Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Grounded
———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.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2: Happy Returns
———Chapter 2: Happy Returns ———
Finn was up way too early—at least, that is, if being awake counted as being “up”. He was just sitting upright in bed, he wasn’t sure for how long.
He had taken Finnie and left the school abruptly yesterday, thinking he might go talk to Poe. By the time they’d made it back to base, though, he’d had to acknowledge that he didn’t really want to do that either. He’d ended up just farting around in the hangar for the rest of the day while Finnie busied herself critiquing the trainees about the form of their swordplay.
Talking to anyone just made it hurt more.
Finn jumped. He hadn’t noticed Finnie’s approach. “What is it, sweetheart? I mean, good morning. How are you?” Finn wiped some crud from the corners of his eyes and straightened up a bit.
“I’m fine,” she said, pausing tentatively. “How are you?” Fixing him with an appraising stare, she asked this like she was anticipating she knew the answer better than he did.
“Fine, sorry, how long have you been up? What time is it?”
“It’s sunrise. I’ve been up about a half hour.”
“Oh, okay, good, good.”
Finnie sighed and sat next to him on his bed—in the place Rose used to sleep. “Dad, I’m worried about you.”
Finn looked at his hands. “I know you are, sweetheart. And I’m sorry. I just miss her so much.”
“I know you do. I do too. She helped teach me what it means to be good.”
Finn nodded. As long as he’d known her, Rose had always been Finn’s guiding light. Without her, Finn lost a lot of security. He had come to rely on her to help him gauge if what he was doing was correct. He had taken for granted that she would always know best, and for the past year, in her absence, the responsibility of decision-making had become overwhelming. The stakes were so much higher now than they were before. He didn’t want to face it alone. The impending anniversary of her death was bringing all of his insecurities back to the surface.
“Are you going to see Poe today?” she asked.
Finn nodded. “Yeah, I should check in with him. Nimban was a mess, and he got back a lot earlier than I was expecting he would. Probably not for good reasons.”
“I think that’s a good idea. He needs you. You need each other.”
Finn turned and really looked at her. This beautiful child with those big, blue, sympathetic eyes, sitting on the bed next to him. In the parent-comforting-the-distressed-child scenario, he was the child.
“How old are you again? I feel like you have absolutely no right to be this wise…”
Finnie gave a small laugh. “I am precisely five feet, eight inches old. Just imagine how wise I’ll be when I get to six-three.”
Finn smiled. “I love you, kiddo.”
“I love you too, dad. Now get out of bed. It’s boring being up without you.”
The speeder pulled up to the parking carell with a whine, and Temiri hopped out of the driver’s seat. Simeon was less eager to get out, but wasn’t exactly dragging his feet either.
“Temiri!” shouted Malfi from the breakfast table. She dropped her fork and jumped up to run to her friend, embracing him fiercely as soon as she was on him. The other children at the table, Geddy, Prana, Fern, and Shiroto, were satisfied just to greet him with a cheerful wave.
Temiri had to let one of the large sacks he was carrying drop to the ground as she flounced into him, but he was all too happy to return the embrace. “Good to be back, short-stuff. Did you stay out of trouble while I was away?”
“You know I always do. But did you stay out of trouble? Mister Simeon, how bad was he?”
Simeon smiled evenly. “He was reasonably well-tempered. It does help though, that the consequences of improper behavior would’ve resulted in an immediate U-turn, crystal or no crystal.”
“So you found a kyber? That’s so cool! Can I see it?”
“In a little while,” replied Temiri. “I know you’re just wrapping up breakfast now, but for us, breakfast was hours ago. Let me eat something first. I need to get my bags back to my cabin, then I’ll eat, then I’ll show you.”
Malfi frowned, but relented. She offered to carry one of Temiri’s smaller bags back to his cabin with him, and the two headed off toward the forest.
“And all is again right with the world,” remarked Rey as the two learners disappeared behind the trees. “She manages just fine on her own, but the amount more joy she feels when he’s around is practically palpable.”
“He, too, is a different person,” replied Temiri. “He is very strong with the Force, but doesn’t govern his emotions well. When she is near, he has better control.”
“Hm,” she acknowledged. “So, tell me about your trip. I gather everything at Christophsis went smoothly?”
“Yes, Christophsis went as planned. Better, even. It is what we witnessed on Naboo, however, that we need to discuss.”
Rey was taken aback. “On Naboo? What do you mean?”
“Is Lord Solo near? We should all discuss this together.”
Rey sighed. “You know he hates it when you call him that. No, he’s back at our cabin doing some research. He had a disturbing dream last night and something about it made him feel the need to do some digging before joining me over here.”
“Troubling…” He had a faraway look in his eyes.
Simeon was usually pretty staid, so it struck Rey as a bad sign that there was any genuine concern whatsoever coming from him. 'All will transpire as the Force wills it to,' was a common refrain of his.
“Can it wait until Finn gets here?” she asked. “I’d prefer to have another adult around before making myself unavailable.”
Simeon nodded. He needed a chance to get himself sorted anyway. He slung his travel pack back onto his shoulder and headed into his cottage to settle in.
Ben leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh. In spite of all his poking around in historical records, he couldn’t really find anything terribly useful. He had already researched his family history long ago, so everything he was reading about was all old news to him.
He’d hoped something he’d overlooked before would pop out at him as having some new relevance today.
Hearing the distant whine of a speeder engine come to a stop outside, he stood from his computer terminal and stretched. The cottage had seen several expansions in the time since he and Rey had made it their own—where it was once a one-room cottage, it now had a study two rooms removed from the front door. From there, you had to pass through Ben and Rey’s bedroom to get to the original structure, which now served primarily as a kitchen. Off from there, on the other side of the house, was Ren’s room.
Ben knocked his chair back toward the computer and headed for the front room.
Rey and Simeon were already seated at the table. Rey was leaning casually into the back of the chair, but if Simeon had a failing, it’s that he was incapable of relaxation—even when he was “relaxed”, he looked stiff. He sat ramrod-straight in the angular wooden chair, his legs and torso at a perfect ninety-degree angle.
“My lord,” he greeted, nodding to Ben as he stepped through the doorway.
Ben didn’t love titles, but had long given up trying to change the way Simeon addressed him. He simply nodded back and took a seat at the table.
“So Christophsis went well? Temiri is ready?”
“Yes. It was not long before he found the crystal. He has studied what he needs to do, and is prepared to begin construction.”
“Excellent. The Republic needs his like to get out there and be where help is needed.”
“Mmm,” muttered Simeon, noncommittally. “He is headstrong. Powerful and well-intentioned, but sometimes acts without thinking. Has an over-inflated sense of his own wisdom…”
“We all do, before we’ve been tested. Except maybe for Rey,” he added, looking at her appreciatively.
Rey gave a modest smile. “That extreme has its limitations too.”
“Regardless,” said Simeon, “he is at a vulnerable stage. Power without wisdom can have devastating consequences.”
“Well, isn’t it a good thing he still has his teachers,” added Rey with a sigh, speaking rhetorically. “He isn’t alone.” She leaned forward to rest her elbows on the table, lacing her fingers together under her chin.
“No, he’s not,” agreed Ben, staring off across the room.
There followed an uncomfortable silence. Simeon glanced back and forth between his two comrades. He felt a hesitation from each of them; an unwillingness to broach less comfortable subjects.
“So,” he said, prompting the needed change in subject matter, “Lady Rey tells me you had a disturbing dream last night. Would you like to discuss it?”
Ben exhaled, setting his jaw and looking Rey in the eyes, who gave a small apologetic shrug in reply. Turning to Simeon, he said, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but yes, something happened last night.” He paused, looking for the words. “I was having a dream… In it, my grandfather was trying to get me to help him.”
“Your grandfather Anakin Skywalker?”
“Yes,” replied Ben. “He… said his soul was dying. That I needed to find him and help him.”
There was another silent moment when it seemed like Ben might be thinking about how to continue, or like Simeon was about to prompt him for more information. However, neither of them was moving the baton along the track quickly enough for Rey, who cut in impatiently, “But this wasn’t like a normal dream. Simeon, it was like he was cut off from me. I couldn’t wake him, I couldn’t connect to him. And you should have seen him—he was so pale, it was like the blood had been drained out of him.” Rey stared at Ben with concern, who looked down at the table with something like defeat on his face. He wanted to rebut what she was saying, to give it less significance. He couldn’t.
“Ben, if you really thought it was nothing, you’d have come with me to the school this morning, not spent all afternoon in the study,” she added, somewhat confrontationally.
Reluctantly, Ben nodded. “You’re right, this was different. It didn’t feel like a normal dream. I felt… crushed.”
“Do you mean, claustrophobic?” asked Simeon.
“I don’t know, maybe…” Ben answered with a quick shake of his head. “It wasn’t really my body being crushed, though, it was more like… there was a vise-grip on my entire soul.”
“How interesting,” pondered Simeon. Rey looked at him hopefully, like Ben was afflicted, and Simeon could cure it.
“Do you plan to do anything? What is it you were researching this morning?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet. In my dream, my grandfather said, ‘Follow your blood back to me,’ so I thought maybe I would look up my family history to see if anything would leap out at me that could be a clue as to where to look, but nothing did.”
Simeon considered this line of inquiry. “What is your family connection to Naboo?”
Rey whipped her head toward him—he was on to something, she knew it.
“Naboo? That’s where my grandmother lived. Did you know that already?”
Simeon shook his head. “No, I only knew that Anakin Skywalker, who became Darth Vader, was your grandfather. I ask because of what I witnessed when Temiri and I visited there.”
“And what is that, exactly?” probed Rey.
“The Black Dragons,” answered Simeon cryptically. He gave them each a dark, stony stare.
Rey had no patience for a slow explanation this morning. “I don’t know what Black Dragons are supposed to be, Simeon. For the love of god, just spit it out! Tell us the rest, already.”
“My apologies, my lady,” he said, bowing his head toward her. Rey looked away with a pronounced eye roll, but he did at least continue his anecdote. “As Temiri and I walked the streets of Naboo, I couldn’t help noticing that the town, beautifully adorned and pristinely kept, was shot through with occasional symbolic vandalism. I couldn’t easily tell what it was supposed to be, at first, so I merely filed it away in my head as a queer observation. I saw maybe three or four such symbols, all poorly enough rendered, that it wasn’t until I found a city maintenance worker charged with cleaning it off that I finally learned what it was.”
Simeon took a breath, but did not keep Rey waiting long for his story to continue. “The maintenance worker was cleaning the black paint off of a statue in the town square, grousing about the ‘disrespectful weirdos, painting their dragons on the beloved queen,’ that I finally could see that the symbol was intended to be of a dragon’s head inside a circle. There’s a red spot in the middle that’s supposed to be an eye.”
“A statue of a queen? Did you see which queen it was?” asked Ben.
“Yes, there was a plaque. I believe it was… Amidala.”
Rey and Ben exchanged glances. “That’s his grandmother. Queen Padmé Amidala,” supplied Rey nervously.
“Is it now?” Incredibly, Simeon straightened even further as he took in this information. “I didn’t realize your royal lineage went beyond that of your mother, whom I know to have been adopted.”
“Yes, my family was into everything,” Ben replied, dismissively. “So these Black Dragons? Have you learned anything about them?”
“Some. They are acolytes of the Sith. Cultists.”
“And what is their history?” asked Rey.
Simeon shook his head. “I was unable to learn all that much in the time I had. I know only that ‘Black Dragons’ was the name of the shadow army that guarded the Sith temples. I don’t know for how long they have existed, but I gathered their presence on Naboo was a relatively recent phenomenon.”
“I see,” said Ben, thinking.
Rey considered all she’d heard. “Is this coincidence, or not? What could Anakin Skywalker and Sith cultists on Naboo have to do with each other?”
“Perhaps these cultists are manipulating the Force in some way that is harmful to your grandfather’s spirit? Your grandfather reached out to you for help because of their actions, maybe?” Simeon steepled his fingers together in front of his face as he speculated about the possible relationships between these two developments.
Ben reached across the table, taking Rey’s hand. He squeezed it affectionately, then let it go as he pushed his chair back from the table. “I think a little more research is in order.”
Ben hadn’t said what else he needed to research, but rather than get involved in that endeavor, Simeon locked Rey in a gaze that said Let him go, and subtly jerked his head toward the door. Puzzled, Rey exited the cottage, Simeon following close behind.
Once they were both out of earshot of the cottage, Simeon spoke. “Lady Rey, may we speak?”
Rey had never gotten used to being addressed as “Lady”, but it was something she had come to accept from Simeon. Simeon always carried an air of formality, and for whatever reason, he just seemed more comfortable keeping her and Ben on a tier somewhere above his own. Even still, there was something else unsettling about the way he was addressing her. She cocked her head slightly. “Certainly. Let’s sit.”
The two of them moved to a table and chairs outside the cottage. After Ren was born, Rey had taken to having dinner outside. She had grown up alone on an arid planet—that her son could share his meals with his parents at a table overlooking a lush forest and a crystal clear lake was a luxury she didn’t want him taking for granted. Every meal shared with just Ben and her son in this beautiful place, to Rey, was like seeing her most fanciful delusions fully realized.
Seldom did she take a seat at this table with such trepidation.
Rey sat down first. This was another of Simeon’s extra little courtesies that he paid her—he was always the last to sit.
“What’s on your mind, Simeon?”
Simeon joined her at the table and pulled his chair in close. “My lady, I was reluctant to bring this up in front of Lord Solo. It concerns his family—that is, his extended family. I know this subject is of great consequence to him, holding tremendous emotional significance, and sometimes when I speak of facts, I can be… inconsiderate in my descriptions.”
“What’s the concern?”
“It was… the reason Lord Solo’s grandfather gave him for needing his help. Has Anakin Skywalker ever contacted him before this?”
“We’re not totally sure. He’d heard Vader’s voice calling to him when he was with the First Order, but not since. We thought perhaps it was just Snoke manipulating him.”
Simeon considered this. “Hmm, that’s possible. Are you… certain that Skywalker even retained the ability to manifest his spirit after becoming one with the Force?”
This doubt must have been the reason for Simeon’s reluctance to bring this up in front of Ben. The ability to manifest as a ghost is dependent on knowledge, training, and talent—calling into question Anakin Skywalker’s ability to manifest himself could be seen as an insult. Rey didn’t believe Ben would have been offended, but she did believe that it was a risk Simeon wouldn’t want to take.
“Again, not sure. Ben certainly never saw him appear as a ghost or anything, but just because Ben didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible.” Rey paused to think—she didn’t actually know that much about Force ghosts. Her visit from Luke didn’t even take place in the real world, so technically, she’d never even seen one, though that experience did at least prove to her that there are other means by which the departed may make contact. And in her mind, that certainly counted as a “manifestation”.
“Is there a limit to how many years can pass before someone’s spirit loses the ability to make contact? Do you know?” she asked.
“Yes, there is, but there’s no way to tell how long that time would be—it’s different for everyone,” he explained. “Eventually, one’s spirit must pass into the Netherworld of the Force. There’s no record of any spirits ever returning from there.”
“I see,” she said, nodding subtly. “So anyway, getting back to your initial concern…”
“Yes, my concern…” he answered, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what my concern is—I just don’t understand what actual threat there would be to someone’s spirit once they’ve become one with the Force. They are one with the Force, and the Force… just is. It’s energy. It’s everything. How can one bring harm to the very fabric of everything?
“To use an analogy, it would be like trying to collect a few specific molecules of water, as distinct from the rest, within a great ocean. They’re not necessarily in the same place, and collecting them, even finding them, without collecting a lot of other water molecules at the same time, is virtually impossible. Except, even this analogy doesn’t entirely capture the scope of the problem, because two water molecules at least have forms that are physically distinct and technically, at least, capable of separation—spirits are not, necessarily.” Simeon fixed her with an uncomprehending look. “I just don’t understand how anything so inextricably linked to something so vast could possibly be harmed. By what?”
Rey nodded her head, understanding his point. “There’s really no way to harm a single spirit without harming the entire Force itself…” She paused, considering. “But is that the case even if the spirit is capable of manifestation? You don’t think manifesting would allow the spirit, to… I don’t know, coalesce, or something, making it easier to get at?”
“And you’ve now arrived at the reason for my first question, my lady. I believe a malevolent endeavor of this type would have tremendously low odds of success even if the spirit was capable of manifestation, and we don’t know that Anakin Skywalker maintains that ability, if ever he had it.” There was a crinkle above the bridge of Simeon’s nose that Rey had never seen before. He shook his head in consternation. “Something about this just doesn’t… make sense.”
Rey had never seen him this uncertain before. In the years since they’d met, Rey had begun to see Simeon as the one person who, no matter the question, always had the answer—to the point that it could be frustrating for his peers and pupils alike when he wouldn’t spit it out quickly enough to satisfy anyone’s need for instant gratification.. Simeon was the sort of teacher whose approach was to watch with kind eyes, wait as his pupils put the answers together by themselves, and step in only when it looked like a snag had been hit. In this instance, he was the one caught on a snag, and his perturbation was unsettling.
“My lady, promise me you’ll tell me of any new developments, should they occur. I want to be in a position to help.”
“I promise, you’ll be the first to know.”
“So where is it? Where, where, where?? Come on, get it out!”
“Patience, Malfi. Get a hold of yourself, kiddo. You act like you’ve never seen a kyber crystal before.”
“I know, I know, but this is your kyber crystal! I want to see the crystal that picked you.”
Temiri smiled. He knew that this little girl adored him, and that to her, everything he did was incredible. His crystal was of course going to be the greatest crystal in the galaxy, as far as she was concerned, because like her, it believed that he was the most worthy. He would make it his business to prove that their faith in him not go undeserved.
“Turn on the lantern. I’ll find my stuff.”
Malfi ran to the counter to reach the lantern in the corner. All the cottages scattered in the forests of Dendrokaan were basically the same—the people that had long ago settled and subsequently abandoned this colony were not terribly creative when it came to floor planning. Like Simeon’s cabin, Temiri’s home had a counter lining the back wall intended for food preparation, a bed fixed to the left wall, and space for a couple pieces of storage furniture and a table in the middle of the room.
Malfi climbed into a chair at the table as Temiri returned from his wardrobe with a bundle of treasure in his hands. Setting it on the table in front of her, he unwrapped it carefully, Malfi’s anticipation growing with every layer of cloth that was pulled back.
As the last strip of fabric was removed, Malfi’s eyes grew wide, taking in the sight before her. To the untrained eye, it was perfectly unremarkable; even to the Force-sensitive, it didn’t seem all that special, as these things go. But to Malfi, it was glorious.
“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s so you.”
Temiri watched her as she studied the crystal. He was specially attuned to the resonance of his kyber, but even as it sat there, it seemed to grow louder.
“I can hear it,” she said, looking up at him in wonder.
Temiri cocked his head. Really?? he thought. It made no sense to him that Malfi should be able to hear the call of his kyber crystal.
Presaged by the sound of snapping twigs and snippets of conversation, the curtain obscuring Temiri’s door was pulled aside, and in popped the dark head of Ren Solo.
“Ha! I knew we’d find you here!” shouted Ren, throwing the curtain the rest of the way open and gesturing for his companions to follow him inside.
Though Malfi was an obvious exception, Temiri preferred the company of the older students. Temiri wasn’t about to tell the only son of his two famous teachers to take a hike, however. He took a seat next to Malfi and waited to see who it was that Ren was inviting into his home.
Finn followed Ren through the entrance, but stopped once he was inside. “You’re Temiri? Hi, I’m Finn. I don’t think we’ve ever been formally introduced.” Finn stuck his hand out for Temiri to shake.
Temiri stood up halfway, took Finn’s hand and gave it a firm shake. It was true, they’d never been formally introduced. All the students knew who he was, that he was a dear friend of Rey’s, but he had never been around often enough, or for long enough, for introductions to have seemed necessary. Only in the last year had his presence at the school been enough to really take note of, and frankly, at this point, formal introductions seemed awkward.
But of course, Malfi required no such introduction. She had always made it her business to introduce herself to everyone. “Hi, Mister Finn. Is Finnie with you?”
Before he could answer, Finnie was at the door. “Hey Malfi,” she said warmly, waving to her friend. To Temiri, she offered a casual wave of her hand, followed by a second, more curt, “Hey.”
“Hey,” greeted Temiri back. He knew this girl even less well than Finn.
“So this is a kyber crystal?” asked Finn. “Ben and Rey tell me these things are sentient. I thought I’d see for myself.”
“Yes, well,” stumbled Temiri, sitting back down, “they are sentient, that’s true, but they really only speak to… certain people.”
“I can hear his!” exclaimed Malfi excitedly.
“Neeeat,” intoned Ren, impressed, observing the crystal from just above the table top.
“Yeah, it’s a little weird,” said Temiri. “I’ve never heard of a crystal calling out to more than one person at a time.”
“I have,” said Ren, and everyone turned to look at him expectantly. “My parents can both hear each others’.”
Temiri hadn’t already known that, but it made a kind of sense to him. He knew his teachers were bonded by the Force—that they should resonate with each other’s kyber crystals didn’t come as an enormous shock to him. That Malfi could hear his crystal, though, that was a surprise.
“So this is what powers a lightsaber?” asked Finnie.
“Yeah,” answered Temiri. “I collected all the other parts I need for it from Naboo. As soon as I can, I’ll work on constructing it.”
“Will that make it be quieter?” she asked.
“Uh, no. You just sort of get used to it after a while. You can hear it, but it’s like you don’t notice it.” Temiri realized he was sounding like some sort of expert, but he hardly felt like one. “That’s what I’ve heard, anyway,” he added quickly.
Finnie nodded, looking strangely at the dull crystal resting innocently on the table. “Dad, we should go. We’re ignoring the other kids.”
Finn looked at his daughter, then back to the group gathered around the table. “Sure, honey, you’re right. I almost forgot that I’m here as something of a babysitter tonight.” He shifted his attention to Temiri, who had stood up out of politeness to his departing guests. “You’re a grown man, so I don’t suppose you’ll be needing me around much, but the others might. I suppose we’ll go station ourselves back at Simeon’s place. See ya ‘round, kid. Congratulations on the crystal.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Temiri.
“Ren?” called Finn. “Coming or staying?”
“Coming!” He ran to the door to stand next to Finn, then turned around and waved enthusiastically to his two older peers. “See you later! Bye, Malfi!”
“Bye, Ren! I’ll come join you in a little while!” she called back.
The three of them left, leaving Malfi and Temiri alone once more. Temiri waited until he could no longer detect their presence, then spoke in a confidential tone, “That was weird.”
Malfi crinkled her forehead at him. “What do you mean ‘weird’? Those are my friends.”
“No, I mean, they’re perfectly nice, it’s just, I don’t know. Finn is fine, and I’m used to Ren being kind of a creepy little weirdo, but that girl is truly bizarre.”
“What’s bizarre about her?”
“Well, I don’t know, I mean, how old is she? Isn’t she like five or something?”
“Maybe, but she’s a clone, so who knows? What does it matter?”
“It’s just weird! I don’t know how to talk to someone if I can’t tell if they’re a kid or an adult—I mean, she’s huge. And did you see how she looked at my crystal? It was creepy.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t think it was that strange. Your crystal is just really neat. And how does her age change how you’d talk to her? Do you talk to me differently because I’m eleven than you do to our teachers? Or to Mister Finn?”
“That’s different, you’re like a sister.” You can hear my crystal, for god’s sake, he thought, but didn’t say. “And besides, I do talk differently to Finn than I do to Ben, Rey, or Simeon, because I barely know the guy.”
“You can’t tell he’s a good person?”
“I don’t know!” he shouted, no longer concerned that he might be overheard. “Like I said, I don’t know him! I’m sure he’s great, though, jeez!”
Malfi continued to fix him with a puzzled stare. “I thought you could feel the goodness in people,” she said simply.
Temiri flopped down into his chair. He felt like a disappointment somehow. He hadn’t meant for this to become a fight—was it a fight?—he just hadn’t anticipated that his observations about their visitors would serve to make him seem so ignorant in the eyes of this little girl. He knew she looked up to him. He felt like he’d fallen into a trap that he set for himself.
“I’m sorry, Malfi.”
Malfi took her beloved friend’s hand and pulled it close to her face. “Oh, Temiri, you’re so dumb,” she remarked, looking at him sweetly. He smiled sheepishly back at her. “You’re so lucky to have me around to teach you these things.”
He looked at his crystal, sitting motionlessly on the tabletop. He thought it had gotten a little louder.
Malfi followed his gaze back to the kyber. “Your crystal certainly thinks so.”
Poe laid back in his bed with his head on his pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling. He wasn’t sure what time it was—he’d been in his room all day, no windows to signal the passage of time, and he’d avoided checking his chronometer. He didn’t want to look until he was sure it was already too late to bother going outside. It was very nearly to that point.
A knock at the door told him he wouldn’t make it through the day without human contact. Sighing deeply, he rolled over and threw his legs off the side of his bed. He hadn’t unlocked the door since locking it last night, so if he wasn’t going to totally ignore the person on the other side, he’d have to get up. Wait, could he just ignore the person at the door?
“It’s me, Poe, open up. I know you’re in there. You have a very distinctive sigh.”
The corner of Poe’s mouth quirked up into something of a smile, and he nodded in reluctant agreement. Standing, he threw open the lock, and slowly pushed the door into the hall, being careful not to let it hit his visitor.
With just that one greeting, Finn had all the information he needed to assess Poe’s state: his voice was gravelly, he looked sweaty and unkempt, and he reeked of old booze.
“So tell me, just how badly did Nimban go?”
Poe was a little shocked he’d had enough air inside himself to have deflated so thoroughly at Finn’s question, but he did. As the last of his breath escaped him, he rubbed his forehead morosely, and gestured for Finn to enter. “Come in, shut the door.” He fell limply to his bed, leaving enough space at the end for Finn to sit. Finn didn’t sit though.
Poe started to speak, but abruptly cleared his throat to get the rasp out of his voice. “Nimban was fine. I met all of my mission objectives. In record time, in fact.”
Finn stood in front of the closed door to Poe’s tiny bachelor’s quarters, looking down at his disheveled friend. His hands were planted firmly on his hips, his weight shifted to one leg.
“What?” questioned Poe defensively. “Why are you looking at me like that? I told you: mission successful.”
“Then why does it smell like a condemned distillery in here?”
Poe carded his hand through his hair with a frustrated sigh. He debated just how much he wanted to divulge. “There may have been some… collateral damage.”
Poe took a big breath and held it. “Their outpost sort of blew up,” he said as he exhaled.
“The Hutts’ entire outpost? Holy shit, how did that happen?”
Poe shrugged. “I don’t know. There must have been some weapons caches or something on the grounds that I didn’t know about. I had just delivered some mild suppressing fire, and the whole thing went up.”
“There were persistent unknowns going in? Yet the officers overseeing the mission still gave permission to open fire?”
Poe didn’t answer. He hadn’t asked permission. He just hadn’t been overtly told ‘no’.
Poe’s silence gave Finn his answer. “Poe, man, you’ve gotta be more careful.”
Poe held his head in his hands, elbows on his knees. “I know,” was all he said.
The two men didn’t move or speak for a while. It felt like a long time, but really, was probably just a few seconds.
“So enough about me,” said Poe, finally breaking the silence, “How are you doing?”
Finn took a moment to even make it clear that he’d heard the question. Slowly, he backed up into the door to lean against it, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t know.”
Poe looked up at Finn, sorry that he couldn’t do anything to help. He knew he would never be able to patch up the hole that Rose’s absence had left in Finn’s life. “Boy, are we a pair,” he said with a sad chuckle. “I wish there was something I could do.”
Finn sighed. “Can I have a drink?”
Poe looked at Finn, who was looking right back. Their eyes met, and there was something in Finn’s expression that Poe couldn’t place. Of all the times to ask for a drink…
“Sorry, I just got rid of all my booze.”
Finn’s eyebrows lifted. “Did you really?”
“Yeah, and if there was ever a good time to have liquor lying around, right? I’m sure not good for a whole hell of a lot, am I?” he asked rhetorically.
“Poe…” admonished Finn, “You know you’re—”
“Oh wait!” Poe interjected suddenly. “I’d completely forgotten about it…” Poe stood up from his bed and went into the wardrobe on the far wall. On the top shelf was a dilapidated box that looked like it hadn’t been touched in a long time. Finn noted a label hastily scrawled on the outside: ‘sentimental crap’.
Poe jerked the box off the shelf and set it carelessly on the floor at the foot of the bed. As he rifled through it, he noted the medal Poe had received (Finn had received one as well) in the wake of the Second Battle of Kamino. There were also photographs in the box, and Finn recognized several as having been taken on Corellia during the summit when they dedicated the new capital grounds in Coronet City. The day the Republic had been formally given its new central governing body.
Pushing the other sentimental crap aside, Poe revealed a bottle crafted from dark purple glass, emblazoned with the Republic insignia in gold filigree. “Corellian Dedication Wine,” said Poe. “I guess I was saving it for a special occasion.”
“Does tonight really rate?” asked Finn.
Poe thought on that question. Nodding confidently, he answered with a very earnest, “Yes.” He took the bottle and sat back at the head of his bed, opening the drawers of his nightstand. “I’m sure I have a corkscrew in here somewhere.”
Why Poe would keep a corkscrew in his nightstand wasn’t a question Finn wanted to entertain. He was just grateful to be able to enjoy a drink with his best friend, for the first time in what felt like ages.
“I don’t have any glasses, though,” observed Poe apologetically.
“It doesn’t matter,” replied Finn, taking a seat on the bed next to Poe.
Poe agreed, and removed the cork. He took a sniff off the top of the bottle, and nodded his approval. “You first,” he said, offering the drink to Finn.
Finn accepted, and took a long swig. When he was finished, a little wine dribbled down his chin, and he studied the bottle in his hands, reading the label. “‘In honor of our galaxy, governed by many, but united as one. Long may it prosper.’ That’s a little hokey, don’t you think?” he said, returning the bottle to Poe.
Poe’s fingers brushed against Finn’s as he accepted the bottle back. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe it is, but hokey shit brings people together, doesn’t it? I mean, it was kind of a momentous occasion—the galaxy had found its way. You certainly had. Rey had, and Ben… everyone,” he added, trailing off. Poe then took a sip off the bottle, a faraway look in his eyes.
Finn watched him. Poe’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed the smooth, dense wine. In that moment, Finn thought Poe looked desperately sad.
“Everyone but you,” Finn observed.
Poe’s face was stretched, the lines of his mouth drawn into a frown so tight it must have made drinking from the bottle a challenge. A trickle of fluid leaked down his cheek. Poe sniffled, and cleared his throat. “I don’t think I know what to do with peace.” He spoke barely above a whisper.
Finn put his arms around his friend’s shoulders. Poe was shaking, like a dam straining under intense pressure. And then the dam broke.
Poe was shuddering, bawling into his lap. Finn took the wine out of his hands and set it on the floor, then held Poe tighter. When Finnie was new, she had many breakdowns before learning how she fit into the world that she would have to dive into head first. Finn would often find himself holding her like he was holding Poe now, rocking slightly back and forth as he reassuringly squeezed and patted his charge.
Poe leaned into him. “I’m sorry, Finn! I should have been there for you after Rose died! I just didn’t know what to say! I knew what you’d lost, but I was mad at you! I don’t even know why! It doesn’t make sense! Why would I have been mad you?! You didn’t deserve that! I’m such a piece of shit I don’t know what to do with myself!” With pleading eyes, Poe screamed up at him, “God, can you ever forgive me??”
Listening to Poe breaking down in his arms did something to Finn that he’d never be able to describe. He was confused, he was heartbroken, he felt unworthy. He honestly didn’t know what Poe was talking about. He’d been so wrapped up in his own grief that he hadn’t noticed Poe treating him any differently. He actually thought Poe had been there for him. That it was he who had been unavailable to everyone else.
Finn looked down into the eyes of his tortured friend. It was like looking into a mirror. He imagined that it was him in the mirror. What would he want the man in the mirror to say back to him?
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. “I’m here for you. I’ve always been here for you. I’m just sorry that I didn’t make that more obvious before now. I’ll be clearer about that from here on.”
Poe’s heaving subsided as he stared up into Finn’s compassionate eyes, but he didn’t look to be out of the woods yet.
Finn continued. “You need me, I know. I need you too. We’re a god damn mess. But I promise you, together, we’ll make it right.”
Poe had stopped bawling. His cheeks were moist, and his face was flushed and wounded, but he had control again. “God, I wish I was drunk right now,” he said.
“You’re not? That wine went right to my head.”
“No,” Poe said, straightening up a bit. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been more sober in my life.” Poe looked around, finally seeming to notice just how close the two of them were. It was awkward, but oddly comfortable at the same time.
“You’ll be around tomorrow?” Poe asked.
“Yes,” answered Finn. “I’ll be around.”
———Chapter 3: Lessons———
Once again, Ben found himself alone in the blackness of that bizarre dreamscape. Like the first time, he struggled to control the actions of his dream self—his entire body felt like a phantom, and his senses didn’t appear to work. In spite of this, he did at least feel some measure of active mental participation. This being the second such dream, he was able to govern his anxiety a bit better and think more rationally about what he was experiencing.
Which isn’t to say that he didn’t still find the whole thing enormously off-putting.
The echo of the words preceded the voice. Ben steeled himself for the message.
Ben, I need you…
Ben listened intently. He could feel the same crushing sensation he’d described to Simeon yesterday, and tried to stave it off. He wanted to remain as in control as possible.
Ben, why haven’t you come for me? I need you to hurry… Ben, please…
Ben tried to speak, but in spite of his active dream state, he found himself still incapable of interacting with this world. His voice would not come.
Follow your blood… You should know where to find me…
Ben was desperate to make this a two-way conversation. He needed more information. Where was he supposed to go to find his grandfather? What was the nature of the threat? How was Ben supposed to help? He hoped some hint of his needs would make it across to his grandfather.
The crushing sensation intensified. Ben tried to remain calm, to reassert his mental control over his situation, but the creeping blackness was penetrating, accompanied by an ever increasing wall of sound. Between the encroaching blackness, the thrumming noise, and the weight on his soul, he felt another panic attack coming. As the sensations grew to a fever pitch, he became unable to control his hysteria. Though he had no lungs he could fill with air to allow him the dubious release of screaming, he knew that’s what he was doing.
It was coming for his soul, he knew it. He didn’t know what “it” was, but there was something—something in here with him. Some evil without form. Ben was paralyzed with terror. If whatever it was managed to touch him, he feared he could be lost forever. Is this what was hunting his grandfather?
The intense pressure persisted, and Ben feared he was losing the fight. As his last reserves of resistance were about to fail him, the blackness seemed to falter. A rip in the fabric of the dreamscape allowed a sliver of light entry into the void, and at last there was some context to the vacuum of emptiness. Ben focused on that thread, and with it, he was able to push the darkness away.
With a gasp, he was back in his bedroom.
Rey was on top of him, heaving and gasping with breath. She was flushed with exertion, and the muscles in her neck and chest were practically popping out of her skin. Their eyes met, and Rey collapsed into his chest, her hair splayed out over his face.
“Oh god,” she heaved. “Oh god, I thought I’d lost you…”
Ben’s disorientation didn’t last as long this time, and he recovered much more quickly. He rolled over in the bed, putting Rey on her back and looking her over. She was completely spent.
“Are you alright? Tell me what happened,” he said, smoothing her hair away from her face as he looked sympathetically down at her.
Between pants, she explained: “It was like before… I was asleep… then you woke me… moaning… I couldn’t wake you…” she paused to swallow and try to catch her breath.
Ben reached back toward his side of the bed for his glass of water. Doing so, he spotted Ren in the doorway, half-hiding behind the doorframe. For the second night in a row, he had woken his son with the sounds of his night terrors. Guiltily, he flashed a look of apology at Ren, and turned back to Rey to offer her his water.
Sitting up, Rey accepted the water and drank greedily, not stopping until the glass was empty. After returning the empty glass to the bedside table, Ben took her hand. “Tell me more,” he said.
She had stopped panting, but her breathing and heart rate were still elevated. She shivered in her sweat-soaked night shirt. “I had to go inside… to find you,” she said. “Like before, you were utterly pale. You started screaming, and I still hadn’t reached you.” Her face contorted a bit as she struggled to hold back tears. She glanced to her son, afraid to continue her tale in his presence.
“It’s okay, mama, go on. I’m not afraid,” he said bravely, walking up to the bed. He sat down gently on the bed at his father’s side, lifting his chin to show his lack of fear. Ben put a hand on his back to steady him.
We need to put him back to bed. It was Rey, speaking into Ben’s mind.
Ben hesitated. He didn’t want what was happening to be… so traumatizing. However, things were how they were, and it was looking like Ren was going to be better off if he could remain ignorant for a while longer. I’ll take care of it. You wait here.
“Come on, Ren, let’s go back to your room. Mama and I don’t really want to talk about this right now. We’re too tired.”
Rey sensed Ren’s incredulity, but beyond the subtlest look of disappointment on his face, a look that only his mother would be able to recognize, did he express that he knew he was being given the cold shoulder. It was in his nature to want to help whenever he could. That his parents didn’t think he could help this time, made him sad.
After a minute or two, Ben had returned to their bedroom, and to his side of the bed. As he spoke, he straightened the sheets around them. “I think he’s more worried because he knows we’re trying to keep him from knowing than he would be if we just let him hear it.”
Rey frowned, “That’s possible, but even so… I’m not sure I could have brought myself to say it in front of him.”
Well, I told him we’d be going back to sleep too, so if we’re going to talk about it now…
...Then we’ll have to do it like this, answered Rey with a sigh. What time is it, anyway? Is it even worth trying to go back to sleep? What if it happens again?
It’s at least a couple hours before sun up.
Rey weighed her options. She looked back at Ben and shook her head dolefully. There’s something not right here, Ben. What I saw in there… it was terrifying. I don’t want you to go back to sleep.
Ben bit his lip. After a moment, he lowered his head into his hands and breathed a deep sigh before getting back out of bed and heading to the kitchen. I’ll put on some caf…
Finnie could tell from her chronometer that the sun had already risen, but she was still so groggy she didn’t want to get up. At least she knew she wasn’t the only one sleeping in—her dad was so late getting in last night she knew he had to still be in bed too.
Last night, Finnie had been unable to turn her brain off, so sleep just couldn’t come. As her mind swirled, her eyes watched the minutes tick by. Every so often, a big chunk of numbers would get skipped, so she surmised she must have gotten at least some shallow rest, but other than that, she had been sleepless.
Something was happening. She didn’t know what it was, but there was a tension in the air that she couldn’t shake, no matter how hard she tried to convince herself that it was just her imagination playing tricks on her. She had a fleeting, paranoid desire to double-check the records concerning Phasma’s mental health evaluations.
With a frustrated sigh, Finnie tossed back her sheets and got out of bed. She threw on some tan-colored pants and a white tank top, plucked her commlink from her bedside table and left her room. Her dad’s door was ajar, so she peeked in on him.
Well, at least he seems to be having no trouble sleeping, she mused, taking in the sight of a completely prostrate, fully dressed Finn splayed out on top of his sheets. He was even snoring a little. She decided to leave him be, and headed to the canteen for breakfast by herself.
Dendrokaan, in spite of the relative peace across the galaxy, was still a secret military base. The planet was basically uncharted—one of the best-kept secrets in the galaxy. The Unified Republic Military saw no reason to add it to the maps. The people who came here, came because they wanted to train under the very best. Dendrokaan boasted the finest mechanics (thanks in large part to her mother Rose), the toughest combatants (thanks, Dad), the best pilots, and the most savvy strategic thinkers. Only people who were the very best at what they did, or whom the government felt should be trained to be the very best, came here.
And they were all early risers.
So, the canteen was pretty deserted when Finnie arrived. She collected her food in record time, and took a seat near a north-facing window. She gazed out toward the forest. Beyond, about ten klicks to the north, was the school. Virtually all the Force-sensitive people in the galaxy were collected there, she thought. What a strange fate she had, that she should have ended up on this planet.
There were literally thousands of other me’s, and only I got to live. And I get to live here.
A strange fate, indeed.
That morning, Simeon oversaw an unusually quiet breakfast routine. There were just six of them there: himself, and the five younger students—Temiri was the oldest, and he was spending his morning meditating over his kyber crystal.
“Where is everyone?” asked Prana, a thirteen-year-old Lothal girl whose parents had been killed for resisting during the First Order raids.
“Temiri’s with his crystal,” answered Shiroto. The second-oldest of the students, he had his own stone cottage in the forest not far from where Temiri lived. His parents were already dead before the raid. He’d survived by his wits alone, but that didn’t stop the First Order from snatching him up. “Where Ben, Rey, and Ren are, I don’t know.”
“Ben was gone all day yesterday, too,” observed Fern. “Is something up? I figured, what with Temiri back from Chiristophsis, that they’d all be having stuff to talk about. Lightsabers and stuff. Why are they suddenly making themselves so scarce?”
“You think they’re having a fight or something?” asked Geddy. Geddy are Fern were brothers, fifteen and thirteen years old. As ten- and eight-year-olds, they worked as farmhands on Lothal, earning a meager living to support themselves and their mother, who was wheelchair-bound. The stormtroopers who raided Lothal didn’t hesitate to shoot her when they took her children from her.
“Guys, knock it off,” chastised Malfi. “Don’t start gossiping. They would never fight.”
Things at the school were ordinarily so routine, and everyone was so tightly-knit with so few secrets, that any change from the norm was practically scandalous. Simeon decided it was time to redirect the conversation away from his fellow teachers. “The Solos have other matters on their minds at the moment. Give them some time.”
The children grew quiet at that, mild shame on their faces as they refocused back on their breakfasts. Fern, however, couldn’t stay quiet for long.
“Hey Mister Simeon, how come you call them ‘the Solos’? They’re not actually married, right? I mean, Ren’s a—”
—Fern immediately stopped talking. All eyes were on him, wondering if he was actually going to say the word “bastard” to describe their teachers’ son. Fern shrunk under their gaze, too mortified to do anything else.
Malfi, disgusted, picked up her plate and left the table. Muttering to herself, she scraped her leftovers into the generator and abandoned her dirty dish on the prep counter before stomping off into the forest.
Simeon sighed, looking each student over with some disappointment. All of them, not only Fern, felt the sting of his disapproval—though it was Fern who had almost said it, they were, all of them, thinking it. Once he was sure they had all sufficiently gotten the message, Simeon rose from the table and quietly retreated to his cabin, leaving his students to think over their attitudes.
Once Simeon was out of earshot, Geddy spoke, “Fern, you dumbass.”
“Okay, show me what you’ve got.”
In the gym, two Republic soldiers-in-training were getting ready to spar with longswords. After her breakfast, Finnie had gone there to while away some time practicing a bit of swordplay of her own. For now though, as she browsed the racks of weaponry looking for something suitable to use, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from these two men as they postured for one another’s benefit.
“You’ll never get me, you know. I was top of my class back on Coruscant.”
“Coruscant huh? Buncha pansies. Back on Corellia, I fought off whole gangs of thugs at a time before enlisting in the army.”
“Well, tough guy, then I guess I should be no problem for you.” The soldier swung his sword, and the two were at it. Finnie was just grateful that their banter was finally finished.
Finnie practiced her form, silently observing the two men. Though she could believe that their bragging was based at least partly in fact, it was clear to her that they talked a better game than they played. After one particularly clumsy swing, she couldn’t stop herself before scoffing audibly.
She hadn’t meant to draw their attention, but she did.
The soldier from Coruscant cast an accusing eye in her direction. “Got something to say?”
“No, sorry. I’m just here to practice,” she said, hoping she could avoid a confrontation.
“I think she was laughing at you, bro!” howled the Corellian.
‘Bro’... she lamented, sighing. Okay, fine… “No, actually, I was laughing at you,” she stated, pointedly.
The two men paused, nonplussed. “Me?” asked the Corellian, genuinely befuddled. The Coruscanti also looked confused—it was he who had swung so awkwardly, after all.
“Yes, you. His swing may have been terrible, but the fact is, it almost got you. You were practically begging him to strike at you from that angle—you were using a fool ward.”
“‘Fool’, huh? I’ll show you who the fool is, you—”
“—No, a fool ward. It’s a type of stance. A fool ward is one where your sword is angled toward your feet, which is what opened you up to his attack. In that moment, you would have been better off with a plow ward.”
They looked at her like she was speaking Shyriiwook.
Finnie furrowed her brow. “A plow ward? You know, right foot forward, sword held by your knees, tip angled at your opponent’s chest?” With her own sword, she showed them exactly what she meant. They clearly had no idea what she was talking about.
She sighed, dropping her sword a bit. “It was just coincidence that the stance you were making happened to be a fool ward, wasn’t it…? You guys don’t actually know any stances, do you?”
The Corellian was done feeling like a greenhorn. “Listen, girl, just knowing the names of shit doesn’t make you a swordfighter. I’d like to see how smart you look actually swinging that thing.”
Finnie frowned, and started to back away. It didn’t look to her like these two were actually interested in improving their craft—they just liked looking tough.
The Corellian snorted. “That’s what I thought. You probably don’t want to move around too much without a bra on, anyway—it probably hurts to have even tits that small jostling around, eh bro?” he goaded, punching the Coruscanti playfully in the arm. The Coruscanti didn’t look to be entirely on board with where this was going, but he laughed to support his comrade-in-arms.
Finnie glared at them levelly. Holding her sword in both hands, she planted her left foot forward and raised her sword hilt up to her face, blade angled squarely at the two men. “Let’s go,” she said.
“Don’t make me laugh, girl. What stance is that? The pussy ward?”
With a broad swing of her sword, she deliberately smashed into the Corellian’s blade, in a move intended to convey, No, I’m serious… get your weapon ready. However, he was so unprepared for an assault that he lost his grip on the handle and the sword clattered to the floor. Without even trying, she had succeeded in disarming him.
In his stead, the Coruscanti took a swipe at her with his own sword, slashing diagonally across her front. She easily voided the attack with a defensive step backward, countering with an uppercut. She’d have gutted him right then if she hadn’t pulled back at the last minute.
“I could have killed you there, just with my first swing. You have to drop the blade to your side to void an uppercut. Or didn’t they teach you that on Coruscant?” she said, knowing that her continuing to try to instruct them on proper form would only prove to incense them further.
By now, the Corellian had recovered his blade and was advancing to thrust. He broadcast his moves so blatantly that Finnie easily parried, and he plowed forward, barrelling into the empty space she had just stepped out of. She proceeded to slap him on the ass with the flat of her blade as he slipped past her.
The two men were now standing on either side of her, so Finnie dropped low into a stance that allowed her to defend from either angle. She managed to split her attention between them both, watching to see from which direction the next strike would come.
The Corellian was fuming. “Okay, you little bitch, I’m going to—”
“—That’s enough!” bellowed a voice from about fifty feet away. The three combatants had attracted a small crowd of onlookers, so the men weren’t sure exactly who was shouting, but Finnie knew instantly.
“I should report the both of you,” reprimanded Finn. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, challenging civilians?”
The two men straightened up at once, dropping their longswords to the floor. The soldier from Coruscant tried meekly to explain, “Apologies, sir! We were just… sparring!”
The Corellian attempted to assist his partner. “Yes, Commander Tico! Just sparring!”
“I suppose you’ve been humiliated enough already, but in the future, I suggest you think twice before picking fights with people you don’t know. It’s just your luck, this one is my daughter, and I know from firsthand experience just how much ass she can kick with a longsword. Though I suppose it’s too much to hope that you were actually listening to her instruction?”
The two men glanced at each other before blubbering, “Uh, yes sir! Of course we were! She taught us… several new stances!”
“Very good, very good. And that last one, for the record, was the ‘ox ward’. Not the ‘pussy’ ward, as you called it…”
The blood drained instantly from the Corellian’s face. The Coruscanti nodded his head vigorously. As the crowd began to disperse, snickering mildly, the two men just stood there frozen.
Finn took Finnie’s hand and led her away from the scene, taking her longsword and leaning it back into the rack as they passed it. The two of them walked quietly out of the gym, slipping out an emergency door that took them directly outside into the morning air. There was still dew clinging to the grass, moistening their pant legs as they meandered through. They continued to hold hands as they walked, ruminating quietly for a few minutes before anyone said anything.
“So, were you watching the whole time?”
“I’m not sure. I got there right about the time you started explaining what a plow ward was.”
“Okay, well, at that point, I’d been there for a while on my own, just practicing, but it’d only been about a minute since I’d started talking to them.”
“Those guys were assholes,” he said dryly.
“Yeah, they were,” she agreed. “Sorry.”
He looked at her. “What are you sorry for?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“I shouldn’t have engaged with them at all. I could tell from the way they talked to each other that they were hotheads—I should’ve just ignored them.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You probably did the Republic a favor. Guys like that need to be taken down a peg or two. Serves them right for underestimating you.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “However…” he added, preparing to lecture her.
They stopped walking and she turned to meet his eyes. “Yeah?”
“You need to remember something. Technically, you’re barely six years old. Mentally, you’re more like fourteen. But physically, you’re practically an adult. Guys like that are going to look at you and they’re not going to think they’re picking on a kid. It’s lucky that you already know a thing or two about how to defend yourself, because most of the people you encounter are not going to be pulling any punches. You need to remember that, talented though you may be, and physically strong, you’re still learning. You need to watch out that you don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
“I get it, dad. I know.”
“I know you know, sweetheart. I’m just reminding you.” He took a step forward, and they resumed meandering.
Finnie strolled happily alongside her father, swiping at the dew with her boots as she swung her legs lazily through the grass with each step. She hadn’t felt such peace in a long while. She gave a happy sigh.
“I don’t know what I would have done without you, dad.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, just, my life. How lucky I was to have ended up here, with you. It could have gone very differently for me. I’ve studied myself—well, my former self, I mean. And I know there were thousands of clones. Phasma sounds like she was… awful. She was cloned, basically, because she was awful. She was a killing machine.”
Finn’s heart sank. Is this how his daughter viewed herself?
“It’s just… I know you knew her, and there’s no way you liked her. I can’t imagine there’s many people who would’ve encountered a clone of someone so bad, and said to themselves, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to raise for a kid!’ People must have thought you were nuts.”
He smiled sweetly at her. “I’ve just seen far too much evidence that… none of it really matters. How you were raised, who your parents were, what you were trained to do… none of it. What it all seems to boil down to, ultimately, is… what do you want? Who is it that you want to be?”
“Who do you want to be, dad?”
Finn sighed deeply. “Kiddo… I’m not sure right now. I used to just want to be free. Then I was free, so then I just wanted to be a good person, a good father. To fight for those I loved. That’s what I’ve been doing since I left the First Order, and I’ve been happy. I hope that’s still enough. It’s just that… without your mother, I’m…” His throat got tight, and he had to swallow before he could say anymore. “Without your mother, it’s just… harder. Academically, I know there’s still a point to everything, it’s just harder to remain convinced that there’s still a point—it’s harder to feel. If the people I love can just disappear so quickly, with so little warning, despite all of my love, my devotion, and my hard work… then what’s the point?”
“You can’t save everyone, dad.”
“I know. I know that. It’s just…”
“It’s just how you feel,” she said, finishing his thought.
“Well, dad, if it helps, the next time you’re stuck trying to come up with what the point is of it all, I’d like you think of something.”
“What’s that, hon?”
“I’d like you to ask yourself… what was the point of saving one clone out of tens of thousands? Was that effort worth the risk? Would you do it again?”
Instantly, tears erupted from Finn’s eyes, and he had to stop and really look at her. In a voice barely above a whisper, he said, “In a heartbeat, I would, yes.”
With the subtlest of smiles, she returned the look he was giving her. “Then there’s a point.”
He pulled his daughter into a fierce hug, and silently cried into the crook of her neck. Finnie wrapped her arms around her father’s waist and hugged him firmly back. For nearly a whole minute, he wept into her shoulder as they held each other.
The two of them pulled apart, but he kept his hands on her shoulders as he admired her.
Finnie returned his approving stare. “So since you went to all that effort to keep me, and you seem willing to keep putting in the work, there’s something else that I could use your help with.”
“Anything,” he beamed at her.
There was a pregnant pause. “Tell me what a bra is.”
He pulled into another hug that left him heaving into her shoulder, but this time, it was with laughter.
Comments/kudos hugely appreciated! I need a little nudging to remind me to make updates. :)
Chapter 4: Chapter 4: Kith and Kin
———Chapter 4: Kith and Kin———
Please forgive me for disturbing you, but your absence is now officially the subject of gossip among the students.
“Ugh, Simeon’s in my head,” lamented Ben. “Says the kids are gossiping about why we’re not there.”
“You should ask him what they’re saying. Or do you want me to?”
Ben growled. “I don’t really want to talk about it. I just wish everyone could pay attention to their own affairs for a little while. Give us a break.”
“You’re just exhausted. Let me deal with this,” she said, patting Ben on the arm. She then took it upon herself to project her thoughts to Simeon. Sorry, we had another episode last night. We’ve been up since the middle of the night trying to decide what to do about it.
I assumed it was something like that. Is everything alright?
I don’t think so. It was even harder to snap him out of it this time. I felt a distinctly… dark presence.
“You know, I don’t especially love being left out of this conversation,” said Ben, cutting in. He was seated at the kitchen table with his head propped up on his arm, watching her stare off into space as she mentally talked about him behind his back and also right in front of him. He took a sip of his caf, impatiently tapping his foot at her.
Rey snapped her attention back to Ben momentarily to register his complaint, then proceeded to talk about him behind his back some more. Sorry, Ben’s exhausted and a bit snitty with the background commentary he’s so generously providing, she said sarcastically. We should all talk about this together later. But what were the kids saying about us?
They suspected the two of you might be having a fight. I tried to end the line of discussion by suggesting you simply had more urgent business than school matters. I inadvertently shifted the conversation to, let’s say, potentially insulting territory, when I referred to the three of you as ‘the Solos’.
Ben took another particularly loud sip of caf.
“Sorry, just wait a second,” she said to him. So, the kids insulted us? Where was the insult, exactly? What do you mean?
Fern pointed out that the two of you weren’t actually married, and nearly referred to your son as a bastard before stopping himself.
Ouch. They actually care about that?
It would seem that particular cultural taboo didn’t escape their attention during their short stays on Lothal.
Super. Well, I’ll mention it to Ben. Now I should probably go. He’s getting really impatient.
Of course. We’ll continue this later. Good day, my lady.
“So, apparently there’s concern that because we’re not married, I can’t be a Solo and also our son is a bastard. Also we’re fighting. Probably, we’re fighting about how we’re not married and how our son is a bastard, but that last bit is pure speculation on my part.”
Ben’s eyebrows popped up, his arm frozen where he held his cup of caf to his lips, having stopped mid-sip. After a second, he set his cup on the table and swallowed his caf. “We’ve only been gone a day and a half! What the hell??”
“You’ve only been gone a day and a half—for me, it’s even less. Anyway, I’ll let you handle that one. But I think we should collect Ren and head over there pretty soon. We need to make our situation understood before we let their gossip completely undermine whatever respect our students have for us.”
Ben grumbled. “Alright, let me finish my caf and get a shirt on. Ren’s playing in the forest, can you get him?”
“Of course. Wear the new tunic I finished making the other day—you’ll look smart in it, berating our students about their narrow view of family.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek, then stepped out the front door to collect their bastard child.
Malfi stepped quietly up to Temiri’s cottage. She knew he was likely still immersed in the construction of his lightsaber, and didn’t want to risk disturbing him. However, she had never been as irritated with her peers as she was this morning, and hoped she could find someone to vent to about it. As she approached the door of the cottage, she readied herself to peek in as inconspicuously as she could.
“I know you’re out there, Malfi, I can sense your presence. Just come in.”
Malfi’s shoulders sank, but she stuck her head through the canvas curtain that functioned as a front door. “Sorry, Tem, I hope I’m not bugging you.”
Temiri was seated at his table, lightsaber pieces and tools laid out in front of him. “Not at all, kiddo. What’s up?”
“How’s your lightsaber coming?”
“I’m almost finished! I just have a few final touches to make, then I can secure the blade emitter shroud and be done.”
Malfi grinned ear to ear at this news. “That’s awesome! I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks, kid. But that’s not why you’re here, is it?” It wasn’t really a question.
Her grin evaporated. “Well, that’s not the only reason I’m here…”
“Oh, it’s just… the others were being jerks.”
Temiri frowned. “How so?”
“Everyone started, just, making up all this garbage about why Ben and Rey weren’t there this morning. Then Fern made this big deal about how they shouldn’t be called ‘the Solo family’, ‘cause they’re not married, and then he… he almost called Ren a… a…”
“What? A bastard?”
“Temiri!” she shouted.
“What?? It’s a technical term, I think! A bastard is what you are when your parents aren’t married.”
“Well who cares if they’re married or not?! Ren had nothing to do with that! It’s not his fault!”
“Malfi, I’m not on their side here.” He sighed. Pushing out with his hand, the chair opposite him at the table moved backwards, away from the table. “Have a seat.”
Malfi climbed tentatively into the seat, ready to listen to her powerful friend, whom she held in such high regard.
He leaned forward onto his elbows, looking right at her. “I’m not on their side. I’m merely pointing out that ‘bastard’ is just a label for someone whose parents weren’t married. I don’t know that Fern was trying to be insulting when he said it—or almost said it, at least.”
Malfi didn’t look satisfied with this explanation, and was searching for a good counter argument. “Well, he… he said it like such a jerk!” Effective counter arguments can be difficult to construct when you’re eleven years old.
“It’s a word with a lot of baggage, for sure. There’s sort of an expectation that being a bastard makes you less important than everyone else. He’s your friend—I get why it upsets you.”
“It doesn’t make him less!” she said, practically thumping her fist on the table.
“I know, kiddo, I know. I’m sorry it happened. Hell, at least he has parents! Good ones, even. The rest of us would be so lucky just to know our parents…”
Malfi nodded sadly. “Our teachers are doing their best, though.”
“I know they are. And we’re pretty lucky, all things considered. There were a lot of orphans that had to settle for getting adopted by whatever random person would take them in. We at least got to choose between coming here and learning to be Jedi—or, Ronin, or whatever the hell Ben insists on calling us—and going to who knows where.”
She nodded some more, sniffling. “Did you get to say goodbye to your parents?” Somehow, they had never talked about this before.
Temiri’s jaw got tight, and he looked away. “Yes, sort of, I did.”
Malfi was hesitant with him now. She was never hesitant with him—everything she’d ever said to Temiri, she had always said with confidence. Confidence, either that what she was saying was right, or that even if it wasn’t, that he would love and respect her anyway. Talking to Temiri had always been extraordinarily low risk, but this subject took her confidence away. “What… what happened to them?”
Temiri took a moment to answer. “Just my father. My mother died when I was still too young to remember her. My father was a drunk who gave me up to the First Order before willingly signing up to be a stormtrooper.” His hands had balled themselves into tight fists. “Son of a bitch was glad to be rid of me and start a new life for himself.”
“Is he… dead?”
“I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. When they told me they couldn’t find him, but I could stay here and hone my Force sensitivity instead, I just said ‘good riddance’.”
“I’m sorry, Temiri.”
“Don’t be. Like I said, we’re lucky to be here. My life actually improved quite a lot compared to before.” His fists had relaxed; he was looking over his saber parts. “But what about you? What about your parents?”
Malfi shook her head. “I was five when it happened. I remember them, but I don’t remember what happened to them. I don’t know if we said goodbye, or if they were killed, or what. I just remember living on a farm one day, and being here the next. My mom had the prettiest curly red hair…”
“Huh…” he nodded his head, listening. “Well! It’s probably just as well. Now, we have three parents, who actually look out for us, none of whom are married to each other, and we couldn’t care less about that. Proud bastards, are we!” he proclaimed loudly, to Malfi’s delight.
“And also,” he continued, somewhat more seriously, “at least they’re not drunk assholes.”
“And,” added Malfi, “Ben’s hair might not be red, but it’s still pretty dashing.”
“Oh, for sure,” teased Temiri, collapsing back into his chair and fanning himself in a pretend swoon. “And let’s also not forget,” he said, turning back toward the project strewn out on his table, “they take us to fascinating places and teach us how to make lightsabers and do other cool stuff. Wanna help me finish this off?” he offered, gesturing to the still-not-quite-finished lightsaber.
Malfi’s eyes lit up with excitement. “Can I?? But is that okay? I mean, isn’t lightsaber construction supposed to be sort of… private?”
“Malfi, you can hear it. I don’t think it minds if you help a little.”
Finn pulled his speeder up to the edge of the concourse and climbed out. Finnie hopped out of the passenger seat, followed by Poe, awkwardly removing himself from the cramped back seat. Finn had chosen to park a little farther away than normal, so they had to walk for a little bit before anyone noticed their arrival.
It had been a long time since Poe had been to the school. There were fewer tents set up outside than he remembered, and it looked like some things had been moved around.
“Is that a new roof on the… the thing over there?” he asked, gesticulating toward the “thing” he couldn’t remember the name of as they walked closer.
“On the biomass generator?” answered Finn. “Yeah, the whole outdoor kitchen area needed new roofing after last winter’s big storm. I helped install it.”
“Good of you to have done that,” Poe commented, nodding. “I was probably… on a mission or something.”
“You were busy, don’t worry about it,” replied Finn. He couldn’t actually recall what Poe had been up to at the time.
As they got closer to the main area of the school, Finnie was able to recognize some of the kids. “That’s Shiroto and Prana over there, I think. Do you see anyone else?”
“Uh, no, not yet,” answered Finn, squinting as he surveyed the area. “Where are the adults?”
No one answered, they just kept walking. The closer they got to Simeon’s cottage, the closer Poe got to Finn and Finnie. He stayed just a few paces behind them.
“Finnie!” shouted a voice from the forest, which Finnie recognized immediately as Malfi’s. The three visitors spotted her traipsing out of the forest and jogging out to greet them. Temiri followed behind her, but at a slower pace.
“Hi, Malfi!” yelled Finnie, waving to her. Prana and Shiroto stopped what they were doing to see what had drawn their attention, but they stayed where they were.
As the friends drew closer to one another, they could talk without having to shout. “Temiri just finished his lightsaber! Wanna see it?”
Finnie looked Temiri over as he walked toward them. “Sure, yeah. But is Rey here?”
“We need some adult help,” explained Finn. “Where is everybody?”
“Umm, I’m not sure. It was just Mister Simeon here this morning, but then I left to see Temiri. Shiroto? Do you know?”
“He’s been in his cabin since you left. I don’t think he snuck out without us noticing.”
“I’m here,” called Simeon, pushing aside his curtain-door. “Please forgive the lateness of my greeting.” He took several steps forward. “Captain Dameron, it’s a pleasure to see you. It’s been too long.” He extended his hand out for Poe to shake.
“I know I haven’t been around in a while, but I hope I’m not a stranger, Simeon. Please call me Poe,” he said, accepting Simeon’s hand.
“Certainly… Poe.” Finn knew it probably caused Simeon some measure of physical pain not to have used an honorific of some sort.
Finn inhaled deeply. “We need Rey. Desperately. She here?”
“The Solos will be here shortly. There is much to discuss—it’s good you’ve come.”
Finn and Poe perked up a little—it’s always nice to feel included. The hairs on the back of Finnie’s neck stood taller as well.
“What’s going on, Mister Simeon?” asked Malfi.
“Lord Solo will explain everything. Why don’t you go find the others and bring them here?” he said to her. “Temiri, I see you have completed your lightsaber. That’s excellent. Events are unfolding that are likely to leave us somewhat understaffed in the days to come. We will need you here in a teaching capacity before long.”
“What do you mean, Simeon?”
“I’m not entirely sure, son. Maybe just a bad dream. Maybe something more.”
Chapter 5: Chapter 5: Breakdown
———Chapter 5: Breakdown———
“They’re arriving. Everyone, please sit.”
Simeon gestured to the common area as the Solos approached from the northwest, and the students took their seats, cross-legged on the ground. Finn and Poe took seats at a nearby table on the opposite end of the area from where Simeon was, and Finnie stuck close to Finn.
When the three of them were finally within speaking distance, they surveyed the assembled gathering.
“Well, it looks like Simeon has you all waiting with bated breath. That’s convenient,” said Rey.
Ben released Ren’s hand and pointed for him to take a seat with the others. “We have some things we need to explain to you all,” he declared. He remained standing, and Rey and Simeon took seats at a table just behind him.
“What’s going on, Ben?” asked Shiroto.
“Several things. Let me start with… some questions.” He studied their faces, organizing his thoughts. It was important that he get this right. The students watched him expectantly as he looked them over.
“How would you describe us? What we are?”
“Do you mean, like, you three? Or the school as a whole?” asked Shiroto.
Ben made circular gestures with his hands. “All of us sitting here,” he said.
“So… the school.” declared Prana.
“So we’re a school. What makes us a school?” Ben was trying his hardest to adhere to the best practices of pedagogy, those he had studied and seen modeled so effectively by Simeon in the last five years. It was difficult; students don’t always go where you want them to go, and it can take longer to get to the point. But in the end, they learn it better.
“Well, we’re here to learn stuff from you,” clarified Prana. “You teach us stuff, like how to feel the Force and make use of it, and how to take care of ourselves. And stuff like history.”
“I dunno, when you say ‘school’,” interrupted Geddy, “I imagine more, just, the place. Like, the grounds and the cottages and stuff. He asked us what we are, and I think we’re more than just a school.”
“I agree,” added Temiri. He glanced over at Malfi. “We’re not just here to learn, we also take care of each other. We’re a kind of family too.”
“Alright,” said Ben, “And what makes us a family?”
“We love and care for one another. We look out for one another,” supplied Malfi.
The other students began to shift animatedly in their seats on the floor as their ideas started to come faster than there were opportunities to share them. Shiroto practically raised his hand before speaking. “Right. We would do anything to help one another.”
There were a few seconds during which the students just nodded, murmuring their general assent with everything that had been said, not able to come up with much more to add that wasn’t just restating what had already been brought up.
Ben continued his probing. “And what about your parents?”
There was a brief moment of calm as the students considered what this question had to with the school. “Well, they’re our family, too, but they’re not around anymore, so we have a new family now,” said Fern.
“Does that mean your parents don’t matter anymore?”
Fern was slightly surprised by Ben’s question, but he answered it without missing a beat. “No, they do. I’ll never forget them, but I will live my life fighting for a world where kids don’t have to watch their parents die right in front of them.” The other students nodded enthusiastically.
“So even though they’re gone, they still affect you and how you view the world,” observed Ben, succinctly restating Fern’s contribution in a manner that he’d hoped would pique the attention of the other students.
“And what about this new family? How are we different?”
“We’re not related by blood. Well, me and Geddy are, but—”
“—‘Geddy and I are’,” interrupted Simeon. The others looked at him. “It’s ‘Geddy and I are brothers’, because you see, ‘me’ is for a direct object, and in this case…” Simeon glanced at Rey and Ben, who were watching him blankly. “Forgive me, my lord. Let’s discuss the grammatical conventions of Basic another day. Please continue with your lesson.”
“This is a lesson?” asked Geddy, confused.
“Of course it is,” said Malfi.
“But this is all stuff we already knew,” he countered. “We’re just describing ourselves. I don’t get what I’m supposed to learn from this.”
Malfi was undeterred. “He’s trying to teach us about what it means to be a family. That it doesn’t matter whether you’re alive or you’re dead, here or somewhere else, or related by blood. Or married,” she added, somewhat accusingly, casting a small glare in Fern’s direction, “what matters is how we feel about one another. How far are we willing to go to help another.”
Fern was looking down at his hands. He glanced at Ren, then back to Ben and Rey. “I’m sorry about what I implied earlier. I know it was stupid.”
“It’s alright, Fern. Different cultures have a lot of different rules—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cultural rules can help people make sense of their surroundings, and draw inferences about how people feel. They can help to establish a group identity, and a shared understanding of their values. Where you encounter trouble is when those general rules become expectations that, should you fail to adhere to them, place you in an unfair position. Words like ‘bastard’ can have that effect.”
A few pairs of eyes darted inconspicuously to Ren, but Ren didn’t flinch. He’d never heard the word ‘bastard’ before now. During these types of lessons, Ren usually just listened and considered what his peers were saying without giving voice to his own ideas. Today was no exception.
Ben continued his lesson on the use of language. “Words like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, though not technically accurate, are cultural constructs that would help people better understand the nature of my relationship to Rey. We don’t use those words with each other because… well, they’re too small.”
Poe and his co-visitors sat quietly, watching. Poe, for his part, was completely engrossed in Ben’s lesson. He had never seen Ben in a teaching capacity before, and though he found his manner unfamiliar, he was amazed at how well it suited him. That his friends thought it important for him to be here for this lesson was puzzling to him, but an honor as well. Poe was privy to the knowledge of what the man who had once called himself Kylo Ren had become. His attention did not falter as Ben continued his lesson.
“Rey and I are bonded by the Force. The Force, as you know, is eternal. It is everything. That the Force chose the two of us, out of all the individuals in the universe, to join together, is so much bigger, so much more significant, that legal contracts like marriage simply pale in comparison to that.”
He sat emphatically down at the table in between Rey and Simeon, and issued a long sigh. With a dismissive shake of his head, he carried on. “Words like ‘wife’ just totally fail to capture what Rey is to me, to the point that it feels insulting to even call her that. Frankly, next to the Force, legal contracts are just fucking stupid.”
The students had been mesmerized by Ben’s lecture, but his sudden use of foul language had shaken them out of their trance. They glanced amusedly at one another, adjusting their legs as they shifted into more comfortable positions. They all knew he had a dirty mouth, but he usually kept it in check when he thought kids might be listening.
Ben looked sheepishly over at Rey, then back to the kids. “Sorry, I forgot where I was for a second there.”
In a gesture of forgiveness, Rey patted him lightly on the knee. Feeling this was her moment to contribute something to the instruction, she said, “I choose to call myself ‘Solo’ not because of some desperation to be like other families, but out of respect for his parents, whom I loved dearly. And who are a part of me, in spite of the fact that we weren’t related by blood. I didn’t have a family name before I chose to be a ‘Solo’, and am honored to take that name.”
“The point is,” said Ben, “we are a family because we choose to be. Not because of who our parents were, how we came to all end up in the same place, or because the law says we are. We choose it,” said Ben, with finality.
Then suddenly, almost as an afterthought, he added, “And I don’t particularly give a damn about other people’s rules about how I or my family are supposed to be. Not anymore.”
There was a protracted silence as everyone took some time to process all that they’d heard. Rey could feel the confidence and peace in the children as they sat attentively before her.
“Are we clear?” Ben asked. The students all nodded their heads.
“Shall we move on to other matters, then?” asked Rey. The students perked up, ready. Finn had only vaguely known that something was amiss lately. To Poe, this was all news.
Ben took a cleansing breath, rubbing his palms on his thighs. “Now to discuss why I’ve been scarce lately.”
The students were transfixed. Simeon observed patiently, watching his friend to see how he delivered the news, and watching the students to see their reactions to it.
“For the past two nights, I’ve been having… dreams,” said Ben.
“What kind of dreams?” asked Shirtoto.
“Strange ones. Disturbing. I call them ‘dreams’ for lack of a better word. In them, a voice, my grandfather, is begging me for help.”
“Help with what?”
“Help with… I’m not sure. He says his soul is dying, and I need to find him in order to help him.”
“But he’s… well, dead, right?” asked Fern, somewhat hesitantly. “How are you supposed to go to someone who isn’t actually around to find?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve been spending the last two days trying to figure out where in the galaxy I could go that might make it easier to make direct contact with him. He said, ‘follow your blood’, so I’ve been researching my family lineage. I figured I’d pick a planet my family has ties to, and see where that leads.”
“Like where?” asked Prana.
“I’m going to start on Naboo. My grandmother is from there.”
“We were just there,” interjected Temiri. “There was creepy vandalism scattered around the capital.”
“Yes, I thought I would investigate that at the same time, if I’m able.”
“Can I come?? My lightsaber is finished, I’m ready!”
The other students turned excitedly toward Temiri, anxious to see his newly constructed saber.
“In fact, yes, I could use your help. I may need an extra set of hands on my trip, and this is likely as good a time as any for me to see with my own eyes how you handle yourself on your own.”
Temiri beamed proudly, and Malfi smiled brightly at him. The other students looked on with envy, but were happy for him for this chance to prove his mettle.
Temiri straightened his back, swallowing, to regain his composure. “Thank you, Ben. When are we leaving?”
“Maybe tomorrow. These dreams are… scary, and not in a normal nightmare sort of way. I feel genuine threat from them. It’s possible this threat goes beyond just my grandfather’s soul. Others, maybe even the very Force itself, could be at risk. The last two nights, Rey has had to enter my mind to pull me out of these dreams, and I don’t know what would have happened to me if she hadn’t. I haven’t been able to sleep very well…”
Ben sighed, rubbing his face with both of his hands. With this gesture, he seemed to be letting go of the façade of composure he’d been holding together since they arrived. The students looked him over, and they could finally see just how exhausted he looked. He was doing alright for now, but they could easily imagine the mental toll that night after night of this would take on him.
“I can’t avoid sleep, and I don’t want to succumb to unknown threats if I do,” he continued. “Last night, or, more accurately, this morning, Rey and I discussed a way she might be able to protect me, but we have to test it. If successful, we should leave without further delay. My grandfather insists there isn’t much time.”
Solemn reflection settled over the group as they mulled over everything they’d heard. It appeared their conversation was finally drawing to a close. Finn looked around, studying the faces of his friends, his daughter, and the students on the floor before him, and wondered where he fit in in all of this. He must be there for a reason.
“How can I help?” he asked, breaking the silence. All eyes turned to him.
Rey smiled. “I would appreciate if the three of you stayed here, with us, until Ben gets back. Or at least until we know I can manage being a parent and a teacher at the same time that I’m protecting him from afar.”
At those words, there was an audible shudder. It was Ren. He hadn’t made a sound this whole time, and the others had nearly forgotten he was there. That he could manage to sit so still for so long without speaking or fidgeting was frankly bizarre for a five-year-old.
“You’re not going, too?” asked Malfi.
“No. I’m not leaving my family behind,” she answered, resolutely. “But my attention will be… divided.”
“Okay, stay here, got it,” said Finn. “I know Finnie and I can manage that. Poe?” Finn asked, in a manner that made it less of a question and more of an invitation.
Poe shifted in his seat, adjusting to the attention being on him. “I’m sure my commanding officer would see her way to giving me some time off, so, sure, I can hang out here for a while.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Simeon. “Students, I’ll need a few of you to arrange accommodations for our guests. Those of you not engaged in that effort are expected to resume your academic studies. Please get to it.”
The crowd of students looked at Ben and Rey to make sure things were, in fact, settled, and that there was nothing left to discuss. With a nod from each of them, the students dispersed. Temiri headed off into the woods to repack his bags for what he hoped would be his impending departure, and the other students left to follow Simeon’s directives. Finn led Finnie over to talk to Rey, and Ben and Simeon stepped inside his cottage to discuss logistics. Poe wandered off to reacquaint himself with the layout of the school, trying not to look as out of place as he felt.
After the dust had settled, everything at the school appeared to be basically back to normal, except that Ren Solo still sat, spellbound, in the middle of the concourse.