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Star Wars: The Resolve Into Gray

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Prologue:

It has been two years since the First Order attacked the Resistance stronghold on Crait. Kylo Ren rules as Supreme Leader. The First Order has reinstated the program initiated under the Empire to build a Clone Army, and their influence is spreading across the galaxy, overseen by General Hux.

In this time, the Resistance has been busy strengthening their position and amassing more recruits, gaining nearly enough support to strike back against the First Order.

Tragically, during a diplomatic voyage to Coruscant, a Resistance vessel containing General Leia Organa was attacked by the First Order and destroyed. Her sudden death brings chaos and disorder to the Resistance leadership.... 

———Part 1———Chapter 1: Excommunication———

He felt empty.

The loss of his mother’s presence in the Force stabbed at his soul in a way he would never have imagined possible. On an intellectual level, this is what he thought he wanted—the end of the Resistance leadership. Surely this would cripple their strategic capability and diplomatic influence. This could only benefit the First Order. He should be happy.

He had long taken for granted his mother's signature in the Force, reaching across the galaxy to carve a hold in his spirit. Now that it wasn't there anymore, its absence was like a gaping wound, and he felt enormously out of balance. Only now, facing the knowledge that he was truly the last of his bloodline left alive, did he realize what his mother had meant to him.

Regret hung on him like a dark cloud. In spite of the years he’d spent trying to free himself from his family, he found he now missed them. Most of his existence he’d felt alone, but this was profoundly more desolate than he’d ever felt in his life.

Kylo Ren stared out into space through the large window of his private quarters on the Supremacy II, the repaired and revamped version of the older Supremacy, and contemplated his emptiness.

How had it happened? She died suddenly—he had felt it. It seemed unlikely that a freak accident could have claimed his mother’s life—she was too careful and too well protected. However, he could think of no organizations besides the First Order with any reason to want her dead. Cartels and other villainous groups would threaten to cooperate with the Resistance if the First Order couldn’t promise sufficient rewards for their loyalty—without the Resistance to dangle as a bargaining chip, the cartels would lose that bit of leverage.

So how had she died then? He had ordered no attacks, and was unaware of any imminent engagements between his forces and the Resistance. Even as his spirit teetered on the edge of a great void, his mind reeled, searching for an explanation.

Without warning, the door to his room opened, and he quickly attempted to compose himself, whirling around angrily at the intrusion. He was appalled to discover an armed complement of stormtroopers bustling hurriedly into his room. His doors were programmed to open only at his approach. As the troopers circled him on all sides, he felt the pit of his stomach drop as it finally began to dawn on him what this was all about.

"What do you think you're doing?!" he screamed at them. "On whose authority do you enter my private chambers?!" This insubordination required a deadly rebuke, so he raised his hand to attempt to Force-choke one of the stormtroopers. To his astonishment, his efforts yielded him nothing.

"I told you his sentiment would make him weak."

Kylo Ren recognized the voice as that of General Hux, who was just filing in around the last of the stormtroopers. Following behind him, a figure clad in black, lightsaber at his hip, whose arm was held outstretched toward Kylo. As Kylo took in the pair of traitors in his midst, Hux’s eyes narrowed and a self-satisfied smirk grew at his lips.

"Hux," Kylo Ren spat venomously as the pompous man sidled up in front of him. Kylo gave Hux a look seething with furious anger. Had Kylo been in better control of this situation, he’d have done much more. Hux had always been an irritant, but he was an irritant with his uses, and an irritant Kylo believed he could control. At this moment, he’d have killed him, but for whatever reason, Kylo found himself unable to command the Force to his bidding. He was helpless.

"I always knew you were weak and unbalanced. Ever since your treasonous murder of Supreme Leader Snoke, I’ve been desperate to put an end to you. I regret that it took this long to finally cut off your misguided reign. Mercifully, it seems I wasn’t alone in my desire to see another take the throne. Naturally, our mutual friend here needs no introduction?” Hux gestured to his left, toward the darkly dressed man who had followed him into Kylo Ren's chambers, a man still calmly poised with his arm gingerly outstretched towards Kylo Ren, silently regarding him.

Kylo Ren shifted his glare in the direction Hux indicated. "Faris, what is the meaning of this? How do you explain this betrayal?" he growled.

Calmly and evenly, the man finally spoke. "Under Snoke, the Knights of Ren had a purpose. It wasn’t glamorous, but we were utilized, and we could believe that our importance would only grow as you gained influence within the First Order.” He paused. “Your rise to power has been a tremendous disappointment… I never thought you would squander us so totally." He surveyed Kylo Ren's frozen visage. "It was time for a change in leadership,” he added, a sly grin on his lips.

"And you think you're the change the galaxy needs, do you?" Kylo stammered as he spoke. Speaking was getting progressively more difficult. It seemed Faris's hold was extending beyond just Kylo's limbs.

"Well, General Hux didn't think he could do it totally by himself. We agreed to help."

'We,' thought Kylo. So they’ve all turned against me, then…

Kylo's eyes darted to Hux, whose countenance of self-satisfaction had only grown in magnitude. He was practically beaming. "And now it is time for you to step aside as Supreme Leader of the First Order. Supreme Leader Faris Ren, if you please?" With a sweep of his arm, Hux backed away, bowing in deference to his new ruler.

With that, Faris Ren unleashed a devastating psychic attack, and everything in Kylo Ren's world went dark.

———

Finn’s brow crinkled as he took in what he was hearing. In a hushed voice, he asked, “You’re saying she knew before the rest of us? How?”

“I don’t know, probably some Force thing… The general used to have weird premonitions about things too,” answered Poe under his breath.

The two men were standing in a wide hallway toward the end of a wing of residential units at the Resistance base on Dendrokaan. Rey was sitting quietly in the common area at the very end, seated on couch, looking lost. Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 were with her, quietly keeping her company as they mourned together.

“So anyway, you found her where?”

“She was just running through the halls in a panic when she collided right into me. Started begging me to check up on Leia’s mission—which I did, and at first, everything seemed fine. It was seconds later that StratComm finally interpreted the relays for what they were.” Poe paused, craning his head around to look at Rey sitting in the other room. When he continued speaking, it was even quieter than before. “At that point, she just looked like something inside her had broken, and I started walking her back here.”

Finn sighed. “And that’s when you bumped into me,” he observed.

“Yeah. Has she said anything since I left her with you?”

“No, she’s been practically catatonic. Have you learned anything I can tell her yet?”

Poe’s expression hardened, considering Finn’s question. “Yes. I have.”

———

Rey was staring blankly at the floor in the common area outside her quarters, her legs folded up under her on the couch. She wanted to collapse into a ball on the floor and just let herself cry, but stubbornly, she refused to allow herself that release. Leia, General Organa, had been like a mother to her—the only mother Rey had ever known, certainly. She had felt Leia die, and her bones ached at the loss.

Chewie mewled sadly from his seat on the couch opposite her, and 3PO stood at quiet attention with his arm resting on R2’s head, the two of them intoning mournfully at periodic intervals. Down the hall, she could hear Poe and Finn exchanging hushed words. She was unable to make out what they were saying, but every so often she heard her name.

After a time, Finn entered the commons and quietly made his way over to her, settling himself next to her on the couch. He wanted to say something comforting, but couldn’t find the words. He took her hand and gently squeezed it, stroking her knuckles.

"Was it the First Order?" uttered Rey, her voice barely above a whisper. Chewie lifted his head to look at her. These were her first words since she’d stopped screaming.

Finn had to clear his throat before anything would come out. "Reports confirm that a Nebulon-K frigate suddenly dropped out of hyperspace and unleashed a small squadron of TIE fighters, which overwhelmed the transport, reboarded the frigate, and warped back out shortly after destroying it.” Finn sighed deeply. “Supposedly the whole thing lasted less than five minutes."

"They were in and out, just like that?" she asked, disbelieving. "They must have known we were coming.” Hesitantly, she added to her query, “Was Kylo Ren there?"

"It’s unclear, but… he must have known about it. I mean, he’s the Supreme Leader—I can't imagine that there's much that gets past him,” said Finn. Chewie growled.

At that, Poe entered the room, BB-8 rolling up after him. "Whether he was there to personally pull the trigger or not, you know that bastard had something to do with it,” he interjected, having overheard their conversation from the hallway. “Everything that's awful in the galaxy has his damn fingerprints on it."

In spite of everything she’d seen, Rey didn’t want to believe that Kylo Ren would have murdered Leia. She felt naïve saying anything his defense, but she just couldn’t accept it. "He’s her son,” she said. She looked at Poe like she was begging him for something, but neither of them were sure what that was.

"He killed his father, Finn told me himself—you were there.” This elicited another sorrowful mewl from Chewie, who looked away from them. “Just because the general was his mother doesn't mean he wouldn't try to kill her. Hell, in his deranged mind, it probably gives him more reason to kill her." At these last words, Poe looked away, contempt creasing his face. "He's evil, Rey."

Rey shifted her gaze back toward the floor. It had been two years since Crait, since Luke had died. Not since that day had Rey had any visions of Kylo Ren—the man she had come to know as Ben Solo. According to Snoke, the connection through the Force that she had shared with Ben had been his doing, and after his death she had expected it to stop. However, having had that last vision of him as she boarded the Millenium Falcon to escape from Crait left her with seeds of doubt that their connection was truly ended. At this moment, she wished she had bothered to try reestablishing that connection at any time since then. Without those occasional glimpses into his existence, she really had no idea if what Poe was saying was actually true, or if there was any shred of Light left inside him.

———

Kylo Ren awoke in chains. He wasn't entirely sure where he was, but he was outside, suspended between two trees, his knees lightly brushing against the cold ground as he hung there limply. It was dark. Stars twinkled serenely in the sky above, belying the menace he felt in the atmosphere around him. All he heard was the rustle of tree branches in the surrounding woodland, and the faint trill of forest insects as they went about their existence.

His cloak and lightsaber had been removed. Off in the distance, he thought he could make out what appeared to be the running lights of an older model Imperial shuttle blinking through the darkness of night. His mind was still foggy from the psychic attack he'd received from Faris Ren, but he attempted to reach out with his senses to see what he could learn about his situation. He didn't have to.

"So, you're finally awake." From behind him, Kylo Ren could hear Hux's voice cutting through the darkness. He could just imagine the arrogant sneer Hux would be wearing. From Kylo's right side, Hux appeared, flanked by two stormtroopers. "I wondered how long it would take you to recover from that attack. You know, I really hate you Force-users, but I have to admit, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what you can do. As much as I'd like to believe that I could control the galaxy with military prowess alone, I know that there's really no substitute for a  good, mystically creepy Dark Enforcer to strike fear in the hearts of men.” He regarded Kylo Ren for a moment, smirking. When he finally continued speaking, there was much more disdain to his tone. “It’s a shame you people aren’t good for much else besides being menacing. Faris likes power, and I'll give him that, but I can tell he has no real interest in ruling. Just as well. With him at the helm as a figurehead, I will finally be able to steer this galaxy in the direction it truly needs to go. I'm glad I didn't try to kill you before I was able to discover how usefully he could be manipulated. Patience is indeed a virtue.” Hux stared down upon him with his arms crossed behind his back, chin raised in prideful arrogance.

"You're a fool," Kylo groaned as he hung limply from his chains.

"No, you're the fool,” Hux spat. Predatorily, he began walking circles around Kylo Ren, and Kylo noticed there was a small knife glinting in his hands. The blade couldn't have been more than three inches long—one intended for torture, not murder.

"For as long as I can remember, I've had to put up with your weakness. Ever since you joined the First Order I feel like I've had to clean up after your messes and do your bidding even when I could tell it was self-serving and foolish. You were always so preoccupied with your past that you could never clearly see what the best course of action was. We could have crushed the Resistance on Crait, but you were so hell-bent on destroying Skywalker that you allowed them to escape. As a result, they now have more followers buried in more corners of the galaxy than they ever had under Supreme Leader Snoke, and even he was overly concerned with your bloodline. I'm just glad I get to be the one to finally see an end to you and your impotent rule."

At that, Hux stopped his pacing and stood to face his captive. Kylo Ren was dangling low, his knees almost touching the ground. Hux got right in front of him, fingers flexing around the small blade in his hands.

"I have waited a long time for this," Hux said menacingly. After only a brief pause to savor the feeling of having the upper hand on his longtime nemesis, Hux jerked his fist forward, stabbing Kylo Ren in his abdomen and eliciting a grunt of discomfort.

Feigning concern, Hux drawled, "Don't worry, you're not going to die too soon. I wanted to make sure I could enjoy this, so I asked Faris to give me some time with you. When I'm ready to kill you, I have my blaster for that,” he said, stroking the weapon at his hip. Then, he stabbed Kylo six more times, in different parts of his torso.

Kylo attempted to knock him back with the Force, but he was still very weak, and the stabbing hadn't helped matters. He wasn't able to do more to Hux than just make him lose his footing and stumble a little.

"Don't tell me you're recovering? I guess I better speed this up a bit. What a pity." And with that, he unsecured his blaster from his belt, and fired it into each of Kylo's thighs.

Kylo reeled in agony, and for a few seconds, he could neither see nor hear anything. Hux was speaking, but he couldn't make it out. He just looked out into the white noise of his surroundings, and felt different parts of his body begin to sear. The sensations he registered were a confusing cross between burning and freezing—the stink of burned flesh clarified things for him. After a few interminable seconds, the pain in his limbs abated to the point that Hux could have liberated him from them entirely. His only indication that he still had arms was the fact that their tensile strength had kept him from hitting the ground.

Hux continued this torture for some time, but became frustrated when it looked like Kylo might be blacking out. He gripped Kylo’s chin roughly and sneered into his face, "Wake up, you piece of trash. It’s harder to enjoy this if I can't tell you're registering what I'm doing to you. Is it time for us to finally part ways? I wanted to give you an insignificant death—thought I might just have you bleed out right here on this forest moon as I board my shuttle and watch you fade away. Is there anything you'd like to say to me before I end you?" He held the small knife to Kylo's throat and stood waiting for his response.

Kylo hung from his chains, heaving raspy breaths. Speaking required no small amount of effort. "You killed my mother. Didn’t you?" he asked rhetorically, his tone flat.

Hux was taken aback, but his consternation didn't last long. "Not the response I was expecting, but good for you—still able to think clearly enough to connect the dots. Well done." He straightened, shifting to a more comfortable position as he prepared to monologue for the benefit of his captive.

"Yes, it took some doing, but I finally was able to locate General Organa. I've had spies on all the major planets for a long time, watching and waiting for some sign that the Resistance was hoping to get a foothold. I knew their attempts at rebellion wouldn't amount to more than just a nuisance unless they got some actual money and military might behind their efforts, so it was only a matter of time before some big important planet somewhere would hear from them. One of the biggest of the big planets is Coruscant, and just as I predicted, the Resistance scum were hoping to build an alliance between them. An alliance with such an important system would require that none other than the general herself would have to be brought in to negotiate.”

He paused, certainly for dramatic effect. “I know your weakness. Don't think I wasn't aware that you squandered an opportunity to kill your mother once before—the logs on the TIE Silencer showed that you had the command bridge of her flagship targeted, and you switched it off. I knew you didn't have it in you to do what was necessary to rid the galaxy of the loathsome Resistance, and I also knew your sentiment for your mother would be your undoing, giving us an opening to strike against you. So I made preparations, waited for the right opportunity, and when that opportunity presented itself, I made my move." Hux narrowed his eyes, smiling.

Kylo Ren had been listening intently to Hux as he spelled it all out. He felt naïve that Hux could have diagnosed his weakness so accurately. He was conflicted. He was attached. He would pass up opportunities to destroy the Resistance if doing so meant bringing harm to his mother. He could not sever his attachments to his past, and that meant that he could not belong in the First Order. Despite all his previous efforts to do so, he was discovering, in this moment, that he never really wanted that in the first place. He could have saved himself much torment had he been able to see the pointlessness of those efforts as clearly as Hux had.

"Thank you…" breathed Kylo Ren, exhaling deeply.

Hux took on a look of perplexity at Kylo’s unanticipated thanks. His puzzlement didn't fade quickly enough, leaving him completely unprepared for what happened next.

With a twitch of his fingers, Kylo Ren sent Hux flying backward into the nearest tree. With the impact, both his knife and his blaster were ejected from his hands, falling to the ground, leaving Hux stunned and unarmed. With a second twitch of his fingers, Kylo summoned Hux's blaster into his own hand, immediately aiming it above himself into where the chains suspending him from the trees were anchored. He fired once, then again, dropping softly to his knees, and his heavy arms fell to rest at his sides, blaster hanging limply from his right hand.

The two stormtroopers ran to Kylo Ren to attempt to restrain him once more, but as the first trooper made it to him, Kylo was already standing and prepared with enough command of the Force that he could pull the soldier’s consciousness from him with a swipe of his hand. The second stormtrooper was easily felled with a blaster bolt to the face, and Kylo could once again focus on the true source of his vengeance.

Hux was back on his feet, irate and terrified. He looked around helplessly for his weapon, finding only the small blade. Hux wasn't stupid enough to take on even an injured Kylo Ren with nothing but a three-inch blade, so instead of engaging him, he turned tail and bolted for the Imperial shuttle blinking placidly in the distance. His determination galvanized, Kylo Ren lifted the blaster and fired, striking Hux in the back. Hux fell into the dirt, wounded but not out.

Kylo staggered to his feet. Circulation was returning to his arms, but they still felt like lead, and the chains, though broken, trailed from his wrists. As he approached the prone Hux, he felt the blaster almost slide out from his grip more than once. He had to make a concerted effort to keep his fingers wrapped around the handle to prevent it falling from his grasp. Kylo was bleeding heavily from the blaster fire to his thighs, and every step felt like lightning to his fried nerves. Eventually, he made it to where Hux was lying, heaving in pain and ineffectually clutching at his back where he'd taken fire.

Kylo Ren looked down at Hux, flailing in the dirt. Hux managed to roll to his side, unwilling to put weight on his injured back, but trying desperately to make eye contact with his attacker. Hux shrieked up at Kylo, incensed at how the tables had turned, "You son of a bitch! I was meant to rule this galaxy! Why is it so hard to kill you?! How is it that you always manage to ruin everything?!"

Kylo looked quietly down upon his mangled former captor, regarding him disdainfully. "Don't talk about my mother that way." With that, Kylo shot Hux once more in the chest, leaving him there to die slowly, bleeding out on the floor of the forest moon. Kylo Ren boarded the old Lambda-class T-4a Imperial shuttle, lifting off as Hux faded from view. He hoped the poor general had enough presence of mind left to him that he could at least appreciate the irony of his situation.

———

Rey had been left alone in her room. With a promise to come check on her later, Poe headed to the briefing room to give his input on the next steps for the Resistance, and Finn had gone to find Rose. Chewbacca, in an attempt to free Rey from 3PO’s incessant prattling, had taken both droids with him and headed for the Falcon. Rey was still reeling from the loss of General Organa, but she couldn’t stand being alone in her room any longer with just her thoughts to keep her company. She left her room to wander the grounds of the Resistance base, letting her thoughts drift in and out of her head as she tried to make sense of everything that had occurred. She really didn't know where to begin.

She stepped into the hangar to find Finn and Rose distracting themselves with repairs to a transport—Rose was attempting to replace the casing of an engine compartment that had taken damage when one of the new recruits accidentally backed a supply truck into it. Finn was helping her with the heavy lifting.

Faced with the prospect of having to converse with people again, Rey realized she wasn’t actually ready to engage with thoughts other than her own, grim though they were. She slipped outside through the hangar doors and wandered into the brush. Dendrokaan, nestled inconspicuously in the Expansion Region galactic-south of the Core, was a beautiful planet, full of lush undergrowth, blue skies, and ample water. The abundant life around her hummed with the Force, and she felt it as it tugged on her soul. Slipping into the forest canopy, out of sight of the hangar doors, she settled herself in a cool grassy area and closed her eyes.

Her mind wandered to Ben Solo. If Leia’s death was hitting her so hard, what must it be doing to her son? Were his emotions as tumultuous as her own? Or was he responsible for Leia’s death, as Poe had suggested? Rey wished she had answers. In her mind’s eye, images of Ben Solo, of Kylo Ren, morphed in and out of focus.

An unsettling feeling descended upon Rey, and she suddenly felt as though she was being summoned to do something, but she didn’t know what. She felt the Force pulling on her soul, willing her into action, and she was desperate to comply with its demands. She tried to comply, but she lacked any certainty about how to go about what she was doing. She wasn’t even sure what she was doing, if she was being honest with herself—she just knew she had to continue. She gave her mind over to unconscious thought, and squeezed her eyelids tighter.

Eventually, without being certain of what she had done—or even if she had done anything—she thought she felt the air around her begin to grow thicker, and her eyes popped open. Looking around, she couldn’t see anything but the forest, but it felt different. She stood up and investigated her surroundings. She didn’t know where she should be looking, but she felt a pull to her left, and she let it guide her.

Stepping over fallen tree trunks and around various bushes, she could tell she was getting closer to something. Finally, she approached a large tree. Placing her hand on it, she took a step to peer around it. As she did so, her heart caught in her throat and she couldn't move. She could only stare in horror, until at last she found her breath, and screamed.

———

Kylo Ren stirred back into consciousness. It took him a brief moment to recall where he was and what was going on. He was sitting in the pilot's seat of an old Imperial shuttle, orbiting the forest moon where he had abandoned Hux to die. Bleeding profusely and feeling that his consciousness might slip away from him at any moment, he mentally retraced the steps that had brought him here. He recalled staggering onto the shuttle and heading straight for the pilot's seat, where he managed to initiate takeoff before summarily, and gratefully only temporarily, losing consciousness. His eyelids fluttered, and he regained his focus on the control panel in front of him. He heard a lingering echo—a scream?

As he lay there, trying to decide if his mind was playing tricks on him, suddenly, uninvited, an image of a woman entered his mind. He closed his eyes again. When he reopened them, he felt whole in his mind and his body, and stood to take in his surroundings, discovering that movement came easily. Looking around, he saw there was nothing. No shuttle. No moon. He wasn't bleeding. It appeared he simply stood on an invisible surface, floating, but not floating, in the vast emptiness of space. He took a step forward, feet inexplicably finding purchase, and looked around. Again, he heard the vague reverberations of a scream.

BEN!!

His eyes narrowed. He recognized the voice.

Ben, don't die! Wake up!

He reached out, and could sense himself moving away from his body. He followed the pull of his mind to wherever it was taking him, and he could feel, rather than see, a lush planet before him. He continued to push out, and in his mind's eye was an image of a woman, frantically running away from him through the forest, heaving with breath and stumbling through the brush as she ran. He knew who it was.

Retreating back into himself, back into his damaged body, he opened his eyes. Slowly, and with terrific pain, he eased himself up and forward, toward the control panel of his shuttle, and began to punch coordinates into the navicomputer. His conscious mind could not tell what coordinates he was entering, but he let his hands obey whatever messages they were receiving. Eventually, the stars around his shuttle began to smear, and he found himself in hyperspace. He closed his eyes, and once again returned to unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 2: Planetfall———

Rey’s chest was tight with urgency as she ran through the forest, into the clearing, and back towards the hangar. As she approached the hangar doors, she knew she must have looked panicked, as she was drawing the attention of some of the Resistance fighters inside. She slowed in her running, but then doubled over and found herself vomiting in the grass outside the hangar, gasping from exertion.

Rose ran up to her. “Rey, jeez, what’s the matter? Are you okay? You’re absolutely pale!” She crouched beside Rey and placed her palm on Rey’s back, attempting to comfort her.

Panting, Rey lifted her head to Rose, and huffed out the words, “It’s Ben, I think he’s dying.”

“Who’s Ben?” Rose asked reflexively, then shook her head like it didn’t matter. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”

Rose helped Rey to her feet, and they walked together into the hangar, Rose’s arm around Rey’s waist. Rey was still breathing heavily, and her cheeks were wet with tears. As they entered the hangar, heads turned to look them over, people obviously concerned as they glanced and pointed in their direction, speaking in hushed voices to one another.

Finn, Poe, and BB-8 came running up to them from a hallway adjacent to the hangar. Poe went instantly to her side and placed a reassuring hand on her back as he turned to walk beside her. “Rey, are you all right? Did something happen?”

“It’s Ben, he’s dying, I’ve got to help,” she said as she continued to walk hurriedly into the hallway the three of her friends had just emerged from.

Finn and Poe exchanged a look of confusion. Finn paused to consider what she’d said, then hurriedly caught up to her as he realized who she was talking about. “Ben? You mean Ben Solo?”

Poe’s eyebrows shot up in alarm. “No, she means Kylo Ren.” BB-8 made a noise of concern.

Rey continued to pull herself through the hallway in her panic. Reading confrontation in Poe’s demeanor, her heart protested against it. Uttering quietly, her eyes pleaded with him, "He's hurt."

Poe was nonplussed. "Listen Rey, putting aside for a moment what it is that makes you so sure about this, I'm not exactly understanding why we should care. Haven't we established that he's most likely the reason for General Organa's death? Wouldn't his death actually be a good thing for the Resistance? The thing we've all been fighting for for so long now?" His irritation was plain.

"You don't understand..."

"No, you're right, I clearly don't." Poe decided to change the direction of the conversation. "Where are you going, anyway?"

"StratComm. They might be able to find him."

“StratComm? Are you nuts? How could they possibly help? Look, Rey, the First Order is all over the place, and as Supreme Leader, he gets to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. You need to stop this and get a grip!" At these words, Poe stepped in front of Rey, blocking her from the door to StratComm. “Stop this.”

Rey stood, staring into Poe's chest. Finn and Rose had been following behind, listening intently and struggling to keep up with them. They stopped on either side of Rey, regarding her and Poe with anticipatory silence.

Finally Rey looked back up at Poe. "Look, I just... I have to try, okay?" and she stepped around Poe and through the door into StratComm. Poe made eye contact with Finn and Rose, who looked back at him apologetically and then chased after Rey. Sighing, Poe turned to follow them. Rey was already speaking to Lieutenant Connix. “Lieutenant, I need you to do a scan for any First Order craft.”

“First Order?” Connix blinked in surprise. “Um, where would you like us to scan? We keep continuous watch over what’s in orbit, and right now there’s nothing except a handful of Vakbeor-class frigates we keep up there to greet anything that randomly shows up.”

“How far out can you scan?”

“Pretty far, but, you know, in space, that’s really not far at all. From here, we’re limited to this system, so I don’t really know what good that does you. We’d have to call our contacts in other systems to see beyond that. What exactly are you looking for?” Connix was willing to entertain Rey’s inquiries, but it wasn’t clear how long her patience would last.

Poe, pacing in the background, muttered, “I told you, Rey, this is pointless. We’re just wasting everyone’s time.”

Rey let out a frustrated sigh, “Are you sure there are no First Order ships anywhere we know of? I’m looking for one with—Kylo Ren on board…”

Everyone else in StratComm paused in what they were doing to look over at Rey and Lieutenant Connix. After a few seconds, Connix said cautiously, “What makes you think the Supreme Leader of the First Order would be anywhere near here?”

“I don’t actually know that he’s near here, I just need to find him."

Poe interjected, "She thinks he's hurt, and that for some reason, that's not only a bad thing, but that it's our problem somehow."

"Poe…” Finn started, in an effort to try to ease some of the pressure on Rey. Poe looked at him, but Finn had no follow up.

Suddenly, one of the navigators spoke up. "Lieutenant, we have an Imperial shuttle incoming!" to which just about everyone besides Rey let out a cry of alarm. Rey closed her eyes, and a fresh tear fell down her cheek.

Rey then hurried to approach the console, “Where? What’s its status?” she asked, trying not to sound too desperate for information.

“Just dropped out of hyperspace. It appears to be operating on autopilot, just settling into orbit now." Then there was a long pause, during which the nav operator glanced back and forth between Lieutenant Connix and the others. Connix then turned to look at Rey. With concern in her hushed voice, Connix said, "This base was supposedly hidden. How did they know we were here?"

Rey had tenuously regained her composure. Ignoring Connix’s question, she said calmly, "Please hail them."

From his position at the back of the room, Poe scoffed. Finn and Rose were still silently observing.

The nav operator glanced over to Connix, who nodded her assent. The operator then turned back to his console and executed Rey’s request. "Imperial vessel, what is your status?" But there was no reply. The operator repeated his question more aggressively, but again, there was nothing. He looked to Rey.

"Please scan for life signs." At this, her voice choked a little.

"Life signs detected, but they're weak. The occupant could be unconscious." Again, the operator turned to look at Connix. In a lower voice, he said to her, "How badly do we want to know who this person is?" The implied, actual question was one Rey didn't want to consider.

She needed to persuade StratComm that a light touch was what was necessary. "If this person came here alone, to the Resistance, undisguised, it stands to reason that they knew they'd be in trouble when they got here, but they came anyway. I think that suggests that they're not here to fight. The fact that he appears to be unconscious says to me that he might be here for help." Poe bristled at her change in pronouns.

"That doesn't explain how they bloody well knew where to find us…” Connix looked hard at Rey. Rey realized this could just look like a trap. Or worse, like Rey was a traitor.

"And wouldn't you like to find out how they did?" Rey was grasping at straws trying desperately to convince them not to blow the shuttle right out of the sky.

There was an awkward silence as Connix stared intently at Rey, and the nav operator shifted glances between the two of them. Rey's friends stood silently in the background. From a different console, another operator offered, “Lieutenant, our frigate interceptors have spotted the shuttle and are requesting orders. Should they engage the target?”

Then it was Rose who answered. "We need more information, and we won't get it unless we can examine that ship or talk to its occupant. Can we bring the shuttle in remotely?" Rey shivered with pent up urgency, grateful to her friend. She didn't want to appear frantic, but she needed action now. Finn and Poe just looked at Rose. Finn's expression was soft, but Poe still looked irritated by where this was going, though he appeared to have resigned himself to the probable outcome.

The nav operator suggested helpfully, "We can bring it down with a tractor beam, but this is an older Lambda-class Imperial shuttle, and has those stupid wings that come down. I've never tried to remotely operate one of those before, and I won't know if I can get the wings to go up until it's already close to the surface. It could be an awkward landing..."

"I can help you with that," said Rose.

"I'm going to organize a security detail to scour that ship and make sure any threats are neutralized," said Poe. Rey didn't argue with him.

———

Rose had done an excellent job assisting with the handling of the ungainly Imperial shuttle. They were able to get it down upright on the strip outside the hangar. Standing by was a medical team, Poe’s security detail, Lieutenant Connix, and Rey and Finn. Rey’s heart was beating fast in her chest, knowing that seconds could make the difference between life and death. The door to the shuttle dropped down, and the security detail went in, blasters drawn. After a few seconds, one person ran back to the opening and gestured for the medical team to enter. “No obvious threats, but we have someone badly injured sitting in the pilot’s seat, unconscious. He’s big. Prepare a gurney to move him or we won’t get far.”

The medical team scurried inside, and Rey took a step forward, heart in her throat. Rose had come outside and was standing next to Finn, having taken his hand. Moments later, two men from the medical team emerged carrying Kylo Ren. Carefully, they laid him down on the gurney as the others lifted his legs and jerked him into position. They then pulled away, driving the gurney into the hangar towards the medical bay. As they rode past Rey, she couldn’t help but take in the state of him. There was blood on his temples, the clothing on his arms and legs was singed and hanging off in places, there were chains dangling from his wrists, and his torso was wet with blood. Rey’s mouth went dry. Rose and Finn were watching her with interest, and Rose asked, “Are you alright, Rey?” Poe was watching her too.

Rey couldn’t find her voice to answer, she could only extend her hand toward Rose and nod her head. Rather than follow the medical team inside, she decided she would check out the shuttle first. She knew she couldn’t take too long following Ben into the medical bay, but she wanted to make sure she got to see the shuttle before the security team had moved things around too much.

The security detail was busily scanning the outside of the shuttle for any hidden threats, and the woman in charge of overseeing them stopped Rey at the door and cautioned her against entering. “We haven’t secured the inside yet—if there are traps or other devices inside, we haven’t neutralized them.”

“It’s okay, I promise not to disturb anything, and I won’t take long. I just need a quick look,” was all Rey said as she slipped her way inside. She meant it, too—she just needed a cursory scan of the shuttle and its contents.

———

When Rey arrived at the medical bay, the whole place was filled with people. Many were just spectators who had heard a rumor that a First Order ship had landed and assumed this medical emergency was somehow related, but there were at least five doctors or nurses milling around, performing examinations, taking measurements, and preparing equipment. Everything looked very official, but the vibe in the room was weird; she could feel curiosity, confusion, excitement, fear, anger, and detachment all at once. It was clear that when it came to how to feel about what was happening, the crowd was not of one mind. Looking for Ben, she spotted a couple of nurses huddled around an exam table, and upon closer inspection she could see his legs jutting out from between the two nurses. He was lying on the table being examined. The nurses lifted his torso up off the table and proceeded to cut the remains of his shirt away. Rey watched as they tossed the ruined garment aside, next to the broken chains that they had already cut from his wrists. Multiple stab wounds peppered his bloody body, and she had to look away.

She must have made a noise, because people finally seemed to notice her. Finn approached her quickly and said, “Where have you been? I thought you’d be following right behind us into the med bay, but when we got here I looked around and didn’t see you.”

“I went to check out the shuttle. What’s happening here?” Rey asked.

“Well, right now Poe is in talking to the chief doctor, and Rose is just sort of monitoring the crowd of spectators making sure things stay calm. I think word is getting around about who our guest is…”

“I meant what’s happening with Ben?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m actually not really sure. After they got him in here they’ve just sort of been examining him, making sure he wasn’t about to die, and getting the bacta tank ready.”

Rey was surprised. “He’s going into the bacta tank? Why?”

“He has blaster wounds on his back and thighs. Too difficult to stitch up and too big for bacta patches, I guess. The tank will help regenerate the tissue faster,” said Finn.

Rey grimaced at this. She looked back to Ben, who had been stripped of more of his clothing and was being moved closer to the bacta tank. More to herself than to Finn, she said, “What happened to him?”

“Someone wasn’t very happy with him, clearly,” said Finn.

Rey sighed, “Come on, let’s see if Poe has learned anything,” and she stepped toward the office overlooking the rest of the med bay.

In the office, Poe was having a discussion with the chief medical officer. Both men’s faces were creased with concern. Rey was immediately apprehensive. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“We were just discussing the status of our friend there, including the wisdom of our preventing nature from taking its course,” said Poe.

Rey gave him a stern look. “Listen, if you were badly injured and hated by the Resistance, why would you decide to show up here anyway? He was in chains, Poe. Don’t you think it’s possible that maybe the First Order hates him more? Wouldn’t you want to find out?” She was getting loud, and people outside the office were looking at her curiously. She took an exasperated breath.

Poe threw up his hands. “Alright fine,” he said, frustration evident in his voice, “as soon as that bastard wakes up, you find out. If I have to do it, I might just kill him instead. In fact, I bet half the people in there gawking at him right now are contemplating the same thing. He better have a good reason for being here, because if all he wants is asylum, I don’t think he’s going to get it.”

The doctor seized on a break in the conversation as an opportunity to ask a question of his own. “He’s the Supreme Leader, right? How did he even know to come here? I mean, it’s not coincidence, right? He knew we were here? How?”

Poe turned to Rey, apparently leaving it up to her to answer that question. Narrowing his eyes at her, he appeared to have realized something. “How did you know he would be injured? You were frantic that he might be dying.”

Rey looked at the floor. She wasn’t entirely sure where to begin, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure she wanted them to know the whole truth anyway. Poe and the doctor held their gaze on her, waiting patiently for her to respond.

“We have a—connection, sort of. Through the Force…” She looked back up at them, keeping her head angled down. “I had a vision of him dying… like, I saw him in front of me. Bleeding and unconscious. And I knew it wasn’t just a dream.”

A silence followed that felt interminable. Poe broke it. “Does that mean… he could have been having visions of you, too?” His question was quiet, but then he got significantly louder. “God, Rey, for how long!? Could he have been spying on us this whole time!? I can’t believe you wouldn’t have told us this sooner!” He was furious with her, completely red-faced.

She held up her arms placatingly. “No, please relax. Whenever we have these visions, we can both see each other, so I would have known if he could see me. This is the first time in years—” she stopped herself from saying any more, but she could tell she was already in trouble.

Poe’s eyes grew wide. “This was a thing? That long ago? Rey,” he moved closer to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He was calmer, but still obviously concerned. “Rey, what is this? I’m so totally confused right now. Is this… connection a good thing or a bad thing? You know I hate him, he’s a torturing, murderous bastard. Is this connection good because it means you’re in his ear, or bad because it… means he’s in yours?”

Rey struggled to decide how far back she wanted to go in her explanation. “Well,” she began lamely, “I tried to use it to get him to turn to our side, back before Crait. I failed. Since then we haven’t spoken.”

For a moment, no one said anything, and tension hung heavy in the air. Steadily, Poe said, “Well, get ready to speak to him now, because as soon as he wakes up I expect answers. Let’s leave it there for now. I’ll make sure the security detail guarding him knows to let you in,” he snapped as he walked out.

Rey didn’t move a muscle except to look at the doctor. He looked back for a moment without speaking, then said, “Well, I guess you saved his life then. With those injuries, he certainly would have died if we hadn’t gotten to him when we did. It’s frankly kind of shocking that he didn’t die sooner. Living is a tall order for someone who’d been shot and stabbed that many times. Plus, you know, we almost blew him up..."

Rey offered the doctor a sad smile, then turned and left the office. The medical bay had largely cleared out of people, and Ben was suspended in the bacta tank, naked and covered in injuries. Her sense of modesty stopped her from looking too closely, but she could tell that his back and chest were in horrible shape, and she wasn’t sure how he’d managed to walk with both legs shot to bits. There appeared to be other minor cuts and bruises marring his extremities, but evidently, the blood she’d seen on his temple earlier must have originated above his hairline.

Except for the old scar she’d given him, his face showed no injuries. It was just as she remembered it.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 3: Overtures———

“You are a miserable failure of a general,” Faris Ren barked from his perch in the throne room of the Supremacy II. On his knees in front of him, sat a contrite and prostrated General Hux.

Looking down into the shiny obsidian floor, Hux tried to recover. “Supreme Leader, I am terribly sorry for—”

“Don’t speak!” bellowed Faris Ren. “I am in absolutely no mood to listen to your pathetic excuses. I allowed you to take your vengeance upon Kylo Ren. I did as you asked and incapacitated him thoroughly. Yet still, somehow, you managed to completely lose control of the situation. I will never again allow you so much leeway. I trusted you’d be able to handle him in his broken state. I will not give you so much credit ever again.”

“Please, Supreme Leader, allow me to prove my usefulness,” pleaded Hux.

“Your ‘usefulness’ has allowed the Resistance to flourish. Your ‘usefulness’ allowed Kylo Ren to escape. Is your ‘usefulness’ going to end him for good?” He was actually spitting as he spoke, he was so irate with Hux.

“There is a chance he is already dead. I had injured him quite severely before he...” Hux trailed off.

“Before he what, General?” needled Faris. Hux lowered his head shamefully.

Faris Ren rose from his throne and stepped toward Hux, circling him dangerously as he spoke. “He isn’t dead. Of course he isn’t dead. I would’ve felt it if he’d died. No, he’s alive, and who knows what sort of trouble he’s going to cause us now.” He stopped to kick Hux in his side, knocking him over and painfully exacerbating the injuries Kylo Ren had left him with. Hux recovered quickly, a simpering grimace on his lips. Faris continued, “He’s too arrogant to just fade away into the galaxy. He will be back for you, to finish this, and we won’t be able to to distract him by killing his mother a second time.”

“Then we should begin bolstering our defenses now.” A wicked smile twitched at the corner of Hux’s mouth. “We take their children.”

Faris Ren did not respond. Hux seized this moment to capitalize on Faris’s willingness to let Hux proceed.

“We descend upon any worlds not already aligned with the First Order—who don’t demonstrate fealty to you, Supreme Leader. Kylo Ren had curtailed the conditioning program in favor of using clones, because he was weak, but we could easily do both. We will go to these worlds, enslave or recruit the adults, and take their children for stormtrooper conditioning. It is due to Kylo Ren’s abatement of these methods that the Resistance has flourished of late. We must send a message: Any individuals not actively engaged in supporting the First Order will die.”

“That will only galvanize the Resistance,” smoldered Faris Ren.

“There may be uprisings at first, but with a strong enough fist, the people will relent. They will learn that only fools resist the First Order.” Hux was sitting a bit taller now. He knew this fresh Supreme Leader wasn’t well-versed in strategy—as long as Hux kept talking, Faris would come around. Provided he didn’t kill him first.

“And if I consent to such efforts, what then? What assurance can you give me that you won’t foul this up as well?” demanded Faris.

“My lord, allow me to recommission our recruitment transport ships and I will immediately undertake efforts to collect child conscripts.”

“And where do you plan to find such conscripts?”

“My lord, I know exactly which world to strike first to make a prime example for the rest of the galaxy: the planet of Lothal. It is rich in ore, and has virtually no military. We could easily overtake it. Each of our recruitment transports can hold fifteen hundred children, and their parents will either volunteer to fight, work in the mines, or die.”

“And what of Kylo Ren? How will these efforts keep him at bay?” asked Faris, unwilling to ignore that his main rival for the throne still walked free thanks to Hux’s failure.

“What of him? He is a pathetic, insignificant fool. That is why I wanted him replaced with someone superior, more steadfast,” he said, looking obeisantly up at Faris Ren. “We neutralized him once, we can neutralize him again. I have a plan.”

Faris paused to consider Hux’s proposal. “I’m listening…”

———

Ben was only in the bacta tank for a few hours before his injuries had abated to the point that it was safe to remove him. His cuts and bruises had mostly faded, leaving only a handful of tender looking spots here and there. His blaster wounds were evident from the raw, angry looking patches of skin left in their wake, but those would heal soon with time and treatment. He was sleeping in the bed in his secured room in the medical wing of the base. There were two guards stationed outside his room, and cameras monitored his every move.

As Rey approached, she overheard two orderlies discussing something, one of them gesticulating animatedly with a wad of black fabric in his hands.

“He’s naked because we have nothing that will fit him! Have you seen him? I think there might be some swim trunks somewhere that I could squeeze onto him, or maybe a parka, but we don’t keep clothes that size in stock—none of our recruits are that tall!”

“What about the clothes you’re holding?” asked the second orderly.

“These are practically shredded! I’m surprised anyone bothered to clean them. When I pulled them out of the sanitizer I was shocked.”

“I’ll take them,” said Rey as she approached, startling them to attention. “I can sew. I’ll fix them.”

“Are you sure? I’m not sure you realize what you’re signing up for…” The orderly had a profoundly skeptical look on his face.

“It’s fine.” She looked at the rags in his hands. "I’d appreciate if you could find me a needle and thread though.”

“Uh, sure. I’ll go right now.”

“Thank you. That’s fine, I’ll be here,” said Rey, distantly. At that, both orderlies turned to leave, and Rey approached the door to Ben’s room. She glanced from one guard to the other. “May I go in?”

“You’re Rey? Yes. Commander Dameron gave explicit instructions that you be the only visitor allowed inside, besides himself.”

“Thank you.” She turned the knob and stepped inside.

The room itself was bare—every recovery room in the base was. The walls were white and the lighting harsh. A bed jutted away from the wall opposite the door, empty tables on either side. The front wall consisted of an array of windows looking out into the hallway, and biomonitoring equipment hummed unobtrusively against the wall. There was a single stiff guest chair, with another small table adjacent. Rey sat down.

Ben lay on the bed asleep, the sheets pulled up to the middle of his body, leaving his  chest exposed. She reddened slightly, recalling old memories. She observed the mottled, blotchy color of his skin where the remnants of old wounds remained. His head was tilted off to his right, away from where she sat. He was not restrained at all, except by a monitoring tag that reported his vitals and location back to StratComm. She regarded him silently. His chest lifted and dropped steadily with his breathing. His arms lay at his sides, unmoving, and his jaw was relaxed. Dark eyelashes were settled gently against the tops of his cheeks. He looked so completely different than he did the last time they really saw each other, amidst the smoldering ruins of Snoke’s throne room. In this moment, the anger and resentment stripped away, he looked almost serene. She sighed, and leaned back in her chair, causing it to creak under her shifting weight.

The noise couldn’t have been that loud, but his eyelashes fluttered. Ever so slowly, he turned his head back to center. “How long have you been sitting there?” He spoke quietly, practically croaking, as his vocal cords struggled to comply with his will to speak. His eyes remained closed.

“Just a minute or so.”

He opened his eyes and turned towards her. As their eyes met for this first time in two years, she found herself struck, unprepared for how arresting his gaze was; her hair was standing on end. It wasn’t until he began speaking again, after a deep sigh and some effort to clear his throat, that she realized she’d been holding her breath.

“So in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m not with the First Order anymore.” He had regained control of his voice, though it remained low.

Rey almost choked, realizing it was her turn to speak. She willed herself into a casual response, giving a quick, silent chuckle and tossing her head back ever so slightly with a snort of breath out her nose. “Does that mean you’re with the Resistance?” It was meant as a rhetorical question, but he answered it anyway.

“I don’t know, Rey,” he said with a resigned sigh. He turned his head back to center and stared out the window of his room, into the hallway where the two guards stood on alert, trying not to look like they were eavesdropping. “I just thought, considering my current standing with the First Order, that perhaps the Resistance might want to murder me less."

“You were counting on me to keep them from murdering you. What made you think I wouldn’t just help them?”

Ben gave a small shrug, “I rolled the dice.”

Rey’s eyes narrowed. “How very Han of you.”

At her words, Ben exhaled sharply and sadly, averting his eyes from hers. Han’s murder was a transgression she would never forgive him for. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to.

Mercifully, Rey broke the strained silence. “But really, why?”

For a couple of interminably long seconds, Ben didn’t speak. “I heard you scream.”

Rey flushed. He had appeared so totally unconscious when she’d seen him, she didn’t realize he would have registered anything she’d said or done. She hadn’t just screamed—she had screamed the name “Ben”. Is that what he’d heard?

“Is that how you figured out where I was? Just from my scream?”

“Honestly, I still don’t know where this is. Looking for the head of the Resistance forces has been one of my top priorities these last two years, but I never thought to try to find you using the Force,” said Ben.

“Why not?”

Ben was silent for a moment. “I just didn’t.” Rey could tell he was holding something back, but she pretended she didn’t notice, letting him continue, which he did, after drawing another long breath. “Anyway,” he continued, “after your scream, I had a strange episode that I can’t really explain, something like an out of body experience, and when I looked back at the shuttle’s console I just started entering coordinates, not registering what they were. I would have to look at the shuttle’s log again to know where I am.”

Rey eyed him incredulously. “Like I’d believe that.”

“You can tell if I’m lying.”

“Can I?” she asked, cynically. Then, she realized, she actually could. And he wasn’t.

Rey was intrigued by the abilities she hadn’t realized she possessed, but she didn’t want to get distracted from his account. Resolutely, she continued, “So now you’re here. Poe is pretty unequivocal about not granting you asylum, if that’s what you’re looking for, so what do you suggest? Gonna repair X-wings in the hangar? Prepare food in the canteen?” There was only a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “What is it you thought you would do here?”

Ben leveled his gaze squarely at Rey. “I thought I might train you.”

After a stunned silence, Rey actually laughed. “Train me? Are you serious? That’s your plan?”

“Were you ever able to fix Luke’s lightsaber?”

Somewhat sheepishly, she looked at him. “No.”

“Then you’re clearly not a Jedi yet. You need a teacher.”

Again with this. Rey sighed. Sweeping her arms out in front of her, she asked, somewhat sarcastically, “I don’t suppose there’s anyone else in the galaxy who’s qualified to do that?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” he deadpanned.

Rey actually guffawed at the improbability of the situation. “Okay, well, I’ll need a little time to consider this. You’re going to be stuck here resting for a couple days, at least, and at the moment, you have no wearable clothing. So, while you busy yourself resting and doing your best to avoid trouble, I will busy myself with repairing your clothes and considering your proposal.”

“There were no spare clothes in the shuttle that might fit me? First Order officers are taller than you Resistance lot,” he teased.

“No, all they found when they searched the shuttle was your cloak, a couple pairs of gloves, and a moronically unused medkit.”

“There’s no way that medkit would have helped.” His tone was actually amused. Then, annoyed, “Is that really all they found? Not my lightsaber?”

“No, they most definitely did not find your lightsaber.”

Ben frowned. “Dammit.”

Rey stood up to leave, spying the orderly out the window. “Here comes my needle and thread, perfect timing. I’ll see you when I see you, I guess. Remember: rest good, trouble bad.”

His lip twitched in a subtle smile. “I think I can remember that. Just please make sure no trouble finds me. I may be naked, but I’m not defenseless.”

Rey felt her ears redden. “Yes, well, anyway, I’ll see you later.”

And with that, she left him to his recovery.

———

Poe had been in meetings all afternoon since leaving the medical bay. The confusion and turmoil roiling through the base was palpable, and since Poe was considered the highest ranking individual who was familiar with all the parties involved, he was being interviewed left and right by various higher-ups at the base. They wanted to know all sorts of things that Poe didn't really have the answers to: Why is the Supreme Leader here? Why was he in such terrible shape? What sense does it make to have healed him? What is Rey's involvement in all this? Does the whole First Order know where we are? Do we need to evacuate?

Poe certainly hoped that Rey had gotten some answers by now. He walked briskly up to her door and knocked on it vigorously. Rey called for him to enter, so he turned the knob and stepped inside. He found her sitting on her bunk with a pile of black fabric beside her, holding a needle and thread. "What are you doing?" he asked, forehead creased in confusion.

"We have no clothing—on the whole base, apparently—that is big enough for Ben to wear, so I'm sewing up his old stuff," was her simple reply.

Poe was slightly dumbfounded at this. “So you’re playing seamstress now. Sure, why not…” he said sarcastically. Rey just looked at him, furrowing her brow in light irritation.

“What can I help you with, Poe?” she said, trying to change the subject.

“Well, I’ve been getting grilled all afternoon about what is happening with Ky—with Ben, with you, with the Resistance, all of it, and I don’t really have clear answers, so I was hoping you could please enlighten me. Please tell me you’ve learned something I can tell them.” It was with no small measure of conciliatory effort that Poe used the name Ben rather than Kylo Ren. Rey couldn’t place his motive for having done so. She decided to let it go.

“Well, I was there when he woke up. We mostly talked about how he found me and why he’s here. He said he’s not with the First Order anymore. He said he thought the Resistance was less likely to kill him than the First Order…”

“Ha!” Poe laughed hard at this, incredulous. “Less likely to kill him? Wow, he must have really pissed them off to say something like that. So what? Are you telling me he wants to join us now? That seems unlikely.”

Rey wasn’t sure how to say the rest, so she decided not to overthink it and just spit it out. “He says he wants to train me in my use of the Force.”

Poe’s face darkened, and he gave her a stony stare. “The Force... you mean the Dark Side?” It was more a statement than a question.

“I don’t think so, but we didn’t really get into it.”

“Rey, this is a terrible idea. I know he’s the general’s son and all, and his dad was a good guy, but he’s been with the Dark Side for a lot of years. He’s going to turn you into something… different. I don’t think you should do this.” He was upset, but appeared more concerned than angry.

“He made the excellent point that there is literally no one else in the galaxy who could do it. If I ever want to be a Jedi, he’s the best hope I’ve got.”

“Not if he pulls you to the Dark Side,” he said, beginning to pace the confines of her tiny room. “The Dark Side is fueled by hate, anger, fear, revulsion... I don’t want that to be where you go.” He stopped pacing to look at her. His face had softened.

Rey set her sewing down on the bunk next to her, and stood to face Poe. “I understand your concern, but there’s a good chance it will go the other way. I’ve seen Light in him before. After Crait, things looked bad, I admit, but even Darth Vader found his redemption before the end.”

“It doesn’t really help us if he finds it at the end. Besides, Vader had Luke to help guide him, and I’m not sure it would have worked if Luke hadn’t already been a Jedi. He could do things you can’t.”

Rey sighed. “Listen, I really don’t know another way. I’ve learned next to nothing in the last two years just reading these books,” she said, gesturing to the Jedi texts on her nightstand, “They all just seem to talk about meditating and getting in touch with positive emotions. That’s all well and good, but I haven’t been able to put that to much practical use. If I want to go further, I may need to try something more unorthodox.” Ironically, this conversation with Poe had actually helped her come to the exact decision he didn’t want. Sitting there sewing, Rey’s mind had just been going around in circles; Poe had forced her to defend Ben, and that had given her clarity.

Poe looked at her with a doleful expression on his face. “I don’t like this.”

Rey pulled him into a hug, but Poe’s arms stayed at his sides. “I understand. Really, I do. But I can take care of myself. I’m strong, and I know myself. I won’t change who I am.”

Poe brought his arms up and wrapped them around her waist and shoulders, burying his face into the crook of her neck. “See that you don’t.”

After a few seconds, they broke apart, but Poe wasn’t done with her yet. “So, what did he tell you about the general’s death? I need to know what the First Order knows about us. Did he have anything to do with it? How did they know about her mission?”

Rey blinked. They hadn’t even discussed any of that. Rey sat back down on her bunk and folded her hands in her lap, feeling sheepish. She struggled to come up with a kernel of useful information to offer him. “Well, I know the whole First Order doesn’t know where we are. According to him, he doesn’t even know that. He says he was guided here by the Force after he was attacked, and he doesn’t know what coordinates he punched into the navigation system of his shuttle.”

“Can we trust that he wasn’t lying? It will be catastrophic if they know and we don’t evacuate.”

“I didn’t feel any dishonesty from him.” She felt the need to explain that, “I can tell when people are lying or holding back information…”

“Yeah, Jedi stuff, I got it,” he said, waving her off. “Okay. Anything else? The general?”

Rey’s mouth set into a crease. “No, not really.”

Poe was dumbfounded. “Seriously? You didn’t talk about any of that?” Poe groaned, “Rey, now I have to face more embarrassingly underinformed interrogation from the leadership. You have got to discuss this with him, as soon as possible.”

Rey understood his impatience, and was embarrassed by her own ignorance. “I promise to get right on it. Just let me finish stitching up these pants, and I'll go talk to him some more.”

“Please be quick about it. I don’t know when they’re going to haul me in again.” Poe gave a last quick sigh. “Okay, well, I'm heading out. Get to work. We’ll talk later. Soon, but later.”

“Okay, later then,” said Rey, as she picked up her needle and thread to get back to work sewing. She could tell the thigh holes weren’t going to look fantastic—no amount of needle-smithing was going to regenerate that fabric.

Poe turned and left her room, and headed for his own quarters to make himself scarce for a bit. His quarters were all the way across the base from Rey’s, so he had a ways to go. As he walked, he felt the sudden urge to go see Kylo Ren—though he’d made an effort for Rey, he was still struggling with thinking of him as “Ben”. He decided to take a little detour on his way back.

He rounded the corner into the hallway where the recovery rooms were and could see the profiles of the two guards who had been assigned to watch him, standing on either side of the closed door. As he approached, he made sure he wasn’t visible through the windows. “Anything interesting to report?” he asked the guard nearest to him.

The guard turned to Poe, “No, not really. Rey was in here earlier and they chatted for a while, uneventfully. She left when the orderly came back with some stuff she’d asked for. Every time we turn around to check on him, he’s just lying there. Sometimes his eyes are closed, sometimes they’re open, but he’s not moving very much. Frankly, I thought this would be more exciting…”

Poe nodded. “Okay, well, let me know immediately if anything… ‘exciting’ happens.” The guard nodded back, and Poe took a couple steps forward so he could see into the room. Kylo Ren was awake, and staring at Poe through the glass. His expression was utterly unreadable to Poe—he couldn’t tell if Kylo recognized him, if he had a good guy vibe or a bad guy vibe, or anything else about his mood. He just stared back at Poe as they silently regarded each other. Poe tried hard to appear equally unreadable, then turned around and continued back down the hall toward his quarters.

Yeah, this is definitely a bad idea.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 4: Mending———

Rey had finished mending the pants, such as they were, and went to find Ben. It was late into the evening, and she was getting hungry, but Poe had been so insistent that she get the information he needed that she didn’t want to put it off any longer. She hoped she could get through this quickly.

After a nod and a brief exchange of greetings, the guards let her into Ben’s room. Ben’s eyes were closed when she entered, but by the time she had shut the door they were open. She was nonchalant. “I come bearing gifts,” she said as she held up his pants. She set them down on a table in the corner, then took the same seat next to his bed.

“Thanks,” he said. “So have you thought about my offer?”

Rey sighed. “Yes, I have, but before we get into that, I have some questions that I should have asked earlier,” Rey said, getting immediately to the point.

“Mmm.”

“Okay, so everyone is asking what you know about Leia’s death.” Unexpectedly, tears pricked the corners of Rey’s eyes, but she fought them back and pressed on. “I told Poe you’re not with the First Order anymore, and that you don’t know what planet you’re on. I assumed that meant the whole First Order was also unaware of this base—was that a good assumption or a bad one?”

“A good one. At least, that’s what I’d have thought. Given my excommunication, it occurs to me that they may have had information they weren’t sharing with me. Take… my mother’s death, for instance.” Ben’s throat got tight as he spoke those last words, and he looked away. “I had nothing to do with that,” he finished quietly.

Rey could feel his sadness, and she pitied him. In a low voice, she asked, “Did you feel her death through the Force? When it happened?”

Ben took a cleansing breath, recovering his voice. “Yes. It was shortly afterwards that they came for me. I couldn’t defend myself properly, and a subordinate, another strong Force user, completely incapacitated me. I woke up to a torture session with that traitorous weasel, Hux.” He swept his arms out to indicate his convalescence. “They engineered my mother's death so they could catch me when I was… distracted.”

There were a million follow up questions she wanted to ask, but she needed to stay on target. She allowed herself one: “Another Force user?”

“One of the Knights of Ren.”

That didn’t help. “What’s a ‘Knight of Ren’?” She felt stupid asking.

“They were students of Luke’s with me back at the Praxeum. They left with me when I burned it down.” He said this a little too casually for her liking, and she felt mildly disgusted.

“So is one of them in charge now?”

“It appears so,” he answered simply.

Rey powered through. “Do you know how they knew about Leia’s mission to Coruscant?”

“Yes, my idiot general explained all that to me before he thought he was about to kill me. He predicted that the Resistance would need to find big-money backers, so he had planted spies on the major Core planets hoping to hear word of an attempt at an alliance. Any major diplomatic efforts would’ve needed to be orchestrated by—her. So, once he knew where and when, he set up a strike team to destroy her ship, and proceeded to come at me.”

Rey was stunned. “I don’t believe it,” she said, slowly shaking her head and staring off into space.

Ben creased his lips and raised his arms in a half-shrug.

There were a few seconds of silence. Then, plainly, Rey said, “I’ll train with you.”

Ben was surprised at the sudden change of subject, but recovered quickly. “Good. I wasn’t looking forward to working in the kitchens. I think I’ll probably need another day to recover before I can walk without too much pain, but we should leave the morning after that.”

Rey blinked. “Leave? What do you mean? Can’t we train right here?”

Ben shook his head. “There are far too many distractions here—your progress would suffer, and I’m too impatient for that. Besides, if we stick around here, I’ll have to deal with too much drama from other people I don’t want to deal with. Let me be clear: I’m interested in training you; I don’t care about the Resistance. We don’t have to leave the planet, but we need to get away from the base. Spend tomorrow packing our bags.”

“That’s not a lot of time. I have other things to do around here, loose ends to tie up. It feels wrong to just leave with so little warning.”

“It has to be that way. Just explain it to your friends, and have them deal with the rest. If I have to stay here much longer than that, I’ll either starve to death or kill someone.” He was far too matter of fact about this for Rey’s liking.

She crinkled up her nose, scrutinizing him intensely. “What are you talking about? You have food right there.” She pointed toward the tray of food that was sitting on the table on the opposite side of the bed. “What do you mean, ‘kill someone’?”

“I can’t eat that. The guy that delivered that wants me dead. I’m 99% sure that it’s not safe to eat.”

Rey’s eyes bulged, and she stood up into a half-crouch to lean toward him so she could bellow into his face. “Are you being serious right now!? You’re telling me that people here are trying to poison you—which in and of itself is insane—but to top it off, you just sat there and said nothing about it in spite of being so sure that that’s what was going on?”

Ben stared at her with her with perfect, calm indifference. “You had said something about ‘avoiding trouble’. Making a fuss seemed like asking for trouble.”

Amazingly, this managed to make Rey even more exasperated. Realizing she was about to lose it, she tried to pull herself together, and stood up all the way, laying a hand to her forehead. In a calmer but elevated tone of voice, she said, “Okay, sure, well, we’ll have to deal with that, I guess. I was about to head to the canteen for dinner anyway. I’ll bring you back a new tray. And I’ll dispose of that.” She jabbed a finger at his food.

“I’d appreciate it,” was all he said.

She abruptly rounded the foot of his bed, grabbed the tray of food, and was out the door. Closing it behind her, she stepped into the hallway and was about to head for the canteen, but she stopped herself. She turned and looked between the two guards, realizing there was no way they hadn’t overheard her yelling about poison. They regarded her awkwardly, shifting their feet and twitching their faces between a countenance of stoicism and trying to smile. They couldn’t maintain eye contact. It was clear that what Ben had said was true, and that they had been complicit. She stared hard at them under her eyebrows, and they immediately became visibly agitated.

Now it’s you who’s asking for trouble. It was Ben’s voice in her mind.

Startled, she nearly dropped the tray. The fork shifted noisily, and everyone jumped a little. The guards were sweating and looking at her nervously. Her knuckles were white as she clutched the tray, but she bit her lip and left, walking steadfastly towards the canteen.

She was pissed. She knew people were having mixed feelings about Ben’s presence on the base, but she had really believed that as long as he was here people would at least respect the chain of command and not do anything that hadn’t been ordered—no vigilantism. She felt a knot in the pit of her stomach as she contemplated the possibility that people had been acting on orders when they’d attempted to poison him, but she put it out of her mind. She was almost to the canteen when she nearly crashed right into Finn, who was emerging from the hallway she was about to turn into.

“Whoa! Rey, slow down! You almost spilled that all over me.” Finn was being dramatic. He had hardly seen Rey all day, so he was grateful for this chance opportunity to talk to her. “You headed in to eat? I’ll join you,” and he turned on his heel and was beside her in an instant. “We just finished, but I don’t mind sitting with you. Isn’t it a little late to just be eating now?”

“I’ve been swamped all day. I’m starving, and this is my first chance to actually eat anything.” Just seeing her friend made Rey calmer. Her knuckles had regained their color.

“So why didn’t you just eat that?” he said, gesturing to her tray. “You took it and left, then came back without eating it?” He raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“No, this was Ben’s. I’m returning it.”

“That’s weird. Why? It doesn’t look like he touched it.”

“Yeah, it’s a long story, and I don’t really want to get into it this moment.” As they were talking, they passed a series of garbage cans, into which Rey dumped the contents of the tray. They then walked to the receptacle for used trays, set it down, and got in line for fresh food. “Will you grab an extra tray, please?” she asked.

“I told you, I already ate,” he replied.

Rey sighed. “It’s for Ben. Will you please just take one? It’s less weird for us each to have a tray than for me to have two and look like a pig.”

Under his breath, Finn said, “Yeah, except everyone here already saw me finish eating like five minutes ago…”

Rey pretended she hadn’t heard him, and proceeded to accept as the kitchen staff dumped piles of food onto her tray. Finn’s tray elicited a few raised eyebrows, but they didn’t deny him. His portions, however, were more modest.

Once they were through the line, the two of them sat at a table by the window overlooking the nearby forest. This time of year, there were only a few hours of darkness for every rotational period, so even though it was pretty late to just now be sitting down to dinner, the sun was still up, hanging low over the trees. She swapped trays with Finn, leaving the larger portions for Ben. “Thank you. If you hadn’t been here I would’ve felt compelled to just split one portion in half, rather than have the nerve to actually present two trays.”

“No problem. So what have the two of you been talking about, anyway? How to slice open a guy’s spine?” He cocked his eyebrows at her teasingly, but Rey didn’t think it was funny. She stabbed her fork harder than necessary into her meat, then leveled a glare at him.

“Really?” It wasn’t a question.

He put up his hands in resignation. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is weird though, right? I mean, I never really pushed you about what happened with you two just before Crait, but the way things got left, it’s just odd that he would be here and not be an immediate, obvious target for elimination.”

She contemplated his words, adding, “Yes, well, things with him are complicated.”

“All you ever told me about what happened was that you had been having weird shared visions with him. You thought you could get him to turn, but it didn’t work, and then not only was he not on our side, but he was calling the shots with the First Order. Has that changed?” He leaned back in his seat and regarded her questioningly.

Finn was the only person Rey had confided in about her connection to Ben. It was a testament to his absolute, unwavering trust in her that he’d never shared that information with anyone else—and he knew what it meant that he was the only one she’d told. Kylo Ren had nearly killed Finn, but Finn’s trust in her outweighed his fear of Ben.

“I think so, yes,” was Rey’s reply. “In a couple days, we’re going to leave the base—but not the planet, don’t worry—and I’m going to let him… train me in the ways of the Force.” She said this last part like she knew how ridiculous it sounded.

Finn’s face was the picture of shock. “Really? Wow, that is a change, damn.” He shook his head briskly, shaking off his astonishment. “Well! Okay, what can I do to help?”

Rey smiled fondly at her friend—of course he would be okay with this. “Well, for one thing, there was information Poe needed me to get from him, so, since I’m already here talking to you now, I would love it if I could just tell you and have you pass that along to him tomorrow so I can get straight to work packing for our trip.”

“Sure, lay it on me.”

Rey proceeded to summarize everything Ben had told her. Finn listened intently, trying to keep his reactions to a minimum so as not to interrupt.

“Wow. That’s incredible. And really bad news for our hopes of a military alliance with any major planets,” he said, leaning back.

“Yeah,” she nodded in agreement. “And there’s still one more thing I need you to do for me.”

Finn gave her a nervous look. “That sounds ominous. What is it?”

“Someone tried to poison Ben. That’s why I had to dump that tray of food. The guards monitoring his room knew about it, even. I need you to tell Poe, and get something done about it.”

“Are you thinking just a change of guards and a little more vigilance and caution, or are you thinking we do an investigation and round up the perpetrators?” Finn asked.

“More the former. We’re trying to avoid a lot of fuss before we leave—this is part of why we’re leaving. Ben is convinced half the base is out to murder him. I just want Poe to know, and to watch out for him a little. I’m terrified that this happened on somebody’s orders, but I have nothing to base that off of.”

“Okay then.” Finn looked at the window to the dark sky beyond. “Speaking of Ben’s food, weren’t you going to bring this to him? It’s probably cold now.”

Rey jumped slightly in her seat. “Oh, shoot, you’re right. I better warm this up and get out of here. He’s probably starving.” She stood up to leave, and Finn followed suit. She took a long look at her friend. “Thank you, Finn. I really don’t know what I would do without you.”

Finn shrugged, smiling. “If I wasn’t here, somebody else would step in to give you a shoulder.”

“Not like yours.” She hugged him hard, picked up Ben’s tray and was about to leave before realizing she had her own dirty tray to deal with. She once again turned to Finn. “Think you could take care of that for me?” She jutted her chin toward her dirty tray.

“Easily. Get going. Good night, Rey.”

“Good night, Finn.” With a smile and lifted spirits, she was on her way.

———

Ben had been roaming the whole base in his mind for the better part of that day. Resting had been difficult, knowing how many potential threats there were, so there was little else for him to do while he sat in his hospital bed trying to heal. It wasn’t all bad though. He was getting to practice a skill he had really only heard about, never having had the patience to try before: Force mapping. By reading the Force signatures of the living things around him (and the holes in those signatures left by various nonliving objects), he could create a three-dimensional mental map of his surroundings. After today, he felt well acquainted with the whole medical bay, the canteen, and the hangar, and he had found Rey’s quarters. Once he had the base down, he would branch out and scan the outside for a suitable training site. He had little else on his agenda for tomorrow.

The guards outside his door had been tight with nervousness and fear ever since Rey’s departure. She was reckless to have been so loud before, and then to blatantly confront them about it in the hallway was really asking for trouble. Projecting his thoughts directly into her mind had clearly taken her by surprise, but he had to make sure she got control of herself before she really stepped in it. Thought projection would have to be one of her first lessons.

Ben detected Rey’s approach, and sat up a little in his elevated hospital bed. It was late and he was exhausted, but he hadn’t wanted to be sleeping when she showed back up, so he’d instead monitored her presence in the canteen. She’d been talking with FN-2187—what was his name now? He couldn’t remember, not even sure if that was a thing he’d ever known to forget in the first place.

When she got to the door, she didn’t stop to talk to the guards, she just let herself right in, not interested in interacting with them further. She was surprised to see Ben awake.

“Oh! You’re still up? I’m sorry, that took longer than I’d expected, but I have your food. I had to reheat it though.” She set the tray of food down on the same table from earlier, and remained standing at the foot of his bed rather than taking the chair.

He reached for something he didn’t need a fork to eat. “Thank you. So you’ve thoroughly debriefed your friend, I assume?” he asked, taking a bite.

She looked surprised. “Who do you mean? Poe?”

“No,” he said, chewing, “I mean the one you were with, that stormtrooper. What’s his name?”

“Finn.”

“Right, Finn. ‘FN’, of course. That’s very creative—did Poe come up with that? Anyway, it should be easy to remember…”

“How did you know I was talking to him?” she asked, brow creased.

“I’ll tell you later. I’m too exhausted to get into it right now." He sighed and relaxed back into his pillows. The rings under his eyes had grown dark.

“I’m sorry, it’s probably difficult to rest here. I’ll try to do something about that.” She took a step toward the door. “Well, eat your food, and then get some sleep. Tomorrow I’ll get to work on preparations to leave, and I’ll finish stitching up your clothes. The shirt shouldn’t be as difficult as the pants were…” She took another step towards the door to leave, but then stopped herself and turned back to him. “What are you going to do tomorrow?”

He had relaxed back into his pillows. His eyes were closed, and he had food in his hand. “Same thing I did today.”

“Do you… want a book or something?”

“No, I’m fine, trust me. Keeping busy…”

“Okay then…?” She gave him a weird look. “Well, don’t fall asleep with food in the bed. I’ll make sure it’s safe to sleep, so hurry up and eat and then do that.”

“Uh huh.” He sighed sleepily.

She gave him one last look of incredulity, then exited the room and closed the door. It had been an incredibly long day. She hoped tomorrow would be less eventful. She resolved to go back to her room and get some sleep of her own, but first, she needed a word with the guards.

“You will do whatever it takes to keep that man in there safe.”

The two men straightened. In unison, they replied, “We will do whatever it takes to keep that man safe.”

It was a mercifully uneventful trip back to her room.

———

The following morning, Rey awoke feeling an intense sense of purpose. She was grateful for the distraction that Ben’s presence provided—her grief over Leia’s death was still fresh, but dwelling on it wouldn’t help anything. Rey stopped by Ben’s room in the morning to deliver a safe tray of food and to have a “word” with the new guards who were on duty. He once again assured her that he wasn’t bored, and she should just get straight to work and not worry about him until dinner—he didn’t need lunch. She wasn’t sure she agreed that everything with him was fine, but she had work to do, so she let it go.

It took Rey about an hour to finish stitching up Ben’s clothes, and then she scrounged up some large backpacks from the supply room adjacent to the hangar. In there, she also found a few other necessary supplies: bedrolls, extra blankets, tents, ration packs, lanterns, and canteens, among other things. She loaded up what she could into each of the bags, and hauled them back to her quarters. She packed a smaller satchel with various personal items she thought would come in handy, including the Jedi texts and her broken lightsaber. She wasn’t sure what Ben would want in the way of personal items, but she had another smallish bag and crammed some generic stuff in there, trying to anticipate what his basic needs might be. Still no extra clothes for him, but she had a lot of fabric left over from her patch job on Ben’s pants, and she’d found some comfortable canvas sheets in the supply room that she could easily repurpose into something wearable. She packed a pair of sturdy scissors and her needle and thread, resolving that if push came to shove, she would just make him something simple.

Dinner came more quickly than she’d realized, and she was once again eating later than most everyone else. She wasn’t as late as she was yesterday though, so when she got to the canteen, there were still a good many people there enjoying their food. She grabbed a tray for herself. She would have to get Ben’s meal afterwards—she was far too famished to split her own portions in half. She had just finished in line and was looking for an empty table to sit at when she heard her name.

“Rey! Hey, Rey, over here!”

She looked toward the source of the sound, and saw Finn waving at her from across the room. He was sitting with Rose, and it looked like they had only been there for a few minutes. Their drinks were half full and they still had most of their food left to eat. She walked over to them, and Finn gestured for her to sit down. She took the seat next to Rose, and greeted them warmly. “Hey guys, how are you doing?”

“We’re fine,” said Rose. “We’ve been busy installing new hyperdrive units into our larger transports that should require twelve percent less fuel than our old ones.”

“Twelve percent, really? That’s really good. It takes a lot of energy to accelerate those old hulking beasts.” Rey was genuinely interested in this sort of thing—to her, it wasn’t just small talk.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Rose. “So, are you all ready to head out in the morning?”

“I told her most of what you said to me yesterday,” interjected Finn, somewhat sheepishly. “I hope that was okay.”

“Yeah, it’s fine. My leaving was going to become common knowledge sooner or later, and I’d prefer the real reasons for it getting out before people have time to start making up their own nefarious explanations.”

“Okay, good,” said Finn, relieved that he hadn’t broken a confidence.

“Anyway, to answer your question, Rose, yeah, I’m pretty much ready. I packed bags, stitched up his clothes, and—” Rey stopped, and had to chuckle. “Jeez, I guess that’s it. That took all day? Seems wasteful...” she said, giving her head a light shake.

“Well, I’m sure it was a lot of packing,” said Rose.

“How long will you two be out there?” asked Finn.

Rey considered this. “You know, I’m not sure. I think Jedi training is supposed to take a long time, but I’ve known a lot—well, not a lot—but pretty much all the Jedi I’ve heard of had their training cut short due to circumstance, and they all became strong with the Force anyway, just on their own. So who knows? Oh yeah, hey,” said Rey, changing the subject, “did you get a hold of Poe today to explain things for me?”

“Oh yeah, of course! I told him everything you told me about the situation with Ben—then he got mad at me for calling him 'Ben', and I had to endure this whole tirade—”

Rey rolled her eyes.

“—and then I explained everything about the First Order, Leia’s assassination, and how this would probably scuttle our efforts to establish any major alliances for a while.” He paused in his hasty listing off of events in order to catch his breath. “He thinks we’ll have to redouble our grassroots efforts instead. Focus on small victories. That’s what he planned to tell the council, anyway.”

Rey nodded. “Good, that was the most important stuff. Did you tell him I’ll be leaving tomorrow?” Her eyebrows were raised.

“Oh! Yeah, he was furious about that, sorry. He’ll probably give you an earful tomorrow.”

“Well, at least he spared me from it today,” she said, inserting a forkful of food into her mouth.

Finn nodded, chewing his own food. “He was too busy to get into it with you today, or he would have, I’m sure.”

Rey shook her head, silently chewing.

Rose spoke next. “Poe’s just worried about you, Rey. He trusts you, he just doesn’t trust him. He wanted to keep you where he could help you if you needed it.”

Rey nodded. “I know, I just wish he wouldn’t worry so much,” she said with a sigh.

“Oh, and I told him about the food thing,” Finn had lowered his voice conspiratorially, his eyes darting around the room.

“Did he know anything about it?” Rey wasn’t sure Poe respected the chain of command enough not to resort to vigilante justice, but she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. She really hoped the answer was ‘no’.

“No, he hadn’t heard anything. He seemed pretty incredulous that anyone would try to murder him—I mean, he understands that people might want to murder him, but he didn’t seem to think anyone would actually try,” he said, taking a sip from his beverage.

“So he thinks I’m wrong about it? Or that Ben’s lying?”

“I didn’t say that, I just said he sounded incredulous…”

No one spoke for a moment. They just sat there quietly chewing and glancing casually around the room.

As an afterthought, Finn added suddenly, “He did say he’d look into it though—when he ‘had time’.”

“Time, right,” muttered Rey. “Well, we’re leaving tomorrow anyway, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Rey sighed. “On that note, I should probably get out of here. I still have a few things to do before I can call it a day.” She collected her utensils into the middle of her tray, and polished off her drink.

“Will you be back to visit much?” asked Rose.

“I’ll try, but Ben doesn’t want me to be too distracted. He says he’ll lose his patience if my progress slows down because of ‘other people’s drama’.” She gave a wry smile.

Other people’s drama—that’s rich,” said Finn. “There’s no way Poe will let you just disappear for months—let me reiterate: he was not happy when I said you’d be leaving the base.”

“Yeah, I think he thinks this is some elaborate plot to turn me to the Dark Side or something,” said Rey.

Finn bit his lip, appearing to debate whether or not to respond. “I don’t think think that’s the only thing he’s worried about,” said Finn, exchanging a glance with Rose.

Rey ignored the insinuation and stood up, collecting her tray. “Well anyway, I think I’d better bring Ben his dinner now. I’m pretty sure he won’t eat unless I’m the one who gets it, he’s so paranoid.”

“Sure, get going. We’ll see you in the morning before you leave, right? You’re not going to leave without saying goodbye?” asked Finn.

“No, I wouldn’t do that. We’ll probably leave from the hangar and take a speeder or something, so look for us there.”

Rey said her goodbyes, and was headed back to collect Ben’s dinner. From there, she set off to deliver it to Ben and catch him up on everything she’d accomplished that day.

When she got to Ben’s room, there were four guards standing in front of it. She cocked her head at the sight, and approached to speak to them. The two guards from this morning were there, looking tired and determined. “Why are there four of you here?” she asked no one in particular.

One of the two newer guards looked at her and gestured at them. “Good question! These two refuse to stand down. We’ve all been standing here together for over two hours. They won’t even leave to pee. I think this one’s going to hurt himself,” and he jabbed a thumb in the direction of one of the guards, who stood shivering in front of the door.

Rey realized she may have been overzealous when she had checked in with them that morning. She made a mental note to allow them to give themselves breaks one at a time.

“You two will stand down now,” she instructed.

“We will stand down now,” they repeated, and immediately, the two relaxed. One flopped down into a chair and folded himself in half, placing his head between his knees and breathing heavily, and the other one bolted for the refresher.

The two newer guards regarded her quizzically, without speaking.

“They’re really good listeners,” said Rey, by way of explanation, and then she helped herself into Ben’s room.

When she saw Ben, he was smiling. “That was hilarious, nice job. I’ve never seen two men more selflessly dedicated to the task at hand.”

Rey smirked, rolling her eyes. “Thanks. Here’s your dinner.”

“Thank you,” he said, and he sat up straighter and took the tray from her hands. “So will we be ready to leave in the morning like we planned?”

“Yes. I packed bedrolls, blankets, tents—“

“We don’t need tents,” he interrupted. “There are houses we can use about ten klicks from here.”

Rey furrowed her brow at him. “How do you—whatever. Anyway, I’ll put the tents back, but if it turns out we needed them, it’s your fault. I also packed field rations—”

“Don’t need those either, but whatever, they’re small. What else?”

She grumbled in irritation at having been interrupted a second time, but continued. “Lanterns, canteens, some fabric so I can make you a change of clothes—oh shoot! I meant to bring you your shirt.”

“Just bring it in the morning. Is that it?”

“Just some personal items. Speaking of which, is there anything specific you want me to pack for you?”

He rubbed his cheek. “A razor would be nice. This is getting scratchy.” You could indeed read the passage of time in his face. “And some cooking gear.”

“Cooking gear? What for? I packed rations,” she said, like his suggestion was the most illogical thing he’d said all day.

“If we have to rely on rations, we’ll be coming back here every few days just to resupply, and I have no interest in that. No. We’re cooking.”

Rey was silent for a moment, then sighed a sigh of pathetic resignation. “I only know how to prepare field rations.”

“Then consider it part of your training. Lesson 1: ‘How not to be killed by your own ineptitude’.”

She glared at him. “Cooking gear, fine. Is there anything else?”

If he noticed she was irritated, he gave absolutely no indication. “That ought to do it. If there’s anything we didn’t think of, we can always come back for it later.”

Under her breath, she muttered to herself, “But coming back here for field rations is out of the question…”

He shook his head at her dismissively. “Can you bring my cloak and gloves back when you bring me my shirt?”

“Sure.”

He could still hear the irritation in her voice, but he ignored it. “Great. You can leave now. Try not to drive any more guards to self-harm, not that it wasn’t amusing. Just, you know, trouble…”

“Right, trouble. I’ll be more careful. Good night,” she said, and she stood up from her seat.

“See you in the morning,” he said, and he plunged his knife and fork into a slab of something brown on his tray. After eating the food in the canteen, she didn’t understand what was so bad about field rations.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 5: Departure———

In the morning, Rey awoke later than she’d meant to, feeling groggy, with butterflies in her stomach. She’d spent so much of the night fretting and second-guessing her decision that she hadn’t slept very well.

After throwing on her clothes, she repacked Ben’s bag of personal items with what he’d requested, slung it over her shoulder, and repeated the routine of feeding herself and then going back for seconds. When she got to his room, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, examining the pants he’d put on.

“This patch job defies description,” he said, turning his head to look at her in the doorway.

“Yeah, well, at least you’re not naked. You’re welcome.” She set his breakfast down on the table where his pants used to be and flung his bag at him. “The rest of your stuff is in there.”

“Thank you,” he said, and opened up the bag to inspect its contents. Finding his shirt, he pulled it out, inspected it briefly, and pulled it over his head. It stretched unevenly over his muscles as the new seams pulled in odd directions. “Again, I’m speechless,” he remarked, looking down at himself.

She ignored him. “Hurry up and eat your breakfast, then come find me in the hangar. How are your legs? Did it hurt to stand up?”

“It’s nothing. I can walk.”

“Good. Okay, I’ll bring our supplies to the hangar and see you there when you’re finished. Your boots are in the corner,” she added.

“I saw them. And make sure the guards know I’m leaving. They got agitated when they saw me get up, and I don’t want them to do anything stupid when I try to leave.”

“I had already informed them. If they were agitated, that’s on you. See you in a bit, then.” She turned around and left as he reached for his tray of food.

This was actually happening. In less than an hour, Rey would be off the base and away from her friends for the foreseeable future, training to be a Jedi. She was excited, but nervous, and she felt guilty about leaving at a time when there was so much upheaval within the Resistance. She had confidence that they would be alright without her, but she still felt like she was shirking her responsibilities—shirking her responsibilities in order to go off into the wilderness with the Resistance’s greatest enemy.

Taking a deep breath, she marched resolutely back to her quarters to collect their things.

———

When she arrived in the hangar lugging the two big backpacks, their satchels, and her quarterstaff, Rose and Finn were already there. Rose ran up to hug her, not even waiting for Rey to set her bags down.

“Rey! Good morning! How are you feeling? Are you all set to go?” asked Rose.

Rey set Ben’s bag down and shrugged her own backpack into a more comfortable position. “Yeah, I think we’re ready. I feel bad about leaving you guys though. There’s just so much going on right now, and here I am, abandoning you…” she said, frowning.

Finn approached, arms outstretched for a hug. “Don’t worry about it, we’ve got things here covered.”

From behind Finn, Chewie bellowed his agreement, R2 whistling at his side. C-3PO was hobbling to catch up to them, having been apparently left in the dust.

“Hi, Chewie. Hey, R2. Thanks for coming to see me off.” She accepted a giant shaggy hug from the Wookiee, and gave R2 an affectionate rub on the head.

“Is Poe coming?” she asked. She still felt bad that he’d had to hear it from Finn that she was leaving the base, but they’d had no time to reconnect before now.

“Yeah, he’ll be here any minute. He said he needed to grab something first,” said Finn.

On cue, with BB-8 rolling dutifully alongside him, Poe strode into the hangar, locking eyes with Rey as soon as she spotted him. He didn’t have the same cheerful expression her other friends had greeted her with. “Hello, Rey.”

“Good morning, Poe. Thank you for coming.” She looked at him with a tired expression. “I’m… I’m sorry. I know you’re not thrilled about this,” she added apologetically.

He shook his head. “No, I’m not. That’s why I wanted to make sure you had this.” He pulled a small communicator out of his pocket and pressed it into her palm. “It relays your precise global position back to the base, and if you press this button here,” he said, indicating a small switch, “you can connect with any of four different receivers. This dial lets you choose between them. I’m #1, Finn is #2, Rose is #3, and #4 connects directly to StratComm.”

She stared at the small communicator in her hand, somewhat embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to her to collect something like that herself—she had forgotten that Ben was their enemy. “Thank you, Poe,” she said, looking back up at him.

“Please contact us immediately if you need anything. And be careful,” he cautioned.

Finn slapped him on the back. “Stop being so ominous, Poe. It’s Rey! She’s tough! She’ll be fine,” he said, looking at her with pride. She smiled.

At that moment, Ben emerged from the hallway and stepped into the hangar, cloak swirling behind him. Immediately, several mechanics dropped their tools and hastily left. The ones that remained did their best to look small. Ben glanced at them without reaction, approaching Rey and her friends. He nodded to them, but said nothing. Without warning, Chewbacca roared and swung his giant hairy arm around, punching Ben right in the face. Ben staggered back a few paces, but calmly recovered. Everyone flinched, and Rose gasped her surprise.

Ben was shockingly unaffected. Standing tall, he nodded his greeting to the Wookiee, “Chewbacca.”

Chewbacca just stared at him, growling slightly, but it seemed he had done what he needed to do. He would never be at peace with what was happening, but he was smart enough to understand why Rey needed him. C-3PO could be heard muttering anxiously in the background.

Turning to Rey, Ben asked, “Is that my bag?” gesturing to the large sack at her feet.

“Yes. If you’d like to check it, go ahead. If everything is to your satisfaction,” she added smugly, “you can put it in that speeder over there.”

“Speeder?” He shook his head. “We’re walking.”

Rey protested. “But you said it was ten klicks from here. With these packs, that will take all day to walk to!”

“It won’t take that long. Besides, that’s part of the point. If it was convenient to go back and forth between here and there, you would do it too often. You need to focus, and that means separating yourself from your attachments.”

Poe brushed his comment aside, exasperated. “Rey, don’t listen to him. Take the speeder.”

Rey pulled Poe aside to speak to him privately. “Poe, I think you’re worrying too much. I just don’t want to walk that far, but you sound like you think he wants to take me out there to murder me,” she added, flippantly.

“Well, maybe he is,” he replied, trying to sound sarcastic, though Rey could sense the gravity in his tone. Poe continued, “I just want you to be safe, and I don’t see why having a speeder at your disposal is such a bad idea.” He leaned in closer to her, taking both her arms. She felt a little awkward.

Eyebrows raised, Rose and Finn watched the exchange with unease. Ben stared at Poe critically.

“Listen, you gave me the communicator. If I need to hurry back here for some reason, I’ll just contact one of you and you can come pick me up,” she offered, searching for a compromise.

“You know that’s not going to help if he’s really coming at you. This is the man who tortured me like it was nothing—I’m sure he doesn’t remember, he’s probably tortured so many people he can’t keep them straight in his messed up head. He dug into my brain and stole my memories, taking what he wanted without any concern for what it was doing to me. If he wants something from you, he’ll just take it, no matter what you say.”

“Nice to know you have so much faith in me.”

“Come on, you know it’s not about your capability. He’s a monster. Sure, you say he’s not now, but just two days ago, he was. To all of us, at least.”

Rey was silent at this, her own words echoing in her head.

Poe pressed on. “Ask Finn’s spine what kind of person he is. Ask Luke. Ask his own murdered father.” Poe took a deep breath to calm down. He hadn’t intended for this to become a fight. “Look, Rey, the only reason in a million years that he’s even being allowed to leave is because there’s nobody at the helm right now. With Leia gone, nobody knows who’s in charge, but even so, I’m really sticking my neck out for you by allowing this to happen.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m serious, Rey. I trust you, but that has to go both ways.”

Rey looked away. She knew he was right, but was still too angry to completely acknowledge that.

“I hear you.” Rey looked at him imploringly. “Please, just give this a chance. I promise I’ll let you know if I have any concerns, okay? If I’m worried, I’ll just look into his mind and see what I find, and if I don’t like what’s there, I’ll call you.”

Poe lowered his head and let out a deep sigh, still holding her arms. “Rey…”

“Poe, you’re going to have to let this go, and just have faith that I can take care of myself.” She pulled away from him and turned around.

Poe put a hand on her shoulder, more gently this time. “Look, I’m helping you go, aren’t I?”

“Sort of…” she said, smiling crookedly.

Poe snickered. “Alright, just promise me one more thing.”

“And that is?”

“Promise me you’ll at least try to pump him for information on the First Order’s troop movements. I had to give my bosses some sort of carrot to get them to approve this insane scheme of yours.”

“Yes, sir.” She walked back over to her other friends, where Finn and Rose had been pretending not to eavesdrop, and Ben had been busying himself by rooting around in his bag, for far longer than necessary, she was sure. That had given him an excuse not to have to talk to anyone else while he waited.

She stopped walking when she got to Finn and Rose, but directed her attention to Ben. “Okay, we’re leaving, you can stop pretending to inspect your bag.”

Ben, from his crouched position, stopped digging through his open sack, and tilted his head up at her to gave her an irritated look. “It’s about time.”

Ben straightened up and hoisted his pack onto his shoulders. Rey gave her friends one last hug each, and marched out of the hangar. Ben followed her out, without acknowledging the others. Finn, Rose and Poe quietly watched them leave.

Poe was stern. “This is a horrible idea. He’s going to… do something to her, and we won’t be able to help.”

Rose looked between Poe and Finn. “I don’t know, Poe. We’re never going to win by fighting what we hate. This could be how we win.” She looked meaningfully at Finn. He knew what she was saying, but wasn’t sure why she was saying it. Rose shrugged, and walked off, back to her work.

Poe turned to Finn. “What’s she talking about? I got the feeling she had some hidden message for you in that.”

Finn was staring out the hangar doors at his departing friend and her companion. Slowly, he began shaking his head, continuing to stare. “I don’t know, Poe. Rose is weird sometimes.”

Poe took one last look at Rey, then turned around and left. Finn continued watching his friend and her companion recede from view, out toward the forest, for another minute after Poe had already left.

Chapter Text

———Part 2———Chapter 6: Padawan———

They walked for a while without speaking, with Ben leading the way. Once they were into the forest and out of sight of the hangar, he finally spoke. “So, lovers’ quarrel?”

“Don’t be stupid, he’s just worried about me. He’s afraid of you.”

“He came to see me a couple days ago. We didn’t speak, just looked at each other through the glass.” He paused, and glanced over his shoulder back at Rey. “It wasn’t fear that I saw in his mind.”

“Oh really? What did you see, then? Does he have a crush on you?” said Rey, sarcastically.

“I saw jealousy,” he said, ignoring the juvenile comment.

“Jealousy, really? Jealous of you? You think he wishes he could be shot and stabbed so he can sit alone in a hospital bed for a few days? He could use a vacation, he’s been terribly busy lately.”

“Yes, I’m sure he’s very important,” he remarked facetiously, but he wasn’t playing her game. “He’s jealous that you chose to leave the base with me. He doesn’t like you being alone with me.”

“He’s upset about that because he’s afraid you’re going to hurt me. He’s not attracted to me, if that’s what you’re insinuating,” protested Rey.

Ben stopped in his tracks, and turned around to fix her with an incredulous stare. “Don’t be thick, Rey. Why wouldn’t he be? You’re… you have a number of good qualities, and he’s an arrogant, possessive, single man. Of course he would be attracted to you.”

Rey blushed, averting her eyes. “You’re possessive and arrogant,” she grumbled softly, but loud enough for him to hear.

“That’s how I understand him so well.” Ben turned away from her then, realizing the implications of what he had just said. He resumed walking.

They marched in silence for a little while as she considered his words. She felt like she had lost the upper hand of this conversation somehow, and was desperate to turn it around. Out of nowhere, she rekindled the thread. “He just hates you for what you did to him. Do you remember that? He thinks you don’t remember what you did to him.”

“Of course I remember him. He’s the best pilot in the Resistance, how could I forget?”

“Well, you really hurt him. You went into his mind and violently took something he didn’t want you to take. I remember the day we met, when you said to me, ‘You know I can take whatever I want’. Well, no, you can’t. Or at any rate, just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.”

“You seem to forget we were at war,” said Ben. “The First Order and the Resistance are still at war, and as awful as you might think it is that the First Order tortures people to get what they want, if the Resistance had a First Order officer hostage and they wanted to extract information, I’m sure they would do the same thing.”

She was shaking. “No. They wouldn’t. That’s the difference between the Resistance and the First Order. We even respect our prisoners. Did we just ‘take’ what we wanted from you?”

“You couldn’t if you tried.”

“Maybe not, but we didn’t try, did we?”

Somewhat abruptly, Ben stopped walking. Rey stopped as well, surprised, waiting for him to proceed. After a moment, Ben turned his head around to look at her, regarding her solemnly. “I will try to remember that,” he said at last.

They resumed walking, without speaking. They had been walking uphill, over fallen trees, around bushes, and eventually they reached something of a clearing where they could look out and down over the landscape. Ben said, “It’s not far now.”

“How do you know where we’re going?”

“This is what I spent the last two days figuring out. I reached out with the Force to create a mental map of the area. You should try it.”

Rey cocked an eyebrow, impressed. “How do you do it?” she asked curiously.

“Every living thing has a Force signature. If you open yourself up to it, you can feel it. Different things emit different signatures. How did you know it was my mother who died?” he asked.

“I just... knew. I felt her,” she said, struggling to describe something she had never really thought about before.

“But you knew it was her because you’d grown accustomed to her specific signature, and because you loved her, you felt it strongly, without giving it conscious thought. Other living things emit those same signatures, but you have to be more intentional about receiving them. In time, you’ll learn to tell one signature apart from others, just like how you can pick out someone’s voice from a crowd of people all talking over one another.”

“Fascinating,” Rey commented. “So, just open my mind? Be intentional? I’d like to try.”

“Be my guest,” he said.

Rey closed her eyes, and tried to look out with her mind. She could indeed feel the Force flowing through all the living things around her. She could feel Ben, and know where he was in relation to everything else. However, all the other living things just felt the same, like she and Ben were standing in a sea of white noise.

“I can’t tell anything apart,” she said, opening her eyes. “I feel it, but it all feels the same; it all kind of runs together.”

“Let me help you.” He set his backpack down and approached her. She took a reflexive step away from him, but stopped and let him get closer. He raised a hand to her forehead, pressing firmly, and placed his other hand on her shoulder to keep her in place. “Close your eyes again,” he said gently.

Rey’s ears felt hot, but she did as he commanded. “I’m going to try to guide your thoughts. Relax,” he said.

Rey’s mind opened up, and the same white noise returned. Gradually, the noise took shape, and she could feel the Force flowing from the individual trees and bushes. She could even feel the leaves on the branches. She had felt this before, with Luke, but never with such a sense of… control.

Feel that? He spoke directly into her mind. Remember this feeling, and try to call it back up when you’re doing this on your own. Now, we’re going to go further out.

The “visible” area around her got wider, and she could see the grass at the bottom of the hill they were standing on. She could feel the indentations in the ground where rocks must have been. She could feel the moss growing on those rocks, revealing their shape, their size. She could follow the depression in the ground in the distance, and know it was filled with water by the undulation of the surface-dwelling life within it. She could see a cottage

There, do you see it? That’s where we’re going.

Without warning, he removed his hands from her body and took a step back.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked at him. “That was incredible,” she said. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.

“Practice,” he replied. “Let’s continue on.” He lifted his backpack from the grass, shrugged it into place, and resumed walking.

Rey’s legs didn’t immediately respond when she tried to walk; it was like she was rooted to the ground. She still felt flushed, and she couldn’t catch her breath. With tremendous effort, she pulled one leg up from the ground and moved it in front of her, followed by the other. Her corporeal form felt alien to her, and she stumbled in her efforts to catch up to him.

“Are you coming?” he called back to her. She couldn’t answer other than to grunt. “You’re hopeless,” he said, as she got within a few unsteady paces of him. “For your sake, I hope you can recover more quickly the next time. Come on.”

After a few more steps, her walking became more natural, and her physiological symptoms dissipated. Embarrassed at having become so loopy, she didn’t initiate any conversation as they continued on. Eventually, they were within sight of the cottage, and she felt a sense of relief.

As they got closer, Ben‘s pace slackened, and Rey was given space to step ahead of him to inspect the structure. Rey could see that the house was constructed of stacked stones reinforced by well-weathered planks and poles. The roof was wooden, and the door was only about as high as she was tall. The door itself was a piece of tattered cloth, too disintegrated to keep anything out. When she got close enough, she peered through the doorway and into the space beyond. The house had a dirt floor and consisted of a single room. There was a counter along the back wall that might at one time have been used for cooking. A stone basin was recessed into the counter—a small fire pit, but no grill or other support for pots and pans appeared to have survived the passage of time. In the corner to her right was a table in reasonable condition, two chairs, and a storage trunk with broken lid hinges. To her left, a dilapidated frame that had once been a small bed, and a large piece of furniture that resembled either a pantry or a wardrobe.

Ben stepped up behind her, bending down to get his head under the top of the doorframe to look inside. “This should do,” he said.

Rey took a step into the house, putting some space between them, then turned and looked back at Ben.

“Let’s hope mine has a taller doorframe,” he said, looking up.

“Yours? Where are you staying?” she asked.

“There’s another cabin not too far from here. Why don’t you unpack your bag and get settled, then come find me at my place. Then I’ll teach you how to feed yourself,” he added, attempting to get a rise out of her, but failing.

“How will I know where to find you?” she asked.

“Same way. Practice. Come outside and try it.”

“Okay.” She stepped toward the door, and he backed up out of her way so she could get outside. Once there, she took a breath and closed her eyes, stretching out with her mind. She could see Ben and her house, but beyond that she struggled to make much out. She could feel the lake and trees, but placing them in context was difficult. She found her attention continually being drawn to Ben—the gravity of his signature pulling her in like a neutron star, until there was only him.

“I—I can’t find it,” she whispered. “I can feel… so much. But I can’t seem to put it together.”

“You’re making good progress. Don’t get discouraged.”

“It’s so close…” her face crinkled with frustration.

He looked at her a moment, then tentatively stepped nearer. As before, he placed one hand on her shoulder and the other on her forehead. He had taken his gloves off, and this time she noticed his hand was sweaty, but soft. She closed her eyes. He entered her mind, and she followed where he led her. An expanding radius of images emerged. She saw the lake she remembered from the first time, and beyond it to the right, was another cottage.

“That’s it. Think you can get yourself there?” he asked.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, I can find it.”

“Okay then. See you in a little while.” He grabbed the straps of his backpack, then turned and walked off in the direction of his house. Rey watched him go, a light shiver passing through her. She stepped into her new home and set about the arduous task of preparing it to live in.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 7: Halftones———

The walk from Rey’s cabin to Ben’s was pleasant, and reasonably short. The doorway, such as it was, faced the lake, about a stone’s throw from the nearest bank. Leaning against the doorframe, he set down his bag and looked out across the water. His eyes drifted to his left, to where Rey’s cabin was, out of sight beyond the woods and sloping hillsides.

The sun would only be up for about an hour more, and he had a lot to do before dinner. He was pleased to discover that his door was, in fact, taller than Rey’s, but he still had to duck slightly to avoid cracking his head on the stone arch. The layout of his house was similar to Rey’s, with similar furniture in similar states of disrepair. The bed was pointless—he might as well use it for kindling.

He set his bag on the table and pulled out the couple of lanterns Rey had packed for him, as well as the cooking gear he had requested. His kitchenette was too badly decayed to use right away; he would need some time to fix broken counter struts and replace missing stones in the fire basin, so he decided to cook outside for tonight. He carried his stuff outside and set it down in the grass to find some usable rocks and firewood. Without his lightsaber, he couldn’t cut firewood, so he had to settle for fallen branches and limbs that were thin enough to break off with his bare hands. After he’d gathered enough wood to get him through the evening, he collected rocks to line his makeshift campfire.

Rey had packed him an electroflint to spark the kindling. Scoffing, he realized he had a lot to teach her. He crouched on the ground, set to work arranging the stones and the wood into a decent fire pit, and then sat for a quiet moment to concentrate on the wood. Seconds later, the twigs in the pit began smoldering, and soon flames erupted from the pile. Once he had a reasonable burn going, he stood up and moved toward the canopy of trees behind his house to look for something he could turn into dinner. He managed to scrounge up a couple largish rodent-like things and some edible greens. Good enough.

He picked through the cooking gear to find the tools he would need in order to prepare the food. The table inside would provide a reasonable prep area for now, but it had gotten too dark to see very well inside, so he lit one of the lanterns and set about cleaning up the area.

He had gotten the meat skinned, cleaned, and ready to be cooked. He took it outside to roast over the fire. In the distance, he could feel Rey approaching. He looked in her direction. Other than her quarterstaff and a canteen, she didn’t appear to be carrying anything. He skewered the meat and jabbed the shanks into the ground to lean over the fire, then stepped inside. There, he grabbed the pot of greens and a couple of blankets to sit on, and then returned to the doorway.

“Hi,” said Rey, as she inspected his fire and skinned rodents-on-a-stick.

“Hi,” said Ben. An awkward silence followed, leaving Rey feeling very exposed.

“So… what’s for dinner?” asked Rey, finally, gesturing to the meat sticks.

“Rodent-things. And also some greens.” He lifted the pot to show off his haul, and nodded toward the fire where the meat sticks were roasting.

“Huh.” She regarded the foodstuffs, politely nodding her head. “Blankets,” she observed, pointing to the bundles under his arm.

“I thought we could sit on them,” said Ben.

“Perfect,” said Rey, followed by another awkward silence.

“So let’s sit,” said Ben bluntly, and the two moved closer to the fire pit as Ben handed her one of the blankets. He unfolded his own a few times, and laid it on the ground. She set down her quarterstaff and lifted the canteen strap over her head to remove it. She laid her own blanket down a couple feet from Ben’s and plunked herself upon it, staring at the fire.

“Nice fire,” she remarked.

“Thank you.”

It would be a little while before the meat was ready to eat, so she couldn’t count on that as a distraction yet, but Rey was desperate for this to be less uncomfortable. She tried to come up with something to say that was more likely to elicit a better-than-one-sentence response from him. She considered asking him about his family, but thought it was probably too soon after Leia’s death. She could ask him about his own training in the ways of Force, but that almost seemed worse. She decided to ask him about the First Order—at least that would make Poe happy. “So… what have you been up to as Supreme Leader these past couple years? I mean, specifically. I pretty much know the general stuff…” She still felt clumsy, but it was better than more silence.

“I tried to reestablish the Clone Army,” he said. Progress.

“The Clone Army, like from the old Empire days? Still cloning… what was his name?”

“Jango Fett, and no. We had a stormtrooper captain who died before the battle of Crait. We had her DNA on file, and she was a perfect fit for the role: dedicated, ruthless, and built like a Wookiee. It took a little while to get the facilities up and running again, but once you’re past the initial setup phase, it’s a faster and more reliable way to get consistently decent soldiers.”

“Yeah, Finn certainly wasn’t a reliable stormtrooper.” She smiled, remembering her friend, and how terribly he had performed his first job.

“Hux—my idiot general who betrayed me—was so committed to his damn conditioning methods, but that was always more trouble than it was worth.”

“Besides the fact that it’s terribly barbaric to steal children and brainwash them into fighting for you,” she admonished sarcastically.

He looked at her. “Yes, besides that. I wonder what they’re doing with that now that I’m not there anymore. I ended the practice.” He looked back at the fire. “Though I don’t doubt that it will be restarted, if it hasn’t been already.”

She was pleased to hear he had put an end to the practice that had robbed Finn and so many others of the lives they should have had. “I certainly hope they haven’t gone back to doing that. For what it’s worth, a Clone Army would’ve been a good change, all things considered. I mean, if you can’t get a volunteer army,” she added with a shrug.

“Mm,” he agreed. He turned the spits to cook the back side of the meat. “I assume the Resistance was already aware of most of that? Surely your spies must have heard something...”

Rey took it as a rhetorical question, and didn’t say anything in response. Though reports of child abductions had certainly declined in the last two years, she didn’t know for certain whether or not they had completely stopped. She guessed she had taken it somewhat for granted that, in this case, at least, no news certainly was good news. Regarding a cloning facility out there somewhere, she definitely hadn’t heard anything about that.

“Ben? Are—are you stronger than you used to be? You seem… I don’t know, like you have more control than you used to.” She looked at him, and he met her gaze. “You were a little erratic before,” she added quietly.

He chuckled as he looked back at the fire. “Possibly. Probably. Force mapping—that’s what I taught you today—is something I’d never done before I got here.”

“You taught yourself to do that while convalescing from a near-death experience?” She turned to him with amazement.

“‘Near death’ is an exaggeration—‘epic ass-beating’, maybe.” He smiled to himself. It felt odd, talking like this. So unlike the person he was, the person he had been. He wasn’t sure that he liked it, but he didn’t not like it. He looked at her. “I lost a lot of blood and was unconscious for a while. I could probably have remained like that for another couple hours before actually dying,” he said. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Yeah, whatever, tough guy.” She played into his joke about his situation, smiling back. She found herself feeling grateful that the atmosphere seemed to have relaxed a little, but that it had turned toward levity was entirely unexpected.

“Anyway,” he continued, “You’re right, I was weaker before. Hux might have been a tremendous pain in the ass, but he made an observation that helped me come to an important realization—though I’m sure he missed it.” He paused, taking a breath. “I was conflicted.” He looked at her again. “You said it yourself. I felt the pull to the Light. But I had been fighting so hard to commit to the path I had chosen that I wouldn’t allow myself to access it, and that made me weak. Broken.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to this revelation. “Does… that mean you’re on the side of the Light now?” she asked.

“No, Rey… I don’t think I can ever be on the Light Side.” He turned back to the fire. “But I can't be on the Dark Side either.”

Rey was silent, waiting for him to continue.

“...And I believe that is why I’m stronger,” he said, still putting it all together in his own mind even as the words were coming out of his mouth.

Luke had cautioned her about straying too close to the Darkness—that to flirt with it at all was to fall prey to its temptations, to become lost in it. Ben was suggesting that not only could you flirt with it and not be consumed by it, but that this could be the wisest option.

Ben started talking again. “I was manipulated by Snoke, that much had already become clear to me by the time I killed him in the throne room. But he had been in my head for such a long time, even back when I was training with Luke, offering me power and influence. That if I chose to embrace that power I would have a place with him. When my uncle tried to kill me, that seemed like my best option.”

“He wasn’t going to kill you, you know,” said Rey softly, coming to Luke’s defense.

“You can’t really know that. And I certainly didn’t know it then. I’m not even sure I know that now.” He took a slow breath. “Anyway, that was what tipped the scales for me. Made me choose Darkness over the Light.”

“So where are you now? In the middle? Explain to me why that isn’t just a different kind of conflict.”

He didn’t answer. Maybe he didn’t have an answer. His tone had been somber as he considered his past, but when he spoke again there was a shift in his bearing, and he became louder, more engaged. “Rey, what are people like?” He wasn’t asking because he didn’t know—he wanted her to say.

She didn’t fully comprehend the question. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, describe people. What are your friends like?”

She tipped her head to the side, thinking of Finn. “Well, they’re kind, dedicated, funny, selfless… impulsive at times…” Then her thoughts drifted to Poe. “They can also be stubborn, fearful, and pushy, too, but their intentions are good. All my friends are different, but they’re all wonderful,” she said affectionately.

“Exactly, they’re different. Normal people, at various times, exhibit aspects of both Light and Dark. One person can be loving and gentle one day, and irate and jealous the next. We don’t overly concern ourselves with it, because we think of that as normal. Now, what are Jedi like?”

Luke’s image floated into her head. “Well, I only knew the one… he was funny, kind at heart, though with a grim demeanor. Well-intentioned… but also somewhat austere, controlled, and occasionally frustratingly passive,” she concluded, recalling Luke’s reluctance to intervene when she needed help.

“I knew more than just the one. They’re so one-dimensionally good that they lack drive, passion, and depth—the contentment they seek is a sedative,” he said, adding his own interpretation of what she was saying. He turned to her, staring hard into her eyes. “In their attempt to connect to the Light Side of the Force, they lose the parts of themselves that make them human. All the breadth and dimension that make your friends special to you is given up in favor of one disposition. I’ve come to believe that this is a mistake,” he said with resolve.

Rey was beginning to understand. “People are balanced.” She nodded at this realization, and she could feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest.

“Yes, exactly, they’re balanced. For thousands of years, the Jedi have sought to bring balance to the Force, but the Force doesn’t need to be balanced, it already is balanced, and they’re screwing it up by trying to tip it constantly in their direction. Darkness just rises to meet the Light—“

“—and we’re left with war, as one side tries ineffectually to envelop the other,” added Rey, contemplating the legacy of the Jedi, the Empire, the Republic of old, the First Order, and the Resistance.

“It can’t be done,” he said, shaking his head. “Nor should it. The galaxy will remain a cauldron of Light and Darkness for eternity, just as it was meant to be, as complex and three-dimensional as the individuals within it. The folly is in trying to take a side. We’re all both. Light and Dark. All of us.”

“So that was what Hux pointed out to you? That you’re both?”

“Shit! Our dinner is burning,” said Ben with a start, and Rey suddenly remembered why she had come there in the first place—they were having dinner. Ben pulled the skewers out of the ground and held them up, examining the blackened side. “My plan had been to make a meat stew with the greens, but these are already overdone.”

“Let’s just eat them off the sticks—stew sounds messy anyway, and I’m starving.” She reached for one of the skewers, and bit into the charred steak. “It’s perfectly tasty,” she said reassuringly.

Ben shrugged, grimacing, and tore into his own rodent-on-a-stick. His expression improved as he chewed the seared flesh. “Not bad, actually. Better than field rations, certainly.”

“I lived my entire life preparing field rations quite happily, thank you,” said Rey.

“There’s no way you were happy,” he replied impassively.

Rey looked into the fire, considering his offhanded remark, then turned back to him and said, “No, I really wasn’t. Getting off that ball of dirt was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It kickstarted my life.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, between bites of food.

They chewed their food in silence, picking at the pot full of dry greens as they went. The greens had a smooth flavor, almost buttery, and the meat had a full, rich flavor and surprisingly moist texture, in spite of being burned on one side—the bit of char actually gave dimension to the flavor.

“I’m not fully with you on your Light Side, Dark Side theory yet, but you were definitely right that this is better than field rations.”

“Hey, it’s a start. I’ll take what I can get.”

Though they finished their meal without talking, Rey realized it was no longer uncomfortable.

Night had fully descended upon them, and the campfire was the only light there was. Rey realized she hadn’t brought a lantern with her. “Uh oh, I didn’t think to bring a lantern. It’s going to be a slow walk back.”

“Just take one of mine. I can manage with just the one for tonight. I assume you can find your way.” It wasn’t a question.

“Do you still need to do any cleanup in there before it’s ready to sleep in? My place was a mess, I’m still not finished with it. I could help you with that, if you’re too tired to do it on your own.”

“No, it’s fine. The bed is a joke anyway. I’ll just toss my bedroll on the ground out here next to the fire and leave the house situation for tomorrow,” he said.

“Okay then.” She took a few swigs from her canteen, and handed it to him to drink from as she stared at the fire for a little bit.

He wiped a drop of water from his lips as he handed back her canteen, then stood up and went inside. He emerged a moment later with his bedroll. “I’m going to bed.”

“Oh. Okay.” She felt weird staying there if he was going to be trying to sleep, so she stood up and started refolding the blanket she’d been sitting on.

“You don’t have to leave right away,” he offered, but she continued preparing to depart.

“No, I should go. I need some rest too. Can I take that lantern there?” she asked, gesturing to the lantern on the ground near the arrangement of cooking gear he’d been sifting through earlier.

“Sure.” He was removing his cloak to use as an extra blanket, and then laid down along the full length of his bedroll. His feet were in the grass.

She snatched up the lantern, ignited it, and collected her quarterstaff and canteen. “So I’ll see you in the morning?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’ll come to you, so stay put,” he instructed, fluffing up his pillow.

“Okay, so I’ll just wait for you then. Good night.”

“Good night,” he replied.

During the walk back, she replayed the events of the day over and over in her mind. It all seemed so surreal. Her bedroll and a few other basic things had been prepared before leaving for dinner, so all she had to do to get ready for bed was to kick off her boots. She climbed under the blankets and switched off the lantern. Alone in her bed, the sounds of the forest hummed around her, and she thought about her lesson in Force mapping. She pushed out with her mind, looking through the forest and field, retracing her steps back to the base. It was so much easier than it had been earlier.

She thought she detected Finn’s Force signature, but he wasn’t in his quarters, so she was unsure it was actually him. She made a mental note to pay more attention to each person’s Force signature the next time she saw them. She wandered back to where she was, and then back to Ben at the campfire. Living forces flurried through the air above the fire, making its shape plain, and next to it, she saw Ben, on his back, staring up at the sky, one hand on his abdomen and the other under his head.

Good night again, she felt him say. And, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she instantly retracted herself and tried to pretend she’d never been there at all.

———

Poe had been monitoring the signal given off by the communicator whenever he’d had a spare moment to himself. Throughout the day, he had felt like he was being pulled in fifteen different directions by all the different people he had to report to, none of whom seemed to be on the same page. He could tell the decision to allow Kylo Ren to leave the base with Rey had not been made with unanimous consent, and now he felt beholden to everyone to deliver results—some payoff on this gamble. Seeing Rey’s beacon in motion had at least given him some assurance that their hopes hadn’t been immediately dashed.

He was surprised by how linear their route out of the base had been, like they knew exactly where they had been going. Every time he had seen her movements cease, his pulse had quickened with anxiety, only returning to normal once he could see that she was still able to move. It would be a huge blow to the Resistance if this failed. But for Poe, it would be even worse.

He had seen her stop for long periods of time twice. Once, at a location due north of the base, and again somewhere northwest of that. By the time Poe was finally released from his obligations for the day, the signal had started moving again, back to the location due north. In the morning he would contact her, but in the meantime, all he could do was watch the signal blink out her location, and wonder where she was.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 8: Correspondence———

Rey woke up a lot earlier than she had intended to. The communicator Poe had given her was beeping in her pocket as she lay in bed—she had forgotten it was even there. Her arms were tangled up in her blankets, so she fumbled around for a while before managing to extract the obnoxious device. Looking at the dial, she saw a blinking yellow light over the number one: Poe. Of course.

She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms and sighed deeply. After a moment, she pressed the large central button she assumed would answer the call, turning the yellow light green, and greeted him as politely as she could manage. “Good morning, Poe.”

“Morning, Rey. What’s your status?” He sounded very businesslike.

“Sleeping,” she replied, yawning.

“Sorry, I wanted to make sure I talked to you before we both got wrapped up in other stuff.”

“Okay, so what is it?” She wanted to either go back to sleep or get started with her day. She wasn’t interested in pointless chitchat.

“Where are you right now? Where’s he?”

“I’m in my bed in a small stone cottage that was abandoned here, about ten kilometers north of the base. He’s at another place over by a small lake, a short walk from here.”

“Cottage?” The surprise was evident in his tone. “There are houses out there?”

“Yeah, two of ‘em, at least.”

“So he’s not being monitored? Rey, I don’t like not knowing where he is,” he said, concern etching his voice.

Rey gave a sigh of frustration. “Poe, if he were here in the same place as me, you wouldn’t like that either.”

Poe grumbled, “Yeah, okay, you’re probably right. I don’t really like any of this. So he’s in a house northwest of your current position?”

“Yes. What, did you see that from the GPS or something? So what’s your plan then? To call me every twenty minutes to check up on me? If you pull that, I’ll just put this damn thing on ‘do not disturb’ mode, or leave it here or something. If you want me to actually carry this thing around, I need to know it’s not going to start beeping at me in the middle of my training.”

There was a pause in which neither spoke, but then Rey added, “Look, he actually taught me a valuable skill yesterday. I can sort of see you right now. You’re in your room, right?”

“It’s morning, that could’ve been a lucky guess.”

“Okay, so step outside, and I’ll narrate your movements.”

He complied, opening his door and stepping into the hall. He stood for a moment, thinking about where he might want to go.

“It’s left or right, Poe, this shouldn’t be a tough decision,” she said impatiently.

“Just hold on, I’m thinking.” He took a step to his left, then his right, and then left again.

“What’s this little dance you’re doing?” she asked.

Poe threw up his hands in frustration. “Okay, so he taught you how to spy on people, I’m really impressed,” he said defensively. “Of course that means he can spy on me or you or anyone else, too.”

“Spying appears to be what you’ve been up to for the better part of the last day,” she countered.

“I was just trying to look out for you,” he sighed. “You’re my friend. I—” he halted. “You’re a valuable Resistance asset.”

“Well, thank you for your concern, now please rest assured that this handy new skill lets me keeps tabs on him as well, so you don’t need to bolt a monitoring tag to his leg. As I keep trying to tell you, I’ll be fine.”

He struggled not to say what he wanted to say, electing instead to soft pedal. “Okay, Rey. I’m sorry. I promise to try and leave you alone from now on. Can I at least request that you call us from time to time?”

“I will do what I can, but understand that ‘from time to time’ could mean every few days or even every few weeks.”

“You couldn’t make it a little more often just until I get used to this?” He was having a difficult time keeping the pleading tone out of his voice.

“I will do what I can.” She was silent a moment, then added, “I do at least have some decent intel for you about the First Order.”

“That’s something of a relief. What is it?”

“As Supreme Leader, he halted the conditioning program of kidnapped children, and began working to re-establish cloning as a means of producing soldiers.”

“Crap, really? How come we haven’t heard of that before?”

“It sounded like it took all this time just to get the facilities up and running again. He didn’t say he’d actually gotten any soldiers out of it yet.”

“Did he say where it was?”

“No, and I didn’t ask… I didn’t want to make it obvious that I was pressing him for information.” This little white lie was for Poe’s benefit. If she was totally honest, at the time, she hadn’t felt like grilling him was really what she’d been doing. She and Ben had just been talking, and asking the location of the cloning facility hadn’t even occurred to her.

“I see.” He sighed, and Rey suspected he knew that she hadn’t actually been interrogating Ben at all. “Well, this is something at least, thanks. Keep at it.”

“And now I need to start my day. Most of my cabin is still a disaster, and Ben will be here at some point soon to start my training. I need to get ready.”

“Okay, good luck,” he said. Then, “May the Force be with you.”

She smiled at the conciliatory gesture. “Thank you, Poe. We’ll talk again soon. Goodbye.”

“Bye, Rey.”

She clicked off the communicator, stuck it back in her pocket, and climbed out of bed.

———

Ben had made reasonable progress getting his cottage in order. He had removed all the furniture that was too broken to bother with, cleaned out most of the loose dirt and cobwebs, and gotten things placed where he wanted. In order to fix his counters, though, he would need some means of actually chopping wood—the repairs were too precise to be done with just snapping branches by hand.

It was time to contact Rey. He took a seat in one of his chairs and decided to try something: he would try to engage Rey in a vision. Using Force mapping would suffice to see where she was, and projecting his thoughts into her head was certainly easy enough—but he didn’t feel like doing it that way. He wanted a vision.

This was something he’d never been able to conjure on his own, but truth be known, he’d never really made the attempt until now. He hadn’t been entirely honest with her when he said he’d never thought of trying to find her using the Force—he’d thought about it constantly, but the truth was that he hadn’t wanted to consider what he would have to do if he actually knew where she was. Such knowledge would have certainly led to conflict of one sort or another.

However, he wasn’t sure where to begin with making contact. He kept his eyes open so he would actually see her if he succeeded, and decided to start out by just contemplating her. Perhaps if he just thought about her enough, she would appear before him. His memories of her swirled around in his head. He thought of the time he had interrogated her over the map, and guilt washed over him. Something more pleasant then. Fighting off the Praetorian guards with her at his side was a good memory. He let that thought play out in his mind for a bit, following it to its conclusion, when she sent him her own lightsaber so he could free himself of the final guard. Then he remembered how he’d held his hand out to her, asking her to join him, and how she’d then rejected him.

He closed his eyes. This wasn’t working. He tried again, attempting to recall some of his more recent memories of her. How she influenced those guards to watch over him even against their own material needs. That she had taken the time to hand stitch his clothing back into something he could wear. When she reached out and let him touch her hand on Ahch-To.

His eyes popped open at this sudden, unbidden, older memory, and as he looked around the confines of his small living space, an old but familiar feeling came upon him. There was nothing to see in his cottage, so he hurried out of his seat and ran to the door, and there, not ten paces from him, was Rey. He struggled to be certain that this was just a vision and not actually the real Rey, having acted contrary to his request and come to his house rather than wait for him as they’d agreed.

Viewing her from the back, he could barely make out the left side of her face and saw she was crouching, holding a bundle of logs. She wasn’t moving—she was aware of him.

“Is—is that you?” she queried.

He wasn’t sure his voice would work, but he forced it into submission. “Yes, it’s me. I was able to do this on purpose.”

She dropped the armful of logs, stood, and turned to face him. “How are you doing this?”

“I’m not really sure yet. I’ll probably have to try it a few more times before I’m certain.”

Her eyes were locked onto his, standing there taking him in. He could feel that she wanted something, but wouldn’t say what it was. “What is it?” It came out in an almost whisper. He felt inexplicably naïve for asking, but ultimately couldn’t help himself. She didn’t speak again for a tense moment.

“Then what can you tell me?” she asked, sidestepping his question. She had succeeded at this once, but really hadn’t been sure how. All she had done was to give her mind up to the influence of the Force, going where it pointed. She’d had no idea what she was doing, until suddenly there he was. But none of that helped her know how it had worked, and she had hoped that he would have had something more to help fill in the blanks.

He felt both honesty and deception from her simultaneously, like her question was some kind of half-truth or had a double meaning he couldn’t decipher. Ben considered her question, what had he done? He narrowed his eyes at her. “I can’t tell you how yet. You’ll just have to wait. Were you chopping wood?” he asked.

“Yes, I’ve got a hatchet,” she replied.

“Couldn’t have put one of those in my bag, huh?”

“There was only the one.”

“So you kept it for yourself, got it. That’s very Light-Side of you,” he teased her wryly.

“I didn’t know we would be staying in separate places, smart-ass,” she countered, with a droll smile. She was surprised but relieved that he was teasing her, tamping down the tension that hung between them this morning. “So is it time to begin?” she asked.

“It could be, but interestingly, what I actually was hoping to ask you was if you had anything I could chop wood with. All of last night’s firewood was stuff I could only collect by hand, and I have some repairs to do inside that will require more precise cutting.”

She took a half step back and bent over to reach down. As she did so, a hatchet materialized in her hand, allowing him to finally see it. “This what you want?”

“Yes, that would do nicely.” He paused to consider. “I wonder if you handed that to me right now, if I would be able to keep it even after this connection ends?”

Rey’s eyebrows popped up. “You think that might work? Let’s try it.” She stepped up to him and held out the hatchet for him to take. He glanced down at it, then back to her, and reached out to grab the small axe. His fingers curled around it, finding purchase, and he was able to lift it out of her grasp.

She smiled at him. “Well, this certainly shortens the walk from my place to yours.”

“Provided all we need to do is talk or pass objects back and forth, yes,” he said.

“And assuming you can consistently do this at will. You will definitely need to teach me what you did.”

“Once I know what I did, I will try. It wasn’t in a vision that you saw me injured? Before you screamed and I was able to find you? Was that random, or had you initiated it?” Ben inquired. He had only heard her voice at that time, but assumed she must have seen him in order to be imploring him not to die.

Rey pinked a little at the memory. “Yes, I had, but I have no idea how I triggered it—I mean, I just sort of felt… compelled. The Force was guiding me, and before I really even knew what I was doing, there you were.”

“You weren’t thinking about anything in particular?”

“Why, were you thinking about something in particular?”

“I’m asking you, don’t change the subject.”

Rey frowned. “I just sort of… I just followed a pull that I was feeling, and like I said, before I knew it there you were. I had to walk around for a bit to find you, but I knew you’d be there because the air felt thick. Just like how I remember from before. Just like right now.”

“Huh.” He paused to consider the timing of the contact. “This would have been right after my mother died. Were you looking for me? Had you thought I’d killed her?”

She turned her head and exhaled quickly. “No, and it’s probably a stretch to say I was even looking for you. I wanted answers, though. I wasn’t assuming you’d been directly involved in her death, but I wanted to know… I don’t know what I wanted to know. I just needed answers, and I thought seeing you would give me some.”

“I see. Well, something to think about.” He decided to change the subject. Holding up the hatchet, he said, “So I’m going to use this to fix a couple things in my kitchen, and when I’m done I’ll bring it back.”

“You can keep it for a while,” she said. “I have a ton of firewood. Poe called me early this morning, and I’ve been up ever since working on my living situation here. I started chopping wood when I ran out of other stuff to do.”

“Poe called, huh? Couldn’t wait even one whole day to talk to you?”

“He was curious how things had gone, and wanted to know more about where you were in relation to me,” she explained.

“But he’s totally not jealous. I’m sure he keeps track of where everyone is in relation to everyone else, all the time, forever,” he added, completely straight-faced.

“Stop it. Go chop your wood.”

A smile curled at the corner of his mouth, and he nodded. He turned away from her, and the atmosphere around him returned to normal. He was alone again, though her hatchet was still in his hands.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 9: Exchange———

It had been four days since he’d last spoken to Rey, and Poe was getting incredibly antsy. He really didn’t want to be the one to initiate contact again, but he was getting tired of feeling clueless about whatever was happening with Rey’s training. Her communicator’s GPS had given him regular updates on her position, so he felt reasonably assured that she was still alive and moving around freely. Her mention of the cottages had prompted him to look up the historical maps of Dendrokaan, and indeed, this planet had once been refuge to a colony of hunter-gatherers who lived simply, benefitting from the plentiful resources and vibrant web of life here. It wasn’t until after the rise of the First Order that this colony had chosen to evacuate to a more industrialized planet.

The maps he’d found also gave him the ability to better picture the terrain Rey was navigating. Her position due north put her on the outskirts of a colony that had clustered in the denser forests, and Ben’s cottage was also positioned on the perimeter of that forest, only his was sitting right next to a good-sized lake north-northwest of the base, just as Rey had said. It was all very quaint.

His work in establishing the new organizational structure and strategy within the Resistance had kept him very busy. Though he’d had a couple meals with his friends in the past four days, the meals had always been too brief to sustain a lengthy conversation. This afternoon had left him with a couple unscheduled hours, and he decided he would spend it talking to Finn.

Finn typically worked in or around the hangar, making himself useful to Rose when he wasn’t brushing up on his rudimentary piloting skills. Poe had taught him the basics a long time ago, but Finn was by no means a natural, and he didn’t practice often enough to have improved all that much. Lately, he’d had more time to practice, but his flying still wasn’t great. Poe held on to a thread of hope that he’d find Finn parked inside a simulator.

Surprisingly, Finn wasn’t in the hangar—but Rose was. She was on her back under an old B-wing starfighter, wires dangling down from the undercarriage—it appeared she had eviscerated it.

Poe greeted her with enthusiasm. “Hi Rose! Seen Finn around lately?”

“Hi, Poe! Yeah, he was just here. He cut his hand pretty bad when he helped me open up this hatch here, so he went to the med bay to get it looked at.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you hoping to find out if he’s talked to Rey?”

He sighed, regretting that he hadn’t already thought of a believable phony excuse he could give. “Yeah, I was. Is it that obvious? I haven’t heard a thing in four days, and I’m tired of pretending like that’s not bothering me.”

“Well, I don’t think he’s talked to her either, but you’re welcome to ask,” she replied. He appreciated her willingness to help, in spite of how little she actually knew. At least she wasn’t giving him a hard time over his concern.

“Okay, thanks, Rose. I’ll go look for him in the med bay.” He eyed the disemboweled B-wing, adding, “Try not to blow that thing up in the meantime.”

“This thing is no worse off than it was when I got here, trust me,” and she stabbed into it with a Harris wrench, sending sparks raining down upon her jumpsuit.

Poe walked away toward the medical wing of the base, hoping to catch Finn before he missed him again. It appeared that at least a little luck was on his side today, as Finn was just pulling on his jacket to leave as Poe walked in.

“Finn, good, I didn’t miss you!” exclaimed Poe.

“Aw man, I wish you’d been here five minutes ago, I could have shown off this gash I got!” Leave it to Finn to express juvenile pride in a nasty injury.

Poe feigned interest in his friend’s laceration. “Bummer, you’ll have to show me later. Hey listen, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Have—“

“—Have I talked to Rey?” Finn finished for him, cocking an eyebrow.

Poe sighed, staring at his friend. “Yeah,” he replied contritely.

“No, Poe, I haven’t, I’ve been trying to just be satisfied with doing my own thing for a while, while she’s out there doing hers. I don’t check the communicator as often as you do, I’m sure, but I can see that she’s still alive.” He was walking out of the medical bay, and Poe followed close behind.

“Or he’s just moving it around for her to make it look like that—uh… not that I'm suggesting that that's actually what he's doing, I’m just saying,” he added hastily, immediately regretting how paranoid that one comment had made him sound, and trying in vain to ramble his way out of it.

Finn’s eyes narrowed. “So what is it exactly that you would like to discuss?” He was walking briskly toward his quarters, and Poe was struggling to keep up.

“Well, you remember how pissed off I told you she was when I called her that one time?”

“I do,” said Finn, flatly.

“Well, I really think one of us should try to talk to her, and well, I—”

“—You were hoping it would be me so she’d have one less reason to be irritated with you.” Finn stopped walking, and gave a small laugh. They were in the common area in the middle of Finn’s residence hall.

Poe looked at him guiltily. “Yeah.”

Finn sighed. “She’ll know you’ll have talked me into it, you know. She’s not stupid.”

“Yeah, probably, but if I ask, she’ll just say no, but even if she knows it’s really coming from me, she’ll still probably say yes to you.”

Finn cocked an eyebrow at him. “You think so? What is it you want to ask? You want me to just check on her general well being? I’m sure she’s fine, you know.”

“I was hoping you could get her to come visit. We could get drinks at the cantina. Just the four of us.”

“Four? Which four? Who are we leaving out, Rose or Ben?”

“Well, I guess I imagined it would just be you and Rose, and me and Rey…”

“You would want her to just leave him out there? Is that what you want me to suggest?”

Poe flopped down on one of the couches in the common area. With frustration evident in his voice, he said, “Dammit, Finn, no, you probably shouldn’t suggest that. Don’t make a suggestion either way, and we’ll just see what she does…”

Finn nodded. “Okay, I agree to your plan.”

Poe blinked. “Really, just like that?”

“Yeah, I want to see her too. At least this way I know she’ll blame you for me asking.” He smiled angelically.

Poe stood back up and clapped his friend on both shoulders. “Finn, buddy, I knew I could count on you,” he said, grinning widely.

“Uh huh, sure. Okay, I’ll watch the communicator tonight, and I’ll buzz her when it looks like she’s settled in back at her place.”

“You know which location is her house?” Poe asked, a little surprised. He thought he was the only one studying the signal well enough to have figured that out.

Finn spoke with some shame in his voice, “Yeah, I figured it out… I’ve been checking on her at night, and she always rests in the same spot.”

“If you ever see her northwest of there, that’s his place,” Poe offered.

Finn chuckled. “I’m sure you think you’re being helpful by saying that, but really, you’re just betraying your obsession.” Poe averted his eyes, embarrassed, but Finn didn’t needle him further. “Anyway, that’s good to know, I guess. I’ll check in after dinner and see if she looks like she’s done for the day. I’ll let you know in the morning how it went.”

“I’m in meetings all morning, but I’ll send BB-8 to the hangar to look for you, and you can tell him. He’ll catch me up,” said Poe, sounding hopeful. He could hardly wait until morning to hear from Finn.

———

Rey and Ben had spent most of their time together training and helping each other make repairs to their cottages. Their mornings had, for the most part, been spent separately. He had taught her how to use the Force to find edible food, and she had found the routine of gathering and preparing actual food provided a solid foundation to her day. She had also become adept at thought projection—though she still preferred face to face conversation.

This morning, they’d had breakfast together, enjoying eggs that Rey had discovered with her new abilities. Afterwards, Rey had helped Ben put a few finishing touches on his cottage. Their plan was to spend the rest of the afternoon sparring. Ben had fashioned wooden training sabers for each of them to use, and they were currently attempting to be the first to land a blow of any sort on the other.

Ben’s movements were fluid, and his attacks were forceful, but Rey was faster and more agile. She hoped he would tire from being the aggressor, and she would be able to strike him once his stamina had begun to wane.

“If you’re trying to tire me out, that’s not going to go very well for you,” he warned her. He then struck fiercely overhead, and she rolled deftly to her left to avoid the blow.

“I’m the one doing all the moving,” she teased.

“Though I hope you realize you can’t beat an enemy with defense alone. You need to be more aggressive.” Another swing, this time horizontally across her front, which she blocked with her saber, staggering back from the strength of the blow. “When you fought me on Starkiller, you were much more threatening than this.”

“When I fought you on Starkiller, I wanted to kill you,” she reminded him.

“Your hatred of me made you powerful. Once you connected those emotions to your Force sensitivity, you were driving me back. Use that.”

But I don’t hate you anymore, she projected.

“You had drawn on the Dark Side to defeat me in that battle. You don’t need to hate me, but there is tremendous destructive power to be found in the Darkness, and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it,” he argued. He swiped at her legs, and she jumped up and onto a huge boulder to avoid it, then leapt from there over the top of him to strike from above. He blocked her attack, but was at least momentarily on the defensive. “Good!” he encouraged her; he decided to meet her improvement with greater effort of his own. She came at him again with a series of quick strikes on either side of him, all of which he blocked, but with more and more difficulty. This time, he used the Force to pull her saber right out of her hand, then chopped at her arm with his own, catching her fingers before she could pull away.

“Hey! That’s cheating!” she protested, shaking the sting from her fingers.

“Are you serious?” He threw her saber back to her and came at her again. “You have to defend yourself from any sort of attack!” he yelled, lunging forward. She tried to block, but he had frozen her sword arm. With her other arm, she pushed out at him with the Force, redirecting his saber across her body so that he stabbed impotently into the air at her side.

“Better!” he praised. “Don’t stop now!” And he whirled around to strike a second time. She blocked, and pushed out again, knocking him backwards into the boulder, striking it harder than she’d meant him to.

“Oops! Sorry! Are you okay?” She approached with her hand held out reassuringly.

He responded by casting a rock in her direction, which would have nailed her in the shoulder if she hadn’t recovered from the shock of his attack as quickly as she did. “Hey! I was trying to see if you were okay!”

“This is a battle! Don’t let up until you know it’s settled!” He was coming at her again, swinging his saber while simultaneously flinging smaller rocks and branches at her from various directions, many of which made contact.

She was being beaten, and it was happening in a manner that made her feel utterly humiliated. A rock struck her above her left eye, and she was momentarily blinded by the force of it. Then a branch caught her on her hip, and she was stumbling and struggling to see. Furiously, she flung her arms back in a torrent of Force that sent it all careening away from her and back in his direction. Ben was knocked completely off his feet.

Finally, the attack relented to the point that she could get a moment to think. She touched her palm to her forehead and found that she was bleeding. The blood was trickling into her eye, blurring her vision. Hardly able to see, she struggled to locate Ben.

Ben was supine on the ground about twenty feet from where she thought he had been. She ran over to him and knelt on the ground beside him. He wasn’t moving.

She placed her hands on his chest and nudged him. “Ben,” she urged firmly, but there was no response. “Ben,” she called out more forcefully, giving him a more vigorous shake. As she shook him, his left hand came upon hers in an attempt to stop her jostling him, and his eyes cracked open.

“That… was impressive. But you need to worry less about hurting your enemies,” he chastised her.

She sat back on her heels, letting out a frustrated sigh. “I’m just trying to avoid killing my teacher!”

His hand was still on hers, and he was looking at her. Suddenly, his eyes popped open, and he sat up on his elbows. “You’re bleeding,” he said, moving his hand to her cheek to wipe away some blood that had trickled down.

“Well, yes, you hit me with a rock. Several rocks, actually, it was very irritating.”

“Come with me,” he said, standing up. He took her by her elbow and led her back toward his cottage. Once they were inside, he sat her down in a chair, and searched his kitchen for a rag. Finding one, he moistened it with a little water from his canteen, and used it to wipe away the blood that was already covering her face, threatening to stain her clothing. Once he had cleaned the blood away, he set the rag down and examined her forehead.

“That’s going to scar,” he said, frowning as he looked her over.

“Well, I guess that’s only fair,” she said, gesturing from his eye to his chest and back again.

He ignored her comment, appearing lost in thought. “Let me try something,” he said, and he pulled the other chair from around the table and positioned it in front of her, sitting down. The blood had begun to run down her face again, and he took the rag to carefully wipe it away.

“I’ve never tried this before, so don’t be mad if it doesn’t work,” he warned her. “I’m not entirely sure how to do this.”

He moved his right hand up to her eye, and touched her lightly on her temple with his fingers, thumb brushing her cheekbone. On impulse, she cast her eyes downward.

Confused by what he was trying to do, she looked back in his direction. His eyes moved from the wound and back to her eyes several times. It was apparent that he was getting frustrated. “Hey, it’s okay,” she said. “I’m not upset at you, and I don’t care if I have a little scar.” She placed her hand on his knee reassuringly. “It’s not a big deal.”

He looked into her eyes again before slowly shutting them and moving his fingers into her hair. His palm moved over the injury, paying no mind to the blood he was smearing. His shoulders rose and fell for a few seconds as he breathed long and evenly. After a moment, her skin began to feel hot under his palm, and she winced.

The mild burning sensation intensified, then abated, the nerves growing cooler. His frustration subsiding, she watched him visibly relax and open his eyes. He pulled his hand from her face and examined her, then grabbed the rag and gently wiped at her forehead to clear away the remaining blood. At this, a pleased smile spread across his lips as he took in the sight of her.

She moved her hand to her forehead to feel what he was looking at, and was amazed to discover that the wound was gone. She pressed him with her gaze. “How did you do that?”

He laughed, shrugging. The Light, he projected, looking at her, taking her in.

Balance, she projected back at him. “You are stronger,” she met his gaze approvingly. He looked down at his hands as he cleaned off the last of her blood.

———

After the day’s training concluded, they again shared a meal, and Rey left while there was still some evening light to see her way home. On the walk back, she thought a lot about the different abilities that Ben had added to his repertoire in the short time he’d been on Dendrokaan. All his strength and ferocity from before remained, but he was more deliberate and less chaotic in his execution. He could do things he said he had never been able to do before, and he had succeeded in teaching her several of them. How to initiate a Force vision was still a mystery to her, and he couldn’t explain his ability to heal, beyond attributing it to his newly found balance, but by and large he had been very generous with his knowledge.

She spent the walk home contemplating how access to the Light could be related to his newfound skills—was there a connection between healing and his ability to initiate visions? If accessing the Light was all it took, she should have mastered it before he did.

She pushed aside the canvas sheet she had fashioned into a door and stepped inside, then secured the sheet back into place. She ignited her lantern and opened her wardrobe, looking for the robe she had finished making yesterday. In the few days since setting out, she had made robes for Ben and herself, a couple of shirts for him, and a change of pants. She wasn’t entirely certain of his measurements, so everything she had made for him was slightly larger than she’d assumed was necessary, and fitted with places where he could adjust the tension.

She tossed the robe on her bed, and began shedding layers of clothing until she was down to her breast wraps and her underpants. She bent over to collect her robe to wear, and as she reached for it, felt a familiar weight fill the air. She paused for a moment, arm still outstretched, confirming in her mind what she already suspected, then quickly grabbed her robe, slipped it on, and turned around. Ben was there, red-faced and guilty looking. She tried to be nonchalant.

“Is something wrong?” she asked him.

He cleared his throat. “No, I just meant to give you this,” he said, and held out her hatchet to her.

She stepped forward and looked at him coolly. “You could have just given it to me tomorrow.”

“That’s what I told myself yesterday, but I forgot. Take it.”

She picked it out of his large hands. “I have something for you, too,” she said, and walked back over to her wardrobe. Reaching inside, she brought out a neatly folded pile of handmade clothing she’d accumulated for him, and held it out to him.

“What’s this?” he asked, placing one hand below and the other on top of the pile, his fingers brushing against hers.

“I made you some new clothes. There’s a black shirt in there, but other than that I hope you’re okay with some lighter colors. It’s all the fabric I could find.”

He was taken aback. “That’s fine, thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s no problem. Thank you for what you did for me before, with my wound. You’ll have to show me how to do that. And this,” she said, referring to his presence in her cottage.

“I really don’t know what to tell you about that,” he said, shaking his head slightly.

She paused to regard him for a moment. “You know I can tell that you’re holding something back from me. You know more than you’re telling.”

He held his hands up defensively and looked away. “Not really, I swear. I’m not certain of anything.” He took a step back.

“But you don’t even want to tell me what you think. If you’d just tell me—” she started, but was interrupted by the sound of her commlink beeping at her. Grumbling in frustration, she rifled through her pants pocket and pulled out the offending communicator. The crease in her forehead subsided a little as she looked at it. “It’s Finn,” she said.

“Well, I was about to go anyway. Thank you for the clothing. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She sat down on her bed, and looked up at him. “Yes, good night. See you tomorrow.” And just as suddenly as he’d arrived, Ben was gone.

Rey sighed, and looked back at the communicator in her hand. She pressed the button to open the call, and greeted him without betraying any of the annoyance she still felt at Ben’s lack of transparency. “Hi Finn, how are you?”

“Rey! I was afraid for a second you wouldn’t answer. How’s it going?” he said, enthusiastically as ever.

“Fine. Really well, actually. Ben is a surprisingly good teacher, it turns out.”

“That’s great. So when can you abandon this life of solitude and return to your friends?”

She could tell this was one of those “I’m kidding, but not really,” sort of questions, and she couldn’t help an aggrieved sigh. “Finn…”

“I know, I know, sorry, you know we just miss you. The last time he took you away from me I flew into a planet-sized weapon of mass destruction at lightspeed just to get you back.”

She smiled at the memory. “And I appreciate it.”

“Anyway, we were hoping you could take an evening off and come have drinks with us in the cantina. You don’t have to come back for good, but just visit for a couple hours. Tomorrow night, maybe?”

She thought about this. It had been almost a week since she’d seen her friends, and though she’d been too busy to really stop and even think about how much she missed them, sitting here now, talking to Finn, it began to sink in. “Was this your idea?”

“Oh, of course it was!”

She could tell it wasn’t. “Uh huh. So is Poe going to be mad if I bring Ben along?”

“That’s cold, Rey,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’m sure you know he wouldn’t be thrilled.”

“You know, Ben really has changed a lot. He’s actually pretty funny, and he can be kind. There's more to him than just moodiness and rancor. It would be good for you all to see that side of him.”

“I have no comment. So what do you say? Will you come out tomorrow? I can pick you up in a speeder.”

She gave it another moment of consideration before answering. “Yes. I'll try to convince Ben to join us, but at the very least, I’ll come. I’m sure he’ll be annoyed, but too bad,” she shrugged, even though he couldn’t see her.

“Terrific! Poe will be pleased. Rose will, too. She doesn’t say it, but I think she liked having another tough lady around for her to commiserate with…”

Rey smiled. “I look forward to seeing everyone. See you tomorrow. After dinner?”

“Yeah, after dinner. I’ll pick you up at your place, then we can go get Ben, if he’s coming. Do we have a plan?”

“We have a plan.” She held the communicator in her lap, rubbing her thumb over the green light. “Good night, Finn.”

“Good night, girl. Sleep well.”

“You too.” Then she heard the click of Finn turning off his communicator, and the green light turned to red. She pressed the button to close off her end of the channel and set the commlink on her folded up pants. She leaned back into the wall against her bed and sighed, thinking about how she could convince Ben to come out for drinks with her and her friends. He is going to hate this idea, she thought.

It was a problem she would deal with tomorrow. For tonight, she wanted to rest her weary body and just sleep. She shifted on her bedroll and slipped under the covers. Reaching out with the Force to the table across the room, she deactivated her lantern and stared up into the darkness. Her hand slipped up to her forehead, and she touched the spot where she’d been struck, the place his hand had lingered, searing a brand into her memory. There was definitely more to his sudden advancement in the Force than he was letting on. He had been so willing to share so much else with her—why he was reluctant to share these other things, she wasn’t sure. She would be patient, but she resolved to get to the bottom of it. First things first, she had to get through tomorrow.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 10: Tète-à-Tète———

The next morning, Rey puttered around her kitchen in her nightclothes as she thought about how to broach the subject of going back to the base to visit with her friends. She scrambled some eggs in a pan and prepared pieces of fruit she had gathered yesterday.

Sitting at the table with her breakfast, she felt ready to talk to Ben. She reached out with her mind, finding Ben in his own kitchen, and projected her thoughts to him. Good morning, she said.

Good morning. Did you have a nice chat last night?

Pretty good, yes. He had a proposal…

He didn’t respond right away …I’m going to hate whatever it is, aren’t I?

Quite probably. They want us to come for drinks with them tonight.

Ben said nothing.

Rey persisted. I think we should go.

Rey, I—are you dressed?

She was taken aback by the question. Uh, Yes…

Then hold on a second…

Rey waited, and a moment later Ben was in her cottage. He was dressed in his repaired black pants and his new robe hanging open in the front, his hair still mussed from having slept on it.

“I see you’ve now mastered this skill…” she muttered, hoping her irritation could conceal her amusement at his appearance.

He ignored her comment. “This is a terrible idea, Rey. You didn’t really think I would agree to this, did you?” he asked.

“I knew you wouldn’t be thrilled, but I really think you should consider it,” she said, as confidently as she could muster.

“Why in the world should I? You realize what could happen if I show my face there, don’t you? And in a place where people will be inebriated? They won’t be able to resist confrontation.”

“Those are good points,” she considered, “but I think the potential benefits outweigh those risks.”

“Benefits? What benefits are you imagining? Besides satisfying your selfish need for social interaction.”

She ignored the dig. “I want them to see how you’ve changed. They should know you as I do.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I don’t think this will go the way you think it will go,” he said. Rey felt a sense of déjà vu, but suppressed it.

She pressed on, “We can’t remain hermits forever. At some point, we’ll have to go back anyway, and it will be that much more difficult the longer we put it off.”

“I just don’t agree. It’s only been a week since my mother’s death—that’s still raw for a lot of people, and I’m sure many of them blame me for it.”

There were no great counterarguments to that leaping into her mind, but she would not be dissuaded. “Look, I’m going to go no matter what, and I really think you should join me. It would be good for you.”

He gave her a side-eye. “I think you have a very corrupted sense of what is good for me.”

She paused, looking resolutely back at him. “Please come.”

“Ugh,” he groaned, “Fine, but I’m going to need to meditate all afternoon just to have the patience to endure this.” He covered his face with his hands and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“So no training today then?” she asked, eyebrow raised.

“No training.” His hands were still on his face.

“Fair enough,” she said. “Finn will pick us up in a speeder sometime after dinner. Be ready.”

The resignation cut deeply into his expression, and he nodded wearily. “Uh huh,” he said, and then disappeared.

She sat quietly for a moment, staring at the empty space Ben had occupied moments before. “I can’t believe that worked.”

———

Rey was dressed in her least grubby attire, and resolved to try to do some laundry the next day. She had butterflies in her stomach, and was full of nervous energy. Everything in her house had been cleaned and reorganized at least three times—she had forgotten how long a day on her own with nothing to do could be. Finally, her communicator signaled the impending arrival of her friend. With sweaty hands, she fumbled for it and switched it on.

Finn asked, “So, have you eaten? Can I come pick you up now?”

Rey did her best to stifle the nervous lilt to her voice as she spoke. “Yup, we’re both coming.”

“No kidding? I really thought he’d decline to come…” said Finn.

“It took all my skill as a master manipulator, but I convinced him that the pros outweighed the cons,” she said.

“Did you have to Jedi mind trick him?” he asked facetiously.

She laughed. “That doesn’t work on him, no.”

“Tried it before, have you?” He chuckled. “Okay, I’m on my way. Be there in about ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Okay, see you soon.” She switched off the communicator and began to pace around the kitchen.

She reached out to Ben. Get ready, he’ll be here in about fifteen minutes.

Super.

Have you eaten?

I had very little appetite, but yes.

Good. Okay, well, see you soon.

Uh huh, he said, and she pulled out of his mind.

Over the next fifteen minutes, she probably emptied and rearranged her wardrobe four times.

———

It was almost sundown when Finn pulled up to Rey’s house. He hopped out of the speeder as she was coming out the door, running up to him to embrace. They hugged for a good several seconds.

“It’s fantastic to see you,” he said to her.

“Likewise, my friend,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Let’s see your place,” he said, pulling her toward the cottage. They entered, and he looked around appreciatively.

“This is… cute. Very old-fashioned.” He nodded his head as he took in the old-timey details.

“We had a lot of fixing up to do to get it to this point, but I don’t really spend a lot of time here, so it’s pretty bare.”

“No, no, it’s… cute.”

“You said that already,” she observed.

There wasn’t a lot to see, so thirty seconds of glancing around proved to be an adequate tour of her place. Clapping her on the back, Finn said, somewhat awkwardly, “Uh huh. Well! Let’s go get Ben, I guess.”

They stepped outside and jumped into the speeder. Finn fired it up, and they headed northwest to Ben’s cottage. The landscape she’d gotten so used to seeing as she walked looked very different as she zipped past it on the speeder. On Jakku, there was little difference; sand at high speed looked about the same as sand at low speed. Dendrokaan had such a greater diversity of life on display that seeing it in a smear provided her with a whole new appreciation for its details.

“So what did Ben say when you brought this idea up to him?” Finn asked.

“He basically said he would need to spend all day meditating in order to avoid harming himself or others.”

Finn laughed. “That’s very self-aware of him, I guess. So what do you think of him, honestly?”

She tried to think of the right words. “He’s changed, I think. He’s found more balance in the Force, and his abilities have grown. He can do things I wouldn’t have thought possible.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant, but okay.” He didn’t say anything more, and they pulled up to Ben’s cottage in silence.

Ben stepped out to greet them. He was dressed in the canvas pants and black shirt Rey had made him, covered by the robe. That the clothes she’d made seemed to fit was gratifying to her.

“Hi,” she greeted him from the speeder. “Ready?”

“No, but we can leave. I’m as ready as I’m going to get.” He looked miserable.

“Nice outfit,” Finn commented. “It’s weird to see you in anything other than full black.”

“Yeah, well, I thought I should try to appear less… menacing.”

“So black says ‘menace’ to you, does it? Is that what you’re saying?” Finn remarked levelly.

Ben blinked. “What? No, that’s not—“

“Uh huh, uh huh, sure. I know exactly what you’re saying, Dark Side. Just shut up and get in, will you?” Finn was messing with him, but Ben couldn’t tell.

Rey broke into a smile at the obvious goading, and exchanged a look with Ben, who appeared utterly dumbstruck. She waved toward him to get in, and he reluctantly climbed into the back seat. He strapped himself in, and rolled his eyes up to the sky as they pulled away.

———

They parked the speeder in the hangar and hopped out. Finn led the way to the cantina, and Ben stayed close to Rey. His futile attempts at feigning nonchalance notwithstanding, his emotions betrayed his obvious preoccupation with trying to see if anyone recognized him.

When they stepped into the cantina, they were met with a loud greeting. “Finn! Rey! So good to see you! Come, sit!” Poe stood at his seat at a circular table and motioned for them to take a chair. Several bar patrons had turned from their conversations to see what the noise was about, and Ben bristled. Rose was seated next to Poe, smiling innocently. There were only two empty chairs at the table.

Finn was oblivious, but Rey felt awkward and glanced at Ben, who looked back at her nervously. She grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table and dragged it over, placing it between the two empty seats that were already there. She took the chair on the right, closest to Poe, and Finn sat next to Rose, leaving Ben the seat in the middle. Rose and Poe had already ordered drinks for themselves, and Poe looked like he was about two-thirds of the way through his. Rose had barely made a dent in hers.

Everyone was sitting down, and it was instantly the most awkward social gathering Rey had ever experienced, but she resolved to power through it and do her best to enjoy herself. “What are you drinking?” she asked Poe and Rose.

“Twi’lek brandy,” Rose answered. “It’s yummy, but it’s got a kick. I have to drink slowly, or I won’t make it to the end of the evening with my dignity intact.”

“Yeah, she’s a real lightweight,” commented Poe, taking a swig from his glass. “What can I get for you, Rey?” So far, he had completely ignored Ben.

“Whatever you’re having is fine,” she answered. “What about you?” She looked at Ben.

“Same,” he answered with a curt nod.

“Barkeep!” Poe shouted. “Another round of brandies over here!” Again, people turned to stare at them.

Stay calm. Don’t let him get to you, Rey cautioned. Ben didn’t answer.

“So tell us about all the cool Jedi stuff you can do that you couldn’t do before,” Finn said, attempting to initiate some genuine conversation.

“Ben has taught me a lot. Besides getting stronger at everything I could do before, I can use the Force to see the world around me, even at a distance,” she said.

“Right, the spying thing,” Poe editorialized. “Watch out,” he said to Rose, fluttering his eyebrows conspiratorially, “They can find you anywhere.”

Finn turned to Ben. “Rey says even you can do things you couldn’t do before. Like what?”

Ben glared at Rey, exponentially more uncomfortable than he was a moment ago. “Nothing. She exaggerates.”

She persevered, determined to help them appreciate how he had changed. “He can heal people,” she offered. Ben stiffened.

“Is that right?” said Finn. “I tore my hand open yesterday helping Rose gut a B-wing,” he said, waving his hand at them. “Think you could speed up my recovery?”

“Yeah, show us what you can do,” challenged Poe, without even looking at him. He swallowed the last of his Twi’lek brandy and waved his glass in the air. “Barkeep! We asked for more brandy!”

Rey put her hand on Poe’s forearm, and whispered urgently to him, “Will you please keep your voice down? You don’t have to shout.”

“What? I’m just trying to enjoy a drink with my friends here, and the service here suddenly got really bad!”

Rose stood up. “I’ll go to the bar and get the drinks, calm down.”

Rose walked off, and Poe added, to no one in particular, “It’s just, I wonder why they won’t come to our table. Seems odd, doesn’t it?” Poe finally acknowledged Ben, whom he hadn’t so much as looked at yet. “So yeah, Ben, heal my friend here.”

“I can’t,” Ben said, looking across the room. “I only managed it once.”

“Come on, give it a try,” Poe urged. Finn removed his bacta patch to reveal the gash in his hand. It did indeed look pretty gruesome.

Go ahead. It might shut him up.

Ben looked at her and subtly shook his head.

Please, she insisted.

Ben looked back toward table and sighed. From under his downcast brows, he shifted his gaze back to Rey and leaned forward slightly.

Ben’s hands had been clenched in his lap, but he raised one arm and set his hand on the table, now looking at Finn. Finn moved his hand closer to Ben, glancing back and forth between his hand, Ben, and Rey. Rey looked at Finn gratefully.

Nervously, Ben hovered his hand over Finn’s injury and tried to center himself. Poe watched intently, staring hard at Ben.

After a few seconds that seemed to stretch on a lot longer than normal, Ben grunted and pulled his hand away. “I told you, I can’t.” He shoved his hand back in his lap.

Under the table, Rey reached over and took his right hand. You can do this. I know you can. Ben stared at her, taking a nervous breath. Poe eyed them suspiciously. Keeping his right hand in place where Rey had covered it, Ben reluctantly lifted his left hand above the table, and set it over Finn’s.

Ben continued to lock eyes with Rey, whose bearing had softened sympathetically as she stared back. Poe’s eyes narrowed, and then Finn exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s getting warm!”

Poe’s attention shifted to Finn, whose eyes were wide, hand remaining under Ben’s. Ben continued to look at Rey. Rose walked back up to the table carrying a tray of drinks, and creased her forehead in confusion at what she had come back to.

Finn had been tense, but was starting to relax as the cooling sensation set in. Poe looked back at Ben and Rey, and frowned at what he saw.

“That’s amazing!” exclaimed Rose as Finn lifted his hand up to examine the results of Ben’s efforts, laughing with appreciation.

“Hot damn! That actually worked!” cried Finn.

Rey was smiling at Ben, the two still looking at one another silently. She squeezed his hand under the table. I knew you could do it. The corner of his mouth twitched.

Rose had set the tray of drinks down and was examining Finn’s hand excitedly. Poe continued to direct his gaze at Ben and Rey, looking not nearly as impressed as Finn or Rose.

“Wow, that was really something,” Poe said, nodding sternly. Ben pulled his hand out from under Rey’s and reached for his brandy, visibly relaxing. Rey also took a sip of her drink, smiling proudly.

“That was awesome!” said Finn to Ben. “You just learned how to do that?”

Ben nodded modestly. “That’s the second time.”

“Do you know how you did it yet?” questioned Rey. Then, to the others, she said, “He says he doesn’t know how to teach that to me yet. So have you figured it out?"

“Maybe. Still not sure,” Ben murmured.

She punched him playfully in the arm, causing a little of his brandy to slosh out of his glass. “God, you are really a withholding bastard,” she laughed.

Ben took another sip of brandy and lifted a hand in his defense. “I may be withholding, but I’m hardly a bastard—my parents were married,” he added dryly.

Finn and Rose looked at him and burst out laughing. Rey laughed too. Poe, however, slammed his hand on the table, causing their glasses of brandy to jump and splash, once again arousing the attentions of other patrons.

“You’re a real nice guy now, aren’t you? That’s great. That’ll make up for everything, I’m sure. Don’t you think so, Rey?” Poe turned his eyes from Ben to Rey.

“Poe, I think you need to slow down on the brandy,” admonished Rey.

Poe was about to start up again when a large Psadan approached them and interjected himself into their conversation. “Hey, you’re that First Order leader, Kylo Ren, aren’t you?” The nearly two-meter tall Psadan was obviously very drunk. “What makes you think you can just sit and enjoy a drink here in this cantina, you First Order scum? Huh?” He bumped into the table, causing more liquor to spill. “Huh?”

Ben started to stand, but Rey rested her hand on his forearm, stopping him. She rose from the table, staring down the hulking Psadan, who was taller than she was by half, and nearly five times as wide. “You will go back to your table and ignore us for the rest of the night.”

The Psadan looked blankly back at her, then pronounced evenly, “I will go back to my table and ignore you for the rest of the night.” He turned and left without further incident, returning to the band of other Psadans he was there with.

Finn’s eyes bulged, and he turned an impressed gaze to Rey. “Daaaamn, I need to go drinking with Jedi more often!”

Rey sat back down, pleased with herself. “I’m not a Jedi,” she said, winking at Ben, who smiled back.

Suddenly, Poe erupted at her. “Well it’s no wonder people are wary of you! You come here with the most notorious murderer in the galaxy and use your powers to put them in their place!”

Everyone looked at Poe, and he felt their eyes on him like daggers. “Don’t look at me like that! This is exactly what I was afraid of! He’s turning her into someone else!”

“Poe, you’re being a little too intense right now,” said Finn.

“Finn, this guy almost killed you. Are you really ready to just let that go? To let her go back out there with him?” He jabbed an accusing finger at Ben, who regarded him coolly.

Finn raised his arms in a placating gesture, and Rey touched Poe’s arm to try to calm him. Poe whipped toward Rey, grabbing her roughly by the arm, “Rey, don’t be taken in by him!” He got right up in her face and pulled her toward him possessively. Reflexively, Ben’s hand shot out toward Poe, knocking him backwards out of his seat and across the floor into the legs of another group of patrons, who all turned to look accusingly back at them.

Ben stood up. “Time to go,” he said, tugging Rey gently by the arm. She hurriedly stood to join him. Finn and Rose were too preoccupied with Poe to notice their departure, and they scurried out of the cantina amid the chaos.

They walked briskly toward the hangar, Ben’s hand at the small of Rey’s back, guiding her. People turned to watch them as they passed, but no one stopped them. Reaching the hangar, Ben jumped into the driver’s seat of the speeder and pointed to the seat next to him. Rey joined him, and he engaged the acceleration, heading out of the hangar at breakneck velocity.

“Well, did that go the way you’d hoped?” he asked her, betraying only a hint of sarcasm.

Rey had her head despondently propped up on her palm, her elbow resting on the edge of the speeder. She looked at him wordlessly, then back out at the blurring landscape.

“Well?” he pressed her.

Rey sighed. “That wasn’t ideal.”

“No shit.”

He considered needling her further, but ultimately decided against it. They rode the rest of the way back to her cottage in silence, which mercifully only lasted another couple of minutes.

The speeder slowed down and came to a stop a few feet from Rey’s door. Ben switched off the engine, and they just sat there without speaking. Finally Rey broke the silence, looking at him. “For what it’s worth, I actually think you made a good impression.”

Ben exhaled a puff of air out his nose in a derisive laugh. He looked back at her from under his eyebrows with an incredulous stare.

“No, I mean it. I’m proud of you. Poe was being an ass, and I’m sure he’ll have figured that out by tomorrow. Finn and Rose will help him understand.”

“You give him too much credit.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “And you may have had a point that he has feelings for me…”

“Alcohol tends to make such things harder to conceal. Though, you could have just looked into his feelings and known long ago.”

“I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see it, but if I had let myself, I’d have known it was there. It was willful naïveté.”

“Not interested then?”

“You have to ask? You can’t just look into my feelings?”

Ben sighed. “I’ve been trying to do less of that.”

She was silent for a moment as she took in his answer. She looked him in the eyes before answering his initial question. “I’m not interested in him, no,” she replied flatly, shaking her head slowly.

They sat without speaking for another minute as the forest hummed around them, but then Rey finally stirred. “Well, this was a memorable evening, but I’m ready to call it a day.” She hopped out of the speeder, and leaned in against the quarter panel on the side, staring back at him. “Go home, get some rest.”

“I’ll try,” he said.

With a sigh, she turned around and headed into her cottage, giving a last wave to him as she stepped through the threshold. He waved back, and put the speeder into gear. As she closed the curtain that constituted her door, he pulled away and was gone.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 11: Confrontation———

Back at the cantina, Rose, Finn, and Poe sat quietly back at their table. Poe was holding an ice pack to the back of his head, and their Twi’lek brandies had been replaced with water and strong black caf.

The cantina had settled down significantly since Rey and Ben had left, and the barkeeps had begun cleaning for the night. Amid the clatter and shuffle of the activity around them, Finn and Rose stared hard at their vexed friend.

Poe, succumbing finally to the stern looks he was getting, said, “Look, I’m sorry, okay? I get that I acted like an ass. I just wish any of you could understand how I feel about that asshole.”

“You think you have that much more reason to despise him than anyone else? I was a stormtrooper,” said Finn. “I watched him order the killing of that entire village back on Jakku. I saw him murder his father, toss Rey into a tree, and he sliced me up my back with his damn laser sword. I understand what it is about him that has you so pissed off.”

“Then why does my anger come as such a shock to you? Why aren’t you as pissed as I am?” asked Poe in genuine confusion.

“Because I’m willing to believe that people can change. I was conditioned from infancy to kill for the First Order, remember? I was terrified to tell Rey what I was when I first met her. I didn’t think she would accept me if she knew, but she did. She was willing to look past what I was before to the person I was then, who I am now. She believed in me and trusted me. And I believe in her.”

“And she believes in him, is that what you’re saying? That we should trust him because she thinks he’s a good person now? That’s disgusting. This is totally different.”

“It’s only a different scale,” interjected Rose.

Finn looked at Rose, who returned his gaze with a sad expression. Looking back at Poe, Finn spoke. “Someone I love once told me that we’ll never win by fighting what we hate,” said Finn. Rose smiled sweetly at him. “That we’ll win by—by saving what we love.”

Poe frowned, looking crestfallen. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”

“So is she,” said Rose, sadly.

Tears pricked the corners of Poe’s eyes, and Finn and Rose regarded him solemnly. Finn stood up, taking Rose by the hand to get her to follow suit. Finn rounded the table, grabbing Poe by the shoulder to give him a reassuring squeeze.

Finn was about to walk off, but Poe grabbed his wrist to hold him there. They exchanged a knowing and sympathetic look, then Finn patted him on the shoulder and nodded. Reaching for Rose’s hand one more time, he led her away, leaving Poe alone with his thoughts and his lukewarm caf.

———

Ben had parked the speeder next to his house and now sat at his table with the lantern on low, reflecting on the evening he’d just endured. She was right that it hadn’t been a total disaster, though the bad parts had gone about as badly as he’d predicted they would. He rubbed his hands together, reminiscing.

He had been lost in reverie, but then snapped back to awareness, listening. “Shit,” he cursed, standing up from his chair. He pushed out with his thoughts, mapping the area in his mind. Five of them. Two in the forest in back, three in the front. Blasters.

Ben had no weapons, but realized that was probably for the best. Even unarmed, he could fend off five drunken Psadans. Brandishing a weapon would only make them more bloodthirsty. Removing his robe and draping it over the back of his chair, he prepared to face his attackers.

Stepping out of his cottage, Ben shouted into the darkness. “I’m unarmed! I have no wish to fight you!”

A blaster bolt came at him from the darkness, striking the corner of his house and blowing a big hole in it. Ben moved further from his home in the hopes that he could spare it from further damage.

Sensing his attackers closing in, Ben called out once more, “I don’t want to fight you!”

One of the Psadans shouted back, “Of course you don’t want to fight! It’s five on one and you have no weapons!” The other Psadans laughed.

“I may be unarmed, but that doesn’t make me defenseless.”

“Our friend came back to us completely stupefied! Whatever you did to him, we’re going to kill you for it, First Order scum!” The blaster bolts began to come, from various directions and with no apparent strategy. Even if Ben did nothing, the chances that they would fire past him and strike one of their own seemed a fair bet. Ben ran away from his home to the northwest, keeping the lake to his left. A few lucky shots required him to actually dodge or deflect their blasts with the Force as he ran.

The assailants were frustrated with their target’s successful evasion tactics. They began to grow more frenzied, firing more rapidly, with more deliberate aim. Ben reached out in front of him with the Force, gripping the blaster of the Psadan in front of him and tearing it in half. The rent blaster exploded, leaving the Psadan he had liberated it from momentarily dazed. He ran past the attacker, knocking him down as he passed. The bolts continued to come.

With the Psadans now all behind him, he turned to stand his ground. The lake was to his right, the forest to his left, and his cottage in front of him. Wave after wave of shots came at him, but at least they were now all coming from one direction. He easily deflected the blasts with pulses of Force energy while he considered his next move.

Then, to Ben’s horror, some of the attackers turned and began firing in the opposite direction, away from him. Rey.

The Psadan he had knocked down ran at him and was suddenly sent flying into the lake. Ben darted back the way he had come, toward his cottage and Rey. Her presence complicated things for him—prior to her arrival, their behavior had been entirely focused on him and reasonably predictable. Not anymore.

Rey was on the offensive, throttling her opponents with her quarterstaff and threatening to do them actual harm. He tried to project a warning into her head not to go too far, but apparently she wasn’t in a listening mood.

Rey had gotten herself in the middle of a trio of Psadans and was engaging with the one nearest to Ben. She choked him with the Force, sending him to the ground, clawing at his throat. The attacker behind her turned to fire, and with a wave of his hand, Ben hurled him backward into the dirt. He then made eye contact with Rey for the first time since she’d arrived, and was taken aback by what he saw. The fire in her eyes was stunning—fierce and terrifying. It impressed him, but also struck him as alien. Gripped by the marvel of her bearing, he was caught unaware by a blaster bolt from the forest, striking him in the shoulder.

Clutching his injury, Ben dropped to his knees. Rey shouted, emitting a blast of Force toward the forest that splintered the trees, knocking the Psadan who had fired unconscious. Only one attacker remained alert and a threat, and Rey quickly whirled on him and used the Force to whip him into the dirt as well, senseless.

“Rey, stop!” shouted Ben. “If you kill them, this will only get worse for us!” Rey stood there gasping for breath, shivering in her rage. She looked back at him, eyes pleading. Ben stumbled to his feet and made his way over to her. “Just stop now, it’s over. We need to get them out of here. Alright?”

Rey nodded her assent, breathing heavily. Her eyes had become clear again. “What do you want to do?”

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll pull the one out of the water and ‘suggest’ he go home, forgetting everything he saw here. You find the other four and plant the same thought into their heads as well. Can you do that?” Rey nodded again, and headed into what remained of the forest perimeter to find the unconscious sniper.

Ben breathed a cleansing breath, taking in the relative calm and surveying his surroundings. Rey had sent the Psadan far enough into the lake that he struggled to remain afloat. Spluttering and splashing, it was clear he wouldn’t be able to make it to the shore without help. Ben used the Force to lift him out of the water and set him rigidly on the shore, whereupon he immediately suggested a return to the Resistance base. The Psadan repeated the directive back to Ben and trudged back the way he had come.

Once all the Psadans had been accounted for and sent blearily on their way, Rey and Ben stepped into the cottage to survey the damage to Ben’s shoulder. Ben seated himself in a chair at the table, and Rey turned up the lantern to get a better view. Frowning deeply at the wound, Rey sighed, “Ben, I’m sorry, this is all my fault. I just—I felt them coming, and I just had to try to help you. It was like I was… consumed.”

These words triggered a memory in Ben, and he stared off into space for a moment as he let the images flow back to him. He could see his family sitting around a table. He was just a boy, being visited at his home on Chandrila by his Uncle Luke.

“He was consumed by fear of losing her—it drove him mad,” Luke had said, looking grave. Ben knew they were talking about his grandfather, but he was too young to understand the meaning behind those words. It was years later that he would learn the truth of his grandfather’s identity, and even later that he would learn what that fear had driven him to.

He was grateful Rey was at his back, examining his wound—she couldn’t see the look on his face. “Just help me get this off, will you?” With his good arm, Ben lifted the handmade shirt up over his stomach, but needed Rey’s help to shimmy out of it the rest of the way. The blaster bolt had carved a nice-sized hole in the garment, and left a mess of his shoulder.

“Somehow, this looks worse than the blaster wounds you had when you got here,” she observed dismally.

“Hux was trying to kill me slowly. These guys weren’t messing around, I’m sure they had their blasters set higher.” He grabbed a rag off the nearby kitchen counter to staunch the bleeding.

“Where’s your medkit?” she asked.

“In the trunk in the corner,” he said, jutting his chin in that general direction.

She opened the trunk and sifted through its contents, returning when she’d found what she was looking for. She set the medkit on the table and opened it, peering inside.

“Dammit, this won’t be much help.”

“Just find the gauze and the tape. As long as I don’t bleed to death, I’ll be fine.”

Ben sat still while Rey tended to his shoulder, setting the gauze in place.

“If you had taught me how to heal by now, I would be able to help you properly…” she berated, unable to help herself.

Ben elected not to respond, but that did nothing to deter Rey from grilling him further.

“How do you do it?” she probed, apparently still unwilling to let the subject go. “Please tell me. I want to help you.”

“Rey, I keep telling you, if I knew how to teach it to you, I would,” he said, looking up over his shoulder at her standing behind him.

She set the last of the tape in place on his back, securing the gauze. “There, you’re all patched up, but I should have been able to do more.” She gave a defeated sigh, casting the roll of tape back into the kit. “When you did it, what were you thinking about?” she pried. He really didn’t want to say, and she knew it.

He groaned in frustration. “I don’t know, I just tried to focus,” he said, standing up and turning to face her. Leaning back against the edge of the table, he shifted some of his weight onto it and casually extended one leg out in her direction. “Why are you so annoyed at me about it?”

“Because I can tell you’re holding back, and I just want you to be honest with me!” She tried to get up in his face to berate him properly, but couldn’t—she was several inches too short.

He exhaled, “Look, I can't help you. I’m sorry.”

“Then can you please at least tell me why?” Ben’s apparent refusal to impart his secrets to her struck Rey as something oddly personal, like it was a skill he didn’t want her to have, for whatever reason. It made her angry.

He lifted himself from the edge of the table, towering over her. Besides taking a reflexive step back, Rey showed no other sign of relenting. Frustrated, Ben’s stubbornness finally broke. Giving in at last to her demands for an explanation, he practically shouted in her face, “I know how I did it, okay? But I can’t teach it to you. It’s not teachable, you just have to feel it, and it happens!” He took another step towards her, edging her toward the wall.

“Feel what? How do you know I can’t feel it?” She jabbed her left index finger into his chest, accusingly.

“Because I just know you don’t, okay?” With his right hand, he grabbed her roughly by the wrist of her protruding arm, and shoved her up against the wall, pinning her arm next to her head. His left hand moved to her waist, holding her in place as he advanced on her, his face inches from hers. She gasped in surprise, and his eyes darted to her mouth. His breath was hot in her face, and her heart pounded in her chest. The fingers on his left hand moved ever so slightly, thumb slipping under the fabric of her tunic, brushing the skin below her ribs. She felt herself flush and instinctively arched into him. He was incredibly close, and the pressure with which he was holding her against the stone wall was only increasing. She felt Darkness from him, but it didn’t frighten her.

All of a sudden, he stopped himself, and he released her from his grip and pulled his hand from her waist as if it burned to touch her. Taking a couple steps back and casting his eyes to the floor, he studiously avoided looking at her. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Rey stood, rooted to her spot against the wall, breathing heavily and observing his retreating form. Stumbling slightly as he backed into the chair he’d been sitting in just moments earlier, he stopped withdrawing and looked at her from under his downcast brows.

“Let’s take the day off tomorrow. No training. You should talk to your friends, and I have work to do here. I’ve gotta fix the wall…” he mumbled, gesturing to the blaster hole in the side of his cottage. “Take the speeder back. I’m pretty sure it’s how the Psadans found me—probably tagged. Safer with you…”

He was rambling. Rey had regained her composure, for the most part, and stepped forward from the wall, smoothing her tunic back down over her waist. Inhaling and exhaling steadily, she nodded her head and walked carefully to the door, taking one last look at him before exiting. Once she was outside, her legs carried her on autopilot, and she boarded the speeder. The Force must have guided her home, because she certainly hadn’t given any conscious thought to getting there.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 12: Cleansed———

The next morning, Ben awoke to the light streaming in through the open doorway—Rey had been here, and must have left without closing it. So I guess I didn’t dream all of that, he thought. He twisted himself on his bedroll, trying to escape the offending rays, but winced when he rolled onto his injured shoulder, another reminder that the night before had not gone particularly well for him. Stubborn Rey. Stubborn for making him go out. Stubborn for not keeping out of it when he was attacked by moronic drunks. Stubborn for not leaving it alone about the healing. Her stubbornness would be the death of him.

Since there was no way to remain comfortably in bed with things the way they were, he sat up and took in the state of his room. The trunk was wide open, the chairs were in odd places, and the table was littered with medical supplies. Beyond the general disarray, there was a hole blasted into the front wall of his cottage. Burying his head in his hands, he resolved to take some much needed time to himself.

He very deliberately did not look for Rey, shutting his mind off from whatever signals he may have otherwise passively received from her. He just gathered up a change of clothes, a towel, and a bar of soap, and headed for the lake. The water glistened peacefully, a stark contrast to its state from the night before, as a half-drowned Psadan flailed miserably at its surface.

He walked up to the lake’s edge and looked east toward the rising sun. Sighing, he unbuttoned his pants and stripped them off, folding them carefully and setting them down in the dry grass. Wading into the cleansing water, he got in to where it was deep enough that he could fully submerge himself. Ben momentarily hesitated before dropping below the surface, realizing the water could contaminate his wound, but found that he just didn’t care. If it got infected, there was always bacta spray.

The water was cool against his skin, relaxing to his muscles and frayed nerves. He dunked himself in the lake, remaining submerged a few seconds, feeling his hair swirl around his head. His shoulder ached. Planting his feet in the sludgy lake bottom, he pushed himself up out of the water and whipped his hair back and out of his face. He rubbed his eyes to squeeze the last of the water from them, then looked to the shore where he’d left his bar of soap. To his surprise, there was Rey.

She was standing at the lake’s edge next to where he had left his things, holding a sack. She stood watching him, and he stared back.

“What are you doing here? Didn’t we say no training today?” he called to her.

“It’s laundry day, and my cottage doesn’t come with a lake. You’re going to have to share.”

He sank back down into the lake, his mouth below the water line, turned, and grumbled as he stroked his way slowly away from her.

Don’t run from me, she projected at him.

He rose slightly out of the water, glancing at her over his shoulder as he called back to her, “I’m not running, I’d just like a little privacy.”

She watched him retreat further. Steeling herself with resolve, she unfastened her pants, and slipped them down around her ankles, followed by her boots, arm wraps and tunic. Given the admirable job he was doing avoiding her, she was reasonably confident he wouldn’t peek, but it was a risk she was willing to take—she was completely past modesty at this point.

By the time she was down to her breast wraps and underpants, he was a fair distance away from the shore. She waded into the water after him, in nothing but her underclothes. Sensing the disturbance in the water, he finally halted his retreat and turned around to look for her. Only his head and the tops of his shoulders broke the water’s surface.

She had only waded in up to her waist—she knew he could see her, but she didn’t care. He wasn’t going to get away.

“What are you doing?” he asked, brow furrowed.

“I need a bath, too,” she said plainly, continuing her advance toward him. He just watched her with apprehension.

She got in deep enough that her shoulders had almost dropped below the water’s surface, and then suddenly, she fell under, flailing desperately. He could feel her panic, and swam over to help her, shoulder throbbing with pain. Reaching down, he grabbed her securely by the wrists, and hoisted her up.

She shook the water from her face, whipping her hair across her cheeks. Dangling from his grasp, she cried out with apparent alarm, “It's deep where you are!”

Then it dawned on him. “You can’t swim, can you?” It was a rhetorical question. She looked dumbly up at him, water dripping from her chin and nose. “I swear, Rey, let’s just add this to the litany of reasons why Jakku is a fetid hellhole that did nothing but hold you back.”

He backed her up until he was sure her feet could again touch the lake bottom, and released her wrists. “I know I said no training today, but any simpleton should know how to swim,” he said, resting his palm on her forehead and projecting the knowledge of how to stay afloat into her mind. “Got it?”

She nodded. “I know how you do it now,” she said.

“Good. No one in the galaxy should be more likely to be killed by water than the First Order,” he said, starting to turn away from her again.

She reached out, securing his wrist, stopping him from escaping her again. “No, I mean I know how you did it, and I can do it too now. You didn’t think I’d be able to, that I didn’t feel it. But you’re wrong.”

He studied her face, trying to read what he could from it—so tempted to just look in her mind for answers. “What are you talking about?” he asked apprehensively.

She didn’t answer. At this depth, Ben’s shoulders were up out of the water as he stood before her. She reached toward his soaked gauze, tearing it from his body and releasing it into the water, letting it just float away. His wound was hideous, ragged and angry with inflammation, and she couldn’t hold back a pained expression as she examined it. She looked into his eyes, and he cautiously returned her stare. Her left hand settled on his good shoulder to steady herself, and her right hand moved to his injury.

Her fingers brushed lightly against the raw edges of the hole in his shoulder, and he wrinkled his nose in discomfort, but did not withdraw. She took a step closer to him and leveled her palm confidently to the wound, closing her eyes. His heart beat rapidly in his chest as his shoulder began to burn with the pain of healing. It began to get more intense as her ministrations worked their way to his bones. Flesh, blood vessels, and sinew knitted themselves back together in perfect form. Gradually, the burning sensation gave way to cooling, and her eyelids fluttered open, an intoxicated expression on her face. Even after she was finished, she did not move. Her hands remained on his shoulders, and she looked resolutely up at him.

“You have to use the Light, yes, but it’s more than that,” she said. She had no doubt he already understood what was required, but she continued her explanation anyway—he needed to know that she knew. “Healing is an act that is predicated on sacrifice, on your regard for others over and above yourself. It is a skill you access by calling up the wellspring of affection and love you have for others, that which drives you to put their needs before your own. It is something you can only do for others for whom you care deeply.”

Her hands had been sliding gradually from his shoulders up to the curve of his neck, and her fingers combed back through his hair. His eyelids dipped from the calming sensation, and subconsciously, his hands moved once more to her waist, to the spot he first touched last night. Only this time, as his conscious mind caught up to what his unconscious mind was doing, he didn’t jerk back. He stared down into her hazel eyes and pressed his hands firmly into her sides, drawing her up to meet him. Like a man dying of thirst at the edge of an oasis, he pressed his lips to hers in a fierce and greedy kiss.

Reciprocating, her arms stretched around his head, enveloping him. His own hands explored the curves of her body, one hand moving up her back to follow the trail of her spine, the other exploring lower, to the skin of her thigh where her underclothes came to a stop. He grabbed her firmly, breathing heavily as he pulled her closer.

They remained locked together in their watery embrace for several minutes, kissing and nuzzling, building up their courage. After a time, Rey pulled away just a bit, until she was nose to nose with her eager partner. “You’ve known all along haven’t you? You felt it?” she asked, though it came out like a statement. She gave his formerly injured shoulder a squeeze.

He stared at her mouth, nodding and desperate.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” she asked him, genuine curiosity evident in her voice.

His gaze lifted from her mouth to her eyes, looking not just at her, but into her. “I didn’t lie—I genuinely wasn’t sure. I suspected… but I used that seed of doubt as an excuse not to have to tell you. I’m sorry.”

It occurred to Rey that, had he explained what was necessary to heal someone, it would’ve been tantamount to confessing feelings for her that he wasn’t comfortable making known. He was incredibly vulnerable to rejection, and his affection for her gave her a power over him that she hadn’t realized she’d wielded. “Why didn’t you just search my feelings? I’m pretty sure you’d have found reason to be up front with me.”

He stared at her intensely, contemplating her question. Giving his head a light shake, he offered her a lopsided smile and only one word in reply. “Permission…”

A deep, warm smile stretched across her face at this admission from him, and she kissed him once more. He grabbed her backside, and she responded by wrapping her legs around him. One arm held his head firmly to her, and the other explored the contours of his upper body, tracing the line of his scar down to its end and moving around to his back from there.

Still holding her firmly against him, he walked them over toward the shore. As the buoyant force of the water subsided, she had to grip him harder to keep from slipping away. Once out of the lake, he dropped to his knees, setting her down gently in the soft grass as he hovered over her.

Nervousness was beginning to set in as it dawned on her where this was heading. Ben, on the other hand, appeared to have lost his fear. His hands moved up to her neck, pulling at the sopping wet fabric binding her breasts. He wrestled it down off the edge of her shoulder, and set his mouth to her collarbone, tasting her. She shivered.

This was the passion of Darkness, and Rey found it intoxicating. Jedi were celibate, swearing an oath of detachment from all romantic entanglements, and were forbidden to marry. Now she knew. She knew she would never be a Jedi, could never strictly adhere to the Light. She felt the pull into the Dark, and she plunged in, opening herself to the potential of what it could offer.

At that moment, from the pile of discarded clothing on the bank a few feet from them, the familiar beeping of her communicator in her pants pocket began to sound. Ben groaned, clutching at her possessively, pinning her with his body so she couldn’t reach for the obnoxious device.

Reluctantly, she pushed at him. He groaned harder and pressed her down more insistently, but she had a persistence of her own. She shoved gently at his chest to lift him off of her.

“We really shouldn’t ignore that. Not after last night,” she said.

Aggrieved, he rolled off of her and flopped onto his back with a resigned sigh, staring up at the blue sky of Dendrokaan. He shifted his gaze from the sky to her backside as she crawled away from him, taking in the sight of her pale, glistening skin, flecks of dirt clinging to the backs of her thighs.

“It’s Poe,” she said, looking back at him.

“Ugh…” he frowned mournfully at his sudden loss of appetite.

Rey clicked the button in the center of the communicator and tried to greet Poe appropriately, given what had transpired at the conclusion of last night’s festivities.

“Hi, Poe. How do you feel this morning?”

“Hi, Rey. Listen, I wanted to apologize for being such a jerk last night. I ruined everything, and I feel like an ass about it.”

Tell him he’s ruining your morning, too, Ben projected at her. She silently shushed him with a finger to her lips.

“Listen, it’s okay. I know you probably didn’t predict that I would want to bring Ben along, so I’m sorry if that threw you for a loop,” she tried to sound as understanding as possible. “Finn asked me if I would be bringing him, and I said I would try to convince him to come. Ben predicted it would go badly, but I didn’t listen, and forced him to join us.”

“Yeah, it’s fine, really. You’re at his place now, right? Having breakfast or something?”

She looked over at Ben, surveying her impatiently from the grass. “Uh, yeah, breakfast. Plus it’s time to do laundry, and the lake is here,” she added lamely. Ben rolled his eyes at her.

“Well, I was hoping to apologize to him too. Is he there?”

Oh please god, no, don’t make me talk to him. I’ll do anything…

“Uh, he stepped away for a minute. Probably had to pee or something,” she floundered.

You grew up on a planet festering with scum and villainy… how are you not a better liar than this?

Rey glared at Ben as Poe continued. “Uh, okay, well, will you please let him know how sorry I am? I was being a possessive jerk, and I shouldn’t have been so worried. I know you can take care of yourself.”

“Thanks, Poe. I’ll let him know when he comes back.”

“Please do. And Rey, thank you for coming to see us yesterday. We—we really miss you.”

Boy, if he wanted to murder me before, he’ll want to eviscerate me if he ever finds out about this morning…

“I miss you guys too. I promise not to be away for too long.” She glared at Ben reprovingly.

“Thank you. Goodbye, Rey.”

“Bye, Poe,” said Rey, as she switched off the communicator and threw it at Ben. “You are such a bastard! You’re so distracting! That was a very sensitive conversation. You screwed me all up with your incessant running commentary,” she chided him.

“I promise I’ll try harder to give a damn,” he said, reaching for her ankles. Seizing one, he dragged her back towards him, pulling her through the grass and climbing back on top of her, smoothing her hair away from her face and staring into her eyes.

Regarding her thoughtfully as he hovered over her, he added, in somewhat of a non sequitur, “It’s how you initiate the visions, too.”

“What, the Light?”

“Yes,” he said. “One of the defining differences between the Light and Dark aspects of the Force is motivation: Are you being motivated by a desire to do something for yourself, or a desire to do something for others? Healing is an inherently selfless act, so until I had reconnected to the Light aspect, I wasn’t able to do it.”

“And the visions?” she asked. “I’m fairly certain it wasn’t my affection for you that sparked those first few,” she added, smiling.

He was nuzzling her ear. “Mm, no, that was Snoke. As a wielder of the Dark, his motivation was for himself—he connected our minds to suit his own needs. We remained connected after his death for our own.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked.

“It’s what I believe.”

“Mmm,” purred Rey. That was good enough for her. Her hands were on his abdomen, tracing the ridges of his stomach muscles. She slid her right hand up to his neck and pulled him in for a deep kiss, closing her eyes. He responded by pressing his body against her and growling softly. His left hand was at her breast, kneading through the moist fabric of her wrap, desperate to break through.

“So wait,” she pulled away from him suddenly. “What does it mean that you were able to heal Finn?” she asked, accusation in her tone.

He looked at her and froze, a sinking feeling in his gut as he worried he’d done something wrong. Then, realizing she was messing with him, he exhaled in relief. Dropping his forehead to hers, he said, “You dummy, I did that for you.”

“Is that a fact?” she teased. “You’re not going to be having visions of him now, are you?”

Ben gnawed on her shoulder playfully. “No comment. Though I should warn you, if you ever heal Poe, I may tear your arms off. And then I will murder him.”

Rey laughed. They did eventually get around to washing their clothes, but were pretty inefficient about it.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 13: Recruitment———

The Finalizer dropped out of hyperspace near Lothal, a remote farming and mining planet, home to hundreds of small communities of mainly humanoid settlers. General Hux looked out the Star Destroyer’s bridge windows at the Adragna, one of the stormtrooper recruitment vessels that he had recently recommissioned.

In total, the First Order had five recruitment vessels, all of which had been retired under the so-called leadership of Kylo Ren. The largest stormtrooper training facility had been on Starkiller Base. To Kylo Ren, its destruction presaged the end of the recruitment and conditioning program entirely. He had overseen the rebuilding of the cloning facility on Kamino, in favor of the old Imperial system of cloning and accelerated aging. In Kylo Ren’s First Order, cloning would be the preferred way.

Hux had invested a lot of energy into perfecting the conditioning program, and he had felt personally embittered when Kylo Ren had ended it. The renewal of these methods meant a great deal to him. Cloning was the old way, it was obsolete, and Hux intended to see that it stayed that way. However, since Kylo Ren had done the legwork to reestablish those old ways, for now Hux would take full advantage of both programs.

Hux ordered Lieutenant Durvas to open a channel to Faris Ren. “Supreme Leader, we have just dropped out of hyperspace now. Establishing orbit around Lothal.”

Faris Ren appeared via holocam on the bridge. “Excellent, General. How long before landing?”

“There is little reason to wait, my lord,” replied Hux. The stormtrooper transports were fully fueled and ready to deploy, and the Adragna’s facilities were up and running, prepared to receive recruits. “We await only your approval to commence.” Hux was pleased with himself.

“You don’t want to savor the moment, General? Very well. My approval is granted,” replied Faris. “You may commence at your leisure.”

“Thank you, Supreme Leader.” Hux bowed low before Faris’s holographic image, obsequious as ever. Turning to his lieutenant, he commanded, “Deploy the shuttles and transports. Target the larger settlements along the equatorial regions first.”

“Yes, General,” replied Lieutenant Durvas. Assault Landers loaded with battalions of stormtroopers were deployed, coming into view through the bridge windows. Light Cruisers, which would carry the children from the surface directly to the Adragna, followed closely behind, pairing off with the Assault Landers. The ships then disembarked in different directions as they entered the atmosphere, heading toward the various settlements, per Hux’s orders.

Hux monitored the action on the surface from the remote safety of the Star Destroyer, arms crossed confidently behind his back and head held high. His goal was to round up as many children as they could find. They would  ensure that any adult survivors were dedicated in one way or another to the good of the Order—with either reassignment or death. The children would eventually be taken to Kamino for stormtrooper conditioning and training. Naturally, he anticipated resistance from the planet’s inhabitants, which is where the stormtrooper battalions would come in.

After about fifteen minutes, the first progress reports began to filter up from the surface: casualty rates and acquisition numbers. The figures were encouraging, but Hux wanted more.

“Make sure each squad understands they are not to return before their transports are full. If they exhaust the resources in one area they should scout for another,” explained Hux.

“I’ll make sure they understand that, sir.”

"Very good."

About an hour into the campaign, the troops had amassed hundreds of children and volunteers to work the planet’s mines and other natural resources, and dozens of voluntary adult conscripts. Many more than that were dead. Hux anticipated several more hours of resource collection and reallocation before they were finished here.

Hux had been observing the events for the past hour with a firm, gratified smile on his face. He knew that this was just the beginning. He had intentionally left Lothal’s communications open, allowing distress signals to be sent—he wanted the knowledge that the First Order was reinvigorating its recruitment efforts to spread. The options were to either get in line or die. He anticipated higher rates of voluntary enlistment at his next target, once the Lothal campaign concluded successfully.

“I will report to the Supreme Leader from my quarters,” said Hux. “Have my lunch brought down.”

Lieutenant Durvas wasn’t in charge of his lunch, so she wasn’t sure to whom he’d been speaking. She looked around, sighing, and assumed that if he went hungry, it would be her problem. She made sure to alert the appropriate departments.

———

StratComm’s telecommunications officer, Sadije Gelnik, had been receiving a lot of noise through the network that morning, but in the last hour a disturbing trend had taken shape. Sadije had been with the Resistance for about eight months, and was used to receiving communiqués complaining of First Order interference in sovereign planets’ business, but this was getting out of hand. Without looking up from his instruments, he relayed to his superior, “Lieutenant Connix, several reports are coming in of a First Order attack on the Outer Rim mining planet of Lothal. This appears to be different than their usual brand of interference, ma’am.” Lieutenant Connix wasn’t that much older than Sadije, but his youth and relative inexperience made him predisposed to formality when dealing with others.

Concerned, Lieutenant Connix stepped over to the junior officer’s station. “Different how?” she asked.

“More severe, ma’am,” said Sadije. Typically, complaints included groups of First Order scouts brutalizing community leaders who don’t fall in line, or trying to squeeze money or resources out of already impoverished planets. This was much more savage. “Reports seem to indicate a planet-wide campaign to collect children and murder civilians.”

“Collect children?” exclaimed Connix, aghast. “They haven’t done that in at least a couple of years! It looked like they had gotten away from that… Are you sure?”

“That’s what the reports indicate, ma’am." Sadije had joined the Resistance after a Spice cartel on his home world of Mon Gazza, propped up by the First Order, had killed his family for failing to pay protection fees. His knowledge of First Order political history didn’t run deep, but his commitment was strong. “The information is still preliminary, but the casualty reports sound a lot higher than what I remember. Whole villages seem to have been stripped bare.”

“They used to take kids as spoils of war… you’re saying this is more organized? You’re making it sound like the whole purpose was to collect children—like they went in there specifically to do that,” reasoned Connix.

Sadije shrugged dismally. “Frankly, ma’am, I see little other reason to bother with someplace like Lothal…”

Connix turned and hurriedly collected her holopad, breaking out in a sweat. “I need to assemble the council. Continue monitoring the situation.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

———

Their physical training had evolved into a psychically choreographed dance, of sorts. It had started with Ben performing a given movement and Rey mirroring his actions in real time—if she could see his intentions clearly and quickly enough, she could do exactly as he did. They were testing the theory that if they could keep their minds linked well enough, that they could synchronize their actions and fight as a single unit, supporting one another with their combined efforts. If successful, it stood to tremendously increase their potency in battle.

They had moved past mirroring one another and were on to Force-lifting one another into strategic locations—this required not just the ability to clearly communicate one’s actions to the other so that they could be mimicked, but to project simultaneously what your own actions will be and how you intend for the other’s actions to complement them. There had been a handful of accidents. Once, Ben had lifted Rey too enthusiastically and she had completely overshot the target where he was aiming to put her. Thankfully, she landed in the lake, and the only thing injured was her pride. On another occasion, Rey was attempting to move too many things at once and accidentally struck Ben with his training saber in an attempt to fling it to him.

All in all, however, their coordination had improved quite a lot.

“That’s enough, let’s rest for a bit,” said Ben, as he lowered Rey gently to the ground after successfully completing an aerial maneuver.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting tired,” teased Rey.

“I just want to end on a high note—we’ve been screwing that up so many times, and we finally got it right. Let’s take a moment to absorb what success feels like,” he said, smiling at her. He sat himself down on a large rock jutting out of the cliff face.

She took a seat next to him on the dusty boulder, leaning in close. He snaked his arm around her waist and looked down at her, making eye contact. Her free arm settled up against his chest, gradually reaching for his chin to pull him into a kiss when her communicator sounded.

“I hate that thing,” said Ben flatly.

“They really do call way too often,” she remarked. “I’ll try to get them to lay off, but I still better take this.”

“Mmm,” he replied.

“It’s Rose,” said Rey, tapping the button to accept the call. “Hi Rose, what’s going on? You haven’t called me before.”

Rose was frantic. “Rey, it’s the First Order! They’re attacking civilians and stealing children in huge numbers. You’ve got to get back to base! We’re meeting about it right now and you should be here!”

“Stealing children?” She looked at Ben, who returned her stare with a shrug. “Okay, we’ll get there as fast as we can. We still have the speeder we brought back after the other night, so it won’t be long.”

“Okay, please hurry,” said Rose, disconnecting.

Rey studied Ben, who anticipated her question. “I did say it was likely they’d restart that whole mess. Hux does love his children…”

She just creased her lips and rose from the boulder to leave. Ben followed her, and together, they ran back to her cottage where the speeder was parked.

———

Back at StratComm, things were tense and animated. The Resistance still had not fully filled their leadership vacuum in the wake of Leia’s death, and without one clear voice to lead the discussion, people were talking over one another. When Ben and Rey first stepped through the doors, people didn’t immediately take notice of them. They slipped into a couple of empty seats by the door and listened.

“They raided the entire planet in a matter of hours! We can’t possibly hope to repel an effort of that magnitude!” shouted one individual.

“Well, we need to think of something! Countless children just lost their families—Lothal is basically just a huge slave labor camp now!” yelled another.

Poe stepped up, calling for order. “People, please!” His hands were raised, waiting for things to quiet down a bit before proceeding. “Now, reports do suggest that this was a much more deliberate, concentrated effort to steal kids than what they’ve done in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless to stop it.” Though still overly worked up, the room was beginning to settle down under Poe’s commanding tone. “What we need is to know where they’re taking those kids, and where they plan to hit next, assuming this isn’t a one-time thing.”

“It’s highly unlikely that this will be the only such event,” added Lieutenant Connix. “It was too determined and too successful to just end there—the next attempt will probably be worse.” The murmurings of discontent in the room grew to a rumble at this observation.

Finn rose to speak next, “The next stop for that ship would be the stormtrooper training facility, where they raise the kids and begin their programming.” Tears threatened Rey’s eyes as she listened to her friend speak about something she knew he understood all too well. Finn continued, “The largest such facility was back on Starkiller Base, but that’s gone now. I don’t know of any other facilities that could take as many kids as they just collected.”

“Maybe it’s time we asked the Supreme Leader what they’re planning to do,” interjected Snap Wexley, accusatorily. All eyes in the room turned to where Snap was looking. There was a silent moment of calm as everyone took in the sight of them. Rey looked just as she always did to them, dressed in her familiar tunic, arm wraps and cropped pants. Ben was an odd juxtaposition between what they’d envisioned and what Rey’s influence had wrought. Ben stood up tall from his seat, wearing the light canvas pants and shirt Rey had made him, but over the top he donned his First Order hooded cloak and black gloves. Calmly, he rose and addressed the assembled rabble.

“Before my ousting, I had dismantled the old methods of capture and conditioning of children into stormtroopers,” he and Finn exchanged glances, and Ben continued speaking, “so if they’ve taken children, there’s only one facility I know of that would be equipped to handle such a large number of children at once, and that’s on Kamino.”

“Kamino?” Poe asked. “That’s that old ruined cloning facility the Empire used to use, isn’t it?”

“It was in ruins,” explained Ben simply. “When I left, it was all but up and running again.”

“So the new Supreme Leader wants to use that facility to raise up the new generation of stormtroopers? And who is running the First Order now that you’re not? I mean, you’re not, right?” asked Snap.

“The new Supreme Leader is a Dark Enforcer, one of the Knights of Ren, whom I commanded back when I still called myself Kylo Ren,” he answered.

Rey stood up, cutting in with authority. “He is no longer Kylo Ren. This is Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and General Leia Organa.” She took a breath, meeting Poe’s eyes before continuing, more softly, “He’s not on the Dark Side anymore.”

Not strictly on the Dark Side, you mean, he corrected her. They exchanged glances. Poe looked staid.

“My lead general and the new Supreme Leader, Faris Ren, initiated a coup against me, orchestrating my mother’s death in an effort to distract me long enough to overtake me.” Ben paused, then continued dismally, “She was murdered in order to get to me.” Rey could feel the shame and regret coming off of him in waves. She took his arm.

“So if they kicked you out, do you even know what’s going on?” asked Poe, masking his perturbation in the wake of Rey’s display of affection.

“There were certainly some plans made in secret, without my awareness, but anything I actively sought out information on, I know is reliable. I can tell when someone is lying or holding back from me. Hux, my general, was careful never to appear deceptive to me, but if I didn’t ask about something, there was nothing for him to have been deceptive about.”

“So what can you tell us?” asked Finn, stepping forward.

Ben sighed. “I can tell you that the First Order stormtrooper recruitment vessels were decommissioned, but by now Hux has almost certainly had them refitted. Each vessel can carry well over a thousand children, and is hyperdrive equipped.” Murmurs filled the room. Ben continued, “I know there were no other facilities being actively developed besides those on Kamino—all capital projects were under my direct oversight, so while other locations may be being brought back online, Kamino is the most likely location for the children to have been taken. It would be illogical for Hux or Faris Ren to have abandoned the infrastructure I put in place for cloning and growth enhancement, so in all likelihood their plan is to employ both strategies for growing their army.”

“They’ll swarm the galaxy at that rate!” shouted someone in the crowd, and immediately there was disarray.

Rey released Ben’s arm and held up her hands toward the crowd. Their agitated bickering subsided somewhat at the gesture. They directed their eyes to her, waiting at attention for her to speak.

“So now that we think we understand what they’re doing, what we need is a plan to stop it,” she said. “What do you suggest?” She turned to Ben, who met her eyes before returning them to the assembled crowd. The audience stared at him expectantly.

“I recommend we employ a strike team to intercept them at Kamino. There, we can liberate the ship holding the children and get information about where the other ships could be going; maybe stop them before they get there. The Resistance has enough forces that you could also return to Lothal and free the slaves in the mines, returning the children to their families—“

“—But what if their families are dead?! They killed thousands who resisted!” interjected one listener.

Ben paused. “Then I suggest you raise them yourselves.”

Poe took it upon himself to give some orders. “Jess, Winn, you two draw up plans for what to do with any kids we free that we can’t take home, and organize a team to head to the mines on Lothal.” Jess and Winn nodded and left the room, and Poe turned back to Ben. “Tell us more about how we intercept the ship.”

Ben looked evenly at Poe, and continued to develop his plan. “A battalion of X-wings would be sufficient if we can intercept the recruitment ship before it docks at Kamino, but we won’t know until we get there if they’ve landed or not. The best course of action is to assume they will have started unloading the children already, so we need to be ready for a ground assault and recovery. We will probably need to steal the recruitment ship in order to get the children off Kamino. Once the children are secure, Rey and I could easily infiltrate their information systems to find out where the other ships are heading.”

Poe nodded. “How do you plan to get the information about the other ships? It’s safe to assume they will have invalidated your access codes…”

Ben leveled his gaze on Poe, considering his words carefully. “Rey or I could easily coerce the information from any First Order officer we find.”

Rey closed her eyes, and Poe stiffened. Commander D’Acy, who had been observing relatively quietly from the sidelines, spoke up, “This all sounds reasonable to me. Let’s not waste any more time here, we need to organize our assault strategy—Snap, get a team ready.” Snap nodded and headed out of the room. Returning her attention to Ben, D’Acy asked, “Do you have blueprints or anything that would help us better understand the physical layout of the facilities on Kamino so we’re not running around blindly looking for the children?”

Ben shook his head. “No, I don’t, but I—I’ve seen the facility. I’m very familiar with its layout. I could just show you…”

“How?” D’Acy asked, puzzled.

Ben took a breath. “I could project the images directly into your mind…” Ben said this knowing that the notion of him doing anything to their minds would not be met with a lot of enthusiasm, but it was all he could think to offer.

Before anyone had a chance to protest, Rey spoke up. “Show me.”

Gratefully, Ben turned to her and pulled off one of his gloves, tucking it into the waist of his pants. Relaxing into his hand as it touched her forehead, she closed her eyes and took in the mental images he was projecting to her. She could see it all with the same clarity that he had in his own memory—he had seen blueprints, he had walked its grounds, he knew which security doors required access codes, and he knew the locations of critical offices and control panels that could be accessed to disable the facility. He had even projected images of the recruitment vessels, inside and out, so they could be recognized and piloted with ease. And now she had that same knowledge.

Ben released her from his touch, and she reopened her eyes, looking straight at him. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her like she was about to burst into flames and they were deciding whether or not to run for the exits. Turning to them, she addressed the group, “You’re all going to want to see this.”

Finn was the first to step up to her. In turn, she placed her hand on his forehead and after a few seconds, he too had acquired all the same knowledge and understanding that Rey had. He couldn’t pass it on to anyone else, but he stepped aside and indicated to the person next to him that he should let Rey touch him. He complied, and Rey was again spreading Ben’s memories to those in attendance.

People were queuing up in front of Rey, and Ben watched silently as she disseminated his knowledge. After another couple people had been touched by Rey, a young man approached Ben, a pilot. Steadfastly, but with a nervousness he couldn’t conceal, he asked Ben to show him what he could. Ben obliged, and after a few seconds, the man backed away somewhat deliriously. The man inhaled deeply and let it out slowly, regaining his composure. With a nod of thanks, he stepped away, signaling to another person that they too should come forward and be shown what Ben was offering.

Poe waited at the front of the room, watching as Rey and Ben went from one person to another, touching them and inserting Ben’s memories into their minds. After the last person had seen the images, Ben and Rey turned to Poe.

Rey knew Poe still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of Ben entering his mind, but he had made progress enough with Ben that he wouldn’t want to insult him by making a show of asking Rey to do it instead. Rey wasn’t going to make him have to say it. “May I?” she said to him, holding up her hand towards his face.

Poe nodded, and she touched him gently on the forehead, inserting Ben’s memories into his brain. When it was over, Poe looked between the two of them. “This will make this whole thing a lot easier,” he said, by way of thanks. Ben nodded his agreement.

A truce, of sorts.

———

The Resistance base bustled as officers and fighters hurriedly prepared for their mission. Rose had decided she was best suited to assist with the reunification efforts between the children and their families, so she was with Jess Testor discussing how they would know which children had homes to go back to, how they would get them there, and what to do with the children who would need sheltering. Winn was working out how to deal with the stormtroopers on Lothal when they returned with the kids.

Finn had wanted to be a part of the raiding party on Kamino, so he attached himself to Rey, knowing that she and Ben would be leading the charge once Snap had the team assembled. “I can’t wait to bust into that place,” he told her, brimming with fierce anticipation.

“Let’s go find Snap and see what he’s putting together. Come on, Rey,” said Poe.

Ben took her by the wrist, stopping her from following Poe. “Wait, we can’t yet.”

“What?” said Poe, annoyed. “You two have an integral role in this, what do you mean, ‘not yet’? We need to get moving, now,” he said, waving his hands impatiently.

Rey looked expectantly at Ben. “Why are we waiting?” she asked.

“If we’re going to go storming into a First Order facility, don’t you think it would help if you had a lightsaber?”

Rey’s eyes popped open, lighting up her face. “You’ll help me fix it?”

“Grab a power generator and a diatium converter kit, plus the tools to work with them. Your mechanic friend can pull that together for you, I’m sure. I assume the remains of the saber are back at your cottage?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Good, then let’s move. We’ll be back as soon as we’ve taken care of that, but it could be all night before we’re done,” said Ben. Poe looked ready to protest, but said nothing. “Make sure the fighters are rested and ready to fly in the morning. We’ll hit Kamino after they’ve unloaded the children, but honestly, it’s probably safer for them that way anyway.”

Reluctantly, and with resigned frustration, Poe relented, and Rey and Ben headed off to their speeder to get to work on Rey’s lightsaber. By the time they got back, Resistance ships would be ready and waiting.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 14: Reconstruction———

Rey set the tool kit down on her table, and crossed the room to her trunk to retrieve the broken lightsaber. While Rey searched her belongings, Ben sifted through the materials looking for what he would need in order to make the repairs. Once Rey had recovered the two broken halves and the Jedi text that described lightsaber construction, she rejoined Ben at the table.

“The Jedi texts?” observed Ben, impressed. “Then why did you need me to train you?”

“It’s not written in Basic… I translated what I could, but there are a lot of nuances that don’t come through. Plus, the section on lightsaber construction seemed more philosophical than technical, and technical is what I really needed.”

“You mean the harmonious, cultured language of the Jedi wasn’t practically useful? I’m shocked.”

Rey smirked, torn between a need to defend the Jedi Order and a desire to agree with him—the texts were somewhat lacking in practical instructions. “It’s not as if I expected schematics or anything, but yeah. The best I found were some warnings about not accidentally inverting the emitter matrix or the power grid would backfire and explode. Basically, just enough real information to completely undermine my confidence that I could do it without killing myself.”

Ben huffed in amusement. “‘Use caution’. That’s very Jedi advice.”

“Well, it’s not all the texts’ fault,” conceded Rey. “The crystal is in two pieces—I wasn’t even sure I could use it anymore.”

“Well, it’s lucky I’m here then,” said Ben, the corner of his mouth twitching up almost imperceptibly. He removed the kyber crystals from the broken hilt and examined the ruptured metal. “I can fuse the housing back together for you, but you’ll need to meditate on the crystals for a little while, and the final assembly needs to be completed by you. I’ll make sure you don’t screw it up, but you need to do it yourself or it won’t really be your lightsaber.”

“Wasn’t this your grandfather’s?” Rey asked.

“Anakin Skywalker’s, yes,” replied Ben. “Then it became Luke’s, but he lost it when Darth Vader took his hand on Bespin. This is a family heirloom,” he eyed her accusingly, provoking her good-naturedly.

“I guess I should thank you for letting me keep it then,” she observed.

Ben shrugged. “It’s all right. Anakin abandoned this saber when he became Darth Vader, making a new saber with the characteristic red color of the Sith.”

“Like yours?”

“I wasn’t a Sith Lord, but yes. The color of the blade is a reflection of the soul of the person who made it. Red is typical of the Dark Side.”

“Did you have a different one before you turned to the Dark?” Rey asked.

“Sort of. It was the same original pieces, but fundamentally changed. I bled the kyber crystal after I burned Luke’s Praxeum, forcing me to alter the hilt to accommodate it.”

“So bitter…” she teased.

“Yeah, I’m a real piece of work.” His flat tone belied his sarcasm. She had gotten used to his wry sense of humor. “Anyway, you meditate, I’ll work on this hilt.”

“Anything in particular I should be meditating about?” she asked.

“Meditate on your relationship to the Force; why you seek its use. My blade was red because I meditated about how I would use it to destroy my enemies and bend the galaxy to my will… you do you.”

Rey laughed inwardly and plucked the crystals from the table. “I’m going outside. I can’t meditate with you watching me.”

“Mmm.” Ben was already preparing his soldering tool to fuse the casing back together, and was barely listening.

———

On Kamino, First Order officers were preparing to receive the Adragna. The facility had been originally intended for the mass production of adult clones, but the grounds were sufficiently large enough to house tens of thousands of children at a time. The facility was equipped with the technology to accelerate an individual’s growth; children’s development could be accelerated, but not to the same degree as a clone’s. The mental conditioning process could be carried out while the children were in growth hibernation. Before Kamino had been brought back online, the technology to accelerate the development of stormtroopers was unavailable. Former Supreme Leader Kylo Ren was right to have reestablished this facility, thought Lieutenant General Tonkin. He had been forward thinking—it was a shame he'd also been so deeply flawed.

Tonkin had ensured the chambers were ready to receive the children that were being delivered, and awaited the Adragna’s final approach.

The bay doors opened, and the Adragna settled into position on the tarmac. Tonkin stood by, waiting. Finally, the Adragna’s main doors opened, revealing Lieutenant Ainu’u, a broad, dark-skinned, and imposing figure, who strode casually down the lowered ramp, long braid swaying behind her from under her officer’s cap.

“Lieutenant General Tonkin,” Ainu’u saluted.

“Lieutenant,” greeted Tonkin. “May I assume all the new recruits are ready to be transferred to the hibernation chambers?”

“That’s correct, Lieutenant General. A number of them have been sedated. Most of them, actually—they were incredibly noisy. Your staff may retrieve them at your leisure. I’ll have my men disengage the locks.” She gestured toward the Adragna.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” replied Tonkin. With that brief exchange complete, the staff aboard the Adragna summarily got to work unloading and transporting the children into the facility.

———

Rey wasn’t certain how long she had been meditating for, but when she opened her eyes, she discovered that night had fallen. In spite of the rush they were in, she felt curiously at peace. She collected her kyber crystals and returned inside to find Ben propped up in a chair against the corner wall, asleep. The hilt of her saber was laid out and waiting for her final touches. She didn’t want to begin without Ben, but she was also reluctant to rouse him from sleep, so she picked around in her kitchen for something to eat. Finding nothing but field rations and moldy fruit, she plunked down on her bed with her Jedi texts and tried to make sense of lightsaber construction.

She read and reread the same passages, three or four times at least, only somewhat confident that she wouldn’t kill herself. She regarded Ben in the corner, glad to have someone with her who could help. She closed the book and tucked it under her bed, heaving a deep sigh.

Ben groaned and shifted in his chair, opening one eye. Spying her on the bed, he roused the rest of the way awake and straightened up away from the wall. He looked stiff. “All done?” he asked.

“Yes. I believe I’m ready to get started. Did you have a nice nap?”

Ben leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Well, I had a nap, let’s leave it at that.” He stood, stretched, and pulled his chair back over to the table, sitting again once he’d gotten it into position. Gesturing to the repaired hilt, he invited her to come closer.

She rose from the bed and crossed the short span over to the table and the empty chair. “I’m disappointed you didn’t add a crossguard to it,” she joked.

“Hey, that crossguard wasn’t just for looks. It needed vents on the side to divert excess energy away from the crystal—it was cracked and unstable."

“Just like you,” she teased.

“A reflection of my broken, tainted soul,” he replied, joking, but not. Pointing to the parts laid out on the table, he asked, “Do you know how to put them together?”

Rey studied the pieces, but furrowed her brows as she took in the changes Ben had made. “I  thought I knew how to put it together, but this looks totally different than it was before. It looks like it has two tops,” she observed, puzzled.

“Since we have two crystals, I thought it made sense to alter the hilt into a saberstaff.” Turning to her, he appraised her admiringly. “Seemed more fitting for you anyway,” he added with a small shrug.

Rey smiled. She collected the parts one at a time, selected the appropriate tools, and set to work reconstructing the saber. Ben quietly observed, watching as her fingers moved intuitively over the emitter matrix, expertly inserting it into the energy gate. He nodded occasionally at her work. Rey was completely engrossed in what she was doing, and sweat was beading on her forehead from the anticipation of it.

At long last, she secured the blade emitter shroud into position, took a breath, and looked at Ben, trying to read his expression.

“Are you waiting for my permission? Ignite it, already,” he encouraged.

She flicked the switch, and the blades burst to life. Brilliant yellow beams jutted out from either end, cutting the air and humming with vibrant energy. Rey panted at the sight of it. “It’s beautiful,” she remarked in wonderment.

Ben nodded. “It is. And yellow is a rare color. A balanced color.”

“Balanced?” she queried.

“Yes,” he answered. “In the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, red sits at one end, and blue and green toward the other. Yellow resides between them.” He smiled at her.

Rey turned off her saberstaff and set it on the table, studying Ben thoughtfully. “I have something for you,” she said, and walked over to her trunk. He watched as she dug into it, producing a small bundle wrapped in canvas scraps. Returning to him, she held it out with both hands for him to take.

He looked at it cautiously, as though he felt unworthy of whatever it could contain. He accepted it carefully, unwrapping the fabric and observing its contents.

“My lightsaber…” he gaped, studying it. “You said they didn’t find it.”

“No, obviously, because I took it,” she quipped.

He actually guffawed. “You took it! You’ve been holding it hostage this whole time? You’re unbelievable!”

She smacked him on the arm. “Hey, it wouldn’t have been fair for you to have a lightsaber if I didn’t!” she protested.

Ben’s mouth was twisted into a disbelieving smile, and he gazed at her. Holding the lightsaber in one hand, he suddenly wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a deep kiss. She startled, but quickly reciprocated, encircling him with her arms.

Ben lifted her a few inches off the floor and turned around, carrying her to her bed. He released her gently upon her thin mattress, and set his lightsaber on the floor at one end. He threw his gloves to the floor, and placed his hands on her waist, pushing her tunic up to her ribs so he could kiss her bare belly. Rey shifted so that her head was angled toward the pillow and lifted her left foot onto the mattress, her right dangling where it had been when he set her down. Ben massaged her calf with one hand and tugged eagerly at her clothing with the other, continuing to kiss her from where he knelt on the floor.

The arm wraps were becoming a nuisance, so Rey removed them and hurled them unceremoniously to the ground. She decided to help him with her tunic by yanking it up and shrugging out of it, adding it to the clothing that was quickly accumulating on the floor.

Ben was becoming more and more aggressive, gentleness giving way to desperation. While he’d been kneeling on the ground up to this point, he now raised himself up and rested his right knee on the bed in the space between her legs. He ripped his cloak off and jerked off his shirt, then dove back in for more of her lips. His hands were on her wrapped breasts, and she moaned softly into his mouth.

Her fingers found his hair and tugged possessively as she arched herself up into him. He ran a hand down her side and began pulling her pants off. She helped by pushing them down on the other side, then started tugging at his own.

He worked the rest of the way out of his pants, and Rey beheld the sight of him. He was glorious. Tall and lean—powerful, yet soft and yielding. Hooking her right leg around his waist, she drew him back down to her. Taking her leg in his hand, he caressed upward as he settled himself into position. His other hand moved to the side of her face, and he kissed her deeply as he pressed his body against hers. She arched her back again in order to slip her hand behind herself and loosen her breast wraps. He pulled from the front, and finally the last of their clothing was on the floor. Pulling her knees apart, he spread her out before him and wasted no time diving into her, tentative but determined.

They reveled in the intense sensations of their bodies united at last, breathing together. He pushed deep into her, taking a moment to adjust to this new sensation, but with each subsequent thrust, his urgency built. She could barely contain the rawness of what she was feeling, and she cried out. Grunting, he urgently ground into her a few more times until his moment of release finally came.

He lay on top of her, spent and heaving from their desperate encounter. He tried to spare her some of his weight, but she pulled him down, encouraging him to relax on top of her. “It’s okay,” she whispered into his ear, “It’s okay. Don’t go away from me.” She trailed her fingers lightly down his back until she found his buttocks, caressing the crease where it met his upper thigh. He shivered, nuzzling into her neck as he continued to heave with breath.

Once his body was back under control, Ben shifted to where he could look at her face, and kissed her tenderly on the mouth. He had softened, but was still inside of her. She moaned and deepened the kiss, and felt him twitch back to life. He began rhythmically rocking his hips, hands on her breasts again, and she moved with him.

This time was less hurried, each of them having a bit more patience. He sat up so he could look at her as he moved within her, but she couldn’t tolerate even these few inches of separation for long. She lifted herself up to meet him, pushing him back so she could straddle him, and soon she was sitting in his lap, hands roaming his body as she kissed his neck. His hands moved lower, to hold her in place and feel the smooth skin of her bare backside quickening against him. Soon, she was riding her own climax as he once again pulsed inside of her.

Sated, they held one another as they tried to catch their breath. He stroked her hair as she nestled into him, hands resting on his chest. After a time, he lowered her back down onto her pillow, pulling out to lie beside her. She whimpered at the loss of him between her legs, but compensated by pressing more closely against him as he crammed himself between her body and the wall, struggling to fit himself on the tiny mattress.

“I love you,” she whispered into his chest.

He couldn’t find the words, responding only by kissing the top of her head and nodding almost imperceptibly as he breathed in the scent of her. His hand rested on her hip, thumb brushing delicately against the protruding bone. He was too spent to do anything more.

Somehow, in that cramped space, each of them managed to find sleep.

Chapter Text

———Part 3———Chapter 15: Into the Fray———

The following morning, the base was alight with the anticipation of an impending battle. This was their first military engagement in months, and the Resistance buzzed with nervous energy. X-wings were fueled up, blasters were charged, and adrenaline was high. Poe and Finn were trying to force down a breakfast in the canteen, struggling to find their appetites in the shadow of impending chaos.

"Did you hear from her last night?" Poe asked, trying to act casual.

Finn shook his head. "No, did you?"

"No. Do I need to call her, or do you think she'll be hurrying her ass over here any minute now?" Poe was frustrated. "I know they had weird Jedi shit to do, but I'm really anxious to get moving."

Finn nodded. "Me too—we all are. I'm sure they'll get here soon."

Almost as if on cue, Poe's communicator buzzed. Looking at it incredulously, he spread his hands out in mock surprise as he interpreted its indicators. "Holy shit, it's her. I didn't think she even knew how to make calls with that thing…" He pressed the button to open the channel. "Well, good morning, sunshine! Are you all lightsabered up and ready for action?" He masked his irritation with a light sarcasm.

"Yeah, we're in the speeder, heading there now. Where are you guys?"

"In the canteen, trying to cram in a meal before piling into the X-wings. Have you eaten?"

"We scarfed some field rations, so yes, sort of," she replied lamely.

"Okay then. We'll finish up here and meet you in the hangar."

"See you there," said Rey, and the connection crackled to an end.

Poe looked at Finn. "Well, the waiting's over. Let's do this!" And he clapped his hands and stood from his seat, ignoring what was left on his tray. He took a last sip of water before he and Finn left, anxious to get on with the events of the day.

———

The hangar was abuzz with activity when Rey and Ben pulled in. Snap had organized enough ships and pilots to fill an entire Nebulon-C Escort frigate, seventy-two X-wings in all. Poe would be flying as leader of the Gold Squadron, and mission captain. Ben and Rey would also be flying their own X-wings, but it was decided privately amongst the three of them that neither should command a squadron—in spite of their piloting skills and strategic prowess, they, or rather Ben, hadn't been enough of a presence on the base to have established trust among the other pilots. The small bit of trust they showed by letting in his memories notwithstanding, they were still leery of him. So, in spite of his worse than average flying skills, Finn would be leading the Red Squadron, and Rey and Ben would be flying under him. Finn had a good rapport with the other pilots, and even though he wasn't a terrific pilot himself, he had good instincts and a talent for organizing others. He would accept strategic advice from Ben and Rey, and together they would lead the ground assault.

The pilots were boarding their starfighters and preparing to rendezvous with the frigate in orbit around Dendrokaan. Finn was giddy with nervous energy as he approached his X-wing. "I can't wait to bust in there and break up some stuff! Woo!" His excitement stood in stark contrast to Ben, who was positively stoic. Refusing to don one of the orange flight suits of the Resistance, he hunkered down in his X-wing in his repaired black garb, without his cloak, but with his lightsaber modestly displayed on his belt—he was proud to have it back, but understood what his having it might mean to the Resistance fighters, even though he would be using it in their interests. Rey opted for a simple flight jacket over her tunic, but she had also added a belt for her shiny new saberstaff.

The Resistance fighters had all been briefed that morning, and hurriedly loaded into their X-wings once they were cleared. Rey spotted each of her companions at their respective ships and made her way to her own, where she readied for takeoff. Once she was all strapped in and tethered to her comms system, she secured the hatch and prepared to roll out.

Finn, from the security of his own X-wing, looked dolefully out into the wide space of the hangar. He was excited to be leading a squadron into a battle against the First Order, but also a little down that Rose wasn’t there to see him off. Once they were finished at Kamino, there would be all the Lothal children to see to. The situation on Lothal was still a mess, stormtroopers everywhere and half the planet enslaved. Winn’s team was working on that, but in the meantime they would need to safely house the kids, so it had been decided that they should set up an orphanage on Dendrokaan for that purpose. Rose had a million things to do to help Jess’s team get all of that ready, so she couldn’t spare the time this morning even to come to the hangar. They’d had to say their goodbyes earlier.

Poe came in over the headset. "Alright everybody, let's rendezvous with the frigate. Kamino is galactic-east-southeast of here, in Wild Space, so when we get there, be sure to watch out for space bandits.” There was a general chuckle over the open comm. Poe continued, “Once we’re in the frigate, it’s about a four hour trip. We'll meet in the ready room to get status updates and answer any last logistical questions. Move out!"

One after another, seventy-two starfighters found the air and left Dendrokaan. It was Ben's first actual look at the planet from above, and the first time he was able to discern where in the galaxy he had been for the last couple weeks. This part of the Expansion Region not being terrifically dense, it was nowhere near anything else, and the vegetation and other surface details of the planet itself actually made spying buildings visually rather challenging. Their outgoing signals were encrypted and cloaked against unfriendly scanners, so it was no wonder the base had stayed hidden for as long as it had. Ben actually felt a little naïve that they had eluded him so successfully for so long.

Rey, sensing his feelings, projected to him, somewhat facetiously, Don't feel bad, knowing where I was would've only caused you more conflict.

It was intentional ignorance, to be sure.

Now that you know, remember, you can't tell anyone, she teased.

I wouldn't dream of it…

———

The frigate dropped out of hyperspace in the Kamino system, a safe distance from the planet itself. They needed to determine whether the transport carrying the children was in space or if it had landed on the surface already—they had discussed plans for both eventualities. From behind the relative cover of Kamino's star, they ascertained that the transport was nowhere in sight, and therefore must be on the surface, if it was here at all.

Ben had given them a good idea where on the surface the transport would have docked, so preparations were made to release the X-wing squadrons and make haste for the surface. Several teams had been established to land in different parts of Kamino, others assigned to provide cover from the air. Ben, Rey, Finn and the rest of Red Squadron were assigned to land in the area closest to where the children would be. Blue Squadron would descend upon the docking bay and find the recruitment ship. Other squadrons were given targets of lesser importance and instructed to cause as much distraction and disruption to Kamino's facilities as possible. Gold Squadron, led by Poe, would remain in the air to provide necessary cover for the ground teams and the eventual theft of the transport ship. Several squadrons remained with the frigate as backup in case enemy fighters that they hadn’t counted on showed up. There was so much about this mission that couldn’t be planned in advance that they brought extra squadrons just in case things started to go south.

The frigate’s scanners assessed the situation quickly, and the final orders were given as the X-wing squadrons burst from the launch bay and prepared to blitz their targets. The element of surprise wouldn’t last long, but they were determined to make the most of what they had.

———

The blinking lights on the radar panel always looked the same. Lieutenant Ambrosi had been watching those telltales day in and day out ever since he was assigned to Kamino six months ago, and the pattern of colors and flashes was so consistent it might as well have been choreographed. So when the blinks broke from their characteristic sequence, he was simultaneously excited and alarmed. Eyes popping wide, he activated his commlink.

“Lieutenant General Tonkin, we’re picking up an anomaly in neighboring space. Just a moment… Sensors now indicate several squadrons of fighters on an attack trajectory,” reported Ambrosi, trying not to sound too excited at the prospect of trouble brewing.

Tonkin had been observing operations in the containment facility where the children had been transferred: rows upon rows of containment units lined the wide expanse, muted light reflecting off of their pristine white surfaces. Children of various ages were contained within the units, connected by complex arrays of wiring to instruments designed to gather and deliver different types of information; vital signs and equivalent ages of development were collected and analyzed, and mental conditioning was transmitted. The operation had been going according to schedule, with no indication that there was anything on the horizon likely to disrupt it. Ambrosi’s alert had come as a surprise, and it took Tonkin a moment to believe that it had come at all.

Tonkin fumbled with the commlink, before returning the call, “Say again, Lieutenant?”

“‘Again,’ sir?"

“No, you idiot. I mean repeat yourself.”

“Sir, sorry, sir. Sensors indicate several attacking starfighters are incoming.” Ambrosi waited, watching as the ships got closer. “Your orders, sir?”

Tonkin felt empty. He couldn’t believe the reality of what he was hearing. He had thought that this would be such an easy assignment—this entire facility was absolutely top secret. He had thought babysitting a bunch of clones and zombie children would be a low-stress way to ride out the rest of his career.

Ambrosi cleared his throat. “What are your orders, sir?” he asked again, interrupting Tonkin’s thoughts.

“Mobilize the TIE fighters! Get our troops in position! Priorities are to protect the facility, and destroy the intruders.”

“Which, sir? Should they prioritize protecting the facility or destroying the intruders?”

“BOTH!” barked Tonkin, as he turned on his heel and hurriedly strode toward the command center. Once his mind had had time to catch up to what was happening, his response was less reactionary and more analytical. “Are they Resistance?”

“Most likely, sir. We don’t quite have eyes on them yet, but who else could it be?” Ambrosi continued to marvel at the dancing lights on his relay panel. “Shall I alert General Hux?”

Tonkin’s pale face reddened; he was so unnerved by the attack that he apparently needed strategic advice from his inferiors. Covering for his insecurity, Tonkin spat out, “Yes, obviously, do so immediately, of course!” Privately chiding himself, he made a mental note to review standard operating procedures at his earliest convenience, should he be afforded the opportunity to do so.

———

In its hubris, the First Order clearly had not anticipated a frontal assault on the cloning facility at Kamino. Red Squadron encountered absolutely no response from the air or the ground as they raced toward the island where the facility had been constructed, landing on the strip outside the main building. Red Squadron landed their X-wings just outside the facility and popped their hatches, hastily exiting the craft and picking off the few guards who had been left on duty. Rey yanked off her flight jacket as she climbed out of the cockpit, tossing it inside before climbing down. Reflexively, her hand went to the hilt of her saber.

It was during their approach to the main doors that the First Order finally put up something of a defense. Stormtroopers flooded from the doors, blasters trained on the intruders, and a contingent of rooftop snipers emerged to pepper the ground with a flurry of bolts.

Igniting their lightsabers, Ben and Rey deflected the blaster bolts back at their attackers as they advanced upon the facility. Rey was practically dancing as she twirled her saberstaff around her, sending blasts of energy back with devastating effect. Finn and other Resistance fighters fired back at the troopers, driving snipers back from the ledges above and forcing ground troops to take shelter behind cover. With the first real line of defense broken, the twelve pilots descended upon the main doors, Rey and Ben leading the charge. Stabbing his lightsaber into the sealed doors, Ben ripped through the metal, creating a red-rimmed portal through which the intruders entered the facility.

The entry hall was enormous. The surface-level portion of the facility sat three stories tall, each floor laid out with a balcony lounge overlooking the main entrance. The balconies curved around them in a half circle, creating convenient sniping positions for the First Order on all sides. The chambers housing the children were below the surface. The invaders would need to find a way to penetrate deeper into the main floor in order to access the lower levels. They knew from Ben’s memories that there was a long, wide staircase leading down into the heart of the incubation facility, with large service elevators on either side. Knowing how exposed they would be on the stairs, Ben wasn’t crazy about heading down that way, but it would be faster than the elevators, and it was too late to try for stealth. Besides, they would be sitting ducks in the elevators. This would have to be a smash and grab operation.

As they crossed the large entrance toward the cover of the balcony above, stormtroopers began firing down on them from the balconies. Coordinating their actions, Ben sent Rey floating up to the second floor, spinning her saberstaff and liberating the snipers of their weapons, and occasionally, their appendages. The group on the main floor continued to advance, crossing the foyer into the relative cover under the balcony in the middle of the curving promenade. An expansive hallway extended for about a hundred feet in front of them, smaller hallways extending out to the left and right. They were unmolested as they charged down the hallway, until they came to the staircase before them, which stretched from wall to wall. Rey rejoined them, having descended a side staircase from the second story back. Together again, they contemplated the impending plunge.

The white staircase descended for several stories, the view down both impressive and intimidating—certainly by design. A knot twisted in Rey's gut as she considered penetrating deeper below. Steeling herself, the invaders ran down the gleaming, featureless staircase. The alabaster walls punctuated only occasionally by built-in light fixtures at regular intervals, they felt as though they were descending into an infinite loop, having lost sight of the top of the staircase, and the bottom not yet visible under the dropping ceiling. Rey had the sensation that she had fallen into a möbius strip of smooth, white hell.

The First Order's delayed response to their invasion made entry ridiculously easy, but they knew it would not be as simple trying to get out. Once they found the children, all of them, they would somehow need to get them transported out of the facility and toward the docking bay where Blue Squadron would have secured the recruitment vessel.

There was no sign of pursuit behind them, but as they neared the bottom of the long staircase, troopers appeared behind a set of mobile barricades that had been set up. Red Squadron had no such cover, but as the shots came at them, Rey and Ben redirected them and immobilized troopers, leaving the other Resistance fighters free to return fire upon their enemies. Ben used the Force to send the barricades hurtling backwards, stunning several stormtroopers.

Having finally come to the end of the staircase, the incubation chamber opened up before them. The chamber was longer than it was wide, housing row after row of individual incubation units, each one cramped and eerily lit. The chambers were equipped with windows revealing their brightly illuminated insides. A quick look at the faces of the children stored inside ensured that these were not clones—they had found the children stolen from Lothal.

"This isn't all of them," called Pim, a short, red-headed Resistance pilot.

"No," replied Rey, "but it's most of them. How do we get them out of here?"

On one wall was a blinking control panel. Ben approached the console, and with a flurry of commands, the lighting dimmed in the chambers, and the lights on the control panel turned from green to red.

"I’m terminating their hibernation. Through that corridor should be some trucks that we can use to transport the children to the docking bay.” Ben gestured to a hallway off to their left.

Pim and four other fighters ran towards the hallway, but were met with another salvo of blaster fire as a group of stormtroopers emerged to greet them. Before anyone could react, Pim had taken a shot to the chest and was knocked off her feet, dead before she hit the floor.

"Watch out!" shrieked Rey, throwing out her hand to immobilize the stormtroopers who had appeared in the hall. The Resistance fighters blasted the unmoving targets. Had Pim not been laying there, eyes closed and chest smoldering, Finn might have felt more guilt about how easy it was to take them all out as they stood frozen in place.

The fighters ran up to the incubation chambers and began flipping release valves, sending hatches open with a hiss and a spurt of vapor. Ben worked feverishly at the controls, deactivating units and releasing the children from their shackles. Several Resistance fighters descended upon the units, assisting the children who were too young to disengage themselves.

Finn joined the fighters who had followed Pim into the hallway, and moments later Rey could make out the whine of electric motors as trucks began pulling into the facility. Desch Crowel, another member of Red Squadron, led the caravan of trucks. As he tore around a corner and parked in front of the first row of incubation units, he shouted, "There are more troopers coming! Get ready!"

Ben looked to Rey, concern lining his features. “This is going to get ugly fast. The rest of the squad knows what to do from here. You and I should look for an officer and get him to lock down all access points that aren’t directly en route to the docking bay. Finn!” shouted Ben. Finn had parked his truck along the second row of chambers and was helping bleary-eyed children into the restraints of his vehicle. Ben continued shouting to him, “Rey and I need to secure an escape route! Can you handle things from here if we take off?”

"Yeah, go! We got this!" yelled Finn, a two year-old child in his arms. Ben and Rey took off down the hall away from the children and the rest of Red Squadron.

———

Growing up on Arkanis, Armitage Hux had not been a happy child. His father, Brendol Hux, while a military and technological genius in his own right, was an unhinged, uncaring, and abusive father. Armitage was a bastard, literally. His mother was a kitchen maid in one of the military barracks there. His father had taken him away from his mother at an early age, and he spent the better part of his youth trying unsuccessfully to earn his father’s approval. Brendol Hux had founded the stormtrooper conditioning program on Arkanis when Armitage was just a boy. When his father offered him the opportunity to take charge of that program, Armitage jumped at the chance to prove his worth. Hux had demonstrated an almost preternatural ability to create conditioned soldiers from children taken by the Order.

However, in spite of his extraordinary talents, Brendol Hux continued to deride him, keeping him desperate for fatherly approval—until one day Armitage finally grew tired of being his father’s dancing bear. With Captain Phasma’s help, Armitage Hux had seen his father murdered.

Hux had not been back to Arkanis since. He had promised himself that he would never return unless it was to see it burn. Now, with the Liska and the Taiga in tow, he was prepared to do just that, bringing Arkanis to its knees by stealing its children. Arkanis had turned to the New Republic when Hux was still a teenager, though some small parts of it had always remained loyal to the Galactic Empire. Arkanis was a large, well-populated planet, and in spite of these pockets of First Order sympathizers, most of the populace had resisted First Order rule. There was little Hux looked forward to with more relish and anticipation than taming Arkanis’s rebellious holdouts.

The raids on Lothal had been a success, and now Hux was poised to double down on that success by bringing back another throng of soon-to-be stormtroopers. A disorganized rabble brought to glorious heel—and not from some backwater like Lothal this time, but from a civilized planet. A New Republic planet.

Since the Arkanis Academy had been a major part of the First Order’s initial rise to military prominence, the arrival of the Finalizer would bring no alarm to the people of Arkanis—even today, the Academy still supplied many new troops each year. The two tremendous recruitment vessels pulling into orbit around its equator would be noticed, but not given more than a second glance. Hux had all the time in the world to prepare his assault on the resisting settlements.

Coming to rest in the desk chair in his quarters, Hux prepared to contact the surface operatives on Arkanis with whom he would discuss which settlements were the best targets for swift and efficient raiding. However, before he could activate the appropriate channels, an alert came to him from the bridge of the Finalizer.

Lieutenant Durvas spoke calmly into the microphone at her comms station, reporting, "General, we're receiving distress calls from the facility on Kamino. Lieutenant General Tonkin reports a Resistance assault on the facility."

Hux stared blankly at his comms screen. The moment of stupefaction passed quickly, replaced with an almost blind fury. "What!? Say again, Lieutenant!"

The lieutenant swallowed before proceeding. "Sir, several squadrons of Resistance starfighters have landed on Kamino and are storming the cloning facility there. Initial reports indicate they're attempting to rescue the children taken from Lothal."

Hux was positively red-faced. He knew in his bones that Kylo Ren was somehow involved, illogical as that seemed. Though the Resistance should have wanted Kylo Ren dead as much or more than even Hux did, by some means or other Ren had succeeded in conspiring with them to disrupt Hux's plans. If he ever got his hands on him, Hux was going to tear Kylo Ren's flesh from his body, inch by agonized inch.

"Set course for Kamino. Make haste, Lieutenant," Hux seethed, shivering in his barely contained rage.

"Sir? What about the Liska and the Taiga?"

"Just get us to Kamino! Now!" Hux screamed. Without another word, the lieutenant disconnected, and moments later the stars outside Hux's window were nothing more than a beautiful blue smear.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 16: Recovery———

Ben gestured for Rey to follow him, and the two of them proceeded up the hallway from where the trucks were steadily pouring forth. Lightsabers ignited, they carved their way through the torrent of blaster fire. Upon seeing the lightsabers, several stormtroopers produced vibroblades from their belts to better defend against the electromagnetic threats. However, they were still no match for the coordinated efforts of two highly skilled Force users, and Ben and Rey steadily progressed up the sloped hallway.

“This corridor leads to the docking bay, where we’ll find the Central Command office. The officers will most likely have barricaded themselves inside there. Come on!” shouted Ben to Rey, slicing the arm off of an attacking trooper as he lunged at him with his vibroblade.

They ran up the hallway, cutting through stormtrooper after stormtrooper as they went. They passed the area where the trucks were parked. Judging by the number of trucks sitting idle in the carrel, they weren’t moving the children out as rapidly as they could be.

“Looks like we should have brought more drivers,” lamented Rey.

“Once we get this place locked down, we can call in some of the other squadrons to assist with moving the children,” replied Ben.

The long access hallway had been climbing ever so steadily back toward the ground floor, and Rey could begin to make out the wide opening into the docking bay. To their left, a bay of windows revealed several nervous looking officers barricaded behind a wall of armed stormtroopers, blasters leveled at the windows and door that Ben and Rey needed to breach.

Ben ran up to the door and, with a flick of his wrist, disengaged the locks holding the door secure, flinging it wide. The stormtroopers opened fire, quickly reducing the windows to dust and the metal doorframe to a blackened, smoking edifice. Rey threw her hands out, knocking the troopers backwards into the officers and the control panels, hard enough to disrupt their attacks, but not hard enough to incapacitate anyone—Rey didn’t want to kill the officers or damage any of the equipment before she knew whether or not she would need any of it.

Ben held out his arm, stilling the hostile occupants of the cramped command center. Rey approached the stormtroopers and attempted a Force suggestion. “You will leave this room and engage any other stormtroopers you encounter. You will assist the Resistance fighters in their rescue of the children.”

The stormtroopers weakly repeated Rey’s words back to her, and subsequently left as Ben released them from his hold. As they exited, some headed for the docking bay and others for the incubation facility, firing in different directions. The stormtroopers thus neutralized, Ben and Rey turned their attention to the two gutless officers in front of them.

“We need you to order your troops away from this facility and lock it down, immediately. Give the orders, now,” explained Ben to the officers, matter-of-factly.

“The Supreme Leader would kill us if we did that,” said the older officer.

“We will kill you if you don’t,” said Rey. Ben looked at her, noting the hard countenance she had taken on since entering the facility.

“I would rather die here than die a traitor,” replied the officer as resolutely as he could muster.

Ben could tell from his insignia that this man was the higher ranking of the two officers, and therefore more likely to be knowledgeable of the First Order’s machinations. He turned to Rey and said, “I’ll get whatever else we need from this one, you go to work on that one to get this facility neutralized.” With that, Ben held out his hand to the officer’s face, and began probing his mind for the information they needed. The officer began to sweat profusely, a pained expression twisting his features. Ben leaned into the man’s face. “And I haven’t even started yet,” he whispered, smiling cruelly. “You could make this easier on yourself by answering voluntarily.”

Lieutenant Ainu’u looked worriedly at her older comrade, then at Rey. Ainu’u had fallen into a chair when Rey had assaulted them with her Force-fueled attack, and the officer remained seated in apparent resignation as she looked back at her captor. Rey took a step forward and peered down at her menacingly. Ainu’u held up her hands defensively and stammered, “I can lock down the facility—it’s no problem.”

Rey almost looked disappointed by how readily her prey had acquiesced to defeat, but she took a step back and gestured for the officer to move to the control station. The officer cautiously rose from her seat and stepped over to the controls. Rey read her mind for her intentions and could see no attempt at artifice, so she allowed the officer to access the controls freely. The older officer squirmed and gurgled in the seat beside them as Ben continued to ruthlessly sift through his brain.

“Attention all troops, this is Lieutenant Ainu’u, commander of the Adragna and commanding officer in charge of this facility. You are ordered to stand down. Retreat to your quarters immediately and engage no further in the defense of this facility. Repeat: You are ordered to stand down.” Ainu’u then turned her gaze to her diminutive captor, and looked to her for approval at what she’d said. Rey gave a nod, and proceeded to swipe her hand at the officer’s temple, tugging the invisible cord holding her consciousness in place and rendering her immediately insensate. The officer slumped into her seat at the console, and Rey turned to Ben, who appeared to be wrapping up his interrogation of the senior officer.

“Finished?” she asked.

“Finished. Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Ben as he pulled away from the panting and dazed officer. Rey swept her hand at his temple as well, knocking him out before following Ben out the door.

———

At the controls of his truck, Finn raced up the hallway toward the docking bay. He had hardly believed his ears when the order to stand down was given, but the troops that had been attacking them glanced to one another, then proceeded to drop their weapons and step back, hands raised in submission. Surrender seemed to come as a relief—these soldiers were themselves kidnapped children, and Finn could imagine that, had it been his job to defend this place, he’d have certainly had second thoughts about it. The Resistance fighters wasted no time filling their trucks with children and speeding off toward the hangar.

Some of the Resistance fighters were still in the incubation facility prying the kids out of their holding tanks, but about a half-dozen trucks had already been filled and were on their way to the transport ship. Blue Squadron had reported only minor injuries suffered in the acquisition of the vessel, and most of their pilots were on their way to the incubation facility to assist with recovering the children. Additionally, now that the guards had all turned tail, pilots from several other squadrons had easily infiltrated the facility and were applying their efforts to the rescue.

Ben and Rey had left the control room and were running back toward the incubation chambers. Optimistically, there still had to be over a thousand children remaining in the hibernation pods, awaiting rescue. Truck after truck raced up the hallway, Resistance fighters greeting Ben and Rey with cautious optimism as they passed them going the opposite direction.

When they reached the area where the trucks were parked, each of them boarded their own vehicle and fired up the engines. Hurriedly, they returned to the large facility, and Ben veered toward the back end of the chamber, passing rows of occupied incubation pods. Rey followed.

“Where are you going?” Rey shouted over the whine of her engine.

“This room was full when we got here. I’m guessing there are more children in the next room over. We need to disconnect them from the facility as soon as possible and start loading up trucks of our own.”

Rey didn’t respond, the high-pitched roar of their vehicles making hearing prohibitively difficult, but she understood and remained on his tail. They passed several Resistance fighters diligently working to retrieve children from the incubation pods, and eventually reached the end of the long room.

There was a wide door at the end of the chamber, shut and locked against intrusion. Ben screeched to a halt in front of it, disembarked from his truck and strode up to an access panel to the left of the door. After punching in a few numbers, the door slid open and Ben reboarded his truck, driving forward only a few more feet before parking again in front of a fresh row of occupied pods. The facility was designed to operate like an assembly line. Each incubation chamber connected back to the docking bay via a long hallway, and completed clones would march up the halls, through armories, and immediately board transports to deploy them to wherever. Rey had to admit, it was all very efficient, in a crass, inhumane sort of way; very orderly. Muttering to herself, Rey pulled her truck forward to meet Ben, who was peering through the glass of one of the pods. Inside, Rey could make out the face of a broad-shouldered blonde girl, probably about thirteen years old.

“She’s older than the others,” Rey remarked with some surprise.

Ben glanced into the pod. “That’s because she’s not one of the stolen children. She’s a clone,” Ben stated with disappointment. He surveyed the rows beyond, and saw only more blonde girls. “Shit.”

“These are the clones?” Rey couldn’t hide her bewilderment. “Ben, these are kids too, we have to get them out of here!”

Ben glared at her in disbelief. “Are you serious? Think logically. The ship we’re stealing is only big enough to hold the kids who were stolen, we can’t possibly get all theses clones out of here. It’s impossible.”

Rey thought for a moment, conceding his point, but not at all satisfied to just leave these kids here to turn into slaves of the First Order. “Okay, you’re right, I see your point. But we can’t just leave them like this. Is there anything else we could do?”

Ben threw his arms up helplessly. “I suppose we could kill them. Would that make you happier?”

She scowled at him at him for his tasteless joke. “Can we at least, I don’t know, turn off the brainwashing? Maybe slow down their growth? That would at least buy us some time before the First Order pits them against us in battle.”

Ben glanced around the room, looking for something. Rey followed his gaze and eventually spotted what looked like a control station nestled into the wall to the right of the pods. He ran over to it and started punching queries into its databanks.

“What are you looking for?” Rey asked.

“Well, first of all, I want to know where the hell the other Lothal kids are so we’re not peering into every goddamned pod in this whole blasted facility trying to find them. Secondly, I’m looking into the things you asked about. I should at least be able to turn this shit off, like I did in the other room…”

Even if Rey weren’t so attuned to Ben’s emotions, he was wearing his frustration on his sleeve with every curse and exasperated gesture.

“There, thank god, the kids we want are just in the next chamber over,” he stated with some relief, his agitation abating somewhat. “This whole room is filled with clones made at the same time, so they’re all developed to an equivalent age of about ten years old.”

“Ten? Are you sure that’s it? They look older…”

“I don’t doubt that, but Phasma was always built like a giant. Yes, I’m sure.” He turned from the control panel to look at her. “So here’s what I can tell you. From this station, I can kill them all. I could also just jumpstart their internal organs to take over and shut them off from further inputs. That would stop their accelerated aging and their mental conditioning. They’d still probably be pretty screwed up people, and they’d be naked and on their own here—a quick death might be kinder. Another option is to just leave them be. There might be other possibilities, but I wouldn’t know without probing around at this console a little more, and I don’t know that we have time for that.” He looked her over, gauging her reaction. “So what do you want me to do?”

Rey stared back, nearly incapacitated with indecision. Why were there only bad choices? Her thinking was interrupted by a Resistance fighter driving into their chamber and preparing to open the hatch on one of the pods. He stopped when he noticed the apparent age of the child. Spotting Rey and Ben, he called out, “These aren’t ours, are they?”

“No, these are clones,” Ben answered flatly. “Ours are in the next chamber over. Use 3100-CRD to get in, then flip the toggle on the console inside to shut down the pods.”

The Resistance fighter gave a thumbs up, then casually fired a blaster bolt into the pod where the clone was sleeping, killing her. “One less stormtrooper, eh?” he said with a shrug. He reboarded his truck and sped off, firing blindly into the rows of pods as he passed them by, peppering them with damage as he made his way toward the rear door. Rey stared open-mouthed at the pods, eventually setting her jaw in furious anger.

Ben regarded her pitifully. With a dry and, to Rey’s ears, inappropriate bit of facetiousness, Ben said, “Well, that’s one way to deal with them.”

Rey turned to face him, her anger fading into a determined, grim resoluteness. “Kill these. Leave the rest. Another day, we’ll come back and deal with this place. Now let’s get the kids we came for and get out of here. We have to hurry.” She walked dolefully back to her truck, engaged the engine and took off toward the next chamber. Ben watched her leave, a calmness in his eyes that belied the sadness he felt for her. In this moment, Rey was learning what warfare was really like. She had learned that in war, you don’t get to save everyone, and the enemy’s children are still the enemy. At the end of the day, you have to live with the decisions you’ve made. Ben gave himself another few seconds to mourn Rey’s innocence, then moved to input her commands.

Before he could enter anything into the console, something, some nagging sensation in the back of his mind, said “don’t”. He paused, reconsidering. Rey’s words the day they left the base together came back to him: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.” He could kill these children—Rey had asked him to, even. He had felt Rey’s Darkness rising the further they had gotten into the facility, and she may well have been taking cues from him. He was ruthless in battle. Experience, Snoke, and the First Order had carved the humanity from him—turned him into an unfeeling soldier once the fighting began. But Rey… would she still be happy with this decision tomorrow?

Though he realized that time was against him, Ben couldn’t help pondering. He could tell he was on the precipice of something important. Watching that Resistance fighter shoot that child had taught Rey a lesson, but was it the right lesson? Was this a change he wanted for her? What had she said the difference was between the Resistance and First Order? He tried to remember… “We even respect our prisoners,” she had said. The First Order could justify killing children if they believed those children stood in the way of progress. Anything that was done was justified, so long as it moved the First Order’s agenda forward.

Ben remembered his own childhood. He remembered Snoke. Everything Snoke had said to him. Everything Snoke had done to him. Everything, all of it, would have been justified, because it was done to weaken the Republic, weaken the Jedi, and bolster the First Order. At the time that Snoke had come to him, Ben was the enemy’s child. If Ben killed these children, Ben would never be more than Snoke’s echo.

As though electrified, Ben’s fingers moved across the console, exploring different options and finding new commands. He made changes he believed Rey would approve of, and discovered that Tonkin’s administrative override code would work to lock out anyone else who tried to reverse what he’d done.

Rey needed him right now, more than she had ever needed him before. He would show her that he was beginning to understand. Just now, she had made a bad decision, but what she had tried to teach him before was beginning to sink in. He needed more time to fully comprehend, and to change, but he did what he believed Rey would have wanted had she been acting more like herself. She had temporarily forgotten her own lesson, and he blamed himself for that.

They would come back and deal with this place another day, but when they did, they would find these children alive.

———

In orbit above Kamino, Snap Wexley sat at the communications panel of the frigate, ready to relay information between the fighters and the Resistance base on Dendrokaan. So far, it was unreal how smoothly this had been going. Besides one dead pilot, shot while infiltrating the chamber where the kids were being held, there were very few costs to this mission—a few damaged X-wings and some minor injuries comprised the lion’s share of the reports he was getting.

“Snap, all the kids have been found, and most are loaded aboard the transport.” It was Poe, who had been monitoring the ground situation from the air above the facility. “Fighters are collecting the last of them now. I’m guessing we’re here for another twenty minutes or so before they’re ready for takeoff.”

“Roger that, Poe! Everything up here is quiet. Let us know when you’re ready for takeoff,” replied Snap cheerfully.

Poe closed the channel, and BB-8 beeped derisively from his place at the back of Poe’s X-wing. “No, he didn’t jinx anything, BB-8, don’t worry so much.” BB-8 made his own digitized analog of a grumbling noise, then proceeded to moodily plug himself into a terminal inside the X-wing—the droid equivalent of storming off to his room, Poe guessed. Well, whatever his problem was, things here would be wrapping up soon.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 17: Interception———

The trip from Arkanis to Kamino wasn’t long, but it still took far too much time for Hux’s liking. He was still seething by the time they arrived. The Finalizer dropped out of hyperspace at Kamino to find a Resistance frigate surrounded by a cloud of X-wing starfighters and the Adragna clearly visible leaving Kamino’s atmosphere.

This sight did nothing to calm Hux’s mood. Why are there no TIE fighters?? He fumed inwardly as he surveyed the stolen vessel leaving Kamino with no apparent attempt being made to stop it.

He shrieked into the face of his bridge lieutenant, “Deploy fighters, now!”

The lieutenant wasted no time enacting Hux’s directives. The squadrons of TIE fighters aboard the Finalizer had been readied en route to Kamino, and were prepared for immediate engagement with the Resistance forces. Without delay, a swarm of TIEs spilled out of the hangar and began intercepting the X-wings.

“Surface canons, target that frigate!”

Unlike the cloning facility on Kamino, the Resistance fleet was prepared for an engagement, and their defenses were already up. The Finalizer needed to get closer if it was going to penetrate the frigate’s shields. Hux gave the order to close the distance.

———

Poe and the rest of Gold Squadron had led the exodus from the planet’s surface. He had seen the First Order ships right as they appeared and had ordered his squadron into a defensive formation. By the time the alarm from Snap came in his headset, he had already seen most of Blue Squadron safely aboard the Adragna, and Red Squadron was bringing up the rear. The rest of the squadrons had already docked with the frigate, and the hangar doors remained open for the remaining fighters to find their way inside.

Poe’s adrenaline spiked as the opportunity to engage with the TIEs presented itself. He held his squad together in a conservative posture as the enemy ships approached. Poe smiled as they got just close enough, and his ships leapt forward, abandoning all pretext of defense as they engaged the TIEs in full on attack. The tactic took the TIEs by surprise, and their hesitation cost them dearly as Gold Squadron cut through them like a hot knife through butter.

“Red Squadron, there’s a group of TIEs flanking us to hit you. Look sharp!” cautioned Poe into his headset, as he noticed the TIEs circling in the distance.

Rey and Ben were both excellent pilots, and most of Red Squadron could hold their own, but Finn was at a tremendous disadvantage in the face of a battalion of TIE fighters. His terror was evident from the heavy breathing that could be heard over the comms channel. Rey feared for her friend.

“Finn, just head straight for the hangar! We’ll cover you!” shouted Rey into her headset.

I’ll cover his right flank, you cover his left, she projected to Ben.

He can’t get himself back to the frigate on his own? I’d prefer to deal with the TIEs, answered Ben.

Promise me! she replied. Ben could feel her concern for Finn through the Force. Sighing in frustration, he dropped back to cover Finn. He blasted two TIEs making aggressive overtures toward their position, but ignored three more that would’ve required him to depart from Finn’s left flank. They barreled toward the hangar as fast as they could go. Finn was completely inept at evasive maneuvers, so it was all Ben could do to protect him.

They were almost to the hangar when Ben spotted the three TIEs coming up behind them. He wasn’t in a good position to intercept them without leaving Finn wide open. I need you to cover me! he called out to Rey.

“Finn, just keep going, I’ll get them off you!” Rey knew that she would have her hands full trying to protect him from three TIEs. Finn’s evasive maneuvering ability was effectively zero, so she was counting on Ben to keep him protected. In turn, she did her best to cover Ben.

The TIEs locked on to Ben’s X-wing, which had dropped in behind Finn to shield him from the TIEs’ attacks. Ben knew that if he attempted to dodge, Finn would be struck instead, so Ben remained where he was. However, he was a savvy pilot and strong enough with the Force that he could deflect most of what was likely to come at them, provided Rey could prevent it from going on for too long.

Unfortunately, the onslaught of fire came from all of them at once, and he couldn’t deflect it all. One of the TIE’s shots connected, and Ben’s left engine was disabled. He managed to maintain his defensive positioning, but the loss of the engine would make further evasive action challenging. They were almost to the hangar.

Just lost an engine. Are you handling them? Ben asked, nervousness creeping in. He didn’t want to disappoint Rey by allowing Finn to die, but nor did he want to give his life for a lousy pilot with limited tactical value, no matter how good a friend he happened to be to Rey.

With two well-aimed mag pulses to the offending TIE, Rey cut the attackers down to two. I’m working on it, she replied resolutely. Just see him into that hangar, she pleaded.

Ben sighed, but kept up his position as human shield. They would be in the hangar in seconds.

Rey took out another of the TIEs, but she had attracted pursuers of her own. Poe was busy defending the other pilots. Torn between attacking and defending, Rey’s concentration lapsed, and Ben took another glancing shot to his X-wing, causing him to careen dangerously off course.

“Ben!” shrieked Rey as she took out the last of Ben’s attackers, a little too late. Finn was making his landing approach, but now she had Ben to seriously worry about. She veered alongside his X-wing and reached out, calling on the  Force to push him back toward the hangar opening.

Ben’s X-wing came to a clattering halt in the frigate’s hangar, crashing into starfighters that had already been parked and deboarded by their pilots.

Ben! Are you alright?! she screamed into his mind.

Yes, I’m fine, but we just crippled a few X-wings with that landing. Just get back here so we can take off! Most of the fleet is here already!

Rey was no longer on course to reach the hangar, but she had seen both of her comrades to relative safety. She would need to circle back around before she could get her own X-wing docked.

———

From the observation deck of the Finalizer, a group of three masked strangers clad in black watched with interest as the chaos unfolded before them.

“Did you see that?” asked a tall individual with a slim build and a strange lilt to his voice, gesturing to the hangar on the Resistance’s gangly frigate.

“See it? I felt it,” answered a shorter observer with a voice that was distinctly feminine, even through the effects of her mask’s voice modulator. “There’s a pilot out there with a strong Force sensitivity. Not Kylo, though, I don’t think.”

“No, definitely not,” answered the tall one. “He’s out there too, but this was different.” The third individual quietly nodded his head in agreement. “Whomever it is, I would be very interested to meet them. Wasn’t Prarathi observing from the hangar?”

“Yes, she was,” replied the female. She stepped over to the wall adjacent and tapped a control panel. “Get me Prarathi Ren,” she commanded.

“Yes ma’am,” replied the unseen officer.

After a momentary silence, an answer came through on the channel. “Dammit, I was just getting into a Silencer. What is it?”

“Did you feel it?” queried the female.

“Yes, of course I felt it. Why do you think I was heading for the Silencer? Now leave me be so I can have some fun.”

“Bring them back, Prarathi.”

“Gladly, Sharna. Let that fool general know not to interfere with me, and I’ll bring him a worthy prize.” At that, the channel clicked closed, and Sharna Ren resumed her place at the transparisteel window.

She nodded appreciatively at the view. “This should be good.”

———

Poe, who had been busy blasting TIE fighters in defense of the frigate, finally got the feeling that his fleet was just about clear of the TIEs. “Snap, is everyone in? How’s the Adragna?”

“About to make the jump to lightspeed,” answered Snap. “We just have a handful of fighters out there. Start getting everyone back in the frigate.”

“Roger that.” Poe opened a channel to all the fighters, “Okay everyone, that’s it, the kids are good to go, so get in the hangar. Pull out!”

A series of assents came back at him, and the remaining fighters began to scramble. Suddenly, alarms began blaring from Poe’s console. “TIE Silencer, incoming!” he shouted. One of his fighters exploded before his eyes as the Silencer swooped in from out of nowhere.

“Look out, Poe!” It was Rey. She was still out here.

Heeding her warning, Poe whipped into a barrel roll as blasts from the Silencer came at him. Narrowly avoiding the damage, he veered sharply to the ventral face of the Silencer, getting under it to avoid its attacks.

Poe wasn’t normally so rattled by a challenge, but the number of targets for this formidable foe to choose from had dwindled to little more than himself and one of his dearest friends. Setting aside his usual bravado, he took a defensive posture. “Rey, that’s a Silencer! Get to the hangar, now!”

Rey wasn’t ignorant to the threat. “I know, I’m trying to evade, but it’s on me!” Rey couldn’t shake the Silencer, in spite of her best efforts. More than once, she knew she should have been hit, but it just fired in circles around her. Was the pilot messing with her?

Rey, you need to get back here, now! It was Ben, seeming more insistent than she would have thought necessary.

What is it? This TIE is acting weird, like it’s playing with me or something.

Ben started to respond, but she was suddenly too distracted to pay him any mind. Her X-wing lurched, and she was knocked around inside her cockpit, tumbling toward the Star Destroyer. Recovering her senses, she looked at her instruments, and none of them made sense—her X-wing wasn’t behaving according to the readout. She felt herself hurtling closer and closer to the Finalizer, and she couldn’t get her controls to respond. She reached out with he Force to try to stabilize her vessel, but even that didn't work. Her engines cut out, and her trajectory had her on a collision course with the Finalizer’s hangar doors.

“Poe, that Star Destroyer is about to fire, get in here, now!” yelled Snap in Poe’s ear. Poe’s heart sank as he watched Rey’s X-wing careen right into the open hangar doors of the massive enemy vessel. He had no choice but to withdraw, and quickly.

Coming to an abrupt stop inside the hangar, Poe was hit by a brief wave of nausea as the sudden unsettling acceleration of the frigate entering hyperdrive combined with that of his X-wing as it landed. He retched for a moment until the feeling passed before popping the hatch and crawling out of the cockpit.

The hangar was a mess. Emergency fire crews were attempting to put out a blaze that had erupted around a pile of twisted X-wings smashed into the corner of the hangar. Finn was sprawled on his hands and knees nearby, having been obviously sick on the floor only moments ago. Ben was staring out at the blur of hyperspace visible out through the hangar entrance. He looked frozen.

Poe approached Finn, bending down to rest a hand on his shoulder.

Finn heaved. “Rey…” he managed between gasps.

Poe’s lips creased into a tight line, and he could only manage to pat his friend firmly on the back, feigning assuredness that it would be okay. Glancing back at Ben, Poe saw that he hadn’t moved from the spot he was rooted to, still transfixed.

With a heavy sigh, Poe left the hangar.

———

Back on the Finalizer, it was all Hux could manage not to pace furiously up and down the bridge. As an alternative, his fists were balled tightly at his sides and the blood vessels on his shivering, flushed countenance bulged dangerously. He was fit to explode, and his First Lieutenant did not relish having to speak to him. She opted to silently collect data from her instruments so she could be ready with whatever information he was likely to ask for once he found his voice. She didn’t look forward to that moment, but at least she would be prepared for it.

Telecommunications had picked up nothing—forces on the surface weren’t responding to her queries. She had deployed a reconnaissance shuttle to the surface about ten minutes ago, and she hoped they would soon be reporting back.

Mercifully for Lieutenant Durvas, that crew was quick to get back to her. “General, Commander Brunsley of the reconnaissance mission is making contact from the surface.”

One of the blood vessels on Hux’s brow seemed to reduce slightly at the news. “Put him through, Lieutenant.”

“General, it’s a real mess down here. We found scores of dead stormtroopers, a couple of officers who’d been left unconscious in the Central Command office, and an unknown amount of damage to the physical facilities.”

“And the children?” asked Hux, not that he didn’t feel certain of the answer.

“Gone, sir. I’m afraid all of the children were stolen, and one full cloning chamber was put into growth stasis.”

This last bit of news came as a surprise to Hux. “That seems odd, Commander. You mean they just turned off the acceleration for one random chamber full of soldiers?”

“No sir, they didn’t turn off the acceleration, they turned off growth altogether. They’re just sitting there doing absolutely nothing.”

“Well, turn them back on!” bellowed Hux.

“We tried, sir, but we’re locked out. According to our technicians, even if we were able to break back into the system, the stasis they’re in is intended for clones who are fully developed and just waiting to be deployed—we would need to reboot the system anyway, even if we weren’t locked out, just to restart their acceleration. As they are, these clones aren’t anywhere near old enough for deployment. The technicians were concerned that rebooting might cause a power surge that would compromise their viability entirely.”

“Well, they’re no good to us if they’re not battle ready. Reboot, and if they die, they die. If we have to start a new batch from scratch, that’s still better than having thousands of little girls uselessly roaming the facility.”

Without warning, the bridge doors opened, and a tall, masked figure in black strode nonchalantly through the opening. The figure approached Hux calmly, as though there was nothing at all awry, and began to speak. “General, we have collected a Jedi female from the Resistance fleet. We are currently holding her in detention. Would you like to see her?” Heard through the effects of a vocal modulator, the lieutenant bristled at the distinctly eerie quality of the odd voice.

The news appeared to give Hux pause. Turning his head to the dark visitor, his irritation subsided a bit, and he replied carefully, “A Jedi female?”

“That’s correct, General.” The figure waited patiently and casually for Hux to catch up to the present. Lieutenant Durvas shuddered involuntarily as the man spoke.

He turned briefly back toward Lieutenant Durvas and the comms panel through which he’d been speaking to Brunsely. “Commander Brunsley, you have your orders.” Then, to his masked visitor, he replied, “Take me to her,” a renewed determination in his demeanor.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 18: Debriefing———

Rey woke up alone in the detention cell. The last thing she remembered was crashing into the Finalizer’s hangar—she was actually surprised to be alive at all, so waking up in the familiar restraints of the Finalizer’s holding cell came as an odd comfort to her. The last time she felt these restraints was the first time she had seen Ben’s face. She recalled her memories of her first conversation with him. He had interrogated her over the map to Luke. Just as he had interrogated Poe before that.

In the days following the battle at Crait, she and Poe had begun formally getting to know one another. As they shared their stories, they learned that they had both experienced interrogation at the hands of Kylo Ren. That interrogation was part of the reason Poe hated Ben so much. Ben had been rough. He had mercilessly rummaged through Poe’s mind, painfully and without remorse. Poe had been operating on the assumption that it had been similar for Rey, and he felt an immediate camaraderie with her over their shared experience.

Rey hadn’t corrected Poe, but she really hadn’t experienced it that way. With Rey, Ben had taken his time, hoping to get her to talk before resorting to probing her mind, and when it finally came to that, he did it much more gently. Granted, that may have been because her latent skill with the Force was somehow protecting her, but she believed he could have easily compensated for that if he’d tried harder. Had Kylo Ren shown her compassion by not being more forceful? If so, why? Why would he have held back?

Back in the forest, after they had left the base to begin her training, Ben had said to her: “The First Order tortures people to get what they want.” Why would he have been reluctant to do so with her?

Because he cared for me, even then, she thought. Then that would mean he also knew in his heart, shrouded in Darkness though it was, that torture was wrong—if he cared for her, he couldn’t bring himself to hurt her. Rey had thought the Resistance was better than the First Order because it extended its “care” more broadly. To those they didn’t know. Even to those whom they regarded as enemies. Yet Rey had done worse than torture, and she had done it to innocent children.

The weight of what she had done pressed on her, and she could barely breathe. I killed children. I asked Ben to do it for me, but they are dead because of me. Ben committed murder because I asked him to…

During the raid, Rey had felt the Darkness encroaching. She had been angry and vengeful, and she had used those emotions in her fight against the First Order. She had been so fearsome, so powerful—she had become intoxicated by it. It was just like how she had felt when Ben was being attacked by the Psadans at his cottage, only so much more. She couldn’t see, until it was too late, just how far into the Darkness she had fallen.

Rey had never felt worse in her entire life. She had tried to teach Ben that her way was the moral way, the correct way. She had tried to teach him to be good, and yet here she was—a hypocrite. She had said the Resistance didn’t torture. The Resistance didn’t commit war crimes. But when she saw that Resistance fighter shoot that child, she had forgotten all of that—she had reinforced his mistake. That fighter screwed up, but she did nothing to correct him. She became what she should have reproached.

As her despair and self-loathing consumed her, tears threatened her eyes, and the doors to her chamber opened with a swish.

She fought back her tears. If she was ever to atone for what she’d done, she first needed to survive whatever was coming next. She surveyed the figures as they entered the room. She had never met the man who entered first, but she recognized him from Ben’s memories. This was General Hux, the man who had betrayed Ben and nearly killed him. The individuals who followed after him, she knew only from her dreams.

“You,” spat the general derisively, looking her over with scorn written all over his face. “You’re that filthy scavenger from Jakku. You conspired with that bastard Kylo Ren to murder the Supreme Leader.” He paused in his retelling to look her over once more, his expression shifting from one of pure venom to one that was almost giddy with anticipation as he seemed to realize something.

“You’re with him, aren’t you?” he said, smiling wickedly. It was a rhetorical question.

“I took this off of her after I sent her crashing into the hangar,” said one of the others, a woman by the sound of her voice, but with a similar build to Hux. She wore a mask not unlike the one Ben had worn as Kylo Ren. Dangling from her belt was a lightsaber of her own. She knew these individuals must be the infamous Knights of Ren she’d heard about. The one who was speaking held Rey’s saberstaff in her hands, and was presenting it to the general.

“Well done, Prarathi Ren,” said Hux, taking the weapon from her.

This confirmed Rey’s suspicions. She eyed the woman warily.

A taller individual, this one inexplicably more off-putting, stepped up behind Prarathi Ren and addressed the general. “She also had some sort of communicator, but we’ve destroyed that.” This Knight was a man, and one whose voice sent chills down Rey’s back. “Shall we move her to a more… secure location?”

A thin smile creased Hux’s smug face as he looked hard at Rey. The general simply nodded.

———

On the Supremacy II, word had reached Faris Ren of the debacle at Kamino. He had deployed the other Knights of Ren to oversee the recruitment efforts on Arkanis, but those efforts had stalled once word had reached them that their presence was needed at Kamino. That was the last time Faris had heard from any of his senior officers directly—to tell him that not only were they not executing a mission to spread their galactic influence, but that their previous gains were in jeopardy.

Faris was displeased.

It had been some time since anyone had reported in, and Faris was getting impatient for an update. Sitting on his throne, Faris Ren crossed and uncrossed his legs, looking bored and anxious.

Sighing in irritation, Faris Ren stood up and walked over to a display tucked into the wall opposite the throne. He studied the panel, fingers hovering uncertainly over the controls. Finally, he seemed to find what he was looking for, and turned a knob clockwise as he pressed a glowing yellow button.

“May I help you, Supreme Leader?” answered a voice Faris Ren had never heard before.

Faris stood a little taller, glancing around lamely and subtly clearing his throat. His next words held an air of embarrassment for having to make the inquiries he was making, but he worked hard not to let his awkwardness show. “Yes, I need to speak to Lorim Ren on the Finalizer. Or General Hux. Or any of the Knights of Ren, really.”

Fail.

Ever the consummate professional, the officer on the other end responded dutifully, “Right away, Supreme Leader. I will hail them and patch them through to you as soon as I have a response.”

“Very good,” replied Faris. Standing in front of the console, Faris wondered if he should sit down. Maybe I can answer from my throne? he thought. He didn’t really like the idea of standing there waiting for someone to return his call. Had he made the call from his quarters, he could be at ease with the certainty that he would be able to receive the call from the comfort of his desk. He made a mental note to spend more time in his quarters and save the throne room for when he was receiving an audience.

A minute later, there was a yellow light flashing from the armrest of his throne accompanied by a soft tone. Faris Ren moved swiftly back to his seat, and pressed the yellow button.

It was Lorim Ren. “Supreme Leader, I assume you’re awaiting an update on the situation on Kamino?”

“Obviously!” spat Faris Ren indignantly. “How long were you planning to keep me waiting?”

“Apologies, my lord. Things here have been… interesting.”

“Well, get on with it,” he demanded impatiently.

“The Resistance invaded Kamino shortly after the last of the children had been stored securely in the incubation chambers. Officers at the facility were unprepared for an assault, and were slow to respond. Resistance fighters, including Kylo Ren and a Jedi female, were observed infiltrating the facility and disrupting operations there. The officers barricaded themselves in the Central Command office, where they were subsequently detained and interrogated. Lieutenant General Tonkin had his mind probed by Kylo Ren, and Lieutenant Ainu’u, commander of the recruitment vessel Adragna, willingly ordered the stormtroopers on site to stand down so the Resistance could escape with the children.”

“That’s outrageous!” yelled Faris.

“Yes sir, it’s quite shameful,” Lorim Ren said, ever insouciant. “The Finalizer arrived just as the Adragna left atmo, and a skirmish ensued between the Finalizer’s TIE battalion and the Resistance squadrons. The vast majority of the Resistance fleet escaped, including Kylo Ren.”

Faris Ren was furious. “I demand Hux get here at once. I need a word with him.”

“He is presently seeing to the detainment of our one hostage, the Jedi female who was accompanying Kylo Ren,” replied Lorim, “but I will see that the Finalizer departs for your location immediately.”

“Make sure to get that facility properly staffed first. Kill those incompetent officers!” bellowed Faris Ren with what he hoped sounded like authority.

“Already done, my lord.”

———

The Resistance frigate dropped out of hyperspace shortly after the Adragna, and moved into orbit around Dendrokaan. It would take some time to secure Lothal and determine which children had parents to go back to and which did not, so it was decided that the Adragna would set down at the Resistance base to offload the children. A location had been established just outside the west wing of the base near the canteen that was convenient enough to use as a temporary dormitory for the children. There were shuttles aboard the Adragna that could carry thirty children apiece, and, in a pinch, could serve as sleeping quarters for most of those thirty. Between tents, cots and other miscellaneous bedding cobbled together from various parts of the base, the children would all have someplace to sleep while they were here. It wouldn’t reverse the trauma they’d suffered, but it was a small comfort that could be offered.

They had called in help from a few allied planets to help provide caretakers for the children, but most of the help had yet to arrive. As a result, the bulk of the care was being given by crusty mechanics, hardened fighters, and other traditionally non-nurturing types of individuals. It had been a long time since the base’s residents had felt so out of their element.

Most of the X-wings that had descended upon Kamino made it back. A few had been destroyed during the dogfight that ensued while they were escaping, and three more were crippled as a result of Ben’s crash landing in the hangar. By all objective measures, this was a startlingly successful mission.

In spite of the favorable numbers, Poe had a difficult time feeling positive about how things had gone. Rey wasn’t there to celebrate with them.

After everyone had landed back at the base, Poe was summoned to StratComm by Commander D’Acy to debrief the operation. Snap had already provided the statistical data from the frigate’s logs, but it was time to discuss what was learned, and what was going to happen next.

To do that, he was going to need Ben.

———

After parking in the hangar at the base, Ben had slipped away from everyone much more surreptitiously than he would have thought possible before today. Everyone was so preoccupied that Ben was able to walk out virtually unnoticed by anyone. He headed for the one place that he knew would be unoccupied.

The door to Rey’s residence hall quarters opened with a creak. The quarters had been undisturbed for some time now, and the air inside was musty from stagnation. The room was tiny, barely big enough to cram four people inside—the door had to swing out rather than in. Pulling the door shut behind him, he stood and took in the sights of the small room.

Rey had taken so few personal items with her to their training site that he had to marvel at how little was actually here. Hadn’t she been living here for nearly two years? There was a glass for water on a nightstand beside her simple bunk, and a wardrobe on the wall to the right. Looking inside, Ben saw a couple extra pairs of shoes and some cold weather clothing—I bet she gets cold easily, he thought. There were no decorations or other personal touches.

Nothing about this cramped little room said home to him. Had she been waiting to leave from the moment she’d arrived? Ben could only wonder. Oddly, she had left her bed made. Why wouldn’t she have at least taken the blankets and pillows with her when she left?

Strange woman, he thought, and he plucked her pillow from the head of her bed. Looking down, he stared at it in his hands, spying a strand of her hair clinging to the cover. Lifting the pillow to his face, Ben inhaled deeply. Her scent clung lightly to the fabric of the pillowcase, and he closed his eyes, burying his face in the soft cloth. His breathing hitched, and he could feel himself about to lose control.

Tears threatened Ben’s eyes, and his chin quivered, but he managed to govern his sensibilities. Refusing to give in to his grief, he instead turned to more familiar emotional territory. Dropping the pillow and igniting his lightsaber, Ben screamed in anguished fury as he slashed and tore at the meager furnishings in Rey’s puny room, reducing it to splinters and twisted metal. His screams echoed in his ears, and his saber split the walls themselves. For several more seconds, his bitterness at the universe spilled out of him, leaving nothing but shreds of cloth, singed wood, and red hot shrapnel in its wake.

When he was finished, blood vessels were bulging from his contorted face, and his saber crackled motionlessly at his side. His eyes were shut tight against the light of day.

“So this is where you snuck off to,” said Poe, standing in the open doorway.

In his rage, Ben hadn’t noticed Poe’s approach. The last thing Ben wanted at this moment was to talk to Poe. Giving no other physical or verbal response, Ben let the continued buzzing of his chaotic red lightsaber do his talking for him.

Rolling his eyes, Poe prodded him to respond. “Look, you need to tell us what information you got out of the First Order. We’re not done.”

Saber still snapping and hissing, Ben turned his head toward Poe and leveled a dark glare in his direction. “None of the information I collected will get Rey back. It doesn’t matter.”

“But it does matter,” insisted Poe. “It matters to those kids and their families, and it would matter to Rey that we help them.”

Ben snorted. “I don’t give a damn about those families.”

“Right, just Rey, I get it. And I suppose destroying the contents of her room is your way of conjuring up a plan to go get her?”

Ben snapped. “Wasting my time and energy discussing strategic operations about the First Order’s recruitment efforts is certainly not going to get her here any faster!” For good measure, Ben hacked at the remains of Rey’s bunk to emphasize his point.

Shaking his head in disdain, Poe spat back, “Don’t you get it? We need your help. And you need ours. Tell us what you know, and we can figure out a plan! We want Rey back just as much as you do!”

Ben took a couple of steadying breaths before continuing. Staring off into space, he whispered his warning, “Poe, I may kill you if you don’t leave right now. Don’t speak. Don’t move in any direction but towards the hall. I’m trying. So hard. But right now I’m struggling to contain myself.” He closed his eyes, praying that if he shut them fiercely enough he could cleave himself from the rest of reality. The strain to hold back his violent fervor left a palpable darkness in the air that made Poe’s skin crawl. After a few breaths, Ben managed to grit out a final plea. “Get. Out.”

He thought he’d made his entreaty fairly clear and convincing, so when Ben felt a presence behind him moments later, he lost it. Whirling around, he carved his lightsaber through the chest of the figure standing in the doorway. There was a momentary feeling of panic as he realized what his loss of control had caused him to do, followed by surprise and relief as he realized that his saber had found purchase not in flesh, but in the doorframe beyond.

“That didn’t work last time either. Won’t you ever learn?” Luke’s ghost stood serenely in the opening, calm and sympathetic eyes meeting Ben’s pained expression.

Staring at his uncle, Ben’s fury crashed like a shattered window, his legs buckled beneath him and his lightsaber extinguished in his hand. He collapsed on the floor, resting on his backside and leaning against the remains of Rey’s bedside table. The strain was gone from his face, and he stared blankly at his knees. Silent tears streamed down his cheeks.

Luke stared down at his tormented nephew. “We need to talk,” was all he said.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 19: Regrouping———

The Resistance leaders were at StratComm, seated around a conference table discussing their situation. Poe, Finn, and Snap had just finished briefing Lieutenant Connix and Commander D’Acy on the events at Kamino, and they were now mulling over their options.

“Do we know where the First Order plans to hit next?” asked D’Acy.

“Ben probably does,” Poe sighed. “But he was too busy having a little temper tantrum in Rey’s room to tell me anything about it. I think it’s fair to say we’re on our own for a little while. He doesn’t care enough about the Resistance to want to help us without Rey.”

Fretfulness had carved deep lines in Finn’s features. Wearily, he asked, “What are we going to do to get her back?”

“Do we even know if she’s alive?” asked Snap.

Poe set his jaw thoughtfully. “It’s safe to assume they’ll keep her alive at least long enough to try to interrogate her. They’ll want to know where our base is.”

Connix’s eyes opened wide in alarm. “Do we need to evacuate?” She was extremely agitated at the prospect, having already been down that road too many times before.

Poe shook his head. “She’s a fighter. She’s strong with the Force, and she won’t give us up easily. Kylo Ren couldn’t break her, and I doubt they’ve got anyone else as capable as he was,” added Poe with a shrug.

“We know she was on the Finalizer, but it’s doubtful they’re still hanging around Kamino,” said Finn, tapping a panel to pull up a holographic map of the galaxy. “Without knowing where they are, or where they plan to go next for more kids…” he added, trailing off.

“Do we know that they won’t just continue harvesting from Lothal?” asked Poe.

“No.” Finn shook his head, “Now that they’ve already established a presence there, it will be a slow trickle out of Lothal. Instead, they’ll want to spread their major efforts around, remind everyone to keep in line. We’ve got no way of knowing where they’ll hit next.”

“Then there really isn’t a lot we can do,” Connix said, looking hopelessly at the enormous holographic display.

They glanced around the table at each other, feeling helpless. The silence was broken by the sound of the heavy conference room door opening and loud footsteps approaching. The team of Resistance fighters turned to find the source of the intrusion. There was an uncertain mixture of relief and apprehension filling the room as they spied Ben Solo striding up to them.

Ben stopped, and he and Poe silently regarded one another for a moment before Poe spoke first. “Well? I assume you have something to say?”

Without so much as acknowledging anyone else in the room, Ben began to address Poe. “I can find Rey, and we can go to where she is before she’s interrogated or killed. A small team can execute a rescue, while your main forces go to where the First Order have plans for another recruitment effort.”

“Which is where?” asked Snap.

“Arkanis. That operation should have been underway by the time we arrived at Kamino, but it may have been stalled, given that Hux chose to engage with us instead. It’s logical to assume they’ll be resuming that operation shortly given that they’ll know we interrogated their officers.” Ben looked away, muttering, “It would have made more sense to kill them.”

Poe ignored the muttered comment, choosing instead to focus on the facts. “So if we get to Arkanis now, we can stop them. Maybe steal or destroy their ships so they can’t do this again.”

“We’re spread a little thinly to try and intercept them while caring for all those kids we just collected,” considered Connix. “We may not have enough bodies.”

Losing patience, Ben cut in. “Whatever, you guys can work all that out. Who’s going to help me get Rey?”

The Resistance fighters exchanged glances again. Finn answered, “I’m sure Chewie would be willing to take the Falcon on a recovery mission. He’s probably in the hangar.”

“Perfect,” replied Ben. “We need to do that. We need to go. Now.”

D’acy shook her head, “Rey is just one person. We’re talking about thousands of kids. We can try to get her after we’ve dealt with Arkanis.”

Poe looked at Ben with resignation, “Look, we all want her back. Nobody wants Rey back more than I do. But Commander D’acy is right, we need to prioritize.” It killed him to say it, and Ben could feel his pain. “We’ll get her back, but at least we know that she can withstand interrogation—at least for as long as it will take us to put together a real plan to save her.”

Ben smacked the table, upset. “You don’t understand. It’s not just that idiot Hux, or some mid-level sadists who’ll be doing the interrogation. If we don’t hurry, Faris Ren will get to her. He will pry everything from her. And he will not be as gentle as I was.” Ben leveled a complicated look at Poe.   

“No…” Connix stuttered. “If they get our location from her then we’re in serious trouble. We can’t possibly evacuate the whole base, including all those children, before they get here.”

Ben nodded sternly. “That’s why we need to get to her. Now.”

There was a moment of quiet as D’Acy considered all she’d heard. “Alright. Finn, you talk to Chewbacca and get the Falcon ready to depart. Once you’ve located Rey you have my permission to leave as soon as possible.” Finn nodded excitedly, rising from his seat.

“Good,” said Ben. “Now, in order to get to Rey, we’ll need a cloaked binary beacon.”

“I’ve got a set in my quarters,” offered Finn. “I’ll get Chewie started prepping the ship, and then head to my chamber to get it.” Finn left, and they could hear him running down the hall, as he called Chewbacca on his commlink.

“Now, about their plans at Arkanis…” interjected Snap.

Ben shook his head. “I don’t have time. Are you going to be in charge of that? Because I could just pass the information directly to you, then I could get out of here.”

Snap looked away briefly, momentarily grimacing before standing up from the table and taking a step toward Ben.

“Good.” Ben put his hand on Snap’s forehead and closed his eyes, quickly summoning forth the information he had gleaned from Kamino. It was over in a flash, as Snap sat back down in his chair, exhaling slowly.

“There you go.” With that, Ben abruptly started to walk out of StratComm, before pausing at the door, his back to the assembled officers, “Good luck,” he mumbled, without looking back. He then rushed off, without even checking to see if anyone was following him.

Poe sighed, then turned to the others. “I’m going to be with the team that collects Rey. Let me know if you need me for anything.” Then Poe pivoted on his heel and followed after Ben.

Commander D’Acy, Lieutenant Connix, and Snap looked at each other in shock, each of them surprised by the sudden change in events. “Well,” said D’Acy, after a moment, “Snap, what do you have for us?”

———

Ben pushed open the door to Finn’s room without so much as a glancing look back at Poe, who had been wordlessly following behind him. Once Ben was inside, he studied the few pieces of storage furniture in Finn’s quarters.

“How did you even know this was Finn’s room?” asked Poe from the doorway.

“I studied the base’s layout during my recovery.”

“The ‘spying thing’ you taught Rey?”

“Yeah, that,” Ben answered without contention.

Finn rejoined them only seconds later, having raced to the hangar and then to his quarters as quickly as he could manage. He stood sweating and huffing in the doorway, surprised to find them already there—he was expecting them to have taken longer to wrap up their discussion back at StratComm. Poe greeted his arrival with a nod.

Ben turned to the bedside table. “Is it in here?” he asked no one in particular, helping himself into the drawer.

Finn attempted, unsuccessfully, to get in front of Ben and take over the searching of his things, but Ben would not be shoved aside. All Finn could do was point. “Uh yeah, it’s there on the left.”

Ben plucked the pieces out of the drawer and turned to face the two other men in the room. “Okay, now get out. I have to talk to Rey.”

Finn and Poe exchanged confused glances. Poe wasn’t about to be left out of whatever Ben was planning. “Look, whatever weird Force thing you’re going to do that will let you talk to Rey, I want to be there. If we’re going to help, we need to know what’s going on, and it’s just more efficient if we can hear things firsthand rather than have you relay private conversations. Just be transparent, for once.”

“Yeah,” said Finn, nodding his agreement.

Ben was irritated, but sighed and relented—anything to avoid further arguing with Rey’s friends. “Alright, but don’t say anything. Just be quiet, she won’t be able to hear you anyway.”

They shrugged. “Okay,” Finn said.

“Do your thing,” added Poe.

Their presence made it more difficult to center himself and draw on the feelings necessary to conjure a connection with Rey, but Ben eventually felt the air around him take on the familiar quality he had come to associate with success. However, Finn’s room was too damn small for him to see far enough to actually spot her.

“Dammit,” muttered Ben as he pushed past the two other men into the hallway of the residence area. Finn and Poe kept close behind.

“Ben?” Hearing his name, Ben turned to his right toward the corridor where the common area in Finn’s wing of the residence hall was located. Once he reached it, he could see Rey suspended a foot or so from the ground, her outspread arms apparently bound to some invisible anchor. She was looking right at him.

He locked his gaze with hers, momentarily silent as he took her in. “You’re alone?” he finally asked.

“Yes. Ben, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I let this happen. There are so many things I need to atone for, I don’t even know where to begin,” said Rey, shame and sadness creasing the smooth lines of her face, and tears pricked her eyes.

“Don’t worry about that, just tell me where you are.”

Finn and Poe could only hear Ben’s half of the conversation, and both men were itching to interrupt to ask Ben to narrate her answers. Summoning their last reserves of restraint, they kept control of themselves.

“I’m in Hux’s personal chambers,” she answered. “He had this contraption installed so he could keep me in here. There are guards at the door.”

“His chambers… That’s disgusting. Have they tried to interrogate you?”

“Only barely. This tall creepy guy attempted to read my mind, but I was able to block him out easily enough.”

“That’s Lorim Ren,” Ben observed. “He’s a novice at mind reading. With your power he should be no problem for you. However, Faris is another story. Is he there?”

“No, he’s on the Supremacy. I think we’re headed there now though.”

“Most likely. I can show you how to close your mind off more efficiently, and that might keep him out of your head. Also, I need to plant this on you.” He held up the binary beacon he had taken from Finn’s drawer. “Where can I stick this where they won’t find it?”

“There’s a hidden pocket on the inside of my tunic,” said Rey, looking down to her right.

Ben approached her suspended form and carefully lifted the fabric of her tunic away from her skin. He needed to unfasten some buttons before he could reveal the hidden pocket, but his gloves made it hard to get them undone. Frustrated, he ripped the glove off his right hand with his teeth, let it fall to the floor, and resumed prying at the buttons. After a couple had been successfully loosened, he spotted a flap in the interior lining of the tunic. He lifted the flap and inserted the beacon.

Ben lingered in Rey’s shadow for a few seconds before taking a step back. Looking up at her, he said, “With that, we should be able to find you soon enough.” Delicately, he refastened the buttons on her tunic.

The two stared at each other anxiously, realizing they would need to close their connection soon. There was so much they wanted to say to each other, but extremely limited time. Rey knew they had business to take care of—anything more would have to wait. “Don’t you need to help me prepare for Faris Ren?” she asked tentatively.

“Oh right,” replied Ben awkwardly. “He’s a moron, but he’s powerful.” He stepped closer to her again and lifted his ungloved hand to her forehead. When he touched her skin to skin, Poe and Finn were able to see her, and both men gasped audibly, drawing Rey’s attention. Her cheeks reddened as she realized this wasn’t the private moment she thought she was having. She smiled sweetly at the two men and tried to relax her mind enough to take in Ben’s teachings.

When Ben was finished, his hand lingered on Rey’s forehead, reluctant to part from her. Instead of backing away, he let his hand slide down and around to her lower back, causing her friends’ image of her to flicker and wane as fabric interrupted the direct contact. As his hand came to rest at the small of her back, her image became clear again thanks to a bit of exposed flesh between her pants and her tunic. Ben leaned in to rest his temple against her collarbone—that being the highest he could reach, suspended as she was. He seemed not to notice or care that there were two onlookers behind him.

Rey nuzzled into the top of Ben’s head, pleasantly surprised by his affections in the presence of her two friends. She kissed his head through his hair and smiled.

Breathing in her scent one last time, Ben whispered into her shoulder, too quietly for the others to hear, “I’ll come back for you, sweetheart.” At that, he gave her waist a reassuring squeeze and gently pulled away from her. As his physical connection was severed, she could no longer see her friends standing by watching them.

“I love you,” she said.

Ben’s face reddened, and he averted his eyes from hers.

Rey laughed sweetly. She had yet to hear him utter the words that she had now spoken twice, but she was nothing if not eternally patient, and she was confident of what was in his heart. “It’s okay, I know you love me too. I won’t make you say it in front of them. I’ll see you again soon.”

Ben nodded, and Rey was alone once more.

———

“You mean to tell me that they stole back all of the children we took?” Faris Ren gritted out through clenched teeth, from the dais of his throne.

Hux was down on his knees in front of Faris, eyes glued to the floor in front of him. “Yes, Supreme Leader.”

The Knights of Ren stood obediently at the back of the chamber, observing quietly. Sharna Ren stared derisively at Hux. She had never liked the man, finding him ever obsequious and weasly. However, he was smart to have chosen to go to Faris for help overcoming Kylo—although he was powerful, Faris was the most easily manipulated of the four of them; a very suggestible Supreme Leader. She was the one with the cunning and strategic talent—it should be her on that throne.

“This is what your failure with Kylo Ren has wrought. I should kill you for this,” bellowed Faris.

“Please, Supreme Leader, we may yet have what we need to bring him to heel. The Jedi we captured is his intimate—we can use her against him. If we were to torture her, would he not feel it? We could use her to weaken him while we invade Arkanis and Corellia. We may even be able to get her to reveal the location of the Resistance base, allowing us to recover our losses.”

“Have you not already interrogated her?” Faris asked, plainly irritated.

“Lorim Ren attempted to do so, but her mind proved too difficult to read,” replied Hux. Lorim took a step forward at the mention of his name. “Even Kylo Ren had difficulty reading her when he first encountered her,” continued Hux.

“Lorim couldn’t read the mind of a stormtrooper,” grunted Faris. Lorim looked down and took a step back. “It is I who has the most talent in this area. Bring her to me, and I will extract what we need.”

Sharna couldn’t deny that Faris had a gift for mental manipulation. It was the only reason she hadn’t voiced her ambitions to her comrades, or given any other indications that she had eyes for the throne. If Faris were smarter, he would have already scoured their minds for their intentions, but as long as she appeared loyal, he would remain naïvely trusting, and her duplicity would remain hidden.

“She is back on the Finalizer, secured in my private chambers,” supplied Hux.

Faris raised an eyebrow. “Your chambers? Seems an odd place to keep a prisoner…”

With an air of implacable judiciousness, Hux explained, “I needed to ensure no unauthorized visitors. We’ve had problems with her before.”

Sharna rolled her eyes. Even without peering into his mind, she could tell he had personal reasons for wanting her kept in his chambers.

“No more of that. Bring her here.” Faris Ren looked past the kneeling Hux to his fellow Knights of Ren, addressing them directly. “Sharna, Simeon, see to her transfer.”

Sharna stepped forward, bowing reverently for her leader. “At once, my lord.” Turning on her heel, she left the throne room, followed by a silent and ever watchful Simeon Ren.

“The Liska and Taiga are already in position at Arkanis. That operation should never have been put on hold in the first place. Lorim and Prarathi, since you’re back here now anyway, you two will oversee the operation at Corellia, which will proceed immediately—it no longer makes sense to stagger these operations if the Resistance is already aware of our plans at Arkanis, as is most likely. Organize the vessels Gashel and Bevel and see if you can’t collect and actually keep a reasonable number of recruits this time,” ordered Faris acerbically.

Lorim Ren nodded graciously to his ruler. “Yes, Supreme Leader. I promise you the results you deserve.”

“The next time you see us our army will be thousands of recruits greater,” effused Prarathi, bowing deeply. Prarathi and Lorim Ren swiveled and marched out of the chamber.

Faris turned his attention back to his beleaguered general. “I will see to this girl’s interrogation. After that, I expect you to ensure her security. By any means necessary.”

“Absolutely, Supreme Leader. I know just what to do.”

Hux was summarily dismissed.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 20: Torment———

Sharna and Simeon Ren took a shuttle back to the Finalizer to collect Hux’s hostage. Sharna didn’t like being treated like a gofer, but she was grateful not to have been ordered to oversee recruitment. She wanted to stay where the action was, and her instincts told her that the action would follow the girl. Why Faris had felt it was necessary to send Simeon along with her, however, she had no idea. It wasn’t as if hostage transfer was difficult work, even if the hostage was a Jedi. The fact that Simeon was sent along as well made her even less satisfied with this assignment—not only was she being given a Padawan’s job, but Faris had felt it required her to have help. That Simeon was so utterly useless made his “help” that much more insulting.

Sharna Ren approached the door to Hux’s personal quarters and ordered the stormtroopers standing outside to let them in. To their credit, they did not question her authority to enter. The door slid open with a hiss, and Sharna stepped inside, Simeon ever at her heels. Sharna took a moment to take in the state of Hux’s chambers, believing much could be gleaned about a person from the way they kept their quarters. Utilitarian, everything in its proper place… She noted the only decorative touches in the room were in the form of First Order propaganda posters, military artifacts and the like. I’ll say this for him, he really appreciates order, thought Sharna. Not much of a personality beyond that though…

Rey’s head had been drooping uncomfortably from where her body was suspended at a forward angle above the floor. She had looked up at the sound of the door opening. She looked like she’d been crying, and Sharna regarded her disdainfully. “Well, Jedi, we’re here to collect you. Cooperate with us, and maybe I’ll think twice about running you through.”

Rey said nothing, merely maintaining eye contact and craning her neck subtly in an attempt to work out some kinks that had developed from dangling in place for so long.

“Terrific, good chat,” said Sharna, rolling her eyes under her mask. She triggered the release that bound Rey’s legs to the base of the harness, and they swung lazily forward under Rey’s body until they dusted the floor of Hux’s chambers. Her center of gravity now over her feet, Rey’s arms could be freed. Sharna pulled some binders from a clip at her waist and approached the restraints on Rey’s right side. “Get the other arm,” she ordered Simeon, who swiftly obeyed.

After Rey’s right arm was liberated, Sharna took a step toward Rey’s middle to meet Simeon, who was still fiddling with Rey’s left restraint. As she planted her foot in front of Rey, she felt something beneath her feet. Giving no outward indication that she had noticed anything, she glanced surreptitiously to the floor, nudging the item with her toe. On the ground, nearly invisible against the onyx tile, sat a single black glove, identical to the sort worn by all the Knights of Ren.

So that’s how it is. My, this is getting interesting.

She looked at Simeon, who was still struggling with the harness. “Come on, Simeon, give me her wrist. Let’s get this skinny bitch back to Faris before she bores me to death.” After fastening Rey’s left wrist into the other side of the binders, she impatiently tugged and dragged Rey toward the door, paying no heed to Rey’s awkward stumblings as she was forced to suddenly re-engage the muscles in her legs from their hours-long bondage.

As Sharna Ren turned to leave, her eyes caught the one object in Hux’s quarters that didn’t appear to be in its proper place. Across the room, atop the finely polished and utterly unadorned desk, sat an object that she hadn’t noticed when she’d scanned the room upon entering: a lightsaber. Sharna scowled. Hux’s disdain for the Force was evident in his every arrogant and presumptuous gesture. She found it mildly offensive that Hux should be in possession of a Jedi’s lightsaber, even if she was the enemy—he didn’t deserve this trophy.

“Well, we’ve kept our most Supreme Leader waiting long enough. It’s time we brought him his prize. Why don’t you get a head start and I’ll catch up. I want to snoop through Hux’s stuff a little before I go,” she said with a smirk, believing that she could disguise her true intentions as just a little malicious mischief and that Simeon lacked the wherewithal to protest.

Simeon Ren could be heard exhaling through his mask, probably a sign of disapproval, but he took Rey and left, as instructed. Although she and Simeon were technically equals, he was so passive she found it easy to order him around. Once they were safely out the door and she was alone again, she called the saber into her hand.

Sharna looked it over approvingly. Impressive… she thought. I mean, it looks like it was built in a shed, but it’s solidly constructed; clearly a modified sword hilt, but repurposed quite expertly. She flicked it on, letting it hum in her grasp for a few seconds before giving it a twirl. Good balance… elegant, if distinctly homemade. She furrowed her brow, considering. And an odd color… She extinguished the weapon and tucked it into her belt, hiding it under her cloak at the small of her back.

Leaning over, she reached down to collect Kylo’s glove as well. She kept a lot of secrets, even from her allies—having information her comrades didn’t had always served her well, kept her competitive. She thought it best that Hux not find the glove there later and begin asking questions. In keeping with her original story, and also for the sheer pleasure she took in disrespecting Hux, she went ahead and snooped through his desk and wardrobe, too.

Finding absolutely nothing surprising about the meticulously ordered contents of either piece of furniture, she decided she’d fiddled around enough. It was time to meet Simeon in the hangar to board their shuttle back to the Supremacy II. As she walked, she contemplated the knowledge that Kylo Ren was likely on his way here for the girl, and a plan took shape in her mind.

———

Poe glanced reflexively at the radar. The beacon that had been given to Rey indicated that the Finalizer was headed galactic-westward from Kamino. Ben had guessed it would come to rest in the Unknown Regions, as that had been a favorite haunt of Snoke’s. By the time it appeared that Rey’s signal had actually dropped out of hyperspace, the Millenium Falcon had been en route for two hours.

“According to the beacon, the Finalizer is just coreward of the edge of the Unknown Regions, galactic-north of Rakata Prime. At this speed, we should be there in a few hours.” Chewie huffed his agreement with Poe, then lifted his arms behind his head and leaned back in his copilot’s seat to relax a little.

Poe stood. “You get some rest, buddy. I’ll be in the back.” Stepping out of the cockpit, Poe worked his way back toward the lounge where he knew Finn would be anxiously fidgeting at the dejarik table. Finn’s eyes darted up to him expectantly. BB-8, who had been keeping a watchful eye on the troubled Finn, whirled around expectantly, hoping Poe’s presence would succeed at lifting Finn’s spirits where his own had not.

Straightening in his seat, Finn asked, “You input the coordinates? How long?”

“A few hours. Nothing we can do now but wait.”

Finn nodded quickly, his knee bouncing up and down nervously. Poe sighed, aware that his best friend was needing reassurance, but being momentarily distracted by what he wasn’t seeing. “Where’s, uh, where’s Ben?” he asked.

“I think he’s around the corner, toward the cargo bay,” answered Finn.

Poe nodded and walked off in search of their brooding companion. Rounding a corner, Poe found himself in the repair bay. The cargo bay lay just beyond, but Poe didn’t need to go that far to find Ben. Poe located him just fore of the hold, standing in a corner looking down at something. Creasing his brows quizzically, Poe approached Ben and proceeded to question him. “What are you doing? Find something?”

Ben was slow to respond. With a sigh, he looked up from the floor and took a step back, allowing Poe to see what was nestled in the corner that had so fully consumed his attention.

“A storage cubby?” Poe was doubtful of the interest value such a space could hold.

“It’s a service access,” Ben said simply. “I used to hide in there. When I was a kid.”

Poe had forgotten that this was, after all, Ben’s father’s ship. Kylo Ren of the First Order had been a child once, and had apparently spent his time on this ship crawling around in the access ports. Looking at him now, the tall, menacing figure with the power of life and death at his fingers, it seemed almost comical. How had this demon of a man ever been a child?

This humanizing line of conversation struck Poe as enormously off-putting, and he wanted nothing more to do with it. He decided to change the subject. “So it’s a few hours before we get to the Finalizer—it’s just outside the Unknown Regions. By the time we get there, the rest of the Resistance will have already reached Arkanis.”

Ben simply hummed in reply, his eyes never leaving the service access.

Unable to bear anymore of Ben’s catatonic reminiscing, Poe walked back toward the lounge. Ben was grateful Poe hadn’t stuck around—he was regretting having divulged any details about his childhood to him. That Poe knew anything about him that wasn’t already common knowledge made him uncomfortable. He cursed his momentary weakness.

Ben sighed and stepped away from the tiny service access, burying his head in his hands. Instantly, as his brain registered a sensation it wasn’t expecting, his stomach dropped. Slowly pulling his hands from his face, Ben opened his care-worn eyes and stared at his hands, horror descending upon him as he realized where he’d been when he had removed one of his gloves and carelessly let it fall to the floor.

Ben’s mind raced. Maybe they won’t find it, he thought, but he knew those hopes were probably in vain—Hux at least would recognize that the glove wasn’t one of his own, and would get suspicious. He tried to figure out what the First Order could do with the knowledge that he and Rey shared a Force connection and could go so far as to pass objects back and forth through space. They would naturally want to look for any homing devicesthey’ll know we’re coming. How big a deal was that? Even if the First Order didn’t know that there was a rescue effort underway, they might have assumed that anyway. Does this development actually change anything?

Ben couldn’t decide if this was going to complicate things that much or not, and if so, how. The others would probably have a fit if he didn’t tell them though, so he began contemplating how to approach informing them about it.

———

Sharna and Simeon Ren had escorted Rey to a holding cell on the Supremacy II and were awaiting the arrival of the Supreme Leader and General Hux. The Jedi, who was now strapped back into a formal interrogation chair, hadn’t said a word the entire time, and the last thing Sharna wanted to do was talk to Simeon. If she hadn’t known it was so unbecoming, she would have been pacing with boredom.

Finally, and with little fanfare, Faris Ren and Hux entered the holding cell. “Supreme Leader,” greeted Sharna with a shallow bow.

Ignoring Sharna, Faris Ren simply looked Rey up and down disapprovingly. “This is the Jedi? She doesn’t look like much. Lorim really wasn’t able to get anything out of her? He’s more useless than I’d imagined.”

Hux knew better than to let his guard down around Rey. “I would caution you against underestimating her, my lord. It was with her help that Kylo Ren was able to dispose of Supreme Leader Snoke.”

Sharna Ren waited patiently for Faris to begin his interrogation. She wanted to do a little interrogating of her own, but believed she would have more luck if the Jedi were already preoccupied with trying to fend off Faris. She knew what Faris would be looking for—Sharna would be poking around elsewhere.

Rey looked Faris Ren resolutely in his eyes as he raised his hand to her face. Summoning the Force to her to defend against his intrusion, her face took on a stern and tenacious cast. Faris’s brows knitted together as he redoubled his efforts.

Unbeknownst to Faris, Sharna had also begun her assault on Rey. Faris would be looking for the location of the Resistance stronghold. Sharna didn’t care about that—she had no fear of the Resistance, at least not yet. What she wanted to know about was Kylo Ren. About the Jedi herself. What were their intentions? Surely Kylo Ren hadn’t aligned himself with the Resistance. He must be playing at something else, preparing to retake control of the First Order. She would be damned if she would allow another competitor over what was rightfully hers.

Amazingly, she was unable to learn anything about any of that.

“I don’t believe it,” huffed Faris Ren, lowering his hand in agonized defeat. He growled, “This rebel whelp’s mind is nothing. It’s a black box.” He looked Rey over, appraising her with begrudging respect. “How could she know anything of Force Immunity… to have attained this level of skill?”

Hux, confused and agitated, looked from Faris to Rey and back to Faris. “What do you mean?” he shouted. “Can’t you read her mind? Where is the base? What have you learned?” The look on his face said it all—he felt betrayed that his Force-wielding pawn was unable to do the one thing Hux had thought he would be good for.

Faris shook his head. “Force Immunity is a guard against Dark influence. I cannot penetrate her mind as long as she has her shield up.”

Hux was indignant. “Well, torture her then!” he screamed. “Do something! They can’t just be allowed to remain hidden! They must be destroyed!!”

Faris Ren turned his attention to Hux and silenced him with an invisible vise to his throat. “You presume to give me orders, General?”

Hux clawed at his throat, eyes bulging with shock and fury. If Faris hadn’t made it impossible for him to speak, he likely would have said something that earned him his death.

“We don’t have time for this now. At this moment, our attention should be on Arkanis and Corellia,” Faris declared, releasing Hux from his psychic grip and calmly exiting the detention cell. Sharna and Simeon followed behind him. “We need to make contact with Prarathi and Lorim Ren. Finding whatever hole the Resistance is hiding in can wait.” Faris departed without looking back, a besieged Hux fuming in his wake.

The doors to the cell slid shut behind them as they left, leaving Hux alone with Rey, panting and brimming with pent up rage. He watched the doors close with wide eyes, then turned to Rey.

“You bitch,” he spat. “You’re going to tell me where that base is, or I’m going to cut you to pieces. I don’t need some worthless mystic to get what I want from you, I’m perfectly willing to use more traditional methods.” With that, he stormed up to her and slapped her in the face, leaving her left cheek red and swollen.

Rey flinched at the sudden physical force, and glared back at him. She could tell Hux was serious. She had to think quickly or he might actually make good on his threats. Her first attempt at reprieve was to try a Force suggestion.

“You will release me from these restraints and allow me to leave,” she said, summoning all the concentration she could in her compromised state.

Hux was undeterred by her attempt. “I’m not some weak-minded fool. That’s not going to work on me. I will get you to talk. Any other time, I might have been satisfied to just punish you for the sheer number of new recruits and dead clones you cost me today, but I’m afraid I need to get some information before I can kill you. Now, where is the base?” and he punched her in the face hard enough that Rey’s vision darkened and flashed with spots of light. The pain in her eye socket was so severe she was pretty sure Hux had fractured that part of her skull.

I deserve this, she thought. It’s because of me that those children are dead.

Rey’s head was pounding, making it difficult to think. Bound as she was, she couldn’t use the Force to manipulate Hux physically, and she was unable to affect him mentally. Her face hurt, and Hux continued his verbal and physical assault upon her. She wasn’t even certain that answering his questions directly would grant her any reprieve—she felt his enjoyment at just beating her up.

In spite of the flagellation Rey felt she deserved, the pain got to be too much. Her left eye was already swollen shut from the punch to the face she had received, but she closed her other eye and tried her best to center herself, shutting herself off from what was happening around her. Reaching out through the Force, she called out to Ben.

———

Poe was sitting in the lounge, his head reclined against the seat cushion. He stared up at the ceiling, contemplating their next move. In just another hour or two, they would reach the Finalizer, and Rey. Finn was still nervously bouncing his knee up and down as he lay slumped over the dejarik table. Ben had yet to emerge from the repair bay.

Chewbacca announced his presence with a low growl. Finn, still unable to understand Wookiee, expectantly flicked his eyes from Chewie to Poe, who had jerked his head forward to acknowledge their friend. “You heard from the Resistance? What’s the word?”

Chewie responded with a series of glottal utterances, and Poe nodded his head. “Thanks, Chewie.” Turning to Finn, Poe translated. “He says the engagement at Arkanis is going pretty well. Our forces arrived to find the First Order having barely gotten started. They had deployed all of their ground shuttles but found none had returned yet. They’re hoping to steal the recruitment ships, but will destroy them if necessary.”

“So, no kids stolen yet. That’s something.” Finn sighed, glad for the relatively good news, but nonetheless despondent. “We should be there to help. We should be anywhere to help. But we’re nowhere. We’re hours from anything.”

“Yeah, we’re pretty much going to miss this one,” agreed Poe. Chewie huffed.

Without any sound to have foretold his arrival, Ben appeared in the doorway. Finn sat up straight and leveled his eyes on him curiously. Ben just stared back.

“Well?” urged Poe. “What is it?”

Ben took a step further into the lounge. “It’s likely that they already know we’re coming. The element of surprise we thought we might enjoy is probably compromised.”

Poe’s brows creased with concern. “How would they know? Did they find the beacon on Rey? Did you just talk to her or something?”

Ben shook his head. Poe thought he detected a trace of shame on Ben’s normally smug face. Poe’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know?” he asked suspiciously.

Ben held up his hands, revealing one bare and one gloved palm.

Poe stood up, red-faced and irate. “You kriffing idiot!” he shouted. Finn took a moment longer to figure out what had Poe so angry, but it finally dawned him what the problem was. His face sunk with the realization. Chewbacca observed morosely.

“Just like that, you blow our cover!? I can’t believe what a fool you are!!” Poe continued to scream at Ben.

Ben, to his credit, just stood there taking the verbal onslaught with relative calm. The look on his face acknowledged his misstep. He understood what he might have cost them.

Poe continued hurling insults at Ben and pacing madly around the lounge for another minute. When it looked like he had started to get things out of his system, Ben stepped forward to speak. “I know it was stupid, but let’s try to be calm. It’s possible this changes nothing. For all we know, they’ve been preparing for a rescue mission all along. They would have been stupid not to consider it.”

Finn looked on incredulously at the unlikely role-reversal playing out before him—the two men in front of him were arguing, and it was he with the reputation for sudden, destructive fits of rage who was calling on the other to remain calm. His fascination didn’t last long, however, as Ben suddenly became wide-eyed and frantic. It was so startling that even Poe had to stop and reassess things.

Ben was absolutely losing his mind. He was screaming, clutching at his head, and furiously pacing the room, paying no heed to whatever, or whomever, was in his path. As Poe realized this outburst was unrelated to what they had just been arguing about, he once again assumed the mantle of restraint and attempted to reassert himself into Ben’s attention.

“Whoa, whoa, what the hell is the matter with you??” asked Poe, arms raised defensively against Ben’s manic onslaught.

Ben’s pacing slackened, but he continued his screaming as he fixed his wide-eyed stare on Poe. “Rey!!” he howled, and fell to his hands and knees. “It’s Rey!”

Finn dropped to the ground in front of Ben, desperate to understand the nature of Rey’s situation, but he couldn’t get Ben to cease his hollering. Poe stepped forward in an attempt to take charge. Gripping Ben by both shoulders, Poe shook him hard and called for him to get control. When these efforts failed to produce the desired effect, Poe slapped him right across the face.

Ben continued staring into space in front of him, his pupils dilated, moaning and breathing heavily. His tirade, however, had abated.

Poe shook him once more. “Get a hold of yourself!” he yelled. “Rey’s in trouble, we get it! But running around screaming isn’t going to help. Get a grip and focus!”

Ben’s eyes recentered on Poe, and his gasping abated somewhat. Panting, he sat up a little straighter. “They’re torturing her… I can feel it. What they’re doing to her… I can feel everything,” he said, his voice cracking.

“Is there anything you can do? If you tried to see her now, would you be able to help her?” Poe wondered inwardly if Ben could summon the concentration necessary to even do such a thing, but keeping him talking appeared at least to have a pacifying effect. If Poe could keep Ben focused on helping Rey rather than on what was being done to Rey, they could get somewhere.

Ben took a handful of steadying breaths. “I don’t know. If she’s being tortured, she’s not alone. I don’t know if my presence would put her in more danger or less.”

“Well, I don’t know what else we can try from here. Can you give it a shot? Focus!” urged Poe.

“Do it for her,” said Finn, placing an encouraging hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Just, maybe take your other glove off first.”

Ben looked at him, nodding as he pulled off his remaining glove and shifted his weight back onto his knees. Ben sucked in a long intake of breath and closed his eyes, which had started to bleed.

———

Sharna Ren knew it was only a matter of time before Kylo would appear, and her mind was going in circles trying to strategize a way to turn this knowledge to her advantage. Having put Hux in his place, Faris was on his way to the bridge to oversee the recruitment operations. She followed closely behind, wanting to be sure she was current on what was happening planetside as she looked for opportunities to advance her position.

At Faris Ren’s approach, the doors to the bridge slid open and the crew turned their attention toward the intrusion. The new Supreme Leader’s face was not well known at this point, but of the three darkly dressed individuals who entered, they made the logical assumption that the one who wasn’t wearing a mask was probably the one toward whom they should direct their deference.

“Supreme Leader,” effused the bridge commander. “Welcome. How may I be of service?”

“What is the situation with the recruitment effort at Arkanis?” inquired Faris. Sharna listened closely.

“My lord, things at Arkanis are grim,” replied the commander. “Our forces were intercepted by the Resistance. Though we destroyed many of their vessels in defense of our operations, the Liska was destroyed by their bombers, and the Taiga was stolen.”

Faris quivered with rage at this news. “And at Corellia?”

The officer stood a little taller. “I am pleased to report that the operation at Corellia has gone much more smoothly, my lord.” The commander felt tremendous relief at having been able to change the subject to something less likely to see him executed. He was happy to elaborate. “Lorim Ren reported that the mission went off with no rebel interference, and only token resistance from the locals. Both the Gashel and the Bevel are on their way back to Kamino, fully loaded, and over twelve hundred new adult conscripts are being detained on Corellia.”

“Good. I'm pleased we were able to keep at least one secret from the Resistance,” muttered Faris.

Sharna had come to her decision. It was time to pull the trigger. “My lord, please allow me to escort you back to your chambers. Surely Simeon Ren can oversee things from here and alert you should anything further require your attention.” Simeon directed his gaze back to Sharna. She suspected he was irritated at being asked to complete a bridge lieutenant’s job, but you’d never know it through the mask. So much the better for her.

Faris nodded. “Agreed. Simeon, alert me the moment our forces arrive at Kamino.” Simeon bowed reverently, indicating his compliance.

Is that idiot a deaf-mute or something? Weirdo never talks… thought Sharna. In all the years she’d known him, she had never even seen him wield his lightsaber—he just kept it clipped to his belt like it was decoration. Whatever. Simeon was not her concern. She would get Faris back to his quarters, and then things would fall into place.

———

Hux’s knuckles were aching, and he had learned nothing whatsoever about the Resistance from Ren’s wastrel as she lay bleeding in front of him. He was feeling a little better though—taking his frustrations out on his captive had helped clear his head somewhat. He was losing patience with her tight lips, however, bloodied though they were.

“Well, you filthy scavenger, I’ve just about grown tired of merely using my hands to torment you. Unless you start telling me something I want to hear, I’ll have no choice but to leave and come back with something to help motivate some answers out of you.”

Rey was thoroughly battered. Through shallow meditation, she had been able to withstand the physical abuse well enough that she could keep quiet about anything that held value to Hux, but she knew her body would not be the same as it was. What little vanity she ever possessed was being cast aside as she mourned the loss of her original bone structure.

“Still nothing? My word, you are stubborn. I’m actually feeling some guilt for having maligned Kylo Ren to our dearly departed Supreme Leader Snoke for his failure to pull the map from your mind. You truly are a tough nut to crack.” He regarded her with a small measure of respect, but it quickly passed as he considered his next move. “Do you even have any bones left for me break?” He took a threatening step towards her, cocking his arm, preparing to strike her again. Before he could release the tension stored in his muscles, he froze as his eyes took in what surely must have been some insane hallucination.

Kylo Ren was there, standing just to the left of the scavenger, holding her hand in its restraint. He was looking her over with a pained expression on his face.

Hux must have made some noise, because Kylo Ren’s attention was pulled away from the girl. Kylo turned to face him, murder in his eyes. Hux staggered backward, struck dumb from the sight. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the monstrous specter in front of him.

“You…” was all Kylo said, voice dripping with venom. Without breaking physical contact, he shifted his weight, and his right arm flew out toward Hux, who found himself being struck with what felt like a durasteel bat to his entire body. He was hurled backward into the detention cell door, cracking his head against the metal surface and crumpling in a heap against the floor.

Dazed and physically stunned, Hux could barely summon the presence of mind to reach for the door release. Kylo had not advanced on him—he remained rooted in place at the girl’s side. However, he made a move like he was preparing a second assault. Hux could hear his broken ribs crack as he scrabbled to his hands and knees, literally crawling out of the cell, hollering to the guards to seal the door behind him. They must have known something was amiss, because they complied without missing a beat.

Hux vomited where he knelt, barely choking out the word “Ren” before blacking out and collapsing into the puddle he had just made.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 21: Déjà Vu———

The door to Faris Ren’s personal quarters opened, and the pair stepped into the vast, expansive grandeur of the Supreme Leader’s private residence. Sharna felt a shiver as she took in the fine details of the space. Every surface was pristinely kept, and the sharp contours of the architecture and furnishings conveyed strength. Multiple elaborate doorways lined the perimeter of this front room, probably leading to more comfortable, less intimidating rooms beyond—but this space was for first impressions, and those had nothing to do with putting guests at ease. Sharna wanted to lay down in the middle of it and let the power wash over her. First things first.

Faris’s back was to Sharna as he strolled across the foyer. A door slid open at his approach and he entered it without breaking stride. He looked over his shoulder back at Sharna, who stood at attention just outside the door. He beckoned for her to enter, and she stepped through the threshold. Faris had made his way over to a bar at the far end of the room, but Sharna had planted herself just inside the doorway, preferring to observe from a distance. Nothing about this room was right—much like the man at the bar, it was entirely too plush.

“Would you like something to drink?” asked Faris, lifting a decanter of honey-colored liquid up for her to observe. “Coruscanti whisky. Best liquor in the Core.”

“No thank you, my lord,” replied Sharna dryly, vocoder doing an admiral job covering for her indifference. She hoped she wouldn’t have to endure this little farce for too much longer.

“Suit yourself. I’m having some.” Faris poured a small glass of the amber fluid, and tossed it back in one gulp. He poured himself another. “One of the perks of being Supreme Leader is that I get to enjoy the finest of everything the galaxy has to offer,” he said, waggling his eyebrows at her.

Sharna tried hard not to let her disdain show. “I’m sure the galaxy is only too happy to accommodate you. The people want their ruler to know they appreciate the protection and excellent leadership he provides.”

“Indeed,” he replied, settling himself down in an opulent loveseat adjacent to the bar. “They will do anything I ask.”

Sharna felt disgust as Faris’s eyes roamed over her body.

“Why don’t you take that mask off and come sit with me?” pleaded Faris suggestively. “It will be some time before Lorim reaches Kamino. We may as well relax for a bit.”

She choked back the bile rising in her throat, grateful that she had a mask to hide her revulsion. “But my lord, it is my duty to remain alert. I can scarcely be counted on to protect you if I allow myself to become too relaxed.” She wasn’t sure how much longer she could feign interest in him and his antics. She hoped Kylo Ren would hurry up and announce his presence.

As if the Force itself heard her thoughts and sought to deliver her from her misery, an alert chimed over the intercom system. Faris looked around stupidly for the source of the noise.

Sharna rolled her eyes under her mask. “My lord, the intercom is programmed to recognize your voice. Simply answer normally from where you sit.”

Faris recovered inelegantly, but did as she suggested. “Of course, my dear.” He cleared his throat and spoke into the ceiling, “This is Supreme Leader Faris Ren. State your business.”

It was Captain Yara, the Supremacy’s head of security. “Supreme Leader, General Hux was attacked in the detention cell. He is currently in the infirmary being treated for a punctured lung, broken ribs, and concussion resulting from blunt force trauma.”

Faris jumped in surprise. “The Jedi attacked him? How?”

“My lord, it’s unclear. According to the stormtroopers who were on guard outside the cell, there was a loud thud against the door before it opened and General Hux crawled out, screaming for them to seal the door. He was heard uttering the word ‘Ren’ before passing out.”

This was music to Sharna Ren’s ears. At last, he's here…

“What does Hux have to say about this?” queried Faris.

“He remains unconscious, my lord.”

Faris sighed deeply. “Alright, fine, I’ll come down there. Is there anything else I should know before I head to the infirmary?”

“That’s all we know for certain at this time, sir. Simeon Ren is investigating further and will report directly to you,” replied Yara.

“Terrific. Okay, I’ll head out soon.” Faris’s eyes flitted around the room curiously, finally returning his gaze to Sharna. “How do I turn it off?”

“Sir, come over here,” suggested Sharna helpfully. Faris rose from his seat and met her in the middle of the room.

“Yes?” he inquired.

“It’s already off, you fool,” she snarled, igniting her lightsaber and stabbing it into Faris’s abdomen. Faris’s eyes went wide, and he clutched at the hilt of Sharna’s saber. She held him in place, relishing the look of complete befuddlement he wore.

“Sharna…” Faris intoned, slumping forward, further impaling himself on the crimson blade.

“What? Is something the matter, my lord?” Her voice oozed sarcasm. “Oh! Did Kylo Ren just stab you in the gut? I heard he was sneaking around in here somewhere, come to rescue his Jedi girlfriend. That fiend! I’ll be sure to tell everyone he was here. Better collect my army first, though.” With that, she wrenched her lightsaber out from Faris’s stomach, emptying his abdominal cavity out onto the rug in the process. With a muculent squish, Faris’s body fell to the floor.

She stepped back, surveying her handiwork. The room was far too orderly to have been the scene of a fight to the death. Reaching down, she unclipped Faris’s saber from his belt and placed it in his hand, then walked a circle around his body and kicked over a few things, smashing a few baubles and slashing a few pillows. When she was satisfied that it looked enough like Faris had actually put up a fight, she headed for the exit.

As the door opened before her, she took one last look back at her Supreme Leader and sighed. “It really is a shame about the rug,” she lamented, turning on her heel and leaving the lavish room, whistling to herself as she strolled through the imposing foyer and out of the residence.

———

Ben hadn’t let go of Rey once since opening their connection, so Finn was able to get a good look at her. She looks like hell, he thought to himself. Rey’s face was purple and misshapen, and her eyes, though open, were barely more than slits in the engorged tissue of her eyelids. Blood trickled out of her broken nose. Ben and Rey had been looking at one another meaningfully, saying nothing, for what felt like too long, and Finn was starting to worry if they were actually communicating, as he assumed, or if they were just spinning their wheels, wasting time while Rey sat there suffering.

Poe stood silently by, watching as well, shocked, but not so frozen that he wasn’t still trying to come up with a plan for how to help Rey. Their problem was that they were still another ninety minutes from the Finalizer.

Ben nodded his head at Rey, and turned to address the onlookers standing near him. “She says they still don’t know where the base is, so you’re safe for now. They’ve attacked Corellia as well as Arkanis, so their recruitment ships will probably be heading out toward Kamino again to deliver their spoils.” He looked remorsefully back at Rey. “Rey’s pretty sure she has multiple fractures in her face and upper body. Also, she was moved to the Supremacy, so we’ll want to avoid the Finalizer when we arrive.”

He didn’t mention it to them, but he’d had a long chat with Rey about what had transpired with the clones after she had left him there. Why Hux had said they were dead, he didn’t know, but he tried his best to convince her that if they were, it was through no fault of hers.

Poe looked at Ben. “Is there anything else you can do for her from here? Could you, I don’t know, heal her?”

Finn brightened at the suggestion. “Hey, yeah, could you?”

Ben was still wearing a hopeless expression, but considered the idea. “I’m not sure. It may be that I can only do it when we’re actually together in the same place. I’ve also only ever dealt with superficial wounds.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But I could try.”

“We can’t do anything else for her in the next ninety minutes…” remarked Poe.

Up to this point, Ben had been leaning over Rey, close enough to feel her ragged breathing on his cheek. Before he could begin, he had to step back and straighten his spine some, giving himself a much needed stretch. Then he rubbed his bare hands together as he took several deep breaths. He made like he was about to touch Rey’s face, but stopped himself and turned his head to Finn and Poe. “Don’t talk to me,” he ordered, very plainly.

Poe just stared. Finn nodded weakly. Thus assured that his companions wouldn’t disturb him, Ben laid his hands gently upon Rey’s face. Rey, who had disappeared from her friends’ view while Ben was readying himself, became visible once more. She winced, and everyone held their breath.

———

The doors to the infirmary opened with a whine, and Sharna Ren surveyed the room and its occupants, looking for the one person in the galaxy whom she enjoyed interacting with less than anyone else. Other than a few stormtroopers being treated for minor cuts and bruises they probably suffered during training exercises, most of the stations were empty. Toward the back of the infirmary, a respectable number of beds removed from the next nearest patient, was her target, General Armitage Hux.

Exhaling, Sharna readied herself to go speak with the unpleasant man. Approaching his bed, she was relieved to see that he was still unconscious—she wouldn’t actually need to talk to him. Glancing at the readout next to the bed, she saw that his condition was perfectly stable. His shirt and jacket had been removed prior to repairing his internal injuries, and he had been kept unconscious to facilitate the healing process—although that had completed some time ago. They probably left him unconscious because they don’t like talking to him either, mused Sharna. He looks smarmy even in his sleep.

Sharna Ren held her hand up to the general’s forehead and began scouring his memory. She saw Faris, Simeon and herself exiting the detention cell, and his eyes moved to the girl. Such disrespect, she thought, as she witnessed him openly bad-mouthing Faris to the Jedi—not that her own respect for Faris was all that high, but Hux's station didn't entitle him to say such things.

Then began the physical assault. This was clearly personal. She could feel his pent up hatred being unleashed, but it was not toward the Resistance, or the girl, but toward Kylo Ren himself. Smashing this girl’s face in was his way of destroying something Kylo valued.

The memory continued like this for quite a while. This is getting repetitive… when does Kylo show up?

“What are you doing?”

Sharna jumped in surprise, interrupted from her perusal. Turning toward the intrusion, she found Simeon Ren standing behind her. Given the infrequency with which he ever spoke, the sound of his voice struck Sharna as distinctly alien, and she couldn’t help feeling rattled by it. She quashed the uncomfortable sensation.

“Nothing, what are you doing here? I thought you were investigating the attack on Hux?” she asked.

“There’s nothing more to learn there. The cell is sealed with the Jedi inside. I came to speak to the Supreme Leader. Where is he?”

This development took Sharna Ren by surprise. Why wouldn’t Kylo have freed her when he attacked Hux? Figuring that out was a future problem. Her more immediate concern was explaining Faris’s absence from the infirmary. She had been planning to tell Simeon that Kylo had murdered him, but without confirmation from Hux’s memories of Kylo’s presence on the ship, she was reluctant to pin anything on him just yet. She had to improvise.

“He decided to send me to the infirmary in his place. He can’t stand talking to Hux if he doesn’t have to.” This was an excuse anyone would find believable.

“I see. Well, let us wake him up then,” replied Simeon, and he punched some commands into the biomonitoring system. Hux’s eyelids fluttered.

Dammit, cursed Sharna to herself.

Upon realizing where he was, and noting his compromised and unflattering state, Hux shot up from the bed. He flung his legs off the side and stood as tall as he could, hastily ripping the biomonitoring tags from his face and arm, smoothing down his hair, and reaching for the rest of his bile-stained uniform.

He cleared his throat before addressing his visitors. “Greetings,” he said formally, fastening buttons with a deftness that could only have been attained through rigorous practice. “What is the status of our prisoner? What of Kylo Ren?”

Yes, you fool, let me pin this on him… pleaded Sharna. For the first time ever, she wanted Hux to keep talking.

Simeon Ren answered, and Hux was nearly as taken aback as Sharna had been to hear him speak. “The prisoner remains in detention. The guards were instructed to let us know if anything developed. As for Kylo Ren? Nothing. When you said ‘Ren’ before collapsing, no one realized that Kylo was the ‘Ren’ you were referring to. Please elaborate.”

Not ‘no one’, thought Sharna, Just not you.

Hux stared off at some spot across the room and bit his lip. With a shake of his head, he offered a retelling of his experience that sounded ridiculous in his own ears. “I was looking right at her when he just... appeared in front of me. He saw me, and knocked me into the door. He was about to attack me further, so I escaped as fast as I could. That’s when I blacked out.” He took a long breath, and stared at the part of Simeon’s mask where he expected his eyes would have been. “He literally appeared out of nowhere… Is that normal for you people?”

Though Sharna wanted to punch him for his disrespectful tone, she and Simeon ignored the impudent question. This must have something to do with Kylo’s bond to the Jedi, she thought. She had very little knowledge of the finer points of Force bonds—she simply knew they could happen. Seeing his glove in Hux’s chambers was the only indication she'd had that passing objects across the galaxy was even possible through such a bond, but it was the most logical explanation for why a Knight’s glove would have been at the Jedi’s feet. Becoming physically present in the other person’s world went well beyond what she would have thought possible. And it also complicated her plans tremendously if he wasn’t actually on board, as she’d been assuming when she murdered Faris. Eventually, Faris’s body would be found, and unless a suspect presented himself soon, Sharna, as the last person he had been seen with, would face heightened suspicion.

Sharna Ren needed to dictate the direction of events going forward. “Simeon Ren, put the ship on alert for the traitor Kylo Ren, and conduct a scan of nearby space for any small craft that may be in the area. Then I suggest we go check on our Jedi friend.”

Hux interrupted, “Hold. Order the alert and the scan, and then report to the Supreme Leader. I will return to my quarters on the Finalizer to get changed, then we’ll meet back at the detention cell. Do not go in there without me.”

Simeon Ren nodded curtly and swept from the infirmary to see to his responsibilities. Sharna, irritated that the news of Faris’s death would become public so soon, glared at Hux through the blackness of her mask. “I’ll come with you,” she said, struggling to keep the menace out of her tone. Deciding which of the two men to keep an eye on was easy. Simeon was a predictable grunt going to do a predictable job—Hux was an insolent troublemaker. She would follow him back to his room and make sure he didn’t do anything to complicate her situation even further—and in the meantime she hoped a plausible explanation for Faris’s demise would come to her.

———

Having hastily requisitioned a shuttle back to the Finalizer, Hux arrived at his quarters in relatively short order. The fury he felt in the interrogation room had subsided somewhat, but he was incredibly anxious to get back to that cell and neutralize the girl. He might even kill her. The strategic loss of not being able to get the location of the Resistance base out of her would be a fair tradeoff if he could just see the look on Kylo Ren’s face the moment he learned of the girl’s end.

The door to his quarters opened, and Hux entered swiftly. He immediately noticed the lightsaber missing from his desk, and stopped abruptly in his tracks.

“Something the matter?” asked Sharna Ren. Hux did not care for her at all—she displayed the same self-importance and aggrandizing as Kylo Ren himself. Indeed, all these mystics disgusted him.

Hux didn’t answer her immediately, running up to the front of his desk and opening the drawers. “Someone’s been going through my things,” he said.

“Is something missing?” she asked, almost coyly. She was intensely curious if he would actually admit to having left the lightsaber out in plain view for someone to take, or if he would try to hide his foolishness from her.

“There was—Was there anything on my desk earlier when you came to get the scavenger?” he asked.

“On your desk? Not that I recall, no. Why? Are you missing something?” she asked again. Could Hux tell she thought this was funny? Did she even care?

“Never mind,” he said with irritation, reaching into a low drawer. With a barely audible click, something inside the drawer shifted. Hux pulled a wide ring-shaped device from the depths of the drawer and slipped it quickly into his pocket, almost as if he didn’t want Sharna to see it.

“Was that a neural disruptor?” she asked, genuinely impressed. It seemed the good general had a few surprises to offer up after all. It was no wonder he didn’t want her to see it—those could disable even Force-sensitive individuals.

“Let’s just get the girl,” he demanded, storming away from his desk and out of his quarters, the sanctity and pristine order of which he felt had been well and truly violated. Due to his hurry—or maybe it was the concussion—he had completely forgotten to change out of his soiled uniform.

———

Even before Simeon Ren had made it all the way to the door of the detention cell, it was obvious things were amiss. The door to the cell was wide open, and the guards were nowhere to be found. Simeon allowed himself a small smile under his mask. This Jedi amused him.

Stepping up beside him as he surveyed the area was Sharna Ren, back from her jaunt over to the Finalizer with Hux. “Well, look at that. Our little Jedi is just full of surprises, isn’t she?”

Hux, as always, was fuming, the color in his face reddening to the point that it was nearly indistinguishable from his hair. Why did these insufferable Force-users view everything as a game?

Sharna couldn’t help but find the whole thing terribly funny, and she flirted briefly with the idea of laughing right in his weasly little face. This was absolutely perfect. In the end, however, her professionalism won out, and apparent stoicism endured.

“Okay, so where could she have gone?” asked Sharna. “I’m guessing the guards who were stationed here are either dead or have selective amnesia. Did the bridge’s scans pick up any ships?”

“No,” replied Simeon Ren simply.

Sharna thought quickly. With the Jedi escaped, there were all sorts of new explanations for Faris’s death emerging. She decided to press Simeon and find out if he knew about Faris yet. “What did the Supreme Leader say when you told him about Kylo attacking the general?”

“The Supreme Leader is dead,” he replied, without emotion.

Hux’s eyes went wide. “What??”

Simeon continued, “He was disemboweled with a lightsaber. In his quarters.”

Sharna listened raptly, curious if Simeon would volunteer anything more. When he didn’t, Sharna helped him out. “The Jedi must have killed him.”

Both Simeon Ren and Hux turned to Sharna. Simeon’s face, under his mask, was unreadable, but Hux’s expression went beyond words. “But that’s impossible! IHux stopped himself from saying anymore.

Sharna once again had her mask to thank for obscuring her mirth from this idiot. You what? You disarmed her? But then you let her take back her saber because you were careless? Is that what you were about to say? I didn’t think so…

When she was sure she could speak without giggling through it, Sharna simply asked, “You what?”

Hux balled his fists at his sides. “Nothing… let’s just find her and get control of this situation.”

“I completely agree,” professed Sharna. “Simeon, since you’re so good with the folks on the bridge, would you please instruct them to get our fleet over to Kamino? I’m certain we can expect those predictable Resistance scum to try to take our property from us once again. Let’s not be caught so flat-footed this time.” Simeon nodded, and headed for the bridge. “And you’re going to help me catch that snipe,” she said, looking at Hux. “Got your toy ready?”

———

Rey was free. After healing her, Ben had released her from her restraints and armed her with a blaster. Resolving to keep her escape a secret for as long as possible, she decided to neutralize the guards with suggestion. When the door suddenly slid open behind them, they were startled and ready to fire, but Rey froze them in their tracks and followed up with quick instructions to return to their quarters for a nap. Now that she was out, however, she struggled to figure out where to go.

She felt a little lighter for having talked to Ben, but not much. The clone children were dead, but not by her or Ben’s actions. Ben, at least, had done what she could not: in the heat of the moment, he had been able to see an army of children bred to bring about their death and destruction and still just see children. She felt enormous shame that she had fallen so far, but her pride in him, that his better angels had prevailed, gave her hope that she too could do better going forward.

That the children were dead anyway was a mystery she hoped to unravel later. First: escape.

However, though making it out of the cell had been easy, making it around this ship was a good deal more complicated. The Supremacy II was so sanitary that Force-mapping it was nearly impossible; microscopic life was integral to being able to read any kind of a Force signature off of inanimate objects—there must have been droids scrubbing this ship sterile on a constant, rotating basis. Added to that, the sheer size of the Supremacy made trying to find anything specific—like an escape pod or a shuttle—by just wandering around hopelessly inefficient. At this rate, Ben would probably get here first. Either way, she wanted to find her saberstaff before getting off the ship for good.

That woman. She had taken her saber, she knew it. Rey had seen her looking at it on Hux’s desk, and when she asked to be left alone to snoop through Hux’s room, well, that was just too obvious. To get to her saber, she would need to find that woman. Rey needed to find someplace where she could hide and focus on looking for her specific signature.

Rey peeked around corners, looking for someplace that would suit her needs. Spotting an access port in the wall about twenty feet further down the next hallway, she made her way in that direction. Sensing no one nearby, she opened the port and snuck inside.

She took a few centering breaths, not having had the freedom to just breathe and focus in what felt like ages. As she relaxed, her mind drifted to Ben. She missed him. She missed the odd calm that he exuded—did he exude it? Or did she just feel calmer around him? When she actually thought about it, “calm” wasn’t a characteristic she would have ever ascribed to him, at least not until recently. When did he start seeming calm? And anyway, had they really been apart long enough for missing him to make much sense? They had spoken, had touched, using the Force, not even fifteen minutes ago—but that wasn’t the same as actually being together. How long ago had that been? It felt like weeks, but it had probably really only been a day.

A very long day. Rey was exhausted. Since her last real rest, she had traveled several hours through hyperspace to Kamino, killed stormtroopers, freed children, interrogated First Order officers, battled TIE fighters, crashed her X-wing, been detained, been tortured, and been on the run. Focus was difficult—she was too distracted by her own fatigue and hunger. She wondered how bad it would be if she just took a nap in the access port. If her friends showed up to help her, surely Ben could find her signature and get her out whether she was asleep or not.

Then again, what if her captors could do that as well?

No. It wasn’t time yet. Steeling herself, Rey felt a burst of energy and sense of purpose. Got to find her saberstaff. She took another several steadying breaths, and pushed out with her senses. Just like that first time, she saw the white noise begin to coalesce around her. The noise was considerably quieter here, on this antiseptic death machine, but still, she could feel it. The people onboard were bright beacons humming with Force energy, and as she watched them move, the layout of the Supremacy actually became much more concrete to her as their forms cut paths through the empty spaces within. She could count the number of floors, and she could see the shape of the whole vessel spanning the full sixty klicks wide. She just needed to zero in on one particular signature to find her saber. Now where was it?

Narrowing the radius of her search, she felt for any familiar signatures on her same floor. She wasn’t sure she knew any of them well enough to match them to their specific identities, but she found five signatures on the whole ship that seemed reasonably familiar to her—two were Force-sensitive. There was General Hux, the two stormtroopers who had had been guarding her, and five Knights of Ren, including Faris, making a total of eight individuals whose signatures she might find familiar. So there were two Knights on board, then. Which two, she didn’t know, but she hoped one of them would have her saber.

If only she wasn’t so exhausted, this process would be so much more efficient. Refocusing her efforts, she attempted to pinpoint the signatures closest to her present position. There were two nearby that were moving together, and one was probably a Knight. They were very close.

“Well now, looks like our bird found a lovely little nest. General, you know what to do.”

It was the woman. Rey drew her feelings back into herself and summoned all her strength to face her would-be captors, but was too late. She felt something cold on the back of her neck. Then she felt nothing at all.

Chapter Text

———Part 4———Chapter 22: Acceleration———

Soon they would engage the First Order. The binary beacon had been still for hours, coming to rest in the Unknown Regions, in just the part of space Ben had predicted it would. It was a little over an hour ago that they had parted from Rey, and soon, the Millenium Falcon would be within range of the Supremacy II. Incredibly, Ben had succeeded in healing her wounds, but the ordeal had left him totally drained. He’d been asleep on the floor of the cargo hold ever since.

This entire experience had left Poe feeling completely discombobulated. Ever since Leia’s death, Poe’s whole world had been like a house of cards; as soon as he thought he’d put it all together, something, some little tremor, would bring it all crashing down, and he would struggle to build it back up again. Each time he tried, it looked different than it had the last time, and he was beginning to forget where the cards were supposed to go.

He preferred when the things in his orbit were cut and dried. When he knew how to feel about things. When he knew what he should do.

He sat in the Falcon’s lounge, counting down the minutes until he could be reunited with the woman he loved, and he wasn’t sure what to do or how to feel about it. Two weeks ago, he believed he could get Rey to love him back. He believed that once the war was over, he could give time to something else—to her, to them. And they could be happy together. Two weeks ago, if given the chance, Poe would have killed the man sleeping in the other room.

Now he wasn’t so sure. In Poe’s eyes, Kylo Ren had been one of the greatest threats to Poe’s future, to Rey, and to the fate of the galaxy as a whole, that he had ever known. Now Kylo Ren was only a ghost, a shadow cast by a solid, visceral man named Ben Solo, and Poe somehow felt more hopeless about his own future than he ever had before. If Ben Solo were gone, things might go back to normal. The future Poe wanted might seem possible again. All he had to do was grab a blaster and head into the cargo hold.

Leaning into the dejarik table, his head in his hands, Poe let out a long and doleful sigh. Seconds later, he felt the lurch of acceleration as the Falcon dropped out of hyperspace, and he rose from the table and headed into the cockpit. Chewbacca was at the controls, bellowing at the console.

“What is it, Chewie?” asked Poe.

Chewbacca replied with a growl, shaking his fists in aggravation. The Finalizer and the Supremacy II were nowhere to be seen.

“Are we there? Where are the ships?” queried Poe. Chewbacca continued his rant. “What do you mean, the signal’s moved?! Where is she??”

At the sound of the commotion, Finn stuck his head in. “What’s all the shouting? We’re there, right?”

Frustratedly, Poe carded his hand through his hair. “Rey’s not here! The ships are gone,” he yelled in agitation.

Finn’s eyes went wide with concern. “What do you mean ‘gone’? Where’s the signal?”

Chewie bellowed some more, but Finn didn’t understand. “She must be in hyperspace, heading east,” explained Poe.

“Hyperspace? Think they’re headed to Kamino?” asked Finn.

“Probably… Dammit!” cursed Poe, slamming the palm of his hand into the computer console, “That’s back the way we came… Shit.” He was crestfallen. “If we’d gone with the rest of the fleet to Arkanis, we’d be less than an hour away. From here, it’s seven.”

The three of them stared dejectedly at one another. After another moment, Poe, uttering softly, said, “Chewie, inform the Resistance about what’s happening, about Rey, and about us—everything. And set a course for Kamino.” He stood, and declared with a sigh, “I think we should all get some sleep in the meantime.”

The others nodded. Chewbacca put in the coordinates, and they all headed to the bunks, with more time to kill.

———

The blue light of hyperspace resolved into darkness, and Lorim Ren could see the blue-gray sphere of Kamino come into clear view through the bridge windows of the Gashel. The recruitment vessels Gashel and Bevel were greeted by a Kamino with a restaffed cloning facility and a vastly improved security presence. Immediately after the Resistance attack on Kamino, several complements of stormtroopers had been transferred there for an immediate boost to its security, and new officers had been promoted to lead the previously understaffed facility. If the operations there weren’t a secret from the Resistance, then they needed to be more heavily guarded.

It took about five hours to travel from Corellia to Kamino, so Lorim Ren had had plenty of time to catch himself up on what had occurred back at the Supremacy II and with the mission at Arkanis. The Resistance had acted too quickly for the forces at Arkanis to have gotten very far before they were intercepted, and as result, both recruitment ships were lost. Lorim was glad that he and Prarathi had had better luck—though their mission had been thrown together much more hastily than the one at Arkanis, it had been kept secret from the Resistance and had therefore encountered little difficulty in subduing the industrialized planet.

As for what was happening on the Supremacy II, Lorim was frankly a little confused. His communication with Hux and the other Knights had been indirect, filtered through bridge personnel who didn’t seem like they fully understood, or were willing to share, all the details that had transpired since he had reported his success at Corellia back to them. All he really knew is that Supreme Leader Faris Ren was dead, presumed murdered by the very Jedi whom they’d had in custody earlier that day. Lorim Ren was perplexed as to how she could have escaped, murdered Faris, and then been recaptured—clearly, he had missed some excitement.

This had, of course, created yet another power vacuum. He wasn’t totally sure who was in charge anymore, but for the time being, he chose to keep his concerns centered on the successful completion of his mission. Through the transparisteel bridge windows of the Gashel, Lorim Ren watched as the space around his ship ignited with the friction of reentry, and both ships made their descent through Kamino’s atmosphere.

———

By the time Sharna Ren had arrived at Kamino, she had received word from the facility there that Lorim and Prarathi Ren, commanding the ships Gashel and Bevel, were safely planetside. Unloading efforts had been underway for some time before the Supremacy II arrived there. The Bevel had already unloaded its cargo of recruits into the incubation chambers, and the Gashel’s cargo was currently being readied for transfer.

Sharna Ren was anxious to see what shape the facility and its contents were in since the Resistance’s raid of the facility yesterday. After Faris Ren’s untimely demise, Sharna had quickly taken several steps to speed up the First Order’s military expansion, beginning with bolstering security and production at Kamino. She had ordered thousands of stormtroopers already on active duty in nearby systems to be transferred to Kamino, and they served to dramatically enhance the military presence on the planet. No single frigate full of Resistance trash would threaten production ever again.

Beyond these changes to the facility’s security, she had taken it upon herself to promote officers to run the facility who would be loyal to her. She had then ordered them to make modifications to the growth and conditioning protocols in accordance with her specifications.

After arriving in system and transferring down to the planet, Sharna Ren strode down the gangplank of her shuttle, into the immense atrium of the docking bay. Behind her followed Simeon Ren and General Hux. Bringing up the rear, strapped impotently to a levitating pram guided by two stormtroopers, was their Jedi hostage. When Sharna and Hux had discovered her, Sharna was astounded by what she had seen. Even from the relatively small slice she had glimpsed of Hux’s memories, she knew this girl had been thoroughly beaten and badly concussed, yet amazingly, they found her in perfect physical health. Sharna could only assume that Kylo Ren had had something to do with it, but she couldn’t imagine what. The not knowing made her fearful, and for that reason, she wanted the Jedi kept close at hand—until Kylo’s whereabouts became known, Sharna would keep her hostage within striking distance.

If Hux shared Sharna’s surprise at the Jedi’s condition, he kept it to himself—he’d still made no mention of having beaten her to within an inch of her life. Now, at least, the girl had been rendered physically inert and was no longer a threat. Neural disruptors terminated all voluntary nervous system functions, and minimized certain involuntary functions, such as sensory perception. Though her mental faculties should be unaffected by the disruptor, she was a prisoner inside her own body; she could probably feel the Force, but she would be unable to command it in any appreciable way.

Newly promoted Lieutenant General Hyren Reyme greeted them at the bottom of the gangplank. “General Hux and… my esteemed colleagues,” greeted the officer, clearly uncertain as to how to address the two black clad individuals before him, “Welcome to Kamino. I trust your journey here was reasonably uneventful?”

Hux pushed ahead of Sharna Ren and addressed the lieutenant general. “No one is in the mood for small talk, Lieutenant. Just show us to the chambers.”

The lieutenant general bowed deferentially. “Right away, sir. Please follow me.”

“Simeon Ren, keep an eye on the Jedi, but don’t fall far behind me,” ordered Sharna, gesturing to the pram. Simeon nodded.

Lieutenant General Reyme led the group through the docking bay and toward the wide sloping hallway that descended into the bowels of the facility—to the first of twelve concentric chambers where clones and recruited children alike remained in peaceful incubation. They appeared to be slumbering peacefully, and one could almost forget that at this moment they were receiving the programming that would turn them into loyal and efficient killing machines. As they walked, Sharna noted the damage from the Resistance attack.

“This hallway is a mess. Get some people in here to clean this up right away. There are blaster marks all over my walls.”

Hux seethed at her choice of possessive pronoun, but said nothing.

“Yes, ma’am,” Reyme answered simply.

“The Command Center is a disaster. These conditions are completely unacceptable,” she growled, passing the shattered windows of the room Kylo Ren and the Jedi had assaulted the day before. Reyme didn’t offer a response beyond merely creasing his lips in subtle consternation.

Eventually, the group reached the end of the long hallway, and the space opened up to reveal rows upon rows of incubation chambers.

“These are the Corellian children?” asked Hux. Simeon Ren observed the units without comment.

“Yes, sir,” answered Reyme. “There are approximately a thousand children in here. The rest of the Corellian children are in the next two chambers, or will be, soon, and a small handful will be housed in Chamber Five.”

Sharna nodded her head approvingly as she surveyed the captive children lying peacefully in their incubation units. She appreciated knowing that their calm exteriors belied the violence roiling through their psyches as the programming took hold. Something about this tugged at her subconscious, caused her to feel reminiscent. The odd sensation gave her butterflies in her stomach. She wasn’t sure she liked the sensation, so she quashed it, refusing to pay it any further mind. She’d had no experiences she felt sentimental for, and anyway, she only looked forward, never back.

Reyme led them toward Chamber Two, stopping when he reached the gate between the two chambers. “The access codes have been changed, of course,” he said reassuringly, to which Sharna could only think, No shit. She gave no outward response.

The doors slid open, revealing Chamber Two. The Resistance fighter who had driven through here yesterday, firing randomly at the individual pods, had left many of the units unusable, in need of repair. Most, however, were fully operational and occupied with the fresh, young faces of Corellian children.

“There was quite a bit of damage done in here,” explained Lieutenant General Reyme. “The clones that had been in this chamber were murdered en masse yesterday when the Resistance tampered with the life support settings.” Reyme was misunderstanding some of the details. Kylo Ren had locked these units in stasis, and Hux had ordered the system rebooted in order to override those commands. The reboot caused a power surge that had essentially fried the nervous systems of the sleeping clones, killing them. No one bothered to correct Reyme about these details. “Instead, you will find a mix of children taken from both the Bevel and the Gashel housed here,” continued Reyme.

They passed through the remainder of Chamber Two and all of Chamber Three. Identical facilities, more Corellian children. Their tour was beginning to wear on Hux’s patience. He knew the facility well enough already—this jaunt through the chambers was just to satisfy some perverse curiosity of Sharna Ren’s. Finally, they approached the door leading into Chamber Four.

Reyme continued his explanation as they stepped into the new chamber. “The murdered clones were part of a larger batch, the rest of whom you’ll find in the next room and also in Chamber Six. Their rate of growth has been further accelerated, as per your orders.”

Hux’s eyes popped open at Reyme's words. “What did you say? ‘Further accelerated’?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

Hux was aghast. “I beg your pardon, but—on whose orders did you do that?”

“Madame Ren’s orders, sir,” answered the lieutenant general obediently.

His jaw dropped. “‘Madame’ Ren?”

Lieutenant General Reyme stared back uncertainly. If he was being honest, he really didn’t know which of the individuals in front of him outranked the other, but it was “Madame Ren” who had promoted him to Lieutenant General, so when she gave orders, he followed them. “Yes, sir,” he replied, swallowing nervously.

Sharna Ren smiled devilishly at the scene playing out before her. “Thank you, Lieutenant General. Lead the way,” she encouraged. Even without using the Force, she could feel the rage flowing from Hux.

The group proceeded into Chamber Four, and the doors slid shut behind them. Lieutenant General Reyme continued narrating, “These clones have now been accelerated to an equivalent age of eighteen years.”

“Eighteen?” choked Hux. “That’s eight years in a day! That’s too fast!”

Sharna Ren shot him a look so withering she actually wished he could see it. “My army needs bolstering, General. The conservative pace you seemed to prefer was only holding us back, keeping us weak as the Resistance grows more bold. At this rate, we can finally start pushing out into more systems, and actually hold the ones we take.”

“Your army!? How d—” but the last word caught in Hux’s throat as a sharp pain seized him in his chest. Clutching ineffectually at his breast, Hux fell to his knees, gasping and wincing with pain.

Sharna Ren was regarding Hux placidly, her arm subtly outstretched towards him. “Forgive him, Lieutenant General. It appears the good General Hux is having chest pains. Let’s give him a moment to collect himself.” She lowered her arm and casually walked forward a few paces toward the next chamber. “Tell me about the other batches,” she said.

Nervously, Reyme continued. “The clones in Chambers Seven, Nine, and Eleven predate these, so they have nearly reached their ultimate equivalent age of twenty-four. They will be armed and processed out within hours. Those in Eight, Ten, and Twelve, however, were younger, and will require a further period of maturing. Approximately thirty-six hours,” he explained.

“That simply won’t do. We can expect imminent retaliation from the Resistance, and I need them to be ready. You have until this afternoon. Is that understood?”

“But Madame Ren,” cautioned Reyme, “If the clones are accelerated too rapidly, it can create aberrations in the synaptic pathways. The glial cells can—”

“—I don’t require a lesson in nervous system function, Lieutenant. I do require an army. And I expect you to do whatever it takes to ensure that I have one, as rapidly as possible. If you can’t do that, then I’m sure Lieutenant Bergess can—”

“—Please forgive me, Madame Ren,” interrupted Reyme, who had begun to shrivel under Sharna’s bottomless, black stare. “I didn’t mean to suggest that it couldn’t be done. Absolutely, I will make the arrangements! I just wanted to be sure you had been appropriately briefed.”

“I appreciate that, Lieutenant General. Now, take me to one of the armories.”

Sharna Ren, though objectively small in stature, stood tall as she surveyed the incubation chambers. As they made their way to the armory adjacent to Chamber Four, Simeon noted the way her chin jutted proudly out in front of her as she walked with her hands clasped behind her back. He kept about ten paces behind her, alongside the pram that ferried their helpless prisoner about.

Hux had recovered from his episode, but remained where he was. From his place on the floor, on his knees, he watched Sharna Ren leave, accompanied by her band of toadies. One after another, his leaders and would-be leaders did nothing but disappoint him.

———

As Kamino grew to within a few minutes of their approach, an alarm inside the bunk area began to sound, alerting the the sleeping Resistance fighters of their impending arrival. Chewbacca lifted one of Finn’s shoes off the ground and hurled it at the speaker—it didn’t make the noise stop, but it made him feel better.

Finn rolled over from his stomach to his back, fluttering his eyelids open. As his brain finally reengaged, the bleary expression he wore gave way to almost panic as he popped up out of bed.

“We’re here! Everybody get up!” he shouted. Finn had been sleeping on the top bunk above Poe. He landed awkwardly when he tried to get down, having forgotten that the floor was four feet lower down than he had thought it was.

Chewbacca hollered, hucking Finn’s other shoe at him. Finn was too unsteady to have blocked it before being knocked in the temple. He rubbed the tender spot, but wasn’t about to complain.

Poe’s revival was a bit more dignified. He slowly sat up from his supine position, stretching his arms up over his head and yawning wide. “Well, I hope you all had a good rest, ‘cause it looks like it’s showtime. Chewie, you better get to the cockpit.”

Chewbacca growled, but didn’t protest. He climbed gruffly out of his bunk and sauntered toward the cockpit.

“Better get your shoes on, buddy,” advised Poe.

Finn nodded, collecting his boots from where they had landed. He already looked stressed out.

Poe could sense the tension in his friend. “It’s alright, pal, don’t worry. We’ll get her this time.” He rose from his mattress, and stretched himself out the rest of the way. Before he could exit the bunk area, he found the doorway blocked by a groggy and imposing Ben Solo.

“Where the hell are we? How long was I out?” asked Ben, angry and disoriented. “I feel like I’ve been sleeping for hours.”

“You have been,” answered Poe. “We arrived in the Unknown Regions to find that the First Order had headed east. We missed them.”

Ben was instantly livid. “Well why the hell am I just finding this out now!? Why didn’t you wake me!?” He looked like he wanted to strangle something.

“Relax, you drama queen,” counseled Poe. “We handled things. We all needed our rest. It was a long trip from the Unknown Regions to Kamino.”

“You’re sure she’s here?” Ben asked.

“I’m heading to the cockpit to check the signal now,” said Finn, having finally finished relacing his boots. He stood up and moved toward the entryway Ben was blocking. “Come on, let’s go.”

Ben turned around and preceded Finn toward the cockpit. He found Chewbacca at the helm, warbling enthusiastically at the readouts. Ben sighed with relief. “She’s here, good.”

“Things look quiet. It doesn’t look like the rest of the Resistance has caught up to them yet,” observed Finn.

“It’s been a while since we spoke to Rey,” observed Poe. “Could we touch base with her again before we go sneaking onto the Supremacy, or wherever she is right now?”

Chewbacca, leaning over the console’s telltales, let out a concerned series of noises. Poe’s brows creased, and Ben cursed loudly.

“What?” asked Finn, confused.

Poe sighed. “She’s not on the ship. The beacon shows she’s on the surface.”

“Which means they probably caught her again,” surmised Ben. “Going to the surface by herself makes no sense. She would have hidden somewhere, or tried to contact us if she could.”

“Well, can’t you just do your thing again and free her like you did before?” wondered Finn.

“Yeah, could you?” asked Poe. “I mean, even if they know about your little connection, it’s not like they can defend against it, right?”

Ben thought about this. “Probably not, but it’s hard to say. If I was Hux, and I thought there was a chance that my mortal enemy could just materialize in the presence of my hostage, I would have that hostage guarded vigilantly. I suppose, provided I don’t try to touch her, however, he won’t see me and everything should be fine."

“Try it,” urged Poe. “Unless anyone else has any other plans…” he added with a shrug.

Ben took a deep breath, and pushed out with his feelings. Poe and Finn watched Ben’s face with interest, waiting patiently for the signs they had come to recognize as meaning that Ben had successfully opened his connection to Rey. When it seemed like things were taking longer than normal, Finn grew nervous.

“I have a bad feeling about this... What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is this taking too long? Why is this taking too long?”

Ben opened his eyes and shook his head. “I can feel her, she’s there, but it’s like we can’t connect. It feels like I’m waving my hands in her face and she just can’t see me, doesn’t know I’m there.” He looked at Finn, trying hard not to let show the anxiety he was feeling. “I don’t understand what’s wrong.”

Finn and Poe regarded him for a moment. “Well, that can’t be good, can it,” said Poe. “We better find her as fast as we can. I recommend stealth this time.”

“Agreed,” said Finn. Ben nodded subtly, almost in a daze.

“Chewie, does the Falcon have a cloaking device?” asked Poe.

Chewbacca roared affirmatively, flipping some switches on the control panel.

“Good, okay. Well, that’s one thing gone right—without one, we’d have been hard pressed to find a place to land anywhere nearby. There’s not a lot of land on Kamino…”

Ben had perked up a little bit listening to the conversation. “Even if we have to land pretty close to the facility, they shouldn’t notice us. The storms on Kamino should mask any other signs of our approach as long as we’re cloaked from scanning.”

With something like a plan beginning to formulate in their minds, the Falcon headed toward the cloning facility, to Rey.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 23: Making Inroads———

From a penthouse conference room in the main building, Sharna Ren had a view of nearly the entire cloning facility—at least, the part of it that was above ground. Looking toward the heart of the facility, Sharna could see the whole docking bay. One after another, fresh clones—new soldiers—marched up the hallways feeding into the bay, clad in silver armor, carrying blasters and vibroblades. This was an army trained to destroy in the name of not only the First Order, but of Sharna Ren specifically. She had seen to their loyalty personally—as far as their programming was concerned, she was Supreme Leader. They would not recognize Hux’s authority over hers.

Once these older clones were finished being outfitted, she would pull the next batch out of their accelerations. By then, that batch should be in their mid-twenties, developmentally speaking. They would be sent through the armories and outfitted just like those now standing proudly before her. By then, even the youngest clones should be of fighting age. At this rate of production, she would be amassing legions of dedicated, highly trained soldiers per day.

The Resistance wouldn’t stand a chance against such an army.

She knew her actions had gotten under General Hux’s skin. As much as she relished annoying him, and taking him down a peg in front of Lieutenant General Reyme, she also knew he was probably causing, or at least thinking about causing, some trouble for her. That she would have pushed and shoved her way to power in the wake of Faris’s death had almost certainly not been part of his plans.

Knowing she couldn’t stay up here enjoying the view of her armies forever, she turned to her Jedi hostage with a sigh. “Well, Jedi, I supposed we should go looking for dear sweet General Hux.” And your boyfriend, who’s bound to show up at some point once he realizes just how screwed you are, she thought. She gestured to the two stormtroopers in attendance to follow her out of the balcony area. Rey was still trussed to the levitating gurney.

Simeon Ren, who had been quietly standing at attention at the back of the room, noiselessly brought up the rear. His thoughts were his own.

———

Hux was not having a good day. In the last twenty-four hours, Hux’s puppet leader had been killed, and the mantle of leadership had passed to Sharna Renapparentlytoo quickly for Hux to have been able to stop it. How had he so completely lost control of things?

Hux sighed. His own carelessness was to blame. He had left the Jedi’s lightsaber out where she could see it, and somehow, she had retaken control of it, escaped, and murdered Faris Ren. Or escaped and then recovered the weapon, then murdered Faris. He really wasn’t sure what order things must have happened in, since neither series of events struck him as entirely plausible—wherever the Force was involved, unexpected and impossible things seemed to occur. Whatever the case was, he had been overconfident to leave the weapon unsecured, and as a result, a power vacuum had been created and subsequently filled before he’d even had a chance to react. Sharna Ren was not a cooperative ally, and she had already done more damage to his plans and his authority than he could have imagined.

Hux cursed the Force. He didn’t fully understand the limits of what its wielders could accomplish, so he couldn’t really put it past them to pull off something sinister, no matter how little sense it made. Lately, the Force had relegated him to playing a perpetual game of catch up.

Hux had always had to trust his salvation to his own technological savvy, and this current situation would be no different. One by one, his clones were piling out of the odd numbered chambers in the west wing of the facility, working their way through the armories, preparing to defend the base.

While he had been concerned about accelerating their growth to this extreme, even he had to admit that these troops, his troops, were impressive. Give the devil her due, he thought to himself as they paraded past him. Still, though, they’re not quite perfect, he thought, an unsettling feeling coming upon him. They should all be saluting me as they pass…

Hux’s breath caught in his throat as something he hadn’t considered suddenly dawned on him: What exactly had the clones’ programming been preparing them for? He had taken it for granted that the programming he had initiated was still in place, but if Sharna Ren had overridden his acceleration protocols, there was no guarantee she hadn’t tampered with the specific mental conditioning they received as well.

Suddenly very nervous, Hux stole away to find a private office where he could conduct a little research while he still had time.

———

Flying slowly around the cloning facility, cloaking device engaged, the men aboard the Millennium Falcon struggled to find a suitable landing site.

“Man, there are stormtroopers, like, everywhere,” lamented Finn, taking a bite of an emergency cube concentrate he’d fished out of the Falcon’s food stores. It was wretched, but it was his only food since breakfast in the canteen the day before, and was also all they had on board. He tried to pretend it was a tal-touri pastry instead, but his imagination wasn’t up to the challenge.

“What’s the crazy shiny armor all about?” asked Poe. “I thought stormtroopers were white.”

“These must be the clones,” speculated Ben. “Hux must have arranged for them to have the same armor Captain Phasma, the clone template, wore in life. Probably out of respect for her—the two of them had sort of a strange loyalty to each other.”

“Those are Phasma clones!? Daaaamn!” exclaimed Finn, with a bewildered shake of his head that expressed both shock and admiration. “Well, I guess that doesn’t really change anything. First thing is that we still need to find a place to land where we can actually get out without being spotted.”

“Shit,” Ben sighed. “There is literally no land around the base that is beyond the line of sight of these troopers.” Ben thumped his fist on the Falcon’s console. Chewbacca growled at him.

“What about there?” Poe pointed out the transparisteel window into the very heart of the facility itself.

Ben turned to him, leveling him with an incredulous gaze. “On top of the docking bay? You realize that would put us dead center in the middle of all the stormtroopers.”

“Yeah, but they’re not looking up…” offered Poe, shrugging. He looked back at the others, adding with a sigh, “Do any of you have a better idea?”

Ben exhaled slowly, looking back toward the docking bay. “Chewbacca, do you think you could set us down gently enough?”

Chewbacca roared in affirmation, taking the controls in hand.

“Rooftop break in it is,” declared Finn, straightening himself out and stretching his arms over his head. “Did everyone get enough to eat? Last food for a while, I’m sure.”

Ben stuffed the last half of his cube into his mouth and choked it down. Poe looked forlornly at what was left of his own cube and offered it to Chewbacca instead, who scoffed at him in response.

“Chewie, I think you should stay behind and monitor for Resistance forces,” suggested Finn. “We may need you to pass messages back and forth.”

“—Or fly interference if things really take a turn…” added Poe.

Chewbacca grunted his agreement, nodding.

The men headed to the storage lockers toward the rear of the ship to collect needed weapons and other tools. Poe grabbed a rope and grappling hook—breaking in this time around was going to require a lot more creativity than it had the last time. When each of them felt as ready as they would ever be, they exchanged looks with each other. As they felt the gentle pitching of the floor from Chewie settling the Falcon down on top of the docking bay roof, Ben nodded his acknowledgement that they were ready to exit. “Let’s leave out the top hatch.”

Ben exited first. The winds of Kamino were particularly bad from this high up, and Ben’s hair whipped across his forehead chaotically. With his eyes, he could see that the troopers on the ground circling the building were focusing their attention away from the facility. With his other senses, however, Ben knew that the cavernous space under the roof was teeming with armed soldiers preparing for battle.

“Alright, let’s go. Step quietly, and stay together.” Ben climbed the rest of the way up the ladder, and slid carefully down the side of the Falcon. He landed softly, barely a thump to announce his presence, and that was nothing compared to the noise of the storm that was currently raging across the island. Finn and Poe followed Ben’s lead.

Poe looked south, toward the main building. “Um, there are windows in that building. Should we be worried?”

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t worry about it yet. Let’s just get off this roof,” answered Ben. “Got your grappling hook ready? We’ll go down on the north side.”

The south side of the hangar, the side facing the main building, was the side that remained open and exposed, earning it the most concentrated defensive allocations. There was a whole battalion of stormtrooper clones standing in formation in the space between the open hangar doors and the main building.

The north side of the facility was a different story. The stormtrooper presence here was still too heavy to land a ship, but because there were no doors or entries, the defense was far less dense. The three of them watched from behind a balustrade on the facility roof as a pair of troopers on patrol walked past the area, followed momentarily by another patrol, and then another. They came like clockwork, circling the base, but it became clear after watching that their focus was outward, watching for signs of attack.

“I think we can slip in behind them,” Poe suggested.

“Then what?” asked Finn.

“There are emergency exits around here. Look, down in that nook. There’s one,” Ben pointed to where he was talking about, and sure enough, there, tucked in between two storerooms  that jutted out from the main hangar, was a door.

“Great. We force our way in, and we’re golden,” said Finn.

“It’s not that easy,” Ben shook his head. “All emergency exits are programmed to remain locked unless someone inside Central Command triggers an evacuation alert. It’ll be barred from the inside, and if it does open, it will set off alarms around the entire facility.”

“Sounds like a ‘door’ in the loosest sense of the word…” Finn stared daggers at what he hoped was the alarm box.

“I can cut my way in with my lightsaber. Believe it or not, the way the doors are wired, that wouldn’t trigger the alarms,” Ben said.

“But won’t that make it really obvious that someone broke in?” asked Poe.

“If you can think of a less obvious way for us to get in, I’m all ears, but we don’t have a lot of time to think of one. We can’t just stay out here forever.”

“Well, it won’t be long before those patrols notice the gaping hole in the door,” cautioned Poe.

Ben felt some urgency, and was starting to lose patience with this line of discussion. “Look, we’ll lay the cutout back over the hole once we’re in. That’s the best we can do. Let’s just get inside already, we’re wasting time!”

“Alright, hold on,” Poe flipped on his commlink, “Chewie, you there? Great. We’re on the north side, going to try and breach a wall. I want you to find any comm signals on the north and jam them for us,” Poe waited a moment before the Wookiee responded. “Done? Great. Thanks, buddy.” He turned to the others, “Well, that’ll give us a little time if we’re spotted, at least.”

“Won’t they notice if they can’t talk to each other?” Finn asked.

“Not if they don’t try to talk to each other,” shrugged Poe.

“'Don’t talk. Don’t look up.' Another perfect day in the life of a stormtrooper…” Finn rolled his eyes.

“Let’s go,” urged Ben.

The men timed their descent to occur between marches, and then hurriedly ran in between the buildings to the nearest emergency exit door. They waited there silently as the first patrol passed by, walking on the edge of the complex not a hundred feet from them. All the patrolling guards had to do was look to their left, and the men would have been sitting ducks. Thankfully, that didn’t appear to be a part of their 'programming'.

Ben took a moment to map what was on the other side so he knew they weren’t walking right into a crowd of stormtroopers. They weren’t. On top of that, he could see that on the opposite side was ample cover to shield them from the eyes of any would-be attackers. This was as good a point of entry as any they were likely to find. Igniting his saber, he began cutting into the door. The other two men watched the next patrol cross by warily.

“Dammit, they stopped!” whispered Finn with exigency. Ben was only about a quarter finished cutting the perimeter of an already modest-sized entry hole. Poe drew his blaster. Something had caused the the two stormtroopers to pause there, staring out toward the ocean.

“Patience,” cautioned Ben. Cutting through the door was like trying to stir a vat of molasses with a canoe oar, steady but slow.

The two stormtroopers continued walking, as both Poe and Finn let out deep breaths of relief. Sweat was running down Ben’s forehead, but he was more than halfway finished.

The next patrol passed by without hesitation.

Mere seconds from completing his task, their luck finally ran out. The patrolling pair of stormtroopers came into eyesight, looking right at them.

“Shit!!” yelled Poe. “Hurry up, we're under attack!”

“Just cover me! I’m almost done!” shouted Ben.

Poe and Finn unleashed a wave of blaster fire at the onrushing stormtroopers, slowing them down as the soldiers were forced to find cover to avoid being hit. This flurry of blasts drew the attention of the next patrol of stormtroopers, and soon the whole lot of them had regrouped and were running at the trio of intruders. Ben completed his cutting with a thunk of metal as the cutout fell toward them and onto the ground outside. Ben yanked Finn by his jacket and shoved him into the hole.

As Finn lifted one leg up and over the bottom of the opening, a deadly shot came toward him from the nearest stormtrooper. Raising his lightsaber, Ben deflected it into the ground. Poe returned fire, hitting the stormtrooper, but the blast bounced ineffectually off the surface of her armor.

Whispering frantically at them from inside the facility, Finn urged, “Just get in here, you can’t shoot them with normal blasters!” He cursed himself for not sooner remembering that Phasma’s armor was enough to deflect standard blaster fire. Most stormtroopers didn’t have the raw physical strength to wear such armor, but of course, clones of the original Phasma did.

Thus reassured that their blasters could do them no harm, the clones ran full tilt towards the men, firing in quick succession. Poe holstered his blaster and followed Finn through the hole as Ben covered their escape, deflecting their blasts with his lightsaber to keep the other two safe.

Inside the hangar, however, Finn didn’t feel very safe. Piled in front of this little-used emergency door was cover from prying eyes, to be sure, but cover in the form of pallet after pallet of thermal detonators. If one stray blaster bolt made its way through that hole, the entire docking bay could go up in flames.

Poe’s attention had been toward the chaos outside, but a frantic jab in the ribs from Finn illuminated him to this greater threat. Just getting Ben inside wouldn’t be enough to ensure their safety if the shots continued to come.

“Ben, we’re screwed! There’s a wall of detonators here!” screamed Poe out the hole in the door.

In response, Ben reached out and pulled the first pair of attackers towards him, ripping them off their feet. As they drew close enough, Ben simply impaled one on his lightsaber, and followed that up with a quick upward slash to cut down the other. The last two guards, however, were rapidly approaching, and they would be prepared for such an attack.

Holstering their blasters, the next wave of attackers barreled closer, vibroblades in hand. As the first of them arrived, her weapon clashed noisily against Ben’s angry crimson blade.

Poe, witnessing the final stormtrooper mere seconds from becoming part of the fray, drew his blaster again, hoping to distract her from her attack. Sensing his intentions, Finn urgently pulled him back. “No, don’t! It could just deflect right off and hit Ben instead!”

Not enjoying being a useless spectator, Poe cursed, climbing back outside. He ran to one of the felled stormtroopers and scavenged the vibroblade from her waist. He had never used one before, but this seemed like as good a time as any to give it a whirl. As the final clone closed in towards Ben’s rear side, Poe intercepted her slashing attack, and it was now two on two.

As the two pairs of fighters exchanged blows, it became clear who would outlast whom pretty quickly. Ben fought elegantly and efficiently waiting for an opening to strike a killing blow, but Poe was a mess, wielding an unfamiliar weapon against a far superior opponent. It seemed the only thing keeping him alive was his own tenacity and luck.

Grunting, Ben abandoned all pretense of finesse and went for an overpowering brute force attack, cleaving the stormtrooper in half with a hail of sparks coming off the white-hot armor. He then turned to Poe, who had just been knocked onto his back with a swift kick to the chest, losing his vibroblade in the fall. As the clone’s weapon arced downwards, Ben parried it, and the trooper shifted targets. Poe, recovering from his embarrassing position, crawled toward his lost blade, and, taking it firmly in his grasp, hacked at the back leg of Ben’s antagonist. With a scream, the Phasma clone fell backward toward Poe, who met her descent with an upward thrust through the middle of her back.

Heaving with breath in the aftermath of a duel that nearly claimed his life, Poe couldn’t speak. He simply sat back on his knees and deactivated the vibroblade, looking up at Ben.

Ben took in the state of his wheezing companion. “You’re terrible with a blade. You’re lucky you’re not dead.”

“Hey,” Poe choked out defensively, “I saved your ass.”

Cocking his head to one side, Ben weighed Poe’s observation for a moment. “Yeah, okay,” he conceded. “Thanks.”

“You’re… welcome,” huffed Poe in reply. Standing up, he swallowed hard, trying to get his breath back, and added, “And, you know… thanks, you... too… for before.”

“Sure.”

From inside the hangar, Finn, who had been standing beside the thermal detonators watching the events with tremendous interest, finally realized the little break they were taking really wasn’t one they could afford. “Hey, will you two hurry up and get in here already! Time is short! Let’s pull those bodies inside quickly, and then cover up this hole, before the next patrol comes!”

Ben and Poe exchanged nods, and Ben finally extinguished his lightsaber. Together, they moved the bodies, approaching the rupture.

Climbing inside, Ben whistled in appreciation at the thousands of thermal detonators piled up before him. “That’s a hell of a lot of explosives right there.”

“No shit,” agreed Poe, staring almost appreciatively up at the towering, incendiary heap just feet from his face.

“Okay, so where’s Rey?” prompted Finn, with renewed resolve. Poe looked expectantly at Ben.

Ben shook his head. “I don’t know yet, but I don’t think this is the place to take the time to find out.” With the stormtrooper bodies pulled inside, Ben used the Force to return the hunk of wall to its place. With a little luck, nobody would notice it for awhile. “Let’s put some distance between us and this part of the complex. As soon as they notice those missing patrols, this whole place will go on lockdown.”

“Agreed,” said Poe, and the three of them quietly crept their way along the wall of munitions toward what they hoped would be someplace more private. With their fragile secrecy about to come to its inevitable end, they knew they had little time to waste looking for the perfect hiding spot.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 24: Madame Ren———

Hux needed privacy. The facility, now crawling with cloned stormtroopers, hummed with activity, and there were very few corners of the grounds that weren’t occupied. Only two chambers still contained incubating clones—the rest were either heading to the armories, or were already armed to the teeth and standing by for deployment.

Chamber Eleven had been emptied some time ago, so it was in that general direction that Hux went to research his suspicions. Besides the beating of his own heart in his ears, the only noise Hux could make out was the hum of the equipment as he furtively entered an office adjacent to Docking Hall Eleven. In the neighboring chambers, the youngest clones were still developing—those that, as of this morning, had been rashly accelerated to the developmental equivalent of thirteen years old, but which had since been even more recklessly matured.

Checking the hallway both in front of and behind himself, Hux made sure he was alone before turning the door handle and stealing into the small control room. He closed the door all the way before releasing the handle, making sure to be as quiet as possible, and seated himself at the computer console. It didn’t take long for it to boot up, and soon, Hux was accessing the relevant files.

Hux clicked on a folder labeled “Clone Development”. Several subfolders appeared. One of them, “Batch Records”, appeared to just contain information on the acceleration rates of given quantities of clones housed in particular facilities, organized by date of creation. There were currently records for only three batches, one of which continued to gestate in Chambers Eight, Ten, and Twelve, but the others already roamed the facility.

Hux didn’t care about any of that—all he needed to know about what was in that folder was something he could already guess: the records would show that the clones were all being accelerated at dangerous rates. Apparently, Sharna Ren didn’t concern herself with the gross physical and neurological risks associated with rushing the development of complex organisms. Such technological ignorance and lack of foresight infuriated Hux—he was sure it would bring about the end of the First Order if he couldn’t regain control over the direction of its leadership.

Another subfolder, “Genetic Templates”, held nothing of interest for him—currently, Phasma was their only template. Likewise, the sections on “Technical Specifications” and “Corporeal Analysis” would just contain standard cloning information, and could be ignored.

Hux began searching through the “Conditioning Parameters” documentation and coding, hoping that it would tell him what he wanted to know. Finally, he came across the protocols containing information on the desired mental traits and characteristics of the cloned stormtroopers. He searched through the complicated code until finding the parts containing a prioritized list of dispositions:

  1. Loyalty to the Supreme Leader
  2. Loyalty to the First Order
  3. Self-preservation
  4. Disinclination toward personal weakness
  5. Disinclination toward weakness in comrades
  6. Default genetic inclinations resume, barring contradictions with above priorities

In any particular circumstance, the trooper’s actions would be determined first by whatever best suited priority number one. Most of what Hux saw here was pretty boiler-plate stormtrooper, with one exception: Stormtroopers were supposed to prioritize loyalty to the First Order above all else—including their loyalty to the Supreme Leader in specific. In fact, Hux didn’t recall anything about loyalty to the Supreme Leader being on this list at all. Weren’t loyalty to the Supreme Leader and loyalty to the First Order supposed to be the same thing?

Well, not when it came to me and Kylo Ren, mused Hux. Still, that was the assumption that would have undergirded whatever decisions the programming team would have approved; the Supreme Leader’s needs and those of the First Order were supposed to be one and the same, with few exceptions.

Huh… thought Hux.

Just then, sirens began blaring throughout the facility, red emergency lights flashing above the door, and visible through the office window into the hallway. Hux nearly jumped out of his skin at the ear-splitting interruption, and he cursed in surprise.

Hux was just getting up to go see what the fuss was about, when he remembered he still hadn’t looked in the folder marked “Special Instructions”. Dammit, if I’m going to do this, now’s my only real opportunity, he thought, and he returned to his seat at the computer, ignoring the cacophony as best he could.

To his surprise, this folder was password-protected. With irritation, Hux hastily entered his administrative override password: HuxReignsSupreme.

Nothing.

Hux sneered. “Typical.” He tried his password again, but still nothing. I don’t believe it…

Sharna Ren had somehow locked him out. It had to be. Angrily, Hux shoved the chair away from the console and stood up, furiously cursing at the equipment. He was about to abandon his efforts and see to the alarms, but an idea came to him first.

With a last surge of desperation, Hux, standing over the keyboard, tried a different password: MadameRen.

Success.

He smirked. Hurriedly, he scanned through the information that had been programmed into the stormtroopers, looking to see just how much damage Sharna Ren had done in her short tenure as Supreme Leader. What he found wasn’t surprising, but it was grim. Sharna Ren had made vast wholesale changes to the stormtrooper programming, paying little attention to the subtleties such conditioning required. She had used a battleaxe where a scalpel was required, and now those troopers were out there. Armed and ready for combat.

There was no question about it now. Armitage Hux was in big trouble. They all were.

———

When the alarm went off, Sharna Ren knew her moment had come. She had hoped to shorten her leash on General Hux before that happened, but he had apparently made himself scarce—none of the other officers knew where he’d gone, and he hadn’t reported in anywhere. This caused her a modest amount of concern, but she was confident the safeguards she’d put in place would prevent him from getting away with anything too deleterious. She didn’t exactly want him to die since he still had his uses, but if that’s what it came to, well, these things happen.

All of her pawns—except Hux—were in position. Prarathi and Lorim Ren had been instructed to guard Chambers One, Two and Three, where the bulk of the Corellian children were being housed. Sharna Ren herself was headed downstairs on her way to the docking bay. Before her confrontation with Kylo Ren, she wanted to make sure she was surrounded by plenty of stormtroopers, and the first two battalions had finished in the armories and were standing at attention in the hangar. Her army had grown by several thousands in the span of just a few hours, and by the end of the day, that total would be nearly ten thousand. If fresh embryos could be copied tomorrow, then by the end of the week, she could double or even triple what she added today. Damn, I hope we have enough munitions and armor ready for all the soldiers I have planned, she thought. 

First things first, there were competitors for the throne out there who needed to be neutralized. Kylo was a formidable foe indeed. Sharna’s ace in the hole, however, lay strapped to her mobile prison, trailing just feet behind her, surrounded by two stormtrooper guards and Simeon Ren.

Sharna had never known Simeon to be much of a fighter, but he had never failed to return from his assignments with positive results. In spite of his terseness and lackluster bearing, he had at least performed his recent duties adequately, and appeared to accept her authority. In future, she would give all the interesting assignments to Prarathi and Lorim, but Simeon would make for a reliable servant. Someone good to keep near at hand. If his fighting skills should prove insufficient to the demands of his post, well, there were others who could fill that role.

Sharna Ren was excited, looking forward to the confrontation. Kylo Ren had been a formidable fighter in his time, but now she not only knew his weakness, she had that weakness incapacitated and at her mercy. Kylo Ren’s feelings for the girl would leave him exposed—would be his undoing. Sharna had always considered herself his equal, but now he would barely be a nuisance, even with the aid of whatever rabble he may have chosen to bring along.

This should be easy.

———

It was not their first choice of hiding place, but it was the first one they found. The wall of thermal detonators was quite expansive, but they’d managed to find a group of pallets with enough gapping between them that they could squeeze inside single file. They didn’t love the idea of hiding behind high explosives, but the reality was that if any of them went off, they would all go off, and the entire hangar would be obliterated no matter where in it they happened to be hiding.

They just hoped none of the facility’s occupants would find reason to go peeking between the munitions.

From this cramped and volatile, but private space, Ben was able to focus long enough to look for Rey’s specific signature. In spite of what had been done to her, Rey’s Force signature still shone like a beacon in Ben’s mind, and he located her in very short order.

“Well, I found Rey, but she appears to be in the custody of two Knights of Ren and a couple other guards. Plus, there are literally thousands of stormtroopers swarming this place,” lamented Ben. “I’m not sure how we’re supposed to get around without being overtaken.”

“You couldn’t, like, use the Force on them or anything?” suggested Finn.

“You mean, like, tell them to all go jump in the ocean?”

“Hey, yeah!”

“Uh, no.”

Poe considered their situation. “Did she give any insight as to how we might spring her?” inquired Poe.

Ben shook his head dolefully. “She still doesn’t respond when I try to talk to her.”

Poe’s consternation showed on his face. “So after all we did to get in here, there’s no way to get to her without getting killed?”

“Well, there’s some good news,” offered Ben.

“Which is what?” asked Finn.

“They’re coming to us.”

———

Sharna Ren strode towards the docking bay through the open-air promenade between the two buildings. The weather on this island was terrible, as always seemed to be the case on Kamino, but she wanted to soak up some of the grandeur of the throng of silvery stormtroopers that stood at magnificent attention between the two buildings. Looking at them, she was reminded of a hall of mirrors—each individual was, quite literally, an exact copy of the one before it, and the impeccable sense of order each had been programmed to uphold demanded that their posture and spacing in their formation be perfectly identical from trooper to trooper.

It was glorious. Her armies would long be remembered for their perfect constitution and discipline. No leader before had achieved anything like this, and she would set the bar high for all who might follow.

Though the alarms themselves had gone silent after about a minute of total blaring after some patrols had failed to check in, the red lights had continued to flash all around the compound, indicating that lockdown protocols remained in effect. When additional, new alarms began to sound, Sharna was just annoyed.

“Yes, there’s an intruder, we get it already. You,” she pointed at one of the two stormtroopers guiding the helpless Jedi, who immediately perked up at the attention. “See what that’s about. If it’s nothing new, tell them to shut it off. I can barely hear myself think with all this racket.”

The stormtrooper nodded and surreptitiously got on his commlink, speaking low so as not to disturb his leader. Sharna proceeded to further admire her legions of soldiers as she sauntered casually alongside the rows of glistening chrome armor. Due to the wailing of the alarms, she didn’t hear the scream of the starfighter until it was immediately overhead.

“Supreme Leader!” cried the stormtrooper. “Air raid, ma’am! Two frigates just entered local space and have deployed starfighters! What are your orders?”

Sharna Ren didn’t love the unexpected complication, but looked at it as an opportunity to really see what her new units could do. Projecting her metallic voice throughout the huge open space and into the minds of her legions of soldiers, she issued her first military orders as Supreme Leader:

“First Order soldiers! The moment has come for you to truly show the galaxy what becomes of those brazen enough to openly defy my rule! Take to the skies and blast them out of their puny ships! Don’t let up until you have annihilated them all! Go!”

Of the several thousand stormtroopers that stood before her, most, but not all, turned immediately on their heels and headed for the hangar where the TIE fighters were parked. Then, a disturbing thing occurred. As other clones passed those who did not immediately turn and march toward the ships, vibroblades were activated, and the hesitating individuals were carved in half. Though her mask did well to hide her shock, Sharna’s mouth literally hung open as she observed the units’ actions.

Then she realized: insofar as their programming was concerned, this may be how her instructions prioritizing a “disinclination toward weakness” would manifest itself. Well, that’s a bug I’ll have to work out later, she thought dismally. Hopefully it wouldn’t cost her too many units in the meantime.

The weirder thing to Sharna was actually something else entirely; this culling behavior could be explained by overzealous adherence to a boldly written program, but to her, what was harder to explain was why some of the units didn’t immediately follow her orders in the first place. Loyalty to the Supreme Leader was job one, and she was the Supreme Leader. That much was simple.

Add that to the list of things that would require her attention later.

With a sigh, Sharna Ren proceeded toward the hangar interior, stepping over dead clones as she went. The spacious docking bay, once it was emptied of all of its TIE fighters, would be as a good a place as any for her showdown with Kylo.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 25: Termination———

At the sound of the alarms, the three men felt flooded by different emotions. Fear, hope, and excitement fought within each of them, before the adrenaline of the impending confrontation took hold—calmed them, steadied them. Ben gestured for Finn, who was closest to the exit, to back his way cautiously out of the niche they had been hiding in.

Finn stole a surreptitious glance around the hangar, revealing that the area was quickly emptying of its personnel. “Everyone’s rushing for the ships,” whispered Finn. When the last of the TIE fighters was boarded, the clones began packing themselves into transports and freighters, including the Gashel and Bevel. Literally every means of conveyance was being boarded.

There were far more soldiers than there were vehicles to carry them, however. When the last of the ships had screamed out of the docking bay, something truly bizarre happened—the clones began fighting themselves.

“Um, what the hell is happening?” queried Finn. “Has something about being a stormtrooper changed in the last two years? ‘Cuz I’ve never seen anything like this…”

Ben pushed his way past Poe and Finn so he could see what Finn was talking about. Many of the remaining clones had scattered out of the hangar entirely, but roughly a hundred or so were engaged in just tearing each other apart. The hangar echoed with the dull riot of dozens of Force pikes and vibroblades crashing into one another. As the bodies began piling up, the roar of battle filling the hangar died down, making it possible to distinguish individual grunts and clashes from one another. It only took a few minutes before the last of the combatants hobbled her way out of the hangar, unable to fly away, but with no one left to fight.

Ben shook his head. “No idea. Their programming should have included better self-preservation protocols than this. Or at least some level of camaraderie. This is just self-defeating.”

“So much the better, right?” ventured Poe optimistically. “The sea of stormtroopers we thought we were stranded in just cleared out for us.”

Ben was cautious—he didn’t like what he couldn’t understand. “Maybe.”

But the show didn’t stop there. Toward the mouth of the hangar, against the bright backdrop of a midday sun in the southern sky, the silhouettes of several figures could be seen emerging.

“GOD DAMMIT!!!!”

The words, and the fury, reverberated through the hangar, clinging interminably to the rafters before eventually leaving behind a silence so profound the men thought they may have gone deaf.

A flash of red, and the silhouette grew smaller.

Resolutely, and without fear, Ben stepped from their hiding place, marching toward the dark figures. As he approached, the details of the congregation became clearer. A tiny figure, clad head to toe in black, stood over the fragmented remains of a white stormtrooper, maniacally hacking at it with a crimson lightsaber. Ben knew it could only be Sharna Ren.

Behind Sharna, another Knight stood calmly by, impassively taking in the scene, as did another stormtrooper, this one visibly terror-stricken by what he beheld. And next to him, was Rey.

The glint of metal at the base of her neck told Ben the story of her silence—she had been fitted with a neural disruptor. It was no wonder he had been unable to get a response from her—she was trapped within her own mind.

Sharna Ren was the last to take notice of Ben’s approach, so he was allowed a moment to regard the other former colleague present at this grim reunion—Simeon Ren. Simeon had always been the most level-headed, least sycophantic of the Knights of Ren. Looking back, it was actually surprising that Simeon had chosen to join them at all. Though it was a foregone conclusion that they would have to face each other, Ben still felt a pang of disappointment at seeing him with Sharna.

Simeon returned Ben’s assessment of him with a small nod. He made no aggressive overtures.

Finally, Sharna’s rage had been vented enough that she could look up from her handiwork and acknowledge her visitor. The mask she wore ensured that her heavy, metallic breathing was accompanied by an equally sinister, vacuous, black gaze.

“Kylo,” she rasped, head turned towards him, but still leaning over the steaming corpse at her feet. “It’s about time. I’ve been waiting for you to show yourself ever since I found your glove at the feet of your Jedi tart here—and please don’t make any sudden moves, or Simeon here will run her through.” She paused, contemplating. “I wonder what killing her would do to you? I would love to experiment with the potentialities of Force bonds sometime, but alas, I doubt we’ll have time for that.”

Finn and Poe had cautiously followed behind, keeping at enough of a distance that they could keep the enemies’ focus on Ben, but still have reasonable accuracy should they be called upon to offer supporting fire. At the moment, things seemed relatively calm, but Poe’s hand remained on his holstered blaster.

Ben, for his part, had no response for Sharna. He stood rooted to the floor of the hangar, steadfastly refusing her prompts to react. Everything he wanted to say, he conveyed in his penetrating, glacial stare.

“Well? You’re here to kill me, right? To take back the throne? Free your co-conspirator? You’re the Dark Prince, after all. So high born, so self-important—surely you must think you deserve it, the throne. I certainly won’t believe for one second that you’re really fighting on behalf of the Resistance. You’re no lover of disorder. Hux failed to properly dispose of you, and now you’re here to find revenge and try to take back what he stole from you and handed over to Faris—that which now belongs to me.”

Sharna stood up as tall as she could, extinguished her saber, and placed her hands on her helmet. With a click and a hiss, her helmet came free, and she tossed it to the floor.

Sharna Ren. It had been many years since Ben had seen her face. Not since the Praxeum had he contemplated those piercing blue eyes, too small for her already tiny head, her pointed nose, and her bald, scarred scalp. He had made fun of her once, for that—a privilege he'd paid for with a broken arm and a brutal thrashing.

After it happened, he remembers his Uncle Luke coming to him. He had come to offer a small amount of sympathy for the beating his nephew had received at the furious hands of Sharna of Parnassos, smallest of her clan, but also to provide Ben with the context for her actions, and a piece of wisdom. He explained that she had survived her time on that desolate planet only by ruthless manipulation and pure shrewdness. Sharna had fought back with whatever meager means she could, knowing in her soul that she had a greater potential buried inside that willed her to stay alive. During her time on Parnassos, she’d been unable to harness that potential to keep herself safe. It wasn’t until Luke discovered her there and took her back to his temple to train that she learned to control the power that had always been inside her.

Her bald head was a souvenir she had earned from years of torment. The culture of Parnassos valued size, which Sharna had always lacked. Her white blond hair, which was emblematic of her clan, became a target, as bigger, more aggressive clan children would gang up on her, pin her down, and beat her pitilessly. Once she was at their mercy, they would dissolve her hair with caustic chemicals, scald it with pitch, or, when they had nothing else, tear it straight from her scalp. They had ravaged her so thoroughly that her hair, the hallmark of her clan and that which branded her as one of their own, would never grow again.

Sharna of Parnassos, of clan Scyre, had only ever known subjugation at the hands of those around her. Even in the midst of her own people, her existence was a constant struggle to survive. She had learned strategy, resourcefulness, maneuverability, adaptability, and many other useful talents and characteristics as she honed her survival skills in her unforgiving environment.

Luke knew that Sharna had the potential to be a masterful Jedi, but he also knew she had seen power used in only a few, narrow ways. He had come to his nephew’s cabin to impress upon him the dangers of such power, and the importance of empathy.

On the night he burned Luke’s temple and left with Sharna and the others at his side, his uncle’s words had struck Ben as monumentally hypocritical. Now, though, he understood. He could see the merit in what his uncle had been trying to teach him, and he felt pity for Sharna.

“I want you to look at me one more time before I kill you,” declared Sharna Ren. “When they autopsy your head, I want them to find my face burned into your retinas. When your soul is destroyed, I want your body to remember who it was who ended you.”

Ben shook his head. “Sharna. Oh, Sharna, no.” He took a tentative step closer.

Sharna, however, did not react tentatively. With a vehement snarl, she reignited her lightsaber and raised it up over her head in a move to strike. Ben’s eyes went wide, and Poe pulled his blaster from his belt. However, before either of them could act, Sharna’s malevolence vaporized with a thrust from behind.

Protruding from Sharna’s chest was the tip of a glowing yellow lightsaber. With a hiss, Sharna’s saber extinguished itself and fell from her grasp, her body following it in short order. Her small, crumpled body formed a miserable heap on the hangar floor. Behind her, where Ben had been expecting to see Rey having performed some miracle, he found even greater surprise that the wielder of the yellow sword was not Rey at all, but Simeon Ren.

Simeon extinguished the blade, his blade, and returned it to his belt, taking a knee in front of Ben. “Supreme Leader,” he said, bowing deferentially.

Ben was bewildered. “Simeon, what is the meaning of this?”

Simeon lifted his head to respond. “I know you felt pity for her, but she had not learned the lesson you hoped.” He rose from the ground to speak eye to eye with Ben. “She did not come out of Parnassos feeling angry at those who had dominated and tormented her—it was envy. Her desire for power was not so she could right the wrongs in the galaxy committed by those with no empathy, it was so she could become them. In her heart, all she wanted was to feel the false superiority that comes from taking power and using it to dominate others. I’ve seen her mind.” Simeon shook his head slowly. “There was no redemption in her future.”

“But why do this now?”

“I am no leader, but I do not follow blindly. I have only ever felt loyalty to the Force, and to those who support its balance. However, too few of those who are sensitive to the Force truly understand what its balance looks like, and instead unwittingly erode its influence by seeking to divide it in half.”

Simeon continued, “My notion of a balanced Force was too unpopular to be made known. I have waited a long time for the right leader to come about and set things on the right path—I knew one day, he would realize his own potential to restore balance. Sir.” Simeon bowed his head once more. “While I may lack such personal qualities as leadership and charisma, I am fortunate that I am not without patience.”

“So it would seem,” answered Ben, with a smile.

Their audience had been quiet, riveted by the drama playing out before them, but it was Poe who snapped back to reality the fastest. “Okay, this is awesome and everything, but this might not be the time or place,” he interrupted, his own patience stretched thin, his nerves frayed.

Finn approached the stormtrooper, whose terror had given way to perplexed shock, and who now seemed to think that as long as he didn’t move, no one would know he was there. “Hey buddy, I’m FN-2187, but I go by ‘Finn’ now. Help me with this, would you?” he asked, with a casual calmness and tone that was utterly disarming. When the trooper didn’t budge, Finn took his elbow and turned him toward the pram, gesturing to Rey’s shackles. This seemed to rouse his addled brain, and he began cooperatively unfastening Rey’s bindings.

As Rey’s body began to slide from her tethers, Ben rushed to catch her before she could collapse onto the floor. He carefully removed the collar from around her neck, and the deadness in her features instantly dissipated. Her eyes looked back on him, clear and bright.

Pulling him into a fierce hug, it took several seconds for her to register what else was happening around her.

“You came back! You found me!” Tears rolled from her eyes. Wiping them away so she could see better, she pulled away from Ben and really looked around. “You’re all here!” Then, perplexed, “Are we back on Kamino? How long was I out?”

“Long story—we’ll get you caught up later,” answered Poe. He turned to Simeon, “So… since I guess you’re… ‘chaotic lawful’, or whatever, I assume you’ll help us get the latest bunch of kids you stole off this island?”

“Stealing children only propagates the Darkness, disrupting balance. I will help you reverse this,” answered Simeon with a nod.

Poe met his answer with a flat stare. “…‘Kay, thanks,” he deadpanned, trying not to roll his eyes.

“You’ll want this back before proceeding,” said Simeon, kicking back Sharna’s cloak to reveal Rey’s saberstaff tucked inside. Rey sucked in an anxious breath, and rushed to Sharna to scoop up her saber. Simeon continued, “Prarathi and Lorim Ren are guarding the children, as are a complement of stormtroopers—normal ones, not clones,” supplied Simeon helpfully. “Be wary of any clones you might encounter. They are significantly compromised.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” intoned Finn, crinkling his brow in dismay. He had been terribly unnerved by the events in the hangar leading up to their confrontation with Sharna Ren.

“As part of her power grab, Sharna ordered that the clones be rapidly accelerated—far too rapidly, it turns out. They’re immensely unstable.”

“Simeon, take Rey and the others and head to Chamber One,” urged Ben. “I’ll be right behind you, I just have to deal with something else first.”

Rey knew what he was talking about, and her face sunk. “No, Ben, just come with us. I want to get out of here as quickly as possible. What you’re going to do really doesn’t need to be done,” she implored.

He took her hands in his, and looked down into her pleading eyes. “I can’t just leave this as a loose end. Not again. I promise, I won’t be long. I’ll come back and I’ll find you.”

“Forget it,” she pressed, shaking her head. “Going is stupid, but if you insist on it, then at least I’m going with you.”

“No, Rey,” he said, pushing her backwards a step. “Go with the others, get the kids out. I promise I’ll come back to you. This is something I need to do alone.”

The tears flowed freely down her cheeks, but her body language showed him that she was relenting. Her voice was practically a whisper as she choked out the words: “You’ll come back?”

He could feel her fear of abandonment tugging at his heart. With a gaze that bore right into her soul, his voice inside her head caressed her spirit and took away her fear. Nothing in this universe could keep me from you.

With a kiss goodbye, Ben turned and walked away, Rey’s tears continuing to flow. Finn took her hand, and Poe wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and together, the three of them watched in silence as Ben dropped out of sight, descending into the depths of the facility.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 26: Rematch———

Poe could feel her trembling as they watched him leave. His mind selfishly wandered to the what-ifs of Ben not returning to them, but a wave of guilt passed over him, and he pushed those thoughts back down. He gave Rey’s shoulders a squeeze. “Come on. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met, he’ll be back. He’s made it back from worse than this.”

Rey nodded solemnly, taking a large hitching breath before wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I know,” she said, turning her body toward the halls that would get them to the children. She closed her eyes, and reached inside, steadying herself with a centering focus. After a moment, she was set and firm. “The Corellian children are down that way. We need to free them.”

“Yes,” replied Simeon. “Expect them to be heavily guarded. Are you ready?” he asked, setting his hand on the hilt of  his lightsaber.

“I am,” answered Rey, igniting her saberstaff and giving it a twirl, reacquainting herself with its weight in her hands.

Finn studied the two Force-users before him. He didn’t entirely know how to feel about what they were setting out to do. It was just the four of them: two lightsaber-wielding badasses and two gruff Resistance fighters armed with blasters and misplaced bravado. They were about to face off against an army—Finn couldn’t help feeling like the odds were more than a little bit stacked against them, in spite of how formidable his friends might be.

Poe, it seemed, was having similar thoughts. “So, uh… how do we expect to do this? You two look pretty confident. Don’t take this the wrong way, but… are we marching to our deaths here? How many stormtroopers do you suppose they’ve got?”

Rey didn’t answer, or even look in Poe’s direction. She just advanced resolutely toward the hallway that would take her to the children, her saberstaff humming solidly in her hands.

Simeon, for his part, took some small measure of pity on the two Resistance fighters who were pinning their survival on the hope that he and Rey would perform some marvel and save the day.

“All will transpire as the Force wills it to,” he said. Finn and Poe both looked at him blankly. Simeon took this to mean that his words hadn’t had the desired effect. With a smile they couldn’t see, he tried again. “It will come together, don’t worry.”

Finn and Poe continued to stare placidly at their new comrade, but didn’t hesitate to follow him once he stepped forward, following after Rey. By the time they had made it through the main hall and reached the opening where it emptied into the grand incubation chamber, the veteran fighters had grounded themselves, and their misgivings were forgotten.

The doors had been sealed, and guarded by a squad of eight stormtroopers, armed with heavy blasters and a mounted chaingun, set up behind an impromptu barricade. The stormtroopers hesitated as the quartet approached, unsure what the presence of Simeon Ren foretold about what was to come.

“Halt!” called the captain. “State your business.”

“Well, someday I’d like to open a small antique shop, but I wouldn’t really call it a ‘business’ in the usual sense,” Poe called back to them as he approached. “More of a hobby that pays for itself…”

“Open fire!” shouted the captain at his troops, raising his own weapon.

Simeon deftly ignited his lightsaber and began deflecting the blaster bolts away from them. The chaingun clicked on, but too late, as Rey whipped at it with the Force, spinning it around to lay waste to the four stormtroopers standing to the left of it, ripping them to pieces. Poe shot the gunner, as Finn opened up on the remaining troops. The fight lasted less than four seconds.

Simeon Ren stepped up to a hidden panel next to the door and, opening it, input the access code that would unseal the entrance. “Whenever we’re ready,” he remarked.

Rey nodded, and Simeon tapped the panel, flinging the door wide. As they crossed the threshold into the large chamber, they were instantly greeted.

“Really, Simeon?” It was Prarathi Ren. The echo of her footfalls preceded her from out from behind a row of incubation pods. “You’re with them now? My god, you’re weak. And stupid. I mean, what, you think you picked the winning team? This is just too sad…”

“My interests go well beyond those of the First Order, Prarathi,” Simeon replied. “The Force is eternal. This petty band of thugs is not.”

Prarathi sighed. From behind the blackness of her mask, she appraised her opponents—all four of them. “‘Petty band’, indeed. I don’t have time for this.” She threw up her hand, calling out to the shadows, “Open fire!”

Blaster fire erupted from every corner of the room, as an entire company of stormtroopers opened up on them. The hail of fire drove Finn and Poe back into the hallway struggling to find cover. Simeon and Rey, lightsabers ignited, pressed on. Simeon stepped forward into the fire, a whirlwind of fluid motion, his lightsaber blade whipping about faster than the eye could follow, as blaster bolts ricocheted off of it, back into the troops firing at them from around the room. His accuracy was phenomenal, as stormtrooper after stormtrooper fell, shot down by their own blasts deflected back at them.

Rey stood behind Simeon, knocking the bolts into the floor. She was amazed by her new ally’s accuracy, as he managed to fell the horde of troops without hitting any of the incubation pods. Rey took a deep breath—she could feel the life within those pods, the children who had been taken from their families. Missed shots could be a disaster, and she knew it was only a matter of time before an innocent was killed. She thought of Ben, steeling herself, before using Simeon’s cover to sprint out ahead of the firing range, straight toward Prarathi.

There was a clash loud enough to be heard over the cacophony of blaster shots as the yellow blade of Rey’s staff cracked into the deep red of Prarathi’s lightsaber. The blow was enough to knock Prarathi back, forcing her into a console, sparking electricity into the air. Rey’s strength had surprised her, but Prarathi improvised as she fell, reaching out with the Force to hurl a block of debris at Rey, catching her in the hip.

Rey was momentarily thrown off balance, but had control enough to spin away from the lunging strike Prarathi Ren had followed up with. She rolled past the Dark enforcer’s backslash, and struck out at her legs with her staff. Prarathi saw the attack coming and parried, but too late, as the yellow light of Rey’s staff tore off a chunk of her calf. Shouting in pain, Prarathi staggered back, falling up against an incubation pod. She looked up just in time to see Rey’s staff swinging towards her. She rolled along the pod and clenched her eyes shut, waiting for the end, but it didn’t come—Rey had pulled out of the attack at the last moment. Had Rey followed through with the attack, it would have ripped apart one of the tubes, hurting or killing the child inside.

Prarathi suffered no such equivocations, and grinned within her mask as she sensed her opponent’s weakness. To her, the children were an asset, but not an irreplaceable one. Buoyed by the realization, Prarathi renewed her own attack with a wild new savagery, slashing and hacking at both Rey and her surroundings with complete abandon, forcing Rey to not only defend herself, but to also expend precious energy struggling to protect the pods from harm. Rey fought passionately, but was severely handicapped by her fear for the children.

They traded blow after blow as the chaos ensued around them. Rey had completely lost track of Finn and Poe, and she feared for their safety. The stormtroopers couldn’t dare open up on Rey and Prarathi, for fear of hitting their own leader, but that hardly mattered, as Simeon’s balletic assaults were giving the company more than they could handle as it was. In spite of having just met him, Rey had tremendous confidence in Simeon Ren, and she felt sure that he would make it out of this alive. She was beginning to wonder if the same could be said for herself.

Prarathi Ren wasn’t suffering from an overabundance of confidence either. Despite Rey’s handicap, Prarathi knew that she had little chance in this battle. Rey was too skilled, too determined. Beyond that, she was shocked at the combat prowess Simeon displayed—she had never known him to be a fighter. Soon, he would finish with her stormtroopers, and she had no hope of fighting both Simeon and Rey together. It was time to switch tactics. Prarathi swung up into Rey’s next attack, and the sortie knocked them both back from each other. In that moment of space, Prarathi used the Force to pull a ventilation shaft free from the ceiling where it had criss-crossed above them, and sent it screeching down towards a bay of incubation units.

Rey shouted in dismay, and, in turn, reached out with the Force to stop the falling metal cylinder, momentarily dropping her guard. Prarathi charged in, attacking with a series of swift strikes, which Rey tried to parry with one hand, while holding the shaft back from the incubation tubes with the other. Multitasking split her focus too much, and Prarathi sprung her trap, using the Force to swing the heavy metal away from the incubation tube and crashing back into Rey’s chest, knocking her onto her back. Rey’s saberstaff was thrown from her hand and sent skittering across the floor as her head spun circles around her body. Rey had to shake herself to clear the stars from her vision.

As Rey lay on the ground with Prarathi Ren towering over her, poised to strike, Rey knew she was about to die. This was not the first time she had felt the cold shadow of death closing in on her, but it was the only time she could recall feeling this terrified. Too many people needed her, and she wanted desperately not to fail them.

In what she assumed were her last moments, her consciousness seemed to pass from her mind. She drifted out of time, out of body—she felt ethereal, energy without form. The galaxy itself swirled past her, a spinning maelstrom; stars were born, planets ate themselves. A universe lost in time.

For a moment, she feared the blow had already come, that she was already dead. Her body coalesced back into something she could feel, and she was able to move. Looking around her, the landscape was a sea of endless sand. The incubation facility was an eternity from here, a distant memory. She was frantic to get back to where she’d been and reunite with Ben. Her friends needed her. Those children needed her. How and why she was in this place, Rey could not fathom.

“You’re being consumed by your fear. You need to refocus.”

At first, the voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. It was only as the seconds ticked by that the words seemed to ground themselves to this world, and she could trace their echo back to the source. Her heart leapt in her throat, and she turned around.

It was Luke.

“You amaze me. Such raw strength. Such fierce determination. And such boundless, redemptive love.”

“Luke! What are you doing here? Am I dead?”

“No, Rey, you’re not dead,” he said, smiling. “But you looked like you needed a pep talk. We Force ghosts don’t like to be rushed, so I thought I’d pull you into this plane of existence for a bit so we could talk.” He approached her and took her hand. He felt solid.

“What’s happening?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything back there. When you return, it will be just as you left it. I wanted to send you back with a bit of wisdom, that’s all.”

“I don’t understand.” She had to choke out the words. Her throat felt tight. Her whole body, in fact, felt like a rope stretched near to its breaking point.

“Your fear. You’re afraid of abandoning them. You’re afraid that if you fail, you’re letting them all down. This fear is hamstringing you, and if you’re not careful, it will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“I just don’t want those kids to suffer the way Finn did. Or the way I had to, growing up without my parents.” She paused, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “I have to save them.”

“I know you do, Rey.” He let go of her hand. “But you can’t expect to do it if you’re too preoccupied with fearing what will happen to them if you fail. In that facility right now, you’re being swallowed by that fear. You have to remember: Why must you succeed?”

She thought about this. She had been haunted by the specter of abandonment, and this was what she was running from. She had forgotten what she needed to run toward. “For the love of their families. And for my love of my friends… and of Ben.”

“Ah, Ben. Yes. He needed this little pep talk too. He fell to the Darkness because he felt failed by those who should have loved him. When you got captured, he feared he had failed you. That fear nearly made him run in the wrong direction, away from hope. So I went to him. We argued back and forth for a bit. Finally, I asked him: ‘What would have saved you from succumbing to Snoke? What would have kept you in the Light?’”

Rey was entranced. When Luke didn’t keep going right away, she had to ask, “What did he say?”

“He said…” Luke swallowed, pausing momentarily. “He said, ‘If you had fought harder for me.’” The pain of the memory paled him. “I didn’t fight hard enough to keep my nephew. And he fell. That was my failure. I needed him to learn from my mistake.”

Rey sniffled. She wanted terribly for Luke to continue. She tried to beg him, but her voice wouldn’t come. With her eyes alone, she pleaded her query.

Luke laughed, anticipating her question. “He went to Poe for help, didn’t he? If that’s not fighting for you, then I don’t know what is.”

Rey smiled.

“You saved my nephew. He saved you. It wasn’t fear that did that, it was hope, and love. Find your balance. You don’t need to abandon fear entirely, but you can’t allow it to make you forget what you’re fighting for.” With a gleam in his eye, he looked at her. “Do you understand?”

Rey nodded. “Yes.”

“Good, now get back there. My nephew needs you. Free those kids, and live to tell about it.”

“Thank you,” she said warmly.

“Thank you.”

As they regarded each other one last time, the sands around her seemed to melt away. Once again, she felt disconnected yet inextricably bound to the whole of the universe. Her mind was an open sieve, through which everything filtered. Whatever words had passed between her and Luke were lost, but the ideas seemed to crystalize into something she could feel deep in her soul. Without understanding how, she suddenly understood so much. She would never be able to describe how it had happened, but she knew she was changed.

Her body and spirit coalesced back into the present, and she found herself undaunted. No time appeared to have passed since she last stared up at Prarathi Ren, about to cleave her in half with an arcing strike from above. Time no longer stood still, but it felt slowed, and Rey calmly stretched her hand out in front of her. Instantly, her nerves were alive with an energy that seemed to come from out of nowhere. As though a wellspring had been tapped and her fingers were the outlet, bolts flew from Rey’s hands like she was a live wire.

Prarathi Ren was struck, frozen rigid as her body absorbed the energy. Her red lightsaber hovered above her head, flickering in her grasp as the muscles in her hands clenched it almost to bursting.

From where these boundless energies came, Rey did not know, but she found her feet. Willing herself to persist, a new shockwave of Force surged from her fingers, and Prarathi Ren was thrown backward. Her body struck the wall, and with a dull thud, she found the floor. Prarathi Ren did not stir again. Her Force signature had been muted.

Rey was heaving, her outstretched arms trembling with the memory of what had passed through them.

She looked back to the others. She did not see Simeon, only a trail of felled stormtroopers leading further into the chamber. Presumably, he had gone ahead to face Lorim Ren. Finn had advanced in that direction and could be seen firing at far-off threats, working his way into the next room. She couldn’t see Poe, and wasn’t sure where he was. Praying they were all still okay, she ran through the chamber, anxious to put her newly discovered abilities to greatest effect.

She was a conduit for the Cosmic Force, and she would do as it commanded.

———

As the air-raid sirens began blaring, Hux headed to lower ground. There was virtually nowhere on Kamino that was safe for him anymore, and without the benefit of troops he could confidently order around, he doubted he could secure transport back to the Finalizer. Even if he could find a shuttle, he’d be an easy target if Resistance fighters were inbound. Hux ventured away from the hangar, following the hallway deeper into the facility. His best play was to lay low until Sharna’s forces had dealt with the intruders, allowing him to contemplate his options in safety.

If Sharna Ren triumphed, she might yet see fit to keep him alive long enough for him to organize a new strategy—alive, he could still be of some use to her. However, if she believed he was causing too much trouble, or if any of her tailor-made clones caught even a whiff of treachery from him, he would be finished.

Sharna had been quite effective in her clumsy underhandedness. At the moment, Hux found himself well and truly screwed.

As much as he didn’t like it, Sharna successfully fighting off the Resistance attack on the facility was probably the best-case scenario for him. If Sharna were defeated, things would go quickly downhill. Escape via shuttle craft would become impossible, and the instability of the stormtrooper army made it a terrifying risk to rely on them. If the Resistance won, he would have to hope they saw fit to keep him alive (probably to put him on trial, or some other such nonsense), and then he would just have to improvise from there.

He briefly wondered if the clones’ loyalty to the First Order, and to Hux by extension, would win out if Sharna were already dead. He lamented that there was no good way to test that theory without risking his own demise.

At the moment, the safest place for him was someplace out of the way, someplace empty. Chamber Eleven was one such location, having been the first emptied. After the initial alert, Sharna would have triggered the release of the clones in Chambers Eight, Ten, and Twelve, ready or not. They would be woefully underdeveloped, mentally speaking, and would be a danger to him even in the absence of Sharna’s sabotage. Best not to risk it. Chamber Eleven was the safest choice for now. Sooner or later, a victor would emerge, and Hux would know whom to beg for his life.

This was not his best day ever.

The sound of a single set of footsteps came from Docking Hall Eleven. If this foretold a blessing or a curse, he couldn’t decide, but at least it was something—he had paced nearly the whole length of the chamber, and his thoughts were going in circles. Hux stood at attention, waiting to greet the source of the footfalls.

The pace of the footsteps slowed as the shadow of a man stretched across the floor into the chamber.

“Kylo Ren. Good of you to drop by.” Hux wore a smirk, his eyes narrowed. “Do you like what we’ve done with the place?” He paused, becoming more doleful. “That Sharna has really made her mark around here…”

Ben entered the facility and stopped walking, meeting Hux’s eyes.

Hux surveyed the man in front of him, his hand gingerly resting on the blaster at his hip, though he knew it would be useless against his former ruler. “Well, look at you, all patched up,” he remarked, noting the state of Ben’s attire. He was wearing the repaired First Order-issue Dark enforcer’s uniform he’d been wearing when Hux tortured him on that remote moon, what felt like an eternity ago. “I guess they’ve taken good care of you, haven’t they? That Resistance rabble… did she make it all better?”

Kylo Ren looked back at Hux intently, but made no further move toward him. Feeling he had been granted a moment to reassess things, Hux looked, but did not stir. There was something different about the man in front of him.

Hux was not Force sensitive, a fact he actually drew a sense of pride from. However, in this moment, he could feel something, a terrifying sort of dark energy, emanating from Kylo Ren, penetrating Hux to his very bones. It was so strong that he thought he could almost see it, like a shroud hanging around Kylo Ren, drawing in all the light around him. It gave Hux the sensation that if he stared too long, he may be drawn in as well. It made it hard to breathe.

Once upon a time, there had been almost nothing Hux wanted more than he wanted to end Kylo Ren, but as he contemplated the hellish vision before him, he knew it was hopeless. Drawing the blaster from his waist, he tossed it unceremoniously to the floor.

“I give up,” he proclaimed.

Kylo Ren did nothing.

“Do you hear? I said I give up. I am tired…” Hux looked utterly deflated. The proud arch to his back was gone, and careworn lines settled into his face as though they’d been there for decades already. “I’m tired of battling the endless disorder in this galaxy. Tired of having my efforts thwarted by the likes of you, of Sharna Ren, and all the rest. The incompetence,” he spat this word out like it had been leaving a bad taste in his mouth, “the stupidity, the short-sightedness, all of it. The galaxy needs order. It’s desperate for it—but I can see that it doesn’t want order. I grow weary of trying to save what doesn’t want to be saved.” Hux paused, taking a steady breath. “I’m done.”

Kylo hadn’t budged. Hux stood there, taking in Kylo’s rigid form. The dark mien continued to work its way into the fiber of Hux’s being despite Kylo’s inaction, infecting him with its poison. Every second Hux grew more and more rattled. He began to shout, losing control, shaking his fist in impotent rage, “Well?? Are you going to kill me or not!?” His words echoed in the empty chamber, but before they could fade to nothing, they were overwhelmed by the sound of a distant explosion and the groaning of metal. Seconds later, Hux registered that the door behind him, that which led into Chamber Ten, was being battered by dozens of crazed fists and hand-to-hand weapons. Soon, it would be breached.

Suddenly, and apropos of nothing, Kylo Ren finally spoke. “You killed those children. Why?”

Hux was taken aback, and furrowed his brow in confusion. “You have a knack for asking questions that seem to come from out of nowhere.”

“Just answer the question. Why did you kill them?”

“You mean those clones?”

“They were children.”

“No, they were clones, and I didn’t kill them, you did,” Hux spat. “It was because of what you did that they could no longer be used. We couldn’t restart the acceleration or conditioning protocols without rebooting the system, and that came with the risk of overloading their nervous systems. If we hadn’t had to reboot, those clones would still be alive today.” Hux didn’t mention that, had they lived, those children would probably be mindless savages adding to the cacophony at the chamber doors right now.

Ben shook his head. The alternative to rebooting would have been to let them live as relatively normal ten year old girls, and of course the First Order would have no use for that. “This is the problem with the First Order. You make difficult decisions, but rather than own it when you make a bad one, you rationalize and justify that decision by pinning the responsibility for it on others. All in the name of ‘order’. You killed those children, and you used me as an excuse for it. This is why the galaxy resists the First Order’s rule. It always will. Until you change.”

The pounding at the end of the chamber redoubled in its intensity. Hux turned around to face the protesting, vibrating doors. With a burst of sparks, they flew open, and a throng of simple-minded Phasmas in gleaming metallic armor burst through, wielding Force pikes and vibroblades. Hux looked over his shoulder, back at Kylo Ren, but he was gone, the doors to Chamber Twelve sliding shut behind him.

On the other side, stood Ben. He felt odd—empty, almost. It was not like him to walk away from a confrontation. That certainly wasn’t what he thought he’d been going in there to do when he parted from Rey. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that in a situation like that the first words out of his mouth would have been about children—he hadn’t envisioned he would be speaking at all. With the massive doors dividing the two chambers standing shut behind him, he paused to consider the wisdom of his decision to leave Hux behind. Ben wanted to slaughter him—he wanted vengeance. To beat him until he was as broken and bloodied as Hux had made Rey, then to carve him into pieces. That he had left without doing so hung on him like an ill-fitting shirt.

Before he could fully reconsider what he’d done, the sounds of humming vibroblades and agonized screams assured him that whatever vengeance he might have delivered was being meted out by Hux’s legion of clones. He didn’t know if it was with regret or relief that this was how this chapter would end.

Lifting his heavy feet, he continued his march out of the facility. From the sound of the explosion moments ago, Ben guessed that the thermal detonators in the hangar had gone up. Hopefully, Rey and the others were in the relative safety of the first three chambers—unfortunately, exiting out through the Docking Halls was no longer possible. Luckily for Ben, the twelve chambers wrapped around the docking bay in an interconnected circle, so Ben could go directly from Chamber Twelve to Chamber One. He could find Rey, then they could exit out the long white staircase through which they had first entered during their rescue of the kids from Lothal.

All he had to do was follow the pristine ivory staircase, back toward the open air, and to whatever lay beyond.

Chapter Text

———Chapter 27: Resolve———

When General Leia Organa set out to form strategic military alliances with industrially powerful worlds, Coruscant was an optimistic choice. For all intents and purposes, Coruscant is the center of the galaxy; it is the political and economic capital, and it lies at the crossroads of multiple hyperspace trade routes. It was wealthy beyond imagining, its people prosperous, and it already boasted its own formidable military industrial infrastructure. An alliance with a world such as Coruscant would have been too good to be true.

And Leia Organa knew it. It was such an obvious choice, Leia predicted the First Order would have had spies swarming all over it. Even if there weren’t, the likelihood that Coruscant would want to jeopardize the good thing it had going by crossing the First Order was terribly unlikely. Leia never had any hope that her mission to Coruscant would bear any fruit.

But as long as it looked like she did, the Resistance had hope.

Leia’s detail to Coruscant consisted of some of her oldest, dearest, and sickest friends. Old political allies whose galactic influence had long since waxed and waned, and whose last wish was that the galaxy may yet find its way. If their ship made planetfall on Coruscant, they would be all too happy, and abundantly prepared, to begin negotiations, but none of them expected to get that far.

The real purpose of their mission was that of misdirection.

Simultaneously, and in secret, even among the rest of the Resistance’s top brass, there was a second mission in the works: one to Corellia. Corellia had a strong history of fighting for independence, had its own orbital shipyards, and a planetary repulsor.  Corellia may have its slums, but its overall wealth and access to resources was undeniable. It was nearly as industrially rich as Coruscant, but its future security in the rise of the First Order was less certain. Corellia was a more realistic, if somewhat less ideal target for a military alliance.

Leia had enlisted her longtime friend, co-conspirator, and ace Rebellion pilot Norra Wexley to lead that mission. The people of Corellia were sympathetic to Norra’s pleas, but proceedings there were stagnating—for all her enthusiasm and good intentions, Norra Wexley just wasn’t the diplomatic equal of Leia Organa. Things were stalling. Stalling, that is, until the First Order overextended its reach and began raiding Corellia’s civilian population looking for new recruits.

In the wake of the raid, Corellia immediately mobilized its military in cooperation with the Resistance forces, and set upon the planet of Kamino not only in the hopes of recovering its children but of preventing further such injustices across the galaxy.

The Second Battle of Kamino, as it came to be known, marked a significant turning point in the war. Joint Corellian-Resistance forces surprised and overwhelmed the First Order fleet, and both the Finalizer and Supremacy II were incapacitated in the engagement. Forces mobilized from Kamino’s surface were likewise neutralized, with assistance from Chewbacca, independently piloting the Millenium Falcon alongside squadrons of Resistance X-wings. 

The turning point in the battle occurred when a large explosion consumed most of the above-ground portion of the facility. The blast confounded Resistance fighters observing from above, since they had not been specifically targeting the facility. It wasn’t until the debriefing that followed the battle that the answer to that question finally emerged. Commander Poe Dameron explained that a large stockpile of thermal detonators had been kept in the hangar. The most likely reason for their ignition was determined to be nothing more than stray fire from above. The conflagration caused damage to hallways penetrating deeper below ground, but their reach did not extend down into the incubation chambers themselves.

In the aftermath of the explosion, Resistance forces descended upon the remains of the facility, only to discover thousands of stormtroopers lying dead from what appeared to have been some sort of battle royale style massacre. Delving deeper into the facility, they found that the children stolen from Corellia had already been freed from their bondage, and so Resistance fighters proceeded to then carry the children out piecemeal from the facility. Corellian frigates operated as transport vessels to take most of the children back to their homes. Those whose families had been killed were taken to orphanages close to their homes or to the facility on Dendrokaan. Notable casualties found throughout the facility included three Knights of Ren and General Armitage Hux. About a half-dozen First Order officers remained alive, all of whom surrendered willingly, albeit not happily.

How the children had been liberated is a tale the Resistance soldiers had to piece together from the accounts of a handful of surviving stormtroopers who had borne witness to the massacre and then ultimately defected. The liberating heroes themselves weren’t terribly candid about what had occurred. The stormtroopers’ accounts, which were corroborated by the physical charring of the facility itself, indicated that Rey had, in a tremendous display of power, electrocuted most of the stormtroopers who fought against the children’s liberation. En masse, she sent bolts of lightning out through her fingers and into the throngs of soldiers. She whirled her saberstaff about her as she cut through the bodies, not stopping until the remaining First Order soldiers were on their knees begging to be spared. With tears in her eyes, she had deactivated the systems holding the children in incubation. As she did so, one witness heard her whisper the words, “They just want to be with their parents.”

The war is far from over. First Order influence still exists on many worlds, and across the galaxy, there remain countless supporters of the notion that an authoritarian government is the only way to ensure that life will go on productively and efficiently—at least for those who matter. Corruption, slavery, and organized crime are by no means eradicated, and injustice riddles the galaxy.

However, the head of the snake has been severed. Few individuals remain in the First Order with the ability to mobilize any threatening strategic or military effort, and no Dark enforcers exist who could carry out their commands. Barring some unforeseen development, it is only a matter of time before the war can truly be ended…

———

Finn entered the large tent that comprised the makeshift headquarters of the rehoming facility they had set up on Dendrokaan. Jess Testor had done a terrific job of finding parents or other relatives of the kids who had been taken from the two worlds, but the work continued. Many children still remained in foster care, and although most of the Lothal children had solid leads for Jess and her team to follow, it was still a lengthy and time-consuming task, which they were working diligently to complete. The Corellian children had been more straightforward, and the only ones who remained on Dendrokaan were those already confirmed as war orphans. Finding suitable homes for them would be yet another monumental task for Jess and her team, but in the meantime, at least they were safe. She had been living on short sleep and catnaps for weeks now, but at least, finally, Jess could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The orphans dredged up old wounds for Finn—wounds that he thought had healed. But not a day had gone by since Kamino that didn’t find him trapped in his own past. He found that no matter how busy he made himself he couldn’t stop imagining how his own life might have turned out if anyone like Jess, like the Resistance, had been there to save him, to find him a home. It wasn’t that he was unhappy with how his life had turned out. Far from it. His circumstances had allowed him to find his place, his friends—to find his own redemption after being forced to serve in the First Order. But he still couldn’t stop himself from wondering what might have been. Above all else, though, he was happy to know that there were people like Jess out there, willing to sacrifice, to put right what had been made wrong. People like Jess, and people like Rose.

Rose Tico had also known the pain of having her home world and family rent asunder by the First Order, and had dedicated herself eagerly to assisting Jess with this work. It was Rose that Finn had come to the tent looking for, but he didn’t see her anywhere inside.

“Hi Jess, how are things? Is there anything I can help with? Anything you need?” asked Finn.

Jess had been intently focused on her work when he entered, poring over hospital records and family documentation from Lothal, and she hadn’t noticed him at all. She jumped a little at the mention of her name, and looked over her shoulder at him. “Hi Finn, no, I’m good. Just about everybody has somewhere to be, and slowly but surely, we’re figuring out where that is and arranging transportation.”

“It’s amazing to me that you’ve been so successful. I can’t imagine how complicated it is.”

Jess smiled. “You just have to think of it as a puzzle, or almost like a game. There is a solution here for each and every kid. We just need to find it.”

Finn nodded thoughtfully at her dedication and compassion. “Hey, is Rose around?”

“Rose…” Jess replied absently, like she was having trouble pulling her brain away from what she was concentrating on long enough to even remember who Rose was. “Rose, no, you just missed her. She’s leading a raiding party to the canteen and gardens—all these kids have had to eat lately is Soypro and Nutripaste, and you can imagine how much kids love paste. She’s trying to get a hold of something better before the flyboys requisition it for their lunches,” she added with a grin.

Finn cracked a smile. Growing up with the First Order, he’d definitely eaten his fill of Nutripaste. As a child, he couldn’t have imagined someone caring about whether he enjoyed it or not—not that he’d felt free to complain. The juxtaposition amused him.

“Okay, well, I guess I’ll head in that direction then. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?”

“Sweet of you to offer, but no, I can’t think of anything just yet. Unless, by any chance, you can read Aqualish?” She looked at him imploringly, but Finn just shook his head, and she laughed. “Well, maybe when I’m done here, something will come to me.” She inhaled deeply, letting it out slowly.

Finn was getting the feeling that just offering to help was creating more for Jess to have to think about, so he thought he’d better wrap this up and head out soon. “Okay, Jess,” said Finn, nodding, “Just be sure to tell someone if you think of anything that would help speed things up.”

“Thanks, Finn.” Jess bid him goodbye, and was already immersed back into what she’d been looking at before he could even turn to go. Finn nodded again, and looked around, appreciatively taking in the activity bustling around him. After a few moments, Finn spotted a small girl huddled under a table in the corner, drawing lines in the dirt with her index finger. She looked to be about five or six years old. Sensing Finn looking at her, she stopped drawing and met his gaze. Finn waved, and the girl slowly nodded back, before cautiously returning to drawing in the dirt. Finn turned to go, but couldn’t stop watching the girl—there was something eerily familiar about her.

Placing a hand on Jess’s shoulder to get her attention, Finn jutted his chin toward the girl, and asked, in a hushed voice, “What’s her story?”

Jess turned to where he was looking. “Oh, she’s a special case. I really don’t know what to do with her yet.”

“Oh? Why not?” Finn was confused. Wasn’t a kid a kid?

Jess looked at the girl, with conflicting emotions playing across her face. “She’s one of the clones.”

Finn’s eyes went wide, and he turned back to Jess. Speaking under his breath, but with an intensity that gave Jess pause, he said, “One of the clones? I thought they were all killed.”

“Yeah, that’s what we thought, too, but after the battle, some of our engineers were combing through the facility, and they found this one pod that appeared to have malfunctioned. It had been severed from the main control grid, so it was never reset or restarted. It wouldn’t have even registered as offline on their systems because the relays had blown. It was running on battery pack life support when they came across it. The guys pulled her out, assuming she had family to go back to. It wasn’t until after they’d sifted through the records on the base that they figured out she had been with a batch of clones. Now we don’t know what to do with her. She’s got no family to go home to, and the foster systems on the planets we’re working with won’t touch her—all the potential host families are terrified of having a stormtrooper clone. So, she’s just been hanging around here until we figure out a solution.”

Finn had taken in every word that Jess Testor said without speaking. Now that she had finished explaining, all he could manage was a distant “Thanks.” Jess went back to what she’d been doing, and Finn stepped slowly toward the girl. When he had gotten to within a few feet of her, she stopped drawing in the dirt and looked up at him again, warily. Their eyes met.

Through Finn’s mind raced images of Phasma that were too bleak to describe. Images of death, subjugation, torment—and the satisfaction she had drawn from it all. His memories of her, up to her last moments, the last and only time his eyes had ever seen her blue ones, were all miserable. Looking at her now, barefoot, frightened, wearing a Resistance T-shirt that shrouded her like a tent, he just saw a child. All the what-ifs he had ever asked himself about his own life, he now projected onto this girl.

Crouching low onto one knee so he could be more or less eye to eye with the child at his feet, he addressed her. “Hey kid, I’m Finn.”

———

“Here, you’re going to want more blankets than that, trust me.”

“Thank you, Supreme Leader.”

“Will you quit calling me that? I was only Supreme Leader for two years, and in that whole time, you barely laid eyes on me. Also, it freaks these people out to hear you say that.”

“Forgive me, my lord.”

Ben sighed. “Just take the blankets. Also, those bags over there can go in the speeder.”

Simeon graciously accepted Ben’s offering of an extra set of blankets and got to work loading the aforementioned bags into the speeder.

Ben shook his head, and got back to work stuffing supplies into a mostly empty duffle bag.

“How’s it going? How many bags is that now?” asked Poe, walking up to him. Over the sound of all the welding, hammering, and shop talk going on in the hangar, Ben had barely registered his approach.

“Good. There’s more than enough stuff here. We only needed about six or seven sets, but I’m bringing back ten, just in case.”

Poe raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Six or seven? There’s that many?”

“We think so, yeah. There’s a couple in there we’re not totally sure about, but since they’ve got no families to go back to, we may as well keep an eye on them and see what develops.”

“Simeon’s going to help you?” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yeah, he’s practically married to the Force, so this is his dream come true. We’re teaching a new kind of philosophy that embraces both aspects of the Force—he’ll finally get to show off the abilities he’s been keeping to himself for most of his adult life.”

Poe chuckled, looking back at the former Knight. Simeon still wore his black uniform, but had done away with his helmet, revealing a dark-skinned head and face covered all over by about a half-inch of black hair—the byproduct of completely shaving everything off, but too infrequently.

“‘Simeon’ was his real name? He hadn’t changed it like you did?” inquired Poe.

“No. I’m the only one that went by a different name. Pretty sure ‘Ben Ren’ would’ve gotten me laughed out of the First Order…” derided Ben matter-of-factly.

“Hah!” guffawed Poe. “Yeah, not a terrific villain name, I have to agree. Can you imagine the shit I’d have given you for that when we first met on Jakku?”

Ben winced. He really didn’t know how to talk about that. “You were irreverent enough,” was all he felt comfortable saying in reply.

Poe felt a stab of shame, but amazed himself that there was anything about that memory that could make him smile. It seemed like a lifetime ago—an alternate reality, or a holo-cast depicting fictional events. He knew the consequences of that day were grim and irreversible, but it gave him some measure of happiness that the descent into blackness of the soul responsible for it was not.

Poe looked back at Simeon. “Well anyway, I’m glad that he seems to be fitting in.”

“In a strange way, yes, he is. I’ve known him more than half my life, but I’m only really seeing him now. He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever known—or thought I knew.”

“He seems to really know himself,” observed Poe.

Ben wouldn’t tell him so, but he was learning that the pilot with the showy bravado and reckless abandon could actually be quite astute. Ben nodded in answer to Poe. “He does.”

Poe smiled. Assessing Ben’s collection of supplies, he spotted two bags that looked out of place. “What’s that stuff over there?”

Ben turned so he could see what Poe was referring to. “Oh, that’s for Rey. She wanted more fabric, more tools, more gear, you name it. Says she wants to expand the cottage… I think she’s losing her mind.”

Poe cocked his head at Ben and gave an agreeable nod. “That she may be.” He then set his jaw, considering what he was about to say next. Noting a shift in Poe’s demeanor, Ben paused in his work to study Poe’s expression, waiting patiently for him to proceed.

“You know, I was worried you would change her.”  

Ben didn’t answer. He just stared back.

“Turn her into someone else…” Poe added absently, biting his cheek and nodding his head as he stared off into nowhere. Inhaling quickly and holding it for a moment before continuing, the next words came out faster. “I loved her, you know. Thought she might love me too… Or that she could, at least.”

Poe looked out beyond the base, to the wilderness beyond the yawning hangar door, his eyes and mind adrift. Ben knew this was difficult for him, and remained patient. Poe’s eyes regained their focus, and he stared levelly at Ben. “You did change her.”

Ben couldn’t tell if Poe’s tone was accusatory or not—the next moments felt tense. Ben jumped ever so slightly when Poe raised his arm toward Ben’s face, but he relaxed when all that happened was that Poe clapped his palm on Ben’s shoulder, and shook him a little.

“But it’s okay, what you did. She’s better now. She’s found her people,” said Poe, gripping Ben’s shoulder a little more firmly. Poe stared for long a moment at Ben, assessing him—Ben allowed him his evaluation. “You met halfway,” he finally said. Poe then shoved him a little as he let go, saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m depressed about it. But I’ll live.” He smiled sadly, turning away from Ben and heading off into the depths of the base.

“I mean, there must be other pretty girls on this base somewhere.”

———

The bolts crackled from her fingertips, lighting him up with a sick glow that ebbed and flowed as it coursed through his body and across his skin. She felt the anger, the sadness, and she poured all of it into the tips of her fingers as she punished him for what he’d done. The smell of burned hair and singed clothing clouded the air. When she was finished, and her victim lay gasping on the earth, prostrate, she turned to face the children.

“This is an example of what you can use the Dark Side for. You draw upon your pain, your anger, your fear, and you can harness it for tremendous power.”

The children looked at her in awe. Temiri, one of the older children, stood up and asked his teacher, “But isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you risk falling into the Darkness for good?”

“Only if you lose your empathy,” interjected Ben, dusting himself off and brushing his hair out of his face as he rose from the dirt. “You can’t forget the things that tie you to the Light: what do you love, what makes you happy, what do you wish for. Then imagine how others might answer those questions.”

Ben drew a circle in the dirt with his training saber. “The fault of both the Jedi and the Sith was that each order sought to divide the Force in half,” he added, drawing a line down the middle of the circle.

Rey continued his thought. “The Force, just like any person, is a mix of both positive and negative energies. The Jedi and the Sith tried to specialize in one or the other, believing one to be more powerful or the other less dangerous. But that’s like taking half of yourself and stuffing it inside of a box, never letting it out or acknowledging that it’s a part of you.”

“Life is what it is,” added Simeon, speaking from behind the children. They turned to face him. “It is messy and it is beautiful. Empathy is what ties both halves together.”

“What if you fall too far? Can you stop yourself?” probed Temiri.

Rey answered. “We don’t always make the right decisions—we are none of us perfect people. But in those moments when we fall victim to our darker angels, if we’re lucky, we have others who will pull us back to the Light and help us do what is right.”

She looked at Ben, who met her gaze, and it was he who finished her thought for her. “And if you should fall to the Darkness, you are not without hope. If you can feel regret, there is still Light in you, and you can follow its pull back out of the Darkness.”

Temiri considered this explanation as he sat back down to ponder it further.

One of the younger students, a girl named Malfi, addressing her two male teachers, asked, “Can you do what she did? The lightning?”

Ben chuckled. “Yes, but for me, it’s harder to demonstrate.” He looked at Rey. “It’s just easier to do when there are real, visceral emotions undergirding your use of the Force. I simply don’t have very many reasons to want to electrocute anyone here,” he added with a smile.

Malfi paused to consider the meaning of his explanation. “Did you do something bad?” she asked.

“Yes, I did. I’ve done many bad things. I had forgotten empathy.”

She turned to address Rey. “Did you forgive him for the bad thing he did?”

Rey gave a small, sad smile. “No, I haven’t. But I understand. And I love him. So I can accept it, and we can move forward together.”

The children didn’t say anything else, but it seemed they understood the point that was being made.

“Now, I think it’s time we did some practice,” announced Simeon, breaking the silence that continued to cling to the atmosphere. “Children, let’s do some Control exercises. If they go well, we may have time for a little Form One saber training.”

The children excitedly drew together into formation, and Ben and Rey slipped away, back toward what had once been Rey’s private cottage. These days, she stayed with Ben in his, and Simeon lived here. Deeper in the forest, there were many other long abandoned and dilapidated cottages built sporadically among the trees, but for now, with the loss of their families still so fresh, the children fared better sleeping in communal tents just outside Simeon’s stone cottage on the edge of the forest. One day, when they were older and less afraid, they would occupy those more remote dwellings.

The summer solstice on Dendrokaan was weeks ago, and the sun was setting earlier and earlier. Soon it would be autumn, and the question of whether or not they had grabbed enough blankets and coats from the base’s supply stores would be answered. For now, though, the drills could still continue into the evening hours, and Rey took pleasure watching the children take to Simeon’s teachings like skittermice to sand. Ben stepped into the forest, and Rey into the cottage, emerging moments later with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders to stand outside and take in the sights of the exercises on the promenade before her.

Ben was only gone a few minutes, and a snapping of twigs heralded his return. This time of year brought with it a type of bird whose eggs Rey had grown quite partial to, and Ben had ventured into the forest to collect some for tomorrow’s breakfast. Seeing Rey looking out over the concourse, Ben set his sack full of eggs down by the door and stood next to Rey. He wrapped one arm around her, letting it hang loosely around her waist, and she leaned into him affectionately. The warm sun was setting in the distance.

“I thought I’d find you two here,” said Finn, approaching them from the southeast. He stopped a few feet away from them, off to the side so as as not to block their view of the acolytes.

“Mmm,” hummed Rey. “Just appreciating the view.”

“Yeah, just thought I’d come see how it’s progressing.”

“You mean the school?” asked Rey.

Finn smiled. “Among other things.”

“How are things going with that girl you adopted?” asked Ben.

Finn sighed deeply, letting it out slowly. “I don’t know what I imagined fatherhood would be like, but I never would have imagined this. It’s bizarre. Thank goodness I have Rose to help me or I don’t know what I’d do. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a terrific little kid—so anxious to help out, and so full of energy. It’s just weird.”

“She’s probably desperate to prove to you that she’s worth keeping,” offered Rey.

“I know, but she doesn’t need to. I’ll stick with her, no matter what. It’s getting her to believe that that’s the challenge,” said Finn, with a sigh.

Ben looked away from him, toward the setting sun. “Sometimes kids can be hard to convince that you really love them. Keep at it.”

Rey smiled at Ben, leaning into him a little more closely than she already had been. “What are you calling her?” she asked.

“We didn’t give her a name. I figure she needs to choose her own. She gets to decide who she wants to be...”

“And has she decided yet?” asked Rey.

Finn’s mouth quirked at one corner, and he looked Rey in the eye. “She thinks so, but I’m waiting to see if she changes her mind.”

“And?” asked Ben expectantly.

Finn sighed, and shifted his gaze back out over the grounds. Smiling, he said, “She says she wants to call herself ‘Finn’.”

Ben and Rey laughed inwardly, exchanging a look with each other. Ben took a step behind Rey, pulling her closer, holding her in front of him so he could wrap both arms around her. Settling his hands on her belly and giving her a gentle squeeze, he closed his eyes and kissed the top of her head. Smiling contentedly, Rey rested her hands on top of his, swaying subtly in his embrace.

Giving the two of them a conspiratorial side-eye, Finn surreptitiously crept away, leaving them to their privacy. Finn would have many more opportunities to commiserate with the two of them about the trials and tribulations of parenthood in the days that would follow. It didn’t have to happen tonight.

Sneaking off back the way he’d come, Finn thought about everything that had led him to this moment. He had a good life, and a promising future. He wanted to make sure he could identify what choices he’d made that led most directly to where his life had taken him. What did he do, who was he with, what had motivated him to act at each crossroads.

As he walked back to his speeder in the dimming evening light, he listed things off in his head. Refusing to kill for the First Order. Freeing Poe and stealing a TIE fighter. Rescuing Rey from Starkiller Base. Joining the Resistance. Being with Rose. Adopting… Finnie. Finn was simultaneously elated and terrified at what he saw as he examined his life. Elated that, in spite of his roots, his experience, and what he had seen, that he had come out of it whole and happy. With a future he could look forward to. What was terrifying to him was the realization that very little of his past life had prepared him for the future he was facing. He had a place in this galaxy that mattered, and it mattered to him that he could live up to the expectations and responsibilities that he’d been granted.

There was a certain freedom in being a slave of the First Order; nothing matters when your life is meaningless, valueless. The value the First Order had placed on his service was no value at all, not to him. Now that he could choose, he chose them: he chose Rose, and Finnie, and Rey, and Poe. He chose Ben Solo. He chose a rabble of fighters. He chose a school full of orphans. He chose a home. He chose a galaxy. Nothing was thrust on him, not any longer, not even the stars in the sky. It was terrifying, the weight of this responsibility, but it was also electrifying. He would meet tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, knowing that all of his actions were his to make.

He was going to make them matter.