With all the loss Leia Organa had known – her planet and family destroyed; brother mutilated, broken-hearted, finally disappeared; husband gone cold, distant, and now dead; the Republic restored to peace for a time so short as to be cruel; her family disbanded – she did not expect to feel to completely gutted by the sight of her son in chains.
She hadn’t believed it, when the Millennium Falcon barreled down out of the sky, just long enough to tip Chewbacca and Artoo out and blast away again.
“They found the cub,” Chewie had said. “Rey found him. They’re off to fetch him.”
She’d worn her heart in her throat for four days, not knowing whether she hoped for their success or failure. Failure, she thought, if they would only bring her a corpse. But the base received the briefest wave: “We have him. Alive. Two days.”
Alive. Impossibly tall, black hair and black robes. Chains.
She probably looked like a bonfire to Luke, as relief warred with grief warred with horror in her heart. Luke, and that desert-bright, hard-edged girl who shone with power: what should’ve been a glad reunion, except.
Ben. In chains. And not shining: not like Luke’s steady, pale flame or Rey’s bright glow. Ben was shrouded in a heavy misery, so thick Leia could taste it. Oil, snow, bitterness. A cloud of living shadow, invisible to the physical eye, whipping around him.
And her small base cheered at the sight. To them, he was a main figure of the First Order captured after a year of hunting, a chance at some small victory. To her, the life that swam inside her body grown to villainy and standing before them in pieces.
His face, practically bisected by a dark scar. Who did that to his face? Violence boiled up from her guts at the thought of anyone slicing into her boy. If it was Snoke, she’d rip him apart.
Luke gazed at her, probably reading her anger. She’d missed him almost as long as she’d missed her son, but her eyes didn’t want to rest on him. Not now.
“Take the prisoner to detention,” Luke said to the guards. “And remember that you’re Resistance. Show him the difference.”
The smiles dropped off the guards’ faces, and if they grasped Ben’s elbows without gentleness, neither did they hit or force him to stumble.
His power was coiled deep, but Leia could sense no eagerness, no watchfulness for an opening. Nonetheless, Rey followed close behind the guards, her expression fierce.
When she could no longer see Ben, Leia’s focus fell out of her, leaving behind only sorrow and a desperate gladness that her brother walked toward her, knowing that here were arms she could walk into. Between the last time Han had held her and the first-last time he’d held her again had been 17 years. She’d thought that she had overcome the desire for touch. But in the year since, her body had cried out to lean on someone else’s strength. To set down the enormous burdens of her life.
She could see Luke sense it in her, in the way his grizzled old face lost its closed-up expression, and his eyes regained some of the warmth of that farm boy she’d met so very, very long ago.
He opened his arms, and she leaned into them. She let him hold her up. His robes smelled of sea water, and of the Falcon.
“Are you home?” she whispered.
No one should ever see a general falter.
“Home is where you are, sister,” he said, the liar, and she was so glad to hear it, “and I’m home for as long as you need me.”
She drew back and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. How Breha Organa would’ve recoiled to see it.
“I assume that’s not a singular you,” she said.
There was a bare hint of the smile that had once lit up his whole face.
“Sadly, no,” he said. “He let us take him, and I want to know why. I’d say I have a bad feeling about all of this, but I’ve realized that that’s pretty much my constant state of being.”
Oh, it was good to see him. It eased her fractured heart, the smallest bit.
She performed a general’s duties. She took Luke’s debrief. She listened while her advisors screamed and fumed over the idea that the master of the Knights of Ren could be subdued, could be brought to trial. She ignored the sidelong glances, the commentary no one would make in front of her about her connection to the famous villain. But she could see the distrust forming.
“We don’t know anything,” she said finally. “Our resident Jedi say he’s no immediate threat. We can take a few days to assess.”
“His crimes are many, General,” Admiral Ackbar said. But his tone held in it enough sympathy that her eyes prickled.
“I never forget it, Admiral.”
And that seemed to be enough. Enough to end the talking. To make them all go away, and give her time to finally, finally see him. She headed toward detention, and found another obstacle in the hallway.
“Are you all right, General?”
She’d known Poe Dameron practically his whole life. He and Ben had played together as small children, two dark heads squealing over model ships, clinging to Chewbacca’s back.
“I don’t know,” she said.
By his widening eyes, he understood how few people she would make such an admission to. Leia remembered: Ben had hurt him too. There had been a few months when Poe’s eyes had been shadowed by the memory of it, and he hadn’t been good for anything but supply runs until he found solace with that former stormtrooper, the one with the huge smile. Who had been there when Han -
“Anything I can do,” Poe said. “Anything at all, General.”
“You knew him,” she said, “a long time ago.”
Poe blinked rapidly several times. She could feel his surprise, even though he was about as Force-sensitive as a root vegetable. Something about that made her feel better.
“I did, yeah,” he said. “I’d forgotten.”
Then his face clouded.
“I don’t think he’s still that person, ma’am.”
She grasped him arm briefly.
“Which of us are?”
Detention levels were always low down and windowless, no matter where in the galaxy they might be found. Having spent more time than anyone would wish in them, Leia often wondered whether prisoners might be more tractable if they could see the sky.
As much as she ached to see her son’s face, she nearly stopped and turned around when she overheard the conversation going on outside his cell.
“I held you on my knee when you were no larger than my hand!”
“You let it go! All the love we had for you, squandered! You killed him, cub! You! Killed.”
A year wasn’t enough for a rupture like that to heal. Leia bent in half until she could breathe again.
“Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?” - the girl, Rey.
“I do not.”
And Chewbacca howled, wordless, with grief and rage. Leia pressed back into the wall, hearing his heavy tread. He turned the corner and looked at her, his blue eyes pale with frustration. He laid his hand on her shoulder.
“So much hurt,” he murmured. “Care for yourself.”
What a study in anger she found, when she went into the room: Rey a quivering pillar in front of the plasma bars, Ben a tempest of shadow. His clothing looked dusty and shredded, and he had a white bandage on his forearm that couldn’t help but draw the eye amid all that black.
“You can’t even apologize,” the girl hissed.
“One thing I’ve learned in all my years of diplomacy,” Leia said, “is that sometimes words are wholly inadequate.”
Rey shuddered with surprise, glared at her.
“May I speak to my son?”
Despite her months with Luke, the girl was more than half-feral. It took her several heartbeats to remember where she was, and who she was talking to.
“General,” the girl said, “these bars are nothing to him. It’s not safe unless Master Luke or I are here.”
Leia was no Jedi, but she wasn’t completely untrained. She dug deep and made herself big. Rey’s eyes widened, and out of the corner of her eye, Leia saw Ben’s lips twitch.
“I promise to scream if I need help,” Leia said, making her voice as dry as any of the desert planets they’d all been marooned on one time or another.
Rey almost laughed. That was a good sign, that Luke and her boy hadn’t driven all the smiles out of this girl yet.
“I imagine you have friends to see, and that a meal and a nap might do you good.”
Rey’s second “yes ma’am” was more enthusiastic.
And then finally – finally – she was alone with him. Her son. Her boy. Her terrible gift to the galaxy.
Leia sat on the small stool outside the cell and let herself simply look at him for as long as she wanted. Or rather, for as long as she could before it got too strange, because she could look at him forever. How had she given birth to anything so large? His bulk crowded the little cell. Its bench was so low that his knees canted up while he sat.
Most of him was covered in black robes, just like Luke round about the time of Endor. Leia had laughed at Luke for it. She’d laugh at Ben now, if there was any room for laughter between them. She hadn’t had anyone to laugh with in such a long time.
The contrast of his size and the black clothing could’ve made him seem like Vader, except for his pale, sad face surrounded by all that ridiculous hair. Her hair, she’d bet, only darker: thick and soft, but with a mind of its own. Han’s strong nose, and her dark eyes. Han’s freckles.
Han had never liked anyone to point out that he had freckles.
Sorrow rolled through her, and she bent over again, gasping with the strength of it. But she made no effort to quiet it. She let Ben see, with eyes and Force-sense both.
“Mother,” he said, then “Leia. General Organa.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or scream that they didn’t even know what to call one another.
“Whatever you like,” she said, “though I won’t call you Kylo Ren.”
The naked sadness on his face got packed away behind a blank expression.
“Nor would anyone,” he said. “I gave up my right to it when I turned myself in.”
“Is that what happened? Your uncle was rather vague on the subject.”
“Essentially. I suppose it may have looked like capture from the outside. But I found myself. Unwilling. To use the full extent of my powers.”
The thing that lay behind that admission made him deeply interested in a spot on the floor just past his left foot.
“Whatever the circumstances,” she said, “I’m glad to have you home.”
That cracked him, just the smallest bit. He shrugged sharply, blinked, and briefly looked so surprised that it took years off his face.
“Home,” he said. “What is that?”
Then he stared at her, anger back in his gaze.
“And why would you possibly be glad to see me? I put my saber through Han Solo’s heart.”
He stood and approached the plasma bars, looming over her with as much menace as his grandfather had ever shown.
“Why, when you’re the one who sent me away in the first place?”
Oh. Oh no.
The mistakes she’d made. The mistakes they’d all made.
For two weeks, Leia, Luke, and Rey took turns sitting outside that little cell, waiting for Ben to do anything other than sit quietly for hours or answer questions in the most sardonic, least informative way possible.
Except with respect to First Order personnel, resources, plans, spies, and networks. About that, he told them everything they could want and more: five full days of talking, until his voice was a sandy baritone. The personnel in control took extensive notes and frowned at him thoughtfully. The muttering died down a little.
“Why not?” Ben explained with a shrug. “In the First Order’s eyes I’ve already committed the gravest treachery. Why not live up to it?”
This was accompanied by a bitterness so strong that Leia tasted it in her mouth.
She and Luke took the bulk of the watching.
“Rey should be with her friends,” Luke said, “otherwise she’ll lose everything about her that makes her shine.”
He stretched and stared at D’Qar’s clear sky.
“Like I did,” he added after a time.
Despite being freed from most guard duty, Rey spent whole hours standing outside the bars, glaring only as long as Ben refused to look at her, then storming out in a huff after a few minutes of his heavy stare. Unless they decided to shout at one another, which happened frequently.
“They’re Force-bonded,” Luke said, “which is either a reason for real hope or possibly the end of the galaxy. I’m not sure which.”
“So, status normal then?” Leia said, and received one of Luke’s rare smiles for her effort.
The hours of staring weren’t so bad, but when the shouting matches got particularly fierce, the entire base would shake, and it bothered the staff. Leia upped her hours. It wasn’t as if looking at him ever got old.
Even so, it was Luke who watched the most. Leia had too many duties to the Resistance. They could go for whole days, her brother and her son, without speaking to one another despite sitting two meters apart. Leia and Chewbacca regularly caught one another watching the feeds when they were supposed to be busy with other things.
Halfway through a silent day in his third week, Ben shrugged, stripped to the waist, and spent two hours on a series of calisthenics. Leia gasped aloud at the sheer number and variety of his scars – worse even than his face.
“I gave him that,” Chewbacca rumbled, pointing to the knotty mess at Ben’s left side. “Bowcaster.”
They watched Ben through pushups and handstands. His bulk was mostly size, not muscle, and his past wounds didn’t seem to trouble him.
Then he turned his back to the camera, and she and Chewbacca recoiled so sharply that Luke looked up at the camera. Ben’s shoulders went stiff. He slowly turned so that his body was at an angle before sponging off at the sink and replacing his shirt, all while carefully keeping his back hidden from the camera.
He was covered neck to waist in scars old and new. She would have to see them close up to be sure, but Leia was positive that they were of three kinds: blade, burn, and whip.
Oh, my son.
“What happened to him,” Chewie barked.
“Snoke,” Leia said, and let the horror of it, the grief and anger and regret, flow into her until it filled her up. Luke frowned at the camera, and Ben looked up, his frown more of a question. The surprised tilt of his eyebrows might as well have been a slap.
She wanted to hear the story of it, everything that had happened to turn her son into this. Wreck. And then possibly go on a vengeance tour of the galaxy to avenge it.
Leia sighed, and the rage dropped out of her, leaving behind only weariness.
The next time she sat with him, Leia asked about the one scar he couldn’t hide.
“Why, it was a gift from my beloved,” he said with a smirk.
Leia remembered her early days with Han, the way they’d picked at one another endlessly, yelling in hallways like mynocks.
She wanted to shake Ben. She wanted to go back in time and shake herself. For all the years lost. Though she couldn’t envy Ben and Rey, connected in a way no one could understand, not wanting it but given no choice.
“Is that what she is to you,” she asked, “beloved?”
Wrong question. There were so very many wrong questions, with him. She had been asking them his whole life.
“I don’t know, Mother,” he said, making the name sound like a curse. “Where precisely am I to have learned what love is?”
She called for Luke, though it was hours early. She called, and he came swiftly. Grasped her arm in a firm grip meant to comfort. If only it had been successful.
“You should schedule the trial,” Major Ematt said. “It’s been long enough. People are starting to talk.”
“For war crimes, General.”
War crimes. Which carried a mandatory life sentence.
“No trial,” she said.
Let them talk. Let them mutiny. She was a hair’s width away from bolting as it was. Throwing Ben in the Falcon and heading out past the Rim to have it out on some blasted rock, see what of them might survive to come out the other side.
One month. Leia started taking the night watch. Ben couldn’t snipe at her while he was sleeping. It was occasionally almost peaceful, and his slowness to wake in the mornings was familiar to her from his childhood.
He had nightmares. He’d had them in boyhood too, but these were terrible to see in a grown man. Someone had trained him not to cry out, even in his sleep, so he lay rigid, choking, almost like a seizure. It frightened Leia to her bones. After the worst ones, Rey would stumble down the stairs, hollow-eyed and looking sick, to stare at Ben without hostility.
“I could see that one,” she whispered once.
No. Nothing to envy about that bond.
When he had been little and thrashed and shrieked his way through the night, Leia had sometimes soothed him with the Force: no intrusion, just a gentle sending of safety and calm.
She tried it one night. After several minutes, the terrible choking sound stopped, and he opened his eyes. His long face looked as if it were made for sadness. Where had her laughing boy gone?
“You don’t have to do that,” he said.
He turned on his side, his back to her. And then, almost too soft to hear,
“But thank you.”
To anyone else, it might have seemed like a small victory.
She stayed with him most nights after that, on a cot, or up reading reports from the people now actually running the Resistance. A few days’ better sleep took a little of the hunted look out of Ben’s eyes, and several times he gazed at her with a thoughtful expression, as if he were working up to asking her something.
Poe and his Stormtrooper – Finn – came to see him. She and Luke hadn’t allowed gawkers, but these two had a connection.
Ben looked at Finn in surprise.
“You lived,” he said. “I’m glad of that.”
“No thanks to you.”
“No,” Ben said with his customary heavy solemnity. “No thanks to me.”
Finn frowned his surprise, then looked at Poe, who had spent the exchange making himself smaller and smaller, until Leia couldn’t tell whether he wanted to collapse or run. Ben peered at him sharply. Poe shuddered, and Finn took his hand.
“The wound I left in your mind,” Ben said. “Tell the g– Rey. Tell Rey she can heal it. If you let her.”
He turned away from them.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about that too.”
But what he would never tell them – what made them all worry – was why he had defected. Why he had so much regret.
“He’s still just as angry,” Rey said when Leia asked, squinting into the middle distance, feeling her way along the Force-bond. “But it’s all directed in now. Or. Close by. He’s less afraid, though.”
It was enough of a straw to grasp at.
A few days after the boys’ visit, Leia was on her afternoon rota, reading a poorly-thought-out proposal to increase the Resistance’s wealth via what was clearly a scam, when Ben stood up abruptly. Fists clenched at his sides, he stared up and out – into the base somewhere. Toward Rey?
Ben grimaced, eyes wide, then flinched with his whole body. His personal shadows whipped in their own storm. What was happening? Leia cast out, but she felt nothing beyond the usual babble of everyone around them, busy and focused on themselves.
He dropped to the floor and tried to hide his head behind his knees, covered his head with his hands. Groaned. Leia found herself, elderly knees and all, kneeling just on the other side of the plasma bars, watching him shake.
Then she felt it: a sharp, rising joy, breathlessness and disbelief. Leia felt herself blush harder than she likely ever had. She’d never been so completely content as Rey was in that moment with Finn and Poe, broadcasting her happiness to anyone able to tune in.
Well. At least someone around the base was having a good time.
Leia regretted the thought the minute she had it. Ben’s fists were dug into his hair, and it looked as if he might tear it out in clumps. But he’d drawn his shadows in so deep that to her Force-sense he was almost silent. How did he even do that?
No. She wouldn’t stand here and do nothing. She’d done enough nothing. Her hand was over the cell’s control panel when Luke skidded into the room, red-faced and scowling.
I’ve got to teach that girl to shield herself, he sent to her, and she could read his embarrassment like a cheap novel.
Her brother had clearly taken the whole hermit-like non-attachment thing very seriously. She wanted to laugh at him. Some day when her son was not a mess on the floor.
Yes, you do.
She hit the control before Luke could stop her and dropped down next to Ben. He shrank away.
“Yes,” she said. “Come on now, Ben.”
And put her arms around him for the first time since he was nine years old.
She had forgotten the scent of him, and was ashamed of herself for it. Even with him hunched over, she could barely get her arms all the way around his shoulders. For a couple of precious minutes, he leaned against her, let her coax his fists out of his hair. Let her lay her head on his shoulder.
“There is nowhere I belong,” he said in a voice so soft she barely heard it. Then,
“Stop. Stop, General. You need to put the bars back up now.”
“General” was as bad as a physical blow. She stumbled upright and away, and Luke palmed the controls.
As soon as the bars were up, Ben stood, facing the eastern wall, not looking at them. His hands flexed, and one by one, every object in his cell crumpled: the metal bed, the bench, the partition for the sanitary unit, the sink and toilet. Each of them wadded like paper. The blanket rose into the air and tore precisely, one at a time, into eight strips. The pillow exploded and covered the wreckage in fluff.
Well, he’s learned control finally, Luke sent.
She glared at him. Luke gazed back, unrepentant.
Ben turned toward the back corner of the cell. Making clear there was to be no discussion.
The cell was a ruin. There was no way Ben could stay in it, and Leia had had enough of dank corridors. Rather than stay and possibly upset him further by running her mouth, she marched upstairs.
The base was two-thirds empty, fabbed in a so-far-unfulfilled hope that new members would flock to the Resistance after the government’s destruction. Luke was staying in a remote wing of junior officers’ quarters, away from the bustle. It took no more than a standard hour to have the unit next to Luke’s made ready – sealing the windows, reinforcing the door, installing an outside lock.
“Begging your pardon, General, but he should be in prison,” one of the technicians said, looking mulish.
Leia tried to remember that to the rest of the galaxy, he was a weapon of the First Order, and barely human to boot.
“You’re installing an outside lock. You don’t call that prison?”
“I call it cushier quarters than mine. Ma’am.”
The woman licked her lips. Leia could feel her nervousness.
“You are not required to stay in your quarters all day, possibly for the rest of your life.”
The woman frowned; her fellow elbowed her.
“Yes ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”
“It’s all right.”
It would be all right as long as it didn’t turn to mutiny.
She returned to the ruined cell to find a surprise truce. Luke and Ben gazed at each other, for once with expressions that held no anger. Underneath the thicket of Luke’s ridiculous beard, there might even have been the rumor of a smile.
Seven weeks. It had been seven weeks.
“Incoming. Finally,” Luke said.
Ben turned toward the doorway like a plant toward the sun, expression closed off again. There was a clatter, and Rey jogged through the doorway.
“Master, I heard you calling, what –“
She took in the shards of metal and shreds of fabric on the floor. She frowned at Ben. He cocked one eyebrow, and they both went crimson.
“Oh no,” the girl groaned.
Her hair was done in a simple braid down her shoulder, and she wore a dusty black flight suit several sizes too large for her. The effect was completely charming. Leia watched Ben blink at the girl. Leia had made a study of his face, over the seven weeks. She could see the way his jaw clenched ever so slightly, and how he drew his chin back, as if he wanted to hide in collar and hair.
“Oh yes,” Leia said.
Rey whirled around, mouth gaping with horror. Behind her, Luke grinned full out.
“You too,” Rey croaked.
“Leia, me, anyone within a two-click radius with more Force sensitivity than a rock,” Luke said.
He tucked his hands in his belt and Leia groaned inwardly at this bad sign.
“Or Poe Dameron.”
“Kriffing bastard daughter of a –“
Rey remembered who she was speaking to, blushed even harder, and covered her face with her hands.
“Everything?” she asked, muffled.
Luke was still grinning.
“Everything,” Ben said in his heavy voice.
Rey turned, gestured toward the wreckage.
“And you did. This?”
The two of them turned in their usual dance, spitting mad in an instant. How much of the conversation was everyone else missing?
It was Luke’s turn to cover his face with his hand.
“Not what you’re thinking,” Ben sneered. “My mother was here.”
Promoted from general again, how nice. Leia shook her head.
Rey at least had sufficient grace to back down.
“Why didn’t I feel it?” she asked, “when you did all that?”
Leia hadn’t thought Ben could blush any harder, but she was wrong. He turned to stare at the wall again, clasped his hands behind his back.
“I saw no point in letting you see it.”
Rey stared at him for several minutes, clearly expecting a better answer. When she didn’t get one, she stomped away. Missing how he turned to stare at her.
“What happened to you?” Luke asked. “When did you find the strength to control yourself? You shouldn’t be able to keep anything secret from a Force-bond.”
Ben turned back to the wall.
Leia had never heard of a patient Skywalker. But she’d become one, until she had the story out of him.
Ben accepted his restraints without struggle. Luke and Leia flanked him as they walked to his new quarters, Chewbacca with his bowcaster behind them, surrounded by a full squad of guards. Rey joined them at the top of the stairs, still glowering, lightsaber (unlit) in her hand.
Leia didn’t miss how Ben craned his neck to look at the sky. She almost reached out to take his arm, but he looked down at her, brows drawn together. Flicked his eyes at the nearest guard. She kept her hands to herself. Measured herself against his height. Felt the crack in his armor at the sight of blue sky.
The squad left them at the door, except for two on duty. Everyone else crowded into the small, two-room unit.
“Better,” Chewbacca said.
Ben took one look at the wall-width window showing forest and river, walked over, and placed his hand on it.
Then he told them the location of Snoke’s palace.
It was a coup of moderate proportions. Snoke’s location was something they’d been trying to suss out for years. Unfortunately, with their limited resources, any sort of strike was out of the question.
This didn’t stop the crowd of them from taking over Ben’s space, calling in Artoo to provide a proper map, and spreading dinner across his table while they argued over what to do.
He took a plate and sat behind them on a countertop, mostly staring out the window, occasionally leaking a thread of amusement at them that would make Rey startle.
Rey’s comm buzzed about fifty times before Leia snapped,
“Oh, just answer the thing,”
And Rey had a conversation consisting of, “I’m busy. No, I have to be here. I promise. I will, I swear!” while radiating so much embarrassment that Ben actually snorted.
The window was a good idea.
“Can’t do it,” Chewie said finally over the mess of papers, his fur faintly green under Artoo’s map projection, “odds are too bad.”
“It’s a moot point anyway,” Ben said from the gloom of his perch. “He’ll find me. He’ll come for me. This is just a reprieve. He’ll never let me go.”
It mattered, everything he’d done. Love and forgiveness are not equivalent. He’d done terrible things, her boy. But the thought of him back in Snoke’s hands, of his ruined back and the fear and sadness that so often rolled off him in waves. Those silent, choking nightmares. The thought that she would lose him again.
Leia meditated. Practiced the exercises Luke had taught her long ago. But her calm was always the calm of the diplomat: a serene face to cover what went on inside. And what was going on inside her at the moment was a typhoon of pure rage. She felt twice her usual size, and her fork snapped in two.
Everyone was staring.
“He won’t have you,” she said, her voice falling into its command pattern, Force-amplified, unbidden. “Not if I have to fly you past the Outer Rim. Not if I have to kill him myself.”
It was the quickest, softest touch to her mind, bright with surprise.
Oh, why would he be surprised by that? It made her ache.
“The general has spoken,” Luke said in a dry tone.
When she looked up, his eyes mirrored her own sorrow, and he covered her hand with his own.
Trying to clean up my messes again?
She shook her head, but squeezed his hand. Behind her anger came a bone-creaking exhaustion.
“So that’s it,” Luke said, breaking Leia from her wallow and the children from staring at one another. “We know the overall plan: keep Ben away from Snoke. Let’s take some time to think on it.”
They gathered their detritus.
“I’ll walk you back, student,” Luke said to Rey as they left, “and we can talk shielding. Whose quarters are we going to again?”
Rey’s “argh” almost – but not quite – drowned out Ben’s quiet snort.
“Not forgiven,” Chewie rumbled at him.
“I’m sure not.”
“Forgiveness takes work and time. Can’t get there, unless we keep you home with us.”
Leia wasn’t sure which of the two humans in the room was more shocked by that. Chewie wrinkled his nose at her as he stepped out with Artoo.
“Thank you for the window,” Ben said after a drawn-out pause.
She could feel questions, hesitation, confusion in him. She drew on all her years of diplomatic experience. She recognized this phase, delicate as real glass. Not a time to push.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable here,” she said.
“One almost feels not like a prisoner,” he said dryly, “aside from the guards and the lock on the door.”
She knew that game too. She held his eyes until he looked away. Still stuffed into that corner of the countertop, his pale face seeming to float in the dim light.
“Shall I stay?” she asked. “Just for a while, in case you dream?”
“As you wish,” he said, but she felt his relief.
Leia moved a chair to the window and listened as he explored the small bedroom, heard the rustle and thump of him falling into bed. She watched the constellations wheel across the sky. If he dreamed, she didn’t hear it.
The next afternoon, she found Luke and Ben each sitting with blank gazes, and all the furniture was hovering 0.3 meters off the floor.
“Rotate,” Luke said, and everything tilted forty-five degrees.
The furniture righted and landed gently on the floor.
“We’re pretending that I’m an infant today,” Ben said in a tone that almost approached cheerfulness.
“Thankfully with less crying,” Luke said.
Luke hadn’t been there to know that Ben had rarely cried as a baby. He had wanted to be held constantly, to be the focus of attention, but almost never loud. He’d been much more given to heart-stopping feats of climbing and escape, trying to find everyone.
Luke stood, straightened his robes, squinting at Ben.
“You’ll tell me some day,” Luke said with that annoying Jedi Master certainty.
“Tell you what?” she asked.
“Everything,” Luke said, and kissed her cheek on the way out.
“Must’ve been a good morning,” Leia said, and Ben’s mouth twitched at her sarcasm.
“I had no idea Uncle could be made so excited by hovering furniture.”
“A reprieve,” he had called this. That’s certainly what it felt like. He went to the window, closed his eyes, and let the sun fall on his face.
For an instant, she felt a calm she hadn’t known in thirty years. Then she thought, “he looks so like Han,” and had to close her own eyes at the pang of it. Had to press her hand to her aching heart.
When she opened her eyes, he was gazing at her, and the set of his mouth was back to its habitual frown. Leia gave him a handful of breaths to say something.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked him, “something to do?”
“Books,” he said almost before she had finished speaking. “And. Something to do with my hands. Anything.”
Books and something to do. She could almost sing with it. To be useful to him.
“What do you like to read?”
He shook his head. Really, that hair. Didn’t it drive him crazy, falling into his face like that?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“I’ll bring a variety,” she said. “Do I have to extract a promise that you won’t worry the guards while I’m away?”
He saluted. An old, Imperial salute, unfortunately, but oh, a joke from him. A treasure.
“On my highly questionable honor,” he said.
She was as curious as Luke to know what change had worked in him. Was working in him.
Leia found Rey in the hangar with her. Friends? Lovers? Seemingly permanent attachments? Finn straightened from his crouch so abruptly that he knocked his head against the underside of the X-wing, squeaked out a faint “General Organa,” and buried himself intently elbows-deep in a toolbox.
“General,” Poe said, walking forward with a grin and a bright red face to clasp hands.
“Let me borrow your girl for a moment,” she said, and if Poe’s voice had been any higher, Leia would’ve had to call the sound that came out of his mouth a giggle.
Rey approached, wiping her hands with a rag, a large smear of engine oil on her cheek.
“Everything all right?”
“Will you do a favor for Ben?”
Rey’s expression turned wary. Leia saw behind her how Finn paused in his scrabbling, how Poe held a drill to the ship but hadn’t turned it on.
“Do you have anything small? Some small machinery that he could take apart and rebuild. Nothing that would make anyone nervous – nothing with its own power source. Something to tinker with.”
Plain curiosity, no hostility.
“Just to give him something to do.”
“He thinks too much when he’s bored. Makes him broody.”
Was the bond that close? Leia wanted to shake the girl, until every detail came loose.
“How is he? Really?”
Rey’s eyes unfocused briefly.
“Quieter,” she said after a pause. “I don’t know why. Something about the sky? And fewer nightmares? Which I’m grateful for too, General.”
“What did you see in them?”
“Not much, usually. Just images sometimes. Dread. And pain. Terrible things.”
Damn, she had hoped for more detail.
“I wish he’d talk about it,” she said.
Rey shook her head.
“Ma’am, why does he lie still and choke his way through it like that? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For all the loneliness of her harsh childhood, at least Rey had been spared some things.
“Someone trained him,” Leia said, “that to scream himself awake was the worse alternative.”
The girl glared. Leia wondered whether this was the first time that fierce expression had been used in defense of her son and not at him.
“But that’s horrible!”
“I very much fear that’s far from the worst.”
Any training Luke had given this girl to control her emotions hadn’t taken. But she didn’t grasp at her temper: she let it flare hot, then burn itself out, until quiet returned and she shook her head again.
“All right there, Rey?” Finn called out.
“Yeah, okay,” she shouted. “Have to run an errand for the General, back in a bit.”
She turned back to Leia.
“I’ll find something for him.”
Leia pilfered through the books in her quarters and came out with an armful – a couple of galactic histories on noncontroversial topics, an astromechanics textbook that she would stand on when reaching down something from the top shelf in her closet, a very silly historical romance that was a comfort read dating back to girlhood, and some interactive adventure thing that she didn’t remember owning.
Any of it was better than nothing, she supposed.
Rey was just ahead of her on the path to Ben’s cell/quarters. Leia hurried her steps, unashamed of her desire to eavesdrop. She’d spent too many years standing at consoles: the jog left her out of breath.
“Here,” Leia caught Rey’s voice and the clatter of metal falling on a table.
"Garbage, mostly. A couple of broken chronos, a recorder, a child's toy. I can get you more later, this is just what I could find on the fly. Oh, and tools. Here. Let me know if you need others. Within reason. No plasma torches or anything."
"You brought this for me?"
"Give you something to do so you'll stay out of trouble. Don't get excited, it was your mother's idea."
There was her cue.
"I am not -" Ben was saying, head reared back, as Leia rounded the corner into the room.
"Rey, thank you," she said before they sparked up at one another.
The girl blushed and shrugged.
"It's just a pile of junk," she said.
"It's not," he said. "Thank you. Rey."
The color she turned when he said her name. While she watched his long fingers pick over the grubby bits of metal and plasteel, and frowned at him.
"You're sleeping better," Rey said, then shut her mouth with a snap, as if she'd spoken without meaning to.
He turned to look at her, head tilted to one side, with a frown that was more question than anything else.
Their discomfort was so infectious that it made Leia want to fidget. She hadn't fidgeted since she was five years old.
"And I come bearing books."
Leia did not imagine those two identical sighs of relief.
"Well," Rey said, "I'll just be going."
"It's hard for you?" Leia asked while he watched the girl leave.
He heaved one great breath and spread out his hands.
"Which part? The bond? Yes. I share my head with the antithesis of everything I thought I wanted," he said. "It's not an easy reminder. That she's happy with them? That is. Not difficult."
"You ask whether I'm jealous?"
"It would be only natural."
"It's a pointless line of thought," he said.
She could've told him that he was wrong. Instead she dropped the books onto the table.
"Maybe one of these will suit."
He picked over the titles, and a little of the almost-cheerfulness from the morning reappeared on his face.
"Quite the assortment."
"Count your blessings," she said. "I could've brought a stack of consular dispatches from forty-five years ago as tall as you."
"That you did not," he said solemnly, "is the final proof I needed that you in the Resistance abhor torture."
Leia laughed until she had to sit down while her son loomed over her, looking pleased. When she left him for her afternoon duties in the control room, she went so far as to squeeze his hand. He nodded at her, looking at the floor. It was enough, for the moment.
Two more weeks. Quiet. Snoke hadn't found them yet. Ben raced through the first group of books. Upon hearing that Leia was haunting the base’s sparse hardcopy library, Ackbar went so far as to hand over two enormous volumes of Mon Calamari epic poetry. Leia would rather have read the technical manual for a trash compacter, but Ben read them obsessively. He spliced the interactive into the formerly broken recorder so that it played the seven different options for the story's climax altogether in random order, which made them incomprehensible but seemed to amuse him.
"Why would you do that?" Rey asked, staring at it when she brought another armload of broken machines.
"Why not? Take it. I've memorized all the possible outcomes. Maybe someone else will find it amusing."
Leia later saw Finn and Poe in the mess, howling with laughter over the thing while Rey sat to the side, rolling her eyes.
She never knew whether she would find him sprawled in a patch of sunlight reading or at his table too involved in repair to speak to her, but she minded neither. He was still largely closed off from everyone but Rey (and sometimes even from her, apparently), but to be in a room with him no longer felt like standing out in a thunderstorm. The shadows around him were no lighter, but they moved more slowly.
She walked in once to find him deep in the bowels of a broken chrono, with his hair tied back while he worked on the fiddly parts.
"Oh no, he got my ears," she thought, and stopped wondering why he kept his hair long.
It bothered him to work too long with Luke: Luke was testing his boundaries, fretting at the pervasive shadow, and it made Ben snappish. But her brother was himself losing a few of the pain lines around his eyes. And where he once would've pushed for answers to all their questions, in that he let Ben be.
"Why create a crisis when we know one will come to us eventually?" Luke said.
There had been so few peaceful times for any of them. This felt like a gift.
Rey scrounged an ancient, broken droid, older even than Artoo, and found it so interesting that she couldn't bring herself to let Ben work on it alone. Leia found herself spending the better part of her days overseeing two grubby young people with horrible social skills and practicing how not to laugh at them. The bond meant they rarely spoke except to squabble, their hands moving in tandem to reach tools and move wires.
One afternoon he grimaced, and reached out to move Rey’s collar. She flinched back from him, frowning.
“You have a. Bite mark,” he said.
“What are you, a prude?” she asked, embarrassment coming out peevish.
Rey flushed and pulled her collar closed. Handed him a spanner.
“Does it bother you?” she asked softly, as if Leia weren’t hanging on every syllable.
“Really?” Her voice dripped skepticism.
Ben sat back on his heels.
“Neither of us has known much happiness,” he said. “I won’t begrudge it.”
He stuck his head deep in the droid and waved for a tool, leaving Rey and Leia to gaze at one another and wonder.
"This will never work," Ben said a couple of hours later, "half these components are so old that I don't even know what they are."
"Did anyone ever tell you that you're a gloomy person?"
Leia hid her face behind her espionage reports while Ben looked over at her.
"Why no. No one has ever suggested it."
Rey wrinkled her nose at him, and he threw an oily rag at her face. She stopped it mid-air and sent it right back at him. He batted it out of the air, and Leia could've wept at the plain, normal, human youth of it.
A couple of days after that, Rey sliced her hand open, and before anyone else could react, Ben had whipped off his shirt and wrapped it over the wound, pressing hard. He then realized what he'd done and flushed to the waist. He stared at the floor, looking stubborn, and kept hold of the shirt – and her hand.
Rey, meanwhile, was frowning at the scars on his arms, at his waist. Her face was stormy as she reached out two fingers with her good hand and turned him by the shoulder, examined his back.
"What," she gritted.
"It's nothing," he said, "let me see this."
"That's not nothing."
"Ben Solo! You look like someone tortured you for years!"
Leia sat forward, ready to do – anything needed. But Ben was staring at the girl in simple surprise.
Whatever he felt over the bond made him flinch.
"Let me see your hand, Rey," Leia said in her orders-giving voice, before the conversation went any further off course.
She thought neither of them would thank her for being an observer to it.
They both startled, and Rey held out her hand. Leia unwrapped the shirt, and the long cut still bled freely, deep into the meat of her palm. Ben took the shirt and twisted it in his lap, as if he wanted to put it on despite the blood all over it.
"You'll need a few hours soaking in bacta for this," Leia said, and Rey huffed her annoyance. "Unless you want to try an experiment."
Rey perked up.
"You can do it to yourself?"
"You can, if your focus is good enough. Or."
She cut her eyes to Ben. Rey took one thoughtful moment, then nodded.
"All right," she said, and held her hand toward him.
"Oh no," Ben said. "No, I can't."
"Why not?" Leia asked.
"That's not. I wasn't taught it. It's the opposite of everything I learned."
"What do you mean, opposite?" Rey asked.
The place Ben went to was deep inside and far away, though he still sat close.
"My experience of Force-healing involves having my legs broken from the inside and re-knit in the same day," he said, and if Rey's complexion was anything to go by, she felt as sick as Leia did to hear it.
"My back, several times. Once my trachea," he said in a gravelly voice, and cleared his throat.
Her son. Leia's sorrow pervaded every cell of her. How many stories like this did he have? That he kept from them. How much had Snoke had to do, to break him? After she sent him away. It was her fault, she knew, and Han had paid the debt.
"Rey," Ben said, sounding (and looking) miserable, "please. You're still bleeding."
Bleeding all over the place, as it happened. Leia shook herself.
"Take her hand."
He did, cradling it as if it were precious, and Rey jolted.
"Sorry," he whispered.
"Focus," Leia said, back to herself for the moment, blotting away the blood with his shirt. "See the edges of the wound. But gently. Look at it, first of all."
Both of them looked, eyes soft, seeing things too small for human eyes.
"Then know. Skin wants to be whole," Leia said, "it wants to heal. Just encourage it a little. Help it along. Give it the tiniest push."
Her Force-sight wasn't strong on detail, but even she could see the glow in Rey's palm. Not shadow. The bleeding stopped, and the edges of the wound blurred, slowly sealed.
"There you go," Leia said. "It's best to stop sooner than later, and let it heal mostly on its own. Otherwise the skin's weak for a while, catching up with itself. Just a little bit more, until it won't reopen."
It would've taken her half a standard hour to do what they had done in three minutes. Leia examined Rey's palm.
"Well done," she said. "Very well done, both of you. You can do the same thing to plants, too, and help them grow. Same principle."
Rey's grin lit up the room, and Ben looked dumbfounded.
"It didn't hurt?" he asked.
"Not even a little," Rey said, and flexed her hand.
"My turn," Luke said from the doorway, and they all jumped.
Ben took the opportunity to disappear into his bedroom. When he reappeared, he wore another shirt and hovered around the doorway.
"Beautiful job," Luke said, and looked up at his nephew. "I wish I'd been wise enough to see your talent for healing."
Ben turned his head to stare out the window.
"It itches a little," Rey said, still flexing her hand.
"It will," Leia said, "like any healing wound."
"Amazing. I want to show." She hopped up, paused. "Hey, Ben."
She walked over to him and laid her hand on his arm. He looked as if he wanted to be absolutely anywhere else in the galaxy.
"Thank you," she said, and skipped out the door.
Leia couldn't read what his face was doing. Possibly because it was trying to hold too many expressions at one time.
"Someone help me up off this floor," she said, and was happy that Luke held back to let her son do it.
"I could show you some exercises," Luke said.
"You could, but I'll thank you to not."
"That was some impressive instruction, sister. Basic, but clear. I could've."
He stopped and looked at Ben.
"Could we speak?"
Alone, Luke thought at her.
"I'll be back for dinner," Leia said.
Aimless, with only reports and logistics to distract her, Leia found herself heart-sore, tired. She checked in on her brother and son between meetings and saw so much sorrow, so much bitterness in her boy that she almost ran for the cell.
No, it’s all right, Luke sent.
Don’t worry, from Ben.
“Are you well, General?” the guard by the control room asked.
Leia found herself leaned against the wall on one hand.
“Yes,” she said, “yes, I’m fine.”
Rey was hovering outside Leia’s quarters, knuckling tears from her eyes.
“Is this me? Did I?”
It felt good to cling to this bright, strong girl.
“It’s not you, Rey.”
She leaned back and smoothed Rey’s hair out of her face.
“Look closer. Maybe you’ll see.”
Rey’s eyes unfocused, and she frowned.
“Not me,” she said, then looked at Leia with a deep compassion. “You a little, I think.”
“A dent in that shell of his, maybe,” and Rey grinned through her tears. “Took him long enough.”
Leia sent her back to her boys and went in search of Chewbacca.
She found him at the Falcon, of course, doing some of the endless repairs that old bucket required. After a year, it was still strange to see him move alone over the ship.
“Trouble?” Chewie called out.
Leia shook her head. He waved and went back to his welder. Leia took a seat on a storage box and let herself sink into the familiar scent and shadow of the ship. Chewie climbed down several minutes later and lumbered over to crouch next to her, lay one heavy arm across her shoulders.
“I’m no magician,” he said, “but I can smell sadness on you.”
“There’s a lot of regret, Chewie. So much I’ve done wrong.”
Not just Ben: Han. Luke. The unchanged bureaucracy of the New Republic that made it so easy for the First Order to take hold. She could have made so many different decisions.
“You’re young,” Chewie said. “You forget it, because your bones ache. But you are. Things are what they are. Sometimes a little better, a little worse. Sometimes a lot worse. But we only have the moment. We only have our tribe to cling to. Our family. Even when they hurt us.”
Leia leaned her head down and cried a little into his fur.
“Terrible thing he did, the cub.”
“Yes. I know.”
“Han would want us to make him better.”
Leia broke and healed at the same time. She laughed through tears. When had Chewbacca ever been wrong?
“Come with me? Have dinner with him.”
They strolled over around sunset and found Luke and Ben red-eyed. But all the furniture was in place, and the guards at the door hadn’t looked spooked.
“Will you stay?” she asked Luke.
“I won’t,” he said. “I’ve made a number of very unpleasant discoveries about myself today. I’m going to take some time to feel like a complete muck-up, and then I’ll use my formidable Jedi powers to move past it. Somehow.”
Was that an actual, albeit small, smile on Ben’s face?
Luke’s hug was warm. Leia couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched so many people in one day.
Ben and Chewie greeted one another coolly.
“Hungry?” she asked.
Ben nodded. No sense in asking Chewie. Hungry was his default position. She’d brought the data card from her own processor, just to get a decent meal into them all for once. The meal she pulled out from the cell’s processor wasn’t fancy, but it would have to do.
Sitting at the table with them both made her wonder: what fraction of a family was sitting there: three fifths, counting Luke? Half, counting Rey? They’d always have one member missing.
“That was quite a conversation you had today,” she said.
Ben ducked his head.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve shielded myself better.”
“It’s all right, son.”
He blinked at her several times. Set down his fork. Pushed his plate to the side. Laced his fingers together.
“Luke said that I should ask you. Why you sent me away.”
After twenty years, she was surprised to find herself panicking about it. After a lifetime of training, she was even more surprised to find that she opened her mouth without thinking.
“Away! Sent you to train with my brother!”
There was accusation in his look. More of the enormous sorrow that she had tasted that afternoon.
“Sent me away,” he repeated gently.
Leia hated that it was true. Hated to think of those awful days.
“You had bad dreams,” Chewbacca warbled, “terrible ones. As bad as now.”
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t being torn to pieces.”
Leia pushed her plate aside and leaned on the table for support. He had been so young – only seven – when his Force power awakened abruptly. He’d been playing on the Falcon, fell into an open hatch, and broke his arm. The whole ship had erupted into mayhem. His terror at every piece of small equipment flying around his head had been worse for him than the arm.
And after that, nothing seemed to keep him calm except to cling to her, Han, or Chewbacca. He wanted to always be touching some part of them if possible, but otherwise always in sight, always in the same room. Han spent so many nights sleeping in Ben’s bed with him, just so they could all get a little rest. They couldn’t have kept it up. They had duties. She was in the middle of diplomatic negotiations with systems that were finally coming around to the idea of joining the New Republic.
“Let him stay with me,” Han had said.
Oh. He had said it. And she had responded,
“On that death trap where he got hurt in the first place?”
For two years, they tried, until she put her foot down. She did.
“I thought you needed training,” she said. “To learn to control it, and not be afraid.”
Ben’s voice was a hiss.
“I needed my family.”
Leia’s throat went tight with all the ways she had gone wrong. All the harm she had caused by thinking, instead of feeling it. She had been so stubborn about it, even with herself, angry at the way her heartbeat had sped up with dismay at the mere thought of her little boy going away with so much hurt and fear in his eyes.
Even now, she grasped at straws.
“Luke is family.”
Ben’s face remained impassive, but his right arm shot out and knocked his dishes to the floor. Chewie made a small growl, comfort and warning both, and Ben closed his eyes. Leia watched him breathe through that spike of frustration. He was making all the shadows in the room deeper just by sitting still.
“The first thing Luke said to me on my arrival was that I would be a simple Jedi trainee, no different from any other.”
He scrubbed at his face with his hand.
“The thing is, I think he meant it to be a comfort. But I thought it meant that I had no family anymore.”
“How could you –“ Leia cried out, only to stop when Chewbacca laid his hand on her arm.
She breathed. Or, rather, she told herself to breathe and hoped it would happen.
“Tell us,” Chewie said.
Ben gave a shaky, bitter laugh.
“Attachments,” he said. “Luke told us all constantly to rid ourselves of them. No matter how hard I begged to contact you. He wasn’t – cruel – about it. But the answer was always no.”
He tilted his head back.
“I waited,” he said. “I was so sure that you’d forgive me eventually, for whatever it was I had done, and let me come home. And that even if you didn’t, Han – my father would come for me. Because I knew it would be easy for him to do so. To climb in his ship and bring me home. I waited. And eventually I knew that you would not relent. Because you had sent me away, and Luke spoke to you even if I was not allowed to. So you obviously wanted me there. But I never stopped waiting for him. And he never came.”
Leia realized that her heart had been broken for twenty solid years, and she was just now getting around to really noticing.
Chewbacca gave a small howl of mourning.
“You hate me,” she said.
Oh, that face. That sad face. The only memory she had of him grinning was as a toddler hanging onto her skirts, and even that she had to rummage for.
She’d wanted him back, but she hadn’t ever just. Gone to get him.
“I did,” he said.
The past tense was a line he threw to her, in this ocean of bad decisions and grief. She clung to it.
“Han wanted to go for you,” Chewie said, and Ben rocked back in his chair as if he’d been slapped.
“The whole time you were there. They fought,” he said, gesturing at Leia, “always. A thousand times we ran pre-flight in the Falcon, to come for you.”
Ben’s voice was like gravel.
“A thousand times,” Chewie said. “But he feared. That you would hate him for taking you out of your training.”
Everything not nailed down in the quarters was shaking, but Ben was shaking hardest of all.
“He left me over it,” Leia said, and Ben’s eyes snapped to her, wide and wild. “We loved each other, but it was too much. He never forgave me for taking his son away from him.”
“No!” Ben shouted.
He stood, knocking his chair over, and the table warped in on itself. He looked tall as a mountain, shadow pulsing around him.
“No, I – no! I asked him to help me, and he said ‘anything’! And I –“
He stumbled back.
“He would always have done anything for you, cub,” Chewie said. “Anything including that.”
Ben shook his head, choked, and bent over. He pounded his chest twice, as if his heart were stopping. Leia knew it. She felt the same terrible cracking inside.
“No,” Ben said again, staggering, “and I. I. How could I.”
He was on his knees, hands in his hair as if he wanted to tear himself in half. And danger be damned, Leia was not going to be separated from her son for one instant more.
“My father!” he cried out as she slid to the floor and clasped him around the chest, holding on with all her strength, “my, oh, my dadda.”
All the shuddering in the cell stopped as he fell forward, bent over her back, and she was crying as hard as he was, but she was not going to let go of him. Not ever again.
“Oh, Han,” she said, and the two of them couldn’t hold themselves up anymore.
But it was all right, because Chewbacca was there, and he held them up.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said when he could speak, his voice muffled by Chewie’s fur, “sorry.”
A dozen times he said it, two. Leia reached, the way that she should’ve reached infinite times in the past. Who knows? Once might have been enough. But she did it now, opened herself wide, one hand curved over the back his neck, and showed him everything she had inside: regret, grief.
That she loved him.
His head jerked up, and he stared at her, eyes and mouth wide with astonishment. Leia reached up to thumb tears away – the only losing battle they would fight today.
“Yes,” she said, and let that love rise to the surface.
It wouldn’t replace the regret. It wouldn’t make their journey any shorter to make up for their wrongs. But she could let it have its moment. In the light. To merely love him.
“Mother,” he whispered.
And accepted it. She felt him let it in, let it soothe a broken part of him deep on the inside. Some part of him clicked into place – a part that had always been casting about, untethered. Leia held him as close as she had ached to for every minute he’d been gone.
Luke brushed against her mind, quiet. She could sense his own sorrow and the bright spark of hope flaring through him.
After a few minutes, Ben raised his head and looked to the wall, toward the rest of the base.
“Rey is worried,” he said, and then, in a tone of wonder, “about me.”
Whatever he said, or heard back, eased his shoulders.
They learned that one overly small and one overly large human almost fit in a Wookiee’s lap. Not comfortably. But when Leia shifted, Chewbacca said,
“Not yet,” and hugged them until Ben’s back cracked.
He laid his hand heavily on Ben’s head.
“Good start, cub. You’re home. Now be better.”
And of course they had to weep some more at that, but Ben nodded, and he even tried to smile. He laid his face on Chewie’s shoulder and took a deep, shuddering breath.
“Okay,” Chewie said, “but don’t blow your nose on my fur.”
It was the first time Leia had heard her son laugh in over twenty years.
Chewie disappeared into the refresher, leaving them to sit on the floor. Leia felt like she’d been trampled by banthas, and Ben looked just as bad, except for the easier set of his mouth, and the way the energy around him swirled quietly, like ink in water. Chewie brought them each a towel, wet on one end with warm water, and as they scrubbed and dried their faces, Leia felt very well managed indeed.
“What do you think would’ve happened if I hadn’t brought you along?” she asked as he helped her up off the floor.
“I would’ve broken down the door,” Chewie said, and barked a laugh.
Leia put her arms back around Ben, rested her head against his chest. Felt tears threaten all over again when he embraced her.
“Leave this mess for morning,” Chewie said, kicking the ruined table, “and sleep now. Tomorrow we’ll make a good beginning.”
She let Ben go long enough for Chewie to hug him but took his hand right away afterward.
‘Now I’ll be the clingy one,’ she thought, and laughed.
Ben made a quizzical little smile. Maybe he would learn to smile now. Maybe. So many maybes, and some of them were even happy ones, now.
“Mother,” he said, and she could feel hesitation flare up around him, wariness, the surety that he would be hurt.
She squeezed his hand.
“Will you stay with me?”
“Of course I will.”
And his wariness burned up in one spark of simple gladness.
It was terrible, of course. That narrow junior officer’s bed, her trying to curve her small self around his breadth, and his hair kept getting in her mouth. She hadn’t slept in a bed with anyone else in years. But she wrapped her arm over his waist and pressed up close, and neither of them moved until the sun woke them.
She dreamed of Han. In the dream, he was young, and grinning at her. He angled his mouth over hers, and she could feel the smile.
“You coulda listed to me for once,” he said, still smiling at her. Touching her face.
“Glad you finally did the right thing. Sweetheart.”
She woke up out of it with the sharp pang of heartache. But glad of it.
Leia felt stiff and gritty. The firm mattress and lack of movement had not been friendly to her hips. She and Ben sat on the edge of the bed with their shoulders touching while she investigated how much of a disaster her hair had become overnight.
“I dreamed about him. Dad,” Ben said.
She looked at him, and yes. There was a new hint of peace in his expression.
“Was it good?”
His eyes filled up, though no tears spilled over. But he nodded.
“I dreamed of him too,” she said.
“Do you think?”
Leia took his arm and leaned into him.
“Let’s choose to believe it.”
She felt him breathe.
Leia called in the door guards to remove the table while Ben stood in the shower, apparently trying to use up every drop of hot water on the base. Despite her body’s protest, she bent to clean the dishes from the floor.
“General, you shouldn’t –“ one of the guards said.
“I’m sorry, do you question my ability to straighten up?”
“No ma’am,” the man said, sounding pained, “I meant we could fetch a droid to do that.”
She hoped there would be some hot water left by the time she returned to her own quarters.
The new table was in place by the time Ben walked out of the ‘fresher, still rubbing a towel over his head. His mouth twisted to see it.
“You would honestly not believe the amount of furniture I’ve destroyed in my life,” he said. “It’s a terrible habit.”
“The nice thing about these is that they can be recycled in the ‘fabber,” she said. “But when you visit me, please try not to wreck my antiques.”
“I’m going to work on that,” she said.
Rey, not Luke, was her relief this morning. The girl stepped through the door looking serious but not quite frowning. She took in Ben’s appearance – hair drying in a curly halo, the formal outfit he had worn every other day of his confinement swapped out for a plain, soft tunic and pants with bare feet – and blinked her surprise.
“All right?” she asked.
She nodded and dragged their droid project from the corner.
Leia heard Rey’s squawk – “What did you do to this thing, turn it upside down and shake it?” – as she left, and grinned to herself.
She did find hot water, and plenty of it, back at her quarters. And breakfast. And then a complete inability to stay awake any longer. She woke from her nap feeling a decade younger. Ready for something.
Luke was in her sitting room. It was nice to see him smile. Even nicer to sit beside him and feel his arm curl over her shoulder.
“That boy of yours,” he said.
He removed his arm and sat forward, elbows on knees. Looked back at her.
“I’m still thinking through everything we said to each other, yesterday,” he said. “But I promise I’ll tell you some day.”
She could feel the edges of yesterday’s turmoil inside her, still close to the surface.
“Me too,” she said.
“In the meantime,” Luke told her, “I’ve spent the morning laying some groundwork. Playing my own legend up a bit and making vague references to Force-healing and mysterious Jedi doings.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but did you just have a moment of not taking yourself completely seriously?”
Luke laughed. Maybe all of them would re-learn to laugh now.
“Add that to the long list of my sins,” he said, mouth going serious but his eyes still smiling, “that I’ve always taken myself too seriously.”
“It runs in the family,” she said, earning another smile.
“Anyhow, we’re not going to keep Ben caged any longer,” he said. “It does no one any good. The best thing for him is to do.”
He stopped, cringed, ran his fingers through his hair.
“I think,” he said, sounding rueful. “It’s his choice, of course. But trying to make amends is better than prison. Keeping him locked up runs too much risk. That he’ll get frustrated and cause himself trouble.”
“That Snoke will sniff him out.”
“So I planted a few seeds for you, to try to convince everyone around here to loosen his leash.”
It took two weeks of cajoling, but it did work: Ben was allowed outside for three hours every morning, to work with Luke and Rey.
The first morning, he had eight guards circling the flat ground behind his cell. Leia didn’t miss the way several of them cocked their heads and frowned when Ben knelt to dig his fingers into the grass and lift his face to the sun.
A week’s observation of three people sitting on the ground with their eyes closed and doing one-armed handstands was enough to whittle the guards down to the usual two.
Luke didn’t push the young ones. When they weren’t meditating, mostly they sat in the grass and talked, sometimes passing around one blade of grass at eye level. Leia could’ve turned inside out with curiosity to know what they said, but she let them be. It was too good to arrive by herself each afternoon at Ben’s door and see the welcome in his face, to let him reach for her.
Rey and Ben finished their droid during a three-day stretch of rain. It was an ugly old thing, chassis more rust than paint, blocky and awkward-looking. They plugged it into the wall. After a few minutes, the thing gave a sound like a disaster in process, shrieked a short phrase in binary, and went silent after a shower of sparks.
Ben had put himself between the droid and Leia and shoved Rey behind him. Rey stared at him, thoughtful, while Leia’s heart momentarily grew too large to be contained in her chest and threatened to leap out of her mouth.
“What did it say?” he asked when the excitement eased.
Rey wrinkled her nose.
“Approximately ‘what the shitting shit is this shitter,’” she said.
Ben clapped his hands to his forehead and howled. He laughed so hard that he had to crouch down. The sound filled every millimeter of the space.
Rey gaped. She looked at Leia, whose grin was wide enough to hurt. Leia thought it might be the first time Rey had seen him laugh. Maybe she hadn’t thought him capable.
Rey rubbed her nose.
“Well there’s no call for hysterics,” she said. “Clearly the power coupling’s shot. We can replace that no problem.”
“Yes,” Ben said, wiping his eyes and still grinning.
“Not sure we want to, though. That thing seems to have a terrible personality.”
That set him off again, which made her flap her arms and march out. Leia ranked it one of the top days of her lifetime.
The next morning, Leia found him dressed formally again, standing by his window with his hands clasped behind his back. Solemn again. The sight made a cold jab deep in her guts, but in her mind’s eye, the shadows around him remained calm. Lazy tendrils in the morning light.
“I’d like to go for a walk, if it’s permitted,” he said.
She fought the urge to sigh in relief.
“Let me ask, son,” she said. “Give me a few minutes.”
He nodded, and added,
“If the answer is yes, bring everyone.”
The answer was yes. Mostly because she was Leia Organa, General of the Resistance, princess of the Alderaanian royal family, and a Force user, and she damn well told everyone in control that the answer would be yes, and if they didn’t like it, she knew where they could stick it.
“Welcome back, princess,” Ackbar said with a fishy snort, “haven’t seen you in a while.”
But he flapped his assent.
She rounded them up: Luke, Rey, Chewie, even Finn and Poe, not knowing why Ben wanted them, only that he did.
“Temper, Mother,” he murmured at her when she returned, offering his arm.
She took it with a grin. The group of them trooped toward the path that would take them through the forest to a sandy bit of riverbank that was the preferred spot for most of the base during downtime.
Ben stood with his back to them, looking out over the water for a time. Leia found a flattish rock to sit on. It was likely to be long morning. Poe shifted, restless, and Rey kicked his ankle.
“Sit down,” she hissed.
Ben’s shoulders hitched, and he let slip a thread of amusement. Rey glared at his back and sat on the ground with a thump between Poe and Finn. Luke grinned and settled his back against a tree.
They watched Ben crouch and gather a handful of small rocks from the edge of the water. He tossed them in the air and made them spin briefly like planets in orbit, then stacked them in a neat pyramid, never touching them. Luke’s eyebrows shot up, but he nodded as if satisfied.
“I was twelve,” Ben said, “or thirteen, the first time.”
He leaned against the boulder behind him, trapped his own hands behind him, his shadows stirred up.
“I had been at the Academy for about three years, then.”
“Miserable the whole time,” Luke said.
“Yes. Miserable, lonely. Wracked by nightmares. And a vision came to me. Tall, shimmering. An old man with terrible scars.”
Leia wrapped her arms around herself so she wouldn’t crack into pieces.
“I assumed,” Ben said. “I called him ‘Grandfather.’ I thought that finally – finally – someone in my family had come for me.”
“Oh,” Rey gasped, and her boys crowded close to her.
Leia looked to her brother, saw that this was no surprise, and she understood the day several weeks previous a little better.
“He came whenever I called. After that first time, he came to me wearing his mask. He spoke to me of strength overcoming fear. He told me that I had a place in the galaxy, at its head. That I could find a teacher, who would make it possible to end the destruction I saw every time I tried to sleep. Who would help me find my power. He spoke of his disappointment, that his family was filled with weakness. That strength was my birthright.”
Ben shook himself, and when he spoke again, his voice had dropped an octave with bitterness.
“My grandfather. It was Snoke, of course, directing me to himself. It was a lie. But I believed it.”
“Why not tell someone?” Chewbacca asked.
Ben wrapped his long arms around his own chest.
“Whom was I to tell? I’d been too miserable to make friends, and I was too bitter to speak to my uncle about it.”
“And I never saw,” Luke said softly. “I never once noticed that there was anything unusual about your misery. Or your dreams. I thought it was simple homesickness, and you’d grow out of it.”
Leia realized in an instant the fundamental stupidity of letting a man who knew nothing about children take a pack of Force-sensitive ones to a distant planet, alone. How stupid they’d all been. How sure of themselves.
“Well,” Ben said, “I’ve always been excellent at hiding.”
He snuffed himself out. Rey went rigid, and Luke dropped the stick he’d been holding in his hands. Ben stood right in front of them, but he might as well have been a complete void in the Force. He gave the barest smile at their surprise, and let go.
“We’re going to talk about that one later,” Luke grumbled.
“What was it?” Finn whispered loudly, and Rey elbowed him.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “I forget sometimes, how few people see what I see.”
“It’s okay,” Finn said in a faint voice, “you can tell me about it later, maybe.”
Ben looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. He cleared his throat.
“So I hid my secret. And over time, Snoke’s call became. Insistent.”
He clenched his fists, closed his eyes.
“It isn’t right, what I did,” he croaked. “I know that. But I was thirteen years old!”
“Ben,” Leia said.
“He turned off the planetary shields and defenses,” Luke said in a soft voice. “He let them in.”
“I let them in,” Ben said to the ground, “Snoke’s Knights of Ren.”
Her son. Her poor, broken boy.
“I let them in, and two of them took me to an inner room while the others slaughtered every other being in the Academy.”
“Except me,” Luke murmured.
“That was the last piece that convinced me. That it was my grandfather. He said he would spare you, as you had not spared him.”
“That’s not how it happened,” Luke said in an infinitely gentle voice.
Some of the tension ran out of Ben at that, and he stared at Luke bitterly, but calm.
“You can imagine my surprise to discover yet another of Snoke’s lies,” he said.
Chewie growled, and Ben nodded.
“They dressed me as one of themselves, right there. These strong men in masks like Vader’s, sent to me by my grandfather, dressing me like him, and they took me to Endor, to his funeral pyre.”
He shook his head and laughed, and it was a terrible sound.
“There was a ceremony. They gave me my grandfather’s helmet and ashes. They called me his true heir. They made me a knight, like them. At thirteen.”
“But it’s not possible,” Poe said. “Fifteen years in a forest? There wouldn’t have been any trace left!”
“Right,” Ben said.
Leia’s eyes filled up and spilled over. Chewbacca sat next to her on the rock, and she leaned into him, glad not to have to hold herself up.
“Every bit of it was a lie,” Rey said after a minute.
Ben raked his fingers through his hair.
“We traveled to Snoke mostly at sub-light. It took weeks. The Knights taught me to fight. They let me help work on their ship, like – Father. Treated me like a comrade. For those few weeks, I never dreamed. And every night, the vision of my grandfather would come to me with promises of how Snoke would help me hone my power.”
He kicked at the pyramid of rocks and sent them scattering.
“Power,” he spat. “Power to do what? What’s the point?”
Luke shook his head and looked pleased.
“Then we got to Snoke, and I learned some quite vivid lessons about differences among teaching philosophies.”
He voice was calm, sardonic, but Leia knew what lay behind it, and shivered, aching.
“Snoke is not quite a Sith. But he has similar ideas about the use of pain to amplify power.”
“Oh!” Rey said, and looked at Finn, who nodded. “Like the forest, the way you beat at that wound.”
“Yes. It doesn’t last long, but you do get a rush of strength from it,” Ben said. “As I learned daily for years. There is not a part of me that wasn’t broken, at some point. To teach me how to use pain. I learned to use starvation. Sleep deprivation. And every time I was ready to let go and simply. End, I would dream of my grandfather. How convenient.”
Poe and Finn sat up straight in indignation, and Rey grabbed them close.
“When I was eighteen, Snoke had me build my lightsaber. Then he forced me to kill the Knights. The men I had lived with for years. He had me hand-pick new ones from First Order recruits. And on my twenty-second birthday, I killed them too.”
Leia couldn’t tell whether she or Chewbacca trembled harder. The trees above them whipped, although there was no wind. Luke kept peering up, as if keeping an eye on when to say something. Ben was a towering swirl of darkness that made her eyes ache, even though they weren’t really seeing it.
“Those were my lessons in how to use death.”
He shook himself.
“It was a release to be sent to the First Order, though I hated it. They want to be the Empire. To me, that meant Grandfather, but their decisions were so stupid. I mean, why take children from their families for the stormtrooper program?” he said, more animated than he had been the whole time, gesturing at Finn, who looked outraged.
“The Empire used clones, which are a family! It made no sense!”
“Off topic,” Chewie growled.
“No,” Ben said, still angry, “it’s not. That stupid weapon.”
The scattered pile of small rocks rose into the air and shot out into the river.
“What precise galaxy are they supposed to rule if they’ve destroyed all the planets in it?”
“Ha!” that was Luke.
Poe went next, then Rey and Chewie, before Leia joined in with the slightly hysterical laughter. Finn, one of the stolen, rubbed his head. It eased the tension in the glade. Ben looked at them all, surprised, then shrugged and sat on the ground.
“The first crack was Rey,” he said. “I wasn’t on stable ground anyway, but once she got in my head and didn’t get out of it, I panicked.”
“How did that happen?” Rey asked, leaning forward and looking at Luke. “This Force-bond. What is it?”
“It’s rare,” Luke said. “I’ve done as much research as I could on it, and that’s not much. It used to happen sometimes between master and student. Sometimes between partners.”
Leia watched closely, and both Ben and Rey blushed at that.
“I think it’s Rey’s fault,” Luke said, and the girl jerked upright, her eyebrows flying together while she opened her mouth and inhaled, clearly gearing up for a tirade.
I like her, Leia thought, and Luke grinned at her.
“I think,” he said, a little louder, to forestall the girl, “that because you had no idea what you were doing, you followed Ben’s lead and did it a little too well. You ran back along the track he’d made from his mind to yours and went too deep. Gripped too hard.”
“Oh,” she said, visibly upset.
“It’s all right,” Ben said, and, softly, “it’s all right,”
Until she looked up him and nodded.
“I mean, it’s damned inconvenient. But I wouldn’t be here now without it,” he said.
Rey sat back and nodded again.
“The second crack was. Was.”
He jumped up and paced, and Leia leaned into Chewbacca, knowing what was coming.
“He had told me for years. Snoke. That I was weak because of my father. That the blood of Han Solo was an obstacle that stood between me and my family’s destiny. That his very existence kept me chained.”
Finn and Rey leaned together, remembering with tear-streaked faces, while Poe tried to make his compact body large enough to envelop them both. He was still so loved, her Han. She put her arms around Chewbacca.
“And so I. I did it.”
Leia tried to rise and go to him, but
Please, Mother. Please, I have to get through this.
She stayed. Because he asked it of her, even though she could read how he was reliving it. Would always do so. Would always hurt.
“He knew, I think,” Ben said, hands curled into fists, staring at the ground as if willing a hole to open up and swallow him.
“He knew what I was asking, and did it. Let. Me.”
He took a long, shuddering breath.
“And he. Touched me. My face. As if he still. Loved me. Anyway.”
“He did,” Chewie roared.
Ben nodded and wiped his face.
“And then Finn and Rey set about showing me some things about the misconceptions in my training.”
He looked at Luke.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever stuck a saber in Finn’s hands, but his technique wasn’t so bad, given his minimal Force-sense. Rey’s technique was terrible, of course. I hope you’re correcting that.”
“Interesting,” Luke said. “It’d be nice to have a student who doesn’t treat a saber like a long stick. I’ll have to try him out.”
By the end of that, Finn and Rey had gotten the joke and were staring at Ben with their mouths open.
“They did themselves great credit. Of course, they’re lucky I had a mortal wound and a broken heart at the time, or who knows what might have happened?”
“Wasn’t mortal,” Chewbacca said, “you’re still here. Count yourself lucky I chose against my clear head shot, cub.”
Leia briefly turned to ice, and Ben rocked back on his heels.
“I do,” he said, “believe me, but it took a while.”
He cleared his throat and kicked at the ground.
“So. Hux fetched me at Snoke’s orders, and I spent a few weeks in a bacta tank, dreaming about Rey’s green island in the middle of the ocean. Watching my father die, over and over. Lost in my own head, while those cracks grew bigger. If Snoke had foreseen it, he’d have taken me immediately, but he wanted me healthy to. Complete my training.”
Leia leaned forward. This was the part no one knew yet. She didn’t want to hear it, but she wanted to know.
“It was worse than anything I’d known. His disappointment was. Stunning. Starkiller Base lost, the Resistance unbroken, and I’d performed my great act of betrayal but came back – still not enough. There was no way he could hurt me that would satisfy him. He could not believe that I’d been bested by an untrained girl. And it was that, I think, that finally got through.”
His face went blank.
“I was pinned. To the floor, by my neck. Snoke was rummaging through my brain as usual, not finding what he wanted. Shouting “a girl” this and “a mere girl” that, and I realized that he had transferred his focus. That I was no longer the one in whom he placed his hopes. And I saw all of it, all at once: the lies at the root of everything I had believed to be true and necessary. Snoke saw it. He laughed. He made it clear that I had two paths before me: to be the great sacrifice that created his new apprentice, or to be set at stud. For her. To make an apprentice he could have from birth.”
He gestured toward Rey, who was up on her knees.
“And I could not continue, knowing how wrong I had been. The lie was too much – I refused to suffer for it anymore. The one thing I had always been able to keep secret from Snoke, from everyone, was my ability to hide. I used it. For the first time, I felt clear in my purpose. Disciplined. I stole a ship and piloted it very badly, until I got to the first likely port and ditched that ship for one that wouldn’t have a First Order tracker in it, and set about being seen. Pushed at the bond, in the hope that you would find me first.”
He looked at Luke.
“Which you did, much to my relief. I assumed you would execute me. Do me the courtesy of setting me free.”
He spread his hands.
“But I am here. And I don’t know how to go on.”
Leia thought of the baby she had once held, and the first time he smiled at her, all spit and gums. How she had thought that she would give the galaxy to him, whole and peaceful, so that he would only know joy. When instead he had known nothing but suffering.
Rey rose to her feet and walked toward Ben – slowly, but without hesitation. When they stood toe to toe, she stared up at his face briefly, then embraced him.
Ben stood stiff, an expression of panic on his face.
Finn groaned and made a gesture that clearly meant, “put your arms around her, dummy.” Ben did, rested his forehead on top of her head, and something in him relaxed.
Leia felt a tension like thunder in the distance. Then the bright, cold light of Rey’s energy and Ben’s shadow merged. The air around them felt huge with possibility: even the trees seemed to lean toward that pillar of gentle grey light with currents swirling lazily through it. Light and shadow in harmony. Leia reached for it and found only peace: not a hard-fought stillness, but the natural grace of one calm breath.
“Oh, we’ve all been so wrong,” Luke said, “we’ve had it backwards all along.”
“Are they gonna tell us what’s going on?” Finn whispered loudly to Poe, who said,
“I damn well hope so.”
Rey leaned back and looked at Ben, who stared down at her as if the world had been reborn. Leia held her breath.
“We might be stuck together permanently,” Rey said.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Oh, I’ll learn to live with it,” she said, “as long as you stop slagging my saber skills, otherwise I’ll kill you.”
“No promises,” he said, and she thumped him in the chest.
“You’ll teach me that hiding thing, yeah?”
She stumped back to Poe and Finn and promptly had a good cry, but she was smiling while she did it. That gave Leia the opening she’d been waiting for without one shred of patience, to go to her son and hold onto him.
“My love,” she said, “my son. Welcome home.”
They made a rowdy table at dinner, crowded into Ben’s small quarters, still guarded but no longer locked. Rey kept trying to describe what had happened between her and Ben, until Ben said, “I don’t know any other synonyms for the word ‘merge,’ Rey,” and she stuck her tongue out at him.
Is this how people act?
Leia grinned and leaned in to whisper,
“Let them teach you how to have a sense of humor. Force knows you won’t learn it from any of us Skywalkers.”
“I heard that,” Luke said.
“I have a sense of humor,” Chewbacca said. “You people just don’t understand it.”
After dinner, when they were sprawled around the room, getting drunk on some terrible contraband liquor that Poe – of course – had scrounged up and watching the moon rise, Ben said,
“Snoke will have seen that. He’ll know where I am now.”
“Not necessarily,” Luke mused. “He might not understand it. I don’t, really, and I was there.”
Ben shook his head, and Rey reached over from her tangle with Finn and Poe to take his hand.
“No, this is the end of it. Of this.”
His sadness was a habit. Leia leaned into him.
“We’ve got scouts and perimeter markers set five planets out,” Poe slurred in a sleepy voice. “There’s no sense in jumping ship until you know for sure it’s on fire.”
“And in the meantime, let’s find out what you and Rey can do,” Luke said. “I’ll admit, given my disastrous history, that I doubt my ability to train anyone. But I’ll help you. Both of you.”
Ben took to his greater freedom like a plant in the sun. The members of the Resistance glared at him sidelong, until his presence was no longer new. He spent a lot of time with Chewbacca, working on the Falcon. Leia saw how it rippled through the base, the one hot day that Ben peeled his flight suit down to his waist, his torso exposed for all to see. Three quarters of the base found an excuse to stroll through the tarmac, and afterward the glances held more sympathy and curiosity than fear.
She sat with them for as long as she could stand the stories. But every time, Leia reached a point where she could not hear another word about the life Han lived without her.
“I’ll stop asking,” Ben offered one evening.
“Absolutely not,” she said, “you soak up every word you can. There’ll come a time when I ask those questions too.”
“He loved us,” Ben said, looking at her through his hair, with a hint of a question mark at the end.
Ben sat in control and helped construct a detailed map of Snoke’s palace, with everything he could remember about traps and personnel. He listed off the members of the Knights of Ren and their strengths, flinching as he did so. Rey waited for him in the hallway after that meeting.
“No crumpling tables,” she said. “Let’s go hit trees with sticks.”
There was no way Luke and Leia would pass up watching that. Luke leaned back on his elbows and shouted the occasional advice, while Leia watched them through softened eyes, so she could see their two energies swirl around one another, giving hints of that beautiful, calm grey.
“Let’s try this,” Ben said after a while, and pulled Rey over so their feet touched.
Luke sat up.
The light and shadow sparked against one another briefly, then merged again, just as lovely as Leia remembered, with that same uncomplicated peacefulness. Ben and Rey moved like two halves of a whole, each of them holding just a twig, but together they knocked the tree down. Leia jumped.
“Oh no!” Rey shouted, and the grey energy sputtered.
“Wait,” Ben said in a soft voice, “wait, don’t let it go. We can do this.”
He took her hand.
“Look. You know how to lift. Just pull it up. No, gently, back to its original spot. You hold it, and I’ll. Try something.”
Luke gripped Leia’s arm, hard. Leia broke out into chill-flesh.
Rey pulled the tree upright. Every time she faltered, Ben squeezed her hand or murmured encouragement, and soon the tree stood vertical again in its tumult of soil. Ben knelt down and put his hands on the ground.
“Oh, right,” Rey said, “like healing.”
The tree settled into the earth. There was a surge, like a shout, and even though it was summer, every branch popped out in new buds.
“That was amazing!” Rey said. “I don’t even feel tired! You?”
Ben shook his head.
Beside her, Luke was rigid and trembling.
“What’s wrong? Luke?”
“It’s not about light,” Luke said. “It was never about light. Or darkness. It’s about life, and the death which is part of it.”
“Please don’t tell me that’s a bad thing.”
“Oh, no,” he said, turning toward her with shining eyes. “No. It’s balance. And it was only blindness that kept us all from it. They’re a miracle.”
Leia watched Ben smile up at the tree, and thought that he would’ve been a miracle anyway. Just by coming home.
The demonstration turned Luke scientific, and he annoyed Ben and Rey into fits with his tests. Tension ramped up on the base the day he set them at lightsabers. Finn and Poe couldn’t stay away, but they couldn’t bear to watch, either. Leia was sympathetic to their plight.
Ben’s lightsaber was terrible. Terrifying, with its harsh buzz and flame-like edges. But it looked like a dance, the two of them, once they locked eyes, and not a battle. They tested their own edges and found none, and then it was pure play, red against blue, the two of them whirling too fast for eyes to see. Leia was no saberwoman, but she could tell that Ben had been right about Rey’s technique, and she grinned.
“You use that thing as if it had weight,” Luke said to Ben afterward.
“I learned with a durasteel blade, got into the habit.”
“And you,” Luke turned on Rey, “if you refuse to change, I’m going to make you build a double-bladed saber and start over from the beginning.”
Rey took a step back and put her hand to her throat, looking lustful.
“They make double-bladed ones?”
Ben grinned at her.
Another month, and word filtered down through their intelligence networks that First Order ships were making their way around to this quadrant of the Outer Rim. Leia felt cold with the idea that time was growing short already.
“No, I must leave,” Ben insisted, “I won’t put everyone here in danger.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Mother. You can’t. You’re needed here.”
“I won’t let you go again.”
He took her hands.
I am never far from you.
“But I’ll miss your face,” she said.
He kissed her hands.
“This scarred-up old thing? Don’t be ridiculous.”
But where would he go? Where in the galaxy would be safe. They had another dinner conference with everyone.
“Look,” Rey said, “he wants you, but he wants me too. Are we better off together or separate?”
“Separate,” Ben said too swiftly for anyone to miss that he spoke from fear.
“I vote together,” she said, “and I guarantee that I’ll win this fight.”
Leia hadn’t seen Ben glower like that since just after he arrived. She had no doubt the girl would win, and even less doubt that Ben had no idea what he was getting into. She looked over at Chewie, whose nose was twitching with suppressed laughter.
She flashed her amusement at Ben, who broke of his glower to stare at her.
“Maybe,” Finn mused, “I mean, if it was up to me Rey would stay here –“
“Spill it,” Rey commanded.
“But the First Order’s all about big shows of power, right? They’re not agile. They don’t move quickly.”
“Oh,” Ben said, “whereas we could move very quickly. Lead them on a chase.”
Giving the Resistance time to make a plan and put things in place to rid them of Snoke. Or, worst case, give Ben and Rey time to grow until they could defeat him.
“It could work,” Leia said.
“Set up pre-planned secure channels, so you can check in,” Poe added, “and maybe help out a few folks while you’re knocking around.”
“Yes,” Luke said. “Hone your skills.”
“Balance the scales,” Ben said.
“Yes,” Rey said, “we’ll do it.”
They would take the Falcon, of course. Rey thought of it as home already, and it was big enough to rattle around the galaxy without giving them claustrophobia. Ben and Rey, but not Chewbacca, who refused flat.
“Those two do not need a babysitter,” he said, and laughed.
Leia didn’t know whether it was Ben’s own wishes or his doing her a kindness, but he stuck as close to her for the last few days as he ever did when he was small. He kept his arm around her when he could, held her hand.
‘I could have had this all along,’ she thought, ‘if only.’
“Mother,” he asked the night before they left, “will it be possible? For me to make amends?”
“Will it be for me?”
And he looked at her, shocked. She took his dear face in her hands.
“All we can do is try, Ben Solo. Try, and if we fall, get up and try again. But I’ll always help you up, if you do fall. Always.”
She stood with Luke the next morning on a small rise overlooking the Falcon, the better to wave as they lifted off. Chewbacca and the boys were busy trundling last-minute items aboard, likely things that no one really needed, while Ben paced in front of the ramp, ready to stop waiting and go.
“I can’t believe Chewie isn’t going with them,” Luke said.
“Oh, I can,” Leia said, putting so much suggestiveness in the phrase that Luke turned purple in the face. She laughed.
“That’s almost as bad as Ben’s face when I made him get a contraceptive implant.”
“The burdens of motherhood are many,” she said.
Ben had turned to where they stood, shading his eyes.
I can feel you laughing at me.
She laughed again. Let herself feel a little joy.
What else can you feel?
She set herself open; took Luke’s hand so he would feel it too, and he joined her. Rey was there, looking on from just outside but present, as Ben stood straighter, reached up to wave.
I feel it, he told them.