over it. Grease on her face, a wet-fur smell on her, which, whatever, everybody starts smelling that way after considerable time spent in enclosed spaces with Chewie; she hasn't been to a fresher since she arrived from wherever she's been. Her lightsaber hangs at her hip.

You glance at it, and realize with a jolt that you lost your grandfather's mask with the Finalizer. That lightsaber is the only thing of Anakin Skywalker's left.

"Do you miss him?" she fires at you, sudden and near-accusing. "Snoke?"

And now you know what woke you: a Force-presence in your head too strong to go undetected, rummaging through your dreams for something valuable.

You push yourself upright, dragging your groggy body behind you.

"Do you miss Ankor Platt?" you hand back to her, and her nose wrinkles.

"Not on your life," she says, but you're already shaking your head, knowing that was the --

"-- wrong comparison," and you shove your hair out of your face, considering.

"Do you miss the doll?" you ask instead. "Do you miss the dried flowers and the helmet you talked to at night? Do you miss --"

"Stop," she says shortly.

"That's what Snoke was to me. He was the comfort I allowed myself after everything else had been done." And the rest of it -- the shame, the constant trembling sensation of knowingly doing wrong that you ignored and ignored and ignored -- now that you're on the other side of it, it seems impossible you ever could have fallen for it. Is this what it was like for everybody else, looking in on you? "I knew what he was. But I thought he was the only choice I could choose. So, yes. I miss him. Happy?"

She's still standing over you, close enough to cut you down, forcing you to crane your neck to meet her.

She balls her words up and drops them on you. "If he were alive, would you still be with him? Is that the only reason you're here -- because he wasn't an option?"

"I'm here because it's the right place to be," you say without hesitation.

Then you think about it.

"Actually, I'm here because you brought me here and then locked me up. Wasn't I dead during transport? It's hard to argue when you're dead." Crap, you're not awake enough for this. "Thanks, though. For bringing me -- here."

Home.

Isn't that what Ein said? Home is the right place to be. Wherever, whoever that is.

"Wasn't my idea," Rey tells you flatly, but you've got thirty years of experience backing you up on this one, and you're pretty sure that face is a lying face.

She tilts her head, and the two of you regard each other for a long moment. Then she reaches into a pouch hanging off her belt and emerges with -- a pyramidal puzzle box, small and black and etched in faint silver designs. It looks -- cold, in her hand, easily the coldest thing in the room.

"Ah," you say.

She extends it to you, expressionless. "I need the override of a Knight of Ren."

You take it from her. As your fingertips close around it, it lets out a faint chime.

Obediently, you bend your head and speak your override. Then you swallow. You look up, and hold it out to her.

"Is it open?" she frowns.

"No. You can only open it by using the Force."

"Oh," she says, and looks at your hands. A peculiar kind of embarrassment flinches across her face, like the tactlessness of her request just dawned on her. You wonder how long she's been able to do that -- to reach into a person and just cauterize them -- or did she learn it just for you? Does the Force still flow through you, or are you a dead thing to it, meat that walks and talks still?

She reaches out, covering your hand with both of hers, and you tell her, "Push down on all sides of the box at once."

A moment later, the etched-on pattern shimmers like a creature waking from sleep, and the pyramid unfolds, flattening out into a --

"That's a key," says Rey with immediate recognition. And to you, "To what?"

You're pretty sure this one belonged to Cora Ren, and if there was any Knight who picked up the Supreme Leader's collecting habit, it was him -- weapons, mostly. Prisoners, sometimes. You're not sure what happened to them after he died.

You give her the most likely locations, and when she hurries out, you think, quiet, May the Force be with you.

 

***

 

Sleep, in the medcenter, had been an infrequent, easily-interrupted thing. Either there would be too much noise -- another prisoner-patient going critical or someone trying (fruitlessly) to pick a fight with Doctor Kalonia's assistant, a frustratingly pacifist Pantoran -- or not enough noise -- where you'd jolt out of a dead sleep, unused to the silence and utterly convinced you were the last person alive in this system, that they'd brought you back to life just to leave you alone with all your dead.

But no. You'd wake, and find your mother sitting by your bed, cheek propped onto her fist; occasionally asleep, most of the time not. Or her eyes would pop open just as yours did, attuned to you in the Force in a way you're locked out of, now.

You'd look for her first, as automatic as a cold hand reaching for something warm, and that lost feeling would ease. If your mother's here, you know exactly where in the universe you are, every time.

You don't say a lot, the two of you -- the sheer multitude of things that need to be said overwhelms the both of you, you think, and winds up paralyzing you into saying nothing at all. You stretch your hand to the end of its tether, awkward around the railing and the manacle, and your mother would put her hand in yours ("regrown?" she says, frowning up at Kalonia's calm expression, "what do you mean, regrown -- what happened to your hand?" And you swallow, saying quickly, "Poe Dameron blasted it off -- it was a good shot, I was very impressed," and that's a conversation that dead-ends fast,) and just holding on to each other becomes a kind of communication in its own right.

The first time they try you on your feet, your guts mostly rearranged to their correct places inside of you, you get to see something strange happen to your mother's face as you stand.

Her eyes follow you up, up, up, and it occurs to both of you at the same time that this is the first time she's seen you in …

Your heart contracts, painfully.

"You're tall," she murmurs, confirming this, a horrible airless grief happening to her face. "When did you get to be so tall?"

You put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"It's a perk of the Dark Side," you joke, very badly, and the fragile look vanishes, replaced by one of the most familiar expressions of your entire life: the "a Solo opened his mouth and something exceptionally stupid came out" face.

It scrapes out of her, dry, "And that would make me the Dark Side's greatest enemy, I presume," and all of your newborn insides cramp in protest when you laugh.

The last you see her, it's when they move you to your new holding cell -- room -- whatever, and she stops you outside the door and warns you, "I'm going off world for awhile," and you understand, immediately, that every moment she's spent with you is a moment carved out of somebody else's crisis.

You move, and your arms go around her head, careful not to catch her hair on your tied wrists. She holds you by the sides and pulls you into her hug just as much as you're pulling her into yours, and you duck your head against the top of hers and hold on for as long as you dare. With your eyes closed, it's easy to ignore the Resistance officers at the end of the hall, the muzzles of the blasters trained on you, the way they all but tremble with protectiveness.

You wish your mother luck. You go inside. It seals behind you.

 

***

 

You wait. You watch the door, but your uncle never comes.

 

***

 

The months knit themselves together, becoming difficult to distinguish from one another. Your hair grows out, long enough to braid into short strands again. It's been years since you've done this -- you had to shave it all off when you became Luke's apprentice, and then you spent fifteen years muzzled -- but your fingers remember. You have nothing to pin them in place with, though, so the ends go awry.

You braid your hair until it unravels again. You do your physical exercises.

You don't know what you're expecting, but you keep waiting because you don't know how to stop.

You're prepared. If anybody comes for you, you are ready.

Deciding to no longer be a coward isn't something you get to decide once, just once, just long enough to put yourself in front of a killing blow meant for Finn.

No, you have to decide it every day with every decision, and that's what you mean to do.

But nobody comes.

You learn -- for someone who spent their life as a satellite, picking up other people's emotions so strongly it rewrote you, whether it was Moona's grief or your parents, in love, or the whole host of First Order colonists swallowing hope and fear simultaneously, you find that it's just as easy to be a slave to your own emotions as it was to be controlled by other's. Disappointment, for instance, is a weight around your neck.

These moods come and go with the inevitability of solar functions -- you can't fend them off, you just have to experience them.

You spend a whole day once formlessly terrified that your mother is going to die. That day, specifically. Because you aren't there to protect her. When you were ten, House Yendo sent an assassin to kill her -- for business reasons, supposedly, but probably just out of pure annoyance with your father -- but you were quicker that day. Three times, you were quicker than someone who wanted your mother dead, and rationally, you're aware that she could have been killed at any point in the fifteen years you weren't there, so it does you no good to start worrying now, but it doesn't stop the awfulness of the thought from pulling at your stomach like it wants to make ribbons of it.

You became the creature that needed to be outmaneuvered in the end, didn't you? Called it Kylo Ren.

But Dhara Leonis was quicker than you when you tried to kill Rey on Takodana. Rey was quicker than you on Starkiller Base. There will always be someone.

Another day, you wake up with this pulped feeling in your chest, listening to the console tell you about the contribution of a Hosnian native to the ecological preservation of a certain kind of snow lichen on Hoth. It moves over you slowly, with tectonic weight, the realization that there won't be any more Hosnian contributions to any field. Because of the First Order. Because of you.

Thoughts you've dismissed before -- here they are, all of them, these growths waiting for a moment like this to swell in you, to choke you out.

Remorse makes a mess of your whole body.

After while, you stop getting up.

Your hair knots. Your clothes start to stick to you, and scratching at yourself stops being worth the effort. You eat no more than your assigned ration, and you don't speak to anyone, not your nonexistent neighbor who's currently really into snow lichen, not even yourself.

You've never had to exist like this, without a hundred other people in your head to keep you company.

It turns out that you're a terrible person to spend time with. You, the murderer, and now here you are, trapped with yourself every hour of the day.

You haven't had a visitor in weeks.

Faintly, you marvel at yourself, this creature in your skin; its nails growing past the rim, its eyes crusted with muck. You start to think that this will be it.

Well, Ben, you say, after waking up to find yourself on the duracrete because it feels momentarily better than your cot. It's a sudden moment of clarity: this is you at rock bottom. If this is going to be your whole existence from now on, what do you want?

You unglue your mouth, fight the weight of your jaw. "I want to serve the Light," you tell the rust gathered where the cot's legs meet the floor.

With every fiber of your being, you want the Light.

The Light? Even the violence that comes, Ben, when you're standing naked and ashamed of all the things you did in the Dark, there in the middle of it?

"Even that."

But you can't use the Force. It's gone. It's gone, it's --

-- gone, and you're grieving, aching for this thing that hurt you, but --

"How am I supposed to serve the Light if I can't feel it?"

And it comes to you then, in your state not-awake, not-asleep, every sensation muddled except for this: the feeling of a hand on your forehead, the kind sad face with all your curly hair.

Same as everyone else does, you imagine your grandmother saying. You do your best. That's what Han Solo did, every day of your life.

You peel your eyes open.

You feel disgustingly newborn. You feel so tired your bones bend. You put your hands beneath you and look the truth in the face:

You will never be a Jedi --

-- like your father before you.

That master is dead, and now you, the apprentice, will take what he taught you and become the master.

You get up.

Okay, Ben.

What's the gravity like? (Crushing.)

You get up.

What does the air taste like? (Stale.)

(No. Recycled.)

You get up.

This is a planet you've never been to. This is your world, your brand-new world. How do you make the most of it?

You get up.

 

***

 

Here you are, all of your organic parts.

Oh, the mess they make. The guilt, horror, love. This is the truth of you, through and through and through.

You let Snoke build you the way he wanted to, filling in your blown-apart self with gel and wires and splints, artificial structures to replace what was firebombed out of you. But they were always undersized, ill-fitting, waiting to be replaced. Someone always knew where to aim.

 

***

 

When Rey returns, she takes one look at the creative architecture you've made of your head and says, "No."

Then she reaches up, pulling her topknot out and saying, "Here, there's a trick, watch what I'm doing," and she loops her hair around itself, showing you how to pull it out of your face and keep it there without a tie or a pin. When you try it, it feels loose, like it shouldn't work at all, but then you give your head a shake and it stays.

"Yeah," she agrees at the look on your face.

Folding herself down on the duracrete across from you, she copies your pose, meditation-style.

You extend a hand towards her, expectant -- has she found another key? What does she need from you? How can you help?

But she only shakes her head, and you let your hand fall.

Have MISTA's secrets been entirely pillaged, then? You sit up straight. What about THAIN? How are your worlds? How --

Pain lances through your head, right behind your eyes, and you suck in a startled, hurt breath.

"Hey," you protest, pinching the bridge of your nose to stave off the sensation and glaring at her between your fingers. "Is there something I can help you find?"

Unrepentant, she shuffles the … whatever she was looking at off to the side, and pulls at something else inside your head -- more gently, this time, her hand lifted toward you in vague apology and her brow creased with concentration.

"Checking for damage," she says.

Ah, you think, and drop your hand to your lap.

"You did fine," you tell her, quiet. "Complete success. There's no one in my head but me."

The look she cuts you is keen, knowing. "How's that working out for you?"

Your laugh, helpless as it is, sounds hysterical even to your own ears, and Rey's mouth quirks.

"Thought so."

And maybe you can't read her thoughts the way she's clearly got a grasp on yours, but it turns out that some faces say the same thing every time. She tamps down on the expression, quick.

You lean towards her, so that she has no choice but to look you in the face.

"I don't resent it," you tell her, adamant. "I don't resent you for taking it. You've made no enemy of me, Rey."

Defiantly, she lifts her chin. "You'll never use the Force again," she says in challenge.

"Good," you flash back. "I was terrible at it."

You're not sure who's more surprised by the laugh that flies out of her mouth, her or you.

"Seriously," you insist, your mouth twitching. "You were there."

"Unfortunately."

Mediocre, Snoke had called it, sneeringly, until it didn't matter what you weren't mediocre at, all you could see was how you were failing your master, and now it's gone. Rey cut your Force-sense right out of you when she saved your life -- she did it to protect herself and her people, you know that, because how could they know what you would wake up like? With your fangs knocked out, they could sleep safe, and you --

You have the one thing you always wanted.

You're free of it.

There is no pain at the front of your skull. Everything else -- even the worry that the Resistance will leave you to rot in this room, because you can't imagine you're any use to them if you can't use the Force -- matters very little, in comparison. Commander Bridger did all right after his Force-sense was neutralized, didn't he? You'll be fine.

Rey tilts her head. You wonder how much of this she's picking up.

As soon as you think it, she refolds her legs, absently brushing grit off her robes.

"When Finn and I were new here," she starts, more addressing the backs of her hands than you. "We were worried that everyone would be too suspicious to allow us to contribute -- and how could we possibly stay if we weren't being useful -- more useful, in fact, because we had to make up for where we came from. Yeah, I know," she says at the expression that has to be on your face, because you know the Resistance, but, "-- we didn't, not then. It was a legitimate fear, we thought. And Leia took us aside."

She looks at you, to make sure you're listening.

"I think she'd meant to tell you, but never got the chance -- the way she said it, it had a practiced feeling, like she'd rehearsed it a lot. She told us, no child should ever think they'll only be loved so long as they continue to impress."

You drop your eyes.

You want, very much, to see your mother again. You have a hundred and one apologies you need to make.

When is she coming back?

"I don't know," says Rey, and she rises. "There's a lot going on."

You're not sure what to say. "Thank you," and, "I'm sorry for what I did to you," while true, would probably put you one step closer to earning a few new cauterized holes, but you've got to say something.

You open your mouth, but whatever she senses, she cuts you off first.

"Thank you," she says, and you're so surprised that you gulp your words back, fishily.

You manage, "Um," and try to unravel your last couple of encounters backwards, wondering what she might be thanking you for. Finn, maybe? You spent most of the fight at Snoke's conservatory unconscious -- not very heroic -- and after that, you killed your apprentice so that Finn could live. Neither of those require thanks.

"For coming after me. For coming back, kind of," and oh, right. The loneliness that had defined her for as long as your fear has defined you. Her voice goes hard, "You taught me some things are worth waiting for, and some definitely aren't."

You can't help it: your smile picks up your whole face.

Content to have the last word, she spins and heads for the door.

"I told you you needed a teacher!" you toss at her back, and are rewarded with the most disgusted noise you've ever heard her make, and you've probably heard the full chorus of them by now.

Well. Maybe. If there are more, you look forward to hearing them.

 

***

 

But --

You've forgotten.

This is your mother you're talking about. She never wastes anything -- she is efficient, she is wise, you think, but that's a mean thought, and not a fair comparison -- and if there's a way to apply you, she'll find it.

She comes to you, in a worn cargo jacket with raindrops standing in her hair, and you're on your feet almost before she's through the door. She makes a faint noise when your arms go around her, but then she leans her weight against you, just fractionally, her head lining up with the top of your scar, and your heart goes heavy, swollen, full.

She pulls away, and her mouth makes a skeptical shape when she spots your hair, but, visibly, she decides not to comment.

"I have a favor to ask," she says, pulling you over to the cot to sit. "If you're willing --"

"I am," you say at once, and it earns you a smile.

"I'd hoped so. We took the last planet in the THAIN system last night."

Your body jerks with shock. You had no idea the campaign was at that point. You haven't had any news at all, and your hands tighten over hers as you lean towards her, a nautillion caught in a storm, aching to be struck with lightning, with anything.

"There's a committee to discuss what to do with it at first call tomorrow, as soon as Captain Syndullah's back from the front." She smiles at you sidelong, rueful. "We're finding it harder to liberate than we thought."

You nod, unsurprised. Programming didn't stick to people like Finn, was deliberately undermined by people like Dhara, and others like Phasma eventually broke through it, but the average First Order citizen only knew the Resistance to be the enemy, and had no good reason to ever question it. "There will still be those who will work with you," you say stoutly, despite this. "You have access to the main data systems on THAIN001, correct? There's an algorithm for that --" you'd used yourself as the baseline, back then only eighteen years old; too sympathetic to the First Order to work for the Resistance, too sympathetic to the Resistance to work for the First Order. An individual who matched your level of partiality on the test was a problem.

"And even then," you're talking really fast. "There were those -- in, in the labor colonies especially -- who were willing to defect as soon as they heard about the -- the Hosnian system. That we could do that and call it good shook their faith --"

"-- and a number are so loyal they'll fight us in spite of it," your mother interrupts you gently.

You swallow. Right, right, she didn't ask. If you were a holoprojection, this would be the glitch in your cells, the place to which every eye is drawn; your eagerness to please.

"The point, Ben, is that until we have a volunteer from the population itself, there's no one sitting in this committee to speak on THAIN's behalf. Rey and Finn both brought up your name."

You blink once, then twice.

You can't believe what you're hearing.

"You … you want me to represent THAIN? To your people -- to your councilmen?"

"If you don't think --"

"No!" you clutch her fingers. "That's -- !"

There's nothing you could possibly want more. You could learn what's happening. You could get out of this room. You could talk to … well, you could talk to a lot of different people who want you dead in a lot of different ways, but you could talk to people as people, face-to-face, without their minds broadcasting everything from their opinion on lunch to their worries about their pets.

You could talk to people who have been to THAIN, who've seen the waterfalls on THAIN001 and the purple chlorophyll on THAIN005 and talked to the carbon farmers on THAIN002. Your mother must be concerned they're going to carve THAIN up between the victors, if she's going to such lengths to get someone in this committee to defend it.

Would you get the chance to go back? To … to see them for yourself? To --

No.

You slam right up against that mental wall.

No, what are you thinking.

You're a prisoner and you still need to be put on trial, as soon as there's a stable galactic government capable of making you stand for it. You have no illusions that you're going to survive that.

"What happens to THAIN if I'm executed before you get a volunteer?"

Your mother makes a "tsk" between her teeth and says instantly, "You're not going to be executed."

You start to smile, because it genuinely touches you that your mother thinks you stand a chance, your life on the scales of galactic wrath, except it catches. There's something in her tone -- you thin your eyes.

She sounds like she's been promised.

She pulls her hand from yours, picking at the side of her finger so as not to look at you; you both study them, her knuckles swollen from the passing storm, her nails trimmed to the quick, her wedding ring with its elaborate golden twists of metal and the two blue planets, connected.

"Mom …" you say.

She takes a deep breath. "There's going to be a hearing. It's not scheduled for months yet -- there's too much to do in the meantime. The hearing will decide if your case will go to trail when the courts open."

You stare at the side of her face. "And … ?"

"And Luke said he will stand as your defender. He'll get them to spare your life -- if there's anyone who can," and she does look at you then, like she must sense what's happening, all the way through you. "He plans to convince them it isn't necessary to send you to trail, beyond making a spectacle of you. For someone like us, removing your connection to the Force is the worst punishment imaginable, and it would be much more rewarding for them to make you live with it." Her mouth pulls at the corner. "So pretend like you're miserable about it, okay?"

You think maybe your uncle continuing to ignore you would be preferable to this.

"… why?" is all you can manage to get out around the feeling inside you, like something enormous is grinding away at all your organic parts.

Luke has no reason -- no, less than no reason to do anything for you, except --

"Because that's who he is," your mother says, with certainty. "He never gives up on people."

 

***

 

Your mother's confidence is the kind that can convince almost anyone, you know, but uncertainty gnaws at your stomach.

For crimes of murder beyond count, genocide, patricide, even fratricide (the New Republic being the closest thing to a sibling you have,) anyone else would meet the business end of a blaster five times over. To spare you, Luke would be setting a dangerous precedent for all those that come after you.

No. It won't be allowed. It's not possible.

You imagine Rey's wrinkled nose, her hands pulling at the black vest that still hangs in your father's shape. Don't say it's impossible until after you've already done it.

An exchange, then, your mother had said. You served the Dark Side for twelve years --

Fifteen, actually, but both Luke and Leia say those years before you reached the age of galactic majority don't count. No discussion.

-- and so you'll give the Light at least that long, if not longer.

You would have done that anyway.

Yes, I know. But give them the satisfaction of looking like it costs you something, will you?

The next morning, your mother turns up before first call. The Resistance officers who flank her, both humanoid, have the bleary, grey-faced look of the unfortunate and hungover, which tells you the party lasted well into the night, carried on somewhere far above your head -- victory, the conquest of this last First Order world. They stay in the hallway without protest, and your mother enters, carrying a clean shirt with a high collar (it will cover the scar on your chest -- the one Rey carved out of your face will just have to be character, or something) and a comb.

Two cups of caff wait for you on the console. She braids your hair and pins the loose strands in place, and then you switch places.

A ritual has power, and in the Force, it grounds both of you.

"Are you ready?" she asks you.

While everyone else had been celebrating, you'd been reading -- debriefs of the Resistance's operation to liberate MISTA and THAIN: everything you've missed since the conservatory, things you'll need to know when a committee decides the fate of THAIN. "Yes," you say, and put your notes aside, turning to unravel the loose loops she'd worn to sleep. As you do, the expression on her face makes you pause; it's weathered, fossilized.

You lean in. "Are you okay?"

She waves you away. "Yes, of course, I just -- was remembering my father, that's all. You looked -- it's fine."

"Mom," you say, stunned. In your memory, you hear Dhara saying, I met Bail Organa once. On Alderaan.

She sips at her caff, calmer now.

As you pull the comb through the ends of her silver hair, you ask, "Did Luke ever find the temple?"

She needs no elaboration. "No, there are no existing records of its location. It was a double-edged thing -- most information was likely destroyed in the Empire's purge of all things Jedi, but any Order 66 survivor would have eliminated any remainder, too, lest it fall into Sith hands. We're researching alternatives to a kyber crystal that could potentially power a --"

And then she goes still, all over.

You can't feel her in your head, but you know what it looks like, the slight shift her eyes make.

Boundaries, Mom, you think, but neither of you are at the point where you could say it out loud and it wouldn't hurt.

You tuck the comb into your pocket and start the first braid there at her temple. You miss your father so much it pulls at every single scar on your body -- he should be here, doing this with you.

But whose fault is that?

You would do anything, anything, you think, to go back to that moment you made a decision in the dark underneath the husked-out corpse of the sun on Starkiller Base. You would do anything in your power to give him back to her.

You know from your dreams that the Jedi Temple is a place where the line between the living and those who have returned to the Force is thin. Maybe if she goes, your mother will have the opportunity to speak to your father one more time. Maybe he can tell her that he loves her -- he never had to, before. It stained his every action. It was there, in everything he did.

You reach inside that fissure in your chest, down to the true, beating heart of you. You give her this.

"Ben … ?" ventures out of her.

You step around, kneeling down in front of her.

She stares at you, disbelieving, and then her eyebrows make a sudden, startled leap.

"You?" she says in shock. "You've known the location of the temple this whole time?"

"I'm sorry --"

"-- and you never told Snoke?"

"-- I --"

And you stop. You'd been expecting frustration, annoyance that you'd kept it to yourself for so long, but this --

This is your mother, your wonderful mother, to whom every rock, every person is Alderaan. Who sees the Light even in the smallest decision you ever made, where you saw Snoke searching and said --

Nothing.

You pull in a shaky breath. You close your eyes. You thank Dhara Leonis -- it's funny, how the smallest people in the galaxy always turn out to be the most important. She defeated the Dark Side because she loved her brother and never forgot him, not in all the years she served uncaring masters. That love went down to the core of her, rooted in, and she recognized that in you the second she saw you.

You thank her for everything.

You lift your eyes to Leia Organa, your mother, your general, and you say, "Do you have a star map on you?"

 

***

 

 

 

-
fin