When they send Ben to Uncle Luke to receive his magical education, it feels like a solution looking for a problem. Or a solution to problems, but not his problems.
"You're angry all the time," his mother says. "You're miserable. We've tried so many things, and none of them seem to work."
"I didn't mean to do the thing with the chairs," Ben says. "I'm sorry," he adds, though he said that at the time, and also, if he didn't mean to do something, should he really apologize for it? From the way his mother's mouth quirks, she senses the same contradiction.
(They were at the dinner table; his father made a sour remark, his mother snapped back, and suddenly both his parents' chairs turned to dust, dumping them flat on their backs. His mother was holding a wine glass. She had to get Ben's father to get a piece of glass out of her thumb.)
"That's just the problem, Ben," says his mother. "You didn't mean to. All this magical potential needs an outlet, and without training, you can't give it one."
Ben's fists are already clenched, but he's not mad, not really. If he were truly angry, he wouldn't make things shatter or turn green - he'd say the things that make his mother wince. You could teach me. Like the other pureblood families teach their kids. He knows she can't, because his mother wasn't trained either. She didn't even know she was a wizard until she was nearly twice his age. It's not her fault, and it's not his father's fault he's a Squib. And it's not Ben's fault he's mad all the time, especially if that's just the magic in him trying to get out.
He didn't ask to have this much magic.
His mother would have loved to go to a wizard school, which is probably why she thinks he'll have such a great time with Uncle Luke the Hero of Britain, and a bunch of kids Luke found who-knows-where.
"I don't want to go," he says.
"I don't want you to go either," his mother says. "But I think that if you do, in a few years we'll both look back on this decision and say it was the right one."
Your decision, Ben thinks. And nothing, nothing changes his mother's mind once she's made it.
He goes and sits with his father for a bit. His father is in the workshop, fiddling with something mechanical. Ben's never had an interest in how his father makes things work, but there's something kind of soothing about the way he works: polishing, oiling, tightening screws, squinting at things, dabbing with glue or solder. Ben's magical outbursts don't happen as often in his father's workshop. He's not sure if that's because electricity and magic don't get along, or because his father's got a different way of being stubborn, and it doesn't seem to make Ben as angry as his mother's way does.
Ben is the sixth child to arrive at Luke's School of Wizardry. The other kids are as sickeningly adoring of Uncle Luke as Ben thought they would be, but not for the reasons he was expecting.
To Ben, Uncle Luke is the hero of the Great Wizarding War, who fought against his father, the Boy who Lived, who himself destroyed the balance of the Wizarding Council and ushered in the Purges of witches and wizards not born to pureblood families.
To these kids, Luke is the mysterious, kind man who sent them an owl to say that they have power they never knew they had. And it bugs Ben, because they don't even know what Luke can do.
When he tells them Luke has killed people, they look at him as though he's put worms in their shoes. They are sops.
He decides right away that he isn't going to go soppy every time Luke turns up in the classroom. Plus that would be weird, since Luke is his uncle. Even though Uncle Luke deserves it, for being a hero and saving his parents' lives a million times.
Plus Luke tries to be nice to him. "I was fostered by my uncle and aunt, and I didn't like it much either," he says, as if that means he knows how Ben feels. But that was worlds different - Ben's life isn't in danger, and Luke didn't get sent to live with his "uncle" because his "uncle" wanted to experiment in how wizards used to be trained back in the old days. (Supposedly. Before the first Pureblood purges, when there were actually enough wizards to have a school. Even Ben can see how dumb it was that the pureblood in his grandfather's era wanted to whittle down the wizard blood with purges. There were hardly any of them left.)
He isn't jealous of the other students and everything they get out of worshipping the ground Luke walks on, except once - when Kirsten, the seventh student, arrives at Luke's school. He gets to watch when the Portkey drops her in the front hall and she gets to look around - at the ghosts, who are just as nosy and less discreet than the students, at the moving portraits, at the ceiling and the grand staircases and the candles floating in the air. At the look of wonder on her face, Ben imagines, just once, what it would have been like if he'd gone to Luke ages ago. It could have been him standing beside Luke on the steps, every time, with each new student, getting to watch their dawning awe. Instead of just being part of the school, he could have helped Luke create it.
And maybe he wouldn't have been so angry, for as long as he can remember.
The training is helping. He can do simple spells with words and gestures alone - Lumos, Alohomora, Revelio. Petrificalis for when the moving staircases are about to take him in the opposite of his intended direction and it's best to get off.
He has an uneasy relationship with the others; the first five students Luke took on are close, and they welcomed starry-eyed Kristen as one of them, but are reluctant to let him in to their special circle. (It's ridiculous to have an elite, sworn circle of 'brothers and sisters in magic' when it's everyone except Ben, but whatever, they're already living their very own power fantasies, they can have their fantastical friendship arrangement too.)
One evening when a game after dinner turns into shouting, Ben can feel the anger mounting, just as it used to at home, and it would serve them right, but he doesn't want to break something, this is what going to school was supposed to fix - and a light goes off inside his mind.
He turns away from the others without a further word and walks to the edge of the Great Lake. "Lumos," he shouts into the darkness. "Lumos! Lumos! Lumos!" His voice cracks. The ball of light above him grows and rises. "Lumos! Lumos! Lumos!" He shouts, not at the top of his voice but as intensely as he can, until the light above him is at the level of the castle towers, illuminating them all. It's reflected on the dull winter clouds; it has turned the surface of the lake into a golden mirror; the air is almost warm.
His throat hurts, but his head is clear.
He goes back to the castle. It's nearly time for bed. No one bothers him, though the other students trickle in - it seems they abandoned their game. At the sinks, brushing his teeth, he catches Eric's eyes, and Eric looks away. In the dorm, Russell drops his pen when Ben comes in.
It takes him a while to realise that they're scared of him, as though his magical effort were a demonstration for them, a threat.
Fine. They can think that way if they want to. They're half right. If he's going to do anything to them, at least it'll be something he planned.
Paradoxically, Oscar starts a prank war, and it defuses tensions a little. The only rules - at least, the only rules that are stated - are that a prank has to use magic and can't cause anyone serious injury. Ben's Protego charm is the best of all the students', so his stuff's safe and the others have to do creative things to get to him. And, well, if someone's temper causes something really weird to happen, the prank war serves as camouflage.
(Ben isn't the only person whose strong emotions sometimes make things happen. The others, so far as he's noticed, anyway, are Kristen and Yvonne. For Yvonne, stuff seems to happen when she's frightened. Ben isn't touching that one.)
He misses his parents, but when they come to visit the school, it isn't a good thing. It's embarrassing watching his mother subtly dispel the ghosts and work the staircases for his father, and he can see it gets on his father's nerves too. People without magic aren't supposed to be here.
Luke cancels classes all afternoon to talk to Ben's parents, which makes everyone annoyed at Ben, even though some of the other students are too saintly to admit it. It was supposed to be their first lesson on riding broomsticks. Then, as the cherry on the cake, when they finally come to see him, it's to confess that he can't go home for his twelfth birthday, because the great Wizarding Alliance leaders Han Solo and Leia Organa have to help negotiate a peace with the northern giants.
He's still kind of mad at them for that when he goes home for Christmas. They've brought him a huge golden egg from one of the giants' hens, but it's more a reminder than it is a peace offering. It sucks to have his proper birthday present and his Christmas present be the same thing, even if it's a really cool thing. And it's too heavy to take with him back to the castle, to show off to everyone.
(His father's stories about the negotiations are hilarious though, and some of them make Ben double over with laughter, except that when he catches his breath and looks around at his parents, again, the relief on their faces hurts. No, he thinks, we are not a perfect happy family just because you made me laugh, and he resolves not to let himself let his guard down again.)
In the second year at the wizarding school, his voice starts changing, and so do other things that are more embarrassing but happily less obvious, except in the showers. The worst, though, is that his rage starts climbing again.
No, the worst is when he gets word (by Muggle post, because doesn't his father know anyone with owls?) that a meeting with the centaurs was infiltrated by a rebel centaur group, and one of the rebels has cursed his mother.
Luke opens up a channel in his very own office fireplace to allow Ben to talk to his father. That's serious magic, setting up both ends of a conversation at once, and Ben's touched, but he's also so scared that sparks are dancing off his fingertips. Luke doesn't say anything, just gets him a cup of tea, and Ben wishes that he'd go, but okay, this is Luke's sister too.
But it makes what he has to say harder.
After his father's updated them on Leia's condition - "she's weak right now, but she's talking, and all the new spots are coming up green, not purple-black, which the healers say is the best sign right now -" Ben says, slowly, holding up his hands to speak for him,
"I don't think I can come see her. I think it might be too dangerous."
He doesn't know what he expects his father to say, but he hopes Luke, at least, will tell him he's wrong. Everyone looks at Ben's hands. No one says anything.
"That is wise of you, Ben," Luke says at last, even as Ben's heart sinks into some much duller feeling, and the sparks start to die away. "I will go, for a few days, and tell Leia all about your progress. For all we know, you will be able to visit her when I return."
His father has a quizzical look on his face like he never thought about how Ben might actually hurt someone. Surprised like maybe he expected this to not be a problem any more. But it's not as if Ben's ever had to deal with someone cursing his mother before, and he only found out about it a few hours ago, and well, some people get the shakes, some people get sparks.
His mother is all right, but it takes a lot longer than the healers' first prognoses. By the time Ben visits, there's no scarring. "I wish I could have been there for you," he says, awkward despite how much he means it.
"I know," she says. "I looked terrible, though. Ugh."
And that's why I couldn't come see you, he thinks, and feels a stab of anger at everything that's unfair.
When he sits with his father, writing an essay in the corner of his workshop while his father works on his latest thing, the quality of the silence is different to how Ben remembered it as a kid, and it bothers him that he can't think of anything to say.
In the third year of their training, the students make their wands.
A wand, Luke tells them, requires a magical source and sympathetic wood. He brings in a wizened old woman, Maz, whom Ben suspects is actually part-goblin, to determine for each of them which kind of wood that should be. She disagrees with Luke on everything. Luke doesn't seem to care. "It's a waste of magical ingredients, asking amateurs to make their own wands," she tells him, shaking her head. "The wand chooses the wizard! How can it do that if it doesn't know itself?"
"My wizards," Luke returns drily, "know themselves and their magic better than the eleven-year-old pureblood children you are accustomed to serving."
"That's as may be," Maz says, and her gaze lingers uncomfortably on Ben. She tells him he'll do best with poplar or birch. Ling will do best with hazel. Yvonne, she says, should have yew.
For the magical source, Luke tells them, he has decided that unicorn hair will do as well as any other ingredient, and moreover, they are to collect it themselves: there are unicorns in the Forest, so they shall embark on a unicorn hunt.
They are weeks in the preparations. Catching a unicorn requires a golden bridle. Ben convinces Luke to allow him to visit home so that he can scrape gold off the giant egg. (It cracks open. There's a golden harp inside. He's not sure how he feels about that.) They have to fast, and drink weird potions that they brew themselves; they have to calculate which constellations best shine favour upon the endeavour, and scry for each other in tea leaves to ensure that no student's personal bad fortune will prevent success.
It's actually fun. Ben lets the other students have some of his gold to spin into straw to weave with.
They go out to the hunt laden with bells - some of which are designed to lure unicorns, some of which are apparently going to scare off the other things that live in the Forest. There are many. They've never before been allowed to go so far in that they can't see the castle; now, they leave it almost instantly behind.
Ben doesn't actually mean to get separated from the others. It just happens that way. It's a warm spring noon when they enter the Forest; the shadows there fall as far as if the only times that exist under the trees are dusk, dawn, and full dark. He thinks he hears their voices over to the north, and at a whim, goes east. He casts the spells he's been practising, and lets his feet make their own decisions about where to go.
Slowly, he becomes aware of something near him, keeping pace with him. Its footsteps don't keep time with his - they are heavier, and he hears one footfall (paw-fall? hoof-fall?) to every two of his.
"Who are you?" he calls.
His companion laughs, and a particularly dark patch of shadow turns to face him, eyes shining out like two oval mirrors. The creature is taller than him.
"What have you to trade me for my name?" it asks.
"Lumos," Ben says, and sees a humanoid figure with dull, pale skin, whose eyes are the largest thing in its face. It has no nose to speak of. It laughs.
"I know you well, Ben," it says, "from lumos. Since you shouted it into the sky, I have been very interested to see how your power will develop. I am not disappointed."
"You have a name of me unwillingly," Ben says. He's not sure how this should go, but he'll do his best to bargain. "Tell me yours that there may be nothing owed between us."
The creature laughs again. "You haven't paid for it. But - to place you in my debt - it is Snoke that you may call me."
He has never heard of a Snoke.
"You are searching for unicorn hair," Snoke says. "It is a pity that you are still so innocent that you may find it. There is some there, if that is all you want." It points with a four-jointed finger.
Only a moment ago, the creature was treating his name as a commodity, and now he is giving Ben the object of his quest for free. There must be a catch.
"What do you mean," Ben says, "if that is all I want?"
"Your power is extraordinary," Snoke says. "In your lessons with the sage, you believe you are learning to control it. Instead you are stifling it. You feel deeply, and your heart is a heart of power - is that not a thing you humans know to be true, that power is found in the heart? But you are learning to cast spells instead of feeling. One day you will have neither magic nor feeling."
"That," says Ben, "doesn't sound like any magical theory I've ever heard."
Snoke shrugs. "I do not understand humans," it says. "Perhaps you would prefer to have neither pain nor power. If that is so, take the unicorn hair, and go back to your master, and be at peace."
That is what he wants - or wanted, once. Isn't it?
Yes - when he was eleven, and had no idea what magic could do...
"You are unsure," Snoke says, and he sounds disappointed. "Let me ask you one question. As a child, you were angry always. Did you ever understand why, or merely that you were angry?"
"You can tell me why I was an angry child?" Ben asks scornfully - well, says, because he doesn't mean it as a question. He starts to step past the creature, to get at the unicorn hair. He's covered in bells and charms; most denizens of the Forest should need to retreat as he approaches.
"I can tell you a truth of your past, your present, and your future," Snoke replies, "and as a token of my intentions, I will give you this." It opens up his left hand, which it had held closed at its side until now, and the light that shines from its palm is brighter than Ben's charm. There is a feather there.
"A phoenix feather," Ben says.
"The same," Snoke says. "This will suit you far better than any unicorn's hair. Though you make take that, and make as if to use it, if it will make Luke happy." It says that last with a sneer.
Ben collects both without speaking, and turns.
"My truths," Snoke calls after him. "You have not heard them."
"I'm not certain I want them."
"Wise, perhaps," Snoke says, "but that was the bargain. Your past truth is that you were born to be Anakin Skywalker's true heir, in power and purpose. Your present truth is that there are one hundred and twenty-nine freckles on your body. And your future truth is that you will fall in love with Luke Skywalker, if you have not already done so."
"What," Ben says, in complete disbelief, and Snoke laughs.
"I will never lie to you, Ben," he says. "But I will save my other truths for when you are ready for them." And before Ben can think of another retort, Snoke breaths on Ben's Lumos light, putting it out, and vanishes into the Forest.
Ben is the first student back out of the Forest.
He thinks of telling Luke about Snoke, but every time, he remembers Snoke's last truth, and he can't. It doesn't matter that it isn't true. He can't imagine telling Luke without Luke realising that he's not telling everything, and he can't, he can't tell his uncle that he's supposed to be in love with him.
It's six months before Luke sees Snoke again.
It turns out that the other reason Luke decided everyone should use unicorn hair for their wands is that he expects everyone to botch their first attempts. Between them all, there is enough hair for two or three attempts for each student. (Russell not only caught a unicorn, but managed to lure its companion over to be brushed as well. Ben wonders what that says about Russell.)
Ben doesn't mean to use the phoenix feather. He keeps it locked in a box with his most private things. But he comes across Kristen crying one day, which is completely unlike her - and he's had a soft spot for her ever since he found out that she makes things happen with anger, too.
"My last try is ruined," she sobs. "No one else has any unicorn hair left, and I don't want to have to go back in there. I just don't." Ben hasn't asked about what anyone else saw in the Forest, because he was too caught up in what Snoke said to him, but he remembers that some of the students came back looking frightened or upset. He remembers that Kristen was one of them.
He has enough unicorn hair left for a third try, and he has a wand of poplar ready for a core. But he also has a phoenix feather.
"I have some," he tells Kristen. "Not for free, mind."
"I'll pay you back," she assures him. "It means so much to me."
"All right," Ben says. "Just don't tell anyone."
"I promise," she says.
When he tries to make a wand of poplar and phoenix feather, it feels right. It comes together on the first try, and when it's make, he casts Lumos and lights up the Astronomy Tower.
The problem with having the perfect wand is that he knows he owes it to Snoke.
It's almost a relief when he goes down to the Lake in the late spring of his fourth year with Luke and sees a large, pale, humanoid figure sitting at the end of the dock. "I have followed your progress with interest," Snoke tells him. Ben doesn't ask just how Snoke is spying on events within the castle. "You disappoint me."
Ben's lip curls. "I don't think I care if I disappoint you," he says. If this is all Snoke has to say to him, he's better off avoiding him.
"You should," Snoke says. "If your sage is to become your lover -" and whoa, that's intensely uncomfortable - "you will need a mentor."
"You keep talking about teaching me things," Ben says, "as if there's no catch."
"You are the catch," Snoke says, "If I understand your sayings correctly." There's a distinctly mocking tone in his voice, and he reaches below the surface of the water, brings his weird hand up with a fish, and holds it in the air for a moment as if to innocently demonstrate his words. He lets the fish go again. Ben lets out his breath.
"By teaching you, I have the chance to shape the most powerful wizard of his generation," Snoke says. "Who wouldn't want that, to stand at your shoulder? Your parents have never understood you. They fear your power. Your mentor treats you no differently than any other student, though you are the best and kin to him beside. Why do you prefer that?"
"You're setting me up with a god complex," Ben says, disgusted, partly disgusted at himself.
"You may always choose to ignore my words," says Snoke. "At your own peril, of course."
Ben draws a breath.
He has been expecting Snoke to return, and he hasn't exactly failed to prepare.
"If you wish to teach me," he says. "You must swear to always tell me the truth: both asked and unasked. You must act in my interests when you learn of a threat to me; you must share with me anything you believe to benefit me. This you will swear with an Unbreakable Oath."
Snoke half-hisses, half laughs. "An Unbreakable Oath!" he repeats. He does not sound impressed. He probably doesn't think Ben can pull it off. He's wrong.
"I swear," he says at last, and Ben recites the spell and feels it take effect. Snoke meets his eyes when the spell is done, and there's more respect than he's ever seen there, but the triumph is still there too.
He's not wrong about Luke.
Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt. Perhaps it's Snoke's fault, for placing the idea in his head (and he does have one hundred and twenty-nine freckles; he used magic to count); but first Ben begins to dream about him, and then, when returning from a visit with Leia and Han (difficult; he tries to discuss magic with them, and they try to discuss politics, and nothing really clicks), he sees Luke's face and the bottom drops out of his stomach and damn. This is stupid and weird and wrong and maybe it's because the only boys or men Ben sees nowadays are Oscar and Russell and Eric and they're idiots - and besides, Luke is everything they want to be in life and they do a poor job of living up to him - but Luke is unfailingly present in Ben's mind.
He has asked Luke about his father, Ben's grandfather, before, and Luke has hesitated to answer; now he asks Luke about himself instead. He didn't want to know before. He's late to the party.
The others are easier with Luke, closer; he sees that Luke knows them better than he has ever bothered to, despite living in dorms with them and sharing meals. He's jealous. It's painful. This is one emotion he knows he will never manage to harness.
Snoke isn't so sure.
Snoke, to Ben's surprise, sets him book-learning work as often as Luke does. He questions Ben precisely on what lessons Luke has taught, and then tells Ben things that contradict them, and sends him to the library time and time again to try to figure out what is right. Ben reminds himself that Snoke may be telling him the truth as he knows it, but that there is rarely an objective truth. And, he has come to realise, Snoke is fond of telling half-truths when he can, merely to thwart his oath.
He is tired, and overworked, and incredibly lonely. He does not bother to answer his parents' letters, whether by owl or by post. Luke calls him into his office one day, to ask him about this, and although he tells Ben he is working too hard, and Ben promises him he will answer his letters, he only feels angry - the old kind of anger that came from somewhere very far down - that this is why he has come to Luke's attention.
It is the seventh year of his magical education under Luke - not so under Luke as Luke thinks - and Ben has begun to ask Snoke about a thing he has been hinting, a final step in the rise to power that Snoke has been predicting since they met, a magical procedure that shall establish him firmly as the wizard of his age.
Despite the truth-oaths, Snoke answers with riddles (truths, but not whole-truths). It is not until Ben solves them to reveal a word - Horcrux - that Snoke answers with a question.
"Once you know, I bind you to act," he says, and it's not an oath spell Ben knows, but he can feel the stirrings of power. "Will you still ask?"
"Yes," Ben says, and if it's too quickly, it's because he's wondered for months.
Snoke tells him what he has to do.
He's in Luke's office for perhaps the last time, or the first - deaths and births are all tied up together, he's come to discover. He came of his own free will, because there are two paths before him, and he can see them very clearly. He can put himself, his anger and his unwanted lust (is it love? He doesn't know) in Luke's hands, or he can destroy everything Luke's built to gain his own power.
"I love you," he tells his first mentor, and Luke's face shuts him out, horror and dismay and guilt speaking before he can.
"Never mind," Ben says, though Luke calls after him five steps later.
He uses a Time-Turner to set the stage of the duels; he meets each student on the killing field of the last, though that is true only of his timeline, not theirs. In each broken wand he places a piece of his soul, drawing out theirs; he feels it twine around the unicorn hair that he gave Kristen, once.
When he is done, invincible against anything Luke can do, he has a new name: Kylo Ren, one letter for each dead student, and one left of his own.