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Triptych

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***

Triptych


n., a picture made of three panels, typically hinged together side-by-side to make a single image

or: The Three Deaths of Kylo Ren

.

 

***

 

You've been starmarked.

There's no mirror in your quarters. They'd been built for someone else -- the Knight of Ren who'd come before you, and she'd no need of one. However, the barracks on the level below stand empty, as your ship has to … ah, run at half-staff at the moment. You stand in front of the mirror there and study the changed starscape of your body.

"What was it?" you'd asked when you woke up, deep in space with a droid bent over your side and nobody in your head but your own crew.

"A bowcaster, sir," the reconstructionist tells you, lowering his holopad and snapping his heels together.

"Ah," you say in understanding, right before you pass out again.

The next time you wake, it's to an officer saying, a shade too loud, "-- sorry, but it's General Hux's orders. The -- er, the Supreme Leader demands his presence."

"Of course he --" the reconstructionist, now professionally offended, drops his voice to a low hiss. "Humans do not heal with a snap of the fingers just because the Supreme Leader is impatient!"

Panic flares inside the officer's head, making you flinch like he'd swung a bright light at you.

"General Hux is waiting, sir," is all he says, with a helpless flap of his hand in the direction of the hallway.

You interject before the reconstructionist can damn himself any further.

"Are the grafts done?" you ask.

The officer's throat bobs. His head is nothing but regret, his thoughts swimming and swamping over with anxiety: he'd pulled the short straw for this. You shake yours, trying to get him out of it, trying to focus. You're pretty sure it took longer, the last time this happened to you and they had to regrow your chest from scratch.

"No, sir," he says. "There wasn't any time. We -- ah …" he trails off.

"Fine," your voice deepens, and he steps back smartly. The reconstructionist stands against the wall, and watches in silence as you get up.

Your body has been sliced open, punched through -- a bowcaster -- and you get up.

You reach for your helmet and you put it on; the weight settles on your head, across the bridge of your nose where the skin is raw, still burnt. You call on the Force, bracing yourself on it like a crutch.

You go.

In the hallway, Hux -- who is probably smarting from wounds less visible than yours -- permits himself only a single, "And here I didn't think you could top your failure on Naboo, Ren," which you greet with a half-hearted, "I did not set the bar for failure so low that you need vault over it so spectacularly, General, and yet here we are."

After the both of you are rebuked for your inefficiency at Starkiller Base, now that the Supreme Leader has the full picture of all that was lost, and told again to join him at his stronghold in the MISTA system, you return to your quarters. You clean your clothes, cycling them through the steamer twice until you're certain they're no longer stiff and sticky with blood (kneeling in it was unpleasant.) Then you seek out a mirror.

The first one you look at is the streak that cuts your face chin to crown, broad and comet-colored.

Morbidly, you pull at it with your fingers, just for the peculiar sight of your flesh coming apart, the raw inner bits of you.

There's another, hooked out of your shoulder, and a third slashed across the top of your thigh, red-edged and angry. There's something about the cauterized neatness of them that reminds you, unbidden, of how Starkiller had looked as it fired -- splitting open the black of space like a red scalpel knife. You touch your face, your shoulder, your thigh, naming each one that's taken a cut out of you -- one for the three minor Hosnian planets. They will scar -- from what your reconstructionist said, they will scar horribly.

You will be weak in this leg, in this arm, permanently.

Your hand drifts then to your left side, to the place directly under your heart.

The skin there is blackened, sunken, gutpunched, a starburst of a wound pulling the rest of you toward it. You can't put your fingers directly on it; it's too tender still. You hadn't gotten the chance to ask how much of your internals had to be reconstructed. More than you'd think, if there'd been no opportunity to grow a skin graft, too. A bowcaster.

This one, you think, is for the New Republic on Hosnian Prime.

This one is for your father.

You snap your eyes up to meet your own gaze, suddenly flash-bang furious with yourself, with them, and it lasts long enough that it silences everything else, but you can't hold onto it.

It slips, and as the rush fades from your ears, the sound comes back: the Force presses too close to you.

"That's fair," you tell your reflection, and drop your hand from the starmark on your side. Slowly, painfully, you assemble yourself. Your clothes, your boots, your gloves, your helmet. Every inch of your skin disappears.

 

***

 

The robes had a habit of bunching. You had trouble pulling them to lie flat across your chest: something always rolled.

You remember it vividly: constantly checking to make sure your undershirt hasn't ridden up, that your overcoat isn't lopsided where you'd pulled it through your sash. The fact that you'll be wearing these robes until further notice fills you with an itchy frustration, the kind that buzzes hotly right under your skin. Uncle Luke unconsciously shakes his head whenever he's near you, like he's batting away something bothersome. Sometimes his frown will follow you, and you'll think, I still don't understand what the point of the stupid outfit is! at him until his attention moves on.

"No wonder the Jedi all died out," you find yourself muttering, after you get caught on a door handle and have to backtrack to free yourself. "This is impractical," and immediately, you look up and around, ashamed.

The bar's patrons aren't paying you any mind. The human child in their midst isn't worth note. Besides, you'd feel it if they --

"BEN SOLO," booms out, and you sigh.

"Organa," you say, not loud enough to be heard. You rub at your forehead with the tips of your fingers. "It's Ben Organa."

Then you straighten up, calling back, "Hi, Maz," to the woman waving at you from --

From on top of her line cook's back, it looks like.

She steps off the shiny blue-black dome of his exoskeleton, and he clicks at her furiously, pinchers clamping down to rescue his finished plates before she can carelessly trod on her own customer's food. You follow her trajectory, dodging a drink server on a hoverboard who hollers at you, "watch it, slime mold!" in droid-speak. She leads you to a half-booth on the opposite side, occupied only by --

You suddenly feel inches tall.

"Hi, Commander Bridger," you mumble.

He looks up lazily, and then his eyes pop fully open and he jolts upright, planting both of his feet on the floor. Maz clambers into the chair across from him, looking pleased with herself.

"Well, if it isn't a Jedi-in-training!" Bridger's voice soars, and they are equally delighted with this situation, the pair of them. You hate them, you decide. "Who is definitely not supposed to be off grounds! Did you sneak out? Are you here for a drink? Are you going to place a bet on the O2 trials? If so, you missed the bookie on the way in -- the ugly guy with the tank, there."

You've always thought that Bridger had to be part-Mirilan, with eyes so blue you bet you could see them underwater, or in the pitch dark. But he doesn't know what he is, and you can't know something that he doesn't think about, so.

He widens them at you now. "Or, wait --" he drops his voice. "Is it a girl? Boy? Somebody not either one of those things?"

You have devised a way to die on the spot. You're going to do that in three … two …

Maz takes pity.

"He's here because I invited him, Ezra. I know the boy's father," she says, clearly not wanting to have to clean up the mess your humiliated remains would make on the floor of her establishment, and Commander Bridger clicks his tongue, disappointed. "And Luke knows about it, so don't even think of tattling."

"You never let me have any fun," he says, and kicks a chair out for you. "Well. Sit down, then. Ren, is it?"

"Ben," you say patiently, tugging your apprentice's robes into shape one more time before sitting.

There's a plate on the table, heaped with the kind of deep-fat fried something that you understand is universal bar food; the contents, of course, vary from system to system, although at a certain point of fried-ness, it probably doesn't matter. You lift a piece with your fingertips, considering. It leaves a sheen on your skin.

Leaning his elbows on the table, Bridger shows his teeth. "Ben. Right, I should know that."

Ezra Bridger is on your mother's tactical council, an information analyst; he's followed her all your life, his loyalty a shining, warm thing, like putting your hand against the hull of an X-Wing that's been sitting in the sun all day. Officially, his rank is a decoration and all he's got is a cushy job managing her security personnel -- since nobody's at war -- but back in the day, guerrilla hit-and-runs were his specialty.

("Domestic terrorism, the Empire used to call it," he amended once, proudly, when you'd been much younger. "When they finally caught up to me, they charged me with twelve counts of it," and your father had jerked a look at him, saying, "and they let you live?" like he didn't know whether to be shocked or impressed. Bridger's face had done something peculiar, then, and you lifted your head from your father's shoulder as the Force puckered around him, suddenly as sour as Ilthorian candy. "In a fashion," he'd replied, flat.)

He's a short, swarthy man with a dark beard, and his fighting arm is protected by a pauldron, the insignia on it near-faded to obscurity. It's too big for him, and there's a feeling to it, like it'd belonged to someone else: you can feel them in the Force, larger than life.

Maz reaches over, hand closing coolly over yours.

"And you?" she says, serious now. "Are you doing better? Enjoying your training? There are others your age, aren't there, for you to relate to?"

She sounds almost wistful. She is a thousand years old, and change. The Force draws so still and so deep around her that you can't ford it; her feelings are a mystery to you.

"I am, thank you, and yes, and there are," you answer, ticking off each question with your free hand, and then add, diplomatically, "My parents made the best decision they could for me."

"Hmm," she says. "And Luke Skywalker? Is he the Jedi you imagined him to be?"

He's been my uncle far longer than he's been my teacher, and a Jedi before he was either one of those things, you think, wondering if this is a trick question, but all you say out loud is, "Of course."

Maz eyes you sidelong, pulling her hand back to rub at one eyebrow thoughtfully. Your father emphatically warned you on multiple occasions that no, don't worry, Maz can't use the Force, and yes, she looks like she knows everybody's secrets, but that's her "woke up like this" look. It comes with a thousand years of life experience, so lying to her never works. Seriously, don't do it.

Sure enough, she quirks her mouth and says, "What aren't you telling me, Solo?"

You hunch your shoulders at her with an immediate, indignant, "Nothing!" Then, mutinously, ignoring the knot that tightens inside your chest, "Embarrassing stuff! I'm not going to tell you, you'll just go straight to my mom and dad!"

"Leave him alone, Maz," Bridger interjects. He flags down the drink server. "The general doesn't need to know about his weird Jedi boy dreams or whatever's bothering him."

You roll your eyes at him, like, thanks for your help, and scoot your chair in so the drink server can race by you to get Bridger's order. It promptly plonks a steaming mug down on the table, whistles something about Bridger's greasy mother, and speeds away, and Maz remarks, "I often find that children have deeper and more complicated dreams than that, Ezra."

Then she leans back, dismissing it with a shrug and a, "Bah! What do I know. I am not the one who has to lecture a dozen of them on powers they barely understand."

Bridger starts to say something, but manages to burn his mouth on his drink instead. As he splutters and coughs, you and Maz exchange a look, mutually indulgent.

When he recovers, he says, "Don't do that. You're just rubbing it in."

And you feel it, too: the sound jealousy makes in the Force is an angry spitting hiss, close enough to your ears to make them burn. What does he have to be jealous of?

You fold your hands into the sleeves of your robes. "Why?" you ask, and Bridger's eyebrows hike toward his hairline.

"You don't know?"

You glance at Maz, but she just smiles her thousand-year-old smile, and you shake your head.

He sets the mug down, jaw shunting as he worries at the inside of his cheek. The change comes over him gradually, the years settling and fossilizing into the lines on his face.

"Darth Vader had this apprentice," he begins, and your stomach swoops like you'd broke atmosphere with the inertial dampener turned off. "He -- for years, he hunted for the Force-adept all over the Galactic Empire. It was -- anyway -- he had this apprentice who could," he gestures vaguely around his skull. "They didn't have to execute me or send me to prison when they arrested me. They just had her sever my connection to the Force."

You look again to Maz, helplessly, but she just fiddles with her goggles and watches you with a steady, beetle-eyed gaze.

"They did that to a lot of us, actually, if they couldn't find another use for us or -- or tempt us into being Sith. That's why Luke Skywalker is the only true Jedi this galaxy knows. The rest of us had to find other paths." His mouth pulls, drawn sideways into some memory. "I do remember the Force, though. It flows through every --"

"-- living thing," you and Maz finish with him, and some of the crystalline sadness that had been crusting around him eases.

"We were all living deep in secret, though, so I, at least," he picks up one of the fried … whatevers, and gestures up-and-down at you with it, "never had to wear that during my training."

"It's terrible, I get stuck all the time!" bursts out of you in agreement, way louder than you intend, and he throws his head back, laughing.

"I thought Luke was tossing out bits of the Code left and right -- what, he didn't think to dispense with this little piece of tradition when he had the chance?" His teeth start to show. "Actually, wait -- how old are you? Fourteen?"

"Fifteen," you say.

"No, you're not! Your birthday's in -- oh. I guess -- never mind, I'm sorry I missed it, Lin."

"Ben."

"That's what I said. But anyway, being fifteen probably has more to do with it than your robes."

"If you wanted to stop wearing it, Ben Solo," Maz puts in. "I don't think Luke would stop you. That boy doesn't know what he's doing. He feels his way through it. It works for him, usually."

Hearing your uncle called "boy" is strange, but you suppose that to Maz, everyone would be. Across from you, Commander Bridger's mouth is skewed, like he's thinking the same thing.

Actually, that reminds you --

"What brings you out here, anyway?" you ask. "There isn't anything on Takodana, besides the oxygen tours and Maz's outpost."

"And a bunch of awkward young Jedi-to-be," the commander adds, the stillwater color in his eyes brightening with mirth. He pushes himself along the booth's padded back, fishing for his bag. When he surfaces, he drops something heavy and white onto the table.

It's a helmet, frog-mouthed, and every single hair on your body stands on end at the sight of it.

"I'm on layover," he says. "On my way to the MISTA system."

The noise in your ears is so loud it takes a moment for his voice to filter through. When it does, you break your stare with the helmet and frown up at him.

"That's -- past the Outer Rim, isn't it?"

"Yeah. The general," my mother, you think, "believes the Empire is colonizing the Uncharted Territories to engineer its comeback. It's not that they can't colonize new planets, per se, that's not the problem -- they just can't build, trade, or facilitate the manufacturing of any kind of weapon, permanent militia, or act of warfare," he recites easily. "And I would know, I was there when they signed the Concordance. And this," he leans forward to tap the helmet, "is definitely one of the above."

Beneath the sleeves of your robe, you're gripping your own wrists so tightly your bones grind together.

You are, for a terrible moment, glad that Commander Bridger has no Force-sense. You'd hate to think what kind of sound you're making.

Get a grip, you tell yourself. The others will sense you before you even get to the grounds. Especially Queenie -- you don't care what Uncle Luke says, that uncanny ability to be exactly wherever will embarrass you the most has to be Force-related.

"Besides, I used to collect Stormtrooper helmets as trophies, back when I was a kid on Lothal -- which, yes, I know, is morbid, don't judge me. This kind of looks like those, doesn't it?" he grins, turning the helmet toward you again.

Maz pushes herself up, reaching out to knock her knuckles against the top of the helmet, like she's checking to make sure that it's hollow and not still attached to a head instead.

You swallow.

"I'll take your word for it," you manage.

Settling back again, Maz clicks her tongue. "Of course you know," she says with a wave of her hand. "You're collectors, the both of you, I can see it in your eyes. You, especially -- they're your grandfather's eyes, you know."

And this, at least, is familiar territory.

"Yes, I've heard that," you say, with an edge to your voice you can't help, and her forehead crinkles, nonplussed, before her expression clears.

"Oh, no, not that grandfather. Pish! The other one. The good-looking one, fine specimen of a Corellian man. Collected the most amazing porcelain figures -- I was not opposed to looking at them when he came by, he was very proud of them, but I was more interested in collecting him, no questions asked."

Yelping in protest, you clap your hands to your ears, simultaneous with Bridger's scandalized, "Maz, I can't know that!"

It takes her a long time to stop laughing.

When she does, you lower your hands and say, quietly, "I didn't know I resembled him," and all of her wrinkles crinkle up at once.

"To be honest," she allows. "It's more your nose. I'd recognize that tragedy in any age, in any face."

Your hand darts to cover the offending appendage, and Commander Bridger says, "You had to work in that crack about human anatomy, didn't you?"

"Of course I did, darling, it's bizarre."

 

***

 

"Sir!"

You turn away from the viewport. Even with your eyes closed under your helmet, the afterimages of Starkiller's beam remains burnt on the insides of your eyelids, four great red gashes.

A Stormtrooper, a runner, stops at your elbow. He snaps to attention.

You open your eyes. His helmet is a frog-mouthed grimace.

"We've had word. The droid's been spotted in the company of Han Solo on Takodana, in the western quadrant of the Tashtor Sector." He's talking fast, throwing all of his information at your feet in the hopes you'll be too busy picking it up to focus on him. "Our informant … ah, unfortunately carries an outdated transponder, so we were only capable of triangulating her position to a fifty-mile radius, but --"

"No need," you say, quietly. You can see the strings of flags, multi-colored and fluttering in the breeze, as clear as if you're already there. "I know where they are."

 

***

 

On the day you were born, they tell you, there were still X-Wings in the repair bays bearing scorch marks from the Battle of Endor. Empire battleships were still smoking, strewn in pieces across the Jakkuvian desert.

There are holos of your mother at the inaugural assembly of the new Galactic Senate, a landmark moment months in the making.

It's over a thousand representatives from every system in the galaxy, brought together as equals for the first time since before the Empire, and there she is among them, her face swollen with exhaustion, you in a sling across her chest that she'd makeshifted in a hurry out of a pilot's harness. The droids had warned her against strenuous activity, and so when you arrived early, too sudden, all of her supplies were two systems away, and if she sent someone out to buy something new, she might miss her part in the opening ceremony. It's a speech she's dreamed of delivering since she was fifteen years old. So she got up and she brought you with her, carrying you in the materials she had on hand; her shawl, swaddling you, her brother's harness straps to transport you.

She casts her first vote as a free, non-Imperial woman, one hand flung in the air, the other cradling you to her, as new and freshly born as the democracy taking place around you.

 

***

 

When you were born, your mother kissed you very hard on the top of your head, pulled her hair up, and took you to work.

That's public knowledge.

That's galactic history.

 

***

 

When you were born, your father cried.

The only people who know that are yourself, your parents, your uncle, Chewie, and Artoo.

C3PO was never told, because the only sure way to guarantee that everyone will know something by the next meal call is to tell Threepio, and your father swore vehemently that he'd see that protocol droid shipped in pieces to seven different systems before he let him see him like this, but his cheeks were blotchy and his eyes stained red and his hands very large in comparison to how small you were, kicking at him with all your might, and nobody believed him.

 

***

 

Before the age of three or so, you have an imperfect understanding of what the Jedi are, exactly.

To you, your mother's a Jedi. Your father's a Jedi. Uncle Luke is a Jedi, and Chewie is definitely a Jedi.

The Jedi are the best, nicest, strongest, and most good people in the galaxy -- on this, you're absolutely, irrefutably certain, because everybody tells you so, and you know it to be true with every fiber of your just-begun being -- and so naturally your parents have to be Jedi, and Chewie is at least, like, two Jedi, which means that Chewie is Very Good. The Best.

When you get a little older, your uncle explains to you that being a Jedi is more like a job, something that requires dedication and a lot of practice and a lot of willingness to accept how much you don't know, and wanting to go ahead and get it right anyway. So while your mother is capable of doing some Jedi things, she isn't officially a Jedi, not like Luke is, although she's probably the closest thing after him. She has a different calling, is all, and that's okay.

You consider this piece of information carefully, your uncle's mechanical hand splayed out in both of yours. He's letting you tinker with it, although at your age, "tinkering" mostly just means tapping at his joints with your best guess as to which end of the drill is the correct one. You're doing your best to mimic your father, whose entire top half is buried in Uncle Luke's speeder, doing repairs.

He emerges to switch tools, and you obediently follow suit.

"What on earth did you do to this thing, kid?" he grumps, dragging out some black-charred bit so that he can get at its grooves with a rag. "Did you fly through the sun? It better not be moonshine. If it's moonshine, I'm telling Kes and the pilots and they can take you apart for not sharing."

Your uncle doesn't dignify that with a response.

"Does that mean," you say, pushing at the rubber padding at the end of his finger, as your father shoves the rag into his back pocket and dives back in. "That anyone can be a Jedi?"

"If they can feel the Force, yes," Uncle Luke tells you without hesitation.

A new, stunning thought suddenly occurs to you, and it eclipses the whole of your tiny world.

"Could I be a Jedi?" you say in wonder.

This time, your uncle does smile.

"That depends," he says, looking down at your upturned, open-mouthed face. "We have to wait until you're older, to see if you're Force-sensitive, but I think there's a very good chance you could be. Would you like that?"

"YES."

Your father reappears as if summoned. "Hey now! Don't you go planning my son's entire life for him, you two-bit meddling in-law!" he protests. He wriggles around and points the end of a hose at your uncle in what is probably supposed to be a threatening manner. It flaps a little bit. "Go away. Find a girl. Get your own, and leave mine out of it."

He continues in that vein for another minute, voice rising a fraction when he doesn't get a rise out of Uncle Luke, and after he runs out of things to say, you keep talking for a beat or two before you stumble to a halt, too.

His frown deepens as it dawns on him that you were acting like feedback, putting together strings of all the words you know in your best echo of the ill-tempered tone he's using, "-- want some rice, three nerfs in the whole dang blasted Corellian --" and then you stop and laugh because his face is funny.

"Oh, ha ha," he says, speaking to you now, which is even funnier. His eyes snap up. "This is your fault, kid -- er, somehow."

"I don't know," Uncle Luke says mildly. "That impression was pretty spot-on."

You put down the wrench you're holding so that he can have his hand back.

"Thank you, Ben," he says solemnly, and his fingers go click-click-click as they tighten into a fist. "They work much better now."

 

***

 

You're sure you can't have always been Force-sensitive, that there had to be a time when the Force flowed through you no more and no less than it did anybody else.

The point, however, is that you don't remember. To you, it's always been there, long before you had a name for it. Your uncle was certain that if you had it, your Force-sense would manifest later, and you don't think about a lot of things that adults flagged as "later," so you didn't think about that, either.

This lasted -- you not knowing, them not knowing, but it being there -- until you were four.

No, maybe five? Were you five?

There'd been a birthday, you remember, and it's an in-transit one because of an incident of "civil unrest" on Alaris Prime, suspending all inbound and outbound traffic. Your parents and a diplomatic entourage are left trapped, waiting in-taxi for a landing for fifty-one hours, with a queue growing steadily lengthier behind you. If you'd been on the Millennium Falcon, you're sure you would have dropped out for an unauthorized landing somewhere on the darkside, but it was a chartered transport, courtesy of the New Republic, and your father had to sit on his hands and wait with the rest of you.

It's not a bad birthday -- most of your favorite people are here with you, shipbound, and Chewie gives you a miniature replica worshyr tree that's taller than you for you to climb ("where the hell were you stashing that?" your father demands indignantly when he sees it,) with the promise that the two of you would see a real one on the moon below. Kashyyyk, his homeworld, is in this system -- the trees have migrated their way to almost all of the neighboring planets and moons.

"Do they all look like this?" you ask, hooking your legs around a lower bough and dangling upside-down.

Chewie bends his knees and tilts his entire torso so that he's looking at you upside-down too. He looks silly with all his hair hanging down, but then again, you probably do too. He rumbles an affirmative.

Commander Bridger even sits down and watches two whole episodes of Roid-UP BATTLE DROIDS with you, even though your mother comes through and warns you both that it will rot your brains.

"That's a myth, your Highness," Bridger assures her.

"I'm not worried about yours, Ezra, it's long gone," she fires back. "But my son's is still developing."

So you don't remember if this is your fourth or fifth birthday, but it doesn't matter. You're four or five, and droid-height, always having to look up at people who very rarely look down. You can't pinpoint the moment you became aware of the Force, but this is the moment everybody else finds out that you have it.

You're droid-height, and somebody tries to assassinate your mother.

 

***

 

A Trandoshan greets your mother's convoy as soon as it's finally granted permission to dock.

His head is full of violence. He hates the human monopoly on galactic politics and resents Senator Leia Organa's campaign through their space. The Kashyyyk System lost enough in the Clone Wars. It toiled slavishly under the thumb of the Empire. Before the humans came, all the Trandoshan had to worry about were Wookies and gut rot from drinking too much swamp water. It's intolerable, what they've suffered. A Trandoshan could pick his teeth with human bones, and she dares to come here, preaching democracy like that's supposed to be a saving grace?

You sense this, all of this at once, and stumble against your mother's leg as she halts at the bottom of the ramp.

His leathers are clean, a smile fixed on his lipless, dry-skinned face, his arms spread in welcome. You look up at your mother, but she isn't worried. It's like she can't hear it at all. Her smile cuts into her cheeks when she says, "Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, my Lord."

"The others are waiting for us presently," he says in perfectly pleasant Basic, and steps back with a gesture. "If you'll follow me … ?"

You glance at Master Calrissian, who's at your back, but he's scanning the perimeter, like the danger might be out there instead of right in front of you: in the distance, the trees are so tall their tops stay wreathed in clouds, but there's no shade here on the landing pad and the sun is roastingly hot, the air stagnant, heavy, and humid. Alaris Prime rarely suffers from any wind, all its atmosphere pulled taut by the gravitational proximity of the gas giant Alaris itself.

The gravity's different on the surface than it had been on the convoy, and the disconnect between your body and what your brain's telling you there should be leaves you dizzy.

One of the other diplomats keeps up a polite stream of questions about the local life as you walk; the Trandoshan answers them, courteous and brief, and just as you leave the blistering sun for the coolness of a shaded walkway, his head goes sharp with intent. All his thoughts telescope down.

How easy it would be, he thinks, warming with the satisfaction of a trap closing: a blaster to the head, a great war hero killed.

You don't even think. Your father, Chewie, and Commander Bridger are all still on the convoy -- politics is not where they excel -- and Master Calrissian doesn't even have his hand on his blaster. Everybody here is useless. It's up to you.

You put yourself in front of your mother, because that's what all her soldiers would do.

You look at the Trandoshan. You open your mouth.

You scream.

It splits the wet, hot-still air like a piece of ceramic hurtled against duracrete, jolting everybody.

Your mother whirls around. The Trandoshan's eyebrows pull downward, his grip on his blaster loosening in his surprise. You keep screaming at him.

When you refuse to stop, when your mother checks you for obvious wounds or stings and finds none, she flashes the rest of the diplomatic entourage an apologetic look and hauls you off to the side. Master Calrissian joins you, mouth pinched, and she crouches down, gripping you by the arms and whispering fiercely, "What is wrong with you? Ben, why are you behaving like this!"

You try explaining -- "he's going to hurt you! Your head will look like worms!" -- but you can't control your voice and you can tell they aren't listening to you, not really. You feel it in their heads -- your mother's worry, overshadowed by the annoyance of the others; what is that small child doing, does he have to cause a scene? How undisciplined. How aggravating.

Trust a princess of Alderaan to raise a brat.

Humans are the actual worst.

You squeeze your eyes shut, but it doesn't help. The Trandoshan's fantasy of your mother's skull in pieces is impossible to forget.

"Listen, Ben," your mother says lowly. "I know he looks a little frightening, but he's not going to hurt me. I've known him for years, and he's been nothing but kind to me, do you understand?"

That means nothing! People say things their heads don't say all the time!

"It's double-talk!" you try.

It's like when your father says everything's going to be fine when something on the Falcon malfunctions badly; his mouth says one thing, the panic inside his head another. It's like earlier, when he kicked up his feet onto the flight console and said, "You guys go have fun. We'll stay here, probably take a nap, watch more of Ben's show," when all of you knew that he, Chewie, and Commander Bridger were going to sneak out during the diplomatic meeting to investigate the "civil unrest."

You assume that double-talk is something every adult does, so why aren't they believing you?

You look up at Master Calrissian, who besides you is the one most invested here in keeping your mother alive.

"Please!" you beg him. "I can hear it!"

She starts to rise, and you yell. It's your turn to grab her, and you're roughly aware that you are in hysterics, utterly out of control, that the others have drifted further away to distance themselves from you, that you're hurting your mother's reputation, but you're terrified. Your head hurts. The Trandoshan isn't in your line of sight anymore. Did he slip away? What if he's plotting? What if the trap is just around the corner?

Master Calrissian frowns suddenly. "Is this a Force thing?" he asks.

And you see the moment it dawns on your mother: her eyes go so wide you could fit planets in them, and her mouth forms a single, surprised "o."

Abruptly, just like that, after wasting all that time not believing you, they do.

"Lando," she says above your head. "Patch it through to security. An attempt on Senator Organa's life."

He hesitates.

"They're going to watch the holovids," he says. "How are you --"

"I'll explain it if it comes to that. I'll fight every single one of them. For now, that assassin needs to be tracked down."

If your mother does wind up fighting a dozen disbelieving security people for you, you never hear about it. She finds you afterward in her fresher, shivering and sore from crying. One of the droids you've become fast friends with during the flight beeps nervously from the other side of the door, rocking loud enough to clatter, and you hear your mother say, "-- all right, See-seven, we'll be all right."

She pulls open the door and looks down at you. Her mouth curves at the corner.

"They caught him," she tells you.

She offers you a blanket, and you gratefully uncurl and come over to wrap yourself up in it. She sits down beside you on the floor, settling her back against the fresher door, and pulls you into her side. She's still wearing the dress she was going to wear to the meeting -- the meeting that's currently going on without her. There's mud splattered on the hem and caked into the grooves of her boots. Flyaways escape her updo. You stare at her forehead, trying to forget the way the Trandoshan imagined it, bones and worm-matter.

She strokes your hair, and gradually, you become aware of a feeling in her head that she's gently pushing at you:

Pride.

You look up, smile crinkling, and her eyebrows tilt.

"Is it like that? What you feel?" she asks, and when you nod, she tugs you even closer, blanket and all, hugging you with all the strength in her arms and with her head, too, warming you with pride and gratitude and love.

 

***

 

That's the first time you stop an assassination attempt on Leia Organa, and you do it without a single shot fired.

The next time … well.

 

***

 

When he returns with Chewie and Commander Bridger in tow, your father meets your mother at the hatch, and for a solid minute, they talk over one another, each one convinced the news they have to impart is the most important. Their voices get louder and louder, until your father breaks out of it first.

"-- wait, what," he blinks. His eyes drop to droid-height until they find you, peeking out from the corridor. "Really?"

"Really."

He blows out a gusty breath, and scrapes back his hair with his hand. There's an odor to him you can smell all the way over here that suggests his mission sent him wading through a swamp or two, but his head is lit-up, incandescent with this news.

"Well, then." Your father has a way of dragging his words around when he talks. "Where's Luke when you need him?"

Your uncle is with Artoo and a handful of your mother's pilots on the other side of the galaxy and can't be summoned back right away.

She leaves a message for him on his comm ("So I was nearly killed and Ben's been using the Force, please comm me back,") and then she looks at you. She puts her hands on her hips to make herself feel bigger and she says, "Okay. Leia Organa, Jedi teacher. Why not."

In the next few weeks, on your way from Alaris Prime to the next Mid-Rim sector your mother's campaigning in -- via way of Yavin 4 so your parents can pick up the Millennium Falcon before some goon scraps it for parts right there on the repair dock -- you receive an unprecedented amount of her attention. It's a little alarming.

You're disappointed to find out that the Force -- this Jedi-exclusive thing Uncle Luke said would manifest "later" -- isn't something new and exciting and powerful. It's something you already have; it's your awareness of other people, both as physical beings and as light-things, all their feelings and memories and intentions. What is exciting is that having the Force means you can move things with your mind --

Except for the fact you can't do that, no matter how much you concentrate, or how much you go around the ship pointing at people.

You feel cheated.

"Maybe when you're older," your mother promises, amused, when she asks you to fetch her holopad and you try to do it without moving, to absolutely no result.

She teaches you that the insides of other people's heads are their property, and no, she understands that you can't help sensing them the same way you can't help seeing someone when they walk in front of you, but venturing into their thoughts is off-limits.

This is a new restriction for you, a new line you've never had to think about before, and it's weeks before she stops sensing you and tapping you with the Force to remind you, Ben, boundaries.

Uncle Luke, the next you see him, crouches down to your level and braces his elbows on his knees.

He looks at you and thinks, HELLO, BEN, with what feels like his whole brain, that's totally unnecessary, and you stick your tongue out at him because he doesn't have to yell.

"Boundaries, Uncle Luke!" you shout back, and the surprised look on his face is a gem you carry in your tiny heart for years.

 

***

 

There's a game your mother used to play to keep you occupied on long hyperspace jumps, once you had wiggled into her lap and she was fed up with you upsetting her neat stacks of news flimsis and addresses from allies that she was studying. She would still your curious hands by covering your eyes, pulling you back into her.

"Okay, Ben," she'd say against the top of your head. "Where's Commander Bridger?"

And, gleefully, you'd stretch out with your Force-sense until you found --

"Sleeping!" you'd say triumphantly, pointing in the direction of the officer's quarters. You could feel his dreams. They were red, and there were prairies in them.

"Okay. Where's Chewbacca?"

You'd tell her.

"Where's … the Chancellor?"

And you'd laugh, because that's a trick question! You couldn't sense her, but she had to be "-- in the capital!"

… and on like that.

You never got bored. It was fun, racing out into the Force to tag someone for her and then come racing back. The Force was wide-open, familiar, and much, much, much larger than your droid-sized body, and some people, like Chewie, you could sense even if they were planets away, because you knew how they felt in the Force better than you knew yourself, the tops of your shoes or the backs of your hands.

But it was strongest with your parents. You couldn't lose them if you tried.

You're always the first to know when your father's back. You're better at keeping track of your mother's movements than Rebel security; jump into any system and you'd be able to tell which planet, which continent, which city your mother's in, without fail.

"Is that weird?" you ask once, after this trick earns you an unsettled feeling wafting off one of the comm officers, a disturbed, what weird Jedi mumbo-jumbo was that?

Your father pulls you into his hip, ruffling your hair. "Nah, you'll be handy at parties," he promises you with a grin.

 

***

 

Your mother is in the pilot's head, everywhere you turn.

You want to rip him to shreds.

When you exit the room, General Hux is waiting for you. You have the information you came for, and you have information you didn't. The map to Luke Skywalker is contained within the pilot's trusted BB8 unit, currently planetside on Jakku. And your mother still wears her wedding ring -- all her pilots agree it's a bittersweet gesture, considering she and her husband have not been seen in the same system together in years.

 

***

 

You're given no time to acquire new skin grafts, and so the hole that Chewie punched through your side warps and melds shut while you're on the move. Sometimes, when the noise is cacophonic to the point of distraction, you'll dig your thumb into the scar, twisting until the injured muscle underneath screams.

The pain clears your head, if only for a moment.

You pursue the scavenger.

Your master wants her. If she can best you, then she will make him a valuable prize, worth his training, and the idea of adding her to his collection has him fixated. Very few of the Knights of Ren survive the tests he puts them through; he is short on apprentices, and breeding the few of you he keeps takes too long. He's sent you hounding after those with Force-sense much quieter than this.

And right now, he wants her more than he wants Luke Skywalker dead.

(You would have liked to have known this before you'd tried to chop her into pieces, honestly. If she hadn't been smarter than you, she'd be dead, and now it's just going to be awkward.

Did the Supreme Leader think about that? That the girl might hold a grudge? No.

Overcome it, Ren. Sure, thanks so much, you'll get right on that.)

The island in the blue sea is the first place you go. It's colder in person than it had been in the girl's head, and it takes your Stormtroopers twenty minutes to perform a search, once they realize their thermal readers aren't functioning.

"No life signs," one calls up to you, but you knew that. The Force around you is quiet; you are probably the loudest thing here.

It's the island in the sea, then a podracer's home on a desert planet on the Outer Rim next, then a tight-lipped colony of ex-service droids who are the sole occupants of space station outside the Gorse system -- an interesting choice, as you cannot interrogate a droid.

The list of obstacles grows: the number of people willing to throw themselves between you and the girl is frankly baffling.

You catch up to her on a temperate planet not far from where you started; leaping out of hyperspace, the communication console beeps and a pre-recorded message from a representative of the Interplanetary Travel Committee gives you an advisory warning that debris from the destruction of the Hosnian system hurtling along at high speeds may obstruct travel in the neighboring systems, and to please journey safely!

The first X-Wing makes its appearance within minutes.

"Enemy contact!" an officer announces, and the control room swiftly becomes the contained flurry of motion that it does during combat.

You step off to the side -- you'd learned early on that this part operates best without your interference, as your people know what they're doing better than you -- and wait until it's confirmed. Then you take your ship and you go planetside to meet her.

It's night on the side you descend on, landing in an area far from the light pollution of the cities, and your Stormtroopers have their thermal readers but you have the Force, and as long as there are members of the Resistance living and thinking out in the jungle, you'll find them. The dark lights up with the exchange of blaster fire, the silence broken by shouts. You sidestep, and continue on.

Occasionally, a pinprick burst in the sky above will signal the loss of a TIE or an X-Wing, but most of the battle is happening past the horizon -- the most noticeable thing about the sky is the gap where the Hosnian system should be. The stars are vividly bright this far from the city, but in that particular quadrant, there's nothing at all.

And, up ahead --

"-- slow down, girl, these short legs get me where I need to go -- at my own pace! The young are always in such a hurry -- is this the ship? Didn't I swear an oath a hundred years ago that I was never going to set foot on another spaceship? Now look at me. Oh -- !"

A lot of things suddenly happen at once:

Rey senses you, and all of her defenses slam up at once, so fast it acts like a punch to the jaw; your teeth scissor through your tongue at the hit. The clearing floods with light, revealing the X-Wing parked there and the two figures about to climb in, just barely visible around the floodlight fixed to the top of the ship. The smaller one, who's only droid-height, stands above the open canopy, and she spots you in the same moment you realize you know that voice, that you recognize the Force, drawn so deep around her it could drown you.

"YOU!" she bellows.

"Ah," you say.

Maz Kanata is furious.

"You owe me a bar, Ben Solo! You owe me a home! You owe four planets in my night sky, and a smuggler! What are you still doing here!" She puts her hands on her hips and scowls down at you. "For the love of -- go home. Get to work on something worth doing. You have fought the Light long enough!"

Perched below her, Rey pushes at her, murmuring something.

Maz replies offhandedly, "Oh, girl, it's the nose. I saw that nose and knew it was trouble. Trust me -- I've seen it happen before. Did I tell you I knew the boy's grandfather? The good-looking one, not the one that had a murder problem --"

You sigh, and roll your neck back and forth where the weight of the helmet leaves a strain. When you agreed to abscond with your Dark master and abandon everything you loved, this isn't what you imagined you'd be doing.

"Maz!" you interrupt, and she pauses.

She glances from you to the scavenger and back again.

"Ohh," she says. "You're going to duel. Well, don't let me get in your way. Darling, when you're done with him, show me which of these buttons I'm going to need to push to make the ship go up."

She drops through the canopy of the X-Wing, and Rey springs to the ground.

You circle each other, the two of you, and she's studying you in the Force as much as you're studying her. You will not be able to freeze her again, although you thought it would be unlikely that you could -- there are no cracks in her defenses to hold her by. The silence stretches, broken only by your footsteps and hers, the crackle of your lightsaber. Hers is in her hand, unignited. Beyond the ring of light cast by the X-Wing's floodlight, you can just faintly make out the sounds of other engines, and jungle noises beyond that.

When you were younger and constantly on the move, visiting almost every named planet in the galaxy, this had always been your favorite part: how different does the air taste? What's the gravity like? How far can you run before your lungs start to hurt? How different does the Millennium Falcon's engines sound, in-atmo?

"Okay, this is taking too long!" bursts out of Rey, impatient. "You talk first."

"Have you had any further training?" you inquire, obediently. You are here to capture, not eliminate, but she won't hesitate to kill you, you're sure, as she's blasted through your Stormtroopers with relative disregard. "How would you feel about fighting me, now that I am no longer incapacitated with a gut wound?"

"That can be fixed," she says. "Stabbed anyone's father lately?"

"It's likely," you allow, even as your stomach dips.

Not even two days ago, you'd felt it in the Force: the delight of one of your Stormtroopers getting the news from base that he'd been declared suitable for breeding, and at next furlough he and his squadmate planned on returning to their home base in the MISTA system to see if they were compatible. And sometimes that does happen -- breeding is highly regulated on First Order worlds, but sometimes the perfect match find each other on their own. It's more the hope of beating the system that has them applying for it, though. He died on entry.

You're anticipating an attack, but honestly, if her eyes didn't jerk to a point just beyond you right then, you might not have sensed it.

As is, you twist away just a moment too late, and the blaster shot singes through the fabric at the back of your neck.

It's a very good shot.

"HA! Take that!" a triumphant voice shouts out, and when you whip your head around to face it, it amends that to, "Oh, crap. You shoot people, it gets their attention."

It's the Stormtrooper, the one from Jakku, the one from Starkiller -- FN-2187, you remember easily -- and in the split second you don't have your eyes on her, Rey breaks the stalemate and flings herself up the side of her X-Wing, slithering into the cockpit. You hurtle after her, and the swing of your lightsaber skids through the place where she'd just been, and does nothing but score the hull and remove a chunk of the landing gear. Then the engines fire, coming online, and FN-2187 shoots at you again, and you're forced to retreat or be fried.

The Stormtrooper blocks your path, and you have to blink at him once, twice.

His hair's grown out, covering the tops of his ears, and his nails go past the quick, rims of white that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: both are far past regulation length for a Stormtrooper.

"Hey, how you been?" he jerks his chin at you, baring teeth. "That limp looks great on you."

"FN-2187," you reply.

"Aren't you going to ask me about my back? You should really ask me about my back, because it's great."

He chambers each word and fires it at you, loudly but precisely. Each thought is a torch-flare, dragging your attention to him. And underneath those thoughts -- something small and lost in the dark, igniting flame after flame for the comfort and the warmth. He's terrified. He's terrified of you, he's terrified of what's waiting for them in space, and even now he's terrified he'll wake up back on the Finalizer, about to head to Phasma's reconditioning.

He's terrified and he flings himself in your face anyway.

"So, like, Ben -- can I call you Ben?" he gestures questioningly with the muzzle of his blaster, stepping back smartly as you advance on him, lightsaber held low along your side. " -- you did terrific work, bravo, but theirs was better, so I gotta ask. If the Resistance could patch me up -- get replacement parts, all nice and tidy and neat -- on their foreshortened budget, why couldn't the First Order do the same for you? Or maybe you just weren't important enough. Maybe they were trying to repay you for your inefficiency."

The feeling inside your chest freezes, just for a moment.

Then you say, calmly, "I was going to ask about your nightmares, actually. How are they?"

His throat works.

"Thought so," you say, and swing your lightsaber down.

He yelps, just barely ducking away in time. He whirls around to return fire, and honestly, what's he doing? Buying time? It's a miracle he hasn't tripped over a tree root yet, since he's walking backward in order to keep himself facing you. He can't possibly hope to do any damage to you, armed with a single blaster, so why --

"You know, if I do have nightmares, I probably have you to thank. Lifetime of conditioning and all that."

"You say that like you believe I have a choice in the matter," you say, and his face does a number of peculiar things. Not being a mind-reader wouldn't be so hard, you think, if everybody's face expressed as much as his.

"Are you insane? There's always a choice!" he insists, and neither of you are talking about his upbringing now, and you know it. "Everything is a choice, Solo!"

"Organa!" you snarl back at him, and are immediately, blindingly furious with yourself for the slip.

Ben Organa died with the rest of the Jedi apprentices on Takodana. He had a mother he would step in front of a blaster for. He had a father who used to laugh whenever anybody asked why you -- he -- had his mother's name, instead of his father's. Why would I want him to have that? That's not the kind of legacy I want a boy of mine to carry.

Victory kindles in FN-2187's eyes, and you feel your lips curl off your teeth, helpless and enraged.

"What about you?" You launch yourself on the offensive. "How is FN-2187? Did you kill him when you became Finn? Or does he always threaten to strangle you, should you ever stop running?"

The smile drops off his face.

"That's not the same thing."

"Isn't it?"

You step toward him, and he steps back, momentarily illuminated by a pool of light from --

Wait.

It dawns on you abruptly that you can still hear the engines on the scavenger's X-Wing, which should have lifted off by now, and while you were chasing FN-2187 in circles, he's successfully maneuvered you into --

They fire in unison, FN-2187's small blaster and the X-Wing just barely hovering off the ground, and you drop your lightsaber in order to fling up both your hands, reaching out with the Force to freeze the bolts in place. They crackle wildly, suspended midair, the heat curling and igniting the dead foliage underneath them, and you duck out of the way before releasing your hold. The explosion lights your surroundings briefly -- the Stormtrooper, pelting over the jungle litter in the direction, you assume, of his own getaway ship.

You curse. Of course the scavenger wouldn't leave him behind, not even if he afforded her the distraction to do exactly that.

The X-Wing lifts, clearing the tops of the trees. It leaves you below, plunged back into darkness, with nobody in your head -- no Resistance, and none of your own soldiers, either.

 

***

 

Any inquiries regarding FN-2187 in the public access parts of the system earn you nothing but a giant red notice of "DEFECTED, KILL ON SIGHT," but the Knights of Ren were created to operate outside the system, and you put in a request for his files anyway.

The console beeps at you in irritation, and you mimicking the sound sarcastically doesn't make it work any faster, but after it considers your request and your override, you soon have all of his personnel records in your hands in their original condition.

They're standard, you find, nearly identical to any of the tens of thousands of others who've lived and died by the First Order's algorithm. Born to colonists who settled on MISTA005, he has all good marks, shown aptitude in at least five different potential specializations, and until Phasma's summary of the village situation on Jakku, he's never displayed antagonistic behavior or enemy sympathies to his superiors or his squadmates.

Idly, you scan downwards, already having moved on from this line of thought, and then you come to a shocked halt.

There's a note, inserted early in the Stormtrooper's training -- from your former master.

Dhar Ren's full comment is, Demonstrates possibility. Knights of Ren will monitor on behalf of Supreme Leader, and it takes you a long moment to decipher what that means, because you haven't consciously had to think like the Knight who trained you in several years. You work through it slowly, and then with certainty.

She suspected that FN-2187 might have Force-sense.

She'd planned to follow up.

You think about him blocking your attacks in the snow on Starkiller Base, instinctively compensating for the weightlessness of his blade -- something he'd never wielded before Takodana. You think about how you didn't hear him coming on the jungle planet, how he managed to find even footing with every step, even in the dark, in the trees, and while keeping himself turned toward you.

You think about having to go and kneel in front of your Supreme Leader and tell him that there aren't two Jedi to contend with -- there are three. A master, an apprentice, and someone who may or may not have discovered his powers yet.

Flinching, you lean back.

In the moment your defenses fall, the sound of everyone else on the ship escalates, pinning itself to the front of your skull. It makes you wish you had the liberty to pinch the bridge of your nose to try to stave it off. Your helmet manages to sit on the pressure points in all the wrong ways.

Although -- you lift your head.

What if you stopped the hunt for the girl?

Convincing her to join you isn't impossible, even now, but … you could bring the Stormtrooper to your master instead, and train him as the next Knight of Ren. There are a hundred and one buttons you could push, triggers he might not even know he has, that would get him to fall in line. He would be easier to manipulate than Rey would be -- you know his life in a way you can't know the life of a bone-picker from a poverty-stricken planet.

You turn in a circle on the spot, thinking hard.

If FN-2187 hated the First Order so much he would rather desert it than serve it, he has to know that he abandoned others to his same fate.

He'd want to change that. But how could he possibly do that from way out there?

If he was one of you, however, they'd have to listen. He could improve interrogation and retrieval protocol, so that an inefficiency like your massacre of villagers on Jakku won't happen again. Stormtrooper reeducation clearly needs to have an intelligent mind working on it; reeducation exists for the good of the unit, and to have a Stormtrooper so terrified of it you can sense it on him even months later is a problem.

There are so many things you could offer FN-2187, but …

Your shoulders drop down, curving inward.

You've been inside his head, and inside the scavenger's, and it won't matter what you do: whichever side of the Force one is on, there the other will be also.

And while it's possible you could pull FN-2187 to the Dark Side and call it his duty, you know you can't keep him there, not as long as Rey is in the Light.

So you're back to square one: you need the scavenger.

You're distracted, and underneath your thoughts, the Force continues to grow louder and louder until it -- it suddenly crescendoes, swamping your head with pain. You hiss, catching yourself against the console to keep your balance, but it's too late; you feel everybody on this ship, asleep or awake, important or mundane, as if all of them are standing over you, their thoughts and emotions turned up so loud it's like being buried.

You plant your feet in it and you yell back, enraged and frustrated and tired of never being allowed to have a quiet thought without the Force there.

Your hand is at your side, unconsciously.

When you're done, the console is dripping liquid alloyed metal to the floor, hot enough to feel your skin blistering under your gloves.

General Hux is at the end of the corridor, and his sallow, thin-milk face bears the smallest tear in the corner; the contemptuous, superior smirk of someone watching a small child make a puddle on the floor.

 

***

 

When the New Republic was founded, it was decided that the capital, along with the Senate, wouldn't remain on Coruscant -- too much history, too many memories. A fresh start required fresh ideas.

In order to foster democracy, cooperation, and diversity, the New Republic would migrate to a new host planet every five years, and the next one would be chosen by general election. Any planet could be eligible -- those in the Core, those on the Outer Rim, and those in between. Any planet that wanted a say in how its government made decisions could find itself the hub.

"But Coruscant is located almost exactly at the center of our galaxy," you say to your mother, trotting to keep up with her. At twelve, it isn't that your legs aren't as long as hers, it's just that she moves really fast. "That's how it became the Planet of Lights -- it was never more than three or four hyperspace jumps from any other point in the galaxy."

"True," she says, and darts you a curious sidelong look. "And?"

"So what happens when the capital's on the Outer Rim? The planets farthest away from the Outer Rim are also on the Outer Rim -- what if they can't afford the time and expense to travel that distance? Will they just have to sit out of the Senate for five years?"

The two of you come to a halt outside the lift, and she takes the opportunity to unpin a twist of her hair and redo it while she considers your question.

"I'm sure in that case, they'll elect to have their representative stay on-planet for the duration of its term, and communicate with their constituents long-distance, but it'll be interesting to see." She smiles, and licks her thumb so that she can scrub some offending stain off your face -- you twist away, muttering embarrassedly. There are lifeforms everywhere, Mom, do you have to? "The whole thing is still so very new. The New Republic is only as old as you are, after all -- you were born on the same day. Does that make you twins, do you think?"

You grimace at her, because that joke's getting old.

She smiles back. "We're still learning. There are hundreds of existing problems that haven't gone away, and so many new ones we haven't uncovered yet. But --"

The hologate on the lift dematerializes with a cheerful ding, and you both look up to find that four Gungans have tried to squeeze themselves into the "humanoids and smallers only" car, probably in a hurry.

"We'll catch the next one," your mother says politely, and looks back to you. "Coruscant's location made it easy to reach in an emergency, but the Empire used that same proximity to terrorize others. It's time to break away from that."

You nod.

After the Battle of Endor, the Rebellion chased the last dregs of the Empire to the very edge of colonized space, where they made their last stand in the corridor between an arid, sinkhole planet called Jakku and its neighbor.

Your mother had been there. Your uncle had been there. You'd even been there, you were surprised to realize once, although you couldn't have been much at the time; a pressure on your mother's insides, a collection of veins and the suggestion of a person.

After the surrender came, the Empire signed the Galactic Concordance and disappeared into the Uncharted Territories -- and that had been Snoke's idea.

"I found them when they were weak," your Supreme Leader tells you, after. "Incapable of recovering from the loss of their leaders, their lieutenants, and their legend. Offering my expertise seemed like the least I could do."

When he read the Concordance, he'd laughed at it. The loopholes were many and varied, he said -- it's like the New Republic wasn't even trying.

The First Order could not possess a weapon of any kind, nor the means to manufacture any, but what need do you have for weapons, Snoke pointed out, when you were allowed to have people?

He suggested that they pursue a side project long-shelved by the Empire, a back-up plan to a back-up plan that somebody'd dropped into a data bank somewhere and forgot about: the colonization of the MISTA system. To build a power base, the First Order didn't need to stoop to such barbarian behavior as conquering. The Empire had tried that and failed.

Instead, it would grow its own population from refugees and homesteaders, from hopefuls looking for a new start. He suggested the breeding regimen, to cherry-pick a superior survival rate and -- more importantly -- to encourage desirable traits. He suggested that they start training up troops and to do it now. The First Order isn't allowed to have a military, and the New Republic systematically dismantled all the Imperial Academies, but nowhere in the Concordance did it say they couldn't offer free fitness programs to its people -- it's a coincidence, of course, that these things have a lot in common with military training, but why fix something that isn't broken?

And the New Republic … well, the New Republic was tired of fighting, tired of chasing the phantom that the Empire left behind, and it wanted to focus on reconstruction, on moving forward.

It left people like your mother gripping her hands into fists, seeing the inevitable coming but being unable to stop it.

The Resistance formed -- officially, at least, with funding from the Senate and support from the Chancellor -- when you were twelve, but even before it was called that, you were being raised in it. You were brought up in the Resistance as surely as General Hux had been brought up in the First Order.

Its roots are planted in you; twisted, gnarled things that still sometimes catch you unawares, even when you think you've burned away every last bit of it.

 

***

 

The first assignment you and Hux serve together, you aren't quite eighteen yet, although you've grown into the kind of towering height that made sure it doesn't matter.

You're still fresh from your failure on Naboo, stinging and wounded and trying to outlive the consequences, and your Supreme Leader sends you to the THAIN system, a previously uninhabited chunk of space that contains five potentially viable planets. Two of those planets will take considerable investment in terraining if you are to populate them, and it's for this reason that Hux -- not yet a general, but a much-lauded architect straight from civil service -- accompanies you.

You are to trust his judgment. If he thinks it's doable, then the Supreme Leader is willing to commit to the expense.

"You are the same age, even," he adds offhandedly. You look up in time to catch his sardonic smile, etched at you in blue holo-light. "Perhaps you can be friends."

When you meet Hux for the first time, he snaps his heels together and announces himself.

He gives you a summary of his objective in the THAIN system, followed by a description of his qualifications, which you already know. You tilt your head, and listen to what his words aren't telling you.

He has five brothers and a sister. He views everybody as competition.

You have no brothers or sisters. (No, Lando, the New Republic doesn't count.) There'd been kids your age, and you could even call them friends, but you traveled so much -- as children, that hadn't mattered and you were always able to pick up right where you left off, but then you stopped being children and started being people, and that got harder. The fact that nobody could have a private thought without you hearing it also probably had something to do with it, and so your closest friends growing up were always droids.

Droids have no Force presence; nothing for you to manipulate, nothing to bombard you with when you were trying to sleep. You couldn't know their secrets just by digging your fingers in. They were the closest you could get to the kind of friendships others must have, the kind they have to work at.

(You're almost glad when circumstance hands you Poe Dameron, then Rey -- they are the kind of clay you can work with, and so you never had to see what Hux planned to do to the BB8 unit.)

"-- of my specialization in meteorological architecture, I was chosen for this mission," Hux winds down. At university, he'd pursued his degree with a ferocity that gained note from his superiors, and eventually the attention of the Supreme Leader.

When you respond with nothing but silence, a sickle of a smile cuts into the side of his face.

Ah, you think. He's figured out who you have to be -- not everybody does.

He explains, slowly and with so much arched condescension it has you thinking geometrically, "I create storms. And I calm them. I'm very good at what I do. The breadbasket belts that feed MISTA002 and 004 only thrive because of my atmospheric alterations."

"I'm sure your skills will be very valuable to your military career," you allow, diplomatically, and the sickle twists, cutting further into himself.

In that moment, he fits you neatly into one of his preset molds:

You are to be his antagonist, he decides. You are an obstacle he must overcome, nobly and with competence. He already has it pictured, right down to your eventual fade into obscurity in the face of his meteoric rise. He's left a string of such people everywhere he's gone, at home and in school and in the service; nemeses that he's crushed and moved on from, regardless of whether or not they were aware of their roles. Under your helmet, where he can't see it, you press your lips together and suppress a snort. Honestly.

But the First Order is thriving, and needs room to expand.

And like any successful growth, it needs to be maintained.

You need planets with resources. You need bodies. The THAIN system provides the first, and the New Republic is all too willing to provide the second, although they don't intend to. Economic depression has ground several areas of galactic commerce to a dead halt. On the Outer Rim, where systemic poverty meets a grinding lack of aid or opportunities, people are tracking down First Order recruiters to escape. Better chance it as a colonist than starve to death in the safety of the New Republic, they figure.

You go as overseer.

The first generation of settlers is always the worst -- "unsanitized," is Hux's word for it -- and you are to work with their leaders, those most likely to sow dissent if the treatment they receive isn't to their liking.

You visit with them, and you talk.

It's civilized, even if it isn't always sanitary.

You want them to understand that the First Order has no intention of mistreating its colonists. That's counterproductive. After all, the First Order would not exist without its settlers, its homesteaders, its brave frontiersmen, which is why they have to trust that the First Order knows best. Some indulgences they enjoyed in the New Republic will need to be sacrificed. Some behaviors will not be tolerated. Opposition to these changes will do nothing but distress others, and that's not the kind of environment you intend to subject your people to. If they give to you, you will give them everything you promised. You make sure of it.

The most observant colonists will often talk back to you. It's very informative.

Food rations are based on a human diet. Work shifts are based on the average human physical capacity. Permits for breeding are granted to humans with far fewer restrictions than they are for others. The prebuilt housing units available at new settlement sites are always defaulted for human occupants, and special accommodations for nonhuman needs are available, but require more paperwork. Your Supreme Leader's desire for the easiest, most biddable population is there in the fine print.

Sometimes, these microaggressions are noticed.

Sometimes, there are complaints.

You, Kylo Ren, are sent to correct this.

Their minds are quiet when you're done with them, and at least for a little bit, the Force is completely, utterly silent.

 

***

 

You live like this for years, chasing those moments. It's the closest you're going to get to how you felt in Snoke's presence, the first time he spoke to you, the first time you realized the Force could be made to shut up.

You might as well admit it: you'll do anything for that silence.

 

***

 

Starkiller Base is Hux's masterwork. It's the culmination of everything he's been building his career towards.

A space station built into a moon-like planetisimal, capable of generating not only enough power to sustain its own breathable, self-recycling atmosphere (albeit a bitterly cold, almost always snowcapped one,) but also of creating an energy pulse stronger than a meteorite strike. It'll be a weapon unlike anything the galaxy's ever seen. The First Order will never again have to fear the noose of another Concordance.

There's a moment of silence following the presentation of the specs at the round table. Your Supreme Leader's hologram hovers at the center of it.

Hux is breathing hard; he likes to shout.

Then Trel Ren pipes up.

"So basically what you're telling us," they say. "Is that you need your lightsaber to be bigger than ours."

 

***

 

When you're done with THAIN, you have five new planets to oversee, and Hux has his military rank.

You also have an apprentice.

Trel Ren is older than you, though not by much, and two heads shorter. You've never seen their face, and they've never seen yours. (At least, not in the flesh. Sometimes, your -- no, sometimes Ben's mother makes the news holos. Sometimes, they're watched, even out here. Sometimes, you're mentioned.) The shape they make in the Force is all teeth, ferret-faced and sharp, and that's more real to you than the sight of their helmet, identical to yours.

To train them, you have to return to MISTA001, so that your Supreme Leader can observe and offer guidance.

Very few apprentices survive the tests they're put through, but there's a feeling to Trel Ren that you trust.

You teach them how to duel -- the form, the discipline -- and you train them in the ways of the Force. Your lessons are piecemeal, half-jumbled with things Luke Skywalker tried to teach you, and what Dhar Ren later corrected.

Snoke, in turn, teaches them to wield each emotion like it's its own saber, to compress it thin and deadly and then when to ignite it; he teaches them to feel their emotions, not to suppress them, and then turn them into weapons, not distractions. Each of his Knights has a particular one you're adept at, that Snoke encourages you to feel to the point of mastery: for Cora Ren, it's joy, that particular kind one gets when listening to an exceptionally moving symphony, only his symphony is the hum of his lightsaber and the sound flesh makes, dying before it can cry out. For Dhar Ren, it had been loyalty to the First Order and her master; when she tapped into it, she could turn the Force into a bulwark, and nothing could touch her.

"And you?" Trel Ren inquires, tilting their head at you. Then, because they can't resist biting, "Is it vanity?"

"Anger," you correct them. "Pain."

When you reach a certain point with both, the Force goes crystal-clear, sharp, and suspended on a note so high you can't hear it. In that state, you can do anything.

It feels a lot like power. It almost feels like peace.

Trel Ren thinks about it. "So. Self-pity, in other words?" they say, and laugh when you snarl.

The Supreme Leader hopes that you can train them to do as you do, walking in and out of people's minds like you're in a forest of matchstick trees, with footsteps no longer light nor kind. But you're not sure how. How can you teach someone this thing that you've done all your life, without meaning to?

Your attempts to enter their head uncovers only the most cursory things -- like you, their childhood involved a lot of people who liked to yell and a lot of different places and not much else, but that's where the similarities end. You see their mother turning herself in, a smuggler's compartment in the sub-level hull where they'd hide with other children during role call, keeping up the mental chant of more kids means more taxes, so don't get found! You see how sometimes on slow nights they could pick up holo-channels from as far away as the First Order. Oh, how they wanted to be like Ace from the holodramas, who could look the bullies in the eye and say --

Trel Ren snatches your hand and nearly breaks three of your fingers. That's as far as the two of you go on that count.

"Apprentice kills the master, then becomes them," they remind you, panting. "Isn't that how this goes?"

Your own training had been --

-- rain, droid, Istill, Jee'eke, Queenie's heart drumming astromech-fast with fear, red light --

-- sudden, but Trel Ren doesn't require the same push that you did. There's no one to sever them from, so you train them first with the durasteel swords from the Supreme Leader's armory (which are exactly as ornamental as they sound -- you could probably only kill one person at a time with them,) before allowing them to practice with your lightsaber.

"Apprentice kills the master? If I ever fall so deeply asleep you manage that, then you deserve to have it."

They grimace, using both hands to swing figure-eights, trying to get a feel for it. Your lightsaber crackles messily, resisting, and they seem nervous of the guards.

"It's heavier than I thought," they comment.

It's not weight, it's instability, but you suppose that could feel like heaviness to someone who'd never fought with a kyber-powered weapon before. "It's an old design." So old, in fact, it can barely be called Sith, and it always feels like it's about to fall apart at any moment, like every time you ignite it is a risk, but it's yours.

"When do I get mine?"

"When you're done with training," you say, and sidestep when this results in Trel Ren immediately swinging for your head. "Killing me isn't going to complete your training any faster, Ren."

"Won't it?"

"Well, it might, but you'll have a mess, too."

"No, I won't!" You can't see their smile through their mask, but it turns on you in the Force, all razor-sharp and venomous and so, so pleased. "Lightsabers don't make messes."

The ones the Knights use are secondhand. Snoke salvages them from the most questionable corners of space.

He's a collector, after all. The blade he presents to Trel Ren is shorter than yours and blunter than Dhar Ren's spear had been, more like a long knife than a saber, with a grip that curves right into their palm. It fits their capacity for brutal speed, their Force-enhanced agility, and it leaves the two of you pretty evenly matched; your long reach versus their ability to somersault right over your head. You have to work to keep yourself alive now, dueling with them.

By the time they become a fully-fledged Knight of Ren, your second generation has been born in the THAIN system, and as they grow, so do the demands.

You send Trel Ren to intimidate your outside suppliers, to lean on your contracts with the well-established guilds that provide funds, goods, and services denied by the Galactic Concordance. It requires Trel Ren's particular skill set and reminds you, almost, if you were allowed to think about it, of Commander Bridger. Domestic terrorism.

Your weapon requisitions increase accordingly, and Trel Ren laughs with delight, head thrown back, their lightsaber gripped loosely at their side, with ease.

"When are we going after the Resistance?" they ask you.

You frown. "Are they being bothersome?"

They consider it, shrugging. "I guess not. But will we be sent somewhere together, Ren? Will I get to fight side-by-side with you, instead of this fake sparring nonsense we have? Maybe we can get a little competition going -- how many nerf-heads can I send rolling before you even get that big lug of a sword in the air?"

"One Knight of Ren is sufficient," you say. "That's why we exist."

Their head jerks, alert to what you didn't say. "You've been on a group mission before."

"Yes," you say, end of discussion.

 

***

 

MISTA-sub02-1, a moon of MISTA002, underproduces from the very beginning. Several factors contribute to this: not enough settlers, too much demand for supply that's more difficult to mine than estimated, lack of follow-through and poor consistency on part of the local government, all leading to an undisciplined, overworked population. It reaches breaking point.

Riots disrupt exports, and given the highly contagious nature of bad behavior, there's a real risk it could spread to neighboring colonies.

You arrive at the Supreme Leader's conservatory to find Dhar Ren and Cora Ren already there.

Long black helmets look up as you approach, and you acknowledge each other with a nod before Cora Ren resumes pacing on his bowed, foreshortened legs. He might be a very dwarfish human, but you think it's more likely that he's cross-species. Dhar Ren glances skyward as another ship passes close enough to the atrium's ceiling to rattle the transparisteel, then leans on her lightsaber -- a long grey staff that could easily be mistaken for a walking stick, until she ignites the blunt red blade at the tip and runs an enemy through.

You fall into parade rest at her side and wait to be summoned.

The First Order has no true nerve center -- no mothership, no capital, no home base. Your Supreme Leader's network of holographic receivers means that he can be projected to wherever he is needed. His generals and overseers -- and his Knights, too, when you're in the field -- only see him as he wishes to be seen, towering over them in behemoth proportions.

It allows him to spend his days here, in his stronghold so high in the mountains of MISTA001 it's only accessible by aircraft. Each wing of the conservatory is a dome plated with transparisteel, which on approach gives it the appearance of several large, iridescent soap bubbles clustered together and clinging to the cliffside, all with tiny worlds contained within.

Snoke's fascination with unique species leads to the desire to possess them, and everywhere you go in the conservatory, there's something fantastical to see -- four-winged birds that were indigenous to THAIN005 before Hux's meteorological adjustments, phosphorescent amphibians that glow underneath clear-paneled walkways in the corridors, exhibits that you've never seen because they're so hermitically-sealed, so pressure- and gas-controlled that entering one would kill you.

It's more like a zoo than anything, you think in your most uncharitable moments.

Which would make the Knights of Ren … what, exactly?

When you're permitted to enter, your Supreme Leader is a dark silhouette hovering in front of a dozen lighted screens. Standing at attention between Dhar Ren and Cora Ren, you flick your eyes up, trying to make sense of what they're displaying. All show footage from MISTA-sub02-1's only outpost.

Just like that, you know why you're here.

For these tasks, Snoke never sends less than three Knights -- you are there as much to police each other as you are to complete your mission, which means this is going to be something horrible, even by First Order standards.

A moment passes, in which there isn't a sound except for the tinny echo coming from the screens; the sound of a hundred angry bodies. It's disorder. It's what the First Order cannot abide.

Snoke turns.

"Eliminate them," he commands.

"Supreme Leader," the three of you acknowledge at once, and you leave.

You go hunting.

Several years later, when the Finalizer is docked in MISTA-sub02-1's shipyard, Hux mentions the moon's past -- how the uprising here was crushed, the earth salted, the colony restarted since it was too valuable to lose, and you acknowledge it absently. You're not thinking and you say something like, "Yes, I was there. We were efficient and the losses were acceptable," and you feel it neatly puncture Hux's picturesque story.

You ignore it, because it's not your fault your matter-of-factness gets in the way of his fantasy about First Order glory (of which he, of course, will be a vital contributing part. You've seen the image, worn smooth by years of fingerprints as Hux touches it again and again for luck, of himself standing in front of a sea of white helmets, framed by the crimson of the First Order flag, his arms raised like a conductor and arms raised to him. You are, frankly, sick of seeing it.)

Except Hux isn't done with you.

His lip curls. It shakes. So do the ends of his fingers, even as he fists them behind his back to hide it.

"This isn't one of your simulations, Ren, it's not data, it's --" he says between his teeth, and then clamps down on it.

You wait, expecting more, but he masters the twitching in his jaw and swallows it, until the compact knot moves from his throat to his chest. You swear you can see its progress, cold and molten at his core. It would be different, you think, if he was angry on behalf of the colonists, the ones with frightened faces who fell with cauterized neatness before three lightsaber blades. That you would accept. That would be fair. The fact that he's mad you won't accept his story of it --

No.

You turn away.

Hux has never had to kill a person up close, and the fact that he thinks he can judge you when he's drafting up modifications for a base that can destroy planets is laughable to you.

How is it, you think, that everyone thinks you're the angry one.

You're not.

("You lied to me, when you said anger was your weapon. You don't know anger," Trel Ren says, glancing at you sidelong and dismissing you, fast as that. "You don't know what anger really is until you've been the bootscrape the government uses to clean off the mud. You can't know what we feel.")

What you are -- what you are is afraid.

In your defense, fear is easy to mistake for anger, but you, Kylo Ren, you're terrified.

You're terrified of what the Supreme Leader will do if you fail him. You're terrified of what your parents will do if they capture you. You're terrified that Luke Skywalker is out there, somewhere, and you will have to look him in the face. You live in this terror every day of your life. You're almost used to it.

You're not like FN-2187. You cannot be this afraid and then still act in the face of it. It paralyzes you.

But if you tell yourself that you're angry instead, then you don't have to confront this thought.

Trel Ren is angry. Hux is angry. They are the stillness before an explosion ignites. They are angry enough to fuel and destroy a system.

(You? You're just scared.)

 

***

 

The second time you lose the scavenger in the Tashtor Sector, it forces you to limp back to First Order space for repairs. When she sees the Finalizer and the sorely depleted state of your Stormtrooper squadrons, the quartermaster on base gets a particularly pinched look, like you're something questionable she'll have to scrub off her boots later.

Wasteful, says her mind.

Your Supreme Leader summons you to his stronghold, and Hux darts you a look like he sincerely hopes you're about to get smeared down the mountainside.

Wasteful, says his mind.

You swallow your pounding heart until it's back in your chest, and you find a puddle-jumper to take you to MISTA001.

Snoke, however, isn't interested in discussing your failure to capture one girl-child.

He floats up to you as you enter, already talking. You tear your eyes away from the dripping carcass suspended over an enclosure that's mostly obscured by flat, blue trees -- feeding time for something, apparently -- and tune in time to hear, "-- rock formations that are visual illusions. They appear solidly conical from a distance, but are not."

"Supreme Leader," you acknowledge, completely lost.

"It's likely that the Jedi Temple Skywalker seeks is on this planet, Kylo Ren," Snoke says, and you straighten up. "Take the personnel you trust and proceed to Lothal. Set a trap for Skywalker."

"Yes, Supreme Leader," and you leave before he can mention anything else.

You commandeer Captain Phasma from Hux (like the both of you, Phasma had to work to regain her standing after Starkiller Base, and unlike the both of you, succeeded,) and a ship from the quartermaster, whose lips go very white. "Sir," she says stiffly, and you leave Phasma with her to haggle for however many Stormtroopers can be spared -- you trust Phasma to know which would be best. There's a shortage, the quartermaster reminds her. Yes, I know, says Phasma. I was there.

Lothal is a golden prairie planet on the Outer Rim so geographically flat it plays host to terrifying windstorms. You know as soon as you land that your Supreme Leader's lead is wrong; the temple isn't here.

It can't be. The caves aren't the right type.

But there might be a temple, if not the first temple, so you throw yourself into the investigation anyway. You clear out one smuggler's cove, which results in some interesting weapons you can send to R&D on MISTA007 and at least a half-dozen now ex-smugglers who have decided that they would rather be settlers in the THAIN system. You had them at "basic income," you think. Also -- you glance around -- at "plumbing."

The next site you investigate is an ambush.

It starts like a breeze going over the back of your neck -- except your skin is always covered, and the sensation makes your spine go straight and your head come up, alert.

On the other side of the planet, a dreadnought leaps out of hyperspace. You feel it in the Force; weathered, recycled, and well-worn -- all things you automatically associate with the Resistance. You come to an abrupt stop.

Your mother is on board.

She might not be able to sense you yet, but that's only a matter of distance.

"Retreat!" you shout.

It startles your Stormtroopers half out of their skins, and they halt so suddenly they almost fall out of formation. Their confusion flashes at you, faster than plasma bursts.

"Sir?" Phasma questions, offended. Everything in the immediate vicinity is nonthreatening -- rocks, and the grasses, and a gape-mouthed furry animal no bigger than a shoebox eyeing you cautiously from an outcropping are the only things in sight. Rock spires disfigure the near distance, still far enough away that the optical illusion holds; it looks like a single swirl rising out of the landscape. They are practically Lothal's only landmarks. Up close, it will be several smaller spires clustered together, hiding a warren of caves within.

"The Resistance is here. Move!"

You're glad, right then, that you insisted the quartermaster let you borrow a warship, not a stealth ship, because your TIE fighters successfully scramble in time to meet the Resistance X-Wings in orbit.

You, Phasma, and your troopers race through the tall grass single-file. Your shuttle sits on a rise, gleaming chrome under the grassland sun, and you're cursing the proximity of the caves, the height of the grass, and the absolute lack of cover for a shuttle that size, because the first Stormtroopers in line fall to the scavenger before they can even register her appearance.

The line breaks, soldiers yelling, weapons cocking and discharging.

The lightsaber hisses.

You bellow in outrage. Your troopers had been warned there might be Jedi mumbo-jumbo, but this isn't what you meant.

You wish, for an even stranger moment, that you were like your uncle, who could levitate things with an idle wave of his hand. You never managed that level of control; your ability to stop things in motion isn't the same. You can't sweep your soldiers aside the way you want (you are not as strong as Darth Vader, you are not as strong as -- you will never -- but you have to --) and you are not returning to the quartermaster and telling her you lost another squadron of Stormtroopers. Hux will smear you down the mountainside himself.

So you yell at them to get down and swing your lightsaber above your head, two handed. The spitting light succeeds in drawing Rey's attention.

She bares teeth.

One hand fishes in the pouch hanging off the back of her belt, and she tosses something to the ground at your feet. It clunks heavily, rolling to a stop in front of you. Wires stick out of it. You're not your uncle or your father, you don't know ships. You wouldn't have any idea what it was if she wasn't beaming it into your head.

You sigh, and add one sabotaged shuttle to your list. The quartermaster and Hux will have to flip a coin on who gets to kill you first.

She switches her grp on her lightsaber and calls to you, "That piece of junk up there -- don't tell me it's yours? How'd you wind up with that garbage?"

"My usual ship is full of holes," you return. "Please give my regards to Poe Dameron on that front."

Rey barks with laughter, triumphant.

You don't think she means to let you see it, but her affection for the pilot comes off of her as a sunstruck, bubbling thing, as vast as the golden prairie grasses that surround you.

You can't blame her. Poe Dameron doesn't do double-talk. His head, heart, and mouth all say the same thing.

On her belly in the dirt, one of your Stormtroopers gets her blaster leveled. She takes aim. You fling a hand out sideways and freeze her in place -- your Supreme Leader won't be pleased if you bring him a dead girl. If you drive Rey to other side of the ship, Phasma could get your people onboard, maybe even start fixing the … whatever Rey did.

You attack.

Her blade comes up, parrying your blow like -- like she knows she carries a lightsaber now, not a staff.

Your envy snags on the hilt and the steady, purring blade. The fact that your grandfather's lightsaber had been on Takodana the entire time is -- is -- is just. You could have had -- and instead, you get --

But of course, why would you return there?

It doesn't matter, anyway, because it belongs to the scavenger. Cora Ren always scoffed at the idea that lightsaber loyalty is a thing, but behind his back, Dhar Ren shook her her head at you: it absolutely is, and here's one of the few remaining true lightsabers in the known galaxy, and a girl-child from Jakku carries it clipped to her belt like she's certain of it.

Lightsaber crafting is a Jedi art, lost to the war. Commander Bridger remembered some details from when he made his in secret, hiding from the Empire -- anyone can wield a lightsaber, but only those with Force-sense can craft one, which rules him out now -- and Skywalker had tried between missions to uncover the rest, especially as he had a flock of fledgling Jedi growing up on his coattails.

"What was supposed to be here?" you demand, and the light hits her eyes.

"Why?" she taunts back. "Didn't find anything, I take it?"

"Well now I've found plenty," you point out. You lower your blade just enough for her to see the way you tilt your chin at the sky. "Interesting. What brings General Organa to Lothal?"

The reaction is instantaneous:

The lightsaber sizzles past you, missing your helmet's visor by an inch.

"You --" she spits in fury, and comes at you again, forcing you back several sharp steps before you get your lightsaber up between you again. You crash together so hard your heels skid an inch back in the loam, and her face is inches from yours, flyaway hairs and slick teeth as she snarls, "-- have lost any right to even say her name -- you -- you --"

You twist out from underneath her blow, forcing her to stagger to the side before she compensates, blade spluttering and skipping off the soil.

In an instant, she is on you again, and your lightsabers crack together once, twice, three times.

"-- you MURDERING BASTARD."

Your father makes a flash-bright peculiar shape in the Force, plummeting between you, and you're still blinking the afterimages from your eyes when she spins away. The Force contracts, right before she throws a punch.

Her fist doesn't connect with you, but it doesn't need to: she takes the Force and hits you like a battering ram.

You are knocked clean off your feet.

You hit the ground, flattening prairie grass as you roll, and when you skid back up onto your knees, your hands are empty.

You cast about wildly, but you can't see the silver gleam of your lightsaber anywhere. You fling out a hand and try to summon it, but by then Rey's recovered from her own surprise and is nearly on top of you.

A shot rings out.

Rey shrieks in pain, stumbling and almost falling. Her boot smokes, and agony flinches all the way through her when she puts her weight on that foot. You look up, see Phasma settling into a sniper's position atop the shuttle, hidden from Rey's line of sight by its fins. She didn't miss: she's shooting to incapacitate, not to kill.

You scramble to your feet, holding your left side as your organic and artificial parts disagree with each other.

Still disarmed, you reach for Rey's head and fire with the one weapon that has always been at hand.

"If I can't ask after my mother, then how is our dear FN-2187?" you say, and watch blood spray from the impact. Memories scatter into the dirt at her feet, and you sift through them fast before she has the sense to shove you away.

You press, "Oh, good. That well?"

Control is yours again. You could be in the ring with Trel Ren, or any of the apprentices who came before them. She could be --

"He's very competent. I don't want him to think the First Order isn't suffering for the lack of him. We rely so heavily on our Stormtroopers --"

"Stop talking!"

"-- his squad sorely misses him and want him back -- or, well," you lift a hand and make an equivocal gesture. "They would, had he not got them all killed."

The lightsaber comes up and she darts for you, but the whine-click-SEAR of Phasma's shot drives her back before she can land a hit.

You circle around her, keeping her at a distance while scanning the ground for your weapon, and she circles back in unison. Her lightsaber descends to hang ready at the ready at her side, kicking blue light off the grass and the side of the shuttle, and her other hand drifts along, fingers twitching in that direction as she tries to pinpoint --

You put yourself between her and Phasma and you raise your voice.

"I'm glad you have company. You were alone all your life, weren't you? Abandoned. I can see how much that would mean to you. And the pilot -- oh, Dameron again? Are you aware that he has friends outside of you that he's likely been neglecting? And your Finn --"

Her body jerks, but it's your mind she throws herself against this time, meeting the bars and snarling --

"-- you don't get to call him that!"

"Yes, of course, I'm sorry," you allow. "Quite popular, isn't he? He made all those friends while you were chasing Skywalker. Friends who aren't quite your friends, I take it? He says it doesn't matter, but it does. It matters to you. You found him first. But you can't keep him at the exclusion of all others, Rey. Him or Poe. Don't you think you're demanding enough of their time?"

The hit lands exactly as you want it: with her fears now given voice, made real, control slips right out of her hands, and she leaps over it to launch herself at you, lightsaber arcing above her head.

Ah, you have time to think.

 

***

 

You hold yourself still in the presence of your Supreme Leader.

"Investigation into Lothal yielded nothing," you report, and he leans back onto his throne and says, "hmmmm," rumbling deep and slow. He says nothing else, so you bow and dismiss yourself.

The comm ends and his hologram shimmers out when you're half-way down the walkway, which is roughly when you collapse.

 

***

 

"Sir," your reconstructionist says when you wake.

"Dgggnn," you manage, eloquently, and allow yourself a moment to be grateful he was among the essential personnel you thought to requisition from the quartermaster. You lever yourself up onto your elbows, taking stock of what hurts worse. You're the only one in the medbay, which swims your stomach: that either means no one else got hurt, or they were all beyond helping.

The reconstructionist folds his hands at rest behind his back and addresses a point above your ear, "The repair droids we brought from the Finalizer have a complaint to make, sir."

You frown, trying to process the switch, but you're drugged and duller than you like.

"Is there an inefficiency?" you ask. And furthermore, why hadn't they come to you? There'd been time for them to do so while you were waiting for supplies to be transferred from the Finalizer, before you left for Lothal. And there's no reason for shyness; a childhood spent distracting concerned astromech droids while your father and uncle threw themselves into X-Wing repair like it was imperative they out-fix each other meant that you understand droid-speak just fine.

"Their specialty is technical repairs, sir. If you insist on injuring yourself instead of the sanitation control consoles like you usually do, they feel they are not being productive."

It occurs to you, belatedly, that he is being glib.

You stare at him, and he adds, "sir," unnecessarily.

"This is a much less expensive repair," is what you decide on, because regrowing tissue only requires that you have the right bacta template. You would have thought they would be pleased that instead of ruining your ship, you've been falling on Jedi.

The reconstructionist makes a noncommittal noise in response, then nothing else, and you think that's that.

Except after a pause, he speaks again.

"Sir," and he's being careful about it. "I noticed it last time, but there was no chance to discuss it with you. Your artificial organs -- were you a child when they were installed?"

This is not at all what you're expecting to hear, and you look up at him, completely blank.

"They're undersized," he explains.

They would be. "Yes," you say. "Some were meant to grow as I did, but at least one would require later replacement." Unconsciously, your hand goes to your side, covering the blackened, punched-out scar there. If Chewie had aimed a little higher … had he been banking on the First Order already having done the replacement?

The reconstructionist eyes you and starts, "It would be no trouble …"

"No," you say flatly. "They are mine."

"Sir," he snaps his heels again. Then, "General Hux commed for you," and whatever it was he just tried to start with you, that's your signal that it's over, "wanting a brief on Lothal."

Great. You're looking forward to having this likened to your disaster on Naboo. Again.

"Nothing happened on Lothal," you say, already looking for your helmet. You need to wash your clothes again.

Rey will make you bleed every time, you think. Every time.

"Yes, sir. Understood."

 

***

 

If your legacy as Kylo Ren will always be the quiet you leave when you're done with a place, then Dhar Ren's is the exact opposite.

"We're learning. The Empire did not succeed because of any one reason, but because it was an orchestra of many parts, a hundred instruments that worked in symphony," she tells you, and opens the door ahead of her with a Force-wave of her hand, allowing the both of you to sweep through without breaking stride. "When we say 'Empire,' most people in the galaxy remember Darth Vader's reign of terror, and it had its place in that orchestra. Fear is a powerful motivator."

She glances behind her, and you straighten unthinkingly. The son of Darth Vader's daughter has been a Knight of Ren for six months. The robes are only fractionally less annoying than the Jedi ones had been, and any time you might have had for -- for regrets, but let's call it homesickness -- is eaten up by your Supreme Leader's tutelage, and Dhar Ren's lessons.

As you are, you don't motivate much.

"But the greatest of the Empire's strengths were," she flicks one gloved finger into the air. "Its Academies, and its propaganda machine."

You nod. Your uncle had wanted to apply for the Imperial Academy in his system when he was young -- he hadn't seen it as a beacon of evil, but as a chance for escape. You remember your mother and Shara Bey Dameron, who'd flown in from Yavin 4 with a half-dozen other former Rebellion pilots when you were twelve to school the Senate on who, exactly, they had to thank for their freedom. You were supposed to be in bed, and they were drunk as Ewoks with their arms around each other, howling out the chorus to "The Empire is Might, the Empire is Right," remembered in perfect clarity even all these years later. Master Calrissian pounded his mug on the table and hollered, that's not even the dirty version, ladies! What's the point if it's not the dirty version!

Dhar Ren darts you another glance, and you realize you're humming it without thinking.

You stop and swallow. The Empire died the day you were born -- you shouldn't know the song at all.

"I proudly attended the Academy on Lothal. I grew up looking forward to having a holiday every Empire Day, without thinking about the sacrifice of the generation before me that made it possible."

"Are you in charge of … our propaganda, then?" you hazard.

The hallway she leads you down is walled with slanted transparisteel, showing you the mist-wreathed foothills and the neighboring peaks, which lack an official designation by cartographers but are simply called the Ascent by MISTA001's colonists. Moisture collects on the inside of the panes, giving the view a sleepy, foggy feel. Somewhere up there is your Supreme Leader's conservatory.

"The thing about propaganda is that there's always someone smart enough to know what they're looking at. I wanted to provide … something subtler."

Further down, a door warns you to open slowly if the red light is lit; recording in progress. It's on.

Dhar Ren gestures you into an unmarked room, lined with file cabinets stacked to the ceiling. Scaffolding and tarps along the opposite wall tells you there's an expansion in progress. You drift close enough to pull one of the drawers out. A hundred data slips are crammed together inside, and you tilt your head to read the tabs. "Episode 1:1," "Episode 1:2."

It clicks.

"The holodramas?" comes out of you, shocked. "You're the creator of the holodramas?" Wait, no -- you look around. "Is this -- your -- I mean, our whole entertainment channel?"

You can't see Dhar Ren's smile, but you hear it in her voice. In the Force, the shape of her near glows with pride.

"It was my idea. Our people work long hours in order to enjoy the amenities we, the First Order, take great care in providing." She gestures at all the cabinets. "This gives them something that will feel like a reward. It's one thing to work just to get food. It's another to work because at the end, you have a holo to look forward to."

With her permission, you start looking through the other titles.

There are dramas, documentaries, comedies, animated series for children -- there's probably even something on par with Roid-Up BATTLE DROIDS in here, something Chewie and Commander Bridger would be thrilled by and your mother would despair at. Having a variety of options is important, Dhar Ren tells you, because the more that's available for them here in their own system, the less likely people will be to bootleg New Republic media, with all its dangerous New Republic ideas and values.

You're stunned by their depth: they're all planned years in advance. Dhar Ren -- and a team of writers -- have made sure there will continue to be content long after she's gone. A drama series, for example, will air for two years before it "ends," only to have a remake slated for production a decade or so later, when there's another generation to experience it for the first time and when the older generation will want to cash in on the nostalgia.

If it hadn't been for her remark on propaganda, it probably wouldn't even have occurred to you to look.

But you do, and --

"The First Order isn't on here anywhere," you say, glancing up.

There's no "produced for you by," and even in the few clips you browse through, you don't see the emblem of the First Order on the title or credits scenes. It's almost shocking, that absence, considering how loudly pro-First Order messages get blared everywhere else. It could almost be any other piece of media you've seen, except … it's entirely about the First Order, even the children's shows with sing-alongs about numbers and the dominant species from each planetary system. They just don't call it that.

"Subliminal," Dhar Ren confirms. "Like most entertainment is. We're training people to respond to us without ever calling it that."

"With …"

"Listen to me, Ren," she takes you by the shoulder. "The generals are going to talk to you about programming. Programming soldiers from birth. Programming citizens to react correctly in their daily routine. Don't let them get through to you with that."

You tilt your head. You haven't met the Supreme Leader's military generals yet -- seen them from a distance, though, nearly all of them full-blooded human and sour-faced. It isn't hard to see the Empire when you look at them.

"When they say training, they mean riot control. I lived the Empire. You win nobody's hearts by firebombing them."

"We don't!" you protest, and she leaks pity around the edges, forcing you to say, slowly, "Or … we do?"

"You will have to," she says flatly. "For the good of the First Order. To say otherwise is a Resistance sentiment, Ren."

"Right, of course," you say, quick and cowardly.

"You're not going to hear it said out loud, but those lifeforms in uniform think that because we provide our colonists with basic income, health care, and employment, that it entitles us to them. Their labor, their bodies, their children."

A noise in the hallway. Her helmet turns, and she steps closer to you, dropping her voice.

"It doesn't work. That's not how you win people. This is," her hand goes to your wrist, lifting the hand holding the data slip. "You show them how great they are. The citizens of the First Order will fight for us because that's what their favorites would do."

You glance down at the data slip, then you stick it back where it belongs and slide the drawer shut.

"Are there any Knights of Ren?" you ask, curious. "In these shows?"

She just looks at you.

No, of course not. Nobody should see you coming.

You are the Supreme Leader's masked monsters, and the people should have no context for you at all.

 

***

 

In hindsight, you think Dhar Ren knew what was coming for her. There's so much she tries to give you.

 

***

 

She rousts you out in the middle of the night, when nobody else in the compound is awake except for the droids and the night watchmen patrolling the towers, none of whom are interested in the figures in black. She drives you outside in order to spar.

The air is so cold it sticks like splinters in your nose, in your lungs. MISTA001 is a beautiful, if tectonically overactive planet, with more mountains and canyons gouged out of its surface than any other planet in the system, and the atmosphere at this altitude is not only bitter, but thin and difficult to work through your lungs.

Your brain is slower to wake than your body is, and the Force is faster than both those things, catching Dhar Ren's initial hit and repelling it. Your blade spits at her, and you twirl, swinging in low under her spear.

She throws you back with a Force-shield, and for a beat, she snuffs herself out.

You cannot sense her around the barrier thrown up between you -- to see someone but not sense them throws you, badly. It's like seeing someone headless.

The shield drops. She rebounds and comes at you again.

Five minutes become fifteen, become a half-hour. The watchmen change shifts.

Your replacement parts, made for the heat of your insides, protest your prolonged exposure with stabbing pain.

It distracts you, and she lands a hit she shouldn't have. The tip of her lightsaber spear crackles close to your ear. The fabric at your shoulder sizzles, and the stench of burnt plastic fries your nose.

You wheel away from her, resetting your stance and thumping your chest with your free hand. You spit up a discharge and hawk it into the slush, furious that she can see this.

Her speartip lowers.

"You are mechanical," she says, like it's only just dawned on her.

"Yeah," you say. Then, "Yes. I mean yes. Why? What do I need to keep in mind?"

"Keep in -- oh, for combat? I couldn't tell you," she answers absently. "You know your own body better than I. What was replaced?"

"My heart. Most of it," you amend at the flare of horror she throws at you. Even for a species as widely medically documented as humans, the success rate for heart regeneration isn't very high.

You'd been lucky. They talked over your head to your parents: if this had been any other planet but the capital, the likelihood of your survival would have been dodgy at best. Such a structural weakness, your primary medic had sighed. Zhe had three, and had been very proud to show you a holo of them. They were very different from human hearts, zhe pointed out; they were smaller, nugget-shaped, and placed at optimal points to better pump blood to the ends of hir very, very long arms. You were fascinated.

"Lung," you add, putting a hand on your left side helpfully.

"Bones?"

"All of them. The ribs, I mean."

She says nothing for a long time, facing you with her expressionless mask.

You're still coiled, expecting a renewed strike, but then she douses her blade, planting the staff end in the ground, and when she speaks, there's a note in her voice that's odd even through the modulator.

"Blaster?"

"Yes. Mod-energy. The kind that makes a mess."

"We were supposed to have evolved beyond that."

The note you're having trouble placing in Dhar Ren's voice is anger, you realize, and you're so confused that your blade dips towards the ground. What had you done? Why is she angry at you? "Some people like the archaic," you try, and to you, you sound very small.

Her tone grows sharper. "How old were you?"

"Ten."

Outrage sticks at the Force, as prickly as the wind in your nose.

"A child," she gets out.

"I guess." You're off-balance. You don't like it. "Listen, Ren, it doesn't slow me down. They're good parts," you thump your chest again for good measure; alloyed ribs and artificial lung, splints holding the remainder of your heart together. "Maybe a little too small now," you admit, trying for a grin, wanting her to stop being mad. "If you're going to stab me or shoot me, aim for the other side."

 

***

 

Chewie had been aiming for your heart, you think, but no --

If he'd been aiming for your heart, he wouldn't have missed. He should have aimed for the other side, where the parts were organic and not undersized.

Maybe then it wouldn't have taken you so long to die.

You pound on your chest to keep the organs going, blood congealing and dripping between your boots. Here's Finn and here's Rey and here's your grandfather's lightsaber, your family legacy, and the three of them carve bloody paths out of your body, one for each minor planet missing from the sky, to match the crater Chewie blasted out of your side -- for your father, for Hosnian Prime.

And Rey -- the scavenger, you think. The scavenger, but the thought has no bite, no matter how you scrape for your contempt.

She is a scavenger and she has bested you. Is better than you. These are facts. All your envy and fear cannot make them less.

Alone in the snow on Hux's masterpiece planet, you die for the second time.

 

***

 

Not you, the Force says. Not today.

"No," you say back, and you are Kylo Ren and you are Ben Organa, twenty-nine and ten years old, simultaneously. "No, I'm done. Let me go."

But the Force pushes back. It pushes you inside your body.

You live.

 

***

 

The first time you stop an assassination attempt on your mother, you're four (or five?) years old on Alaris Prime.

The second time, you're ten, and it kills you.

It's election season in the capital. Your mother will be dirtbound for months, and your parents discuss whether or not to send you away for schooling -- this is one of those things on which their respective upbringings clash. The Alderaan academies your mother remembers don't exist anymore, but there are equivalents on the Core planets -- the Dameron's son even lasted a few years at one -- and the thought makes your father's lip curl like it's shoddy repairwork. He's adamant that you're learning more here, with them, than you ever could locked up somewhere with a holopad.

(Uncle Luke thinks they're both blowing steam. You're Force-sensitive. You have to be a Jedi. Eventually.)

But you're ten, and this doesn't concern you yet. The capital is a brand new planet and your head is full of lifeforms you don't know and a lot of lifeforms that you do, settling in after being away for the off-season, and you've been working hard at growing your hair out -- it takes so long, how can hair possibly take so long to grow? You want to wear it in the same style your mother's been favoring, a five-strand braid down your back.

She does it that morning, uncomplaining as your bouncing disrupts the star chart on her bedspread, dipping it toward you so that the constellations go skewed; half of the Tashtor system blinks across your abdomen, and you laugh.

"Leia!" your uncle's voice carries through the apartment. "Are you ready yet?"

"What do you think?" your mother says dryly, and flicks the tail of your braid over your shoulder to show you it's done. Hers is still loosely netted on top of her head, the same style that she wears to sleep.

"We can do it!" you volunteer, wanting to be helpful. "Can't we, Uncle Luke?"

"Ah," says your uncle. "Er."

Your mother's smile goes so wide it plumps all the way through her cheeks, and she gathers up the star chart, saying firmly, "Thank you, but no."

She settles herself in front of the mirror, reaching up to start pulling out pins, and you hop off the mattress to go to Luke's side.

"What do you think of the new gravity?" you ask.

He blinks down at your upturned face. "New gravity?"

"Yeah." You really like the mattresses, too, but that's no surprise: you've been rooming with everybody else in the berth on your mother's transport for the past three weeks, and those cots hadn't been made with humans in mind. You miss your bed on the Millennium Falcon, but these ones aren't bad. You'll adjust, but right now, the new gravity makes jumping on them really fun.

A considering look crosses his face. "It is different everywhere you go, isn't it? I remember noticing that, the first time I left home. Huh, I hadn't thought about it recently."

You see the thought form in his head, and you're already nodding, excited, except your mother can see it too.

"Don't even think about jumping on my bed, you two."

"Leia," your uncle whines.

"No!"

He leans against the doorframe, folding his arms and mock-pouting, which makes you laugh, and the Force is as light as sunshine all around you, warm on the backs of your eyelids, and you are a single mote of dust suspended in it, hazy and comfortable.

You have no inkling that you will die today.

The feeling carries you through the rest of the morning. You're in your nicest clothes, following one step behind your mother when a representative from the Corellian delegation calls out, "Senator Organa, Master Skywalker, wait!" and your mother flashes delight through the Force, saying, "Moona! I'd hoped you were here already, I read your proposal, and --"

You keep your hands behind your back, making a game out of trying to catch the end of your braid in your hand as it swings with each step.

A staircase curves down into a pavilion, beautifully blending the planet's original architecture with new construction, specifically designed for the planet's duration as the New Republic capital. Behind you, your uncle wonders what will happen to all these arenas, pavilions, and structures once the capital's moved on to the next planet. What's happening to the poor now, he thinks, glancing around. What will happen to the poor once all the economy leaves?

Other thoughts flicker all around you.

Most fire right over your head since you're too small to be noticed, but others you catch: your mother's aide is composing a script for when she calls her mother later, worried that she'll never understand her daughter's decision to serve that "stuck-up Rebel royalty." Listen, Mother …

Past her, others are rehearsing their speeches for the opening ceremonies, trying to remember names, thinking about money, money --

More money --

right nose clear, but is there something in the left? Make sure noses are clear, humans very particular about body fluids

no not him his breath smells

-- of COURSE there are stairs, why did I expect them to remember that not EVERYBODY is bipedal?

if I ask, do you think zhe'll wear that red thing later?

Nervous, sweaty, oh there she is that's her Senator Organa do it now do it now do it NOW --

And you --

-- move.

The blast hits you square beneath your shoulder blade, point-blank range.

It flings you off your feet, and you have one startled second where you see the whole pavilion upside-down, your mother and her brother and her people all kaleidoscopic, before your trajectory is halted by somebody else's body.

You land with a crunch at the base of the stairs, sprawled half-way on top a robe. The owner of it squirms and kicks you off, too panicked to pay heed.

You hear --

-- yelling, footsteps running --

-- the rumbling of the mosaic tiles under your cheek --

-- the hiss of your uncle's lightsaber leaping into his hand, your mother reaching for the Force with both hands and SHOVING people aside so she can get to you --

-- and "BEN" rips right out of her throat.

The image of yourself in others' heads, the chunk of you obliterated, is an odd thing to see. It doesn't even really hurt. Your braid lies on the tile, feet from your face, the detached end burnt and unraveling.

It had taken so long to grow, you think, dismayed.

That's the last thing you remember.

 

***

 

No, the Force tells you. Not today.

You're in a strange place, like you're dreaming. The physical world isn't there, but the light-world is. You're not used to thinking of the two of them as separate -- the Force extends in every direction, without your body to bind it. You could go anywhere, and you don't think you'd even have to go back.

There's a flare beside you, bacta-blue all over, and she says, Did you hear me? Not today.

You look up. The Force-feeling is kind, but sad, and all around her head --

"Hey," you say, stopping in your tracks. "You've got my hair!"

She twinkles with amusement, and folds down to your level. Curly hair silhouettes her head, her shoulders.

Technically, I think you have mine, she says. Yes, you do. And there's your mother. She's everywhere here. Except for this, her light glints off your chin. That's Han Solo's. I don't recognize this nose, exactly, and you giggle, because that tickles. And …. hm, no, I don't see any Anakin in you. It must be very well hidden. Well, we just don't tell him, shall we?

I can hear you, you know, the Force flares, indignant.

The light glimmers with laughter, and it pushes you back.

You live.

 

***

 

You get to keep your hand, and your kidney, and a few other minor internal organs you have never heard of before and are certain your medic is just making up, except zhe shows you on holo.

The rest of your left side has to be regrown from scratch. They reconstruct your lung with gel and wires; it takes days before you stop noticing the synthetic taste in your exhaled breath. Splints hold the ventricles of your heart in place, whole webs of veins grown to replace the burnt ones. Your ribs get crafted, alloyed with a substance not dissimilar to durasteel and your own cartilage, which has to be grown separately before it can be fused in.

This, zhe tells you, will also help when you're growing. With any luck, your lung is the only thing that will have to be replaced again when you're an adult.

A cheerful young Xexto on hir third year in pediatrics, zhe lets you watch your skin grafts grow under bacta light. Zhe assures you the scars will be seamless, but you have the disregard of a child -- what do you care about skin? You've got more.

You're angrier about your hair, to be honest. Can't they do hair grafts, too?

You have to stay hooked up to a shield generator ("a very small one, yes," your medic says, when you light up and tell hir, "I know an astromech droid who does that! Like the kind spaceships have?") that keeps your internal organs in place while your skin is still growing. It leaves an unpleasant buzzing in your teeth, but the sight of all your new wires and pumping parts underneath it makes it worth it.

When you show Uncle Luke, he wriggles his metal fingers at you and whispers, "It looks like we match now, Ben."

He and your mother have barely left your bedside.

You had opened your eyes once in the middle of surgery and found them unerringly, standing with their arms around each other just outside the range of the med droids. Your uncle, tears in his beard, and your mother, splattered, her face as grey and ground-up as gravel, utterly still. You said to them, "Oh, wow, you look exactly like her!" before you plunged back into unconsciousness and the droids' alarms started wailing again.

Other faces come and go: an aide is the first, bringing your mother a change of clothes so that she doesn't have to wear your blood anymore. Master Calrissian comes in with an update on the assassin, who Uncle Luke had promptly divested of both weapon and the hand attached to it before another shot could be fired. He makes you laugh in the same breath, and leaves with a ruffle to your singed hair. Threepio makes you laugh, too, when he comes in, but you don't think he means to.

The only time you're left alone is for the opening ceremonies, which you watch with the maintenance droids and your medic. Your mother, resplendent in a honeycomb costume of silver and gold, made entirely of hard edges, fists her hands and starts her address with, There is still fear in the galaxy.

"This system won't forget what the Rebellion did for it during the war," your medic says quietly from behind you. Zhe has six arms and twenty-four fingers, and when you look back, zhe manages to keep all of them busy so as to not look at you. "We will protect Senator Organa down to our last breath."

"Okay," you say. That makes perfect sense. "So will I."

One of those hands touches yours. "You already have, Ben," zhe tells you, gentle.

And isn't that the strange part -- everybody keeps thanking you, like you did something out of the ordinary when you put yourself in front of a blaster that was aimed at your mother.

You didn't. You did any one of her soldiers would do.

You just happened to be quicker.

 

***

 

Throughout all of this, you keep one eye on the door, hopeful and expectant, but it's one week and four days before your father materializes in the Force. You feel it the moment the Millennium Falcon leaps out of hyperspace, and your whole body reacts, pulled toward it.

Sleepily, your mother lifts her head.

She looks at your face, and says, "Ah."

They fight in the lobby, three floors away from you. They might as well have had a row two feet from your body.

"-- HAVE YOU BEEN?"

Your mother's voice doesn't know whether it wants to cut him or slap him or pummel him, turning hard and flat and razor-thin at the edges, all at once.

"Finishing the Yendo contract, like you --"

And it's the wrong thing to say, because the Force goes so simmeringly hot around her that, three floors up, you hiss and pull your bedsheet up over your hands like you're expecting to get burned.

"Your son was shot. He almost died --"

I did die, you think blankly, but it's past tense. Was dead is a lot better than is dead.

"I know that -- wait, my son? How come he's suddenly my son?"

"-- and you thought the job was important?"

"What, do you think I wanted to stay away? You try extracting yourself from that situation in a hurry without blowing the whole thing to smithereens, princess, I dare you! Oh, wait, you probably could, because you're --"

Flash-bang goes his anger, momentarily smearing his words to ashes in his throat.

"Because I'm what? What --"

-- not cantina scum, you came from someplace better and I didn't, and you look at me like you can't see it when it's the only thing I see when I look at myself --

But his mouth opens and it says, "-- what about me, where were you, anyway? Yes, you! How could you let this happen to your son?"

With a whimper, you sink down against your pillow, burying your ears in your hands and pushing down until the only thing you can hear is your own heartbeat, reverberating off your palms back to you. Try as you might, their emotions leak in around the edges, swimming your stomach with the nausea that comes with being full-up with fury. Tears prick at your nose, but you don't think they're yours.

You wait for them to stop.

You wake up hours later with your hands still loosely curled against the sides of your skull.

A hand rests on your back, careful of where the shield hums protectively over the remaining gaps in your grafts, and there's a warm, downy weight settled around your shoulders. In your haziness, it takes you a moment to realize you feel that weight only in the Force, quilted together from your mother and father; their pride, their love, tucked all around you. You burrow under it, content.

Apparently you're "our" again.

Out in the hallway, you can hear Chewie rumbling, defensive. A maintenance droid replies with strained politeness -- this is a pediatrics ward, sir, you cannot have a weapon, no, sir, not even if it's really small, there are children. Sir!

Above you, your mother and father talk, lowly.

You tune in to their conversation ("-- is he?" "Nervous. Trying not to hover. How do you think?" "I thought she wasn't … not for another month?" "Well, Ben was premature, too,") until it lulls you back to sleep.

You're not sure what makes you wake next.

You lie still in the dark and listen with your Force-sense. Then you sit up, and slide to the floor. Your father's asleep in the chair, your mother curled under his arm, both of their faces lax. You smile at them, then turn and unplug the shield generator, looking around for a hover cart you can put it on, like you do when the medic takes you over to the next wing for imaging.

Chewie yodels at you -- quietly -- when you slip through the door, and you're instantly engulfed by a Wookie's version of a very, very gentle hug.

You lean your head into his fur and muscle and warmth, breathing deep, and then pull back so you can show off all the new artificial parts they gave you, just visible through the shield. Chewie vocalizes appreciatively, and tells you he hopes very, very much that nobody shoots you again, it's no fun. Then he tilts his head and asks if he needs to come with you.

You think about it.

"I don't think so?" you say. "I'm just going up there."

It's up one floor, in another room practically identical to the one you just left, except the walls here are pale pink. You pass a trio of Rodians in the hall nervously discussing their hatching clutch; how much longer will it take and what will happen if that smallest egg doesn't start breaking shell soon -- is there anything medics can do in that case? They can't seem to help the excited twitching of their snouts. They're very bright to look at in the Force, and you find yourself shielding your eyes even though that's completely pointless.

As soon as you poke your head through the door, you know you're in the right place. The sound in your head clears immediately, like losing the static on a radio frequency you've been trying to find.

A woman sits cross-legged on the bed, pale-skinned and human-ish with freckles all across her nose, bent over a puzzle box that she keeps twirling between her hands. A mug levitates at her elbow, the spoon idly stirring itself. At the sound you make, soft and startled, she glances up and tilts her head in inquiry.

"You have the Force," you tell her wonderingly, and her eyes sharpen.

She sits up straight and her mind brightens, pushing against yours like a balloon expanding. Your bare toes crunch in delight against the duratile.

"I didn't know anybody but Mom and Uncle Luke had the Force," you tell her, still hushed, and her mouth peels back into a grin, like she's enjoying a joke.

She sets the puzzle box aside. The mug drifts into her open palm, and she sets that down, too, so she can ask you, "Would you like to meet her?"

You blink, and at her gesture, the courtesy droid hovering by her monitor activates. It fetches the loaf-shaped bassinet you hadn't noticed before and brings it over to her so that she can reach inside. The baby she pulls out is very red and very small and doesn't seem to know what it's doing with its limbs. It flails, disturbed and sleepy, and at the mewling noise of protest, the freckled woman makes a face back, like, right, right, I know, tell me more.

You come closer automatically, tugging your generator along.

Babies are very strange, you've found; they haven't been around long enough to be much of anything at all, and in the Force they feel more like they're the potential of light than anything you can actually read.

You reach out with your mind, trying to find her -- it's the kind of thing that would make your mother frown and say, Ben, boundaries, but you're curious. She isn't thinking anything so much as she's feeling, and even that's hard to decipher; she doesn't have a lot of practice.

"Here," her mother says, bending down to you. "Careful."

She deposits the baby into your arms, mindful not to let her touch the shield barrier on your left side.

She's heavier than you thought, and squirmier, and it's not very fun, and you're thinking about just saying, "that's nice" and handing her back, except then she peels her eyes open and looks up at you and --

Oh.

"Oh, wow," you breathe out, astonished.

She's looking up at you, and because she is too brand-new to have any context for the world, for you or the wall or the lights over your head, you are the entirety of her world -- you are everything she knows. You're going to have to sit down, because you've never felt that in anybody's head, never ever. She has no concept of permanence, so the world begins and ends with your face.

Well, the blobby bits of color that make up your face, at any rate.

The Jedi -- she has to be a Jedi -- laughs, getting down from the bed so that she can support you with one hand on your back. She helps you with her baby's head until she's sure you've got it.

"It's new to me, too," she tells you, and the two of you flash elation at each other in the Force before you look back down.

The baby scrunches her face up, and you feel like you have to do something.

It almost overwhelms you. You've got to --

When you were born, your mother strapped you to her front in a pilot's harness and she took you to work. In that enormous theater where the New Republic was born, she gathered up the Force and she planted you in it, there in that victory, that democracy, all of that astonishing, newborn hope.

You have nothing like that here to work with, but you call on the Force anyway. Every fiber of Ben Organa's body, and you stretch it out past the confines of your physical self.

Listen, you tell it, when you're sure you've gathered it close. Listen.

This one's important. You look out for her.

"Does she have a name?" you ask.

"We're still deciding," the Jedi says, watching you curiously.

"Okay," you say, and you stay like that until she finally asks for her baby back, and even then, you do so reluctantly.

 

***

 

The Resistance never makes a secret out of you.

At first, they report you missing. When you aren't found among the bodies of the Jedi apprentices or in the surrounding forest, that status is updated to "kidnapped," which you won't learn about until it's far too late. It dumbfounds you. The evidence has to be overwhelming. Uncle Luke had to have known the instant he and Artoo set back down on Takodana who was responsible: the Force had to have screamed it at him. And they still --

Later, you think they were trying to get a message to you, wherever you were. Any message, however late.

You hadn't been sent to your uncle for training because you were a danger to yourself and to others, like you thought; your mother sensed the trap that Snoke had laid for you and sought to remove you from it, except it snapped shut too fast and she lost you.

Telling the universe you were kidnapped was all she could do, then, while there was still time for you to come back.

When the truth comes out, you expect them to sweep you under the rug, to pretend like you never happened, and they don't.

They admit openly to your betrayal.

They call you by your name to anyone who asks. Ben Organa, son of the Resistance General Leia Organa, defected to the First Order. Yes, that's him. He killed the Jedi, the young hopefuls of the universe. He tore the Force apart, Light to Dark. If he's ever apprehended, he will be tried and executed, like any other war criminal.

At first, you're protected by your mask, your robes, and the name Kylo Ren.

You're protected by the fact that nobody in the First Order cares; the people you work with in THAIN aren't concerned that you're Resistance-raised, or that you're a child-killer -- they just want to know if you can get the right equipment to THAIN002 so that the new settlers can get to work harvesting the black carbon fields, yes or no, Ren?

But when you go back, you find that somebody always knows. No matter where you go or who you interrogate, somebody knows exactly who you are.

Eyes will peek up at you and a mouth will say, "You hurt your family so much. The general cried for days. Your uncle was almost unrecognizable. How could you do that to them?"

Or, "Son, go home. I know your parents. They are the brightest points of Light in this galaxy. They raised you better than this."

And the Force never --

-- ever shuts up.

"The enemy is cleverer than I give them credit for," Trel Ren decides, coming to stand beside you.

On the overhead screen, a correspondent for the New Republic Senate-Watch brings up a point of controversy: General Organa's son. The woman there, Ben's mother, nothing to you, doesn't even flinch.

Trel Ren shakes their head. "How can they act like they aren't shamed?" they spit out. "They don't have a leg to stand on! Their own leader's son knows which side will be the winning side, and yet they -- there must be a reason. No, they're planning something. No organization can truly be that stupid."

They turn, pointing their helmet at you.

"We'll find it, Ren," they promise you, fervent. "We'll cut down every last one of them," and you say, "Thank you, Ren," with a cold weight in your stomach.

They cross to the other side of the control room, and you become aware of a thought at your back, a swift flare in the Force.

Curiously, you look over your shoulder, scanning the room until you crosshair one of your Stormtroopers standing guard at the hatch. A recent lieutenant; the flag on her shoulder not quite molded into its shape. She's called "Phasma" by her squadmates for her unerring accuracy with a plasma weapon.

"PN-0923?" you question, and she snaps to attention. "What do you think?"

She pushes down her immediate resentment at having been singled out. She does it ruthlessly, and when she speaks, it's without a waver of fear. She has no context for you -- the Knights of Ren weren't included in her training, and as far as she knows, you materialized out of the black, and if her commanders have to obey you, then so must she.

"I think it demonstrates the inefficiency of the enemy, sir," she says, and you quirk a smile without meaning to.

"Oh?"

"That they waste so much energy on one lost child. The mother is perhaps past prime years, but she is still young enough. If it is an economic necessity, she could have another to replace him. Instead, she wastes her time, and ours."

You're still smiling, but it doesn't, fortunately, come through your voice modulator when you speak. Phasma is not so much the product of Dhar Ren's media programming as she is the pinnacle of it. She takes a lesson learned from her holo -- and the line about inefficiency had come straight from one of the swashbuckling youth-oriented dramas -- and she applies it to her real life. Subliminal. Perfect.

"You are correct, PN-0923. At ease," and she does.

You look back at the enemy general on the overhead, see the lines in her face, and dismiss the feeling in your chest as a malfunction between your organic parts and the artificial.

 

***

 

"You really are the most peculiar breed," your Supreme Leader muses in a slow, deep rumble. "And it is a constant source of frustration to me that you are the primary species I must work with."

By his design, the whole First Order is structured around it. He deems you plentiful and easily biddable, and dreams of crafting a human race tailored to his specifications, but that doesn't mean he likes you very much.

He floats along beside you. The midday light coming through the atrium ceiling cuts the walkway in front of you into squares, and you swallow against an arid patch in your throat. You had been reveling in the quiet, this peace in your master's presence, but you should know better by now; your Supreme Leader prefers to give you orders via transmission, and won't summon you to his side for anything less than the deeply unpleasant. He takes your reward and makes a punishment of it.

"I find that I can never predict you," he continues. "I thought for certain that killing the Jedi-in-training -- the new hope for your universe -- would alienate you from your kin, but still they reach for you."

"Supreme Leader," you say, neutrally.

"You cannot truly be mine while that option remains, Kylo Ren. I want you to think: what action will turn them from you as surely as it will turn you from them?"

And you are helpless to stop the first thing that leaps to your mind; the faces of your mother, your father, Chewie, your uncle, planted deeper in you than your own living self.

Dhar Ren warned you. She told you, you cannot cut your family out.

The Supreme Leader is no mind-reader, but he doesn't need to be.

"Hmm," he says, and your stomach clenches. "Yes, I think I know, too."

 

***

 

Your father walks toward you on the catwalk.

He is greyer than you remember. He is smaller.

 

***

 

You are no pilot. To you, machines have no Force presence beyond what people give them, and they don't speak to you the way people do.

Most of the time, you're fine as long as somebody else is there, unconsciously broadcasting the correct tool and the correct procedure while they're supposed to be teaching you to think of it first. So you wouldn't make a bad copilot, you suppose, but mechanical competence is not your strong suit.

In a family of skilled -- okay, legendary -- pilots, this stands out.

You are not your father's, you are not your uncle's, (you are not Anakin Skywalker's,) and neither of them are sure what to do with you.

"Well," drags out of your father's mouth. It skews to the side, pulling at the lines around his eyes. "That's fine, honestly. Who wants a carbon copy of themselves, anywa --"

Your mother cuts him off with a loud, disgusted noise, and those lines swiftly crinkle up into laughter.

You cannot cut your family out, Dhar Ren said, and there are days when you're not sure if she meant it as an accusation, or a warning, or if she was trying to reassure you, because there are memories of your parents that are more deeply buried in you than your wires, and sometimes you reach for them, the way a hand will always reach for something warm when it's cold.

Here's your father, pulling you into his side so that he can ruffle your hair and say to you in an undertone, "Don't tell your mother, okay?" as you're surrounded by a group of rough-looking thugs on an indeterminate space station outside the Gorse system. They chatter in Huttese, their looser appendages draped casually over their weapons, and you press yourself small in the space between your father's body and the back of Chewie's legs, which does nothing but draw their attention.

Routine, you hear your father think. Why can't it just stay routine?

"Han Solo!" bellows one delightedly, switching to Basic, and your father sketches a lazy smile in greeting.

"Howdy, Nax. Been awhile."

"I'll say! Heard you en't solo anymore!"

"Nope," your father answers, fingers tightening around your shoulders. "There's no one here by that name."

That's double-talk, you're pleased to realize. Your father's being sly.

Chewie grumbles at him, put-upon, and you look to the ruffians, expecting more ribbing, but they just look pleased.

"Good on you," says Nax, coming over to slap him on the back, and your father's surprise flashes you in the face: he hadn't been expecting a friendly welcome. "Glad she makes ye happy, Han. Now, come in, come in, what can we do for ye?"

And here's your mother, who spent your childhood building the New Republic system-by-system, working out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon where everything's worn smooth by years of hands, and on long hyperspace jumps, she covers your eyes and asks, "Okay, Ben, where's Dad?" and your joyful heart all but leaps from your ribs, pleased to find your father in the Force and bring the information back to her.

Anywhere in the system, and you would bring him back to her.

Your parents never had to pursue you, once they realized you'd left willingly. All they had to do is be somewhere you would find them.

You'd hear them, in whatever system you were in.

 

***

 

Your father walks towards you on the catwalk.

Your eyes cut at him, to and away, taking his approach in small sections because you cannot handle it, this is happening and you need it not to happen, and you are thinking a hundred things at once, but the most important is that you wonder how you would fit, if you were to hug him now. It's coded into your body like Luke's lessons on meditation, like Dhar Ren's lightsaber techniques -- your muscles leap instinctively to go to him with your arms open, even after all this time.

Could you still press yourself into his shoulder, or would he press into yours?

He comes at you, his face broke open.

You don't want to be here.

Stop, you try to say, but your throat is a cage of wires and it chokes itself.

You need him to be somebody who isn't your father. You need him to be the Han Solo from galactic history, the one who didn't fit into anybody's plans. The smuggler, the bare step up from scavenger.

You need him to be the unforgivable human stain on your Jedi genetics, the way your Supreme Leader tells you he is.

You need him to try to charm his way out of this. You need him to be sly. You need him to double-talk.

You need him to say something horrible, so that this is easier.

But he doesn't.

He tells you the truth.

"We miss you," he says, and you haven't even touched him yet and he's already bleeding. He leaves pieces of himself all over you.

Your mother is in his head, everywhere. If you see our son, bring him home.

(You're still "our." How can you still be --)

He cannot sense what he's doing, how the Force draws into him and comes out screaming, and you feel like you're malfunctioning, like your replaced lung and heart have gone offline and your organics are straining to compensate. Your chest aches.

You don't want to be here.

Your father reaches for you, and no one ever told you that the Light can be as violent as the Dark.

Your father reaches for you, and the Light screams out of him, blinding you. The noise in your head is unbearable.

You're crying, but they're not your tears.

"Please," you try, and both your hands and his on your lightsaber. He only needs to turn it just slightly to ignite it, to run you through, and oh, oh, it would be so quiet. It would be the quietest thing. Please.

With a wrench, the lightsaber ignites.

The noise suddenly stops.

Death by lightsaber is one of the cleanest deaths there is, your uncle had told you, all fourteen of you, Jee'eke squeezed between yourself and Istill and none of you breathing because lightsabers, at last. Luke's mouth did something peculiar, and he said, the heat cauterizes the wound. An execution performed with compassion and empathy is almost painless.

You think you must have done it wrong.

You must have, because there's something hideous in the shape of your father's mouth, right before he falls.

 

***

 

Very few of the Knights of Ren survive the tests that the master puts them through. You all know that, going in.

But you live, and you're forced to your feet the next day with a blackened crater punched out of your side, and as it heals it becomes a starburst that contracts your skin toward it, white lines stretching as far up as your ribs, your heart.

You should have known, really.

You should have realized it was coming -- that all the tests you'd been given so far weren't true tests at all, that the worst was yet to come.

"Kill your father," the Supreme Leader commanded, but the part of you that will always be a child in your father's presence is still screaming, hurt, confused, because you know Snoke considers Han Solo the place where your genetics went wrong, but his death doesn't remove those genes from you! So why the waste!

He sought to relieve you of a weakness, but you'll be permanently weak in all these places you were cut and shot, so how, exactly, did you win?

(You didn't. That's the point. The victory is the Supreme Leader's alone.)

You scrub a hand over your face in front of the mirror in the officer's barracks where you see all your scars for the first time, and wish for one terribly, terribly small moment that you could go home. Didn't matter where that was -- your mother's apartments in the capital, your bunk on the Millennium Falcon, the governor's compound on THAIN001, that space at Snoke's right hand.

It began a year ago, when you were chasing down a rumor of two children with Force-sense in some gaudy tourist system on the edge of the Expansion Region.

You're preoccupied, scarcely thinking of this errand at all -- you've been the overseer in THAIN for the better part of ten years at this point, so your mind is back with your tasks there. It's only as you're breaking atmo planetside that you apply your first shred of critical thinking to the situation.

Just like that, you know you're cornered.

Your head comes up.

"Where are we?" you ask, and when Phasma turns to answer you, it's only virtue of having known you this long that keeps her from tacking on a slightly judgmental "sir" to the end.

"Ah," you say.

There's a former Rebel pilot down there.

You were there when she announced her retirement, swinging your legs because they weren't long enough for your feet to touch the floor. Your mother cried, though she quickly ducked her face into the back of her hand to hide it. It didn't work: Captain Syndullah engulfed her in a hug, saying, "You'll still see me, your Highness. You know me, there's always a fight somewhere."

"She is getting married," Master Calrissian had interjected. "That's probably the biggest one there is."

"That … might be the nicest thing I've heard you say about it."

"Hey, I still think you're slumming it, Captain," he'd remarked, all his teeth on display. "Let's be honest, all these fine specimens in the galaxy, and you pick that one to marry?"

Captain Syndullah cocked a hand on her hip and replied, sweetly, "I assume you're the fine specimen you'd recommend as replacement, then?"

Master Calrissian spread his hands, grin widening.

"I'm old enough to be your mother, Lando."

"Yes, but don't Twi'leks age differently?"

Your head came up, and you announced cheerfully, "She's gonna shoot you!"

And Master Calrissian glanced at you once, and then did a double-take, his grin fading.

"Wait," he said. "Is that a Force thing. Is he picking that up in the Force?" he looked back to Captain Syndullah, who was still smiling at him, very, very prettily.

You kicked your legs and singsonged, "It's gonna hurt," and it worked: your mother, at least, wasn't crying anymore.

So Captain Syndullah took her human male and moved to a cosmopolitan planet where that kind of thing isn't worth noting, and now here you are, looking down on it. It's too much to hope for, you suppose, that this is an entirely unrelated coincidence? That you can land, pick up two potential apprentices for the Supreme Leader, and leave the system without Hera ever knowing you're here?

You get as far as an alleyway in a neon city, traffic moving along at a fast clip overhead and week-old snow shoved up into slushy piles on either side of you, when your Force-sense prickles.

You stop.

To your right, there's a poster plastered to the wall, emblazoned with the Resistance symbol. Its boldness makes you tilt your head; you remember your parents talking about how people had to pass each other things with the Rebel symbol stamped on its undersides. Here, now, the Resistance can hang its recruitment posters freely. There's something in that you don't have the energy to pick apart.

A couple lounges against a stack of crates at the end of the alleyway, having paused their enthusiastic pawing in order to watch you curiously.

The female cups her hands around her mouth and calls to you, "Hey, gimpy! Yeah, you -- you're wearing too many clothes for this establishment!"

You blink at her, then glance up long enough to register the naked figure on the sign over her head.

"No," you protest, as her partner guffaws loudly. "I'm not --"

Wait.

With a disgusted noise, you wave your hand and knock them both out, and immediately, the Force surges against you. It crosshairs you.

Your hand leaps for your lightsaber, but already, you sense a finger tightening on a trigger.

You spin.

Where --

A lightsaber ignites, and you're still stretched out with all your senses, so you feel it as it impales you straight down through your neck. You gasp, shocked airless with that agony, even as your eyes finally lift to the rooftops. There, you see the blue-skinned figure of a male Pantoran slump over the railing, bowcaster slipping from his grasp, and behind him --

Trel Ren straightens up, kicking the body aside with distaste.

They step off the railing, dropping three storeys to you and using the Force to cushion their landing. They holster their lightsaber and come to your side.

"Were you asleep?" they demand disgustedly.

You rub at your neck, where your nerves are strung highwire tight with the phantom sensation of the Pantoran's death, burnt into them. "What are you doing here, Ren?"

"Saving you from would-be Resistance assassins, apparently. You're in enemy territory, Ren, what's the matter with you."

"I'm on a mission."

"Yeah, well, not anymore. I've been sent to retrieve you. The Supreme Leader wants us back on MISTA001, immediately -- he has a new mission for us."

You frown. "Why would I need to be retrieved? The master only has to ask."

"He seemed to be under the impression you might need encouragement to come. I'm encouragement. Do I need to encourage you?" They sound like they're really hoping they get to encourage you.

"No."

They join you on the Finalizer and you punch out of that system. Stars turn to thin cuts of light through the viewport, and the knot between your shoulder blades eases fractionally. With any luck, Captain Syndullah and her children will go into hiding. Or the rumor will get forgotten. Or something.

You turn to Trel Ren. "What's this about?"

The long muzzle of their helmet points at you. "The Supreme Leader wishes us to eliminate Luke Skywalker," and your visceral insides get into a disagreement, stomach leaping and heart sinking simultaneously. Everything swims.

"I thought he had vanished," you manage.

"Yes, but you know how our master gets when threatened by another collector. Should Skywalker ever come out of exile, he could take an apprentice. Our Supreme Leader doesn't want him to get that chance."

Your teeth click together. When you were fifteen, you'd killed all the Jedi apprentices, and hadn't that been the reason why? Not only did the act tear Ben Organa to shreds, forcing him to hide inside the towering, empty infrastructure of Kylo Ren's tall bones and stretched-out skin, but it also took care of Snoke's competition: without Luke Skywalker to get to them first, the Force-adept were Snoke's for the taking.

You manage a short "ah" in reply, but Trel Ren's paying attention now.

"You have a history with the Jedi, don't you?"

Under your helmet, you lift your eyes toward the ceiling in brief acknowledgement of the irony. Then you level Trel Ren with a look, holding it steady until they step back and lift their shoulders uncomfortably.

"It was mentioned."

"Oh? Turning into an interrogator after all, are you, Ren?"

"Sten Ren told me."

There's never been a Knight of Ren by that name in the Supreme Leader's service, but you let it slide. Trel Ren fraternizes with their lieutenants -- not something you've ever been tempted to do, but you're not here to tell them how to run their ship. They must have a strange concept of pillow talk, if this is the kind of information they get.

You feel your mouth curl. "Did the Supreme Leader ever tell you about the hoggle?"

"The what?" Trel Ren frowns, and their mind promptly turns its pockets out; everything is a challenge, with them. "Is that one of his creatures?"

"Never mind," you say.

You wait until their frustration starts to curdle, burnt, before you speak again.

"I was Luke Skywalker's apprentice, once," you say, and their surprise flickers at you; they hadn't been expecting you to admit it. "I imagine the Supreme Leader is concerned I will be too weak to confront an old master."

You're expecting something snide in response, and so it astonishes you, Trel Ren stepping in close and clasping your elbow.

"I'm glad, Ren," they say lowly, while you're still blinking. In the Force, they face you, made entirely of teeth and sharp edges. "You are much better suited here, with us, than you are with -- with the kind of people who let worlds like mine happen, who promise us democracy and aid and then let us suffer worse than we ever did under the Empire while asking us to be grateful. I am glad you got out -- now we will erase the last Jedi, and be done with it."

When you arrive at your Supreme Leader's conservatory, you're startled to find General Hux already there.

Not only were you expecting him to be dirtbound on his meteorological experiment -- sorry, he's calling it Starkiller Base now -- but Snoke rarely ever lets his generals see him in person. It undermines his status.

"Sir, why is this a problem?" the general is saying as you come in. "The search will go so much faster if you approve the use of heavy force."

Snoke clucks his tongue, but Hux isn't deterred, already steamrolling onward.

"-- by your wisdom and guidance that has kept us hidden from the machinations of the New Republic so far. But we have grown. The First Order is a power to be feared, and the New Republic should know what happens to them if they think otherwise!"

You come to a halt beside him, staring. He hasn't worked himself into a froth yet, but he's getting there.

"This is what we've been building toward, and all who have ever harbored the Jedi Master should know what's coming for them! Will you approve it, sir? Will you let us cut our soldiers on something other than simulations? Will you give our people the satisfaction of victory?"

"Hmmm," says the Supreme Leader ponderingly. "Kylo Ren, what do you think?"

You exchange a look with Hux. Or, rather, more like a blow: his eyes flay you, icy and contemptuous and preemptively triumphant.

"I am sufficient," you say stiffly. "What can Hux's Stormtroopers, fine though they may be, accomplish that one Knight of Ren cannot?"

The Supreme Leader makes another thoughtful noise. He hovers on past, with you and Hux trailing after.

"General Hux has a point worth considering," and Hux's flare of surprise would be comical if you weren't suddenly terrified. "Our armies stand ready. Your weapon nears completion. And I grow weary of this Resistance claiming themselves our equals. The galaxy should see how decorative their government is, how faithless they are in the task of actually protecting them. You have permission to use firepower in your pursuit of the Jedi, Kylo Ren, General."

Hux manages to wait until you're in the corridor, the windows misted over and some white-robed acolyte pushing a trolley heaped with steaming, crimson meat to an exhibit further down (and thinking, disturbingly, of her own lunch,) before he speaks.

"Don't worry, Ren, my people will play to your strengths."

His voice is swollen, fat with the vision of the things he can do with the amassed militaristic wealth of the First Order, his to orchestrate.

He knows what your personal feelings on killing Luke Skywalker are likely to be, and -- oh, no, he's definitely pleased he gets to see this, too. You feel like an insect under a scope, prime for dissection.

"What do you imagine those to be?"

"Your efficiency at eliminating the unnecessary components in any situation," he answers, and then, "Oh, right. I forgot --" he hadn't forgot. "You were not formally educated. I apologize. I meant, you're very good at destroying what you can't use. Killing. Whatever it's called in those sims of yours."

What it winds up being -- in reality, outside of Hux's fantasies -- is overkill.

You return to the New Republic. You gather every thread you can find, and you unravel it. One small man is difficult to find in a very large galaxy, but there's always somebody new to ask, somebody who knows somebody who knows something. Luke Skywalker tied up a lot of loose ends before he vanished, and all those ends is a potential lead, whether they know it or not.

Your ship slides smoothly overhead and these people grab whatever primitive weapons they have that survived the war. They gather to defend themselves.

What you do to them is unnecessary.

And somewhere --

Somewhere so deeply buried in your artificial organs, in your bones, so deep that not even the Force can sense it, you wish you'd never left Luke.

You wish it a hundred times, a thousand times, every time you bring fresh Stormtroopers straight from the training facilities on MISTA002 to what is essentially a slaughter, and later listen to Phasma give the tally: x amount died in the first encounter, y amount will need reconditioning, z amount will need monitoring because they enjoyed it too much.

You wish it in the quiet in your skull when everyone is dead.

("Please," Hux says in exasperation, "will you at least leave two survivors? Dead man can't tell tales, Ren, and we need them to tell!")

You've made your bed, Kylo Ren, and here you lie in it, with all these bodies. All of them so considerately silent.

 

***

 

Your skin grafts for the wounds you sustained on Lothal grow in, mostly seamless, and the Finalizer is cleared again for active duty, and still you haven't heard a peep about the scavenger.

You're back in the medbay within the week, and as he treats you for the burns you get destroying half the sanitation console in your frustration, your reconstructionist informs you, droll, "I take back everything I said, sir."

You grimace, acknowledging, and mumble, "sorry," and he does both of you a favor by pretending he didn't hear you. It's not even noteworthy, ship-wide; everybody's just careful about their waste for a few days, until the tech-mech droids get their repairs done. Your long-timers assure your new squadrons that it's nothing out of the ordinary, honest.

You rub the sore spot at the front of your head.

You're realizing, belatedly, that you're not even sure what Rey's doing. She got Skywalker off his island, and now the two of them are … what? Your reports have been piecemeal at best; FN-2187's defection means that the Resistance now has a better grasp on what the First Order uses for code descrambling, and their transmissions in the months since might as well be in Wookie for all your people have understood them. The fact you lost most of your highest-ranking officers and technicians at Starkiller doesn't help.

(Wait. Are they in Wookie? No, your mother's smarter than that. You went through a phase when you were toddling where you spoke in nothing but Wookie yodels -- it was more fun, for one thing, and for another it wasn't nearly so complicated as Basic, which you were trying to learn.)

(You should listen again, though. To be certain.)

All you've managed to do is get in Rey's way. Once or twice. Unsuccessfully.

Ugh.

It's while you're in this limbo that word reaches you of an incident on THAIN005.

It's isolated, high priority. A band of colonists from one of the frontier settlements have declared themselves refugees under New Republic sanction, and have sent out a crudely scrambled message asking for aid and protection in getting out. You intercepted it before it could get very far, but you're reasonably certain it was picked up by at least a few outposts outside First Order space.

It's a curious message.

"We're not bothering with it," Hux tells you flatly. "The local enforcement can quell it."

"No," you say.

Hux throws you a vexed look.

"Fine," he says. "We'll comm Trel Ren and get them to do it."

"No," you say.

Since the destruction of the New Republic capital at Hosnian Prime, Trel Ren has been everywhere in the galaxy, raiding planets for their resources while they remain undefended. Last you heard, the Resistance had successfully chased them out of the Core, but couldn't keep ground further than that. You could call them back, but you don't want to entrust this to someone who probably hasn't slept in months.

You tilt your head and say with certainty, "It's a trap."

Hux's sour face puckers further. "How do you know?"

You're not sure.

There's nothing overt about the message, you think, trying to puzzle it through. But …

It dawns on you, where that feeling's coming from: your father, keeping you entertained while the pair of you fed dishes from your mother's meetings into the cleaner -- and there's a lot of things that can be said about the Rebels, but the ones you know eat a lot. He would wave his arms, telling you one story or another how he and Chewie used to dodge traps bigger and deadlier than this. You were probably aware that he exaggerated most of it, but as far as double-talk went, this was the harmless kind.

"Ren," Hux says sharply. He's been trying to get your attention.

"We're going to spring the trap," you tell him, and rise from the comm console.

His burst of frustration bounces harmlessly off your back.

THAIN005 is a waterlogged planet; 31% of its total landmass had been lost when Hux's meteorological terraining melted the upper continental sheets of ice, raising the water levels planet-wide. It is, objectively, the poorest of the THAIN worlds, and it will perhaps be another decade before it produces enough to make up for the money your Supreme Leader sunk into making it inhabitable. Like you, it's playing catch-up from the start.

The Resistance ambush is waiting for your descent, and it's clear that whatever kind of response they were expecting, they weren't expecting you.

"No casualties, if it can be helped," you tell your pilots and your Stormtroopers. "I want them alive."

The settlement sits between two enormous freshwater lakes. Bugs are a problem in the summers, but vaccines for the major bug-borne disease are readily available, you've already made sure. The main export is a particularly nutrient-rich fish meat, harvested from said lakes and sent to the processing plants further inland, where they'll get packaged into rations for the laborers on the MISTA moons -- it's employment for over half the citizens here.

When the short-lived (but valiant) fighting ends, your Stormtroopers corral everyone in the village square, and Phasma comes to fetch you.

"No casualties," she reports, satisfied.

They've collected two dozen scrappy Resistance officers, three pilots, and one hundred twenty-five actual colonists. It's an interesting bunch.

Their thoughts flit and circle and fire back and forth, not unlike fish darting about in a pond (since it's on your mind,) and as you slowly make your way around, you start to piece the story together: a reconnaissance mission landed a Resistance crew not far from here. This probably means there are either former Rebels or Resistance members living in the First Order, but you've figured since the beginning that there might be. The economic crisis would have hit them too, so they could be here undercover, or they could just be genuine settlers. Anybody who might know something about it starts thinking very loudly about wildlife whenever you draw close, though.

She isn't here, but your mother is still here, everywhere, in all their heads.

They planned the trap with the refugees in a bid to prove to the villagers that the First Order didn't care about them -- not until they step out of line, in which case retribution would be immediate and deadly. The Resistance figured that they would be able to handle the retaliation -- THAIN005 is small, and poorer than its neighbors, and their mistake had been to assume that meant you wouldn't care about it -- and gain the allegiance of the villagers in the process.

They were prepared to break the people out, too, if it came to that -- to show other colonies that it could be done. They didn't have to settle.

(No pun intended.)

Your voice modulator clicks. "Hmm," you say.

A thought dashes at your knees, and you blink, then drop your eyes to scan at droid-height.

It's one of the youngest colonists -- a girl, not a day over five. She peeks at you from behind her father's robes, then vanishes, pulling it in front of her like she thinks that if she can't see you, it means you can't see her.

You stop. You kneel down.

Above your head, her father's presence in the Force turns instantly to teeth and claws, quivering, coiled and ready to leap at you. He doesn't know what you are, but that doesn't matter.

"You're hurt," you say, and she sneaks another look at you.

She is: a cut gashes her forehead open, and she's rubbed at it, smearing it across her eyes.

"Are you scared?" you ask her, and she nods mutely, gaze darting all across your helmet, like she isn't sure where your eyes should be but is making her best guess.

You're listening for it, so when the thought occurs to her, you're already nodding.

"Go ahead," you tell her.

Letting go of her father's robe, she hesitates for a split second, and then she breaks away from the cluster, coming up to you. Like him, she has no context for what you are -- the Stormtroopers, however, make her want to hold very still.

She reaches up, and you bend your head so that she can touch your mask.

Beyond her, her father practically vibrates with terror. The closest Resistance fighters consider the possibility of bludgeoning you while your neck is bared. They shift their weight and try to gauge the likelihood that they'd succeed before they were riddled with energy burns. The fantasy of your death weighs the back of your head down.

The child's fingers trace the lines of your visor, and your fingertips tingle with the cold she feels.

You're there at the edge of her thoughts, so you feel it, the moment her curiosity starts sinking back into fear. She draws away, and you --

-- you hear Queenie's voice in your memory, loudly complaining, "Ben, you're not even listening," and it's so unexpected that it sucker-punches the breath out of you and --

-- you do something you've never done before.

Not on any First Order world, and never in front of your people.

You pull your helmet off.

Her face brightens, shoulders lifting when she realizes that you aren't a droid, or some fearsome nightmare-faced monster, but someone who looks -- a little like her, even, if she just had one pair of eyes instead of two, but she thinks that might be okay. She has friends who are human, and they're not, like, terrible or anything, so you're probably not, either.

A ripple of shock goes through your soldiers like you'd flung a rock at them.

Even the ones who've been with you for several years, like Phasma, have never once seen your face. You were, after all, alone with Rey when you took your helmet off for her interrogation, and none of the Stormtroopers who were there when you confronted your father survived.

Your soldiers have never seen an inch of your skin.

To your left, EO-0206 is, you note with amusement, utterly horrified to see that your hair is past regulation length.

"Look," you tell the girl. "We match."

Her fingers go to the scar carved out of the front of your face. Her mouth forms over a wordless exclamation, and she doesn't quite smile, but her fear loses its edge.

She pipes up, "How come it's healed all wrong?"

"Because it did," you answer. "But that's not going to happen to yours, okay? We'll fix it up."

Beyond you, one of the Resistance pilots thinks at you, as loudly as zhe's put hir mouth against your ear, Why is he bothering with this display when none of us are going to make it out of here alive?

"That's not true," you say, rising out of your droid-height crouch.

You circle the group until you find the pilot -- a Pau'un -- and draw up in front of zim. You are not short, but zhe still eclipses you in height, and you find yourself wondering if they make specially modified X-Wings for non-human lifeforms, and then feel stupid: of course they do. The Resistance isn't like you. You're the ones who modify the people to fit the machine.

"Let me tell you what's going to happen," you say.

Your voice sounds strange to you without the modulator.

"Give it a little bit of time for your undercover people here, and for my undercover people in the Resistance to get word to the General. If I know her," you pause, maintaining eye contact with the pilot, and yes, zhe knows who you are. "Then she'll send a rescue for you. She'll send exactly one person. We'll negotiate. We'll probably fight. Some of these buildings might get destroyed, but in the end, there will be a trade."

You don't even have to raise your voice. You have everyone's attention.

"You will be returned to the Resistance --"

What, Phasma thinks flatly from behind you.

"-- and my colonists will have a choice. They are free to go with you, whoever wishes to go --"

WHAT, Phasma thinks louder.

You're glad General Hux elected to stay onboard the Finalizer for this. You've never wanted to see a man spontaneously birth nerfs.

"-- and they can take their chances that the parts of the galaxy they left no longer suffer any of the same problems that made them leave in the first place. Or, they can stay in their homes. Their choice. This will happen if you," you indicate the pilot, and everybody else in Resistance colors. "Do not fight my people. They will not fight yours."

You lift your chin. "Fair?" you ask.

The Pau'un tilts hir head back to you, acknowledging.

Patience is not your strong suit, but your Stormtroopers see to the villagers' needs in the meantime -- and why wouldn't they? These are their people.

The little girl's cut is bandaged up. Everybody's fed, and then you sit down with the girl's father. Phasma stands at your back, two Resistance officers hovering close by.

The noise in your head is growing steadily sharper, and sharper, until every light in your eyes, every sound in your ears burns like a dry socket. You cannot make this many minds shut up to give you a moment's peace, so you set your jaw and you make yourself focus through the pain, through the fishy smell that's making you nauseous.

One hundred twenty-five colonists at this settlement is not enough. You could tell as soon as you landed.

Their appeals for aid from the settlement offices on THAIN001 would have been rejected by the algorithm in your system. The stress that's been on these people isn't their fault. You should have been more vigilant.

You nod when the father explains this. You promise support.

THAIN is, after all, yours. The Supreme Leader trusted its colonization, its labor and production, its continued wellbeing, to you. You should have been here, not chasing --

It doesn't matter.

It'll be fixed now. You swear it.

 

***

 

By the time Rey arrives, your colonists have started up a festive kind of chatter; they've never had so much unscheduled time to themselves.

("What do you mean you don't have Ace's Adventures out there?" somebody exclaims, and a Resistance fighter blinks bemusedly, replying, "We … we don't get your channels."

"How do you live."

"Quite well, thank you. What is Ace's Adventures?"

"Oh, my -- okay, okay. Sit down. Just. I -- Ma'ara, do you have your holopad on you -- yes, thank you, we need to explain this from the beginning.")

You stand as soon as you register the silhouette of the Millennium Falcon approaching, and you watch your childhood home low sail over the treetops, landing a short distance away on a ridge that overlooks the lake. The descent sends ripples scurrying across the surface. The sunlight winks and flashes off the water.

"Sir --" starts Phasma, but you gesture. Stay.

You meet Rey at the top of the path just outside the main gates.

The hems of her brown robes scuff the dirt ahead of her boots, just that hair's length too long (you hated that,) and her lightsaber is just barely visible under her arm, clipped to her belt.

At the sight of you, she does a double-take -- belatedly, you realize that she hasn't seen your bare face since Starkiller Base. The white star-trail carved out of it is new to her. She had assumed that, like her Stormtrooper, bacta would have taken care of that, that such a large chunk of you would not still be missing.

The both of you come to a halt.

You put your hands behind your back. You wait for her to speak first.

"It's a pretty place," she comments, gesturing to the village and the surrounding environment with a jerk of her chin.

"What were you expecting?"

"From the First Order? Something different. A lot more darkness -- a perpetual night, maybe -- and nothing green. Chrome. Industrial. Big bad stuff," she answers, without embarrassment.

She tracks her gaze over the lakes, then the settlement: the rounded, economical homes and the radio tower; the signs for the health clinic and the jail standing above the rooftops, bright and obvious; First Order flags waving at the end of every street, fliers pinned to the cantina door playing their advertisements on loop. Insect netting stretches over the public spaces. In the square, several of the children have blown their ration wrappers up into balloons, and everyone -- even the adults -- are playing the game where none of the balloons are allowed to touch the dirt. You can't so much hear the laughter as feel it; fizzing, bubbling in the Force.

"Would you like the tour?" you offer.

She makes a rude noise and says, "No," but when she shoulders her cloak and heads down the hill, you follow.

You glance back at the Millennium Falcon, just the once. You can feel the shape Chewie makes in the co-pilot's seat, the flare of him so strong in the Force it makes the skin on your face hurt, like you're standing too close to one of those UV lights they've got on your ship for soldiers combating sunlight deficiency. Rey had told him to stay, same as you had done to Phasma.

As for other reinforcements, you're sure they're out there -- although how many, and how powerful …

You don't know if your mother the General is willing to risk the potential retaliation, so deep in enemy territory, not now that she lacks the back-up of the New Republic fleet.

But frankly, when it comes to Rey, when it comes to you, you aren't sure what your mother wouldn't do.

"I'm not letting you kill these people," Rey says, and the shape of her voice isn't her. It's the Stormtrooper and it's her pilot, the ones from Jakku. They made her promise it wouldn't happen again. If you close your eyes, you could probably sense their Force-presences beside her, that's how close she keeps them. "Not for the crime of wanting a better life."

"Why would I?" you return. "I'm not interested in wasting my own people."

"But other people are fair game?" she fires back, incensed.

That's … not an invalid point.

You turn to her. "All of these people will go home," you promise. "If you surrender to the First Order."

Take a trap and turn it into a trap.

Your father taught you something, at least.

Her look could slice you to ribbons. "You're using your people as hostages to get to me?"

No. They're THAIN. If Rey calls your bluff, you'll lose. But you're banking on her not wanting to risk those lives -- in her experience, you will always do the cowardly thing.

"Or," you say, with a gesture. "I could try to take you in by force. We'd fight. You want to fight me," you amend, because even if you were deaf and blind to the Force, you would have felt that thought: the satisfaction of running you through is a fantasy she puts her hands against when she's cold. "But there'd be casualties."

Turning abruptly, she takes the Force and collars you with it, taking you by surprise.

"Oh, now, now you care about casualties?" she hisses, incredulous.

When she leans in, her Force-grip on you drags you with its weight, and she tightens it with every word.

"Where was your caring about casualties when it was my outpost being blown up? Do you know how many casualties there were at Maz's place?" She gets into your space, neck craning to meet your height. Her teeth make violent shapes. "How about the Hosnian system? On Hosnian Prime alone, when the capital was destroyed? Do you know how many people died there who had nothing to do with the New Republic or the First Order? Do you?"

You do not.

I didn't order that, that wasn't my command, you want to tell her, but as an excuse, it's so thin you imagine she could shred it with one snap of her teeth.

You didn't stop Hux from thirsting for it, you didn't argue the whole time Starkiller was being constructed. You made no effort to curb the excess use of force when you were pursuing Skywalker. You didn't stop your Supreme Leader from commanding the destruction of the capital and its satellite planets. You said nothing when he ordered Starkiller recharged so that it could fire upon the Resistance homeworld, even knowing it would mean the death of your mother.

You put your head down and pretended it didn't have anything to do with you.

The least you could do now, you suppose, is learn what it cost.

You do not touch the blackened starmark on your side. You do not touch the grip around your neck.

"Rey," you say, quietly, hoarsely, with as much composure as you can. You've never been on this side of it before. "You're choking me."

It's an honest surprise to you, the way she immediately lifts off your throat: Trel Ren wouldn't have relented. None of your apprentices would have. She stares at you, nostrils flared wide. She hadn't even realized she was doing it.

After a long silence, you manage, "Neither of us have any interest in more. Rey."

Her hand comes up, cutting between you in a sharp movement, and she whirls away.

You get the message. Names you are not allowed to say in her presence: your mother's, Finn's, and hers.

In the square, your colonists are still playing their game with the balloons, laughing when one hapless porcine-faced Ugnaught is besieged with three at once, one of which comes precariously close to touching the ground before he gets his foot out and punts it over his neighbors' heads, but at Rey's approach, a silence falls. Curious, expectant faces start to turn in her direction; many of those sitting get up on their knees to see over each other's heads. All the Resistance fighters are standing very straight.

Somebody, toward the back, whispers the word "Jedi," and you feel the ripple it makes as it spreads, first touching the people who know what it means, and taking root in the people who don't.

Your hands start to clench at your sides, and then a small face materializes at the edge of the circle.

She spots you, and when you crouch down, she takes it as an invitation to approach -- you're less frightening, you've found, when you're down on their level. There's something to be said for how Snoke thinks he has to project himself in mammoth proportions; "bigger is more intimidating" is, honestly, at the heart of a lot of First Order rhetoric.

"Is it better?" you ask, and her fingers dart to her forehead, like she'd forgotten.

"I can't feel it at all," she says, picking at the edge of the bacta-tape that covers her cut. "It's so weird."

She peeks up at Rey shyly, her pairs of eyes blinking together, and edges closer to you. "Hi," she says.

Rey crouches, too. "Hi."

"This is --"

"I'm Rey."

"-- and she's our guest."

Rey cuts you a filthy look, and you grimace, acknowledging; the last time you'd said those words, she'd been in manacles.

"You're with the Resistance," the little girl notes.

"I am."

Her nose scrunches up. "Why?"

Rey's mouth twitches, and you watch her consider and discard several answers, trying to find the most honest one, the one she would have wanted to hear at that age, and she decides on, "Because it's the right place to be."

"Okay," says the girl, with a politely dubious hunch to her eyebrows. "Home is the right place to be, though, isn't it?"

You blink, fast.

"Not … for everybody," Rey says, carefully. "But my home is with the Resistance."

"Oh! That makes sense, then." Her father makes a nervous gesture to catch her attention, and she straightens up, saying quickly, "Thank you miss! Please choose well!"

She darts back to the circle, ducking under EO-0206's blaster.

Rey stands, and looks out over the villagers. They look back at her, with quiet mouths and very loud hearts. They don't make a sound, but you can hear them; be like Ace, a young humanoid is thinking to himself. Be like Ace from the holos. Ace would stand and accept what comes, and so will you.

Her head turns, eyes dropping to you, and you watch her shoulders pull back, her jaw setting in place. You feel it in the Force -- the decision rises in her and puts its hands around her throat.

 

***

 

You stay with Phasma to oversee cleanup -- and, unlike your usual definition of cleanup, this is actually cleaning up; roll is called among the settlers, the square swept clean, the Resistance fighters politely but firmly escorted back to their ships. Your people will flank them to the edge of First Order space -- they'll be anticipating the shot in the back the entire time, but there isn't much you can do about that.

"Set the example," you tell Phasma, whose blaster has been slung around her back to free her hands. You're not sure when she lost her cape. You think for a moment. "You grew up with stories of the Empire, didn't you?"

"Sir," she acknowledges.

"Whatever you think the Empire would do, do better."

She says, "yes, sir," again, but her mind is a satisfied flare of, better? Gladly.

General Hux will not be pleased that such a soft option was chosen, but it is your opinion -- as master of the Knights of Ren, its lead interrogator, and as THAIN's overseer -- that the First Order is better served by proving everyone wrong this time than by proving them right.

When you get to the top of the hill, you find Rey standing on an outcropping that overlooks the settlement, the wide lakes and the hills just barely visible through the haze kicked up by the wind. It must be a popular spot; several small piles of multicolored stones lay heaped up around her, plainly left by villagers whenever they visit. The clearing where your long-legged ship perches is just beyond her -- her guard patiently arrayed several steps back, six white-clad Stormtroopers reluctant to lay their hands on her to hurry her along.

"What's it called?" she asks you, turning her head as your boots crunch on rock.

"District 5-PLN1403," you answer honestly, and just as her lips peel up off her teeth, disgusted, you add, "But the locals all call it Coverleaf."

"Coverleaf," she echoes, and you step up beside her, pointing. The afternoon haze makes it difficult to see, but on the other side of the lake, close to where she'd parked the Millennium Falcon (now missing,) the trees are all crooked, bent double by the wind, so their boughs dip low, low, low. Their leaves are broad, and they wave when the branches toss. All plantlife on THAIN005 is tinged a greeny-violet, the chlorophyll more purple here than it is on most planets.

Her mouth twitches, and you're blindsided, just like that.

It's a realization that almost flattens you with its absurdity. Kylo Ren, you are weak for her approval.

You want her to like the settlement. You want her to like the people.

You want her to like that there are rations enough for everybody, here.

You want her to understand that before you were pulled from THAIN to hunt Skywalker, an oversight like the abysmal working conditions of this settlement would not have happened, not on your watch.

You want her, frankly, to like a First Order world in spite of herself.

It's like you're twelve years old again; the things you were willing to do, carefully watching Snoke for the slightest hint of approval. The feeling's the same, here.

You squash it flat. You straighten your shoulders and put your hands behind your back. You're proud of your colonies, that's all.

Down below, an anthem blares out, momentarily cutting through the sound of droning insects by the lakes. All the villagers stop what they're doing to turn to the First Order flag -- you sense some clumsy confusion, people uncertain of themselves, since most of them are not where they usually are this time of day. All of them are aware of their Stormtrooper audience: the kids take the performance seriously, stretching their arms out and chanting their full-throated pledges to the First Order, but there's a nervous buzz to the adults.

You and Rey are too far away to hear the announcements afterward, but you can guess what they are.

You turn your head towards her, watching it set in her jaw. The lives here may be much different than the stories she's heard from her Stormtrooper, but it's all still the First Order.

Dhar Ren's right, you think. When it comes to propaganda, somebody always knows what they're looking at.

Her awareness of you shifts; her proximity makes her Force-presence harder to ignore than that of the settlers' below, so you feel her attention blinking off of you like lights flashed from a near distance. She's thinking about the green scenery and the villagers, how they get to enjoy that green at least, and her longing makes a gape-mouthed yawn inside her chest, about the lack of green there will be as a prisoner on your ship, about captivity, and her eyes drop, then come back up, but your hands are on her mind, and the vulnerability of her bare neck, and captivity again, and --

-- you don't understand, not for one moment, and not the next. And then --

Oh.

You step back, so fast you almost lose your footing on one of the pebble-pyramids.

No.

No, not that. You're not thinking about that.

(You were eight years old, the first time somebody looked at you, and in the Force their violence, their thirst, the way they imagined your body cut into parts for them to devour without any consideration for you, it all felt sharp enough to cut yourself on. The looks you garnered from that point on -- some innocent, some not, and one or two turned sharp, consuming with intent, made your stomach hurt like it was being pulled out of you in ribbons through your ribs.

But nobody has looked at you like that since you started wearing the mask. Not once.)

You want to tell her that of all the things she likely has to fear from you, you on her body isn't one of them, but --

Why should she believe you?

You've already, in your impatience to be rid of the Jedi quickly so you could return to your job in THAIN, gone after her mind with the same disregard those lifeforms had considered your body. You've already caused pain, already made her feel unsafe in her own self, so why should it matter to her what you do or do not intend?

You swallow, and take another step back.

She takes one last look at the view, pulling the Force into and through her, then turns to face you.

"Tell me how Stormtroopers are chosen," she says, stepping between the pebble-pyramids.

"There's an algorithm," you answer, as the guards fall in wordlessly behind you. "That the Supreme Leader devised for the MISTA system, before the Empire fell. It calculates an infant's potential, based on the projected environment and genetic predisposition. The best -- or, rather, the most suited -- are requisitioned for the Academies, where they undergo a lifetime of training."

According to the Galactic Concordance, the First Order cannot possess a weapon. But it's easy to forget that people are the worst kind of weapon, if made right.

"Requisitioned. You mean taken."

"Yes, fine, taken," you allow. "But all parent-pairs are informed of this risk before they are ever qualified to breed. The harm done to family units by separation is kept minimal, for the good of the whole."

You pass from the sunshine into the shade, and when you look over your shoulder, Rey's paused on the ramp. Her face does something strange.

"How can you -- that's disgusting," she spits at your feet.

She decides it. She hands it down. She's already made up her mind.

You pause. You grab for your anger, to rein it back, but it's already swollen. It hits your stomach and goes molten.

"No," you bite back, stepping within her lightsaber's reach again.

You tilt your chin, using all your height to hand her condescension right back to her, "No, what's disgusting is the conditions that so many of our colonists left behind before coming here. My Supreme Leader is wiser than you know -- before he ever picked officers, he recruited doctors to the First Order. He recruited scientists. Have you seen the infectious disease rate on our worlds? It's nonexistent. That's one thing nobody has to fear, here. Could the New Republic say the same?"

She steps up to go toe-to-toe with you, the shadow from the bay door throwing her face into darkness.

"Your Supreme Leader -- do you even listen to yourself?" she sneers. "At least on our worlds, parents don't live in fear that their children are going to be taken away to become bucket-headed canon fodder based on the results of some computations."

"No," you reply calmly. "Instead, little girls are abandoned to slave for scavenger scum lords on a sinkhole planet, where they remain lonely and unaccounted for by a system that doesn't care."

Her blow hits you straight across the face, and she doesn't lift a hand to deliver it.

Slowly, you straighten your neck, and lick the blood from your teeth with your tongue. She stares at you, the Force coiled so tightly around her it has you thinking about detonation.

Blasters cock loudly into position all around you. Sightlines of muzzles crosshair Rey's chest.

You wave your soldiers down.

You lean in. "No one is unaccounted for, here. Basic income is provided for all, regardless of physical condition or ability. Medicine is provided. Food and lodging are provided. We don't fool ourselves by thinking the First Order could exist without those people out there," you gesture past her shoulder. "Working as hard as they are, for us.

"Perhaps," you tilt your head. "You'd be interested in being a pioneer? If your other options don't pan out. There are places on this planet, in this system, that are yet unexplored. The First Order would be more than happy to provide. You wouldn't go hungry."

When you were eighteen, discovering the THAIN system had been like what visiting new planets on the Millennium Falcon had felt like as a child, except better, because all the questions were new:

What's the gravity like? How does the air taste? What color does the chlorophyll turn the plants?

"Except there's no freedom," she hisses. "You say no one is unaccounted for, I say no one is unsurveillanced. You have to apply and wait for approval to do anything. You just have more droids! Healthy droids, maybe, who are marginally richer than they were, but they're still mindless! The junk at Ankor Platt's has more personality than some of your Stormtroopers!"

Resentment flashes off the ones flanking you, and Rey flinches, like she'd forgotten they were there.

"The personal liberty enjoyed on the scale of the New Republic is undisciplined and inefficient," you say by rote; this has been drilled into you almost since the day you first met Snoke. "Removing it is a social vaccine."

Her head rears back, and all her features flatten out with disbelief.

She looks at you like you're something she's scraped off the sole of her boot.

"Your mother is one of the greatest people I know," she gets out through her teeth. "Where did you even come from? How did you even get here?"

 

***

 

-

Chapter Text

***

 

You are twelve years old, and two things start rapidly deteriorating:

One is the economic situation in the New Republic, the other is your head.

"Too rushed?"

Your mother jerks away, slamming her hands flat, and you feel the sting in her palms on the other side of the room. "How could we possibly have rushed it? I sat on the Galactic Council! We formed this government as carefully as we could -- it's not some slapdash interim thing we flung up when we brought down the Empire! It took us months and months. We were so careful to include the kinds of checks and balances that would stop this exact thing from happening!"

"We know that, Leia," Commander Dameron tells her instantly, crossing to your mother's side and putting her arm around her shoulders, her mouth crumpled with sympathy. "We're just repeating what they're saying in the Verandah."

Your mother doesn't want to be soothed. She's furious. Hairline fractures of betrayal crack the lines of her shoulders, like if you went over there and hit her in the right spot, she could break into uneven pieces, scattered on the floor.

You glance at the freckled pilot, the only other Jedi in the room besides your mother, and find her looking back. She feels it, too.

She goes over, crouching down at Shara's side so she can say, "My Queen," which she corrects to, "Senator," at your mother's exasperated look.

"Senator, no one's saying you or the Galactic Council meant for this to happen. It's the kind of weakness of policy that can only be uncovered with time. We know that. Sometimes these things happen -- we can't predict them."

"Planets are dying," your mother hisses, her words clenched in her teeth. "If we can't find a way to jumpstart trade and get money moving to these places, we'll lose them, and instead, they're wasting time trying to pin the blame?"

"The places we're talking about -- the ones that are hardest hit -- are ones that built their wealth solely on the Empire's war profiteering. They've been floundering ever since we declared peace, so maybe if they can't --"

Your mother rockets to her feet.

"I'm not losing them," she snarls, and twists away from her pilots as they both reach out automatically to comfort her.

You miss the coaster, and your mug clatters loudly as you set it down, but fortunately, none of them notice. You hold up your hands to scrutinize them -- your mother's projecting her rage so strongly that a fine tremor runs through your fingers. You sit on them, and try to tune the rest out.

Later, on the landing pad outside her apartments, your mother comes out as her pilots are leaving, and for a moment she just listens to them rib each other about the other's speeder. The remarks about subpar class and upkeep are so worn that in the Force they feel like flagstones, smoothed down with the tread, and your mother breathes in tandem to their rhythm.

"I'm sorry for yelling," she says. "Thank you for coming all this way. I'm just -- there's a lot that's going on."

"We know," says Shara confidently. "We'll tackle it, same as everything else."

"Oh!" your mother's hand goes out, grabbing a sleeve as it goes by. "Captain, I meant to ask -- how's Rey doing? I haven't seen her yet this season."

"She's wonderful," the other pilot says, and in her heart, affection lifts through her like a dozen iridescent bubbles, blooming and bursting with color, with light.

"She's not …"

"She's barely walking, Leia, but I promise, if it looks like she's reading minds, you're the first ones I'll come to."

She watches their speeders lift off, and remains where she is until they're no more than winks of reflection off metal, merging onto the cloud-level highway. And then she turns, and it doesn't matter that there are three walls and a ceiling between you -- she pins you with a look.

Ben, she reprimands.

You're not supposed to be listening.

I can't help it! You're being very loud, you think back, mulish, and she sighs.

As you grow, your Force-sense gets stronger. This is expected.

As you grow, it gets worse. This is not.

You're not droid-height anymore, and in the Force, you're not small enough to go around undetected the way you used to. When you start snooping through others' thoughts, they can feel you. It hurts them.

The first time it happens, it's with an aide from the Corellian delegation.

You don't remember what, exactly, it was that you wanted from him, just that you didn't want to go up and ask because everyone knows Corellians don't stop once you get them started (exhibit A: your father,) and in too much of a hurry to wait for him to think of it on his own. Your mother wasn't here to stop you or remind you, Ben, boundaries, and no one would know, right? So you brace yourself against the banister and stretch your hand out towards him. You part the swirling surface thoughts, and --

He gasps, and the small glass figure he'd been fiddling with while he waited slips out of his hands, shattering into pieces on the marble floor.

Horrified, you draw back, and the aide slumps forward, his forehead landing in his hands and his pain flash-bangs you right in the face. His mouth stretches, a surprised rictus, and you stumble back one step, then two --

You did that. You were just trying to get -- and you hurt --

Sorry, you mouth, helpless. Sorry.

Pivoting on your heel, you sprint back up the stairs. Shame roasts the inside of your throat, turning it too arid-dry to swallow against.

The next day, you try again, to your mother's aide with the strained relationship with her parent. You pick at your lunch and you listen to her thoughts, two rooms down -- the idle, the flitting, the skeletal intentions that become fleshed actions, but then it darts at you -- Mother was wrong about that, too -- and you snatch it like you're catching an object thrown at you from across the room. You tug. How is her mother? How is --

She whimpers, stifling the noise against the back of her hand.

Instantly, you let go. Gravity leaves your stomach somewhere back by your spine, knotted and pressed low.

What was that? the aide thinks, baffled, blinking down at her holo as the spots clear. Then she dismisses it: she needed a break anyway.

You fold your food back up in its wrapping, slowly.

You're not going to touch another person, you vow.

It doesn't help.

The more you try to keep to yourself, squeezing your Force-presence down to its thinnest possible margin, the more everybody else seems to become. Bigger, louder, just more.

Or are you just losing the ability to keep them out?

You're not sure. You have no context for this.

Your mother notices you withdrawing. I'm okay, you tell her, it just hurts a little, all that noise in your head. For a little while, you're allowed to come to her about it, and she'll stretch the Force out across the both of you like a heavy quilt, but for it to be strong enough to be of any help, it takes all of her concentration to maintain it. You look up at her grey face, the pinch between her brows, and that slow-cooked shame curdles.

You tell her you're fine, really.

There are more important things demanding her attention -- the capsizing economy, lifeforms in the galaxy who are about to suffer. What's a little headache, compared to that?

"Is this a puberty thing? Is that what's going on?" Master Calrissian frowns, putting a hand on top of your head and drawing it level with his chest, like he's not really sure when that happened.

"Ugh," is your loud opinion on that.

When he leaves, your mother stares at the door after it whooshes shut behind him, and the fact she's even considering his suggestion -- send him away, Senator. The capital can't be good for him. Where's Luke these days? -- needles you, stings, hurts. You want, for a terrible moment, to hurt her, too.

You fold your arms and throw at her back, "He doesn't care about the Resistance. He wants to retire. The clouds are in his head, everywhere -- he just wants to go home."

She heaves a sigh.

"I know that, Ben," she says, quiet, and you're instantly ashamed. "But that's his decision to make for himself when the time is right, not ours to make for him."

Not long after that, when you've been cooped up with your mother's people and all of their stress you can't escape, there's an outburst -- you stand bolt upright in an empty room, your head splitting like a nail had been driven through the front of your skull, and scream "shut up shut UP SHUT UP," until one of the pilot's astromech droids shocks you in the thigh, and your mother comms Luke.

"Leia, I don't know what to tell you," he tells her, low and equally urgent. "To do what Ben does, I have to seriously concentrate. It's not innate. The only advice I'd be able to give is 'well, have you tried just stopping?' and that's not helpful. I don't want to do that to him."

"Please," your mother says back, her lips barely moving. "Is there anything you can do?"

"I … Are you scared?"

"Of Ben? Never. But. Luke, I'm … worried he'll get hurt. Or someone else will."

You're on the other side of the complex, about as physically far away as you can get, but that doesn't matter; you see it in crystal clarity, the bacta-blue holo of your uncle, tucking his hands into his sleeves and frowning. Your heart and artificial parts feel like they've been cooked to your ribs, like you'll have to scrape them up with a knife.

"Has he been … do things move? Has he been moving things? Smashing things without touching them?"

It's a flash in your mother's mind, a Force-memory so strong it startles you into whipping around, convinced there's someone beside you: a terrifyingly tall figure, all clad in black, crushing a uniformed man's throat.

She shakes her head. "No. I could handle that. But brains are a lot more fragile than things."

So your uncle makes the trip up from the Tashtor sector, and as Artoo drops from his X-Wing, already beeping and whistling at the affronted Threepio, he comes to your side on the landing pad.

"Hi, Uncle Luke," you say.

"Hey, Ben," he says, and grips your shoulder for a moment, before giving in and drawing you into a Chewie-tight hug. You press your face against the rough fabric of his robes, grateful.

He teaches you how to meditate, Jedi-style, thinking if maybe you could build up your defenses, you could block some of the noise out.

You try, and you like the part where it's you and him and the gorgeous pavilions in the capital complex -- two years later, you've never been back to the place where you were shot, because in the Force your blood's still there, the violence a permanent mark on the mosaic stones. You like sitting with Luke -- Master Skywalker, everybody says, touched with reverence, and pride constricts inside your ribs: that's my uncle.

But the more quiet and still you make yourself, the louder everything else gets.

Uncle Luke watches you, and in his head you can see your face going wan, color draining, lines deepening with pain. He bites his lip, helplessly.

You tell yourself it isn't his fault.

It's the Empire's fault for killing all the Jedi and leaving Luke alone to figure this out on his own. It's the Empire's fault he and your mother have so much to do, without you adding to it.

"I'm fine," you tell them, going to one and then the other, tucking yourself under their arms and embracing them tightly. Your uncle smooths your hair with his non-mechanical hand; your mother kisses your forehead. "I'll adjust, I promise. Thanks for helping."

"Ben --" your mother tries.

"Tell you what." You put your hands on your hips, the way she does when she's in committee and needs to make herself bigger than her doubts. "Give me something to do."

If there's one thing you've learned from your parents arguing, it's that one of the best ways to drown out something that's loud is to be louder.

 

***

 

You are twelve years old, and your father has been away for four months, running an undercover mission.

It's the longest you've gone without being able to pinpoint his exact location in the Force.

You're not even sure where he is, like, on an academic level, either. He was adamant that nobody know -- especially not you, and especially not your mother. "Listen," he goes. "My contacts are jumpy enough already -- do you imagine anyone in the business will touch me if you get a bad feeling and bust down the doors to rescue me?"

Your mother snorts. "Fat chance of that," she says, but there isn't a fiber of her being that isn't prepared to do exactly that, and everyone here knows it.

You know your father used to be smuggler --

("Allegedly," he corrects, and at your mother's look, stage-whispers, "I don't want my son knowing about my criminal history! It's behind me now."

"Oh, he's your son, suddenly," your mother returns, dry as bone, and your father winks sidelong at you.)

-- and that's how he met your mother and your uncle, but as far as you're aware, the Millennium Falcon has never carried unlicensed cargo as long as you've been alive. You know that one or two of those bridges probably remain unburnt, and he plans on taking advantage.

Your mother fights him the whole week before he leaves.

Off-season for the Senate lasts two galactic months, and you don't think she's spent one single moment of it rested. None of you have stayed on a planet long enough to adjust to the gravity, and Commander Bridger's taken to grabbing naps under the table in the mess. He looks comfortable. You envy him -- everybody else's heads keeps you awake more than it used to.

"-- does it have to be you? Why can't we send someone else?"

Your mother's voice balls itself up, a fist tightening, and she throws it out as a fast jab. You were half-asleep and now you're not, hands grabbing at the arms of the co-pilot's seat to brace yourself: your parents' fighting tends to do strange things to your sense of balance.

Behind you, your father tries to busy himself with the rear control panel, and she blocks his path -- unsuccessfully, as he just reaches above her head to flick a switch.

"That's behind you now --" she drops her voice; fists become fingers again, little vocal hooks that snag on your father's jacket, pulling him to her. "Why do I get the feeling you still think of yourself best as the rogue? The best Han I know wasn't the criminal -- he's the one standing in front of me!"

"Leia …"

The weight of your mother's name in his voice drags it deep, sinks it.

She leans in. "You're not the only one who can do this!"

And, gently, almost without sound, he pulls her into him and kisses the side of her face.

"Yes, I am," he murmurs, and allows himself a moment to roll his forehead against hers. She puts her hands to his chest, fists his shirt, and thinks -- or says? -- Don't go, and you make yourself as small as possible against the upholstery as their eyes drift shut together.

When your mother returns to Yavin 1 for the season, they're "separated", semi-officially -- the loud, constant, audible fighting tricking everyone but those few involved, and you, because you can't be tricked.

It's a rumor that starts out of the Arkanis sector, and it reaches your mother's ears via way of Captain Syndullah on her noisy, gaudy tourist world, and she gets it from Lor San Tekka, a friend of your uncle's who's got a star-sense the same way you've got a Force-sense, and he says that the Geonosians are using the hyperspace route between Jakku and its neighbor to traffic lifeforms out of the systems that are hardest hit by the shift in economic demand.

No one knows where they're trafficking them to, exactly, but the Geonosians have -- notoriously -- never been a friend of any Republic, New or old.

Your mother plans an appeal to the Senate, desperate to get them to investigate, but your father knows a guy who knows a guy, and he thinks he can nail them.

No, he knows he can nail them.

So he takes Chewie, and he takes the Millennium Falcon, and he goes, and he's gone, and four months pass.

It's flawlessly bright on the day he returns, the very best that Yavin 1 has to offer, with the sun a warm liquid weight above and the Yavin gas giant pulling from the other direction, dragging solar winds across the moon's face -- the sky is streaked with iridescent ribbons, pale as the surface of a soap bubble in broad daylight. At night, it will be spectacular.

You're below, on the mosaic-tiled path, burning your mouth even though the droid at the take-out window cautioned you to wait a bit before eating.

You suck down air fast, trying to cool it down, and beside you, Threepio sighs in the world-weary way of the severely put-upon, and suddenly the backs of your hands are wet.

Blinking, you touch your fingers to your face, because you're crying.

You're standing in the Yavinian light, full to the brim with emotion and weeping, and, insulted, you scowl and cast a look around. Who is projecting on you that strongly that --

It hits you.

You know exactly who it is.

You know exactly who is so glad to be home that you're picking up on it even though he's still half a system away.

Shoving the rest of your food into your mouth, you swallow painfully and take off running, ignoring Threepio's sudden squawk of outrage. As you sprint, relying more on the Force than your eyes to keep you from colliding with the aides, petitioners, and politicians that clog the stairs and hallways, you comm your mother.

It's unnecessary; you've already sent the news ricocheting into her from all the way across the complex.

On the landing platform, before the Millennium Falcon's unloading ramp has even finished fully extending, your father's reaching for you, getting both arms around you and your mother before he's even sure where his feet are going to go. He's too swollen at the sight of you to even get a word out. He all but crushes you with it.

It takes a moment, but when the three of you have even footing again, he lifts you up, spinning you both around as you all bury your heads together, and then the dam breaks; you and your parents are talking and laughing at once, refusing to let go.

It's the longest you've ever been apart, but that's okay, it's over. Everything in the Force is balanced again.

Somewhere in your peripheral, Chewie yodels joyfully, and then Master Calrissian and a representative from the Chancellor's security are there, looking pleased but serious.

Your father kisses you both quickly, and you don't see him for another day.

When he's allowed to return to your rooms, debriefed and dismissed, he's mostly asleep before you even get there.

Gingerly, you toe out of your shoes and crawl onto the bed beside him, studying his face where he's smashed it into his pillow; big nose, heavy brow, all features so familiar, all of them still there. He's still wearing his boots, his holster, but the tranquility and the Organa smell of the sheets are outweighing any other discomfort he might feel. He's floating in the Force; the sensation makes your nose tickle.

You nestle into the space between his pillow and your mother's, like you'd done when you were little, when you thought that maybe if you didn't take up any of their space, they'd forget to make you go sleep by yourself.

His mouth pulls at you. "Hey, kid," he says, and you grin.

"Hi, Dad. Did you get them?"

His eyebrows pop up, indignant, even if he can't quite drag his eyes open. "Did you doubt me?"

"Never," you say with all the loyalty in your twelve-year-old heart.

He reaches out, drowsily petting your head, your shoulder, before his hand comes to rest on your back.

"That's good. I'm going to sleep for a week, Ben. Wake me up if anything interesting happens, and by that, I mean somebody depantsing the Rodian governors. Rodians should always be depantsed, it's hilarious," he mumbles, too sleepy to stab for coherency. "Only useful thing the Senate can manage to do, if you ask me."

"Okay, Dad, I will."

"Thanks. You're a good kid."

He doesn't tell you to leave, so you don't.

It's early evening, the noisy bustle from beyond your mother's rooms passing through your head. The humanoids on a thrice-daily eating schedule are largely thinking about dinner, subconsciously if not right on the surface, and you're not tired, but you close your eyes anyway.

After a moment, you reach out and very carefully pick at the edges of your father's Force-presence, the familiar and comforting weight of it. You missed its sound. You squeeze yourself as thin as possible to slide under it, trying to tug the Force up around you both, but it's like trying to fit under a blanket that's become too small. The sound of everybody else's heads leaks in around the edges, leaving you to pull at it restlessly, seeking a quiet patch.

"Stop that," says your father, eyes still closed.

You go still.

"Stop what?" tiptoes out of you, caught.

Your father's hand leaves your back, shading his eyes, which he slants open to watch you. "I can feel that."

"No, you can't," you say instantly.

Your father is not Force-sensitive. Your mother and your uncle have told you that ever since you were droid-height; you have to be careful with him, Ben.

He keeps his gaze on you, steady, and slowly, ashamed, you pull away.

The noise around you increases, like a widening gap in a drafty window, and you are just raw enough from the last day, the last week, (the last four months,) that your nose prickles entirely against your will, hot with incoming tears. Your own, this time.

Your father doesn't see them. At your retreat, he lets out a sigh of relief, eyes sliding shut again.

"That's my boy," he says, absent and affectionate.

Within moments, he's asleep.

You stare at him, bare in the Force and undefended. You'd hoped … you'd thought that maybe … maybe what you couldn't do to strangers because you didn't know them well enough not to hurt them, and what you couldn't do to your mother and your uncle because … well, first because they'd remind you about boundaries, and second because you're scared they'll look at you and all they'll see is that black-clad person, maybe you could -- your father might have let -- you wouldn't have hid behind him for very long. Just long enough for some quiet.

When you can blink without dripping water from your eyes, you scrub at your face with the back of your hand, tell yourself to grow up, and slide to the floor.

You gather up your shoes, and put them on in the hall.

You think about going to see Chewie, who's doing maintenance resets on the Millennium Falcon and would gladly distract you with a detailed, probably highly exaggerated account of their Geonosian hunt, except your legs take you to see your mother instead.

She's just coming out of committee when you get to her, and whatever you're doing to the Force, it makes her frown and tuck a strand of her hair away. She says, "thank you for your hard work today," to her aide, who nods at the dismissal, gathering up the droids and mostly just thinking about the inside of her fresher.

Your mother comes up to you, and when she embraces you, her arms wrap around your head, all but burying you against her.

"Oh, Ben," she says.

You squeeze her back, just as tight.

After a moment, one hand comes down to cover your eyes, and suddenly it's like you're a child again, like this is just another long hyperspace trip.

"All right, Ben," she says into your temple. "Where's your father?"

And you sag against her, because you know the answer to that one. You'll always know the answer to that one.

"Here," you say quietly, gratefully. "With us."

 

***

 

All right, Ben.

 

***

 

Where's your father?

 

***

 

Ben, where's your father?

He's dead, Mom.

 

***

 

Ben, where's your father?

I tried to warn the girl, Mom. I told her, he'll disappoint you. He couldn't kill me, Mom. Who can look at me, after all this, and not want me dead?

How could he --

 

***

 

Ben, where's your father?

Everywhere, Mom.

The Force flows through all living things, and all who die are returned to it.

He's here, with you. He's there, with her.

 

***

 

Ben, where's --

Please, Mother. Please.

Don't you see what's coming?

When Uncle Luke is dead, when Rey and Finn are dead or made into my apprentices, you will be the last Jedi. The Supreme Leader in his wisdom will concoct a threat out of you.

Ben, don't --

Please, Mom. Trel Ren will feint and try to flank you. Cora Ren's height is his disadvantage, so he'll try to hamstring you and bring you down to his level. And my -- I have a long reach, but using it leaves me undefended. Dhar Ren always said so. Told me I needed to stop being so flashy, it was too Vader-like.

Mom. Aim low, Mom, okay? Go for the side with the organic parts, and slice upward. Do it quick.

 

***

 

When your father finally notices, it's for the wrong reasons.

"It's getting worse, isn't it?"

"What is?" your mother says distractedly, and lifts her flimsis when your father comes over to take her plate, empty except for the crumbs. She licks her fingers clean, leaves smudges on the edges of the cardstock. It's her most paranoid people that prefer flimsis, saying they're harder to intercept -- your mother doesn't mind. She had to be more creative than that in the Rebellion days.

Your father says nothing for a moment, running the dishes through the cleaner, and when the rush of steam clears, he comes back to the table.

Her mind's on the fine print in the thorillide tax that's up for a vote next Senate session, a change that will affect the economy in and out of the struggling Gorse system, and so neither she nor you are expecting it when he says, "Ben."

You crack an eye open. From this angle, all you can see is the line of your mother's leg, pulled up onto the chair with her, and your father's knees, angled toward her.

"What about Ben?" she asks.

When you look through their eyes, you see her glance in your direction, stretched out on the settee, nearly asleep, cried-out and sore. Your mother had been with Moona when she got the news; methane storms ground a passenger charter into dust when it came out of hyperspace too close to an orbiting moon, safety inspections hadn't been up to par, our condolences to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on Corellia for the loss of her family -- and even now, you can still feel Moona in the Force. Nearing her is like nearing the edge of a cliff, some fathomless chasm of grief you can't see the bottom of.

You couldn't stop yourself from feeling what she was projecting -- there'd been nowhere to go.

"You gonna tell me you and Luke went through something like this, Princess? It's perfectly normal?"

Your mother doesn't answer.

"Do you ever wonder what else he picks up when he's like that?"

"He's not a satellite, Han, he's our son," she says, with a defensive note in her voice you love her for. "Say what you mean."

"He talks to them, you know," your father tells her, quiet. "In his sleep. You've noticed that, right?"

She doesn't miss a beat. "I used to talk to my mother, too, before I knew what I was doing."

"And we're not worried about that? That Darth Vader's talking to our twelve-year-old son while he's sleeping? We're not worried about the kind of subconscious influence that comes with that kind of -- of -- stuff?"

Of course your mother's worried, but it's different when somebody else says it out loud. Her hackles go up.

"Honey, if we go around accusing every surly withdrawn teenage lifeform of being a secret Sith lord in the making, you would never have survived adolescence," she points out, then considers it. "I would have left you on Yavin 4."

Your father's jaw pops open, indignant.

"Surly?" he echoes. "Me?"

"No, you're right," your mother flips a flimsi face-down on the table, so dry she scrapes. "Can't imagine who I was thinking of."

You can't help the bubble of gratitude you send her, which makes her flick a smile in your direction.

There isn't much you remember about your Force-dreams with your grandparents, losing them when you surface from sleep -- but you do know that the colossus of fear that exists in other people's heads as "Darth Vader" has very little to do with the Force-presence that sometimes pipes up to say, wry, That is wildly untrue, Padme, don't fill the boy's head with nonsense.

It must be strange for them, you think. Your parents. They're so used to you being small enough that most thoughts would fire right over your head, and they could handle that, but now you're bigger, more aware, and things stick. Your tendency to flinch whenever an aide hits her head, to chuckle at a joke told three apartments down, to weep with rage and grief in the middle of some mundane task -- it's got to be as weird for them as it is for you.

You know it's not your father's fault -- he did not mean to hurt you. He just couldn't see the plea for protection for what it was, and how could he? You show no aptitude for mechanics, no skill for piloting: there is little Han Solo feels like he can teach you.

The disappointment, now seeded, grows.

 

***

 

And that's the season you meet Snoke.

 

***

 

The holoplate on her seat in the Senate declares your mother to still be the Senator from Alderaan, even though Alderaan's been gone longer than the Empire.

But it was your mother's work with the Galactic Council -- the tireless body of policy-makers that created the New Republic from the ground up in those months following the Battle of Endor -- and her leadership of the Rebellion before that that ensures her voice still has a place in her government, that it literally would not exist without her, and so the seat for her remains.

In her worst moments, your mother jokes, grimly, that she's the only Senator who speaks entirely on behalf of ghosts.

For two years, she's been putting together a petition, and this is the season, looming economic crisis notwithstanding, that she plans to pitch it.

She wants funding and support from the New Republic to form a Resistance -- although what specifically needs resisting, you're shaky on. The Geonosians trafficking people is a part of it.

There's a certain way your mother stands out in the Force when she sees something corrupt, some lifeform using their privileges for ill, somebody smaller who suffers, and she has that now, about this First Order business.

It's difficult to skim the details off the thoughts of others, or even really to honestly gauge the reception to your mother's plans -- when it comes to Senators, they're just as likely to be thinking about lunch as they are the lifeform rights violations being discussed in the Verandah. You slip in and out of committees, reporting back to Commander Bridger and your mother's pilots with what you overhear.

"Thanks, Ren," Bridger says absently.

"Ben," you correct him.

"That's what I said," he frowns, and when you shake your head at him, it deepens. "Are you sure --"

And he stops, because are you sure that's your name? Yes, you're pretty sure.

He shivers, full-body, and promptly rolls his shoulders to shake it off. "You know, if I were a Jedi, I would have called that a Force-premonition. Odd feeling."

"When I change my name, sir, you can the first to say 'I told you so'," you promise, and scoot off to the next committee.

The New Republic doesn't want war. It downsized its military presence specifically to advertise how much it doesn't want war.

"Do they think that's really going to work?" Commander Dameron asks Commander Bridger, handing her husband the keynote over your head so he can study it.

Bridger shrugs back, shifting the pauldron on his shoulder.

"The thing about sticking your head in the sand is that you never see it if something goes wrong," he says. "So it's easy to assume that everything must have gone right, no problem here."

For this five-year term, the capital of the New Republic is on Yavin 1, and that's the biggest advantage working in your mother's favor. She has friends in the whole system -- a Rebel victory was won in orbit around Yavin 4, and many of her pilots still live there, would still remember the fight. You've seen them everywhere these past two seasons; your mother wants to put pressure on the New Republic while they're still in Yavin space, where the memory of the Empire's atrocities runs deep, and the ties of loyalty are strong.

You're tailing the delegate from Gorse -- "shifty-eyed bastard," is Commander Dameron's remark, and Master Calrissian says "hmm" in that way he does when he sees something in another person that used to be in him -- and it takes you into the city below.

The elaborate spires of the capital complex crest against the sky behind you, iridescent ribbons of solar winds twinkling in the atmosphere beyond the clouds, and Threepio's your bodyguard for this venture, toddling and commenting ceaselessly at your side. Well, aide, is what he calls it.

He's honestly the best bodyguard. No one's going to get close enough to touch you -- Threepio might talk to them.

There's a library down here, sitting solid and square, and centuries of people coming in and out have given its stones a Force-presence, all those hands touching it to make sure it's still there. You feel the war it's withstood, the clones in the street and the dreadnoughts blotting out the sun. You pass through into the lobby.

"Ah!" exclaims Threepio in delight. "Master Organa, look! Why, that's an anti-Empire work of art if I ever saw one."

You're trying to sort out how close you can stay to the Gorsian delegate -- "you're not a real spy," Bridger assured you, "so don't worry about getting caught, you're just a kid. Anyone older than you might be suspicious," but you're taking this seriously -- when you feel it.

You stop walking. You tilt your head.

It's a hiccup in the Force, like thinking you see movement from the corner of your eye, and it draws your attention like it's the glitch point in a holoprojection, where the cells don't match up quite right. You can even hear it; sound just skips over it.

Your curiosity wins.

You ditch Threepio in the art gallery, rhapsodizing about what's on display and how good it is that you're developing an interest in Yavinian literature -- the subversive fiction alone! Your mother would be so proud! -- and venture deeper into the lesser-used public rooms. It gets quieter; holorecords are kept back here.

The disruption in the Force gets clearer.

You turn a corner, and --

It's a black sphere, suspended at where eye-level would be for a humanoid. It's not very big; some of the Senate-Watch correspondents have bigger cameras than this.

It makes no noise. It doesn't move. If it runs any anti-grav propulsors, then they're silent.

"All … right," you say.

You approach cautiously, aware in a sudden self-conscious way of all your imperfect, noisy, human parts. As you draw close, you catch the faintest depressions of a pattern in the sphere's obsidian surface. They remind you less of a constellation map as they do comet-trails, or old holos of the universe expanding, something cold or molten or both, something perpetually, uncaringly in motion.

As you circle, you find yourself jerking to a halt: there's a flat panel, inlaid into the other side.

You stretch up onto your tiptoes to get a better look, one hand already extended, when it lights.

Recoiling, your feet catch on themselves and your arms pinwheel to keep your balance. Your heart thuds, swollen. The panel is a screen, and on it, the image of a long-necked lifeform blinks at you mildly. Its deeply-lined face is humanoid, but only in an academic sense.

"Hello," it says, with a voice so deep you think you could throw something in it and never hear it reach bottom.

You realize that what you took for a library fixture is a living thing, and that means --

"How are you doing that?" you breathe, suddenly gutpunched, like you've sprinted the whole way to get here.

This is no droid. And if it's not a droid, you should feel it, but there's nothing.

Nothing.

And not just the nothing that comes when there aren't any people around you for miles, but nothing. There are people murmuring a few doors down, you can hear them, but you can't hear them. You can't --

You've never heard the Force so quiet.

The peace in your head is impossible. You have no words for it.

The head on the long neck swivels to regard you in return, and when it blinks its yellow-black eyes, two sets of eyelids flicker.

"You are Senator Organa's boy," it remarks.

You pop back up onto your tiptoes, trying to see if there's a transmitter or anything atop the sphere. Could this be the projection of a lifeform … ? You've seen the Damerons with their heads bent together over a holo-catalog, looking at those new BB8 units, thinking one might be a good gift for their son. They're spherical, but they always come with transmitters.

This isn't a BB8 unit, obviously.

So there's a lifeform inside …

"Yeah," you say. "I'm Ben."

The creature in the sphere smiles.

"Hello, Ben. I'm called Snoke."

 

***

 

The hovering black sphere is the only thing supporting Snoke's life.

"The Galactic Expansion Race was not kind to my people," he explains to you. "It was easy for other races to discover us on their great journey outward, but not for us to discover others. It is so strange to me, that of all the unique, viable planets in our galaxy, most have been taken and geoformed and terrained to be palatable for human existence."

"Oh," you say, frowning.

You hadn't thought about that -- how during the campaigns of your early childhood, you only had to wear a mask on a few of the planets you visited, and a pressure-suit on just the one. Everywhere else had the right atmospheric mix, the right gravity.

"My species -- specialized as we are for our own environment -- would be unable to survive on any of them, without the extreme containment measures you see."

You eyeball the sphere. How small must Snoke be, then?

"Is it uncomfortable?" you ask, and then, "sorry," because you have no way of knowing if that's a rude question or not. You can't remember the last time you were in a situation like this, where you couldn't read reactions as they were happening.

Snoke seems surprised.

"Uncomfortable? I am on an odyssey, Ben. I want to be the first of my kind to experience every corner of the galaxy, every lost oasis of evolution, every complex and fascinating phenomenon --" he stops himself, and considers your question. "Discomfort matters little, compared to that."

Raised voices around the corner have you coming to attention; you can hear Threepio's alarmed monologue, interspersed with interruptions from a security droid, and you grimace.

"I have to go," you say quickly. "It was very nice to meet you."

"Of course," says Snoke, noiselessly levitating his sphere out of the way.

Half-way down the hall, you pause, and shift your weight back onto your heel. You never got an answer to your question, about that sphere and the Force, and so you look back.

"Will you be here -- again?"

On the panel, the image of Snoke nods, and that lipless mouth almost smiles. "I'm here every day. Come find me again, Ben."

The following day, you don't, because you honestly forget -- and because nobody's letting you live it down, slipping Threepio's leash like you did, least of all Threepio himself. He tuts loudly every time he sees you. "Do you know how mad your mother's protocol droid is?" people keep asking you all day, and you roll your eyes and reply, "I honestly have no idea, I don't live with him or anything."

But the day after that, you slip out of your mother's committee half-way through in order to press your back against the wall, digging half-moon nailmarks into your scalp to give you something to focus on that isn't the rage your mother's people are caught up with inside, and then you lift your head. The argument pulses against your back, but you roll your shoulders to get it off. You take the next shuttle heading down into the city, by yourself, sitting up front in the section specially reserved for those Smaller than Average Humanoid.

Once you get to the library, you follow that glitch-sense through the same corridor you'd been down previously. You pause in front of one of the holorecord-reading rooms, then knock and step through.

Immediately, a foot slams down, narrowing missing your face.

You yelp and duck, flinging your hands up to protect yourself.

"What --" you exclaim, covering your head. It's above you, it's everywhere, you're going to get trampled, it's --

It's a hologram.

Your arms come down. "What is that?" you say in wonder, looking up at the monstrous form that takes up the whole room. The holo breaks only around where the light fixture is, high on the ceiling.

It's saurian in appearance, with a mammoth barrel chest and thick legs like columns, and tusks that protrude from its lower lip, curving up to the point where it nearly encircles its whole head. Its size isn't its most intimidating feature, though; its entire front bristles with blades. They grow from its shins, its knees, wickedly curved and sharp, and protrude from its forehead. The tusks are serrated into sharp edges. It could dice you into chunks with one idle swing of its head.

"It's called a hoggle," Snoke's voice comes from the other side of the room, and you spot his sphere through the projection.

"It's terrifying," you say.

"Hardly!" Snoke replies. "On Ellyria Delta, it's used as a beast of burden. Peaceful animal. Herbivorous."

"That?" you point. It's walking cutlery. Gargantuan walking cutlery.

"Yes. It's a harvester. Evolution is a fascinating trick. You see, the trees are the primary vegetation on Ellyria Delta and one of the only sources of nutrition. Those blades are made for stripping bark. The Ellyrians saw it and domesticated it."

You crane your head back, and the holorecord resets its loop; the hoggle lumbers around the room again, swinging its head.

You can see it now, you think, in the heavy, square jaw that looks like it would be filled with flat teeth. Blades on the forelegs to scrape at the trunk, the tusks for the boughs. You still wouldn't want to get underfoot, but -- that's exactly what the Ellyrians are doing. You're looking at them now, scaled to size and milling around the hoggle's legs on hovercarts. Toes, maybe. They're very small.

"How do you control something that big and powerful?"

"Quite easily," Snoke tells you. He's beside you now, his sphere lowering to your eye-level considerately. "You get to it when it's young."

You frown. "How does that help?"

"Like the trees, hoggles start out much, much smaller. While they're still infants, Ellyrian farmhands drive a post into the ground and chain the hoggle's leg to it. Every attempt to free itself fails. As it grows, post and chain are removed, but the trick's in the training --" Snoke looks right at you. "Now matter how big it gets, it never outgrows that memory of the post, of powerlessness. It doesn't need a chain -- it chains itself."

"That's …"

"Brilliant, I know." Snoke floats back over to the holoprojector. "The Ellyrians saved themselves considerable time and energy on capture and restraint, and won themselves the most useful asset for their environment. With one trick! How efficient."

You look up again, watching the hoggle bend its bladed knees in preparation of rearing, and then Snoke turns the holo off.

The room blinks back to its grey, featureless state.

"Ben," Snoke says, and now he definitely sounds amused. "Were you accompanied today?"

A pause.

"Ah," you say, uneasily.

"Go home," he tells you, and you want to protest immediately: you just got here! What if you go back and they're still arguing? "I will be here tomorrow."

So you come back tomorrow. Every day that week, you do, and several of the week after. Each day, Snoke has something new to show you: a planet that hails solid cubes of methane, and the dome-bodied behemoths that live there, unperturbed by the deluge; a now-defunct space station once famous across the galaxy for its faulty grav-simulator, and the hijinks that ensued -- scientists have now found that the descendants of those stationers have a much higher tolerance for G-force strain than their peers; these cave-grown crystals called kybers that, when fitted to a weapon, produce a tightly-controlled incinerator loop, deadly and elegant, and you feel it lift through your body when you realize you're learning what makes a lightsaber. You hadn't even thought to wonder before, but now you know.

Threepio finds your sudden fascination with the library "-- most peculiar, as I can't imagine you heard a word I was saying, typical, really …"

(Be nice to that droid, the Force tells you that night when you're dreaming, and if you squint, you can just make out the silhouetted light-shape of Anakin Skywalker. I gave him to my wife as a wedding present, and you say, "Yes, sir," politely.)

Your mother, however, is delighted.

"Ben, breathe!" she laughs, catching you by the collar and tugging you back before you can walk backwards into the doorframe.

"-- okay," you obediently gulp down a breath, then continue without an additional pause, "But no it actually transforms based on what it eats! I mean, it's a gradual process, it's not like the changelings from Zolan do, so it'll adapt slowly over months of sticking to one diet. It becomes what it eats -- it's the coolest camouflage predator!"

"Well, that's morbid." Your father, this time, stops you before you collide with him next.

He grips your shoulder, already grinning because you're grinning, but you're not droid-height anymore, and you still get caught off-guard by the thoughts you can hear others think, so you catch it, the airless swoop of his stomach, the sudden nervous thought of --

-- is this another sign? What do I do about it? I don't know how to handle this.

He shoves it down, fast and ashamed of it, so you let it go, but you can still feel it: it's a faulty wire, and faulty wires always blow up sometime.

("It's not strange at all," Snoke assures you, later. You feel ridiculous for even bringing it up, but Snoke is one of the few adults you know who won't report in some way or another back to your parents. "There's nothing suspicious about admiring the power and strength evolution gives its creatures. It's that admiration that drove me to leave my planet, after all.")

Pulling you into a one-armed hug, your father glances up at your mother -- and double-takes.

"Well, that's an outfit that'll stop moons in orbit!" he says, and then frowns, realizing this must have been mentioned at breakfast. "Is this dinner with …"

"The opera," your mother answers, and her hands go to the sides of her head, flattening the stray hairs by her ears in a nervous tic. "Nala suggested we go see it -- she's the Woman-King of Aandir," she elaborates at your father's look. "A unique situation -- we very rarely get planetary rulers who also are elected Senator. Most planets prefer to keep those branches of government separate."

"Right, of course," he says, widening his eyes at you like, Kings! How could we forget.

Your mother pulls at a strand, twisting it around her forefinger. "She's really the most wonderful woman," she says, and you straighten up, abruptly sensing just how much the Woman-King's friendship means to her.

"Hair?" you offer, and it's immediate, the way her shoulders relax.

"Yes, please," she says, and your father steps out of the way, watching curiously as the two of you grab chairs from around the dining table and rearrange them. She points over your head at him. "You too," she says, and you duck under her arm to go fetch her combs from their bedroom.

"All right," your father drags his voice around about-face. "What are we doing? It this something fancy for the opera? For fancy stuff, we usually comm Iilxo, don't we? The stylist?"

"This is important," your mother says.

"She's nervous!" you say at the same time.

In unison, you both explain, "It's a Force-thing."

"A ritual contains a lot of power, Dad. Especially when performed with someone you trust."

"I know it's just a show, but I could use the strength."

"All right," he says again, gamely. "You can trust me with hair, I've got steady hands."

Your mother settles herself into her chair, pulling out the loose coronet she'd been wearing all day. She shakes out the loops of her hair and levels him with a look.

"Hey," he protests. "You trust me with a blaster, don't you?"

Her mouth pulls.

You cross your legs up onto the other chair, scooping handfuls of your mother's hair toward you and tugging a little to get the ends to separate. You glance up as he settles into the chair opposite you, huffing.

"Well, you let me hold your son -- frequently -- yeah, okay, our son -- and I never dropped him!"

Her eyebrows make a spirited leap for her hairline.

He points a finger at her. "That was just the once!"

Your head jerks up.

"You dropped me?" you squawk indignantly. This is news to you!

Your mother's shoulders shake, and she turns part-way around so she can tell you, laughing, "And I've dropped you at least twice. Your dad is right -- he's got the steadier hands."

"Thank you," he says.

"You turned out okay, right? It didn't mess you up too badly?" She makes a show of touching your forehead, thumbing back your eyelids to check them until you squirm and say, Mom, get off!

She picks a hairstyle, and you're off, combing her strays smooth so that you can redo the braids, you with one and your father the other. Your hands are smaller and faster, and you didn't mean to make it a race but you finish first anyway with a triumphant, "ha!" in your father's direction.

Your mother glances down at the braid, then at you.

"Ben," she says, reproving, and you show teeth.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," and you pull the braid back, unraveling it far enough that you can do it again, neater.

Her head turns toward your father. "Want to see a neat trick?" she asks, and when he quirks his eyebrows, she says, "Hey, Ben, what were you telling me about the nautilus? It smothers its offspring?"

It lifts all the way through you, hoisting you almost right out of your chair.

"OKAY," comes out of you, loud and excited. "First of all, it's called a nautilion, and it's an airborne swimming creature that lives in the storm clouds on Lothal -- and there are always storms on Lothal, so they're always drifting and following one weather cell or another. It doesn't smother its offspring, but its body is bell-shaped, see? So nautilion hatchlings will cluster under a parents' bell and feast on anything that'll drift under it, and --"

You pause for breath, and realize both your parents are laughing, not listening.

"Hey!" you say.

"You're fine," your mother promises you, stroking your forehead reassuringly. "It's nice to see you this happy, Ben."

"I'm happy!" you protest, finishing the (much nicer) braid. You hand it back to her, letting her twist the both of them up onto the top of her head, suddenly worried that you'd let them think you weren't. "Honest!"

"Good," and she ducks her head, kissing your cheek. You're listening for it, so you feel it; she's no longer swimming inside of herself, lost in all that space, but anchored, confident. "The galaxy did good when it did libraries. What do you think you're going to look into next?"

You have no idea. You can't read Snoke. His intentions are unfathomable to you.

That is, honestly, one of your favorite parts.

 

***

 

You can't pinpoint the exact theme of Snoke's research: his fascination with powerful forces in the galaxy and unexplained phenomenon is obvious, he's amassing quite the collection of those, but anyone with a connection to the holonet can study that. He doesn't have to come to the capital -- he doesn't need you.

One day, it'll be the hoggles and the nautilions, and the next, you'll join him in looking through the patchy records of the Jedi Archives -- the original Archives were damaged beyond repair by the Empire, but there were private collections all over the galaxy willing to donate the pieces of Jedi history they had once there was peace again.

If it's not that, it's the old Empire records themselves. The Galactic Council had considered purging them, but decided against it. They wanted transparency on the Empire's atrocities.

It's a lot of dry text, which must be interesting to somebody -- to be honest, you want the hoggles back.

"What are you looking for?" you ask, stepping underneath a star chart that spreads across the room like a net.

Snoke replies, "Pieces to a map."

"Map to what?"

"That," he says musingly. "Is what I'm trying to find out. I know only that I must get to it first."

You squint at him sidelong. "All right."

And you can't say that you aren't learning with him, because he isn't a bad teacher for somebody who never volunteered for the role but found themselves saddled with you anyway. Sometimes, if one can be spared, a droid will go with you -- See-seven is the one least offended by the fact it can't scan Snoke's sphere, although it still beeps grumpily at you every time. "Don't look at me -- I can't either," you tell it, spreading your hands.

Your parents are under the impression that Snoke is an exceptionally patient library aide, and by the time you learn his political affiliation, you have a very good reason not to correct this assumption.

Mostly, though, you're here because for an hour or two, everything is quiet.

You run your errands for Commander Bridger, you attend committee with your mother, you eat lunch with your father and Chewie, and in the afternoon, you snatch a break with which you can head into the city. The radius around Snoke and his sphere is a Force deadzone, and you don't think you understood how loud everybody is, all the time, until you had that quiet. Going back out into it afterwards hurts.

But it's tolerable, too -- you've reached the point that Luke's meditation couldn't do.

You can handle the noise now that you know there will be a moment in your day where there isn't any noise at all.

 

***

 

As the season that year comes to a close, you approach your parents.

You can hear their voices coming from your mother's office -- the both of them strike like matchsticks, igniting in your Force-sense each time one says something that sparks an idea in the other. They're working -- they haven't stopped, even though it's long past the time most people shut down their droids and go home. The colored ribbons of light that cut the night sky out the window make paths on the carpet in your mother's apartments.

You step from one to another as you approach the office door. You heard that the Yavi, the gods of the first indigenous peoples, use the ribbons of light as footpaths between realms, although Shara Bey Dameron was quick to put the lid on that, telling you they were just solar winds being pulled through the atmosphere by the proximity of the gas giant. Aurora borealis, she calls it, which sounds pretty godlike to you.

" -- of thorilide out of that system has ground to a complete standstill. For at least one planet and its moon, it's the only reliable export. It monopolizes the economy -- the Empire never saw fit to diversify it."

"So if something's not done, it'll be --"

"-- fourteen days before all sectors shut down, yes. People will starve."

"What does the Senator from Gorse have to say?"

And you're focused on that, the feeling of your parents at their very best, so you don't realize they're not alone until it's too late and you're already through the door.

Your mother senses you first, and after a swift glance in your direction, she reaches out to touch your father's shoulder.

"Han," she says. "Our son has something to tell us."

With an apologetic look at Pna and Lor San Tekka, you slip in between your parents, hiking yourself up to sit on the bench around the table.

The board projects an Outer Rim quadrant, crosshatched with graph lines and distance-to-scale measurements, and your mother flicks a note to land by one of the moons before focusing her attention on you.

Your mother, the General. The leader of the Resistance, and oh, you think you can still float on that feeling, you and your parents and all your mother's people, former Rebels and new recruits alike, and in the Force it was like you'd turned gravity inside-out, there in that moment when the Chancellor bent his elaborate headdress to her and said the New Republic would fund her fight against the neo-Empire upstarts.

"I want to work for the Senate," you tell them. "I want to come back with Mom next season and I want to learn how this works."

You point at the board. Through it, you see Pna tap her mandibles together thoughtfully.

You can't be a Senator yourself -- you have no homeworld, after all. In-transit births like yours will usually default automatically to a parents' homeworld, and with Alderaan not an option, that probably means your paperwork lists you as a Corellian national. Corellia, however, has very strict laws tying citizenship with legislative representation, so you couldn't be the Corellian Senator even if you wanted to. Which you don't -- you're your mother's people, down to the very bones of you.

You could be something, though. And you want to find out.

Your father leans forward. Like they're continuing a conversation that hasn't stopped, he says to your mother, "Or, we could let him choose his own education."

Pna pipes up, clicking, "We could install him as a permanent page to the other committee meetings, Leia. It'll be useful having a psychic there."

"He's a boy, Pna, not a satellite," your mother says absently, watching you with a faint depression between her eyebrows. She tries it out. "My son, the politician."

Lor folds his hands and offers, diplomatically, "He does come from the best part of both of you."

Your father's hand rests on your back. He doesn't say anything, but it's a burst that lights the core of him; not quite a thought, but more the feeling that every day he looks at you and sees more of your mother, which is excellent because he doesn't think there's anyone better in this galaxy, not even Chewie -- well, okay, maybe Chewie, but he also doesn't want you to be more like Chewie, one is enough, so.

You can't help smiling at that, and your mother ducks her head to catch your eye.

"Are you sure?" she murmurs, like there's something here she just doesn't have her finger on. "I would have thought … the noise?"

You shrug, and her hands go to your shoulders, stilling them.

You look up, catching the tail end of her worry just as she gives it a swift kick, shutting the door behind it.

It won't occur to you, not until years later, that your mother must have hidden her sentiments somewhere you would never think to look -- you know that you're stronger in the Force than she is, but she was Force-adept first, and almost everything you know, you learned from her. Your father's concerns were the ones that prickled at your back like a cold wind, so they were the ones you focused on -- and in their shadow, your mother's grew unnoticed by you. And why wouldn't she worry? She saw the Dark Side of the Force firsthand. She sees corruption and cowardice on a daily basis: there's no way she could have missed it in her own home, the way your sympathies grew.

But right now, you're twelve years old, and your mother kisses your forehead, quick and proud.

Then she pulls back, settling her face into a stern expression.

"Don't shrug," she advises. "If there's any one thing you learn about leadership from me, it's that you should never, ever shrug when asked a question. It's dismissive. It says, 'I don't know and I'm not going to care,' and that's not the attitude you should take with anybody. Got it?"

"Yes, ma'am," you say, smiling helplessly.

 

***

 

The next season, and the one after that, you meet Snoke in the capital.

It is, still, only for whatever time you manage to grab in between everything else -- an hour and a half here, fifteen minutes there. It doesn't matter. So long as Snoke is there to be met, you'll meet him.

On hard days, that promise of peace is what you live for.

You watch his collection of holorecords mount up around him, all these things he means to find out there. Once or twice, you catch a glimpse of his people as their orbits around Snoke cross your own: sharp-dressed humanoids who snap their heels together; a masked, squat, bow-legged figure all in black whom you pass in the hall, whose head makes you think of the moment an instrument is played out of tune, discordant, flat. Snoke does not explain them, and you don't ask.

("Could it be a princess?" Threepio wonders aloud, the next time you're late returning from the library and your absence gets remarked upon. He jerks his head. "Is he too young for princesses? Oh, dear, I'm always the last to know these things …"

You wrinkle your nose at him.

Having been privy to everybody else's thoughts for most of your life means that you've known more love, more sex -- more encounters that could barely be called either one of those things -- than you care to. It still feels like the universe's most elaborate joke. Like evolution had decided that if copulation was going to be necessary, it might as well be as over-the-top ridiculous as possible. Like, where even did this come from?

Lifeforms. Procreation. Wanting to touch someone and be touched in weird places. You feel it in others' heads all the time, but entertaining the thought for yourself has … mostly just ended with you laughing, a lot.

You can't take anything involving that many naked, flexing butts seriously. You can't! Butts. Flexing.

Humans do it willingly! It's so weird!

But you're certain that if you mention this to somebody, they'll chuckle and tell you that you're still young, you'll grow out of it eventually. And maybe they're right -- maybe sex is something you'll have to learn, same way you'll have to learn everything else adults chuckle about like it's inevitable, but you're honestly not looking forward to it. Just. Butts, flexing. Why.)

"Ben," Snoke says to you at one point. "What do you know about the Force?"

"Not much," you answer by rote. You get this question often enough that you don't even look up from your console. "You could ask Luke Skywalker -- he's the Jedi Master living on Takodana. There's an outpost in the southern fenland, if you comm there and ask for directions, you can get a message to him."

"I'm not asking Skywalker," he says dryly. "I'm asking you."

You do look up, now. "The Force holds the universe in balance, the force behind all other forces. It flows through all living things," and through you, too, that running water that washes up the detritus of those other living things into your head. You never asked for it, but here it is.

"But only the Jedi are capable of wielding it."

"Not necessarily," you frown. "There are several different types of Force-sense, but yes, the Jedi are those who dedicate their lives to it."

"Interesting," Snoke says, mild. "I always wondered -- the Archives don't say -- but how are those children with potential found?"

You feel your mouth pull. "Uncle Luke says you look."

"Ah. That's … unhelpful."

"That's the Force."

 

***

 

You turn thirteen, then fourteen. Your hair grows out, down your back, and you become adept at braiding over your shoulder again. Your mother offers to do it for you, the morning of your League apprenticeship exams, and when she's done, you steal a moment to lean your head against her shoulder, grateful. You wear the same shiny military boots and the same straight collar and the same uniform that marks a Resistance member at ten paces, proud of the insignia on your sleeve, and in your down-time, you steal your father's jacket. It's too big on you, the sleeves flopping down over the ends of your fingers, and the first time your father sees you in it, curled up in your bunk on the Millennium Falcon on a return trip from Yavin 4, he just smooths your hair down and tugs the jacket up to your chin.

You're fourteen, and this time, the assassin only makes it as far as the Verandah before you're on your feet.

Your lips come off your teeth, and Commander Bridger -- who took over as your mother's head of security from Master Calrissian -- takes one look at you and moves. It's snuffed, quietly and out of sight and with only one desperate down with the Princess, down with the Resistance! They meddle where they don't belong!, and the Senator on the floor doesn't even have to stop hir speech.

You're fourteen, and Snoke's gotten you into world-building games.

The library has a whole collection of sim-games, where you're given a city, a planet, a farm, an expedition into unexplored space, and you must keep it alive.

You become attached to your populations almost overnight, it feels like, and Snoke doesn't seem to mind you explaining how you established infrastructure in this tree-dwelling society or how you eradicated aggression in your working-class shipyards on this fictional planet or how you encouraged genetic diversity in your herd of rihne elk imported from Ellyria Sigma. He asks questions. He forces you to improve.

You wind up getting a library chip so that you can check them onto your holopad, playing them into the night, long after even the sounds of street traffic in the sky outside fall silent.

Your mother has to remind you about your chores, gently and then none-too-gently, and even sics your father on you.

"All right, listen," he slides in across from you. "I'm supposed to give you a lesson about adult responsibilities and proper time management, but honestly, I'll skip the speech if you get Chewie into one of those that isn't the farm one."

You look up, sympathetic. "He keeps getting his land repossessed?"

"I could handle that, it's that annoying little chime every time those damn grouunberries are up for harvest! Ben, I'm at the end of my wits!" He drags his hands through his hair and widens his eyes at you, suffering.

Solemnly, you extend your hand across the table and the two of you shake on it.

You even manage to get your father himself into it, for awhile -- you explain the game to him (not the farm one,) but nervously, because it takes a lot of courage to show somebody something that's really, really important to you, in case they hurt it and by extension, you.

Your father must sense this, because he tries.

"I think I'm going to have to trust you on this one, son," he says, after failing to promote any biodiversity and not getting any of his planets out of the primordial soup.

You pat him on the back, saying, "it's okay!" because it honestly is.

Snoke not only gets his planets out of the primordial soup, he's soon challenging your system on its commercial economy. He makes the critical mistake, however, of hiring a mercenary outfit as a cheap middleman to procure laborers for his mining operations, and that's where you edge him out.

"Well, no -- it's like what the Geonosians were doing," you try to tell him.

And Snoke's sphere, floating part-way across the room, comes to an abrupt halt.

"I beg your pardon?" rumbles out of him, inquisitive.

You gesture. "The Geonosians. To turn a profit, they were enslaving people from the New Republic -- poor places, because the economy had gone bad? -- and selling them to labor moons somewhere else. But it wasn't necessary, and it's not necessary here, either.

"Look," you hop up, pointing up at the statistics page on Snoke's game. "It's not like you don't have the money to pay them fairly. Cut out the bad guys. Offer the jobs to the people -- direct. Coaxing people to come work hard jobs is going to work so much better than, like, dragging them there."

Duh, you want to add, but refrain at the last second.

For a long moment, Snoke says nothing. The panel side of his sphere faces you, and the silence stretches.

"What?" you say, frowning.

"Nothing," Snoke responds, low. You don't think you've ever seen him so nonplussed. "I will … keep that in mind."

The knot between your shoulder blades eases. Snoke's silences have a way of making you skittish, anxious to please -- it's not an unfamiliar feeling, like you need to do something that will justify the time you're asking somebody to invest in you. You need to be worthwhile, or people just might decide they're done with you, and then where will you be? It's strongest with Snoke, who you can't read.

It's what gives you away, eventually.

The holorecords that you and Snoke have been using don't contain anything on the Uncharted Territories, as they are -- surprise -- uncharted. The best you can come up with are telescope readings from an Outer Rim observatory, and that just has quadrants of space blocked off under monikers like MISTA and 06TRON. Unterrained planets lay that way, and according to the pilots your mother sends hopping that way across the gunrunner's roads, so does the First Order.

"Ben," says Snoke. "I asked you a question."

You come back to yourself. "I --" you start, but falter, because of course you can't skim the top of Snoke's thoughts to pick the conversation's thread up again. "I -- wasn't listening, I'm sorry."

The sphere turns, but you drop your gaze before the projection of Snoke on the screen can make eye contact with you. After a beat, it noiselessly lifts away.

You unravel the conversation backwards; a mission, the New Republic, Snoke's impatience with … something in the Senate that isn't going well, and --

Your head comes up.

You cast about for a solution; something that might please him. You hesitate, then you offer, "Do you … want me to follow them off the Verandah and listen?"

Again, the sphere turns in your direction.

"They'd have to be thinking about it," you say quickly. "It'd have to be right on their minds, I can't dig for specific information -- well, I could, but I wouldn't go undetected. I have too much presence in the Force now to be sneaky."

A pause.

He speaks, slowly. "With the Force, you are … a spy?"

You can't place the note in his voice. Amusement? You are rather small for a spy.

"No! Okay, not … really? Kind of. I've done it for my mom's people before, it sometimes works, it's not, like, a big deal or anything." You're red to your ears, you can feel it, ruddy with embarrassment. You had to open your mouth!

"How curious," Snoke says.

You peek. "What is."

"I knew you were unique, but to think that the New Republic could be so naive as to let a child who is -- correct me if I'm wrong -- psychic wander heedlessly among their most brilliant generals and strategists …"

You're immediately defensive on behalf of the closest thing to a sibling you have.

"It's not like that," you say. "Telepathy isn't that strange. There are psychics in some of the delegations here, and the Senate's never placed special restrictions on them -- they have the same right to representation as anybody else. And besides, I've never met a lifeform that just goes around loudly broadcasting military secrets."

It's not like people considerately think something like "TOP SECRET" before they think about something nobody else is supposed to know.

"And even when I do pick something up, there's no way of knowing just how useful it is," which is why you turn it into Bridger and the analysts, so they can put the pieces together into something that makes sense.

You do look up at Snoke, this time.

"I can listen to them for you, but I'm telling you now, if you're looking for scandal it's unlikely," you tell him, firmly. You know your limits -- at least, what they are before Snoke starts to push them. "Nobody likes to think about the harm they cause other people."

 

***

 

Do you want to know what got Ben Organa killed?

You're a wretched, unmasked creature, hunched in front of Han Solo. Neither of you are wounded yet, but you can already feel the place you'll carry the scar.

You spit the words, "He was weak and foolish."

Like his father -- but the father rejects this with a simple motion of his chin, dumps it straight off the side of the catwalk and gives it no further consideration. The Ben that flashes through his mind, so shockingly bright it leaves an imprint in negative on the insides of your eyelids -- he's that long-haired kid in his dad's jacket. There's that stupid smile, the upturned face, always so eager to please.

 

***

 

"Does your planet have any kind of delegation they send to the Senate?" you ask Snoke, sitting on the steps outside the library and scarfing down the remainder of your lunch, which you had shoved into your pocket in a hurry so that you could make the shuttle on time. "Or are you it?"

"We do not, and I am not," Snoke answers.

You lick sauce off the meat of your thumb and eye him sidelong. The pressure seal on that sphere can't be broken, so you assume he feeds himself intravenously -- or through some kind of environmental osmosis? The skin he presents on screen doesn't look permeable, but what do you know, really? You've amassed a lot of facts about different fascinating species in the galaxy, but the one next to you is still a mystery.

If there's one thing you've learned from your Senate League apprenticeship, it's that everyone in the capital has an agenda.

"Okay," you say. "So what do you do during the season, then?"

You've asked this question several times over the past two years, and you're pretty sure the answers you've gotten haven't been lies, exactly, but also not the full truth. Shopping, he'd told you once, dryly, and when you asked what for, Purses.

Oh! you'd said. So you're a lobbyist?

In a fashion.

At which point you started giggling. Puns, you've found, are delightful when you can't hear them coming.

"I set many things into motion, Ben," he tells you now. His sphere turns, drifting back and forth between the columns, and you think he's trying not to look like he's watching the pedestrians; he prefers the privacy of the holorecords rooms, but the library's got a no food and drink rule and you were adamant not to break it. In the daylight, the patterns on Snoke's sphere seem to ripple with movement.

"It's all right," you tell him. "Nobody's recording us. Something always happens to the image and the sound -- See-seven complained about it all the time. Went on about -- your shell, I think?"

"I did wonder what that droid was up to," Snoke comments, blithe.

"Be nice!" you chide him, laughing. "That droid is my best friend -- I mean, besides you, of course."

"Thank you," if he sounded any dryer about it, you could use him to sandblast score marks off a fighter.

It makes you laugh again, head thrown back. "See-seven keeps telling my parents you run a criminal empire," you say, and when Snoke whips around so his panel points at you, you hold up a hand reassuringly, "But See-seven thinks that about everyone -- it's a favored hypothesis. Everyone's trying to recruit everyone else into something shady."

"By that definition, the entire Senate should be under your droid's watch," Snoke says.

"I'm not into anything shady," you respond promptly. "I'm not tall enough to cast any."

There's a beat, and then Snoke sighs, audibly.

Pleased with yourself, you polish off the last few bites of your lunch, scrunching up the foil and surreptitiously trying to wipe your sticky hands on your pants, when Snoke suddenly speaks up.

"I attend every year on behalf of my employers," and you look over at him, curious. "The First Order -- you've heard of them, I presume?"

And you're on your feet, just like that. The foil wrapper hits the ground and bounces away towards the street, but your eyes are on Snoke, shocked.

Your mouth moves, fishily.

"The First Order?" you manage. "No -- you've got them mixed up with somebody else. The First Order is all about the Empire, and human supremacy, and it's run by evil criminals --"

"-- and there are far worse crimes being committed right now within the New Republic's own borders, more atrocities of negligence than anything the First Order could accomplish in five years," Snoke interrupts in his most patient voice, the same way he's corrected all your assumptions about the hoggles, lightsaber crystals, and any mid-sized planet's population-to-resource capacity. "I've always felt that one government shouldn't throw rocks at another for rights-abuses they themselves have no qualms about committing."

"I --" you start, still staring.

"There's still slavery, for example -- particular planets on the Outer Rim are notorious for it. There's no slavery in the First Order. Were you taught that?"

You swallow, throat catching and clicking over a dry patch.

What do you know about the First Order?

It exercises totalitarian control over the settlements in the Uncharted Territories. The identities of its leaders are shrouded to protect them. It uses milk and honey to lure settlers to its colonies, where it traps them and feeds them anti-Republic propaganda and a heavily-edited history of the galactic struggle for freedom. Resistance spies say there's a back door in and out of MISTA, the main First Order system, and that's how they've been monitoring the threat -- but who knows how long it'll remain undiscovered?

Your mother would want you to leave. Right now.

She would want you to turn around and never talk to Snoke again, but you're too confused.

Snoke isn't the cackling, Sith-loving overlord you always assumed the Empire to be, that terrifying black-clad shape that looms out of people's memories. He listens to you -- you, a terribly small thing in a terribly large galaxy. Your parents, Chewie, your uncle -- they always tell you that even the smallest things deserve respect, and that's exactly what Snoke has done. He's invested in you. Those are all things good guys do, as defined to you by the best people you know.

So Snoke isn't bad. And Snoke works for the First Order, so what does that make …

"You're not -- you're employed by?" you echo faintly.

"The First Order direly needed assistance with its infrastructure, marketing, and galactic relations. I am able to accommodate these needs, as I am officially unaffiliated and can move through New Republic space freely. They cannot."

You latch onto this, hooking yourself to it so that you don't feel so much like you're flailing.

"Because of the Concordance."

"Yes, the manacle of that so-called 'agreement'."

Nope, so much for that. You're completely off-balance. You crouch, your hand seeking the step behind you so that you can sit down, blinking rapidly.

The Galactic Concordance collars the Empire. That's the reason anyone feels safe. You know this the way you know the Force is with you, the way you know your bones and the splints in your heart.

"I --" you start, then stop, and Snoke levels you with a mild look, still hovering alongside you.

"My," he says. Then, "I take it you've never been educated in the public sphere?"

You shake your head. That's an old argument with your parents, worn smooth in the Force from the number of times they've gone over it, you never going to school like the other kids do. You moved around too much, had been the official excuse, but underneath that, quieter: who besides us can raise a Force-using telepathic child?

You've never felt like your schooling lacked. Maybe it did. You honestly have nothing to compare it to.

Everything you learned, you learned on the coattails of former Rebels. Your parents taught you your letters, to read and write, and Captain Syndullah taught you a dozen different rhymes to remember the major galactic systems and the primary species that inhabit them. Commander Bridger taught you how to break a shuttle lock (and then your dad taught you the correct way, honestly, calls himself a hacker, that glowy-eyed punk,) and how to hold a blaster. Chewie taught you your multiplication tables, your astrophysical algebra and flight-risk calculus, while the droids taught you languages -- Threepio perhaps more patiently than the others.

"Well," Snoke remarks. "I suppose your bias can't be helped, in that case."

Your stomach makes a sudden, nervous knot at his tone of voice. He's disappointed in you.

You open your mouth, wanting to say something to make up for it, when it occurs to you, forcing you to bolt upright.

"The Geonosians! They trafficked -- to you -- that's slavery of a kind!"

You can't just call slavery something else and say there's no slavery in the First Order!

"Ah," says Snoke. "Them. I never liked them. They were such a nuisance. You'll be glad to hear they're no longer a concern, thanks to you."

"Thanks to --"

Horror makes a pit out of your insides. Your heart swings across it, strung up in a pilot's harness, and the sudden sense of height, of danger, makes it hard to breathe. What did you do?

"Yes. I went back to my employers, and at your suggestion, we offered waged positions at all facilities that used heavy labor. The response was so favorable that the expense was justified, and we were able to sever ties with our Geonosian middlemen entirely. Thank you, Ben."

His sphere bobbles in a mimicry of a bow, aimed in your direction.

You have no idea what to think.

That's good, isn't it? Your hand goes to the patch on your sleeve, covering it like you think it might call you a traitor, but you aren't -- there are people in the First Order just like there are people in the New Republic, and you did something to help them. Right? The goal is always to leave something better than how you found it.

"Of course," Snoke allows. "Your father had something to do with it too, I believe."

"Allegedly," you correct on automatic, although there isn't a soul in the capital who doesn't know that General Organa's husband took on the Geonosians and won.

Snoke glides down, stopping at your shoulder.

He says to you almost gently, "It's not your fault. But you have an opportunity now, Ben. Would you like to see the New Republic as the rest of the galaxy sees it?"

He offers it the same way he's offered every lesson he's ever given you, and what else, exactly, are you going to say but yes?

 

***

 

There's a friendly warning notice bolted down in the middle of the Millennium Falcon's flight console that reads: Please Fasten Restraints During Takeoff and Landing.

Literally nobody you know has ever paid attention to it, not even once, and you're already up and moving before the Falcon has finished its minute back-and-forth adjustments in order to dock to the General's ship, movements you can see through the window that create a phantom pull in your gut; like you should feel the motion, except the inertial dampeners keep your insides right where they are.

Behind you, you hear the dull thunk of the mag-locks engaging. The General's ship is the largest in the Resistance convoy -- and once your mother appoints an Admiral, you can start calling it a fleet.

Stretching your mind out, you look for the familiar flares in the Force, the lieutenants and captains awaiting your mother's arrival. Government-funded doesn't mean well-funded and almost everything the Resistance owns is recycled, previously-owned, patched-up. The people most of all.

Your stomach squirms with anticipation. And hunger. Mostly hunger.

You're starving.

You swing down by the bunk you share with Chewie. The top bed, once your lofty, kingly perch, is only fractionally smaller to you than it had been as a child. You're not very big -- everyone says your growth spurt will probably hit soon, given the amount you're capable of putting away anytime somebody mistakenly brings you near anything edible, but it hasn't happened yet. Your father jokes that maybe her height is the true legacy you'll inherit from your mother.

You pull your duffel out. It's a week until opening ceremonies for the next Senate season, and you'll be dirtbound after that. Probably.

Resistance work is likely to call your parents away. There won't be any rest for them. But you're old enough now to stay in the capital without them, right? Surely you could be, if you asked. You've earned that trust. Right?

Whatever, you'll deal with it. It's a new planet!

Excitement fizzles at your insides. What will the air taste like? What does the sky do at sunset? Will there be storms?

You zip your duffel, and move to sling it over your shoulder when your stomach suddenly swims downward. You miss, straps sliding down your arm to land in your elbow, and you let it fall to the grating, breathing slow to steady the swell of nausea.

Nerves. Not yours.

"Mom?" you call, worriedly.

You find her in your parents' quarters, sitting on their bed. She's dressed in clean cut and colors; simple, not ceremonial, and her hair's loose, spooling around her on the bedspread, pulled taut in the places where it's half-caught under her thigh. Her palms rest facing up on her knees. The Force is locked into her, cycling through her slow and calm like fish idly circling a pond.

"What's she doing?" you ask, even though you already know.

"Meditating," your father says, and you jerk your head towards him.

He's the one pulling on you. Everything about him drags today, not just his voice. As you watch, he rakes in a deep breath like he's pulling it over coals, hauling his chest up and around to hold it. His hands tug at his jacket, before digging themselves into his pockets, pushing down on them heavy like stones.

"All right," comes out of his throat, reluctant and kicking. "I need to talk to you."

Out in the corridor, he turns to face you. Further down, you can hear Chewie warbling at Fhaw, the slow-talking Ithorian that followed your mother from Yavin 4 who's on arrivals inspection today -- neither of them talk about the Millennium Falcon's manifest, focusing instead on discussing the right way to win the latest sim-gam of BattleBOTS that was released while you guys were out. The shorter and louder Chewie's responses get, the more you figure he's losing the argument.

You watch your father apprehensively, and he takes a deep breath and says, "Listen."

You're honestly not sure how you could do anything else: you are listening with all of your senses, and with the Force especially.

His eyes dart between yours, and he notices with a matchstick scrape of surprise that you're almost to his chin. Self-recrimination stains the thought -- when did this happen? I see him every day -- how could I miss this?

Stop, you think back, even though he can't hear you. The thought and the shame that comes with it crawls up your back and you give yourself a mental shake, trying to get rid of it. You know it's not his fault. The new responsibilities of the Resistance have been making those thoughts surface in your father more often than they used to. But it would be nice, whispers an uncharitable part of you, if you could have a conversation without him projecting his own inadequacies loud enough for you to hear. It would be so much more efficient.

"Listen," he says again. "Don't tell your mother I said this, but when she says she's got a bad feeling about something, she's usually right."

That's exactly the kind of thing you should tell her, you think, but he's already talking again.

"-- and she doesn't think you should be joining her in the capital this season."

"This …" you echo, and the sinking in your stomach begins, like the inertial dampeners have gone offline after all, like you're canting listless in space.

Are they really going to --

"In fact," your father continues. "We think -- and your uncle agrees -- that it's time you join him for your Jedi training."

"But I don't want to be a Jedi," is the first thing that comes out of your mouth, and you're immediately disgusted with yourself. That's not what you meant to say, but now it's out there.

Your father scoffs at you.

"Of course you do! You need to be trained."

"There's nothing to train me in!" you exclaim. "I don't have any powers!"

His eyebrows pop up, incredulity spiking, and you gesture, fast. Crap, you're bungling this, but you don't think you've ever been caught so off guard.

"I mean, real powers. Powers like the kind that made Uncle Luke famous. I can't do any of that, I just have the mind stuff."

"The mind stuff seems like some pretty --" scary "-- important powers to me, son. Your mother and I are concerned that it -- it might get out of hand, later, and we want you to have some training to prepare. Luke is the best person for that. He'd know."

No! You've been there, tried that, it's --

"Luke doesn't know the Force better than me!" bursts out of you, and "no, I mean," you're shaking your head even before you register your father's sudden frown. "No, that's not --!"

That's wrong, you know it is. You don't know it better, but he doesn't know it the same way you do, and you don't know how to explain that, especially since you can already feel your father deciding he doesn't want to listen to this. You're not being reasonable. You've said nothing to convince him.

That sensation of weightlessness gets worse. You're out of orbit. You're plummeting planetside.

I'm the one the Force is screaming at ALL THE TIME. Luke couldn't help with that! I found my own solution and you're taking it from me?

"What about," you try, swallowing. "What about my lessons? The Senate League? My schooling?"

"This is more important," your father says firmly.

"But now?"

"Yes. Luke says he's ready for apprentices. A proper Jedi academy, like they used to have."

"Oh, great," you say, and this time manage to stop yourself before you tack on a, because that ended well!

You can't help but think that something must have happened. You're not sure if that's your gut telling you that, or something you're picking up from him, so you try to calm down, try to think through the devastating falling that's happening to all your organs. Have you -- have you hurt someone? And not known? You haven't had a headache-episode in months -- not since that Togruta bastard with that chip on his shoulder called your mother warmongering Rebel scum. Him you definitely hurt. It hadn't been hard at all, reaching for that pumped-up self-important feeling in his head, the one everybody gets when they think they know more about a subject than somebody they dislike. You grabbed it and pulled with no more force than it took to break a thread, and when he hollered, you punched him. It was the punching you got in trouble for, though -- not his head. Nobody knows about that.

You drag in a breath, and you think, Why do you want me gone?

To your humiliation, the inhale shakes, and your nose promptly stings. You blink fast to clear the water from your eyes.

You can't cry now!

Now you need to fight! You need to have this. You need them to understand that if they send you to Luke, you will die. The sound in your head will kill you, and no meditation and no rough brown robes will stop that.

You're not going to let it happen. You're staying in the capital.

You look up at your father. You look him right in the eye and you reach for the Force, drawing it into you and centering it like you're lining up a bulls-eye.

Little acts of coercion aren't hard -- any politician's aide can do it, so you don't even stand out -- but this isn't anything you've tried before.

"You --" you start, with the full power of the Force in your voice, and it's frightening how instantaneous it is, the slight slide your father's eyes make.

But --

-- you've forgotten.

Your mother's mind slams into your own.

You cry out, jerking away and banging against the wall, and the pain in your skull and shoulder is only a muted echo of what's happening to your brain. You've never -- not on this end --

The next moment, she fills the doorway, lit up and incandescent with rage, and you look up at her face with her hair all around it and you know you've lost.

You've lost.

Your father steps back, glancing between the two of you -- your mother, breathing hard through her nostrils, and you, cowering -- and his shoulders drag downward.

He looks at her again. It flares in the Force, inside of him: This isn't the solution.

But he says --

Nothing.

"I might," your mother says to you, tight and furious. "Have considered it. If this is truly your passion, I would have fought your father and my brother for you to have it. And I would have won," she adds as an aside to her husband, who's opened his mouth. He wisely shuts it again, and your mother's laser attention crosshairs you, pins you to the ground. You are inches tall. "But you cannot tell me you're dedicated to taking my place in this Republic if your first resort when faced with a refusal is to take away the free will of another."

 

***

 

Snoke doesn't seem nearly as concerned about this turn of events as you are, when you find him in the new agreed-upon place, a holorecord room underneath the main communications lab in the capital.

You'd been allowed this last contact, as compromise.

"Oh," he says, after you finish. "Are they really?"

The ecosystem of some far-off world is projected around you, shielding you. Holographic mist swirls around your feet. Unseen animals leap from bough-to-bough above you, rustling the leaves and calling to each other, low and inquisitive. The silence in your head is the first good thing to happen to you since you got the news.

You want to stay here. You want it the way the endless gape in your stomach wants food.

You want it so badly you think you will die.

"What an opportunity," Snoke's almost chuckling as he says it. "To be trained as a Jedi? You are resurrecting a species!"

You frown. He isn't taking this as seriously as you'd hoped -- but then, why would he? He doesn't need you the same way you -- well. That's just a dumb thing to expect, Ben.

Something must show on your face, because his sphere levitates down to your level, soundless.

"You didn't truly want to be a politician, did you?" he asks you.

On the panel, his head tilts curiously in your direction, and it's only habit by now that keeps you from shrugging.

When it's good, it's amazing -- the laser focus that you sense in people when they're figuring out a puzzle, the commitment to detail in a single line of legislation, every word weighed on the scales of justice so that not a single one is wasted. You love that the end goal is almost always that people will hurt less, or want less, or worry less, or be heard more.

You like the idea that a group of representatives could sit down and solve a problem, even when the actual process always seems to take longer than you'd like.

It would be easier if people just listened, but you might be a little bitter about that one at the moment.

The fact remains: you're okay at this. You could be good at politics, with a Force-sense like yours.

You haven't really shown aptitude for much else.

Snoke vocalizes thoughtfully, in that rumbling, rocky-deep way of his. He considers for a moment, and then he says, careful, "I am not one for intruding, but if you are truly adamant that this is the wrong path for you, I am … not without the means to arrange a departure."

You jolt, and inside your chest, your heart compacts, suddenly crushed down into the smallest, brightest, possible thing.

He can't possibly mean …

No.

You cut the hope in your heart free, and give Snoke a smile. "My parents think my uncle Luke is the only one who can help me. I appreciate it, sir, but even if you had an available apprenticeship, they wouldn't accept it -- especially not if they found out you worked for the First Order."

"I suppose not," Snoke agrees, musing. "I sympathize, is all -- my own kin did not take kindly to my choice to leave our planet, convinced they knew better than I what awaited me outside of our specialized atmosphere. But I have never regretted it, and it is deeply rooted in me, to see another as free as I. But … if I were to aid your exit from the Jedi life, it would have to be without your parents' knowledge. That's difficult, as you are a minor by galactic standards. I'm not sure …"

He hesitates, like he's just now realizing what he's saying.

He's going to talk himself out of it, you know, and it strikes you right down to your core, electrocuting you to the spot, just how much you need this: you need that escape hatch.

You will do anything he asks.

Anything.

"Please," you say, with every fiber of your being, and there's a moment -- just the one -- where you swear you feel it in the Force, a matchstick drag on phosphorus: the smallest flare of pure satisfaction.

Then it's gone, and it's just Snoke.

"Go to Skywalker, young one. Begin your training," he tells you. "And I will be in touch."

 

***

 

Takodana is the most atmospherically-rich planet in its system, dense and saturated with gases, of which nearly all are beneficial to humans and humanoids.

As such, its main export is oxygen, proudly produced on organic farms and shipped out at a premium to worlds where the atmosphere isn't as conducive, has been damaged by pollution, or is otherwise downright unfriendly to oxygen-breathing species. The O2 tours are a steady pull for galactic sightseers; you can always tell when a tour bus trundles by overhead by the way the birds yell at it.

All the flora and fauna on Takodana is vibrant, lush, fed by frequent rainfall, and everything here tends to live exceedingly long lives.

Luke Skywalker picks it as the site for his new Jedi sanctuary not only because of this, but because of its prime location on the Mid Rim, with five easy hyperspace routes going in any direction.

Your mother says he wants to be easy to reach. Your father says he wants an escape route.

Both are probably right.

"-- says I have to wait until I'm older," Queenie's saying, paddling through a typical four-year-old stream of babble and following you single-file across the narrow bridge between paddies. As soon as you're back on solid ground, she grabs your elbow and uses the momentum of your stride to swing herself over a large rock.

She doesn't let go, clinging to your side and knocking into your legs as you continue to walk. You have to watch your footing; dusk makes the uneven patches hard to see, and if you're not careful you'll catch these stupid robes on something. You're the only one still up here -- well, until Queenie volunteered you as her audience. Below, huddled together like anemones against all the dark green, you can see the lights in the dormitory windows, and Luke's workshop, even what you think might be a concerned astromech droid holding up a floodlight for Queenie's mother, who would have gladly worked with the small flock of A-wing fighters that sit outside the compound like guards until the light gave out on her.

Queenie peers up at you.

"BEN," she says, aggravated. "You're not listening!"

"I'm listening," you say. You're not listening.

"What'd I say?"

That might have gotten you if she wasn't loudly broadcasting the answer.

"About what you're going to put in your letter about Jedi training," you say promptly, and then frown. "What letter?"

She blows out a breath, making a show of being annoyed with you, but you can tell she's pleased she gets to correct you about something. She doesn't get to tell the big kids off often.

"Letters to a Soldier!" she explains. "It's for the Rest -- the Resissy -- Resissystan --"

"Resistance?"

"-- yeah okay -- cadets, because some of them don't have anyone who comms them or sends them packages or nothing, so we send thank-you gifts every month! Do you want to help?"

Well, you can't really say no to that.

You glance behind you, doing a mental checklist to make sure you hadn't forgotten anything. The paddies are nearly entirely shrouded in gloom now, the leafy tops of tuber plants just sketchy silhouettes as night falls faster. Plants don't have thoughts you can read, exactly, but they're living things, so there's a Force-presence to them all the same. Underneath your headache, you can feel them, content.

("Thought you were some farmboy," your mother's pilot had said to Luke dryly, swinging Queenie up onto her hip, and Luke answered, "Moisture farmer, that's a whole other kettle of -- listen, if those things ever go offline, I'm your man, but the rest of this --" he gestures, helpless. "You put water on it and stuff happens, right?" And she couldn't help it; she smiled back, and Queenie smiled because both of them were smiling, "Well, you're not wrong. Stuff definitely happens.")

The moisture harvesters stand at the end of each block, their ready lights blinking. Between the food, water, and oxygen, Luke's Jedi sanctuary is entirely self-sustaining, and could continue to exist even if cut off from everything else. It must be a war thing, you figure; a lot of your mother's former Rebels have something similar.

You stop and crouch down to Queenie's height.

"If I make a letter, will you help me?" you ask, to see her swell up with purpose.

"We'll do one together!" she promises, excited enough to let go of you and bolt on ahead.

Later, after you've changed into a clean set of robes and run your muddy ones through the cleaner, fetched a hot-plate from the canteen and ate it by yourself at the last table because everyone else is already done, you find her waiting for you in the courtyard.

"You take forever," she announces, and then squints at you sidelong. "When is Master Luke going to stop punishing you?"

Great, so the fact you're on discipline hasn't gone unnoticed even by the four-year-old. You've been at the bottom of the privileges list for weeks, which doesn't mean much except that you have to do all the extra chores that usually get spread out among all the apprentices. You're rarely done until after dark.

You flip the ends of your sleeves down over your hands and say, "He says I can return to normal privileges when I apologize to my mother."

Her forehead smooths out, surprised. "What did you do!"

You hesitate. Shame makes a hot-plate out of your insides, turning the edges crunchy and unpleasant.

You'd gotten a comm -- your first from home -- one month into the start of your apprenticeship. If there's one thing that's utterly unfathomable to your uncle, it's the idea that Jedi-in-training should be cut off from their families, and so the comm console is always first priority for him to fix whenever it goes down. Comms to and from homeworlds are frequent: some apprentices' families even followed their children and settled nearby. Jee'eke's clutch-father is the cook; he keeps an eye on her. Still, it caught you off guard, Artoo barging through the holorecord in Luke's classroom to pull you out. "BEN ORGANA, COMM FOR YOU," it beeped, and you glanced behind you like you expected some other kid to get up.

The Leia Organa who appeared when the connection established itself was swollen-eyed and exhausted, coming up out of a slouch and blinking fast to wake herself up.

It occurs to you, now that you've had time to think about it, that she'd probably just been wrung out, worked to the bone with the effort of her capital purge. She still wanted to call you anyway, just to see your face and hear your voice.

At the time, however, all you could think was how you were just another ten-minute section blocked out of her schedule.

"Ben," she'd said, lifting at the sight of you. "Sweetie."

And you opened your damn mouth.

You don't know what you were thinking. That you missed her, maybe? You would have stepped in front of a blaster for your mother, that's galactic fact, and you missed her with every fiber of your being, but she'd cut you and left you here so unceremoniously, so maybe if you hurt her she wouldn't comm again and it would be okay to miss her less?

All of your homesickness came lashing out of you at once.

You said, "Dad resents you. You were always the more successful of the two of you. You show him up all the time -- nobody can figure out why you keep him around. His usefulness ended when the war did, and now he feels like all he is is the princess's accessory."

The faster you talked, the sharper her features had become, eyebrows coming together, lips thinning.

She turned to hard edges right in front of your eyes, and, breathless, you took your words and stretched them as taut as a rubber band. You aimed and fired.

"He thinks that if you had cared half as much about your family as you do the rest of the galaxy, I wouldn't have had a hole blown through my chest! He thinks that's your fault!"

"BEN!" she bellowed, and you drew in a shuddering breath.

With the stunning wit of a pissed-off child, you said, "Thank you for your comm, Mother, I appreciate it," and slammed to your feet.

The comm broke apart.

Artoo whistle-yelled at you, and you promptly burst into tears, mortified.

Maybe you broadcasted, or maybe his Force-connection to his twin is stronger than yours to your mother will ever be, because when you turned around, Luke was already in the doorway, frowning at you like you were a stranger, like he'd never seen you before, and you said, "I know, I know, I know," rapidly, and went to him to hear your punishment.

"I hurt her feelings," you tell Queenie.

What's worse, you hadn't been lying, and your mother probably knows it.

But the darkest, deepest, most unfair of your father's thoughts aren't anybody's business but his, because your father chooses, every day, to love his wife and to stay by her side. His misgivings about himself don't matter, in the face of that, and now you've made them matter by turning them into a weapon.

Your mother deserves an apology.

"Then do that," Queenie says.

You glance down at the impatient expression on her face, and promise, "I will, once I figure out what I'm going to say."

"It's 'sorry,' it's not hard."

"It's a little hard," you say, but she frowns and you're convinced, suddenly, that her investment in you is about to run out, so you crouch down and say, "Weren't we going to make a letter?" to distract her.

Queenie's the same age as your replacement organs -- a fact she has morbidly, obsessively, and delightedly latched onto. She calls them her twins. She asks them how they're doing. They're probably more her friends than you are.

Having not thought about them much once your skin grafts settled into place, you find it a little disturbing. (Are all kids like this? What are you supposed to do about it? Okay, sure, it hasn't been that long since you were one, but you're at that point in adolescence where any lifeform under ten years old is unfathomable to you.) You're not even sure where she heard the story -- how you were shot, and how when you were in the middle of regrowing everything, she'd been born and the Force woke you up to tell you about it.

You certainly didn't recognize her until she brought it up. She was a baby last time you saw her, and now she's a kid with limbs growing in mostly the right places, and lots to say.

You find yourself telling her about how the day you were born was the same day all the representatives of the New Republic convened for their first democratic vote as the new Senate, but all that does is make her give you some serious stink-eye.

"That's not very exciting," she declares.

"Yes, it is!" you say, offended. "It means that I'm twins with the entire New Republic. That's all the planets," and you put your hands on your hips, smug.

She considers this. You try not to think about how you're the person getting into a heated argument with a four-year-old.

"Okay," Queenie admits reluctantly. "That's a little cool."

"Queenie" isn't her real name -- you were told her real name when you arrived, but keeping with your dedicated habit of not remembering anybody's name because Snoke was coming for you soon, you forgot it. And now you're past the point where you can ask for it again. And you can't cheat, either, since nobody else thinks with her real name anymore.

She got the nickname after, supposedly, in response to someone sarcastically calling her a princess, tossed her head and said, "No, I'm a queen."

So it stuck.

Luke, the other apprentices, the journeyman trader who comes by once a week, Jee'eke's clutch-father the cook, they all call her it. Even her mother -- the captain, the Jedi with the freckles all across her face (and her arms and the tops of her feet, too, it turns out) -- uses it, although you recognize it more by the flare in her when she calls her daughter; love, bubbling-bright affection, vast and endless.

There are fourteen Jedi-in-training in Luke's class, yourself included.

The robes don't fit well, and there's only one lightsaber to go around. You've never been around so many Force-sensitive people in your life, and the less said about the state of your head, the better. The dreams --

It doesn't matter.

You're leaving soon. Snoke will come and get you.

But one month becomes two becomes six, with nothing, nothing from Snoke.

You're fourteen, and then you're fifteen, and you find affection for the others growing in you in spite of yourself.

Istill is the oldest -- he's in his late twenties, and until Luke found him, he'd mostly just been using the Force to cheat at sabacc. Everything about him is round and jovial, from his face to his booming laugh. He's recently married, and they'd been thinking of relocating to the Uncharted Territories as part of a settlement deal, until Luke offered them something better. You've met his partner -- too many branches, that can't be comfortable, the others say with prurient snickers, but you can feel their bond in the Force, and they don't sound any different from any other married couple.

Any overtures of friendship the other apprentices might have made to you were rebuffed long ago, at the height of your resentment, and it's too late to renege on them now. Queenie's cheerful inquires about your guts remain the closest you've gotten.

You get better at farming. You don't get better at the rest.

You still can't move things, that quintessential Jedi trait you've coveted since you were small -- Luke has you all lifting rocks while you meditate, using nothing but your minds, with varied results. He puts a hand on your shoulder and quietly tells you not to worry, that Jee'eke can't do it either, but Jee'eke is eleven.

Which, whatever, it's not all terrible: some things you excel at. You can't get lost, for one, not when you can sense landmark minds for miles.

For another, any kind of blindfolded combat is laughable.

"Stop cheating, Ben!" Luke hollers from across the field, and in frustration, blindfolds everybody to keep you from shadowing yourself to their minds to use their eyes, and then it's a challenge. Kind of. The thoughts of your sparring partners telegraph themselves into your head of their own accord, it feels like.

It should give you some comfort, perhaps, to know that what you can do, nobody else can even come close, but it doesn't.

You don't wish this on them.

"What's it like?" Istill asks you once.

The group is gathered around the heater, a sturdy, kind-eyed droid that your uncle had built out of parts of a sub-Z unit that will beep in warning if someone comes close to burning themselves, or if you're all about to be interrupted by rain, or if there's a concerning noise, or -- well, it beeps worriedly about a lot of things.

Some of you are meditating properly, easing sore muscles and centering yourselves in the Force, but everybody else is soaking up the heat and chatting, mostly.

Istill turns toward you, deliberately opening his posture to include your self-imposed exile on the very edge of the circle.

You feel like an ass.

"What's what like?"

"Reading everybody's thoughts all the time."

You consider the question, and as you do, the other conversations peter out; they want to hear the answer, too.

"It's like," you draw your knees up to your chest and glance around quick; no, everybody here's done space travel. They'll know what you mean. "It's like when you're in the middle of the black, far away from anything, and you're trying to pick up a frequency -- any frequency -- on the scanner, and instead of one clear one, you get two garbled. They play over each other; one's extra loud in the silences of the other, one's singing, one's talking, and it's impossible to follow both with any clarity."

"Sounds like a headache," the Mirilan apprentice says, watching you with phosphorescent blue eyes. "And you can't turn it off?"

You glance over at him. The Mirilan has a Force-sense that's so strongly tied to his temper that when he loses it, he crushes things. Tin-cans them flat. It took Luke a week to repair the comm console, last time.

He doesn't mean to -- that's why it's so important he get training -- and he and Luke have an agreement where when he feels anger's about to get the best of him, Luke can knock him out: one deliberate wave of his hand, and down the apprentice goes. You did it once, too, when Luke wasn't nearby, and it had terrified you, the way those eyes rolled straight back.

You shake your head. "No. Nothing makes it stop."

Well, one thing does.

One person.

 

***

 

You meet Maz Kanata at her temple-turned-bar down at the edge of the fenland, where the lakes come up to her doorstep and you can watch the freighters approaching across the water. She volunteered to be the neutral party between yourself and your parents; she's not the one you resent, so you do your best to be polite.

Commander Bridger is a surprise, though, there on layover on his mission to the MISTA system through that backdoor gunrunner route, and when you leave, tugging at your brown overcoat to make sure that it's lying evenly across your chest for what feels like the fifteenth time that day, you turn a corner and almost run face-first into a black-robed figure.

You say "excuse me," politely, but when you go to move out of the way, they block your path, tall and fearsome and wearing a mask that pulls downward on their face like a scream.

You look up at them, and then and only then do you recognize the sound they make in the Force.

Everything in you wakes up at once.

"Who are you?" comes out of you, greedy, and the head tilts, regarding you from underneath an expressionless visor.

"I am Dhar Ren, leader of the Knights of Ren," and it's a woman's voice. "And you must be Kylo Ren, my master's recruit."

 

***

 

She's your father's age, but that's where the similarities end.

Dhar Ren had been a year older than you are now when she was apprenticed to Vader, and her Sith training has a tendency to leak through the cracks. On her finned ship, you take one look at her four-man flight crew, the neat pressed grey uniforms and the red insignia patched to their shoulders, with the dawning realization that these are your people now, and your knees promptly liquify. She curses, grabbing you by the back of the neck and shoving you down, your helmet lower than your heart. Your stomach heaves. You want to expel every second of Takodana from your body.

She hisses impatiently, then turns to her crew, demanding an update.

You listen to their back-and-forth with half an ear, then again when her voice rises, "-- you are to step down from your station, lieutenant."

"Ma'am!" the man protests. "That's not necessary. It was impossible to apprehend all vehicles leaving that airspace with the manpower allotted to us -- yes, so an A-wing slipped through. That's only a one-person craft!"

Spots dance in front of your eyes, patterned like freckles.

"Only --" she bites out. "That's all it takes."

You pay attention; there's a feeling on the back of your teeth that you scrape at with your tongue, metallic-like and stormy, like lightning. It's coming from Dhar Ren.

She turns away, and the lieutenant mutters, "pumped-up Imperial bitch."

The next second, he's held aloft by his throat, his feet kicking at empty air. His eyes bulge in shock, hands clawing at nothing.

Your eyes widen, and memory overlays the present; you've seen people Force-choked before, but it's always been in others' heads.

Dhar Ren stands below him, long muzzled helmet lifted like she's watching a flock of birds cut at the sky. She idly turns her wrist until his face purples, saying, "You are relieved, lieutenant, do you understand?"

Immediately afterward, when it's just you and her in the hold as the ship wobbles and adjusts, waiting for docking clearance with -- well, actually, you don't know where you're docking, but your body knows these motions even if the circumstances have changed -- she puts her back against the wall and sticks her hands in her sleeves to grip her own wrists in reprimand.

She mutters to herself, just loud enough to click through her voice modulator, "Choking people is not acceptable management behavior. Subordinates shouldn't be frightened. People hate the things they're frightened of, when are you going to learn."

"He kind of deserved it," you try to reassure her, concerned: you know the feeling of someone about to beat themselves up when you hear it.

It gives you something to focus on that isn't yourself, anyway. You haven't found a comfortable position on your belt for that lightsaber, so you're ignoring it for now. You've already tried to hand it back to Dhar Ren twice, only to have her shake her head at you; its weight is yours, now. You're sweaty and clammy -- the robes are thicker than the Jedi ones had been, and the fabric breathes less -- and your palms are moist inside your gloves, sticky in a way that's going to grate on your nerves, you can already tell. Will you have to wear this forever, you wonder -- and then cut yourself off with a hysterical laugh. You killed thirteen people today. With names. You murdered -- and you're thinking about -- !

"Head between your knees," Dhar Ren snaps at you, and down you go.

By the time you've got a grip on yourself again, you've docked, and then it's a struggle to keep your face impassive.

It turns out that Star Destroyers are phenomenally larger in person than they've always seemed to you on holos, and you try not to betray yourself; this one is several years a combat veteran, judging by the score marks on the hull that haven't been entirely sandblasted away.

It was built for her, you later learn.

The Finalizer is Dhar Ren's commission, Dhar Ren's command. Occasionally the generals will come to borrow it from her. They have to ask, and it annoys them, which is why Dhar Ren does it.

You disembark, and it takes all your self-control not to crane your head around.

You refuse to be shocked by this. You've heard stories about the Empire's excesses all your life. The First Order still receives tithes from certain independent Houses that were the Empire's biggest supporters, the ones who will gladly duck behind the New Republic's back to provide -- like the Geonosians, trafficking people to fill the First Order's mines. The rich will always pay to maintain a status quo that benefits them, after all, so you know the First Order will never lack for funds.

But this is …

Dhar Ren's mask turns toward you. Her amusement all but flashes you right in the eyes. She senses your wonder.

"Okay," she says to you, dry. "I know you've been dirt-licking at the idyllic farm retreat for awhile, but don't tell me you're a country bumpkin."

You bristle.

Everything the Resistance has is second-hand, patched and repatched, nothing ever wasted. Not impoverished, you've never been poor, not compared to some places in the galaxy. Your family could talk about the economic crisis in the New Republic without personally feeling the effects of it. But it was nothing like the shiny, streamlined chrome that's newly-installed and sparkling all around you.

"Were you a space-station kid, then?" you fire back, and her mind fills with golden prairies so vast you feel airless, like you're trying to drown. "Didn't think so."

There are packs of frog-mouthed Stormtroopers everywhere.

(Stormtroopers! Real life Stormtroopers, here! Stormtroopers with weapons! That's definitely against every single clause of the Concordance!)

(You think, for one horrible whip-crack second, about what kind of report this will make to Commander Bridger, who looked at that mask like it had walked right out of his nightmares, and then you choke on yourself. Surprise! They're everywhere! The First Order has a hundred thousand Stormtroopers, with a hundred thousand more growing!)

(Ben Organa, what! Have! You! Done!)

Later, Dhar Ren will tell you about them, how civil servants on MISTA007 will study for years and compete in cutthroat competitions to get a chance to sit on the committee that determines how Stormtroopers are programmed. The process, she says, was inspired by the Jedi of old -- removing children from their families before they can form attachments, raising them in a strictly controlled, censored environment, training them to be peacekeepers.

"But the Jedi failed," you say, testing this altered truth.

"There is always a chance we will be betrayed from the inside, too," she says, not quite an answer. "So we must be vigilant. Pay attention to your soldiers. If you cannot remember the designation of every Stormtrooper in your command, Ren, make sure you have a captain who does."

 

***

 

There's a place where the woods meet the edges of Maz's airfield, a no-man's land of stacked-up crates, listless pallets, and debris blown this way by the arriving and departing aircraft. It's where Maz's folk go for a private transaction -- you saw it pictured in their heads clear enough that it's no trouble, finding it for yourself.

Dhar Ren stands watch at the edge of the tarmac, her black robes turning her near-invisible in the shadow cast by the airfield's floodlights, adjusted to point away from you. Occasionally, you'll hear the click of her staff as she paces, while you talk to the small, holographic form of Snoke's head on her comm.

Your heart is swollen, far too large for its splints, and even Snoke's lipless mouth pulls when he sees how large your smile is.

"My apologies, Ben, there were complications in the capital beyond my control."

You know. Your uncle's Force-presence contemplated on it frequently and hadn't done a very good job at keeping it from you, the news of your mother's maneuver to flush First Order sympathizers from the Senate (starting, you think unfairly and bitterly, with you.) Snoke probably had to find himself new headquarters, and fast, and contacting you like he promised would have easily been at the bottom of his priorities, after that.

You would forgive Snoke anything, honestly. It doesn't matter. He's in contact now.

Are you still --

"-- going to join you?"

"With the situation as it is?" Snoke nods his head. "I think there's no better place for you."

"Good, I think so too," you say, and quickly snap your teeth together, making a cage so you can swallow the rest of it. You're not going to waste valuable time complaining about what it's been like here.

Besides, it's easier to think charitably, now that leaving is once again an option.

"I warn you, though," Snoke's deep voice crackles out of the comm's speakers. "Extracting you is not going to be simple."

You nod. You're ready, whatever it is. You're ready for the pain in your head to stop.

You've been ready for months.

Snoke can tell you aren't getting it. "This isn't some juvenile venture, Ben. We're not talking truancy. You are asking me to commit a galactic crime for which I could serve considerable time." Your stomach twists, your excitement souring into guilt, the anxious need to please. "And it's only because I believe strongly that your talents do not lie with the Jedi way that I'm willing to do this, but I need you to be certain."

"I am," you promise immediately, but Snoke shakes his head.

"Listen to me. You will never see your parents again," and the bare-faced fact of it makes your lungs contract, harsh, but of course he's right.

Well. You rally. You'll try to end it on a good note, in that case. You'll go back to Maz, you decide, and tell her you want to call them. Make up for that remark to your mother. Apologize. Tell them you love them and you'll try harder.

It won't even be a lie.

"-- fact, I think it would be safest it you don't contact them after this moment, in case it raises suspicions."

The bubble bursts.

You close your eyes.

Well. Well. They were prepared to just leave you here with Luke, weren't they? They were willing to let you grow up into somebody they wouldn't recognize. It hadn't even been a very difficult decision for them. Some part of them had always been waiting for this.

Your eyes come open again.

So be it. You are now an estranged son, Ben Organa.

You will -- you will have to be okay with that. You'd have to be okay with it anyway, even if you remained a Jedi. Your mother and father -- they made their choice.

"You understand, don't you?" Snoke coaxes, his expression impassive, and you tell yourself to get a grip. "I'm going to sink too many resources into this retrieval for it not to work. So you must do as I say."

"Yes, sir," comes out of you.

"The place you are now -- it must be razed to the ground."

You blink at him. "What. No."

Is he insane? Your uncle spent years building this place; destroying it would be rude, like some pissed-off child knocking down somebody else's card castle. You're not doing that.

"It wouldn't need to be done if there was another alternative. I'm not wasteful, Ben, but I am practical. If one boy is to simply vanish from under the nose of a Jedi Master, it would leave a whole troupe of Force-sensing Jedi with a good reason to hunt for him. My position in the First Order is too important to risk losing for the likes of you. I can't have them finding us."

You blink faster.

When he said razed to the ground, you thought he meant the buildings, the crops, the place the sun touches first thing in the morning where you all go to meditate. But no, he means --

-- he means --

"NO," you say, loud enough that it attracts Dhar Ren's attention. She turns around, staff held at the ready, and just like that, you know it's a lightsaber. You know it'll be red.

Your chest heaves against your brown robes, heart tightening and tightening until it's nothing but a terrified flutter.

Your eyes are on his face, so you watch his mouth form over the words. You can't believe them, but there they are, the command to -- to --

To kill.

To kill them --

-- all.

"No," you tell him, and Snoke clicks his tongue impatiently.

"Do not be sentimental about this. You want to be a Knight of mine? Then do not whine the first time you're asked to do something difficult."

You flinch, feeling yourself weighed on Snoke's scales and found wanting. You open your mouth, but you're shaking, your ears buzzing, and just like the last time, the words that come out aren't the ones you mean to say. It's vitally important that you get this argument right -- don't kill, how is this an argument? How is this something you have to convince somebody? You don't kill! You just don't! -- so naturally, what you wind up saying isn't anything like that at all.

"We never trained with weapons. Not against each other. I can't kill them -- I don't know how."

"That's easily corrected," Snoke's eyes move past you, and Dhar Ren appears at your back.

You latch on to this option. "Can't she do it?" She seems proficient.

"You must be seen doing it. Those who would respond first must be dissuaded from ever pursuing you. They can't want you back. This accomplishes that, quite efficiently."

You shake. Your fifteen-year-old body rattles so badly it's going to come apart at the seams.

You ask for time to think about it.

You get none.

Snoke's patience is not limitless. "I need to know I'm not wasting my time on you, Ben. Am I?"

"No, sir," you say, so faintly you can't hear yourself.

One week from now, he tells you, another Knight of Ren will create a distraction to lure Luke away, since he's the only true threat, the only one you can't overpower. You wonder about Queenie's mom, the freckled Jedi -- you certainly don't want to fight her -- but Snoke doesn't mention her, so there must be some other plan in place for her.

A week.

You're given a week.

"I will see you in that time," Snoke promises, and in his deep voice, there's a note that might be sympathy, like he knows what he's asking of you -- but not enough to let you get away with not doing it. "In the grand scale of suffering in this galaxy, Ben, this is nothing. These are just small deaths. Do it, and it won't have to be done again."

How could I do it again anyway? you think, your breath hiccuping into you hysterically. People only die once!

The comm terminates, and, numb, you hand the device back to Dhar Ren.

She looks down at you, and the next second, as you start to rise, her hand clamps down hard on the back of your neck. You flail, off-balance, and she bends you down.

"Control yourself!" she snarls, the muzzle of her helmet pointed at your ear. "You're leaking everywhere."

"I -- I --"

You're hyperventilating. You can't do this. You can't --

"You have to," she tells you, unrelentingly. "Kylo Ren, do you understand? You have to."

She shakes you, and you rattle everywhere.

"Do you think they wouldn't do the same to us? The Resistance. I've fought them. They don't see people when they look at us. They don't see people when they cut us down. They train themselves to think of us as evil because that makes it easier for them to kill us with impunity. They won't hesitate on you because you're a child, so you can't, either."

So you pull yourself together.

You go back.

You lay down on your cot.

You get up with first light.

You keep going.

Your head, your heart, all your organic and artificial parts, they're malfunctioning. Nothing obeys you. You can't do this.

You can't. You're no killer. The others have done nothing to deserve -- just because Snoke doesn't want -- how can you even consider this?

No, you'll just have to go back to Dhar Ren and contact Snoke and tell him no deal, thank you but it's not necessary, you've decided to stay here. It's not so bad here. You'll deal with it. Your head will always hurt. The noise will never truly go away. You will always be a slave to the emotions of other people; you will always react to what they project onto you. It'll be an … uncertain existence, sure, never knowing where the rage or grief or joy will come from or where it will take you, but you'll make due.

You will have to be a Jedi -- there are too few of them, and this power of yours means you can never be anything else. They'll make sure of it.

You'll -- you'll live all your life as your uncle does.

No.

No no no.

You can't live like that. To never have another peaceful day, another moment where Snoke makes everything quiet?

No, you have to go. It isn't fair to anybody to make them put up with you when this isn't what you're good at. You'll be a terrible Jedi.

Surely there's another way to achieve this than to kill -- to kill --

Say it, Ben.

To kill your companions. To kill children.

You can't.

Every second is agony, each tick like an electric shock to your blood. You make yourself sit with everybody at every meal. You listen in a way you've never done before, ask questions, smile, and ignore the baffled looks all of this earns you. Nobody's very friendly, but why would they be -- since when have you been anything but terrible to them?

Your uncle talks to you, hand on your shoulder, and your heart is an overlarge organ lodged in your throat, choking you with guilt. You stare at his face.

You are, the way a lot of people are when something terrible has happened, torn between wanting Luke to ask and wanting him to never look at you again. You're behaving like somebody with a secret, but you always behave like somebody with a secret. You are somebody with a secret: thousands of them, almost none of them yours.

After this long, though, Luke's used to skimming your thoughts and finding nothing but a mess, and if he frowns at you longer than he has been, he says --

He says --

Nothing.

Everything you do is a last, you realize. Last oxygen harvest. Last time studying war history. Last time Jee'eke gets knocked flat on her butt in practice. Last comm you and Queenie record to encourage the Resistance --

(Will your mother see it? What will she think? Will she --)

When you come back to yourself, your lunch is an upheaved pile on the flagstones, your stomach cramping and heaving, and there's blood on your forehead from where you bashed it. Two apprentices who'd been following you down the steps quickly decide to go another way.

When you were born, your mother took you to the Senate and she voted -- the first free vote of her whole life. She did not suffer twenty years of Imperial rule just for you to kill her brother's kids and never see her again.

You have to stay.

But --

Will Snoke even let you live?

He's already broken galactic law, simply by telling you the plan; you're an accomplice now, conspiracy to murder. You've seen Dhar Ren. You could go to your uncle, you could tell him, Snoke has Jedi that are like Sith, but not, and Snoke wants to kill you, and he'd be ruined. He can't risk that.

No, if you try to back out of this, Dhar Ren will track you down and skewer you, you have no doubt. It's already set in motion.

You have to go.

You refuse to make this choice.

You refuse to make --

You refuse, and then you are out of time, and your refusal to choose becomes a choice.

Dhar Ren helps you fasten the black robes at the back of your neck, as your hands tremble too badly to do it yourself.

It's dark, and the Takodana sky growls in the way it does as precursor to a deluge. You can taste the approaching rain in every deep breath, and Dhar Ren's flanked by two frog-mouthed figures in matching black, carrying blasters. Stormtroopers, incognito. Decoys, if necessary.

She hands you a helmet identical to her own, and you look at it and think about Snoke's sphere: specialized containment measures. She hands you a lightsaber.

"It's broken, and we don't know how to repair it," she tells you. "But it will help you. It knows what to do," and her voice drops, a sudden olive branch, "You can make it painless."

Your hand closes around it.

You want the noise in your head to stop.

You'll do --

 

***

 

Istill is fastest on the uptake, the one familiar enough with the face of violence to recognize what you are as you approach the evening meditation, the heater coughing worriedly as the first drops of rain pelt the top of its head. He stands, eyes so wide the whites show, hands coming up --

You cut him down.

Your uncle is right. It's bloodless.

You step into the next swing, and the momentum and the weight --

-- the weight? Lightsabers have no weight, and yet this drags --

-- carry you into the next.

"Ben!" somebody shouts, right at your face, and you're already moving.

When your blade severs them, you scream the scream they didn't get to: the first blow hurt, but this ruptures you.

Everything you've ever felt from people, their rage, their grief, their love, their joy, nothing, nothing will ever hurt as much as this does, being in their heads the moment they die. They project it onto every cell in your body. Every part of you explodes. This is an agony for which there are no words, and Ben Organa is torn to shreds under the onslaught.

How could you --

-- you turn, and see Queenie.

 

***

 

You hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind right out of you, your chest shocked into paralysis. You hear your lightsaber go clattering across the duracrete, deactivating with a whoosh, and you decide that yeah, no, you're done, that's defeat, neither pride nor zeal are enough to get you up again.

The butt of Dhar Ren's spear hits the ground next to your head. Her black mask bends over you.

"Sloppy," is her assessment. "Mediocre."

You tilt your own mask towards her, offended, but not enough to muster up a reply. You let your head fall back. Past Dhar Ren, you can make out the square edges of the buildings, the wind kicking the last of the snow off the flat roofs. Somewhere, a guard shouts the time. Beyond all of it, the view of the Ascent is stunning; the air is so astonishingly clear that you even think you can see the bubble-dome shapes of your Supreme Leader's conservatory, clustered against the mountainside.

You drag in a breath, your good lung cramping with pain. The other is still child-sized, struggling to compensate. It will need to be replaced soon -- you have a vague memory, the Xexto medic telling your parents that -- but you don't know who to talk to about it.

You breathe again, MISTA001 air filtering through your helmet. You close your eyes. This planet is, in so many ways, still new to you -- what does the air taste like? (Recycled. When your helmet is off, it tastes cold, clear.) What's the gravity like? (Standard, which should not explain the way you constantly feel like you're adjusting to some weight.)

Dhar Ren knocks you with the end of her spear. "Again."

You haul yourself into a sitting position, glancing back towards you lightsaber. You stretch a hand out toward it, trying to summon, only to deflate with it does nothing but twitch. Fine, you're humiliated enough already -- you'll scamper over there in a moment.

Lightsaber dueling is the one thing you uncle never got around to -- the one thing all his apprentices had been most eager to learn, the reason most of them said yes to the offer of Jedi training in the first place. It's always the most important part of the stories, dueling, and hitting each other with sticks was fine up to a certain point but you all wanted the real thing.

(There's a rumor that the first Jedi Temple was built upon a mine of free-growing lightsaber crystals. Your uncle wanted to find it. So does Snoke.)

At your Supreme Leader's insistence, Dhar Ren is teaching you Darth Vader's technique -- after all, she had been his apprentice, once.

You look up at her now, black-clad, lightsaber spear ready at hand.

"What happened?" you ask. "With you and my -- with you and Darth Vader?"

Everyone knows the story: how Vader tried to seduce your uncle Luke to the Dark Side, so they could overthrow the hideous Palpatine together. The usual apprentice-kills-master rhetoric. But your uncle convinced him to return to the Light, instead, and they overthrew Palpatine anyway.

Glorious victory for the galaxy, etc, etc.

There's no Dhar Ren shape in this story, in any of the variations you've heard it told; nobody's ever mentioned an original apprentice.

She shifts her grip, considering, and then drops down to a crouch at your side.

Your masks point towards each other, and she says, "He found his son, who was preferable to me in every way."

Insulted on her behalf, you open your mouth, but she shakes her head.

"I'm not upset. It allowed me to survive the demise of the Empire. But it taught me something, a lesson I have never forgotten. You cannot cut your family out -- no matter how deep you think you go, some part of them goes deeper still. Family is a powerful thing, Kylo Ren. The most powerful thing there is."

"Besides the Dark Side," you joke, poorly.

"No," she slaps it down, and her voice comes out as low and blunt as a blow from her spear. "It's more powerful than even that. Are you listening?"

"Yes, master," you say.

 

***

 

For someone who keeps insisting to you that Ben Organa is dead, Snoke is obsessed with his family.

He wants to add your grandfather to his collection, to arrange him neatly in an exhibit with all his other unique phenomenon. Darth Vader, you mean, not Anakin Skywalker, although the irony of you desperately trying to keep the remaining pieces of Ben Organa tucked somewhere Kylo Ren can't find them the same way everyone you know always pigeonholed Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader like they were somehow different people isn't lost on you.

That Darth Vader is dead is an inconvenience, but Snoke considers you an acceptable alternative.

You are fifteen years old.

Your biggest mistake (among many, honestly,) had been that you hadn't thought very hard about what you would do for Snoke once you escaped; all you could think about was how quiet it would be, there, wherever it was.

But of course he's got a purpose for you; he is efficient. He is not wasteful. He is wise.

He keeps you with him near-constantly, those months following your massacre on Takodana. He places you at his right-hand side, and it isn't as peaceful or as quiet as you thought it would be. It isn't anything you thought it would be. Your stomach is a pitching satellite, off-orbit, knotting itself tighter and tighter as you try to make yourself worthy of this position.

You can't fail. You certainly don't have anywhere else to go, so you have to be good enough for Snoke -- for your Supreme Leader, you mean.

And Darth Vader's reign of terror was one of the Empire's most enduring legacies. The First Order rose from the Empire, and since you can't go back (Snoke -- the Supreme Leader -- was right, those bridges are burnt, cauterized, left in pieces in the Takodana mud,) you have to make the most of this, and if that means channeling Vader, you'll do it. If there's one thing you know how to do, it's listening to what somebody wants you to be, and then being it.

So you pretend to know about Vader -- you're even part-machine like he was, and you didn't even do that intentionally.

But your Force-sense -- the thing Snoke is most interested in collecting -- while unique in its one aspect, is not Darth Vader's.

You are no pilot. You cannot move things with the Force.

In your sharpest moments of concentration (of fear, but let's call it concentration,) you can call something to leap to your hand, but the same problem that plagued you all through Jedi training follows you here, to the very edges of known space.

"I don't understand," your Supreme Leader says. His sphere circles you, casual, the way one walks around a fixture in a well-known room. "You come from the best genetic stock I've been able to trace. And yet you are … unexceptional."

You flinch, full-body.

"But of course. I forgot. You're not entirely purebred, are you?"

"Sir," you acknowledge.

Your father is a stain on the carpet that nobody looks at. Your father is a gutpunched bruise that blooms under your robes.

Your very human, very flawed, very not-Jedi father.

He means nothing to you. Less than nothing. He has to.

Sometimes, in your dreams, you stand alone in a place that had once been full of light, and laughter. There are shadows everywhere, no matter which way you turn.

"Please," you beg. "Please, I need you to teach me."

You call out to the Force, with every fiber of your being, but nobody answers.

 

***

 

Later, when it's your own apprentices -- the early ones you failed to protect, that the Supreme Leader burnt through like fuel cells, and then finally Trel Ren -- you'll try to make becoming a Knight of Ren more of a process, something with reasonable expectations, but you don't think it works on them any better than it worked on you. The Knights of Ren are Snoke's shadowy, masked monsters, existing outside the system and overriding every other rank, and training them is less apprenticeship, more throwing them into a bunch of situations and expecting them to instantly master it. Failure is death, all across the board.

That's not how the Force works, you want to tell the Supreme Leader, but he isn't interesting in hearing it. Not when it can be bent to his will, through you.

He throws you into the Stormtrooper sims first, the basic ones cadets are expected to master at the end of their primary years. It physically conditions you, and also familiarizes you with First Order education; what a typical citizen will do without question. You're at a disadvantage here -- you've never been exposed to it before. The history, the programming is entirely different. You play catch-up from the start.

(There are Stormtroopers everywhere. It keeps jarring you. Your whole life, you were taught that the peace of the galaxy was built on the back of the Galactic Concordance, and now you see it broken every day on your way to the canteen.)

After that, he starts you on the other sims. These ones are like the games you played on Yavin 1, only this time they have names you recognize.

Your populations aren't fictional anymore; you solve a civil disobedience case on MISTA003, a resource distribution problem among a recently-established colony in the highlands of MISTA007. You run an algorithm that will restrict breeding among non-humanoids in a labor colony in the asteroid fields.

You calculate what the loss of life on MISTA-sub02-1 would be if a biologically-targeted strain was released on a rioting population (it does not fall under acceptable parameters, so you and Dhar Ren and Cora Ren are sent in instead.)

Belatedly, it occurs to you that the games you'd loved so much, that Snoke encouraged, were practice -- and some of them probably weren't. The Geonosians, for instance.

And here you are -- the stakes are suddenly very real.

Real colonists, real settlers, real villagers who are depending on you without knowing it.

And failure is death, all across the board.

Your Supreme Leader promised that you wouldn't have to do Takodana again -- no innocents need die now that you're here with him, and you're learning that that's only true if you make it true. You have to work at it. You cannot give them anything less than your best; the grand scale of suffering in the galaxy is too much already, and the First Order will be better than that. When they immigrate, everybody brings something for the good of the whole, and this is what you will contribute, you decide.

You will give your Supreme Leader a mask to match Darth Vader's, but you'll give these people you've chosen everything else you've got.

During the day, you spar with Dhar Ren until you're in pain and spitting up a plasma discharge from your overworked artificial parts, and then you lie down in your bed and pull your notes up on holo, reading until you can't even hear the guards calling the time outside on the watchtowers.

The military, at this time, is beyond your ability to influence, but you learn the rest of the First Order from the ground up.

You start with the smallest person.

 

***

 

A year passes, then two.

When you're seventeen, Snoke succeeds in getting the Empire's few remaining commanders to sign away the last dregs of control they have over the First Order, thus installing himself as the one, the only, and the absolute ruler.

The Supreme Leader, now in title as well as practice.

There's a ceremony hosted, he insists, at the compound on MISTA001 where you'd undergone your training. Its sweeping coniferous forests and panoramic view of the mountains make MISTA001 the ecological gem of his collection, and the high-altitude conservatory his masterpiece creation. ("You humans require the most vile things to breathe," he'd said to you once on descent, while indicating the corroded face of the Ascent, visible through the viewport. "Oxygen can do this to solid rock and yet you continue to suck it into your bodies? How strange," and later, much later, when you come in for a landing at Starkiller Base for the first time, you'll look at the trees and the snow and it will hit you in your sense memory, exactly what Hux the architect had tried to recreate.)

He'll have his throne projected at the end of the Great Hall, and a mechanism built in front of it where he can set his sphere and transmit himself anywhere; receivers will be installed on all his Star Destroyers.

It's a nice ceremony -- orderly and controlled in its every detail, the way Snoke likes it.

He processes his way towards his throne, and you and Cora Ren flank him, bodyguards and prized possessions both. (You, personally, think the height difference between yourself and Cora Ren is more comical than intimidating, but nobody asked you.)

And then --

An Imperial offer steps out of line, without hesitation, without fear. He lifts his blaster.

He fires.

Your proximity to your master means your Force-sense is muffled, but you hear the whine-click-SEAR and your reaction is kneejerk, instantaneous, terrified --

You do what you've always done.

You do what any of your -- Ben's! -- mother's people would do.

You step between the blaster and your Supreme Leader, whom you love above all those that remain to you.

You stretch with everything in your body, every cell, every thought, every beat of your splinted heart and it goes OUT --

-- and the shot freezes in midair.

The moment stretches, and the world remains poised, crystalline and utterly still -- Snoke, Cora Ren, yourself and the breathless spectators -- and then the would-be assassin crumbles, shaking and chanting "no, no, no" as Cora Ren advances on him, lightsaber igniting.

Snoke looks from the suspended streak of plasma, crackling and vibrating at the end of your outstretched fingertips like an excitable pet, to you.

"Well done," he says, and you are so grateful for this your knees almost give out. He levitates out of the way, and you let the shot go: it scores a mark out of the closest column, sending a red banner tumbling off its hook and raining plaster on the heads of the gathered officers, too scared to move out of the way. Behind you, the assassin makes a single, choked-off gurgle. You feel his death on a cellular level.

Your hand falls back to your side. Relief thuds in your brain.

So perhaps you will never lift rocks, or absently leave your datapad hovering the way Dhar Ren does. But you can do this.

You learn that it works on people, too -- you, now too large to sneak around in the thoughts of others, give up trying. You learn to clamp down. You learn to dig your fingers into their defenses. You can lock every single one of their muscles. If the Light Side never let you develop it, then the Dark Side will. You will be the unexplained phenomena Snoke seeks to posses.

(You are cleared for breeding shortly after that, now that you have two traits the Supreme Leader wants. It's unpleasant.)

It's around then that you make your second mistake:

You become comfortable.

You've grown into your position at your Supreme Leader's right hand. You will follow him anywhere, as close as his own shadow, and he notices.

"Kylo Ren," he says to you, after you come to him with the results of a ration-shortage problem on MISTA004: now solved, with 99.7% survival rate. The only casualty had been an elderly Rodian, who'd given up too many of their own rations to the more deserving to be brought back when aid arrived.

"Sir," you acknowledge, pleased.

His sphere hovers silently above you.

You wait, at parade rest. Hands behind your back.

When he speaks, his voice comes out deeper than stillwater, deeper than the kind of space where there's nothing, not even scanner signals, "Are you happy here?" and your head comes up, startled.

You consider the question. There's no noise in your head, for one thing, so it feels like all your thoughts lie neat and straight like threads on a loom, not the knotted, tangled mess it usually is, where frustratedly tugging on one strand just makes the others worse. That's peaceful. That's wonderful, actually, and you take a moment to be grateful for the lack of pain, there at the front of your skull.

It's snowing on the Ascent; the view through the conservatory window is one of white eddies, swirling winds. On the other side of yourself and your Supreme Leader is one of his exhibits -- a flock of nautilions float on simulated electrical currents. Their purple jelly bodies glow with the discharge. You've seen them in person now, not just on holos in a records room in a Yavin 1 library.

And you've just solved a critical problem on a First Order world: people will hurt less, want less, because of something you did.

"Sir," you say to your Supreme Leader, with all your heart. "I am, yes."

"Hmmm," says Snoke, thoughtful.

A week from then, he sends you away.

 

***

 

Snoke, your Supreme Leader, the teacher you chose above your parents, your uncle, above all others --

He has cut you off from everything you knew. He made sure every emotional tie you regrew after that separation tethered you back to him. He kept you by his side relentlessly until your new world had nothing but him in it.

And then he sends you away.

The quiet that you had come to depend on is gone, unmooring you. After such a long time of uninterrupted peace, to live in constant pain again is unbearable. It digs its fingers into your skull. It tears you apart.

For the next twelve years, you do whatever the Supreme Leader asks of you. You are his interrogator. You are his executioner. No task is too unpleasant, not for the chance to be in his presence again, to hear his guidance and bask in how the Force goes quiet, everywhere, all the way through you. You learn, quickly, that when he summons you, the reward will always come with some kind of punishment -- especially after what happens on Naboo.

It doesn't matter. You're trained. You will come to heel no matter what.

You need it.

It humiliates you, it horrifies you, just how easy it is to forget every promise you made to yourself. You're worse than Luke's Mirilan apprentice, heedlessly destroying things in a fit. Innocents die. All your good intentions get buried, deeper than your bones, deeper than your wires.

You'll do anything, if only he'll make the Force quiet again.

Anything.

And that's exactly how he wants it.

 

***

 

A single hyperspace route connects THAIN to MISTA, a narrow gunrunner's path that'll drop you off on the dark side of MISTA002 like an insect honing in on the narrowest gap in the netting. Reaching MISTA from anywhere else involves a minimum of four jumps through lifeless nexus systems -- there's a reason the Uncharted Territories remained uncharted for so long. That much black space is enough to intimidate any intrepid explorer.

You give the order to jump, and to signal ahead to your Supreme Leader's conservatory: you have the girl.

"Yes, sir!" says the lieutenant, curiosity a bright flare that he quickly cups in his hands, tucking it behind his back: he was not briefed about the situation planetside, knowing only that General Hux considered the trip to THAIN005 a waste of time, and now he wants to know, wistfully, if the general is going to have to eat his words.

You quirk a smile at him unthinkingly; you like the way he thinks.

When you were younger, jumping to hyperspace on the Millennium Falcon had been something you could feel all the way to your eyeballs, pinning you to your seat, but the Finalizer is too big, like planets hurtling through space at speeds too great for a body to comprehend, and it's only the faintest shift of the floor under your feet that tells you you've made the jump, leaving THAIN behind.

And to think, that whole system might have remained undiscovered.

An information leak from the Academy on MISTA002 gave it away. You'd been listening with half an ear to the report Cora Ren made to your master -- the New Republic had information it shouldn't have, a recently-defected Academy captain and nobody knew how they managed to escape -- and your mind had been somewhere else entirely: in the Kashyyyk system, with the replica worshyr tree Chewie'd given you for your birthday that one year, with its roots planted so deeply in you you couldn't tell vein from bark, and then those roots reached right up and tripped you, just like that.

You remember your head coming up, your mouth opening and saying, "The Resistance has been using a back door through hyperspace to spy on you for years. The captain escaped that way -- a speeder right off the surface of MISTA002 could have disappeared immediately. Look, I'll show you."

And you could: the map had been in Commander Bridger's head, that day at Maz's place, and now it's buried in you.

You pulled up the star chart, and Snoke looked at the collection of letters -- a moniker of THAIN, chosen by somebody far, far away -- and then at you, and nearly smiled.

"And you still think you're not full of military secrets, Kylo Ren?" he asked, floating alongside you, and you'd swallowed.

You shake your head to clear the memory.

Your next stop should be to report to General Hux, but you consider it for half a heartbeat, then about-face.

Rounding the corner, you startle a guard of Stormtroopers coming from the the other direction -- Rey's escort, now relieved of that duty.

You can sense the relief coming off of them like heat off a sunstruck rock: somebody had warned them that Rey was a Force-manipulator, and the whole time they'd been waiting for the moment she took their will away, turning them against each other. That they survived makes them giddy.

And Rey is someone else's problem.

Dhar Ren hadn't commissioned the Finalizer with prisoners in mind. The objective, she said, was to never need to take any, but in hindsight, you think that after an adolescence at Vader's right hand she didn't have the stomach for it. The only cell you have for Rey is the same one you interrogated her in, now short one restraining chair because you'd destroyed it, and so you had an officer block out a sim-room instead.

Without the VR helmets that your Stormtroopers use to keep up with their simulation-training, it's just a padded room. It'll be sufficient for this jump.

You return to your quarters.

A tech-mech droid waits in the corridor outside the door, powered down, but at your approach, it lifts up onto its treads.

"Tee-to," you greet it, recognizing the dent gouged out of its face that distinguishes it from the other repair droids. They've all got something -- Hux can't tell them apart, frowning and saying they're all the same make and model, why, are you going to trash them too, Ren? except droids were your friends long before people were. They've got designation numbers, same as Stormtroopers.

The tech-mech greets you with a curious whistle that turns into a tea-kettle shriek of alarm when it sees you're not wearing your helmet.

-- IS THERE AN INJURY?

IS THERE A MALFUNCTION?

WHERE IS THE --

"No repairs necessary," you tell it, and it pauses, processing this.

Then it sighs, disappointed, and sinks back down.

You smile in spite of yourself, stepping around it to key yourself into your quarters. "We call them tantrums, Tee-to, and they're an inefficient, unproductive habit."

The droid waits until the door is already sliding shut behind you before it beeps, low and mulish, IT IS PRODUCTIVE FOR TEE-TO.

Inside, you waver, hand automatically going for your chin to remove the helmet that isn't there. You are … not sure where you set it down, actually. You had it in Coverleaf, and now you don't.

From its pedestal, your grandfather's mask watches you, grey and broken-toothed, and your chest squeezes as you approach. Your hand drops from your face to your belt, unclipping Rey's lightsaber and setting it down beside the mask. You step back and study the picture: Anakin Skywalker's second face, his weapon, landmarks of his life, and you wonder if this is how Snoke feels, when another collector's piece falls into his hands. It's … hollow. Without people to give them meaning and Force-presence, they're just items.

You wear a path back and forth.

The inside of your head feels like it's been raked clean, claw marks scored out of the front of your skull, but the pain's just there. There's no frustration attached to it.

You were not wasteful today. Nobody died. You have the scavenger, and you're honestly looking forward to what she'll say when she meets your Supreme Leader.

You look again at Vader's mask.

"Fine," you tell it, and sit down. "I'll try. But I don't want any backtalk when it doesn't work, okay."

You draw your legs up, and settle your spine. You place your wrists on your knees, and after a moment's hesitation, you call the Force into your upturned hands, gathering it to you slowly like you're pulling at clothes.

It locks, and begins to circulate through you, palm to chest to palm and around again; like running water gurgling its way through rusted pipes, or like cobwebs clearing. You breathe around the sensation, careful.

As your mind stretches, the pain swells with it. The Force presses in on you, and with your inhale you reach for it and try to pull it into you, so it can join that current at your core.

The pain doesn't go on forever, Uncle Luke had tried to tell you when you were twelve and overwhelmed.

You're not twelve anymore. And -- beyond it --

-- you sense Rey first.

She is --

She is -- oh, for the love of --

She's removed the panel that covers the sim-room's control mechanisms and is definitely up to her wrist in switches, trying to find the one that unlocks the door. So far she's managed to turn off all but the red light, and started the wind tunnel effect; the physical parts of your Stormtroopers' VR training. She hunches her shoulders as it blasts against her back, cursing.

Hey! you say indignantly, and her head jerks up.

It takes her a beat to place your presence in the Force, and then she just scowls.

What do you think you're doing?

She lifts a shoulder, like she doesn't know what you were expecting. "If you don't want me to break out of here and escape your ship -- again -- then I suggest that you fly faster."

Don't break my ship, you think back. We just finished repairs.

And her hands are occupied, but she still manages to make a rude gesture at you -- mentally. You're impressed. You'll have to remember how to do that.

Past her, you sense your crew, one familiar shape after another.

They're all minds that have lived alongside yours for months, some of them years.

You hear the occupied thought --

(march, march, feet in alignment, blaster at right angle, turn torso, NO OVERSTEP CORRECT did anyone see? is everything orderly?)

-- the mundane --

(why is this still replicating? I only wanted ten copies! How do I make it stop! Oh, no -- )

-- the rebellious --

(a flimsi picture, kept on the inside of a breastplate and surreptitiously moved to the pocket every time there's a uniform change; a parent-pair, hands half-lifted in hello or good-bye, and an ache, a formless wish of remember and more and you, not even a complete sentence because even that could be found and punished)

-- the comfortable --

(at week's end, there will be a new episode of The Moors, if I get killed before then I'm going to be PISSED)

-- the bizarre --

-- and woah! Okay, wow, you definitely don't want to know what that is. The next time you're on the Twi'lek homeworld, you know which bar you're not going to.

The Force continues to cycle through you. Your head hurts, and everything is frightfully sharp, crystalline and stillwater clear, like you could look through it all the way to the bottom. Keeping people out has always mattered more to you than looking in -- except during interrogations, where gentleness is not the objective -- but it turns out that it's simple. Here they are, all the way down. The boredom and the purpose and the --

It takes you a moment to recognize what it is you're feeling, which is absurd, because it's the most basic tenement of your being.

It's terror. There's terror everywhere, in all their heads, and you've been carrying it alongside them without knowing, this whole time, projected onto you so seamlessly you couldn't distinguish their fear from your own.

What's next. Who's next?

How do we keep up?

How do we stay alive?

That's not right, you think, and suddenly, all at once, FN-2187 doesn't feel like an anomaly at all.

Instinctively, you hunt for Hux. He's the military one, you're everything else -- Stormtroopers are his domain. He's in the control room, making everyone else nervous as he paces in front of the viewport. His thoughts are murky stormcloud mix, atmospheric and heady, impenetrable to you.

You shake him off -- because what are you thinking, why would he care -- and turn instead in the opposite direction.

Below you, Captain Phasma's got her console called up in front of her, filing her incident report from Coverleaf. Her statements make short, choppy work of the situation, and behind her, her red-shouldered lieutenant speaks up.

"Captain," EO-0206 says. "What ever happened to Knives?"

Phasma needs no elaboration on which Stormtrooper this is.

"Killed in action on Lothal," she says.

It blooms like a hit under EO-0206's ribs. "Oh," she says, around the hurt. "I hadn't seen her, so I hoped she'd been -- never mind, Captain."

And Phasma says, surprisingly gentle, "It's all right."

Ah, you think, looking through her and through and through.

You're breathing slower, and slower --

-- and the Force swells within you and --

 

***

 

-- you turn, and see Queenie.

 

***

 

The rain pelts down like pebbles, beating your shoulders and making your knuckles smart like you'd shut them in a door; typical Takodana deluge. The splatter on your helmet's visor turns your world into fractals, red light fragmented and repeating everywhere.

You are surrounded by bodies.

You've never seen a corpse before -- it turns out they're just things, limp objects made of tendons and meat, their Force-presence stripped right out of them. You've never seen one, and now you've made thirteen.

No --

-- a thought darts at your knees.

You turn.

You immediately wish you hadn't.

She holds utterly, perfectly still, lying half-tucked under Istill's body like he'd turned his back on you at the last second, using the breadth of his shoulders to shield her. He probably did.

You're instantly frozen, although that might be her -- her heart thrums against your ribs, terrified and trapped and too swollen to possibly belong to you. Her fear floods every vein in your body. Either she's projecting that strongly, or you're so shredded, so torn at the seams you can't keep her out, and it takes all your concentration to drag yourself from her mind back into your own, like you're stuck in quicksand.

Your wrist goes to your cheek, trying to wipe the mud away, but it isn't yours and all this accomplishes is knocking your helmet off-center.

Unsteady, you crouch down, and you don't think it's possible, but Queenie's fear escalates so suddenly it's like the atmosphere gives out; she knows she's caught.

"Sorry," you say to her, kneejerk, and the sheer inadequacy of it stuns you. "I'm so sorry."

Why couldn't she be down in the village? Why couldn't she have gone with her mother, or the droids, or just -- anything? Why couldn't all of them just accidentally have been elsewhere today?

Sorry, sir, there wasn't anyone for me to get rid of, there was a field trip or something.

"Ren!" a Stormtrooper shouts, and your head comes up, realizing that could mean either you or Dhar Ren. "We've got incoming! They'll be on us in minutes."

You gulp back the hysterical noise in your throat. That's no surprise. For years, you've squeezed yourself as thin as possible in the Force, making no noise and leaving no footprint, but this -- this thing you've done -- your mother, your uncle, anybody with half an ear for the Force, they would have felt this, no matter where they were.

Do it, and be done, Snoke had said, but he didn't warn you how the Force would turn on you, all at once, like some great telescopic eye focusing --

-- focusing --

-- pinning you beneath its scrutiny with all your horrific, anatomical parts on display.

Queenie's eyelids keep twitching, a helpless response to the rain that gives her away.

You look at her face and then you glance back at Dhar Ren standing there, muzzle pointed in your direction, waiting. The decoy Knights are hovercarting … something towards the woods. Their job had been to pick off the non-Force-using members of the sanctuary; the journeyman, the droids, and Jee'eke's clutch-father the cook.

(That, at least, is one comm nobody's going to have to make. The cook was Jee'eke's only family.)

(Ben Organa, what have you done.)

You choke on another noise, lost under the crackle of your lightsaber and the answering sounds of the storm.

You can't leave her here. If you don't do it, Dhar Ren or one of the frog-mouthed soldiers will, and Snoke will hear about it, this last-minute failure.

Would that be so bad, honestly?

You could lay down next to her in the mud and wait for punishment to come find you. The idea has its appeal.

If you were dead, she wouldn't be so scared.

If she was dead, she wouldn't be so scared, either.

"I'm sorry," you gasp, and it's impossible to you, that the kid who once pretended to to tinker with Luke's mechanical hand, who asked do you think I could be a Jedi? and to whom Luke responded with his whole heart, I really think you could, could be here now, in your skin.

One more time, Ben -- Ren.

Then you'll be done.

You stand, pulling your lightsaber with you -- it spits, resisting the way you drag at it. You heave and turn it so the blade faces downward, Queenie's chest pinpointed beneath it.

If done with compassion and precision, death by lightsaber is painless, you mouth to yourself.

And then --

-- without you moving a muscle --

She's gone.

You feel it in the Force, like two great hands cupped around her and snuffed her out, like that moment you emerge from hyperspace and your organs haven't quite caught up to you yet, a sudden nothingness where Queenie used to be.

It's -- it's not --

You waver, uncertain, and stare at her eyelids, waiting for movement.

How could she have died that fast? Was she injured?

Is it possible she was just so terrified she couldn't feel a mortal wound? How --

Your lightsaber drops back down to your side, and you start to bend down to investigate, but it's like there's a barrier, repelling you, and you can't. You've felt thirteen deaths, scored into your skin and blood and bones like someone had taken a blaster to you, point-blank range, and this isn't like that at all. Maybe it's different, when they're five?

"Dead?" Dhar Ren calls.

You inhale, shakily, and holster your lightsaber.

"Dead!" you call back. "Let's go!"

You turn away, and as you do, two hands grab you around the heart and pull -- and away goes the fifteen-year-old Kylo Ren, stepping over the discarded bodies -- but present-day you stays behind, held in place inside this memory, the one every single cell in your body remembers.

You've got to go back, the Force tells you, and it's like everything inside of you makes a valiant leap to lodge in your throat at the same time, and you twist around, catching the edge of a silhouette -- lanky hair, a scar, eyes that cut you into your component parts and see through, through, through you, all the way to the bottom.

You've got to go back, Ben.

NOW.

 

***

 

-- you jolt back into yourself to the sudden bellow of an alarm.

The cacophony inside your head and outside of it is instantaneous; confusion flashes faster than plasma bursts from all over the ship, blinding you. Noise blares above your head. You blink fast, trying to orient yourself.

You break meditation pose, knees creaking in protest, and swing yourself to your feet.

You're already reaching out with your thoughts, exasperated with Rey -- what has she done now? -- but midway through, you find her reaching right back for you, equally confused. Annoyed, too; the alarm had broken her concentration. She's still in the padded room, an entire panel removed from the wall, its component pieces dismantled around her.

It's not me, she tells you, frowning.

Your head comes up and around, alert.

Outside your quarters, Tee-to rocks on its tracks, beeping up at you anxiously.

WHERE IS THE MALFUNCTION?

WHERE --

"It's all right," you say, one hand automatically going to its scalloped head to comfort it. "I'll find out."

You're half-way across the main terminal when the Finalizer judders with impact, momentarily interrupting its support systems; lights dim, gravity shifts, and the alarm hiccups, then resumes its wailing. You move faster.

You barrel into the control room, officers darting back and forth and overhead screens lit up with battle paths, and before you can even shout for General Hux, he materializes out of the chaos.

His smile is a sickle that hooks at you, and with a twist he makes it cut.

"Try not to lose this again, Ren," he says, and you realize that the object he's holding out to you is your helmet. You look down at the pointed muzzle that aims right back, and, thinking about Snoke and his specialized containment measures -- about exhibits -- you take it from him. It clicks into place over your head.

Hux is already moving, a current of motion that pulls you along with it.

"It's the Resistance," he tells you, clipped, and through the viewport you see enemy ships gathering together in the distance, dotting the view like silver insects. The tactical screens shows the stats for a whole battalion of cruisers, one heavy-bellied warship, and several freighters. You frown. The freighters are Yendo. You're the first to admit ships aren't your thing, but you know that's not right.

You realize simultaneously that this stretch of space is unfamiliar.

"Did they pull us from hyperspace?" you ask.

A muscle in Hux's jaw tightens. "A net," he says shortly.

"Large enough to stop a Star Destroyer dead in its tracks?" you turn your head towards him; his thoughts turn slippery, sliding away from your scrutiny. "How come we're not all smeared into fragments across three systems?"

The Finalizer quakes, groaning in agony, and behind you, a technician shouts, "Ventral cannons are shot!"

You flick your mind out, searching, but Dameron isn't here -- the last time the Finalizer had ventral cannons, Dameron and FN-2187 had destroyed them in their escape.

In fact, there are no X-Wings out there.

Your frown deepens.

Return fire from a flock of TIEs eliminates the culprit; the screens light with the damage report, the trajectory of debris; the satisfaction of the pilots warms the side of your face.

"R&D had a prototype," Hux admits reluctantly. "Shield generators will stop anything approaching slower than lightspeed, so we needed something that'll stop something at lightspeed. We need no one trying to copycat Han Solo's oh-so-daring attack."

The destruction of Starkiller Base casts a deep shadow through his mind.

"And how, exactly, did a prototype from R&D get into enemy hands?"

The whites of Hux's eyes show. "I'm also curious how the Resistance knew to set a trap along this route for us, right after you supposedly sprung a different trap on the surface of THAIN005?"

"They've boxed us!" comes a shout from the flight console. "We're surrounded!"

"Shields are --"

The report on the shield's depletion is lost as another hit rocks the Finalizer. You adjust your footing.

Thoughts volley through your head, none of them yours: this is hopeless, and how did they sneak up on us like this? and I want to go home.

If this is Resistance back-up, shouldn't the Resistance pilots who were planetside on THAIN005 be here too? How could they have organized so fast?

"Orders, sir!"

You stare Hux down.

There's a scrabbling at the underside of your mind, and it takes you a moment to realize it's Rey, trying to beat her way into your head so she can find out what's going on. Concentrating allows her to send her thoughts and her will out, but she doesn't know how to shadow herself to you in order to use your eyes and ears like they're her own.

It's not a wall, you think at her. Her Force-presence stills, caught. You don't need to knock it down. Minds are more like grates -- thoughts come in and out. Make yourself small and try again.

She considers this, and then shifts, and -- ah, there she goes.

Hux brushes past you.

He fills his lungs and shouts to be heard across the control room. "I will not allow this Destroyer to fall into Resistance hands! The First Order does not surrender its best or its brightest to the enemy!"

You realize what his plan is in the same moment he turns to address the closest captain. You move.

"Start the self-destruct sequence," Hux says to her. "Signal ship-wide evacuation."

"Ignore that!" you bark, already looming into Hux's space. "What are you doing!"

Hux leans his head away from you, not even deigning to acknowledge you. "Captain," he says mildly.

She hovers, uncertain, glancing between Hux, her general, and you, the masked face of the Supreme Leader. Her fear of Hux is much more real than her fear of Snoke -- the will of some far-distant Supreme Leader is unfathomable to her, a theoretical compared to the very real threat of a displeased general. You can already tell where the dice are going to fall with her, if pressed.

"Start the self-destruction sequence," Hux repeats, quiet. "Signal ship-wide evacuation."

Her fingers flip the switch. She enters the code.

Then, at last, he turns to you.

And you --

-- you've forgotten.

"This is not your command, Ren," he tells you, and it lifts all the way through him; his chest, his chin, and he stares you down. His look could flay you to pieces. He wants you dismantled. He wants you buried. He wants to walk over the place your bones will be and know he put you there.

"Yes, it is," you say. "The Finalizer was Dhar Ren's command, and upon her death, it became mine. You have no right to make this call on my ship."

"Hmm," he says with disinterest.

The ground under your feet is formless. You cannot catch your balance.

You've been so preoccupied with casting yourself as the antagonist in Rey's story that you've forgotten who cast you as the antagonist in his.

You draw yourself up to your full height; coming up straight makes the scar punched out of your left side stretch painfully, a starburst expanding, and you look at Hux and you take the weapon that's always been at your disposal.

You strike. "If we're surrounded -- if they have a net -- then what's to stop them from picking off our evacuation shuttles one-by-one as they try to escape?"

Ask a question, get an answer, find a secret symbol stamped to the underside -- Hux's mind is a practiced silver slipstream, darting out from under you, but through the grate you hear --

They have orders not to shoot the shuttles.

Your eyes go wide.

That's not the Resistance! Rey tells you urgently. I don't know who that is but it's not us!

No, you think back, staring at Hux in sudden, all-encompassing wonder.

No, it's mutiny.

Your father cut a ceasefire contract with House Yendo twenty years ago, using only sheer bravado, the name Organa, and a shoestring. He wasn't in the capital when the House leaders sent an assassin after your mother -- when his son's chest got blown apart, he had to hear about it secondhand, all the way across the galaxy with no means to get home. No Resistance outfit would have a Yendo freighter among them. Not so long as General Leia Organa lives and draws breath.

These are mercenaries, hired and given First Order tech in order to attack a First Order ship.

The corner of Hux's mouth curves.

Glorious victory.

Who's he supposed to be anyway? Rey demands. You can feel her, right there behind your eyes, hooked in place like a scavenger clinging to the burnt-out bones of a capsized ship.

He's an architect, you think back through your own horror. Atmospheres, originally, when we were still terraining our planets, but now he constructs people. He's in charge of Stormtrooper curriculum -- their training, I mean.

Just like that, she forgets to be small. She swells, taking you by surprise -- her hate, that formless, sour, churning in her stomach every time Finn drops some terrible, offhand remark about his upbringing -- and her love, too, the need to take him and give him nothing but good for as long as he lives -- and she sharpens, telescopes down, focuses all of it on Hux.

She despises him -- this man who uses "sanitized" to talk about people.

And so she reaches and commands you, GET RID OF HIM.

Your hand is on your lightsaber.

You don't have a single conscious thought as to how it got there.

Hux's mouth splits open, his eyes lighting.

"Mutiny, Ren?" he asks -- dares.

The cloudy, electric windstream of his mind lifts, leaving nothing for you to see but crystal clarity -- through and through and through. This is the man who constructed Starkiller Base, who took the most powerful weapon in the First Order arsenal and recreated the snow-covered face of the Ascent upon it, to capture the feeling of power that came with arriving at the Supreme Leader's conservatory.

He destroyed four planets with a single command -- he is not to be held back by the likes of a third-rate Star Destroyer and you --

You, who can't even kill a pack of unsanitized Resistance fighters on a third-rate world!

You pretend to be his equal when you can't even squash a scavenger scum-creature like that Jedi, when you --

You, who have failed again and again and again.

No, Hux is done with you.

And he's found his own solution.

 

***

 

Like every other bit of programming, evacuation procedures are drilled into every officer, every Stormtrooper, every technician who wears a First Order patch on their sleeve. Everybody has their place.

Except you. The Knights of Ren exist outside the system: there's no space assigned to you.

When they evacuated Starkiller Base -- last-minute, too late, too damn certain the Resistance wasn't a threat, and the First Order paid the price for that with a horrific body count -- you -- actually, you aren't sure how you got off Starkiller. You were dead at the time. The procedures for transporting corpses are different, and not applicable here.

You crouch at the console, entering your override to cancel the self-destruct sequence.

It fails.

Hissing, you cast one last look around the Finalizer's control room -- now utterly empty, tactical screens still flickering with incoming information -- and abandon it.

Moving fast through the corridors, you stride past a Stormtrooper guard and the last remaining essential personnel heading in the opposite direction. For the span of a single heartbeat, you consider ordering one of them to remain behind and taking their place.

You dismiss it immediately.

Phasma will shoot you, and she won't even hesitate about it: her people come first, and your life does not make theirs any less. If you're getting off the Finalizer before it blows itself up, it will not be at anyone else's expense.

You're alongside the viewport when the next incoming torpedo hits; there's a flash, breaking across the starboard, and the ship bucks with the impact. You're thrown off-balance, the walkway plunged into a darkness lit only by distant starlight. This time, it takes longer than a few seconds for the systems to come back.

When they do, your head comes up:

Rey blocks your path.

A crowbar dangles from her hand, loose and ready at her side. She's rearranged and retied her Jedi robes to create more carry-spaces for the tools she's cannibalized from your ship.

There's no space for prisoners on an evac shuttle, either.

The two of you hover, suspended in that moment. As always, you wait for her to speak first.

She stares you down. "You are invested in keeping me alive."

"True," you say, easing out of your immediate defensive posture.

"And I'm much less invested in keeping you alive."

"Also true," you say.

Rey's mouth hooks in the corner, a near-smile.

"Get me off this ship," she demands, and your helmet hides the way you smile back.

Your hand goes to your side, and you toss her your grandfather's lightsaber. The crowbar hits the grating as her hand closes around the hilt; the deep, shocked breath she pulls in when she recognizes it might as well be the first one she's taken since she set foot onboard.

"You'll need that," you tell her, without regret. Then, "This way."

You're flat-out running now, Rey pounding along behind you, through the officer barracks and up a level, and as you go, you explain --

"This ship was commissioned by my former master. A Knight of Ren overrides every military rank, so she was always in control." And after her death, it was you, all of seventeen years old. Hux's resentment has built towards this since day one. "When she realized she wouldn't be included in standard evac procedures, she would have installed an escape pod for herself."

Think like Dhar Ren, think like Dhar Ren, you tell yourself, but it's like trying to fit into the ill-fitting robes that didn't work on you as a teenager, either; over the years, you've become somebody she wouldn't recognize.

You're out of breath by the time you reach your quarters -- the ones that had formerly been hers -- and, with one hand miserably pressed to your undersized, cramping lung, you key the both of you inside. You'd always wondered why she placed herself here, in a middling part of the ship with one wall right up against the starboard hull, when all the other officers of rank had quarters on the top level. (You weren't the only one -- you had a chief petty officer once who taught herself to remember that you were housed separately from the other commanding officers by imagining the ship as an anatomical creature. General's up top with his eyes on attack, and Ren's the knife that'll stab you in the back!)

Rey jolts with alarm at the sight of Darth Vader's mask sitting there, sunken and beat-in, but you don't even slow.

"Here," you say, halting in front of the far wall. "If she built an escape hatch, it would be through here."

You contemplate the filing cabinet in the way, the rows of drawers that are -- Rey digs her nails in to check -- anchored into the wall. They're backup files of Dhar Ren's holodramas; you never replaced them.

"It is possible …" you murmur, and Rey says, "Don't ask that until after you've already done it."

In the Force, your father flashes between you, plummeting so suddenly you react instinctively; hand going out to catch him, fingers splayed around nothing. Rey makes eye contact like she's throwing a punch.

"How long do we have?" she asks.

Minutes, you think, and you don't have to say it; the thought is hers almost as soon as you think it.

Her mouth compresses, and she steps up, regarding the mechanism -- you feel the shift her mind makes, unfolding into squares, taking your ship and laying out on a grid. Dhar Ren was a tall woman with a lightsaber staff -- if she was in your predicament, what would she do? What would play to her strengths?

You reach out, shadowing yourself to the back of Rey's mind, so that everything she thinks becomes yours, too. Her thoughts become your actions.

She moves you like you're an extension of her own arm, and in unison, you draw your lightsabers.

Blue light and spitting red, and you plunge them through metal, where the cabinet meets the wall. She turns your wrist so the blade angles right, and when superheated liquid metal starts dripping from the cut to the floor, you move her feet to avoid being burned by the splatter.

A moment later, the cabinet collapses, coming away like the lid off a tin can, and behind it --

A hatch, set low in the empty honeycomb interior of the wall. Letters stamped in Basic above a dim, patchy control panel indicate its pod status.

A shuttle pod.

An escape.

Rey douses her lightsaber and darts forward, but the moment she braces herself against the hatch, hands closing around the wheel, the control panel lights and an angry alarm sounds out.

"Unverified," a computerized voice says.

Rey curses, lifting her head towards the panel, and for a split second her mind is webbed with colored wires as she imagines reprogramming it -- that is, after all, how she got into the oscillator on Starkiller Base -- before it occurs to her that a much easier option is available, but you're already moving, stripping your glove off.

"Verified," the computer decides, and then --

-- deep below --

-- a muffled series of booms, one right after the other, like you're listening to the Finalizer being gutpunched, laid on the ground and hit again --

-- over and over.

You make a noise, wounded. Machines, to you, don't have a Force-presence beyond what people give them, but the Finalizer has been given a lot over the years. It wails in agony as it is torn through the gut, blasted apart.

All containment systems fail at the same time.

A sudden lack of gravity combined with the thrust of the ship exploding throws you and Rey forward. You bounce off the wall, shoving yourself to the side to avoid being flattened by the cabinet, hurtling past you. The drawers burst open on impact, scattering data slips everywhere. The only light comes from the hatch's control panel, which is lit up so red with alarm it doesn't know where to start -- hull containment is breached! Fire! Oxygen venting! The vacuum of space! Danger, danger!

Yes, you think. We know!

When you'd been much smaller, bored on your mother's campaign, your father used to flip the Millennium Falcon belly-up -- not literally, but like it was debris, flicking all systems to dark. You'd float in silence, utter stillness, Chewie's fur a comical sight all lifted on end, and wait for the moment the rest of the convoy realized you were missing from their scanners.

Your body remembers this, effortlessly.

You grab for support, planting your feet against the wall. You stretch for Rey, letting your muscle memory become hers -- she stops wobbling and grabs again for the hatch.

"Authorization required," the computer says.

Rey snaps her head around to give you a pointed, prompting look, and because you wouldn't be you if you did not completely fail in a crucial moment, all you can say is, "ah."

You cannot come up with a single thing Dhar Ren might have used as a key. You're drawing a complete and utter blank.

Then you kick yourself.

"LEONIS," you shout, and the panel chimes, lighting up green.

"Confirmed. Ben Organa, welcome aboard."

The hatch to the shuttle pod thunks, the heavy bolts coming undone, and Rey makes a triumphant noise.

You turn your head; subsequent explosions off the main one will make short work of this section of the Finalizer within moments, and this room won't exist anymore. You start gathering the Force to you; if you can freeze a shot from a blaster, surely you can freeze a detonation long enough to get a shuttle out of the way.

The seal hisses, breaking, and you snap your head back around.

It's not your sense memory this time, it's Rey's; breaking containment on a long-sealed compartment is a great way to get yourself blasted with decayed air. It's been known to knock people out -- it's not that she's forgotten, it's that she usually wears a mask when excavating. She isn't, today. Jedi don't need them.

"Rey!"

You move. Her eyes lift, a second before they roll into the back of her head.

Your helmet protects you for that critical extra moment, and you grab Rey under the knees, swinging her through the hatch into the pod beyond. Holodrama data slips swirl everywhere, the metal frame starts to buckle, and you haul the hatch closed with all your strength.

Please work, you think, and reach out and out and out --

 

***

 

The Force is with you.

 

***

 

"Rey? Rey!"

Years of combat training with the others Knights has it ingrained in you that any period of unconsciousness that lasts longer than a minute or two is bad, and you know that was a lot of stress your bodies just went through and if anyone deserves a moment to completely check out … but she should be coming around by now, shouldn't she?

She's propped up in the pilot's seat, head lolling at an uncomfortable angle. It's the only place there was to put her; the shuttle pod is a one-person craft, as Dhar Ren hadn't anticipated this situation when she snuck it into the designs.

Wincing -- the grav-simulators had rebooted at the exact right moment to ensure you hit every pointy object there was coming down -- you unfold yourself from the floor, sliding your fingers under the straps of her oxygen mask and pulling it off. It isn't necessary now -- the atmosphere's stabilized.

"Rey?" you try again.

You reach for her with the Force. Is -- that her? It's -- really hard to tell. You have a sense of her, but it's the same way you'd have a sense of gravitational orbit, or velocity; something too vast, too immense for you to pinpoint exactly except that you know it's there, acting on you. Either she's everywhere, right now, or nowhere at all.

You would have felt it if she died, though. On that you're certain. You think. You've only ever not felt someone die once, and that was --

-- that was --

-- she --

It hits you, just like that.

You drop the mask.

You are flash-bang-stunned, flattened in place, staring. You can't breathe, your lungs pancaked to the insides of your ribs.

Your vision unfolds into a grid, laying the landscape of her face out across it like you're looking at the schematics of her; all the features of the little girl, stretched-out and grown to fit the adult. You held her once, back when she was no longer than your arm, her head exceedingly small where her mother taught you how to support its weight.

When she was born, the Force came and it woke you up.

Listen, it had said to you. This one's important.

Queenie.

Rey.

Of course her name is Rey, you knew that, how could you have forgotten?

But, on Takodana, she -- you were there --

You realize, with a burst of anger and relief so simultaneous they leave your insides feeling liquidized, what Dhar Ren must have done.

"I'm sorry," you say, stupidly, helplessly, to that little person still there inside Rey's bones. To Rey, honestly. "I didn't mean to leave you there. I would have --"

Oh, stop.

What would you have done?

Don't be an idiot, Ren. You don't get any credit here. You would have killed her, if Dhar Ren hadn't flung her hand out, a shield to cut Rey off from you in the Force. She saved her life. The act of someone putting themselves between you and the girl to protect her is not, it turns out, a recent phenomenon.

She'd still been alive when you left her there, desperately holding still under the protection of Istill's body, to be found by whoever came running. That whoever then whisked her away, left her on Jakku to --

-- to protect her from you.

To protect her from Snoke, too, and his Knights out on the hunt for new Force-sensitive to add to the master's collection, and to think, all this time you'd been convinced that horrific loneliness in her head was the fault of the New Republic, abandoning its poorest to the machinations of economic crisis. But it wasn't.

It wasn't the New Republic at all.

She stirs, a roaming movement starting under her eyelids, and you're still reeling, horrified, and you react instinctively.

You snap out, fast, freezing her in place; if she panics -- if your panic makes her panic -- and she goes for her lightsaber, not only is it extremely likely she'll skewer you, it's also likely she'll punch through the hull. There isn't a lot of room in here.

"Don't move," you tell her, desperate, as she bolts fully awake.

A beat later, she sinks her fingers into you, ripping you away even as you're letting go, so it's less like you're releasing her and more like you're getting forcibly dunked back into your own head. You make a fishy, gulping noise, but it does the trick; she sits up slowly, taking in her surroundings.

Her Force-presence reasserts itself, pulling itself down into the confines of her skin bit-by-bit, so it no longer feels like she's some terrifying gravitational force holding you and everything else in place. You focus on controlling your breathing, the way you're shaking.

She frowns, hands ghosting over the controls. They're quiescent; the pod is still, an aimless floating chunk in space.

"What's killed us?" she asks you.

"Ah," you say, useless.

Her nostrils flare.

"Nothing?" you try. "All functions are fine, as far as I'm aware."

"So why --" are we still here?

"I'm not a pilot. I don't know how to fly."

There'd been an autopilot you'd been intending on using, but it turned out that nobody had bothered to set its coordinates to anything, so when you tried, the computer just pinged at you and cheerfully informed you that you were at your destination; here, in the middle of a debris field. Trying to reset it hadn't worked, because why would it; your luck with resets has been dismal today.

You rearrange yourself in the narrow space behind her chair, and Rey's frown deepens. "You -- can't fly?"

It takes you a moment to answer; finding a comfortable position for your knees is proving difficult, but then you lift your head, frowning back. That's not strange. Most people aren't pilots, so --

Oh. There's your father. Again.

Rey's mind instantly snatches him back from you, possessively putting him in her pockets. Like she's more entitled to him than you are -- like she knew him better, like the fact he spent fourteen years being your father means nothing to what he represented to her. But who are you to say; Dhar Ren would tell you family is what you make of it, and what they make of you.

She cannot fathom it, how you had the one thing she always wanted, would have done anything for, and you cut him open. You let him fall.

"No," you say shortly. "I can't."

She pins you there with a look, and then turns around, thoughts shifting around and refocusing. You watch her as she stretches up, toggling one switch and then another, releasing one button only to push it back down again. You lean forward when she tells you to so that she can get to the panel there. The engines don't even so much as cough, although at one point the computer gives an inquiring little chirp, like it wants to know what she thinks she's doing.

She curses, flopping back against the chair. "I could force an engine turnover, but on a pod this size the only access port would be on the outside." She frowns at you sidelong. "Spacesuit?"

You shake your head.

She sighs, then leans forward, idly messing with the controls. This time, it startles a smile out of you, because you actually do recognize what she's doing now. She's trying to disguise that she's sending out a distress signal, coded on whichever channel she needs it coded on -- you did the same thing on your own channel.

When she sits back, she makes a face and then pulls a data slip out from underneath her; they're everywhere around the shuttle, having blown in with your escape. She studies the script, mouth pulling bemusedly.

"This is not," she mutters, "what I imagined I'd be doing today."

"What were you going to do today?" you ask. What do Jedi do when they're not swooping down on THAIN005 to rescue hostages?

"Not this," she says, dry.

"Then," the words scrape coming out, like you're chipping them off the crusted-over scrim of yourself, those remnants of Ben flash-burned to the undersides of your bones. "I owe you an apology."

The whites of her eyes show. "You owe me at least thirty-seven. And a half, I think," and she has them pictured in her head as neat triangular ration pieces, to be extracted from you with all due leverage. And possibly an applicable but not very sanitary use of pliers. "And that's not including what you owe Finn -- you probably owe me a few apologies on his behalf, too."

Your throat catches. You swallow with difficulty, and your voice modulator clicks.

"Probably." Then, "Would you like me to start now?"

It comes out so casual that she's already responding to what she'd thought you were going to say, and you get to watch her mouth work in frustration. You sense the answer is yes, but it won't mean as much if she can't drag it out of you. You handed it to her willingly -- she doesn't trust things that come to her without a fight.

Her brows come together, and she probes at the surface of your thoughts, gauging your sincerity.

"Tell me about Snoke," she says instead. "I hear he's a hundred feet tall."

"That's how he projects himself," you say. "And that's literal. It's a projection. The real Snoke is not that large."

"Why the hologram? Ego?"

"Likely a part of it, yes," you allow. "Nine-tenths intimidation. He never leaves his stronghold, so maintaining a presence is paramount. His real body is," you gesture. Droid-height. "He contains it in a black metal sphere."

She'd been waiting for you to drop the words "wise" or "supreme" again, poised above the conversation the way you've seen people wait with flyswatters. But now her interest is piqued.

"Mechanical?" she asks, and you nod.

A smile starts at one corner of her mouth.

"If it's a machine," she says, as it slowly spreads to the other. "I can take it apart. What else can you tell me."

 

***

 

"You should still consider being my apprentice, you know."

Your tone is conversational, and the look she throws down at you is only marginally less disgusted than any other one she's ever given you.

"I'm never going to be your apprentice."

"No, I know," you say, and at her gesture, you hand her the three-gauge fob she's projecting, picking it from the small puddle of tools she'd upended into your lap. You're surprised at how much your ship had managed to give her, in the short time she'd been captive. She knows her stuff. "But there's this Sith tradition we have that I think you'd like, where once the master is done teaching the apprentice all they know, the apprentice kills the master."

"Oh," she clicks the fob into place. "Well. When you put it like that."

You tilt your head.

These sudden thoughts keep tripping you: when you tracked her through the Takodana woods, did she remember that she'd been there before? That she had a pilot for a mother -- you see her now, Rey's freckles making a starchart of her face; here is the map of who she came from -- that she used to trail after the apprentices, waiting for the day she too could be one? That she used to be weirdly obsessed with the mechanics of your artificial organs? Or does that not even rank on the list of terrible things that she's blocked out?

Did some part of her know where she was going, as she ran from you into the woods?

"Satisfying thought?"

"Yes, but I don't need to be your apprentice to do that," and you grin, delighted -- that's double-talk! The good kind! -- but it vanishes immediately, because then she says, in an odd tone, "You killed your master?"

In the Force, a sudden vision of Dhar Ren plants her spear and towers over both of you, her bare mouth pulled to one side, and you shake your head to dispel it. The urge to snatch her and pocket her the way Rey had done to the memory of your father makes your fingertips hurt.

Rey sets her tool down on the console; her own fingers tremble minutely.

You're honest. "Yes."

And you are, the way you always are, grateful that you never became partner-parents, not even after your Supreme Leader commanded it. He wanted Dhar Ren's loyalty, your easily intimidated eagerness to please, your combined Force powers -- all in a creature he could control from birth. So you're glad, because any child of yours, who you -- in your weakest moments -- imagine would have inherited her hair, and your unfortunate nose, would have been exterminated for being Dhar Ren's.

Treachery, to Snoke, is worse than any genetic imperfection.

Rey's face turns toward you, and it isn't until you recognize the expression there as horror that you realize she's slipped behind your thoughts, reading what's on the underside.

"He breeds you?" she asks, low. "Like -- like bloggins?"

You aren't sure what those are, but the shape in her head suggests livestock, or what passes for livestock on Jakku. Those aren't memories you want her digging in.

You slam the grating closed, and her teeth click together.

"More like hoggles, or a pedigree flock of birds," you answer, flat. "The Supreme Leader is very particular about which of our traits he breeds for."

Her face pinches, and for a strange moment, you want to reassure her: on the long list of things your Supreme Leader understands innately, human nature among them, human biology is not. Dhar Ren was too old to bear children when he paired you with her. Elsewhere in the First Order, parent-pairs have access to remote-gestation stations that let them grow their children without compromising the productivity of the mother, but when it came to his Knights, Snoke had a keeper's … singular interest.

Then Rey whispers, "And this is what you picked?" and it drops in you like you're falling out of orbit.

She puts a hand on the back of the pilot's chair, gesturing at you with something blunt and metal, "You make this choice -- you let him do this -- to you -- and your what-do-you-call-thems, your Knights -- you choose this every day?" She makes a bitten-off noise. "How do you wake up every morning and decide to -- ugh."

Frustrated, she turns her back on you. It's a dismissal, but you can feel her worrying at it still, so you wait.

How do you wake up every morning and decide to stay right where you are, Rey?

"I get it," grits itself like sand stuck in her teeth. "You're afraid."

It's no less weird to hear it now than it had been the first time. Everyone assumes you're the angry one.

"But you have to know --"

"Yes," you know.

The Knights of Ren survive the tests the Supreme Leader puts them through until they don't anymore; you don't ever really win. Trel Ren will be the Knights' master after you -- they're willing to bide their time -- and you will serve Snoke until you die for him. He saw you when you were still the smallest, most meaningless creature in the galaxy --

Not unlike, you think, turning out your pockets until you find her memory -- not unlike how Han Solo looked at her and dragged himself upright, shuffling himself together into something that felt respectable. He stacked his shoulders haphazardly on his spine and propped his hands on his hips. He pulled his voice around to face her, and offered her a place.

Rey's mouth flattens. "Stop that."

You steal one last covetous look at your father's face, grey and lined and hopeful and not for you at all, before you let it go. The memory dissipates.

You say, "Listen."

"I am listening."

"No," you tell her. "Listen. Listen to the Force."

She cuts you a sidelong look, but you gesture back at her and after a moment, her eyes close.

"How many people do you sense?" you ask her. You're glad your voice is modulated -- she can't hear just how much you sound like your uncle.

"Seventeen," she answers immediately.

You nod; two squadrons, each eight strong, and their lieutenant, trying to triangulate the position of the distress beacon that keeps bouncing off the debris from the Finalizer, scrambling their scanners.

They're closer than the rescue ship. They're closer than the two minuscule X-Wings hiding in its blind spot, stealthed.

She hasn't picked up on those yet.

"What are their designations?" you prompt her, and feel her focus, making her Force-presence small enough to slip through. "What names to their squadmates call them? How old are they? What's the first thing they think about when they're frightened? What's the destination of every stray thought in their head? What are they remembering right now?"

Her eyes are open now, concentration lost. "You can sense that?"

"It never stops," you say back. "I can't not sense it. We talk about the Force awakening in people, but I don't remember not being awake. When I was very young, it was easier to ignore, but once I got older it -- it was. The noise is -- unbelievable. It's -- Luke Skywalker couldn't tell me how to make it stop. My mother -- the general, the general couldn't --"

You're losing control of your voice. Your modulator clicks once, then twice, on and off, before you manage to speak again.

"With Snoke -- I mean, the Supreme Leader -- with his guidance, and his presence, and his wisdom, it goes away. He mutes it," you explain to her, at the incomprehension on her face. "There's peace. That's all I want. To be free of it."

"That's not Snoke," Rey says, shortly. "He's not helping at all. He's got you killing people -- you, it's you killing people, not him," and a shiver runs through her voice, like something too shaky and patched together for flight, as she tests the truth of it. "Killing people shuts them up."

"Yes," you admit.

And it's a memory, a holo all broken-up because it's hard to pick up New Republic news broadcasts deep in First Order space, of your mother saying, I have no proof of his identity and judging by your question, sir, I would say that you don't either. Kylo Ren may be my son. Any member of the First Order may be my son -- don't think it doesn't cross my mind every time I'm handed a casualty report.

If he is?

The general looks out of your mother's eyes. Then he will be captured and tried for war crimes, same as the rest of them.

Starkiller and the Hosnian system and MISTA-sub02-1 alone would be enough to have you shot.

But Maz's temple in the Takodana fen? Your uncle's friend Lor and the villagers on Jakku? Hideouts on dozens of planets before them? And, of course, the thirteen Jedi apprentices who once, to punish you for making Jee'eke cry, dunked you in a farm patty right after a Takodana flood, laughing when you came up choking, mud in your eyes, up your nose, half-way down your throat. (And, because it's important to remember this, too: they felt bad, watching you, and Istill spread his arms and belly-flopped into the mud next to you, and before you knew it, there they all were, up to their chests with you, faces smeared, unrecognizable, shoving globs of mud down each other's robes, and the look on Luke's face when you all came down holding bushels of tubers and dripping everywhere, all of you grinning --)

That was you. You and you alone commanded that. They did not have to die, but it was quiet when they did, the flash-bang of their deaths burnt onto your cells, the pain of it and then the peace right after.

You're past the point of no return on this.

You are a genocide. You are a monster, a child-killer, a mother-killer, a cousin-killer.

A father-killer.

You are what the Resistance exists to resist, and people like Maz Kanata can tell you to come back to the Light all they like, but …

"Yes," you say again, miserably. "It does."

No Geonosian captured you or dragged you. All Snoke had to do was coax you with something marginally better than where you were standing, and you --

You --

 

***

 

You've made the wrong decision from the start, and you know it.

You kept making the wrong decision because you thought it was the only way forward. You thought you had to. You killed, and tortured, and ordered Stormtroopers to slaughter without a single thought as to what it would do to their souls, and it was …

Oh, say it, Ren.

It was easier to continue to be wrong than it was to sort out your first steps toward being right.

And that was the trick of it. It became unfathomable to you that there could be anything else. That your bridges weren't all burnt.

Even with you standing there, literally on a bridge with your father reaching for you and calling you back, you couldn't see it. There were too many dead with their hands around your throat, Force-choking you, and your helmet became the specialized containment measure that kept the rest of the galaxy out. It stopped at the end of your muzzle.

Here, with Rey -- whose heart is organic, full of true and beating parts, full of your mother, and her Stormtrooper who didn't kill on your command because he knew it to be wrong, and her pilot who never double-talks -- it makes you feel inches tall.

You feel gutpunched, like the blackened mark cratered out of your side has spread, tendrils of it coming up to choke the breath out of your lungs, to strangle your heart.

You don't know what to do.

 

***

 

The two of you are silent for a long time after that.

Rey catalogues the contents of the pod, mixing and matching with the tools she'd brought from the Finalizer, trying to see if she can't jerryrig something. She's putting deliberate effort into ignoring you, which is difficult because you take up a lot of space.

The computer chirps. It's an incoming comm, the third one you've gotten -- every time you've tried to answer, the connection drops.

"This is what happens when you insist on having everything new, new, new," Rey grumbles in your vague direction, like it's your fault you didn't know about Dhar Ren's escape pod or kept up on its system updates.

Through the viewport, you both watch the growing speck of the Star Destroyer approaching, and as it goes, it incinerates larger chunks of debris in its path and slows down in order to tractor in the interesting bits. It won't be much longer before it's right on top of you; when you stretch out with the Force, you're reassured by the occasional familiar flicker of someone you know. The mercenaries were true to their contract with Hux, then, and left the evac shuttles alone.

Rey breaks the silence first.

"I don't care what Snoke thinks he can do to me," and her voice is hard, gripped in tight control like it's a weapon she'll defend herself with. "There's nothing on the Dark Side I want. You'll never make me your apprentice."

"No," you agree. "But it won't get that far."

She blinks.

"When they pull us in, they're going to surround us," you tell her. "There'll be a verification process. A password. Special cult salute -- I'm kidding. The salutes are only for special occasions. Then we'll be assigned a guard -- twelve individuals," you elaborate helpfully, when she frowns. "Nine troopers, two lieutenants, and a captain. They'll all follow the captain's lead, so you'll want to knock them out first. It'll buy you a little bit of extra time."

"What --"

"We'll get as far as the service corridor beyond the hangar and then we are going to experience a sudden technical malfunction. In the ensuing cover of darkness, your friends will miraculously spirit you away."

She's staring at you, so you nudge the back of her chair and point.

The X-Wings drift along in the wake of the Star Destroyer, too deliberately to be debris but faking it very well.

"There might be some variations in the plan," you allow. "They're still working out the details. That's the most likely one, though."

She has you crosshaired now, pinning you in place with suspicion. Is this another trap?

It better not be another trap. There's been way too many of those today.

You just shake your head.

You're done, you think, with fighting her. You're not going to win. You don't want to win.

At this point, all you want to do is survive.

And even that, you think, watching her lift her head, and you can tell the exact moment she finds the Resistance pilots in the Force, because it ignites in her in a way that makes you draw in a sharp breath like you've been impaled -- even that you'd be willing to negotiate on.

You feel it lift all the way through her, a dazed, disbelieving kind of joy. When she handed you her lightsaber on THAIN005, she hadn't expected to ever see her friends again, and awareness that they're here, now, coming back to rescue her expands in her so suddenly it's like it's going to kill her. She has nowhere to put all of it, all of her affection, all of her love.

On Lothal, you tried to plant a fear in her -- a small one, the common garden-variety fear that all her friends like each other just that little bit more than they like her -- but it didn't stick.

Of course it didn't stick.

So you shrink down as small as you can make yourself in that tiny space behind the pilot's chair, careful not to touch what's coming off of her in the Force. It's not yours to witness.

When Rey looks back, a faint depression appears between her brows.

She's already miles away, eager to be back with her people, except now she's confronted with the minor nuisance of what to do with you.

"You're dead to them," comes out of her suddenly. "You know that, right? You can stay that way --" she reaches across the console, hand hovering over a kill switch. "They don't have to find you."

You frown, uncomprehending, and then it hits you:

You could leave the First Order.

As far as they know, Kylo Ren went down with the Finalizer. You could leave him there. You could --

-- home --

It ignites in you.

Your insides disintegrate. You feel burnt, cauterized, cut in pieces, and the Light leaves you stunned, desire making chokeholds of the wires holding your heart.

You wouldn't have to --

-- not ever again --

-- except.

And just like that, you're plunged back into your body.

Thirteen pairs of hands hold you there. The Hosnian system looms over you, casting a shadow so deep and dark that it makes you shiver, gone cold to the core.

What are you thinking, you can't go back. You burnt the bridge your father stood on, and you burnt him with it. Your mother, your uncle alone …

You put your muzzled head down.

Here is the post, hoggle, here is your chain.

You say --

Nothing.

You make no choice, and that becomes your choice.

"Okay," says Rey after a long pause, and she sounds impatient but not, you think, angry. Maybe she's past the point of caring (likely,) or maybe, maybe this is something she understands, deep down in her hindbrain: the drive to stop and stand still when everything is propelling you forward.

And here's the memory of Queenie -- of Rey -- holding herself still in the mud, in the rain, but it's changed. The face you see is the little girl from Coverleaf -- Ein, her name was Ein, and in her father's head she was the sunburst of morning light glinting off the lakes, the comfort of taking one's shoes off at the end of the day, a hug around the knees. Every day, he tried not to think about Academy recruits coming and taking her away.

If you go back to the Resistance --

(they're going to execute you, Ren, and when they do, will your mother be there? will your uncle be there? maybe it won't be so bad, if their heads get to be the last thing you ever feel)

-- then who's going to make sure nobody makes a Hosnian Prime out of her?

You are grateful, however, that Rey thought to give you the chance; you don't want her thinking that you're not.

Her nose wrinkles, like your gratitude is the most woefully inadequate thing you can give her, but she accepts it.

"What are you going to tell them?" she asks.

"Me?"

To explain your survival? Or how easily you let her go?

"I'll tell them the scavenger bested me. That she is stronger and more knowledgable in the Force. That she is much better trained -- she had a better master, I think, than I, master Snoke sir," you exaggerate it.

It earns you a deeply unimpressed noise. "Flattery isn't going to stop me from running you through if you get in my way again, Ren."

"Ah, well," you shrug. "Worth a shot."

Her mouth twitches. She turns her head away, and you --

There is one more thing you need to know.

Your modulator clicks. "Why do you keep bringing him to this fight?"

Her brow pinches.

"The soldier who was FN-2187," that's not his name anymore. He escaped you; his new name is not yours to use. "Almost every Resistance fighter dreams of taking a mission like this, but I feel his fear. Coming back to us is the worst thing he can imagine. So why do you keep making him come with you?"

"I don't," she says, simple as that. "I don't make him do anything. You should really ask him that question. Who knows, he might be able to teach you something."

 

***

 

You wake in a medbay you don't recognize.

Everything shines, sparklingly chrome and new, and for a moment, you're horrified to even exist in the same space. You can't touch anything here -- you're recycled material, you're Rebel-born, Resistance-raised, First Order-repurposed, and this isn't for you.

"-- sir!"

And then the familiar shape of your reconstructionist's face appears in your line of sight, and you are delighted to see him.

You are so delighted, in fact, and you are very fuzzy, and your brain and your Force-sense have conflicting ideas about the state of your body, so when you open your mouth, "oh, good, I'm glad you made it," trips right out of it before you can do a thing to stop yourself.

You realize, far too late, that you'd been banking on your voice modulator to mask your tone, except you're not wearing your helmet. You sound stupid, and young.

The reconstructionist's eyes crinkle, cutting deep into his face with amusement.

He says, "If I may say so, I'm glad you made it, too, sir. I've never had to abandon ship before. It was very orderly."

"Panic is --"

"Inefficient, yes, you've said."

You nod, because you probably have. You lie back, listening to the clicking of the machinery around you, and take stock; you recognize the cottony feeling in your head as being a side-effect of rapidly-regrowing bones. You've had to do that more than once; rapid-regrow comes readymade on a bacta template, and it's not as sturdy as the durasteel alloy that they made for your ribs when you were little, but it works in a hurry.

Where did your bones go, though?

How … where did you misplace them?

The last thing you remember was a flash of orange in your peripheral, and the pilot coming around the corner --

Poe Dameron, yes. The best Resistance pilot, because only the best would be sent to retrieve Rey.

He came around the corner, and in the Force he was the stunning weightlessness of relief, because Rey was the first thing he saw, and then his eyes went to you next, and -- a hideous, chundering mix of fear, revulsion, helplessness, shame, and -- he was already firing before you even got your hand up to block it, and --

You bolt upright.

You reach with your right hand for your left, which you're only just now realizing you can't feel --

Your reconstructionist's hand lands on your shoulder, restraining you.

Swiftly, he says, "Sir. Your bones were regrown and replaced in sufficient time," thanks to me, he doesn't say, but it's in his head. "You will keep the hand."

"Really?" you say, once the words process around the thundering in your chest.

"Yes. This isn't our parents' generation -- technology has improved vastly from the days of chop-off-and-replace, I assure you."

"Good. That's not a family legacy I want anything to do with."

"Sir," he acknowledges, bemused.

Once he's certain you're not going to rip your numb appendage off, he turns away. As he does, you catch the flash of a thought aimed at you, so warm it's like touching an X-Wing that's been sitting out in the sun, and you look up.

"You have children?" you say with surprise.

His shoulders hike up around his ears, before he forcibly relaxes them.

"Ah," he says, crossing to a set of cabinet doors and opening one, before remembering that he isn't in his usual medbay. "Yes, I heard that you could do that. As a matter of fact, sir, I do. Two."

You can see their faces; warped a little, blurred in places, like you're looking at them through smudged glass, but that's just the reconstructionist's mind, telling him he isn't allowed to think about them. You see a gap-toothed grin on a little boy with his arms outstretched, a yawning infant, a handsome flat-nosed man combing a squirming child's hair. The memories are well-worn, old, and the children in them --

"Oh," comes out of you, leaden. "They were taken."

No, wait, requisitioned.

No.

Taken. Rey's word.

His heart crunches into a small knot, like it's about to be crumpled up and thrown.

"Sir," he says. "They were chosen for the career paths they were best suited for. We were glad to give them in service to the First Order."

"No, you weren't," you say quietly, and his hand tightens on the handle to the cabinet door. He closes it, slowly, and ducks his head so that you don't see his throat working.

He turns and folds his arms, resting his hip against the counter.

His eyes cut at you.

"You have to understand, sir," he says, resentful that you're pulling this out of him. "I am proud to be a part of the First Order. I can see the immediate value of my contributions --" and you lift your left hand, the one that had been a mangled, charred mess the last you saw it; Dameron never misses a shot. You close your fingers, clumsily. "And I, in turn, am valued for them. My husband and I became settlers in MISTA twenty … five? … years ago. He had been an Imperial Stormtrooper before that, and we were grateful to have someplace to go where those skills were valuable.

"I was never cleared for breeding." His mouth quirks, rueful. "I have a family history of the swamp shakes, so that automatically made me unsuitable. But my husband was cleared, and after a conversation with his partner-parent, we decided that we would be the caregivers."

Ideally, all family units on First Order worlds are constructed this way -- the specific biological make-up of each offspring is the First Order's business, but the rest can be arranged to suit the settlers.

You've seen the dice fall both ways -- colonies where the villagers come together to raise their children communally, because they are made up of all the best parts of them, and colonies where you've had to remove children and relocate them somewhere more suitable.

The irony isn't lost on you, that this thing you ask your settlers to do again and again, you and Dhar Ren were not willing to risk.

Your reconstructionist straightens. "Our son and our daughter -- they would be adults, now -- serve the First Order. My husband establishes new frontier in THAIN. I am here."

With that, he politely but firmly shuts the mental door on this line of conversation, and try as he might, light still helplessly seeps around the cracks at the edges, and --

You blink.

In your mind's eye, you suddenly see it -- the familiar nose, the eyes.

"Your husband," you blurt out. "What's his name?"

He turns his head with a puzzled frown. "Zare, sir," he says. "It's Zare."

"Oh," comes out of you, very very faintly.

And then you have to lay back down, because your heart and your head and your stomach are all swimming and sinking in different directions, and a lot of things come together, very suddenly.

 

***

 

"Simulation complete," chirps the holopad in your hands, and you roll upright, planting your feet on the floor and rubbing at the sore spot at the front of your skull while you wait for it to calculate the results.

Acceptable losses sustained. 32% survival expected.

"Thirty two --" you start, your hackles going up. "That's," you do the math. "Ten thousand, seven hundred, fifty … seven people dead! That's not acceptable, those are my people, you can't just -- argh! Reset."

And, with a blip, it does exactly that, erasing the projected fate of ten thousand people as easily as if they're … well, as if they're just data on a holo-simulation. You're back to square one, and in your hands you've got a colony expecting you to do better than just letting 68% of them die.

With a noise of frustration, you flick your holopad off and drop it on top of the crate at your side. You pinch your nose.

"Ren," chides Dhar Ren, across from you.

You look up. She's lit by the lights of her own holopads; she has two, one Force-levered at her elbow, its text a rapid scroll you can't read backwards, and the other is on her knees, where she's been scrawling away on it with her stylus. It's paused, poised over the screen, and her mouth pulls downward in your direction.

Scripts for her holodramas, you assume. She works tirelessly at them. Like you, the mask she wears for the Supreme Leader is not her most important face. It's that, in her hands.

"Sorry, Ren," you say, and draw yourself up. Your shoulders are stiff -- crates are not comfortable to lie on.

It'd been Dhar Ren's idea. The hiding place, you mean, a cove made out of the Finalizer's deep-space storage room, where nobody but the service droids ever go. Here, the two of you can steal an hour, rarely longer, to sit with your helmets off, your lightsabers unclipped and left aside.

You're surprised she's willing to risk even this, but then again, Dhar Ren's been surviving Dark Lords a lot longer than you have.

With a faint click, she sets the stylus down and says, "Here."

She expands her Force-shield to encompass you, too, and as the pain withdraws from the front of your head, the knot in your back eases fractionally. You sigh with relief in spite of yourself. It's not as strong as it is when you're in your Supreme Leader's presence, where everything goes blissfully, wonderfully muted, but it helps. You can still feel the ship's personnel, but now it's like they're on the other side of a mirror.

You won't be her apprentice much longer, you think.

You don't know what you're going to do.

Dhar Ren, underneath the mask, is flat-nosed, dark-skinned, and silver at the temples. The lines around her eyes don't smooth out entirely, and her hair is cropped close, regulation length. She sets the holopad down on her lap, and the hovering one drifts into her open hands instead.

"You remind me of your grandfather when you do that," she tells you, and you frown.

"I do?" Then, because if you're not allowed to show weakness now, when are you, "do you really think so? I feel like I'm never going to be Vader enough for Snoke."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean my Lord -- I mean, not Darth Vader."

Frustration lances through her at her slip, and you drop your hand from your aching head, giving her a sympathetic look.

You're having trouble talking about your former masters, too -- to stop thinking "Mom" and "Dad" and think of them instead as General Leia Organa and Han Solo, the alarmists and the warmongers that brought down the Empire. Enemies. You've got to think of them as enemies.

"I met Bail Organa once, you know," comes out of her, quiet. "When Vader brought me to Alderaan."

"I'm nothing like Bail Organa," you say with lips that've gone suddenly numb.

In the Force, your mother's father always felt like a pillar of light, a column so strong and so good it supports the foundation of all that sits on top of it, and thinking about him now makes you feel like your hands are covered in muck, like you shouldn't be touching it, this person your mother tried to emulate every day of her life, the one she loved above all others.

Bail Organa would have known what Snoke was at a glance. He wouldn't have fallen for it.

Bail Organa, your grandfather, wouldn't have slaughtered the Jedi-in-training, wouldn't have cut down Jee'eke, or Istill, or left five-year-old Queenie to die under somebody else's corpse.

No, you think, squeezing your eyes shut as the pain in your head sharpens, turns to pinpricks of light. The Force-shield stops the noise from the crew from reaching you, which means this is -- Stop. Please.

Dhar Ren says nothing for a moment, and you think that's that, but then she ventures, "You could be. Like him, I mean … with time."

Your head jerks up, and you slice her a sharp look.

"I would never do that to the Supreme Leader," you say.

She is the master of the Knights of Ren! She can't honestly suggest that --

"No," she says quickly, and looks away. "No, of course you wouldn't."

 

***

 

The way your uncle talked about the Dark Side, he made it sound like it was some ghastly, heady rush of power that you had to choose, every day, not to succumb to.

When you were a child -- at five, at ten, even at fifteen -- the warning was useless. It had no meaning.

Everyone you knew was full of Light, and no theoretical power was worth the temptation.

Now, you think -- at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty -- the Dark Side has very little to do with power. Oh, there's a short-cut or two that's really handy, makes a big bang, frightens old people and small children, but it isn't using these shortcuts that make you Dark. You've seen Rey use them -- she still, unconsciously, in moments of highest fright, reverts back to the first Force techniques ever used on her, which were yours -- and no one would ever suggest she wasn't pure Light.

No, it's cowardice.

It's a voice at the end of the day that says, I'm tired and I don't want to care anymore, not about their pain or what I do and say that causes pain or any of it.

The Dark Side is what comes to you then and whispers, You don't have to.

And now that you're older, you understand what your uncle meant, just how hard it is to fight that, every day.

You lost, after all.

 

***

 

Your Supreme Leader refuses to even let you make your report.

The initial capture of the girl off the surface of Takodana remains the longest you've managed to keep her in captivity, and with the added loss of the Finalizer on top of her escape, you're --

Well, the less said about it, the better.

You could tell him, you suppose -- that Hux dealt with mercenaries, that Hux sabotaged his own command to get rid of you, that if Snoke isn't careful Hux will go after him next -- but you don't. Let Hux sweat about it. The sour-sick expression on his face when you reported to him fresh from the medbay, alive, had almost been worth it.

So you take the last-of-the-line Star Destroyer and the insulting odd-jobs your master tosses at you. You put your muzzled head down. You say, "Yes, Supreme Leader."

You accept every punishment. You have to -- if it isn't you, then someone's going to get it into their heads that maybe it wasn't just Ren's spectacular incompetence that lost them a Star Destroyer, maybe it was those settlers on THAIN005. Weren't they ungrateful? Didn't they try to turn traitor? Maybe a good firebombing will make an example of them.

Terror makes its nest out of your insides. Please, not your colonists.

Your crew suffers with you. Or for you. You don't suppose your Supreme Leader even considered them at all.

It's a hook in Captain Phasma's thoughts, a dent in her otherwise flawless, buffed, chrome armor, and your head turns to follow it as she passes you on her way out of the control room. You fall in beside her.

"Captain," you say.

Her shoulders twitch, like she's trying to come to attention but can't, as she's never not. "Sir."

"We will come back for them," you swear to her.

For a moment, nothing happens. Then she stops walking. Her helmet turns the slightest fraction.

"Sir," she says, in a different tone.

It's the closest the two of you will ever come to acknowledging it.

Phasma knows her people. All of them, from her closest lieutenants to the Knives who died planetside to the roll call that makes a graveyard of Starkiller Base. The rest of the crew take their lead from her.

You are, all of you, efficient. You are all protecting somebody.

 

***

 

In the Mid Rim, on the planet of Naboo, you're sent to see a general.

The military on Naboo is structured in a way that probably makes sense to them but renders it largely incomprehensible to outsiders, so actually, you aren't sure if this is as high a rank as you think it is.

General Pooja Naberrie is your father's age, light-skinned and wearing elaborate face paint that's eerily reminiscent of a burning pyre, like she's moments away from immolation. To give you her full attention, she turns her chair, stilling her hands and placing them in her lap, flipping the sleeves of her robes over them so she can't be tempted to use them. She has maybe three facial expressions (and that's if you're being generous,) which she will not use unless it's an emergency. She intimidates you.

You are seventeen years old.

You've done a couple successful interrogations by this point, but the loss of Dhar Ren unsettles you more than you'd like to admit.

You have no one left to mimic. There is no one left to make these decisions but you.

Your Supreme Leader sends you to Naboo to pocket this general -- voluntarily, if possible, although Snoke will not care if you have to break her to get it. She controls all military trade restrictions in her sector and there's a weapons manufacturer on Chrommell that he's eager to acquire, if the Naboo weren't so diligent about unauthorized travel through their space. You need the general to be less diligent.

For the good of the First Order.

Are you insane? The Naboo are incorruptible, a little voice keeps telling you. It sounds like Ben Organa, and you snarl it down. The Knights of Ren don't survive the tests they don't pass.

You have nobody left and you can't fail.

You fail.

You fail so spectacularly that it volleys not only the general, but the royal family and her advisory council further into the arms of the New Republic -- well, further than they already were -- and loses you any hope of an arrangement with the weapons manufacturer on Chrommell. You weren't supposed to reveal your First Order affiliation, but you manage to do that, too, alerting the government (and, by extension, your mother,) that you're extending your reach beyond the Uncharted Territories. Your Supreme Leader is furious.

You'll spend the entirety of your career making up for this mistake, and you're still not sure where you went wrong.

You don't remember much -- the Force had started screaming at you the moment you broke atmosphere, so intense it was like an itch in your blood, like you could tear your veins from your bones and your muscles and from right under your skin and the pain would still be there, quivering, highwire thin.

It filled every crevice of you, the whole time you were there; the call from the Light.

 

***

 

Two months after Rey's escape, the Resistance invades the MISTA system.

 

***

 

There's no warning.

It's just nothing, and then, suddenly, two fully equipped warships leap into orbit around MISTA001.

They spit out a whole flight of X-Wings whose strafing runs cut the dark side of the planet seamlessly. The fact they destroy two primary military outposts planetside before your people can even scramble a defense tells you they've brought their ace pilot for this -- Dameron, bringing out the best in everyone he's with.

It's the first time anyone's come into the Uncharted Territories to land a hit on First Order soil directly. There's been a few tries, of course -- roving mercenary bands here and there, harassing colonies (and Finalizers,) and the occasional one-off suicidal vengeance missions by those who'd lost everything with the Hosnian system.

Before Starkiller Base, the First Order was simply too toothless to be worth the fuel to get there, and afterward, there'd been nobody left with the authority to order a counterattack.

It's exactly as the Supreme Leader had planned it.

That grace period's over, you suppose, and General Hux sends out the command, pulling all available Star Destroyers from their individual missions to defend First Order worlds.

There's a moment -- just the one -- where you consider ignoring the command, turning and running and making something up to justify it to the Supreme Leader later, but it evaporates immediately in the face of what you're feeling from your crew.

The news spreads fast that the Resistance is attacking their homeworlds, and in the Force your officers, your technicians, your Stormtroopers all turn to pillars of flame, burning with it, and you nod jerkily to your navigations officer, who sets her cup of caff down sloppily and leaps to her console to begin calculating the fastest possible route back home. This is, after all, what you had bred them to do, what Dhar Ren had trained them to do -- they'll be like Ace from the holodramas, standing up to the opposition and saying "not today." Every one of them, imagining themselves heroes.

You grit your teeth, and the stars turn to streaks of light around you.

You burst into First Order space, right into chaos.

A Resistance warship -- thin, fish-shaped bulletships that appear large when flanked by X-Wings but disappear against the hulk of a Star Destroyer -- flips upside-down to slide along your belly, avoiding collision by the thinnest margin. Proximity alarms blare all around the control room, and then the warship leaps into hyperspace along the same route you just arrived on.

TIEs come screaming in from MISTA002 and 007 in flocks, and as the First Order response grows larger, the Resistance grows craftier.

You watch Destroyers pin down warships -- there are at least four now, although your count could be off, the way they're leaping about -- and try to box them in, only to have the thin ships jump to hyperspace, fast as snakes disappearing through the crack of a closing door. They'll jump back immediately, reappearing in an empty pocket of space on the other side of the planet while the Destroyers are cumbersomely trying to turn themselves around.

You swallow against the arid patch in your throat. You recognize the technique as your uncle's.

Skywalker, Syndullah, Dameron -- they're all here.

The ship shudders, hit, and your head turns, chasing the thoughts that are darting fast as TIEs around your people.

"Shield generator undamaged!" a technician calls helpfully, and the consoles light up with paths of return fire.

Your navigations officer sinks slowly back into her chair, having made an excited leap when combat engaged -- hoping no one had noticed. She frowns, and thinks, Why MISTA001?

Which are your thoughts exactly.

From a logistical standpoint, all your most important targets are on MISTA002 and MISTA007 -- your best shipyards, your military headquarters, the compounds where you manufacture and distribute the training simulations for your soldiers. The real military victory would be disabling one of those. MISTA001 has its outpost or two, sure, but it's the ecological gem of the MISTA system, not a strategic one. Your Supreme Leader enjoys its aesthetics; the vistas and its well-behaved, complacent people.

MISTA001 is the standard by which all your worlds are set, but it's not important as a spoil of war.

A comm chimes through, and a lieutenant turns, saying, "Sir. General Hux is summoning you, sir."

You go to him, crouching down to receive the message. Your Supreme Leader is planetside on MISTA001, Hux tells you, and you're to report to him with essential personnel only. The Destroyer is to stay and aid the battle.

You stand. "Captain," you say, and Phasma materializes at your elbow.

You look at her, and she looks at you -- at least, your helmets point towards each other for a moment -- and you say, "Do your duty to your people."

It ignites in her, and she says, "sir," with pride, before stepping up to take command.

For three days, the Resistance hounds you, switching between trenching combat and hit-and-run guerrilla attacks -- the rate they're burning through hyperdrives must be phenomenal, you think, because no ship is meant to punch it as fast or as often as they've been, leaping in and out and around as your aerial forces switch tactics to combat it. They stretch you out; jumping in to bomb the Academy headquarters on MISTA002 and then slipping around to get ships down on MISTA001 while there's a gap in your shield wall. There are Resistance forces on the ground on at least three planets, now. You've taken out three of their warships, but as always, what the Resistance lacks in numbers it makes up for with the skill of its pilots.

Trel Ren spits with fury at every loss. You can feel the phosphorus itch in them, the need to be out there, cauterizing Resistance throats. Instead, they're here with you, kept at Snoke's heel. He wants you both here as his guards. The two of you are the only Knights of Ren left. Snoke had burned through the rest -- carelessly. Inconsiderately. So certain he could replenish his stock once the Jedi were dealt with.

You're angry about it, if you're allowed to be anything at all.

"What do you mean they're gone?" you hear Hux howling, sometime on the second day. "How can they just be gone? That's a thousand Stormtroopers, taken!"

"I know, sir, but they're --"

"-- you -- find which of our captains is responsible for this!"

You put your muzzled head down. You say nothing.

Trel Ren steps up beside you, studying the chart projected above the console. The number of red First Order markers are dwindling, replaced by shining blue. For every one you keep, the Resistance takes two.

"This makes no sense," they say, mystified. "We have superior numbers, superior training, the advantage of familiar territory. How can our people be so faulty?"

You glance at them sidelong.

Because we raised them like hoggles, you think. Too convinced in the power of the post and the chain to know themselves. You will see the exact responses you trained from them and nothing further.

You say --

Nothing.

You sense your uncle, pulled for a shift here and there in an X-Wing, and you sense Rey. You sense Chewie and Commander Bridger. You do not once sense your mother. Hux thinks this is the full force of the Resistance, striking down on you while the anvil's hot, but you won't believe it until you feel General Leia Organa arrive.

It's not war until that happens.

On the fourth day, the Supreme Leader declares MISTA001 lost, and calls the retreat.

"Let them think they have won a victory," he tosses out dismissively, leading you across the hangar bay. "They'll never hold it. This isn't even a hitch in the grander plan."

You are at his right side, Trel Ren at his left, almost jogging to keep up with your strides and the pace set by Snoke's suspended sphere. Like the rest of the conservatory, the hangar is ceilinged with a geometric dome of transparisteel, opening out onto the blue-grey skies and the mist-wreathed mountains. A flock of alarmed birds skitter overhead, somehow managing not to collide with one another even with each individual's four wings beating in tandem. The Supreme Leader's personal ship lies ahead of you, sleek and chrome, engines starting to whine as it powers up.

A unit of elite Stormtroopers stand as honor guard, but their thoughts are everywhere but on you: they're concerned for the planet, the people in the colonies below that they think they should be protecting from the Resistance. If they retreat now, what does that make them?

As you pass, one of them thinks to herself, General Hux should be here by now. Who's second-in-command if he falls?

You close the distance between yourself and the Supreme Leader, and they go muffled.

He mutters under his breath. You've never heard him so annoyed. "If they truly meant to wound us, they would have taken something important. We destroy the seat of their government, and they retaliate with … with this rock? Oh, how I crave a real opponent, not just this nuisance they insist on being."

"We'll tear their throats out, Supreme Leader," Trel Ren promises.

You say nothing, because you know your mother. To her, every rock is Alderaan. She will fight for them all.

You're almost to your Supreme Leader's ship, the ramp lowering for you, when you and Trel Ren sense it at the same time. You halt, lightsabers leaping to your hands and igniting in the same moment.

"SNOKE," bellows Luke Skywalker.

He emerges from behind another fighter -- he's a surprisingly small figure, in brown.

You freeze. Your terror comes screaming up to strangle you, thirteen ghosts with their hands around your throat.

A hangar bay, you realize belatedly, is perhaps a bad place to go if you want to avoid Jedi who are also very good pilots. Nobody should have known the location of your Supreme Leader's stronghold, but they could have gotten it from any acolyte or high-ranking overseer over the past few days -- or, actually, yourself. You and Rey have shared headspace more than once.

Trel Ren hisses, dropping into a fighting stance, and weapons cock into position up and down the Stormtrooper guard, but --

"Hold fire!" roars your Supreme Leader, spinning his sphere around. It wobbles, infinitesimal, in his excitement.

Your uncle isn't alone. Rey and FN-2187 flank him.

Three, against the host of you. They look extremely confident in these odds.

"Sir?" questions the guard captain from right behind you.

You make a gesture with your free hand, down low where Trel Ren can't see it: do not engage. MISTA001 and its peoples belong to the Resistance until such a time the First Order can win it back -- that was signed into effect not even an hour ago. If you don't attack them, they'll let you live, you try to project to the troopers behind you. You can't protect the citizens in the colonies below if you're dead.

And if the Resistance takes MISTA, and proceeds to THAIN … well, you tried to set a precedent. Limited casualties. Please.

Please, none of them deserve this.

Snoke's sphere drifts forward.

"Look at this," he says in delight. "The last of the Jedi, delivered unto me. I had almost considered this day a loss."

Trel Ren laughs and swings their lightsaber up over their wrist showily, the blade all but purring as it cuts the air.

Luke Skywalker, the famed champion of the Light, tags the both of you with his eyes, moving from you to them and back again, and you wonder if he can tell which Knight of Ren is you. The last time he saw you in person, after all, you were only his height, maybe shorter.

The last time he saw you in person, you hated him for everything he couldn't do for you: you probably had as many teeth in you then as Trel Ren does now.

Rey, however, has you pinned, like she could nail you to the ground with her eyes alone, and beside her, FN-2187 stares at Snoke, obviously having not believed until this very second that the Supreme Leader of the First Order is only droid-sized in real life, that he relies on a very specialized mechanical shell to survive at all.

Rey's lip curls up off her teeth, but the proximity to your Supreme Leader means that you can't sense whatever it is she's shoving through the Force at you. You have an idea, though.

You waver.

Is this situation salvageable?

You make a choice. You break your paralysis.

You go to your master's side. You bend.

"Supreme Leader," you say, quietly, urgently. "Our window for retreat is narrow and the Jedi are here to delay us. Their objective is you. We need to get you out. Fighting them is a waste of time we cannot afford -- there will be another opportunity for this, sir."

Very slowly, Snoke turns to face you, and the breath you dragged in turns solid in your lungs.

On the panel, there is almost an expression on his face, which for him is a gross and incandescent display.

"We will not fight them," he says to you, low and dangerous, and you've made an error. You've made a horrible error. "I had no intention of fighting. We will eliminate them. But not you, I think," and your stomach goes liquid with fright. "You won't fight them at all."

"I will," you swear immediately. "I --"

"No," is handed down.

It lands on you. It crushes you.

You cannot breathe.

"I did not waste all those interminable years cultivating you into a creature of semi-decent respectability only to have you turn on me now. You will not have this chance, Kylo Ren."

You must have known.

You couldn't have not known by now: the meeting in the library when you were twelve was no chance accident. It was set for you, and you, your father's son, walked right into that trap. You followed Snoke with all your heart, all your soul, every last fiber of your being, but his regard for you was parceled out in the same exact measurements he used when calculating a host planet's biological capacity or what an acceptable loss would be in an extermination.

It still gouges at you, hearing it said, and you rise from your crouch. Your head stings.

Wait, no. Your head is stinging because there's noise in it.

The Force, it's --

The pain is abrupt, sudden, obliterating.

It --

-- detonates.

It scorches you raw.

In all the years you've served at your Supreme Leader's side, you have never once asked how it is that his sphere suppresses the Force. It has never once occurred to you that if it could suppress it, then it could go the other way too.

It feels like Starkiller.

It feels like the force of the sun, blasted straight into your skull.

You let out a single, horrible scream.

Then the blood vessels in your eyes burst, your ears pop, and you go down as if the puppetmaster finally, at last, cut all of your strings.

 

***

 

There's a cave you go to in your sleep sometimes, never meaning to.

It's like what the green island had been for Rey, you imagine, smeared against the grey-blue sky and the blue-grey sea that she'd never seen, so real she'd wake up with salt on her lips, cracking them right down the bow. You've never physically set foot in this cave, but you know it, just like you knew the caves on Lothal weren't the right ones.

The walls are pitch dark, near-charcoal in texture. It leaves streaks on your hands. The path is uneven, and you would trip, but the cave is lit by crystals so numerous you crunch them underfoot, no matter how carefully you tread. They grow around you in every color; most common are ones the same green as Rey's island, the blue of Rey's sea. There are crystals of purple and grey and shining white. There are red ones, too, but they're far off, half-buried in darkness and easy to ignore, like music in somebody else's head.

Somewhere out of sight, you hear the sound of a waterfall, or a bubbling spring; the pure symphony of water pouring over rocks. Gingerly, you step over the crystals, and the sound grows as persistent as a heartbeat, the deeper you go.

In the center of a glowing cavern sits Dhar Ren, cross-legged with her feet tucked up onto her knees.

You've never been to this cave, not with your waking body, but the conversation you're about to have is memory.

It runs the same course every time. You cannot change it.

"Kylo Ren," she greets you without turning her head.

She wears no helmet, and in the dream her hair is not the regulation-length cut it had been when you'd seen her in life. She has a girl's hairstyle, all her wiry black strands bent down into a braid around the crown of her skull. There's not a streak of grey in sight.

"Dhar Ren," you reply. Your voice shakes, skidding out from underneath you.

She breaks the Jedi meditation pose, her hands coming to rest on the tops of her thighs, but she still doesn't face you. Her voice ventures out over her shoulder. It tugs at the hem of your robes. It demands your attention. "Tell me something."

You don't want to be here.

"Tell you what?"

"About your family," she says, and you breathe out, hard, through your nostrils, like she'd butted you in the ribs with the end of her staff.

"I don't have one --" and she cuts you off.

"Stop. Tell me about them. What do you remember most? Where is the first place your heart goes when you think of them?"

Your heart goes a dozen places, and the question makes your chest ache, like the alloy in your bones has been exposed to the cold, like your artificial lung has missed a function. You don't know what to tell her.

If you -- if you let yourself, if you let yourself think about it, your childhood amalgamates not into any one specific memory, but one cluster, as if all of it happens simultaneously: a junkyard ship called the Millennium Falcon, constantly in a state of traveling or leaving or arriving, every hallway better known than the arteries of your own heart, every console worn shiny in places by the years of hands. Not even the best inertial dampeners could stop the pull of velocity in your stomach, whenever it leapt into hyperspace to go somewhere new. Rebel faces populate it everywhere: Commander Bridger, head thrown back; Master Calrissian, winking conspiratorially; Lor and Hera and Wedge; Artoo, butting the back of your legs and beeping furiously. The way you used to pretend to fall asleep while your mother held meetings in the mess, so deeply asleep that you couldn't be roused, because that meant Chewie had to carry you to bed. There wasn't a place you loved more in the galaxy than when you were lifted up, up, up, Chewie's fur tickling your nose, his heart loud in your ear. You pretended to fall asleep a lot.

Your father, corralling you every time you ran underfoot, getting in the way of Rebel pilots and your uncle and the droids.

(Your father, who never stopped doubting his own worth but chose to love you and your mother in spite of it.)

Your mother, corralling you every time you ventured too far out of your own head, tapping you with the Force and telling you, Ben, boundaries.

(Your mother, who never stopped speaking on behalf of ghosts, who taught you everything you know.)

You give Dhar Ren all of this.

It pours out of you, and you shake, you shake, and when you're done, you stand there, trembling, and the inside of you rattles like spare bolts in a tin.

Slowly, Dhar Ren unfolds, twisting around on the cave floor to face you, her eyes closed, savoring. Her face is a young girl's face. The crystals around you both keep glowing, casting haloes of light on her shoulders and cheeks.

"I want to meet them," she says.

The first time you had this conversation, you were in her quarters on the Finalizer. When you killed her, those quarters became yours, as everything of the master's eventually becomes the apprentice's, once the apprentice becomes the master.

"I don't think that's going to happen," you say.

There's a pause.

"Ah," she says, very quiet. "So he knows, then."

"He doesn't, but he's sent me to find out."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

You tilt your chin, though it isn't necessary. It doesn't matter how old you get, in this dream you're always the same. You are seventeen. Your body has taken off without you, growing into a height that the rest of you can't match, that your skin can barely keep up with, straining across your bones; you remember that you had so much trouble not banging you head into things. Your saber techniques were sloppy, mediocre, your body and the Force disagreeing on where you were positioned in space. You are seventeen in this dream, and Snoke has sent you after one of his own Knights, turned traitor.

"I can walk into your head and take it," you tell her with a confidence you don't feel. "I can take whatever I want," and you line up her skull between your fingers.

She glances at your outstretched hand, and you wish she wore her helmet, because then you wouldn't have to see her smile. It's not much of a smile. It's her, pulling her mouth into a shape that covers the sadness.

She thinks she's lost you.

"You don't need to," she says. "I'm giving it to you. Dhara Leonis."

"I -- what?"

"That's my name. Not Dhar Ren. Not my designation number. Dhara. I have a little brother named Zare. We trained as Stormtroopers, back when it was an honor to volunteer for the Empire. The Imperial Academies were the best there were. We were so proud. Remember what I told you?

"Remember?" she presses, and you say, "Family is the most important thing in the galaxy," obediently. "You cannot cut them out."

"Yes," she says. "Remember. Dhara and Zare Leonis."

Without warning, she's in your space. You jolt, hand going for the hilt of your lightsaber, but she takes your face between her hands, tugging you down so she can plant a kiss to the center of your forehead.

And, suddenly, there it is.

You can see it clearly in your head, like you've already been there: the temple where Darth Vader had gone, back when he was Anakin Skywalker, child-apprentice to Ben Kenobi. The temple where Vader took Dhar -- Dhara Leonis, in her turn. The temple where every Jedi Master goes with their padawan, the temple with the cave that Luke Skywalker is trying to find. Lightsaber crystals grow from the walls.

 

***

 

Two there must always be, a master and an apprentice.

The apprentice becomes the master, and the cycle starts again.

 

***

 

The master trains the apprentice.

The apprentice kills the master and takes their place. The master takes an apprentice.

It is the way of things, and the way all those like him do, your Supreme Leader creates his own downfall. He cultivates it, covets it, and somehow, it surprises him when it turns around and deposes him.

It's not you.

Of course it's not you.

 

***

 

The master trains the apprentice.

The apprentice learns the way of the master, and adds their own experience, adapting the technique for the changes the galaxy has undergone around them.

The master learns, too, from the apprentice, and they both continue to exist, richer for their knowledge.

Wait, no --

 

****

 

The master raises the apprentice. The master teaches the apprentice all that he knows, but they're all things the apprentice has no interest in.

The master tries to be good. The apprentice tries to be grateful.

The apprentice kills the master, and you watch his body tip sideways and tumble into the open air. It falls until you can no longer see it, but that's not important because your father isn't inside of it anymore. You've killed your master, and --

-- and then Chewie shoots you.

 

***

 

You come to, and everything is chaos.

Your uncle is the first presence you feel, a familiar touchstone you reach for without thinking, then Snoke, radiating noise with the force of one of Hux's storms; atmospheric, gravitational, terrible.

Rey, over there, alive.

Trel Ren, howling and leaping and hacking at your uncle, the two of them moving fast enough to be flickers.

And the soldier, the one from the FN unit, he is --

Standing above you.

No, he's standing with one boot planted on your lightsaber, so that Snoke or Trel Ren can't get it. He faces away from you.

You can't see much, your vision spotted with shine and chrome, but one thing that stands clearly in your mind's eye is his scar, under his clothes, the one you carved out of his back. In the Force, it's a starmark going right down his spine that, at this moment, points directly at you.

Your head is in agony, and your clothes smoke like you'd caught stray blaster fire, though you can't tell where you're hit. Clumsily, you push yourself onto your knees, clawing the helmet off your head. Blood peels away with it, leaving your face wet and bare. You shake the raggedy bits of glove off your hand, and then you feel it.

The Force pulls, then centers itself, going crystalline and utterly light.

You look up.

There's a cannon in FN-2187's hands, and he pumps it, priming it -- and he must have gotten that from the Supreme Leader's guard, because you can't sense any of them through the noise, and the cannon is standard issue for every unit. Only one soldier is permanently assigned one, but all soldiers are trained with it, so they can pick it up should the designated one fall. Snoke saw to this, their universality, wanting no soldier wasted.

The Stormtrooper lifts the cannon, and the Force flows through him, focusing him as surely as a crosshairs.

Family, Dhar Ren warned you, is more powerful than any other force in the galaxy.

FN-2187 has one, she's over there, and to protect it, he sights down the barrel. He puts his hand on the trigger. His muscles know this. His heart knows this.

He is calm, all the way through.

He is, for the first time, unafraid.

The sphere that supports your Supreme Leader's existence is a delicate mechanism, a craftwork you've never seen replicated. The cannon is a weapon of destruction.

FN-2187 fires, and the blast obliterates it, just like that.

One moment, your Supreme Leader is there, giddily trying to provoke Rey into attacking him, and the next, he isn't anywhere at all.

It's cataclysmic and instantaneous, the effect of this on the Force -- Snoke's death is a cold, contracting point you cannot touch, collapsing in on itself in a terrible rush. The Force wails, the scales upended, and the Dark side is caught in a seething spin, sucked into the absence of its own core.

You hunch against it. Your head feels like it's splitting straight down the sides, your lungs cramped and empty. You make no sound when your mouth cracks open, screaming.

Your uncle, Rey, your apprentice -- they stay suspended in motion, pinned there by the Force's pull.

The master dies, the master is dead, the master is --

-- killed by one of his own, a rank and number too infinitesimal to consider. More powerful than any other force in the galaxy --

-- the potential, the love contained in that unit of one.

As suddenly as it started --

It stops.

For a moment, nobody moves. Small bits of debris ping off the speeders, the side of your master's ship, raining down across the hangar floor. Ships flash overhead, fast as cuts, rattling the panes of transparisteel in their frames.

The Stormtrooper lowers the cannon, and lifts his chin.

Then, with a horrible shout, Trel Ren blasts Luke aside and leaps for him.

Weapon discharged, useless, FN-2187 fumbles with the Force -- inexpert, untrained, trying to fling it up like a shield, and though you knew, though Dhar Ren made the note years ago, you're not sure he even realized who he was before this moment. Not just Finn, formerly FN-2187, but Finn, a Jedi.

Beyond you, Rey screams and then she reaches with such a sudden, blinding terror, but this is not where she excels -- she grasps at Trel Ren's helmet, their core, trying to find something she can stop from her distance.

She claws, but since the technique she's mimicking is yours, Trel Ren shrugs it off effortlessly, and you move.

You move, and the bright MISTA light coming down from the dome above feels like it's cutting you into shards, all along your scars, so bright your eyes water. Everything's haloed with it.

You move, and it's easier than you ever thought it would be.

You move, because before he was Rey's, before he was your mother's, before he even really, truly knew enough to belong to himself, he was yours, a colonist, a Stormtrooper, and you are no longer droid-height, you are no longer ten and standing on a staircase in the New Republic capital, but this still comes naturally.

You do what any of your mother's people would do.

You put yourself in front of your soldier.

Your blow takes Trel Ren's head from their shoulders, and theirs cleaves you open, through all your organic parts.

 

***

 

Death by lightsaber is clean, Uncle Luke had told you all, with a cramp to his mouth that suggested this was one of those things he said but wasn't sure he meant. The heat cauterizes, so there's no unnecessary blood loss. An execution performed with empathy and compassion is absolutely painless.

 

***

 

It takes you five minutes to die, and Rey's yelling the entire time, in three different languages, like she can't remember where she is -- her desert planet, or here in First Order space, in her moment of victory.

"Are you all right, shhuuu-a, are you all --"

"Yeah! Yeah -- Rey, I'm fine -- did he get you?"

"No, no, I jammed his defenses -- it's just a fancy kind of droid, that thing -- once I got a good look at it, I could get in --"

"-- with your head --?"

"-- forget that, you're the one -- Finn, do you know how long we've been trying to get close enough to kill that guy, and you just -- you're amazing --"

"Mmph, mmf? I -- I mean, that was kind of -- of cool, right? I maybe kind of used the Force?"

"YES, you did --"

"-- I thought so, I -- hey, Rey, I'm fine but you gotta -- Rey, we gotta check on him."

"Check on -- ? Oh … oh, Finn, no, he's gone."

"No, he isn't. Can't you feel him?"

And, suddenly, she's right there on the ground yelling at you, and since you were trying really hard to be unobtrusive, that's insulting.

She places one hand over your chest and then yanks it away with a stifled noise.

Your vision's gone, burnt into black spots, but you don't need your eyes to see her -- she and Finn are in the Force, everywhere, all pillars of light and sun-struck crystal, the kind of foundations on which one could build worlds. He's looking down at you, resigned, but her emotions come out sharp enough to wound.

"-- bkkti ool'na, you stupid ass -- of all the unnecessary -- there was a plan! We had a plan, and you're a bloody useless mind-reader if you couldn't pick up what I was trying to blast into your head -- damn you and damn your attachment to that thing -- you could have come home."

And, worst of all, spoken so quietly her lips barely even move, "Please, you can't make me bring this to Leia."

Don't be ridiculous, you try to say. Snoke and his Knights are dead. MISTA001 is yours. You're alive. So are Luke and Finn. You sacrificed nobody. How is this not a perfect victory?

She shakes her head. "Don't be --" stupid.

You shift, and it's hard to concentrate, but she needs to understand this: your mother will not be disappointed, not when so much was won.

In the moment of his death, your father had reached for you, and unbidden, you find yourself doing the same. Your thumb catches her shoulder, there by her mother's freckles -- she flinches, whole-body, and that's your fault, but in the next moment, she reverses, pushing belligerently into your touch like it's a challenge. Whatever it is you're doing to the Force as you die, it's making her cry. Maybe those are your tears you're projecting. Maybe they're her own, her preemptive grief for your mother.

You're watching it happen -- shards of her glint and fall off, sticking to her cheeks, sunlight-colored.

Somewhere, you feel Finn pick up Trel Ren's lightsaber, then your own.

"We'll take them with us," your uncle tells him, coming to his side. "We'll …"

But he can't finish, because he's feeling you die too.

There's too much, the both of them are too heavy for you to carry. Your hand falls away from Rey's arm, and suddenly you don't quite know where you are, which death this is, if this is Kylo Ren, the master's prized exhibit, or if this is Ben Organa missing half his chest. You are here, with the Jedi, and you are alone in the snow, and you are flung down a staircase, simultaneously, all at once. Rey fists her hand into the fabric at your shoulder and she pulls on you, and she yells "help me!" to her trooper and her master, and you're here, but you're ten too, with an infant in your arms. Be nice, you tell the Force. This one's important.

You are Kylo Ren, you are Ben Organa, a Solo, a Skywalker --

-- and the light, when it ignites behind your eyelids, is quieter than anything you have ever known.

 

***

 

.

 

***

 

.. .. ...

 

***

 

hey, kid.

 

 

come on, kid, you gotta get up.

hey

 

***

 

hey, don't make me get chewie in here, that's not going to be pleasant. he ate something earlier, and whew. you ever been near a tauntaun? what am i saying, of course you haven't, your mother would smear me across three systems before she let me let you near one. well, it's like that, but worse.

 

***

 

aha! i knew you weren't asleep! ah-ah, you can't fake it now, i can see you smiling, you little --

 

***

hey, ben.

 

Son. Hey.

 

***

 

You open your eyes.

 

***

 

You bolt upright.

Your wrists jerk; you are manacled, your arms tethered on a short leash, attaching you to a railing that's -- there's a dim, bacta-blue glow to everything, but you can see that the room and its materials aren't weathered, exactly, but worn, muted, recycled in that way you always think of when you think Resistance.

You acknowledge this -- you are alive, you are a prisoner, one of those is surprising but the other isn't -- and you dismiss it. That's not what's frightening you.

It's the sound in your head.

The absence of sound. The absence of anything -- you cannot feel the people in the room, you are not privy to the firefly flicker of their thoughts, or their bright starbursts of emotion. They cross in front of you and you only know they are there because your eyes are telling you. It's not even the silence that you felt in Snoke's presence -- he's dead, you are alive, and the Force is --

The Force is --

Your mouth opens, but panic chokes you. Pressure there grows, and your scream widens to accommodate it, noiseless.

And --

A hand on your arm.

Wedding ring, still on her finger.

"Ben," your mother says, and the suspended, highwire cry in you drops.

You gasp, shuddering and audible, and with a pop, sound rushes back to your ears. Physical sound, not Force-sound. There, at your back -- the hum of your monitor. Beside you, the creak of a chair as your mother shifts her weight, the sound of her clothes, her hair sliding in their pins, the tired drag of her eyes.

"Ben," she says again, and you look at her.

You look at her, here, alive, with you, cataloguing the expressions on her face: relief, pain or exhaustion or both, and a hideous, terrible love. You know what they would feel like in the Force. You can remember pulling them around you as carefully as you could, waiting for the moment she sensed you and flicked a frown at you, saying, Ben, boundaries.

You cannot feel the Force.

It's -- it's not --

You can't --

"Rey did it," she murmurs, squeezing your shoulder to get your attention. "Ben, she severed your connection to the Force. The technique wasn't -- we weren't sure exactly what would happen -- I told her --" she sets her mouth, dismisses the thought, and leans towards you. "Are you all right?"

You find your voice. "I thought I was dead."

She snorts. Loudly.

It's so ungracious that you startle, and she tilts her chin up, eyebrows forming a regal arch.

"Vader tried that trick on your uncle," she says. "I certainly wasn't going to let you get away with it. You don't get to find the good in yourself and then die. It's cheap."

"Okay," you say, and she looks at you again, sternly.

Then you burst out laughing, or you burst into tears, or both at once, because when you pull your hands to the end of their tether and touch your face, it's wet and you're smiling and you can't control it. Your mother's hand goes from your shoulder to your chin to your cheek, her thumb touching the scar that divides your face, and you're watching the wobbling line of her mouth, her smile, and she hasn't blinked, like she's scared to, and it's wonderful. It's so terrible, and it's wonderful.

 

***

 

-

Chapter Text

***

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?"

 

***

 

 

 

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fin