i. 5 ABY
She puts three calls through the specially designated comm channel, each cut off within a few words (Han, they’ll learn later, was steering through a particularly dense asteroid belt), and by the time the Millennium Falcon docks in Hanna City Amilyn has squeezed Leia’s hand through the contractions and watched, all too close to fainting, as the baby ripped his way into the world.
It was a hard birth. There are people who will later read predictions in that, how the prince of lost Alderaan brought on hemorrhaging and an infection that kept Leia confined to her bed for days while Han, pale and near-silent, snatched spare hours of sleep on Amilyn’s couch (her apartments sit only two blocks away from the hospital complex). Then again, there are people who can predict doom in a drop of rainwater, death in the angle of a shadow.
Amilyn isn’t one of them. Ben is an angry baby, yes, a screamer who writhes away from just about everyone, his little face twisted purple and furious, but he is a baby . What control does he have yet over his fate?
Still. He is difficult. Only the most soft-hearted would miss that.
“Kriff!” Leia explodes after he’s bitten her breast for the third time—and this time drawn blood. She unlatches the baby quickly, roughly. Without asking, she thrusts him into Amilyn’s arms. “Kriff, I can’t stand the sight of him.”
They're due to present before the newly-formed Senate in half an hour. Leia buries her face in her hands, robe gaping open over a swollen, bloody breast. Amilyn joggles the thrashing bundle in her arms, eyes the reams of documents scattered across her table. Briefly, she wonders if Ben is sick, coming down with another fever. When she lays the back of her hand to his knotted forehead, though, it’s no warmer than usual. The boy always runs hot.
“Hush.” She strokes one finger through his thatch of black hair. Before this one came along, Amilyn had fancied herself good with babies; between four mothers and seven sisters she’d had to be.
(Sometimes she thinks the soft hearts she and Leia might have once had are all but gone. Shriveled, sucked dry. War can do that to a person. It has to so many. Why should they be any different?)
Slowly, Leia lifts her head. Her eyes red-rimmed, she studies her son without emotion.
“I’m not cut out for this, Lyn.”
Shifting Ben to the crook of one arm, Amilyn bends and quickly, softly, draws Leia’s robe closed. She catches a whiff of milk and sweat, a coppery undertone of blood.
“What,” she says lightly, as her heart twists for them both. “And you think I am?”
After a long moment, Leia’s mouth cracks into a grin. She snorts.
Ben punches one tiny fist into Amilyn’s breast and howls.
ii. 10 ABY
“You know,” Luke says, “I think Uncle Lando beat it back to Bespin just so he can drop in every six months, spoil the kid rotten, and drop out right before the next tantrum hits.”
“Bastard.” Amilyn says it with real venom. Luke tilts his face to the sun and smirks.
“Model family of the New Republic, huh?”
She swats his arm. “Don’t give me that. Remember being five? We were all awful at his age.”
The smirk softens. “My uncle told me to go get a new oil rag, so I cut a chunk out of my aunt’s best skirt,” Luke admits.
“See? And he’s not awful ,” she adds before raising her voice. “Ben! Keep your goggles on.”
From his place plonked down in the center of the saltwater paddling pool, silently transfixed amid the screeching splashes of, apparently, every other five-year-old in the city, Ben turns to stare at Amilyn flatly. His eyes have taken on a sheen nobody noticed until it was there to stay: sullen, bored, calculating. A ripple that has nothing to do with the other children’s splashes rolls to the edge of the pool and breaks on the rim, splattering her toes.
“Ben,” she repeats. She prays her voice is steady. “Don’t make me tell you again.”
He waits until Luke climbs to his feet, ready to come fish him out, before tugging the yellow-rimmed goggles over his eyes. They’re round as a pair of spectacles and unspeakably cute, which Amilyn knows is why Ben hates them. Though, knowing what his reaction would be, nobody has ever told Ben how cute they are.
They’ve been very careful not to.
“When I was five,” Luke says as he sits back down, “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t direct the Force like that.”
She reaches for her towel. Sunlight or not, she’s suddenly chilled, goose pimples rising on her legs and stomach and under the cold damp of her swimming suit.
“Will he ever learn to control himself?” She’s been through a war, for kriff’s sake. She shouldn’t be whispering, afraid he’ll hear her. He’s a boy—less than a boy. Ben is still a baby.
Seconds later he sloshes over like the chick of some gangly wading bird. He clambers over the pool’s rim and, without ceremony, into Amilyn’s lap, pressing one damp ear to her collarbone. He covers the other with his right hand. He shivers.
Her breath snags in her throat as she wraps the loose ends of her towel tight around him. Amilyn rocks slightly, back and forth, forth and back, Ben’s soaked hair a tangle under her chin. She glances over, not sure what she’s hoping for; the smirk’s faded from Luke’s face. It might as well have never been there.
“I hope so,” he finally answers.
Amilyn lays her right hand over Ben’s. “You don’t sound very hopeful.”
“No. No! What I meant—” Ever since getting to know him, Amilyn’s found it hard to picture the man as a solemn, serene Jedi master, and this moment is doing nothing to change that. “—we’ve got a long road ahead of us,” Luke says earnestly. “He’s so young, and so powerful...I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I know it, Lyn. He’s a good kid.”
“I know it too.” She remembers Leia crouching to pick up the pieces of an Alderaanian vase Ben shattered with one glare, Han breaking conversation to wrap his arms around the boy while he shook, hands to his ears, mumbling to something nobody else could hear. She remembers Ben, perched on the edge of a tub, watching solemnly as she brushed brown dye over the gray already streaking though his mother’s hair.
“Where’s the gray going?”
She flashed a grin, shrugged. “To the stars.”
Amilyn stops rocking and lets her right arm drop across Ben’s shoulders. “We all do.”
iii. 15 ABY
“I could’ve killed it.”
Three weeks. Three weeks the boy’s been missing, that long freckled block of a face smeared across the HoloNet. Three weeks while they scoured the streets and docks, Han and Chewbacca roaring, Leia gray-faced, jaw set like a hatchet. Three weeks of Luke probing through more than eight million Force signatures for a single thread. Three weeks of Amilyn—of them all—imagining kidnappings, assassinations, offworld slave rings; three weeks and “I could’ve killed it,” are almost the first words out of Ben Solo’s mouth.
“Your mother’s going to kill you ,” she snaps, eyes roving up and down, scanning for cuts or bruises. Other, hidden hurts the patrolmen might have missed. “Maybe I should finish the job for her.”
He sneers. Under the sputtering lights of the holding cell, his shadow grows monstrous, puppet master to a slouching marionette. “Where is she?”
“Bespin. Your father and your uncles, too.” Amilyn’s fists clench underneath her scarlet cloak. Ben’s eyes dart toward them; he must sense her muscles tensing, the pull of sinew. “They thought maybe you’d smuggled yourself out to Lando.”
She waits. When he doesn’t answer, she throws the same sneer back in his face. “You couldn’t even smuggle yourself out of the neighborhood, could you?”
One of the patrolmen—a sad sack fossil who kept cutting sideways glances at her hair—told Amilyn he’d holed himself up in a diplomat’s suite of summer apartments not three blocks from home. Less than two miles from the hospital where he was born. A breaking-and-entering charge on top of the tricks he twisted through the mind of the night watchman. It will break Leia’s heart.
It will surprise no one.
Ben’s face twists, forehead knotting, lips crumpling. A stab of sympathy sinks so deeply into her that she feels its prick in her bones. Ten. He’s barely ten years old, and hunched on the bench, shrunken by his shadow, he seems almost small again. For a moment, Amilyn even thinks he’ll cry.
Then, with an almighty sniff, he sets his mouth and braces his shoulders. His stare levels with hers. Damp. Hard and cold.
“I could’ve killed it.”
“You can’t kill droids,” she snarls. “Where are their arteries? Where’s the beating heart?”
It was a remodeling droid, a plasterer, who stumbled over him in a walk-in closet.
“Do you see what I’m getting at here?”
Ben pulled two of its vision sensors out.
“I could’ve overloaded its hard drive,” he says flatly. He hasn’t heard her. He's talking to someone else. “I could’ve rewired its protocol settings.” He draws his legs up onto the bench. First one, then the other. Locks his arms around them.
Amilyn takes a deep breath. She tries to focus on his face: the dribbling nose, the jawline still soft with traces of puppy fat, the shaggy bangs he refuses to let her or Leia trim. She prays for another rush of tenderness, a burst of understanding to illuminate whatever tangled mess lurks inside this kid’s head; she wants to cup that face between her hands and coax him softly, gently, back into the light.
Instead, she feels sick.
“—the wires, or its head, could’ve pulled off its head—”
He’s not himself, she thinks, except it’s dawning on Amilyn, sweat-cold and slick, that whatever slips beneath his skin some weeks, wears it like a sullen, shambling suit, rages and screams and glares at them all with the most hateful face she’s ever seen—whatever that is, is Ben. The truest part of himself he has.
“Stop it!” She steps closer, so close he jerks his head back to keep up the stare. He doesn’t look ten. He looks like a creature with only the haziest idea of what “child” actually means crouched behind a young boy’s eyes.
“They should’ve left me alone,” Ben says. Just over Amilyn’s shoulder, glass shatters. A sharp electric stink fills the air; half the holding cell shutters into darkness.
“You should’ve left me alone.” His voice rises to a shout. “You shouldn’t be here!”
She slaps him across the face.
And after it’s all done, after the patrolmen have rushed in and the glass has been swept up, after Han’s comm crackles through, a breathless “On our way. Tell His Highness I’m unbuckling my belt as we speak,” after she’s done remembering the baby she rocked in her arms, the toddler who fell asleep burrowed between her and Leia on the nights when Han’s latest smuggling operation took him light years away from their star system, the boy with powers eating their way through his bones, who slunk off into the night rather than control them—
(“Kid, you’ll break more than a vase if you can’t tamp it down.” Luke, weary, patient, sharp-edged all the same. “I promise you that.”)
—after she’s said goodbye, Amilyn shakes the sting from her hand, watching the boy on the other side of the glass. He clambers back onto the bench and draws his knees up, her handprint swelling red across his cheek.
If he cries, she thinks desperately. If he cries—
He doesn’t move again.
“You have no idea what your mother went through,” she hissed while he was still down, sprawled across the bench like a newborn calf. “She gave birth to you, and for what?”
Amilyn Holdo has been through a war. She has more than enough regrets to keep this one company.
“For this? ”
iv. 20 ABY
“What, and you think I am?”
She wasn’t. Neither of them were, no more than Han, no more than Luke. And perhaps it isn’t the kind of weakness they can logically blame themselves for, but who else is there? Ben’s taken so much blame already; he’ll take so much more before the end.
“Sometimes,” Leia told her, over drinks and sabacc cards on one of those rare evenings when neither of them had anything more necessary to do, “I think it’s in the blood.”
“The darkness?” Amilyn asked, cursing herself almost before it left her lips. It took her longer than most, when she was Ben’s age, to learn the marks even a single word can leave. Even now, there are days when it takes her longer than most to remember.
When she glanced up, the crisp cards useless in her hands, Leia shook her head.
“No,” she said. “The brokeness.”
Amilyn still doesn’t know what to answer to that. When she was a girl she believed fates were written in the stars, but if Leia is right, and they’re written on a person’s soul, in their blood and bones...then maybe there is a prophecy to be read, not in Ben’s birth but in his lineage.
A broken family drawn together only to be broken again.
What kind of prophecy is that?
“I shouldn’t,” Leia said. “But if I’m right—” her lips thinned. “—if I’m right, he should fight it.”
Yet her son’s no fighter. For all his rages, Ben is a wallower and always has been. A wallower who’s now hunched in the entrance of Amilyn’s apartment, fists clenched, face clenched, loudly and deliberately coming undone.
“You knew.” Somehow his voice cracks on every word. “You knew.”
He caught her in the middle of recoloring her hair. Arms crossed tight over her chest and heart (there are only so many soft, vulnerable parts she can shield without turning her back on him), Amilyn wonders: how in seven worlds is she supposed to pull off calm, much less unafraid, in gloves and a shower cap?
“Ben,” she snaps, “does anybody know you’re here?”
He’s lost weight since she last saw him, sprouted still taller. Dark circles, dark eyes—all a finger-painted smudge drooping down to his cheekbones, flat, implacable as a caged animal’s, exhausted and miserable. It flares up for just a moment at her question.
“What do you think?”
He could kill me. The thought’s wild, panicked, unlikely but not stupid. Her hands are sweating. Amilyn strips off the gloves.
She wishes she could strip off her skin. “I think it’s behavior like this that convinced your parents to send you to the temple, and I had nothing to do with that.” Steady. Reasonable. Uncaring.
“It’s not a temple .” Ben swipes at his nose. “It’s a hut on a rock in some gods-forsaken crack of nowhere.”
So he’s still praying to the old gods. For the past few years Ben’s obsession has jumped from one religion to another, the one common (and deciding) factor being how much they’ll annoy Han and Leia. Amilyn took him to a few temples and off-world shrines where he seemed more fascinated by the rituals than anything else. The ceremony, she thinks, appeals to a sense of order the rest of his life has never been able to satisfy.
What I wouldn’t give for a little ceremony right now.
“You’ll be with your uncle again,” she says, as if Ben would consider this a perk. It’s a distraction more than anything else; she walks around him, eyes fixed, spine stiff as a board. (Her hands aren’t shaking. They can’t be shaking.) Amilyn pulls her apartment door shut.
He could kill me.
The lock’s broken, twisted apart from the inside. She hears the breath leaving her in a rush, a gasp. She doesn’t feel it.
“What did you do to the doorman?”
She whips back to face him. “Ben—”
“I said nothing.” After everything he’s done in the last few minutes—forget the last few years—he still manages to sound supremely, mortally offended. “He was in the fresher.”
“I trusted you.”
There is a moment—
There is a moment, in another world, where this doesn’t catch Amilyn off guard but cuts into her, as it’s meant to; there is a moment where she bends, breaks, opens her arms to him again; there is a moment where she looks at the boy and sees nothing beneath his skin but himself, nothing writhing between his spindling, creaking bones; there is a moment where Ben is Ben again, small enough for her to scoop up and hold close; there is a moment where she kisses his head and whispers, I’m sorry.
There is a moment where Amilyn does not say, “Since when?”
His shoulders straighten. He steps back. He looks at her as if she’s plucked out a vital organ (his stomach or his brain, maybe—never his heart), turned it in her hands, squeezed it, and thrown it back in his face. Which, of course, is exactly what she’s done.
The path is set. There’s no turning away.
“You don’t talk to me anymore,” she says. There’s dye dribbling down her neck, staining the shoulder of her worn shirt. “You don’t talk to any of us, and you don’t want to. Don’t say you trusted us, Ben. You never did.”
There’s no world where she doesn’t deserve what he says next.
“My mother.” He turns it into a snort, a curse, the ugliest of sounds. “You always wanted her for yourself.”
She should hold her head high. She should scream, turn his name into a rotten taste in her mouth. Instead. Instead Amilyn shrinks back against the door, instead his face rears up to hers, too close. She breathes in his breath, his spit. It flecks across her cheeks.
“The nights Father was gone and you slept in their bed?” A finger ruffling through the pages of her memories. “I remember them. I remember every one.”
The ruffles becomes a stab, a yank. Images fly across her vision in a reel, quickly, furiously, sand through her fingers; a snag, a catch, lingering on one particular image and she catches it, somehow, she catches it, somehow, somehow, she pulls back, she cuts it—cuts it—
(He’s sobbing when Leia runs to quiet him, screaming by the time she carries him into the kitchen, the handful of words he’s begun to learn slurred into a hysterical jumble. Ben is four years old, swimming in one of Han’s castoff shirts. Leia shushes and croons; he twists in her arms. His eyes widen, his mouth gapes. His hands shoot out, grasping.
“Lyn,” he blubbers. “Lyn.”
Later, once they’ve poured over the last bits of paperwork and he’s fallen asleep, the whole weight of him slung warm and wheezing against her shoulder, Leia whispers. “Stay, please . If he wakes up again—”)
She feels her hands connect with his shoulders, shove. She hears the clatter of some useless side table as he goes down, hears her own voice, her wartime voice. Unforgiving. A razor.
“Do that again and I’ll make sure you never leave this planet. Understand?”
Her vision clears. Some. Amilyn leans over him, where he’s sprawled across her floor, dark clothes and tangled limbs, a half-mashed spider. His eyes are wet, his lips straining like a worn seam. He’s about to blubber again.
He’s fifteen years old.
He disgusts her.
“Understand?” she repeats. Very loud. Very hard.
She crouches beside him. Stars know why. One grab, one yank, and he could pull her down.
She doesn’t think he will.
His cheeks are wet. His shoulders are shaking.
“I love your mother,” Amilyn says. She realizes, dimly, from a great distance or through a double-layer of dusty curtains, that she’s shaking, too. She lays her hand over his cheek.
“I love you.”
Burning. The boy always runs hot.
“I can’t go,” he says. Repeats it mindlessly, over and over. “I can’t go, I can’t go.”
Amilyn thinks, This is the last time I’ll ever see him.
She thinks of all the things she should have done. All the questions she should have asked.
“You’ll go,” she says. She’s on her knees, running her fingers through his hair while Ben Solo sobs in hard, wracking gulps that sound more like screams than anything else. “You’ll go and you’ll learn, if you’re half as strong as you think you are.”
A tangle behind his ear is fast on its way to becoming a mat. Amilyn jerks through it, none too gently. “There’s no fate, Ben. None but what we make for ourselves.”
She breathes in.
Will he ever understand her? Leia? Will he ever understand himself?
“You’re as close to having my own son as I ever got,” she says, and fifteen years ago, with his mother wheeled, dead-white and bleeding, to another room and his father wrangling over an expired docking pass, the baby squalls in her arms while Amilyn babbles to the whirring records droid, Ben. They decided on Ben Solo.
“Don’t make me regret that.”
Her shower cap’s fallen off. Stars know where. Amilyn bends, and a rill of purple dye splatters Ben’s nose and marks his face like a scar.