The technician slowly reached forward and pressed the “pause” button on the holoprojector. He sat back in his chair, his mind racing as it tried to process what he’d just watched.
He glanced over his shoulder, though he’d have known if someone else had entered the tight, dark room where he’d been tasked with reviewing and archiving surveillance holos. The task was low-level, mundane. These recordings weren’t even the originals; those would have been reviewed by someone a few notches higher on the First Order pecking order. What he was watching were the automatic backups… the feeds sent from the various ships and bases to the centralized database to be kept for posterity. Such a large amount of input required some amount of winnowing, and so he’d spent his day inspecting and discarding hours of deserted corridors and empty conference rooms. Until…
He blew out a low breath and rubbed at eyes that were so tired they burned. It wasn’t possible, what he’d just watched. Not possible that it had happened, or that the holo had made it down to him without someone else - someone higher up - seeing it first. If they had, there’s no way he’d ever lay eyes on it. Because if what happened here became known - by anyone - there’s no way the Supreme Leader - the new Supreme Leader - could maintain order.
Or could he? The technician had never laid eyes on Kylo Ren in person. Only rarely did the tall, cloaked figure appear on the holos that he reviewed. But he had heard rumors… stories told in hushed voices with the few of his comrades that he trusted with such conversations. Lowly techs weren’t supposed to form opinions, especially about First Order leadership. But he had kept his eyes and ears open enough to have formed a few, and he’d quietly concluded that the recent change at the top was for the best.
But now… this.
He looked back over both shoulders, then leaned forward and quickly scanned back through the hologram to what he already considered to be its beginning: the moment the two of them walked off the turbolift. He wiped his eyes again, willing them to clarity, then pressed “play.”
The girl initially appeared so small; he’d thought her delicate the first time he’d watched this. Now that he’d seen what she was capable of, she seemed strong, larger than life, and was more than holding her own against the black bulk that was Kylo Ren behind her. Did they already know what they would do, he wondered as he watched them stop before Snoke, as Kylo Ren went to his knee. Had they planned it, maybe in those few minutes in the turbolift? He didn’t have that feed. He shouldn’t have THIS one.
No, he concluded, watching again as the girl was pulled around the throne room by the invisible strings of the Force. He could see her getting more and more frustrated as her every attempt against Snoke was thwarted. Kylo Ren’s face - turned toward the floor and blocked by his hair - was barely visible even from the multiple angles he had available. But the set of those shoulders was undeniable. And there… there was real fear in the girl’s eyes when Kylo Ren finally stood and looked down at her, his lightsaber in hand. No, they didn’t plan this, which made what happened from there all the more remarkable.
His breath hitched again, as it did the first time, when Snoke was cut in two. The fight against the guards was pure poetry now that he knew the outcome. But whatever was said after, what had led to the struggle over the lightsaber, that he didn’t know.
There was no audio. The feed was incomplete. It shouldn’t have been here at all. The Supremacy was considered indestructible, so its surveillance feeds were simply stored on board. How this one had survived the destruction of the ship and made it into his work pile was a mystery. A fluke of some sort, maybe a triggered doomsday transmission of data that was cut short when the ship’s mainframes exploded.
Another explosion… on the screen in front of him. He didn’t understand what he was seeing the first time, but now he watched carefully and his trained eye saw the lightsaber split in two. A blinding flash, and then both of them were down. For several seconds neither moved, but then the girl stirred, rolling over and pushing herself up as she looked around. The technician pressed his lips together as he watched it again… the softness on her face in contrast to her physical strength as she pulled Kylo Ren away from a fire burning on the deck, the shaking of the hands that pushed Ren’s hair off of his face, the few words that neither he nor Kylo Ren could hear. She jumped then, as though from a sudden noise, with a worried glance toward something off-camera. Then she picked up the pieces of the lightsaber and ran.
This is where he’d paused it the first time, but now he just sat, letting his mind run for several minutes as he watched the throne room burn around the prone figure of Kylo Ren. Only his training kept him from jerking upright as the figure of General Hux entered the frame. He’d heard about Hux, too, and clenched his teeth as he watched the tall red-haired man stare down at the unconcious Kylo Ren. And he wasn’t surprised at all when Hux slowly reached under his coat for his blaster. Whatever nudge from fate or the Force that caused Kylo Ren to wake up at that moment likely changed the entire future of the First Order - and possibly the galaxy. The tech shook his head as he watched the two men exchange a few terse words before…
Ah, the force choke. Darth Vader had been famous for it, but Kylo Ren was said to use it more judiciously. The tech didn’t know Hux other than by reputation, but he still smirked in satisfaction to see the infamous general on his knees. This was, he supposed, the moment that the new leadership of the Order had been decided. Conclusively.
The door to the holo room hissed open, and he slammed the stop button so hard that his hand hurt.
A stormtrooper stalked up to stand behind him, so close the tech could smell the polish on his armor.
“That’s a delicate piece of equipment. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The mechanical voice had a mocking tone, and the tech relaxed and let the knot in his stomach unspool just a little. But here was a complication. He hadn’t decided yet what to do with what he’d just seen. He hadn’t even had time to think about it.
“You know, technically I outrank you,” the trooper continued, laying a heavy hand on the tech’s shoulder. A helmeted face brushed close to his ear. “What’cha watching, Taz?”
A soft, distorted chuckle, then the stormtrooper straightened and removed his helmet to reveal a handsome face that Taz knew well. More of his tension leaked away at the easy grin directed his way.
“Well, make a copy and we’ll watch it together later.” Wishful thinking, that. The only “together” moments they had were stolen ones like this. “Really, what’s up?” the stormtrooper was looking closely at his face. “You’re white as a sheet.”
Taz had one person in the world he cared about. Just one. To expose him to this was to endanger him. Taz was already wondering if he himself would live through the next several hours.
The hand on his shoulder squeezed softly, and he felt warm lips against his ear. “We trust each other, right? No one else. Just you and me.”
Taz sighed. It was true. They’d already discussed this. Whatever was to fall out from this thing between them, they’d face it together.
Silently he reached forward, reset the holo to the beginning, and pressed “play” yet again. And damn that stormtrooper training, but DN-3351 didn’t react at all as he watched the scene unfold. Not a flinch or a gasp, until Kylo Ren and General Hux had both left and the throne room was empty but for the corpses. Stop.
A long, quiet moment, and then, “How did this get to you?” It was a tone he’d never heard from his lover. A demanding whisper with a hint of fear.
He swallowed. “I don’t know.”
“And no one else knows about it?”
“They can’t. Or else it wouldn’t be here.”
“A mistake then.”
“Yes, it must be.” He waited. “What should I do?”
“You mean, what should WE do.”
Right. Now that they’d both seen it, it was “we.” But this was his job, his responsibility. And he was aware of procedure, so he recited blandly, “Any security feed containing an anomaly or item of interest, however small, is to be reported to my immediate superior.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
Taz didn’t often think about what he wanted. What was the point? He had almost no choices, so wants and opinions were a frustrating waste of energy. But he and Dan had chosen each other. He thought it through.
“No. He’d be tried as a traitor. Possibly executed.”
“Would that be a bad thing?”
“Yes.” Taz spoke without thinking, but he was suddenly sure in this conviction. “Kylo Ren is the leader we need now. Snoke was… I don’t know what he was, especially after watching that. But maybe things will be better under someone who’s younger. A person who’s actually among the troops, on the bridge and the battlefield. Someone who seems to have…” He stopped himself. He couldn’t draw that conclusion after just watching five minutes of holo feed.
But Dan finished the thought for him. “Someone who seems to have fallen in love.”
Taz turned and looked into his lover’s face. “He doesn’t know.”
“That he’s in love? Did you watch the same holo that I did?”
“No, he doesn’t know that SHE is. Whatever was said between them at the end, it didn’t go well. And then, consider what happened on Crait.” It was common knowledge that Kylo Ren had flown into a rage on the salt planet, allowing the Resistance to escape. “No wonder. As far as he knows…”
“…she just left. Right.” Dan blew a soft whistle through his teeth. “I haven’t seen him, but those who have… there’ve been whispers that he’s unstable. That his preoccupation with finding Skywalker has turned to an obsession with finding her, at all costs. I guess now we know why.”
“You don’t think that he’ll have her killed? After all that?”
Dan didn’t answer for a long minute, until… “Make a copy,” he said suddenly. “Put it on a datachip, and erase the original. You can do that, right? Wipe it from the system?”
Taz nodded. “Like it was never there. But what will we do with a copy…” His voice trailed off. “No. No, you can’t put yourself at risk like that.”
“He needs to see it. Not just because of her. He doesn’t know that Hux was about to kill him.”
“And you’re just going to walk up to the Supreme Leader and hand it to him?” Taz heard his own voice rising in panic; it was an effort to lower it back to a whisper. “You said yourself that you never see him. How would you…”
“I’m scheduled to be in the landing party on Jakku tomorrow. Not in his guard, but perimeter security. I could try to get close enough.”
“That’s insane. He’ll kill you. Your captain will kill you for leaving your post. Don’t do it.” But even as he said it, Taz found himself making the copy. He slipped the datachip into a tiny case and held it carefully. Suddenly it seemed as though the entire galaxy rested in the palm of his hand.
Dan’s gloved fingers closed over his and squeezed. When they released hands, the chip was gone. Dan looked at him, then brushed a kiss on his lips. “This is important. I don’t know why, but it is. I’ll be ok, I swear. And if… if something happens, I’d never give you up.”
Taz opened his mouth to object again, but the stormtrooper had already replaced his helmet and was striding out the door. It felt like a goodbye. What had he done?
The holo on the small platform was still paused, Snoke’s dead reptilian eyes staring out from the center of the image. Numbly, Taz typed a few commands, and the projector went dark.
Kylo Ren strode into Niima Outpost alone. He wasn’t in disguise, wasn’t trying to hide who he was from the residents of this miserable sandpot of a planet. His command shuttle had landed in plain sight on the outpost’s airfield, and he knew that someone here would have the technology to detect that a First Order Star Destroyer had appeared in space above them.
He could sense tension as he approached the sprawling cluster of tents and makeshift buildings that made up the outpost. It seemed quiet; no doubt much of the population was laying low. He felt their eyes on him, peeking under dirty tarps or through slits in sheet metal. He sensed their confusion as well. No stormtroopers accompanied him. There were no ships hovering with weapons pointed. Just one man… albeit an infamous one. He had to admire the few who stayed openly in the streets, some staring at him outright, some consciously averting their eyes. There was something to be said for bravery and curiosity.
He slowed his steps, observing and cataloging. Holo maps he’d seen of the town were mostly accurate, and he immediately marked the salvage yard that was his primary destination. But he also noted the small tavern where most of the thugs and cowards were now likely holed up, the heavily guarded water supply station, the grimy vendor stalls… and his eyes snagged on what appeared to be a shaded washing station. A half dozen young people were crouched around it, frozen in place from what they’d been doing, staring at him with unabashed terror that only increased as his gaze met theirs. Scavengers, most of them children or teenagers. They looked half-starved, with hunched backs and expressions far older than their years. But despite the fear in their faces, not one of them lowered their chin or looked away. He’d seen that defiance before. His chest tightened uncomfortably as he was the one who finally broke their stares.
His eyes settled instead on an older woman who was watching from the deep shade nearby. A scavenger also, from the small pile of cleaned equipment and parts at her feet. She was dressed in maroon robes and had thick circles of kohl drawn around her eyes. Kylo slowed further, mesmerized by… something… there. He felt it just as the woman pulled her hood over her graying hair and looked away. A force-sensitive. Just the tiniest ability, but it was unmistakable. Interesting. But that wasn’t why he’d come.
Intrigue turned to cold calculation as he lengthened his stride and approached the decrepit exchange booth near the salvage yard. Behind the high window sat the bloated outline of a Crolute male. Unkar Plutt. He saw the moment that Plutt panicked and reached to lower the blast cover over the window.
He didn’t use his Force command voice; he knew he didn’t have to. Plutt froze with the cover halfway down.
For a moment Unkar didn’t move, and Kylo wondered briefly if he would have to Force prod him a bit. But then the lump of a male heaved himself up from sitting and slowly made his way out the back door of his small enclosure. Kylo watched him lock up, fumbling the keys in his one remaining hand. He’d heard about what had happened from a smuggler he’d interrogated after Takodana. Plutt was huge, but it was mostly blubber. Chewbacca likely had no trouble tearing off his arm.
“What’s this about?” Plutt demanded as he turned and seemed to find himself surprised to need to look up into Kylo’s face. “Sir,” he added after a moment, his flat nose wrinkling in distaste at having to show respect to anyone.
Kylo gestured toward the interior of the savage yard. “Somewhere we can talk.”
Plutt hesitated and cast a nervous glance toward the tavern, where his few allies were likely hiding out. Then he nodded and led the way through piles of scrap. The only other things moving in the stifling, dusty air were a few rusted droids.
“This is fine.” Kylo stopped between a stack of solar panels and a pile of various models of auxiliary batteries.
Plutt gestured for him to continue following. “I believe you’d be more comfortable…”
“… In a place where you have weapons hidden and traps for intruders? Perhaps not. We’ll talk here.”
Plutt stopped dead and grimaced, a look of thwarted resignation passing over his grotesque features. “All right then. What can I do for the Supreme Leader?”
Ignoring the tone for now, Kylo got straight to the point. “Rey.”
Plutt growled, the sound guttural and primitive. “Is she dead yet?”
“No.” Kylo kept himself nominally aware of his surroundings as he sent a careful Force probe toward Plutt. He could think of fewer things more revolting that entering this creature’s mind, but it was necessary.
“Good. I want her alive.” Plutt began pacing.
“You’ve put a substantial reward on her head,” Kylo prodded, sorting through Plutt’s thoughts in a way the other man wouldn’t notice. He watched Plutt shake his head, as though a fly was buzzing in his ear.
“I’ve got a bounty on her, yes, but to bring her here breathing and in one piece. I told her she’d pay for what she did to me, and that price went up exponentially after this…” he gestured to the sown-up sleeve where his arm should have been. “Little bitch…”
Kylo kept his expression carefully impassive as he watched Plutt’s thoughts about what the Crolute wanted done to Rey, about what Plutt himself wanted to do. Things that went well beyond pure revenge. It was a long-standing compulsion, he saw, that began even before Rey had defied him and stolen the Millennium Falcon off the airfield. He’d been waiting for the girl to grow into adulthood, and now that she had… He’d just begun the process of reducing her food and water rations, making her desperate so that she’d be more and more reliant on him. So that when he offered her other ways to get what she needed to survive, she wouldn’t be in a position to refuse. He’d done it to others. He’d do it again.
“… I’ve heard she fell in with the Resistance somehow. It must have started with that damn BB droid that she refused to sell me. So now you’re here. Well, I don’t know where she is or where she might go. But if you find her, send her to me once you’re done. I’ll make it up to the First Order somehow… spies, slaves, whatever you’d like. But let me have a piece of her too.”
Kylo had intended to pick through the male’s memories about Rey, to find anything he might use to find her, or use against her. To learn if any particular system had fascinated her, if she’d had friends that might have traveled off planet. But as a red haze covered his vision, that information seemed much, much less important. He withdrew the mind probe with an abruptness that had Plutt staggering back into a solar panel, cracking the polymer that illuminated with a red glow as a lightsaber blade hissed into life.
It wasn’t a clean kill, and Kylo noted that his boots were spattered with blood-crusted sand as he made his way out of Plutt’s salvage yard. He tried to calm his breathing, using every bit of his training to dispel the consuming rage that had caused him to hack Unkar Plutt into pieces. He felt no regret. This outpost would be better off. The entire galaxy would be better off with a walking piece of shit like that off the map.
Even so, killing while in a rage stoked the darkness in him to a place where he rarely allowed himself to go anymore. It was too seductive, too hard to control, and he could no longer blame Snoke for it. He pushed the feeling down and away, focusing his mind on the one source of light that could mitigate that darkness. She was the reason he was here. He needed her back, whether she wanted it or not.
The old woman was still in the place he’d spotted her - sitting on a shaded stool away from the others, her fingers tented in her lap as though she was waiting for him. And indeed as he approached, she lifted her head and tugged back her hood.
There was no fear in her eyes as she watched him come. Not even as he pulled over another stool and sat facing her, so close their knees almost touched.
She was even older than he’d first surmised. The kohl and hood disguised the wrinkled brown skin and thin lips. But her blue eyes were bright. And as he always did when meeting someone who had a distinct presence in the Force, he saw predominantly not her outward appearance, but her Force signature. And this woman glowed from within, a subdued light of yellow and orange and a hint of red. So very faint, but beautiful, like the color of a sunset.
She was studying him the same way he did her, and it was she who spoke first. “You are Kylo Ren.”
He realized she’d purposely decided to use his name rather than his title. He felt judged, but proceeded on.
“Yes, I am. May I ask who you are?”
“My name is Suran.”
He decided to withhold the mind probe, for now. She’d sense it if he tried.
“Suran, you’ve been here a long time.” It was a question, and she nodded, so he continued. “I’d like to ask you about Rey.”
The corners of her dry lips turned up, crinkling her skin further. “Rey. I do miss her. She was the only other one here who… well, you must know, if you’re seeking her.”
It was his turn to nod. “I’m trying to find where she might have gone. Had she mentioned any place she’d hoped to travel to? Any planet or system that seemed to interest her?” His sources had pieced together enough information that he knew only that she had separated herself from the bulk of the Resistance, few as they were now. Whether she was off on her own for training, or to protect the others from his relentless search for her, he had no idea.
Suran was quiet for a long time, staring at her tented fingers. He watched her Force aura ripple in the low light. Finally she sighed, having reached a decision. She clasped her hands together tightly, as though resolved.
“Even if I knew, I would not tell you.” She waited, and when he didn’t respond, she went on. “See those children?” She waved a hand toward the cleaning station, where the young people had resumed their work, though they were still casting furtive glances in his direction. “I look after them, as much as I can. Tend to their wounds, find them shelter, bargain small bribes to keep away those that might hurt them.”
At this she frowned toward the exchange booth where Unkar Plutt had sat. “I’m not always successful, but I do what I can.” Her eyes snagged on his boots, at the fresh blood visible against the black. “As do you, I see.” Her lips again lifted in that small smile. “Good. It’s good that you killed him. The air already feels less heavy here. I cannot sense the Force as you do, but I can tell when a stain on it is gone.”
But when she focused again on him, the smile disappeared. “That girl is nothing but brightness. I didn’t know how bright until I see you now, how the darkness swims behind your eyes. I know little of politics beyond this outpost, but whatever is happening, I hope she has found a wet, green planet where she will be well-fed and loved and happy for the rest of her days. She deserves it.”
Well-fed. Loved. Happy. The words still rang in his head an hour later as Kylo Ren walked across the sand outside of town. Two fire-squads of stormtroopers accompanied him now, fanning out over the dunes on either side and behind him. Probably unnecessary, but overhead surveillance had reported a large number of the beings known as Teedos gathering nearby. The locals here didn’t seem as cowed by his presence as those on most planets. Perhaps living in such harsh conditions immunized them against such fear. Maybe they weren’t connected enough to hear about the First Order’s tactics on other worlds, though Niima Outpost still bore the scars from the attempt to apprehend the BB unit that had held the map to Luke Skywalker. Either way, the squad commander didn’t want to take any chances, and Kylo was inclined to let the troopers do their jobs.
Well-fed. He’d seen the powders and slop being rationed from the filthy stalls in Niima. Slowly, as he’d talked quietly with Suran, some of the population had emerged from hiding and made careful attempts to go about their business. The scavengers were universally scrawny, no doubt because of the physical nature of their work and the stinginess of the late Unkar Plutt. Rey had been thin like that when he’d first seen her in the forest on Takodana. He remembered how light she’d felt in his arms as he carried her to his shuttle. It now hurt almost physically to remember those minutes, when he’d held her against him, carefully cradling this enemy who’d tried so desperately to kill him.
She shot first, he reminded himself. She always had shot first.
Loved. Happy. He didn’t let his mind go there. Those words meant nothing to him. Maybe they had at some point, but now they were distant memories from a previous life. Simple concepts that were impossible to achieve. You couldn’t plan for them like a battle objective. You couldn’t confiscate them like a planet’s resources. They were lies, fed to children to keep them from learning what was actually important.
Power. Influence. Legacy. Those things were real. Those he could create or take at will through his own abilities and effort… and take them he had.
Supreme Leader. Even Snoke, who had guided and shaped him for so long, now seemed like a ghost from his past, an essential but ultimately discarded stepping stone that brought him here now.
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.
She still didn’t see that. Even after he’d demonstrated it to her in the clearest possible way, she didn’t see it. Jakku was her past, which was why he’d come. He’d considered wiping out the entire planet… even with Starkiller gone and no Death Star, they certainly had the capability. But he was curious and wanted to see what information could be learned first.
And now… Plutt was dead, but Jakku would be spared. He just saw too much of her in those others. He wondered what would have become of her if BB-8 hadn’t rolled into her life, if FN-2187 hadn’t connected with her. She’d still be here, lonely and hungry, dreaming of oceans and islands and parents that she knew, deep down, would never come.
Mentally he cursed himself for the useless sentimentality. She was a target now, should have been no more than that from the start. He needed her, yes, but not in the way he’d thought.
He crested a dune and saw it before him, right where Suran said it would be. The old Imperial walker was collapsed on its side, its massive legs forming a courtyard of sorts in front of the belly of the machine. There were no tracks around it, no signs of life at all. On a planet where dwellings and the materials to build them were scarce, it seemed no one had disturbed this place. Suran had told him that Rey was generally liked, respected, and even a little feared by the other scavengers due to her fighting skills. But she’d been gone for many weeks now.
Their Force bond had been quiet since Crait. He didn’t know if it was a temporary silence or a permanent break. He didn’t know if she was somehow blocking him or if the Force itself had decided to keep them apart. He sensed the absence like a void in the Force. It was strange to him… that feeling that something was missing. He’d never felt it before. Or maybe he had, and just didn’t notice.
The AT-AT had obviously seen its share of sand storms, and without its resident there to clear up, a small dune had drifted against the auxiliary hatch that served as the main access into the hull. He waved a hand, and the sand flowed to the side, clearing the way. He hesitated just a moment, then opened the door and entered Rey’s home.
The squad commander’s communicator beeped, and he thumbed it on and received the message… the ship that the Supreme Leader had been waiting for had just intercepted with the Star Destroyer overhead. Kylo Ren had given explicit instructions that he was to be notified as soon as this ship arrived. But he’d also been very clear, just minutes ago, that he was not to be disturbed while he explored this wrecked AT-AT.
DN-3351 was positioned close enough to the commander to overhear the comm. He watched the commander glance toward the overturned walker, take a step, then hesitate, obviously wondering how to disobey one order or the other without getting himself killed. Dan took a quick breath. It was now or never.
He moved forward, a casual few steps but just enough to attract the captain’s attention. And he knew he guessed right about the man’s character when the commander barked, “You! DN-3351. Inform the Supreme Leader that the Knights of Ren have arrived aboard the Finalizer.”
Dan made himself hesitate a split second before replying, “Yes, sir.” He started toward the walker, keeping his steps as steady as possible considering the soft sand and his quaking legs. He had less than a minute to gather his courage. Sweat poured down his neck, not just from the oppressive heat. This was a mistake. He and Taz should have stayed out of it. But an insistent voice inside his head told him, Go. And so he tapped on the closed metal hatch and raised his voice as much as he could. “Sir?”
It may have been weeks since she’d left, but Rey’s presence infused the small space like the scent of flowers in a hothouse. Through their bond, he’d seen enough of her memories that in an odd way, it felt like he’d come home. He fingered the projects that were left half-finished on her worktable. He gazed for probably too long at her sleeping compartment. He stared, and stared, and stared, at the wall where thousands upon thousands of hash marks recorded her days here. All those days, alone. She’d been so young. She still was.
He found her computer, an amalgamation of mismatched junk expertly rigged for maximum efficiency. There were three datachips near it, each carefully labeled. One… a flight simulator. Of course. Another… a protocol droid language update. Also useful. And the third… simply marked as “music.” Interesting. He slipped this one into a pocket and left the other two.
Kylo also took her doll. He didn’t think about why, but when he saw the homely, ragtag thing it felt like a band around his chest had pulled so tightly he couldn’t breathe. It suddenly seemed important that it not be left here. Only when the doll was safely tucked in his pocket did his heart stop racing.
Just then he sensed the approach of a trooper. Rage flared up as a soft tap sounded on the door.
He didn’t recognize the voice. Not the commander, then. The coward had sent one of his underlings to bear the wrath of disobeying his order. Emotions raw, he was inclined to punish them both as he yanked the door open, causing a small cascade of sand to fall from above.
He felt the stormtrooper’s flash of fear, though the man didn’t outwardly flinch. DN-3351.
“Sir, the commander received a message. The Knights of Ren have rendezvoused with the Finalizer.”
Kylo glanced to the sky, as though he could see them there. Now that he was aware, he expanded his consciousness out and could feel their presence. It had been months, and he’d been anxiously awaiting them. But the timing was poor.
“Tell the commander to prepare to depart in ten.” He wouldn’t punish this unfortunate trooper for obeying an order. The squad commander on the other hand, would not have an enjoyable time aboard ship tonight.
He turned back, expecting the trooper to turn and march away, but the man stayed put. Kylo had a terse dismissal ready when he sensed an urgency… a tension radiating from the trooper that had nothing to do with his message or the mission at hand. Kylo turned slowly, noting the trooper’s bearing, watching for any movement toward his weapons. Always cautious, he had a hand on his lightsaber as he sent a quick probe toward the man’s mind.
“Is there something else?”
Even through the trooper’s helmet, the Force probe took no time at all. He saw the datachip in the trooper’s memory a moment before it appeared in the white-gloved hand. The man seemed to be using his body to block the view from the other troopers as he extended that hand, just slightly, toward Kylo. “Just this, sir.” The voice was quiet and full of fear, but determined.
Kylo narrowed his eyes at the unmarked chip. He could ask, but it was easier to press harder with the mind probe. The man gasped but stood his ground as Kylo Ren quickly found what he was looking for.
Every bit of Force training, every bit of the physical and mental discipline he’d been practicing over years came into play as Kylo saw what was on the chip the stormtrooper was offering him. He also saw the technician, saw the security room and the conversation and the kiss. DN-3351 panicked then and tried to resist him, tried to push out the probe, but Kylo brushed those efforts aside and pressed a bit further in order to confirm that this information was indeed contained to these two people. A low-level tech and a stormtrooper.
He withdrew the probe and stared, wishing he could order the trooper to remove his helmet. But doing so would attract the commander’s attention. This prolonged exchange likely already had. So Kylo did the only thing he could do. He swallowed against a very dry throat, used the Force to snatch the data chip into his own palm, and uttered a single choked word.
Thanks to all who have taken the time to read and leave feedback. I appreciate it so very much! I hadn't intended to update yet but decided to send another chapter out, to get Rey into the story. This fic is mostly completed, and I'll be updating every few days. Thanks again!
Rey lay on her back, tightening a row of bolts that secured a revised control panel into place. She hummed to herself, pausing the tune only to curse softly as she fumbled her wrench for the tenth time. Or twentieth. She couldn’t keep track. Her brain was as frozen as her fingers and would remain so until she could get the heating system on this ancient ship working again.
Humming kept the silence away, but not the loneliness. Her only companion in this giant ice cave was in a quiet mood, and had been since Luke passed into the Force.
She slid out from under the panel and huffed warm breath onto her hands. “R2?”
A soft chirp and whistle answered her as the little astromech droid rolled into view. As much as a droid could seem morose… he seemed morose. She felt badly but knew there was nothing to be done. He just needed time. As did she.
“I think I’ve got it now. Could you reattach the power couplings?”
He beeped in response and rolled out of sight again. A moment later the lights blinked on. Rey jumped up and checked her displays, then sighed in relief as the first draft of warm air blew out of the vent overhead.
The small Calamari cruiser was never meant for a human pilot. The bones of the ship were good, but she’d had to retrofit the entire cockpit from the seat to the controls to the life support systems. Even considering how well the project fit her skill set, it had taken surprisingly little time. But then again, she was extremely motivated. Hoth was freezing.
She’d come to the ice planet on assurances from General Leia that a few small ships had been left behind during the emergency evacuation years ago. Darth Vader and his troops had been more concerned with pursuing the fleeing rebels than destroying leftover equipment; and this little cruiser, tucked deep in a corner near the blast doors, had survived with almost no damage. But even though few repairs were needed, the retrofit was extensive. She didn’t mind, though. She needed to get to know her new ship.
It was painful to think about the Millennium Falcon. She’d last seen it flying away over the snow-covered mountains after Chewie had dropped her and R2-D2 off here. The Falcon had come to feel like her ship. Even Chewie had said that he now considered it hers, that Han would have wanted it that way. But it was too recognizable, and she had multiple targets on her back. The bounty hunter they’d encountered on Ord Mantell had convinced her that she needed to separate herself not only from the Falcon, but from the entire Resistance, at least for a while.
It hadn’t been an easy decision, and had been debated for probably too long by General Organa, and Finn, and Poe, and even BB-8. But ultimately it was decided that the Resistance needed to cultivate the new alliances and offers of support that had come after their costly victory on Crait. And that was easier done without both Unkar Plutt and Kylo Ren relentlessly hunting her from system to system. She was certainly useful to the Resistance with her technical abilities, but if she could master her use of the Force, she’d be a true weapon. The last Jedi. So Leia had finally, tearfully sent her off, with instructions to rejoin them when called for.
The tears hadn’t just been for her, Rey knew. Leia was the only one who knew the truth. The others believed that she’d somehow singlehandedly killed Snoke, thrashed his guards, and defeated Kylo Ren long enough to escape. As if.
But Leia had called her to a private briefing after the official one, just the two of them. And the general held her hands and listened without a word as Rey told her… everything. The Force Bond and Luke’s admission. How they’d touched hands and seen a vision. How she had gone to Ben, causing him to risk everything to save her life. The fight against Snoke’s guards. The discussion after. Join me. Join me.
She’d shed no tears since that conversation, when she and General Organa had held each other and cried. Through the Force, Leia’s emotions were a storm of grief and guilt and relief and joy. "He’s not gone," she had whispered, more to herself than to Rey. "He isn’t really gone." And then, "I’m so sorry, Ben."
Rey wondered now if part of the reason Leia had agreed to let her leave was in the hope that she and Ben might find each other again and work it out somehow. She didn’t tell the general how unlikely that hope was.
He wouldn’t save her friends, had told her to let them die.
She’d ignored the hand he’d held out and gone for the saber instead. And left him there, unconscious.
And then he’d cornered the Resistance in a cave and tried to massacre them all.
So… it had ended badly. Really badly. And the Force, perhaps fed up with both of them, let their bond go silent. On Ahch-To, even when they hadn’t been communicating, she could sometimes feel him in the back of her mind, a quiet and comforting presence. Now… nothing. It should have been a relief.
But she was alone again.
R2 beeped again, breaking her out of her melancholy. The little droid wobbled slightly from side to side, impatient now.
“All right, all right. I agree, and believe me that my joints freeze more quickly than yours. Let’s go.”
All systems checked out and the engines fired beautifully. Rey began humming again as they lifted off and coasted carefully through the wrecked exterior doors. Sun sparkled off the ice as far as the eye could see as they skimmed the planet’s surface. So different, Rey mused, than their next destination. Her stomach knotted at the thought, but it had to be done. So she programmed their course into the navicomputer and nosed up toward the upper atmosphere, getting ready for the hyperspace jump that would take them to Jakku.
A new chapter to celebrate Star Wars Day! May the 4th be with you all.
So... here's my version of the Knights of Ren. If there are any Rebels fans out there, please forgive me.
Kylo Ren hesitated outside the door to the meeting chamber where the Knights of Ren waited. Even though his thoughts were racing with what he’d seen in the stormtrooper’s mind, he forced himself to complete the orders on his data pad for the engineering team they’d be leaving behind on Jakku. He’d made a promise and intended to keep it. He also had a point to prove.
Once finished, he went through a quick calming exercise. It felt mercifully easy. The very air thrummed with Dark Side energy. After a minute he was focused. Calm. He knew what needed to be done.
He entered the chamber and found the Knights standing, the six of them in their usual formation. There was no greeting, no pleasantries to be exchanged. He felt their energies in the Force pick up in his presence and knew they were pleased to be there. They were all masked, except for him. He felt their eyes on his scar. He knew they wouldn’t ask about it.
Comfortable chairs were set against the wall, along with an array of technical equipment. He took the seat nearest the hologram projector and motioned for them to sit.
They did, stiffly and silently. He sighed. “At ease.”
The energy changed instantly as they slumped into their chairs. Martna Ren grunted softly as she stretched out her long legs. Kiona Ren tugged off her helmet and rubbed at her face. Talik Ren also removed his helmet and set it on the table beside him with a thunk. Adion Ren just sat, hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, silent as always, his writing tablet tucked under his arm.
It was Jacen Ren who spoke first. He was the oldest of them, and had removed his helmet to reveal his distinctive green hair and a face that had more lines from age and worry than since Kylo last saw him. “Long live the Supreme Leader,” he said quietly, inclining his head respectfully.
“Long live the Supreme Leader,” the others echoed, except for Adion, who just inclined his head a bit more deeply than the others.
“Have the First Order accepted the change in leadership?” Martna asked, finally removing her mask and helmet to reveal the tattooed scalp beneath.
“They have no choice,” Kylo replied. “Though there have been whispers of dissent.” He would hide no truth from them. The Knights would not exist without total honesty.
“Easily dealt with?” It was Ropalaa Ren who spoke this time, her green skin creased between the twin antennae on her head. The Rodian was by far the smartest of all of them.
“We’ll see,” Kylo responded. “Hux isn’t happy.”
Snorts of laughter and derision from around the room, and Kylo allowed himself a small smile. But then Ropalaa’s next question wiped it away.
“Who is this girl, Kylo, and how did she kill Snoke?”
They all stilled at that and watched him intently. He’d gone without his mask for long enough now that he was getting better at hiding his emotions, but he knew they’d see right through it. He’d already made the decision. Let things fall out where they would.
Kylo turned to the holo projector next to him and flicked it on. This was a secure room, used for these meetings only; nothing was monitored or recorded. He pulled the data chip from his pocket and inserted it, feeling his Knights’ curiosity as he dimmed the lights and began the playback.
He’d only been anticipating their reactions; he hadn’t predicted his own as he watched the hologram recording from Snoke’s throne room play out. From the moment that he and Rey appeared on the feed, he felt frozen, unable to move or think or speak.
Look at her, he thought. He watched Snoke pull her close, then held his breath when she was tortured. It was worse, so much worse, than it had been at the time. It felt as if he could feel her pain and fear all over again.
He didn’t care, he didn’t care, he didn’t…
A small gasp from Kiona as Skywalker’s lightsaber ignited into Snoke’s torso. The dark-skinned woman now stood right over the holo platform, he realized with surprise. They had all come closer; he’d been so focused on the holo that he hadn’t noticed. Jacen was practically breathing on his neck as the fight with the Praetorian Guards began. And the tension that had gripped him dropped away as he watched Rey fight, watched the moves that were near mirror-images of his own. He understood now that she had learned this from him, from their bond, and they’d never been more connected than in that moment they fought back-to-back.
And… there… he hadn’t imagined it. She really had reached back and gripped his hip. The feeling of her hand there had stayed with him all the way to Crait.
He carefully watched the move that had put him at a disadvantage against the last guard, mentally cataloging it to work through later in training. But then Rey found herself at a similar disadvantage, and Martna whistled through her teeth as Rey deliberately dropped her saber and caught it again for the final kill. And then that quickly she threw the saber to him, and it was over.
He was breathing fast. It’d been hard to watch. He’d lived it and remembered every detail, but still it had been hard to watch. There was no audio to the holo, but he stopped it there all the same. They didn’t need to know what happened next. He would watch the rest later, in private.
The Knights were silent. Kylo waited. Snoke had been their commander too. He’d just shown them evidence of his own treason. It was a critical moment.
One by one, they slowly returned to their seats, each of them staring at him or at the image on the paused holo platform. The tense silence finally dragged on for too long.
He looked each of them in the eye, one by one. “Speak freely.”
Kiona let out an explosive breath and began chuckling softly, shaking her head. Jacen just continued to stare at him, though a small grin had appeared on his face. Martna looked back at the holo and then at him. “That is the sexiest damn thing I’ve seen in my life.”
Talik exploded in laughter, burying his face in his hands for a moment before looking up again. “Fuck, Kylo. I mean, fuuuuuck…”
Adion just kept his head down. He had pulled out his notepad and was drawing furiously.
Kiona sighed dramatically. “Please, please tell me you two had sex on the floor after that.”
“With all those corpses there?” Martna shook her head. “Sick.”
“Dude, did you you see that? She grabbed his thigh.”
“She summoned his lightsaber. Who can do that?”
“Who would even try?”
“She fights like you, Kylo. That girl is fierce.”
“I think I’m in love.”
“Well, somebody is.”
Kylo let the banter go on. He felt no small amount of relief that they hadn’t turned on him for what he’d done. They were all good friends… with each other. He’d always been set apart, by ability and by rank and mostly by his own reticence. But he trusted them; he didn’t realize until this moment how deep that trust went. And trust was even more essential than friendship.
They finally talked and laughed themselves into silence and were once again watching him. He felt their mood: jubilant, surprised, somewhat confused. That last was explained when Jacen asked him quietly, “So where is she Kylo? Why isn’t she here?”
He had to swallow twice before replying. “She chose to return to the Resistance.”
They all seemed to process this, understanding the implications.
“So now what?” Martna asked.
He kept his expression neutral. “Now we hunt her down. Hunt them all down.”
Martna stared at him for a moment, then sat back in her seat. “Right. Of course.”
“I have a new mission for you.”
Talik grinned. “Now you’re talking.”
They’d been away for a long time tracking down Jedi artifacts from old temples and training sites scattered throughout the galaxy. Part of that was to purge any remnant of the Jedi religion, to make it unavailable to anyone who might have delusions about resurrecting the old order or forming a new one. But they also had specific artifacts that they wanted to find and keep for learning and training. Top on that list was the sacred Jedi texts. He’d been sure that Luke had been hoarding them, but when the Knights had finally gone to Ahch-To they’d only found a burned out uneti tree where the caretakers insisted the books had been kept. The Knights, especially Ropalaa, were morose, believing the tomes had been destroyed.
“Find her. Bring her to me,” Kylo said.
A brief, puzzled silence before Talik said, “I thought that’s what you have the First Order doing.”
“The First Order is searching for the Resistance. I believe she’s separated herself from them. I want to apprehend her without Hux or any others knowing.”
Martna watched him with a disturbingly concerned expression. “To what end, Kylo?” Her tone made the implication obvious… do you think she’ll want to stay with you if you make her a prisoner?
He needed Rey, but he was done with sentimentality, done with compassion. It was making him weak. He knew better. He should have known better all along. Rey was a powerful Force user fighting on the side of his mortal enemy. Whatever feelings he had for her were counterproductive. Best to acknowledge and learn to work around them. Move on.
He’d spent a lifetime instilling and perfecting discipline within himself. Snoke had thought to use Rey to test him on it. Now, he would test himself.
“I’ll try again to turn her,” he said. “Through… different methods this time. She’s naturally attuned to the Light but has shown that she can easily turn to the Dark Side when the need or impulse arises. I intend to immerse her in Darkness to show her the true power of it.”
Ropalaa had been silent through much of the meeting, but now she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Smother the Light. It could work. She’d be a powerful ally.”
Talik frowned slightly. “And if it doesn’t work?”
Kylo switched off the holo projector, tucking the data chip into his pocket again. “Then I’ll hold to a promise I made to Skywalker. I’ll destroy her.”
Only Ropalaa nodded as they all stood to leave. Adion was last to rise. The intense young man hadn’t removed his mask. He’d been hunched over his notepad for the entire meeting, clearly listening but not reacting to the conversation as his pencil flew over the white paper. It was just his way. Adion was silent, easily rattled, and drew pictures constantly. But he was a savant with his lightsaber and was so strong in the Force that Kylo had once seen him move an entire moon out of its orbit.
Adion finally stood after the others had left the room. He tapped his pencil hard on his drawing in the way he did when he was finally satisfied with the finished product. Then he did something Kylo had never seen him do… he carefully tore the page from his notepad and laid it face-down on the chair where he’d been sitting. Then he hurried past Kylo with a small nod, and the door slid closed behind him.
Kylo fingered the data chip in his pocket and glanced at the holo projector. Later. He’d watch the rest later. Almost absently he picked up the drawing Adion had left and flipped it over.
It was beautifully drawn and shaded so well that the picture seemed nearly alive. Rey lay on the floor and he was on top of her. Her head was thrown back and his lips were at her neck. Their fingers entwined and both lightsabers lay on the floor beside them, hilt to hilt. Adion had captured her likeness perfectly, from the dark eyelashes to the wound on her upper arm. Kylo stared at her face, at the closed eyes and the parted lips, and he could almost feel what this would be like, to have her beneath him and…
Damn. Damn Adion and his ridiculous talent. Kylo ignited his lightsaber and touched it to a corner of the paper, then watched as the image burned to ash.
Rey kept herself flat to the top of the sand dune and looked through her binoculars in astonishment. All the precautions she’d taken: the disguise, the approach from the opposite side of the planet, landing precariously close to the Sinking Fields to avoid discovery of her ship… it had all been to avoid being spotted and recognized by any First Order spies or informants that might be on Jakku. She’d thought they’d be disguised, too, blending in with the locals. There might even be some Jakku natives hoping for a payout.
The last thing she’d expected to find was an entire battalion of First Order personnel swarming around Niima Outpost in broad daylight.
The airfield was crowded with transports and cargo haulers offloading various sorts of machinery and supplies. There were a few stormtroopers in scattered guard positions, but most of the personnel seemed to be non-combat. Much of what was being done appeared to still be in an organizational phase, but one project was clearly well underway. She recognized the equipment being used to bore deep under the sand, and saw the pipes and pumps ready nearby.
The First Order was digging a well on Jakku? An enormous one, from the look of those pipes. It was impossible, Unkar had always said. The groundwater table under Niima was thousands of meters below the surface. They’d had to fly in water from elsewhere.
Rey focused her viewfinder on Unkar’s salvage station. Or where Unkar’s salvage station should have been. It was gone. No trace remained of his large tent and the washing stations beneath it, the exchange booth, or Unkar Plutt himself. The area had been totally cleared and was being prepared for some kind of new construction, apparent from the generators and building supplies piled there.
Where had it all come from? There was no Star Destroyer or other large ship in orbit around the planet; she certainly would have noticed that when she came out of hyperspace. She set down her binoculars and pushed up her goggles, reassessing her plan.
There was no way she could go into town now. Her disguise was a good one, and there were many locals - scavengers and traders and the like - headed in and out of Niima, seemingly mindless of the First Order activity around them. She might still blend in. But it was just too risky. All it took was one person to recognize her. Unkar himself would probably turn her in.
What in the galaxy was going on here?
She carried a soft satchel with a hundred thousand credits in it. A fortune, yet only a small portion of a gift that General Leia had recently been given by an elderly couple who was away on business in the Outer Rim when their entire family had been killed in the Hosnian cataclysm. Most of the money went toward rebuilding the Resistance fleet. Rey was given enough to pay off Unkar Plutt.
It would have been easier - and cheaper - to simply have him killed. But that wasn’t the way the Resistance did things. They had to believe they had the higher moral standing in this conflict. Assassinations, even of someone as odious as Unkar, went against that code. But he’d placed a large enough price on her head that every bounty hunter in the galaxy was after her. And bounty hunters - many of them well-resourced, connected, and immersed in the galaxy’s immense criminal underworld - were not to be underestimated. Han Solo had found that out the hard way time and again.
The drone of a speeder sounded nearby, and Rey pressed herself flat to the sand until it passed. She was too exposed. Lacking a better idea, she decided to head west and see if her home was still there.
It was. The wrecked walker appeared, more or less, exactly as she’d left it, except for the single set of footprints barely visible in the sand, leading to the hatch she used as a door. Silently, Rey crept between the crumpled legs of the AT-AT. The door was half open. She drew her blaster and thumbed off the safety, then lifted her goggles for better visibility. She drew a deep breath and swung herself through the door, crouching low, ready to fire and evade if necessary.
No hostile fire came her way. A lamp was lit, and on the stool by her worktable a single, cloaked figure sat, carefully turning over something in dry, wrinkled hands.
“I’ve been looking for a power cell for a third generation Gonk droid. May I have this?”
Rey slowly came up from her crouch but kept her blaster ready. “Suran?”
A small smile beneath the maroon hood, creasing those dark-shaded eyes. “I’ll pay you for it if you’d like, but I’m guessing credits or portions aren’t what you need these days.”
“How did you know…”
“I felt your presence as soon as you landed. Strange, how I’ve gone my entire life only barely aware of the Force. Now I can’t stop feeling it, everywhere and all the time. I wonder if maybe he had something to do with that.”
Rey finally returned her blaster to its holster as she slowly walked through the compartment. It felt so strange to be back. Almost like she’d never left, and all the things that had happened these last months were just a dream.
“I didn’t know you could feel the Force,” she said, unable to help returning Suran’s smile.
“Maybe you didn’t know what it was, but I think you felt a connection.”
The older woman was right. But… “Who did you mean, ‘he’?”
Rey stopped cold, her breath catching as she scanned the shadows and gripped her blaster again.
Suran chuckled softly. “No, child, he’s been gone for days. But his people remain, as I’m sure you’ve seen. You were wise to stay away from Niima, even with that wonderful disguise.”
Rey swallowed hard against the dryness in her throat. “But he was here?”
“Of course he was. He’s looking for you, isn’t he? Why wouldn’t he come to the only place you’ve ever called home?” Suran reached into a fold of her cloak and removed a small canteen, then offered it to Rey. There was no greater expression of trust and friendship on Jakku than to offer someone water, and no greater insult than to refuse it. Rey took the canteen and took a small sip. It allowed her to find her voice again.
“You spoke to him.”
“I did. He sensed my Force ability, tiny as it is. He asked about you.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing of consequence. I didn’t like him, at first. Even after he killed Unkar Plutt.”
Rey felt her jaw drop open. “He killed…”
Suran nodded. “Chopped him into little pieces with that lightsaber of his. Barely enough left for the steelpeckers to eat, from what’s been said. I met Kylo Ren just after the kill. Darkness surrounded him like a cloud.”
Rey didn’t know what to say, what to think. Her mind raced as Suran continued.
“But he persisted, kindly and gently, even after I insulted him. He does have fine manners, anyway.” The woman laughed softly, as though embarrassed with herself. “We eventually started talking about life on Jakku, and how it was for the scavengers here. I told him he’d improved conditions by ridding us of Unkar. He asked what else could be done to help.”
All of the activity she’d seen at Niima… the construction supplies and personnel and the well…
“The First Order claims governorship of the entire galaxy now, including Jakku,” Suran finished with a small shrug. “Part of governing, Kylo Ren claimed, was responding to the needs of the people. So now we’re getting a free water supply…”
“… and some infrastructure improvements. Public washing stations for the scavengers along with dormitories, regulations setting fair exchange values, a police force, medical care, greenhouses to grow our own food…”
The old woman’s eyes had taken on a dreamy quality. Rey couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Suran! The First Order is taking over Jakku. They’re occupying Niima!”
“And is that such a bad thing? Clean, fresh water for everyone. Safety. Food, Rey. Real food! And no more thugs like Unkar Plutt running everyone’s lives.”
“No, just thugs like the First Order!”
Suran stood and straightened her hood. “Well, they don’t behave like thugs. Whatever their politics, most here would agree that things have improved.” Her tone softened. “But you shouldn’t stay long, dear. I would never turn you in, but there are others who might.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew a small black box, which she offered to Rey. “Perhaps you’ll consider this payment for the power cell. It’s actually from him, but I’ve been holding it for you. He was certain you’d come.”
Rey carefully took the box, and Suran gathered up the power cell and shuffled toward the door. Rey barely caught her last words as the old scavenger disappeared back out into the glaring sunlight. “He’s a smart boy, that one. Be careful of him.”
Rey squinted through the doorway long enough to ensure that she was indeed alone. Suran was right; she should leave quickly. But…
She looked at the black box: a small rectangle, like one that might contain jewelry. No markings, but she could somehow detect a sense of him on it. Whether that was from whatever was within or because he’d handled it, she didn’t know.
There was a small lock on it, no keyhole. Smirking, she popped the lock with the Force, then hesitated for a moment. It was just a box. Nothing to be afraid of. Heart pounding, she lifted the lid.
A small, sad piece of red crystal was nestled in soft black cloth. She knew instantly what it was… a kyber crystal. The material necessary to make the blade of any lightsaber. He must have known that she was building her own from the remnants of Luke’s saber that she’d recovered. But she’d had trouble finishing it because…
A small paper was tucked into the corner of the black fabric. She unfolded the note with shaking fingers and read the ridiculously perfect handwriting.
"It’s milled to the exact shape of the fragment that you’re missing. I’m keeping the original."
That was it. No emotion. Not even a salutation or signature. She sighed and examined the crystal again.
He’d found the missing piece somewhere on that floor. When Luke’s saber split, a fragment had come off from one half of the crystal; she hadn’t realized it until much later. And that half refused to fire without it. She’d been building a double-bladed lightsaber to take advantage of her comfort and skill using a pole-style weapon. And now he’d given her what she needed to finish it.
“I’m keeping the original.” Of course he was. Rey wondered whether this fragment in her hand was leftover from when he’d built his own saber. It felt familiar somehow, as though she’d held it before.
Well, she mused, tucking the note and the crystal back into the box and securing the Force lock again. If this worked, it’d be an interesting color, anyway.
Rey cast one last look around her old home as she prepared to leave. She felt surprisingly little nostalgia, even though she knew she’d never again come back here. The place only made her feel lonely now. Adjusting her mask, her gaze caught on the wall where she’d etched a mark every night of her life until that one fateful day. The sheer number of those marks… a tear burned in the corner of her eye. Just one tear for that little girl who had known all along - but didn’t want to believe - that they were never coming back.
There was a circle with a line through it after the last mark. A symbol that meant ‘stop’ or ‘end.’ She hadn’t etched that there. Rey walked closer and felt that tear finally fall as she saw two letters carved beneath those thousands of marks.
Taz had just settled into the dark holo room for the start of a ten hour shift when the door slid open. He was both surprised and pleased to recognize DN-3351. They hadn’t seen much of each other in the two days since Jakku. There hadn’t been time to talk. From a small nod they’d exchanged in the corridor, he knew that Dan had managed to slip the data chip to Kylo Ren, and Dan was obviously not dead, so it seemed things had gone as well as they could have hoped.
He smiled as he paused the dormitory security holo he’d just loaded. “I thought you were supposed to be in training right now.”
Dan didn’t remove his helmet. “I was. I just received a priority order.” His voice was tight.
“To do what?”
“To report here.”
Taz’s heart skipped a beat, then began pounding so loudly he could hear it. “From whom.”
“Who do you think?” Dan didn’t approach him, didn’t alter from his rigid ready stance.
Taz had a dozen questions on the tip of his tongue. How did it go? What did he say? Did anyone else see? Why here? But before he had a chance to ask any of them, the door opened again and Kylo Ren stalked into the room.
The door slid closed, sealing the three of them in. Taz stood up - he thought he should be standing for this - and looked up at the face of the Supreme Leader.
Kylo Ren appeared to be just a bit older than he or Dan. He was handsome but not in a conventional way, and his face was marked by a prominent scar that ran from above his right eye down over his cheekbone. His intense dark eyes were focused solely on him, though Taz had no doubt he was monitoring Dan just as carefully.
Training kicked in, and he bowed his head respectfully. “Supreme Leader.”
“Simon Taznayan.” And then, turning slightly, “DN-3351. Remove your helmet.”
“Yes, sir.” The stormtrooper pulled off his helmet and tucked it under his arm. His face was flushed, Taz saw, perhaps from hurrying to get here. A muscle worked in his jaw as Dan kept his back straight, his feet set apart. He glanced at Taz and their eyes locked, just for a second, long enough for Taz to see the emotion there. I’m sorry, he seemed to say.
Taz knew there was no way for them to fight their way out of this, nowhere to run if they did. If this is how it ends for us, he thought with bleak resignation, at least we’re together.
Kylo Ren was watching their interaction, and Taz had the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that the Supreme Leader could sense more than what he and Dan outwardly expressed.
Finally Kylo Ren sighed, the sound surprisingly genuine, and his shoulders relaxed slightly. “What do you want?”
Taz couldn’t help it; he glanced again at Dan. But the stormtrooper looked as puzzled as he felt. “Sir?”
“What do you want?” Kylo Ren repeated, enunciating each word carefully.
“I… I’m sorry, sir, I don’t underst-”
“For the information on the datachip. For your silence.” Kylo Ren’s voice was hard, his expression irritated. “What is your motivation for doing this. What do you want.”
Taz couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was Kylo Ren serious? He was, Taz saw, and would know if his queries were met with anything other than total honesty.
What was the honest answer? At this point… “We want not to be executed, sir.”
Dan’s expression didn’t change, but Taz heard him draw a long, controlled breath.
Kylo Ren stared at him incredulously for a long moment, then a bemused smirk turned up a corner of his lip. He looked, Taz thought, like a man unaccustomed to smiling. But when he spoke again, his tone held no humor. “As DN-3351 can attest, I could search your minds for whatever I need.” A small hesitation. “But I sense that you’re telling me the truth. That what I saw in DN-3351’s mind on Jakku was the complete picture.”
Dan shot Taz a guilty look.
“You disobeyed established protocol,” Kylo Ren went on, glancing from Taz’s work station back to his face. “You are both derelict in your duties.”
Taz’s mouth went dry. He hoped Dan wouldn’t try a last ditch effort to save them here. Kylo Ren could kill them both before Dan could even draw his blaster. He’d rather die with some amount of dignity.
“I’m not going to execute you,” Kylo Ren said softly, those intense eyes again seeing too much. “You broke protocol, yes. But doing so took a great amount of courage, even selflessness. You risked yourselves and each other. Out of loyalty, and out of a desire to secure what’s best for the First Order.”
Taz willed his wobbling legs not to give out. He felt dizzy. Dan was looking at him with wide eyes.
“So I’ll ask you again,” Kylo Ren continued. “What do you want?”
“We want to have time together,” Dan said finally, rushing out the words as though trying to speak before that courage failed him. “We want to be together without fear of punishment.”
Kylo Ren blinked. “That’s all?”
That’s all? Thought Taz. That’s everything. That’s the impossible dream.
“Yes, sir,” is all he said.
Kylo Ren looked at them both for a moment longer, then without another word he turned and strode from the room. Taz watched the door close and then very slowly sank down into his chair. His body was trembling, coming down ever so slowly from the adrenaline that had been coursing through him.
Even Dan, whose stormtrooper training made for steadier nerves, was pale; and he slumped against the console behind him. “What just happened?” he murmured on an exhale.
Taz studied his lover’s face and felt the brush of a rare feeling. Hope. He whispered back, “We made the right decision, Dan. That’s what happened.”
Thanks so much for reading this far... I hope you're enjoying the story as much as I've enjoyed writing it!
This chapter contains brief discussion (discussion only, not description or occurrence) of self harm and suicide. I don't include this lightly or just as a catalyst for moving the story. You've probably figured out by now that I have a bit of fascination about the rank-and-file members of the First Order, which began with the introduction of Finn's character in TFA. I genuinely wonder how so many millions of people function and live within the First Order ranks: whether they are there willingly or via coercion, what their lives are like, etc. Taz and Dan were born from that fascination, and through them I want Kylo/Ben to consider how his decisions affect not only the galaxy at large but especially First Order personnel.
So if these are difficult or triggering issues for you, please accept my apologies and feel free to skip this chapter. I'll include a brief summary note at the end so you can understand where the story goes from here. Thanks again.
If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, please know you are never alone and there are people who can help.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hux was waiting for Kylo on the bridge. They’d just come out of hyperspace in the Atrivis sector, near the planet Generis.
As usual, Kylo didn’t bother with pleasantries. “Anything yet?”
Hux made a show of studying the initial readout from the planetary scans before answering. “Just the expected freighters arriving and departing. No sign of the Resistance fleet.”
“The Resistance doesn’t have a fleet. We destroyed all of their ships.”
Hux’s head tilted, and his jaw tightened. “Not all. No sign of the Millennium Falcon, then.” A subtle, low blow.
Kylo caught the general’s eye and held it, applying the slightest Force pressure to the other man’s throat. Just a reminder.
Hux grudgingly got the message. He broke the stare and lowered his head in a slight bow. “But we will inform you immediately of any developments, Supreme Leader.”
“Fine.” As Kylo left the bridge, he realized that he was developing a better understanding of why Snoke had kept Hux around, and in such a powerful position. The general’s keen sense of self-preservation made him an efficient and useful tool. But his ruthlessness and ambition were problematic. He’d have to be closely watched.
Kylo made his way to a small conference room where he’d arranged a meeting with two people. They were waiting for him, and both bowed respectfully as he entered.
Mirena Foloki was the chief medical officer on the Finalizer and indeed for the entire First Order fleet. Becchem Terran was the security officer in charge of regulations and policies. Kylo motioned for them to sit as he did so himself. He was surprised to find himself fatigued and hungry, and he wondered how long it had been since he’d eaten or slept. Usually he paid closer attention to such things. It wouldn’t do to find himself in a life-or-death situation while in a weakened physical state.
Dr. Foloki was nothing if not observant. “I do apologize, Supreme Leader, but I sense my blood sugar is a bit low. Do you mind if I order some refreshments to be delivered for our meeting?”
Kylo bit back his smile. Clever, tactful woman. “Of course. Please.” He watched her punch the order into her data pad and had no doubt she was ordering for three.
She finished, and they both looked at him expectantly. He wasn’t sure how to broach this, so decided on the most direct approach.
He fixed his gaze on Captain Terran. “Tell me about the policy regarding fraternization among First Order personnel.”
Both the captain and doctor froze, and he watched as the color drained from their faces. He felt their abject terror as a wave in the Force. It took him a moment, but as they exchanged a quick, panicked look, he suddenly understood. Unbelievable, he thought to himself.
“I am not,” he kept his tone low and even, “talking about the two of you.”
Neither of them seemed to be breathing yet, so he tried again. “I am aware that long-standing policy forbids romantic relationships between any personnel regardless of rank or station. I’ve called you here to ask about enforcement and repercussions of that policy.”
Captain Terran found his voice first, though he still clenched the table with white-knuckled hands. “Enforcement of the fraternization policy is one of our greatest challenges within ranks, sir.”
Obviously. “How so?”
“Due to the sheer number of violations, sir. And the fact that otherwise exemplary performers are often charged.”
Terran cleared his throat and briefly consulted his data pad. “On an average day, sir, approximately fourteen thousand violations.”
Kylo thought he’d heard him incorrectly. “Fourteen thousand. Per day. That includes the fleet and all ground personnel?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I misunderstood. That number only includes the fleet. Throughout the entire Order…” He consulted his data pad again. “Just over twenty three thousand reported violations per day.”
Kylo blinked. He was saved from immediately having to respond by the arrival of a droid carrying their food and drinks. After they were served, and he’d taken a few bites to clear his head, he asked, “What are the penalties for violating the policy?” He had a vague idea but didn’t know the specifics.
Terran swallowed. “First offenders are usually given a warning and some reduction in privileges. Second offense warrants reconditioning and possible detention. Third offense is considered capital dereliction of duty.”
Kylo’s food caught in his throat. “We’re executing people for having sex?”
He watched as both Terran and Foloki nearly choked. Terran finally recovered enough to reply. “Yes, sir.”
Well, shit. No wonder DN-3351 and his holo tech boyfriend had been terrified.
Kylo turned his attention to Dr. Foloki. “What is your impression of the impact of this policy?”
The doctor stared at the table for a moment, tapping her fork, and he waited for her to frame her answer. “The policy has a negative impact on most personnel,” she finally said. “There are some that work well within the parameters we set. But for others… we are mandating that people go against their very natures, which adds stress to an already challenging lifestyle.”
She looked up at him, and he sensed an intensity as she continued, “Requiring people who desire such things to reject romantic connection and… yes, sex… leads to challenges with physical and mental health. Depression and anxiety. Aggression. Self-harm. Suicide.”
Every word of this was news to him. “Suicide? At what rate?”
She didn’t have to consult her data pad. “We average one thousand two hundred and twelve per day, sir.”
He was speechless as she went on. “Not all of those are attributable to the fraternization rule, of course. Many are due to despair over forcible removal from families. Some occur when personnel buckle under the weight of workload and monotony. Others are the result of people placed into roles that aren’t suitable for them, such as non-violent troopers required to act as executioners.”
Like FN-2187, Kylo thought. The man now known to the Resistance as Finn had taken a different path to escape, but others apparently didn’t have the same opportunity or reckless courage.
He’d heard enough. “I’m considering a change to the policy. In twenty four hours I’ll expect your suggestions in a summary report. In the meantime, suspend enforcement of the fraternization policy, and delay carrying out any punishments related to its violation.”
The two officers exchanged another glance, more astonished than panicked this time, and when they faced him again he sensed a new respect. “Of course, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Kylo summons his officers in charge of regulations and medical issues to discuss the policy which forbids relationships and sex among First Order personnel. He ultimately decides to suspend the policy after hearing about its detrimental effects.
Today's update was a short chapter, so I decided to add another... even shorter.
For anyone wondering when Kylo is going to watch the end of the darn holo... patience! I'm holding off for a reason. ;)
The fragment of red kyber crystal fit perfectly into the notch where a piece of the original was missing. In fact, the moment Rey slid it into place it felt as though the two disparate crystals locked on to one another, melding together. The red fragment practically glowed with an energy that felt like relief, if such a thing was possible. Rey doubted she could separate the pieces now even if she tried.
The rest of the mechanism was already complete, so she secured the cover, made a slight adjustment to the activation switch, and then held her new lightsaber at arm’s length to admire it.
R2-D2 buzzed from where he was watching her in the cruiser’s tiny lounge.
“Yes, I am going to turn it on.”
The droid beeped inquisitively.
“When I’m ready. Just… give me a second.” She wasn’t afraid to trigger it. How many thousands of things had she put together over the course of her life? This was no different. And yet, it was.
Rey took a deep breath, and it seemed like she’d barely thought about activating the saber when the blades shot out with a hiss and a metallic hum.
R2’s surprised trill sounded almost human. She had to agree with the sentiment. Her lightsaber was like nothing she’d ever seen.
The center section was a titanium alloy pole that was of a similar diameter to the fighting staff she’d always used. The blades themselves were perhaps a third shorter than the single blade on Luke’s saber had been, though she’d installed modulators so she could adjust the length. One side was the original color: pure blue/white light. The other side was also that same color, but with tendrils of firey red snaking up its length, snapping and hissing like embers.
“Well, that’s… neat.”
R2 whistled appreciatively, then beeped a bit sadly.
“I know,” Rey said, walking over and placing her hand on top of the little droid. “I miss him too.” At R2’s doubtful squak, she insisted, “I do, even though Luke wasn’t what I’d expected him to be. Perhaps it is better that I learn all this on my own.” But even as she said it, she knew that wasn’t entirely true. She’d wanted a teacher and a mentor, maybe even a father figure. Luke didn’t trust himself to be any of those, though he’d eventually helped the Resistance in his own way. But it still stung a bit… the rejection.
She took a few tentative swings with the lightsaber, testing the balance. The weight and length of it felt perfect, though there was a different feeling between the two blades. The pure blue one felt cold and clean, while the other… well, if a kyber crystal could carry the essence of a person, this little piece certainly reminded her of the man who’d given it to her. That side of the blade felt a little more wild, less controlled. Hot against the cold.
She swung it again and again, twisted and spun it. With every movement the saber felt more like an extension of her, like she could sense and direct it with the Force alone. She closed her eyes and went through a series of moves, knowing she wouldn’t hit anything even in the tight confines of the lounge.
A notification alarm from the cruiser’s cockpit brought her back to the moment. Rey retracted the blades, hooked her new lightsaber onto her belt, and went up to sit in the pilot’s seat just as the ship came out of hyperspace. She looked out at the planet below, its vast oceans dotted with islands of green and rocky gray.
The last time she’d come here, she’d wanted answers. This time she only hoped for closure. Rey spotted the island she was looking for and cruised in for a landing on Ahch-To.
There was no way around it - Kylo needed to get some sleep. The teams on Generis had quickly determined that there was no rebel base to be found. They were currently sweeping the gas mines and population centers, interrogating a few locals to see what had generated the rumors that Resistance fighters had been staging from the area. Commanders on the ground would supervise the operation and report if there was anything requiring his immediate attention.
As he undressed, Kylo removed the data chip from his pocket, turning it over in his fingers and glancing toward the holo projector in his suite. He hadn’t looked far enough into DN-3351’s memory to know when the recording stopped. But he had to assume that, should he watch to the end, he’d learn what had happened in those moments he was unconscious.
She’d gone for the lightsaber. Rey had rejected him, rejected his offer, and tried to summon his grandfather’s lightsaber instead. She planned to fight her way off the ship. She was actually going to fight him, after they’d beaten Snoke’s guards together. After what he’d just done for her… for them. She would have fought him. She might have even killed him to get back to her precious Resistance fleet.
But no… she’d left him alive. He had been completely at her mercy, and she’d spared him. He needed to believe it was because she wanted to. But perhaps she had no choice. Someone may have come along. Hux had been there when he’d awoken. Rey might have sensed the approach of the turbolift and had to rush away.
Hux might have saved his life. Just the thought of that made his head throb.
Kylo sighed and squeezed the chip into his palm. He’d been delaying watching for two days, but now wasn’t the time. He needed rest, and whatever was on the holo wasn’t going to help with that.
He allowed himself a quick shower and then practically fell into bed. Often he had to meditate himself into sleep in order to quiet his racing and raging mind, but this time he had barely darkened the room lights before oblivion swept him under.
Almost immediately his sleeping mind detected a change in the currents of the Force. There was an energy growing, an alteration of the collective consciousness in the life forms that surrounded him. On a Star Destroyer, the only life forms were humans and a few other species that constituted personnel. Though Kylo’s sleeping mind sensed the aberration, he recognized that there was no threat, so nothing drew him from sleep even as the Force pulsed with an ebullience that was uncommon within the usually cold and staid First Order.
Even so, the energy wormed its way into his subconscious, so he was barely surprised when he opened his eyes to find himself lying on the floor of an indistinct space, with low light that indicated either dusk or dawn creeping in through a blurry door. And through that doorway was walking a familiar silhouette.
Rey froze mid-step and dropped a small bag she’d been carrying. He heard her sharp intake of breath. “I thought we were done with this,” she said quietly as her eyes traveled from his hair to his face, over the arm that was splayed over his blanket, and down the length of that blanket and back up again. He felt her Force energy snap with electric emotion: fear, regret, longing, and… something else.
“Don’t worry,” he said, stifling a yawn. “This isn’t the Force. You’re in my dream.”
He smiled a bit at the tone of her voice, at the utter confusion on her face. She took a few cautious steps toward him. The light reflecting off of her was becoming softer. Dusk, then.
Vivid, this dream.
“You are asleep,” she said, staring at him in wonder.
He’d been lying on his side but rolled onto his back, drinking in the sight of her. She was wearing a standard Resistance flight suit, a nice tight fit that showed off her long legs. Her hair was tied back but messy; strands of it stuck to her face.
Her cheeks flushed at the long look. “I… there’s no point to this, Ben. I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“You don’t?” He sat up, and the blanket fell down to his hips. He saw her watch that, saw her gaze linger. Saw her tongue flick out to wet her lip.
The Force help him.
“What business do you think the First Order has on Jakku?” she blurted out, narrowing her eyes and adopting that challenging stance he’d seen so many times.
He sighed. Maybe this dream wasn’t going where he’d hoped it would. “I’m making things better for the people who live there.”
“Why.” So much defiance in her tone, so little trust.
“Because I can. That’s what I needed from you, Rey. Ruling the galaxy comes with obligations. I’d hoped you’d work with me to bring order to it all.”
“What’s the difference?”
That stopped her cold. He continued, “You check my worst impulses, Rey. I have the power and resources, you have the perspective and heart. We’d do great things. Together.”
She smirked. “A professional partnership, then.”
“Among other things.”
“It’s not my job to make you a better person.”
“Yet you do anyway.” It was true. Every decision he made now, every issue he had to resolve, was influenced by consideration of what she’d think of him because of it.
She sat down less than a meter from him, and he noticed the long lightsaber clipped at her hip. He could feel the energy of the kyber crystals within. Skywalker’s, and his own. He noted the double-bladed design. “That’s exactly what I thought you’d build,” he said. “Activate it. I want to see.”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
His smugness morphed into surprise. Slowly, he met her eyes again, and he watched her lip turn up as she cocked her head innocently. Now he knew this was a dream… the real Rey had never shown that kind of sass.
Trying to get this dream heading back in a desired direction, he smirked back at her and leaned over to where his lightsaber would be lying on his bedside table. He deliberately exaggerated the movement, knowing that dream Rey had a full, fine view of his naked ass as he did so. To his surprise, he found his lightsaber in his hand. And when he turned back…
He felt her feelings pulse in the Force before he saw them on her face. It was a jolt, a shock from a live wire that he felt from his head to the tips of his toes. She’d already looked away, but her pupils had dilated and her cheeks had flushed. Her breath came a little faster. He felt his own body react, felt his energy in the Force rise to meet hers, to embrace and entwine with it.
He saw the moment where she sensed it, saw the little gasp as she drew back and stared at him. Kylo reached a hand toward her, and she scooted backward as the raw lust he’d sensed was overcome by… fear? Fear, of all things. Had they come back to this again?
“Damn it, Rey, this isn’t even real. What are you afraid of?” His own desire was thoroughly doused under a torrent of familiar rage and frustration.
“It is real. You may be asleep, Ben, but you know this isn’t a dream.”
She was right. She was right, and he’d known it since the moment she’d appeared in front of him. After all these weeks of their Force bond staying silent, it had activated again. And it was even stronger than before, if he could partially see her surroundings. But why? What was the difference? Sure, his defenses were down while he was sleeping, but that shouldn’t entirely account for…
As soon as the thought struck him, he knew he was correct. “You’re back on Ahch-To, aren’t you?” He watched her eyes widen slightly, felt the new pulse of apprehension through the Force. “You are. That’s why we connected again. The Force is so strong there, you can’t block me out.” He didn’t try to stop the smile slowly curving his lips. “Why did you go back? Still looking for answers? Or did Luke deny you the chance for a proper goodbye?” He watched the tears grow in the corners of her eyes. His anger grew, and though he knew it was anger at himself, he couldn’t stop from pressing further. “Such sentimentality will cost you, Rey. This time, it may cost you your freedom.”
She was already moving toward the door, reaching down for the bag she’d dropped there. “I’ll be gone before you can set your hyperspace coordinates,” she snarled over her shoulder. “There’s no way you can get here quickly enough to stop me.”
“That’s right, I can’t.” He sighed and absently twirled his unlit lightsaber in one hand. “But I don’t have to. Because there are others, already on their way. In fact, they might be there now.”
Rey stopped with her hand on the door and stared back at him, her emotions a storm that rolled over and through him. Disappointment, fear, anger…
“The Dark Side looks good on you,” he said softly.
She yanked open the door with a cry of rage. Looking past her, he saw them in the fading light outside her hut.
The Knights of Ren had arrived on Ahch-To.
The sounds and normal Force energy of the island should have come rushing back as Rey’s connection with Ben was severed, but for a moment everything in her head went eerily quiet. Just as she had - in a sense - recognized Kylo Ren the first time she’d seen him on Takodana, she knew that these six figures in front of her were from the vision she’d had at Maz’s castle. She had no idea who they were. But Kylo commanded them, that much was clear both from the vision and from what he’d just said.
If it hadn’t been for the distraction of the Force bond she’d have felt them coming. They’d obviously sensed her, because they had fanned out around the hut in a tight semicircle, weapons drawn but not activated. All were dressed in black, all with masks and helmets of black and silver similar to Kylo Ren’s. The Dark Side of the Force howled and flowed around them like a maelstrom, connecting them, calling to her in a siren’s song, placating her panic with whispered seductions. She closed her mind to it and focused on the last bit of sun blazing warmth and light into the clearing.
The Lanais Caretakers were just making their way out of the settlement. They gave the newcomers a passing glance as they finished their evening routines. These beings didn’t take sides, Rey knew. She wondered briefly if they had liked Luke, if they missed him at all.
She suddenly missed him very much.
The hut was at her back; these warriors had her penned in, and they knew it. One of them took a single step forward.
“Don’t fight or run, Rey. We don’t want to hurt you.”
It was a woman’s voice, heavily modulated through the mask’s vocoder.
“Who are you?”
“We are the Knights of Ren. Kylo sent us to retrieve you.” The woman took another step forward, but Rey held her ground. It would do her no good to back up into the hut.
Retrieve. As though she was a toy he’d carelessly misplaced.
Rey unclipped her own lightsaber but didn’t activate it. Even so, she felt their collective attention snap to the hilt, and she sensed their confusion. They recognized its energy from the fragment of crystal that belonged to their master. She wondered how she might use their surprise to her advantage.
Then, as if she’d willed it, a young porg flopped into their midst, followed immediately by a larger one who landed with just slightly more grace. Rey had seen this happen enough to recognize a mother giving her baby a flying lesson. And she knew what the pair would do next. So when both porgs raced toward the drop off at the edge of the clearing, she’d already begun charging in the same direction, straight at the knight who held that position.
She’d judged correctly. The knight’s attention had gone to the screeching porgs - only for a second - but long enough for her to close the distance between them. Shouts went up from the others, and the masked face snapped up just as the end of her unlit saber connected with the side of his or her helmet. The knight went down, and just like that she’d broken through and was on the run.
Rapid footsteps and the clank of armor sounded behind her. Rey felt the six of them grasping for her with the Force, trying to wrap coils of it around her feet to trip her up. Instinctively, she put a shield around herself, a cocoon of Force energy that blocked or neutralized any attacks. This was something she’d not been taught; Luke’s lessons had been few and far less practical. Like so many of the Force skills she didn’t know she had until she desperately needed them, the shield was learned from Kylo. He’d unwittingly taught her more in the few moments their minds had connected than Luke had in several days on Ahch-To. But at the moment, she wasn’t feeling particularly grateful.
She reached the ancient steps and leapt down five or six at a time, trusting the Force and her own reflexes to keep from falling on the precarious, crumbling stones. At a bend in the steps’ path she chanced a look over her shoulder… two of the knights were keeping pace with her, while the others were falling behind.
Rey’s mind raced as fast as her feet. She could turn and make a stand, but six against one odds weren’t appealing, especially if these warriors had even a fraction of Kylo’s abilities. She’d had almost no practice with her new lightsaber. No, her best bet was to try to get away.
The obvious problem was that this was an island, with nowhere to go except into the sea or the air. Since she lacked a boat or the ability to swim several kilometers to the next landmass, into the air seemed her only option. The flat landing stage where she’d left her Calamari ship came into view; now another ship was squeezed tight next to it… some sort of modified light cruiser of unfamiliar design. But as Rey made a final leap onto the grass, she immediately realized the impossibility of her plan. She’d powered the ship down; it would take one or two minutes to bring it back online. And her pursuers were only seconds behind her. But to her surprise and delight, she found the cruiser emitting a buzz of energy, and the landing lights were on. R2-D2 beeped frantically at her from the top of the ramp.
“Nice going, R2!” she called out, dashing across those last few meters. She was just a step or two away from her ship when a massive wave through the Force knocked her off her feet and sent her tumbling into the grass. It had been a glancing blow, and her shield had absorbed most of it, but the power behind it was astonishing. Uninjured, Rey rolled up and turned back toward her cruiser. And then she stopped.
She’d taken a glancing blow from that Force wave because it hadn’t been directed at her. Her ship was the target. Rey watched in horror as the cruiser’s nose lifted up, and she heard R2’s panicked screech as the entire ship flipped over and tumbled off the ledge into the sea.
She ran to the low cliff’s edge and looked down to see her upside-down cruiser slowly sink below the surface. There was no sign of the little astromech droid.
A different voice this time - a man.
Buzzing with adrenaline and seething with anger, Rey spun around and faced the six knights as they closed in on her again. One held up a placating hand.
“There’s nowhere to go. Kylo only wants -”
“Kylo can go to hell.” She dropped into a fighting crouch and activated her lightsaber. A few of the knights cursed as they all stopped short, and she knew they were staring at that hissing red and blue blade.
Her anger was gathering the Dark Side, siphoning it from them, drawing it from clear across the island where the Mirror Cave was practically singing to her. At the moment she didn’t care where it came from. Power was power.
They had paused just a few meters away and seemed to be regarding her. Not one of them activated their weapon or seemed poised to attack.
“Wow,” said the closest of them, a young man’s voice. “Do you feel that?”
“I told you,” a woman said in a strange accent. “That’s why he wants her.”
“That’s not the only reason why,” another woman replied.
Rey let their comments slide off as she assessed, her rage bringing everything into razor-sharp focus. The knights had protected themselves with shields similar to hers, and she knew she couldn’t fight them all. It was clear that their orders were to capture, not kill. No doubt they were going to try to subdue her, truss her up, and take her to the First Order - to Kylo. She’d be damned if she’d let them.
She looked behind the knights to their ship. The cruiser was bigger than anything she’d ever tried to move. ‘Size matters not,’ said a gravelly voice inside her head. Whomever that was, she shut them out; this wasn’t the time for Force lessons. She wasn’t sure she could flip their cruiser, but she certainly knew how to deliver a crippling blow. She let her mind sweep over the electronics, the hydraulics, the power systems. And then with one concentrated blast of the Force, she blew them all.
The knights ducked or spun around as several small explosions rocked the ship behind them. One of them swore as a landing strut collapsed, bringing the smoking cruiser crashing down onto its belly.
Panting, Rey watched all this with a sense of satisfaction… until she realized her last hope to escape the island was now gone. As the Dark Side flowed away, she remembered what had triggered her anger in the first place.
Rey turned and deactivated her lightsaber as she grasped it tightly. Then she ignored the shouts of the knights as she ran the last two paces to the cliff’s edge and jumped.
It felt like she was falling forever, and Rey had to remind herself to draw a breath as the surface of the sea loomed near. Then she splashed in, and all was cold and pressure and bubbles from the cruiser, which had settled onto the rocky bottom perhaps five meters below. To her horror, the ship was perched on the edge of a drop-off, with almost half its bulk hovering over deep, blue-black water. One current pushing the wrong way, and she’d never see R2 again.
The momentum from her fall took her nearly to the hull, so she flipped and kicked the remaining distance, grasping on to an undermount turret and pulling herself along to the hatch, which remained open. The ship was flooding. She still didn’t see R2.
Hands already freezing and lungs starting to burn, she pulled herself through the door and looked around. It was difficult to focus in the water; everything looked blurry. She supposed there were goggles or something that one might use… this was not an activity she’d been exposed to on Jakku. But one thing she did know was how to find the right space inside a starship, so she made her way slightly aft and went up, bursting through into an air pocket just as the corners of her vision were darkening. She gasped for air as she clutched what had been a handle on a floor hatch but was now over her head as she tried to scan the water below her feet.
The Force was drawn from life, but just as she knew the workings of a ship, Rey also had a connection of sorts with R2-D2. So she got a sense of where he was just as a muffled beeping sound came from the water toward the stern. Thanking the Force for waterproof droids, she allowed herself another deep breath before she submerged again and pulled herself along in that direction.
This time she found R2 with no trouble, but the little droid was caught up in a mess of cables that had come loose. Her fingers, frozen and numb by now, had trouble disentangling him, and R2’s extended mechanical arm was of little help as it sawed slowly through one cable at a time.
Out of options and nearly out of oxygen again, Rey jerked her lightsaber off her belt. Her fogging brain tried to sort out whether the mechanics of it could endure an underwater activation; she had little choice but to find out. But as she fumbled for the switch, a hand reached in and snatched the saber out of her grasp.
She twisted in the water and found a young man behind her, his dark skin barely visible in the low light inside the ship. Another of the knights was behind him, but Rey couldn’t make him or her out. Her lungs were screaming at her; she needed to free R2 and get out now. The knight began to drag her toward the hatch; she fought to get back to R2. All sense was leaving her, and she was suddenly frightened. Frightened of losing R2, of drowning, of being captured by these Dark Force minions of Kylo Ren. But even as she tried to fight she felt herself becoming weaker. The knight pulling her along finally reached the door and swam hard for the surface. The suns had nearly set when she’d jumped into the water; now all she saw overhead was a diffuse orange glow that was fading fast.
Flashes in her eyes were either sparkles on the surface or stars in the galaxy… Rey forgot she was underwater as dreams of space and hope and loss and love swept her away into darkness.
I just want to say thanks again to everyone who has read this far and has taken the time to leave Kudos or comments. It really means the world to me! I hope you enjoy what's to come...
A buzzing sound jolted Kylo Ren awake. He woke disoriented, his mind struggling to distinguish reality from the dreams and visions that had plagued his sleep. There was an island, and he’d been chased by the ghost of Luke Skywalker into a sea cave of mirrors. But when he’d found himself cornered, he had turned to face his pursuer only to see Rey there, her face glowing with the flickering light of a campfire. Her hair and clothes were damp, and a rough brown blanket was falling off her shoulders. ‘We’re still alone, Ben,’ she’d whispered, her eyes flashing anger and betrayal even as her hand reached toward him. ‘We’re still alone and I’m drowning…’
Something buzzed close to his ear again, and he shook off the vision and pulled a small comm unit out from under his pillow. The device was not standard First Order issue; in fact there were only two in existence. He had this one, Jacen Ren had the other. Its frequency was cloaked, the messages encrypted. The screen could only be accessed by triggering a Force lock. He pushed the hair out of his eyes and activated the message.
WE HAVE HER
That was all, but it was what he needed to know. His heart pounded as he remembered it all… the dream that wasn’t a dream, the Force bond reactivating because she had gone to Ahch-To. Her lightsaber, and the raw desire that had morphed to fear and rage when he’d taunted her. He felt a pang of regret… it often seemed as though his conscience was a step behind his mouth.
But… now he had what he wanted. It had been a gamble, sending the Knights to the Temple Island again in hopes of picking up her trail. He hadn’t expected it to be this quick, this easy.
HOLD THERE was the message he sent back. He didn’t want them to bring Rey to him here on the Finalizer. It would raise too many questions. What he hoped to do with her was best done away from the prying eyes of Hux and the rest of the First Order. His Knights knew not to harm her; they would keep her safe until he arrived.
He felt a prickle of unease at that. Perhaps he should worry about their safety instead. Though still untrained, she was more powerful than any of them, and if she was angry and trapped…
He needed to get to Ahch-To as quickly as possible.
Kylo dressed and had only just stepped out of his quarters when he was approached by Petty Officer Lank Paze. The tall, thin officer gave him a brisk salute. “Supreme Leader. General Hux is looking for you, sir. There’s been a development on Generis.”
“Hux can find me on the command bridge.”
“Of course, sir.”
Kylo bit back his irritation as he stormed through the corridors toward the bridge. Of course there was a development now, after days of false leads and little new information. He thought about Rey, probably trussed up with magnetized binders or whatever else his Knights would have to employ to restrain his little spitfire of a Jedi…
He almost stumbled to a stop as Luke’s voice echoed in his head: ‘Amazing, every word of what you just said was wrong.’
Not ‘his.’ And certainly not ‘Jedi,’ at least not yet. Not ever, if he could help it. That was the wrong path for her. He would make her see that. ‘Also wrong,’ said Luke’s voice, though quieter now. A knot formed in his gut, and he tried to ignore the sense that the disquiet he’d felt since awakening was due to Rey’s utter rage screaming at him across their Force bond. If the bond activated now, there would be no soft touch of hands… she’d probably claw his eyes out.
Peripherally, he became aware of a nearer variant energy in the Force. It was the same odd vibration he’d felt before falling asleep. It became stronger when he passed teams of stormtroopers or other personnel. Their regard of him felt different than before. Whereas he’d always just inspired fear and often panic in the people who found themselves in his path, now there was a tinge of curiosity, and a new respect.
Whatever this was about, he didn’t have time to consider. Kylo stalked onto the bridge and found Hux waiting for him, an inscrutable look on the general’s face.
“What’s happened on Generis?”
Hux hesitated, and Kylo got the sense that there was something else on his mind. But then the general responded, “We’ve taken a prisoner.”
“The creature’s name is Maz Kanata.”
Kylo sucked in a shallow breath. “Maz Kanata is hardly a creature. She’s a legend.” He’d heard stories about Maz during his childhood and had even met her once, though he’d been so young he barely remembered. There was something about her eyes…
“Well, whatever you’d call her, at the moment she is our prisoner. We believe she’s recruiting for the Resistance among the workers of the Inlik gas mine.”
“She admitted it.”
Hux scowled. “No. She gave the information freely. She said she wanted to spare our “poor boys” the indignity of having to torture someone as old and tiny as her.”
Kylo smiled a bit at that; it was consistent with the stories he’d heard. ‘Good old Maz,’ his father used to say…
His smile faded, but not before he saw Hux staring at him, an annoyed look pinching his face.
“What?” Kylo snapped, trying to get the echo of his father’s voice out of his head.
“Everyone is so happy today,” Hux sneered. “Thanks to you, I suppose.”
‘Happy’ wasn’t a word often heard from Hux, or from anyone aboard a Star Destroyer in general. “What are you talking about?”
Hux lowered his voice to a fierce whisper, though Kylo had the sense that everyone on the bridge had paused what they were doing and were trying to listen in. “How are we supposed to maintain any sense of discipline in this force when everyone is off…” Hux seemed to struggle for a word, his face growing redder by the second. “Off... fraternizing with each other,” he finally spit out. On the other side of the console a tech coughed loudly then went silent.
So that was what all of this was about. The strange currents in the Force, the odd behavior of the personnel. Amazing. He’d been asleep for, what? Five hours?
“News travels fast,” he mused, glancing around at the bridge personnel and catching a few looks before everyone quickly busied themselves at their workstations again. “It’s a minor change in policy. A necessary one.”
“Necessary? You can’t single-handedly -”
“Yes, I can.” Kylo held Hux’s stare for a long moment before the general looked down. “And,” he continued, “I consulted the relevant officers.”
Hux stayed silent at that, though his jaw clenched at the implication that he was irrelevant on this matter. His voice was tight as he finally said, “This is a distraction at a time when a breakdown of order could compromise our goals.”
Kylo resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was weary of this conversation, as usually happened when he spoke at length with Hux. “A breakdown of order at any time could compromise our goals. This is eliminating a distraction, not creating one.”
“This will wreak havoc on morale.”
Actually, morale seemed to have improved a great deal in just a few hours. “Just yours, it seems.”
Someone, somewhere distant on the bridge, actually laughed.
Hux started sputtering; Kylo held up a hand to silence him. He needed to end this in a way that allowed the general to retain some dignity in front of his subordinates. “Hux. You’re always concerned about maintaining optimal troop numbers. We’re losing several hundred personnel every day due to executions and-”
Hux’s eyes flashed. “I’m aware of the statistics. Crude but effective methods of culling those ill-suited to be in our forces. We can always conscript more.”
The Force currents around them shifted. Less humor, and now a swelling of intense anger. Kylo lowered his voice yet again, clenching his fists to keep from wrapping them around Hux’s throat. “The First Order is only as effective as our personnel, General.”
“The First Order is only as effective as our firepower, Supreme Leader. Personnel are infinitely replaceable. All the better if the well-being of the replacements isn’t dependent on whether or not they’re permitted to fall into bed with one another. And furthermore-”
“That’s enough.” Kylo was too aware of the effect this prolonged argument would have. The fractures among leadership would be obvious to all. “It’s done. So now you will continue briefing me on the situation on Generis and quit obsessing about the sex lives of our crew.”
A crash echoed as someone dropped a data pad on the floor nearby. It broke the tension in the room; normal activity and noise levels resumed. The Force was buzzing with what could only be described as utter glee from all the personnel within earshot, though not a single smile or smirk was to be seen. Disciplined, indeed.
Hux was an alarming shade of red now. “Fine. Kanata claims she has more information to share but says she will only speak to you from now on.”
“Who knows what is behind the demands of a senile alien who realizes she’s about to die. A fire team is holding her on site at the mine. Your shuttle is already prepared.”
This was unusual, and inconvenient. He should have already been on his way to Ahch-To. “Why not bring the prisoner here?”
Another sneer. “She asked that you come to her. And who am I to deny the legendary Maz Kanata?”
Kylo actually did roll his eyes this time as he spun on his heel and marched off the bridge. He could refuse, could order that Maz Kanata be detained until he returned. But there was a thread in the Force pulling him toward Generis, as though this was something important he had to do. He’d learned through his lifetime to heed such feelings.
As he entered the corridor toward the shuttle bay, two stormtroopers fell into step behind him. This was not unusual, though he sensed a tension. Reaching out with his mind he identified the troopers; one was previously unknown to him, and the other was DN-3351. Not a coincidence.
“Sir?” The voice was quiet.
“Yes?” He didn’t turn; they all kept walking.
“I’d advise that you replace the fire team assigned to accompany you in your shuttle.”
Kylo made a deliberate turn down a side corridor to take a less-direct route to the hangar. “Reason?”
“General Hux hand-selected the current team just this morning, sir.”
Kylo processed this. He searched the minds of both men. The other stormtrooper had been the captain on duty when the troop reassignments were made. He was a friend to DN-3351, and the two shared similar beliefs about the state of the First Order.
He stopped and faced them as they finally reached the door to the shuttle bay. “Assemble a new fire team immediately.” He didn’t have to add… ‘of troopers with loyalties similar to yours.’
“Already done, sir. We have them standing by.”
Kylo nodded, dismissing them to retrieve their team. He watched them go, feeling a bit unsettled by the trust he was placing in these men. But he sensed their intentions were true.
Perhaps he was naive to think that Hux wouldn’t be so brazen as to have him assassinated. Kylo had resisted using the Force to look into the general’s mind. Hux was skilled in deflecting such invasions after years of enduring them from Snoke and would certainly know if Kylo tried. Hux had the admiration of some of the hard-line officers throughout the Order, but several barely tolerated him. A division of loyalties within their ranks could not be allowed. Perhaps it was time to consider whether it was a good idea to have a rabid cur - as Snoke had so aptly phrased it - in a position of such power.
He approached his waiting shuttle, where Hux’s team was already being offloaded. Kylo carefully noted the identities of all the troopers and their commander, then watched DN-3351’s team approach. His Tie-Silencer was docked nearby, and a pair of female mechanics were running routine checks on the sleek fighter. He was familiar with these mechanics… they were among the most skilled in the fleet. One of them caught his look and flashed a small smile; the other saw it and hissed at her friend to draw her attention back to her work.
Another tug in the Force… another impulse that shouldn’t be ignored. He approached the Silencer. “Has there been any unscheduled maintenance on my command shuttle recently?”
The women both stood respectfully. “Yes, sir. A team went aboard to update the navigation systems a few hours ago.”
“Did you know the personnel on the team?”
“No, sir. They were among the crews that evacuated from the Supremacy.”
Anger coiled in his gut as he spun around and found DN-3351. “Take another shuttle. Any other. Different crew.” He’d hunt down Hux now if he had the time.
Kylo looked to the mechanics again and decided he wanted his gunship today. “Is she ready to fly?”
“Of course, sir.” Immediately the women began detaching clamps and power lines.
He stalked up the ramp that led to the hatch of his Tie-Silencer and saw DN-3351 already hurrying his personnel onto a nearby shuttle. “Captain.”
The stormtrooper looked up, realizing he’d just been promoted. “Sir?”
“We’ll rendezvous on the mine’s airstrip. Full shields on the way down.”
Kylo practically threw himself into his seat as the mechanics secured the hatch closed. He felt a sharp pain and realized he was about to bite through his lower lip, so he willed himself to relax, to stop reacting and let his emotions settle…
That was a mistake. As soon as he loosened his focus, he felt a flash - from far away - of white-hot anger. Rey. She was shooting daggers at him down their bond, and he could feel every blade, feel that he was in danger of breaking something between them that hadn’t had time to solidify or even be defined.
He needed to be there, he needed to be here. The Force was pulling him in every direction. He had to trust his Knights. They had known without him having to spell it out that Rey was of singular importance, and not just for her Force abilities. They would hold her because he’d ordered it, but they’d do so carefully, like cupping a fluttering moth in your hands.
He couldn’t bear to let her go.
Ignition sequence finished, Kylo launched his fighter full-speed out of the hangar and into the blackness of space. Generis was a green and brown ball beneath him, and he sped toward it, accelerating and rolling, almost wishing a Resistance ship would appear so he could race around and blow something up.
Finn sleepily made his way to the bridge of the new Correlian star cruiser, still hardly able to believe that a ship this size was under his command. That a ship of any size was under his command, really, considering where he was just a couple of months earlier. Sometimes he could barely recall the life when he’d put on stormtrooper armor and drilled with his fire team; other times he woke up and expected to find himself back in the barracks at Starkiller Base. But at least now when that happened, he had a soft, warm reminder next to him of how much life had changed for the better.
That reminder walked beside him, looking out the windows at the blue blur of hyperspace. Rose’s wounds from Crait had mostly healed, though she still nursed a few aches and pains. She smiled as their hands brushed together while they walked. A veneer of professionalism had to be maintained, though everyone on the ship - and in the Resistance, for that matter - was aware that the two of them had a thing. Were a thing. He wasn’t sure on the terminology. Anyway, no one had raised an eyebrow when cabin assignments were made on the new cruiser and they’d claimed a room together.
Things were moving fast, sure. But life was short. She’d almost died just a couple of weeks ago. And he’d almost been killed by Kylo Ren right before that. The galaxy was getting more dangerous by the minute. So, live for the day, right?
“Almost everyone else is still asleep,” Rose said as they entered the vast, quiet confines of the command bridge.
“Preps and departure were pretty frantic,” Finn said. “Best for everyone to get some rest now.” They approached the navicomputer and saw that their destination was an hour away. “They’d better get up soon. Who knows what we’ll find when we get there?”
“Hopefully we’ll find some recruits and a new fuel supply.”
“That’s the idea.” He sighed and studied the readouts on the display in front of him. “I get most of these, but what’s this one?”
Rose leaned over to see the number he was pointing to. “That’ll be our velocity relative to the planet’s orbital spin when we arrive.”
“Oh, right.” He frowned and studied the numbers again, then turned to her. “I still don’t understand why I’m commanding this ship, not you.”
Rose crossed her arms and leaned against the console. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous!” Finn flung out an arm toward the console and the entire bridge. “You know ten times more than I do about all of this. And you’re a better pilot.”
“Neither one of us needs to fly this ship.” She pointed to the pilot sitting quietly at the far forward station. One of only two starship pilots on board, though there were many more who could handle an X-wing. The Resistance was still critically low on personnel. “And you are learning remarkably fast, by the way,” Rose added.
“Thanks to you.”
She blushed a little. “Thanks to lots of people. But you just have an aptitude for getting really good at things quickly.”
He gave her a wicked grin. “Oh yeah?”
She stared at him for a moment, then her cheeks pinked even more. She reached out and gave him a small shove in the chest. “Really!”
“Hey, I don’t hear you complaining.” He dodged another shove just as C’ai Threnalli appeared on the bridge and strode over to join them. The Abednedo pilot would be squad leader if they needed to deploy their X-wings. But a dogfight was unlikely. It had been assessed by leadership that the odds of First Order contact on this mission were low.
“Captain. Lieutenant.” He nodded respectfully to Finn and Rose.
“Please, C’ai, call me Finn.” Whenever someone called him by his new rank, Finn had to resist the urge to look over his shoulder and see who they were talking to.
“I’m afraid not, sir,” Captain Threnalli replied. “Unless that’s an order.”
“I’m good with Lieutenant,” Rose offered, smiling. When she’d assigned their new ranks, General Organa had told them that during the fight against the old Empire, members of the Rebellion were often promoted quickly and trusted with great responsibilities at young ages due to near-constant opportunities for people to perform heroic deeds, as well as extremely high casualty rates. Unfortunately - the General had added somberly - those days were upon them again. Rose had teared up at that, because her sister was one of those heroes who didn’t survive to celebrate her victory. Finn knew that whatever Rose was able to accomplish for the Resistance, she did not just for herself and the cause, but to honor Paige’s memory.
“Pilots are performing preliminary checks now,” C’ai said. “We’ll be on ready standby when the ship comes out of hyperspace.”
“Great,” said Finn. “Everyone comfortable in their new rides?”
These T-85 X-wings were on their maiden voyage. They’d been sitting in the manufacturer’s storage hangar for months, originally ordered by the New Republic but then waiting for the Resistance to pull together enough credits to claim them.
Abednedos weren’t really capable of smiling, but C’ai looked pleased all the same. “All reports from the test flights were extremely positive. It’s nice to have modernized ships.”
Finn nodded, but he was really hoping they wouldn’t need to fly them. If there was a dogfight, he’d remain here and command the battle from the bridge. He wasn’t sure he could handle sending pilots into space and watching them get blown apart by First Order fire.
As Captain Threnalli left to supervise his squadron, Finn took a deep breath and looked back at the navigation console. Just over fifty minutes to their destination. He felt a warm hand squeeze his cold one.
Rose’s face was soft but her dark eyes were intense as she peered up at him. “General Leia has faith in you, Finn. I have faith in you. Everyone on this ship believes in you, and in each other.”
She was right. He’d needed to hear it, though. “We’ve got this.”
She nodded. “We’ve got this.”
He looked out the viewport as if he could see the planet ahead of them. “To Generis, then.”
Next chapter: Back on Ahch-To...
“Adion, throw me that hydrospanner!”
“He’s busy, just summon it.”
“Well, he’s sitting on it, and I don’t want to set him off.”
There was a clank of metal as someone finally retrieved the desired tool, but Rey didn’t look back to watch. She sat with her legs drawn close to her chest, her magnetically bound hands wrapped around her knees as she tried to keep herself warm. There was a fire but she kept well away from it; someone had offered her a blanket but she’d let it slide off her shoulders. They’d given up trying to engage her in conversation. So she stared at the reflections of stars on the ocean as her mind worked through the problem of how to escape.
Her chest seized yet again, bringing on another coughing fit. As she finally caught her breath she noted the silence of the Knights behind her, felt their worry and regret through the Force. She’d identified the dark, handsome one who’d pulled her from her flooded ship; the others called him Talik. A woman named Kiona had also jumped in after her. Rey had no idea how close she’d come to actually drowning, but the residual fear ebbing from the Knights hinted that it’d probably been a close call. She pressed her lips together. As glad as she was to be alive, it would have served Kylo right had she died.
Or maybe it would’ve been a relief for him. He had tried to shoot her out of the sky on Crait, after all… had tried to kill her along with everyone else in the Resistance. But after what happened in Snoke’s throne room, she also had no doubt that his feelings for her were conflicted. She had become a distraction for him. He certainly was for her.
R2-D2 beeped at her quietly from nearby. She knew the jittery little droid would be frantically rocking if not for the restraining bolt the Knight called Martna had fitted to him.
Rey kept her voice low so the others wouldn’t hear. “No, R2, I don’t think I could sleep right now.”
An inquisitive trill followed. She sighed. “Yes, I could release the binders with the Force, but I’m not sure I could get through that barrier even if I did.”
“No, you couldn’t,” said a gritty woman’s voice behind her. Rey’s anger spiked again. She’d already sensed that the Rodian female named Ropalaa was the least impressed or sympathetic of the Knights, though apparently she had the best hearing. It was she that had constructed the barely visible fence that was part magnetic, part Force energy, that now surrounded the landing platform where they were spending the night. Their crippled ship was contained inside the barrier as well, and there’d been a lot of colorful language through the evening as they discovered the extent of the damage Rey had caused.
Rey ignored the comment, though in her mind it rang as a challenge, and she redoubled her study of the energies in the barrier, looking for a way through. Even if she was able to escape, there was still the small matter of getting off the island. Her ship remained upside-down and underwater.
‘Size matters not.’
The voice that had spoken that in her head seemed familiar, in the same way that the Jedi texts had when she’d first seen them. Objects or people that shone brightly in the Force seemed to have a presence that extended beyond location or time or even life and death. ‘Who are you,’ she silently asked the voice, as a powerful presence seemed to draw close. ‘Can you help me? Can you teach me about the Force?’
From far away she heard someone speaking, not directly to her but as an echo from a time long gone. ‘Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere. Yes. Even between the land, and the ship.’
A wind had sprung up, an usually warm wind on what had been a chilly autumn night. It was streaming down to her from the Jedi temple on the peak of the island and from the burned-out uneti tree in the saddle. Whispered voices traveled with it, the voices of a thousand generations of Jedi speaking together, and somehow she was able to hear them all.
‘Fear is the path to the Dark side… you will know when you are calm, at peace… I am one with the Force, and the Force will guide me… when you look at the Dark side, careful you must be, for the Dark side looks back… you were right about me… let the past die… always in motion is the future… hope… balance… no one is ever really gone…’
Rey closed her eyes and let the wind and the voices wash over her. Her breathing slowed, and she distantly felt the weight of the magnetic binders drop away from her wrists. She reached out, spreading her awareness far, sensing everything from the porgs sleeping in their nests to the nighttime predator fish patrolling the seas, and then beyond to the beings that lived around those stars that glittered far overhead, so many lives and so much emotion. She sensed Leia, who was sleeping. She brushed against Kylo, very softly, though his energy was frantic and howling. Closer in again, she found the energies in the barrier fence Ropalaa had constructed, and she dissipated them with half a thought; R2 hooted in glee as his restraining bolt fell away. She sensed the six Knights, all of them with energy that burned so fiercely, and she understood that they were instruments of the Force just as she was, bound to its currents and making their choices based on what fate and circumstance had dealt them.
Rey opened her eyes. The Knights had surrounded her again, though this time there was nothing aggressive in their postures. She sensed awe, and curiosity, and even fear. She knew she could walk right out of the camp now and they wouldn’t try to stop her. But something told her to stay. Even so, she held out her hand and used the Force to summon her lightsaber from where they’d stowed it beneath their ship. It flew into her hand, and she carefully hooked it onto her belt. None of them made a move for their weapons.
The wind was still blowing strong, and the fire in the center of their camp guttered. Rey stood up and walked to it, holding her freezing hands out toward the flames. Adion followed close behind her; he was staring into her face as though she was a puzzle he wanted desperately to solve. She smiled at him and watched his blue eyes light up, though his expression didn’t change.
“Do you have anything to eat?” she asked them all.
An hour later Rey’s stomach hurt as she licked sticky goo off her fingers. She’d been full even before Talik had brought out the sweet fluffy things called marshmallows and demonstrated how to cook them over the fire. She’d burned all five of hers; they were delicious.
Kiona - Talik’s sister, she now knew - was watching her appreciatively. “Finally, a woman who eats more than I do.”
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Martna said, wiping off her own fingers and then readjusting her headlamp to shine on the compressor that she’d been trying to repair.
“I’m still getting used to real food,” Rey admitted, grimacing a bit at the completely fried compressor. “On Jakku we only had sustenance packets that were decades old.”
Kiona made a face. “That’s horrible. No wonder you’re so thin.”
Rey shrugged. “You get used to it.” What she didn’t add was that you never got used to the scarcity of that horrible food, or to the fear that you were one bad day away from starving to death. But something must have been obvious in her tone or in her face, because a few of them exchanged pained looks.
“Well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” Talik said, gathering up the dirty plates and utensils. “Kylo will make sure you have anything you want.”
Rey gave him as stony a look as she could manage. “I think we’ve established that I’m not letting you take me to Kylo. And we do actually eat in the Resistance, you realize.” She made sure to emphasize the word ‘we.’
He grinned at her, and she realized he’d been teasing. “Not marshmallows though, apparently.”
Ropalaa was sitting in half-darkness away from the fire. Rey felt the woman’s constant attention and appraisal. The Rodian had been mostly silent, but now she said, “Would it be so bad, to go to Kylo? He’s your equal in the Force. If it’s balance and training you seek, then you will best find those with him.”
Rey considered her words carefully. “Yes, the Force is drawing us together. But we are on opposite sides of this conflict for a reason. He still wants domination, revenge, power.”
“And what do you want?”
“Free will. Life without fear, for everyone. An end to the war.”
Martna spoke up. “The war will end when one side wins. The First Order’s forces are vastly superior. Why delay the inevitable? More lives will only be lost in the struggle.”
Rey stared into the flames, thinking back to the voices that had whispered to her. “There is right and there is wrong,” she said. “And I think all of you know that. People are suffering under the First Order’s rule, and that suffering will only intensify if the Resistance fails. Believe me when I say that sometimes all people have to live for is hope. And if that hope dies…” Her voice faded, and she suddenly felt tired. These were Kylo’s closest allies, and they were saturated with the Dark side of the Force. Nothing she could say would convince them.
Indeed, the Knights were all silent for several minutes, as if they had come to the same conclusion. Finally Jacen groaned and stood up, brushing the grass off his clothes. “Well, if we’re not going to sleep tonight…” He disappeared up the ramp into the Knights’ cruiser, then came back out a minute later holding some sort of stringed instrument. He settled back down near the fire and began to adjust little knobs on the instrument’s neck.
“Oh thank the maker, we get some music.” Kiona folded her cloak and tucked it under her head as she lay back.
“We still have work to do,” Ropalaa snapped.
“I can’t see anything and I can’t feel my fingers,” Talik responded, and he got up and went to sit behind Martna, who leaned back and rested her head on his chest. “The repairs can wait until morning.”
Rey watched and listened with curiosity as Jacen adjusted his instrument, and she knew instinctively when the tuning was correct. She’d always loved music, from the time she was just a girl and had found a datachip with songs from dozens of worlds on it. She’d listened to those four hundred or so songs her whole life, until she knew all of them by heart. With a tinge of regret, she realized she should have retrieved that datachip when she’d gone back to Jakku. Well, she’d just have to find new music now.
Jacen began to play an unfamiliar song, first just the music, but then he began to sing. He had a wonderful voice, and the song was a beautiful story about someone who had lost a great deal but still had… hope. He caught Rey’s eye and smiled as he sang, and she smiled back, though she wondered if her melancholy showed through. The song ended, and Kiona requested another. Rey watched Jacen’s fingers carefully and wondered if he would teach her to play, but then she caught herself. These were not friends. They’d captured her on Kylo’s orders, and she was only free now because they couldn’t hold her.
Her mind drifted as she listened, but then it snapped back to attention when she heard the beginning notes of a familiar melody. She knew this song. She loved this song. It was not in the Galactic Basic idiom but in Twi’leki, a language Rey had a passable knowledge of due to another data chip she had recovered. She’d always thought the language beautiful, though she knew the sounds were usually supplemented with subtle physical signing for nuance. Jacen moved his head and body with the music, and she suddenly recognized the Twi-Lek in his heritage - the green hair was a strong hint - as he started to sing. Something uncoiled deep within her, and without thinking Rey began to softly sing along.
Surprise flashed across Jacen’s face as he caught her eye again, and they sang together. Rey’s voice was a bit hoarse from the water she’d sucked into her lungs, but she found she could still hit her full range, and she wove in and out with Jacen’s voice, harmonizing in a way that suited the ethereal melody of the song. It was a love song, meant for two people, though she’d always sung both parts herself. He drew it out, repeating the final verse and chorus, and she followed along, getting the sense that he didn’t want the song to end. But finally it did, and there was silence around the campfire once more.
A scratching sound caught her attention. Adion had pulled out the old-fashioned paper and pencil that he always seemed to keep nearby, and he was drawing. The others just looked at her, except for Ropalaa, whose eyes were fixed on the fire. Martna and Talik were completely wrapped up in each other now, and Kiona had sat up, twisting her long black braid between two fingers. Jacen just stared and stared at her.
“Please, please can we keep her?” Kiona finally asked the others, wiping away a tear that had crept down her cheek. She leaned toward Rey, her expression imploring. “Please, you have to stay with us. Kylo will come around to… whatever you want him to come around to. He needs you. He’d do anything for you.”
“Kiona Ren,” Ropalaa snarled the name, a warning.
“No, we have to stop with this. Stop this polite charade of ‘you don’t run and we won’t chase you and we’ll just pretend you couldn’t kick all our asses anyway.’ Why do you think Kylo showed us the security holo of the fight against Snoke’s guards?”
Rey started. There was a security holo?
“Because he had to show us what he wasn’t able to say,” Jacen said quietly, strumming a single quiet chord absently. “What she could do, not just the fight but what she could do with him.”
Talik had his arms wrapped tightly around Martna, who was nodding silently. “I’ve never seen him so balanced, so steady. Normally he would have been freaking out. How did he hide what he was feeling from Snoke? Hide what he planned to do? Snoke was able to read my mind across the fucking galaxy, man, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. But you show up, Rey, and suddenly Kylo has the strength and focus to do that.”
They were waiting for her to say something, Rey realized. So she said what had been in the back of her mind since that day on the Supremacy. “He hated Snoke. Anybody could feel that. I think Snoke himself likely had to know.” Jacen was nodding, and she went on. “When I showed up on the Supremacy, he saw his opportunity. He knew that with both of us fighting, he had a chance to win. And it worked. He’s Supreme Leader now. He has what he wanted.”
“So you think he used you, is that it?” Ropalaa fixed her with those bulbous eyes, the firelight shining off her green skin. “You were trying to use him to save the Resistance.”
Martna snorted. “It didn’t have anything to do with the war when she reached back and grabbed his thigh.” She looked at Rey with raised eyebrows and a smile.
“I… I…” Rey saw the other woman laugh as she sputtered. “I was losing my balance! I had to grab hold of… something…” It sounded weak even to her, and her cheeks burned as most of them laughed along with Martna. Even Adion smiled under his mop of blond hair.
Ropalaa wasn’t amused. “But why did you go to him in the first place? What do you want, Rey of Jakku?”
“I want my friends to be safe. I want the galaxy to be free of tyranny. I want…” she stopped. She didn’t owe them the full truth.
I want Ben Solo, she thought. I want to help him push back the darkness. I want to touch his hand again and see where that might lead.
Ropalaa cocked her head, as though she could sense what Rey wouldn’t say out loud. “I see. You shipped yourself - alone - to him, on the First Order’s flagship, to free the galaxy from tyranny.”
Rey felt a flash of irritation. “Well, Snoke is dead and that flagship is destroyed, so I’d say the risks paid off.”
“He said you chose to leave,” Martna said quietly.
“Kylo said you chose to return to the Resistance, after Snoke and his guards were dead.”
Rey hesitated. What else had he told them?
“Did he offer to teach you?” Ropalaa asked.
“Yes.” He offered more than that…
“But Luke Skywalker had done such a thorough job with your training that you had no need for Kylo’s help, is that why you refused him?”
Rey wondered at the way the Rodian woman had spit out Luke’s name. “You trained under Luke, too,” she said, “but you didn’t like him?”
Ropalaa barked a harsh laugh. “Like him? How do you like a teacher that won’t teach? That holds back knowledge critical to your understanding of the Force and how it affects you and you alone?”
OK, that hit a little too close to home. But… “What are you-”
“The sacred Jedi texts!” Ropalaa jumped to her feet and stalked around the fire, stopping to glare up at the high peak of the island. “So sacred that he kept them locked away, out of the reach of the ones who really needed them. And now it’s too late!”
“Is it true?” Jacen asked, his eyes shining in the firelight as he stared at Rey. “The Caretakers indicated that the texts were in the uneti tree that burned. Is that true?”
Rey swallowed, again not ready to divulge the whole truth. Ropalaa’s anger and frustration had filled the clearing with swirling currents of Dark side energy. “I didn’t know the tree had burned. But yes, the books were kept in that tree.” Not a lie.
Ropalaa screamed a curse and stalked away from the fire to the cliff’s edge, where she stood with her hands on her hips. Rey couldn’t see her face, but the rage in the Rodian’s Force energy was suffused with grief and despair.
“Why do you want them so badly?” Rey asked softly.
Ropalaa didn’t turn or answer her, but Martna spoke up. “One of the sacred texts has several chapters that are said to have been written by a Rodian. In those chapters, supposedly, is information about how the Rodians’ different sensory capabilities interact with the Force. There are some abilities that are challenging for a Rodian because much of our knowledge and training doesn’t account for those differences. She’d hoped the text would explain-”
“That’s enough,” Ropalaa snarled from where she’d turned away from the cliff and was glaring at them. “I’d thank you not to share my weaknesses with the last Jedi.”
The last Jedi… Rey felt a chill snake down her spine. “Which book, specifically, are you looking for?” she asked carefully.
Ropalaa froze, and then stalked toward Rey. Rey felt the initial attempts at a mind probe and blocked the woman out, angrily. “Don’t even try,” she hissed.
“But you’ve seen them. Skywalker let you see the texts.”
“They weren’t exactly under lock and key.”
“The Rammahgon. Did you see it? Did you open it?”
Rey thought carefully. She remembered Luke mentioning the name of that book specifically. “The Rammahgon was one of the books in the library. One of ten. And no,” she said quickly, feeling the woman’s emotions cresting, “I didn’t open it.”
Ropalaa sat down hard and buried her head in her hands. “I hate him. I hate Luke Skywalker.”
Rey looked around at the others as she debated with herself. Adion was still drawing, though at her glance he looked up at her for a moment - eyebrows raised - before resuming his work. Kiona had inched closer to Ropalaa and had placed a hand on the Rodian’s knee. Martna and Talik just held each other, staring into the fire. Jacen started playing another song, very softly, just a wordless melody to which he hummed along.
Of all the students at Luke’s temple, these were the six that Kylo had chosen. Or perhaps they had chosen him. Or the Dark side chose them all. Regardless, they had slaughtered the rest of the acolytes. What other horrors had they committed on Kylo’s orders since that night? The Knights presented her with the same paradox that Kylo himself did. How could these souls be capable of kindness and caring but still do such unspeakable things? The Dark side of the Force was so mystifying, so powerful. She’d felt it herself, many times.
The Dark side…
“You’ve been to this island before?” she asked. They all looked at her, a few nodded. “Did you go into the sea cave on the eastern shore? It’s strong in the Dark side of the Force.” As if in answer, she felt the pull of that cave, deep within her. But it wasn’t herself that she was thinking of now.
“We felt it,” Kiona said quietly. “And we found it. But to go in? There was no way. Huge gusts of air and water were blowing up through that hole. We couldn’t get near it.”
“You went inside?” Talik’s eyes flashed. “What is in there? What did you find?”
Rey looked straight at Ropalaa. “I found a mirror. And in that mirror I found answers.” She hadn’t thought so at the time, but now she knew that what the cave had shown her was true. From a certain point of view.
Ropalaa lifted her head and looked at Rey for a long moment. “You are not lying to me.”
“No.” Though she was still withholding certain truths.
Ropalaa stood and checked the tools and weapons on her belt. “I’m going now.”
Rey looked out at the water. The tide was low, the ocean calm. The cave’s breath would be quiet now.
Kiona stood, too. “I’ll come with you.”
Talik and Martna exchanged a glance. “We really aren’t getting any sleep tonight, are we?” said Talik, stretching and standing up, then offering a hand to Martna.
“Nope.” Jacen ran inside to store his musical instrument, then came back out with extra lanterns that he passed out to the others. When he offered one to Rey, she shook her head.
“I don’t need to go back there.”
He grinned. “So you’ve got all your answers?”
Hardly. “I doubt the cave has anything else to show me.”
“Fair enough. Adion?”
The young blond man was still bent over his notepad. Rey was curious about his drawing but felt it would be impolite to ask to see it. He shook his head and stayed where he was.
Jacen reached down and picked up the hydrospanner where it had been discarded in the grass. He handed it to Rey. “You broke it, you fix it?” His tone was light, but she saw the sadness in his eyes, felt the regret in his Force energy. He knew she wouldn’t stay. They probably all did, but there would be no goodbyes.
Rey watched the five of them walk away into the dark interior of the island. Dawn was perhaps an hour away. Her heart felt heavy in her chest. The next time she saw them was likely to be across a battlefield.
Their lights disappeared, and she turned back to Adion just as he tapped his pencil hard on his drawing. He looked up and motioned for her to come closer.
She came and crouched beside him, noticing for the first time the red welt on the side of his head. He was the one she’d whacked with her lightsaber back by the hut.
‘I’m sorry,’ she thought.
‘At least it wasn’t lit,’ said a gentle voice in her head.
She looked at him in surprise, and he gave her one of those tiny smiles, then tapped his notepad again to draw her attention to his drawing.
The detail in it was amazing. They were all there: the Knights, her, R2-D2, the ship, the fire, the ocean. And surrounding them - less corporeal but distinct all the same - were many others. Luke Skywalker. A man whose ruined face was half-covered by Darth Vader’s helmet - Anakin. An elderly bearded man. A small being with wise eyes and pointed ears. A Twi’lek woman. And more. So many more.
She understood. ‘You heard them, too?’
This time he just nodded. Then he set his pad and pencil down and stood up. He took her hand and led her to the cliff’s edge. They both looked down at the black water.
Rey stretched out her hand, and he nodded encouragingly. She reached out with the Force and felt her ship beneath the surface. She closed her eyes and tried to grasp it but didn’t know where to hold. There were too many parts, too much detail diverting her attention from the whole entity that was the actual freighter. As she scrabbled for purchase, she felt a quiet energy entwine with hers and start to guide it. It gently tugged her away from the individual components and directed her to the currents around the ship itself. And just that easily she could pull it up and away from the sea floor.
Rey opened her eyes to R2’s excited warbling and saw the Calamari ship suspended above the water in front of her. Adion had pulled away and was watching calmly now. They all backed up as Rey turned the ship right side up and brought it over the landing area to set down softly on the grass. Water poured out from the open hatch. The running lights still shone brightly. Mon Calamari technology was universally submersible.
She smiled at Adion. “Thank you.”
He shrugged and turned away. She watched him climb onto the hull of the Knights’ cruiser and begin to rewire a radar array that she’d blown apart.
Several minutes later Rey was in the cockpit, guiding her salt-crusted cruiser out of Ahch-To’s atmosphere. She wondered what Ropalaa would find in the mirror cave. She wondered what each of them would find.
She wondered how they would explain any of this to Kylo Ren.
It was just past dawn when Jacen and the rest of the Knights made their way back to their ship. They’d had to bivouac on the other side of the island; the ordeal in the mirror cave had been so draining that they’d simply collapsed on the grass and fallen asleep.
None of them were surprised to see that Rey was gone; they’d felt her leave as they’d trekked along in the darkness. Jacen knew the echoes of her singing in his mother’s language would haunt him for days to come.
Adion was asleep on the ground near where the fire had died out. There was something lying on top of the drawing tablet next to him, something that seemed to whisper into the morning fog in forgotten languages.
“What is that?” Kiona asked, pausing at the edge of the clearing and staring.
The whisper grew louder, swirling around them on a phantom wind. All of them stopped except for Ropalaa, who continued - mesmerized - toward the thing in the grass. A book. She broke into a run as Adion startled awake, eyes wide with alarm.
“It’s OK, Adion.” Martna took one step forward. “Is that-”
Ropalaa had been silent since their venture into the cave. Jacen didn’t know what the mirror had shown her, but he knew it wasn’t what she’d hoped. Now her Force energy blew up like a storm, and he watched as she staggered to a stop near the book. Staring down at it, she fell to her knees. Her hands shook as she picked up the sacred text and clutched it to her chest. The Rommahgon.
As they all gathered around, a small note fluttered down from where it had been tucked into the front cover. They saw the words written there.
‘I hope you find the answers you need. I hope you all do.’
Jacen’s comm unit had activated last night, just as they’d approached the drop into the cave. He had almost laughed when he’d seen the message from Kylo Ren.
He looked at his friends now, hugging each other, sharing Ropalaa’s joy and relief.
He’d written back: TOO LATE. SHE GOT AWAY
CASUALTIES? Kylo had asked.
Oh, Kylo knew. He knew what he had on his hands. Jacen smiled as he recalled the response he’d sent.
JUST OUR HEARTS
AND OUR SHIP
SEND REPAIR CREW
In which Kylo becomes even more likable, because that's the kind of story this is...
The airfield for the Inlik gas mine on Generis would normally be bustling with activity: tankers hauling away cargo, transports bringing in equipment and personnel. But when Kylo Ren set his Tie Silencer down near the structure which housed the mine’s security and management stations, the only ships to be seen were those of First Order military design. Transports were flanked by stormtroopers in combat formation. Scout walkers had been dropped in and loomed over the outbuildings, weapons charged and pointed at various targets.
It was, Kylo thought, an overreaction to a situation that had been characterized as essentially a false alarm with the capture of one diminutive and generally cooperative prisoner.
The captain of the ground forces met him as he disembarked from his fighter. “Supreme Leader.” A bow of the captain’s head. “This way, sir.”
Kylo said nothing, following the trooper as the shuttle carrying DN-3351 and his team landed on the opposite side of the airfield. Those troopers would not be under anyone’s command but his on this mission. He trusted that DN-3351 would understand his role here. Watch for anomalies. Report if possible, react if necessary.
He searched the mind of the captain walking ahead of him. He sensed alertness and apprehension related to his presence and to the mission at hand, but no deception. He broadened his perception to scan the other First Order troopers in the area. Their moods and thoughts and attentions were just what he’d come to expect from his troops. They were there for the mission, nothing more. He allowed himself to relax just a little as he shifted his focus in the Force to a presence that shone brightly with a deep and ancient light. Maz Kanata.
But even as Maz’s shining Force signature drew near, Kylo became aware of a background din of quieter voices. Sad and hopeless, fearful and angry… these were the emotions he sensed from within and beyond the mine. The populace of Generis were chafing under the rule of the crime lords. Most of the outer rim was largely ignored by the First Order due to relative unimportance in the conflict, but Generis had a history of fostering rebels and rebellion. It was partly for the gas deposits but more for punishment of past deeds that Snoke had fostered alliances with the crime syndicates that controlled the planet and the mines. Kylo got the sense that the locals were far from content with this arrangement.
Just as he reached the door of the security structure, an odd sound reached his ears. Laughter. He turned and saw a group of what looked like very young schoolchildren being ushered from one building to another. Most of them trudged along with their heads down, but one girl of perhaps four years old was skipping, looking around at the looming scout walkers and giggling. A stern word from one of the escorting adults brought her back in line, but she still glanced up at the walkers with round blue eyes as they all disappeared into a door beyond the airfield.
“Sir?” The captain had turned back and was waiting for him.
Kylo realized he’d already delayed too much, but he asked, “There’s a school on site?”
“No, sir. The children are used to enter areas of the mine inaccessible to larger persons. To retrieve equipment in collapsed tunnels or scout cracks.”
Collapsed tunnels… “Why not use droids?”
“We try to minimize electronics in certain locations, sir. With the explosive nature of the gas, even shielded circuitry is a hazard.”
As that settled in, Kylo’s thoughts suddenly went to his mother, and then to Rey. How would they react to children being used in this way? What would they think of him, essentially sponsoring this operation? He knew the answers to both questions, and he felt queasy with a completely unfamiliar emotion: shame. “I see,” was all he said though, and the captain took that as permission to continue on.
They walked through a long, low control room that was packed with a mixture of old technology and new; the mine had been in operation for hundreds of years. A few of the work stations were manned by First Order personnel, and those technicians jumped up and saluted as he passed by. But at other stations were what appeared to be locals… older, stoop-shouldered men and women who only glanced at him with shadowed expressions. One gray-haired woman who was missing her right hand caught his eye and - rather than looking away - actually hissed at him through her teeth. Immediately a stormtrooper was there, lifting his blaster rifle to bring it down on her head. Kylo stopped him with a raised hand. He held the woman’s gaze for a moment longer, then resumed walking.
His chest felt uncomfortably tight by the time they entered a small conference room where a fire team surrounded a circular table. Sitting at that table was the unmistakable form of Maz Kanata.
Kylo dismissed his escort and the fire team with a jerk of his chin. Once they were alone he stood in silence, looking down at the grizzled humanoid woman, remembering in more detail now the one time they had met. His father had sprung him out of nursery school one afternoon for an impromptu trip on the Falcon to visit Lando Calrissian on Cloud City. Maz had been there too, and he’d been fascinated by the tiny woman with funny eyes.
Maz’s thoughts were apparently on the same track. “Ben Solo. The last time I saw you we were the same height.” She sat back in her seat, staring up at him, then loosed a sigh. “Well, at least the Dark Side hasn’t stunted your growth.”
Her Force energy - as complex and layered of a Force presence as he’d ever felt - radiated no fear. Sadness, yes, but also determination and strength. He reminded himself that this was his enemy; he was not supposed to like this woman.
He sat down across from her. The floor beneath them vibrated slightly from the mining operation, and even the recycled interior air was acrid. Kylo folded his hands on the table. “I’m sorry for this inconvenience,” he said. “Are you comfortable?”
“I could use a brandy.”
He leaned back and regarded her. “Yeah, me too.”
She smiled at him, sadly. “I sensed you had a bit of a moment on the way in. The conditions on this planet are not what you’d expected?”
He didn’t know what he’d expected. And he also didn’t know why the next thing he said was, “There will be some changes.”
She stayed silent for a long minute, her eyes soft and unblinking as they seemed to stare into his very soul. He was used to this from Snoke, though Maz’s gaze was more searching while his former master’s was always a violent penetration.
Finally, she said softly, “So you will overturn every rock under First Order domain, uncover all the worms and the mud, and clean it up as you see fit?”
“If that’s what it takes to establish order.”
“But there are a million of those rocks, child, and most of them have been there longer than the First Order or Snoke or Palpatine or any of it. Evil will always fester in the dark places and people of the galaxy.” She leaned closer, her eyes fixed on his. “True evil has a signature. It leaves a mark. I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember.”
He had an idea where she was going with this. “And?”
Her eyes blazed with intensity for a moment longer, then she loosed a long breath and settled back in her chair. He sensed her exhaustion as she said, “And you, Ben Solo, are not what I’d expected, either.”
“That’s no longer my name.”
“I’ve known your mother for a long time. I knew your father even longer.”
He felt her grief like a bolt through his chest. “What’s your point?”
But she continued. “And I knew your namesake, Ben Kenobi.”
He was losing patience. There was tension in the air, and he longed to get off this forsaken planet and go to Ahch-To. “Another failed Jedi master. It’s a name I’m glad to leave behind.”
“What a heavy legacy you carry,” Maz said quietly. “A storied bloodline, the extremes of Light and Darkness, royalty, infamy… it has led you to where you were destined to be. What else could have come of all that?” The tiny woman seemed to grow larger, her eyes and her presence taking up all the space in the small room. “But think back to where it all began. With a lonely woman on a desert planet. Shmi Skywalker, and then her son, soon to be an orphan, blessed and cursed by unprecedented strength in the Force. A nobody, from nowhere, who set all these events in motion.”
Kylo had no idea what Maz knew about he and Rey, and he didn’t care. “Again, what is your point?”
“Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader because he wanted power to protect the woman he loved, and he wanted revenge once he couldn’t. It was his downfall.”
“Compassion was his downfall.” Kylo’s fists were clenched, it was all he could do to keep from flipping the table across the room.
“Compassion saved his soul, child, but by then the damage was done. Darkness had claimed him. Leia would never have said it to Luke, but your mother knew. She saw it herself, had suffered greatly at his hands. A moment’s repentance doesn’t undo a lifetime of Darkness. Darth Vader was truly evil.”
Kylo stood abruptly. He was done. He needed to get to Rey, and he was done with this.
Maz stood, too, and the emotions rolling off of her were as powerful as his own.
“This is my point, Ben Solo.” Her voice was low and seemed to fix him to the spot. “You are the apex of the blade on which the entire galaxy balances. The Dark Side is so hungry for you that I can feel it howling through this room even now, grasping and clawing at you. But when I look into your eyes, child, all I see is pain. Let the past go! Let it go, or the Darkness will truly take you, as it did your grandfather.”
He forced himself to breathe. Whatever reason the Force had for drawing him here, it had been a mistake.
“You are an agent of the Resistance,” he said through clenched teeth, “and an enemy of the First Order. Do you deny it?”
Her face was resigned, impassive. She flipped up her goggles and rubbed her eyes. “No, I do not.”
“I was told you had information for me. What is it.”
“Just this. You have more enemies than you know. More than the Resistance. More than those within the First Order that might resent your rule.”
If Maz knew there were factions within the Order, than the rest of the Resistance must know, too.
“Who are these enemies?”
He did not expect her to volunteer the information, at least not without a price. But she said without hesitation, “Black Sun. Others. The crime lords and arms dealers. Those here on Generis and in other systems. The last thing they want is a strong central galactic power like the First Order getting into their business. They want to be free to run their cartels, hold their power, and amass their credits without interference.” Her eyes narrowed. “What you did to Unkar Plutt sent a message. Jakku may be at the end of nowhere, but word spreads fast in the underworld. Others are wondering where else you might interfere.”
Maz glanced at the door at the same time Kylo sensed a presence approaching. DN-3351 and another trooper.
“Keep your allies close,” Maz whispered. “You will know who you can trust, and who you cannot.”
There was a knock, and the two stormtroopers rushed in. “Sir, there’s an uprising of the miners. The overseers claim that she organized it to coincide with your presence here.” DN-3351 indicated Maz as he spoke.
Kylo knew she had done no such thing.
“Security forces are attempting to contain the situation,” the trooper continued. “But the miners have gained control of weapons and heavy machinery, both inside and outside of the mine itself.”
Maz’s eyes met his, and they shared the realization through the Force. “It’s a trap,” Maz said, standing. “Get your people out.”
A nearby explosion rattled the walls of the conference room. Kylo tossed Maz his blaster. “And you do what you can for yours.”
She gave him a quick nod before rushing out between the two surprised stormtroopers. Another explosion set the lights flickering. Kylo activated his lightsaber and led the way into the corridor, the troopers following close behind with their weapons drawn. Maz was already out of sight.
Halfway back to the control room they were ambushed, blaster fire raining down on them from an intersecting hall and from up ahead. The weapons firing on them were of the type used by the Resistance, and the clothes of their attackers were the filthy rags of the mine workers. But the aim was too precise, the formations tight and practiced. Even if Kylo couldn’t see into their minds with the Force, he would have seen through the ruse. This was no spontaneous uprising, it was a planned operation.
While DN-3351 and his comrade returned fire, Kylo shielded them, deflecting blaster bolts with his lightsaber. The air crackled with ionization, while explosions large and small rocked the building. They had to get out - now. Kylo reached out and coiled the Force tightly around their remaining attackers. Instantly crushed, they dropped to the floor.
“Follow my lead.”
They sprinted the last few meters to the control room, only to find carnage awaiting them. Many of the locals and a few First Order personnel lay dead on the floor or slumped over their consoles. There were fires everywhere, and alarms clanged from every station. The underground vibration Kylo had felt since arriving on the planet had changed to an uneven rumbling which seemed to grow in intensity. He sensed the danger. There was little time.
One of the bodies stirred. The woman who had hissed, her face now bloody, pulled herself up to glare at him. He stalked closer, not knowing what he was going to do. Her Force energy was of rage and pain and resolve, but that energy was dissipating. She was fading, dying.
As he drew close, she slowly pointed a shaking finger at him. “Beware the Falleen boss. He talks to one of yours.” She drew a wet breath, coughed. “They have made…” Her voice hitched, and her eyes widened and then fixed in place. He felt her life energy pass into the Force and disperse around him.
An explosive charge blew through the wall, spraying rock and debris, and another group of attackers swarmed in. Kylo again positioned himself to cover the troopers with him, but before their enemy could start shooting they were cut down with a barrage of blaster fire from behind. As the smoke cleared, Kylo recognized the rest of DN-3351’s team.
“Sir,” one of them said, stepping through the smoldering rubble. “The miners have control of most of the airfield. We can get you to your ship but we’ll have to hurry.”
“We had a massive force here twenty minutes ago,” Kylo said, ducking with the rest of them as the building was strafed with ion canon fire. “Where are our troops?”
“General Hux ordered an evacuation just before the uprising began, sir,” the trooper replied. “Only two of our transports remain.”
The floor bucked beneath them. Kylo sensed, from deep below, the panicked flight of rats and centipedes and other creatures in the tunnels. The mine was destabilizing.
“What about the mine workers?” he shouted over the din as they made their way out of the building and took cover behind the piles of rubble.
“They’re fleeing into the camp, sir. Trying to get their families and run for the hills. They think the mine is about to blow.”
“It is about to blow.” Kylo raised a hand as one of the scout walkers turned its ion cannons on them and fired a blast. He froze it in midair just as another blast came at them from the opposite direction. He threw a shield of Force energy around them, and the blast impacted it with a burst of blue sparks. One of the troopers cursed. The two scout walkers firing on them were suddenly lit by a barrage of blaster fire from the ground. One, then the other, exploded in a ball of flame. Kylo caught sight of other teams of stormtroopers.
“They disregarded the General’s order, sir,” DN-3351 shouted, following his line of sight. “They insisted on waiting for you.”
A sustained burst of blaster fire came from just beyond the outbuildings. Kylo reached out through the Force but found no one there, and he knew why a moment later when hundreds of combat droids emerged from the smoke. They marched toward the airfield, aiming their weapons at the few ships that remained, including his Tie Silencer. The shields were holding for now. His troopers opened fire on the droids, dropping them in twisted piles that the following droids simply stepped over. There were too many of them, and too few of his forces remained.
“To your ships,” he directed them all. “Return to the Finalizer immediately.” He pulled DN-3351 close and turned off his comm. “I have somewhere I have to go. See what you can find out about what happened here, and look into whether a Falleen crime boss has been operating in this system. Tell Hux not to wait for me.”
His team and the others broke for their ships, flanking and covering one another. Kylo hung back, deflecting blaster bolts where he could, knocking down droids who were close to overrunning his troopers. As they finally all reached their transports, he raced for his fighter.
A scream nearby brought him up short. One of the droids had wrenched open the door of a nearby structure, exposing the people who’d been sheltering inside. Kylo’s heart skipped as he recognized the group of children he’d seen on the way in. Their adult escorts seemed to have fled, and the children - perhaps twelve of them - were huddled together and staring in abject terror at the flaming airfield and at the tall, thin droid raising its blaster toward them.
The droid’s head exploded in a shower of sparks. A trooper who’d been boarding his transport nearby had fired a precise shot. Kylo switched his comm back on. “Get those kids on board, now!”
Instantly the fire team from that transport spread out to provide cover, while another trooper ran back toward the children. Kylo sensed their fear and watched them shrink away from the heavily armed stormtrooper. The trooper stopped in front of the kids and crouched down. He couldn’t hear what was said, but the kids stopped backing away. The trooper took off her helmet - a egregious violation of procedure - and Kylo saw the woman smile. She held out a hand, still speaking and making beckoning motions. Finally one of the children moved, approaching her, and the others followed. She encouraged them into a run, and in a minute’s time all were aboard and the shuttle was firing its engines for liftoff.
The ground bucked violently, nearly throwing Kylo off his feet. He sensed a rising energy, a pressure that was working its way toward them. A complete system failure was imminent. The last transport shuttle lifted off as he began to climb into his ship.
The tiniest whisper in the Force brushed his mind. He stopped, scanning the airfield one last time. Burning buildings and ships were everywhere. Combat droids swarmed the entire area; many were firing on his fighter, trying to penetrate the shields. He looked past it all, reaching out with the Force…
There. A small face was staring out from beneath the leg of a collapsed scout walker, ten meters away. Blue eyes - wide and teary - blinked as they tracked the rising transport that her friends had boarded.
A deep tremor shook the ground, shook the very air around them. Kylo sensed the spark from which the explosion radiated, felt the rock around it begin to vaporize as the blast expanded out. It would be on them in a second.
He closed his eyes and tunneled down deep within himself. He centered himself in the Force, pulling its energy from near and far and concentrating it in an instant. And as that wave of fire and pressure and molten rock reached the surface and exploded outward, he simply grabbed it, and held on.
It was more power than he’d ever summoned at once. An electric current seemed to jolt through him, setting his blood to boiling. He felt connections to everyone and everything within the Force as he drew from all of it, sucking in more and more energy. He opened his eyes and saw a wall of roiling flame a hundred meters high, just beyond the edge of the airfield. The transport that had just lifted off with the children was racing away, but the shuttle containing DN-3351 and his crew hovered nearby, as though uncertain of what to do.
His comm was still on. “Go,” he gritted out, not sure if they could hear him. But after a moment that shuttle turned and accelerated into the sky.
Kylo’s head pounded, bolts of white hot pain shooting behind his eyes. A coppery taste filled his mouth as blood poured out his nose and down his chin. He turned his attention to the little girl on the ground.
At his look she sprinted toward him, ignoring the droids whose programming seemed to be struggling with the barely-contained inferno towering above them. Surprisingly nimble, she clamored onto the wing of his Tie Silencer and scrambled through the hatch, tugging at his cape as she did so.
“Come on, Kywo Wen. We gotta go.”
He slid in after her and secured the hatch. His fighter wasn’t designed for more than one person, but she was so tiny she fit easily into the space behind his seat. There was no way to buckle her in, but if he lost his grip on that explosion too soon, it wouldn’t matter anyway. He felt the energy of it straining against the shield he’d thrown up. A shield that he couldn’t hold much longer.
“Hold on.” With shaking hands, he hit the ignition sequence and launched his fighter skyward. With all of his focus on containing the blast, he couldn’t scan the area to see if anyone was left behind. He hoped Maz had cleared out. There was nothing else he could do.
“Whoa!” The little girl’s fingers gripped the back of his chair as they accelerated straight upward. Kylo’s vision swam as he tried to focus on the controls. He couldn’t breathe. It felt like something was breaking inside him. Then suddenly he couldn’t hold any longer, and his grip on the explosion released.
They were clear, barely. The fireball stayed beneath them, incinerating the mine and the camp around it. But the shock wave hit the Tie Silencer and threw it, tumbling end over end, toward the lower atmosphere.
Kylo reached back to try to brace the child but she’d already reacted, throwing her arms and legs around the base of his seat and holding tight. Scrappy little thing. But he supposed she’d had to be, to survive at the mine.
He could breathe again, wet rasping breaths that burned in his chest. Every part of his body hurt, even his fingers, as he frantically worked the controls, trying to stabilize his ship. All systems were malfunctioning, and power was bleeding down. They’d barely cleared the planet’s atmosphere when, one by one, his engines flamed out, and they tumbled softly in the blackness of space.
Auxiliary power was still functional… barely. He routed it in, and the ship steadied. The console was mostly dark. They had stabilizers, and life support, and possibly comm. Nothing else.
The Finalizer was nowhere to be seen.
A burst of static came through his comm, then a voice, breaking up frequently. “Are you… sir… General Hux… urgent… Resistance… depart immediately…”
DN-3351’s shuttle flew into view. At least they had made it away unscathed.
Kylo tried his mic. “Comm is intermittent. Do you read?”
Another burst of static. “Affirma… sir… ship stable?…”
“We’re okay!” shouted a cheerful voice from behind him.
He pulled off a panel, found the damaged circuit, bypassed it.
“Sir, do you copy?” No static now.
“Affirmative. Engines are out. Three percent power. I’ll need a pickup.” The stormtroopers’ small shuttle wasn’t equipped for an in-space repair or a tow. “Do we have a cruiser in the area?”
“No, sir, but we’ll message the fleet for-”
The trooper’s voice trailed off as a starship appeared in front of them, flashing out of hyperspace. The Corellian cruiser was massive and heavily armed. It matched the description that their informants had provided about a ship recently obtained by the Resistance.
Kylo watched as a dozen ion cannons turned toward him. They were in range. He had no shields. He couldn’t summon so much as a flicker in the Force.
A little hand grasped his shoulder. “Uh-oh, Kywo Wen.”
“Oh, are you kidding me?!” Finn raced to the forward viewport of the bridge and put a hand against the glass, as if that would make what he was seeing more real.
Automated alarms had sounded the moment they’d dropped from hyperspace, set off by the proximity of two First Order vessels, one of which was…
“That is Kylo Ren’s starfighter,” Rose breathed, coming up next to him.
“Yes, it is.” There was no mistaking the prototype Tie Silencer, that deadly-looking black ship, which seemed to be… drifting?
“His fighter’s dead, Captain,” called the tech working the scanning console. “Minimal power. No weapons or shields.”
The other ship, a standard transport shuttle, was not dead in space but maintained a defensive holding pattern close by. Finn knew that type of shuttle would be well-shielded but had minimal weaponry, as it would usually be escorted by fighters. “Life forms?”
“Two on the fighter, eleven on the shuttle. And there seems to be a disturbance on the planet’s surface, sir. A large fire and a gas release of some kind.”
Cai Threnalli’s voice came over the comm from the hangar. “Should we launch the X-wings, Captain?”
“I don’t think we need to.” Many things seemed off in this scenario, but there was no time - and no reason, really - to puzzle it out. Finn drew a quick breath. “Cannons to full charge. Get ready to fire.”
“Sir. He’s hailing us on an emergency frequency!”
“He’s stalling for time,” Rose said, her eyes fixed on the disabled Tie Silencer. Finn had no doubt who she was thinking about as her hand reached up and gripped the medallion hanging around her neck. “They probably have help on the way. We should take him out now.”
Finn swallowed hard. Rose had a point, but he was dying to know what the final words of the Supreme Leader of the First Order might be. “He gets fifteen seconds,” he said tightly. “Put him through.”
There was a moment of silence, then…
“Resistance cruiser, this is First Order vessel TS-1. Hold your fire. I have a child on board.” The voice was deep, calm, and seemingly unruffled by the firepower pointed in his direction.
That was the last thing Finn had expected to hear. Bullshit, he thought, but aloud he said, “Pilot, identify yourself.”
“This is Kylo Ren. Repeat, I have a child on board. Hold your fire.”
“That’s fifteen seconds,” whispered Rose at his side. Finn’s heart was pounding. Kylo Ren. They could do this. They could strike a crippling blow to the First Order right now. The soldiers in the gunners chairs were all looking at him. All he had to do was say one word. Fire.
He couldn’t do it, not without knowing for sure. But he didn’t have to be nice. “Asshole, if you’re lying about this…”
“He-wo!” a high-pitched voice rang out over the comm.
“Shit,” said Rose quietly. “What should we do?”
Finn looked to the comm techs. “Is he using any other frequency?”
“Affirmative, sir. He’s communicating with the transport shuttle.”
“Can you get a read on what they’re saying?”
“It’s not an encrypted frequency, sir. He’s just ordered them to charge down their weapons and put full power to shields, and to not interfere.”
Finn’s mind was racing, trying to think three moves ahead. “Where’s your support, TS-1?”
A slight hesitation. “Our mission didn’t require additional support.”
“OK, now that sounded like a lie,” said Rose.
“FN-2187,” Kylo Ren’s voice said.
“It’s Finn, Ren.”
“Captain. The girl’s people are on Generis. Let me offload her. Then do what you need to do.”
“Don’t trust him,” Rose said, her face white as she stared out at the Tie Silencer.
He didn’t. Finn knew full well what the First Order was capable of. This could blow up on them at any second. He desperately wished General Leia was there. Or Rey. But there was no time to contact anyone. This was his call. And he knew how he had to make it.
“Lock on to him,” he told his tractor beam tech. “TS-1, we’re bringing you in. But I swear, if I see one spark from your laser cannons, you are toast. Got it?”
Again, that maddeningly calm voice. “Copy that.”
One of the comm techs whistled as he adjusted his headphones. “The crew on the transport shuttle there are really going nuts over this.”
“Too bad.” Finn saw the Tie Silencer begin to glide toward their hangar bay as the tractor beam activated. “Keep an eye on them. Keep a bunch of cannons on them, too.”
“And get a call out to General Leia. This is her kid, and if we…” he didn’t want to finish that thought. “Just see if we can get her.”
“Right away, sir.”
He and Rose joined the throng of personnel hurrying toward the hangar. Finn spoke into his comm as they went, directing their forces into place. He had to make it up as he went along. If there was an official procedure for bringing the Force-wielding Supreme Leader of the enemy on board, he hadn’t learned it yet.
“We’ve got this, huh?” he said to Rose as they finally reached the hangar doors.
She just scowled and looked straight ahead. He hadn’t seen her this pissed off since right before she’d stunned him back on the Raddus, when they’d first met. “How dare he,” she hissed. “How dare he take a child off that planet to use as a shield.”
They took up a position near where Ren’s ship would set down. Looking around, Finn was satisfied to see that seemingly every blaster in the ship was drawn and ready. Some soldiers stayed in the open, others were behind cover. The X-wing pilots were strapped in their ships, powered for flight. They could take off at a moment’s notice or - and he really hoped it didn’t come to this - fire their weapons inside the hangar as a last resort.
“Any response from the General?” he spoke into his comm.
“No, sir, and we’ve coded the message as urgent.”
He made a mental note to turn off his comm if he needed to curse, then almost did it again as Kylo Ren’s fighter came gliding silently through their hangar bay doors. The sleek, angular black ship looked out of place among the white and silver that surrounded it. Not much bigger than one of the X-wings, it somehow managed to seem more dangerous, though whether that was intentional or just incidental to its design, he didn’t know. Either way, everyone watching seemed to hold their breath as the ship softly touched down on the deck.
The hatch opened, and Finn heard a chorus of muffled clicks as anyone who hadn’t already released the safety on their weapon did so. He’d seen Kylo Ren stop a blaster bolt in midair back on Jakku. He wondered if Ren could stop several hundred of them.
He expected the mask, so it was a bit of a shock when the man who climbed out from the hatch was just that… a man. He’d seen Ren’s face back on Starkiller Base but, as he’d been fighting for his and Rey’s lives at the time, had paid little attention to what his adversary looked like. Now the resemblance to both Han and Leia was immediately apparent, except for the longish black hair and the fact that Ren had to be a good half meter taller than his mother.
“He’s a mess,” Rose muttered.
It was true. Ren’s black clothes and cape were coated in dust; there was more dust on his scarred face, as well as soot and a good bit of caked blood. Even the ship looked worse for wear: one side of the hull was slightly crushed in and a few solar panels were mangled.
Ren moved slowly, keeping his hands visible and well away from his belt, where Finn could see his lightsaber but no blaster. After he climbed out Ren crouched down and reached back into the ship, then came up holding a filthy, blond-haired little girl. He set her down on the wing, then climbed down and took her hand to help her hop to the floor. The girl’s eyes were blue and wide and red-rimmed as she stared around the hangar and clung to Kylo Ren’s cape.
“Why are there so many bwasters?” Her loud whisper carried to every corner of the huge space.
“It’s all right. No one here will hurt you,” Ren answered.
“That’s right, sweetie.” Rose took a few steps forward and held out her hand. “Come on with me.” Finn heard the tremor in her voice and knew it wasn’t from fear.
“No.” The girl had practically wrapped herself in Ren’s cape now and was hiding behind his leg.
Finn watched in disbelief as Kylo Ren knelt down and gently took the child’s hands. “These people are going to take you back home.”
“Why can’t you take me?”
“My ship’s broken, remember?”
The girl stared at him, then looked to Rose. “Fix his shwip, pwease?”
“I…” Rose looked back at Finn helplessly.
“Maybe we can,” Finn told the girl, ignoring how awful the lie tasted. “You go with Rose, sweetie, and we’ll talk about it.” He tried to smile. “Are you hungry? We have some really good cookies.”
Her face lit up. “I’m so hungry!” She looked up at Ren. “OK?”
He nodded, and the sad smile he gave her was too much like one Finn had often seen from Leia. “OK.”
The girl took a step away, then turned back and threw her arms around Ren’s neck. “Bye bye, Kywo Wen.”
Slowly, Ren’s arms went around the girl and squeezed her back. “Goodbye, Anise.”
The little girl - Anise - let him go and then somberly walked to Rose and took her hand. Rose looked at Finn, and the mix of emotions on her face nearly broke his heart. Then Finn saw that Anise was staring up at him as well.
“You fix his shwip,” she demanded, her dirty face set with determination. “Kywo Wen saved my wife.”
Finn blinked. “Sweetie, aren’t you a little young to be married?”
“Saved her life, Finn,” Rose said, scowling as she looked from the girl back to Kylo Ren, who was still on his knees.
“I think I’d believe wife more,” Finn muttered. He crouched down and looked the child in the eye. “What do you mean?”
“See, my mistwess at the mine told us we had to stay quiet and out of the way because Kywo Wen was coming and there were all these swhips and stormtwoopers evewywhere but then there was shooting with bwasters and the big walker things and somebody said the mine would bwow up!” She let go of Rose’s hand and threw her arms in the air to demonstrate. “And my mistwess left and we were so scawed but then the stormtwoopers came to get my fwiends but I twipped and couwdn’t catch up but Kywo Wen waited for me and there was a giant expwosion! And Kywo Wen hewd the big wave of fiwe up so we could take off but then the expwosion got woose and it bwoke the ship! And then we saw you,” Anise finished, pointing at Finn as though she’d figured out he was the one in charge here.
Finn blinked at her again as he tried to replay everything she’d just said in his head. His brain was starting to hurt. He looked at Ren. “Is all of that true?”
Ren was staring at the child with an unreadable expression. “Um, sure.”
Shit shit shit. Finn closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe. He knew what they had to do here, and he could barely wrap his head around it. He opened his eyes and looked at Rose; her expression told him she’d come to the same conclusion.
“It’s why we’re the good guys, Finn,” she said quietly.
She was right. There were rules about these things, some written into archaic intergalactic law and others simply implied. And it was universally understood that one couldn’t take advantage of an enemy who’d become compromised while providing assistance to innocents. But…
“The First Order doesn’t play by those rules,” he said, memories of his training and indoctrination overwhelming him. “They never have. If the tables were turned here, our people would already be dead.” He looked at Ren. “Am I right?”
The honesty was surprising. Finn looked - really looked - at Kylo Ren for the first time. There were shadows around the young man’s eyes that had nothing to do with the grime that covered him. Something in his expression reminded Finn of how Rey had looked when he’d first known her. She’d looked… lost.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why did you save her?” Finn gestured toward the child. “Why help any of-”
“Captain!” An urgent voice came through Finn’s comm, bringing him up short. “We have a distress call from the Raddus 2!”
The Raddus 2… General Leia’s new flagship. He glanced at Rose; her eyes had gone wide. “Malfunction or attack?” he barked into his comm.
“Attack, sir. The message was cut off before full details were conveyed, but there was mention of a Resurgent Class Star Destroyer.”
Finn’s eyes shot to Kylo Ren, who had obviously overheard the exchange. Ren had frozen, but not before his hand reflexively gripped his lightsaber. The lost expression was gone, replaced by razor sharp focus.
Finn leveled his blaster to aim right between the Supreme Leader’s eyes. “Start talking, asshole.”
Thanks so much if you've made it this far! I hope you're enjoying the story!
I do have little kids, and this is how they talk at that age, but it's difficult to transcribe and make readable. I hope it wasn't too difficult/annoying.
Next chapter: Back to Kylo's POV
Kylo ignored the blaster pointed at his face, as well the many others aimed toward him from elsewhere on the bridge. His mind raced as he considered what was happening.
The Finalizer had left in a hurry, leaving personnel - himself included - behind. He still believed that to be deliberate, possibly preplanned. The real question was whether someone had tipped Hux off about the Raddus 2’s location before or after Kylo had gone down to the mine.
“Where are they?” Kylo had to force himself not to jump to his feet, not to activate his lightsaber and start fighting his way to a ship.
“Oh don’t tell me you don’t know,” FN-2187 - Finn - snarled. “So what is this then? A distraction? A coordinated attack to take both us and the general out?”
“No.” He couldn’t admit that he didn’t know what Hux was up to. The Resistance would see the discord as a chink in the First Order’s armor. “I have a damaged starfighter and a transport shuttle here. Does that seem like an ambush?”
Finn spoke into his comm. “Program the hyperspace coordinates but wait for my order.” He paced close to Kylo, blaster leveled and steady. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to get on your comlink and order them to break off the attack.” He motioned to a nearby deck officer. “Go into his ship and find his mobile comm.”
Kylo could play along with that; it’s what he would have done anyway. As they waited he steadied his breathing and tentatively reached out with the Force. He was recovering, slowly. In a few more minutes he might be strong enough to fight his way out of this, if that’s what it came to. But first he needed to learn - either from Hux or these Resistance officers - where the Raddus 2 and the Finalizer had met up.
He heard a snuffling noise and looked over at Anise, who had been passed off to a deck officer and was munching a cookie and looking miserable. He wasn’t used to the Force energy of young children and wondered if they all felt so manic and exhausted, but he supposed this one was having a tough day. As was he.
He sensed the fear and anger of the personnel that surrounded him. All of them were here because some circumstance or tragedy had led them into the Resistance. He felt their stares pressing into him. He was the face of their enemy, the monster lurking in their nightmares. Many of them desperately wanted their captain to take that fatal shot, but others were more conflicted.
“His comm, captain.” The deck officer handed the comlink to Finn, who in turn tossed it to Kylo.
“Call. Off. The attack.” The former stormtrooper didn’t blink.
He adjusted the frequency, coded the transmission with his emergency signature. “Finalizer. Respond.” No answer. “This is Kylo Ren. General Hux, respond.” Still nothing.
“It’s working?” the woman his spies had identified as Rose Tico asked.
He glanced at his comm. “The message has been received.”
“So why aren’t they answering?”
Because Hux is attempting a coup, he thought. He sent me to Generis and staged a fake uprising, stacked the ground forces with his loyalist troops and sabotaged the gas mine, trying to get me killed.
“Perhaps because they’re engaged in battle,” he said.
“Too engaged to respond to an emergency message from their Supreme Leader.”
His patience was splintering, rapidly. “We’re wasting time.” His grip tightened on his lightsaber, but then he glanced at Anise again. Damn.
He looked to Finn. “Let my troopers take the child back to Generis.”
“And I suppose you want off, too.”
The transport shuttle didn’t have hyperspace capabilities. His Tie-Silencer did but was unable to fly. He glanced at the nearest T-85 X-wing. “What I want is for you to tell me where the Raddus 2 is.”
“You don’t give orders on this ship.” Finn narrowed his eyes and nodded at Tico, then said to him, “Call in your shuttle to pick up the kid. No troopers get off. And you’re staying with us.”
There was a ripple of mumbling and fear through the hangar. They were smart to be afraid. He relayed the message to DN-3351’s crew and watched as a spot was cleared for the transport to land nearby.
He motioned Anise over. Both of her hands were stuffed full of cookies. “You’re going back home now.”
She frowned. “I think home was bwowed up.”
Probably true. “Do you live with your parents?”
“Just my daddy. Mommy got taken away.”
He had to take a deep breath as he watched the First Order shuttle glide into the hangar. “The stormtroopers on that ship are going to take you to find your father, OK?”
She nodded solemnly. “Are you coming too?”
She didn’t like that and cast an angry look at Finn’s blaster before turning back to him. “Do you want a cookie?”
She held out a handful of crumbling sugar cookies. He took one as the transport approached. “Thank you.”
As the transport shuttle landed, half of the blasters in the hangar turned to aim at its lowering ramp.
“Hands on your head, Ren.” Finn snarled.
He complied, giving Anise an encouraging nod as the deck officer led her toward the waiting shuttle. A stormtrooper appeared at the top of the ramp, but - per his orders - did not disembark. Kylo watched DN-3351’s head swivel toward him, then take in the rest of the hangar.
The trooper motioned Anise up the ramp. “Come on.” Completely without fear now, she skipped up, turned to wave, then disappeared into the ship.
DN-3351 stayed where he was. Kylo had already given instructions, but he repeated, “The girl’s father, if he survived, is somewhere near the mine. Return her to a safe situation only.”
“Yes, sir.” The stormtrooper still didn’t move.
“Immediately, DN-3351,” Kylo said, feeling the tension around him mount.
The trooper’s head turned from him to Finn. “FN-2187.”
The Resistance captain kept his blaster on Kylo. “Do I know you?”
“No.” DN-3351 hesitated, then reached up and removed his helmet as quiet mumbling once again resonated through the hangar. The dark-haired trooper looked at Kylo - on his knees, hands behind his head, blaster pointed at close range - and drew a deep breath. “Don’t do it, FN-2187.”
“Get that shuttle off my ship, trooper.”
DN-3351 took a step forward. “Captain. You don’t want to do this.”
“Take another step and I’ll blow off his head and yours.” Finn motioned to Rose, who took up his position near Kylo as he moved toward the First Order shuttle with his blaster raised. “You have your orders. Take the kid and go.”
DN-3351 raised his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Kylo Ren is better for us and for you,” he said. “Hux doesn’t care who he has to destroy to-”
“DN-3351, that’s en-”
The trooper cut Kylo off as he said to Finn, “Your new Jedi won’t be happy if you kill him.”
“Rey?” Finn looked at him incredulously as Kylo blinked. “What the hell does Rey have to do with it?”
Kylo's heart pounded. Rey… He’d become aware that her Force energy had been calm for a few hours now. Was she asleep? Or… Without thinking he reached for the encrypted comm unit in his pocket.
A blaster bolt slammed into the floor in front of him; he shielded himself quickly enough to avoid the sparks and splatter from the blast. Rose Tico stepped closer and aimed again. “Next one goes between your eyes, Ren. Hands up.”
He showed the comm unit in his hand and said as calmly as he could. “Rey is on Ahch-To.”
Finn’s head whipped around as his eyes went wide. “How could you possibly know-”
“My people are with her.” He started typing in his message, watching Tico from the corner of his eye, wary of another blaster bolt. “I’m ordering them to stand down.”
Finn spoke into his comm. “Have we received any communications from Rey?”
“No sir. We’ve been hailing her every thirty minutes. No response.”
“Ren, you are not helping your case here-”
Kylo blinked as he saw the return message from Jacen. Rey had escaped. Of course she had. But then he had another worry.
CASUALTIES? He typed.
Immediately the answer came back.
JUST OUR HEARTS
AND OUR SHIP
SEND REPAIR CREW
“What are you smiling about, Ren?” Finn was at the edge of his control; Kylo sensed the impending blowup.
He deliberately controlled his expression. “She’s fine. She escaped.”
“Damn right she did.” Finn’s energy calmed slightly. “So order your troopers off this ship now.”
DN-3351 spoke up again. “Captain, I’d again ask you to reconsider-”
“Oh, chill out, man, we’re not going to execute your precious Supreme Leader. He saved a kid. What we are going to do is keep him in case the First Order has taken any of our people prisoner.”
Kylo considered that. “It’s a good idea.”
“Did I ask you?!” As Finn glared at him, Kylo got the impression - not for the first time - that they’d lost a potentially valuable asset in FN-2187. The man was clearly officer material. Or he might have been, if not for an unfortunately independent and compassionate streak.
But who was he to judge? Here he was, on his knees in a Resistance hangar bay because of one little girl.
DN-3351 was also looking carefully at Finn. Apparently satisfied with the Captain’s promise, he glanced again at Kylo, who nodded. The trooper replaced his helmet, saluted, and closed the ramp. A moment later the shuttle had lifted off and was back out in space, heading for Generis.
The Resistance captain spoke into his comm. “Make the jump now.” A moment later the ship shuddered as the stars outside the hangar doors blurred into hyperspace.
Finn motioned with his blaster. “On your feet.”
Kylo stood up.
He forced himself to unhook the saber from his belt and toss it to Finn, who then handed it to Tico.
“Now that comm unit.”
He hesitated. “I’d rather keep it.”
“I’m sure you would. Hand it over.”
He wanted details from Jacen about what had happened with Rey. Anything she’d said, whether she’d been hurt, where she might be going.
How angry she was with him.
“It might be a link with Rey,” he said. Just a partial lie.
“All the better that we have it, not you,” Finn said, holding out his hand.
“It’s encrypted. And Force-activated.”
“I get it. We can’t use it. But neither can you. So hand it over.” He did, but then Finn scowled. “Wait, you had your people capture her?” Kylo nodded slowly, and Finn and Tico exchanged a look. “Capture, not kill. Why?”
Kylo tried to think of a way to answer that question that wouldn’t raise more questions. He wondered how much truth Rey had shared with her friends. “It’s… complicated.”
Tico narrowed her eyes. “That’s what Rey said when I asked how she managed to kill Snoke and his guards but somehow you ended up alive.” He watched her assessment of him, sensed her dawning realization that things weren’t quite what they seemed. Smart, these young Resistance officers. “Scan him,” Tico said.
A tech approached; the Zabrak female was outwardly calm but Kylo could hear both of her hearts pounding as she ran the scanner over him. It alerted on something in his pocket. It took him a moment to remember… shit. The tech motioned to him. He glanced at Finn and Rose. There was no way to avoid it. Slowly, he reached into his pocket and drew out the datachip with the security holo.
Finn gestured. “What’s on it?”
“Complete plans for domination of the galaxy.”
Finn blinked, then scowled. “You’re a funny guy.” He held out his hand.
He could crush it, either with his fingers or with the Force. It pained him to consider that, as he hadn’t yet watched the whole thing. There hadn’t been time. Or he’d been avoiding it.
Before he could decide, his comlink activated. “Supreme Leader, this is the Finalizer, do you copy?”
The tension in the hangar ratcheted up tenfold. Holding Finn’s gaze, he spoke carefully into his comm. “Copy, Finalizer, go ahead.”
“General Hux for you, sir.”
He took a steadying breath. “Put him on.”
“Supreme Leader.” Hux’s clipped voice came through clearly. “Your Tie Silencer’s tracker shows you inbound toward our location.”
He watched the Resistance officers’ faces darken at that. He’d assumed the tracker had been disabled along with the other electronics. Apparently not. “Affirmative,” he answered evenly. “What is your status?”
Hux’s triumph was apparent even through the comm. “We have scored a major victory in your absence.” He paused, and Kylo braced himself. “The Resistance is in our grasp, Supreme Leader. We have taken a prisoner. General Organa.”
Rey was still contemplating her encounter with Kylo’s Knights as she went through the Calamari cruiser’s cabin to check for damage, dry things off, and dig out the various sea creatures that had managed to burrow their way into the nooks and crannies of the ship. She thanked the Force that she’d stowed the Jedi texts in a blastproof crate that was, incidentally, also waterproof. It had been an easy decision to leave the Rommahgon for Ropalaa, even if the information contained within ended up strengthening her enemy.
Enemy. Rey sighed as she pried a miniature purple crab away from some delicate circuitry. Luke had selected these six people to train as Jedi. Where had they come from? Had they - like Kylo - felt isolated and misunderstood because of a propensity for the Dark Side? And even if so, how had this led them to mutiny and murder? They seemed so… nice. And there were plenty of people who couldn’t use any aspect of the Force but still committed horrible deeds.
It was puzzling to her, this division between Dark and Light. The Light was easier for her, but Darkness was there too, certainly seductive, comforting in its own way, and often helpful when she needed to draw on it.
Did it have to be one or the other? Couldn’t there be a continuum? Someplace to exist in the middle? She should have asked Luke, though she wasn’t sure even now that he’d have answered, so strong was his aversion to the Dark Side.
What had happened with Ben scarred Luke… badly. She’d felt his guilt as keenly as she’d felt Ben’s pain through their Force bond. Considered with the intense sadness she sensed from Leia and the horrible legacy that was Darth Vader, Rey wondered whether the idea of “family,” which she had always idealized and wished for, was more a curse than a blessing.
She made her way back to the cockpit and looked out at the streaks of hyperspace. Her travels to Jakku and Ahch-To hadn’t gone at all how she had expected. It was time to regroup. Something had been nagging at the back of her mind since she’d left the island.
General Leia had spent the days since Crait doing what she’d always been good at… fostering alliances, making deals, and inspiring recruits. But she was only one person. And though the general tried to hide it, Rey knew that Leia wasn’t feeling well. Her time exposed to the vacuum of space had injured her in ways that bacta therapy and med droids couldn’t heal. Rather than getting better with time, she seemed to be slowly deteriorating. But she refused to discuss her condition or slow down to accommodate it.
All of the other senior leadership for the Resistance - Admirals Ackbar and Holdo, notably - were dead, and the few officers that remained were young and inexperienced. Poe was now second in command, but Rey knew he was happiest when all he had to lead was a fighter squadron. Even Finn - who just a few months ago was mopping floors for the First Order - was now in command of a starship. Leia was overstretched, overworked, and exhausted. She hadn’t even had time to grieve properly - not for her husband, her brother, or the son who might be lost to her forever.
The general had shared her tightly guarded schedule with Rey before they’d parted ways. Barring something unforeseen, Rey knew where Leia would be right now. It was time wanted to reconnect, to check on the rebuilding of the Resistance, to figure out where she could be of the most help to the woman who had been more of a mother to her than she could have ever hoped for.
Or maybe she was already tired of being alone again.
‘You’re not alone.’
Rey bit her lip as she once again fiddled with the comm, which never functioned properly until she was well away from Ahch-To. She tried to shut out the memory of Ben’s intense gaze, at the rush of emotion she’d felt when he’d touched her hand.
How had they gone from that to ‘Such sentimentality will cost you?’
She huffed as her comm finally activated to show a long queue of waiting messages. She knew how they had. Ben had made his choice. ‘Let it all die.’
No. No, she wouldn’t. She would fight with everything she had for these brave people who had taken her in, for this cause she believed in, for what she knew in her heart to be right.
Even if her heart also pulled her toward him.
Her eyes widened as she saw how many of the waiting messages were coded as Urgent, including one from…
“No, no, no.” Rey read the distress call from the Raddus 2, noted that it had come through only a short time ago. A Star Destroyer…
At least she was already on route. She checked her navigation - she was hours yet from her destination: the Foerost Shipyards. Leia had gone there with the last few Resistance engineers to inspect and attempt to purchase three new starships that were near completion. A core world, Foerost was independent and had maintained a friendly relationship with the Republic. Perhaps after the First Order terrorized everyone by obliterating Hosnian Prime, that relationship had changed.
She tried to raise the Raddus 2… no response. Then she remembered that Finn’s cruiser Adamant 2 should be in orbit around Generis, hopefully making contact with Maz Kanata. But before she could punch in that frequency, an incoming message flashed. Her heart leapt as she saw the sender.
After a moment in which she knew a tech was transferring her… “Rey! Is that you? Where are you?”
At the sound of her friend’s voice she sank back in her seat, a bit of the tension draining away. “I’m en route to Foerost from Ahch-To. Did you get the distress call from Raddus?”
“Yes! We’re headed there too. How close are you?”
“Not close enough. Two hours plus. You?”
“Better. We’ll be there within the hour.”
She breathed a bit easier. “Good. What do you know? Any word on the General? Is there a plan?”
“General Leia’s been taken prisoner by the First Order.”
Rey felt nauseous. Ben wouldn’t hurt his mother, would he? But… Crait. And then a horrible vision of Han Solo’s death flashed in her mind. No, Ben, no…
Finn went on, “Rey, we’ve got a bit of a complication here.”
Her chest tightened even more at his tone. “What sort of complication?”
“We’ve, uh… picked up a passenger. A prisoner. It’s…” his voice trailed off.
“Finn. What are you-”
“We have Kylo Ren on board, Rey.”
Her heart seemed to stop, then start again. Rey opened her mouth but no sound came out. Finn took advantage of her stunned silence to give what sounded like an abridged version of the story, something about an explosion at a gas mine and a little kid and a shuttle full of stormtroopers and why it sucks to be the good guys because this would be so much easier if we could’ve just blown him up in space.
“Finn,” she finally breathed as the tirade wound down.
“Is he there?”
She stared out the viewport and took a second to calm herself before saying, “Put him on.”
A moment’s silence, then… “Hello, Rey.”
She closed her eyes and sensed him in the Force, their connection growing and sparking and seeming to fill the cockpit around her. Any more and their bond would connect. “Hello, Ben,” she whispered.
“I feel it too.” Damn, his voice… his voice seemed to stroke soft fingers down her soul. “You’re blocking it out,” he said quietly in that maddeningly curious way of his. “Why?”
“Now isn’t the time.” In the background she could hear Finn (”What are you talking about?”). “Ben.”
“Please-” she thought of his face in Snoke’s throne room, at the shock and anger when she’d rejected his proposal and gone for the lightsaber instead. She thought of his harsh words when their bond had reconnected on Ahch-To. “Please don’t hurt them.”
There was a moment’s pause where she sensed his attention on Finn and Rose and the others around them. “I won’t.”
“Hux acted alone.” She noted the hardening of his tone. “Without orders.”
It took her all of a second to realize that could be very, very bad. “Will she be all right?”
“Hux says she is. I’ve ordered him to keep her comfortable until I arrive.”
“They don’t know you’re a pris… that you’re on a Resistance ship.”
She sensed his half smile. “No.”
Rey couldn’t resist. “Serves you right after you had your Knights capture me.”
“You left them alive and unscathed. Thank you.” He paused. “I ordered Jacen to release you, before I knew you’d already gone.”
“I’m still mad at you.” But she did unclench at that, just a bit. “Don’t do it again. Ever.”
She could picture the look on his face as he said, very quietly, “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe I’ll forgive you if you order Hux to release Leia to Finn when you arrive at Foerost.”
“I understand FN-2187-”
“Don’t call him that.”
“I understand the Captain intends to offer to trade prisoners.”
“You for Leia.”
“What do you think?” she asked.
There was a longer pause, as she sensed he was deciding on how much to give away. “I think Hux has his own agenda right now.”
Rey caught on immediately. “He wants to be Supreme Leader.”
“Yes.” So calm… his energy was still so calm, despite all of this.
“Do you think he’ll try to have you killed?”
“How do you think I ended up caught in a gas mine explosion on Generis?”
She heard Finn swear in the background. Their spies had told them that Starkiller had been General Hux’s pride and joy, that Kylo Ren had actually lobbied against it on the grounds that it set them up for failure similar to the Empire’s Death Stars. Rey wondered what else they disagreed on. Hux was sometimes a joke to the Resistance, because Poe had made him look ridiculous at D’Qar, and because they needed something to laugh at. But Leia had warned her that the man was vicious and unpredictable, and very smart. Ben was giving a great deal away by admitting to factions within the First Order.
“He’ll use your mother against you,” she said.
“He will try.” His anger flashed through the Force. “I can go in, get her out of the way before I deal with Hux. The problem is that the First Order is tracking my ship.”
Rey followed his line of thought. “And it would look suspicious if the tracker was disabled now.”
“Right. So I need you to convince the Captain to give me an X-wing-”
“Oh, HELL no!” Finn shouted from nearby.
“-so I can slip in while they’re monitoring for the Tie-Silencer.”
It made sense. In a shipyard as large as Foerost, a single X-wing could slip out of hyperspace and find a remote docking undetected. From there it’d just be a matter of finding out where Leia was kept, then getting her out. The first would be easy enough… Hux would likely tell him, and if the general was to lie, Ben could sense his mother in the Force. The second would be trickier, as Ben was too recognizable to easily sneak around an area filled with First Order personnel. But…
“So you’d go against your own people to rescue her,” Rey said.
She waited, knowing he was likely chewing the inside of his lip in the way he did when he was turning something over in his mind. “Because as you said, Hux will use her against me,” he finally responded. “I can’t let that happen.”
It wasn’t the answer she’d wanted to hear… or was it? “He can only use her against you if you care what happens to her,” she said carefully.
He was again silent for a long moment. “She’s my mother, Rey. After Han Solo…” He stopped and seemed to gather himself. “I’ll find her and get her to safety, then you all need to go somewhere far away. Stay away from the First Order for a while. There are too many players and too much firepower for this to be settled quietly.”
“A civil war within the First Order. Do you think it will come to that?”
“I think I might have underestimated Hux and his loyalists. You don’t want to get in the middle of it.”
“Not even if I have a stake in the outcome?”
He paused at that, surprised, and she felt him suppress the question he really wanted to ask. Instead, he said, “Whatever is left of the First Order will still be your enemy, and will still vastly outnumber and outgun the Resistance.”
He was right. “I guess we’ll worry about that when the time comes.” She sighed. “Put Finn back on.”
“Finn, I think we have to trust Ben that he’ll do this.”
“Ben? Trust?!” The former stormtrooper’s voice rose. “Not Ben. This is Kylo Ren. I watched this asshole order the massacre of an entire village. We saw him stand face-to-face with his own father and shove a lightsaber through his heart, don’t you remember?”
Of course she remembered. And Ben did, too. She spoke quietly to her friend. “Yet you have him on your ship and haven’t killed him. Why?”
“You heard me. Little kid. Good guys.” She heard the frustration in his tone. For a commander with years of experience, this would be a tough call. And Finn was so new to this. They all were.
Rey made a decision. “Finn, there’s something I didn’t tell you - any of you, except Leia - about what happened on the Supremacy.”
“What do you mean?”
She heard Ben’s voice. “You don’t have to tell him. I can show them.”
Rey remembered what Martna Ren had said on Ahch-To. “There really is a security holo? And you have it with you?”
Thank you all for reading, leaving Kudos, and commenting! The feedback has kept me going and makes me smile every time I check in.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After short consideration, Finn decided that only he and Rose needed to see this security holo that Rey and Kylo Ren were referring to. It must be something important or incriminating enough that the Supreme Leader felt the need to carry a recording of it on his person. But the idea that it might make him trust Kylo Ren? Finn didn’t want to tell Rey, but that wasn’t likely. Not at all.
He stationed a few guards outside his office before closing the door. Not that they’d do much good if Ren finally did turn on them and start choking people with the Force or whatever it was he could do. He’d heard Ren promise Rey not to hurt any of them. It made him bristle - the implication that this one man could take on his entire ship. That it was probably true pissed him off even more.
He kept an eye on Ren as Rose flicked on the holoprojector. “OK, let’s see it.”
Ren seemed to hesitate for a moment before inserting the datachip. Finn had the distinct sense that the other man was having second thoughts about anyone else watching this. Well, too bad. He crossed his arms as the image flashed to life.
The first shock was Snoke. This mangled, diseased, grotesque humanoid had been the mysterious Supreme Leader that they’d all feared so much? And what was with the gold robe and slippers? Finn felt a flash of amusement that faded quickly at the sight of Rey, hands bound, being marched toward that throne. Finn glared at Ren, whose eyes remained fixed on the holo image.
Without audio it was impossible to know what was being said, but he got the gist of it… tell me what I want to know, no I won’t, look here’s your fleet being destroyed. His heart wrenched every time Rey tried and failed to get to Snoke, to cut him down. As strong as he knew she was, she was completely outmatched here. Even knowing that she’d survived, that she was alive and unharmed, it was hard to watch…
Until he got to the point where Snoke had Rey suspended in the air and started torturing her.
Finn punched the pause button and had his hand fisted in Ren’s tunic before he even thought about moving. He heard Rose gasp as he slammed the much taller, heavier man against the wall. Ren didn’t resist or push back even when Finn got up in his face.
“OK, asshole, see that?” He flung a hand toward the paused image. “That right there is where you step up. Where a decent person steps up. But look at you, on your knees.” Ren’s eyes were locked on his, hooded emotion flickering behind that maddeningly calm expression.
“Finn.” Rose’s voice cut through the roaring in his head. “Finn. Stop.”
“What?” he growled, not taking his eyes off Ren and not caring in the least that he could be killed with the wave of a hand.
“What?” he asked again, daring a look over his shoulder to where Rose still stood over the projector, though now she had her blaster pointed at Kylo Ren.
She gestured toward the holo image. “I think we should see the rest of this.”
“We will. I’m just deciding where to punch him first.”
“Finn, please. Just come and look.”
He jostled Ren a bit before backing off. “Look at what?”
“Look at his face, Finn.”
With a glance back at Ren, he went over to see what Rose was indicating.
Up to that point in the recording, Kylo Ren had been mostly staring down at the floor. In the split second before Finn had paused the image, he’d looked up at Rey. And though he remained on his knees, the expression on his face was one of horror and misery.
Finn fought off the shock of seeing the Supreme Leader in such a vulnerable state. He glared at Ren again. “Oh, now you feel bad about it.”
“Let’s just play the rest of this,” Rose said quietly. “Rey wants us to see it for a reason, and there’s not much time.”
He felt some of his rage ebb away as she placed a hand on his arm and squeezed. “Fine,” he muttered as Kylo Ren stepped toward them again, his expression unchanged, as though nothing had happened.
Rose started the holo again, and Finn felt himself trembling at the silent image of Rey screaming for what was probably a minute or two but felt like an hour. She had left out this detail when she’d told him and the others what had happened. In fact, most of this didn’t match her account at all. He didn’t have time to wonder why, because the torture finally ended and Rey was jerked to her knees in front of Kylo Ren. He couldn’t tell what was being said, but Snoke was clearly enjoying himself, and the fear in Rey’s eyes as she looked up at Ren…
Finn found he couldn’t breathe as he looked at the image of his dear friend, at that lightsaber as close to her as it was to Han Solo before it ignited. ‘She’s alive,’ he thought to himself again. ‘She survived this, she’s alive, but when does she break free, when does she fight back…’
“I see it,” Rose whispered excitedly.
‘See what?’ He was about to ask, but then Rey fell to the floor as Snoke’s eyes bulged because he… he was impaled by Rey’s lightsaber. But how? How had that… and he saw it then, saw the flick of Kylo Ren’s fingers as he summoned the saber - not to himself - but to Rey’s outstretched hand.
“You did that,” Rose whispered again.
Ren didn’t respond, and Finn chanced a glance at him. The Supreme Leader’s eyes were glued to the holo; it was as if he’d forgotten where he was, forgotten that Finn and Rose were even there.
The Praetorian Guards circled as Rey and Kylo Ren turned back to back with their lightsabers raised. Once the fight started, he didn’t know where to look. Rey fought like… well, he’d never seen her fight like that, never seen her so focused and wrathful. Kriff, she actually bared her teeth as she faced down the guards and flipped her lightsaber like she’d been doing it all her life.
But Snoke’s guards obviously didn’t see her as the primary threat, because the majority of them went for Kylo Ren. Finn clenched his fists as he watched Ren taken them out one by one, though not without effort. His stormtrooper-trained eye saw a dozen moments where Ren should have been beaten but fought his way out either by using the Force or with an impossible sequence of maneuvers or just by sheer, guts-driven brawling.
Shit, he’d just attacked this man. Shoved him up against a wall. He was an idiot… lucky not to be a dead idiot.
Two guards were left, and both Rey and Kylo Ren were headlocked at the same time. Rey got hers first with an insane move that had Rose gasping and digging her nails into his forearm. Then the one fighting Ren got a face full of Rey’s lightsaber, and that was it. Finn slowly shook his head and drew a full breath for the first time in several minutes.
“We can stop it there,” Ren said, moving to switch off the holo.
Rose stepped to block him. “No.”
He stared at her, and Finn tensed. But then the Supreme Leader stepped back and inclined his head before shifting his gaze back to the holo. Something in his expression had changed. There was a tension that hadn’t been there before, a crack in that aloof mask. Huh.
Finn looked again at the recording. He wished there was audio as he watched Rey’s face change at whatever Ren was saying to her. Then Kylo Ren held out his hand to Rey, and instantly Finn knew what was being discussed.
“She wouldn’t,” he snarled quietly, not even looking at the other man.
“She didn’t,” Ren responded after a moment in a tone that had Finn and Rose both glancing at him for a second. But his expression had steadied, the mask back in place. The man did know how to conceal his emotions.
Except with Rey, apparently. The Kylo Ren in the holo image was clearly imploring Rey, who now had tears streaming down her cheeks. He held out his hand again, and hers began to lift…
Finn couldn’t stop his curse as Rey tried to summon her lightsaber only to have it stop in midair. He’d never seen anything like it - the storm of wind and energy that whipped around and then seemed to push them apart, then the explosion that knocked them both backwards.
“The lightsaber split,” Rose whispered. He hadn’t seen that but believed her. He opened his mouth to say so but then stopped, realizing that Ren had stepped closer and indeed seemed more tense now than he had since they’d started the playback. The Supreme Leader didn’t seem to breathe as the remainder of the image played… Rey waking up and checking on Ren, pulling him across the deck - for real, how strong was she? - then taking off; Hux showing up and… well, shit… going for his blaster before Ren came to.
Once it was done, Rose flicked off the holo and stared up at Ren. “You saved her life.”
His eyes were distant, as though he was still living in the moment they’d just watched. “I didn’t save her,” he said softly. “I just didn’t kill her.”
“OK then, you saved her by not killing her. But why?”
Ren didn’t answer.
Finn saw Rose roll her eyes. “Fine” she said. “You don’t have to say it.”
“Say what?” Finn asked.
Rose just watched Kylo Ren’s face for a moment before raising her eyebrows and then checking her data pad. “Arrival to Foerost in thirty minutes. If we’re going to plan this, we have to do it now.”
“You can’t be serious.” Finn pulled her aside and lowered his voice, though he knew full well that Ren could still hear them. “OK, I admit, he helped Rey against Snoke. But it also served his own purposes. Who’s to say he’s not doing the same now?”
Rose didn’t bother to speak quietly. “He probably is. But maybe right now his purposes line up with ours. He wants to get around whatever Hux is doing. To do that he needs his mother out of danger.”
He crossed his arms. “So we let him rescue General Leia.”
“After watching that, I’m pretty sure he has a better chance of pulling it off than we do.”
“And then what? He delivers the general, then gives us a five minute headstart before sending his fleet of Star Destroyers after us again? What do you think-”
“Ten minute headstart,” said Ren from across the room.
Finn flung out a finger at him. “Again, asshole, not helping.”
But he considered Kylo Ren, who seemed to be staring at a spot on the floor, his mind distant even as he was clearly following their conversation. Incredibly, a small smile had appeared on the Supreme Leader’s face. Finn didn’t know what to make of Kylo Ren. He’d expected a monster, but…
There were so many disparate pieces that didn’t add up. Saving Rey, saving the kid. The inexplicable loyalty of his stormtroopers. And going even further back, it had always stuck in Finn’s head that on that fateful night on Jakku, Ren had seen him fail to murder those villagers but didn’t kill or call him out on it.
This was Han and Leia’s son. Sometimes it was easy to forget that. Maybe it actually did count for something.
Maybe there was more to Kylo Ren than he could see. Finn knew he had his own weak spots, and reading people was certainly one of them. But Rose and Rey… he trusted their judgment. What had Han Solo told him? ‘Women always find out the truth. Always.’
“OK,” he said, trying not to think about C’ai Threnalli’s reaction to Kylo Ren taking off in one of their brand new X-wings. “Let’s set this up.”
(Don't worry... you'll see Kylo's reaction to the holo in Chapter 20)
It had taken DN-3351 and his crew some time to locate the survivors of the gas mine explosion. The camp where most of the miners and their families had lived was incinerated, and the fire still burned high when their shuttle returned to Generis. They’d searched through the smoke haze and scattered debris until their infrared scanners picked up clusters of people making their way around the forested slopes of nearby hills. They’d landed, only to find themselves surrounded by a ragtag group of soot-covered, exhausted miners with a handful of blasters between them.
There were a tense few minutes of conversation before those blasters were lowered and Dan was allowed to exit the shuttle carrying the now sleeping Anise in his arms. Soon the shuttle carrying the rest of the children joined them, and the locals forgot about the stormtroopers as tears of relief or despair revealed who had found their loved ones and who had not.
Anise’s father was not among the survivors. Several of the miners had seen him running back just before the blast. He’d been trying to get to his daughter.
An older couple reluctantly agreed to take the girl… temporarily, they’d said. He could understand their hesitance. A child to care for, a mouth to feed… when they themselves had just lost their homes and workplace. A hard life had just gotten harder. Dan remembered what Kylo Ren had said about a safe situation. But he couldn’t see another option.
He and the other troopers - about two dozen of them - gathered near their shuttles and scarfed down ration packets that they’d shared with the survivors. The other stormtroopers and crew had automatically deferred to DN-3351 as the officer in charge. He wasn’t sure he’d earned it but accepted out of necessity.
“You really think they won’t execute him, captain?” asked a member of one of the teams that had been on the other shuttle.
They’d all removed their helmets to eat. Some sat on the ground, others on rocks or along the ramps of their ships. The arrangement was informal, antithetical to normal stormtrooper behavior. It was a gamble, telling them all what had happened aboard the Resistance cruiser. But these were the troopers that had gone against General Hux’s order to abandon Kylo Ren at the mine. If there was someone among them who would betray the Supreme Leader to Hux, he didn’t see it.
“FN-2187 said they wouldn’t,” he replied. “He was in command of the ship.”
There was muttering through the group at that. Dan caught the word ‘traitor’ more than once. But there was no real malice behind it. A few were shaking their heads in amazement that one of their own was now commander of a starship.
Dan set his food aside and rested his elbows on his knees. “Look at it this way. FN-2187 defected because he decided he didn’t like to kill people. Maybe that extends to Kylo Ren.”
“Let’s hope so, sir,” said a female trooper as the others laughed.
“Heads up!” called one of the troopers assigned to perimeter security. “More stragglers, southeast corner.”
Dan looked up and saw a large group emerging from the trees. He counted about thirty, and something in their bearing made him stand and replace his helmet. Immediately all of his fellow stormtroopers did the same, drawing their weapons as they moved into formation.
A very small person detached herself from the group and, after exchanging some words with the miners, headed straight toward the First Order shuttles. As she approached, Dan recognized the female that Kylo Ren had come down to the planet to interrogate. Though from what he’d witnessed, the interrogation had seemed more like a spirited discussion.
Maz Kanata stopped in front of him and fisted her hands on her hips. Dan resisted the urge to crouch down to better speak to her, but he did holster his weapon. He noted the blaster on Kanata’s own belt. It was Kylo Ren’s.
“You’re in charge,” the woman stated in a gritty voice much larger than her size.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“What’s your name?” Her goggles were down, and her magnified eyes stared up at him, unblinking.
She frowned. “That’s not a name.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Kanata shook her head. “This morning I was a prisoner of the First Order. Now it’s ‘ma’am’.” Her eyes swept over the assembled stormtroopers, assessing, and she scowled as she seemed to come to a decision. “We’re going to have to evacuate all of you.” She glanced back at the group she’d arrived with; they were observing the exchange closely, their weapons ready. “That lot won’t like it, but they’ll listen to me.”
Evacuate? “No, thank you, ma’am, we’ve already called for transport.” He’d made contact with the Star Destroyer Titan, which had been carrying personnel to heavy weapons training in a nearby system. “We’ll be off-planet by mid-afternoon.”
“If you don’t come with us, you’ll be dead within the hour.”
The stormtroopers near Dan shifted. He finally did crouch down, the better to look Kanata in the eye. “What do you mean, ma’am?”
“Black Sun. They worked with your General Hux to stage all this.” She swept her hand toward the distant inferno. “Now they’re coming to clean up the mess. Any witnesses will be eliminated.”
Dan knew about Black Sun. The massive criminal enterprise had thrived under the old Empire, but they’d been a non-factor in the galaxy for many years now. Even if what Kanata said was true… “If there’s any danger, ma’am, we can handle it.”
“With a handful of stormtroopers and two shuttles that can’t make hyperspace? They’ve got attack cruisers, battle droids, and a militia of several hundred soldiers - all mobilizing now. You’ll be wiped out without a trace. The regional crime lord has the blessing of First Order leadership to do it. We intercepted the messages.”
First Order leadership… meaning General Hux. Dan sensed the unease of the troopers behind him as they listened. He saw the locals begin to gather their things and slip into the trees.
“There’s no time,” Kanata said harshly. “Get what you need and come along. I’ll personally guarantee your safety while you’re in our company.”
Dan suddenly understood. He gestured toward the well-armed group that had arrived with Kanata. “Those aren’t miners. They’re Resistance fighters.” At her nod, he had to ask, “Would we be coming as prisoners?”
“Guests, so long as you keep your weapons holstered.” She stared into Dan, then at the troopers behind him. “Your stormtroopers saved those children. You’re loyal to Ben Solo, not to Hux. These are strange times, and such times breed strange alliances. Some come now, or don’t, but our ship leaves in ten minutes. That way.” She pointed again toward where the miners and the - damn - Resistance fighters were hurrying away. She turned to join them.
Ben Solo? He’d heard the rumors but hadn’t even considered that they were true. Strange times, for sure.
The troopers were waiting on Dan’s orders. This was a solid group, but he wondered if instructing them to essentially turn themselves over to the Resistance would cause a mutiny. If Kanata was right, though, they’d be massacred if they stayed. It sounded like something Hux would do.
“Gather up anything you can carry,” he said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. “It looks like we’re catching a ride off this gasball.”
“Captain!” His crew pilot appeared at the top of the shuttle’s ramp. “There’s an incoming transmission for you from the Finalizer, sir!”
Dan’s heart pounded as he left his troopers to their preparations and hurried onto the ship. His pilot cast a nervous glance at him and nodded toward the cockpit before striding down the ramp, leaving Dan alone. He braced himself and continued inside.
It was a holo transmission, and his mouth went dry at the image of General Hux waiting for him, his hands clasped behind his back and a satisfied expression on his face. Dan stepped into the holo receptor field and drew himself up to attention.
“General Hux, sir.”
A small smile. “Ah, DN-3351, so kind of you to join us.”
Us? “I’m sorry for the delay, general.”
“No doubt you were busy with your mission. Have you encountered any members of the Resistance on Generis?”
To lie or tell the truth? Dan couldn’t decide, and he realized he’d taken too long to respond when Hux’s smile grew.
“Never mind. Of course that unfortunate explosion likely cleared out most enemies the First Order might have had in the area.” The general’s face tightened. “Most. Enemies.”
“Where is the Supreme Leader?”
Dan swallowed hard. “The Supreme Leader made it away just ahead of the explosion, sir, in his Tie-Silencer. He indicated he would meet up with the Finalizer. He said to tell you not to wait for him with your current operation, sir.”
“I’m sure he did.” Hux glanced at something off the holo field, then back at Dan. “So fortunate that he and his ship were unharmed. It must have been a close call.”
“It was, sir.”
“DN-3351, remove your helmet.”
Dan hesitated, then did what was ordered. He schooled his face into as impassive an expression as he could manage.
“Where is Kylo Ren?” Hux asked in an even tone. “What is he planning?”
Dan felt a trickle of sweat down his neck. “He’s on his fighter, sir, probably in hypersp-”
“Elevated to Captain, so quickly,” Hux interrupted. “Clever of you, to switch fire teams this morning. Though it was Ren who sensed he ought to change shuttles. Why so suspicious?”
Dan wished he could signal his troopers to blow up the shuttle now. Anything to end this transmission. “Sir, I don’t-”
“Oh I think you do. But that, as it turns out, might be quite helpful.” Hux made a gesture to someone, and Dan heard the sounds of a scuffle. “You see,” Hux continued, “thanks to Ren’s decision to let everyone hold hands and fuck in the barracks, I’ve been able to obtain some interesting information about you.”
Dan stopped breathing as Hux continued. “Those rules were in place for a reason. You see, having someone to care about leaves a person open to manipulation, even blackmail. For example…”
The holo field expanded, and two stormtroopers with the black-marked armor of executioners dragged Taz into view. Taz had been stripped to the waist, and his chest and arms were bruised and bloody. He was gagged, and his eyes were dazed and fearful as they darted between Hux and the holo camera. The troopers pressed him against a wall, and one of them activated a laser axe.
“His left ear, on my order,” said Hux disinterestedly to the troopers. He smiled again at Dan, a viper’s expression. “First the ears and perhaps the nose, then the hands, then we might have to get creative. So I’ll ask you again, DN-3351. What do you know about Kylo Ren’s plans that I don’t?”
Taz hadn’t told them about the security holo, or Hux would have mentioned it. He hadn’t given anything up. But Dan couldn’t think, he couldn’t move, as he watched that vibrating blade hover so close to Taz’s head. This was his fault, he’d done this, and no matter what he did now, Taz was going to die in a horrible way…
Something seized in his chest as Hux raised his hand and turned toward the troopers. The general opened his mouth.
“Stop.” Dan’s voice was little more than a croak, but Hux paused and turned slightly toward him.
“Stop,” Dan said again. He couldn’t look at Taz, at that weapon. Not if he wanted to breathe. Not if he wanted to keep from falling to the floor. He dug his fingernails into his palms.
“The Supreme Leader’s fighter was disabled,” he said, not allowing himself to think at all. “He’s been taken prisoner by the Resistance.”
As he set coordinates for the short hyperspace jump to Foerost, Kylo had to admit that this T-85 was a fairly impressive ship. He’d spent his childhood climbing in and around X-wings, and had cut his teeth learning to fly the old T-65B model. But while those had been battle-worn from the Galactic Civil War, this fighter was still sharp and shiny and had that distinctive new-ship smell.
It pained him to leave his Tie-Silencer behind, almost as much as it seemed to pain Captain Threnalli to hand over the ignition codes for one of his squadron. Kylo had no doubt that Resistance techs were already crawling all over his fighter, gleaning everything they could about its specs and capabilities. He had locked down the linked computer systems as well as possible, but given enough time they’d probably be able to hack through some level of the First Order’s security. He hoped they were smart enough to wait until this mission was completed to try.
And besides, turnabout was fair play, and he had learned a critical piece of information that Threnalli and FN-2187 had been loathe to give up… these new T-85’s were modified with an advanced cloaking system. The technology was so cutting-edge that he doubted the scanners around Foerost would be adjusted for it, making this the ideal ship for him to slip into the area quietly. But he would be sure to relay the information to the First Order’s engineering officers. Although, he assured FN-2187, he’d first give the Resistance the promised ten minute head start. The former stormtrooper had let loose with an impressive string of cursing at that.
Kylo did appreciate, at some level, how much the Resistance was willing to sacrifice to rescue his mother. They’d revealed confidential technology, exposed the location of many of their personnel and resources, and given up the opportunity to use him as the ultimate bargaining chip. He wondered, not for the first time, whether his mother’s primary value to the rebels was as a tactician, a negotiator, or simply a mythic figurehead. Probably all three, and more. He knew better than anyone how imposing and important a figure she could be in someone’s life. Despite himself, Kylo envied her connection to these people and this cause that had nothing to do with him.
Coordinates set, he cast a last glance at the cruiser Adamant 2 and the planet of Dagary Minor beyond. They’d chosen a spot in the Inner Rim, close enough to make a quick jump to Foerost but away from any substantial First Order presence. Soon Rey would arrive here to rendezvous with her friends and wait for him to return with his mother. And then…
Kylo made the jump to hyperspace, his mind returning to those last minutes of the security holo. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble on Generis and elsewhere if only he’d watched the entire thing sooner. The image of Hux preparing to kill him was probably the reason DN-3351 had given him the datachip in the first place. A stormtrooper and a holo tech had tried to prevent a coup, and he’d been too distracted to catch on.
But even that was of minor importance compared with what had happened with Rey. Alone in the confines of the cockpit, Kylo allowed himself a hint of a smile. In the weeks since that day, one brutal fact had tortured him… she’d simply left him there, unconscious, on a doomed ship. This was after she had come to him alone and stood up to Snoke, both on her own behalf and his. After they’d fought together, connecting in a way he never would have thought possible for any two people, and especially for someone like him.
But then he’d watched her face when he refused to save her fleet. He’d felt her despair when he forced her to confront the truth about her parents. He had done everything wrong, said all the wrong things, and in that moment he was sure she hated him for it. He’d ceased being Ben and once again became the creature that stalked her - the monster that everyone knew he was. It would have made sense - would have been a great victory for the Resistance - had she killed him. In his darkest moments he had wondered if she’d considered it, had maybe even tried to do so before being forced to flee. But it hadn’t been like that at all.
The moment Rey had awakened, she’d pushed herself up to look for him. There was real concern on her face as she checked on him and pulled him away from a small fire burning on the deck. So strong… she was so strong, in many ways. Strong enough to crack his armor, and then strong enough to walk away from him.
He pictured the moment when she’d touched his face, near the scar she had given him. She’d said something to him then. He needed to know what it was. Maybe she would tell him, someday, if he asked…
Kylo glanced at the comm panel on his instrument console. He was - impossibly - piloting a Resistance vessel, and so had a direct line to Rey. All he would have to do was punch in a frequency. But that wasn’t how they communicated.
She felt so close. Their bond had reconnected because she’d been on Ahch-To; and now, even though she had left the sacred island, it thrummed and sparked at the edges of his awareness. The same live wire that had drawn them into each other’s worlds and culminated in a touch that had transformed everything he’d thought he would ever want or need… it was back, more intense than ever.
He closed his eyes, felt a spike of fear and hesitation and then pushed it aside. Carefully, he reached out. Rey, are you…?
That quickly, as though she’d been waiting, she was there.
Kylo felt her before he opened his eyes, both through the Force and-
She stiffened, then relaxed slightly as she swallowed a laugh. Kylo held himself completely still, even as her hair tickled his nose.
“Well this is… close,” she said, and he felt more than saw her amusement.
“Single seat starfighter,” he managed to say, still trying not to move. “Not my doing.”
She was on his lap. Her warm weight pressed into him; he could feel her muscles shift through the coarse fabric of her flight suit.
She tried to glance back at him but couldn’t quite make eye contact. “I’m beginning to think the Force has an agenda,” she said, scooting backward to balance herself in a way that had him biting into his lip.
“I think the Force didn’t have any place else to put you.”
If Rey was as affected by this as he was, it didn’t show. She looked around in wonder. “The connection is getting stronger. I can actually see the cockpit.”
It was true. She felt so corporeal, like she was really there with him. Although…
“I can’t see your surroundings,” Kylo said as his heart thumped so loudly he was sure she could hear it. “You’re not projecting yourself, are you? The effort could-”
“Kill me?” she finished softly, and he sensed her grief as they both thought of Luke. “No, I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t even know how.”
Kylo didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know where to put his hands. He wanted to tell her he was sorry. He wanted to tug her against him and bury his face in her neck. She was so close he could smell the seawater and wood smoke in her hair. But there was no time.
He realized too late that she had followed his entire line of thought. A flush crept into her cheeks, and she stared down at her fists clenched in her lap as they both fought for control of something that was completely beyond them.
An alert from the console made them both jump. Kylo peered over her shoulder. “One minute to Foerost.”
She twisted to look into his face. “I’ve spoken with Poe. Are you sure you’re ready?”
He nodded even as his gaze darted over her cheek, her mouth, the line of her jaw. “I’ve told Hux that I had to stop near Dagary Minor for some quick repairs. It should buy me enough time.”
Her eyes flashed concern. “He won’t send a ship there?”
“He offered. I ordered him to keep all resources at Foerost.”
She grinned. “In case the Resistance comes to rescue their general.” She watched him for a moment, then her brows creased. “What?”
He had never really seen her smile. It took his breath away, that small expression of cautious joy, shared only with him. Do it again, he wanted to say. But… there was no time.
Whatever Rey had read on his face, or through the Force, caused her to reach up a hand. “Be careful, Ben,” she whispered, even as her presence began to fade. She vanished in the moment before that hand would have touched his cheek.
It wasn’t until she was gone that Kylo realized he’d forgotten to ask her what she’d said in the throne room.
As the navicomputer counted down the final seconds and he shuddered out of hyperspace at Foerost, Kylo didn’t have time to think about how much colder the cockpit seemed without her warm weight against him. But he felt calmer and more centered than he had since that moment on the Supremacy when he’d looked down at Rey and told her as best he could about his intentions. ‘I know what I have to do.’ It had frightened her, because he’d had to block her out. To deceive Snoke he’d had to deceive her as well.
But never again. Now he truly did know what he had to do. It wasn’t about pulling her into his world. It was about being someone she would choose. He had so much power and almost unlimited resources to use it. Rey, with her ingrained compassion, would know how those resources could be best employed. They could end the war. Families - like Anise’s - would no longer be torn apart.
The Force would guide them. This time there were no ancient powers of Jedi and Sith to prolong and intensify the conflict. Though perhaps he and Rey could seek out other Force-sensitive people to teach, but only those who wanted it. Jacen Ren had suggested the idea more than once, but Kylo had refused to bring acolytes under Snoke’s domain.
His mother might help, if she forgave him and believed in what he hoped to do. There could be no going back to a Republic, the overwrought system that had failed twice just in her lifetime. But her populist ideals could help him learn to be a real leader, instead of the heavy-handed tyrant the galaxy had come to expect and fear.
Kylo activated the X-wing’s cloaking device as he slipped into the busy ship traffic swarming Foerost’s vast network of docks and factories. There were several gunships among them, though only a few belonged to the First Order. Even so, it was a potentially volatile environment. He set a roundabout course that would take him close to the massive Star Destroyer looming off the shipyard boundary. His mother’s presence guided him; he sensed that she was calm yet exhausted. Hux had told him that the “prisoner” was being detained in the Finalizer’s main detention block, and in that, at least, the general seemed to be telling the truth.
He spotted the docking slip he wanted and glided carefully in, checking his lightsaber as he did so. He’d declined Tico’s offer of Resistance-issue blasters. He hoped he wouldn’t have to take out many of his own troopers to get this done. He wondered briefly whether DN-3351 and his team had made it off Generis yet. There might be other personnel loyal to him, but he didn’t know who or where they were. Hux was more skilled than he was at surrounding himself with loyalists. That would have to change.
Docking completed, he typed in commands to the Resistance astromech droid assigned to this X-wing. The droid had been stonily silent since Kylo had come aboard; he got the sense the R3 unit was barely tolerating him. But it would do its duty as programming dictated. Hopefully.
Kylo pulled on a heavy, hooded cloak, aware that it made him look very much Sith or Jedi. But he would employ the Force as he moved through the shipyard and onto the Finalizer. He couldn’t make himself invisible, but he could create the illusion that he wasn’t truly there, so that someone who saw him would instantly forget, if they noticed at all.
Because this would only work if he could remain unseen, unrecognized. Not an easy task on his own Star Destroyer, but he’d arranged for Hux’s attention to be elsewhere. The general didn’t know he was coming, at least not yet.
Kylo exited the fighter and made his way to the pedestrian corridors of the shipyard. He kept to the lesser traveled routes, moving quickly. He passed a few other humans and alien beings, and those that might have seen him either consciously or unconsciously averted their eyes. He reached out with the Force, scanning his immediate surroundings, forever aware of the charged connection with Rey deep inside him. Then he cast out a tentative, quiet inquiry to the one person here he did want to know about his presence.
There was a long moment of silence while he counted the beats of his heart. Finally, a gentle response, from an energy that was so familiar because it made up one half of himself.
It took Rey several minutes to shake off a feeling of unreality, as though she really had been in two places at once. It seemed dangerous - that her awareness could be with Ben so completely while her body remained behind. Not for the first time, she wondered if this had ever happened to anyone else. Perhaps there was a chapter in one of the sacred Jedi texts all about Force bonds and how to manage them.
She sighed. With her luck, if such a chapter existed, it was probably in the Rammahgon.
She rubbed at her arms and legs through her flightsuit. Her skin felt prickly all over from the contact with Ben. He hadn’t even tried to shield his emotions from her, and what she’d sensed had left her… not afraid, exactly, but nervous, as though she stood on the edge of a dark chasm and was about to willingly jump. For the first time in many years, she felt as young as her age. Her exploration of the Force on Ahch-To wasn’t the only awakening she’d had during her time on the island. Now Rey felt a pull deep inside her that both thrilled and terrified. And at the core of that pull… him.
She shook off the lingering effects of the bond and made herself focus. She checked her comm and read a message from Poe confirming that he had Black Squadron ready and was preparing to descend on the Finalizer. She closed her eyes briefly, thinking about those pilots who had already survived so much. She could only hope the new cloaking systems worked well enough to keep casualties low. The squadron would move in and out quickly, causing only enough mayhem to divert the First Order’s attention from General Leia and Ben.
Another message had come from Kaydel Connix, who was in command of a small Resistance group that was setting up an auxiliary base in the Unknown Regions. Rey breathed with relief when she saw that the mission she’d asked Connix to take on was successfully underway.
The navicomputer showed another thirty five minutes to Dagary Minor. Lightspeed had never seemed so slow. R2-D2 beeped softly, and Rey rubbed at her face.
“Yes, I am exhausted. But I feel like I should be doing something.” At his inquisitive trill, she studied her instrument panel. “I don’t know, something. But…” Rey’s stomach was in knots, and it wasn’t from the marshmallows she’d scarfed down last night. “I just have a bad feeling about this.”
R2 let out an odd squacking sound. Rey frowned at the little droid. “What is so funny?” When he didn’t answer and just kept quietly hooting in amusement, Rey turned her scowl out the forward viewport. She loved flying, but the blue streaks of hyperspace seemed endless, and the Force was feeding her a barrage of input from the many star systems that were zipping by unseen. Rey closed her eyes to try to block it out…
Only to have them snap open when an automated alarm sounded from her console. Heart pounding, she checked her instruments, where all seemed in order. The alarm was coming from her nav system. One minute to Dagary Minor. Well then.
But something was wrong. The Force buzzed with a dangerous energy that made the hair on the back of Rey’s neck stand up. She scanned her ship… still in hyperspace, all systems normal. R2, who had gone into low-power mode while she napped, beeped a question.
“Yes, something IS wrong,” she answered, readying shields and weapons as she counted down the last seconds until arrival. “But I don’t know-”
She felt it then. That place deep inside where her bond with Ben resided had turned… not silent, but… cold. As though he was blocking her out. She cast her awareness toward him, gently at first, but with increasing desperation when he didn’t respond. She could feel him, very distantly, and was dismayed to find that his Force energy was once again a maelstrom of rage and betrayal, as it had been on Crait.
He’d been on Foerost for over half an hour while she slept. When they had planned Leia’s rescue, Ben had estimated that he would need about that amount of time to get to his mother. They should be on their way out now, and Black Squadron should be escaping to lightspeed. What had happened?
Her cruiser shuddered out of hyperspace, and Rey felt overwhelming relief to see the Adamant 2 exactly where it was supposed to be. She reached for her comm, but before she could activate it an incoming message appeared.
“Finn!” she practically shouted, the joy at feeling his close presence overshadowed by a rising panic. “What’s going on?”
“I was going to ask you that.” His voice was steady, but she detected tension. “Have you heard from Be-… from Kylo Ren?”
She would have smiled at his near slip if the Force wasn’t still screaming danger signals in her head. “Not since he arrived to Foerost. Why? What’s wrong?”
“Not sure. I gave him a closed-frequency hand comm to use if there was an emergency. He activated it ten minutes ago and told me to have Poe abort. I tried to respond but the signal went dead. And I mean DEAD. Like his comm was destroyed.”
Rey’s fingers felt like ice as she maneuvered her ship closer to his. “And his fighter?”
“Readouts are normal, but I don’t want to message his R3 unit. They’re probably scanning for incoming transmissions, and it could give away the location of the X-wing, assuming its cloaking system is still activated.”
“Right. So what about Poe?”
“It was too late. By the time I contacted them the fighters were on their first attack run. They’re still in there, bombarding every surface weapon on the Finalizer they can find. Poe insists the cloaking is working great - says the Tie fighters are flying around shooting at shadows - and he wants to stay until we have confirmation from Ren that Leia is safe.”
That sounded like something Poe would do, but Rey didn’t like it. “Hux has to realize by now that such a small-scale assault is only a diversion.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Finn responded. “That’s why I sent C’ai and Red Squadron out a few minutes ago. They’ll shake things up a bit more, make Hux and his officers start looking to see what else might be coming.”
She nodded to herself. “And keep their eyes away from what's already there.” She didn’t want to tell Finn that her connection with Ben had changed. Because that would entail explaining that they had a connection in the first place, which wasn’t a conversation for right now.
“I need to get over there, Finn.”
“To Foerost. The Force is telling me that something’s wrong. I need to be there.” She had a sudden thought. “Where is Chewie with the Falcon?”
“Inbound, maybe twenty minutes out. But what do you mean you have to be there? What’s wrong with the Force?”
“I’ll explain later. Just redirect Chewie to Foerost. We exchanged binary beacons before he left me on Hoth, so he’ll be able to find me. Just tell him to stay out of sight until I signal, or until he senses that it’s time to come in.” Chewbacca seemed to have an instinct about such things, perhaps not directly through the Force, but developed from years of watching Han’s back. That he seemed to be developing a similar loyalty to her made Rey’s chest squeeze up with gratitude.
“Two squadrons, the Falcon, and you. So much for our stealth rescue operation,” Finn said. “So are you going to tell me your new plan?”
She was busy programming her navicomputer. “Go in. Find Leia and Ben. Get out.”
Finn sighed loudly. “Good plan. Excellent.”
“You should get out of here, just in case. Ditch the Tie-Silencer unless you want half the First Order fleet chasing you across the galaxy.”
“We’re on it.”
“Good. I’m ready.” Rey took a breath, willing herself to relax, to be calm in the eye of this storm. “Finn?”
Her fingers paused over the hyperdrive switch. “May the Force be with you.” And she cut off her comm as streaking stars lit the way to Foerost, and to their General, and to Ben.
30 minutes earlier…
Kylo’s progress toward the Finalizer had been, to this point, uninhibited. The star destroyer - all three kilometers of it - was positioned between the Foerost System’s sun and the sprawling shipyard, casting already gray structures and walkways into flat, untimely twilight. Kylo used this in his favor as he moved over catwalks and through alleys, the Force speaking to him all the while, telling him to wait here in this shadow or to cloud the mind of that security officer. When he finally neared the edge of a freight dock that the First Order had commandeered as a transport base, he paused to observe.
A platoon of stormtroopers were overseeing the loading of crates onto a small transport shuttle. It appeared that Hux was utilizing the layover in Foerost to resupply; the crates bore the insignia of a company that made components for blasters and turbolasers. In the distance Kylo could see one shuttle outbound to the Finalizer, and another that headed in toward the dock. An efficient operation, surprisingly so considering what he found when he scanned the minds of the stormtroopers present. These were not full troopers, but cadets who were fairly new to the training program. He sensed their nervousness and pride at finding themselves armored up and conducting a mission. There were two captains present, both of whom he knew well.
As he watched, they finished loading the shuttle that was currently docked, and the crew prepared for departure. The captains ordered two fire teams - twelve cadets - aboard the shuttle, and Kylo had the sense that this was as much a training exercise as an actual mission. The cadets’ inexperience in monitoring the scene worked in his favor as he moved quickly through the stacks of crates to a final position near the base of the loading ramp. As hydraulics hissed and the ramp began to close, he simply stepped up and into the shuttle. There was no shout of alarm, no flare of recognition from the troopers or crew. He was a wraith inside a shadow, a darkness that caused eyes to be averted, not drawn in.
A shuttle this size had no separate cargo compartment; the crates were stacked in with the troopers. Kylo opted for the cockpit instead… fewer sets of eyes, and the advantage of the forward viewport. The close quarters required him to utilize the Force to block his presence entirely from the two pilots, and neither woman looked back though he was only a meter behind them.
“Finalizer, shuttle RS-779 inbound,” the copilot said into her comm as the pilot turned the ship.
“Copy, RS-779. Proceed on the designated course,” came the response.
As the transport swung about, the Finalizer came into view, perhaps a half kilometer away. Farther ahead, the shuttle that had departed ahead of them veered away from the main hangar bay and approached the door of an accessory hangar on a lower level of the ship. This was fortunate, assuming all the shuttles were directed to the same bay: it would position them closer to the detention block, and away from the Star Destroyer’s nerve center.
Kylo closed his eyes and centered himself in the Force. There was still a strain from his exertion on Generis. Even the small effort of controlling minds and hiding himself had caused a faint throbbing behind his eyes. It would likely be a few days - and a lot of sleep - before he was fully restored. He acknowledged the discomfort and then buried it, choosing to focus instead on things that would give him strength. Rey. His mother.
His mother’s energy - usually so calm - had spiked with apprehension when she’d detected that he was near. And as it had been on the day when he’d targeted the command bridge of the Raddus from his Tie Silencer, he knew that her fear was not OF him, but FOR him. She now knew he was coming, and she sensed that he was doing so in secret. He needed her to be aware and alert, to prepare herself and be ready to act. The Leia Organa he knew as a mother had been strictly a politician, but he’d heard stories about her skill with a blaster. His father had told him-
Kylo pressed himself against the bulkhead and opened his eyes to see the Finalizer drawing closer.
Soon, he would look his mother in the eye, knowing that as she looked back she was seeing the person who had murdered her husband. Who had killed his own father. And it would be made worse - infinitely worse - because she would instantly forgive him. He knew she would, because he was her son, and she still held hope for him to come back to her. To come to the Light. It was a hope Rey shared. It hurt to breathe when he thought about it, because despite what they wanted, despite who he cared about, he didn’t know how to-
Kylo’s focus snapped as a shock ripped through the Force. He felt a close burst of pain and fear, then death… instant death, of perhaps a dozen people.
Though the shuttle flew on undisturbed, his control had slipped enough that the copilot glanced over her shoulder. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened as she saw him. Kylo recovered enough to wave a hand, and her expression glazed over before she faced forward again without saying a word.
He steadied his breathing and reached out, trying to find the source of the disturbance. All he felt was the last echoes of those life energies - young, vibrant - dissolving into the Force. Whatever had caused the deaths had been abrupt, and so very close. It had to have been on the Finalizer. Unease stirred deep inside him.
His mother was still alive… he could sense her. But he had no idea what had become of the Resistance personnel who had been captured with her. Had Hux executed them all at once, perhaps as a show of authority before Kylo returned?
He could sense Hux in the Force, and so found him easily as his awareness swept the ship. Kylo had thought the general would be near his mother in the detention block, and so was surprised to find him in the very hangar bay where the shuttles were being directed.
Hux was difficult to read. His energy was nearly always the same regardless of the situation. Even now Kylo could only sense the general’s usual impatience and ever-present arrogance. He didn’t dare try to press further, because though Hux couldn’t use the Force, he had endured enough mind probes to recognize the sensation. It wouldn’t do for the general to become alerted to Kylo’s presence. Yet.
But Kylo didn’t need the Force to know that there was no reason for the ship’s commander to oversee the offloading of stormtrooper cadets and blaster components. No reason at all for Hux to be in an accessory hangar bay, when he had a high-level prisoner in an interrogation cell.
“Shuttle RS-779 approaching hangar D14,” said the pilot into her comm.
It was several seconds before the response came. “RS-779. Hold your current position and await further instructions.”
“Copy.” The two women exchanged a look. They had been silent through the flight; Kylo knew it was because he was clouding their minds to all but their essential duties. But the anomalous order had broken through the fog.
“What’s going on?” murmured the copilot.
“Cadets.” The pilot shrugged. “Probably mucking up the offloading.”
The Force had not settled after the deaths Kylo had detected. Instead, its energy was churning. There was a tension on the Finalizer, a swelling discord resonating from the minds of some personnel on board. Anger, betrayal, confusion… emotions were raging on the ship, like a gathering storm.
All signs pointed to a trap.
“Shuttle RS-779, resume approach,” came through the comm.
“Copy that. On final approach to hangar D14.”
Kylo briefly considered using the Force to command the pilots to turn the shuttle back. But if this indeed was a trap, a retreat might get them fired upon. And he still needed to get aboard that star destroyer.
FN-2187 had given him a binary comm to use in case of emergency. The possibility that Dameron would be leading his squadron into an ambush seemed to count as such. As the shuttle cleared the door into the dimly-lit hangar bay, Kylo quickly typed in his message, instructing the Resistance to abort-
The comm flew out of his hands as everything exploded in blue flame around him. A sharp pain cut through Kylo’s head where he was thrown against the bulkhead and then to the floor as the ship crashed to the hangar bay’s deck. His brain echoed with screams that had already gone silent. The air sparked with ionization, and the cockpit filled with smoke from electrical fires. He pulled himself up and forward, finding the pilot and copilot both unconscious but alive. He could sense that the cadets in the main compartment were in similar condition, though he heard a few low moans of pain. Kylo wiped the hair out of his eyes, and his hand came away bloody.
Through the cracked forward viewport, he saw a shattering sight: an ion canon was mounted to a platform above the deck, and it was pointed directly at the shuttle. Kylo glimpsed the indicator light that showed it was being charged again. The first blast must have been attenuated, or else the shuttle would have exploded at this close range. He realized now that he’d instinctively blocked some of the blast with the Force, or else he and everyone else on board would already be dead.
Hux stood behind the two stormtroopers who operated the canon, and there was a tall Falleen male at his side. ‘Beware the Falleen boss. He talks to one of yours,’ the dying woman at the mine had told Kylo.
The Falleen stood with his arms crossed, his reptilian face severe. But Hux’s energy had changed… he was excited, triumphant.
He knew now that Kylo was on this shuttle.
Kylo saw the word form from the general’s mouth. ‘Fire.’ He used the Force to shield the shuttle again as the second blast came, but again it knocked him off his feet. He tried to push himself up, but his strength was failing. He felt two of the cadets and the copilot die.
The ion canon. He reached out with the Force, and using the last reserve of his energy, he crushed the firing mechanism, rendering it inoperable.
The air in the cockpit was becoming unbreathable, and the same was likely true in the crew compartment. Kylo gripped the pilot’s chair to pull himself to his feet as he activated his lightsaber, the blade of which now had a core of blue-white light from where he’d replaced a fragment of his own kyber crystal with the piece from Rey’s saber… from his family’s saber. He staggered to the wall and cut a hole through the bulkhead. Smoke billowed out as light and air rushed in. He needed to get out, to make a stand here and fight his way to his mother if necessary. Or perhaps he only needed to take out Hux and the Falleen, and then the rest of his forces would fall in line.
He slashed his way through the metal, anticipating blaster bolts from the troopers and cartel guards he sensed at the periphery of the hangar. But none came. The smoke finally cleared enough that he could see through the hole he was cutting, and his eyes locked onto Hux. The general had moved to a new position… flanking yet another canon. In the split second before that canon fired, Kylo saw Hux’s eyes flash with victory.
The blast knocked Kylo backward onto the floor of the shuttle. He blacked out but almost immediately came to. He’d barely been able to dissipate any of the ionization. The Force had become sluggish in and around him; he couldn’t direct it, couldn’t channel it. Five more of the cadets died a violent, abrupt death. His mother’s energy had turned frantic. He sensed Rey was calling to him. He shut them both out, locked his bond with Rey down deep inside of him. She had to stay away… had to…
He had nothing left when the final blast came and the air around him flashed blue again. But even as his eyes blurred and darkness crept in, Kylo felt an odd sensation. The Force seemed to have cocooned him, protecting him just enough to keep the blast from being lethal. He hadn’t directed it. Someone else had. He sensed a presence… someone who felt familiar but not, someone who radiated strength and anger and protectiveness.
There was a spark of recognition, and as Kylo faded into unconsciousness, the impossible word formed on his lips:
Leia Organa knew fear in all its myriad forms. In her long and extraordinary life as a princess, a rebel, a senator, and a general, she had experienced far more than her share of terrifying events. Some were merely frightening and passed in an instant, like the bombing of the New Republic senate hall by Amaxine warriors. Others were so unthinkably horrifying as to paralyze the body and mind, and those seemed to draw out for an eternity. Watching the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan was one such moment.
This was another.
Leia stopped breathing when two black-on-white clad stormtroopers dragged the limp body of her son into the detention cell. Ever since he had called to her with the Force, she’d been sitting quietly, her shackled hands in her lap as she sensed him drawing steadily closer. But then, without warning, everything had exploded. The Force’s currents raged with violence and death, and in the middle of it all… Ben. She’d tried calling out to him, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. She sensed pain and exertion as he drew so intensely on the Force that its energies swirled toward him like a vortex. And then suddenly all went quiet. Except for…
Someone else was close. A faint presence brushed against her mind, and she instinctively recoiled from it as the hair on the back of her neck stood up. But none of that mattered as the troopers stopped in front of her. They waited until Hux strode into the room behind them, and then they dropped her son face-down at her feet.
Leia pushed one trooper out of the way as she fell to her knees next to Ben. She ignored the bark of pain in her legs, as well as the clicks of blasters that were immediately drawn and pointed her way. At that moment she could have crushed those blasters - as well as the windpipes of every enemy in that room - without blinking an eye, though she’d never done such a thing in her life. The Dark Side whispered to her, imploring her to attack. But she ignored the impulse, because here was her son…
It was the the first time she’d seen him in so many years… too long. The first time she had looked on him as a grown man. Love welled up so strongly that she couldn’t breathe within the space of it, and her eyes burned with unshed tears as emotions overwhelmed her. Leia fought for control while she heard Hux chuckling from a few meters away. It was a dry, heartless sound, and she looked up to see the general’s eyes flashing triumphantly as he leered down at them.
“You’re going to die for this,” she said to him in a low and hoarse voice, the words coming from a place inside where all her memories of the past and hopes for the future lived. “Today, you’re going to die. So wipe that smirk off your face, you coward.”
Hux’s smug expression faltered at her tone, or at whatever he saw on her face.
Leia knew that the man underestimated her. She recognized, in a way, why someone would see her stature, her age, the slowness of her movements, and immediately dismiss her potential as a threat. She had allowed their binders to stay on her wrists to perpetuate the misconception. Let them see what was on the surface. Let them forget who her brother was. Who her parents were. Who she was.
She turned her attention back to Ben. He was so still, and even though she could feel his life’s energy in the Force, she watched and then felt for the rise and fall of his chest. His clothes smelled of smoke and ionization. Carefully and with difficulty considering his size and her bound hands, she turned him over and stifled her gasp as she finally looked at her son’s face.
Rey had told her about the scars, about the wounds inflicted on Starkiller base. But even that knowledge didn’t prepare her for how… beaten… Ben looked. The scar itself was brutal - as though that day where so much had changed and ended and began was permanently marked on his skin. But somehow worse was the paleness and the dark shadows under his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in weeks. His features were more defined than she remembered: his cheekbones sharper, his jawline longer and shadowed by stubble. It was a man’s face, but signs remained of the boy she’d held in her arms and in her heart. The full lips. The ears that stuck out slightly from under his long hair. Leia allowed herself only a few seconds to take this all in. She wasn’t sure if the pain in her chest meant her heart was breaking or finally healing itself.
A new cut near Ben’s left temple oozed fresh blood, and she pressed her fingers to it. Leia tried - she really tried - to block out the memories of tending to this boy’s scrapes and cradling him while he cried. But the surge of emotion was just too strong, and those tears she’d been holding back finally fell, leaving hot tracks down her cheeks as her breath hitched.
That seemed to be just what Hux had hoped to see. Leia sensed his scorn even before she slowly lifted her eyes to meet his. He stepped forward, and she had to resist the urge to place herself between this snake and her son.
“Such a touching reunion.” There was no humor in the general’s expression now. His was the gaze of a predator who had been stalking his prey for a very long time and finally had it within reach. “It’s a shame our illustrious Supreme Leader isn’t awake to appreciate it. But we’ll soon remedy that.”
Hux signaled to one of the troopers stationed in the room; the man activated a control that caused a wall panel to slide back and reveal a device that had apparently been hastily built into the cell. Two large discs - one on the floor and another on the ceiling - aligned with each other. Both were attached to massive power cables, and Leia saw a faint blue glow emitting from the entire assembly.
“A Geonosian containment field,” she muttered, her hands pressing into Ben’s chest as though she could hold him there.
“Indeed, princess.” The general moved closer to the device and made a show of admiring it. “A gift from our new Falleen allies. The only sure way to restrain a Jedi, short of killing him.” He glanced down at Ben with raised eyebrows, as though briefly considering it. “A difficult item to obtain these days, as there’s not much demand for them now that the Jedi are gone.” His face tightened. “Most of them, anyway.”
“Ben is not a Jedi.” Leia didn’t know why she said it, but she knew the distinction was important to her son.
“No?” Hux’s eyes remained fixed on Ben, and Leia got a sense of how long and deep this animosity had festered. “I see no difference, especially now that he’s switched his loyalties to the Resistance.”
He’s done no such thing, she thought. But before she could speak, the general signaled to the two troopers, who moved toward Ben but hesitated as Leia held her ground. She felt the Force crackling around her and around Ben, and again… there was that strange presence. Leia’s eyes were drawn to a near corner of the cell, but nothing was there.
Hux followed her gaze briefly before pulling his blaster and pointing it at Ben. “Don’t be tiresome, highness. He is going into that containment field, but I wouldn’t mind contributing to his growing collection of scars first.”
As he spoke, Leia suddenly sensed another, more familiar presence in the Force, further away but moving steadily closer. A bright star in the midst of all this cold darkness. She pressed her lips into a frown even as hope surged within her.
Time. That was what they needed now. She had to stall long enough to give Rey the time to reach them.
Slowly, she stood up and took a step back. “You’re going to kill him anyway,” she said, trembling with anger as she watched the stormtroopers roughly grab Ben and drag him toward the containment field. A Falleen female emerged from the shadows and adjusted the controls before producing four magnetic cuffs, which she snapped onto Ben’s wrists and ankles. “Why bother with any of this? Are you planning to make a spectacle of his execution?” She hoped that was the case, because such an event would take time to produce. Time that she was sure Hux wouldn’t have.
“What I’d really enjoy is to make a spectacle of yours.” Hux gave her a thin smile, as though he was making a joke. When Leia only stared stonily back, his scowl returned. “But I suppose that would be unwise. You are still, unfortunately, a somewhat beloved figure in a few backwards corners of the galaxy. It would do nothing for our cause to give the rabble a HoloNet visual that would allow them to turn you into a martyr. So perhaps it’s best that you quietly disappear, along with the rest of your little Resistance band.” His smile grew again, a truly sinister expression. “Starting, I propose, with the X-wing squadron that’s been harassing our ship for the last several minutes.”
Leia knew she’d failed miserably at controlling her reaction when Hux actually barked a laugh. “Of course you couldn’t know about that, could you? As pathetic a rescue attempt as I’ve come to expect. Twelve fighters against this star destroyer and all its Tie fighters. Dameron is getting rather predictable, I’m afraid. Though his new cloaking ability is an irritating surprise.” He glanced at the ceiling as though he could actually see through to the battle she hadn’t known was raging around them. “I do hope they’re calling in reinforcements. Because I have a surprise for them as well. The entire Black Sun armada is hidden throughout this shipyard. We will call on them soon enough. The more of your fighters for their mercenaries to hunt, the happier we’ll all be.”
“Excuse me, general.” A young officer had appeared in the doorway of the detention cell; his eyes darted to Leia then to Ben before focusing on Hux. “About that, sir, Captain Peavey requests a word with you on the combat command bridge-”
“Not now.” Hux waved the officer off, his eyes glowing as the generator discs activated, and the stormtroopers lifted Ben and hoisted him into the containment field.
Leia could only watch as the energy field grabbed Ben and held him upright. After the troopers backed away, the Falleen adjusted the controls, and the field brightened as its energy increased until Ben twitched. The female looked at Hux. “That will be adequate to hold him.”
Hux stepped closer, hands clasped behind his back. “A bit more.”
The Falleen narrowed her eyes slightly but did as he ordered. Veins of blue energy snaked between the discs. Ben twitched again, and his head, which had been slumped toward his chest, snapped up. Leia held her breath as his eyes fluttered open.
His gaze went straight to her. She watched his jaw tighten and his hands clench into fists: the only signs of discomfort he’d allow. His beautiful brown eyes showed so much… the pain he was masking, the relief he felt at seeing her alive, his regret at failing to rescue her, the desperation that grew as he reached for but couldn’t grasp the Force within the containment field.
Han had looked at her with that same expression in the moments before he’d been frozen in carbonite.
And the words came to her as automatically now as they had then. “I love you.”
She knew that was all. That was all he would say to her in front of Hux. And indeed the general already looked too pleased with himself as he moved within a meter of Ben. The Falleen handed him a controller of some kind; its function was immediately apparent as Hux turned a dial and Ben jerked in pain as light flared from the cuffs around his ankles and wrists.
Leia couldn’t help it; she bared her teeth at the general. “Do that again and you’ll pay for it.”
Hux chuckled as the stormtroopers raised their blasters. “Empty threats don’t become you, princess.” He shook his head as he looked again at Ben. “I should have acquired one of these years ago. It was Supreme Leader Snoke, ironically, who educated me on the usefulness of this device. He’d thought perhaps to use it on Skywalker. Which is, I suppose, who we have here after all. A Skywalker.” When Ben didn’t respond, Hux continued. “Nothing to say, Supreme Leader? Such an intriguing turn of events. I would have thought you’d like the opportunity to explain yourself. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you do just that. But not quite yet.” He spoke into his comm. “Bring in the transmitter.”
A technician entered the room with audio equipment. The woman kept her eyes down as she efficiently set up. Leia wondered briefly why Hux wouldn’t utilize a hologram transmission but then realized the obvious answer. He wanted Ben to confess but didn’t want the visual of the containment field casting the confession into doubt. There could be no speculation that the Supreme Leader had been tortured or coerced into admitting treason. No ammunition that Ben’s loyalists could use to contest Hux’s ascension to power.
Leia looked around at the audio tech, the stormtroopers, and the Falleen female and wondered if any of them realized they were unlikely to leave this room alive. Hux would eliminate the witnesses, except for her. He would be certain - and rightly so - that her accusations would find no receptive audience. And she’d already sensed that the general had other plans for her once this was over.
“Ready to broadcast, sir,” the technician murmured once she had her equipment in place.
“Activate on my signal,” Hux ordered.
Leia had a flash of inspiration, and she gently reached out with the Force to the technician’s mind. The young woman froze in place momentarily, then quickly and quietly adjusted her equipment. Neither Hux nor the stormtroopers noticed.
“Now,” said Hux, pacing closer. “This is what’s going to happen, Ren. You will confess - on the record - to treason and to aiding the Resistance. Or else I’m afraid your mother will not have an enjoyable afternoon.” The corners of his lips turned up. “And neither will you.”
Ben’s gaze was leveled at Hux, his voice low and angry as it cut across the room. “How many transport shuttles did you destroy?”
Hux stopped mid-step, puzzlement flashing across his face for a brief moment before scorn returned. “I assume you’re referring to our method of neutralizing you as you attempted to sneak aboard your own star destroyer.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Three transports before you arrived, I believe? An ingenious idea, you have to admit, to ionize each shuttle as it landed. You see, not knowing exactly which ship you would board, I had to make sure you would be incapacitated.”
“You killed everyone on board four transports.”
“Acceptable collateral. They were just cadets, so our investment in them - to this point - was minimal. The pilots were a greater loss, but I selected from those whose loyalties were in question. Which reminds me… aren’t you going to ask how I knew about your early arrival? Your Tie-Silencer is indeed tracking as stationary at Dagary Minor, so how is it we knew you were here?” He raised his eyebrows at the silence that followed his question. “Not curious? I suppose I could bring in Simon Taznayan to tell the story, but he’s hardly in a fit state to talk right now.”
Leia had no idea who this Taznayan was, but she saw recognition flash across Ben’s face as his anger deepened.
“Lucky for us,” Hux continued, “that DN-3351 was indeed willing to talk once he saw what we had planned for his lover.” He shook his head. “Perhaps you should have been more selective in whom you placed your trust. I did warn you that allowing fraternization was a mistake. Now you can appreciate how it makes people… vulnerable. But not to worry, the prior policy will be reinstated shortly, along with the requisite penalties. And just for fun, let’s make it retroactive to before you changed it. Tracking down the violations that have occurred since then might be an entertaining exercise in reminding our personnel what happens when they fall below expectations.”
Leia saw the two stormtroopers’ heads turn toward each other, very slightly, before they faced forward again.
“I wonder,” Hux mused, resuming his casual strolling around the containment field as Ben could only track him with his eyes, “whether your sudden sympathy for romantic attachments has anything to do with the Jedi woman who killed Snoke. She does present a bit of a puzzle. What inspired her to come to the Supremacy, all alone? How is it you survived that encounter while the Supreme Leader and eight elite guards were slashed to bits?”
The general was enjoying this immensely, Leia could see. And though it pained her to see Ben in this position, every moment Hux wasted gloating brought Rey closer to them.
Hux clicked his tongue. “Although your own pedigree leaves something to be desired,” (and here he glanced at Leia with distaste), “I have to say that the girl is beneath you, Ren. Jedi or not, she’s still just a scavenger rat from Jakku.” His grin turned ugly. “Tell me, after you go down on her, do you have to pick the sand out of your teeth?”
Red flashed across Leia’s vision, but she bit her tongue. Ben’s eyes lifted to hers, and she marveled at his composure in the face of all this.
“Release my mother to the Resistance,” he said to Hux, though his gaze never left Leia’s, “And I’ll confess to whatever you want.”
Hux barked a laugh. “Oh, you certainly will confess, but I have other plans for the princess. Since I can’t have her revered blood on my own hands, she’ll be leaving with our Black Sun allies. There’s a large bounty they plan to collect. You see, the remnants of the Hutt empire will pay quite dearly for the woman who murdered one of their own.” He looked down at Leia, disbelieving that someone like her could have killed a powerful gangster.
“Sir!” The young officer had returned. “Captain Peavey requests your immediate presence on the bridge. And he urges me to tell you, sir, that everything you say is-”
Hux’s face flushed as he interrupted. “Captain Peavey is more than capable of monitoring a skirmish that engages one miserable X-wing squadron.”
“But that’s just it, sir. Another squadron has arrived, also cloaked. We’re taking heavy losses, general. A third of our Tie fleet is already down.”
“A third? That can’t be right. How many of the X-wings are left?”
“All of them, sir. We haven’t managed a single hit.”
Hux spun around, his face contorting with rage. “That isn’t possible. Even with the best cloaking technology available we should have at least collided with a few of them by now. What the hell are our idiot pilots doing?”
“Sir, our pilots report that their weapons systems are malfunctioning. Torpedoes and canon blasts are turning back on our own ships. Targeting computers won’t stay locked on enemy fighters. Even flight controls are erratic, and several Ties have crashed into our shields for no apparent reason.”
Hux looked ready to combust as he stalked toward the officer. “Then have the captain summon Black Sun. All fighters, all starships. If our pilots are unable to end this, maybe theirs can.”
Leia wondered at Hux’s reliance on the crime lords’ fleet when the First Order had innumerable resources of its own. It struck her then… he had stacked the crew of the Finalizer with those whose loyalty was unquestionably with him. To call in another star destroyer would be to risk that crew coming to Ben’s defense.
But what could be causing the malfunctions the bridge officer described? Even as she considered it, Leia once again felt that increasingly familiar presence in the Force; it now held a sense of satisfaction and mild amusement. And in that corner of the cell she now saw a faint glow of light.
Ben was staring at that same corner. “Tell Captain Peavey to call off our fighters,” he said calmly to the young bridge officer, even as his eyes widened while that shimmer of Force energy took shape. “We’ll lose them all otherwise. There’s more working against them than they know. And perhaps you would inform the captain that General Hux is attempting a coup.”
The officer’s face paled. “I believe he is aware, Supreme Leader.”
“Don’t call him that!” Hux snapped.
Leia was barely following the conversation. She couldn’t look away from the man who had appeared from that shimmer of light, materializing through the Force. A ghost who looked so real and alive but for the luminescence around his form. He appeared young and strong, handsome, not yet deformed by injury and darkness. His hair was long and his shoulders broad… like his grandson’s. She had seen him like this once before, on Endor, after the final battle. After Luke had turned him, and he died.
Hux was oblivious as he advanced toward Ben, reaching for his blaster before he remembered the controller in his other hand. He brandished it before pausing with his finger on the dial. “’Attempting a coup?’ I would say I’ve succeeded. The officers follow my orders now, not yours. And the evidence of your treason is more than-”
“Is he here, mother?” Ben asked, blinking as he looked between her and that corner of the cell. “With this…” he shook his head, trying to break through the effects of the containment field, “I can’t sense anything. But I see… someone…”
“Yes,” Leia breathed, “he is here.” Her entire body felt cold as her father’s eyes stared into hers. She saw Anakin Skywalker. But who she felt, who she remembered was…
“No one is here!” Hux’s voice rose; he seemed to be nearing the end of his rope as his eyes searched for something he couldn’t see. He signaled to the audio tech. “Enough. Get ready to broadcast. The entire fleet WILL hear Kylo Ren admit to treason against the First Order.”
The technician slowly raised her gaze to Leia’s. Leia inclined her head slightly. She had given the woman the suggestion, but her compliance had been willing. She had been broadcasting the entire time. The fleet had heard every word of Hux’s rant, and he still had no idea.
“Black Sun wants the princess alive,” Hux snarled as he turned back toward Ben. “But she doesn’t have to be fully functional. So unless you want to see your dear old mother suffer, Ren, I suggest you do exactly as I say.”
“Harm my mother,” Ben said, his eyes dark and deadly serious. “And it will be the last thing you do.”
Hux smirked, and Leia sensed his confidence, his sense that total victory was near. “Apparently empty threats run in the family,” the general said, sneering. “Perhaps a small reminder of your situation is in order.” He activated the controller, and blue light flared as Ben jerked in pain again.
Leia moved without thinking. As her binders dropped away, she reached forward and summoned Ben’s lightsaber from where Hux had attached it to his own belt. It shot into her palm. She pressed the activation switch and felt a rush of power, as though her family’s entire legacy flared to life in her hands.
And she truly understood, for the first time, the dual nature of that legacy as she raised the blue-and-red blade and brought it down to sever Armitage Hux’s arm.
For anyone wondering what a Geonosian containment field looks like, it is what Count Dooku used to restrain Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones.
Thanks for reading!!!
The intense pain snaking from the cuffs on Ben’s wrists and ankles immediately ceased as Hux’s controller hit the floor, but the containment field still held as all hell broke out in the detention cell. The two executioner stormtroopers raised their blasters and fired, only to have the bolts deflected into the ceiling by an unseen force. The Force… Ben still couldn’t reach it. But someone obviously could. His grandfather…
He glanced toward that corner of the cell, but the faint presence he’d seen was now gone.
Hux’s scream echoed through the room as the general slumped to the floor, his sleeve smoking where it had been slashed. The blow had been too quick to fully cauterize, and so blood oozed from the stump of his arm, which now ended just below the elbow.
Ben watched his mother advance on the Falleen, his lightsaber lifted and ready. The female made no move for the weapons on her belt and instead backed away from the control panel, hands raised in submission.
“Turn it off,” Leia snarled, and Ben knew there were Force undertones in her voice. But Falleens were a strong-minded species, and this one had only escape in mind as she turned, hurdled over the writhing Hux, and darted out the door of the cell.
His mother’s movements, by contrast, were deliberate as she moved to examine the control panel, which was marked only in Falleen numbers and symbols. And he had to appreciate her attention to small details as she reversed the codes that had been punched in to activate the device, and the containment field dissipated.
Abruptly released, Ben fell onto the lower disc and rolled to the floor. His entire body ached, but he hardly noticed as the Force came flooding back, more precious and life-giving than air. Sensations overwhelmed him, and in the few seconds it took to sort them out and orient himself, his mother reached him. She put a hand on his shoulder.
At her touch, he felt something settle deep within himself. He sensed her lingering anger even as it slipped away to be replaced by concern and love. Rage was an emotion he’d never felt from his mother, but there it was, its last embers fading around her edges. She noted his surprise, and her eyes crinkled in a small smile.
“It’s not the Dark Side when I’m protecting my son,” she said, hooking her arm around his to help him up. They stood together - both of them staggering a bit - and looked down at Hux.
The general was curled on his side, panting and clutching his arm. His face was deathly pale, his eyes red and panicked as they flicked to the stormtroopers. “What are you waiting for?! Kill them!”
The troopers held their blasters ready but had not tried to fire again. Ben sensed their uncertainty as they looked between their two leaders. “Sir…” one of them began.
“Hold fire,” Ben ordered, pulling himself up to his full height and staring them down.
But Hux had hand-selected these stormtroopers based on their loyalty, and Ben sensed their disgust as they realized that he now stood arm-in-arm with the leader of the Resistance. So when Hux half-lifted himself from the floor on his good arm, veins popping and eyes bulging, and screamed again, “FIRE!”, the troopers snapped into offensive postures and let loose with their weapons.
Ben dove on top of his mother and pressed her to the floor behind the base of the containment field generator. He heard Hux cursing loudly as sparks and smoke flared from where blaster bolts peppered the floor, the walls, and the electronics. Something near them exploded, and the back of his neck seared with heat.
The troopers blocked them from the door, and there was little cover. Deflecting the blasts took all of his attention and energy. His mother flinched when the audio tech took a bolt in the shoulder; the woman hissed in pain and slumped against the wall as her transmitter blew apart in a blaze of mangled circuitry. From outside the cell came the sounds of shouting and more blasters being fired. Ben sensed a rising commotion as personnel realized what was happening. They had heard the confrontation between him and Hux. Factions were revealed and sides were chosen as suspicion and betrayal swept through the Finalizer. Hux had stacked the ship - especially the officer corps - with his loyalists, but a star destroyer was crewed by thousands. He could only hope the general had underestimated the number of rank-and-file troopers who would side with him.
Regardless, they would have to fight their way out. Ben sensed that his mother’s strength was waning as she pressed his lightsaber into his palm. He also sensed her quiet joy that he had tried to help her, even as her smile turned sardonic.
“Typical Skywalker Solo rescue,” she grumbled. “I don’t suppose there’s a garbage chute in here?”
But despite the sarcasm, the new sparkle in her eye told him that she had detected the same thing that he had… a bright presence that both terrified him and gave him life, so close now that he turned his head to look for her…
A squad of stormtroopers burst through the cell door, taking flanking positions around the two already there. He watched the ones in front stumble to a stop, hesitating at the sight of Hux on the bloodied floor with his dismembered arm a meter away.
It was all the time she needed.
A wave of Force energy barreled through the room, flowing over Ben and Leia but slamming hard into the troopers, every one of whom was thrown into the opposite wall. As they fell on top of each other, weapons scattering, a ceiling panel opened and Rey dropped down. She landed in a fighting crouch and flipped her saber-staff before igniting it. The blades shot out, one side smooth and blue but the other striated in fiery red. His own lightsaber pulsed in his hand, as though recognizing its sister crystals and drawing strength from suddenly having them near.
More troopers poured through the door, firing. Rey felled some with the Force while deflecting blasts with her saber. Ben leapt up to join her, but she spun and sprinted the few meters to him and his mother, yelling, “Stay down!”
Ben dropped again, and she jumped on top of them, throwing up a Force shield just as the air around them exploded in heat and pressure and shards of metal. Hux screamed, the sound ringing in Ben’s ears. His head throbbed as he pushed himself up, checking on his mother (grimacing but fine) and Rey (crawling off him, saber-staff still ignited) before squinting through the smoke to see yet another team of stormtroopers streaming through a hole they’d just blasted in the near wall.
He raised his lightsaber, grunting with the effort of standing to prepare for yet another onslaught. But these troopers didn’t take up positions for attack. Instead, they formed a defensive calyx around the three of them, blasting the few opposing troopers who had recovered from the explosion.
“Prepare another charge and block the door!”
Ben recognized the voice before he sensed the stormtrooper captain’s identity. DN-3351 stopped before him, his emotions a roil of shame and determination. “Sir, I-”
“Save it for later!” Rey shouted, dashing between them to grasp Leia’s arm and pull her to her feet. “Are you all right?” she asked gently. His mother, coughing, could only nod, and Ben’s eyes met Rey’s as they shared a pulse of concern.
“Stop it, you two, I can feel that.” Leia cleared her throat and brushed herself off. “I’m not so old and feeble, you know.”
As if to validate that claim, Hux moaned. Rey glanced down at him, a frown creasing her brow, before addressing DN-3351. “Dan, you found Taz? He’s all right?”
“Yes, miss. One of our squad is guiding him out the way you brought us in.” The captain gestured upward.
Ben couldn’t take his eyes off Rey. “Through the conduit ducts,” he said.
“This woman knows her way around a star destroyer,” DN-3351 said appreciatively.
Rey’s quick grin belied her tension. “So let’s climb up and get going.”
“You’ll never… make it out… alive.” From the floor, Hux’s voice was strained, his words punctuated by shallow breaths. “My officers… will mobilize… every resource to stop-”
He was cut off by a blaster bolt to the head.
Ben flinched as the general’s abrupt death sliced through him. A jolt of shock flashed from everyone in the room… except for one stormtrooper. The woman slowly lowered her weapon, and he sensed wrath and raw despair as she said to all of them or just to herself, “For my brother.” That was it.
DN-3351 stepped toward the woman but then looked to him. Everyone looked to him. If there were to be repercussions, he’d be the one to meter them out. Ben stared at Hux’s lifeless face, already white and still distorted with the anger that had fueled the general for as long as he’d known him.
He searched the stormtrooper’s mind and sensed that she had no regrets, regardless of what his decision would be. He didn’t look for who her brother was or how he had died- it wasn’t his business. Hux was responsible for many faceless, nameless deaths… as was he. This could just as well be his fate… a bolt to the back of the head by a grieving sister or husband or mother. And he would deserve that, because after all he’d done, he was as much of a monster as-
“No.” A warm hand clasped his, and he turned to see Rey’s hazel eyes staring up into him. “You’re not. You never were, Ben, despite how hard you tried to be.”
But he remembered her expression when she’d snarled that word at him. How she had hated him for killing Han Solo. Ben looked at his mother and knew she could read his father’s name in his eyes.
Leia shook her head, her eyes red. “I asked him to bring you home, Ben. And I think he did.” Then she glanced at Rey with a hint of a smile. “Though he had a little help.”
Without meaning to he’d turned fully toward Rey and taken her other hand in his, too. He could feel her warmth through his gloves, and through the small space between them.
But even as she squeezed his fingers, Rey’s attention was on the stormtrooper who had killed Hux. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said softly.
The woman inclined her head in acknowledgment but said nothing as she awaited Ben’s verdict. He glanced down at Hux again, then gestured toward the other side of the cell, where nearly a dozen troopers lay dead or injured. “There was a battle,” he said. “The general didn’t survive.” He looked at DN-3351, who responded with a slight nod before addressing his squad.
“Transfer any survivors into the corridor and collect their weapons. Come on, move it.” The troopers, including the woman who had been waiting calmly, quickly obeyed.
Ben spared the dead general one last glance then looked away. Armitage Hux would get no more of his time. More concerning now were those who had followed him.
Hux’s loyalists wouldn’t remain leaderless for long. No doubt the officer corps would fall back on rank, which meant that Captain Peavey would take charge. Ben had always respected Edrison Peavey for his professionalism and his quiet disdain for Hux, but the man had led Imperial forces in his younger days and was one of the founding officers of the First Order. His dislike of rebels and rebellion was well-entrenched. No doubt he now believed that Kylo Ren was a traitor.
DN-3351’s team guarded the door, but they faced no more assaults. Ben sensed fighting elsewhere on the ship; blasters and small explosions could be heard echoing through the corridors outside the detention block. His grasp on the Force felt tenuous as the effects of ionization from his capture and the containment field lingered. He tightened his grip on the one thing that kept him grounded.
She squeezed back, as though knowing how much he needed her to be strong for all of them. He had vowed that if he ever had her close again, he would never let her go. But…
“Please, Rey, get her out,” he whispered, even as his body tried to lean into hers. “I need to stay and contain this before it grows out of control.”
“Ben, come with us.” His mother stepped forward, and he was struck yet again by how small yet powerful she was. “It would mean so much to us… to me… if you were on our side.”
Rey brushed her thumb over the back of his hand, and he was grateful that she, at least, understood, even though General Leia Organa never would. He softened his tone, his gaze, as he said, “I will never join the Resistance, mother.”
“Then what…” He sensed her dismay even as she tried to mask it. But she came close and laid a hand on his arm. “You have so much light in you, Ben, I can feel it. I’ve felt it all along, even after… everything. Do you really want to stay in the First Order? To take control of the galaxy?”
“I HAVE control of the galaxy.” It was the truth, but his chest hurt as her expression darkened and she stepped back. Still, he continued on, because he needed her to understand. “The question is what I’m going to do with it.”
He counted three full breaths before she was able to respond. “What, then?”
But it was Rey who answered for him. “What needs to be done.” Her eyes were clear as she looked up and into him. And he didn’t try to block her out, didn’t try to hide any part of himself from her as she said, “It’s taken me a while to grasp that the Force isn’t so much about light and dark as it is about balance and intention.” He nodded slightly, and she looked at Leia. “The First Order will exist with or without Ben. I believe he wants to make things better. We have to trust each other.”
He wondered if Rey knew how much it meant to him to hear her say that. After what had happened on the Supremacy and then on Crait, she would have been justified in giving up on him, in thinking that the hope she’d once placed in him was a mistake. He had tried to show her that it wasn’t. And - impossibly - she’d forgiven him and let him back in. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve her. Yet here she was, close enough that he could count the freckles on her nose.
But in his mother’s mind, asking for trust was too much. He saw his own thoughts on her face: the Skywalkers had built a legacy of betrayal. But his grandfather had been redeemed, even more so when he’d come to help them today. “It will be different now,” he insisted quietly.
She wanted to believe him. “Why?”
“Because I…” He still held Rey’s hands; they had pulled each other close without realizing it. He towered over her, but their Force energies were evenly matched. He felt the raw electricity of their bond, but this was really her, she was here with him… and there wasn’t much time. He just wanted to stop talking, stop thinking, and-
The audio tech groaned, and Leia turned toward her. As his mother hurried to check on the young woman, Ben was relieved to feel her cautious optimism, as well as a glimmer of amusement.
They couldn’t delay any longer. He sensed Rey’s tension and knew she felt the same. But as his eyes met hers, he couldn’t bring himself to move away. He couldn’t bring himself to move at all.
Rey hadn’t looked away from him, and Ben stopped breathing when her gaze dropped from his eyes to his mouth and then back again. “You have that look in your eyes,” she said softly. “From the turbolift. When you wanted to kiss me.”
That was it. He was done. And even if the ship exploded around them he wouldn’t have cared because she raised her hand and slid it behind his neck, gently pulling him down as she tipped up her head and kissed him.
He didn’t know if it was the Force or something else deep inside himself, couldn’t tell where he stopped and she began as her lips pressed to his; and he immediately, instinctively opened to her and pulled her in as shock and heat and desire pulsed between them. Her mouth was soft against his, but the rest of her was firm and warm as he gripped her waist and gathered her in tight, too desperate to be gentle, too lost in her to be hesitant. It felt as though his whole life had been leading up to this moment, to have this woman in his arms, and he knew now that he would do anything - would give or give up anything - to keep her there.
Her Force energy blended with his, and it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, because they’d done that all along, from the very first time their minds connected on Starkiller Base. Even then, when she’d still been just a scavenger to him and he a monster to her, he’d felt this pull, this whisper in the back of his mind that insisted, ‘mine.’ If only he’d known.
The tip of her tongue brushed his upper lip and his knees buckled. They were holding each other up. He was only distantly aware that there was something they should be doing, that there were others present. It wasn’t the type of kiss that could be easily stepped away from. It wasn’t the type of kiss meant for an audience.
They both came to that realization at the same time, and he reluctantly pulled away. She was looking up at him, face flushed and lips still parted, and though his body still pulsed, he felt a tight warmth in his chest that was separate from physical desire.
He knew that he loved her.
He might as well have said it out loud. Her eyes widened as she inhaled sharply; she looked exactly as she had when they’d touched hands through their Force bond.
Rey was still reading his mind. “I knew then, I think,” she murmured, her voice pitched low in a way that caused another jolt of heat through him.
His fingers tightened on her waist as his head dropped toward hers again. “So did I.”
He froze, and they both blinked, pulling apart slightly as they turned toward his mother. She was kneeling next to the audio tech, who had regained consciousness and was staring at them with a blearily astonished expression.
His mother seemed to be making a heroic effort not to smile as she gestured toward the cell door. “There’s someone here to speak to the Supreme Leader. But I can put him off if you two need another minute.”
Ben forced himself to step back from Rey as he recognized Petty Officer Lank Paze, who was being roughly held by two of DN-3351’s troopers. Paze was the officer who’d been relaying the messages from Captain Peavey that Hux had chosen to ignore.
He drew in a breath and let it out slow. “Yes?”
“I beg your pardon, um…” Paze blanched as his eyes shot from Ben to Rey to the partially dismembered body of Hux and then back again. “Ah… Supreme Leader, Captain Peavey respectfully requests your presence on the main command bridge, sir.”
Ben didn’t move. “What’s our current status?”
The question caught the young officer off guard, and Ben sensed his internal conflict as he weighed the order against what he might be able to report in a room full of enemies. A prod from the Force tipped the balance.
“Our situation is quite serious, sir. We’ve lost all but the bridge deflector shields, as well as most of our ion canons and turbolaser batteries. The Tie squadrons have been recalled, as the Resistance fighters have been drawn off by attacks from our Black Sun allies. We are vulnerable, but the Harbinger has just arrived, and Captain Peavey is communicating with Captain Opan to coordinate a counteroffensive.” He stopped speaking and pressed his lips together as though to keep himself from divulging any more.
Ben exchanged a glance with Rey. With another star destroyer on the scene, it was imperative that they get his mother off the Finalizer immediately.
“Wait with him in the corridor,” he ordered the troopers holding Petty Officer Paze. Once they’d left the cell, he looked to DN-3351 and Rey. “How did you both get on board? How is it you’d already met?”
Rey’s mouth quirked in a smile, but it was the stormtrooper captain that answered. “Our transport from Generis arranged a rendezvous on a distant platform of the shipyard, sir. From there we boarded the… ah… a Resistance ship and used its cloaking system to approach and dock with the Finalizer.”
“Your transport from Generis being…”
“A group commanded by Maz Kanata, sir.”
There must be a story behind that, but now wasn’t the time to hear it. “And the Resistance ship, it’s still here? Can we access it for egress?”
At this DN-3351 turned to Rey, who pulled a coded comm unit from her pocket and checked the screen. “Ready and waiting,” she affirmed, still smiling.
Something about that smile and DN-3351’s nervousness… Ben clenched his teeth, biting back a sigh. “It’s the Falcon, isn’t it. The Millennium Falcon is docked with this ship.”
“Chewie did an amazing job retrofitting the cloaking device,” Rey answered cheerfully. She hooked a hand around his elbow, and he had to appreciate how easy and comfortable it felt to touch each other now as she tugged on him and said, “Let’s go.”
He stood his ground, though it hurt to do so. “You go.”
She stopped pulling but didn’t let go of his arm. “You’re going to try to get the two captains to come to your side.” He nodded. “Will they?”
“Peavey, maybe. He won’t like it but is inclined to follow orders. But Opan…” Tritt Opan had been Hux’s aide and assassin for some time, and he and Kylo Ren had fostered a mutual dislike. There was no trusting him, even now with Hux dead. It wasn’t surprising that Opan would be the one commander Hux and Peavey would call in to back them up. “He will either come around or be neutralized.”
Rey raised her eyebrows. “How very Darth Vader of you.”
That struck home, but not in an insulting way. His grandfather had been here, maybe still was here, though Ben could no longer sense him. Perhaps there was only so much Force ghosts were able to do.
He inclined his head. “Thank you.”
She snorted a laugh, but her face turned serious as she dropped her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Please, just be careful.”
His mother came close, her eyes bright but tired as she smiled up at him. “Thank you, Ben.”
He gently took her hands in his and lowered his chin. “I have a lot to say to you.”
But not here, not now, and she understood that, so she just gripped his hands tightly and said, “I know.”
He helped them up into the conduit duct, with one of his loyal stormtroopers both in front and behind. Rey paused before she crawled out of sight, staring down at him for a long moment, and he sensed her worry and focus and especially the deep ember of desire that still flared across their bond. He could feel it - feel her - even after she’d vanished from his sight.
DN-3351 had the rest of his squad in formation, and Ben nodded to them as he stepped over Hux’s body and took up position at the front of the group. He led them into the corridor, where the sounds of battle had faded away, replaced by an eerie, tense silence. It felt as though the entire ship - the entire First Order - was poised on a precipice.
And so the Supreme Leader stalked toward the bridge of the Finalizer, determined to retake his command.
I'm sorry to have taken so long for this update... this chapter turned out to be about 3 times as long as a normal chapter! I hope it's worth the wait. Thanks so much for reading, and especially for comments and kudos!
Simon Taznayan was pissed off. So much so that as he followed the member of Dan’s team - a trooper called GR-0740 - he had to resist the urge to pound on the floor and walls of the conduit duct that they were supposed to be traversing quietly. He wasn’t used to dealing with anger. Most of his twenty four years had been mundane - boring, even - except for his time with Dan. That relationship was the one glorious, affirming thing in his life… and it had been used against him. Against them both. And against Kylo Ren.
GR-0740 - nicknamed “Bluff” by his squadmates due to a flawless stoneface while playing sabaac - was maintaining a good pace as they crouched, crawled, and sometimes slid their way through the ducts. The stormtrooper often glanced back at Taz, probably to make sure he was keeping up. Taz understood why. He knew he looked terrible. He’d been bloodied up quite badly by Hux’s executioners. And though the general had held to his word that Taz would keep all his body parts attached if Dan told him about Kylo Ren, the troopers hadn’t been able to resist a bit of fun with their laser axes. He now had a long, red burn across his upper chest, as well as a smaller one on the left side of his face. To keep from screaming, he’d clenched his teeth so hard that they still hurt. He wasn’t sure, but it had seemed to be his silence that finally made the executioners back off.
They’d gone about a hundred meters when Bluff signaled a stop and tapped his comm. Taz’s stomach lurched as he waited… he knew that Dan was likely communicating about the status of the Supreme Leader. After several tense seconds, Bluff gave him the thumbs-up sign. Taz finally exhaled as they continued on.
But even knowing that Kylo Ren was safe did little to slake his rage. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that while he did harbor resentment toward Hux, the primary focus of his anger was himself. He’d been naive, oblivious even as he knew that Dan was taking risks in aiding Kylo Ren. Taz wasn’t trained as a soldier, but his helplessness gnawed at him. He should have been on his guard. He hadn’t even had a weapon on him when they’d dragged him away from his workstation.
Taz had better than average knowledge of the Finalizer’s layout due to countless hours of observing and cataloging security feeds of every corridor, conference room, and barrack. It was easy for him to accurately judge their exact position on the ship.
He tapped Bluff’s boot, and the trooper stopped to look back at him. Taz knew they were above a laundry complex, which was staffed solely by droids even on days when the ship’s personnel weren’t occupied by a coup. So he felt safe to speak.
“We need to head aft. To the security archive block.”
Bluff jerked his head to the side, a terse refusal. He said very quietly, “My orders are to get you off this ship as quickly as possible.”
Taz knew that Dan just wanted him safe. Well, that went both ways.
“If I can get to my workstation,” he explained, “we can monitor the security feeds to ensure them safe passage through the ship. And see if anything unexpected is coming.”
Bluff gave him the courtesy of brief consideration before saying, “Sorry, but we’re going to the Millennium Falcon.”
“All right. Fine.”
When they reached the next intersecting duct, Bluff went straight as Taz took a sharp turn to the right. After a moment he heard the stormtrooper catch up behind him, cursing under his breath. “I could drag you off this ship, you know.”
“We still have almost four hundred meters to go. You don’t think someone would hear me pounding and yelling through the ceiling?”
“Fuck you, Taz.” But there was a hint of admiration in the trooper’s voice as they made their way deeper into the bowels of the Finalizer.
Rey, Leia, and the two troopers reached the airlock where the Millennium Falcon was docked just in time to see the battered cruiser lift away and speed off toward the shipyards. Rey quickly activated her mobile comm, which she’d kept silent while they’d crept through the star destroyer.
“Um, Chewie? Where’re you going?”
She listened to his brief reply and smiled. “Copy that. Cover them. But be careful.”
Leia was looking at her with eyebrows raised, and Rey sensed confusion and alarm from their trooper escort as one of them looked out the small viewport and said, “There’s another ship approaching.”
“That’s your ride, general,” Rey said as Leia tucked herself in front of the stormtrooper and peered out.
“The Gawat,” Leia breathed, recognizing one of the Resistance’s newly acquired cruisers. “But it’s a transport, not a gunship. Why did Connix come?”
“Because I asked her to, after she picked up a few passengers.” She could feel them now, all of their energies so strong and familiar.
Leia seemed to sense them, too. She stepped back as the airlock sealed and the hatch began to lower. “Who is that?”
She didn’t have long to wonder as the pneumatic doors opened and six heavily armored but unmasked figures stormed out of the ship. Dan’s troopers raised their weapons, but Rey stopped them with a wave of her hand. “It’s all right.”
Martna Ren was in the lead, and she shot a grin at Rey before swooping toward Leia and enveloping the diminutive general in a massive hug. “You’re OK!”
The rest of the Knights swarmed around, passing the exhausted and amused Leia between them. Rey could feel their riot of emotions: joy, relief, regret, worry.
“You look amazing! But were you always this little?”
“Hush, Talik. She’s huge in the Force.”
“It’s been so long. We really did miss you.”
“Well, I haven’t missed losing to her at sabaac.”
“We had so much fun whenever you visited. You must be so angry…”
“But you realize Kylo never ordered us after the Resistance because he knew we couldn’t hurt you.”
“Where IS Kylo?”
This last came from Ropalaa, who’d given Leia a tight, quick embrace before stepping back. Rey watched the Rodian take in the scene, scanning their stormtrooper escort, searching with the Force for any nearby dangers.
“Ben is on the command bridge,” Leia responded as Adion, who’d hung back behind the others, finally released her from a surprisingly intense hug. “He’s meeting with his captains, trying to head off any further insurrection.”
“What about Hux?” Kiona asked with a scowl.
Rey answered. “Hux is dead.”
There was a beat of silence as they all processed that, then a low whistle from Martna. “Kylo?”
Rey exchanged a glance with Leia. “It was a team effort.”
“I’m so happy to see you all,” Leia said. “But how is it you arrived here on one of my ships?”
On cue, Kaydel Connix appeared through the airlock door. The young officer appeared to sigh with relief when she saw Leia. “General. Thank the gods.”
Rey didn’t miss the glance that passed between Lieutenant Connix and Adion; she watched as the young Knight smiled and ducked his head.
Jacen Ren caught Rey’s look and grinned. “There’s a story to tell, but later. I sense Kylo’s tension is rising.” He turned toward Leia, his expression turning serious. “General, we have pledged our loyalty and our lives to your son. We must go to him now. Godspeed to you and yours.” He bowed his head respectfully.
Leia nodded hers in return. “Thank you, Jacen. May the Force be with you all.” She thanked their stormtrooper escort - an odd and unprecedented sight, Rey realized - and took Connix’s arm.
But as they proceeded into the airlock, the young lieutenant turned back to Rey. “You’re not coming with us?”
This was it: the crossroads she had been dreading. But now Rey understood that in this, as with so many things, there was a middle ground. “I’m going to stay, Kaydel.”
“But why?” Connix asked, even as her eyes darted back to Adion, who was watching her with naked longing on his face.
“Come on,” Leia murmured, tugging Connix toward their waiting ship. “I’ll tell you all about it. She’s in love-”
The general’s voice was cut off as the airlock door closed behind them.
“She’s not the only one,” Talik grinned as he glanced at Adion, who blushed even as he narrowed his eyes.
Rey’s smile faded. She’d already sensed the tension Jacen had mentioned. Her connection with Ben had strengthened to a point where she could feel his roaring emotions almost as if they were her own. But their bond was no longer a distraction. Instead, she drew from it, drew from him, and felt the balance.
‘Mine.’ She had heard the word echo in his head while they kissed. At the thought of it, a warmth flowed down her spine to pool in the small of her back. She could still feel the press of his fingers into her waist.
‘Mine,’ she sent back to him now. And then, ‘We’re coming.’ His energy - always intense - crackled with turmoil and conflict. She knew there was a confrontation. Many lives hung in the balance.
“We have to go now,” she said, turning to address the troopers from Dan’s squad. “What are you hearing from your captain?”
Ben kept his eyes straight ahead as he strode onto the bridge of the Finalizer with DN-3351 and his troopers behind him. He sensed the nervousness of the officers and technicians on both the upper and lower levels, and he saw the grim resolution on the face of the man who awaited him near the forward viewport.
Captain Edrison Peavey stood at attention but did not bow or salute as Ben came near. Through the viewport, Ben could see the Harbinger, another Resurgent-class Star Destroyer, as it moved slowly toward a position near the Finalizer’s bow.
Their progress from the detention block had been unimpeded, largely due to a constant stream of information being fed to them by Simon Taznayan, who had somehow not only managed to access his workstation, but had also apparently recruited several of his fellow technicians to aid in observing and analyzing security feeds from throughout the ship. And those techs were communicating with DN-3351 and with several other teams of stormtroopers whose loyalty was with Kylo Ren. Those troopers, in turn, were sweeping through the ship, detaining and in some cases engaging those who remained obviously loyal to Hux. But still… there was chaos. The chain of command had broken down, and it was difficult to distinguish one faction from the other.
Even so, things were unfolding better than he might have expected. Word of Hux’s death was slowly spreading, and it seemed that the number of personnel who opposed their Supreme Leader was dwindling. Ben had been correct in his assessment that many of the star destroyer’s eight thousand troopers would stand on his side. Though this may have been largely due to the fleet-wide broadcast of Hux calling their Tie pilots “idiots” and admitting to the murder of dozens of cadets.
Ben stopped in front of Peavey and held the older man’s stare. He sensed the captain observing him: noting the filthy uniform, the soot, the blood. Those things might have mattered to Hux, but they meant little to a man who’d been waging war for as long as Edrison Peavey. What mattered to an experienced combat officer was strength, courage, perseverance.
“Captain. My soldiers are taking control of the ship,” Ben said, his attention shifting briefly toward Peavey’s guards. The dozen elite troopers were stationed around the bridge; all had drawn their weapons and stood ready.
Peavey himself had his hands clasped behind his back. Ben sensed that the captain would accept death before he would acquiesce in the greater conflict with the Resistance.
Sure enough, Peavey’s face tightened. “Where is General Organa?”
Ben didn’t blink. “She’s been taken off the Finalizer.”
“By our forces?”
There was a brief silence before Peavey said, “So you have allied yourself with the enemy?”
Ben had expected the accusation. “It turned out we had an enemy within, one that was more dangerous to the First Order. That became the priority.” He wondered how much Peavey knew about or approved of Hux’s methods.
“Where is General Hux?” Peavey asked tersely.
“Hux is dead.”
The tension on the bridge increased tenfold as stormtroopers and guards eyed each other, weapons shifting. One wrong move or word, and it would all blow up.
“Hux had every advantage in that room,” Ben said quietly. “And he was overcome.”
Peavey quirked an eyebrow. “On the contrary, I’d say that being opposed by two Force users placed him at a disadvantage.” He glanced out the viewport. “I witnessed Darth Vader’s power back at the height of the Empire, but I’ve never seen anything like what you did to our Tie fleet today. They blew up their own fighters and crashed seemingly at random. You attacked our pilots and allowed the Resistance squadrons to decimate this ship’s weapons and shields.”
Ben sensed the ire radiating off the guards and others on the bridge. They’d been here to witness firsthand the destruction of their fighters. He said, “What happened here was indeed the work of the Force, but I was not the one directing it.”
“Then who?” Peavey’s face darkened as anger began to break through his stony countenance. “You can’t tell me that Leia Organa has that type of ability.”
Then you underestimate her, Ben thought, but it wouldn’t help to repeat that out loud. Instead, he said, “Sometimes the Force works of its own accord and in its own interests.”
This was not a lie. Anakin Skywalker was dead. Whatever his grandfather had done today must have been through the will of the Force. Ben had to wonder why Anakin had chosen today to intervene, and whether he would see or sense his grandfather again.
It was because of Darth Vader, though, that Peavey firmly believed in the power of the Force, which was likely the only reason he seemed to be contemplating what Ben had told him. But his skepticism was still clear, as was his furor.
So Ben said evenly, “I have made no agreement with the Resistance beyond getting General Organa off this ship. As that has been accomplished, our focus now shifts to containing Hux’s insurrection.” He let his eyes sweep over the officers and soldiers assembled. “Those who were complicit in the coup but now lay down their weapons will receive amnesty. Their grievances will be addressed in due time. Further loss of life is unnecessary.” He brought his gaze back to Peavey. “Call them off, captain.”
Peavey held his stare for several long seconds, and Ben sensed the moment when the decision was made. Order over chaos. Hierarchy above all. The captain lowered his chin in a deep nod. “As you wish, Supreme Leader.” He motioned to his guards, who holstered their weapons and stood at ready attention. The remaining personnel on the bridge seemed to collectively exhale, as did Ben, though he tried not to show it.
Captain Peavey strode to the comm and signaled the tech to begin transmission. “Attention all personnel. Cease internal hostilities immediately, and shift operations to recovery and repair. By order of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren.” He addressed the comm tech. “Raise Captain Opan on the Harbinger.”
After several seconds… “The Harbinger isn’t responding, sir.”
Ben exchanged a glance with Peavey before stalking to the viewport. The Harbinger had disappeared from sight.
“She’s behind us, sir,” the chief sensor tech announced. “They’re charging their ion canons.”
“Shield status!” Peavey’s tone had taken on an edge of panic.
“Less than ten percent, captain. We won’t survive a barrage at this range.”
The comm tech spoke up. “We just received a message back from Captain Opan, sir. It said only… ‘Proceeding with Operation New Dawn.’” He looked up, puzzled.
DN-3351 stepped forward. “Sir, surveillance shows several squads of troopers approaching the bridge.”
Ben suddenly understood. “Hux had a failsafe,” he said, drawing his lightsaber and activating it. “This is plan B.”
He sensed the shift in Force energies just as Lank Paze appeared with a squad of black-marked stormtroopers. The lieutenant, his face hard, raised his blaster. “Too right, sir.” And he fired, along with all of the troops behind him.
Ben knew the blasts would be aimed both at him and at Peavey, so he grabbed the captain’s arm and pulled him down as he threw up a Force shield between them and their attackers. But then something hot zipped past his ear, and he heard Peavey grunt in pain. Spinning around, Ben saw that a few of the bridge officers had drawn blasters and were firing at them from behind. He shielded again and deflected several blasts with his lightsaber, but his reactions were still slow, and a bolt slipped through and slammed into his thigh. Pain exploded up and down his right leg as he dropped to his knee. Peavey’s guards and DN-3351’s squad were returning fire on the attackers, but they had no cover and were under assault from all sides. Ben saw one of his troopers fall, then another.
DN-3351 took a hit to the shoulder and went down, then rolled over and tried to keep firing, only to have his blaster kicked out of his hand.
Lieutenant Paze smirked as he aimed his blaster straight at the trooper’s face-
Paze’s eyes widened and blinked down at the glowing red and blue blade that suddenly protruded through his breastbone, then he collapsed to the floor as Rey withdrew her lightsaber and turned to slash down a charging stormtrooper. Ben ignored the searing pain in his leg as he leapt toward her. They locked eyes for a quick moment in which he knew she could see and sense his worry for her. She glanced pointedly at his leg and moved to shore up his weak side as another barrage of blaster bolts exploded around them.
She pulled out a comm unit similar to the one FN-2187 had given him and flicked it on. “Are you in position yet?! Hurry!”
“Sir!” Incredibly, the sensor tech was still at his post, ducking his head and frantically scanning his smoking instrument panel. “The Harbinger is preparing to fire!”
“Now! Now! Do it NOW!” Rey screamed into her comm, and Ben had no idea what she meant or who she was talking to. But then suddenly the Force heaved around them, and everything seemed to just stop.
He felt a great pressure against his ears, as though they’d gone deep underwater. All sound ceased, though he could see movement around as all of the opposing troops and officers just dropped in place, seemingly in slow motion. His own forces stayed up, though some pressed their hands against their heads or doubled over. The Force was an explosion, a dense combustion that was being drawn and directed in a way he’d never done or sensed before. The bridge seemed to tilt, and Ben felt himself being pulled from the inside, as though he was being torn apart… until Rey grabbed him through their bond, holding tightly and centering him in the storm.
And then it was over.
Sound came rushing back, along with the air he’d forgotten to breathe, and Ben couldn’t help it… he dropped to his knees, gasping.
Rey knelt in front of him, her hands on his shoulders, though her gaze was over his head as she stared wide-eyed at the person whose immense Force presence now filled the room. Ropalaa.
“That was…” Rey breathed as they both watched the Knight step over fallen stormtroopers to approach them. “That was incredible. How did you-”
The Rodian’s bulbous eyes twinkled in a way that Ben hadn’t seen in many years. “Someone gave me a book,” she said simply. “It’s been useful.”
Rey huffed a laugh, though it turned into a cough as she climbed to her feet and helped Ben stand. He tried - unsuccessfully - not to wince as he put weight on his injured leg, and Ropalaa’s eyes narrowed as she scanned him from head to toe. She opened her mouth to say something, but he waved her off as he looked around at what she’d done on the bridge.
Every one of their enemies had gone down, alive but unconscious. Ropalaa had somehow just dropped them in place, leaving those who fought on his side untouched. Ben couldn’t fathom how she’d accomplished it.
“A book?” he asked Ropalaa. She just looked at Rey, who grinned back.
He sensed the rest of his Knights somewhere on the ship. They were drawing heavily on the Force as well, their combined power making the very air around him feel thick and heavy.
“Sir, you have to see this!” The sensor tech, who was bleeding profusely over one eye and who Ben made a mental note to promote as soon as this was over, was gesturing out the forward viewport.
Ben limped forward, pausing to give Captain Peavey a hand up. They both stared out at the Harbinger, which was back in view and now surrounded by a blurred swirl of glowing, pulsing bolts.
Peavey, pressing a hand against a wound in his side, swore quietly. “Those are canon blasts. Circling the ship. Is THIS the Force acting of its own will again?”
“Not really.” A cheerful voice came from behind them. “Talik and Martna are just messing with them now.” Ben turned to see Kiona Ren approaching, whistling as she observed the dozens of limp bodies scattered over the floor. She stopped before Ben and bowed slightly. “We all killed the Harbinger, so to speak. Everyone on board is fine, but we zapped enough of their systems to render them impotent. Something we learned from a new friend.” Ben felt a flash of amusement from Rey as Kiona glanced out the viewport, eyebrows raised. “Those are their own canon blasts spinning around. So rude of them to fire on their comrades. Shall we direct the bolts into space, Supreme Leader, or…” her eyes narrowed, “permanently remove the threat?”
With over eighty thousand personnel on board that ship, there was no question. But before he released them, Ben thought he’d have a word with his officers. He signaled to the comm tech. “Get me on holo.”
“Right away, sir.”
He stepped into the holo field as the transmission connected. But instead of Trit Opan, a junior officer that he didn’t recognize appeared. The woman, who was disheveled, panting, and gripping a blaster, quickly saluted. “Supreme Leader, sir.”
Ben cocked his head. “Where is Captain Opan?”
“Captain Opan is dead, sir. As is First Officer Hask.”
“About one minute ago, sir.”
“Who are you?”
“Second lieutenant Felane Tapp, sir.” The woman seemed to steel herself, standing straighter and lifting her chin. “Several of us acted to take control of the ship, sir, as the captain and first officer had fired on the Finalizer and committed treason against the First Order and its Supreme Leader.”
“Nicely done,” Captain Peavey mumbled as he observed the transmission.
Ben nodded. “The coup on the Finalizer has been neutralized as well. Inform your troops that General Hux is dead.” He signaled to Kiona, who spoke into her comm. A second later, the canon blasts surrounding the Harbinger zipped off into the blackness of space. He saw Lieutenant Tapp look sideways and then swallow as her shoulders settled with relief.
He stretched out his awareness and felt that the tension and turmoil that had suffused the Force since he’d arrived at Foerost was finally dissipating. The threat within the two star destroyers was indeed over. The only large conflict he felt now was-
Rey sensed it at the same time he did. He glanced at her just as she stepped away and spoke quietly into her comm.
Ben turned his attention back to the transmission. “Manage your casualties and prisoners, and begin repairs. Stay on alert. And keep me appraised of any developments, Captain Tapp.”
The officer blinked, then nodded tightly. “Of course, Supreme Leader. Thank you, sir.”
As the transmission cut off, Ben strode over to Rey, gritting his teeth against his wound. He’d sensed her spike of fear, and it set his own nerves on edge. “What happened?”
He reached a hand toward her, but she was already moving toward the corridor. “Black Sun finally got off a lucky shot. Poe went down on an exterior dock of the shipyard. Maz says he’s alive and on the run, but the syndicates have the area overrun, and they can’t get close enough for a rescue.” Ben had to chase her as she continued. “We don’t have enough ships. I’ve called Chewie back. I have to get out there.”
His leg screaming in pain, Ben finally caught up and grabbed her by the elbow. “I’ll send our squadrons.”
She turned and looked up at him. “You can’t. How would that look?”
He knew she was right. He’d only just retaken control. Peavey had accused him of collaborating with the Resistance, and his Tie pilots wouldn’t appreciate being ordered to risk their lives for an enemy.
Rey held up a hand for silence as she pressed her comm close to her ear. Her eyes widened, and she hissed a string of curses through her teeth.
“They’ve got him cornered,” she said over her shoulder as she pulled away and again began running toward the airlock. “Their leader has demanded that we turn over Leia in return for Poe’s life.”
“That won’t happen.”
“Tell that to your mother. She’s already ordered Connix to turn the Gawat around.”
Ben grimaced as he ran after her. The crime lords must have realized that Hux’s coup failed, and now they were trying to salvage some benefit from the situation.
They reached the airlock, where the Millennium Falcon was just completing its docking sequence. Rey checked her weapons and then turned to him, but then glared back the way they’d come. “Damn it, Dan! Get yourself to medical!” She adjusted the holster of her lightsaber and gestured toward Ben. “And drag him there while you’re at it.”
“Yes, miss.” DN-3351 had followed them with two of his team. The stormtrooper captain’s right arm and most of his torso were smeared with blood. He was panting nearly as much as Ben was. “Sir, Captain Peavey requests permission to move the Finalizer away from the shipyards and to call in the Titan and the Conqueror to assist with repairs.”
“Granted.” Ben watched as the airlock doors began to open. “And tell the captain that I’m going off ship. He has command until I return.”
“No!” Rey ignored the roar from Chewbacca that echoed from the Falcon’s open hatch. “You’re injured. And you have to stay and manage…” she gestured through the air, “… all of this.”
“It’s managed,” he said. “And I’m coming with you.” It bothered him more than he wanted to let on, that she was so ready to run away from him again. Back to the Resistance.
Of course she saw and sensed all of that. She stepped close to him and said, “I’m not leaving you. Ever. Again. But I have to go and help Poe.”
Chewbacca appeared in the doorway. Ben locked eyes with the Wookie, sensing grief and betrayal. A rush of very old memories swept over him. He dipped his chin and looked back at Rey. “But I have to help you. I HAVE to.”
She stared back at him a moment longer, biting her lip, then nodded and took his hand. They entered the airlock and stopped at the Falcon’s hatch, where Chewbacca’s massive form blocked the way. The Wookie looked at Ben for a moment longer, then said something to Rey before moving aside to let them come aboard.
He heard Rey exhale. “He said you get the gunners chair.”
Ben understood. There were three excellent pilots on this cruiser, and he wasn’t yet welcome in the cockpit. He climbed down the ladder to his station as the Falcon lifted off. He kept his eyes down, his mind focused on the task at hand. He couldn’t look around at his father’s ship. Not yet.
As they moved away from the Finalizer, Ben saw a single Tie fighter emerge from the main hangar door.
“Adion,” Rey said through his headset. He’d felt his Knight’s presence, too, but he didn’t understand it.
“I don’t have the full story,” Rey responded. “But expect him to cover your mother and Connix if they return.”
All right then. Ben turned his chair and focused ahead, where an armada was clustered around one distant corner of the shipyard. He heard Rey suck in a breath.
“That can’t just be Black Sun,” she said.
He agreed. There had to be over fifty warships and fighters maneuvering around the area. Bolts crisscrossed and flared, explosions marking when they had found their targets. The Resistance ships’ cloaking was less effective in such tight quarters, where the risk of collisions or incidental damage was high. As they approached, he scanned the docks and catwalks of the shipyard. Poe Dameron had been his prisoner once, and Ben had probed his mind none too gently. It had given him a sense of the man’s Force signature, and so he was able to locate him easily.
“He’s in that forward maintenance bay,” he told Rey. “Underneath one of those loaders. He’s injured.”
The ship banked hard. Ben had seen the Falcon in action but had never been on board to feel the acceleration, the tight turns.
“Stop admiring my flying and start shooting!” Rey yelled through the comm as two gunships swooped in on them, turbolasers firing.
Ben swiveled his chair and took aim. He fired once, then twice… and both enemy ships exploded into flame and debris.
There was a moment of silence through his comm, then, “Show off.”
He smirked as they rolled through the thick of the fight. He could sense the cloaked X-wings all around them and knew Rey could, too. He shot sparingly and carefully, never missing or wasting a shot as he listened to Rey directing the Resistance squadrons.
“Cover me, we’re going in!”
His stomach dropped as the Falcon executed a tight flip to come in close to the main dock. Rey skimmed the surface then braked hard, setting them down only a few dozen meters from where he sensed Dameron.
He heard the hatch open even before the steam from their landing gear had dissipated. His right leg had gone blessedly numb as he hauled himself up the ladder and into the corridor… only to find Chewbacca blocking his way off the ship.
The Wookie growled and gestured with his bowcaster toward the cockpit. Ben’s Shyriiwook was rudimentary at best, but he got the gist of it.
“No. I’ll go with her.”
Another growl, this one more menacing. He heard an explosion outside as a canon blast narrowly missed either Rey or the Falcon.
There was no time to argue, especially since he knew how stubborn Chewbacca could be. He just nodded and watched the Wookie charge off the ship. Then he made his way into the cockpit, walling off the part of himself that would get lost in memories and sentiment. This was made more difficult as a glint of gold caught his eye, his father’s dice… the real ones this time, not the mirage he’d briefly held on Crait.
Ben knew that part of the reason he’d so badly wanted this ship destroyed was so that he would never have to feel… this. It was too painful, and sitting here, he couldn’t escape it. Couldn’t escape the enormity of what he’d done. His mother may have forgiven him - Rey, too - but he knew that once you stripped away the blinders of love, there were some things that were truly unforgivable.
Shaking off the heaviness with great effort, Ben watched out the viewport as Chewbacca and Rey darted through the maintenance yard. Dameron hadn’t come out to meet them, and Ben sensed the pilot’s pain and fading consciousness. They might be too late. The loss to the Resistance would be devastating.
The Falcon rocked as it took a direct hit, then another. Alarms shrieked, but the shields were holding. Overhead, the air streaked with laser and canon blasts; he watched as a syndicate gunship lit up with explosions and tumbled into a catwalk a hundred meters away. Too close.
He lost sight of Rey and Chewbacca for a long moment, then they reappeared with Poe Dameron thrown over the Wookie’s shoulder. They sprinted back but dove for cover as a fighter streaked close and strafed the maintenance yard with laser fire. Ben reached out with the Force and turned the fighter, flipping its nose over and down; he could sense the Falleen pilot fighting the controls right up until the point when he crashed into a deserted outbuilding.
Rey deflected a few more stray blasts, and then they were on the ramp. Ben worked the controls on instinct, shutting out emotion and letting the Force guide him as he lifted off and accelerated away, taking care to avoid rolls or steep banks until they had Dameron secured. He sensed that Rey was tending to her friend, and Chewbacca had gone to the gunner’s chair. The Falcon was his alone to fly.
For a piece of junk, the ship flew like a pilot’s wet dream. The flight controls were hyper-responsive, similar to his Tie-Silencer’s, and he had to resist the urge to push the thrusters and see just how fast the damn thing could go. His father had been a smuggler and a racer, and so had outfitted his ship to sate that constant urge for speed…
He shook his head to clear it. His throat was tight and his eyes burned. So much for shutting out emotion.
Rey was on her mobile comm, telling the rest of their fleet to clear out, but asking FN-2187’s starship - which had been one of the last to arrive on site - to wait. She came up to the cockpit, her hands bloody and her eyes wide and worried.
“Poe’s bleeding out,” she said, her voice shaking. “The Falcon isn’t equipped for this. Finn has a full medical bay on the Adamant 2. We have to get to them.”
“We can bring him aboard the Finalizer,” Ben offered, swerving away from two Black Sun fighters as Chewbacca lit them up with the laser canon. The enemy fleet was dwindling as some of them recognized a lost cause and disappeared into hyperspace. “Our facilities are superior.”
“Maybe. But our medics care about Poe. They’ll actually try to save him, whereas yours might just go through the motions.”
He wanted to insist that she was wrong… but she probably wasn’t. “There,” he said, pointing to a vacant dock that would have space for both ships.
Rey relayed the location to FN-2187 as Ben settled the Falcon onto the platform. He felt strangely empty, as though the act of flying his father’s ship had drained his last reserves. He was overcome by the urge to pull Rey into the crew cabin, lay down on the double bed with her, and just sleep.
He heard her sigh, as though they had shared that restful vision, and then she squeezed his shoulder and made her way back to the lounge to check on Dameron. Out the viewport he could see the Adamant 2 circle in for a landing, and he could sense the cloaked X-wings providing cover overhead. There was little need. The crime syndicates’ ships were all but gone.
Ben cast one last glance at his father’s gold dice as he stood to leave. He allowed himself a few seconds to indulge the fantasy of sitting in the copilot’s seat while Rey flew, the two of them speeding off to… somewhere…
But not today.
He entered the lounge where Rey and Chewbacca were securing Dameron on a litter for transfer to the Adamant 2. The Resistance pilot’s face was ashen; Ben could see the shallowness of his breaths. He sensed that Rey was trying to aid him with the Force but didn’t know how. The Force’s healing powers were limited; rather than knitting flesh and bone it could only lend an inner strength, a nudge to keep grasping onto the strands that bound a person’s life to their body. Ben tapped into Rey’s awareness through their bond and carefully guided her through it. Dameron gasped a deeper breath, and Rey shot Ben a grateful look.
There was a commotion as FN-2187, Rose Tico, and two others charged in. They all stopped short at the sight of Ben, even as he stepped back to give them space. Instantly, four blasters were pointed in his direction.
FN-2187 quickly lowered his weapon. “Sorry. Reflex,” he mumbled as he dropped to his knees beside Rey. “How’s he doing?”
“Not good. Compound fractures in both legs, and I think there’s some internal bleeding.”
“Shit. Let’s go.”
Ben turned to follow as Rey accompanied her friends down the ramp. Chewbacca stayed put, and Ben paused, meeting the Wookie’s eyes once again.
There was a soft, plaintive growled question.
Ben swallowed before answering. “I thought I had to. It was…” He stopped himself. There was no explaining it away. “I’m sorry,” he said instead.
Another growl, this one just a wordless expression of grief. But he sensed some of Chewbacca’s anger drain away as the Wookie turned and retreated to the cockpit.
He left his father’s ship and saw Rey standing at the bottom of the Adamant 2’s ramp, watching as the others rushed Dameron inside. FN-2187 paused to shout back at him, “Ten minutes, right? You promised!” The former stormtrooper disappeared through the hatch without waiting for an answer.
Ben noted that two of the starship’s canons swiveled toward him as he approached. He didn’t blame the Resistance gunners for their caution.
Rey, however, scowled up at the canons as she turned and walked back, meeting him midway across the dock.
“He’ll survive,” Ben said quietly as he noticed the tight set of her shoulders, the crease between her eyes. “I could sense it. He has a strong will to live.”
She nodded. “Thank you for flying us out.”
“I’m the one who should be thanking you. And my mother. And…” Chewbacca. DN-3351 and Taznayan. The unknown audio tech from the detention block. So many others. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d been helped in the last several hours.
Rey’s lip quirked up. “For a Supreme Leader, you sure require a lot of rescuing.”
He smiled back, taking her hand as they walked toward the Falcon. The Adamant 2 lifted off; Rey gave a wave as the cruiser sped away from the shipyard and then quickly flashed into hyperspace.
“Has your fleet set a rendezvous point?” He asked the question without thinking, and Rey’s silent glance up at him was answer enough.
But then she said very quietly, “Come with me, and you’ll find out.”
He stopped walking, and it took a tremendous effort to not pull her close and tell her, Yes, I’ll come. He wanted to, so badly… but only to be with her.
“You have to stay.” She said it without accusation, and he sensed her sadness like a cloud over his soul.
“The First Order needs direction, now more than ever,” he said, unable to resist the temptation to reach up and brush the hair away from her face. “Instability makes the whole organization more dangerous. I have to control the fallout.”
She sighed, squeezing his hand even as she looked upward, where he could sense two X-wings still observing them. Farther up, a Tie-fighter circled the area: Adion, watching for Connix, who wasn’t coming. “I know,” Rey admitted. “We need time to regroup as well.”
So here again, they found themselves on opposite sides, their paths diverging. But something felt different. The Force energy between them, where it used to be frantic and desperate, was now steady and strong. An unbreakable bond that made him feel as though his heart was outside of his body, in the hands of this small, strong woman.
Rey stepped close and leaned into him. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered with a tiny smile. “I feel it, too.”
He cupped her cheek and kissed her… a softer, slower kiss this time that deepened as she slid a hand up the nape of his neck and pressed herself into him. He wrapped an arm around her waist and easily lifted her up, causing her to break the kiss and huff a small laugh that turned into a soft “oh!” as he nuzzled her neck, tracing the soft skin there with his nose before placing a kiss just above her collarbone.
Her fingers dug into his shoulders. “You’re not making it easy to say goodbye,” she breathed.
He didn’t bother to lift his head as he murmured into her neck. “This isn’t goodbye.”
A harsh mechanical trill had them jumping apart. A T-85 X-wing, its cloaking deactivated, hovered above them briefly before setting down on the dock. There was no pilot, and Ben recognized the ship that he had borrowed to sneak into Foerost.
The R3 unit, which was piloting the fighter, emitted a steady string of harsh beeps. Rey pressed a hand to her mouth, her eyes crinkling with amusement.
“What’s it saying?” he asked.
“She, not it. R3-Y7 wants to know where the… bleep… you were while there was a battle raging out here.” She shook with silent laughter as the astromech droid’s diatribe continued. “You’ve shirked your duty, you caused R3-Y7 to look like a coward in front of her peers… oh, my…” She looked up him, her eyes twinkling. “Apparently she’s been monitoring communications between your fleet. She says your absence from the Finalizer is causing alarm among your officers.”
“Well, I’ll have her call for a shuttle-”
A low-pitched blaaaattt from the droid told him this was the wrong thing to say.
Rey was struggling not to laugh out loud. “She says you already have a ship, and that you should stop fraternizing and get on board, damn it.”
He looked at the droid. “Sorry.” R3-Y7 answered with a low whistle that sounded only partly mollified. He turned back to Rey. “So I guess I’m stealing an X-wing?”
“I’ll explain it to C’ai and Finn.”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment longer before stepping further apart. “Be careful,” she told him, eyes flashing with affection and worry.
“You, too.” He stayed put as she walked back to the Falcon.
Rey stopped on the ramp and looked back. A brief vision flashed, a memory of her staring down at him and then closing that door - Crait. He’d thought then he had lost her. Now, he knew he hadn’t. They would find a way.
‘I’ll come back for you, sweetheart.’ He heard the voice like an echo in his mind. He didn’t know who said it. Perhaps they were saying it to each other.
He stayed until the Falcon lifted off, and his chest tightened as it flashed into hyperspace. Their bond remained, but he felt her physical absence like a hole in his heart.
R3-Y7 had remained surprisingly silent for a time, but now the droid beeped at him insistently, and he hurried to climb into the cockpit. A third and fourth star destroyer had joined the two already hovering distant from the shipyard, which made for hundreds of thousands of personnel waiting on him to define the course of their mission and their lives. He’d taken on this responsibility. He knew what he had to do.
R3-Y7 warbled a warning as Ben punched the accelerator and raced toward his fleet. “Good point,” he mumbled, activating the fighter’s comm.
“Attention all First Order personnel,” he spoke into the mic. “This is Kylo Ren, approaching in a single T-85 X-wing.” He smiled, imagining Captain Peavey’s reaction as he finished, “Don’t shoot.”
This is only some of what has been written and intended for Chapter 26. The rest of it is still in first-draft stage, and it's quite long, and I won't be able to work on it for a few days. So I'm essentially posting less than half a chapter here, but I think it stands on its own. If you've made it this far, you're a very patient reader.
Sorry, and thank you so much for reading, comments and kudos!!!
Mirena Foloki frowned as she studied the readout from his latest round of bloodwork. “Your iron is low and cortisone is high. How much sleep are you getting, sir?”
Ben pulled on his boots and reached for his belt. He’d washed but felt sticky from the bacta treatment that had just been applied to his still-healing leg wound. “Probably not enough.”
Dr. Foloki peered at him over the rim of her glasses. “You might consider making it a priority, sir.”
He wondered how long it had been since he’d had a truly restful night’s sleep. More than several weeks, certainly. Months? Years? He sighed. “I’ll try.”
The doctor’s expression indicated that she knew he’d do no such thing, but she just shook her head before asking, “I was wondering, sir, if you had a chance to review the report that Captain Terran and I prepared on the fraternization policy?” She smiled at whatever blank expression must have appeared on his face. “No matter, sir. There’s been quite a lot going on since that meeting.”
“I… yes, there has.” A bit of an understatement, that. “Summary?”
She sat at her desk and folded her hands. “The policy should be amended to regulate, rather than prohibit, relationships. The rules would be geared toward protecting against coercion, forbidding superiors from involvement with subordinates, things of that nature.” She scowled but didn’t comment as he tested his weight on his right leg. “Also, we’ve had thousands of requests for prophylactics and contraceptives. I took it upon myself to obtain and begin distributing them, as you were… unavailable for consultation.”
Ben finished dressing and pushed his hair away from his face. He knew that Dr. Foloki had been working tirelessly in the three days since the failed coup to save the lives of those who had been wounded. And Captain Terran had led several of the stormtrooper divisions that fought on his behalf.
“I trust your judgment to make the necessary changes. And…” Ben stopped at the door and inclined his head. “Thank you, doctor.”
“It’s an honor to serve, Supreme Leader.”
A stormtrooper waited outside the medbay. Ben motioned for him to walk alongside as he headed toward the bridge. “Dagary Minor?”
“Yes, sir, we have the report,” DN-3351 responded. “No sign of your Tie Silencer on the planet or anywhere else in the system.”
Ben cursed under his breath. By the time he’d remembered his abandoned ship in the hours after Foerost, its tracker had already been disabled. “The Resistance engineers must have it stripped down by now.” The thought was more painful than he’d admit.
“I imagine so, sir. But at least you’ve got their X-wing.”
Ben snorted. “Along with the droid from hell.”
A flash of amusement. “Oh, I don’t know, sir. I’d bet there are akk dogs that are less loyal.”
“And less ferocious,” Ben mumbled as the subject of their conversation rolled into view. R3-Y7 accelerated toward him and stopped in his path before unleashing a string of buzzes and beeps.
“Yes,” Ben replied, trying to step around but being blocked by the little astromech droid. “I instructed the technicians to remove the cloaking system in order to study it.”
This was received with an angry hiss and beep.
“It’s not confidential technology HERE,” he sighed. “And there is a cease-fire in effect. We won’t be shooting at Resistance ships any time soon.”
R3-Y7 began to respond but broke off as a sentry droid approached from an adjoining corridor. The unfortunate sentry was just following its programming on routine patrol, but as it came close, R3-Y7 zoomed into its path and let loose an expletive-filled lecture about unauthorized proximity to the Supreme Leader. The sentry zig-zagged, trying to get by, before giving up and retreating back the way it had come, with R3-Y7 following close behind, still buzzing curses and warnings.
“You’ve learned her language pretty well, sir,” DN-3351 commented as they continued on.
“I had to. She wouldn’t stop berating me about it.”
They reached the bridge, where DN-3351 stopped. “If that’s all, sir, I’ll go to make sure your shuttle is ready.”
“Wait.” Ben turned to face the trooper. “Good work on Generis. You located your targets more quickly than I’d expected.”
“Your Knights deserve the credit there, sir. It was a pleasure to break up the slavers’ operation.”
Ben nodded. “How’s your injury?”
“It’s fine, sir.”
“You haven’t taken any time off.”
“Neither have you, sir.”
Ben blinked, pressing his lips together. “Select another captain to accompany me down to the planet. You’re off duty until we arrive at Mustafar. Get some rest.”
A slight pause, in which Ben sensed the trooper wanted to object but thought better of it. “Yes, sir.”
As DN-3351 left, Ben continued onto the command bridge, where Captain Peavey awaited him near the forward viewport. Ben could see Generis far below, as well as several shuttles traversing between the ship and the planet.
“Supreme Leader.” Peavey gave a quick bow. “We’ve begun offloading personnel and supplies for the rebuilding effort, per your instructions. I’m told you’re headed down to the surface?”
“I won’t be long,” Ben said. Even from this orbit, the scar from the gas mine explosion was visible. “We’ll depart as soon as I return.”
“To Mustafar, sir?”
“Yes.” Ben suddenly found it difficult to draw a deep breath. He nodded and left quickly.
The very idea of the place chilled him to the bone. Just weeks ago, a journey to the volcanic world where his grandfather had made his home would have been a bane to his conflicted soul. A locus of the Dark side of the Force, Mustafar’s history reeked of pain for his own family and for so many others. Jedi had been tortured and murdered there. Anakin Skywalker had completed his turn to the Darkness on those lava fields - gravely injuring Ben’s grandmother - and then had returned to build his obsidian castle on Darth Sidious’s order. Ben had dreamed of Mustafar his entire life. Now, it was the last place he wanted to go.
As though sensing his conflict, a soft presence brushed against his mind. Rey.
‘I need you,’ was the thought that he wanted to send to her. But he held himself back.
In the days since Foerost, their bond had ebbed and flowed as they both moved around the galaxy. It had connected only once, quite suddenly, as though they’d both focused their minds on each other at the same time. He had been in a meeting with his officers. She’d been similarly positioned, and they’d both known that the other couldn’t talk, so they just stole glances at each other for several long minutes until the connection faded away.
Since then, he had kept busy in order to distract himself from what had become an increasingly desperate urge to be with her. Because despite all that had happened, despite everything that she had done and said, and especially despite the way she had kissed and touched him… she had left, again. They both retreated to their separate camps, with a galaxy between them and little hope of bridging the divide. He second-guessed his choices constantly. He should have gone with her… but he had to stay to keep the First Order from descending into chaos and war. They needed to be together… but he didn’t deserve her. He longed to reach out… but he had to give her space. It was tearing him apart, thinking that she didn’t need him like he needed her. That she didn’t love him like he loved her.
It was easier to stay away, because closeness might bring a painful truth.
Rey’s presence in his mind flickered as he entered the hangar, where a squad of stormtroopers waited at the ramp to his shuttle. Ben took comfort in knowing that she would approve of what he was about to do. It was an endeavor that Rey - with her gentle, patient nature and protective instincts - would be even better suited for than he. Maybe, eventually, they would be able to work together. Someday.
He could only hope.
The air inside the shanty’s single room was thick with afternoon heat and humidity. Through the open windows and door, a steady drone of insects pressed on the ears, occasionally punctuated by a hiss or beep from the comm units of stormtroopers stationed around the perimeter. Otherwise, this makeshift settlement - deep in the forested hills of Generis - was preternaturally silent… except for frequent outbursts of exuberance from one tiny, blue-eyed child.
“Kywo Wen, watch this!”
Anise’s face scrunched in concentration as she extended her hand toward a homemade doll on the floor. The doll twitched, then lifted as though on invisible strings and began jerkily marching toward him. Ben felt the currents of the Force rippling gently through the room.
“Like this?” she asked, looking up at him but then glancing at her mother.
“Yes, like that. Good.” Perched on a low wooden bench near the door, elbows resting on his knees, he smiled at Anise to reassure her.
The girl’s mother didn’t smile as she stared at the doll for a moment before resuming her narrow-eyed study of him. She sat on the other side of the small room, her posture relaxed at first glance until one noticed how absolutely still she remained, or how her eyes tracked even the smallest movement. The woman was young, twenty three standard years according to data that the First Order had recovered from the slavers’ records. When she crossed her arms in front of her chest, Ben could clearly see the identifying tattoos that Black Sun had branded on her wrists.
For the first ten minutes of his visit she’d kept a blaster pointed at him. But he had carefully explained why he’d come, and Anise - who’d been delighted to see him - listened intently and began experimenting with her abilities before he had even finished talking.
“So you can find this… Force sensitivity… in people just by looking at them?” Her voice, like her expression, was hard.
He kept his head low between his shoulders and his hands where she could see them. “Sometimes. I didn’t notice Anise’s ability until we were on my ship, probably because the situation at the mine was-”
“Dangerous? Deadly?” She spat the words at him, pain flickering for a moment before that harsh countenance returned.
“Yes,” he replied simply. He had already told her that her husband had died because of an attempt on his own life. The news had little effect on her. She was well beyond grief.
“So my daughter can use the Force. What business is that of yours?”
“An ability such as Anise’s can be frightening or confusing if she isn’t trained. I could teach her.”
Her nostrils flared. “To be a Jedi?”
Ben registered the sarcasm. “No.”
“What would she learn to do then?”
What indeed? It was a different galaxy now, and they were all sorting out their place in it. He responded, “Whatever she’d like. The important thing is that she not fear her abilities, and that others not fear her because of what she can do.”
“I imagine you’d know all about that.”
Ben absorbed the jab with a slight incline of his head. “You would both be free to come and go as you please. No one is to be confined or coerced into anything. The First Order’s resources are at your disposal.”
At that, she pursed her lips and glanced down at the tattoos that had been etched onto her skin.
“Yvine,” he said softly, “you were a systems engineer at the mine before Black Sun took you?”
Something flashed in her eyes as she nodded.
“Would you be interested in adapting those skills to our operations?”
“You’re offering me a job?” She tilted her chin up and laughed… a dry, joyless sound. “A job…” She stared out the window, still rubbing at her wrists. “On a Star Destroyer.”
“I admit it can be a sterile environment-”
She interrupted, sitting straighter and looking him in the eye. “We’d live on a Star Destroyer, away from this gods-damned planet. My daughter will receive schooling and I’ll have a job. Food. Clothing. Living quarters.”
Anise had paused in her playing and was looking between the two of them, silent and alert.
“That is what I’m offering, yes.” Ben stood, bowing slightly as he prepared to leave. “You don’t have to decide now. We’ve moved teams into place to rebuild the mine and camp, and you can contact anyone there should you-”
“Aw right!” Anise jumped up, her doll clutched tightly against her chest. “Wet’s go!”
Her mother stood, too, not even sparing a glance around the shanty as she took her daughter’s hand and walked past Ben and out the door. “Yes, baby. Let’s go.”
It wasn’t until he followed them out into the leaf-dappled sunlight that he registered it. A tired, determined, slightly mischievous presence that ignited his soul from the inside out. Ben’s eyes snapped upward, to the silver outline of the Star Destroyer far above.
Rey was on board the Titan.
Hello awesome readers!! Now's a good time to point out that this fic is rated "Explicit." Even though it's much tamer than many (most!) of the fics I've enjoyed reading here, if smut isn't your thing, you might want to skim or skip this chapter. But really... who doesn't like smut? ;)
* deep breath * Here we go... enjoy!
His shuttle landed inside a hangar in chaos. Stormtroopers, crew, and pilots swarmed the area. Even Captain Peavey was present, shouting orders and looking a bit red in the face. And in the middle of it all… his Tie Silencer, apparently repaired and shined to a bright polish.
Ben smiled at the sight of his ship, but then sighed as DN-3351 met him at the bottom of the ramp. “I should demote you.”
“Any idea where she is?”
“No, sir. Taz and the others are unable to locate her on any of the security feeds.”
Anise skipped down the ramp and stopped beside them. “Whoa! It’s big in here!” She looked up at the stormtrooper. “Hi Dan!”
Ben sensed the trooper’s surprise. “How did you know it was me?”
“I have the Force!” Anise grinned as her mother joined them.
Yvine scowled as a squad of technicians started pulling up panels to search beneath the floor. “What’s going on?”
Anise answered. “They’re looking for the sunshine.”
The little girl nodded. “There’s a sunshine on the shwip.” She looked up at Ben. “Right?”
He remembered what the Force had felt like when he was that age, with a child’s mind trying to make sense of the barrage of different energies and perceptions. It was a wondrous thing… before Snoke had slithered in and his dreams became nightmares.
He crouched down in front of Anise. “That’s right, there is a sunshine, and I have to go find her. Dan is going to show you and your mother where you’re going to live.”
As they left, Captain Peavey approached him. “Supreme Leader, as you’ve been made aware, the Resistance has infiltrated-”
He held up a hand. “They haven’t, Captain. One woman, that’s all.”
“The Jedi.” The captain hissed the word, and Ben sensed the lifetime of dread Peavey had associated with it. “She could be anywhere.”
“Call off the search.”
“But sir, we had that fighter surrounded the moment it landed and she still somehow got away-”
“Did she hurt anyone?”
Peavey’s face tightened. “No, sir.”
“And you’ll recall that she fought on my behalf during Hux’s coup.”
The captain glanced at the X-wing that was parked in a distant alcove of the hangar. “We had a common adversary then, sir. The situation has changed.”
Ben understood what Peavey was struggling with. The man had been planning or waging war for decades. It was all he knew. “Yes,” he said quietly. “Things have changed. And it’s our responsibility as leaders to change with them.”
The captain studied him for a long moment, then exhaled slowly. “Of course, sir.”
“Call off the search,” Ben said again. “I’ll find her.”
Peavey snapped a nod and strode off to relay the order. The hangar still buzzed with tension and activity, clouding Ben’s perceptions and making it difficult to pin down where Rey had gone. Without thinking, he crossed over to his Tie Silencer and waved off the scanning techs; then he climbed inside and closed the hatch.
Gods, he could smell her. The seat was still warm, and he saw that she’d made it adjustable to accommodate her shorter legs. Her repairs were flawless; it looked like a brand new ship. As Ben scanned the instrument panel, a glint of gold flashed. His chest tightened, and his eyes pressed closed for a moment before he was able to open them and look at his father’s dice hanging above the window.
Rey knew his weaknesses, and she also knew that he had to confront them. It would always be there, what he had done. He forced himself to remember his father’s face when he had killed him, the red glow from his lightsaber illuminating an older, more weathered version of the man who had laughed and played with him and cradled him to sleep. The final rush of emotion he’d felt from Han Solo in that moment: shock turning to sadness turning to love. He wished he could take it back. He wished he could tell his father now that he had been right about Snoke, about his son not being gone, about everything. He wished he could tell him that yes, he would come home.
But there was no going back, and he would have to find a way to live with that. Home meant something else now. SomeONE else. Rey’s energy had gone quiet, but he still sensed her, so very close.
Ben knew where to find her.
His heart felt like it was beating outside of his chest as Ben stopped at the door to his own quarters. The locking mechanism showed no signs of forced entry. With trembling fingers, he activated it and stepped inside.
All was quiet. His sitting room/office was just as he’d left it, sparse furniture barely visible as his eyes adjusted to the low light. He walked through and paused at the door of the fresher, where a lingering scent of soap and steam infused the air. One of his bath towels had been left - deliberately, it seemed - in a heap on the floor, alongside some familiar articles of clothing. Feeling the beginnings of a smile, he stepped over the mess and into his bedroom.
She was asleep in his bed.
Keeping his footfalls light, Ben crossed the room and stood over her. Rey was lying on her side, one arm tucked under his sole pillow and the other flung out over sheets that were drawn up to her chest. His eyes traced her profile, from the dip of her waist to the rise of her hip then over long, slightly bent legs. She’d found one of his undershirts; its short sleeves came nearly to her elbow. Her skin was darker than when he’d last seen her; perhaps the repairs to his Tie Silencer had been done outdoors, somewhere warm. Her hair was loose and damp, with a few long strands falling across her face.
He carefully sat on the edge of the bed.
Rey’s lips were parted, her chest barely moving with the shallow breaths of light sleep. She must have been tired like he was, her last few days a similar whirlwind of recovery and travel and planning that left little room for rest. He’d just decided not to disturb her when her fingers twitched and her eyelids fluttered open.
Ben held himself very still as she became aware of her surroundings. Her eyes jumped to his, and they stared at each other for a quiet moment before her lips turned up in a shy smile that quickly grew into a yawn. He watched, entranced, as she reached her arms overhead and pointed her toes in a full-body stretch that had him clenching his black-gloved hands into fists.
She relaxed and pushed up on one elbow, looking at him with a softness he hadn’t seen since the night they’d first touched through their bond. “Hello, Ben.”
He just smiled in response, not trusting himself to speak as he took in the brightness of her eyes, the exposed line of her neck, and the warm glow of her skin. He watched her gaze flick to his fists before she sat up and reached over, sliding her fingers into his to unclench them. Her hands were dwarfed inside his, her fingers thin and warm and calloused. He examined her hands as he turned them over, cupping them and then rubbing the pad of his thumbs over her palms. There was a pulse through their bond, a flash of heat that had them both freezing in place for a moment. He recovered first, holding her gaze as he slowly, deliberately repeated the motion.
Her eyes closed to the sensation, and when they opened again the quality of the light inside them had changed. The shyness was gone, replaced by an intensity that pinned him to the spot as she slowly drew up her legs and turned toward him.
He was still perched on the edge of the hard mattress, his feet planted on the floor. Rey came up on her knees next to him, near enough to feel her warmth through their clothes. She closed her hands tightly around his thumbs and whispered, “You look like you want to run away.”
“No.” He was - increasingly - terrified, but leaving was the last thing on his mind. She was here. Rey was here in his room, holding his hands. Everything he wanted was literally within his grasp at this very moment, and it wasn’t a galaxy or legacy or approval from some judgmental authority figure. It was just her now - just them, together - and nothing else existed.
He struggled to find the words to tell her this… until he realized that it didn’t matter. She knew all of it, knew him, and this was why she had come.
“I’m glad you’re here,” was what he said instead, because it was the truest thing he could say… and it was also the right thing, because her answering smile was pure joy. Wanting to capture that smile and hold onto it, he released her hands and pulled off one of his gloves, then slowly reached up to trace the curve of her lower lip, back and forth until she shuddered slightly. He felt her responding to his touch, felt their bond flare as Force energy hummed around them.
Not breaking eye contact, Rey dipped her head and took his finger in her mouth.
He couldn’t help the sound that escaped him, couldn’t help the small jerk of his body as she gently sucked his finger, grazing it with her teeth and tracing its tip with her tongue. His whole body was suddenly alight, though there was now an undeniable focus to that heat, and he held his breath as arousal came suddenly, almost painfully, and he had to shift his hips to relieve the pressure. He watched her pupils dilate as desire flashed back and forth between them, the Force a red, molten thread binding them together.
Rey released his finger, and before he could miss the heat of it, she turned fully to him and swung one of her legs over so that she was kneeling above his lap. Worried that she might lose her balance on the mattress edge, Ben grasped for her and found his hands pressed to bare skin on the backs of her thighs. The borrowed black t-shirt was the only clothing she wore. He stilled, struggling to control his reaction to this reality, but then he damned caution to the wind and watched her face as he deliberately slid his fingers a fraction higher.
Rey’s hips pressed forward, and her mouth parted. He sensed a storm of emotion, conflicting currents as her realization of her own power over him vied with the best kind of fear. In this position, they were nearly eye to eye, and he softly pressed his forehead to hers. Ben could feel each puff of air that she exhaled against his mouth. There would be a kiss, but already the sensations were too much as he curled his fingers against soft skin and heard her breath catch. He still had one of his gloves on, and he sensed that she liked the feeling… the rigid leather scratching slightly. Rey’s legs pressed into his outer thighs where she straddled him, her knees wide apart because of his size. Her hands, already on his shoulders, tightened their grip.
Unable to hold still any longer, Ben dragged his hands upward, eliciting a gasp that turned into a protesting moan as he turned his fingers outward at the last moment and brought them around to hold her hips. All that bare skin… he clenched her tightly to still his shaking. She watched him with narrowed eyes as he pressed his thumbs into the hollows in front of her hipbones and pulled her in. She leaned against him, her gaze at last flicking to his mouth. Just as her lips finally brushed his, Ben slid his hand around behind her and touched his fingers to her core.
Rey cried out, her muscles straining then going loose as she collapsed into him, and Ben wrapped his other arm around the small of her back to support her while he gently rubbed and teased and explored between her legs. His mind went utterly blank, his entire existence focused on the feeling of her: soft, wet, hot. This was a place he’d never gone with anyone else, had never wanted to before her. It was all new, and Ben barely registered the growing ache in his own body as he focused on Rey’s reactions: the muffled sounds she made, the tightening muscles in her ass and legs, the blissful surrender to it all that he felt through the Force. Their kiss forgotten, she’d simply buried her face against his neck. He felt shallow, ragged breaths against his pulse point.
His heart thumped at the whispered moan of his name. Her fingers had crawled to his chest and were fumbling with the fasteners on his jacket. He reluctantly dragged up his hands to help her, but she whispered, “No,” and then she had his jacket undone and was pushing it off his shoulders. Just as quickly she grasped the bottom of his shirt and lifted it up and over his head so that he was exposed from the waist up.
She pulled back, her eyes dark and her breath uneven, her lip reddened where she’d been biting it. Ben felt her gaze travel over him as she allowed herself to look - long and slow - in a way she’d refused to do when she’d seen him shirtless through their bond. Even then he’d been self-conscious, feeling uncomfortably exposed but almost daring her to look at him - at HIM - and see him as a man instead of the creature or monster she’d thought him to be. Now he held himself still, barely breathing as he waited for a flicker of revulsion or regret as she took in his pale skin with its mosaic of scars. But her eyes were soft, almost sad, as she lightly touched his shoulders and then ran her hands down the length of his arms, pressing her fingers into the curves of his muscles. She placed her palms flat against his chest, feeling the beat of his heart. Then her eyes locked onto his as she raised her own arms straight up over her head. Ben understood, and he grasped her shirt and pulled it off in one deft motion.
If he hadn’t been sitting, he would have fallen to his knees. The smooth skin, the curves, the strength, the softness. Gods, how he loved her, this woman who he’d lost his mind longing for… and now here she was, fully naked, straddling him, and he was paralyzed by a torrent of emotions. Lust. Need. Hope. Love.
Her lips turned up as she watched him and followed his thoughts through their bond. But there was a desperate edge, as though he’d already sent her to a place from which there was no return. She was done looking, her eyes told him. Then she leaned in, rolling her hips and running her fingers through his hair as she whispered, “Touch me again, Ben.”
He was dizzy with the sensation of her skin against his, of her breasts brushing his chest, but he would deny her nothing as he reached down - this time with his gloved hand - and rubbed against her. It was a different sensation through the leather, hot and soft but almost detached, and he had a flash of fear that it would be too rough for her. But she gasped at the contact, grinding into him and fisting her hand in his hair. She arched backward, giving him clear access to her throat. He nuzzled the base of it and then ran the tip of his tongue up as he lightly flicked his gloved fingers, finding a spot that seemed to send electric shocks pulsing through her. Rey whimpered and squeezed her knees as though trying to close them, so he paused and pulled back to look at her.
Her eyes were wide and dark, limpid and glistening. He sensed the looseness in her body, a plasticity that made her clutch onto him as though to keep from falling. Ben knew he was shaking - they both were - as he whispered the question, “Do you want to stop?”
To answer, she kissed him: a hard, deep, open-mouthed kiss that knocked him off balance. As he felt himself fall back, instinct kicked in and Ben tucked his arm under her ass and twisted, so that when they landed, he was on top.
She laughed against his lips and murmured, “I’ll watch for that move when we’re sparring.”
He reached down to her wrists and lifted them up over her head, entwining his fingers with hers as he pressed her hands against the pillow. “I thought we were sparring now.”
She glanced up at their hands and then shifted her hips, which were pinned under him. “So, I win, then?”
He released her hands and braced on his elbows as he kissed her again, more slowly this time, the tension in him pulling tighter and tighter as his tongue traced the inside of her mouth, and her fingers again found his hair and then traced circles on the back of his neck. He kissed up her jawline and nuzzled her ear, feeling her push up to him as the energy in their bond snapped and sparked. He brought one hand down and - hardly believing that he could - carefully palmed her breast. He squeezed gently and brushed his thumb over her nipple, causing a moan deep in her throat. His heart skipped when she further spread her legs, allowing their bodies to align, and he couldn’t help pressing in.
Rey gasped, squeezing his hips with her thighs as they slowly moved against each other. He knew that she could feel his arousal through his pants, and though he longed to remove that last barrier, if he did this might be over much too quickly. Fighting for control, Ben pushed up and back so that he knelt between her thighs.
For a moment, all he could do was stare. Here he was, in the cold and impersonal living quarters of a Star Destroyer, surrounded by the same toneless gray walls and faint electronic hum that had smothered him to sleep over countless angry, lonely nights. But now, somehow… this. Rey was splayed out on the rumpled black sheets of his bed, and it was as if every dream he’d had in these last several weeks had suddenly come to life. But even his most vivid fantasies hadn’t come close to this impossible reality. She glowed from the inside out, a veritable supernova in the Force. Every curve and hollow and scar and freckle was perfection. And he’d never imagined that even across that glorious expanse of bare skin, it was her eyes that would hold him. Her lids were half-closed as she stared up at him, and he sensed her anticipation, still edged with a bit of that fear but overlaid by trust. She felt vulnerable, he knew. So did he.
Ben reached up and placed his hand over the center of her chest, then dragged it down over her ribs to her navel. She was tiny beneath him, and he again looked to her for any reluctance or objection. And though her expression held none of that, he felt compelled to say, “Nothing you don’t want.”
That seemed to spark something in her; she cocked her head and blinked at him for several seconds before slowly, deliberately stretching her arms up over her head. And he realized she’d been considering not limitations but possibilities as she softly replied, “I want everything from you.”
His control snapped, and Ben slid down between her legs, pushed her thighs further apart, and ran his tongue through her center. Rey shrieked, hips bucking, but he held her in place, his fingers pressing into the softest skin as he licked and nuzzled, discovering the taste and feel of her. Through their bond he could feel the intensity of the sensations, and he knew when to back off and when to press harder. He again found that spot at her apex and, aware of the extreme sensitivity there, lightly flicked it with his tongue, over and over, until he felt her muscles clenching under his hands as her hips tried to match the rhythm. Her breathing was jagged, with every exhale releasing a gasp or a moan or a word: his name or a curse or “yes” or “oh gods.” His own body responded, grinding into the bed as a primal part of his brain urged him to just climb up and mount because the pressure was nearly unbearable…
“Ben… please, I want… oh…”
He felt the shift in her, felt her tension cresting. But he held back, held himself in place, and instead brought his hand in to press low before bending his middle finger and sliding it inside.
Rey cried out again, the sound echoing in the cold, empty room. She pushed down, trying to draw him in deeper, and he obliged, sliding in and out slowly. He added a second finger and sensed a twinge of pain, but as he began to withdraw she rasped, “Don’t stop” and dug her heels into the skin over his ribs. So he increased the pace, driving in deep, the knuckles of his other fingers rubbing her outer folds as she moaned.
Ben took a second to look up, his mind capturing the image of Rey - this was Rey, gods, she was here, with her head thrown back and her body beautiful and writhing under his touch - before he dipped his head again and ran his tongue over her little nub, tapping and caressing it as his fingers plunged in…
He felt the slight pause, the moment of silence before the explosion, and he had just enough time to tighten his grip before she came, screaming - gods, screaming - his name as she rocked and shuddered against him. He felt it with her through the Force, surge after hot surge of pleasure radiating up her spine and down her legs as she clutched at him and at the sheets while she gasped for air. The last wave finally broke, and she was still shaking as he slowly withdrew his fingers and released her legs. Ben pulled himself up just enough to rest his head on the softness of her belly as he tried to control his own breathing.
A trembling silence enveloped them. She stroked his face, the touch featherlight and incredibly intimate. He sensed that she was pulling herself together, finding a way back to herself after what they’d just done.
A whisper. “Ben?”
He didn’t lift his head, because the softness of her skin against his cheek… “Yes?”
The planes of her stomach shifted as she leaned down to reach for him, running her hand along his jaw before tilting his chin up so that he looked at her. Her eyes glowed in the near darkness.
“Rest later,” she murmured. “We’re not done yet.”
The scene flashed in both their minds: the forest on Starkiller Base, when he’d uttered those same words to her. “This isn’t what I meant,” he said softly.
Her lip quirked. “Yes, it was.”
“All right, yes. It was.”
Her fingers tugged at his shoulders, but Ben decided to take his time. He kissed her navel and slowly began working his way up. She shivered, her skin covered in gooseflesh both from his touch and the room’s chill air. Her breasts were tight, her nipples erect, and he gently brushed his lips over first one then the other. The soft touches were in contrast to the heaviness with which he pressed on her hips and legs, settling his weight and pushing her down into the mattress. Ben kept his movements slow and felt her begin to respond. He grazed his teeth over a nipple as she again fisted her hands in his hair. Then he looked up and held eye contact as he covered her breast with his mouth, sucking and licking as she moaned and tried to writhe but could barely move beneath him.
Desire tightened around him like a vise. The heat between them was incredible, almost unbearable. He knew Rey felt it, too, because she grabbed his arms and pulled hard so that he reluctantly released her breast and pushed up to hover over her. His hair fell in his face and his arms quivered as he stared, searching her eyes, grasping frantically for the last threads of his control.
Rey’s hand slid down his stomach and palmed him through his pants. “Mine,” she whispered as his mind left him altogether.
“Yes,” he managed to hiss through his teeth as her deft fingers worked his buckle. There were a desperate few seconds of shifting and kicking and then he was fully naked, holding himself oh so still above her.
Every base urge and instinct and nerve in his body was roaring, but Ben forced himself to stop and really look at Rey. He could feel how much she wanted this - wanted him - but he sensed that this was her first time too, and he was afraid to-
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered.
But Rey’s eyes were calm as she reached up a hand to touch the scar above his eye, tracing it down his face and over his jaw and collarbone to where it ended in a small hook near his heart. Ben shivered.
“Just this one last time.” Her voice was sure and soft as she cupped his cheek. “Then we’ll never hurt each other again.”
Rey cut him off with a kiss, opening her mouth to him as she hooked her ankles around the small of his back and pulled him close. Their bodies lined up effortlessly, and the Force energy between them suddenly took on a sharper, more piercing tone. Every place their skin touched was electric, like they were being drawn into each other. Rey canted her hips, and Ben’s whole body shook as he slowly pushed in, groaning at the sudden raw, hot sensation of it, overwhelmed because he never imagined that anything could feel so impossibly good…
He reached a point of resistance and felt Rey tense even as she tried to suppress it. But when he hesitated she dug her heels into his ass, and so he pushed through with a short, hard thrust, gasping as she cried out while a maelstrom of sensations crashed into him: the dizzying ecstasy of being inside her, the burning pain Rey felt that crackled through their bond, a relief the two of them shared because they had somehow - after everything - made it to this moment together.
His lips hovered over hers as they both panted, adjusting not just to physical sensations but to the feeling that the galaxy had somehow realigned itself around them. Her thighs had tightened around him, trying to close out the pain, but now he felt her muscles quivering as they gradually relaxed. Nothing in his life had ever felt so right, so perfect. Ben pulled back just enough to kiss away the hot tears that had squeezed out the corners of her eyes, then he slowly - so slowly - began to move inside her.
Rey shuddered as he smoothed a hand down her side and over her hip to her thigh, which he gripped and spread a bit wider. His body was on fire, but he watched her reactions as he pushed in deep, burying himself in her as she rocked up against his considerable weight. He briefly considered rolling them both over, but he sensed that she wanted it like this, wanted him on top, and that knowledge stroked a primal place inside that caused him to hold her tighter, thrust harder as Rey’s eyes closed and her head tipped back. He dropped his face to her neck, his open lips grazing her throat as her fingers unconsciously kneaded his shoulders and her breathing became more and more erratic. She moaned - a low, animal sound - and spread her legs wider still. He sensed that she was guiding the friction to the places she needed it.
Ben felt the building heat and tension in her, and it resonated with his own desire as their bodies found a rhythm together: slow, but hard and deep. He wanted it to last forever, but each thrust brought him closer to that edge as his chest tightened and he found it harder and harder to breathe as Rey clutched at his shoulders, his neck, his arms…
“Rey, I can’t-”
Gods, he was there, and he grasped for her both with his body and with the Force. He barely heard her yell over the roaring in his ears, and Ben couldn’t tell where he stopped and she began when their bodies began to pulse as they hurtled together into blinding, endless oblivion.
Rey could barely breathe, and she didn’t care at all. The room was impossibly quiet as she lay beneath Ben, their hearts pounding in sync where his chest still pressed into hers. The Force storm that had surrounded them a moment ago was ebbing to a languorous, contented hum, though there was still electricity wherever their skin touched. His forehead rested on the pillow next to her, with his cheek pressed to her temple and his hair tickling her ear. He held some of his weight on his elbows and forearms, otherwise she’d have been thoroughly crushed. His size was one of the things she’d always found attractive about him - it appealed to her in a purely feminine, instinctual way - but the reality of his body was a bit overwhelming. He was massive. Powerful.
And he was hers.
Because she could, she ran a hand over his shoulder and down the long muscles of his back. His skin was hot, covered by a fine sheen of sweat. He quivered slightly under her touch, and when her hand finished its downward journey to rest over the curve of his ass, she felt a long, shaking exhale against her neck. He was still inside her, and though she felt a lingering echo of that burning pain, the sensation wasn’t at all unpleasant.
Finally Ben lifted his head, and she smiled at the hair falling into his face as he studied her. He was doing it again: checking on her, making sure she was comfortable with where they were and what they were doing. It showed a tender side to his usually fierce protectiveness, and Rey’s chest squeezed to have it focused all on her.
His eyes had changed. Since the beginning, he had always looked at her with desperation, with hunger. But that intensity was… not gone, but muted at least; and the brown of his irises seemed softer as he blinked down at her, his expression one of wonder, relief, and… something more. Something that would take time to define.
He was so expressive even without talking, so when his eyes asked the silent question, she nodded and touched his cheek. “I’m fine, Ben.”
But even as she said it, a slight cramp twitched in her splayed legs. Instantly he rolled off her, and his hand cupped her thigh to help her close her legs. She felt a sticky dampness, and his fingers came up streaked with blood.
Her cheeks burned, but then his lip quirked as he looked at her and very deliberately drew a red streak first across one of his cheeks, then the other.
Rey couldn’t help the strangled laugh that burst free as she stared at him in disbelief. This was something she’d seen in cultures across the galaxy. “Really? War paint?”
Ben tucked an arm under his head and lay back on the pillow. “Why not? I’ve never fought so hard for anything in my life.”
Shaking with laughter, Rey turned over and rested her chin on his chest. “So now that you’ve claimed victory in this epic battle, whatever will you do?”
“Hmmm…” he pursed his lips, pretending to think, and Rey marveled at the calmness, the soft joy in his face and in his Force energy. “I’ll want to explore my new territory.”
“I think you already have.”
He reached down, pulling her a bit higher onto him. “The initial foray was promising, but it really just piqued my interest in future expeditions.”
His hand smoothed over her shoulder and reached between them; she shifted so he could cup her breast. “This terrain, for example, is worth further consideration.”
“I’m agreeable to that.”
“I’m sure you are. However,” his hand released her breast and moved downward over her back to lightly grip her butt. “I’m going to need a detailed review of this area first.”
“All in due time. Ultimately our exploration will lead here.” His hand slid down into the dampness between her legs, and Rey stilled as his eyes darkened. She was overstimulated, so he didn’t rub or press. He still had that damn glove on. Shit. Why was that such a turn-on?
Her voice was strained as she held herself motionless against his light touch. “And what’s so important there?”
“It’s the center of the galaxy,” he murmured, carefully circling her opening. “Inner rim…” His eyes took on a mischievous glint as his fingers slid a bit lower. “Outer rim.”
Rey squeaked as she twisted away, his soft laugh rumbling beneath her. “Let’s stick with the core worlds for now,” she said, scowling at him but not a bit angry.
“You’re certainly well equipped for that.” She reached down and gripped him, and it was his turn to flinch then try to hold himself still as she lightly explored with her fingers. Heat flashed between them, but it was more of a comforting warmth than the raging fire of before. Rey released him and turned her head to settle into the crook of his neck, and without thinking she began to hum a soft tune.
When she realized he was listening she added in the words, not surprised that she had unconsciously chosen a love song. So she sang it to him, sensing that his eyes had closed, melting into him as his arms wrapped around and held her tightly. When the song finished they lay in silence for a time, and she began to feel comfortably drowsy.
Ben finally released a shuddering breath. “Jacen told me you could sing, but…”
She lifted her head to look at him. “But?”
His eyes were bright, and she saw the tracks where tears had leaked out their corners. He just shook his head. “Promise you’ll sing to me again.”
“Always.” She touched his face and smiled wistfully. “I’ll have to find some new songs. I learned some from a data chip I’d scavenged, but I left it behind on Jakku.”
“I have it.”
She sat upright and stared down at him in disbelief. “What? How?”
He smiled at whatever expression was on her face. “I found it when I went there to search for clues to find you.”
“And to kill Unkar Plutt.”
“That, too. You’re welcome.”
“Unfortunately the chip is locked in my quarters back on the Finalizer. But I did bring this…” She watched as he reached over to a table beside the bed, opened a drawer, and pulled out-
Rey’s hands were shaking as he handed it to her. The ragtag thing was filthy and looked smaller than she remembered. “Captain Raeh,” she sighed, tucking it briefly to her chest.
Ben’s eyebrows drew together. “Captain-”
“When I was very young I found a Rebellion pilot’s helmet. The name printed inside was Captain Dosmit Raeh. I made the doll from a scavenged flight suit, and sometimes I’d put on the helmet and pretend to have adventures with her.”
“So you were a Rebel from the very start.” But there was little humor in his eyes as he asked, “How old were you?”
She traced the fraying lines of the doll’s white vest. “I’m not sure. Maybe ten?”
He was quiet; she felt his flicker of regret and sadness through their bond. But she was done grieving for that lost childhood. She could indeed let the past die, especially now that the present held such joy, and the future so much promise.
Rey set the doll aside and again snuggled into him, savoring the feel of his heartbeat against her cheek as his fingers lightly traced her shoulder. “Why did you give me part of your kyber crystal?” she asked.
A slight pause. “You needed it to finish your lightsaber.”
“But you could’ve just given me back the piece I’d lost.”
“I…” she sensed him struggling to stitch the truth together, not just for her, but for himself. “Part of it was selfish,” he finally admitted. “I wanted that small fragment of my grandfather’s saber, even if the whole of it refused to answer to me.”
She nodded against his chest. “And the other part?”
“Well, you’d have seen if we had tried to fight against each other again.”
She lifted her head. “What do you mean?”
“We wouldn’t have been able to.” His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “The crystals wouldn’t allow it. Our lightsabers would repel rather than strike one another.”
“I couldn’t let you kick my ass again.”
His tone was light, but Rey hesitated. Then she reached up and brushed the scar where it ran over his cheekbone. “I’m sorry.”
Ben grasped her hand and held it against his face. “No. It had to happen that way.”
She knew he was right, but… “I almost killed you,” she whispered.
He nodded, and in the depths of his eyes she saw a flash of the confusion and panic he’d shown when she had struck him down in that snowy forest. “In that moment,” he said quietly, “I would have let you.”
Rey’s eyes burned as her fingers tightened on him, digging into his skin. “Why?”
“Because I had just killed my father. But mostly because I loved you already.”
Tears fell as she kissed him, and she didn’t object as he rolled them both over and covered her again with his body. She savored the warm weight of him, sighing as he placed small kisses over her face, her hair, her neck. It felt as though he was kissing away all the hurts of the past: large and small, those he’d inflicted and those he would grieve with her. And she’d do the same for him.
Ben settled onto her, and Rey held him tightly as their Force energies entwined: some Light, some Dark, and every color in between. This was it… the vision she’d seen when their hands had touched through their bond so long ago on Ahch-To. Maybe not this bed and this room, but… this feeling. This balance.
I'm sorry to have taken so long to update (summary of why: adulting is crazy busy hard sometimes). And the delay in getting this written has - of course - given me too much time to think, resulting in a slightly extended story. So what was supposed to be the final chapter is now just a short bridge to the next one, where I'll tie everything up. There will also be an epilogue (chapter 30).
To all of you who have read and left Kudos and especially comments.... thank you so much! You really have motivated and inspired me throughout, especially now that it's gotten harder to write!
It was a different kind of waking up: slowly, without an alarm, after a long and restful sleep. A check of the time, a gentle untangling of limbs. The man on the next pillow stirring slightly and then turning onto his back, still asleep, the scar on his face stark against pale skin in the low light.
Dan carefully sat up and ran his hands through his hair, wincing slightly as the movement stretched the healing blaster wound on his shoulder. He considered himself lucky… the hit might have been fatal, had not Kylo Ren and the Jedi been shielding them all with the Force.
The chrono showed that he and Taz had slept for seven hours - an unprecedented luxury. He’d been woken only once, by a message from an irritated security officer that the Resistance droid R3-Y7 had detected sounds of a woman in distress coming from the Supreme Leader’s living quarters and was demanding immediate access. Dan ordered the droid sent to his room, where they’d had a strange and uncomfortable conversation via datapad translation that ended with R3-Y7 whistling in what might have been disgust or amazement before quickly retreating into the corridor; all while Taz buried his face in the bedsheets, shaking with silent laughter.
Smiling to himself, Dan again flicked on his datapad and wasn’t surprised to see that they’d been in the Atravis sector for a few hours now, in a high orbit around Mustafar. Before retiring to his quarters, he had gone to the command bridge to meet with Captain Peavey and the other senior officers. They’d quickly agreed to his request that the Supreme Leader not be disturbed for anything short of the most dire emergency. He got the impression that they were all hoping for a bit of a rest.
He again looked down at Taz, who was grinding his teeth slightly in a way that Dan had learned meant his lover was dreaming. Thankfully, Taz didn’t seem prone to nightmares, and anyway had been surprisingly pragmatic about the events of the last several days. It didn’t even seem to bother him that the cauterized burn marks across his cheek and chest would never completely heal. The troopers who had wielded those laser axes likely died in the coup, though Dan wasn’t certain. But he did know that Hux had ordered it, forcing him to betray Kylo Ren. Now Hux was dead, and Ren hadn’t brought the incident up. It seemed unlikely that he ever would.
Dan slipped out of their narrow bed and was just about to step into the fresher when a new message flashed in. The Supreme Leader had ordered breakfast delivered to his rooms. As captain of Ren’s personal guard, Dan was copied on all such messages and communique. Although this meant he was essentially never off duty, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His feelings about Kylo Ren had grown beyond respect and loyalty. More than that… he liked him, especially now that he’d gotten to know the man behind the (now figurative) mask.
He’d also learned to anticipate Ren’s movements, and so he washed and dressed quickly. Sure enough, he was just making final adjustments to his armor when another message came: his presence was requested in the Supreme Leader’s personal quarters. He cast a last look at Taz, smiled at the tousled blond hair and the quiet snore, then donned his helmet and headed out into the corridor.
The door was open when he arrived; the serving droids were leaving. Dan stepped aside to let them pass and then waited at the threshold, alert but keeping his eyes on the floor, knowing he didn’t need to announce his presence with two Force users in the rooms. But when he heard Kylo Ren say, “Come in,” and he looked up and stepped forward, the Jedi was nowhere to be seen.
The Supreme Leader was pouring a mug of caf. His eyes flicked up in the way that meant he was quickly reading Dan’s thoughts or mood. It wasn’t as disconcerting as it used to be; Dan saw its value as an efficient form of communication.
“She’s getting dressed,” Ren said.
Superficially, Kylo Ren looked the same. Impeccable black clothing, weapons belt, slightly mussed hair. But there was a settled look to him that was completely new. Normally coiled like a snake about to strike, the Supreme Leader seemed relaxed, rested… content? Even the ever-present dark circles below his eyes had faded. Dan wasn’t the only one who’d finally gotten a decent night’s sleep, apparently.
“How’s your shoulder?”
“Nearly healed, sir.” Dan paused, then ventured, “And your leg?”
Ren shrugged. “It’s functional.” He leaned back against the sofa, sipping his caf as he regarded Dan for a moment, then he gestured toward a chair. “Please, sit down.”
The ‘please’ was as unexpected as the request itself, and Dan hesitated for half a second before complying. Lounging in full armor was less than comfortable, so he perched on the edge of a chair.
Ren wasn’t done surprising him. “Have you eaten?”
“I… no, sir.”
Ren indicated the spread on the table, which was easily enough food for several people. “Join us for breakfast then.”
Dan blinked. It hadn’t sounded like an order, but… “I’m… sorry sir, I don’t want to intrude. I could come back later-”
“Dan.” There was humor in Ren’s eyes, and the beginning of impatience. “Take off your helmet.”
That did sound like an order, and so he immediately complied, but then he realized… “Sir, did you just call me ‘Dan’?”
“That is the name you prefer, correct?”
“It is, sir.” Dan lifted a hand to run through his hair - a nervous habit that Taz often teased him about - before catching himself and sitting at attention again.
Ren smirked, not unkindly. “Yeah, I do that, too.” He looked at Dan, his eyes remarkably clear. “I haven’t thanked you for all you’ve done for me these past several days.”
Dan had never realized how hiding inside his helmet had lent itself to professional formality. Without the mask, he had to work to control his expression. Surprised confusion probably wasn’t a good look for a stormtrooper captain. “But… you did, sir. You listened to what we asked and made it possible for Taz and I to be together.”
Ren sipped his caf again, the smirk transforming to a rueful smile. “Everyone else, too.”
Dan considered, then said, “Amending the fraternization policy was a good idea, sir. It showed the women and men under your command that you think of us as people, not tools of war.”
Ren nodded as he poured another mug of caf and passed it over the table to him. Dan removed his gloves and accepted it, feeling the tense set of his shoulders loosening little by little. He felt compelled to continue, “But I hope you know, sir, that my commitment to your leadership isn’t dependent on thanks or favorable policies.”
“I know. It did seem to sway the loyalty of some personnel, though that wasn’t my intent. I’d no idea how popular the change would be.” He glanced at the closed door that led to his bedroom, then shook his head and said almost to himself, “That first night, everyone lost their damn minds over it. Now I understand why.”
“Welcome to the party, sir.”
Dan had spoken without thinking, and as Kylo Ren raised his head and fixed him with a startled gaze, Dan’s heart stuttered a few beats. But then Ren smiled - a broad, eye-crinkling, genuine smile - and his laugh echoed off the room’s bare walls.
The bedroom door popped open. “What’s so- Dan!” The Jedi stepped out, also smiling, her eyes on Kylo Ren even as she addressed Dan. “I told Ben not to wake you up.”
Dan stood and bowed slightly. “I was already awake, miss.”
“Please, call me Rey.”
“Yes, miss Rey.”
The young woman rolled her eyes then crossed the room and slid onto the bench next to Ren. She tucked up her feet and fitted herself right against the Supreme Leader’s side with a casual ease Dan wouldn’t have expected, given their short association and fraught past. He noticed the way Ren’s eyes widened as they followed her movements, as though he couldn’t quite believe that she was here. She was indeed - Dan realized - beautiful to watch: her long limbs graceful like a dancer’s, her face expressive with clear, sparkling eyes. She seemed to radiate… something. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it both contrasted and complimented the shadow that often seemed to shroud Kylo Ren.
“Powerful light, powerful darkness,” Rey murmured as she watched him.
Dan’s cheeks heated; he hadn’t realized he’d been staring. “I’m sorry, miss.”
She leaned forward and plucked a thick piece of bread from the table, impatiently motioning for him to sit down again. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be reading you like that. It’s just…” Her eyebrows creased. “It’s hard not to. You practically broadcast your thoughts into the Force.”
“He does,” Ren said, nodding slightly as he offered her a jar of fruit spread. “It’s useful.”
She sniffed the jam curiously, then spooned a small mountain of it onto her bread. “Maybe. But not so great for privacy.”
“I don’t mind, miss. It is useful.”
She shook her head, grinning. “You two deserve each other.”
As do you, Dan thought, though he would never say it aloud. He took a drink of his caf, not surprised to find the quality far better than what was served in the stormtrooper’s mess.
“I’m promoting you,” Ren announced as he scooped some eggs onto his and the Jedi’s plates then passed them to Dan. “You’ll retain the rank of Captain but your clearance will be upgraded. You report only to me. You’ll have unfettered access to all facilities and intelligence, as well as a direct line to command.”
“He’s having breakfast with command,” Rey said between bites. “How much more direct does it get?”
Ren gave her a sideways smile. “I mean besides me.” He again looked at Dan, his expression turning serious. “But the promotion is conditional.”
Dan simply nodded, as he had no idea what to say. This was more than he’d ever hoped for, so whatever conditions-
“On this,” Kylo Ren continued, withdrawing a data chip from his pocket and sliding it across the table toward Dan.
The chip was similar to the one he’d given Ren back on Jakku with the security holo. He glanced at the Jedi, who was nibbling on her eggs while her eyes darted between him and the man she called Ben.
Dan didn’t pick up the chip. “What’s on it, sir?”
Ren exhaled slowly and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “You. Your life. Birth planet, real name. Family. All of it.” He studied Dan for a long moment, then nodded toward the chip. “You have a decision to make.”
Dan felt as though the air had hollowed out around him. For a few seconds all he could hear was the thrum of his pulse in his ears. But then training took over, and he swallowed hard and pulled himself up. “Decision, sir?”
“You’re free to go,” Kylo Ren said softly, and Dan could tell the Supreme Leader was purposefully not reading him through the Force. His thoughts would be his own on this. “If you so choose,” Ren went on, “you’ll be discharged honorably and with back pay. You can go…” Here he waved a hand at the data chip, then through the air.
Dan understood. He could go anywhere. He could go… home. And, pay? His mouth felt dry as he asked, “What about Taz, sir?”
“He’ll be given the same information and choice, regardless of your decision.”
“And if we stay, sir?”
“Then you’re in charge of revising our stormtrooper program. The force will be downsized and retrained with an emphasis on law enforcement. The war may be over, but we still have the criminal syndicates to contend with. Those personnel that wish to leave may do so. Those who stay will be compensated for their service and granted rotating leave.”
It was a massive shift in both philosophy and policy. As Dan turned it over in his head, he realized something. “So I could both visit my… family… and stay with the First Order.”
There was really no question, then. But… “Sir, if I’m running the stormtrooper program, who will-”
“I’m not magnanimous enough to give you up as Captain of my personal guard.” Ren’s lip quirked almost apologetically. “You’re going to be ridiculously busy. But…” Here he glanced at the Jedi, who smiled back at him. “There’s someone else who has my back now. Besides, we’re not at war anymore.”
“Indeed, sir.” Dan ran both hands through his hair, caught himself again, and laughed softly. “Thank you, sir.” He leaned forward and picked up the data chip, turning it over into his palm before carefully tucking it into a compartment of his utility belt.
He’d look at it later. With Taz.
He helped himself to breakfast, averting his eyes as the Supreme Leader and his Jedi exchanged a look and a quick kiss. There was a mission at hand, down on the planet Mustafar, and he’d gotten the sense that Kylo Ren wasn’t looking forward to it. The stormtrooper escort would be small - six of his strongest, most capable troopers, per Ren’s instructions - and the Knights of Ren would accompany them. He had no idea what the mission objective was, but he had seen the Knights as they’d come aboard the previous evening, and all of them had been uncharacteristically somber.
Rey smiled at him across the table, and Dan smiled back. He remembered when Taz had first shown him the security holo of the fight in Snoke’s throne room, when he saw this woman for the first time and marveled at what she and Kylo Ren had been able to do together. They were - he knew now - only getting started.
And that was a good thing. For him, and Taz. And the First Order. And hopefully for the galaxy.
Once again, I'm splitting what had been intended as one chapter into two. It's gotten very long, and there's a ways to go with it yet. It'll pick up from Rey's POV next.
The Upsilon-class shuttle vibrated and skittered through the thick atmosphere over Mustafar. Ben braced his feet as he stood on the command bridge, his hand tightening slightly on Rey’s, prepared to steady her should she lose balance. It would have been safer to stay seated, strapped in with his Knights and the bulk of their stormtrooper escort in the passenger compartment. But he wanted to see this. Needed to see it.
Just as he needed her here now.
Black clouds swirled outside the viewport. Even at this altitude, there was a grittiness to the thin air. Ben sensed, rather than saw or heard, tiny particles striking the durasteel around them: bits of minerals and ash borne on scorching air currents. His pilot, Lieutenant Tavson, was unaffected as always despite the treacherous flying conditions and the close presence of the Supreme Leader and a Jedi behind him.
Ben looked sideways at Rey and studied her profile. Her eyes were focused and her brow creased as she stared out at the darkening maelstrom. Her lips were parted, her breathing steady. Her very presence centered him within himself even as her emotions flowed over him: curiosity, revulsion, determination. She’d tied back her hair in a knot, and he found himself staring at that spot on her neck, just under her jaw, where he’d flicked with his tongue until she’d made a noise like-
“Ben, honestly,” she said under her breath, unsuccessfully trying not to smile. Her thumb traced the back of his hand, reminding him yet again of how much could be communicated - how much could be shared - simply though a touch of fingers. He’d forgone his gloves; maybe he’d never wear them again. At that thought she caught his eye as memories of the previous night flashed between them: quivering muscles, ragging breathing in the dark, the slide of black leather over skin…
So maybe he’d keep the gloves.
Rey laughed softly as he forced his eyes forward and shook his head. In all the countless times he’d envisioned finally journeying to Mustafar, never once had he considered it might involve trying to control his arousal while stealing glances at the woman he loved.
But maybe those powerful feelings were just the distraction he needed in order to confront this. Rey had been incredulous when he told her that he’d not yet been to Mustafar. It was true that he had felt the pull toward his grandfather’s adopted home many, many times. But first his uncle, then Snoke, had forbade him to go there.
With Luke it was understandable, as his entire family did everything they could to insulate him from the grimmer aspects of the Skywalker legacy.
Snoke’s motivation, Ben now understood, was more selfish. His former master tolerated his Vader obsession only as far as it tethered Ben’s loyalties to the Dark side. But Snoke was vain, jealous even of a dead man’s influence over his favored apprentice. Perhaps he worried that communing in Vader’s fortress would put dangerous thoughts in Ben’s head, even inspire him to follow the Sith tradition of gaining power through murdering his master.
His lip quirked at that thought.
Ben did not think of what he had done to Snoke as murder. The killing had been an act of war. Not a war between the First Order and the Republic or the Resistance, but the true war that lay beneath. The war between Light and Dark, which had torn him apart for as long as he could remember. Then Rey had come into his life, and he had immediately chosen his side, though it had taken him a while to acknowledge that. But really, from the moment he had chased her down on Takodana, Snoke’s days had been numbered.
The Dark side was not taking that setback lightly. If Ben had been the Dark’s favored instrument, Snoke had been the prism through which it focused its pain and wrath through the galaxy. Now it was searching, slithering through hearts and minds, hungry for a new master. And he wasn’t about to wait and see if it chose someone he cared about.
“Who are you most worried for?” Rey asked softly as the clouds beneath them took on a red glow. They were descending rapidly now.
He knew what she meant, but he answered, “You.”
She pursed her lips and shot him a glance. “I’ll be fine.”
He had to press, to be certain they were of the same mind on this. “But you’ve shown yourself to be open to the Dark side in the past.”
She just shrugged, and in that shrug was the truth of why he truly had no reason at all to worry about her. Rey didn’t fear the Darkness. She had the ability to observe it, perhaps even draw power from it. But because she rejected its tenants on a fundamental level, it had no hold on her. Her Light was simply too strong.
But that didn’t mean the Darkness wouldn’t try for her. Perhaps if only to spite him.
“Ropalaa?” Rey asked quietly.
He considered that. “What do you think?”
“Never.” There was no doubt in her tone. “She cares too much for the others. That’s where she gets her strength.”
It was true. It had always been true, even back when they were all young together at Luke’s temple. Ben wondered how Rey had reached that conclusion so quickly. He longed to hear in more detail what had happened on Ahch-To. He was about to ask when the shuttle descended below the cloud line and the surface of Mustafar spread out before them like an open wound.
Ben felt Rey recoil slightly even as he leaned forward over Lieutenant Tavson’s shoulder, his heart suddenly pounding. It was a shock to realize that he had been to this place after all, in his dreams, through most of his life. On some level, it did feel like coming home. He drew a steady breath as the very air set his blood singing in his veins.
Rey squeezed his hand, her fingers warm. His were now freezing, though he could already feel the heat of those endless fields of rock and lava that stretched to every horizon. The red currents swirled, pulling the shuttle along, painting pictures for his eyes only to see.
And in the distance, a towering black shape drew steadily closer. His grandfather’s fortress - Vader’s castle. Now his. His birthright.
“Look at it,” he whispered. The angular obsidian walls seemed to swallow the light, the high peaks sharp enough to disembowel. Power thrummed through the air like ion pulses. “Just look at it,” he murmured again.
But Rey’s eyes weren’t on the fortress. They were on him. He felt her in his mind, too, not probing, but… shielding. Entwining.
Ben tore himself away from the glistening black structure below and met her gaze. He expected reproach or worry but found neither of those things. Instead, Rey’s face was gentle. Understanding. She went up on her toes to put her lips against his ear. “You are strong enough for this.”
“Only because you’re here.” His voice sounded far away to his own ears. He looked out again to see that they were approaching the landing pad in front of the castle. There was a heartbeat coming from deep beneath that fiery surface, timed to his own.
“Stay close to me,” Rey said softly, squeezing his hand again. “That’s an order.”
“I’m never letting you go again.” He closed the small space between them so that he stood against her, stood over her. She had to tilt her head back to see his face as he looked down. Suddenly overcome by the intensity of his feelings, he felt as though he could swallow her whole. “You’re mine.”
The smallest crease formed between her eyebrows as she returned his look with equal intensity. She opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted.
“Final approach now, sir,” Tavson intoned. A pause. “Shall we land?”
The question was outside of normal protocol. The officers and crew had gone quiet, their fear and tension saturating the command bridge. DN-3351 stood beside him; Ben sensed that his eyes were on Rey. He clenched his teeth.
“Proceed as planned,” he responded, not looking anywhere but straight ahead.
His fortress perched on a cliff’s edge and acted as a dam of sorts for the vast ocean of lava behind it. A smooth, molten cascade emerged from below the landing platform and tumbled hundreds of meters down before joining a bright red river below. Utterly unforgiving… infinitely powerful. Fitting for a true Lord of Darkness.
There was a warm tingling up his spine, cutting through the chill that had wrapped around his heart. It took him a moment to register the feel of skin on skin. Rey’s hand had slipped under his jacket and shirt and was pressed against the small of his back. As her fingers moved in slow circles, heat spread from the contact, relaxing his muscles, hardening his cock.
Her head was tucked into his shoulder, her face turned toward him; and as her eyes flashed, he sensed that her rising anger was not directed at him. “And you’re mine,” she whispered fiercely, throwing his words back and scraping her nails on him as he hissed in a breath. “If the Dark Side wants you, it’ll have to go through me first.”
Ben blinked, exhaled, then blinked again. His blood still thrummed; his Force energy ramped up to where he could feel limitless potential. There was no end to it, this power. There was nothing he couldn’t do, couldn’t take. Whispers filled his ears and his head: ‘Slaughter them all,’ he heard, low voices overlapping all around him. ‘Kill those who would steal her from you. Send the ship into the fire. Stay here and learn. Take and keep the one you desire. She will turn, and you alone would have her.’
Hazel eyes bored into his, and her rage was glorious to behold. Ben dipped his head toward her.
“You can hear them?” he whispered, his lips nearly brushing hers.
Rey nodded. “They have never left you alone, have they?”
He swallowed. “No. Not since…” He didn’t finish, but she knew the rest. Not since forever. The darkness had been pursuing him since the day he was born. These voices had haunted and hunted him all of his life. His parents hadn’t understood. Luke had sensed it and feared him. Snoke had added his own voice to the cacophony, whispering placations and threats and false promises.
The shuttle darkened when they entered the shadow of the fortress. As the landing gear touched down, Ben saw that Rey was gripping her lightsaber tightly.
“What are you expecting to fight?” he asked softly, even as his free hand drifted toward his own saber.
Her stony expression never wavered as she stared out the viewport. “I don’t know, but I feel like kicking the shit out of something in there.”
The voices receded, hissing furiously at the Light she’d wrapped around him. Ben fought back his smile as the two of them led the way, arm in arm, down the ramp and onto the landing platform. DN-3351 and his team came next, taking guard positions around the shuttle. The Knights of Ren followed in masks and full armor. The six Knights hadn’t spoken to Rey or Kylo when they’d boarded. They said nothing now even as they formed a tight semicircle around their master.
He and Rey had discussed, late in the night, whether or not this was a good idea. They had come to the conclusion that it didn’t matter, because - good idea or not - it was necessary. Better that they all face this together, as a unit, strong and prepared. But now, with scorching air blasting them from all sides and geysers of lava splattering the rock and steel, Ben couldn’t help but wonder if they shouldn’t just re-board the shuttle, fly back, then aim every weapon on the Titan at this castle and keep shooting until it was nothing more than black rubble sinking into the planet’s core.
“There’s something here you need to do,” Rey said. Ben wasn’t sure if she was speaking to him, the Knights, or all of them. She hadn’t let go of his arm and was craning her neck to stare up at the high towers. “I can feel it.”
The only thing he needed was her. But something was calling him… he could sense it now, could hear it above the slithering whispers and howling wind. He nodded to his Knights and turned toward his fortress.
Though there was no door, total silence enveloped them the moment they entered the wide corridor that led into the castle’s interior. The temperature dropped as well, and there was something about the chill that felt unnatural. Ben glanced at Rey, who had accepted his offer of a loose white cloak to be worn over her clothing. She’d pulled the hood up so that it covered her hair and shadowed her face. The white suited her. He tightened his grip on her hand and felt her squeeze back in response.
They came to a split in the corridor and Ben turned to the right; they came to another and he led them left. Somehow, he knew where to go. He had followed this path in his dreams, and in his visions while meditating. So he was not surprised when they emerged into a massive, open rotunda. A catwalk led to a center platform, below which the steel substructure vanished into darkness, though a red glow was visible very far down. Another catwalk led from there to a window which provided a stark panorama of lava and black mountains beyond the fortress. It was here that Ben stopped, Rey close at his right shoulder, Jacen on his left. He felt the Force coalescing - a presence drawing near - as he stared out at the landscape.
Ben turned as Ropalaa’s voice echoed off the smooth walls. Five of the Knights had followed him, but one remained behind in the room’s center. Adion crouched down on the platform and pressed one gloved hand to the floor; the other had drawn his weapon and activated it. The pole-style saber’s single blade cast a greenish glow that seemed to radiate high into the darkness above, though Adion held the weapon toward the floor as though using it to illuminate something there.
“Adion.” Ben started foward. “What is it?”
He expected something… a gesture, a thought directed his way. But Adion gave no response. His head dipped down, his fingertips tracing a pattern that Ben couldn’t see. A subtle vibration began in the walls around them, resonating in the very air itself. The hair on Ben’s neck stood up, and he quickened his steps.
Adion glanced up, then lifted a hand and clenched it. The catwalk at Ben’s feet tore away with a deafening screech of metal, twisting in on itself as it fell away into the darkness below.
Ben stopped short, unnecessarily pulling Rey slightly back and throwing his other arm in front of Ropalaa, who’d been about to charge past them. They watched as Adion pulled off his helmet and tossed it carelessly aside; it hit the floor with a clang, rolled, and fell into the void below. The voices had returned, but they were not speaking to Ben now. Entwined with the whispers was a woman’s voice that he didn’t recognize.
“Connix,” Rey whispered, and he sensed her rising concern as a mirror of his own.
“She’s not here, Adion,” Ben said in a low voice. He knew what the voices would say, what lies they would invent. “She’s safe, and she’ll want you to leave this place and return to her.”
Blue eyes snapped up and stared across at them, and even at a distance Ben saw a golden glow beneath the irises. The vibration around them intensified.
“No.” Martna backed up, shaking her head slowly. She had removed her helmet as well, and her eyes were wide, one hand splayed over her stomach and the other pressed to her mouth.
Rey gasped. Ben felt her shock of realization as she spun toward Talik. “Get her out of here. “NOW.”
Talik was already moving; he reached Martna just as she doubled over, retching. Ben searched the Force, seeking what was wrong, but he was met by cold currents of Dark energy. They were converging on Martna, bombarding her, targeting the-
“No!” Martna hissed again through bared teeth. She’d backed up against the window; Talik had encircled her with his arms as well as a Force shield that was so strong Ben could see it as a shimmer in the air. Kiona had positioned herself in front of the two of them, her saber drawn and glowing with purple light as she scanned the shadows, her helmet doing little to mask her shock. The tone of the whispers had changed; they were louder, and had taken on a mocking lilt. Ben’s attention was again drawn to Adion, who had fixed his now glowing eyes on Martna. But at Ben’s glance Adion looked back at him, and Ben’s blood turned to ice at the fury he saw there. Adion’s lip curled into a snarl; he stood up, ran the two steps to the platform’s edge, and leapt off.
“Adion…” Rey’s voice broke as she dragged Ben forward, and together they stared into the blackness below. But the young Knight was already out of sight. Ben felt a pull deep inside himself, urging him to follow. Rey tightened her death grip on his hand. “Don’t you dare-”
A shadow moved past them, quicker than they could react, and Rey’s cry of dismay echoed through the room as Ropalaa jumped. Ben reached for her with the Force but she had shielded herself, and he could only watch as she plummeted down and vanished from sight.
Ben couldn’t breathe. He’d intended to keep them all together, to combine their strengths and shore one another up. This failure was his. Snoke’s deriding laughter rang through his head.
But Rey was in his head, too, guiding his mind to places in the Force he had rejected in the past. Snoke’s visage receded as she whispered to him. “The Dark wants you to panic. To lose yourself in anger. Don’t give it that power. You don’t need it, Ben. The Dark Side needs you, but you don’t need it.”
He looked into her eyes and could breathe again. She had centered herself - had centered them both, once again - and she was not afraid.
“I know where we have to go,” he told her.
Rey turned to Martna. “Please, you can’t stay in here. Go back to the ship.”
The Knight’s beautiful face was pale beneath her tattoos as she looked at them all. “I… I didn’t know, Kylo. Until I felt it just now. I didn’t…” Her hand drifted to her stomach again, and Ben knew he’d never forget the expression on Talik’s face as he stared at her.
There would be a child. It was something they should all celebrate together. But already the Darkness was targeting the baby, as it had with him. And he wouldn’t allow that. None of them would.
He knew Martna sensed both his joy and his concern, and her eyes shone as she looked back at him. Then she nodded and took Talik’s hand, and both of them sprinted down the one remaining catwalk. He watched until they were out of sight, but even afterward he could still sense them safely traversing the corridors back out to the landing dock. The Darkness was looking elsewhere now.
Adion. Ropalaa. The two most powerful of his Knights had disappeared into the deep heart of the fortress. And in that heart was an ancient Sith temple.
Jacen had remained silent and had not drawn his weapon. He’d stayed tight on Ben like a shadow, his Force energy steady and cold. He still wore his mask, but Ben felt his stare through the black mirrored lenses. He knew his oldest and most loyal friend would protect him with his life. And he knew that Jacen had now taken Rey within the scope of that protection.
Kiona’s energy, in contrast, was manic as she paced from them to the catwalk. She jerked off her helmet, too, and flung it across the room as she stared down into the void. “Dammit. I can sense them both. They feel…”
She didn’t have to finish the thought. Ben knew what she meant, because he felt it as well. Both Adion and Ropalaa were gathering power to themselves, drawing from that infinite well that pulsed beneath and all around them. But to what purpose?
They had to go down into the temple. He’d known all along they would end up there, but… not like this.
He glanced at Rey, who had closed her eyes. She was reaching out, searching the Force for their friends, getting the feel of this place. She was now their most potent weapon. The Dark Side could not affect her, could not seduce or influence her. But that which gave her the greatest strength also put her in the most danger.
She opened her eyes suddenly, as if startled, and blinked up at him. “You have to take us there, Ben.”
He knew the way. Of course he did. The hidden door that only revealed itself when he pressed his hand against it. The narrow staircase that started out black and smooth but became rough and crumbling as they continued to descend. The heaviness and heat in the air. The thick currents of the Force swirling around them, drawing them down to where it wanted them. Wanted him.
Rey never loosened her hold on his hand.
The heat and stench of sulfur were nearly unbearable as the stairs ended in a narrow corridor that was crudely hewn from the obsidian bedrock. A low rumbling reverberated; it reminded Ben of the sound and feel of the gas mine on Generis before it had blown. He heard the whispers, felt the invisible eyes on them as they quickly walked toward the source of the red-orange glow that lit their way.
“We’re not alone,” Kiona murmured behind him. She walked backward, guarding their rear, her saber ready.
“I’ve felt something like this before,” Rey said, looking around and above as she quickened her steps to match his. “On Ahch-To.”
Another temple, another focus of the Force. The opposite extreme of this one, no doubt.
“Will you take me there?” he asked her. He hadn’t wanted to go before, afraid of what he’d have to face on Luke Skywalker’s island. But now he felt its pull. And he wouldn’t be alone.
Rey read his thoughts. “We’ll all go,” she said, her voice tight, as a blast of hot wind whipped past them. “Together.”
Ben sensed the movement a split second before he found himself and Rey pressed against the rough stone wall. Jacen was in front of them, legs spread wide and saber activated, blocking them in. He was the only Knight who matched Ben in physical size and strength, and his slow-burning anger was collecting Dark power. His voice hissed through his vocoder with the first word he’d said since they’d left the Titan.
She was gone. Ben’s heart skipped as Rey swore beside him. “Kiona!” he called out. There was no answer and no echo as his voice was swallowed into the blackness.
“Don’t leave him, Rey,” Jacen said, not looking back at them. “Whatever happens to me or anyone else, do not let him get away from you.”
A scream split the air, cutting through Ben’s head like a blade. He felt both Rey and Jacen flinch.
“Kiona!” Jacen yelled.
Rey pushed the Knight aside and tried to pull Ben down the corridor. “That was Ropalaa.”
“No.” Ben felt a presence approaching them. He heard another voice, pleading in a way that wrenched his heart. A woman, desperate: “Anakin, please…”
He glanced at Rey to see if she’d heard, but he saw her widened eyes and caught the echoes of a different woman’s voice in her mind: “I’ll come back for you, sweetheart…” A vision that he’d shared of a starship and the people on it leaving her behind… He felt that confusion and grief flood through her again, felt the sharp terror of the child she’d been…
Jacen stepped toward him but then froze in place as a swirl of voices surrounded him: “Kanan! I know what to say now… I love you…” He saw an explosion in the Knight’s mind as the Dark Side fed him images of his parents… two rebels, one a Jedi knight… sacrificing himself. He felt Jacen’s loss and guilt and conflict as though it was his own.
“Father!” Luke’s voice shouted above all the others, the emotion in it resonating through the foundations of the fortress. “Father, I won’t leave you…”
Hot wind howled around them, ash and grit scouring at Ben’s skin, forcing his eyes closed. He sensed the moment when Jacen vanished… to where, he didn’t know. But he would find him. He’d find all of them. There was no way in hell he would leave here without every one of his friends. This place, this Darkness, would not take a single soul-
Rey. Invisible fingers scrabbled at the place where their hands locked together. He felt his feet sliding as the thick air tried to push them apart. He clutched at her, pulling his way along her arm until he found her shoulder, her chest and neck… and then her arms were around him and his were locked around her. And though he couldn’t see her, Ben could feel her breathe, could feel the tension in her muscles as she pressed her face into his chest and pushed her body into him-
And then it all stopped. The wind and the noise and the grit fell away, and Ben opened his eyes to find the two of them standing in a long, low chamber bordered on one side by a river of lava. A stone table stood in the hall’s center. It was a platform for meditation, he knew, and an altar upon which unspeakable acts had been committed. He could smell old blood that had soaked deep into these rocks, could smell the terror and pain and despair embedded with it. He recoiled at the familiarity with which the Darkness welcomed him; it caressed him with probing fingers and whispered imploring secrets in his ear.
The Dark Side had not given up on him yet.
Rey pulled away enough that she could look around, but she still grasped his hands tightly. “Ben. Someone’s coming.”
Ben’s heart thumped in his chest as he heard rasping, mechanical breathing; a moment later a black-robed figure emerged from the shadows. Taller even than him, walking with long strides, cape flowing behind as the lights from his life-support apparatus glowed in the darkness… it was a vision from years past, its horrific perfection broken only by the helmet and mask. This Vader wore the very mask that Ben had kept for all those years, the one melted and distorted from his funeral pyre. But that relic had been left on the Finalizer.
Rey activated her lightsaber as Vader drew near. Ben thought of telling her that it wasn’t necessary, that this wasn’t real, but…
“It feels real enough,” she whispered to him as his grandfather stopped a few meters before them. He heard voices in the distance - not ghosts in the Force but real voices - calling to him and Rey and each other.
“Where are our friends?” he asked the towering figure in front of him. Despite the enormity of this moment - a moment he’d waited a lifetime for - Ben felt no emotion, no connection with this man. Only coldness.
There was a long beat of silence as the half-melted lenses of that grotesque mask stared back at him, then gloved hands (so like his own, until Rey) reached up and slowly removed the helmet. Ben planted his feet and gripped Rey’s hand as he and his grandfather locked eyes.
Anakin Skywalker looked to be about Ben’s age. His hair was lighter but of similar length, his features closer to Luke’s than to Ben’s mother’s. His eyes were dark, assessing, critical.
“Your friends have served their purpose in bringing you here,” his grandfather said, his voice surprisingly young, though harsh. “And in bringing me this.” He held the mask, studying it and turning it over in his hands. He looked back at Ben. “Not so long ago, this meant something to you.”
“A link to the past,” Ben said. “To our legacy.” He remembered the long hours meditating with that mask, begging his grandfather for guidance, when he’d thought such things as legacy were important. When he was still searching for his place within it.
“I heard you, then,” Anakin said, his lip curling.
“But you never answered. You didn’t come to me before Foerost. Why?”
“Why should I have? You had set your own path.” Anakin motioned to him and began walking toward the stone table. Ben glanced at Rey as they followed behind. Her eyes had narrowed, her Force energy snapping with power. There was no Light to draw from here, but she carried it with her. She offered it to him and he wrapped it around himself like a shield.
Anakin’s back was to them, but his low laugh echoed off the walls. “And there it is. My only grandchild. You’re finally here, at the very peak of your strength and potential. I stand in front of you, willing to teach you what you need to match my power and then exceed it.” He turned, and his eyes went straight to Rey. “Yet you bind yourself to this one. To the Light.”
“Is this a test?” Rey’s voice was biting, in the way it had been when he’d interrogated her on Starkiller Base. “You chose to save him at Foerost. Him and Leia and the X-wing squadron. Why test him now?”
The way Anakin glared down at Rey made Ben glad she’d activated her weapon. He resisted the urge to draw his own as his grandfather stepped nearer.
“You shouldn’t be here, young Jedi.” Anakin’s voice softened as his gaze traveled over her. “Dressed in white, even. Such purity. An illusion you hope to maintain even after you writhed beneath him just hours ago?”
“That’s enough.” Red flashed across Ben’s vision. He did grip his lightsaber now but didn’t activate it. “If your intention was to turn me, why did you save us on the Finalizer?”
“You know nothing of my intentions, grandson.”
“Then enlighten me.”
“Ben…” Rey’s face had changed; he sensed that she was puzzled by… something…
But Ben’s own thinking was clouded by his rising anger, and the effect was instantaneous. Power flowed into his blood, its source so near and so very eager to feed him. He’d spent years attuning himself to the Dark, and it offered itself for him now, seeking those entrenched pathways into his heart and mind.
“Leave him alone,” Rey snarled. Her feet had shifted into a fighting stance. She’d attack to defend him. He held her back.
“If I had left him alone, Jedi, he’d be dead.” Anakin placed a hand on the stone table, and Ben saw that there were makings across it. Once seen, they were visible everywhere… on the floors, engraved in the walls. Countless pictures and symbols entwined with text written in an ancient language.
“You can see it now,” Anakin murmured, stepping closer even as Rey brought her lightsaber in front of them. “Adion saw it first. But that’s how his mind works. He’s been dreaming about these images from when he was a boy. It’s why he understands so well the power of the Dark Side.”
“That’s how you drew him down here.” Adion had been examining something on the floor in the rotunda. Something the rest of them hadn’t noticed. “Where is he? Where are the others?” Ben could still sense them all. The Knights were nearby.
“Does it matter? Their stories are finished. They were important only in bringing you to where you are. Here. Now.” A humorless grin. “The same can be said of the entire First Order. Though their weapons will be useful in achieving our goals. You will rejoin them eventually, once you’ve been… reconditioned. But not yet.” A slow, mocking tilt of the head. “It was necessary to destroy your shuttle to keep you from leaving too soon. Your stormtroopers and the others are dead.”
“No.” Ben was rapidly losing focus as his rage threatened to consume him. Desperately, he cast out his mind into the Force, searching for Martna and Talik, for Dan and Lieutenant Tavson and their crew, but the Darkness around them was impenetrable.
Anakin’s eyes flashed with triumph as they again slid to Rey. “You think of this Jedi as your equal, grandson, but see how your power here eclipses hers. Subsume her, and you may keep her. But now it is time, Kylo Ren. No more distractions. You WILL take your rightful place.”
Ben finally activated his lightsaber, gripping it in his left hand while he held tight to Rey with his right. “And what place is that?”
The eyes staring at him glowed yellow-gold, and in them Ben saw the truth of what stood before him even as Vader answered, “Your place as the new Lord of the Sith.”
Rey could smell death. It was everywhere in this gods-forsaken cave… permeating the floor, drifting through the air, written all over the walls in elegant, horrible script. The black-cloaked figure standing in front of them reeked of it. Darth Vader had murdered millions - tens of millions - and their ghostly screams echoed in the Force, as if the Dark Side had somehow trapped those poor, desperate souls and was now using them to fuel the pain and fear of the living.
And she WAS afraid. It was impossible not to be, so overwhelming was the Darkness here. Ben could withstand it; she had no worry that he would fall, that he would ever again turn. They had seen into each other’s hearts, had gone into the deepest corners of each other’s minds. He loved her, and even this maelstrom of absolute power throwing itself at his feet wouldn’t change that.
But there was a very real possibility that they could all die here.
She could still feel Ropalaa and Adion, their Force energies raging as the Darkness tried both to tear them down and build them up. Jacen was nearby, exerting huge amounts of power as he tried to reach them. Kiona had gone quiet, hiding herself and darting through shadows as she made her way toward the others.
But Martna. And Talik. She had lost them entirely. It was as if the universe outside of this cave had ceased to exist, so thoroughly had the Darkness cocooned them. But even as she had that thought, a spike of emotion brushed her mind. A sudden glimpse of what was happening outside-
Once she realized who it was that she sensed, Rey was able to follow that path. Dan had no abilities to feel or manipulate the Force, but the Force flowed strongly through him nonetheless. She had meant it when she’d said that his thoughts were easy to read, and she was infinitely grateful for that now as she saw through his mind’s eye as though looking through a very long tunnel. And she breathed with relief at what she beheld there. Martna and Talik, safely aboard the shuttle. Dan and the other troopers, on guard and alive.
She glared up at the towering form of Darth Vader. “Liar.”
The answering laugh chilled her bones. But there was no humor in his Force energy or in the voice that addressed her. “Impressive as your abilities are, little one, you have become an annoyance. An obstacle. But…” the voice lowered into a purr. “You may yet serve some purpose.”
Ben had edged in front of her, his lightsaber turning in the way she’d learned meant he was about to attack. Rey felt her own saber crackle in response, the crystals in her blade resonating with his.
“I serve no one’s purpose,” she snarled. “Least of all yours.” She felt rage grow in the illusion in front of them, felt the concentration of Dark energy as it coiled to strike. Though what form that attack would be, she didn’t know… and that was the true danger here.
Vader’s eyes slid back to Ben. “You brought her here to keep her, so that she would never leave you again.”
“No.” Ben’s voice was barely a whisper. Rey saw sweat sliding down his temple, matting his hair.
“You fear that her quest to rebuild the Jedi Order will take her from you.” Anakin Skywalker’s eyes were pure gold now. “Her allegiance to her friends is strong. Her love for them eclipses her feelings for you.”
Lies underwritten by truths. It was how the Dark side had ensnared Ben all those years ago.
“Your turn to the Darkness was complete the moment you killed your father,” Vader went on. Rey felt Ben flinch, felt his bolt of pain through the Force. Vader felt it, too; those glowing eyes flashed and narrowed in. “Han Solo died trying to turn you. Your mother will soon die as well, her end hastened by your destructive choices. Will you sacrifice your lover, too, in this vain hope for…” his lip curled in distaste, “…redemption?”
Ben was shaking, his grip on her hand hot and slick. She dug in her nails, willing him to focus on her, on them, and not on this-
“Monster.” Vader finished with a small, satisfied smile. “That’s what you are. It’s what you were born to be. Ben Solo is dead. Kylo Ren is who the First Order and the rest of the galaxy will see. But your destiny lies with another identity. From now on, your true name shall be Darth-”
Rey felt a shift in the Force, and she was moving before she allowed herself to think as the air behind Vader shimmered and the Knights of Ren leapt toward them, seemingly out of nowhere. Vader’s head jerked around, his furious hiss filling the cave. Rey lunged forward and slashed up with her saber, the movement flowing as she felt Ben match her step and slash down. The visage of Anakin Skywalker roared as blue and red plasma scored deep, smoking wounds, as though he was real flesh and blood. The Darkness seethed around them, the river of lava roiling up and overflowing its banks. But then the rage on Vader’s face vanished, its features melting and morphing until…
Rey felt Ben go still, and she couldn’t help her gasp as together they stared at Han Solo. Ben’s father’s chest was marred by a smoking wound, his hands raised in supplication as he fixed Ben with an imploring stare.
“Please,” Han said, and Rey’s heart broke at the sound of her old friend’s voice. “Please, son, don’t do this.”
Ben was paralyzed. Rey felt his surge of grief and remorse as he looked into the solemn face of his father.
The Knights had stopped, too, their weapons raised. Han Solo stepped forward, the Dark Side gathering around them all as a wall of smoke and deception. Such power it had here, in this place. But it still needed Ben, or someone like him, to carry that power out into the galaxy. Rey understood now. The Living Force was everywhere, its cycles of life and death the natural way of things. But this Darkness was a disease, an infestation relegated to holes and caves unless it found a vessel to carry it out. There could be no balance, because even a sliver of this malevolence could fester and spread. For all of their sakes, for the sake of the galaxy… the Light would have to win.
Han Solo moved forward again, and Ben took a half step back.
“That isn’t your father,” Rey whispered, though even she was tempted to lower her lightsaber in the face of this ghost that faced them.
“I know.” But the tone of his voice, the downcast to his eyes… Rey knew that the Darkness had hit Ben where it hurt him the most. And any kind of pain worked in the Dark Side’s favor. Sure enough, as Han advanced on them, Ben backed up another step. “Rey,” Ben’s voice was quiet, shattered, “I can’t…”
Han Solo raised his hand, and Rey remembered that moment she’d witnessed from afar, when Ben’s father had touched his face as he died-
Force lightning flashed out from the illusion’s fingertips, aimed not at Ben but at Rey, and even as she tensed her muscles to leap away she knew it’d be too late…
A heavy weight crashed into her side, pushing her into Ben and landing on top of them as they all hit the floor. A voice cried out in pain. Kiona. She’d crept through the shadows, unseen by any of them, and had taken a glancing blow from the blast.
“Traitor!” A familiar voice rasped, one that scraped against Rey’s ears and turned her stomach in dread. She pushed herself up, Ben doing the same beneath her as the tall, emaciated form of Snoke glowered over them.
“Weak, all of you,” Snoke snarled at Kiona, who had rolled up to her feet, her sleeve smoking and her teeth clenched in pain. “What a pathetic band these ‘Knights’ have turned out to be. I should have ordered Kylo Ren to exterminate all of you when he was still willing to do my bidding. He would have done so without hesitation. THAT is who you risk your lives for. Ask yourselves if it is worth it.”
From the corner of her eye, Rey could see Adion. The young man was again crouching low over the floor, his finger tracing over one of the countless etchings there. With a start, Rey realized that the lava was flowing into those crevices, creeping toward them as the designs were lit in stark, red relief against the obsidian bedrock. As Rey watched, Adion reached over his shoulder to grasp a dagger handed to him by Ropalaa, who stood silently, no other weapon in sight as she stared at Rey, Ben, and Snoke. Adion flipped the dagger in his fist and began carefully grinding marks into the stone floor.
Ben straightened; Rey could feel his relief now that their tormentor had taken on a visage that was easier to confront. He stepped forward, glancing to her as he raised his lightsaber again. “I understand now,” he said quietly but not weakly as he stared into the face of his old master.
A familiar sneer met his look. “And what is it that you understand, young sith?”
Ben said nothing, but a small smile - a genuine smile - lit his face even as he set his feet and angled his lightsaber. He squeezed Rey’s hand and she did the same, holding her saber so that the blade with a fragment of Ben’s kyber crystal crossed his. He’d said their blades would repel if used against one another, but now Rey could feel them drawn together. The Darkness raised Snoke’s hands again, lightning crackling on the fingertips as that wasted face contorted with rage.
“Hurry,” someone said in the background, and Rey didn’t know what they meant until she saw Adion, his lips pursed in triumph, smack the flat edge of his dagger against the stone floor in the motion that always meant he was finished with whatever he was drawing-
“NOW!” Ropalaa yelled, already yanking up Adion by the collar and pushing him ahead of her.
The two lightsaber blades touched, and Rey moved with Ben as if they were one mind, one body, as they both lunched forward and snapped the bisected blades around Snoke’s neck. The decapitated head roared as it fell, the illusion of Snoke dissolving into a pool of oily blackness that immediately began to grow and spread toward them… until it stopped, flowing backward toward the marks Adion had etched onto the floor. A high-pitched screeching filled the air as that concentrated Darkness was drawn in against its will, surging and falling back again and again. Rey was mesmerized, her entire body shaking with the combined power of hers and Ben’s weapons as they vibrated together.
“Oh for fuck’s sake just end it already!” Kiona’s voice cut through the haze, and Ben reacted first, lifting her lightsaber with his and spinning them both toward the round table in the center of the chamber.
Ben yelled, and Rey barely heard her own voice as they brought both red and blue blades together down across the table, splitting the stone slab in two. The ground beneath them shuddered, and she knew immediately that it was more than just a piece of rock that they’d destroyed. The shuddering intensified, shaking the walls around them as dust and stone began to fall.
“This way!” Jacen called to them from the far end of the chamber, the Knight raising his hands and using the Force to hold up the vaulted ceiling that crumbled and shook above their egress corridor.
Rey cast a last glance at the oily black mass that still writhed and surged around the markings that Adion had altered. What he had trapped, how he had trapped it… if they made it out of here she’d have to remember to ask him. Or perhaps she didn’t want to know. Sparks of Force lightning spit and fizzled around it, and as the creeping lava spilled into its edges, a high-pitched screeching filled the cave.
Ben cursed as they all sprinted past Jacen and into the corridor. With every step they took away from that chamber and the epicenter of Darkness within it, Rey felt her breath coming easier. She sensed Ben’s surge of relief. And when they finally emerged outside beneath the red skies of Mustafar, Ropalaa let out a yell of absolute triumph.
The shuttle’s thrusters were already firing as they raced up the ramp, followed by Dan and his troopers.
“Go!” she and Ben both shouted before they’d even reached the command bridge. But Lieutenant Tavson had anticipated the order; the shuttle was already off the ground and lifting quickly away. All of them crowded in, panting, to stare out the viewport at the castle that was visibly shaking even from a distance.
“Maybe we should get a little farther away?” Kiona’s face was scrunched as she leaned over the instrument console and looked out. “Oh shit, too late…”
First one obsidian tower, then the other, began to tilt inward. They crashed together in an explosion of rock before collapsing onto the castle itself; the landing platform they’d just vacated was instantly obliterated. The stream of lava flowing out from the fortress base became a torrent, breaking off rocks and chunks of metal to careen down the cliffside.
Rey could still sense the Darkness keening after them - after Ben - even as its stronghold disintegrated around it. But it had no reach. No pathway or conduit out. And those horrid, whispering voices were silenced forever as Vader’s fortress crumbled and fell in pieces down the cliff, until every bit of rock and steel had disappeared into the void below.
For a moment they all stood in silence, watching lava flow unimpeded over the ledge. Then-
“Shall we return to the Titan now, sir?” Lieutenant Tavson asked, his tone flat and bored, as though nothing had happened.
“Why not,” Ben murmured.
“Very good, sir.”
Jacen turned, catching Rey’s eye for a second before glaring at Ben. “I think I speak for all of us when I ask, was that really fucking necessary?”
Rey looked to Adion, who still held the dagger Ropalaa had handed him in the cave and was studying it intently. “What did you draw down there? And how did you know how to do it?” He just glanced at her with a small smile. “The Jedi texts,” she answered her own question, and he nodded.
Kiona stared down at the planet’s roiling surface as they sped away. “So who or what was it exactly that we killed down there?”
From her spot leaning against the aft bulkhead, Ropalaa scoffed. “Does it matter what we call it? I am glad it’s gone. I feel…” She paused, searching for the word. “I feel peace.”
It was true, Rey realized. She felt lighter, her mind clear. But…
“The Dark Side still exists,” she said, reaching out and brushing against the dual nature of the Force in her mind. “So whatever that was down there, it wasn’t-”
Ben turned to all of them, his eyes serious. “The Sith didn’t believe in balance,” he said quietly. “That fortress was built to collect and amplify the worst elements of the Force. And it was tuned in on my family. Vader built it, and so it was Vader who appeared to us.” He paused, biting his lip and passing a hand across his face before looking at Rey. His expression broke her heart: weariness, guilt. “I was just… tired of fighting it and of worrying how else it might manifest,” he went on, his voice barely audible over the noise from the shuttle as it shuddered into Mustafar’s dense lower atmosphere. “But I didn’t want to face it alone. If I’d known the danger I was putting you all in-”
“Danger? With this crew?” Talik burst through the door from the interior crew compartment, smiling from ear to ear. “I don’t know what happened down there, but I’m sure you all had it totally under control.”
Ropalaa scowled. “You’re cheerful.”
“I’m going to be a DAD.” The tall, dark Knight wrapped Kiona in a bear hug. “And you’re going to be an aunt! And the rest of you will-”
“Where’s Martna?” Jacen asked, trying to duck away as Talik went to hug him, too.
“Oh, she’s laying down between the seats back there. She kicked me out, said I was too happy when she was just trying not to throw up.” He glanced down through the viewport as the lava fields of Mustafar once again became obscured by ash and smoke. “Nice place to bring your girl, Kylo. Where you taking her on your honeymoon? Dathomir?”
Rey laughed, her fingers aching as she finally unwound them from Ben’s in order to embrace Talik. “Congratulations.” She saw Ropalaa move toward the crew compartment, and Rey silently communicated to Ben that she was going to check on Martna, too. He nodded, then bent to place a soft kiss on her cheek. He was still trembling, she realized, though he was trying to hide it from the Knights and crew. She paused, looking into his eyes, reading the raw emotion there.
“Go,” he whispered. “I’m… it’s OK. Go ahead.”
Rey left the command bridge, though she felt Ben’s eyes on her as she did. She sensed his turmoil through the Force; he really had feared terribly for all of them. The Knights knew that, and were trying to distract him from his ruminations. The last thing Rey heard as she walked out was Kiona sighing dramatically.
“Darth ‘what,’ Kylo? I guess we’ll never know…”
Warm rain fell as Ben followed Rey up a winding stone staircase. Far above, the peak of Temple Island was shrouded in clouds, fading in and out of sight as powerful Force currents swirled with the mist. Neither of them bothered to shield themselves as the deluge washed away residual grime and sweat from Mustafar.
They hadn’t stayed on the Titan long enough to bathe. In fact, before Ben had even disembarked from his command shuttle, Rey had prodded Martna toward the medical bay, given orders to Dan regarding the Titan’s next destination, and commandeered an Xi-class light shuttle to take just the two of them to Ahch-To.
They had both napped through most of the journey on a narrow crew bench, Rey sprawled over him with her head tucked beneath his chin. He’d awoken before she did, and so he’d just laid there quietly, feeling her warm weight and listening to her breathe as they hurtled through hyperspace.
Since the moment they’d stepped off the shuttle on the rocky landing below, Ben’s senses had been overloaded. Sounds, smells, the touch of wind and rain on his face… the island felt so familiar to him. He had been here with Rey, through her dreams, when he had first pushed himself into her mind. The thought of that violation made him queasy now. But those visions had been a gift, he realized, a lifeline that the Force had thrown to a strong but lonely girl to sustain her through years of waiting. To give her hope.
He watched her climb up ahead of him, her steps sure and unhurried. She was quiet while her thoughts kept drifting back to Luke. He sensed her grief: muted now but still heartfelt. That was a death he had not yet processed. His feelings about his uncle might take the rest of his life to sort out. But it was clear that Luke had helped Rey, helped them all in the end. For that he was grateful.
The stairs finally ended at a hole into the rock near the island’s peak. Rey glanced back and then stepped inside, but Ben stopped at the threshold, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness even as every fiber in his body reacted to the powerful Force energy here. It was brightness like he’d never experienced, pure Light Side flowing through the air in soft, swirling waves.
Rey stopped near a pool in the chamber’s center and looked at him. She was a vision in white, her fine woolen cloak in contrast to her tan skin and dark hair.
“Come in, Ben.”
He carefully stepped through the door, almost afraid that this place would reject him, would sense his inherent Darkness and know the things he’d done, and that it would block his path or fling him out. But instead the warmth intensified as he slowly approached Rey.
Her eyes crinkled in a small smile. “Are you actually scared of this temple?”
“No. Maybe.” He reached her side and looked down. The pool at their feet was shallow and clear, with a mosaic at its bottom depicting a person in meditation.
“The Prime Jedi,” Rey said softly, following his gaze and then sitting down on the ledge that surrounded the pool. She swept her fingertips through the water, distorting the image with ripples and reflections. “Do you think they really existed?”
He sat close to her, watching the play of light on her hand. “I don’t know. What do your feelings tell you?”
Rey closed her eyes. “They tell me…” Eyes opening, she tilted her head and looked up at him. “They tell me that what happened thousands of years ago doesn’t matter. This is a new beginning. You and I.”
Ben leaned in and nuzzled her hair; when he felt her arms wrap around his neck he picked her up and pulled her onto his lap. He looked toward the meditation platform on the outside ledge, its surface shining as afternoon sun tried to break through the rain.
“Whatever you want to do,” he whispered as her fingers crept into his hair and traced his ear. “Wherever you want to go, I’ll follow you. We can make a home. Together.”
She pulled back to look at him, her lips turning up in a smile even as tears shone in her eyes. “You mean we don’t have to live on a Star Destroyer?”
“If you really want to…”
“No.” Her laugh echoed off the walls as she again rested her head on his shoulder. “Not here, either. It’s too lonely.”
“Oh, I don’t know. This island has peak Force energy. Think how strong you’ll become.”
She squeezed his arm. “Why do you think I brought you here? It’s the ideal place for training. And you offered to be my teacher. So, teach.”
The Force hummed around them, not demanding or greedy like on Mustafar, but soft, yet electric. Warmth that was quickly turning to real heat as his body registered every place where she fit against him. “We can teach each other,” he said, running his palms over her shoulders and down her back. “We’ll-”
He was cut off as she lifted her head and pressed her lips to his, their bond a real, living thing that drew them together, tighter and tighter. Rey turned and threaded her fingers into his hair, opening her mouth and biting at his lip. The intensity of the kiss tore the breath from him, and when he lifted his head for air she found his neck, nibbling and sucking as her fingers slid beneath his cloak and tugged at his shirt.
She undressed him first, and then he stripped her, their clothes tossed all in a pile on the hard stone floor. But before Rey could lay down Ben dropped to his knees in front of her, gripping the backs of her thighs and holding her as he buried his nose and tongue between her legs. Her every cry and whimper echoed through the cave, their combined Force energy burning and burning until her muscles were shaking and she pulled at his hair, while the tension in him wound so tight he could think of nothing at all but her, only her…
Ben surged to his feet just long enough to pick Rey up and turn her in his arms, then he laid her down on top of their discarded clothes, face down. She gasped as he pushed apart her legs with his knees then lowered himself behind her, settling his hips below the curve of her ass. He wrapped his arms around her, his forearms bracing her from below and his hands sliding up to grip hers. He paused there, breathing hard, waiting for the confirmation he needed.
She squeezed his hands and spread her legs wider. Her whisper was nearly lost among the crumpled fabric. “Ben, please…”
The sound of her voice, the feel of her beneath him, the way the Force energy of this temple resonated with hers… he felt as though he was coming undone as he pushed into her, harder than he’d intended, but she just shouted with pleasure. And so they moved, his body wrapped around hers as she writhed and bucked up to meet him. Ben bent his head to bury his face against her cheek, his gasps in time to hers, both of them whispering things that only the ghosts in the temple would ever hear. And even those ghosts probably fled as they came together, shouting curses and pushing in more and more because no matter how close they were, it was never enough.
A lifetime, Ben realized as he slowly pulled out and turned her over, guiding her on top of him as they both fought to catch their breath. They had a lifetime of this ahead of them. This love that seemed to grow exponentially every day. This indescribable feeling of being wanted, of having someone that truly cared. After everything Rey had gone through, she deserved it. All he could do was try to be worthy of her. To deserve the forgiveness that she and the galaxy and the Force seemed to have granted him.
“Two ancient caves in one day,” she sighed, tracing her fingers along his arm as she looked around. “I like this one better.”
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, which glowed as light from the twin suns spilled over the ocean far below, past the platform, and across the floor. The water in the pool sparkled, casting tiny rainbows across the stone over their heads.
“Yeah,” Ben said softly. “Me, too.”
Taz wrinkled his nose, both at the smell from the nearby swamp and at the sight of a dozen or so screeching, spindly creatures darting across the cloud-darkened sky.
“Probably drawn to the generators.” Dan barely looked up as they walked. He’d been mostly silent - lost in thought and worry, Taz knew - for most of the journey here, but now he peered sideways and said, “You’ve never seen them out in deep space? The Finalizer has a pilot corps whose full-time job is just to shoot them off the hull with helium charges.”
“Sounds like fun. But there’s not a lot of viewports in the surveillance wing.” Taz jabbed an elbow into Dan’s side. “And you know I don’t get out much. So this is…” He stopped speaking as he just looked around at the strangeness on this Outer Rim planet, not knowing what to say as the two of them continued walking side-by-side up the road that led away from a decommissioned Imperial facility. Years ago, the site had been one of several on Imdaar that housed a secret starfighter development program. But it was abandoned after the destruction of a much larger research station on the planet’s largest moon, Imdaar Alpha. Since then the swamp had taken over; now the only structure not yet covered in moss and creeping vines was the elevated platform on which their shuttle had landed.
He glanced back to where that ship waited, intimidating with its array of red lights and bat-like wings towering over trees and rusted buildings. The Supreme Leader’s personal shuttle, complete with Lieutenant Tavson and the rest of its distinguished crew, along with an elite fire team to guard it. Dan hadn’t allowed any of those stormtroopers to accompany them, though, and Taz swallowed his apprehension as they reached the outskirts of the sprawling settlement that was their destination. The town was quieter than it should have been in late afternoon. The mynocks’ screeching echoed off distant mountains as a lone door slammed somewhere.
“I guess they saw us coming,” Dan mumbled, tugging at the cuffs of his new captain’s jacket.
Taz took a moment to admire his lover’s outfit yet again. He had joked this morning that the charcoal and black dress uniforms were his favorite feature of the revamped stormtrooper program. Of course Dan looked handsome in it; the tailored, close fitting clothing showing off his physique in a way the white armor never could. Accented with a discreet but functional weapons belt as well as silver rank cylinders across the breast, the overall effect was authoritative with an undercurrent of intimidating. Lethal and sexy.
The Jedi, Rey, had laughed out loud when Taz voiced that thought before they’d departed Chandrila for Imdaar. She and the Supreme Leader had met them at sunrise on the airfield outside the elegant estate where they had come for meetings with General Organa and other leaders of the Resistance and former Republic. Kylo Ren had just smiled as Rey looked Dan over before winking at Taz and wishing them luck.
Not Kylo Ren. Ben Solo.
The son of Leia Organa and Han Solo had reclaimed his true name, his family name. It was a small change to most in the First Order, who would continue to address him as ‘Supreme Leader’ or ‘sir.’ But the symbolic effect for the galaxy was immense. Kylo Ren had been feared, even hated. But Ben Solo was the child of heroes, a young man who’d been issuing one decree after another freeing systems from First Order control, sparking cautious hope as peace spread slowly but steadily. It mattered little, it seemed, that they were the same man. The power in a name…
Taz glanced again at Dan as they continued on into the center of the settlement. The muffled click of a blaster sounded somewhere close, and his heart pounded. The air, which had seemed soft with moisture when they’d disembarked, now felt dense and stifling. Thunder boomed in the distance as the wind picked up. Unseen eyes pressed in on them from slitted windows.
“Almost there,” Dan whispered, his knuckles brushing the back of Taz’s hand.
The precise location of the house had been confirmed by long-term First Order spies embedded here. Those women were likely covering their backs now, ready to open fire should they be attacked. Taz desperately hoped it wouldn’t come to that, for Dan’s sake. But the tension was becoming unbearable.
Finally they saw it, coordinates and description an exact match to the intel they’d been given. The wood and stone structure appeared solid and well-maintained, with a verdant garden out front and a side yard where a small, cobbled-together speeder was parked. Like every other house they’d passed, the door and windows were tightly closed.
Dan’s eyes darted about now, widening slightly. Taz wondered if he remembered… any of it. He had been six years old when he was taken. Six.
Dan’s steps dragged and then stopped. He drew a deep breath and let it out slow. “What if-”
Taz just waited. They’d already had this conversation, but now, with the moment upon them…
“What if they’d rather not see me? With who I’ve become, what I represent…” Dan’s voice trailed off. Taz understood. This planet’s inhabitants had no love for the First Order. For years there had been a garrison stationed here to quell unrest; it had been withdrawn just a week ago.
“You had no choice in that,” Taz said gently. “Neither did they. And look at what you’ve done.” He didn’t need to elaborate. Together they had helped bring about a massive change for the galaxy. “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” he finished, reaching up to straighten Dan’s collar. “Nothing at all.”
Dan sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always right.”
Dan met his eyes and smiled softly. “Thanks, Taz.”
There was no more hesitation as the stormtrooper captain turned and strode up the walk to the thick wooden door. Taz waited a half step behind as Dan squared his shoulders and knocked.
The door opened immediately, as though the tall man standing there had watched them approach. Taz blinked as he found himself looking at who Dan would be in thirty years. The same light brown skin, more lined. The same black hair was shot through with streaks of gray. A trim beard, whereas Dan was clean-shaven. Dark eyes that reflected the muted outdoor light as both men stood and stared at one another in silence.
The man’s gaze flicked to Taz briefly before returning to Dan, taking in the uniform, the weapons, the face. There was no change in expression, and a knot formed in Taz’s stomach-
Dan exhaled and bowed his head respectfully. His voice was shaking as he said, “Sir, I’m-”
That was as far as he got before his father’s face crumpled in on itself, and the man stepped forward and pulled Dan into his arms. Taz watched as Dan buried his face in his father’s shoulder, eyes closed tight as he leaned into the embrace he’d been missing for twenty years.
A woman appeared in the doorway, as short and round as Dan was tall and lean. But those were Dan’s eyes - already filling with tears - that stared at her son and then looked up at Taz. Her lips pressed together as she gestured toward him with a trembling hand, and Taz found himself pulled into a soft hug that spread warmth into his very bones.
The wind gusted again, carrying with it the first heavy raindrops, as well as the sound of houses nearby coming to life: voices and laughter and hurrying feet. Taz wondered how many other families here could now hope to soon be reunited with sons and daughters they’d thought lost forever. How many would mourn the ones who would never come back.
But the war had finally ended, and Taz hadn’t felt the full truth of that until this moment, when Dan turned and smiled at him through his tears as they were both pulled inside the cozy home.
The war between the First Order and the Resistance was indeed over… and both sides had won.
3 months later…
Rey flopped down onto the tumbling mats she’d piled in a corner of the Finalizer’s cavernous, over-bright training hall. Rose already rested there, breathing hard as she toweled sweat from her face and neck. They’d just finished going over some forms together, sparring in pole combat, and the mechanic-turned-officer had given Rey more of a workout than she’d expected.
She twisted open a bottle of electrolyte beverage that she had snatched from a group of stormtroopers training nearby, took a long drink, then passed it over to Rose, who stared at her incredulously.
“I can’t believe you just stole this from… them.” She gestured toward the group of four men and two women who appeared to be mercilessly pummeling each other with precise kicks and punches.
Rey just grinned. “Ah, they’re distracted. And they wouldn’t mind anyway. I trained with that team yesterday. One of them gave me this-” she touched an ugly bruise on her arm, “and couldn’t stop apologizing.”
Rose still looked doubtful but took a drink anyway as her gaze shifted to another training session happening just in front of them. “No apologies between these two, I’d guess.”
“Not a chance,” Rey laughed, shifting onto her stomach and resting her chin on her hands as she observed the battle that had been going on for nearly an hour. Ben was going at it hard against his new preferred sparring partner: Finn. “Just the opposite, I’d say,” she said as Finn ducked but still took a glancing blow from the staff Ben swung at his head. The former stormtrooper cursed loudly but allowed the momentum from the strike to spin him into a kick that swept Ben’s left leg. Anyone else would have crashed onto his back, but Ben fell into a backflip that ended with him crouched and snarling, his teeth actually bared.
Finn stood tall and squared up his staff. “Just let me know when you’re ready to stop dancing and start fighting, asshole,” he panted, streams of sweat following the lines of muscle on his chest and stomach.
Ben - also shirtless, praise the gods - rose slowly to his full height and stepped forward so that the two men were nearly touching. “Big talk for a failed stormtrooper, FN-2187.” Not breaking eye contact, he tossed his staff away and curled his fists. Rey watched the muscles in his forearms and triceps ripple with the movement.
“Here we go,” mumbled Rose as Finn grinned and did the same. “More alpha male nonsense.”
“Oh, but I love this part.” Rey pushed up on her elbows as the men circled each other, staring. Seeing the look in their eyes, she felt compelled to call out, “Careful, you two. You’re supposed to look nice this afternoon. No split lips.”
Ben’s head twitched toward her, the only acknowledgment either of them gave before they launched at each other, hands sliding over sweaty skin as they grappled for a hold or a takedown.
Rose sighed through her nose as she watched. “Oh my.” Her gaze slid to Rey. “You’re a lucky girl.”
“As are you.”
“You think they’re doing this for our benefit?”
Rey laughed. “Not if Ben limps to bed smelling like bacta patches again.”
Rose smiled, then looked up at the massive steel space around them. “I hope the bedrooms on this bucket are cozier than the rest of it.”
“You’ll find out tonight.”
“I can’t believe I’m spending the night on a Star Destroyer.”
“I often have that same thought. Ben has offered to sleep on the Falcon, but every time we do, he keeps banging his-” She stopped at Rose’s raised eyebrows. Rey’s cheeks warmed. “Anyway, I’ve heard wedding parties can go on for hours, so you may as well sleep over.” She winced as Ben dropped an elbow across Finn’s neck. “I’ve never seen a wedding. Have you?”
A shadow fell over Rose’s expression. “Yes, once. Paige and I were in our cousin’s marriage ceremony a few months before…” She didn’t finish.
“I’m sorry.” Rey reached over and squeezed her friend’s hand. “You must miss her so much.”
“Her. All of them.” Rose’s voice was soft, her eyes distant. They sat in silence for a few minutes before she asked, “Do you think the two of you will get married?”
Rey blinked and opened her mouth, and from the corner of her eye she saw Ben’s head whip toward them because of course he had overheard and-
Finn, apparently, was a bit more focused, and he took advantage of the momentary distraction to land a solid kick to Ben’s ribcage that sent the taller man collapsing to his knees, face contorted with pain.
“Oh,” Rose gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Sorry!”
Rey scrambled to her feet as Ben stayed on the mat, his hand pressed to his side as he panted and stared up at Finn. The Resistance captain circled him, fists still raised.
“That’s it? You done? I didn’t hear any ribs break. Come on, Supreme Leader. Let’s-” Finn’s eyes got wide as Ben raised a hand toward him, fingers splayed. “Oh no. That is NOT allowed. No Force shit, you said.” He looked frantically at Rey, who bit her lip, her shoulders shaking as she joined them on the mat. “Rey, tell him he’s not allowed to blast me across the room. Tell him-”
He stopped, staring at Rey before looking down at Ben. “Wait. Are you laughing? You are. You’re both laughing.” He stepped back, hands on his hips. “You weren’t really going to…”
Rey couldn’t hold it in; laughter burst out and echoed through the training room as she crouched next to Ben and put a hand on his back. His smile was more of a grimace - the kick really had found its mark - but she saw humor in his eyes as he accepted the hand Finn held out and climbed back to his feet.
“Lucky shot,” he said as they all walked off the mat together.
Finn snorted. “Tell that to the contusion you’ll have in an hour.”
“Did you really just beg my girlfriend to save you?”
Ben stood alone, watching the final battalions of stormtroopers move into position from his vantage in the Finalizer’s main hangar bay. The original plan was to hold the ceremony on the command bridge, but the troopers had requested en masse that they all be permitted to attend. DN-3351 - embarrassed but pleased - had agreed. The hangar was the only space large enough to hold them all.
So now it appeared as if they were staging for an invasion rather than a wedding. Thousands of white-clad soldiers waited in perfect formation, their commanders out front in dress blacks. The pilot corps stood with their ships, ebony armor gleaming. The officers murmured amongst themselves or, in a few cases, mingled with representatives from the Resistance that Dan had invited. Maz Kanata. Kaydel Connix, hand in hand with Adion as always. Finn, a regular visitor to this ship now that he was advising Dan on stormtrooper retraining and repatriation; the two men had become good friends in the process.
Ben’s hand drifted to the bandage hidden under his tunic. Finn’s kick may not have broken any ribs, but a number of them were badly bruised. It hurt to breathe.
“How’s that feeling?”
A smile twitched at his lips; he had sensed Rey’s approach even before she laid a hand on his arm.
“Like I dropped my guard and paid for it.”
“Lesson learned, then. Don’t underestimate Finn.”
He watched the former trooper point to something in the hangar as he spoke into Rose’s ear. “He slipped away from us after Jakku. He killed Phasma, too. He’s the last person I’d underestimate. Except maybe you.” He turned toward her, then took a step back for a better look as his breath caught. “Rey…”
Her cheeks reddened even as she turned to give him a better view of her gown. “I’d have preferred to dress Jedi casual, but your mother insisted…”
“It suits you,” he murmured, the mention of his mother a reminder of his manners: compliment, don’t stare. But he’d never seen Rey in anything low-cut and tight. “You look stunning,” he breathed, forcing his eyes up from the teardrop ruby that hung between her breasts.
“Thank you.” She stepped close and threaded her fingers through his. “Keep your mind on the task at hand, Supreme Leader, and I’ll show you later what kind of undergarments go with a dress like this.”
He leaned into her and lowered his voice. “Are they red, too?”
Her eyes sparkled. “Isn’t it your favorite color after black? Oh, shhh.” She nodded toward the entrance doors as the observers quieted down. “Here they come.”
Dan and Taz, preceded by their parents, walked together down the row of ships and personnel, their footsteps echoing on the polished floor. They’d decided against music except for one traditional song that Dan’s mother had taught to Rey upon learning that she could sing. The entire ceremony would be brief, formal, dignified. And attended by ten thousand people.
‘Aren’t you worried,’ Rey had jokingly asked him the night before, ‘that now everyone in the First Order will want you presiding over their marriage ceremonies?’ He’d just shrugged and pulled her close. ‘I suppose I need to make myself useful somehow.’
It was, when he really thought it through, an odd and incredible turn of events. He could barely remember who he was before that day on Takodana, before the fight on Starkiller Base, before he and Rey had touched hands and the entire galaxy was remade.
But this wasn’t just their story, he was reminded as thousands of eyes watched Dan and Taz ascending to the platform where he stood. There were as many souls that had affected this outcome as there were stars in the universe. Those like his mother and father, even Snoke and Darth Vader, would be remembered by history. But others - the Resistance fighters who had died in their transports, the miners killed on Generis, the stormtroopers who’d lived and died as numbers without names - had played a roll just as important. The Force flowed through all of them, seeking harmony amongst the chaos. He could feel the difference now. Balance. Peace.
He could also sense Dan’s joy as the stormtrooper captain and his betrothed approached. The courage it had taken for these two men to secure that surveillance footage and deliver it to him…
Ben blinked, suddenly reminded of a question that had lingered in his mind ever since he’d first seen that holo.
“Rey,” he bent to whisper in her ear. “After your lightsaber split in two and I was unconscious in the throne room, what did you say to me before you left?”
She glanced up, then reached to touch his chin, guiding his head down so that she could murmur her response.
He listened, then smiled.
Dan and Taz stopped before him, their beaming parents standing just behind. They had agreed to a script for this ceremony, but now Rey had given him something else. The words that meant everything. Ben stepped forward and raised his voice.
“Love,” he said, smiling at his friends, “is worth fighting for.”
So that's it. Ten months of writing and editing and thinking about this story, and now it's done. I've loved Star Wars for most of my life, and the sequel trilogy has multiplied that love a thousand fold. Reylo is canon (or at least it is now... we'll see what EP IX gives us), and the Reylo fanbase are the most amazing, talented, generous people I've ever come to know online. Thank you to every one of you for taking the time to read Distractions, give Kudos, comment, and recommend to your friends. I'm very grateful to all of you. May the Force Be With You!