———Chapter 1: Grounded———
“Ha! I almost got you that time!”
Finnie held her pike proudly in front of her, sweating and beaming with pride. “If you’re not more careful, I might just knock you out next time!”
Finn laughed, “Yeah, I guess my days of going easy on you might just be coming to a close! No surprise, really, you’re as tall as I am, and you’re only five.”
Finnie smiled. She had known for a couple years already that she would grow to be very tall. She didn’t really know just how “big for her age” she was though, because her exact age was a bit of a mystery. She had been “born” almost six years ago, but, as a clone, there was no way of knowing precisely what her developmental equivalent would have been. She just knew she was big.
“Why don’t we take a break, love? Your old man needs his rest,” joked Finn, leaning his own pike back into the rack at the edge of the sparring area.
Finnie nodded, and jogged over to add her pike to the collection of other weapons. At the school, there were many different weapons to choose from, and Finnie was incredibly skilled at almost all of them. Her whole life, her dad had trained Republic fighters in hand-to-hand combat, and she was no exception. For the last several months, though, she had had him and his expertise pretty much all to herself.
Since founding the training school five years ago, Ben, Rey, and Simeon had vastly augmented the facilities there. Simeon occupied Rey’s original cottage, and Rey had moved in with Ben and expanded that cottage into what was now better described as a proper house. Besides the original structure, which still stood and now served primarily as a kitchen and dining area, it had two bedrooms and a study fitted with communications equipment and a computer terminal networked into the rest of the Republic.
Simeon’s cottage was largely unchanged from how Rey had left it, but the rest of the school was centered around it. Covered areas dedicated to different school functions were scattered around. The school had its own computer-based library and comms station, an outdoor kitchen and dining area, and multiple different weapons caches lining the perimeter of a sparring courtyard. A couple small tents were thrown up here as well, where younger children had chosen to make their quarters. There was even some small-scale farming that took place here.
These days, Finn spent a lot more time at the school, away from the rest of the military. He and Finnie still shared a residence at the base, but their trips to the school had become so frequent that it was practically routine now. However, even at the school, Finnie still spent most of her time with her dad.
“Hey, are you two done? Want to join us for lunch?” called a small voice from the other end of the concourse.
It was Malfi. One of the youngest of the children rescued from Lothal to attend the school, Malfi was now about eleven years old. Unlike the other kids, who were kind, but very close-knit and somewhat exclusive, Malfi was always reaching out to invite others to join her. It was thanks to Malfi that Finnie ever felt like part of the group.
Finnie shouted back, “Yeah, hold on!” then turned back to Finn. “We can, right dad? I’m starving.”
“Sure. I just wish I could contribute to the meal…” Finn had always relied on whatever organization he was with to provide food for him. He had never hunted, and he didn’t know how to cook. He always felt a stab of embarrassment at having to rely on kids to feed him.
Finnie shrugged, and jogged over to Malfi. “Thanks for the offer, Malfi. What’s on the menu today?”
“Umm, not sure. The others headed out to look for bush lizards, but I hate those—they’re such a pain to get the bones out of. I was hoping we could find some birds or something.”
Finnie grumbled a little, but subtly enough that Malfi didn’t notice. The students here were encouraged to use their Force abilities to find fresh food whenever possible, so they could keep their preserved food stores undepleted in preparation for leaner months or in case of emergency, but Finnie couldn’t help wishing they would just give it up and do the more convenient thing. Either way, at least, she was getting to eat.
“Why don’t you two head into the forest and see what you can find? I’ll wait for you outside Simeon’s cottage,” said Finn.
“Okay dad, see you in a bit,” replied Finnie.
“See you, Mister Finn,” said Malfi, with a wave.
Finn walked the short distance over to where Simeon lived. In the forest behind his home, some of the older children kept cottages of their own. Malfi was one of the students who kept a tent closer to this main area.
Rey and Ben were sitting at a table outside the structure, having their own lunches. At Finn’s approach, Ben called out in greeting, “Good afternoon, Finn. Taking a break from getting your ass kicked?”
Finn chuckled. “‘Ass kicked’, you say? Did you see us, or is that just an educated guess? Hi Rey,” he added, bending down to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Hi Finn,” she replied, smiling up at him.
“Not so much an educated guess as a foregone conclusion,” said Ben. “That kid is every bit as built as her predecessor. With you as her private teacher, it’s only a matter of time before she surpasses you in raw ability.”
Finn nodded. “They certainly grew them tough on Parnassos, didn’t they?”
“A place only the strong survive,” added Ben in agreement. “Hungry? I have some cheese and picoberries I haven’t finished yet.”
Rey looked apologetically up at Finn, “Sorry, I ate all mine…” Predictable—leaving leftovers behind was not part of Rey’s MO.
“No, thanks, you can keep your berries. The kids are feeding me,” he said, smiling crookedly.
“You know, hunting and foraging existed long before people learned how to channel the Force,” teased Ben. Rey laughed, taking a sip from her canteen.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, you don’t need to give me crap about it, jeez. You can’t teach an old anooba new tricks,” said Finn, defeatedly flopping into an empty chair at the table.
Ben and Rey exchanged glances. “Sorry, you know we’re just messing with you,” said Rey. Ordinarily, this level of joking around was typical banter for the three of them. They should have known, however, that this week would bring new sensitivities with it.
“How are the two of you coping?” asked Rey.
Finn sighed deeply, thinking of how to answer. “You know, I don’t know. I think Finnie’s doing better than I am, but I can’t really tell. I don’t know what ‘normal’ looks like right now. I just know that as long as we both have weapons in our hands, we can sort of forget about everything else.”
Rey pursed her lips sympathetically. Ben admired Finn for how he was handling things. Though the love of his life was sitting mere inches from him, he’d come close enough to losing her before that he thought he could empathize with what Finn was going through. Finn’s strength impressed him.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Rey.
“No, no, we’ll be fine, trust me.” Another big sigh. “We’ll get through this. You guys have enough going on around here without fretting after us.”
“Fretting is what family is supposed to do, isn’t it?” asked Rey. “I’m honored to have you to fret over,” she added, placing her hand warmly over the top of his own.
Finn gave her a small smile. “You’re not stretched sort of thin in that department? Your family has gotten pretty big since the war ended. Speaking of which, where’s Ren?”
“He went into the forest with the others to look for lizards. He doesn’t like to eat them, but he likes to play with them,” said Ben.
Finn smiled, reminiscing. “Finnie used to do that sort of thing back when she—well, I guess technically, she’s that age now, but when she was… new.”
Ben and Rey watched their friend’s face as he thought about the early days of his own small family.
“When does Simeon get back?” Finn asked, changing the subject.
“Should be wrapping up any day now. Once Temiri finds a suitable crystal, they’ll leave, but they need to stop at Naboo on the way back in order to get some other materials,” explained Ben.
“Good for them,” said Finn. “The Padawan soon becomes the Master,” he mused.
“No masters here,” corrected Ben with a subtle smile, shaking his head evenly.
“Right, right… what were they called again? The guys with no masters?” asked Finn.
“Ronin,” answered Ben. “Masterless swordfighters from a bygone era—that is, if they ever really existed.”
“Stories his mother used to tell,” Rey clarified. “Skilled, honor-bound warriors who fought to protect powerful houses—whether those houses themselves were honorable or not. Once the houses fell, the warriors became known as ‘ronin’. Free to follow their own paths.”
“Uh huh, neat…” remarked Finn, nodding absently. “Follow their own path…”
Rey looked worriedly at him. “Anyway, we’re just teachers, not masters. Here as guides, that’s all.”
Finn nodded. Right about now, a little guidance sounded like a wonderful thing.
“Bartender, more whisky over here!”
“You know, you don’t have to shout—there’s hardly anyone else in here. And don’t you think you’ve had enough? Pretty soon we’re going to have to start charging you…”
Poe rolled his eyes, making circles in the air with his empty glass. “Free drinks is pretty much the only perk we get around here. Keep ‘em coming…”
The bartender shook his head, sighing, but moved back toward the wall of half-filled bottles.
“Thanks, pal,” slurred Poe, slapping his shot glass down on the bar with a wet thud. “I promise to bring you back somethin’ nice from my next mission. ‘S too bad those Hutts had to go and blow up all their liquor…”
“Captain Dameron, I thought I’d find you here,” said Admiral Kaydel Ko Connix, stiffly sidling up behind him.
“Hey Admiral, how’s it goin’?”
“It’s goin’ fine, except that the numbers from Nimban just came back. We need to talk about all the damage you caused.”
“The damage I caused?? Whaddaya mean? That explosion was totally not my fault…”
“Captain, look…” The admiral set her jaw, as she prepared what she was about to say. “You know none of us will ever forget the role you played in bringing the war to an end, but you can’t expect everyone who serves with you to just look the other way every time you go and engage in needlessly reckless behavior.”
“Whaaaat? Nooo… Nimban was a total success! Apart from, well, the whole them getting blown up thing… ”
The admiral sighed. “Captain… Poe, listen to me. I know it’s been a slow slide downhill, but look at yourself. The war’s been over for nearly five years. You should be an admiral yourself by now—or a general, or something. But you keep sabotaging yourself! Every mission you go on, you barely seem to escape from! Maybe there haven’t been any catastrophic failures, but the collateral damage, and the stress you put your whole team through—it’s too much.”
Poe endured quietly, his brow furrowed, slumped over his forearms folded up on the bar counter, listening to his longtime friend, now superior officer, berate him. He pretended not to notice that the bartender had poured his drink, but waited with it at the other end of the bar for Poe’s verbal lashing to wrap itself up.
He would have to wait a little longer.
Connix continued, “You don’t take advice from your teammates, and only follow half the orders you’re given. That you’re even still as high-ranking as captain is a testament to the respect you earned at the close of the war.” She paused in her tirade to regard what was left of the Resistance hero in front of her. “I’m grounding you. Effective immediately.”
Poe sat up straight, wide-eyed and astonished. “What?? You—you can’t mean that!”
“I’m sorry, Poe. Really, I am. But you need… some time. Get your head straight. Get sober. When you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit, we’ll talk again.”
Poe was frozen, shell-shocked and umoving. The bartender held his arm in place, outstretched over the part of the bar he’d been pretending to clean for the last two minutes. He held his breath.
Admiral Connix looked like she was about to say something else, but thought better of it. Without another word, she turned on her heel and was out of the cantina.
The bartender continued to quietly survey the distressed pilot. Slowly, he reached for the glass of whisky he’d been keeping ready for Poe, and set it lightly down in front of him.
Poe’s eyes regained their focus. He looked at the bartender, then down at the glass in front of him. He picked up the glass and raised it to his lips, but stopped himself halfway. He took a shaky breath. Looking once more at the man in front of him, Poe knocked back the whisky, set the glass on the counter, and left.
“That’s not very nice, you know.”
Ren looked up from his plaything to the source of disapproval. The sun was directly behind her head, making it impossible to see her face, but he knew who it was.
“Hi Malfi. What do you mean? I’m not hurting it.”
“Maybe not, but it obviously wants to get away. You’re tormenting it by dragging it back every time.”
Ren was confused. “The others ate theirs. Isn’t that meaner? I’m just playing.”
Malfi plucked the lizard out of Ren’s tiny hands and tossed it into the tall grass, where it landed softly before scurrying away. “How would you feel if that was you?”
Ren crinkled his brows together, thinking seriously before answering. “Better than if I’d been eaten.”
Malfi sighed, and took Ren’s hand, pulling him up from the ground. “Come on, you. At least come eat some actual food.”
Ren and Malfi walked hand in hand out of the forest to where the rest of the students had gathered. Some were still finishing up their lunches and others were busily cleaning up after themselves. There was a large covered cooking station that had been built on the grounds a stone’s throw from Mister Simeon’s cottage. Solar panels on the rooftop provided the energy needed for most of the cooking and food preservation. Purified well water supplied all the hydration necessary for washing up.
Finnie was there, scraping the last of her meal into the biomass generator. Whatever energy the inhabitants of the school couldn’t put into their bodies went into the generator to provide energy for other needed systems.
“Finnie!” shouted Ren as he laid eyes on her. Letting go of Malfi’s hand, he ran up behind Finnie and wrapped his arms tightly around her legs, burying his face in her backside.
Finnie was so startled she nearly dropped her plate. “Whoa! Jeez, Ren! It’s good to see you too, but man, get your face outta my…” she shouted, trailing off.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Since this morning. Dad and I were sparring with pikes. I almost beat him today!”
“Really??” Ren was genuinely astonished. There were few individuals he looked up to more than his “Uncle Finn”.
“Yup! Pretty soon I’m gonna be taking on whole gangs of thugs on my own,” she bragged.
“Will you be here for the rest of the day? I’d love to train with you for a little!”
Finnie cocked her head incredulously. “Uh, maybe. I’m not sure how much longer we’re here for. I think dad wanted to see Poe—he should be back from his mission soon, if he isn’t already.”
Ren shut his dark eyes and focused his energy. “He’s back,” he said, with finality.
Malfi and Finnie exchanged glances. “Well, there you go, then. I probably won’t be sticking around that much longer, I guess.”
Ren frowned. “Hmph. Well, sit with me while I eat? Pleeease??”
Ren was only five years old—clearly, just a kid. The youngest kid at the school, in fact. He was naïve and goofy, but oddly knowing—and accepting of everyone. Like Malfi, Ren Solo was someone that Finnie felt comfortable being around. Someone that made her feel included.
Looking at his pleading eyes, Finnie had to smile. “Sure, kid. I’ll sit with you.”
Inside Simeon’s cabin, communications equipment began to sound.
“Speak of the devil,” intoned Ben, rising from his seat at the table.
Finn and Rey watched him enter the cottage. “Can you still say ‘Speak of the devil’ if you weren’t just talking about someone? What’s the limit on the amount of time you can let pass before saying something like that becomes weird?” asked Finn.
Rey smiled, taking that as a rhetorical question. “Did you get enough to eat?” she asked, gesturing to the plate in front of him. “Personally, I find just one dwarf hawk isn’t typically enough food…”
“Well, it’s you, so, I’m not surprised,” he remarked, teasing. “However, I think I will take Ben’s earlier offer of leftovers.” He reached for the remaining cubes of soft white cheese laying scattered on Ben’s plate. They were a bit warm and greasy from sitting out under the midday sun, but still quite tasty. Finn laughed inwardly at this strange place—part Not-Quite-Jedi school, part organic dairy farm. How progressive…
Ducking under the low arch of the door, Ben stepped out from Simeon’s cottage. “They’ll be back tomorrow. They’ve already contacted a dealer in Naboo for the parts they needed, so once they get there, which should only be about an hour from now, they should have what they need pretty quickly. All their traipsing around on Christophsis, however, has them pretty fatigued, so they thought they’d spend the night on Naboo before completing the last leg.”
“That was fast,” said Rey.
“Yeah. Simeon said Temiri heard the right crystal calling to him within hours of setting out.”
“‘Calling’ to him?” asked Finn. “What’s that about? Crystals talk now?”
“Kyber crystals are sentient,” explained Ben. “They choose you, not the other way around.”
“But didn’t Rey just, like, find her saber in a basement, and that was it?” he asked. “Seemed pretty much like happenstance to me.”
“That was an unusual circumstance,” said Ben, evaluating Rey approvingly. “It doesn’t typically work like that.”
Finn studied the look that passed between his two Force-sensitive companions. He felt tears threaten his eyes, and stood abruptly up from his seat. Ben and Rey jumped mildly in surprise.
“I should go,” said Finn. “When I left the base this morning, there were rumors that Poe’s mission to Nimban was already wrapping up. If true, he could be back by now. I should collect Finnie and go ask how it went.”
“Missions to places as screwed up as Nimban never wrap themselves up neatly in so little time,” commented Ben, looking Finn right in the eyes.
“I’m sure you’re right,” agreed Finn knowingly.
“Please give him our best,” said Rey, and she stepped over to Finn for a parting embrace. “I love you, my friend. Please take care.”
Finn shut his eyes tight. “I will. Thank you.” They held their hug for another few seconds before Finn finally pulled away. He turned away briskly so they wouldn’t see the moisture glistening at the corners of his eyes, but they did anyway.
“I’m sure we’ll be back tomorrow,” said Finn as he walked away. “I can’t wait to see these intelligent crystals in all their, uh, sparkly glory.” Then, with a wave over his head, “See ya.”
Ben and Rey watched silently as their friend receded from view.
Ben? Ben, is that you?
He looked around, but all he saw was blackness. Rubbing his eyes, Ben tried desperately to discern any form from his surroundings, but there was nothing. Did his hands actually find his eyes? He couldn’t feel them. He tried to call out, but no words came.
Ben, thank goodness. Can you see me? It’s your grandfather. It’s Anakin…
Ben was frozen. He used to believe he could hear his grandfather’s voice inside his head, but not since Snoke’s demise had there been any recurrence of that. He had surmised that it had all been part of Snoke’s manipulation, or perhaps his own slipping mental health, that had been the cause of those voices.
No Ben, you’re not crazy, it’s me. There is so much I wish I could say to you right now, but I have no time. I need your help…
Ben’s chest felt tight. He couldn’t summon any breath. He thought he might suffocate.
You have to find me, Ben… I might die. That is, my soul… Please find me… Follow your blood… Follow it back to me…
Ben was having a panic attack. He felt his grandfather’s urgency, but had no ability to respond. He couldn’t see, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. In his mind alone, he screamed for his grandfather.
And then, just like that, the blackness was a brilliant radiance. His lungs felt a sudden intake of breath, and his muscles engaged—
—and he shot bolt upright in bed, knocking Rey to the floor.
Ben was sweating profusely. The lantern in his room was on. He felt totally disoriented.
Rey lay on the floor at the foot of their bed, clutching her face where he had headbutted her. She was completely bedraggled, and panting from exhaustion. Her nightshirt was sticking to her body with sweat. “Ben, holy fuck!” she exclaimed, but not out of anger.
Ren stood in the doorway in his pajamas, clutching his bedsheet and looking frightened as he surveyed his parents.
“Ben, are you alright!? Holy shit, I thought you were dying!” This was serious. Rey almost never cursed, and never twice in a row. And never in front of Ren.
Ben had to take several more breaths before he could speak. “Was that a dream? What happened? Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine, but dammit, you were absolutely unreachable!”
“What do you mean, ‘unreachable’? What the hell was I doing?”
“You were screaming ‘grandfather’ over and over! I thought it was just a nightmare, but I couldn’t wake you. I turned the light on, and your eyes were open and you were white as a sheet, just screaming and screaming!”
That wasn’t at all the way Ben remembered it. And that was nothing like any dream he’d ever had before.
“I had to concentrate really hard to snap you out of it,” said Rey. “I’ve never had such a hard time connecting to you. As soon as I finally did, that’s when you shot out of bed and popped me in the face.” She was still clutching her eye.
That’s when Ben finally crawled out of bed and met Rey on the floor. Smoothing her hair away from her face, he surveyed the damage and kissed the mottled, darkening flesh around her eye.
“I’m fine, really. It’s you I’m worried about,” she said, taking his hand.
“Mama? Daddy?” called Ren nervously from the doorway. He was still cautiously watching them, clinging to his blanket, held fast to his chest.
“It’s okay now, sweetie, come here,” called Rey, beckoning to her son. Unsteadily, he made his way over to them. Rey pulled him into the middle of their huddled mass on the floor and kissed his forehead and cheeks, hugging him close. Ben rubbed his back affectionately.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare everyone,” said Ben, as reassuringly as he could. “It’s all over now, though.”
Ren turned from his mother, wrapping his arms around his father’s neck in order to kiss him repeatedly on his face.
“It’s okay, daddy. You’re safe now. I’ll protect you.”