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The Sorrows of Young Solo

Chapter Text

When Ben entered the hollow space in the wall between the bunk and one of the cargo holds, the first thing that struck him was that it felt much smaller than he remembered. What had seemed for a long time like an entire room primed for hours of youthful activity showed itself today for what it truly was: a dark, bare, narrow compartment not intended for lengthy visits.

His mother was right—he was growing incredibly fast these days. When they'd said farewell that morning, he had realized that he now actually surpassed her in height. He’d had to dip his head a little as Leia reached to kiss his forehead and smooth a wave of his dark hair back down over the spot her lips touched. Of course, his outsizing her was no great feat given her small stature, but it was nonetheless one she’d seen fit to comment on with uncharacteristic sentimentality.

She had looked at him, too, in a way he hadn’t seen her do before. Like she was both seeing him where he stood and looking for something beyond him; searching past the son she loved. What she could have been seeking was lost on Ben. And the impression of it had been so fleeting and subtle that by the time the Falcon took off and began preparing for the jump to hyperspace, Ben convinced himself he hadn’t seen it at all and undertook the task of occupying himself.

Almost a year had passed since he’d last been inside the Falcon for any prolonged period of time. Maybe more. At eleven years old, which was still an age when a span of mere months could feel like years, he couldn’t recall when his last visit occurred or what he had done during it.

What he could recall was the odd thrill of years spent discovering the hideaways within the freighter’s walls, between its cargo holds, and under its floor panels, committing each one to memory, and then tucking himself away in them when he saw fit to do so. It was, after all, a ship modified over many years to aid the activities of a smuggler. It had no shortage of tricks, even if his father already knew them all and rarely had any trouble tracking Ben down in the ship’s labyrinth of passages.

It had started as a game, when Ben was small and still found it funny, when the illusion that Han had no idea where he could possibly be still held. But he was growing older now, and more serious. While it was still true that he would rarely turn down the opportunity for a joke or prank, Ben found more and more that this pursuit, the hiding away, was a habit he wished to maintain as something that was his alone—something of grave import, to be guarded and kept private. He didn’t want Han, or anyone else, to find him. Not when he had things to think about in the solitude it afforded.

Or, in this case, not when he was steadily chipping away at a square of the interior wall with the edge of a screwdriver, wishing he had a vibroknife or a regular knife or anything sharper and more precise. He paused every few seconds to admire his work and make adjustments. Perhaps there was something to be said for the calligraphy lessons he sometimes grumbled about but secretly enjoyed, at least insofar as he had developed a penchant for perfection, even in this act of petty vandalism. The letters were well-formed, symmetric Aurebesh, and when he was finished, his name and the year would be a permanent and secret mark that claimed the space and time spent in it his own.

The feeling of the metal giving way beneath the tip of the tool and the rhythmic tap and scratch of each strike were satisfying in a way that sneaked up on him. They lulled him into a mild trance as the ship hummed around him. Ben continued to etch and think.

He was still trying to decide how he felt about this trip. On the one hand, he was excited to accompany his father. It didn’t happen often, though Han frequently expressed a desire for it, and Ben invariably responded with hopeful enthusiasm. Timing always seemed to prove wrong, or some other hitch in the plan would arise, and Ben would find himself watching from the ground as the lights of the Falcon blurred into stars. To be here now was the realization of what felt to him like an eternity of half-baked plans. The prospect of the Galactic Racing Expo itself was enticing, too. It was sure to be more interesting than the official gatherings he sometimes found himself drafted into attending. There he was usually at Leia’s side, the princess-turned-senator’s son, bored and obliging until he could finally sneak off with the equally bored-and-obliging children of other politicians and dignitaries. Some were friends; some were decidedly less so.

But he also had the distinct impression, maybe incorrect but persistent anyhow, that Leia had some matter to see to that was too important or delicate for him to accompany her. That she was, for reasons unknown, reluctant to leave him with staff and T-2LC for the few days it would take, so she had asked Han to take him along. This bothered him, because it made him feel like a burden, and because he couldn’t figure out how or why he’d gotten the idea in the first place. It sprang on him when he woke in the morning, and he’d been afraid to voice it. Leia was a practical woman, but he was still her child and to know she’d made him feel unwanted would hurt her, so he kept this theory to himself. He was probably wrong. Even if there had been that look this morning. . . .

Ben’s etching hand slipped and the screwdriver nicked sharply across his other hand where it was pressed against the wall for stability. The small flashlight he’d set floating in the air beside him, a simple enough use of the Force even with his lack of formal training, dropped to the floor and switched off. Blood welled from an inch-long cut between his thumb and index finger.

Damn!”

He pressed the oozing wound to his mouth and sucked, prodding the torn flesh around it with his tongue a few times, and winced at the sting and the tang of iron. It was just a cut. He’d done worse to himself playing with friends. Still, he had nothing to wrap it with and was loth to abandon his task, so he cradled the arm in front of his chest to discourage the blood from continuing to flow. He gestured to the fallen flashlight with a finger, and it rose back into the air to hover behind his head.

More annoying than the physical injury was the fact that the slip had left a rather long and unsightly scratch that extended from the bottom line of the second letter ‘besh’ and gouged down several inches against the surface of the wall, all of which he could see clearly in the restored beam of brighter light. An error written into metal was even more difficult to undo than one in ink and, unlike his hand, would not be fixed by a medpac. Ben scowled and rubbed his thumb over it anyway like it might help. It didn’t.

As if some higher power decided that neither of these blunders were enough indignity, the panel Ben had entered the compartment through suddenly slid aside with a rusty shriek. He gasped and twisted his body around, temporarily blinding himself when he looked directly into the flashlight’s beam.

“Hey, kid.” Han was poking his head through the entrance, looking first serious and then amused at his son’s reaction to the interruption. Ben tucked the screwdriver into his back pocket but knew his father had already seen it. It would only be a matter of seconds before he noticed the blood on Ben’s hand, and a few seconds more before he noticed the work of art on the wall. Han plucked the flashlight from the air and tossed it aside onto one of the bunks behind him. “Coming out of hyperspace in five. Landing won’t be long after that. You know what to do, but I’d recommend getting back to a bunk or a chair.”

“Okay. Yeah.” Ben blinked the stars out of his eyes and shuffled to the left in an attempt to obscure the graffitied wall. “Thanks, Dad.”

Han’s brow creased with dawning concern and suspicion. “What happened to your hand?”

Ben looked down to where he still had his injured limb pressed up against his shirt. It wasn’t bleeding fast, but he’d been long enough in doing anything about it that what blood there was had dribbled down the back of his hand and a little way down his wrist. He thought better of sucking at it again, lest he risk receiving a half-hearted lecture on not giving himself an infection. “I . . . uh, slipped with a screwdriver.”

Han held out a hand and indicated that Ben should let him take a look. As he evaluated the cut, he said, tempering his gruffness, “Some repairs in order for this otherwise empty space that I wasn’t aware of? Last I checked, it was lacking any screws.”

Ben looked back over his shoulder at the interior of the compartment and gave an unconvincing show of surprise. “Wow, you are so right! No screws! Guess I’ll just take my skills elsewhere, eh?”

“Try again.”

Ben shrugged, unable to come up with an alternative excuse quickly enough. At least not one that would get by Han Solo, who had likely heard everything and more in his time. He was just delaying the inevitable. “I was bored?”

“I dunno, looks like you’ve been applying some of your skills here already. This is a weird way to hint that you’re tired of the fancy-pants penmanship lessons.”

Han pointed with his chin to the space behind Ben, who didn’t need to look to know the tag had been discovered. Oh well. At least it didn’t look like he was about to be in trouble for it, though Han didn’t exactly sound pleased, either. Maybe it was a good thing an injury was involved now—if his father was going to ream him out for this, he’d likely wait until Ben was no longer actively leaking blood. Maybe, given how close they were to landing, he’d even forget it entirely.

Doubtful.

“C’mon,” Han said, clapping Ben on the shoulder firmly to indicate it wasn’t a suggestion. As Ben crept his way back out through the opening in the wall into the larger bunk area, he felt Han snatch the offending screwdriver from his pocket. “Let’s get some bacta on that hand. Cut’s not too deep. Should be fine by tonight. And while we do that, we can have a fun little chat about disrespect of property.”

Ben almost rolled his eyes, but was already all too conscious of how hot his face had gone at the embarrassment at being found. He wanted to ask how disrespect of property figured in to life as a smuggler, even if Han hadn’t done any of that in years (that Ben knew of) and Ben ordinarily found the stories of it highly entertaining, but that would not go over well at all. Parents had a talent for avoiding discussion of their own missteps, even if those missteps echoed in their children’s decisions. Parents also had a talent for knowing just which of their children’s buttons to push, and when. While Han could easily have left Ben to tend to his own medical care in the case of such a minor injury, this supervised trip to the medkit was an excuse to keep Ben in one place for long enough to give him the Han Solo approximation of a disciplinary talk. It was, all said, humiliating.

So instead of digging the hole deeper with snark, Ben asked the more pressing question, given the imminence of their arrival on Cato Neimoidia. “Who’s landing us if you’re back here?”

Han was crouched over the medkit, rummaging through its disordered contents. “Ithan and Chewie’ve got it.” He straightened with a sought-for bacta patch in hand and guided Ben to the nearest bunk. “Hold this.”

While Han returned to the medkit to locate a disinfectant pad, Ben sat and picked at the bandage packaging and looked at the way the blood had begun to congeal around his cut. It was angry and messy, but it didn’t look nearly as bad as it had in the dim light of the compartment.

“Ithan?” He was trying not to sulk, especially now that they were so close to their destination, but it was difficult. He’d been flying small single-pilot speeders on his own for a few years, but so had plenty of kids his age, even if he presumed his own abilities superior. He’d copiloted the Falcon a few times during inconsequential trips on Chandrila, too, and to some of the nearer Core Worlds (albeit with Chewie close to call in the lounge in case anything went awry that required more a practiced hand). But Han had yet to let him do anything from the Falcon ’s pilot seat beyond sit in it. He knew it was a different beast than what he was used to, and that it was his father’s baby. But that was the appeal. “When are you going to let me do it? I’m ready. I’ve been ready, but every time I ask—”

Han had knelt in front of Ben and was already cleaning the blood from his skin with practiced efficiency. Casually, as if Ben hadn’t been on the brink of launching into a lengthy and not completely unjustified complaint, he said, “I’d been thinking you could do it when we come back to Hanna City, actually. Maybe your mom would be there, even. She’d probably like to see that. And give me an earful afterward for it. Don’t you think?”

“Oh.”

Ben felt like a spoiled child, which he was, in some ways, sitting here with his father cleaning and bandaging a wound he’d visited on himself while doing something he shouldn’t have been. He’d been expecting Han to scold him, tell him he was still young and inexperienced for a ship of this size, remind him that Reeda Ithan was part of why they were making this trip and she had earned the opportunity. This proposal, however, was something he had not thought he would hear, particularly after he had been caught in the act of defacing the very ship he was nearly begging to be allowed to fly.

Any inclinations to air his grievances further were extinguished at the revelation. Experience and past disappointment told him not to trust his expectations until the promised event had come to pass, but eagerness and love of his father told him not to doubt.

“I . . . yeah. She would, for sure. You mean it?”

“I mean it.” Han gave him a wry smile and took the bacta patch from him, discarding the crumpled wrapping and applying the bandage securely over the cleaned cut. “Assuming there’ll be no more instances of carving names into the ship walls. Or yourself, for that matter. Let’s call that my one condition.”

Ben grinned broadly, hardly able to believe the turn in events. Wasn’t he supposed to be in trouble for something? “I won’t.”

“I’d say wait ‘til the ship is yours one day for those kinds of decisions, but I have no intention of ever dying, and I’d prefer to think you have enough respect for the old girl not to go making . . . tasteless aesthetic changes.” Han looked skeptical, then held out a hand. “So we have a deal?”

“Deal,” Ben agreed, clasping his father’s hand and letting him pull him to his feet. Feeling buoyed by the good news and the prospect of finally being granted something he had wanted for ages, he dared to hope for one more favor. “You don’t think I could, ah, finish what I was doing, though? Back there? I only had one letter left in my disrespect of property, and if it’s going to be mine one day anyway . . .”

Han laughed dryly and indicated that Ben ought to have a seat by the dejarik board. “Nice try. Maybe on the way back. I can’t always keep an eye on you, so who knows when the opportunity will present itself. Just make sure not to get caught again.”

He poked Ben in the shoulder good-naturedly and ruffled his hair, then set off toward the cockpit to supervise the rest of the trip.

Chapter Text

The planetfall approach and landing on Cato Neimoidia were uneventful, which Ben found somewhat disappointing. Despite the vast improvement in his mood after he and his father had spoken, he wouldn’t have minded a more exciting end to the trip. Nor would he have minded Ithan cracking under pressure and revealing to Han that she was not quite the promising junior pilot he seemed to think.

But of course it had all gone perfectly, even if Han did look a little harried when he and Chewie exited the cockpit to begin gathering their gear. Ben had seen that look before—it was bog-standard for any time anyone who wasn’t Han Solo was in charge of piloting the Falcon, even with his permission, which was exceedingly rare. It had nothing to do with Ithan’s performance, which had evidently been flawless.

A young Togruta woman emerged from the cockpit a minute later with her characteristic swagger and a look of smug nonchalance on her face to assist with disembarking. Ben supposed Reeda Ithan was someone he could have gotten along with or even looked up to, as she was competent and skilled, and his father seemed to like her. Except for the fact that Ben couldn’t imagine why anyone, let alone his father, would like her at all: she was insufferably cocky and humorless and seemed to think she had the right to take up as much space as she pleased wherever she was. She didn’t even acknowledge him as she shouldered her bags and a few others and pushed by to exit the ship, flashing Han and Chewie a stomach-turning, satisfied smile.

They’d be taking a small passenger shuttlebus to the bridge city where their lodgings were located. The prospect of being stuck in a craft with nowhere to hide from Ithan, even for a short trip from landing bay to metro area, was disturbing, and Ben spent the walk to the shuttle steeling himself for her pale yellow eyes staring at him. She was probably judging him, wondering why Han had brought along this weedy child who couldn’t even be left to his own devices in his father’s ship without vandalizing something and cutting his own hand open.

Fortunately, due to the craft’s small size, there was not really any such thing as a bad seat, and Ben settled in next to a front viewport and decided he would just enjoy the scenery and not spare so much as a look for Ithan. He smirked at Chewie’s rumbling to Han about the weather, all fog and clouds over the sounds of wild ocean below. Ben didn’t mind it. It was a change from the temperate climate of home, and there was something about the intensity of it that captured his interest. The mist was so thick he could hardly see through it, but what he could catch in the rare wisps of open air promised opulent cities in the distance, bordered by rich stretches of grass and dense green forest.

With Han reviewing schedules and meetings on a datapad, Chewie looking about ready to take advantage of the time to nap, and Ithan making a show of shifting the contents of her personal bag around, it was easy enough for Ben to let his mind wander to what he might have to look forward to over the next three days. Though this was largely all business for his father, who’d described the proceedings with the jaded air of someone who enjoyed their job but found it infrequently surprising anymore, the prospect of a full schedule of ship demonstrations, endless displays of new tech, cutting-edge products and performance parts, small-scale racing events, and of course, the people—Ben had some favorite pilots Han had heavily implied he might be able to meet, and there was also talk of Lando joining them, which was almost more exciting than the pilots—had Ben wishing they didn’t still have to get through the rest of the day and a night for it to start. At least getting unpacked and settled in would take time and distract him from the persistent edge of uneasiness that kept creeping up on him.

It was nerves, he’d decided. Adrenaline and anticipation and a stubborn apprehension that at any moment he would still be disappointed.

The fog as they neared their destination continued to thicken. Ben wondered what sort of technology the pilot was relying on to guide them through it, though it was also likely that she was more than accustomed to the conditions and thought nothing of it. He was about to ask Han if it would be a bad idea to wander up to the cockpit to try and get a look, when something flashed by outside the viewport, commanding his attention.

It was a dark blur, like a large bird dodging in and out of the mist. There—he caught sight of it again, and just as quickly it was gone. The funny thing was that while Ben knew, logically, that it had to be something out in the open air, he couldn’t keep from thinking that it was inside with them. Or no, that wasn’t quite right, either. But those were the only two possibilities, and only the former made sense, as no one else was complaining of a feathered stowaway. Whatever it was out there was probably some native creature he would never have heard of yet, and thus would have no cause to recognize. He made a mental note to spend some time reading about the local flora and fauna in addition to orienting himself to the city layout and expo maps later that day.

Or he started to. Ben forgot what he was thinking about almost immediately. He was fixated instead on a certain spot in the horizon. He couldn’t even tell what was out there through the relentless fog, which hadn’t offered so much as a two-second gap of clear sky for the last ten minutes. Still he couldn’t shake a notion that something in that particular unseen location might reveal itself if he watched long enough. He pressed a finger to the pane and stared hard, certain he could practically see the damp chill of the air outside.

Something cold and smooth slid down the back of his neck.

Startled, he twitched and looked behind him. Han was muttering to himself about sponsorship details, and Chewie was snoring surprisingly quietly. With a flare of annoyance, Ben realized Ithan must have gotten bored and decided to mess with him. But when he glared back in her direction and started to tell her to knock it off, he found her absorbed in configuring some aspect of a small electronic compass and completely oblivious to anyone else’s activities. Ben supposed she could just be pretending, and fought a retaliative impulse to make the compass fly out of her hands and into the opposite wall.

Except, when he paused to think, he realized that she was sitting farther from him than anyone else. Backmost seat, opposite corner of the cabin. There was no way she could have snuck up on him and gotten back to her seat. She was neither quick on her feet nor very dainty. He’d have noticed her clambering back for sure.

Which meant that feeling on his neck, like a finger touching lightly, was just a trick of the mind. Or like a hypnagogic jerk, maybe. He knew that term and what it meant because he had them often when he slept, the inexplicable, jarring spasm of a leg or foot just as he was about to drift off. He’d been zoning out by the viewport, maybe even slipping into a doze without realizing, and his mind had prodded him back awake.

Ben sent a second glare Ithan’s way just for good measure, because he was sure she’d do something to warrant it by day’s end, and returned to looking out the viewport. Almost as soon as he did so, he found his eyes drawn magnetically to the same spot as before. It should have been as good as a guess, given how indistinguishable everything was in the near-solid wall of gray outside. He knew it was the same spot, though, in his gut. Something was there. Something rare, special, and important. Something powerful.

Something like you.

Ben’s head nodded forward as if he was about to fall asleep. His forehead tapped the viewport lightly and he straightened up, pupils dilating so wide his already dark eyes looked black. His wounded hand throbbed.

Let me show you.

He heard it in his mind, and something told him not to respond, not to voice a reply, not to think one, not to ask if anyone else heard that. Not that he could have done so. Ben couldn’t explain it, but he was suddenly sure that he was unable to speak, like his tongue was a stone and his throat was full of liquid metal. He began to feel nauseated, his stomach tightening, but he didn’t move. He kept looking out the viewport at the spot, that spot, the spot where he was going to be shown . . . what?

Look, child.

Ben didn’t want to look anymore. He closed his eyes but they opened immediately. Even blinking felt difficult. He tried to turn his head away instead. If he couldn’t call for help, did he need help?, he could at least gesture that something was wrong. But the muscles in his neck and shoulders seized up and there was, he knew, not just a finger now but a hand on the back of his neck, holding it in place.

LOOK.

The hand didn’t hurt. But it was strong and spidery and firm as it pressed his skin like a collar, which was somehow worse than any pain, and Ben knew that if he fought it, the long fingers might dig, the papery palms grow hot and electric, and he did not want that, so he shuddered in submissive silence and he looked. He looked until his eyes stung and his mind ached with wondering what he was looking at, wondering what he was looking for, wondering when he could stop looking.

Something solid pushed insistently at his shoulder. Ben blinked in alarm, then blinked again in greater alarm when he realized that he could blink. And move his head, and his neck. He coughed and sniffed, and the something, which he now realized was Chewie’s hairy paw, pushed his shoulder again, the gesture almost worried this time.

“Ben! Awake over there?” Han was tossing the datapad into his pack and removing some things from overhead, and he spared a fond but impatient look Ben’s way.

Chewie was still hovering over Ben, and there was concern in his eyes when he echoed Han’s question with a touch more altruism.

“Yeah . . . uh. Yeah, I was just . . . watching the clouds.”

“It’s all just fog,” Ithan cut in as she trundled past, making her way to the exit at a meandering pace. She glanced at him and her mouth twisted. “You look terrible. Do you get airsick?” She said it like the idea was potentially hilarious.

“Lay off him, Ithan.” Han spoke with a surprising sharpness that, had Ben not been reeling from whatever had just happened to him, would have pleased him a great deal. “A Solo getting airsick? You’re more likely to see a hairless Wookiee."

“Sounds terrifying.” Ithan put on a good show of casualness, but she’d clearly been chastened by the tone of Han’s rejoinder and was moving to exit with greater urgency.

The resident Wookiee chortled an agreement, gave Ben a last sympathetic look, and turned to go make himself useful. Which, Ben realized, he should also be doing. He stood, glad at least that his legs were not shaky, gathered his things, and followed the others out into the gray-blanketed landing dock.

When Chewie and Ithan had made some progress ahead of them, Han slowed his pace, a hand to Ben’s elbow, and said quietly, “You okay?” He sounded almost conspiratorial. “Ithan was outta line with the way she said it, but she wasn’t wrong. You look sick. Well, not so much now. But back there you did. Everything fine?”

Ben almost said that he had no idea. But he’d had a few minutes to think by now. He had clearly just fallen asleep and had a bad dream. It used to happen a lot when he was small. They’d been coming again more frequently, and he couldn’t figure out why, but that just supported the idea that a nightmare was precisely what had happened in the shuttle. More importantly, he had heard Han speak this way to him, and to Leia about him, whenever matters of Ben’s sensitivity to the Force and the occasional oddities that went with it arose in the past. Ben hadn’t heard that tone from Han in a while, and to detect even a hint of it now caused him an almost physical discomfort that made him want to squirm. Ben didn’t want to hear it again. Especially not today. So he lied.

“I’m good. I dunno. I’ve just been thinking about the next few days too much, I guess. How I’ll be trying to see everything. I got distracted and then Chewie was suddenly there shaking me. Startled me, you know?”

Han laughed, and Ben, thinking the risk of suspicion had passed for now, joined in.

“Good point. I’ve known him longer than you’ve been alive and I’ll tell you, one of those giant mitts suddenly clapping down on my shoulder out of nowhere might still give me a shock, too.” He put an arm around Ben’s shoulders and squeezed bracingly before releasing him and pushing him ahead a little. “Maybe go see if you can return the favor while Ithan’s got his ear.”

That only sounded half appealing, but Ben was glad of the excuse to put some distance between himself and Han while he was still trying to sort his feelings out, and Chewie did have a strange way of being a comforting presence despite intimidating appearances. Shifting his bag across his back, he set off at a furtive half-jog, doubting his ability to truly sneak up on a Wookiee but thinking it would at least get him to their destination a little faster, if only by a few seconds.

+ + +

As Ben loped toward the other two members of their party, Han’s smile faded with the laughter that accompanied it. The kid was bright, but he was clearly under the mistaken impression that he had suddenly developed a talent for getting things by a former smuggler and self-acknowledged scoundrel who also had the advantage of being his father. Ben was nothing if not Han’s son, but he was lacking thirty-plus years of Han’s life experience—the day was still long in coming that Ben would stand a chance of fooling him.

Something was up, and Han didn’t like to admit it, but he had a bad feeling about it. Of course, he also had no way of pinpointing just what it was. He now felt some regret at having spent the entirety of the ride from landfall to metropolitan area mired in write-ups for schedules, events, and budgets. He’d have plenty of time to attend to all of that over the next three days. More time than he would like, in fact.

On the contrary, he hadn’t really spent much time with Ben since they’d left Chandrila, apart from their little chat and medical emergency shortly before arrival. For the most part Han had assumed Ben liked it, that he wanted to be left to his own devices, that he enjoyed the notion of some privacy. He’d been getting into that weird, moody adolescent stage for sure, even if it was maybe a little early yet. But Han was no longer so certain that the relative lack of supervision had been the best way to handle the unusual circumstance of his son’s presence on a trip like this.

Was the graffiti all the trouble Ben had gotten up to that whole time? Was it really boredom, or was it some small way of acting out? Surely, he was happy to be here?

With some shame, Han acknowledged that the sight of the boy standing there in a dark hidden compartment with a bloodied hand and a flashlight levitating behind him as if it was perfectly ordinary had been jarring. He shouldn’t still have found it strange, such a small thing. Of course Ben was going to be strong with the Force. Leia was. Luke was. Their father had been. It was almost a given that any child of such a bloodline would be powerful as well, even with someone as perfectly unattuned to the Force as Han was for a father. It was something Han couldn’t understand or become accustomed to. He wished he could for Ben’s sake, but also wasn’t sure he wanted to. Too mystical, too foreign, too not-of-this-plane. Han preferred things practical, tangible, real.

Leia understood it in the ways he could not—that was enough. It had to be. It had been, he thought.

Han might have forgotten about that. It was just a floating light. It was damned convenient to be able to do something like that. He could appreciate the practical applications, even if in this case it had abetted defacement of precious property. And kids got into trouble all the time. He probably should have considered it lucky Ben still had all his limbs intact with the mischief he managed to get into at home. A slip of the hand was nothing.

But something else had happened on the shuttle. Something neither he nor Chewie nor Ithan had noticed, caught up in their own activities as they had been. Ben claimed he was just watching clouds, but that was, Han figured, clearly a lie. No one got that agitated a look from twenty minutes of cloud-watching, even if they’d been drawn up out of that diversion by the unexpected touch of a heavy, long-furred paw on their shoulder. Ben had looked physically ill for a minute there, and like he had no idea where he was.

Uneasily, Han thought back to nights of awakening to the sound of a terrified, inconsolable child driven from sleep by nightmares or something worse, hardly able to be comforted even by his parents’ presence. He thought of odd afternoons finding Ben by himself in a room, staring at nothing in particular and seeming suddenly to experience a change in mood, like he’d seen or heard something that bothered him so much it instantly transformed a giggling child into a sullen imp who refused to be cheered.

Ahead, Ben closed the last few steps between himself and Chewie’s back with a leap and a loud bark of laughter. Chewie, who was indeed not in the least taken by surprise, let out a yawp anyway, which in turn made Ithan yelp with uncharacteristic alarm. Her montrals had doubtless alerted her to Ben’s relatively stealthy approach, but she probably hadn’t been expecting Chewie’s exclamation of good humor. Getting a rise from the young pilot seemed to please Ben more than Chewie’s reaction did, and he easily fell into step next to the Wookiee.

Han looked away, rueful. He was worrying too much. Kid probably really was just getting himself worked up about the next few days and the promise of a crack at the Falcon’s pilot seat. That was nothing to get concerned about. In three days’ time, they’d be on the way home and probably planning another excursion just like this. It had been too long in coming, Han reminded himself. He hoped it could be the first of many.





Chapter Text

Ben is alone. The room is long like a corridor and lined with old-fashioned arched doors, black metal snaked with ornate gilding. The ceiling is high and vaulted, almost invisible, and the marble floors are made of carved dark red stone shot through with brilliant streaks of gold. There are no windows, but light comes from some hidden source. Though the room appears to go on indefinitely, there is a sense of being oppressively contained within it that Ben cannot explain.

He can see himself, like he’s watching from outside his body, and he thinks that this must not be real.

The acknowledgement doesn’t make it any better. The boy he sees is crouched, waiting to be felled by a threat from above. He is trying to make himself small, head tucked, hands clutching his knees so hard his fingers are bone white.

There is a darkness in you, child. In your blood and bones. Untempered by the light that dwells with it.

Ben wants to help him, experiences everything he does, but all he can do is watch. It makes him feel so sad and useless that he wants to scream.

They will see it and they will fear you.

The ideas blossom fully formed in his mind. He knows their source is always with him. Just beyond reach. Rooted in memory. Familiar to him in the way the voice of his mother or father is familiar.

The boy starts shuddering. Ben realizes that the light is coming from the boy’s body in pinpricks of white. Some glow steadily, others flicker and fade erratically.

Feed it, and it will make you strong.

So many of them swarm that they are like a single solid mass that covers the boy entirely and perfectly, as if he has been made from them all along rather than from flesh.

Deny it, and it will snuff out what light you have.

There is a shadow, too. It begins a mere seed from the center of the swarm and spreads slowly outward in a thick deliberate vein, like rot. The lights begin to dissolve, first one at a time, then in clusters, their delicate fretwork torn apart.

Your potential is great. Do not squander it.

They fall to the floor like ash and leave tiny uniform burn marks where they land. The boy keens in panic until he is only a crumpled husk. What is left of him pools like a discarded rag on the stone. Ben does nothing.

Let me show you.

+++

When he awoke before dawn in his unfamiliar bed in the Mantle Hotel, it was to surface from a nightmare with his legs bound fast by tangled sheets. A cold sweat made his shirt cling like seaweed to his shoulders, and the knife-sharp sound of that cry still rang in his ears. Ben was unsure if it was residual of sleep or if he had actually been making it himself by then. This was classic for him, really, the nightmare and the disordered state in which he was expelled from it.

It started when Ben was too young to remember, apparently. He knew this because his mother had told him stories of how he used to come scrambling into his parents’ bedroom, always in the wee hours, practically sliding across the floor in his distress and impatience to be safe between them or curled up against her chest. While it was embarrassing to know these details, Ben tried to focus instead on the fact that Leia always took him so very seriously when he’d become old enough to remember each nightmare and dream himself and tell her about them coherently the next morning instead of interrupting her night every time.

He would divulge as best he could what he’d dreamt or thought he’d seen and heard, and for a while he knew implicitly that he was secure in doing so. She never let him feel stupid for it. Now that he had some hindsight, it did begin to occur to Ben that the acuteness of her interest was perhaps a bit unusual. He knew, too, that what he shared must find its way to Han. He overheard them talking, sometimes.

But still Leia listened and asked questions, a lot of them, and so Ben never stopped wanting to tell her and be understood. Not just about the bad dreams but the good ones too, and especially about the dreams that repeated themselves over and over. A storm-green, rock-strewn island; dark wet chambers bathed in shafts of opaque light; the Girl.

Though Leia’s interest was always most piqued by the dreams of those dark places, Ben favored the ones of the Girl. He applied the word to her like a name or a title. A masked young woman atop a speeder, zipping over a colorless landscape. A small girl slipping between the interior walls of a skeletal, wrecked Star Destroyer. A skinny adolescent crouching beneath a tarpaulin as she pieced together bits of hardware. Every time he woke, the details would muddy, distilled to only the most vivid impressions—the sense of velocity, the gnaw of an empty stomach, the small satisfaction of making something work. It was like spending hours drawing something in wet sand on the beach and then having all but the broadest strokes obscured by the first appearance of a high tide.

Except it never felt like she was a fiction of his own making. Though he had no idea who she was, he believed with innocent conviction that she was real in some way, even when any single dream of her was bookended by countless less pleasant ones, sometimes at a stretch of a year or more. He would have preferred one of her last night.

He considered lying still and trying to go back to sleep. But Ben was eager to be rid of his sweaty shirt and anything else to do with his uneasy slumber. So he rolled out of bed, nearly tripping over the knots of blankets in his clumsiness at being woken so abruptly and after so little true rest, and made his way to the refresher. The suite he and Han were sharing left him to his own room and bathroom, affording him a privacy for which he was particularly grateful right now. Still rubbing sleep from his eyes, he stripped off his clothes in a hurry and left them in an untidy heap on the floor, then waited for the water in the shower to reach a pleasing temperature before stepping under the stream.

He could fall asleep like this, he thought. The water was warm and comforting. It made the world melt away, and with it whatever lingering sensations of unease Ben had about the hours before. Belatedly, he thought that he should have checked the time before he made such a hasty run to the solace of shower. He knew it was still very early—earlier even than the others would be rising—because it had been nearly dark outside the window, but he didn’t want to be late for any part of the day. Not even breakfast. So he spent longer under the hot water than he normally would have at home, but not quite as long as he would have liked to.

When he stepped out onto the tiled floor, it and the air around him immediately felt too chilly, and he saw with some regret that he could have turned a dial on his way in that would heat the floors. He’d remember that for tomorrow. For now, he just wrapped a towel around himself with haste and began drying off. Wiping a swatch of steam off the mirror, he glanced at his reflection and gave himself a cursory look over as he brushed his teeth.

With his hair plastered down around his face and ears and rings of fatigue still fading beneath his eyes, he was stricken by the fact that he looked older somehow. More stretched out. Awkward. How the steam settled to wreath him like a gray ghost and lengthen him in the glass. A flash of a man, weary and depleted, hollow eyes bruised with want and grief. Ben blinked. Frowned. It was only him, tired-eyed and warped by the smears his hand had left on the mirror.

It wasn’t until recently that he’d begun to be conscious of his appearance, the way he looked and moved, the way his voice sounded. How it all seemed to be wanting most of the time. He supposed, according to his parents and other adults, that this was normal, and that if his friends weren’t already experiencing the same, they would be soon. But it was still awful, and it didn’t lessen the feeling of being out of place and strange. Particularly not when he already felt like that for reasons that were in no way physical.

Deciding he might not be in a rush to get ready to head out after all, Ben turned the dial for the floor warmer and, while he waited for it to kick in beneath his feet, returned to the mirror to take advantage of the remaining steam. With a finger he began tracing lazy whorls on the glass, interpersing the spirals with stars and lightning bolts and a few more complicated shapes of birds and leaves. By the time the floor had grown toasty (he was absolutely going to be using this every day for the rest of his time here—right now it was actually sorely tempting to lie down on it and take a nap), Ben had filled the surface of the mirror with drawings that obscured his reflection and that of the room behind him. Already they were swiftly fading as the temperature in the room returned to equilibrium.

With a resigned sigh, he ran a smaller towel over his hair roughly to get rid of the excess moisture before he tried to do anything else to it. As he attempted to smooth it down afterward, though, he stopped abruptly and dropped the second towel into the sink basin.

There was something on the back of his neck. It started just under his hair and ran down to the top of his spine and around, fading under his ears. It looked like a rash, or the beginnings of one. The skin there was flushed pink, smudged a bit darker at the edges. He wondered if he’d run the water too hot, but if that had been the case his whole body would look like that. And he hadn’t rubbed the towel through his hair that hard. Wiping his hand over the glass to clear up any lingering smears of condensation, he turned more and cricked his head to try to get a better look. It was definitely not a trick of the light. The back of his neck was discolored with the outline of a weird shape like a wing. Or a hand.

Ben’s lip quivered for a reason he couldn’t name. It was a rash. Maybe something on the pillows or sheets had irritated his skin as he slept. Or he’d gotten caught at an odd angle as he tossed and turned in the night and it rubbed the skin there raw. He’d leave it alone. It would go away on its own.

Even so, he found himself suddenly unable to look at it. The sight of it made him feel sick despite his insistence to himself that there was nothing to be alarmed about in a little allergic reaction, and he turned violently from the mirror and stormed out of the refresher to get dressed away from his reflection.

An hour later Ben headed down to the lobby with his father, where Chewie waited looking well-rested and hungry. At least one thing was going right this morning: Ithan was nowhere to be found. As they headed to the dining area, which opened out onto a balcony overlooking distant rock formations arching over the choppy sea, Ben was silently thankful. He’d be able to enjoy breakfast with his family in peace, with no worries of being sniped at by some girl who did not belong with them.

Once they’d had a few minutes to begin enjoying their food, Ben couldn’t help his curiosity. Mostly, he wanted to know how long his luck was going to last. “Where’s Ithan? I thought she was staying here, too.”

The piqued expression on Han’s face immediately made him sorry for asking. “She’s got some friends here for the expo, she said. Went off to meet them a little before you made it down. She’ll be hitching up with us again later, though.” His eyes narrowed a little. “Why?”

“I was just wondering.” He tamped down the urge to say he’d hoped she had decided to leave and opted instead to stuff another too-large forkful of generously sugared, cream-covered waffle into his mouth.

“Ahh. Okay.” Han had a look now that was infuriatingly knowing. “You disappointed, huh?”

Ben’s eyes widened with horror and not a little disgust. He swallowed hard. “No! What? No. Definitely not. She’s . . .” He sneered, or tried to. It was hard to do when he felt so unjustly embarrassed by what Han was implying. “Mean.”

Han snorted into his caf. “Mean, eh? She’s a little rough, yeah. But you know, your mother and I didn’t get along at first either.”

Chewie made a dry remark to which Han responded with an emphatic point of his finger. “Hey, Leia called me lots of things in those days, but that was definitely not one of them.” Turning back to Ben, he went on lightly, “Should’ve known you’d go for the older ladies. Thought maybe I’d have a little longer ‘til I had to worry about that, but . . .”

“Dad! No! Ew!” Ben felt his face growing hot. The idea that his father suspected he had any sort of feelings like that about Ithan was appalling, and completely untrue. To the contrary, he would have been happy to see her drop off the side of one of the bridges the cities here rested on.

Han held up his hands in surrender, and he had the decency to look genuinely apologetic. “Hey, hey! I’m just teasing. I’m allowed, you know. I think it’s actually an obligation of parenting.”

Ben groaned and rolled his eyes and tried to ignore the sound of Chewie’s guttural laughter. “Sure it is.”

“Sorry, kid. Get used to it.”

Another observation of the nostalgic variety from Chewie got a chuckle out of Han rather than a defensive accusation of inaccurate memory. “‘ Scruffy looking’, yeah, that was definitely one. Speaking of which . . .” He reached behind Ben to tug at the ends of his hair, lifting it above his collar. “What does your mom have to say about this? Getting a little long?”

He prepared for concern or comment when Han no doubt spotted the rash on his neck. It would be in plain view with the mess he had just made of Ben’s hair. But it was like he hadn't noticed it at all. Ben wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or slighted.

He grimaced sheepishly. Maybe the rash had already faded on its own. “I guess. She doesn't mind. You think it’s scruffy?”

“Nah. Looks good.”

“Maybe,” Ben ventured with a lopsided grin, “I'll let it go ‘til it’s long enough for Mom to braid.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Han looked dismayed as he noticed the amount of sugar Ben was currently consuming in a single sitting. “Careful what you wish for. I just might clue her in.”

+++

The Mantle was located at the west end of Fogbank City, which was conveniently serving as the hub of the majority of expo activity. On an adjacent bridge to the north, the city of Saul was taking advantage of the increased commercial opportunities by playing up its high-end shopping districts and popular eateries, bars, and clubs as tempting attractions to those attendees looking for extravagant nightlife. Southward Kite Lam promoted ornate city architecture, historic buildings, and striking skylines as can’t-miss attractions for those with spare time or an inclination to extend their stay a few more days after all signs of the racing world had packed up and moved along.

Ben, who spent a good deal of his time the previous evening scrolling through maps and a copy of the expo itinerary, had made something of a personal plan of attack in his head, though he fully expected it to be largely overridden by the priorities of his adult companions. That didn’t actually bother him very much as they stepped out of the hotel. Despite any preparations he’d made, entering into the fray of the city itself made navigating seem another matter entirely.

In terms of size, Ben found Fogbank smaller than Hanna City, but the degree to which it dazzled with lavish jewel-bedecked facades and walking paths polished to a sheen made it seem large in a different way that was disorienting. The fact that sunlight made only intermittent appearances was absolutely for the best—if not for that, getting through the city would involve a lot of squinting. Fogbank gave an overall impression of a place that ought to be admired from a distance, maybe judged ostentatious for its liberal application of finery, but not touched or lived in. Given the way they glittered in the intermittent sunlight on their respective bridges, Saul and Kite Lam were no doubt the same.

The bulk of the expo was housed in a great metal-and-glass amphitheater that glinted at the edge of the city. Though the building lacked a roof, an energy field kept the day’s rain out while still allowing the illusion of an open-air structure. The interior was dominated by exhibitor booths, with a few sections partitioned off for guest panels and meet-and-greets, and the western edge overlooked the open ocean—or what one could assume was open ocean, which was largely hidden by mist but declared its presence via the sound of geysers and crashing waves. Just outside the amphitheater walls, on a paved rectangle of land near the exhibitors’ entrance, a dozen or so ships were grounded and cabled. Most of these were classic models or had once been used by well-known racing pilots, and they were open for exhibit during the extent of the event. This attraction in particular caught Ben’s eye as they passed after checking in, but he was diverted by Han’s hand flashing something in his face.

“Keep this with you,” Han said as Ben took it. “In case you’re off on your own at any point, so they’ll know you belong here and aren’t just some kid wandering in off the street looking for trouble.”

It was a small identification badge. Along with the expected information verifying his attendance, it also indicated Ben was there with a panel member. He had realized this was the case as he perused the schedule last night and saw Han’s name along with a few others he recognized under the information for an event tomorrow, and had only been a little surprised. The topic was something to do with promotion in independent racing circuits, which Ben wasn't sure interested him beyond his father’s involvement.

“I could still be looking for trouble even with the badge,” Ben pointed out as he fastened it to the front of his jacket, his eyes refusing to remain focused on any one thing before they were drawn to the next point of interest.

“I don’t doubt it. Though it might ruin your fun to get booted and end up stuck spending all your time in the hotel.” Han was scanning the room like he was plotting an optimal route. “Okay, let’s say we hit the far edge now, that’ll free us up to get to the meet-and-greets in an hour or so when they start—you’re still into that idea, right?”

“Definitely still into that idea.”

“Good. I can probably swing something to avoid any lines, but I’d rather not make it too obvious.” Han nimbly sidestepped a knot of eight or so individuals of several species all donning identical red-and-orange jumpsuits and clearly not interested in giving way to anyone in their path. Not even to a Wookiee. Chewie muttered something rude in a low rumble that Ben could only half make out but was fairly positive would have gotten him in trouble for echoing. Han added, a little more loudly, “People get possessive of space.”

“And the engine mod demos,” Ben reminded him, casting a glance back at the brightly clad group as they passed but not very bothered by them. He had more important things to think about than a bunch of strangers’ manners. “And I gotta get outside to the open ships. Did you see all the starfighters? I saw a Headhunter I’m pretty sure is the Perihelion. It had the right double S-foils for it. Do you think that means Sten Stitch is somewhere here, too?”

“You realize you have a whole other day after this, Ben. Two, actually,” Han said evenly, grinning despite himself. “Don’t try to cram too much in or you’ll be—ah. Hey! Ithan!”

He waved an arm as the pilot in question rounded a display of tinted goggles and visors. Her lekku were tied back and, unlike Han and Ben, she was dressed as if she were about to hop into the first speeder or fighter that became available and take to the sky.

“Morning,” she said, smiling tightly and falling in with them. “Big crowd! And hardly even started yet. Here I thought it might be underwhelming.”

Chewie expressed some agreement on the matter of crowd size as a flow of people continued to surge around them.

“Only underwhelming if you let it be,” Han added. “You joining us a while then? Thought you had a meeting with a team from the Kathol sector.”

“Not ‘til after lunch. Figured you all’d know what to check out first.”

Ben grew conspicuously silent. His father was a known quantity in a lot of these circles, and well-liked. As far as he was concerned, Ithan probably just wanted to glom onto that for her own gain. He ignored the fact that this was, in a way, exactly why she was traveling with them.

“Probably just parts vendors and some demos,” Ben said. Maybe she would find that too mundane and go off on her own again. At the very least, the former appeared true; Ithan’s reaction was lukewarm.

Han was too helpful in comparison. “Might be some team reps out that way, too, worth your while.”

“That’s more like it. Lead the way.”

Now she looked euphoric, which made Ben want to gag. He wouldn't have minded the slight change in their plans. He was happy enough being here at all. He just didn’t want the changes made for her benefit.

+++

After spending most of the morning and afternoon under some degree of supervision, Ben was granted leave to strike out of his own for a while. The request didn’t meet with much resistance; Han and Chewie were meeting with some associates, and Ithan had disappeared with the group from Kathol halfway through lunch. They would regroup in an hour for a repulsorlift workshop, then determine how to finish out the day. An hour seemed like plenty of time at first, yet Ben soon found it all too easy to fill the entirety of the time outside loitering around the lot of exhibition fighters.

According to his watch, he now had about ten minutes until he was expected to meet Han and Chewie. Not enough time to see the ships he had yet to visit to his satisfaction (and have another look inside the Perihelion) until tomorrow, but more time than he needed to make it back to the rendezvous point. He decided to take a longer route around the outside of the amphitheater. Then he could pass inside through one of the other entryways and take a look at the panel area as he worked his way back the opposite direction.

The outside of the building was understated compared with the rest of the city but still beautiful, all smooth, cloud-gray alloy that rose gracefully upward, broken every few meters along by arched panes of dark, opaquely reflective glass. With the hood of his jacket pulled up to keep his head out of the misting rain, Ben kept to the curve of the perimeter, walking at an amble and letting his left hand trace idly along the side of the building. The alternating textures were unexpectedly enjoyable. Though it looked smooth, the pale metal was actually very finely grainy, and the damp, slippery glass squeaked faintly under his fingers.

It was that sound that alerted him to a change around him as his hand transitioned from metal to glass. The high sound of his skin against it was suddenly much louder. All other noise of the crowd and engines had simply dropped away. Ben stopped short and let his hand fall to his side. He took a tentative look over his shoulder. Everyone was gone. There was nothing to indicate anyone had ever been there at all but a fading ringing in his ears and the host of ships he’d just left behind. They looked eerie and orphaned in the drifting hang of clouds.

Hesitantly thinking there had to be an explanation, some announcement he hadn’t heard that had sent the throng of people back inside en masse, Ben abandoned his plan to take a more leisurely route and turned to go back the way he came. A shape in the pane of glass shifted as he did so, and he knew it wasn’t his reflection. It was someone inside the amphitheater, walking toward the window from the other side and now standing there watching him just as surely as he was watching back.

The glass was too dark to see through. Still, he could make out faint details. His own features, superimposed on the soft outline of the other figure. It was about his height and size, though narrower somehow, and kept shifting from foot to foot. Ben raised a hand in acknowledgment. It gestured back, then listed forward to touch the glass from the other side. Some compulsion told him he ought to do the same, and though he felt inexplicable dread at doing so, Ben reached out until his fingertips rested against the glass, matched to those of the figure.

Dazed, Ben stood there unmoving for several seconds as his palm flattened against the pane, then remembered there was something he was supposed to be doing, that he couldn’t keep standing here like this. He tried to move away, but his hand was stuck fast to the glass. He pulled again, and this time it hurt. If he kept pulling he would sooner tear his skin or snap a bone than free himself. The longer he struggled the worse it became, until he was certain his hand was actually fused with the glass itself.

Panic made his breath come in gasps and his neck itch with the sweat that beaded there. This time instead of pulling, Ben pushed against the glass with both hands, terrified and confused but angry, too, so angry, his teeth grinding and legs straining and feet slipping against the wet pavement. He pushed again, harder, and felt something in him give way. Improbably, the glass cracked with a loud snapping sound, leaving a jagged line that extended a meter upward from his trapped hand. Ben fell backward as if thrown and landed hard on his side, the breath knocked out of him.

Ben.

An engine roared to life somewhere and backfired. The blare of the crowd behind him was unbearable as it returned at full volume without warning. On the damp ground Ben needed a moment, his face buried in his hands, before he dared to get to his feet.

Ben.

When he did, he found himself looking up at Han. And Chewie. Ben—they—were all standing inside the amphitheater, being jostled on all sides by passersby. Han’s face was etched with blended concern and exasperation.

“Ben.” He said it sternly, like this was not the first or even second time he’d tried to get Ben’s attention. “Hey, you with us?”

Chewie growled a more specific reminder of the plan, pointing back over his shoulder to an area cordoned off for hands-on demos and workshops.

“Yeah. Repulsorlifts, I know.” Ben willed his voice to be clear and steady, and he thought it sounded all right, despite his utter confusion. He’d just been outside, on the ground, seconds before. His side still ached where he’d fallen. He still felt like something was pressing hard on his lungs. He couldn’t remember how he got back inside, or reuniting with anyone. So what was he doing here now? His mind raced in futility to make sense of it. “Sorry, I was thinking about the old cannons on one of the ships I saw out there.”

Han looked skeptical, but left it. “I told you drowning your breakfast in that syrupy stuff was a bad idea. You’re crashing hard, kid.”

“I’m fine, I swear,” Ben declared, achieving enough enthusiasm of tone that he half convinced even himself. The room still seemed too loud, like he should need to yell to be heard, and even then he might not be. He stepped a little closer to Han and Chewie, hoping the proximity of taller, larger bodies might ward off the perceived perils of a surging crowd. In what he considered a stroke of genius to distract from his discomfort—he was being too obvious, they would see it, they will see it—he added a jaunty attempt to wheedle an as-yet proscribed indulgence out of his father. “Maybe I just need some caf?”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” Han nudged him in the arm. “Or how about this: I’ll play you a hand of sabacc tonight when we get back. You win, you can have some tomorrow at breakfast.”

Well, that was unexpected, but not terrible. For a moment Ben could believe that his strange experience outside hadn’t happened at all. He wasn’t by himself anymore. Han was right here. Close enough to touch. Whatever he thought he’d seen had not been real. Worse things happened in sleep. With the people bumping past and the persistent drone of voices and machinery, there could be no doubt he was present and awake and safe.

He grinned and tried to sound confident. “If I win?” He looked to Han for approval, and found it—but only if he ignored a veneer of disquietude.

“Ah, there’s a first time for everything. Surprise me. It’ll be worth your while.”

Chapter Text

The rain had stopped some time before the expo closed up for the day. As the most dedicated attendees milled out into the night, it was to be greeted by a pleasantly cool, if somewhat damp, breeze and uncommonly clear skies. In the distance, a parallel bridge city was visible to the naked eye, appearing as a gold-traced silhouette against the velvet indigo of the night sky. Looking up, Ben noted dual moons and more unfamiliar star formations than he could count. Later, those stars might be worth looking up—ideally after he beat Han at sabacc and secured that much-coveted cup of caf for the next morning.

For the time being, he and the other three were off in search of a place to get dinner before calling it a night. Or rather, he and Chewie were actively on the lookout, while Han and Ithan debated the merits of different approaches to (as far as Ben could tell) building the perfect starship-racing team. Naturally, Ben was on Han’s side. It wasn’t like Ithan even had the experience to claim she knew better. But of course, she did so anyway.

“That’s ridiculous,” Han said with a shake of his head. “All I’m saying is, these ‘schools of thought’ out there about the most efficient methods of selecting a team for that kind of race, they’re approaching it the wrong way. Too hands off.”

“Facts don’t lie, though.” Where Han was growing heated in his opinion, Ithan was almost smugly calm. “And neither does good programming. If you feed the right data into a system made for it, who says you can’t end up with the ideal permutation for any given race? Relays, sprints, orienteering events, even.”

Han shook his head again, harder now. “Assess all the data you want, compare records, track piloting styles ‘til you’re blue in the face. You’re not going to get the same understanding of a pilot’s potential. How they think. How . . . how they fly. React to the unexpected. None of that. Not unless you’re right out there with them. Some of these sponsors, they’re almost entirely disconnected. They watch from their private boxes and maybe they have encyclopedic knowledge of this ship model or that pilot’s signature maneuvers. Great. Good for them, they read some reports. But they don’t know a thing about how it all works together. Absolutely no instincts.”

“That takes a lot more time, though. I’m not saying there’s no value in scouting in person, but it’s much more straightforward if you at least go in with a narrower list of prospects.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

Ithan looked perplexed by the question. “I didn’t say it was fun, I said it was practical.”

“You might be getting into this field for the wrong—”

“Hey, Dad?” Ben knew he was interrupting, but didn’t feel particularly badly about it in this case. “Can we stop here a minute? I want to check those out.”

He pointed at a balcony at the other side of the street, where a row of mounted electrobinoculars offered pedestrians a chance to pause and get a closer look at natural sites and, particularly at night, the eye-catching lights and sheen of neighboring Saul. For a small fee, of course. Ben was hungry enough by now that he wasn’t sure why its appeal outweighed that of an imminent meal. Even so, he felt rooted to the spot and reluctant to just continue on without having a look for himself. Han also seemed to find the request odd, but he was indulgent.

“Huh. Sure, why not.” He moved to join Ben in crossing over. “Chewie, Ithan, you two go on. I think that hole-in-the-wall place Kinga mentioned is down the next side street. We’ll meet you there in a few.”

Han paid the handful of credits to activate the binoculars, and Ben pressed his face to the eyepieces. Saul was almost too bright this way, so he dimmed the lighting and adjusted the depth of field until he could make out details without discomfort. It seemed like an even busier city than Fogbank, and he panned the length of it slowly, pausing every few seconds to look for . . . something he wasn’t sure of. He would know when he found it.

It took less than a minute. Toward the heart of the city Ben spied a long rectangular building, shining and pale white-gold. The middle was dominated by a tall steeple-topped, glass-faced tower, glowing soft yellow from within. An open courtyard in front was paved with elegantly carved marble. As Ben watched, a pair of security droids lurched past each other, crossing paths in front of the largest pair of doors.

This was definitely what he wanted to see, even if he couldn’t coherently say why. It just felt right. He knew that feeling, he thought, or something close to it. Sometimes he sensed things were about to happen just before they did. A gift of the Force. Normal, for him, he had been assured by his mother enough times. He rarely noticed when it happened anymore, and had grown accustomed to hiding it in most company. Looking through the binoculars, seeing that building like a pale inverted beacon in all the brightness around it, was a bit like that. Some sense other than sight assuring him that he’d done well.

“Do you know what this building is?” Ben asked, forcing himself to step back to give Han a look. “It’s the one with the droids patrolling out front.”

Han leaned down to see, stared for a few seconds, and shrugged. “Not sure. Droids like that, though, they're pretty high security. It’s important, whatever it is. Or someone thinks it is. Could be a museum. Most likely belongs to one of the local aristocrats. They all like to outdo each other with gold and expensive rocks.”

“Ah. Okay.”

Ben took up his post again after Han stepped away. He could have passed the remaining time scoping out the rest of Saul or trying to catch signs of nocturnal animal life in the cliff faces beyond. Instead Ben just continued to drink in the sight of the steepled building as the timer ticked down to zero. He stood stiffly staring through the binoculars for a few seconds after the lenses clipped shut before he registered that he was now looking at an empty rectangle of black.

“You could always look it up later, if it’s that important,” Han said, as they made their way back across the street to find the rest of their group. He sounded amused, which Ben didn’t appreciate. The humorous tone was still there when he asked, “Taking notes for your many future estates?”

“No,” Ben replied flatly, not in the mood to play along. “I think . . . thought there’s something there. But.”

“Something there?”

“It’s not important. I was just curious.”

He tried to sound as if he’d already put it from his mind. He hadn’t.

+++

In retrospect, Ben felt a bit guilty for how eagerly he’d slipped away from Han’s attempts to get him to stick around in the shared living area of their hotel suite. Ordinarily the offer of a few rounds of sabacc was more than enough to keep Ben in one place for a while, particularly when there was something to be won. More than that, he’d been wanting time alone with his father all day. Now the opportunity was finally presenting itself, but barely halfway through their first go at Corellian Spike, he was already distracted and playing poorly—more so than usual. It was a given that he was still picking up the finer points, and that Han was notoriously merciless in a bid to keep him on his toes. But tonight there was something else at play. And so when it ended in Han’s favor, Ben declared himself worn out and retreated to his room.

He tried not to think about the fact that Han was clearly surprised and disappointed by the abrupt end to the night. Ben hoped that tomorrow he would be feeling more himself and make it up to him. Tonight, though, he had something he needed to do.

With the lights dimmed, Ben propped himself at the end of his bed with a datapad and a bag of crackers and began running a few searches on Saul to see what he might be able to turn up in terms of significant attractions. He couldn’t get that building out of his head, so he reasoned that figuring out what it was would satisfy his curiosity. But the top hits all involved popular nightlife venues or overpriced retailers, which held no interest to him and didn’t seem like the sorts of businesses such a structure would house. He remembered that Han reasoned the building was likely important. It looked old, too. So Ben narrowed his parameters to include only historic sites and major monuments.

A disused but well-maintained ship hangar from the pre-Clone Wars era came up; several statues of notable individuals both local and galactic; a library renowned for its collection of ancient illuminated texts, the sort made of actual paper and ink; an old palace that had been converted into a vault; yet another palace belonging to a Baron Reya—wait. Ben scrolled back up to the entry about the vault. That was it. It took him a moment to break from the heavy-eyed stupor all his scrolling had put him into, but he recognized the pictured building as what he’d seen through the electrobinoculars during the walk to dinner.

An abundance of holo-images of the exterior and interior of the palace were helpful in affirming it as the one he was after. Relieved by his success, Ben selected the most promising article and skimmed the information he found. Once, it had been the expansive palace of a Trade Federation senator called Lott Dod during the Clone Wars. Now, however, it was known as the Great Vaults. A member of Cato Neimoidian nobility owned it and rented space out to individuals looking to store artifacts or otherwise precious items safely.

That sounded fairly interesting, at least insofar as the notion of treasures being hidden away in an old palace piqued Ben’s imagination, and was not remotely surprising considering the planet he was on. It did not, however, provide much explanation for what made him feel so drawn to it. Anyway, given its current use as a high-security facility housing sensitive items, he doubted it was open to members of the public just hoping for a look around. And there definitely wasn’t enough time in the next two days to convince Han it was worth a trip over. Not that Ben wanted to try. He was still nursing some sourness about having his interest made light of.

Detailed images could at least provide some concession. The city powers no doubt wanted one of their finest architectural achievements to be appreciated remotely, if not from within.

Ben brushed some crumbs off himself and the bedspread, then shifted to his stomach to help himself to what little of a tour was enabled via scrolling. A minute or so into his task, one of the rooms in particular caught his eye. It was a long space lit dimly by candledroids, but what he could see was familiar. He turned the brightness of the image up and increased the resolution enough to make out details. A floor of deep-red, gold-streaked marble. An elegantly arched gilt ceiling. Twenty chambers to a side, shut off by heavy black-and-gold doors.

The room was at once distantly cold and strikingly lush. And Ben knew exactly what it felt like to be subject to all its smothering beauty, because he had been there in a dream not even a full day ago. He swallowed the crackers he’d had half chewed but felt his appetite otherwise disappear. This was enough research for the night, he decided. Switching the datapad off after giving the image a last hard look, Ben sat in perturbed silence for a few moments. Uneasily, he wandered out of his room, hoping Han might still be awake and up for a rematch after all. He didn’t want to be alone.

+++

From the wide bay window of her apartments on Hosnian Prime, Leia was daily afforded an almost too picturesque view of sunrise over Republic City. This morning, though, slate-colored clouds threatened rain today and much of the same for the remaining days of her stay here. It was just as well—she would be seeing little of the outside world today or tomorrow. Instead, she expected to spend the majority of her time within the walls of the senatorial conference building in meetings with representatives of the Senate Intelligence Committee and others. She had, at the very least, a luncheon with Mon to look forward to. Leia found it hard to deny the palliative effects of conversation with old friends over good food.

It was hard to deny the similar effects of time spent with family, as well. Though she hadn’t quite been expecting to be called upon to do so as she considered her wardrobe for the day, barely an hour after waking. But when the clipped, fastidious voice of C-3PO interrupted her deliberations, she was grateful of the chance to think of something else, if briefly.

“Senator Organa, please excuse the interruption.” The droid halted a few steps into her room, ruled as ever by propriety. “Your husband, Han Solo, has requested a meeting via holotranceiver. I informed him that you are currently occupied, but he insisted I alert you of his—”

“That’s fine, Threepio. I’ll take it here.”

Leia gave a bemused shake of her head at C-3PO’s rigid deference to details—as if she needed him to qualify who her husband was, or treat Han’s call like a formal request for a senate meeting—but she also wondered what could be so important that Han was seeking her out barely a day after he’d set out for Cato Neimoidia. There were times, when one or both of them were away on business, that they managed to go a week or more without speaking face-to-face. The only thing she could think was that something had happened to Ben. The thought immediately made her heart clench with guilty dread despite there being no compelling reason to jump to such a conclusion.

She tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear and intercepted the incoming signal. The holographic likeness of Han appeared after a moment’s delay. Though she did not know off the top of her head the time of day where he was, she could tell by the set of his face and posture that it must be quite late in the evening.

“Han. Threepio tells me you ‘requested a meeting’,” she said with a wry smile. “So formal.”

Han snorted. “Of course he did. How are you?”

“Fine. Waking up.” Leia’s worries were already fading. If something were truly wrong, Han wouldn’t be indulging banter or niceties. Which still made the call curious. “Looking forward to a day of being told that rumors of the First Order’s growing organization are greatly exaggerated, and not believing a word of it. Of the two of us, I’d say you must be having the better time.”

She said it glibly, but there was a real question there that he would pick up on. What’s so urgent?

He caught it. Leia could tell in the way his mouth twisted a little in half a grimace, like his face was trying to shrug. It was terribly endearing. He remained seated but was immediately less relaxed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

“A better time than that, yeah,” Han began. He paused and took in a breath, held it for a few moments, then let it out in a huff. When he spoke again it was in a lower tone, as if he worried about being overheard. “Listen, Leia, does . . . Ben still talk to you about his dreams? You know, the weird ones.”

Leia’s brow crinkled in a small pensive frown, and she folded her arms. So this was to do with Ben; just not in a way she’d expected. Her voice mild but firm, she said, “Don’t call them weird, Han. He already knows how you feel about his sensitivity to the Force. It gives him the wrong idea.”

Han nodded and waved a hand. “I know, sorry. Not weird. Just—they’re not ordinary dreams. You know that, so does he. And he’s asleep right now. I think. I hope. That’s part of why I wanted to talk to you before tomorrow.”

“What is it?” She sifted through possibilities. “Do you think something has upset him? Nothing’s broken, has it?”

“No, nothing like that. I think he must not be sleeping well. Maybe because of bad dreams. This morning he looked like he was hardly awake and kept piling more sugar into his mouth. Then in the afternoon he completely blanked out in the middle of the expo hall. He did it yesterday on the shuttle, too. I mean he just stood there staring at nothing and looking sick. I had to call his name three or four times before he noticed.

“And tonight we were playing sabacc, but after one game he claimed he was too tired and went to bed. Twenty minutes later he comes back out here again looking like he’s seen a ghost and practically begs me to play a few more rounds with him. He was falling asleep halfway through and I basically had to lead him back to his room. And every time, it’s like he knows I’m noticing, but he’s trying to hide it anyway because he knows I won’t press him about it.”

Leia processed this in silence. “Why don’t you?”

“C’mon . . .” Han was at a loss, uncomfortable and unsure. “I’m not . . . you, Leia. You understand it. He likes talking to you about it.”

“Because I let him.” She said it without malice, and understood Han’s reasons, but was adamant on the point. She also thought Han overestimated the degree to which she understood whatever it was Ben was experiencing. What he had seemed to be experiencing his entire life, even when he was still growing inside of her. There were times she didn’t, or was afraid to. “And yes, he still does talk to me about them. For a while it was less frequent and I hoped he might be outgrowing it, but recently—maybe . . . a year ago?—he started mentioning it more often again.”

He winced but said nothing. Leia had come to believe that her own strength in the Force, and the bond it afforded her with Ben, helped shield him from whatever had troubled him for so long it was practically the norm. Despite that, she and Han had both acknowledged in private conversations just like this one that something in Ben was not quite ordinary, even for someone of his ability. She hated to think of that difference in a negative way. By its nature, such power was neither light nor dark. Still, she knew what she found when she sought Ben in the Force. So much light—its presence fixed and unmistakable—but always shot through with enduring veins of darkness. Even before he was born. Every time she perceived it, Leia couldn’t help wondering how much of it could be the fault of blood.

Luke had his own ideas about it. But Ben wasn’t Luke’s. He was hers. Yet she questioned more and more whether she and Han were enough together. If her not being there was harmful; or, conversely, if her efforts had left him vulnerable somehow. Which was ridiculous.

Whatever protection she thought she was affording him (why did she even have the impression Ben needed protecting at all, and from what?), soon he would be too old to see concern of that sort as anything but coddling. He was strong-willed, so bright and sensitive, with an adolescent drive for independence more evident in his demeanor each day. Leia was surprised that he remained as forthright as he was with her about his feelings, what disturbed his sleep, what troubled him in the day. It made her feel incredibly fortunate, but it couldn’t possibly last much longer. She couldn’t stay with him forever. She wasn’t meant to.

He had begun speaking to her again of islands. The dark places there on which he seemed sometimes fixated. Caves that watched him back as he gazed into their depths. Maybe that wasn’t all.

Subtly, while Han sat there considering what she’d said, Leia closed her eyes and reached out to the Force, and through that to the pulse of life and light she knew was Ben’s own. Finding him was easy, instinctive. But when she did, she met with a resistance she had noticed before, if rarely. Something that nudged back, defied and discouraged her for just a moment before it gave and let her feel the son she loved. It left her with the impression that she was being taunted.

Ben was asleep and relatively untroubled. In all things, her son included, light and dark existed in a balance. It was no reason for alarm. How many times had she told herself this? Leia drew back into herself and opened her eyes. Han was watching her.

“Okay?”

“Yes. Thinking. I’ll talk to him tomorrow. This way should do. If there’s something bothering him, maybe he just doesn’t know how to say it to you.” She hoped that didn’t sound like a barb at Han, even as she suspected he agreed. “Don’t tell him we spoke, though. It will only make him feel bad and then he won’t say anything.”

Given what time it must be on Cato Neimoidia, Leia realized this meant she would probably need to wake considerably earlier than was even her custom. It was a worthy cause, though.

“Sounds good. Thanks, Leia.” Han sounded tired, but grateful, and the look he gave her stirred her affections.

“How is he, otherwise? Having fun? He was looking forward to this for weeks. I hate to think he’s not enjoying himself at least a little.”

“Yeah, I think so. Was bouncing around like he had to do it all in one day. Doesn’t seem to like Reeda very much, but I think he must just have a crush on her or something.”

Leia raised an eyebrow. “I think it’s far more likely he’s jealous of her. Or intimidated. He knows how highly you think of her piloting skills. She’s probably a lot of things he wishes he was.”

Including someone you’re proud of, she thought. Which wasn’t fair to Han, but might be how a perceptive young boy striving for approval saw it.

Han wasn’t entirely convinced, but he nodded. “Sure, makes sense. Jeez. This was a lot easier when he thought a ride on my shoulders was the pinnacle of happiness.”

Leia laughed softly. “Yes, it was. You’re doing fine.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Han said in a way that immediately alerted her that he was about to say something that would deeply shake her belief in her previous statement. “Because, I may have promised him he can pilot the Falcon on the trip back. Just a bit.”

Leia stared hard at him.

“And maybe land it. With supervision.”

She stared harder.

“Heavy supervision. Act surprised when he does?”

She sighed. “Right. Lucky for you, I need to begin my morning in earnest. Maybe by the end of today I’ll have convinced myself you didn’t just say that. Which might help with the surprise element.”

“Love you?”

Leia moved to switch off the transceiver. “I know.”

Chapter Text

In the corner of his room, Ben sat with his back braced against the wall and his eyes screwed shut. His breath was still coming in short gasps. The feeling that his throat was closing in on itself had yet to fade. So far, he was managing to subdue the urge to flee. Only just—because where would he flee to, and what would he say when he got there?

He felt the floor beneath him and tried to remember what his mother had taught him. He folded his trembling legs and let his hands rest on his knees. He ignored the brutal slice of rising sunlight that cleaved through the window and into his face. He reached for the Force and willed himself to let it fill him and help him. He needed help. Usually this practice was easy. This morning it felt like slogging through a marsh, and he couldn’t do it.

His mind kept returning to the memory of plummeting into a hole in the ground. It had been slick and oily black, deep in a way that seemed eternal until he broke through a still plane of water at its end. The water there had been cold and briny. Although Ben was a strong swimmer he'd felt no inclination to even try. He had continued to sink with unnatural speed as the thick water filled his ears and eyes, his lungs, even his pores. He'd let it bear him down. He had realized abruptly, far too late, how hot the water had become. He was being cooked alive like a caw-crab, but he'd been too far gone to pull himself to the surface. He'd felt himself beginning to die.

He'd woken up prone on the heated floor of the refresher. It had been turned up to the maximum setting, and the shower had been running over with hot water. When Ben scrambled on his hands and knees to turn it off, he'd found the drain blocked by a thick wad of towels. And when he'd pulled himself to his feet, braced on the sink basin, he saw in the drifting steam that the rash on his neck had returned.

Something unspeakable was about to happen—he was going to be sick, he was going to suffocate, he was going to die again like he had in that dark secret place—and he'd bolted back to his bedroom.

Ben couldn’t remember what he had done after that. But now, so slowly, as he sat and reflected, he was finally beginning to return to himself. It should have been a good feeling, that centering. It wasn’t. The first thing he felt was shame for his inability to soothe himself and understand what was wrong with him. Because it was undeniably him, he knew that much. His clothing was soaked through, which he had not noticed when he first sat in the corner and began trying to meditate, an act that now felt unreal. His face, too, was wet. Tears and sweat. He palmed roughly at his cheeks and nose to clear the evidence of his misery.

After another minute he trusted himself enough to stand. Ben wandered back to the bed, where he saw that the sheets, coverlet, and pillows had all been thrown to the floor. The clock from the bedside table was lying on the floor across the room, though it took him a few moments to identify what it was. It was smashed to pieces, nearly obliterated. He wasn’t sure what to do about that. He knew it must be his fault, because he’d broken things before. Often by accident. Sometimes on purpose. When he was angry or frightened enough that the channeling of his power, using the Force in that way, let him feel temporarily in control. It seemed natural.

He hastily gathered up the bedding and threw it back onto the bed in disorder, then fumbled in his bag to find something dry to wear. He would change and wait in the living area for his father. By then he would be looking and feeling better, and some food would have to help.

Ben was at least partially right about that. For one, it was just him and Han, and today he did not bother to inquire after the whereabouts of Chewie or Ithan. Everyone evidently had their own schedules to keep, and Ben was no longer very interested in that. He was too busy trying to keep his head up at the table which, unfortunately, his father noticed. As their food arrived, borne on a tray by a hovering serving droid, Han cleared his throat and pushed a cup across the table to Ben.

“Drink up. Consider this a goodwill gesture,” he said, pointing at it like Ben might not notice it without the cue. “On the assumption that next time we play sabacc, you beat me into the ground.”

Ben peered at it and saw it was filled nearly to the brim with a steaming serving of caf. While he ordinarily would have relished the reward, its dark sheen brought to mind sinking and boiling in that cavernous hole, and the strong bitter smell only made him queasy. But his father was trying, so hard, to be cavalier and cheer him up at the same time. Ben worked his face into a pleased expression anyway and watched the droid place a plate of eggs, steak, and buttered toast in front of him. Until today he would not have believed it was possible to be simultaneously starving and repulsed by the idea of eating.

“Challenge accepted.” He pushed some of the food around with his fork and nibbled a corner of the toast, then pretended to be more interested in his juice.

Han was eating with considerably more enthusiasm and watching him again, perhaps unaware of how obvious he was being. That scrutiny was heavy, though, and its weight was compounded by a deep-seated anxiety Ben had been in thrall of since waking. He couldn’t help quailing beneath it. Wishing he didn’t feel so conspicuous, he began cutting the steak into small pieces to prolong the wait before he’d have to eat or have his disinterest commented on.

“Hey, Ben.”

Startled, Ben nearly dropped his knife. “What?”

Han was quiet for a few moments and sipped from his own cup. He was deliberating. “You sleep all right last night? You were up pretty late.”

Ben blanched and dared to have a few bites of steak. He could tell his father about how he’d found himself that morning, and where he’d been convinced he was before it. About the flooded refresher floor, where he had done his best to mop up the puddles of water with the only towel that hadn’t been used to block up the shower. And about the shattered clock that looked like it had exploded, which he'd thrown in the trash.

He could tell him how he still dreamt of places he’d never seen before. About the amphitheater window he’d imagined breaking yesterday. Maybe even about what he’d felt on the shuttle—something prodding him, goading him. Han would believe it, or entertain it. He would look uneasily at Ben and pretend he understood. But it had been a long time since Ben realized that his father was not actually a very good liar.

Unbidden, he remembered the words that echoed in the vault as he dreamed. They will see it and they will fear you.

It was only his mind telling him what he had suspected for a while. They—his parents, at least—already did fear him. Or maybe for him. Was there a difference, really? They just couldn’t be honest about it anywhere but in whispers, behind closed doors. Instead of making Ben angry, that awareness mostly just hurt. And it made him afraid. The people who were supposed to protect him and take care of him couldn’t manage it. He wished he could say he didn’t know why. But he had only himself to blame.

“Yeah,” he said. He thought a moment, then tried to turn the likely point of Han’s question toward something else. “Probably should’ve just gone to bed the first time though. No wonder I played so lousy.”

“Ahh, is that the only reason?” Han didn’t look as relieved as Ben had hoped, but he let himself be diverted anyway. “We really gotta get you up to snuff before you start playing for real stakes.”

“This was for real stakes.” Ben eyed the caf and decided to try it at last, because it was swiftly getting cold and he wanted this to be done right if he was going to do it at all. But after a single taste his face screwed up, and he put the cup down so roughly that some of the contents spilled over onto the saucer. “Oh,” he spluttered. “That’s . . .”

“Not what you hoped?” Han asked, visibly trying not to smile. He pulled the mostly full cup back toward his side of the table. “More for me today, I guess. And I need it. Try it again in a few years, you might find your tastes have changed.”

Ben doubted that but just nodded and drained the rest of his juice, desperate to get rid of the taste. Han spooned some sugar into the cup and stirred it vigorously.

“Hey, remember how I said your Uncle Lando might be making the trip out to catch the orbital sprints tomorrow?”

“I remember.”

“Well, you’re in luck tonight. I need to do something with Chewie. Business dinner . . . thing.” Han made a face and waved a hand to indicate it was something Ben wouldn’t be interested in and that the task was possibly a burden to Han himself. But Ben thought his father was just trying to keep him from feeling as if this were an act of desertion. Which was a little insulting. He knew Han was here for work. “And Lando’s getting in this afternoon. So I thought you might want to spend the time with him. And whatever he gets up to. Something more fun than drinks with some stiffs from Kuat, probably.”

“Is that okay with him?” The idea was exciting, but Ben wasn’t so sure Lando wanted to be anchored to a kid for the evening. Not that anyone would say so if that were the case. He chewed the inside of his cheek.

“Course it is. He’s the one who suggested it.”

Whether or not Ben truly believed that claim didn’t make a difference. He didn’t think there was an alternative beyond him spending the evening by himself in his room. At this moment he never wanted to set foot in it again.

“Okay. Yeah. That’ll be fun.” Definitely fun. Lando had a tendency to let certain things slip by when it came to Ben’s behavior that he doubted his parents would allow if they knew about it. And he always came bearing gifts. While Lando’s visits had been rarer lately, Ben always looked forward to them. Getting to spend time with him in the midst of the festivities made the prospect more enticing than usual, regardless of the reason.

“Glad you think so.”

Han looked satisfied that he’d found a compromise. Ben speared some eggs on his fork and forced himself to eat. Everything was flavorless, but it became easier to do as he went along, and by the time he cleared his plate he was feeling almost normal. As they stood to go, Han sidled up beside Ben and reached to clap him on the shoulder. Ben flinched, not thinking how strange it would seem when Han’s gesture was so typical between them.

“Whoa, sorry.” Han took a step back and held his hands up as if in surrender. “Are we not doing that anymore?”

Ben shook his head hard, immediately guilty at having caused offense. “No, I’m—I just.” He frowned and breathed out hard, then muttered, “I think I have a rash or something back there. I saw it this morning. On my neck. It’s not . . .” He felt irrationally as if he was taking a great risk in saying this at all, and he lost his nerve.

“Oh. I didn’t realize. You should’ve said something, we’ve got a medpac in the room.” Han leaned to look at Ben’s neck, moving his hair aside and checking under the collar of his shirt. “Does it itch? Though I . . . uh. I don’t see anything here, kid.”

“There isn’t?”

“No, not that I can tell.”

“I’m not making it up,” Ben insisted. Silverware and the stack of empty plates and cups on the table rattled behind him, seemingly of their own volition, as he tried to calm the urge to storm away. He didn’t know why he suddenly felt so frustrated and defensive.

Han straightened and matched Ben’s tone, but he didn’t reach for him again. “I didn’t say you were, Ben. Must’ve gone away already, is all I meant.”

“Yeah. Must have.”

“It happens.”

Ben went quiet and remained that way as they walked through the lobby and out into the street, which was even busier than it had been yesterday. He was starting to hate this place, a little: the mist, the damp air, the thick press of people, the pervasive shine of nearly every surface. A day ago, it had all made him feel like he was part of something exciting. Now it made him feel distinctly alone, like it was only him wrapped in a fog, even with Han beside him. Ben’s hand drifted to his pocket and sought the familiar shape and weight of Han’s lucky golden dice, which he had grabbed from his bedside table that morning in a bid to take some form of comfort with him, some ward against whatever was bothering him.

He was stricken with an overwhelming feeling of missing Chandrila, and their apartment, and his mother. Even the droids that helped run their home. He was too old to get homesick like this. It was ridiculous. But keeping everything inside was getting harder, and he didn’t want to ruin this for his father, or himself. If he started acting like he couldn’t even handle a few days away, how long would it be until he got the chance again?

Ben raised his voice a little to be heard over the sounds of speeders and city chatter. “Can I talk to Mom later?”

Almost too quickly, Han agreed. “Yeah, I think we can make that work. She’d be happy to hear from you.”

Ben hoped so, and willed himself not to think of how distant she seemed when he left.

+++

So the morning had gotten off to an unexpectedly rough start. But now that they’d reached the amphitheater, Han hoped that maybe there would be some return to the relative equilibrium of yesterday. The odd dark moment aside, Ben seemed happier then, energized by diversion. Today, he was doing a poor job hiding a sullenness that Han wished could be attributed to the revelation that he would not be around for dinner tonight. But he knew his son’s face, and today that face spoke of another difficult night. No kid deserved to have such tired eyes.

Ben’s request to speak to Leia later had been almost too fortuitous. He would be less likely to worry she and Han had been talking behind his back (which they had), planning some intrusive discussion (which they had), if it was his own idea in the first place.

On the other hand, it confirmed Han’s worst suspicions that there was something wrong. Based on past experience, that was not a comforting thought. Ben’s elusiveness about the problem was troubling, whether it were nightmares or any of the other things Han and Leia had become used to over the years as they raised a child whose power in the Force was unique in a way they were reluctant to name. Han could never help thinking of who Leia’s father had been, and he knew she struggled not to let her mind go there, too.

It also was not comforting to think that in just over an hour Han would need to leave him, again, to represent the New Republic Pilots Commission in a morning panel. At the very least, Ben would be in the audience for that one, with Chewie and Ithan. So really, it was almost like Han was keeping an eye on him himself, and they would all be reconvening immediately afterward. He would wait and see how this went. He supposed, if something happened, he could reschedule tonight’s meeting with the group from Kuat. It would be a good excuse. Though he preferred not to delay the inevitable. Anyway, he really needed to nail them down for the Gauntlet, even if there was still plenty of time before the real planning started.

He told himself, for what felt like the millionth time in the last two days, not to worry. Ben would have a great night with Lando and whatever entourage he had managed to drum up for himself between his arrival and dinnertime, Han would return to redistribute any ill-advised gifts that may have been bestowed by Lando and said entourage, Leia would have her chat with Ben, and everyone would go to sleep and wake renewed for the final day. It would be fine.

Until the next time it wasn’t. But that time would preferably be at home rather than light-years away from it.

“So I’ll need to be backstage about a half hour before the panel starts,” Han explained to Ben. He was glad to see the kid acting normal again. Ben was looking around with the same impatience to get into everything that he’d displayed yesterday morning, and he was walking quickly like it was all he could do to keep from darting ahead and inside. “We’ll get you settled in a good seat somewhere with the other two. Then after that we can go off and find some food that’s better than whatever it was we ended up with from that booth yesterday.”

Once upon a time Han had been able to stomach nearly anything, but he was finding that, with age, certain acts of gastronomical daring came with greater risk than expected.

“I need to go back out to the fighters to see the ones I missed yesterday,” Ben reminded him. “Some time. I guess that’s better for later. Then I don’t need to rush again. You should come this time, you’ll love it.”

“It’ll be the first thing we do after lunch, then.” Han felt good about being able to make one guarantee for today, at least. “I’d been hoping to get out here for that.”

This brightened his son’s expression in earnest for the first time since the night before, and Han’s spirits rose to match it. Ben chattered on. “Can you believe I never saw a Lancet before? It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I think I’d still fly one for fun.”

“Well, any model the CEC puts out is bound to be a cut above. And you know, I think those have room for two. You could take me for a ride some time.”

Han was grinning, and hoping too late that his response didn’t indicate he thought Ben ought to try and convince someone to let him take a ship today, when he noticed a knot of people gathered around one of the tall windows that ringed the exterior of the amphitheater. A pair of spider-like repair droids were clambering over the surface of the window, defying gravity as they inspected a long crack in the glass and began the work of filling and smoothing it.

“Weird.” Han tapped Ben’s shoulder, happy this time that he did not shrink away like he had at breakfast, and pointed out the droids. “Think some guests got a little too wild after everything closed up last night?”

In truth, he doubted any single person could have done that. The window looked like it had been repeatedly and deliberately hammered with something very heavy. The crack started fairly low to the ground and was only a meter or so long. But it was wide and deep, too, and Han would have hoped that the glass making up a significant portion of the building was made of stronger stuff. Still, it was difficult to think of what else may have caused it. Some of the crowd here could get rowdy after hours, if his memory of previous years served him.

Ben didn’t respond, so Han glanced at him. But Ben was looking already after all, and he didn’t seem to find it very amusing. To the contrary, his expression was serious and perturbed.

Belatedly, Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. Can we get inside now? You’ll be late.”

Han would not be late unless they took another twenty minutes to get inside, and considering how near they were to the entrance, there wasn’t a chance of that. But Ben’s eyelids fluttered and his throat bobbed, and Han was reminded again of just how bad his son was at hiding things. His face was nearly always too expressive even when he thought he was schooling his features. The look he wore now suggested a few things to Han, none of which made sense. Embarrassment? Recognition? Guilt?

Unsure of what to make of Ben’s caginess, Han acquiesced. He could only be grateful when, an hour later, he squinted out into the panel audience and caught sight of Ben leaning on Chewie, asleep.

+++

The sound of applause and rising chatter startled Ben awake. For an instant he was stricken with the panic of the day before, when he’d come to in the middle of a crowded room with his most recent memory that of being held fast to a darkened window. His terror then had awakened a dense, heavy surge of the power always pulsing in him and broken the glass as if by brute physical force. Until earlier today, he had managed to cling to the hope that it had only been a figment of his imagination.

But as Han pointed with amusement to the repair droids at work fixing the glass-paned surface of the amphitheater, Ben realized it had truly happened as he remembered. He could no longer delude himself into believing another explanation. The material truth of it was worse than the assumption that his mind had created the bizarre experience from nothing. So was that inkling—a sudden, fully formed idea he couldn’t ignore—telling him it was all true. He had just let the notion wash over him, like he always did.

Look what he had done. Look what he was capable of.

Think what more you could do.

Even with Han so near, Ben had very nearly been sick. But he swallowed the bile and the shame, and his father hadn’t noticed.

With Chewie beside him now, though, he remembered quickly enough where he was—watching Han take part in a panel. Or he had been trying to. It was over now, hence the applause, and Ben couldn’t even remember at what point during it he had fallen asleep. It didn’t matter. It was too late. He should have been able to stay awake. He would have, if he’d been able to get any real rest during this entire trip. The nap he just woke from, which probably lasted barely an hour and left his neck sore on one side, had been somehow more restorative than either of the two nights that came before.

Han met them near the edge of the panel area, looking tired and annoyed. Ben knew his father had probably not enjoyed participating very much. He didn’t really seem to enjoy any of the public duties associated with his career choices. But he was head of the New Republic Pilots Commission and had been for as long as Ben could remember, so by now he just gritted his teeth and dealt with those duties—meetings, conferences, panels—as they came. Still, it likely didn’t help that Han and Chewie would shortly be rushing off to yet another meeting, even if it was over food and drinks. So Ben hesitated to make himself a nuisance by talking too much as they embarked on the walk to the hotel.

They took the same route they had the night before, and as they walked Ben began to feel unsettled again. It was such a familiar sensation that it didn’t even register at first, and when it did he couldn’t place its source. He tried to find something else to focus on until the feeling passed. Glancing to his left, he saw the electrobinoculars he had peered through the last time they passed this way, when he’d felt himself inexplicably drawn to the sight of the Great Vaults with their well-guarded treasures a whole city away.

The moment he laid eyes on the binoculars again, he was overcome with a compulsion to return and look through, as if something would have changed. But he knew what was there now. There was no need to be so distracted by it. The urge was fleeting. He tamped it down, realized he’d fallen behind, and scurried to catch up.

A half block later something brushed his shoulder, slipping around to his neck. Ben.

At first he thought it was Han. But he knew what his father’s hands felt like. Strong, callused, and warm. This was cold and dry, taut and unnaturally smooth, like scar tissue. The intrusive thoughts began, his own only because he could not identify another source. A reminder.

There is so much potential in you. Such strength in your blood. The light. And the dark. You must not fear it.

His skin began to crawl, like it had when he found his room in disarray that morning. Why was he thinking about these things? Light, darkness. Blood. He could hear it pounding in his ears. Whatever he had been trying to deny over the last two days was increasingly difficult to tolerate. This wasn’t just him. It wasn’t one of those occasional shapeless impressions that he’d simply become used to living with, some symptom of his power in the Force. It really was like a voice now, worrying at the frayed edges of his resolve. A low, provocative purr that crept up his spine and curled itself in his mind.

Let me show you.

“Please stop,” Ben blurted.

He jolted away from Han, Chewie, and Ithan and came to a dead halt in the middle of the busy street. An annoyed, tentacled pedestrian swerved around him just in time, glared at Han with its single large eye, and continued on. Ben pressed back against the nearest building, trying to make himself flat and invisible.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Han looked worried, all the irritation in his features dispelled. It was so rare to see him look that baldly concerned about anything that it wasn’t comforting at all. Ben almost would have preferred a casual show of nonchalance as Han swept down to his side. He thought he saw Ithan purse her lips and narrow her eyes, but for once he didn’t care. Chewie rumbled an inquiry.

“I have a headache,” Ben lied quickly. He’d been so close to telling his father he thought he was hearing things. But he still wasn’t even sure that was what was happening, and how would that have sounded? He would ruin everything, and probably for no good reason.

“Oh.” Han frowned a little, evidently puzzled as to why something as seemingly trivial as a headache would be cause for such a reaction. “Like a migraine?”

“I don’t know. What’s a migraine?”

Han laughed gently, despite everything. Strangely, that did make Ben feel somewhat better. If his father was laughing, it couldn’t be that bad. Any of it.

“Consider yourself lucky you don’t know.” He placed his palm over Ben’s forehead for a moment or two, seeming as bemused by the gesture as Ben did. “Not warm. Or clammy, for that matter. The light bothering you?”

Ben looked around, beginning to feel foolish for causing a scene. “No. I just felt dizzy for a second.”

“Probably because you haven’t been sleeping. I can tell, believe it or not,” he said when Ben looked like he was about to protest. Han straightened up and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder, coaxing him to walk alongside him again. “Would you rather call this off with Lando tonight? Maybe you should just go to bed early. I’ll let you order room service while I’m gone. Whatever you wanna eat.”

It was actually tempting, and Ben briefly entertained visions of endless trays of junk food and hours of holofilms. Then he remembered that it would mean returning to his room, alone, and waiting there, alone, and wondering when he’d wake up, alone and probably bewildered by wherever sleep had taken him. Tired or not, at least spending the time with Lando would keep him out of the hotel room and safe from whatever awaited him when he closed his eyes.

“It’s okay,” Ben said. “It’ll go away. I’d just get bored on my own.”

Han made a low sound of approval. “Yeah, there’s one thing you’ll never be with Lando—bored.”

If there was a hint of guilt in his father’s voice, Ben missed it. He wouldn’t ask Han to stay. Evidently, that wasn’t on the table. He didn’t want to have to ask. Which would be worse: Asking and being denied, or asking and being indulged, and feeling like an inconvenience because of it the rest of the night? Better not to find out at all.

Chapter Text

If Lando had any reservations about watching over Ben that night, he was so good at concealing them that Ben forgot any insecurities after barely five minutes in his company. Suddenly it was easy to overlook that Han and Chewie were off doing something without him. It was easy to suppose that he surely would have found their plans boring anyway, and to take pleasure in the fact that he hadn’t had to deal with Ithan in hours. It was easy to see himself relaxing and looking forward to whatever his remaining time here might hold.

Lando had made short work of getting himself and Ben set up at one of the largest tables in the Mantle Hotel’s restaurant. Droids made up the bulk of the serving staff, but those members who were of the organic persuasion—the host included—were easily charmed by Lando’s unaffected magnetism. Still, Ben was pretty sure Lando could have talked his way into the good graces of any droid he wanted, too.

What mattered, as ever, came down to a single fact: Lando was old, but he was cool.

They were seated near a back corner, beside a window, which afforded them the dual advantage of relative privacy and a view of the shining city outside. For now, though, Ben was more drawn to the view inside. This was the first time he had seen the place by night. He was amazed how a few hours could transform it so entirely, and he tried to take in as much as he could at once.

The room was dimmer, and the gilded pillars and moulding appeared brighter by comparison. The arabesque designs of the floral wallpapers shone, too, creating an impressive but dizzying display. Wall hangings made of long strands of some tinkling, crystalline substance refracted light from candledroids and actual fireplaces, and in each corner of the room stood a large stasis-field cage with a solitary pylat bird roosting inside. The birds were very striking, with dramatic head crests and creamy white feathers dashed with scarlet. It was likely they could be heard singing during less busy times, but with the current crowd, there was no chance of that.

Altogether, Ben got the impression that someone had tried to condense all the grandeur of the city into a single room. They'd very nearly succeeded.

The large and lively bar was more conspicuous in the twilight hours, as well. On this final night of the expo it was overflowing with patrons of every race and species, an entire galaxy distilled. Many of those people had probably been in the amphitheater with him all this time, yet he hadn’t really considered them until now. So much else had been occupying his attention.

“Why do we need all this space?” Ben asked as he counted the chairs around their table.

It now seemed likely that this evening would be taking shape differently than he’d expected. On the rare occasions that it was just the two of them, Lando could be counted on to regale him with stories of countless past adventures with Han. If they needed all these seats tonight—ten altogether—Ben doubted that it would remain just the two of them long enough for much of that. But maybe that wasn’t a terrible thing. The size of the table and its location made it feel important, so he felt important for being there. Knowing Lando, there was a reason behind the decision, and the promise of excitement.

“Why do we need all this space?” Lando repeated loudly, spreading his arms in a magnanimous gesture that suggested the answer could be found somewhere in the room behind him. “You never know what kind of friends you might make at a place like this. And it’s polite to be able to offer them a seat when you do.”

That was just the sort of reply Ben had come to expect, and he nodded as he settled back in his chair, feeling truly at ease for the first time since lunch. He wasn’t sure if they would actually find themselves the center of that much attention. There was a part of him that wouldn’t mind if they didn’t. But it was interesting to envision the table slowly filling up with strangers from all over the galaxy. He could imagine a very satisfying scenario in which Han returned to find the two of them holding court with a dozen or so pilots and tourists and the sorts of important people Lando always drew in eventually.

Ben shrugged. “I should have guessed.” Entirely without subtlety, because with Lando he knew he didn’t need to bother attempting it, he asked, “So, did you bring anything for me this time?”

Lando issued a sly laugh and took a swig of his drink, something golden-brown and iced in a short tumbler with a sprig of some spiky greenery sticking out. It looked very appealing. Ben made a note of this and wondered if he would eventually be able to convince Lando to let him have a taste. The odds at this point were roughly fifty-fifty, and he knew that if Lando had one or two more drinks like it, those odds would tilt in his favor.

“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.” Lando feigned secrecy, but they both knew he had. “What kind of manners are your mom and dad teaching you, though? I thought they’d have told you it’s rude to ask questions like that.”

“They did,” he confirmed. Lando wasn’t actually chiding him—they had some variation of this conversation every time they saw one another. By now it almost felt scripted, and Ben knew exactly what to say next. “You’re the only one I ask, because you bring the best things.”

Lando nodded knowingly, a spark of amusement in his shrewd eyes. “Riiight. Well, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow after the charity race, but I promise it will live up to your very discerning tastes and expectations.”

Tomorrow seemed like an awfully long time away. “Can’t wait.”

He reached into the dish of Warra nuts, which served as a snack while their meals were prepared. Ben had noticed that, in addition to their own food, Lando had placed orders for several other dishes that were distinctly shareable and far too much for just the two of them. Between that and the size of the table, all signs pointed to a single logical conclusion: they weren’t just hoping to draw company in at random. They were expecting it. He wondered if that was part of what Lando had brought him.

“Can I have a hint?”

“Ahh.” Lando looked upward, most likely weighing a variety of vague-enough answers. “It’s . . . age-appropriate.”

Ben squinted back at him. “What if I guess some things, and you tell me if I’m right or wrong?”

“Don’t think so, kiddo. We’ll be here all night if we do that, and there are better things we could be talking about.”

Ben groaned but accepted defeat with relative grace, half-heartedly flicking an empty nutshell across the table at him. It pinged with satisfying precision against the rim of Lando’s green-sprigged glass.

“Nice shot,” Lando said, nodding appreciatively. “Hey, if you’re going to insist on the subject of gifts, how about this: you all still take the Candlewick out now and then?”

In a way, the Candlewick was one of the first gifts Lando had given Ben: a Vantillian catamaran trusted to Han and Leia on the occasion of his birth, which his mother had named for a vining flower native to her homeworld. One day, he supposed when he came of age, it would truly be his. For now, Ben had memories of his parents taking him on cruises around Chandrila, usually to someplace like Sarini Island. He loved everything about those times—the feeling of speed unchecked by viewports and windows, the smooth hum of the thrusters as the ship skipped through the waves, the sharp smell of salt and sea air. But the trips had never quite been regular to begin with, and they’d become markedly less frequent lately. Or maybe it just seemed that way to Ben.

“Not as much.” He gave the straw in his glass of fizz a stir. “I think I heard Mom talking about planning something for early next year, maybe. At Lake Sah’ot, or one of those places.”

“That’s not so far off,” Lando said, looking like he was turning this over in his head, “but maybe I’ll have a chat with your dad and remind him how important it is to make sure to take it out more regularly, hm? Can’t let something like that go to waste. Especially not when . . . you’re probably old enough now he can be teaching you the ropes of piloting it?”

Ben nodded. “Yeah. He did, actually. Kind of. Last time. But it’d probably go better now. I wasn’t used to that kind of vessel.” The actual problem was that he had been quite a bit shorter then and had a difficult time reaching some of the noncrucial but nevertheless useful controls. “Hey, you know what? He said I can pilot the Falcon when we go back home.”

He looked genuinely impressed. “That’s a hell of an accomplishment. And I’m sure you’ll do a fine job. Though I’m not surprised. He’s told me he thinks you might be ready to start in on some of the junior-level races soon, too.”

This was news to Ben, who had never heard such a thing from his father, and his confusion was fleetingly evident. But a moment later it was replaced by a flush of satisfaction at the compliment—even if it had come from a third party who didn’t realize his ignorance. Still, it was a complicated feeling, pride overshadowed by wonder at why Han had never said it himself. It would be another year or two until Ben was old enough for that anyway. Probably, his father was just trying to save that news for a time when it would actually be possible. Ben did have a tendency to find himself in trouble once he got ideas in his head that lacked an appropriate outlet.

“That’s what I hope. I need to wait a little longer . . . I’m not old enough.” He was sure he could hold his own, even against slightly older pilots.

“Says who?”

“Uh, my dad. And the rules, I guess.” He twisted his mouth and rolled his eyes in annoyance at the injustice, but continued to ramble on. “Anyway, once I start, I’m going to work so hard. I figure if I do it right, I can get into the junior level of the Sabers race early. It’s got hyperspace orienteering . . . supposed to be really dangerous.”

“And by ‘really dangerous’ I assume you mean ‘really amazing’?”

“Really, really amazing.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised.” Lando paused to get the attention of a passing serving droid, indicated that he would like a second drink (even though his first was still about half full), then looked appraisingly at Ben. “So then you must know all about the Dragon Void Run, too, right?”

“Yes.” Ben drew the word out. That was an incredibly silly question, one he suspected Lando was asking with a heavy dose of irony.

“Just testing your memory.”

“Are you kidding? That's basically my dream.”

“Winning or competing?” When Ben only raised his eyebrows at that equally silly question, Lando observed, “Wanna be like the old man, huh?”

“Yeah, I do. I guess so,” Ben said, grin faltering.

He really couldn’t deny that, especially to Lando. It was the truth. Still, he was reaching a point in his life when acknowledging outright why he was so determined to be not just a pilot, but a great pilot, was cause for slight embarrassment. It was no secret to anyone that Ben admired his father, but that didn’t mean he had to run around proclaiming it from the rooftops like he’d used to when he was small.

“If I recall correctly,” Lando said, “he could’ve won the Run in the final stretch. But he—”

“I know, I know. He cut off the course so he could take on some Imperials that were in pursuit.”

He’d heard the story before, and it was one of his favorites—how Han had entered the race during the war as an operative for the Rebel Alliance. Lando knew he knew; he was responsible for two of the versions Ben considered at least mostly true. Each retelling painted the event as something of mythic, unattainable proportions. But Ben’s current ambition to train for and enter the race was rooted purely in his own desire for the peril and prestige of such a time-honored event.

“I guess if you know so much about it, you probably remember the part about that interdimensional gate . . .”

“The what?” Ben had never heard about an interdimensional gate figuring into the narrative, and he couldn’t help the bald wonder on his face.

“Oh, yes, the gate. Opened up a rift in space and time, a big-ass monster came out and started wreaking havoc. I can’t believe you’ve never heard that part.”

“Liar,” Ben accused, only half convinced. He’d heard stranger things, but this seemed the sort of detail Lando would never have withheld when he could embellish it instead.

“Hah, I’ve been called worse. I see you’re not ready for the whole truth.” Lando heaved a long-suffering sigh and looked wistfully at his drink. “Maybe that’s a story for another day. Another year. Another lifetime.” Ben glowered, but was unable to hold it for long when Lando raised his glass to him and said with far more solemnity than was warranted, “Well, do or die—”

Ben finished the Dragon Void’s unofficial but well-known tagline, and clinked his glass to Lando’s, tipping his head back to drain the remainder of his drink. “—or go home now.”

“Go home indeed,” Lando echoed, clearing his throat and glancing behind him to get a glimpse of the view out the window. “How’re you liking the city, then? Gotten to see anything interesting? Ships and fighters don’t count.”

Ben had to think about the question; his opinion of Cato Neimoidian cities had been in flux for days. Right now, with the memory of his most recent walk to the hotel fresh in his mind, his instinct was to be critical: Fogbank was noisy, crowded, and too rainy. But it seemed useless to start complaining to Lando about such things, so he opted for a more neutral response. “It’s nice.”

“Just ‘nice’?”

“I haven’t really seen that much of it,” he admitted. “Besides what we pass to get from here to the expo. I like visiting, but . . . it’s all mostly damp and too . . . shiny. Sorta makes me glad I don’t live here.”

Lando laughed. “They do like their decoration here, that’s for sure. Though I can’t fault a flair for the dramatic.” Yes, griping about how flashy the place was would definitely have been lost on Lando. “It’s too bad we don’t have more time—a lot of this city is commercial, but there’s some interesting stuff over the way of Saul and Kite Lam. Those cities on the other bridges, you know? Museums, libraries. You still like history?”

“Yeah.” The mention of the other cities and the sorts of attractions they held reminded Ben of what he’d learned the night before about the vaults that had been a persistent undercurrent in his mind since he’d dreamed of them. He’d given up any hope of seeing them up close, but that didn’t mean they were easy to forget. “There’s this vault thing I read about. Like a bank, maybe. But where they keep old artifacts and treasure or something?”

“The Great Vaults? Dod’s old place. I’m familiar. Done some business there, once or twice. A lot of holdovers from the old Trade Federation culture, if you ask me.” Lando scoffed and nodded to the serving droid that swept by. It hovered near only long enough to drop off Lando’s new beverage and take Ben’s empty glass before it was off again. “The security’s said to be top notch, but I don’t know how much I’d trust it.”

“How come?”

“People can be bought; droids can be overridden.” Lando wagged a finger at him, like he was about to impart some wisdom. “I always say, best to keep—”

A loud bark of a voice Ben did not recognize made him jump.

“CAL-rissian! We thought you’d be at the bar. Spent the last fifteen minutes lurking around like a bunch of bantha’s asses.” The owner of the voice laughed sharply. “Shame on us, we should’ve known you’d have the best damn table in the place.”

Instinctively, Ben dodged left just as an arm appeared at the periphery of his vision and slammed a tall bottle down on the table beside him. His mind caught up in the next second—the voice and the arm belonged to the same individual, who was now circling off to the right. A human man, shorter in stature than the volume and richness of his voice suggested, with a tall coif of white-blond hair and dark skin. He was accompanied by a few others, who Ben tracked as they swarmed around the table and claimed seats as if they had already been invited to do so. As they all settled, he took them in quickly. Most were human—though there was a Zabrak and a Twi’lek as well—all had drinks in hand, and they all seemed to know one another.

“You should have said you were babysitting, Lando,” the Zabrak said as she noticed Ben. “We would have brought the stronger stuff.”

“Hah!” One of the human men feigned insult. He had a shaved head and wore a red-and-orange flight suit, the only one of the group who hadn’t arrived dressed for a night out. “‘Stronger stuff’? Is there stronger stuff than Port in a Storm? Have I been lied to all my life?”

Ben was becoming a bit confused by the sudden influx of people and conversation, and Lando noticed. He waved a hand to interrupt whatever was brewing.

“Everyone, this is Ben Solo. Han’s boy. And this isn’t babysitting—this is a classy evening out. So please, let’s have some decorum, shall we?” He winked at Ben and began ticking off names around the table, starting with the man who’d come bearing the bottle. “Ben, this is . . . ah, let’s see: Tobal, Ric, Jorja, Pilvi, Signey, and . . . sorry, my dear, I actually don’t think we’ve met.”

A young woman raised an eyebrow but didn’t seem offended. She was the youngest by a margin, probably barely out of her teens. “Vee.”

Vee! Lovely,” Lando declared, as if she was immediately enchanting based solely on the knowledge of her name. He returned his attention to Ben. “Got all that?”

“Uh.” Ben definitely did not have all that, but he was acclimating to the abrupt increase in their party size. “No, but I will.”

“Great!” While the others got back to chattering amongst themselves and perusing the drink menu, he leaned closer and said in an undertone, “This okay with you, starfighter? If not, your dad said you might want some sabacc pointers. We could go back up and do that, maybe put on a holofilm ‘til he gets back.”

Ben shook his head. Such a tame turn of events was not Lando’s style at all. It wasn’t much Ben’s, either. “No, this is fine. I wanna stay.”

Though he no longer felt as uneasy about the room upstairs as he had that morning, he was in no rush to return until he knew he could contact his mother. Besides, there was something about the newcomers that Ben recognized, that drew him in and warmed him to them. It could have been the way they carried themselves, maybe, or some other distinct but unidentifiable aura. Whatever it was, between it and the proximity of the expo, he felt he could safely assume they were pilots or worked in the industry. He wanted to talk to them, or at least be around them. To his surprise, they didn’t seem to mind sharing their night with a kid, though it wasn’t lost on him that whose kid he was likely had something to do with that.

“So, Han’s your dad?” This was from Tobal, who leaned forward to look across Lando at Ben like he was searching for physical evidence of the relation. He squinted—his eyes were very pale green, almost as striking as his bright hair. “Yeah, okay, I think I can see it. Lucky kid. War hero and renowned pilot for a father?”

“And smuggler,” Ben said, not expecting the laugh that earned him.

“Maybe you can help us settle something, then.” Ric was brushing something off the front of his jumpsuit. “I just got my hands on a beautiful piece of work. Brand new I-7 Howlrunner. Top-of-the-line, hyperdrive upgrade, you name it. And some people at this table, who shall not be named, seem to think it’s a—hm, what was it you called it, Jorjie?”

“Glorified guided missile,” Jorja shot back, shrugging before she threw back her horned head and emptied her glass in one long gulp.

Ric scoffed and mimed taking a blaster shot to the chest. “Now, I’d think, Ben, you, coming from the family you do, you probably understand the finer points of these things, and surely you can tell our friend here the error of her ways.”

Ben felt put on the spot, but he wasn’t unequipped to answer. “Isn’t the Howlrunner an Incom ship?”

“Uh-oh,” uttered the Twi’lek, Pilvi, who had been watching the exchange. He sneered, sharp-toothed, at Ric. “He doesn’t sound too impressed.”

“No, they’re fine. Maybe not a glorified missile,” Ben said. “Just that I don’t think anything out of there would stand up to something put out by the CEC.”

Ric regarded him, maybe in surprise at receiving such a serious answer, then looked abashed. “Damn. Shoulda remembered. Your dad’s a Corellia man.”

“Tell me again how many ship manufacturers Pamarthe lays claim to?” That was Jorja, spurred on by the debate.

Vee broke in with a bold claim. “We don’t need manufacturers. We’ve already got better pilots than any planet in the Outer Rim. Probably the entire galaxy.”

Ric, Tobal, and Signey gave a short hoot of agreement. Ben glanced at Vee again, caught himself staring, and made himself look at something else. She was kind of pretty—dark-haired, bright-eyed—and had a very pleasant voice. And she was a pilot. He was glad it was sort of dark in here, because his face suddenly felt warm.

“On my own behalf, and that of my sweet Reaver, I’ll try not to be too offended. I’ll even forgive your obvious bias. Clearly, your father has already ruined you. And to think I admired him.” Ric shook his head dramatically, but he was grinning. He was always grinning. “I like this kid, Lando.”

And Ben liked this, whatever was now happening at the table. It felt like what the expo ought to be, what he’d imagined before they left Chandrila and things started to go so sideways. He’d made the right choice to stay.

The next few hours passed too quickly. Ben was mostly happy to remain a spectator, certain that he was learning a lot just by listening. The others seemed fairly interested in him, too, even if a good deal of the conversation was banter and, as people drank more, double entendre and crude stories. They must have thought those went over Ben’s head—they were mistaken. And while Pamarthens may have been known for their skill as pilots, they were also known for their skill as drinkers. If they were to be believed, that bottle Tobal had brought, full of the alluded to ‘Port in a Storm’, was truly fearsome stuff.

So naturally, Ben wanted his turn at a taste, and thought it likely he just might get it. He was eyeing the bottle with great interest as it began making the rounds when Lando, true to form, noticed impending disaster and intervened.

“Allow me to enlighten you,” he said, waving a hand in Ben’s line of sight to draw his attention. “You absolutely do not want to try that. I don’t even want to try that.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben tried to look innocent, but his gaze was already drifting back to the bottle. It was now three seats away from him, being passed from Signey to Vee. It couldn’t really be that bad, could it? Lando was probably just exaggerating the way he sometimes—often—did.

“People from Pamarthe are a special level of crazy that I have not yet attained.”

“I’m not trying anything.” Yet.

“Let's keep it simple: I’m doing you a favor, and saving my own ass from what your dad would do to me if he came back to find you laid out after a sip of that moonshine. This, on the other hand . . .” He slid what remained of his fourth drink to Ben—about a third of the tumbler, really, so not much—and nodded conspiratorially. “This you can sample. Whyren’s Reserve, gentiana, botanical wine. Classy and straightforward. Won't scorch your guts. Highly recommended.”

“Are you trying to imply that our booze isn’t classy, Calrissian?” Tobal asked. His face was tinged with red and his eyes were a little watery, but he’d been the first to down some of the Port and didn’t seem much the worse for it.

“Certainly not. Merely that not all of us have such indestructible constitutions.”

“Jorjie sure didn’t.” Signey pointed to Jorja’s recently vacated seat—she had immediately run off to the restroom after she’d had a taste.

Rather than make a fuss, Ben accepted Lando’s alternative. He clearly wasn’t going to get his way here—maybe that was something to be grateful for after all. In fact, he didn’t have much to complain about. Lando was right; whatever he’d been drinking throughout the evening was tasty. It sent a pleasant warmth through Ben’s limbs and was sweet in a way he’d never experienced before, but the alcohol also burned the back of his throat. After a few more small sips, he found he didn’t particularly wish to finish it.

He discreetly pushed it back toward Lando, watching Vee’s throat bob as she swallowed a shot of the Port like it was little more than water.

“Hey, look who I found!”

Ben’s stomach sank. He knew that voice—Ithan. Why was she here, now? He was too full of heavy foods and tired out by hours of rapidfire conversation to get properly annoyed, but that sense of contentment he’d been feeling was immediately shattered as if it had all been an illusion to begin with.

And there she was, helping herself to one of the empty seats between him and Vee, taking the table in like everyone had been waiting for her to arrive. She noticed him last of all. “Oh, little Solo. What’re you doing here? I’m surprised it’s not past your bedtime.”

Ben just stared at her, willing her to disappear.

Lando leaned over Ben and sized up the newest addition to their party. Something like recognition began to dawn in his expression. “Might you be Reeda Ithan?” he ventured after a few moments of silent scrutiny.

“That's me. Just Ithan is fine. And you're Lando Calrissian.”

“Last I checked. I’d been wondering if I'd meet Han’s current project,” Lando said, offering her a hand to shake. “Should I flatter myself assuming you’ve been looking for me?”

Ithan laughed, which was a strange thing to see. Ben was pretty sure he’d never witnessed her do more than crack a tight and unpleasant smile before. He forced himself to fix his attention elsewhere—there was a lot to see here. He could manage. But it was still hard to ignore how loud her voice was as she answered Lando, or how familiar she sounded already.

“No, sorry.” Her eyes flicked over the list of drinks, but she threw a quick look to the other side of the table. “I noticed Ric over there. We met today at the convention, he mentioned plans to find some friends here. Suggested I stop by for a party . . . though I have to say, this crowd looks a little tired.”

Ben cast a dark look around the room, where the clientele had indeed begun to grow quieter as it dwindled in size.

“This is just the pregame,” Ric called over. “Gonna hop a shuttle to hit up Saul across the way soon. They've got all the proper clubs. You should stick around, we’ll show you a good time.”

Vee beamed at her. “The best.”

“I guess I’ll just have to stick around.”

“If you’re in the market for a drink, I’m happy to make a suggestion or two,” Lando told her. He added as a loud aside, “Before this crew does the honors and ruins your night.”

A general outcry of amusement and feigned offense arose, and Lando turned away to make good on his offer, hailing one of the serving droids that had just emerged from the bar.

Ben didn’t like this. Why was Ithan so chummy with all these people? She didn’t even know them. True, he didn’t either, not really, but surely the last hours had to count for something. Or not. Turning a little surly as the conversation continued around him, he sat back and let his attention wander from the table. The crowds of earlier had thinned a lot, and only the most dedicated drinkers and regulars were left behind, hotel guests and otherwise. But they weren’t terribly interesting to watch, and all that meant was there was less noise to help him block out Ithan’s annoying voice.

A high, lilting sound reached his ears, and he turned to seek its source. The pylat bird in the cage closest to their table was singing. It had been, at least. The moment it felt Ben’s eyes on it, it ruffled its feathers, tipped back its head, and let out a last long note, almost mournful. It went quiet after that, regarding him with a cocked head as its plumage settled smoothly against its long body.

He twisted in his chair and looked out the window a while, but that wasn’t much good either. A storm had rolled in from the open sea not long ago, and sheets of rain obscured anything that may have been worth seeing. All Ben could make out through the torrent was the soft glow of faraway city lights and the occasional flash of greenish lightning. It made him think of his mother; not the lightning, but the storm. Where they lived on Chandrila rarely had any this strong, but when they did occur, Ben often caught Leia watching them from her balcony window. Usually he joined her. He wished she was here. She’d have liked this one.

He could tell her about it later, he supposed . . . if Han would just get back already. Great—now he was annoyed and homesick.

The pylat sang again, in that same weird, keening tone. It wasn’t an unpleasant sound, but it intruded on Ben’s thoughts and drew him too sharply back into the moment. He didn’t want to be in the moment anymore. He felt alone, and he felt unwell, and he wanted to leave. Lando was in his element, though, and Han would be here soon, so Ben just glared at the pylat rather than interrupt and ask to be excused. It had shut up last time he’d looked at it. Maybe that would work again.

At first, it seemed he was right. The pylat noticed him immediately and stopped its vocalizing. It spread its wings and flapped hard a few times. Its crested head bobbed as it shuffled back and forth on its perch. Then, abruptly, its posture changed: its body went rigid and its feathers puffed out as it turned its head to fix him with one round, golden eye. Ben stared back and felt something click into place, like the change in the faint vibrations he felt beneath his feet as a ship made landfall.

This wasn’t physical, though. Instead, it was confined to his consciousness and to the pylat’s. Its mind was surprisingly sharp, though dimmer than his own and dulled further by years of captivity and isolation. He perceived its boredom and lack of stimulation, and its frustration at being parted from the other three birds in the room.

Ben tried to parse all of this, tentatively reaching further into the pylat’s presence in the Force, but doing so made it difficult to sublimate the nascent anger he was feeling. Its snowy body quivered, and it looked around as if confused. An instant later, the pylat unfurled one wing and began preening itself, drawing its long, curved beak down a few flight feathers, movements smooth and practiced.

And then it yanked, hard, to tear a long primary feather loose at the skin, and let it fall to the floor of the stasis cage. It shook its head almost too fast to perceive, squawked, and did it again, grabbing a feather closer to its body, and a third time after that, just the same—yank, tear, drop. Soon there were seven long white and red feathers piled on the cage floor, some singed and blackened where they had brushed against the stasis field.

The pylat didn’t notice. It had moved on to its breast, ripping shorter feathers free in clumps with no pretense of preening now. When its beak began to meet flesh, it remained heedless of its own well-being and only tore harder. It chewed, it dug. Scrapes appeared in its pale, bumpy flesh, and pricks of blood began to bloom.

Ben was transfixed. The display was horrifying, disgusting, confusing. And it was perversely fascinating. He knew, somehow, that he could stop it, but he either couldn’t or didn’t want to break that connection . . . until something new pricked at the edges of his mind. The approach of something known to him. Someone.

It was enough to jar him, and he finally broke away, a thin sweat at the back of his neck, thinking that he should get Lando’s attention, tell him about the bird and get some help before it seriously hurt itself. He would have gotten up and done it himself, but those stasis fields were serious business. He was more likely to end up in trouble for messing with the cage if he tried, or with a burn for his efforts. When he looked to Lando, though, he was suddenly aware that someone else was looming over him from behind—the same presence he’d felt approaching only seconds before. Ben craned his neck back.

It was Han. He was soaking wet, hair stuck to his forehead, jacket dark with rain. Chewie was nowhere to be seen, but Ben figured that wherever he was, he would be in no better state.

“Hey, kid, sorry I’m late,” Han said, leaning a hand on the back of Ben’s chair and sweeping his eyes over the table. His gaze landed on the nearly empty tumbler of Lando’s leftover drink, which was still conspicuously within Ben’s reach, and his eyebrows raised. He gave Ben a knowing glance. “Having fun, I see.”

“Uh . . .”

“Han!” Lando cried, reached up to clap his old friend on the back. The gesture shook some water droplets free of Han’s jacket, and they landed on Ben’s face. “Just in time—we were about to order another round. Stick around a little while, would you? Ben’s fitting right in, and would you look at that: there’s one last open seat, right between him and Ithan.” His eyebrows threatened to join his hairline. “Coincidence? I think not.”

“Do I look like I want to sit down for a round?” Han held his arms out and looked himself up and down. “You might have noticed, it’s raining just a bit out there.”

With Han distracted, Ben stole a look over his shoulder to check on the bird. It had stopped mutilating itself, but it was still bleeding, and it was clearly distressed: swinging its head dejectedly, crest flattened, beak clicking, tongue exposed. Half by accident, Ben caught a flash of its unease in the currents of the Force, the threads of its existence there raw and wild as they demanded his attention again. He tolerated it for a fleeting moment, feeling like he deserved the reminder of what he’d done, because he must have done that to it. Then he withdrew.

He didn’t want to feel that. Another thing he’d broken, in a way, because he couldn’t control himself.

“Excuses, excuses,” Lando said with a sigh.

“Yeah, excuses. I think we’re just gonna head back to the room. I don’t know about Ben over here, but I’m beat. Need to be at my best tomorrow for the race. Eh?” Han nudged Ben, who snapped back to attention.

“Right. The race,” he agreed. “And I need to talk to Mom.”

Ordinarily, he’d have felt silly announcing that to practically the whole table, except by now Ithan and the others were deep in conversation about when they should head out for more carousing, and Ben no longer cared so much what they thought of him.

“Oh, yeah, that too. I should probably say hi, too,” Han agreed. “Let her remind me a couple times not to kill myself flying too fast tomorrow.”

Ben snickered and stood, surprised that he felt slightly dizzy when he did—good thing he hadn’t finished the rest of Lando’s drink after all, though he may just have been tired. He’d certainly eaten far too much. Lando heaved a sigh and reached up to clap him on the back.

“Ah, well, I tried. Hate to see an evening end so early.” It was, in fact, the very opposite of early, but Ben didn’t say as much. Lando fixed his eyes on Ben and pointed a finger at him. “But hey, don’t forget, I’ve gotta find you tomorrow to give you that gift we talked about, so make sure you’re ready for round two.”

“I will be,” Ben assured him, bolstered by the reminder that he had one of Lando’s excellent offerings coming to him the next day. “Sure you don’t want to tell me what it is?”

Lando chuckled and raised an eyebrow. “Completely. See you then, starfighter.”

Han spared a moment to acknowledge Ithan and confirm that she’d be on hand tomorrow to help prep his fighter, but for once she didn’t seem inclined to ingratiate herself. She smiled distantly and told him she’d meet him at the starting point of the racecourse, then returned her attention to her drink—and to Vee, with whom she had been deep in conversation and was apparently eager to get back to.

“Ready?” Han asked, ruffling Ben’s hair and leading the way toward the hallway that held the lifts. “You’ve got a holotransmitter set up in your room, yeah? If not, I guess you might have to use mine.”

“I think so,” Ben said, dodging a serving droid as it swept past with a tray full of crystal drinking glasses. “I haven’t used it yet, but it looks the same as the one at home.”

He hadn’t broken it, either, which seemed like a lucky thing after he’d spent the morning cleaning up wreckage in his room he couldn’t remember creating. He had so much swimming in his head; without the distractions of dinner, it was all rolling back in at full force. Leia would know what to do—if he could muster the heart to tell her. So far, he hadn’t been doing very well at that.

Chapter Text

Against the dark wet rectangle of the window, Leia’s shape shone blue and transparent, barely a meter high, projected from a transceiver built into the desk. Despite her placid state and the illusory nature of her appearance before him, she still gave the impression of being present enough to touch. It may simply have been the power of her personality coming through as it always did, regardless of distance or time. Or it could have been because Ben could feel her through the Force; it was as if she was there with him. In times like these, he didn’t even have to try. He’d decided once that some power greater than either of them simply wanted to make him aware of their connection when he most needed it. He had yet to discern a better explanation.

“Ben.” She smiled warmly and raised a hand in greeting. “Good morn—ah.” Her brow creased in the beginnings of a self-deprecating look. “No, not morning for you, is it? Evening?”

“Evening. Night. I’m not picky,” Ben told her, unable to keep himself from returning her smile.

“Right. As you can probably tell, it’s morning for me. I’m still getting used to that part myself.”

Thin tendrils of steam drifted from the cup in her hand. Her eyes were alert, her mouth lively. Her hair was down, and she wore the pale, loose-fitting robe she typically reserved for the rare occasions she was at leisure.

Given those details, Ben could have deduced it was quite early for her even without her prompting—as early as it was late for him. But something also made him think that she’d somehow anticipated his message. It was nearly impossible to surprise Leia, he knew, but she had intercepted the transmission even before C-3PO had had time to fully relay the request to her.

That was another thing: C-3PO was with her, not T-2LC. He knew what that meant, too. He’d been right—she was away from home. He wondered what she would say if he pointed that out, and that she seemed to know he’d be calling.

“Did I wake you up?” He knew he hadn’t, but some inkling compelled him to test her.

“Not at all. Your timing is perfect. I’ve had just enough caf that I can hold a coherent conversation. And there are hours yet before I’ll need to attend to any business.” Her nose crinkled. “I hope.”

“You could’ve slept in.” That was what he would have done.

She broke into a broad grin and nearly laughed, looking for an instant years younger. “Oh sweetheart, when have you ever known me to do that?”

Never, as far back as he could remember. When Ben began to be old enough not to immediately run to his parents seeking solace after a bad night, he would lie awake in bed, often for hours, reading or telling himself distracting stories, waiting for other signs of life around the apartment. Leia was usually the first to rouse herself, barely after dawn. That was how he knew it was safe to venture out of his room to the comfort of her company but also keep his dignity intact. After a while, she’d started to joke that in the morning she had two shadows.

“Maybe once or twice,” he teased back. He was hoping to suss out what she was up to in their absence without being too obvious, but she wasn’t making it easy. “So does that mean you need to go to the Senate house today?”

“No, not there. I’m in Republic City, actually.”

“On Hosnian Prime?”

“Yes. I left not long after you and your dad.” Leia must have perceived his curiosity about why she was making the trip and why she hadn’t mentioned it to him, because her expression became nearly apologetic. It wasn’t a look he saw often, and it didn’t suit her. “It wasn’t planned. Not long-term, anyway. I only had a day’s notice of the proceedings.”

“Oh. How come?” Ben knew it wasn’t his business, but it seemed odd even to him that she’d be called away for anything that wasn’t important. Important things didn’t usually just get pulled together at such short notice unless they were an emergency.

She shook her head. “Nothing you need spare a thought for. I’d have said something about it before you left, but I knew I’d be home again before you all make it back.”

That wasn’t an answer, and the implicit message was clear enough—she hadn’t wanted Ben to worry that anything was wrong as he was setting out for several days away from home. Yet he would have appreciated candor. In recent years he’d tried showing more interest in Leia’s work. Her legacy and political career dominated so much of her identity, and by extension his and Han’s, that Ben figured he would be well-served to try to understand it. Yes, he knew his upbringing was likely a far cry from what hers had been. But sometimes she would look at him or say something, and he felt like she was seeing herself at his age. In those moments her features would soften with a memory, and he would wonder what had prompted it and how to find out.

He considered what he knew at present. The New Republic was in the process of relocating its capital. Chandrila had served in the post-war years, but over a decade had passed, and as needs changed the Hosnian System had been deemed a more desirable seat of power. The relocation would not be officially declared until the start of the next Festival of Liberation in a few months’ time—it was all too easy for Ben to remember that, because it was the same day he would turn twelve, and he knew which of the two events would likely dominate the day’s proceedings. Even so, most important business was already being conducted from Hosnian Prime’s senatorial complex rather than Hanna City’s, and he had overheard enough snatches of talk between his parents to surmise what might be the topic of the unexpected meeting Leia had been called away to.

“Have more people disappeared from the Outer Rim?” He tried to mask any hints of juvenile curiosity in his voice behind something shrewder. “Kids?”

At last, something he said surprised her—or perhaps it was simply the experience of hearing a tone she often adopted so uncannily mimicked back at her. She scrutinized him over the rim of her cup. “What would make you think that?”

“Last week someone was talking about it in the Old Market. Really loudly. Said there’d been a bunch of kids that went missing across a few planets somewhere in the Perinn Sector. Or maybe Pelgrin. I don’t remember.” A bit defensively, he added, “I do see the news, you know.”

Over the last few years, accounts of children and even infants going missing en masse from ungoverned or neglected planets in the Outer Rim Territories had been becoming more prevalent. Some asserted the children were kidnapped. Others suggested that families sold them or gave them up willingly, which was infinitely more horrifying to Ben. Even if he didn’t already have the benefit of eavesdropping at home for more details, such reports were difficult to overlook, as were swirling rumors of an extremist junta of old Empire devotees being involved. Most wrote that part off as sensationalism or alarmist nonsense—he had heard enough to know that Leia was not one of them.

“Oh, of course you do. I didn’t mean to—” She sighed and looked annoyed, though he didn’t think it was directed at him. “Yes, well, that is not why I was called away. I assure you the actual reason is not very interesting at all. Believe me, I’d much rather be enjoying the view from home.”

On the one hand, Ben understood why she wouldn’t elaborate. It annoyed him anyway to feel like he couldn’t be trusted, even when the reasons were perfectly valid.

“Anyway, enough about my work. I know it bores you.” Her mouth twitched, daring him to contradict her.

“Not that much.” He thought he’d been making that clear.

“Does that mean you'll be reconsidering your hardline stance against giving the Apprentice Legislators a shot in a few years?” Ben blanched and looked as if he’d just swallowed something putrid, and she chuckled knowingly. “Just as I thought. So then, how is Cato Neimoidia? None of my visits there have ever been for anything as fun as yours.”

“It’s rained a lot.” He didn’t mean it as a complaint, for all that he’d privately begrudged it earlier in the day. Getting to watch and hear it from indoors was different than trudging around in it being bumped around by people too careless to watch where they were going. “There’s a storm right now. You’d like it. The lightning’s sort of greenish, and there’s always a few forks of it at once. Never just a single bolt.”

“Funny, there’s a storm here too. They’ve said it won’t last through the morning, but I have a hard time believing it right now. It’s hard to believe there’s any sun at all up there—rain’s practically a solid sheet.” She looked behind her to a vista Ben could not see but could imagine well enough. “Yours sounds better, though. Tell me more?”

“Hmm. Okay.”

Ordinarily when they storm-watched, description wasn’t necessary, nor any words at all. Those times were for shared contemplation as nature raged, all its power unbridled and just beyond reach. It seemed fortuitous that Leia was someplace now that they could share the experience—were she on Chandrila, a storm would have been unlikely, as it wasn’t the season for it. So he told her about the torrents that carried with them the smells of green and dirt from the forests beyond the city limits, and about the weird purr of thunder that never seemed to drop out completely, lingering like a constant low-frequency roll between short, shocking claps. He explained how, with the city’s ever-present mists and sea spray fresh in his mind, the storm only seemed like someone had carved a neat slice in the belly of the clouds to release everything they held.

The conversation wandered naturally to what else he’d been doing, how the expo was, how many ships he’d seen, how many pilots he’d met. Leia seemed to find it particularly amusing when he mentioned how clearly grouchy Han had been about being expected to sit up on a stage and answer questions for an hour, and she had a lot to say about Lando’s choice of company for their dinner together. He didn’t bother to bring up Ithan at all, and was happy when his mother didn’t ask about her. But soon enough Ben began to reflect on why he’d actually wanted to speak to her, and the small talk felt shallow and disingenuous. He knew there was more he wanted to say, and she probably knew it, too.

It was nothing to do with storms or the expo, and everything to do with the underlying feeling he continued to have that something was not right. He steeled himself. This should have been easy; it was nothing new to either of them.

She seemed to recognize his reluctance to pursue more serious matters, because as a laugh faded from her voice, she cleared her throat and placed her cup down. “Well, it sounds like you’ve been very busy. Must be collapsing at the end of every day.”

He shrugged. “It’s not that bad. I’m tired, but I get enough sleep.” That was a lie, and he almost immediately felt bad about it. ”I try. But . . .”

“Bad dreams?” She said it with such instant knowing, he couldn’t help the twinge of embarrassment he felt at being that easily called out. He hadn’t used to feel that way.

“Yeah. Last night, and the one before.” He went silent, wondering how much to tell her. Part of him wanted to tell her everything—that was why they were speaking right now. Yet now that the time had come, there was a sliver of his mind that was afraid of what doing so would make her think.

“Do you want to talk about them?”

Her question was strange to his ears—she didn’t normally have to ask. “I don’t know. It’s just . . . the usual stuff.” That wasn’t entirely true, either. Why was he being so evasive? He was wasting her time. “Dark places. Hallways. That cave again. I think I drowned.”

She winced, and he hated that what he was telling her made her feel bad for him, and he wondered what else was going through her head. Maybe she wouldn’t need to tell Han about this, because maybe they’d already been talking. Han had noticed something was up. Was that why she’d seemed to be expecting him to call?

“You’d been doing better for a while,” she observed, almost to herself.

“Yeah. I guess. I thought so.”

He supposed that was true. Until about a year ago, he’d been sleeping more easily. He’d still had odd dreams, but rarely, and when he did they were less disturbing. And when he’d felt the Force, the threads of it were silky, light and easy around him. But then as suddenly as things had begun to improve, they’d gone back to normal—which, for him, was not a good thing.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?”

Leia nodded, and her expression warmed. “Of course you can.”

“When you— Do you—” He wasn’t sure at all how to phrase it. He’d never given voice to such things. “When you sense the Force—hear it—does it . . . tell you things, sometimes? About yourself?”

She stared at him, and even in the imperfect holoimage, Ben saw the tiny line that appeared between her eyebrows. A blink later it had been smoothed away by a politician’s composure. “Do you mean strong instincts? Something like that?”

No, not something like that. But what was it like?

For something he had been feeling almost constantly the last few days—something that had been there far longer, just beneath the surface—he ought to have had a better grip on it by now. He felt like he was on the verge of figuring it out, and then it would slip away like water cupped in his hands. He couldn’t be expected to explain it aloud when he could hardly find a way to conceptualize it in his own head.

Thinking he could tell Leia about it had been the height of childish fantasy, that feeling seemed to say now. The realization smothered whatever words he’d been forming.

Perhaps sensing that what she had said left him floundering, Leia tried to prompt him. “Your uncle calls it foresight, when he and I have spoken of these things in the past. Intuition.”

Ben frowned; for the briefest moment he wondered why she and Lando had been talking about the Force. But she meant Luke, his other—actual—uncle. Foresight. Intuition. That wasn’t right, either. She was trying though, and he wanted so badly for this not to be a waste. . . .

“I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. It’s not like that. I know what that feels like,” he finally said, confident at least in that. If he didn’t know what this was, he could articulate what it wasn’t. “This is . . . it’s different. Like I’m—” He cut himself off, annoyed by how absurd it all sounded. “Like I’m being told— Like I’m realizing things. About myself. Things I never think about. That I don’t think about, until I realize I am and can’t figure out why. Like I’m dreaming while I’m awake.”

To Leia’s credit, her expression didn’t change as his words tangled around him and he went silent. She nodded and appeared to be thinking. Already dreading the answer, he asked, “Do you know what I mean?”

“What sorts of things?”

The thought of telling her suddenly terrified him. It was one thing to get those ideas in his own head. He couldn’t help that; they were seeds that had taken root long ago and sprouted slowly, thin weedy shoots that unfurled one tiny leaflet at a time, each revealing some new truth that obscured old assumptions. Speaking it aloud seemed like a violation, but he couldn’t pinpoint how.

“Potential. That I have potential,” he muttered, hardly loud enough to hear. That was the word, the notion, that always came to the fore. He had potential; it was a good thing, in theory. He liked the idea that he might do something great one day. “Stuff about light and darkness. It’s all weird stuff. It doesn’t make sense.”

“I . . . well, you do. Have potential. Of course you do. How could you not? With . . .” Seeing her at a loss, even briefly, was unnerving, but she recovered her bearing almost immediately. “I used to dream of my mother. My birth mother, before I knew the truth about myself. About my family, and your uncle.”

She paused and seemed to be measuring something in her mind, weighing some matter of import. It made her uncomfortable. Ben sensed it, the tiniest flicker of caginess and doubt. He hated feeling that in her; she was ordinarily so solid, committed, even in the immaterial currents of the Force. “I dreamed of her. For the longest time. They followed me beyond sleep, tucked away in my head when I went about my day, you know? Like memories. I thought they were memories.”

Ben nodded.

“But they weren’t. Maybe they were just dreams, or visions of another time. But I know now—I believe—that it was the Force, making sure I was able to carry with me something I was meant to have. Something important about myself and where I had come from. Something that would . . . help me understand what I was meant to do when my time came. Who I was meant to be.”

He thought he knew what she was trying to tell him, and he appreciated that she trusted him to understand, but what she described still didn’t quite hit the mark. He wasn’t sure how to reconcile it with what was happening to him. It was so close, but just as far.

“That sounds kind of like this, I guess,” he said. He wished she hadn’t told him about her own dreams from years ago. She so rarely spoke of her family that it was the sort of thing he’d have been happy to hear about at any other time. A rare treat, such a glimpse into who his mother had been before he was alive. Right now it was only a reminder of some rift between them, a hairline crack that kept shuddering open.

She wasn’t fooled, but she let it go. “I know you’re going to roll your eyes at me, so consider sparing me this once—but have you tried meditating? It usually helps.”

His mind flashed to that morning—his panic at the destruction he’d wreaked in his room, and the sight of that mark on his neck again, which had sent him into a renewed state of agitation just as he’d started to feel as if he had a grip on the situation. He hadn’t been able to center himself enough to reach into the Force properly. He’d felt like he was choking on it; too much raw, snapping energy, so much of it his own, impossible to see past. Meditation, for all his efforts, had been out of the question.

“I tried. This morning. It was harder than usual.” If nothing else, her own candor made him remember how easy it usually was to be forthcoming. “I . . . I woke up from a nightmare and I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten where I was. On the floor in the refresher. There were towels in the shower and it was flooding over. And I think I must have broken some things, in my sleep.” Quickly, he qualified to mitigate any alarm she felt. “Just a clock.”

He didn’t mention that it had been destroyed with enough violence to render it completely unrecognizable. He didn’t mention the window at the expo center at all, what he’d seen in it, how he’d broken it—somehow. He didn’t mention how he couldn’t seem to get that vault out of his mind, how he’d walked its halls in sleep and felt its pull in the day.

In that moment he wished more than anything that he could touch her, that she could squeeze his hand or put her arms around him. He regretted the melodramatic way he had squirmed and had barely kept from grimacing as she hugged and kissed him goodbye two days ago. The only thing he wanted was to stop feeling like such a feeble child for more than a few hours at a time.

“Well, that’s nothing so new,” she said with a serious nod. She wasn’t angry. In fact, her tone was fairly dispassionate, as if what he’d done was hardly worth remarking upon because of its frequency. “It’s just something you need to work on controlling, when you’re angry, or frustrated. You know that. The meditation can h—”

“I wasn’t, though. I wasn’t angry. I was sleeping.”

“And having what sounds like a particularly terrible nightmare. I wish you hadn’t had to go through that. I wish it every time. But that’s all it is.”

Ben just huffed, then nodded.

“It’s only a clock.” Her voice grasped at conciliation. “If the hotel wants to charge us the credits for it, so be it. That doesn’t matter.” Her eyebrows rose. “You did tell your father, right? I can’t imagine he’ll mind much, but he’d mind less if it doesn’t show up as a surprise on the bill.”

Damn it. “No,” he mumbled.

He stole a look at her. When his eyes settled on the holoimage, he caught it flickering just once or twice, as if the transmission had been interrupted for a millisecond. It reminded him of something he’d seen in one of his favorite holodramas—a slicer causing a blink-and-miss-it blip as she surveilled an otherwise smooth transfer of confidential dispatches. It could have been the storm. It was letting up, but the lightning was still frequent, and the window was rattling with the most recent peal of thunder.

“Well, why not?”

“What?” Ben fixed his eyes on the ghostly projection of his mother. He’d never heard her speak like that to him before. He’d heard her displeased or exasperated plenty of times. This was something else. She sounded haughty, cold, almost cruel.

“Why haven’t you told him?” she snapped. Her eyes narrowed until their usual sparkle was eclipsed by the thick dark fringe of her eyelashes. “How do you expect us to do anything about you if you’re always hiding things?”

His tongue felt thick, and he swallowed. What was she talking about?

She didn’t relent. “Sneaking around. Always leaving broken pieces behind you. Showing up in our room at all hours like a little wraith in the night.” He hadn’t done that in years, but the way she said it now, Ben could almost believe he’d only just done it days ago. It made him feel small and unlovable. Leia threw up her hands. “I thought you were changing. Getting control of yourself. Growing up. But you’re not, are you?”

He couldn’t answer, because there was nothing in the world he could think to say to such an accusation. It wasn’t even an accusation; it was true.

“It’s too much. You’re too much, Ben. Do you”—a scornful laugh interrupted her words—“do you have any idea how many nights I lie awake, wondering why I can’t seem to reach you? And I think, I think, maybe, after years of this—after years of you—the problem isn’t me. And it isn’t your father. No, of course it’s not. We didn’t ask for this. So where does that leave us, then? What is it about you that’s so wrong?” Ben opened his mouth to say something, but all the air was wrung out of him. She pulled a hand through her hair; her fingers looked long and impossibly thin. “Do you understand? Do you?”

“What?” he finally managed, only able to repeat the last word he’d uttered before her tirade began.

Tears were pricking at the corners of his eyes as the edges of his vision blurred. Leia’s image flickered again—that little slicer’s blip in the transmission—and she regarded him with mounting confusion. All the haughty derision of the preceding minute was gone.

“Do you?” Her head tilted. She was in the middle of plaiting her hair. When he didn’t answer, she paused, leaving the half-woven rope hanging over her right shoulder. Leia peered at him and leaned forward. When she spoke again it was slow and deliberate, like she wasn’t sure he could hear her. “Do you want me to speak with Uncle Luke? He’s been hard to reach lately, but he might know of something, if the meditation’s giving you trouble. I wish I could be more help, but with so— Ben?”

One of her hands rose to stretch toward him, as if she too had forgotten that they were not truly together and hoped the task of offering him solace could be as simple as reaching across light years. “Ben, what’s wrong?”

His lip trembled and he breathed out hard, feeling his shoulders crumple with the relief in pressure as he ducked his head.

“I told you, it’s— Ben, look at me.” He blinked the fog of tears from his eyes and obeyed. “I told you, it’s only a clock. It doesn’t matter. Don’t be upset. I’m just sorry you’re so far right now.”

“Yeah, me too,” he said after a few breaths, when he thought the wetness might have gone from his voice. He shivered and was grateful she probably couldn’t see it. “It’s okay. You’re probably right. I’ll tell dad about the clock. And I’ll try the meditation again later. I was just too . . . it was hard to focus this morning.”

Ben didn’t bother trying to figure out what he had just seen—why Leia had said such hateful things, because she clearly hadn’t, even if it had been so real and so like the worst of his nightmares. He entertained the possibility that he’d picked up some current of things she was too afraid to say. But no, it hadn’t come from her. It had been him, projecting or drifting, unaware, letting his thoughts wander and spirit his senses away into what he feared most. What had he himself called it only minutes ago? Dreaming while he was awake. Now he was too awake.

The image of Leia before him was no longer comforting. Ben could only wonder what she thought of their talk, how much of it would find its way back to Han, and what meaning it would take on when they turned it over between them, a puzzle with more pieces missing every time.

Tentatively, he sought her; she felt calm, on the surface, but there were little prickles dancing just beyond it, the staticky layer of her uncertainty he had detected earlier. It drew him in, clung to him, crawled up his limbs. He pulled back in an instant, before she would feel it, reminded of why he had begun to avoid such things. He didn’t always like what he found, those feelings that people hid and maybe weren’t even aware of themselves. He knew he was no different, and he hated the thought that he was a greater mystery to himself than other people were.

“You look tired,” Leia said, almost too gently. He imagined it was the voice she might use to placate a startled animal, and part of him resented it. “I’m happy we could talk, but I really think you should turn in. And try not to let yourself linger on these things. I know it’s hard to understand. If it’s still a problem when you get home, we’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah, okay.”

She sighed and nodded, her mouth bowed in a faint, tender smile. “I love you, tooka. Please get some sleep.”

She hadn’t called him that in a long time, after he’d finally complained enough that she got the message—at eight, he was too old, he’d insisted, for silly nicknames—and stopped. Maybe she was trying to make him feel better, but he felt it as a barbed attempt to infantilize him.

“I will. Promise.” Ben gave a short, nervous laugh, drawing from some reserve of humor he didn’t realize he still had for the night. “Love you too.”

He waved, and she blew a kiss, then he reached for the switch of the holotransceiver and powered it down with a dull click. His room looked dim without the blue wavering shimmer of the transmission casting its cool glow on the walls. When he glanced back at his bed, he only found it to look exceedingly uninviting.

Chapter Text

Only after Ben’s image blinked out of view with a listless wobble of static did Leia finally allow herself to frown. Moving to stand in front of the vanity mirror, she began to complete the task of braiding her hair and tried to put her thoughts into similar order.

That had not gone the way she’d expected.

To be fair, with Ben it was always difficult to know what to expect, especially now. Lately it felt as if she was always seeing two of him: the sweet kid she knew so well, and the teenager he would soon be. That Ben was a stranger to her, but she caught glimpses of him all the time now—headstrong, sometimes rebellious, too clever for his own good, and often low on impulse control. He had the best and worst of her and Han, she couldn’t deny it. But today she wasn’t sure which of those two Bens she’d just spoken to, and she’d gleaned barely anything new after what Han had imparted of his own observations

When her hair was done, she rose and retrieved her empty cup, a thin film of caf coating the porcelain. Still lost in her own head, she made for the kitchen adjacent to refill it and added the generous spoonful of sugar she had omitted from her first helping. She checked the time. Without giving herself another moment to change her mind, she returned to the bedroom to sit before the transceiver again. She savored a bracing sip of her refreshed drink, then sent out a new signal and hoped it would be accepted.

Thirty seconds passed, and her husband’s likeness blipped into view before her. He was damp-haired and dressed as if he was about to head to bed, which she supposed could have made sense, but his face suggested he was working and not very happy about it. His smile when he saw her, though, was assurance that her unexpected message was a welcome change in his plans rather than a distraction.

“Princess.” There was a joking lilt to the way he said the word that amused her. She liked when he acted as if he needed to charm her; but she hadn’t fallen in love with him for his smooth wit. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Maybe it was just flirtation, or maybe he was putting up a smokescreen to conceal his concern.

“Oh, you know, they haven’t been keeping me nearly busy enough here. I thought you might be able to entertain me a while.”

Han chuckled and slouched back in his seat, and she enjoyed the glimpse it gave her of his chest beneath the shirt he was wearing, half-unbuttoned. Yes, he was in for the night. “You mean to tell me free entertainment isn’t included in the fine accommodations at Republic City’s shiny new senate complex?”

“An oversight, they’ve assured us all. We’ll be drawing up a formal complaint before this morning’s opening remarks,” Leia deadpanned, a small smile dimpling her cheeks. The look faded, and she let herself focus for a moment on the rich smell of the caf wafting up from her cup. “Do you have some time?”

He nodded, cleared his throat, and his arm moved like he was pushing something away from himself. “Yeah.”

That was all he gave her. He was waiting for her to make the move this time; she supposed that was only fair. She had offered to talk to Ben. It had merely been fortuitous that Ben had gotten to her first of his own volition. It still felt off, somehow, to just go right into it, as if she’d volunteered to perform a reconnaissance mission and was now reporting back all she’d learned.

So, tempting as it was to immediately put her thoughts on the matter to words, she said instead, “Ben told me all about his dinner with Lando. Met a group of pilots from Pamarthe, of all places, he said. Anyone you know?”

“Recognized a few faces, yeah. Didn’t stick around too long.”

She couldn’t say she was surprised. “Well, I’m glad you and Lando were able to work that out. It sounds like Ben had a wonderful time.”

“He definitely did. Maybe too much, in the interest of full disclosure. Got a whiff of that Whyren’s stuff Lando’s so fond of coming off him on the way to the room.”

Leia scowled. Lando. “Oh. How nice.”

“I’m sure it was just a taste; it’ll leave a scent if you spill a few drops. They tried to get us to join them a while longer, but about the only thing I wanted to do at that point was shower, and kiddo seemed eager to come up to talk with you, so . . .”

The way he trailed off, she knew he was trying to steer them back toward the real reason she had contacted him so quickly after disconnecting with their son. Time was precious enough; she needed to get up and dressed soon and endure the usual morning briefing from C-3PO. Sadly, she could not show up at the senate house in her bathrobe, ignorant of the latest in current events.

“Yes.” Niceties finished, then. “Well, you were right, what you said the other night. He’s been having nightmares. It sounds like it’s been the whole time you’ve been there, from what he told me.”

“Oh. I guess that’s . . .” Han looked both relieved and saddened by the confirmation. It was a familiar story, but not in any way either of them liked being reminded of. “Good? If that’s all it is. Not good, but, you know. Nothing we haven’t seen?”

She narrowed her eyes and let her head fall to the side, her lips pressed together as she considered the ease with which he bought it. He didn’t want Ben to be suffering, she knew that; but it was so easy to accept it as something familiar at this point. It was normal, even if it should not have been. “I thought so too, at first. But I’m not so sure. This seemed different. For one thing, he acted like he hardly wanted to tell me anything, which was strange. He never hesitates.”

“He wanted to talk to you,” he replied, looking just as confused as she’d felt earlier. “This wasn’t some whim.”

“I don’t doubt that. Maybe . . . am I just reading it wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Really, the logical thing is that regardless of what’s been weighing on him, he wasn’t avoiding it. He was just excited to talk about everything else first.” Leia was thinking aloud, but if Han had opinions, she would welcome them just then. “And that’s not a bad thing, is it? That he’d prefer to focus on whatever is making him happy right now? I know I’d rather he did.”

He was looking at her, nodding, but she caught the way his eyebrows drew together and up into little opposing slopes. “No, you’re right. We shouldn’t take it personally. He’s getting kinda old to be running to you or me every time something like this upsets him.”

That could be. Ben would be twelve in just three months. Most likely, he felt embarrassed by the fact that he was still facing the sorts of sleep disturbances that had been with him his whole life. Maybe he was even beginning to find his own instinct to seek their help demeaning. It hurt to think of how near the day was that he wouldn’t turn to her at all; not out of malice, but because it simply didn’t occur to him to do so.

Yet Han hadn’t had the benefit of a loving family when he was Ben’s age. He had no basis on which to make such conclusions. No matter how old Ben was, surely he knew he could always be forthcoming with them when it mattered. That wasn’t something people aged out of.

“I think he may have been a bit annoyed at me for not mentioning that I’d be here on Hosnian Prime while you’re both away,” she admitted after a brief silence. “It didn’t seem like a thing to tell him about when I’d barely had any time to prepare for it myself. I’m always traveling, and it’s not as though I can routinely share it anyway. But . . .”

“You’re overthinking it. He knows how this stuff works. He’s just realizing now he can question it and try to catch us out.”

She dipped her chin in reluctant acknowledgement. “Yes. But now that I look at it, it does make it seem like I wanted to hide it from him. He kept trying to guess what I was here for, and he was insulted when I acted surprised by his questions.”

“He’s probably forgotten it already,” Han said. “Don’t make it a thing.”

“I know. It’s nothing in the grander scheme of things. But he knows more than we give him credit for, and that’s not going to change. I wasn’t much older than he is by the time I was already embroiled in the work my parents were doing for the Rebellion.”

Bail and Breha had done all they could to keep her out of it, to hide their involvement and conceal the fact that so many of their dinners at the palace had in fact been fronts for resistance activities. It had felt, for a long time, like they cared more about it than they did about her, all those late nights of secretive work and closed doors. The more they’d done it, the more she’d felt deceived, and the more she’d pushed until the day came that she couldn’t give back what she’d learned.

“I don’t regret it. But I don’t want that for him. I don’t want him worrying over these things. I want him to have a childhood, even if— if—”

No, she didn’t regret it, accepting those responsibilities when the time came. She couldn’t have lived with herself knowing there was something to be done—something only she could have done—and simply not doing it. But Leia would do better by Ben, she was sure. She would make certain he never had to make choices like that. Not so young; maybe not ever.

Han chuckled, though it wasn’t a happy sound. “We aren’t going to war, Leia.”

Despite his words, there was a twist of his mouth that seemed to agree when she said, “No. Not yet.”

If there was anyone she could say it to without risking exasperated dismissal or poorly hidden ridicule, it was Han. He knew her mind on the nature of the threats currently taking root in the galaxy. The problem was that they were largely nascent things, easy enough to turn a blind eye to or excuse as something else—and so most chose to do just that. Had they learned nothing from the Empire’s insidious early days?

She took a moment to busy herself with another long sip from her cup, letting her eyes fall shut as she thought about what Ben had asked and what he had told her. She had tried to relate and explain, but she knew he thought she hadn’t quite gotten it.

“There was something else that I’m not sure what to make of,” she said. “I’m still not, though I do wonder if I should ask Luke about it after all. He’s been studying these things so long. There’s a part of me that still thinks it’s nothing we need to bother him with, but . . .”

“What?” Han actually sounded alarmed, and he leaned forward, elbows stacked on his desk.

Speaking now should not have felt like a betrayal. She was Ben’s mother—it was her right to worry, and Han’s right to know that she did and worry with her, even if neither of them could yet say how best to help.

“He asked me if the Force . . . oh, what was it? Not if it speaks to me, but gives me ideas, I suppose. And I thought I knew what he meant, but I may have just been fooling myself. He said it makes him feel like he has potential. And something about darkness and light.” She hated herself for what she was about to say, an echo of the very thing she’d scolded Han for the last time they’d spoken. “He said it was weird. Made him feel weird. And I have to say, I agree.”

“You really need to talk to Luke,” Han said after a beat, then held up a defensive hand when she opened her mouth to protest. “You do. You should. You said it yourself a minute ago. It’s not wrong to do it. It’s sensible.”

Leia had to laugh. “Sensible? You, talking about sensible?”

He gave her a pointed look but continued. “Luke’s been off for years looking into all the mumbo jumbo from who knows what corners of the galaxy, right? Probably . . . communing with the Force, talking to ghosts. Whatever. He’s sure as hell more qualified than I am when it comes to this stuff. You’re always saying his understanding is different than yours.”

“That’s a remarkably diplomatic way to put it,” she said. “You’ve been married to me too long.”

“If you like that, just wait. It all gets better from here on out.”

+ + +

Disinterested in his bed—it was still too easy to picture the way it had been that morning, disordered and vaguely menacing—Ben retreated to the shower when he finished speaking with Leia. He steeled himself and performed what he was now considering a perfunctory rash check on his neck. The mark was still there, but it had faded, and he wasn’t convinced it wasn’t just some strange trick of the eye. It still seemed he was the only person who even noticed it. Too late, he thought he ought to have asked his mother, tried to show her. But he wasn’t sure what he would have done if she’d said she saw nothing there, just as Han had. Besides, he had been able to tell she already thought he was acting oddly, so it was probably best he hadn’t brought it up.

He didn’t spend very long in the shower. He didn’t want to, changed his mind practically as soon as the water hit his skin. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do at all. Every decision he made was merely a concession—good enough because it meant he didn’t have to go to sleep, even when that was the one thing he truly needed.

After he stepped out and got dressed, Ben wandered back to his bedroom; though first he made sure to stow all the towels, used and unused, beneath his bed. At this point, he wasn’t ruling out the idea that he might do another round of strenuous sleepwalking and decide to try flooding the refresher again. He just had to get through tonight. And tomorrow night. One night at a time. Things would be better at home.

With that in mind, he decided to do something that reminded him of being there. He spied the box of crackers he hadn’t finished the night before lying on the nightstand, so he grabbed it and clambered atop his desk to sit cross-legged, then powered up the holoprojector. He still felt ambivalent about how he was going to kill the few next minutes (or hours, possibly), so he tuned it to the first thing that didn’t seem to be a commercial or news report. Lucky him: it was some old holofilm from before he was born, sometime during the war. It wasn’t terribly well made and definitely had a weird romantic slant—gross—but a brief scene of a dogfight between two TIE fighters caught his eye and was enough to keep him from seeking something else.

After a while, Ben glanced toward where the clock used to be, then remembered that it was gone (and why it was gone), and tried to think of where he’d put his own watch. Feeling too lazy to get up and retrieve it from where he’d left it at the side of the refresher sink, he held the image of it in his mind and waved a hand vaguely in that direction. A few moments later, the watch was floating across the room toward him. When he checked the time, the lights from the projector flashing off the watch’s glossy face, he was disappointed by what he saw. Barely ten minutes had passed. He could have sworn he’d been sitting there at least thirty.

The problem was suddenly clear to him: watching a holofilm was too passive. The film itself was somehow both not engaging enough and too stimulating, with all of its explosions and scenes of overwrought action and simmering glances between the heroine and the guy he was pretty sure was supposed to be her love interest, or a villain, or both. He couldn’t focus on it, or didn’t want to, and his thoughts kept wandering instead to places he’d prefer they didn’t as the minutes crawled by with all the urgency of a drunken Hutt.

Ben shut the holoprojector down with a sigh of distaste and slid off the desk to stand. He’d already formulated a new plan. He owed Han a sabacc rematch. He’d rather win at least once this time, but he’d take a few losses, too, if it meant keeping himself distracted and maybe picking up a few useful tips. As he abandoned his room and crossed over the living room toward Han’s, it didn’t occur to him how late it was getting, or that his father was probably already asleep or else wanted to be soon.

The door to Han’s room was not closed all the way. Warm yellowish light was escaping through a thin crack between the jamb and the edge of the door. Maybe it was a malfunction of the mechanism that let it slide open and shut, but all it meant to Ben was that his father was still awake. That was good. As he drew closer, he could hear Han’s voice in conversation with someone.

Curiosity piqued, he halted a few steps shy of the door. If Han was in another meeting, which seemed unlikely but not outside the realm of possibility, Ben could wait. As he listened, though, he recognized the other voice. He moved off to the side of the door and stood against the wall to listen. Han wasn’t in a meeting. That was Leia speaking, he was sure.

“He said it was weird.” She sounded far away. Ben held his breath, willed himself to be still, and strained to hear more. “Made him feel weird. And I have to say, I agree.”

There was a pause of a few seconds, then Han’s voice answered, “You really need to talk to Luke. You do. You said it yourself a minute ago. It’s not wrong to do it. It’s sensible.”

Leia laughed quietly, and Ben’s face went hot, prickles of vexation dancing down his neck as his throat tightened. They were talking about him. Already. He knew it, because he knew the tone they used when they did so, as sure as he knew that the tinkling laugh his mother had just made was the sort she saved only for when Han said something that particularly entertained her. It hadn’t even been an hour since Ben said goodbye to her, and there they were, discussing the whole thing.

How weird it had been. How weird he was.

In the moments it took him to wrangle his sudden indignation into something manageable, he missed some of what they were saying. Shifting as close as he dared to the crack in the door, he tried to focus again. It was difficult. He was afraid to hear more, but he couldn’t not stay. He wanted to know what they said, if it was the same as ever, if it was what he imagined.

“. . . communing with the Force, talking to ghosts. Whatever,” Han said with a yawn. “He’s sure as hell more qualified than I am when it comes to this stuff. You’re always saying his understanding is different than yours.”

“That’s a remarkably diplomatic way to put it. You’ve been married to me too long.”

“If you like that, just wait. It all gets better from here on out.”

There was another laugh from Leia, and this time it trailed off into a sigh and a pregnant pause. “It just scares me sometimes. To think that I can’t quite grasp it. If the Force was ever a significant part of my life when I was his age—and I’m sure it must have been—I didn’t know it. These things that keep him awake, what he’s already able to do . . . it’s a lot. More than I know how to help him direct.”

“I’ll admit we’re a little out of our depth. Probably. D’you ever think that if— Ah. Nah, never mind.”

Han cleared his throat and there was a dull woolly sound—maybe a chair sliding over the carpet—then a creak of metal. Ben saw a shadow flicker in the light slicing through the crack in the door and shrank back. If he was caught spying on them . . . well, he didn’t think he’d be in trouble. Just embarrassed. And angry; though he was already angry.

But Han never came to the door. Instead, his shadow shifted back and forth every few seconds, like he was pacing as he continued to speak. “I’ll watch over him. Keep an eye on things. Not that I haven’t been already.”

“You’ve been busy,” Leia said, more reminder than reproof.

“Yes, I have, but after the sprints tomorrow, I’m basically freed of any obligations. We’ll have the rest of the day free, one more night to get through, and then head home. Whatever’s going on can’t get any worse. And then when we’re all back, we . . . try to get a better grip on this?”

“That’s a way to put it. We handle it.”

Another dragging silence. The weight of some decision hung heavy in the air, seeping around the door and out into the room where Ben stood eavesdropping as the knot in his stomach coiled. He decided abruptly that he didn’t want to hear any more of what they had to say—about him, about the trip, about anything. He turned and darted back to his room. The only thing that prevented him from stomping was the fact that he still didn’t wish to be found out, but when he got there, he slammed his hand down on the panel that shut his door to make up for it. As if sensing the violence with which it had been activated, the door whooshed shut behind him with a dense, decisive thunk.

Ben stared at his bed, trying to convince himself that he should just lie down and sleep and forget about what he’d heard. And he did lie down, and he did turn the lights off. But he didn’t let his eyes fall shut. As he settled there atop the unmade sheets, his head resting on a suddenly too-lumpy pillow, staring up at the ceiling and the interplay of city lights he found there, he couldn’t stop turning it all over.

He hardly trusted what he was seeing and hearing anymore after the last few days, but that had been real. There was nothing outlandish or mysterious or difficult to understand about it, the way his parents spoke about him. Getting a grip on him. Handling him. Keeping an eye on him.

Ben didn’t need anyone to keep an eye on him. He didn’t need to be watched or handled. Those were the sorts of things a person did with something dangerous or breakable.

Why did he keep doing this? Thinking that they could be trusted, that he would always be able to tell them anything and expect them not to judge him for it? He was too old. He was too old to miss how uncomfortable it made his mother—scared her, those were her own words—and how little his father wanted to understand. He was too old to go on believing that his parents would fix everything simply because they were his parents.

But there was no one else, so he just kept coming back to it and hoping . . . for them to tell him what was wrong. Better yet: tell him nothing was wrong. They wouldn’t, though, or they couldn’t. He hated that. It made him want to do something. Not break something, but go somewhere, maybe. Take action and find something out, on his own, without them.

He could. There were places he wanted to see but stood no chance of getting to during the day. Han was usually watching, and when he wasn’t, he was too busy. Tonight, though, Ben thought he might have a chance. He’d been diligent in his self-imposed studying when they’d first arrived: soaking up the city maps he’d sought out on the datapad, memorizing points of interest, noting docks for the shuttles that bussed visitors and citizens between cities.

One of those shuttles ran a direct route to Saul, across the vast expanse of dark, geyser-dotted water, right to the city where the Great Vaults peaked the skyline. He’d only dreamt of them that first night, but they still managed to chase his thoughts in the day. There was something there he needed to see. Leia had said it herself; sometimes the Force tried to show a person what they were meant to do. He should have known. Let me show you—he had felt it this whole time. That was why he’d been dreaming of the Vaults, why he’d kept being drawn to the sight of them, compelled to learn about them.

When Ben wanted to do, he did. It was nearly impossible to dissuade himself; so he wouldn’t. He needed to get to the Great Vaults. This was his only chance. He would take it.

The moment he reached that conclusion, Ben felt his nerves and racing urges coalesce into a narrow point fixed on his objective. Yes, he was doing this. It was freeing to finally make one decision tonight that felt like his own. A decision that truly satisfied him in a way he’d sought earlier and been unable to achieve. The worst part now was that he couldn’t just up and leave; but with the promise of imminent action, he could be patient.

Ben waited. He pretended to sleep. After a short while, he heard his door slide open. He recognized Han’s presence as he checked on Ben and then left to go to bed himself. Thirty more minutes did the trick. Ben got out of bed, changed into the trousers he’d been wearing during the day, donned a fresh shirt and his rain-repellent jacket, and pulled on his boots. He stowed his datapad and a few other necessities in his travel bag, then slung it over his shoulder. Something about its weight was encouraging.

The suite was silent and dark as he stalked across the room to the kitchen counter. He found what he was hoping for: a stash of cred sticks, probably for emergencies. There was no spare access chip for the room, which was slightly inconvenient, but he wouldn’t need that. When he returned, it would be a simple matter to coax the door open with the Force, as cleanly as if he had the key.

As he slipped out and into the hall, Ben reasoned that he wasn’t running away. He was just expanding on his trip. If he played this right, and he would, he’d be out and back by dawn. It wasn’t as if he’d have been getting any sleep anyway. It would be his secret. It would be fine. He knew what he was doing.

Chapter Text

It was almost too easy to get out of the hotel, like the path had been cleared for him. It hadn’t been, of course.

In truth, the lobby was still unusually busy when Ben emerged from the lift and found himself faced with a veritable maze of gaudily dressed bodies to weave through. But those same patrons were loud and inebriated and disinclined to look down, which meant that Ben barely registered as he bumped past them. They probably thought he was some disgruntled droid. As for him, he was single-minded and unapologetic. He’d refused to do anything but look straight ahead as he rode the lift down four floors, and he continued to do so as he made a beeline for the front doors.

Once outside, it was even easier. More people. More speeders. More noise. All of it a shroud stitched to fit only him. No one noticed a kid by himself, wandering down the sidewalks, even this late—and if they did, there were altogether much more interesting things to set their attention to a moment or two later.

The key, Ben realized quickly, was to look like he knew where he was going. And lucky for him, he didn’t have to fake that bit. He knew exactly where he was going.

The intercity shuttle dock was five blocks to the north, and the walk there was locked in memory because he’d passed this way every day he’d been in Fogbank. Going by night wasn’t so different. Streetlamps cast bright bars of orange light on the pavement, still slick from the storm. He was grateful the rain had all but ceased by the time he’d set out. Rain wouldn’t have deterred him, he didn’t think, but the walk was certainly more pleasant when he wasn’t soaked to the bone, which he certainly would have been if he’d set out even an hour earlier.

He was a fast walker. It was easy to weave between pedestrians who seemed all too ready to overlook him, so the trip to the dock felt like nothing at all. He drew up to it expecting to have to wait for the next shuttle to arrive—he remembered a lot of things from his reading, but the precise times of arrivals and departures was not one of them—and almost couldn’t believe his eyes. Or his luck. A shuttle had just docked, the hiss of its doors sweeping open to belch forth its latest herd of passengers.

Perfect timing. Ben could not have been more pleased with the way this was already unfolding. He’d been right. This was exactly what he was supposed to be doing.

He boarded with perhaps too much confidence in his judgments thus far. Yet as Ben absently paid the fee and cast about for an available seat, he was filled with the idea that he ought to hide. Or perhaps not hide—just . . . find a place to be alone. “Be alone” would have to be relative. The shuttle was full within half a minute and preparing to depart for Saul, so he pushed through knot after knot of passengers vying for seats or standing space and didn’t stop walking until he hit the last row of seats. There was an empty one in the corner, and he slid into it with a grateful sigh, then kept his eyes down.

He was surprised to find himself thinking it, but even here, Ben felt unseen. Not the way he often did at home—his parents saw him, but they often seemed to be looking or waiting for something else, and wasn’t that a bit like being unseen? He usually managed to tell himself that it was irrational. He had an innate, mostly unconscious understanding by now that such notions were born of his own perceptions; they had to be, because the alternative was difficult to swallow. It was so commonplace a feeling by now that he often ignored it completely. The only occasions he might allow himself to acknowledge it were those like the one he’d left behind in the hotel room, when evidence of it slapped him in the face and he had no recourse but to wonder what his parents thought of him. And so, as he’d grown, he’d even come to think that there must be something helpful about being easy to not see.

There certainly was tonight. As had been the case on the streets, no one paid him any mind as he slouched in his seat and let his head rest against the viewport. It was cold and tacky from the damp evening air outside, and he couldn’t see much, though he could tell when the shuttle had pulled off over the sea.

The darkness outside became truer when it did, deeper and more complete. There was such a total absence of anything out there that he began to imagine this was what it would be like to get sucked into one of those black holes he’d heard about. They were uncommon in the galaxy’s core but dotted the span of space closer to the galaxy’s edge with some alarming frequency—the beginning of true Wild Space.

The trip was not long. Ben didn’t even have time to settle into the shuttle’s particular quirks—the smell of so many people in the relatively limited space, the rattle of a screw somewhere nearby, the subtle jolts the whole craft occasionally gave—before he felt its movements slowing. The new city was suddenly just there. He’d expected to notice it on the horizon, that familiar, wavery goldish glow growing nearer and sharper despite the condensation on the panes, but it was like it hadn’t been there at all until the shuttle made landfall.

As he waited to disembark, it finally settled fully on him, what he was doing. Something about having crossed the ocean, even the short distance, solidified the very satisfying notion that he’d made it. He’d gotten out and across on his own, unseen, uninterrupted. He was alone and had no one to answer to but himself. The thrill of agency and decision—it was a marvelous feeling.

So marvelous that being made to wait, even for the minute or two it took for the passengers ahead of him to shuffle out into the night as if they had nowhere important to be (not the way he did), seemed like an injustice. But soon enough he was free, and the cool, humid air immediately found its way through any gaps in his jacket, like the city wanted to be a part of him.

This, he supposed, would be the most challenging part. It was one thing to see Saul City from a distance. Its silhouette then was stark and easy to trace with the eyes, deceptive in its attractively angular simplicity. From the ground, though, from within, it was as impossible and overwhelming as Fogbank—perhaps more so. He realized he ought to have expected it. The draw of nightclubs and bars seemed to have beckoned a crowd at least twice the size of that he’d left behind, and the irregularity of architecture as older buildings interspersed more recent designs made it difficult to orient himself.

Ben frowned as someone jostled past him. He hiked his bag higher over his shoulder and peeled off from the crowd to find a little breathing room. He’d spent every one of his nearly twelve years living in a city and seen more than a handful of others, but he found himself wondering at how so much dissonant noise could exist in one place. Raucous laughter. Traffic roaring. Blaring music, live and recorded, shuddering out into the streets from any number of windows, open doorways, cracks in walls.

Naturally, it seemed he had ended up loitering just outside one of the loudest nightclubs, so he slipped partway down an alley further along the walkway and dug around in his bag for the datapad. He had the map he needed loaded there, and a few files on the Vaults, though it only then occurred to him that, of course, he wasn’t going inside them. He was just going to look at the building. Satisfy his curiosity the only way he could, then go back.

Despite initial appearances, his trip there would not be quite as convoluted as he’d been beginning to fear. The cities here were all narrow, long, stretched out. He was at Saul’s center, and the Vaults were built up along one of the edges, as if they wanted nothing to do with the unruly activity he currently found himself amid. He could make it there in as little as half an hour if he didn’t make any detours. Though, as his stomach growled for the sixth time since he’d arrived, Ben decided that perhaps a detour was in order.

And why not? The tough part was done, and he wasn’t going to get a chance to come back here, at least no time soon; might as well take advantage of his freedom. The fleeting thought of how much trouble he’d be in if Han found out what he’d done occurred to him. But he’d heard enough of his father’s stories to know that Han Solo had been up to far worse at his age. Surely, bringing that up if necessary would soften the blow of whatever punishment might be in store if he got caught sneaking back into the hotel room.

Ben Solo was not going to get caught.

So he started to walk in the general direction of the Vaults and realized by a few blocks down that he seemed to know the way even without the map. He couldn’t quite explain it, but it was something like the pull that had directed his focus as he’d zoned out on the shuttle that first afternoon they’d arrived. He’d known, that day, that through the curtain of mist, a particular point with a particular call wanted him to see something. He knew the same thing tonight. If he turned the wrong way, his gut told him Not that way.

Experimentally, he shoved the datapad back into his bag and traveled a few more blocks, took a few turns, even backtracked and came around another way. He deliberately tried to lose himself. He could swear it was working, too. Consciously, he was disoriented, positive he had not seen any of the buildings around him before, only dimly aware that this was, if nothing else, a good way to see more of the city. After several minutes of this, he stopped near another side street and took the datapad back out to check his progress. The Vaults were a fifteen minute walk from where he was now. He’d made progress, despite all his seeming meandering. In fact, he was perfectly on track.

And hungrier than ever. Almost too conveniently, his not-so-aimless wandering had led him right across the street from an all-night eatery—maybe the only one that didn’t also seem to be a bar. At this rate, he had plenty of time for a snack, and every reason to believe the night was his to take.

+++

“I love your accent!”

Ithan had to shout it over the ear-shattering thrum of live music, which she hated—both the loud music, and the fact that she had to shout over it to stand a chance of being heard. But one did what one must.

Vee leaned toward her, turning her head a little and cupping a hand around the ear nearest Ithan, face scrunched up as she shouted back, “What?”

“I said I love your—” On second thought, why was she saying that? What a stupid thing to say, even if she was pretty sure Vee had been flirting with her all night. And she’d been flirting back, or trying to. It was not her strong suit, and she had never been more aware of that fact until tonight. “—Ah.”

Not for the first time over the last few hours, Vee’s pretty, long-nosed face flashed in the brightest grin Ithan had ever seen on another person, and her shoulders drew up in a sharp shrug. She clearly had no idea what Ithan had tried to say, and it was just as well. One embarrassment averted, at least. It was definitely okay, because the next moment Vee had grabbed Ithan’s sleeve and was tugging her along toward the nearest exit. Ithan decided it was best not to ask questions—for one thing, they wouldn’t be heard. For another, wherever Vee was taking them, it was bound to be easier to talk.

They shouldered their way through a throng of dancing, yelling, cavorting clubgoers, ducked around a few serving droids, and were suddenly out in a drippy alleyway between buildings. The music still throbbed through the walls, and there were a few knots of passersby here and there, but the air was fresher and Ithan could feel herself returning to some sort of equilibrium. Despite her earlier posturing as she’d come upon the group (hosted by Lando Calrissian himself; she could still hardly believe that one), she wasn’t much of a partier, so the events of the night had been eye-opening, if nothing else.

For the first time, she was actually glad she hadn’t been asked to race tomorrow—she already knew she would be facing a monstrous hangover and couldn’t afford to embarrass herself in front of Han. This trip was critical to the future of her career. Accepting the Pamarthens’ invitation for a night on the town had probably been ill-advised.

But it was difficult to worry too much about tomorrow when her current circumstances were so agreeable. The rain had stopped, she was maintaining a pleasant buzz, and Vee seemed . . . into her?

“Nice not to have to scream at each other, don’t you think?” Vee asked, leaning back against the side of the building, one foot propped up behind her as she dug a hand into the deep pockets of her jacket. When she withdrew it, she held up a slim metallic case, which she slid open to reveal the contents: four long, slender sticks of rolled pinkish paper. “Smoke?”

Ithan leaned forward to look. Even unlit, the cigarras gave off a faint herby smell, green and slightly sweet, like dried tea leaves. “What is it?”

“Nothing too exciting,” Vee said with a shrug, extracting one of the cigarras and balancing it neatly between her lips. When she spoke around it, her words were only slightly muffled. “Just some standard carababba. That Lando’s a generous one, eh?”

“Yeah, definitely,” she agreed.

Vee had located her lighter a moment later and was briefly distracted with setting the end of her cigarra to smolder, which saw Ithan distracted watching the attractive way Vee’s cheeks puffed in and out as her lips pressed around the end of the stick. She felt herself blushing and glanced instead at a group of Ithorians plodding by through the puddles that had formed on the pavement in the recent storm.

Vee nudged her gently, and when Ithan looked at her again, she was holding up an unlit cigarra. “So? Yes?”

“Oh. Yes. Thanks.”

Ithan accepted it and tried very hard to ignore the way her stomach fluttered when Vee leaned in to let Ithan light it on the end of her own. They stood side by side a while, smoking and chatting, voices a little rough from hours of shouting and laughing with the rest of their party. For the most part, their conversation stuck to racing, teasing comparisons of their own accomplishments and rather more sincere divulging of future ambitions.

While Vee started to get into talk of some other club she’d heard about and was trying to get Ric and the others to check out (and if they couldn’t be convinced, maybe Ithan could?), Ithan finally felt herself begin to relax. At least she no longer felt so jittery. It was weirdly easy to talk to Vee, even if the cigarras most likely had something to do with that; but just for a moment, she let her eyes wander down the alleyway, toward the main thoroughfare.

A kid was standing at the corner, leaning on the wall the way she was, sort of hunched as he stared down at something he was holding. A datapad. Ithan thought it was odd to see a kid out alone so late—and it was a human kid, not just some more diminutive species. She could make out his face reflected in the light from the datapad and the streetlights above, and she had to look again. She knew that kid. She recognized the floppy wave of dark hair over his brow and the long nose, the serious expression, the way he was absolutely on the verge of that most awkward time of adolescence.

What in the worlds was Han’s kid doing here?

Ithan thought he was an odd little thing and suspected Han might be a bit lax on the parenting front, but she couldn’t imagine any of that adding up to Ben having free rein when it came to curfews. He was what—thirteen? Fourteen? She was no good at aging humans, but he was too young, she knew that much. And that was definitely him, dressed for a journey and glancing around. For a few moments, she just stared at him and wondered if she ought to go talk to him and find out what was going on. She should, right?

“Hey, so what do you think? Kellerru’s after this? Drink specials starting in an hour.”

“Wha—?” Ithan started and pulled her attention back to Vee, who had moved closer. A lot closer. “Yeah. I just thought I saw—”

She stole another look down the alleyway, positive she’d find Ben still standing there. He was gone. Vee followed her gaze, brow furrowing.

“Someone you know?”

Ithan shook her head. “Hn. I guess not. Sorry.”

“That’s a relief. I was hoping to get you out here alone,” Vee said, lifting her chin with a sly look. “Practically since you sat down with us back at the hotel.” She tilted her head and looked at Ithan askance. “Too forward?”

“Uh.” Ithan laughed nervously, cursed herself for immediately tensing up again, and shook her head. “No. Not too forward. I was sort of after the same.”

Good.” She slipped her hand into Ithan’s and pulled her along down the alley, splashing them through a shallow puddle and trailing cigarra smoke in her wake. “C’mon, let’s go on ahead. The others’ll find us if they dare.”

Briefly, Ithan let herself worry about what she had seen. Creepy little Solo. Maybe. But what was she supposed to do—chase after a kid she thought she had seen and thought might be her boss’ son? It wasn’t feasible, and it wasn’t preferable to whatever she suspected awaited her if she let Vee lead.

“Let them try.”

+++

Ben had taken the sandwich to-go after all. Though he’d entered the restaurant with every intention of drawing out his night of freedom—he’d sit and have some second-dinner, he’d drink as many glasses of fizz as he wanted, he’d probably even order a caf and see if it was any better than it had been the first time he’d tried it—he had hardly placed his order with the droid running the counter when he felt very profoundly like he needed to leave. He’d felt that if he sat down and tried to enjoy himself, he wouldn’t.

He wouldn’t be able to stop fidgeting. His feet would keep twitching, eager to move him along. His legs would cramp, urging him to stand and stretch them, take himself right out that door and back into the streets and back on the path he was supposed to be on. Suddenly, he couldn’t believe he’d been stupid enough to think something as trivial as hunger mattered at all. Had he sneaked out to gorge himself?

No. He absolutely had not. He was almost angry at himself for wasting time. So he made himself wait just long enough for his food to be ready, then practically fled back into the night, taking huge, greedy bites as he went. Fifteen minutes, ten, five. The nearer he got to the Vaults, the more the crowds thinned, until there was nothing around that could properly be called a crowd at all. In fact, Ben thought he was more or less alone by the time the Vaults came into view, the peaks of their highest towers spearing up behind a few nearer buildings.

Out here it was all huge estates and old palaces, he supposed. Cold, gaudy, and imposing, but quiet and seemingly dead, too. He wondered if they were anything like the place his mother had grown up. He sort of hoped not. They didn’t seem very welcoming, more like crypts than homes, and he couldn’t imagine what sort of person might want to live inside one.

The Vaults, though, when he made the final turn and they came fully into view—they were more welcoming than anything he’d seen since leaving home. If his delay in coming here was why he’d been sleeping so poorly, well, he was only sorry it had taken him so long to see it. When he got back to the hotel, Ben was sure it would be so much easier. He’d sleep well and deeply, better than he had in a year.

He was getting ahead of himself. His body was tired, but his mind was not, and that was what mattered. He meandered closer, his steps scuffing over the burnished cobbles beneath his feet. The place really did feel like it was from a separate time than the rest of the city, which it was, in a way. Not all of it had been built at once, and what had been built first had not changed much. He was approaching the Vaults from the back; they faced out onto the ocean, if he recalled correctly, and would probably provide a magnificent view of Fogbank.

And so . . . what?

He’d sneaked away, taken money that wasn’t his, come out all this way, and it hit him again, even though he had always known: that was all it was. He would be there, at the Vaults.

He wasn’t going in, he remembered again. It was completely underwhelming. He didn’t feel anything special.

Whatever was there, it was still tugging, and he couldn’t get to it, and he felt like he’d failed. His anticipation of the moment—what moment?—deflated, hollowed out, stamped on. He had no business there at all. He was a kid, out on his own, late at night, lurking around a glorified bank with hurt feelings and a head full of bad memories and nightmares waiting to get their claws in him the moment he fell asleep and let them, and he was more than a little afraid, and so, so tired.

Ben began to feel sick. He shouldn’t have stopped for that sandwich. He shouldn’t have left the hotel at all. What had he been thinking? He was going to be in so much trouble. Han would know. Han always knew things.

He could barely remember the way he’d taken to get here from the dock. Ben sat down on the damp ground in the shadow of some mammoth sculpture and pulled the datapad out. Whatever feat of innate navigational prowess had gotten him here wasn’t so impressive when he couldn’t remember how it had worked at all, and he didn’t trust himself to make the walk back without getting turned around. He felt that if he tried, he would just end up right back here.

By the Force, he was tired. The datapad blinked to life, and the screen was brighter than it should have been, he was certain. He squinted and looked away, felt his vision haze a little at the edges. It was like there was nothing around him at all anymore. How was such darkness possible in the middle of a city street? He thought of black holes again. How they ate light. The city behind him, when he looked, seemed now to stretch the wrong way—it shouldn’t have stretched at all.

Ben blinked rapidly and returned his focus to the Vaults. They were the only thing that seemed to exist anymore, gold peaks in a field of yawning black. He opened his mouth, to yawn himself, or maybe to yell. Nothing came out but air, and he felt his muscles relax, his body begin to slacken, his mind to fuzz. He could sleep here, just a while. It was better than his bed; safer.

He would wake soon and go back.

He woke soon. Too soon.

He stood, took a few steps, and still there was nothing around, nowhere to go but ahead, to the Vaults. They seemed no bigger than they had when he’d fallen asleep, but they were much closer, which was funny, because he hadn’t walked that far from where he had slept. Ben checked behind him.

There was a body slumped in the shadow of a great spherical sculpture. It wasn’t a very big body, a boy sprawled and sleeping more deeply than he had in a long time. Ben thought it should have startled him more, to see himself there, but also be himself here. Instead, it only seemed convenient. He approached himself and looked down at his body. His eyes were open, blinking at intervals, his mouth was slack, his chest rising with regular breaths.

He looked down at his feet and thought for a moment that he no longer had any feet, or legs, or any body at all. But when he took another step or two, he saw the impression of motion, almost like a shadow, and perceived the physical sensation that yes, he certainly still had a body and yes, it was moving. Was this a dream? He didn’t think so. It was something else. Something new. The newness inspired interest rather than fear.

Look.

Ben felt the hairs on his neck and arms stand, and he twisted to peer back over his shoulder toward the Vaults. Maybe he could go inside after all. Something told him he could, and should.

Go and see, a sense of certainty urged. It was his only chance.

Chapter Text

It occurred to Ben as he drew up to the facade of the Great Vaults that he should perhaps have been more alarmed by the apparent phenomenon at hand. Because he had no idea what sort of phenomenon allowed a person to travel beyond their body, seemingly as real as anything else, unseen and undetected. Not far off, he could hear the rhythmic whir of security droids on patrol; he could remember seeing them through the viewfinder just the night before. It felt like it had been weeks.

He wondered what would happen if they saw him here, standing outside the door—should have wondered, anyway. Instead, he found he was mostly unconcerned. There was a part of him that was perversely eager to see one lurch up on its long birdlike legs, circuits abuzz, cast its sensor over him, and miss him entirely. It was true that he’d been running on a persistent high of overconfidence tonight, but that urge to undermine the droids felt like something else entirely. Almost spiteful.

There wasn’t time to wait around and see what would happen if he tried, especially when he still needed to figure out how to get in. The idea he’d had a few minutes ago that he could do so remained—he was as certain of that as he was of his name, where he was from, who his family was. Yet it felt merely like permission. It did not solve the very practical problem of actually getting past the doors. He imagined all the layers of security codes, the automated locks, the alarms, each and every one an annoying inconvenience.

Ben walked up to the nearest door and stared at it. It was dark blue and veined with gold filigree, old fashioned in design but retrofitted with more modern security mechanisms, absurdly tall. It reached beyond his ability to see its entirety. He sighed as he tried to reason out his next move, and the sound made him think of the way an echo seemed to last, elongated and lingering in his head as it was swept away on the damp breeze that was ruffling his hair. The whir of one of the security droids was getting louder; he supposed soon enough one might walk right by. He glanced behind him, then returned his attention to the door and pressed an impassive palm to its surface.

To his surprise, it began immediately to warm under his touch, though it wasn’t a physical sensation. It was more like the way he could sometimes feel raw currents of power in the Force. Every once in a while, he would try to harness too much of it, try to bend the Force too aggressively to his will. It wasn’t meant to be used that way. People didn’t use the Force; they let the Force use them. They were its instruments. That was what Uncle Luke would say (or, really, what his mother would say Uncle Luke would say). Still Ben would sometimes try, just for the sake of testing a limit or breaking a rule, and on those occasions he would begin to sense it resist him. It would grow brittle and hot, and his connection to it would snap, and he would be left feeling dazed and not at all himself for minutes at a time.

This time, he managed to control it. He tried to think of the door in front of him as if it were the door to his hotel room, the way it would be when he sneaked back in later. This was likely far more complex but the same idea in theory. Practice. He’d slipped locks with the Force plenty of times; Ben sometimes liked to think that his father would be impressed if he knew, instead of just uneasy.

It was working, though, whatever he was doing. He felt the door begin to give way beneath his touch and the weight of his focus on it—the codes, the locks, the alarms, they may as well have been nothing. As if of its own accord, the seam where the doors met suddenly slipped open, just a few inches, with a soft whuffing sound. The air that escaped from inside was warm. Ben blinked at it, stunned at his handiwork, stunned that it had worked, even though just moments before he had been so sure it would. He heard the heavy stomps of the droid walking past just behind him; it didn’t even slow at the disruption.

With that, Ben slid his hands between the door panels and pushed the one to his right. It resisted for only a moment or two before sliding along as quietly as it had fallen open, just enough for him to disappear inside. The doors slid shut behind him as soon as he made it through. He barely noticed.

He was inside the Great Vaults. Actually inside them. And already his recollection of how that had come to pass was gone, like vapor. He had vague impressions, but that was all: a boy prone outside on the cobblestones; the rhythmic crunch of heavy metallic feet on pavement; a door, and then not a door; the current of the Force, or something in it, pulling and pushing.

Ben let himself be taken along. Whatever he sought, it lay ahead, and the way there was clear. If there were cameras, if there were more droids, they would not capture him. He was little more than a strange flash of shadow on the deep red marble floor. He had seen this place—in a dream, captured in holos. It was no longer impressive or even coldly threatening. He may as well have been walking through the apartment on Chandrila.

The black arched doors that lined the corridor seemed as indifferent to him as he was to them, and he traversed a network of smaller corridors, branching hallways, each step of his journey deeper into the heart of the palace slipping from his memory the moment he left it physically behind him. Soon he was in so deep, he was positive he would never find his way out again; but the moment he thought that, the fear it should have provoked was smoothed over. He was fine. It didn’t matter if he got out, or how he might do so. He’d gotten in.

All the vaults were identical cells, and to his eyes, not very great at all—square, deep red, warmly lit, bare but for the singular treasures they housed. Some were even empty. But most contained pedestals boasting ornate trunks or priceless works of art, fine garments protected behind opaque force fields, artifacts the use of which he couldn’t begin to fathom. The thing he was looking for fell into that last category. He knew the proper cell immediately as he began to pass it. Ben halted and turned to look inside.

He had to ignore the fact that his passage and his view were currently inhibited by a series of glowing horizontal bars of red light. Laser sensors. It struck him that they were likely to prove no more a threat than anything else had that night, and as soon as he thought it, they were gone, flickered out of existence for a handful of seconds. Or perhaps he’d stepped through them. Or perhaps he had somehow just appeared on the other side of them. Inside the vault. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t care.

There was a pedestal in the center of the floor, holding a simple gold box. It wasn’t very large; it
probably could have held something the size of a pilot’s helmet inside. In the dim ambient light of the room it had a gentle, enticing glow.

What is this? he wondered, though the question echoed in his head as if he had spoken it aloud.

And the thing in the box, whatever it was, seemed to answer.

Kazerath.

Ben did not know the word. It meant nothing to him. Was it a name? Some description in another language? Complete nonsense? But he stepped closer and pressed his right hand to the side of the box, as if checking for a pulse, and doing so filled him with certainty. The smooth surface was surprisingly cold. Beneath it, the Force sang. He put his other hand on top of the lid, and the feel of the Force changed, though it was no less strong. It buckled and seemed to sense him. The feeling was new and almost intoxicating.

The lid opened with a faint click, rising from the bottom half of the box just a sliver, enough for him to pry it the rest of the way open. The Force was positively pulsating out of it now, like the box had somehow been containing a particularly potent vergence of it, compressed in a single small space. Now it was free, or at least freer, and it swept around him like a breeze, by turns cool as a sea-smoothed stone and prickly hot like a fever spiking, caressed the planes of his face, beckoned him to see what was inside.

He thought it again, trying the word for himself—Kazerath. And this time he knew that was what the thing inside was called. It had other names. Its own. But this was the one it had been given, the one under which it was kept here. It hadn’t the power to defy that.

But it did have power. And so did he. They were of a kind, in a way. Weren’t they? He understood that now, looking at it. A spherical device, small enough to fit in his cupped hands if he were to pick it up—and he would pick it up. It needed to be admired first. Black lines were etched in relief over its surface, coiling around a faintly glowing red body, patterns that must have meant something, if he could just figure out the key to them.

It was perfect. It was balanced. It had been created for that—balance—by light and dark together. Like called to like. He understood that. But was he worthy?

Unable to wait a moment more to find out, Ben plunged his hand into the box, into the invisible, crackling current of the Force writhing within it, and touched the device. He was overcome with an immediate sense of power. Not his own—the device’s. It shot through his fingers and palm, up his arm, and tore through the rest of his body like a bolt, and it didn’t hurt, but it was too much. His vision guttered, and he thought he might be about to pass out. He didn’t.

He was no longer in the cell. He was in a long hallway, but it wasn’t any he had passed through in the Great Vaults. It was long, seemingly endless, narrower at the top than it was near the floor. It was dark, too, but for regularly set blue bands of light, flickering faintly as he stared first left, then right.

He blinked, unable to believe what he was seeing. It was her. The Girl. Was he dreaming? No, he was certain. This was really happening, and she was here somehow, like she’d been waiting. She was looking at him from far down the hall. She saw him, and he stared back. She looked terrified. She was older than when he’d seen her last; older than ever, though still only a young woman. She stumbled back a few steps, casting about as if lost, then spun and blinked out of existence as the whole hallway seemed to roll.

Over the roar of metal shrieking and shuddering like thunder, he heard a woman’s voice, strident and hateful.

You are a monster!

Ben tumbled as the room shifted again to become an expanse of barren, blinding white, scarred with lines the color of newly spilled blood. He smelled smoke, and tasted burnt salt, and saw a distant mountainside, gutted and ravaged, belching black clouds and rust-colored dust into the colorless sky.

The voice of a man, distant and ringing. Yes, I am.

Something slid across his vision: a red chip of broken stone, set in metal casing and fastened to the end of a leather thong, like a pendulum. It trailed a tail of crimson light in its wake, crackling like lightning barely contained, until it was lightning lashing out at him, and a hand reaching, withered and crooked and ever in pursuit—

Ben jumped back instinctively and fell on his butt, and when he tried to push himself back up, he found he was wrist-deep in powdery snow.

What you are made of—the Dark Side, and the Light. The finest sculptor cannot fashion a masterpiece from poor materials.

It looked like snow. It felt like ash. It tasted like iron when he licked it from his lips.

You’re afraid.

A flash of teeth, bared wolfishly. Sharp green eyes, full of fury. The blue blade of an old Jedi lightsaber, tall and straight as snow swirled. It flashed and was green, then blue, then red, then gone.

Don’t be afraid.

Ben scrambled further still, hands numb, hands burning, so out of his mind with confusion and terror he could hardly process what he was seeing and hearing and feeling. Sound crawled up his spine, crept around the back of his neck, shook its way into his ears—rhythmic, robotic, rasping breath, utterly alien and yet familiar.

My greatest regret is that we waited too long to tell you the truth . . .

A crystal sat on a dust-covered table. It was barely longer than his thumb and about as wide, pale blue, and it was trembling with horror—could a crystal feel horror, or anything at all? This one did. He felt that, and he felt an indescribable amount of pain. The pain had no physical source.

I’m being torn apart.

It was inside him. It was being wrenched forth. It was pummelling into the crystal. The crystal resisted, almost seemed to beg. There were pinpoints of white light at the edges of Ben’s vision, swimming in ribbons of black, and he didn’t want this, but it was what he needed to do, and the crystal seemed to bleed, the blue mottling, and cracked with a deafening, final peal.

You were unbalanced!

An endless horizon, smooth blue water, smooth blue sky. Twin moons reflected and quadrupled. Ben’s hands were half-buried under fine, pink sand. Waves hissed not far down the beach. Luke was beside him, his scrutiny like a physical weight.

Luke was standing over him. He looked so old. He looked so angry. He’d known this day would come. He wished it hadn’t. He knew what he had to do.

What do you fear?

Fire everywhere. Something burning in the distance. He could feel the heat, and the smoke searing his throat and lungs. He stepped forward and almost stumbled over a body lying prone at his feet, in the dirt, still sizzling from a long, blackened wound bisecting its chest. There were other bodies. He could smell them. There would be more before he was done.

Darkness rises . . .

He couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t the smoke. There was something on his face. Enveloping his head. When he huffed out to clear his lungs, he heard a rattling metallic sound, and when he tried to scream it was not his voice that emerged but the modulated roar of a stranger.

You’re not alone.

Ben was on his feet, and there was something over his face, and his body was heavy. It was raining. She was there again, on the ground, eyes wide in horror as he lurched forward. The mud beneath his feet became solid, dry metal.

It isn’t too late.

His father was looking up at him, stricken. Everything was red. The light was swallowed up. Han fell away, out of sight, into a smoke-filled maw.

It’s too late.

Ben opened his mouth, unable to scream, unable to do anything but move his feet and pray that the Force or anything or anyone would pluck him out of this nightmare.

Your son is dead.

The Falcon shot past overhead, the blue of its lights melting into black space. His father’s voice, barking—

BEN!

Ben staggered, robbed of his ability to speak, unable to do anything but gulp a succession of slow, shuddering breaths that only made him want to throw up. He didn’t stop until he hit the smooth, bare wall of the vault and struck the back of his head against it with a painful crack. The device flew from his hand, seemingly of its own volition, and thudded against the floor with the thick, solid sound of something much heavier than it felt. His palms tingled in its absence. He felt as if he had lightning dancing under his skin, tiny storms swimming in his veins.

What he’d just seen . . .

What had he just seen? He could only think of how it had made him feel. How he was still feeling. Hollow. Confused.

He eyed the device where it had landed. His legs buckled, and the wall was the only thing that kept him upright. He never wanted to touch that again. He wouldn’t.

Somehow, he focused enough to stretch a hand out toward it and into the Force between them. It resisted a little when he tried to lift it, like its unnatural heft only existed on the plane of reality invisible to the eye, but then it trembled and levitated laboriously from the floor to travel up in a wobbly arc toward the box that had contained it. The moment it hovered over the opening, Ben let it fall soundlessly into the box. Even connecting with it like that had been an effort. The lid clapped down a moment later.

Only when the device was out of sight did he feel able to consider leaving the vault, but his next thought stopped him. He still needed to get out of the palace that made up the Great Vaults, and he couldn’t remember the way he’d taken in. For all that it had seemed so straightforward at the time, now all he knew was that he might well be many floors beneath the ground, or at the top of some isolated corner tower, or just a few turns from the way he’d entered.

Had he taken a lift? Stairs? Corridors?

Even if he knew, Ben didn’t think he had the strength to make his way back. He’d never been so drained in his life. He felt old. He felt like a ghost. He let his eyes blink shut and felt as if the rest of him had blinked away as well. Far away, or perhaps not so far away at all, a part of him that was not there pulled steadily like an anchor.

Ben fixed his eyes on the opposite wall and wondered if he ought to bother resisting—it was like being nudged awake. Called back.

Didn’t he want to go? He did. He wanted to leave. He was ready.

He stopped fighting.