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Broken Accidental Stars

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On the bridge below, two men engaged in a measured face-off. Rey could barely make out their features, but she knew one was Han, and she knew the other was Kylo Ren. They were unmistakable. Yet even as she looked on, afraid to blink, it seemed more dream than reality. She felt as if she was missing something crucial. Why would Han approach him at all, let alone so ill-prepared, without fear, without pretense of threat?

Surely he wouldn’t be foolish enough to try to take Kylo Ren off guard and fight him. Such a fight wouldn’t last long. A blaster would be no use, even in the hands of a seasoned smuggler accustomed to danger. He’d be killed almost right away. She wanted to scream for him to stop, but she couldn’t form a sentence.

A tense minute passed. Even with the distance, she could make out snatches of conversation—they were talking, of all things, it was bizarre—carried up to her and Finn in echoes off the chamber walls around them. The words washed over her, disconnected and broken under groans of machinery as it clanked and whirred and steamed. The things they were saying, what she thought she was hearing, seemed impossible to believe. After everything that had happened that day, she was unable to grasp any of it.

It felt unreal. It didn’t matter.

The only reality that mattered was much easier to parse: the detonators were in place. It was time to get back to the Falcon before the explosives went off and ripped the thermal oscillator of Starkiller Base wide open. Rey really did not want to be around for that part.

Han and Kylo appeared like toys as the light leaking in from outside the base went first from blue to red, then muddled into thick, smoky, colorless dark. Beside her, Finn tensed, and when she looked down his hand was gripping the railing so tightly it seemed his knuckles were about to burst through his skin. Part of her wanted to reach for that hand and squeeze it, but she wasn’t certain it would bring much comfort to either of them. He was as much at a loss as she was.

If they could just tear themselves away, she and Finn could determine what to do. They needed to get to Han and reunite with Chewie. They couldn’t leave without them; she wouldn’t, not after all they’d done for her. But she was not getting anywhere near Kylo Ren and was determined not to draw his attention. Memories of what had happened in that interrogation room were far too fresh.

So she leaned forward, squinting and ignoring the way the acrid air stung her eyes. Suddenly, there was something. Not by sight so much as feeling: a tingle at the back of her head, like hearing a sound of such high pitch it was nearly imperceptible to the ear, accompanied by the briefest tug behind her breastbone. Her mouth parted and she let out a shaky sigh, willing herself to watch the scene playing out before her.

Kylo was extending an arm, slowly, haltingly, lightsaber in hand. He was offering his lightsaber over to Han. She couldn’t believe it. It defied all probability. But for as far away as she was, as difficult as the steam and smoke were making it to see, she knew that was what was happening down there on the bridge. She could have closed her eyes and known it just as certainly. Yet all it made her feel was sick with dread at the fragility of such a moment.

Move, Han. Run away!

For a sickening instant Rey could swear she saw it in her mind’s eye: the lightsaber igniting red and spitting and hateful, Han run through, his eyes wide, a look of unspeakable sadness and love on his face, his body tumbling into the abyss as the blade deactivated. Kylo alone and triumphant on that narrow strip of cold grated metal, face cast in deepening shadow. Then the image was gone, like a terrible daydream, as elusive and harrowing as the vision she’d had on Takodana.

Instead, Han had it in his hand—the lightsaber. He had it. He moved as if to stow it away in his jacket.

He turned tentatively.

He took a few steps. He was alive, and pausing to look back at Kylo, and waiting for something more.

But Kylo wasn’t moving . . . until, suddenly, he was. He followed Han with a stiff, wide gait, like he was only half in control of his own movements, yet he followed all the same, footsteps echoing off the bridge and making it impossible to hear anything else they said to each other as they went. When they disappeared into a shadowed corridor, Rey exhaled and felt some of the tension melt from her bunched muscles.

“We need to go,” she said, barely above a whisper, her body leaning to nudge against Finn’s. Louder, she repeated, “We need to go. Finn?”

“Yeah. Yes, yeah, we do.” He’d watched, too, and the look on his face made it plain to her that he was as thrown as she was by what they’d just witnessed.

Moments later, the roar and blaze of the detonators going off and the attendant rumble of the base’s core spurred them on. The job was done. Now they really needed to go. Together they broke into a sprint, and Finn waited for her to fall in with him before he said, “I know the rendezvous point. It’s not far. If we get there before them, can you get the ship prepped? This place won’t hold long once the fighters find their mark.”

“Yes. I can.” She wanted to say something to cut the tension, though nothing seemed adequate. “Like old times, you and me running for our lives to that old piece of junk?”

He forced a breathless laugh.

His words echoed in her mind. ‘If we get there before them.’ That should have meant just Han and Chewie. But after what she and Finn had seen, she was no longer certain what that meant. Was Han bringing Kylo? Did he expect her and Finn to allow that, without question? Was it possible Kylo had manipulated Han’s mind the way she had the stormtrooper’s?

Had they even made it out of the base alive?

She had too many questions, and as she ran each one began to feel like a physical weight slowing her down. So she forced herself to focus instead on the sound of her feet hitting metal. Soon it changed to the soft crunch of snow and forest detritus as they emerged into the cold and woods, branches whipping past, to make for the edge of a not-so-distant cliff. It took her eyes some time to spot it, but then it was unmistakable: the Millennium Falcon awaited half-buried in white as the planet began its slow collapse.

Inside the freighter, her body thawing and steaming from the dash through frozen woods, she knew just what to do. It was only her second time in the pilot’s seat, and she wouldn’t be staying there long, but it already felt like home. Finn sank into the copilot’s chair. He didn’t look at ease in it, but she figured he wouldn’t want to let her out of his sight while death still seemed so likely. Within minutes, Rey had done all she could to prepare, hands deft and confident on the controls.

She was less confident, though, when it came to the matter of Han and Chewie’s location, and she didn’t want to risk taking to the air to intercept them. She and Finn would need to wait. She hoped she wouldn’t have to make the call to leave them behind; she wasn’t even sure she could bring herself to do it.

“I have to ask you something,” she said, glancing at him before bringing her eyes back to the console. The Falcon surged and shuddered, then settled down into a steadier, less alarming hum. “Something difficult.”

“All right. Yeah, actually, so do I.” He had been watching her work with some fascination, though there was no longer any hint of the utter bafflement he’d displayed their first time in the ship together. “Down there, did you hear Solo say—”

She waved a hand, shook her head roughly. She wasn’t sure what she’d heard, and she didn’t want to talk about it until Han had come back. “No. I don’t know. That’s not what I want to ask.”

Finn looked annoyed at having his question cut off, but let it go. “Is it about how long we wait? For them? Before . . .”

“No. Not that either.” She didn’t want to say such a thing. Voicing it would make it real, even if it was only a possibility. “Not yet. I know that might be what— But no. We can wait a bit longer.”

“Yeah. We can. Sure.”

He didn’t sound convinced, but they hadn’t been given much choice. As if to remind them that time was a luxury in short supply, the ground quaked and threw a heap of snow onto the viewport, where it dispersed like a wave. Finn’s eyes widened and he shifted further back into his seat. Rey forced herself to stop clutching the side of her chair so hard. Sitting in the cockpit, watching out the viewport as the world fell apart . . . it was like waiting out a sandstorm, she told herself. That was all. It was a flimsy attempt to soothe herself. She had never wanted to leave a place more than she did at that moment.

As for Finn, his patience was wearing thin. He sounded testy when he continued, “Well then what do you want to ask? Because clearly we aren’t on the same page here.”

“I’m . . . worried about what we saw.”

“Right. Me too.” He frowned. “That’s what I was trying to say. Because what I heard, what it sounded like to me, was him calling Kylo Ren his son, and asking him to leave with us. So yeah, you’re not the only one who’s worried.”

It wasn’t the response Rey had been hoping for. What she’d been hoping for was to be told she’d heard wrong.

“We did see him walk off that bridge with Kylo Ren, right?” Finn went on when she said nothing. He was speaking in an undertone, as if they might be overheard somehow, as if anyone would care but them. “I wasn’t just hallucinating that?”

“No. You weren’t. Or else I was too.” She just couldn’t shake the thought that it wasn’t right, what they’d seen. She couldn’t understand it. After all that had transpired in the last day, she was desperate for something to make sense. Jakku had been hell, but it had been straightforward: salvage, trade, eat, sleep. “I wonder if he might have been manipulated. By Kylo Ren. That that’s what we saw, why they walked off together. A—a mind trick.”

When Finn didn’t say anything, she risked a look at him. He was staring at her as if she’d just started speaking to him in Shyriiwook. “A mind trick?”

“Yes, as in . . . Force stuff. They can do that. People who can use the Force. Right? Like they do in the stories?” People like me, apparently. Maybe she sounded paranoid.

“I don’t know, Rey!” He blinked rapidly and threw his hands in the air. “Where is this coming from? And how would it explain any of that? Did you hit your head while you were—”

“Never mind.” She shivered, anxious and stomach in knots.

He took a deep breath, looked embarrassed, and said in a quieter, calmer voice than moments before, “I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot. Of course. I wasn’t trying to . . . forget it.”

Without another word, Finn rolled his shoulders and shrugged his jacket off, then handed it over to her. She took it with a small, tired smile of gratitude and awkwardly put it on. It was far too large, as it had been when she’d briefly worn it inside the base, but it held his body heat and now hers, and the gesture warmed her further.

“It’s fine.” She pulled the jacket tighter around her and hunkered down. “You have too.”

Now she just felt stupid. They were both running on no sleep, frayed nerves, and their last reserves of adrenaline. Of course she sounded ridiculous, and of course Finn was on edge. But he hadn’t seen what she had in the interrogation room. He hadn’t done what she’d done. She knew it was possible.

She knew what it was to feel Kylo Ren in her head, to have his face so close to hers, his hulking form hovering a hand’s breadth away. Han had been that close to him, down on the bridge; was proximity necessary for that sort of trick?

She could have dealt with it, the physical closeness, but whatever happened when Kylo had looked into her mind . . . she couldn’t ignore that. The fact that she had gone and done just the same to him—looked right back and seen him, deep into him—that was what stayed with her. With hardly any effort she had known exactly what to say to him to make him relent. And it had worked. She had never seen someone look so wounded without a scratch on them. Somehow, she had cut very, very deep.

Later Rey might have to figure out what that meant, and how it had happened, and how she’d so soon after made that guard let her go. She had an inkling, but it was too alarming to consider when she just needed to get away from where she was and live through the night. As for whatever they thought they’d heard and seen, she didn't think that Han would just—

Boots were pounding up the boarding ramp, and Rey felt a twinge again, like she had watching the events on the bridge. It was brief, a tremor up the back of her neck, a faint fuzz of ringing in her ears, then gone. This time it reminded her of something she couldn't place, but there was no time to dwell.

She leapt to her feet, casting about for a blaster or anything to use as defense and finding nothing. Finn followed her out toward the lounge, where Han and Chewie now stood, snow-sprinkled, damp, and, in Han’s case, red-cheeked. Barely inside the mouth of the ship, so close to the slope of the ramp that if they shut the hatch right now he might lose a limb, was Kylo Ren.

Unmasked, his face was even paler than she recalled, his hair beaded with melting snow, and again she was stricken by his youth and wholeness. Like Han, he was breathing hard through his mouth. He stood stiff and guarded, like an animal that had been caged so long it had no idea what to do when it was released to such a place, and he wasn’t looking at any of them. The ship may as well have been empty. She wanted to read it as arrogance, but it plainly wasn’t.

His eyes flicked suddenly to her, caught there, bore into her. “You.”

She could hardly begin to parse his reaction—the way his mouth had fallen open a little, or how the timbre of his voice had been almost soft—before his gaze shifted to touch on Finn. Kylo’s nostrils flared, and his jaw went rigid, and whatever had been on his face a moment before was gone, replaced by deep, simmering displeasure. Rey felt a surge of anger and confusion at the sight of it, at how he dared to address her as if he knew her, at how he dared to look at Finn that way, and was glad she hadn’t been able to find a blaster. She might have used it. Instead, she rounded on Han.

What is happening here? What have you—”

He brushed past her. “There’s no time for this, we have to go. You come with me.” He tugged at the sleeve of her jacket but kept moving toward the cockpit. “Chewie, stay back here with Big Deal and hold things down until I can—”

“No!” she cried, on Han’s heels and feeling mutinous. “I want to know what’s happening, and why th—”

“Rey!”

That was Finn, keeping back with Chewie, eyes trained away from Kylo, who seemed to have decided it was in his best interest not to speak beyond the single word he’d already uttered. She glared at Finn and his mouth clipped shut.

“This was not part of the plan.”

She wasn't sure how much of a right she had to claim that; she hadn't been there when they’d decided to come to Starkiller. It was difficult, piecing this together as she went along based on Finn’s rushed explanations and her own deductions.

Rey looked back to Han, who had taken advantage of her momentary distraction and disappeared into the cockpit. She growled and pursued him.

He was already in the pilot’s seat, and he looked pointedly at her before returning to what he was doing. “You did good with this,” he told her, indicating the controls and the way the ship stood ready to go. “Saved us a heap of time. Take a seat.”

He certainly seemed lucid—gruff, flippant, abrupt. So, normal, as far as she knew. Her theory about him being in the thrall of some mind trick was crumbling.

She considered storming out and refusing to copilot. He didn’t need her. But she wasn’t going to act like a petulant child when the stakes were so high. She pressed her lips together and clenched a fist, then sat. It didn't take long to get into the air and out of atmosphere, and a few minutes more put enough distance between them and the gravity of the dying planet to jump to lightspeed. They didn’t see Starkiller explode not long after, but they heard the Resistance transmission come through when it did. Rey was glad to miss the sight; she’d seen enough destruction. She did her part in the cockpit, not speaking to Han but knowing what was needed and when.

Maybe that was why, the moment he switched autopilot on, he looked at her seriously and said, “This was part of the plan.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s my son. She told me to—” He winced as if something was causing him physical discomfort. Rey had no idea who ‘she’ was, but that didn't make a difference to Han. He wasn't telling her everything, she sensed. Only what he felt she needed to know. “Before we left to come here, she told me to bring our son home. If I saw him. And I did. And I’ll be damned if I know why it worked, but that’s why he’s here.”

Rey kept her eyes on the viewport and knew Han was doing the same. So it was true. She hadn’t wanted to believe her own eyes and ears, had wanted to blame it on the distance and the ambient sounds of the oscillator, had wanted to think up any alternative to explain, but . . .

“I know. I heard you. We both did. We were standing on one of the balconies, not so far off.”

It all should have been so transparent, even before what she’d witnessed at the bridge. What Kylo had said to her, with something like pity, as he rooted through her memories and innermost fears—‘You feel like he’s the father you never had. He would have disappointed you.’ What she had seen and felt when she’d entered his mind, things that made little sense then but all seemed to align so perfectly now. Fury and abandonment and fear and so much resentment, and somewhere in the heart of it all, flickering, dejected attachment.

She thought of how intimately Han seemed to speak of what had happened at Luke’s temple. ‘One boy, an apprentice, turned against him. Destroyed it all.

Convenient, the detail he’d chosen to leave out: who that one boy had been, and who he had become. She felt a flare of annoyance. Everyone she had met since leaving Jakku had secrets, evidently.

After what had happened to her just hours ago, she did too.

“I just didn’t want to believe it. Kylo Ren is your . . . Why didn’t you tell us when—”

“Ben. His name is Ben.”

Such an ordinary, human name. It was difficult to match it to her masked pursuer in the forest, and she couldn’t let herself apply it to the face she had seen beneath that mask, either. To her mind, the face and all the fears it so poorly concealed still belonged to Kylo Ren. She shook her head.

“Chewie’s with him. I don’t know if—” He broke off and grimaced. She was beginning to get the idea he was talking more to himself than to her, until he said, “I know he took you. I know you want an explanation. I don’t have one. It’ll have to wait. But you won’t need to see him.” The implication in Han’s words was clear: But I do.

“Are you . . .” Rey suspected she may be overstepping, but she had to ask. “Are you sure you know what you're doing?”

“Sure enough.” In the next breath, he stood and moved to go. “We’re okay up here for now. Go get some rest. Spend some time with Finn, if you want. He came here for you, you know.”

“I know,” Rey said again. At least that was something she knew was true, and she felt a warm glow of gratitude and affection for Finn. In a daze, she rose and followed.

“He’s a good kid. In way over his head, but hell, so am I.”

A flicker of a smile crossed her face. They all were.

“Don’t get too cozy,” Han called back, his path diverging from hers as they hit the communal area. Presumably, he was making for one of the holding spaces. Wherever Kylo had gone, or been taken. “I’ll need you back in the cockpit for landing.”

Kylo waited in the dimly lit galley. It had always been small, but now it was positively tiny. He was grateful that Chewbacca, perceptive as ever, had opted to bring him there and then give him space, waiting in the tunnel just outside. He couldn’t fathom trying to share the sparse room with a Wookiee right now. He could hardly fathom being in this ship at all.

His head was throbbing. The room was stuffy, too hot. He remembered that, how damnably stifling the ship could be, though he knew it wasn’t really the problem. The sensation was coming from inside, too, like his lungs were too big for his chest. Kylo sat on one of the benches and pawed roughly at the high neck seal that was beginning to feel like a vise around his throat. He couldn't do much about it right now, but he could at least get his gloves off. The stale air felt strange on his skin, and he flexed his fingers but pointedly did not touch anything.

He was trying not to think of the fact that he had no idea what had become of his lightsaber after Han accepted it. It was in the ship; he could sense its proximity and the shuddering call of the crystal inside it. But beyond that, he wasn’t sure and somewhat doubted he would be seeing it again any time soon. Though he would have liked to see anyone try to keep him from it when they landed . . . wherever it was they were going.

Minutes passed too slowly. He began to feel like a prisoner. Perhaps that wasn’t so far from the truth. He’d come by choice, nominally. Han had named no conditions of his return. But Kylo knew better. This wasn’t over, and he did not have high hopes for what awaited him.

What have I done?

He’d been a fool on that bridge. Weak. Duped. He hadn’t had the strength to do what needed to be done, and now he would pay the price. He held his breath and counted to five. When he released it, he assured himself that those were his own thoughts and conclusions, and he nearly believed it. Part of him believed it.

A sound from the tunnel drew his eye—a shuffle of feet, Chewie saying something in his version of an undertone, and then Han stepped into the galley and waited just inside the doorway. Kylo regarded him warily and felt him, just as wary, taking him in the way he had on Starkiller. He thought that if Han was looking for familiarity, something he could recognize and latch onto, he would be disappointed. But Kylo couldn’t even convince himself of that. He’d already cracked. His posturing on the bridge had proven hollow.

“There was a tracker on my belt.” It was a strange way to break the silence, but Kylo hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to say. He had a lot of ideas. This was the most impersonal, though, and thus the least volatile. It was as close to a gesture of goodwill as he could manage. “I left it behind on the base. It may give the impression I was killed in the explosion. Temporarily.”

He wasn’t so stupid as to think the ruse would last long, or take at all, but it might at least keep the truth of his treachery secret for a short—very short—time, which was better than nothing. It could be long enough for him to form a plan. This had certainly not been planned. There were other measures he could take on that front, too, but they were more extreme and he wasn’t ready to explore them yet.

“Okay. Good.” Han took a few more steps into the room and stopped by the opposite bench, but he didn’t sit. He drew a deep breath and uncrossed his arms. “I’m sorry. I just— I can’t believe you came.”

Kylo looked at him blankly. Maybe that statement should have hurt, but he agreed. His mouth tightened and he dropped his gaze to the general area of the wall behind Han. “You’d rather I didn’t?”

“No.” There was conviction in Han’s voice that Kylo could never remember having heard before. “No, Ben, of course not.”

“Don’t call me that.”

If Han was abashed, he didn’t relent. “It’s your name. I’m not going to call you anything else.”

The lights above the kitchen station flickered erratically, and Kylo glared but felt some of the fight go out of him. There was no point in arguing. This was ridiculous. His head was still killing him, and he was tired. What the hell did Han want from him? An apology? A story?

“I tried to avoid you. Instead you had to—” he said. “I could have killed you.”

“I know. I thought you would there, for a second. I was ready.” He went quiet, and Kylo knew Han was studying him for a reaction. Perhaps he wondered if Kylo was going to tell him what had been going through his mind as they stood there with the lightsaber held between them. He wouldn’t though. Kylo wouldn’t tell him anything, and Han finally seemed to realize it. “But you didn’t.”

Kylo had thought he would, too. For a moment he thought he had. Something had happened as they stood there, Han staring into his face, promising that yes, he would help his son. He would do anything. And hearing those words, Kylo had seen it, clear as if it was happening—he could have turned the lightsaber on Han at the last moment, killed him with a single cruel thrust of the blade, felt his life ebb, tried to ignore the look of regret and forgiveness in Han’s eyes even as he died and fell away. Surely, it would have quelled the conflict within Kylo at last, just as the Supreme Leader had told him it would. A sacrifice. A test.

But it hadn’t gone that way at all. Instead he’d seen love in Han’s face. He’d seen desperation and hope, and felt some brittle part of himself quaver and break. It was just enough that he had hesitated, heeded that pull he always fought. He had let Han take the lightsaber, he’d let him lead him down that bridge, and out into the snow, and up into the Falcon.

He ignored Han’s answer, and whatever he must be implying with it. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Do with you?” Han sounded incredulous, but Kylo recognized something in the way he said it, a nuance he knew and somehow, despite all the years, hadn’t forgotten. Han didn’t know what was going to happen to him now. But he bluffed certainty. “You’re not going to be treated like a prisoner, if that’s what you think.”

“What else would I think?”

Han spluttered, growing frustrated. “I admit, some things haven’t been hammered out. A lot of things. But they will be.” His brow creased, and he tried to make Kylo hold eye contact. “Look, kid, I came for you. Your mother—”

“No. This isn't helping.”

He knew what Han was going to say. Leia loved him. She missed him. She wanted him back. They both did.

He wanted to believe it, but couldn’t. It had been too long. The more he thought about it, the less certain he became. Worst of all, he knew there was part of him that loved them too, or at least a part that did not hate them. He couldn’t hate them, even when he tried. Snoke had known, and he’d made sure Kylo identified it for what it was: weakness. It was—the sort of thing that made people like Han march in to certain death hoping that things would work out. The sort of thing that needed to be rooted out and burnt up.

It’s too late.

“Do you . . . need anything?” At least Han seemed willing to let the matter rest for now.

But Kylo found the question almost offensively reductive and fixed him with a disbelieving look.

“No.”

Han sighed in defeat and massaged his temples. “Right. Listen, I’m gonna go run some maintenance while there’s time.” He sounded simultaneously relieved for a reason to go and sad that the conversation had been so strained. But surely he’d known it could not have gone any other way. “I’d say help yourself to the food stocks, but there aren’t any. Water’s good, though. We’ll . . . we’ll talk later.” He half turned to go, then paused. “I wanted to see you. I'm glad I did.”

Kylo nodded but offered no other indication of agreement. It was just as well to him. He needed to focus, and to do that he needed to be alone. There was nothing he wanted to say to Han right now. Later, yes. He’d have to eventually. But right now he could barely keep his own thoughts straight, much less accommodate interaction with another person. The moment Han departed, Kylo let himself slump, elbows on his knees, somehow exhausted by the brief conversation that had just transpired and grateful to have it done with.

He shut his eyes and tried to clear his mind, but it was impossible to ignore the conviction that continued to plague him: He had fallen short, once again. And now he was here, still at war with himself.

Forgive me, grandfather.

This was only the start of it.

Chapter Text

As Han went on his way, Rey found Finn waiting for her in the lounge. He sat with his feet propped on the dejarik board, arms folded in front of him. He looked exhausted, but his expression lit up when he saw her, and he straightened and dropped his feet to the floor. The action accidentally activated the board, calling forth a holographic army of miniature creatures she did not recognize. He cursed, then shook his head in an apologetic way and patted the seat beside him. Rey slowed by the board and observed the moving pieces. She’d heard of the game but never played, and found herself speculating on the objective.

When she didn’t speak, Finn broke the silence. “Everything up there good?”

“I think so,” she said, lowering herself onto the bench beside him. After the unforgiving surfaces she’d found herself subjected to in the last few hours, and her perilous climb through the base, the seat felt impossibly soft, old and well-used as it was. “Han wants me to help land later. Maybe. How long did it take you to get here from Takodana?”

She didn’t trust her own estimates. In fact, she had no idea how much time had passed between being taken by Kylo and her ultimate escape.

“From D’Qar. We had to stop there first, the Resistance base. To plan. They were waiting on reconnaissance, and . . . they have the map. BB-8 made it. But they can't use it. Pieces are still missing. Or, it’s just a piece. Of a lot more.”

“What? After all that? How can—”

“I know. Bad news, right?” He was staring at his hands, then looked at her out the corner of his eyes. “It was still enough time for me to think it was too late to find you.”

He was looking at her the way he had in Maz’s cantina, that same baldly admiring cast to his face. For the first time since they’d reunited, Rey had time to wonder if he still planned to disappear after this and if he would ask her again to join him. She didn’t think her feelings had changed. If anything, her life had only grown more complicated since then. She needed answers she didn’t think Finn could provide. But she hoped he would stay. She hoped he hadn’t come back for her just to leave again. He was part of her life now; it was good to have someone to depend on.

She considered thanking him. But it felt like they were past that.

“It wasn’t too late,” she reminded him, attempting a bracing smile. “Though I don’t know what I’d have done if you all hadn’t shown up when you did. My plan was ‘get out’, but beyond that . . .” She shook her head. “Steal a ship probably. Again. Fly away.”

“Go back to Jakku?” He didn’t ask it with the distaste he might have earlier, when she’d been able to tell he was growing weary of her insistence that she needed to return.

“I suppose. I don’t know.”

Maybe she would have. It would have been easy to disappear and resume her endless waiting. On Jakku, consumed by routines and rituals and the daily work of survival, she could have pretended that Kylo might not try to find her again. Something told her he would have, though to what end she couldn’t say. The thought was strange, and she was unnerved by how it seemed to have come from nothing and how she was so certain of it.

Finn was watching the board, looking thoughtful. “Are you okay?”

There had been no time for that question earlier, so it didn’t feel belated. Perhaps he had even asked already; she couldn’t recall. She wasn’t accustomed to being asked after anyway. She could probably more readily address questions about the condition of the ship than about her own. People never asked, and so she’d never had to learn how to answer.

“Yes.” Kriff, she’d sounded dismissive. She reminded herself that Finn was trying to be a friend. He cared for her. She cared for him, too, even as she feared losing him, but she still wasn’t ready to elaborate. “Thank you. I’m just tired now, really.” It was time to change the subject. Starkiller was over, and gone with whatever had happened inside it. “What did I miss?”

“The Resistance arrived,” he told her. “Poe Dameron—the pilot I told you about, who BB-8 was trying to get back to, you remember?” Rey nodded. The name was a little familiar. “I thought he was dead, but he wasn’t, he’d been out there on Jakku finding a way back, it’s incredible . . . Well, there were fighters everywhere. Princess Leia—General Organa herself, if you can believe that. Maz’s place is a ruin now. Don’t know what would have happened if the First Order hadn’t been called off, but . . . then we started to plan.”

They talked a while, voices low, though it was mostly Rey asking questions and Finn answering as best he could. All he knew was that the goal was to return to the base on D’Qar, evaluate the First Order reaction to the destruction of its megaweapon, decide from there how to move forward. This had been a victory—if one could overlook the horrific obliteration of the New Republic’s seat of power—but they were still a sitting target.

Now, Finn could only speculate about what the Resistance’s next move might be, but both he and Rey knew what the smart thing was: move on as quickly as possible. Yet even as they agreed on that, there remained an air of the unsaid between them. Rey knew what that was, too. With her out of First Order hands and BB-8 delivered home, Finn could well be thinking he had little reason to further delay his plans to seek out work and the illusion of refuge in the Outer Rim. The Resistance’s own plans were in flux; it seemed an ideal time to make a clean break.

Rather than merely wonder, she dared to ask. “So, that’s them, then. But what about you?” When Finn’s only response was a quizzical crinkling of his brow, she said, “I don’t suppose your plans to follow along with that crew from Takodana are going to pull through. So will you stay? With the Resistance?”

“Ah, yeah. Right.” He cleared his throat and looked at his hands, which were clasped loosely in his lap. He gave a tiny shrug. “I don’t think I should. I haven’t decided.”

Rey nodded. It hurt to hear him admit that. How much better it would have been for him to say that he had changed his mind. That he would stay. He wouldn’t leave her again.

“Oh, okay. I guess. . . when you came back the way you did, I sort of forgot what had happened the last time I’d seen you. I hoped you might . . .”

How could she ask him to stay when she had half a mind to leave as well? They had their own priorities—his was to run away from the place he’d started, and hers . . . hers was . . . hers was to return to the place she’d started.

She had to remind herself, but yes, that was it. It hadn’t changed. She could not accept that there was nothing for her on Jakku, even if everyone else seemed to think they knew better. If she stayed with the Resistance a while, it was only a detour. She knew where she belonged. And Finn wouldn’t go with her there, and she wouldn’t ask him to.

So it was illogical to be disappointed that he had his own path. Maybe this was all they were meant to have. This short and shocking escapade.

“I don't know how much it matters what I want anyway. There isn’t really any choice right now but to stay, is there?” Finn asked her. “I’m no pilot, and the Resistance isn’t going to spare a ship just so I can go off and— Well, whatever’s out there for me. My hands are kind of tied whether I like it or not. Unless Solo decides to offer me a job, too, and I gotta say, I don’t know if I’d want it. I’m pretty sure that Wookiee friend of his still half wants to rip my arms off.” In an undertone, he added, “Solo’s a little scary too, actually.”

Despite her flagging spirits, Rey laughed. “I think it’s mostly just bluster.” She leaned forward to stretch her back and arms, hopeful of discouraging all the little achy twinges settling in her muscles and joints. “Don’t you think the Resistance could do some good for you?”

She felt presumptuous saying so, but her mind was stubbornly refusing to give up that first impression she’d had of him—all right, second—on Jakku: Finn, the intrepid and perhaps slightly strange Resistance operative. Finn, bravely searching for a way to deliver precious cargo safely home. Finn, the hero and rebel.

Even after he’d told her the truth about himself at the castle, Rey still wanted him to be that person she thought he was at the start. She thought he could be that person. He already was, in some ways. He just didn’t seem to realize it. It didn’t matter what she thought, though.

He sighed. “I don’t know. Seems like a better way to get found and killed for desertion. Or just killed. But . . . this isn’t the time to decide. Right? Neither of us can go anywhere.”

And the air in the ship was already far too tense. Reluctantly, Rey agreed.

There were other, just as touchy topics to address anyway, at least one of which they’d both been pointedly avoiding since she joined him: what had happened on Starkiller, what they thought they’d heard there. They hadn’t been wrong. They were now transporting one of the First Order’s most-feared enforcers—because he was Han Solo’s son. A murderer; a monster; and now, apparently, a defector. She relayed to Finn the faltering explanation Han had given her, and he took it much as she had. He told her that shortly after she’d gone up to help Han, Chewie had grumbled something at Kylo, who followed him elsewhere, seemingly eager to be rid of Finn’s company. Finn had been just as happy not to investigate further. With that established, neither she nor he wished to linger on the issue, so they moved on.

Soon enough the conversation slowed, and she remembered how tired he had looked when she joined him. Thinking he might appreciate some quiet and time to rest, she told him she was going back up to the cockpit to check on their progress.

As she wandered through the tunnel to the cockpit, she forced herself to sip slowly from the half-full canteen she’d taken with her, surprised by how parched she was when the lukewarm water hit her throat. Checking behind her to be sure she was alone, she sat down in the pilot’s seat and watched the stars race past in smooth blue lines. It was hypnotic, and for a few minutes she let herself drift.

She saw it. She saw the island. Tall gray cliffs. Green-flecked rocks.

She imagined an ocean. Salt spray of waves.

A yawning black hole in the ground. At the bottom, water. A mirror. A mirror that showed her—

Rey jolted in her seat and dropped the empty canteen. It clattered loudly on the floor and tumbled toward the back of the cockpit. She couldn’t tell if she had actually fallen asleep, or something else. It felt like something else, but she couldn’t name it. Rattled, she abandoned her post and returned to the lounge, hoping Finn might still be awake. He was not. He’d moved while she was gone, though, and was now stretched out on the relief bunk, by the medkit. His breathing was slow and heavy, but he was otherwise still as a stone. She watched him, envious of his tranquility, pressing the canteen nervously between her hands before placing it on the dejarik board and approaching.

There was something hanging off his belt. Tucked in, or clipped. She couldn’t tell. Rey leaned nearer, sucking in a breath when she realized. It was the lightsaber she’d found in the catacombs of Maz’s castle. The Skywalker lightsaber, an artifact of legend, sitting there now like any old piece of scrap.

To suppose that she’d found it felt wrong; it had found her. She’d been called. She had known it then, and as much as she wanted to forget what had happened when she touched it, she’d still known it after Maz found her there on the floor crying and gasping, desperate for an explanation. Rey had wanted so much to be told that it had been an honest mistake, she could put the lightsaber back where she’d found it, she could leave and go back to Jakku and let that brief adventure live in memory.

Instead, Maz had offered only harsh words couched in deceptive gentleness. Jakku held nothing for her. Her waiting was pointless. What she sought, what she needed, would lie ahead. Rey hadn’t wanted to hear it, and still resisted what it seemed to mean. Maz Kanata knew nothing about her or what her life was. Yet it had happened, as sure as everything that came before and followed.

So seeing Finn with the lightsaber was strange and unsettling. Even more strange and unsettling: she felt compelled to inspect it again. Her fear of it remained—she was almost certain she would be thrown into another overwhelming, painful vision. Here, though, at least she knew her surroundings. And Finn was right there, reassuring even in sleep. It was safe.

Hand trembling, she reached slowly for the saber and let her fingers just brush the hilt, ready to squeeze her eyes shut and dart away if anything felt amiss. Nothing happened. A little braver now, Rey closed her hand around it, and when that didn’t provoke any reaction in her, carefully unclipped it from Finn’s belt and took it. He didn’t budge—sound sleeper, or just so tired it would take more than that to wake him.

Now that she actually had the chance to consider it, the feeling of holding the lightsaber again was unusual. She was positive she had never experienced anything like it before. Where she’d been expecting it to feel like a piece of machinery, it felt almost alive. It had a pulse, in a way, a vitality. If she didn’t know any better—and what did she know about this, really?—she’d even have said it was aware of her and who she was. There were religious sects on Jakku that believed in those sorts of things. Rey had never been given to such beliefs, but perhaps they’d been right. The things she’d put her faith in thus far had proven far more fallible.

And now . . . what? She wasn’t going to activate the thing. She could see the switch that would ignite the blade, but the lounge of the Millennium Falcon seemed like a terrible place to do so, and she had no reason to bother. She maneuvered the hilt in her hand anyway, the way she might if it were active and she were using it to fight. She visualized a blade, bright and humming, and an opponent too—dark, tall, masked and prowling toward her. Things she had seen in dreams and now in life.

It quickly became apparent to her that she was utterly unschooled in how to wield a lightsaber. She knew her staff, and she knew her fists and feet, and she knew blasters. Swords, not so much. Even so, she felt a tickle at the back of her mind. Something suggestive that, if she could grasp it, made her think she just might know what to do with such a weapon. The knowledge is right there. Everything you need. Can't you feel it?, it seemed to say.

Rey eyed the activation switch.

“Big Deal still had that on him, eh?”

For the second time since boarding, Rey jumped in surprise—she wondered how long Han had been standing there. His hands were dirty and he looked distracted and agitated, though neither of those emotions seemed to be directed at her. Chewie was beside him, bowcaster in hand. Still clutching the lightsaber, she let her arm fall to her side. “What?”

“Finn. He used that on Takodana. A little bit, anyway. The lightsaber. Maz gave it to him. I don’t know what goes through her head.” Han shrugged and began to pass through, toward the cockpit tunnel. “But he managed better than I would have with one of those things.”

Chewie growled an agreement, then continued on, disappearing down the tunnel as Han threw an affronted look at his back and lingered behind.

“Oh.” It occurred to Rey that he had no idea she’d held it before. “I was curious. Should I not?”

Han glanced at her, and his expression suggested he couldn’t care less that she had it. “Just don’t use it in here. Ship’s been through enough. I’m heading up. Chewie’s gonna handle things when the time comes after all, but I’ll call back if I need you.”

And then he was gone too. She wondered where he and Chewie had been this whole time. She knew they must have been with Kylo, and couldn’t fathom how that had panned out. If they were up here now, where was he? Leaving him unattended seemed unwise. An unlikely scenario involving an airlock and a lot of screaming played out in her head. Hesitantly, she eyed the way they’d come—another access tunnel that curved off and prevented her from making out what lay at the other end. She stole a look at Finn. He was still sleeping soundly, and she considered replacing the lightsaber where she had found it on him.

No.

Tucking the saber into her belt, she crept down the way she hadn’t been yet. The tunnel couldn’t have been much longer than the one that led around to the engineering bay, but it seemed to stretch on forever until suddenly she hit the end. It opened up into a galley. She saw a small, dusty cooking station, counters and unused appliances, and two padded benches. One was empty. The other was occupied. Now she knew where Kylo had ended up.

Though it hardly should have been surprising, she gasped anyway and took a step back, face set grimly a moment later. He didn’t acknowledge her at all. In fact, she almost made the mistake of thinking he was asleep. He was sitting up, his eyes were only softly shut, but he was so still. He looked extraordinarily out of place; too big for the bench, somehow, hunched and swathed in all that black, face blank. Too late, she realized coming back here to find him had been no accident. Something had emboldened and nudged her, part her own curiosity, part something else almost instinctive.

It didn’t matter. She’d reached a kitchen. A kitchen ought to have food. And Rey was hungry. She’d gone long periods without food plenty of times, and regular meals were not something she took for granted; but the last she’d eaten had been at the castle, and she had been through an ordeal since then. Kylo was watching her now but had yet to say anything. She had nothing to say to him, so she was silent as she moved into the room and approached the counter. She whipped open the first cabinet in reach, rummaged around—tools, bits of old containers, miscellaneous broken or outdated things . . . no food. She tried the next, but the story was the same. The ship had stood unused far too long, and there had not yet been time to replenish its food stores.

“The scavenger at work once again,” Kylo said, barely loud enough to be heard.

She bristled and glared at the latest empty drawer she had opened. There was an odd stain caking the back corner and nothing else of interest inside. “My name is Rey.”

Kylo was quiet for what felt like a very long time, then sniffed. “I know.”

She doubted Han had been discussing her with him, which meant she knew exactly how he could claim to know her name. He’d taken that and whatever else he’d found in her head when they’d last faced each other.

“Yeah, well,” she returned, giving up on her fruitless task and turning to him. “I know some things too. About you. Don’t be so superior.”

She realized she wasn’t afraid of him at all. Maybe it was because of what Han had revealed, or because he’d seen fit to leave Kylo here by himself, suggesting he wasn’t a threat. She didn’t believe that, exactly, but she had handled him before. At the moment, she just found him annoying.

It seemed he had no handy response, because he gave her a steady look until his eyes flicked to her hip, where the lightsaber rested snugly. His focus intensified, and some color rose to his cheeks, and she could swear she actually felt his alarm before he managed to smother it. “Where did you get that?”

“I found it.” She sensed that revealing nothing would nettle him. And technically, she was telling the truth. She couldn’t help what she said next, though, eyes narrowed. “Scavenging.”

His jaw hardened. “You expect me to believe that?”

“I did find it. On Takodana.” She hadn't wanted it. It was almost as if it had followed her here despite all her intentions. “Just before you took me. Surely you can just find out if you’re so curious.”

It wasn’t a dare Rey would have issued if she thought he would actually take her up on it. He wouldn’t, not here. Not now that he knew she could deal it right back if he tried. Or would he? Her conviction flagged and she took a step back until her butt hit the edge of the counter, her hand resting protectively on the lightsaber.

“It belongs to me. By rights,” he said. His eyes were stony as they settled on her face. “Give it to me.”

Nonplussed, Rey opened her mouth but lost her words. Knowing what she did now of his lineage, she knew why he would make such a statement, but it struck her as outlandish anyway. He was in no position to make demands, and she was far from foolish enough to arm him. She recovered and said, “You want it, try and take it.”

There she went again, bluffing more confidence than she actually felt. She wasn’t sure why she was suddenly so possessive of the lightsaber. Barely a day ago she had never wanted to see it again. Now here she was, parading around the Falcon with it like she owned it.

He was considering her challenge, thinking that he could, she could tell. His mouth twitched, almost like he was fighting a sneer. Or a smile. “You don’t even know how to use it.”

“I’ll learn.” As soon as she said it, Rey questioned it. Yet minute by minute, what Maz had told her was feeling more plausible. The lightsaber had called her. Better she had it than him.

“Ah, do you fancy yourself a Jedi now?”

“What?” She almost laughed. The idea was preposterous. There were no Jedi anymore, and if there were she certainly couldn't claim worthiness of such a title. “No.”

“Good.” A muscle in his jaw twitched, and he finally tore his eyes from the lightsaber and her. “Whatever you are, your strength in the Force is remarkable.” His voice had lowered. They were already alone, so she didn’t see a need for hushed tones. They weren’t sharing secrets. “I felt it. Untempered and overlooked.” He sought her eyes, and for the briefest moment she let him hold her gaze. “Neglected. But it’s almost—”

Stop. I’m not anything.”

Her heart had begun to race and she didn’t know why, but she was afraid to hear what he was about to say. It was the most he’d spoken to her since the interrogation. She’d known what he wanted then, or thought she had. Here on the Falcon, as they hurtled at light speed toward D’Qar and who knew what for him, his motives were even less clear.

She drew herself up and looked down at him. “I’m nobody you need concern yourself with. Keep it that way.”

Patting her hip to make sure the lightsaber hadn’t somehow made its way off of her belt and into his hands without her realizing it, Rey turned and abandoned the galley before he could get another word in.

Chapter Text

The Falcon touched down late in the morning on a wide swath of open plain, sending a startled flock of Castua cranes into the air. No one had told Kylo what planet they were heading for, but it was easy to surmise once he’d finally been left alone in the galley. Han had mentioned orders from Leia, and she would not be found anywhere but on the Resistance base. The only planet known to host an active base was D’Qar. That, he could safely assume, was their destination, though it seemed clear they would not be spending long there.

With the fall of Starkiller, the First Order had lost its largest deployment of military forces, but its might nevertheless extended to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. This was a blow from which it would recover quickly. The destruction of the base at D’Qar, on the other hand, had merely been postponed. The Resistance had days before a retaliative effort would finish the job, perhaps as much as a week, though that was a generous estimate.

Flanked by Han and Chewbacca, Kylo emerged from the Falcon and was immediately hit with a wave of thick, humid air and a pervasive chorus of jungle sounds. The sun was blinding even through the haze. The scavenger and the traitor were nowhere to be found, already gone ahead. While he had no interest in seeing FN-2187, Kylo felt a twinge of disappointment at not encountering Rey again. Their protracted interaction in the galley, and the abruptness of her arrival and departure there, had left him feeling that she had gotten away from him yet again. Though at least this time there had been no attendant humiliation or fear of retribution—just confusion over why he felt her absence so particularly.

She was a stranger, and she had good reason to avoid him. Neither of those thoughts felt particularly true, and he couldn’t determine why.

A good deal of the base was subterranean, and while it was natural that it should have several entry points, Kylo suspected he was being led in through one of those least used. Hardly anyone seemed to be about, despite the fact that it was daytime and the base had just narrowly escaped obliteration. Those people they did pass in the stark, worn corridors didn't spare them a glance before they continued on their way. All were busy and focused on the work of recovery, but an obvious buzz of unease had yet to fade from the air.

A First Order base would never have been found in such a state of ebbing panic. Not until a few hours ago, anyway. With no small degree of pleasure, Kylo briefly allowed himself to imagine General Hux’s face on realizing the imminent self-destruction of Starkiller Base. It had been his pet project, an object of narcissistic obsession, a distillation of his manic devotion to the First Order as a force of technological domination in the galaxy. As he did Hux, Kylo had held it in disdain. To him, it was the oversized and unnecessary imitation of a twice-vanquished Empire relic.

And he had been right, hadn’t he? The rebuke Hux would face from the Supreme Leader in the aftermath of his superweapon’s failure, assuming he had not gone down with it, would surely be legendary. But the moment of private triumph passed. The thought of Snoke soon chilled him, and he walled such speculation from his mind. It felt dangerous. He stared at Han’s back and walked on, ignoring anyone who brushed past.

Eventually, one officer caught sight of them and paused. She was young—very young—though her diminutive stature and round face may simply have given that impression.

“General Solo?” she called as they marched along, looking expectantly at Han. Then to Chewie. Then to Kylo, partially obscured by Chewie’s massive frame. She frowned faintly as her eyes touched on his face and clothing, and her posture had stiffened when she returned her attention to Han. “General Organa sent me to intercept you. She’s awaiting you and your party in her personal quarters.”

Han had cringed at being addressed by a rank he no longer claimed, but did not correct her or protest. He shuffled to the side, unsubtly blocking Kylo further from her view—as if that mattered. “Ah. Thanks, er . . .” He peered at the officer as it became apparent he didn’t know what her name was, or had once known and forgotten.

“Lieutenant Connix, sir.” If she was annoyed by the oversight, she didn’t show it.

“Right. Lieutenant Connix. Sorry. Great. We’ll ah, we’ll be right along. Just gotta square some things away.”

She looked doubtful, then nodded. “Very good, sir.”

He took a few more steps before he halted again. “Hey, Lieutenant, what way would you say those quarters are?”

“Take a left two corridors down, follow straight until you hit the wall, then make a right and continue on to the end, sir.”

“Great. Thanks.”

And with that they were trudging further into the base, Kylo uncomfortably aware of the way the lieutenant’s eyes followed them—him—until they made a sharp left turn down another corridor. Just gotta square some things away. Interesting way to put what was happening. Typical Han. Had he and Leia thought they were “squaring some things away” the last time Kylo had seen them face to face?

If the air above ground had been oppressive in its humidity, the air inside the base was by contrast far too dry. When they were out of earshot of Connix, he cleared his throat and saw Han’s head turn just a bit at the sound. “Your lieutenant isn't an idiot. She knows who I am.”

“Think so?” Han quipped, sarcasm only drawing his discomfort into greater relief. “Just consider it a lucky thing she didn’t send Threepio, or we’d be getting a damned dissertation.”

“You don’t see how this might present a problem.”

“It doesn’t. I told you, you were part of the plan. Unofficial, but part of it. I sent a transmission to Leia when we were en route. She knows you're here. Others close to her will too, probably. Upper tier . . . whatever. Just don't wanna go advertising it yet. Not until—“

“You can assure I won’t be shot on sight by some overeager officer with a blaster?”

Chewie, who had been trailing them like a giant shadow, laughed. It was a throaty, rolling chuff that, to the untrained ear, would have sounded more menacing than mirthful. Hearing that sound again was troubling; something Kylo had forgotten, or thought he had. It provoked memories he couldn’t be sure were real.

“Something like that, yeah.” Han paused briefly when the hall came to a T and chose the branch to the right.

“They could try, but it wouldn't end well for them.”

“If you wanna start fitting in here, might be better to lay off saying things like that.”

“Is that what I want? To fit in here?” That was a rather hefty assumption on Han’s part. The base was still odious to Kylo, the Resistance more so, and he had no particular attachment to the vast majority of people in it.

“What do you want, then?”

The question stung, and he couldn’t think of an answer.

“You came with me. When I asked, you came. I don’t care why you did, or how close you came to doing something else,” Han went on, looking forward as he walked. “But you knew it would mean ending up here.”

Kylo tried to keep the combative edge from his voice but failed the moment he began speaking. “I knew it would mean getting away from there. For one instant I thought that was what I wanted. But I can’t— It was—” He swallowed and pressed his mouth shut. It was a mistake, defecting. Wasn’t it? He had no idea. There was so much he wanted to say and now it was threatening to spill forth, but he wasn’t prepared. “This doesn't just change these last years. My whole life. And you really are a fool if you think it does.”

Han took that in quietly, keeping his eyes trained ahead as they walked. “You're right, Ben. It doesn't. But you’re here, and maybe that means everything.” When he did look back at Kylo, he made a face and sounded like his usual self again as he switched the subject. “We’ll need to get you a change of clothing later. Soon. Can't be going around dressed like a . . . that.”

Kylo scoffed and said nothing. After Rey had left, he’d shed some layers during the remainder of the trip, but he remained conspicuously other as he was. Everywhere were fatigues and flight suits, officer’s uniforms and olive drab. The lack of First Order insignia on any of his garb did little to change the fact that his black trousers and tunic marked him a newcomer and an outsider. To anyone who gave him more than a few seconds’ scrutiny, he was one of the last people who ought to be where he was. And they would be right.

“You ready?”

They stood just outside the door to Leia’s quarters. Ensnared in his own thoughts, Kylo hadn’t realized where he was until the sound of Han’s voice dragged him back. Chewie was still with them, silent and sturdy, a witness to whatever this was about to become. Or backup, perhaps.

All at once he felt her. She was there on the other side, but through the Force it was like she was already before him. His mother’s presence was bright and steady and strong as steel, as it had been the last time he’d let himself seek it. A long time ago. He didn’t think it could be so easy again, but it was. This time, she found him first, and he seized the feeling without a thought.

But it was too much, too soon, a surge of raw emotion he did not trust. He recoiled and drew back into himself. As it had on the bridge, when he’d heard Han bark the name he hadn’t been permitted to hear for years, Kylo’s stomach twisted and his chest felt tight. There, it had been dread and half-formed resolve for what he’d known he needed to do, for what he’d been certain he would do . . . until he hadn’t. He still felt some dread now, but there was anticipation as well, and yearning, and doubt.

No, he wasn’t ready. But they had arrived, and there was no logic in delaying the inevitable. He swallowed the bile in his throat and nodded. “Yeah.”

The door to Leia’s quarters slid open with a faint hydraulic hiss, and Han stepped through. Kylo forced his feet to move, an exercise of will over an uncooperative body, and followed. Chewie was just behind, but Kylo hardly noticed him anymore. The room was spacious, considering the circumstances—they appeared to have entered into an office, but there was another door toward the back that presumably led to sleeping quarters. Most details after that were lost on him, because there she was, rounding the desk, cutting across straight to them.

He’d seen her in news holos and intercepted rebel propaganda during his years with the First Order, and before that there had been messages and transmissions to the Jedi temple or abroad as he’d traveled at Luke’s side. But so much time had passed since he last saw Leia in the flesh that he was briefly stricken with the absurd, horrific notion that she had shrunk. The truth was, she had always been small, and he had simply become much, much taller. She towered in other ways, though, and right now he was struggling not to quail before the force of her.

He wanted to move—toward her or away, he couldn’t decide. He wanted to say something, but trepidation weighted his tongue. All that escaped his mouth was a shaky sigh, so he shut it.

Leia’s eyes shifted meaningfully to Han’s face as some private, potent communication passed between them, and then she stepped around him and faced Kylo.

“You’re back.” Her disbelief was clear. He knew she made much of hope, but she was a realistic woman accustomed to disappointment and loss. Evidently, his absconding from the First Order at Han’s request was as much a surprise to her as it had been to any of them. “Oh, Ben.”

He didn’t correct her as he had Han on the Falcon, and he allowed her to reach up and touch his face. She was tentative at first, as if he might dissolve at her touch, but then she let her fingers slide from his cheek to his chin with more confidence, like she had always known his face as it was now. He still didn’t trust himself to speak.

Leia, at least, wasn’t put off by his silence. “You have no idea what this means. What it is to see you again. To have you back.”

She embraced him, and as he began to bring his arms around her it was as if someone else was moving for him. He felt that upwelling of turmoil he’d had facing Han, and an impulse to beg forgiveness for all his wrongs, to ask how he could possibly atone. But a darkness overshadowed it.

They should have been the ones begging forgiveness. These were the people who had let him go; let go of him. They had feared what he was. They had feared what he might be. They had sent him to the man who’d proven no better and tried to kill him in cold blood. Did they know? He doubted it, or that they’d even believe the truth if he told them now. Not for the first time, he questioned whether Han’s plea on the bridge truly had been part of some grand, noble plan. Suddenly they’d been so intent to bring him home . . . but nothing had changed. Monsters were meant to be sent away or run from, not chased after. They’d soon see their mistake. He had.

The darkness receded, and a sob or a snarl died in his throat as he tensed and broke from her. He took a few steps back.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, almost to himself, uncertain what he was apologizing for. The words felt so empty. He was dismayed to hear the thickness in his voice. “I’m not . . .” Kylo straightened up and looked between Leia, Han, and Chewie. “What do you want with me?”

Han dipped his chin and deferred to Leia—he’d been through this already. As genuine as her emotion in the moments before had been, as clear the faint sheen of tears in her eyes was now, she was unruffled.

“For now, what you’ve done is enough. You did the right thing. I knew there was . . . I knew there was light in you still. And I know it’s not easy to be here—I feel that in you, too. I do, Ben. I do.” Kylo didn’t doubt that she could, and for some reason he resented it. “Rest here. There’s much to decide. We’re going to need some things from you. But for the time being, I want you to lie low. For the next few hours, anyway. I’ll return later to discuss how we must proceed.”

It seemed too good to be true, and he could tell she wasn’t entirely convinced of the practicality. Her words were stiff. Official. It was likely she didn’t fully trust him. Han didn’t—Kylo had still seen no sign of his lightsaber, and sensed this would not be the time to ask. In a way he was glad he didn’t have it. It seemed like insurance, and he was a danger enough without it.

Such thoughts should have been unwarranted. On the surface, he was safe.

But that was so untrue. He had good reason to be on guard. Whatever claims they made, Kylo was not welcome here. He knew how these things worked, and he had done more than enough to warrant imprisonment, or exile, or death. The Resistance’s unique position outside of any actual law-abiding bodies made it as likely that they could get rid of him without recourse as they could take him in with no punishment at all. It was a peculiar state of limbo to be in.

For all that he felt he’d been the one wronged, Kylo almost hoped this might just be the end of it all. They would sentence him to something and that would be that. He wouldn’t have to think about any of it, or feel any of it, or grapple with the complications. It would be proof of everything he was certain they had all decided long ago: that he was a disposable, unwanted problem. And it might be easier than the alternatives. It was so briefly, perversely appealing that his pulse began to race at the thought.

After they left, the room was eerily quiet, and his agitation began to ebb away. The blood stopped pounding in his temples. He wanted to be sick, but he was past even that. Instead he just felt nearly nothing, left alone and adrift in a place that he did not belong.

For a solid minute Kylo stood there, unmoving, and took in each wall and piece of furniture as if one might eventually prove a trap. None did, so he retired to the refresher and finished the task he’d begun aboard the Falcon: stripping himself of all remaining outward signs of his allegiance to the First Order. He spent an inordinate amount of time under the stream of water, and afterward spent nearly as long staring at himself in the mirror.

He didn't frequently look at himself, and not just for want of opportunity. But now his eyes roamed over the invisible line Leia’s hand had traced down the right side of his face, cheekbone to chin. It was the first time he’d been touched with such affection in a longer time than he knew, and he’d barely been able to stand it. He half expected to find some mark left behind, burnt into him or inflamed in angry red, but there was none. Just his skin as it always was.

She’d called him Ben; so had Han. He hadn’t revolted at it that time, but it only served to remind him of how long he’d spent burying the idea of Ben and convincing himself that person no longer existed.

His mind had been so long at war with itself that he couldn’t remember anymore what it was like to feel good about being Ben, whoever that was at this point. It was much easier to recall feeling weak or defective or alone, and to associate all of those things with that name. Ben was all those things. Ben was unsuitable for the Light. Ben was nothing. To be called by that name felt tantamount to insult.

But this body, it was Ben’s. He’d spent years practically insulated from physical harm. Those who challenged him rarely lived long enough to land strike or bolt, and Snoke never left physical reminders of what harm he inflicted. Any marks Kylo bore and hadn’t been born with were Ben’s—a horizontal scar under his left knee after falling from a tree in some Chandrila bog; a pale line on his palm, the souvenir of a slip with a vibroknife; a faint curve on the back of his shoulder left by a poorly healed laceration from a botched speeder landing. There were others.

Soon he grew tired of mapping past mistakes when he had so many greater ones to wrestle with now. He emerged into the bedroom and found that a tray of food and change of clothing had been brought, probably by some droid. Idly, he hoped it was C-3PO, who he could easily envision taking offense at being tasked with such menial, undignified labor. He was uncertain what to do with the clothing he’d arrived in, so after he dressed and decided that he did indeed feel like an imposter in the gray shirt and dark trousers he’d been provided (at least they fit well enough), he tossed his other things onto the bed and laid down beside the shapeless lump they landed in.

Away from the First Order ships, he realized they’d had a smell. It was knitted into what he’d worn getting here, and it was nothing like that of the room he was now in: aromas of dirt and metal and something faintly floral. The room smelled like his mother. He grabbed the crumpled tunic and balled it over the pillow.

He thought again of his lightsaber and how its call was fainter now, almost a nonentity though not so far away. If he reached into that feeling he knew it would become clearer. He did not. For the first time he almost didn’t care.

He didn’t care about the food on the tray beside the bed, either. He didn’t care if Han and Leia wanted to call him Ben. He was beginning to wonder if they needed it: to believe they'd brought back Ben Solo, not Kylo Ren. If they needed to think of him that way, if it let them think this was all so simple, so be it. It was a lie they could tell themselves to avoid the difficult facts of what their son had done. Ridiculous.

Yet despite that, he couldn't avoid the idea that he’d never truly stopped being that person—Ben, with all his faults and cracks. He’d failed to do so at every turn, and the cracks had multiplied and splintered and given, and he’d finally failed so hard that it had led him right back to this place. Deeming one name deficient and taking up another had brought neither clarity nor alignment to everything within him that had always been unbalanced. It would change nothing now. He knew who he was. (He thought he did.) He was very practiced at telling himself as much.

This was no mere misstep. He could not go back; he felt like he had hardly left at all. Alone in Leia’s quarters with little to occupy him beyond the contemplation of such complexities, Kylo soon slipped into a light, dream-addled sleep

Chapter Text

On Takodana, surrounded by the denizens of a hundred worlds, Rey had been on her guard despite the company of those few she was just then beginning to trust. Here in the underground command center of D’Qar, she found herself feeling little different. As Resistance members milled around and found seats or walls to lean on, the instinct that told her to beware returned.

She forced herself to ignore it.

Yes, it was almost unthinkable to be among such a great number of people and not have to wonder how many of them were a threat. But she was safe. At last. For now. Safety was always relative of course, especially when the place she had ended up was a target disguised as a planet. The First Order would pull itself together quickly, and if the Resistance were smart, they would be on the move in less time than that took. Soon she would need to decide once and for all what that meant for her.

General Organa—or perhaps she was still called Princess Leia? Rey wasn’t sure how all that worked—had just arrived with Han and Chewie in her wake. Rey caught Han’s eye and nodded a greeting; Chewie raised a massive paw to acknowledge her in turn. Beside her, Finn was trying not to fidget, and she elbowed him gently.

“Calm down,” she hissed. He’d already met most of these people and been accepted among them. If either of them had reason to be nervous, it was her, surely. “The worst is over.”

He didn’t take his eyes from the gathering crowd, but he raised an eyebrow and whispered back, “You really believe that?”

No, she didn't really believe that. But saying it to someone else breathed some life into the illusion that it could be true. She shook her head. “I just mean, right now, this is where we need to be.”

She knew he still didn’t agree. Han had been right—the only reason Finn hadn’t already disappeared across the galaxy was her. As deeply grateful as she was for that fact, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. She’d spent almost her whole life waiting for people to come back for her. Now someone had, and it was not at all what she’d expected. Maybe Finn was right. Maybe he should go his way, and she hers, back to Jakku. Because the truth was, she wasn’t done waiting, not really.

It might be an ideal time to part ways. Everyone else had to go, and she was no different.

But reasons to stay kept falling into her lap. The lightsaber still hung at her hip, weirdly alive, warm in a way that touched soul more than body. Ever since she’d reunited with it aboard the Falcon, she hadn’t convinced herself to put it down or let it out of her sight. Even as they’d landed, Finn had seen her with it and, when she’d tried to return it to him, refused and said that he thought she ought to keep it.

Now, she wondered if he’d simply been trying to unburden himself of similar ties to this place and these people. Clear his path and find the quickest way out. Everything kept changing too quickly. As if to confirm that, the low hum of conversation around them died down. Everyone's attention converged around Leia, and Rey could feel the way all eyes and hopes moved to fix on her.

Hers did too. Though Leia seemed she would stand at least a full head shorter than Rey, she projected an energy that spread like the roots of a great tree until it filled every corner of the room—solid strength and serenity, but fire too; a steady thread of old sadnesses; fortitude born of losses healed over and hardened. Rey felt soothed by its touch, and her doubts were temporarily allayed.

Presiding at the center of the command center, Leia cast a cool, even look over the room, and Rey didn’t think it was merely for effect. She was considering each cluster of faces before she began, reading the mood of the space. “Thank you all for being here,” she finally began, her mouth curved in an unexpectedly warm smile that lit her tired eyes. “Not that you had much choice. But I think we are all grateful to be able to say that we’re here at all. ”

There was a quiet chuckle from some, a few shrugs and nods. Finn huffed once in a short, knowing laugh.

“The Resistance has achieved a remarkable feat today—with the destruction of the First Order’s Starkiller Base, we have averted—”

She stopped abruptly as the room broke out in applause and cheers and hoots of elation, catharsis after hours of not knowing whether the base—the planet—would exist at all as dawn broke. So she allowed it, and after nearly half a minute, raised a hand and continued as the noise ebbed.

“We’ve averted sure disaster. Despite the losses we could not have predicted or prevented, the tragic destruction of the Hosnian System and the lives of countless innocents, we have ensured that such a travesty will not happen again. We’ve preserved hope for a just galaxy. We’ve obtained an invaluable piece of intelligence that many have died to see safely into our hands. And be assured, we will see to it that those who played an instrumental role in today’s victory are duly recognized, and those who gave their lives honored as they deserve to be.

“But this was, at its heart, something we could not have managed without every one of you and the work you do, and continue to do, for this cause. You all have my sincerest gratitude and deepest pride, and my hope that this proves the turning point we so desperately need. The Force has been with us, and may it continue to be.”

Leia went silent for a few moments to permit another burst of celebratory sounds from the room, but Rey kept watching her. She wasn’t done, of course, but it seemed as if whatever she was about to say next troubled her.

Rey suspected she knew what it was. She looked at Finn and drew closer. “Do you think she’s about to mention . . .”

“She can’t exactly hope no one will notice.”

“No, but—”

“There is something else.” Leia’s low, steady voice carried easily over the room, and any remaining chatter ceased in anticipation of further tidings. “We have . . . acquired, an asset from the First Order. A defector whose presence here, I hope, will also see a shift in the greater tide.”

A few in the room looked toward Finn, and Rey felt their eyes on her as much as him. They were all wrong to assume; they already knew Finn. Leia wouldn’t see need to inform anyone of his presence or make a spectacle of him.

“Kylo Ren has renounced his allegiance to the First Order and is prepared to act as informant and ally to the Resistance.”

It was as if a vacuum had sucked all air and sound from the room. A moment later the assembly gave way to outcry as the weight of what Leia had just revealed settled on each person there. If she was taken aback by the reaction—she shouldn’t have been, but she was human—she didn’t show it. She let the loudest of the general dissent die down, then went on, her cadence only slightly altered.

“It is also my duty to be honest with you all, now, because until this point, I have not—and it was wrong of me. A terrible mistake. I should have learned from the past, but my judgment was flawed, and I lost sight of the importance of truth, even difficult truths. . . . There is no excuse.”

She shook her head as if to force herself back to the point. “I’ve allowed people to believe that my only son was among those murdered during the destruction of my brother’s Jedi temple nearly six years ago. The truth I should not have hidden is that my son is alive. The truth is that he was a perpetrator in what happened that night at Luke’s academy—the perpetrator. The truth is that the man known as Kylo Ren, who now sits in this base awaiting his lot, is Ben Solo. My son.”

“Our son.” Han had stepped forward from his spot near the side of the command center, looking surly and discomfited as he stood by Leia as if he was daring anyone to challenge her.

She glanced at him with an unreadable expression, then returned her attention to the crowd. “Regardless, I want to make it clear that the sanctuary we offer him, which he has accepted, is nothing to do with who he is, and everything to do with what the Resistance stands for and always has stood for—even in the days of the Empire. We would offer the same to any defector seeking asylum, and already have done. If we can’t manage such a thing now, we have no chance of healing the brokenness that has haunted our galaxy for far too long, or maintaining peace when this war is over.”

Somehow the already jarring silence deepened. Rey let her eyes roam. There were so many people gathered around that it was a challenge to read any one of them, but she suspected at least one thing was certain: Leia’s revelation was difficult to accept. One moment the room had been awash in relief and a sense of celebration, only to have that rolled over by troubling, unexpected news. She was still processing it herself, and it had been hours. Someone coughed, and she heard boots scuffing the floor.

“You said his lot?”

She wasn’t sure where the voice had come from. Everyone was crowded so close together, and many had seemed to gravitate into tight groups of friends or close peers, that it was difficult to pick it out beyond somewhere along one of the walls. It was amazing how quickly the air in the room had lost its jubilant electricity; now there was something dour and dangerous in its place.

“Excuse me?” Leia was still the picture of composure. She had to know that what she had just said was putting her trustworthiness, maybe even her leadership, into question. Not that anyone would do anything about that, Rey thought. But loyalties were tricky things.

“His lot. A man like Kylo Ren isn’t just any defector. And you said he awaits his lot. What is that, exactly?”

Rey followed the line of Leia's gaze and found the speaker. It was a man in an orange flight suit. His hair was dark and curly, tamped down bit, and his face was rather pleasing, all square jaw and handsome angles. He spoke like he had some authority to do so. Poe Dameron. She had met him earlier, only briefly, when he’d intercepted her and Finn as they entered the base. She recalled the way he’d emanated impulsive energy, and he had been delighted by Finn’s arrival and interested in her story. She hadn’t known what to say, nor had she been able to tell whether she liked him in the short time they’d had.

Still, he was the man who had helped Finn leave the First Order, and BB-8’s owner, and, apparently, a marvelous pilot, so she was inclined to consider him decent enough.

Leia was silent for a few moments, her hands folded neatly in front of her. “Well, Commander Dameron, that depends to an extent on the people in this room,” she said. Her voice was so even it was impossible to tell what she must be thinking. Rey admired that, her ability to be so in control even now. “But I believe he is sincere in his wishes to make reparations in whatever way he can, and I implore all of us to consider what that means.

“It means that what my brother did for our father three decades ago was not an impossible feat. It was not an anomaly. It means that there remain things worth fighting for in this war on a much scale smaller than dogfights and destruction. Things we can’t always see. It means that if there is even a sliver of hope to salvage a light in the dark, we should seize it and let it grow, not . . . snuff it out when it gutters.”

It was a pretty speech, difficult to argue without sounding callous, particularly when she had dragged such personal things into it. She no doubt knew what she was doing, who her audience was, and who she was to them. Their trust might have been shaken, and with good reason, but most would want to assume the best. Hope for the best.

“Is he sincere though? How do we know that?” It was a different speaker this time, but one Rey couldn’t see.

After a beat, someone else called, “What if this is some part of a plot against the Resistance?”

“Right. What if . . .” Another voice rose in objection. “What if to some of us, this means we have a valuable prisoner who ought to be tried as a war criminal?”

There were a few scattered noises of agreement, though not nearly as many as Rey would have expected. It was surprising, but again she thought it had less to do with a welcoming spirit and more to do with deference Leia and her position and history. Rey couldn’t blame them for questioning; not one bit.

Leia gave a solemn nod. “Such decisions might have been within the purview of the New Republic. But after the tragic events of today and so much loss of life, with its seat of power destroyed . . . so is all sense of order. Whatever may be left of the Republic, despite our efforts to plead our case, its view of our movement as a warmongering rogue faction will not have changed. It’s likely there are those claiming to speak for the Republic who will too gladly paint our recent actions against the First Order as reason for the attack on the Hosnian System. And perhaps there is some truth in that. But I don’t consider it our prerogative to conduct such affairs. Not when our priorities must lie elsewhere.”

No one had anything to say to that, though Rey felt the collected tension like a current prickling over her skin.

“If Ben Solo is due a trial, he isn’t going to get one among our ranks,” Leia went on. “There is too much to do, and too little time for it, and barely enough hands for the work. We will monitor him, and allow him to prove himself, and we will integrate him. And while I would prefer to know that such a motion has your support, your thoughts and opinions are your own. But it is not for debate.”

Finn shifted beside Rey. She hadn’t realized it until then, but he had stopped fidgeting a while ago. When he spoke, it was with the voice of one still becoming accustomed to the idea that his opinion might be welcome. Opinions weren’t valued in a stormtrooper. But then, Finn had already proven that he had not been cut out for the job in other ways.

“I support it.” He raised a hand partway, then seemed to realized such a gesture wasn’t required and dropped it.

His face was still set, and he had eyes only for Leia, and Rey shot him a look of fleeting surprise. She had no idea what possessed him to speak, let alone to say that. She didn’t think Leia was really asking for anyone to declare their support or objections any further than they already had. Even so, a moment later, a tall, reedy woman standing off to the left echoed Finn’s words. Her hair was a jarring shade of violet, and she shared a long look with Leia that seemed to mean something more than what she had spoken. A Mon Calamari officer raised a third voice.

The response from there on was not overwhelming, but there were others who voiced their assent with varying degrees of conviction. Rey surprised herself most of all when she became one of them. As for those who objected, they preferred to nurse their reservations in silence as the proceedings continued to other pressing matters, no doubt with the assumption that time would shortly tell if their concerns were for naught.

She’d been asked to stay behind. As the assembly dispelled and Rey was making for the exit with Finn, Han had approached and clapped a hand on each of them. Leia wanted to speak with her. As for Finn, he was immediately intercepted by a broadly grinning Poe. That electric impression she’d had of him before returned, though it also struck her that he’d seemed harried and was regarding Finn with a questioning air. Though Finn had been reluctant to part with Rey, he’d assured her he would find her soon, then departed in the company of Poe and a few others.

With some unease, Rey lingered near the edge of the room. Leia was finishing up a conversation with a handful of officers near the center, including a few Rey now recognized as having spoken in favor of keeping Kylo Ren at hand. The last thing she wished to do was interrupt or get pulled into some larger, deeper discussion. Besides, she was still caught up trying to imagine what Leia could possibly want from her.

She swiftly rid herself of that uncertainty—it was easy to think of a few things. One of them was hanging at her hip. The other lingered only in her mind, images of a man’s face and what she had seen behind it. Rey didn’t have to dwell long on any of this; soon enough the remaining officers were moving on too. She tried not to stare at them, but she knew some were looking at her as they went and wasn’t sure what to make of it. It reminded her how out of place she was: still dressed for the manual work of rappelling and scavenging, dirty and sore and tired and probably smelly.

It annoyed her a little, and that feeling spurred her away from the fringes and toward the middle of the room to meet with the general. In the more intimate setting, Leia was still a powerful force, and she regarded Rey with a warmth that felt undeserved. Rey had never met her before. It seemed utterly impossible that Leia could be so readily accepting of her presence, even after she had requested it.

“So, you’re Rey,” Leia said. “I wondered what sort of person could inspire even a man of Finn’s bravery to run so willingly back into danger.”

Leia’s eyes flitted down to the lightsaber, held fast in Rey’s belt, then over the rest of her. It was so quick Rey barely had time to feel she was being scrutinized, if that had even been what Leia was doing. Her face felt a little warm. Hearing such a candid appraisal of Finn’s motives was embarrassing, even if she’d known them already.

“I guess Han told you everything,” she said, desperate for a way to ease her nerves. It didn’t occur to her until after the words left her mouth that it may be a rude thing to say.

Leia chuckled. “Maybe not everything, but enough. He’s still my husband, even if we’ve been estranged. You’d be surprised how easy it is to pick some things up where you last left them. Talking’s not always the easy part, but sometimes it is.” Her eyes narrowed, like she was looking for something. “He’s very fond of you.”

“Oh. I don’t know. He offered me a job but . . .” Rey shook her head and shrugged. “He made sure to tell me he wouldn’t be nice to me if I took it.”

That time, Leia laughed openly, and it was so unexpected Rey had to stop herself from taking a step back in alarm. “Yes, that means he’s very fond of you,” Leia repeated.

Something about the fact that she was joking with Rey made her feel a little less nervous. She was in the presence of a war hero, a princess and a senator and a general—the sort of person Rey would never have crossed paths with at the outpost. Yet here they both were, face to face and speaking like they already knew each other, like she could tell Leia anything.

Before she realized the thought was even forming, she couldn’t help letting herself imagine, for the briefest moment, that this must be what it was like to talk to one’s mother. To have a family that could be trusted with all of her self. She had no basis for comparison, but if she’d ever had such an experience, Rey would have wanted it to feel a bit like that.

Her throat felt itchy, and she dipped her chin to cough quietly. Leia wasn’t her mother, or her family, or even really a friend. Rey needed to be careful, no matter how welcome she was here.

“Well,” Leia went on, “I’m pleased to see you both made it to the base. Alive.” She reached out and settled a hand on Rey’s arm, a gesture that was instantly reassuring. “I know that you’ve been through an ordeal. You must be exhausted.”

“A bit.” Rey smiled tightly. “More hungry than that, really.”

Leia nodded, fighting a half grin of sly amusement. “I’ll make sure you have a bunk and a meal shortly. I can’t promise it’ll be particularly appetizing, but what’s ours is yours.”

“I don’t need much,” Rey assured her. “And I want to help where I can. If you need it . . .”

She didn’t say that she wasn’t sure how much she could offer, or if she’d be around long enough to make a difference. Things had changed since she’d fled the castle on Takodana, but it still felt more natural to her to retreat to the familiar as soon as possible. She didn’t trust herself to make promises to the Resistance, not when she didn’t think she could keep them.

“We’re going to take you up on that, you know,” Leia warned good-naturedly. “We may have our missing map, but we’re still short a way to read it properly. Are you handy with droids at all?”

Finding herself the subject of scrutiny yet again, Rey struggled to answer right away. Leia had asked, but she’d done so in a way that suggested she already knew. Han must have had some things to say about Rey’s aptitudes for machinery. Of course she was handy with droids, though admittedly, much of her experience had been in the way of taking discarded, partially destroyed, or otherwise defunct models apart for repurposing. Nevertheless, Leia’s relief was palpable when she said as much.

Despite BB-8 having arrived safely home with the Resistance, his partial map still required a larger whole to be truly useful, just as Finn had told her on the Falcon. Unfortunately, that whole was currently stored in the memory of an R2 unit that had spent the better part of the last six years on low-power mode. Nothing any of their own specialists had tried seemed to succeed in rousing the old droid, but Leia hoped that Rey might have some ideas. Or just better luck.

Rey wished she could be more confident of that. Under other circumstances, she’d have been thrilled by the prospect of such a challenge. She liked droids and found their complex inner workings fascinating. When she was younger, she had even spent a few months trying to make one for herself. She’d envisioned a little mechanical friend to keep her loneliness at bay, maybe even help with work and sorting. But it had proven beyond her resources and abilities at the time. In the end, those circuits and wires and bits of metal she’d squirreled away had formed the basis for her flight simulator instead. She considered it a more than acceptable concession, and ultimately more useful.

But with her energy flagging and her growing disorientation at being thrown so suddenly into a new way of life, all she could do was say that she would try her best. Leia seemed satisfied enough with that and didn’t press further, though talk of the map had already brought to Rey’s mind the reason they needed it at all. Somewhere in the galaxy, Luke Skywalker was hiding away, and the map was the key to finding him and bringing him home. She reckoned she might be carrying another piece of that key with her. She hoped Leia had some advice.

“Oh. There’s also this.” Carefully, Rey pulled the lightsaber from her belt and offered it to her. “I found it. It’s Luke’s. I thought you might . . .want it.”

Leia regarded the saber with a fathomless look that Rey didn’t want to try to read. It felt too personal. So she just looked at the saber too, and felt its peculiar weight in her palm.

“How did you come across that?” Leia asked. “Han told me he’d seen you with it on the trip here.”

“It was at Maz’s castle, on Takodana. In a trunk somewhere beneath,” Rey began. She was trying to be prudent with her words. She wasn’t sure how to explain any of what had happened, or if she even wanted to try yet. “I . . . was wandering around. I shouldn’t have been. Habit, I guess.”

“Hm. You were a scavenger, back on Jakku? Is that right?” When Rey nodded, Leia’s gaze softened. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised about Maz having it stowed away. You might say she’s a bit of a scavenger herself. Seeing it here however, that’s a bit surprising.”

Rey was trying to keep her current version of the truth straight, but it was difficult. Her finding the lightsaber didn’t explain why she still had it, nor why Maz would have told her to keep it. Leia’s earlier words flowered in her mind: the importance of truth.

“I touched it and— I don’t know. Something happened. I . . . saw some things. Heard them? Like a dream, I guess. Or a hallucination. Maz found me with it and told me to keep it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t understand. So . . . I left it, and I tried to go. I just needed some air, but . . . in the forest . . . Kylo— your—”

She had no idea what to call him to Leia’s face, especially when she was standing there regarding Rey with such a patient look. She couldn’t even decide how much to tell her of what had occurred after Kylo Ren took her with him.

So Rey decided not to go into it at all. “I didn’t see it again until after I was back on the Falcon. Coming here. I thought maybe I ought to bring it to you. You could give it to Luke.”

For a few seconds they just stared down at it together, and Rey wished Leia would take it already. But she didn’t. She cleared her throat and patted Rey’s arm again, then took a step back.

“I’m not the one meant to hold on to that,” she said finally.

Something in her voice warned Rey not to protest. There had been some part of her hoping that Leia would accept it, and with it the abstract, unknowable burden it seemed to represent. But of course she hadn’t. Deep down, Rey had known she wouldn’t. All it did was confirm again Maz’s words to her. It was becoming impossible to convince herself they must have meant something else.

“But—it’s your family’s. It’s not mine,” Rey tried to explain, as if any of that might be news to Leia. She almost said she didn’t want it, but feared she would sound rude again, or ungrateful—not that she’d asked for any of this to begin with. “I don’t know what to do with it.”

She immediately hated how pathetic she sounded.

“You don’t need to do anything with it. Just keep it safe.”

“But what—”

“At the risk of sounding too mystical, these things don’t happen by accident. You may not have been looking for it, but you found it, and you found your way here. That means something.” Leia sighed and looked wistful. “If it was meant to find its way back to Luke, now you’re a part of that. And we’re one step closer to it than we were just a few days ago.”

Rey slowly let her hand fall. She wasn’t going to win this one; she’d done so much fighting already she suddenly had none left in her.

“As for now, I want you to report to the mess hall, have a meal. I’ll send Threepio to find you when we’ve secured a free bunk.” Her tone implied that there were considerably more free bunks now in the aftermath of the siege on Starkiller Base. “Rest. You’re due that. And we need you at your best.”

Rey didn’t wish to argue with a general, so she thanked her and saw herself out. It occurred to her that she had no idea where the mess hall was, and she was about to try to find someone to ask when she picked up the smell of something savory. That would do just as well as proper directions, so Rey followed her nose down several unremarkable and nearly identical corridors until she found herself in a large chamber set with rows of tables and benches. A space near the back had a wide, open window and stacks of trays—the smell was definitely coming from there, and her mouth began to water.

When she spied Finn lingering not far from there, her urgency for a meal was temporarily allayed. Finding a place to sit together was not a challenge—she’d arrived between normal meal times, and it was to their advantage in terms of privacy—though she could imagine it grew quite crowded ordinarily. Soon enough they were settled and well into the task of wordlessly demolishing two trays of bland, lukewarm food. It was so good just to have something in her belly that she felt herself beginning to focus properly for the first time in hours. It became easy simply to talk with Finn the way she supposed friends did when they had nothing better to do.

But lulls settled here and there anyway, and when they did Rey was dismayed to find that same replenished focus drawing her to wonder, of all things, about Kylo. It was too like when she had been on the Falcon, compelled to curiosity about his condition and whereabouts. She supposed Leia must have been keeping him close, and allowed herself to puzzle briefly over why she cared at all before asking Finn a question that had been just as much on her mind since the meeting.

“What made you speak up in the command center?” she blurted, mouth still half full of some sort of pureed fruit concoction. “About Kylo Ren. After everything Leia said. I didn’t think anyone was going to . . . I don’t even know why I did. Except that you had, and I thought there must have been a reason.”

Finn was considering her, chewing thoughtfully, his gaze drifting and growing distant as his silence lengthened. He put his fork down and gave her a look that reminded her of the one she’d seen in Maz’s castle, when he’d told her the truth about where he had come from and why he was so desperate to keep running.

“He let me go.”

Now Rey was just confused. “What? I thought you got Poe out and he helped you fly—”

“No. That’s what happened, I mean. But before that. Look, I told you that during my first battle I refused to fire. To fight. There was . . . there was a whole village of people. We were on Jakku. Tuanul.”

Rey knew the name. It was a remote village north of her home. She’d been near but never actually passed through. Something about it had always made her feel strange, so she’d never liked lingering more than a few kilometers away, even when the scavenging was good.

“It was barely a battle,” Finn continued. “We were only there because the First Order had tracked the map to someone in the village, and we’d been sent to root it out. Kill anyone who resisted. In the end we were ordered to destroy the whole place. Leave no survivors.” He drew a deep breath. “I didn’t fire. I couldn’t. I’d just seen another trooper die, right beside me, and I’d rather have died too than be used by them anymore. To them we were just . . . bodies. Tools. But he saw me. Ren. He knew I disobeyed a direct command and he looked right at me and he didn’t do anything about it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just below him to care. Probably.”

Finn frowned and shrugged, then ate a too-large bite of bread to give himself an excuse to pause. He was still chewing when he said, “It’s a stupid reason. I don’t owe him anything. I don’t know what he’s doing here. But I know what it’s like to decide to leave the First Order. No one just leaves. But I did. And now he has. Maybe his reasons were the same as mine. Maybe they weren’t. But Princess Leia and Poe and everyone here has given me a chance, without even knowing me. So I thought—maybe that was a good reason to speak up.”

“I didn’t realize.” She stared at the edge of her tray. “Maybe it was. A good reason.”

She hadn’t expected Finn’s motivations to be so personal. It stunned her a bit, in fact. And it felt peculiarly significant. They’d all been on Jakku at the same time as that momentous, horrible event played out and set everything in motion. And now they were all here. She wanted to tell Finn how much she hoped this meant he would stay, too. Instead, she reached across the table and squeezed his hand, then grinned and stole a bit of boiled vegetable from his plate and shoved it into her mouth before he could do anything about it.

The moment the door slid shut behind her, it hit Rey that she had not slept in . . . she had no idea. It seemed like months, and she hardly felt like herself anymore. The bunkrooms were shared, four beds to a room, but fortunately, the one she’d been assigned was empty at the moment. It was so strange to be alone; it had never felt strange before. But now that she was, her thoughts were flickering back to those questions she’d fought back as she ate: Where was Kylo? What was he doing? Was he truly here to help, or did he have some other agenda?

She brushed them aside and laid down on a bottom bunk, right on top of the pristinely made-up sheets, and she closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. But the mattress was too soft and too still compared to the hammock she was accustomed to. The room smelled of the wrong sorts of dust and metal. The sounds were not of distant night raiders and raucous desert carrion birds. And all she saw when she shut her eyes was his face as it had been when she’d pushed into his mind.

It had been a victory then. She’d felt a rush of uncomplicated, wolfish pleasure at having bested him without even knowing how she had done so. All she’d known as she fled that chamber was that something in her had awakened.

But that fear she’d found in him, rooted so deep—it troubled her. It made him, for just a moment, too terribly human in a way seeing his face had not. His face had been arrogant and strange and magnetic, but distant. It was easy to want to fight that face and its irksome certainty of the upper hand. The fear, though. Kylo Ren’s fear had been so naked and unconcealed that it wasn't until now, farther removed, that she could begin to connect it to the man she had seen on the bridge, and on the boarding ramp of the Falcon, and in the galley. Each glimpse was like a little bit of scrap she was trying to piece together to form a whole she’d never seen.

There might have been more there, if she’d had the wherewithal to dig. There would have been. She didn't really have the vocabulary for it—she knew so little of the Force—but she had felt little flashes of him in the instant before he’d withdrawn and left her. There was more to that fear than mere failure to fulfill some twisted idea of family legacy. She didn’t know what it was, but there was a part of her that wanted to.

Why?

Rey fell asleep thinking on those things, dwelling on an unintended meeting of minds and all its unintended consequences. She was certain there would be more.

Chapter Text

Something bit at the back of Rey’s arms, so she turned her face to the ocean to look. Salt and small sharp stones hurled up in the waves, impressively high—that’s what she’d been feeling, stinging like sandflies. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how close to the cliff’s edge she was standing. But now she saw she was near enough to it that a strong wind and misplaced step could easily tip her right off. Given the way the sheer rock faces to either side trapped and intensified every disturbance in the air, such a thing seemed all too likely. She took a few steps back.

The funny thing was, the notion that she could go tumbling over the edge, plummet down into the water below to be broken and torn by the rocks at the bottom, almost had an appeal. What if she did let go and fall? What would that be like? The morbid curiosity nibbled at a corner of her mind; she was dimly amused to find herself thinking such a thing at all.

So she let it nibble, for it was harmless enough to entertain a thought, and she turned her attention back to the truly interesting thing: that hole in the ground. She’d been leery of getting too close to it, despite her cavalier feelings toward the possibility of a fatal fall off a cliffside.

She had been watching the hole (wrong; it was a cave, she knew that, suddenly) for some time, though when she tried to think how long exactly it had been, she found she could not. The cave had swallowed up the memory of any time before the present moment. That was fine. The more important thing was that there was something she wanted inside it. Whatever that thing was, it was dangerous—maybe—but that only made her want it more.

Rey frowned down into the dark. The hole was peculiarly perfect in its roundness, a solid black throat in the stone, rimmed with an eruption of coiling vines and cabled weeds, green and brown and rusty red. She wondered what the vines would feel like, if the weeds were as slimy as their sheen suggested. She began to bend to touch them. Something seemed to want her to.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

At the sound of a new voice, Rey swore spectacularly and sprang back. In another moment she had spun on her heels, then tensed and sank a little, feet set, ready to fight if need be.

It was Kylo Ren.

She thought there was something strange about his appearance, but then she realized it was only because he was less covered up than he had been when she’d seen him last. Boots, trousers, a tunic and belt. Still all black, though no gloves, no surcoat or cowl, no mask. He looked unwell, shadow-eyed and slack around the mouth.

And he was standing only a few paces away with his back to the sea, right where she had been standing moments before. Strange. She ought to have heard him coming—the cliff was scattered all over with gravel and loose sediment. Even the short distance she had covered just before he spoke had been announced by the crunch of her own boots, and he did not strike her as a light stepper. More than that, she should have seen him arrive.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, annoyed by the invasion of her privacy.

The moment she did so, Rey had a new thought: Where was here? She had no idea where the cliff was located, what ocean she was looking at, how she’d arrived there. And then, just as suddenly as that question had formed, she found the answer coalescing at the fore of her mind.

“This is just a dream.”

Kylo’s eyebrows rose, and he cocked his head. “Is it?”

Yes, it certainly was. Even as he asked, though, she sensed he was teasing her. This dream version of him seemed to know he was only a figment of her sleeping mind—yet as she thought of that, it felt wrong. This was a dream. And he was not. He was real. It made no sense, but she wasn’t sure how else to describe it. Maybe . . .

She took a few steps around the mouth of the hole, wary and wondering. “What else would it be?”

He hadn’t moved from where she’d first spotted him. The wind off the sea blew in hard, and there was something strange about that, too. It was strong enough to send up another explosion of seawater from below and provoke a herd of tiny pebbles into skittering before her boots. One by one they leapt down into the hole as she watched. But that same wind hadn’t disturbed any of her clothing, or her hair, and it was just the same for Kylo when she looked at him again, like they were both suspended in some other plane. He seemed about to ask her a question, but uncertain how to phrase it.

The sky grew darker in a rapid flickering burst. There were no clouds; no sun, either, nor any discernible light source. The sky had simply changed. Dimmed. A flat and total alteration in the play of light.

Nearly as soon as she noticed that, Rey felt something catch at her. It wasn’t a physical sensation, at least in no way she had ever experienced. It reminded her a bit of trying to squeeze through a tight space where the walls were rough, sandstone or granite, but this was on the inside, cold and clinging from within. She was the tight space, filled with the idea that she was being watched, or seen from a distance, or felt, somehow.

As sure as she could see Kylo there ahead of her—phantasm or figment or real in whatever way her dream logic told her he must be—she was sure of one other thing. Someone else was here.

“Get out,” Kylo snapped.

She thought the command was directed at her, because he was looking at her, but that wasn’t all it was. He was looking past her. The roar of the water was suddenly impossibly loud, and that sussurating summons from the hole more insistent than ever, but his voice still carried when he repeated “Get out of here” and started toward her the way he had in the forest on Takodana.

Unlike that time, here she could see his face, and it wasn’t just anger she found there. It was confusion and frustration and the beginnings of panic. She knew because she felt it too; every bit of it, welled up and expanding in that space inside her. Rey drew in a hissing breath and stepped back—

One step, two, three, fourfivesix

The ground beneath her feet was not ground at all but chilled, open air. She arched back, her arms flew out to grab at nothing, the air left her lungs as she fell and fell, into the hole, slick stony sides racing past, wind whistling in her ears. She couldn't even cry out. She hit the water at the bottom with a sharp snap that shattered her vision and released her into consciousness.

Chapter Text

Kylo thrashed and woke. In the span of moments it took him to realize where he was and why, his heart had begun to race. It may already have been, even when he’d still been asleep. The dream was enough to cause it. His dream; or hers.

That island. A hole in the ground. Brine and waves and gravel.

Finding her there hadn’t been the strange part. He’d suspected from the moment he encountered her in the forest that she was the girl he had seen—in dreams, in flashes, in fleeting impressions—since he was a child. He was certain now. This was just the first time he’d seen her face in such a way and remembered it after the fact.

And it was the first time she had seen him in turn and known him. Rey really had been there. Somehow. Thinking and moving and speaking on her own, fully in control of herself, far more than some mere vision his subconscious had conjured up. He had frightened her, and then she’d fallen. That had been all. She was gone. It was over.

It felt almost like he had intruded on her dream, rather than she on his. Could it be both at once? He could very easily have been swept up in the task of trying to puzzle it out. Perhaps it was some residual effect of when he had probed deeper into her mind and instead found her inside his. Something had happened then, beyond just that. He’d felt it, and so had she.

And he felt, he knew, that this was more than a dream.

But she hadn’t been the only presence in his head—on that cliff, at the mouth of that cave under the ground, that island she dreamed of—and so all he could think was that it could not be allowed to happen again.

It was dangerous to sleep too deeply. He was familiar with the consequences of an unguarded mind. He knew better. He should have known better. It had been a long time since he’d had to try so hard, and his current situation was complicating matters further, but he felt the Supreme Leader there, at the edges, looking for a crack. Kylo would not waste time trying to root the problem out; it was too much a part of him. There were defenses, though, that he’d accustomed himself to. If he was out of practice, he would need to change that, starting now.

Kylo became abruptly aware that he was being watched. He sat up, annoyed by the way his left arm had gone heavy and numb after hours sleeping on top of it, and craned his neck to peer out the door into the office beyond. Leia was seated at her desk, facing the open bedroom door, splitting her attention between a datapad and, yes, him.

Even here, even now, he couldn’t be left to sleep undisturbed, could he?

The thought compounded his irritation, a feeling that fortified him as he rose with considerably more ease than he felt equal to. Whatever Leia was waiting to say to him, because she surely had been doing just that, he wanted to get it out of the way. He wasn’t even certain it bothered him much to think she may be about to inform him that they did, after all, have a nice cell picked out for him.

As he wandered out into the office, she set the datapad aside and looked at him with acute interest. “I was surprised to find you’d fallen asleep by the time I returned here.”

Out the corner of his eye he spied movement—a sudden flash of orange and white in the otherwise dull room. The BB-unit rolled to a stop in the corner farthest from him, out of the way but still ostentatious. Its presence perplexed him, then made him think only of the map it had kept from his hands.

He bristled inwardly and glanced around. “Did you expect to find the room in ruins?”

“No.” She sighed, the small smile that had graced her features faltering slightly. “But I do know you. And I know you have a tendency to let your feet get ahead of your brain. I thought you might have gotten cocky and tried to go elsewhere in the base.”

He let that settle over him for a few moments. It was a fair point, and he couldn’t have argued it even if he’d felt like doing so. But her easy familiarity bothered him. It felt like the prelude to something unpleasant.

He stopped at the middle of the room and considered having a seat. To do so would be too like submitting. So he stood where he was, neither fully in nor out of the room. If Leia thought it odd, she didn’t say as much.

“How long did I sleep?” he asked.

“It’s been a few hours,” she told him. “Five or so, I think.”

Five hours wasn’t much, but it was nothing to scoff at either. More than he’d had at a stretch in years. Still, Kylo didn’t feel particularly well rested. Especially not with the way he’d awoken.

“Did you eat?” Leia asked when it became clear he had no comments to offer.

He frowned, confused by the question. This exchange was not making any sense to him. The tray of untouched food he’d walked past a minute or so before, sitting where it had been before he’d laid down, would be cold by now, though it seemed unlikely that would have affected its quality much.

Finally, he shook his head, then managed a moment later, “No.”

These niceties were meaningless. He didn't feel like eating, or sleeping more. If Leia was trying to . . . What? Make up for something? . . . he wasn't interested. All Kylo needed to know was what came next.

“I suppose this is where you tell me whether I’m to be . . . do you even have a prison block here?” It sounded condescending, maybe, but the question was more rhetorical than anything else. “Or do you have other plans for me? I’d be a fine way to buy the good graces of the New Republic.”

Leia’s composure was almost infuriating, but it was familiar, too. Exactly what he knew to expect of her.

“What’s left of it,” she said. “The New Republic. I suspect they have other concerns right now in the wake of the Hosnian System’s destruction.” Was she blaming him for that? “And while there are some here who would agree with you, that’s not the way this is going to go.”

“How is it going to go, then?” He sounded merely curious, though his stillness belied the way his nerves were sparking.

“You will provide us whatever useful information you have from your time within the First Order. In exchange, you will be granted amnesty. Your actions as an agent of that organization will be pardoned. And you will remain here, in protective custody of the Resistance.” She looked away from him and seemed to consider her next words carefully. “I’d like for you to help us. You have . . . you have many gifts. And they could be put to such nobler work than they have been.”

Kylo heard her words, and on the surface he knew she intended no harm, but he couldn’t help looking beyond what he heard and beginning to speculate about what she meant.

He remembered what Han had said to him on the bridge—how Snoke would use him for his power and then crush him. And sometimes, in moments of doubt, Kylo had thought that could be true. Those weak-minded instances were often easy enough to deny. What Leia said now, though, seemed little more than the same thing, just put more nicely, speaking of protection and gifts and noble work, in the context of another cause that saw itself equally justified. It was no different.

He allowed himself a shallow nod but nothing more. Leia glanced at the chair across from her, and looked as if she might be about to ask him to sit, but she didn’t.

“I want you to have a home, Ben.” She sounded regretful. “It won’t be a simple transition. Things here are very unsettled, and even if they weren’t, your presence is a point of contention for some. That won’t stop right away. But time can change things. I believe you can do good here. I hope you’ll choose to.”

The question, he thought, was whether he wanted to. If they weren’t about to try and convict him—they could, it would be so easy, and he’d almost welcome it—and they weren’t about to jettison him off into exile in the Unknown Regions, that was it. They surely would not offer him a ship and send him on his way to travel freely. He would have to stay. And if he stayed, he’d have to, as Leia put it, do good. He would be lying if he claimed to know what that meant. He’d thought he’d been doing good in the First Order. Now, he couldn’t say with any certainty whether he believed that; the answer changed from moment to moment. He had been. Because the things he had done in its service . . . they had to be justified.

In some ways it felt like months since what had happened on the bridge, since he’d failed the test. But he still carried much of the First Order with him.

“If I don’t?”

She considered him. “Do you really have any other options right now? I am willing to make this transition as smooth as possible, and we aren’t asking much, considering the scope of the situation. You’ve left the First Order with a group of saboteurs. They aren’t going to welcome you back. You owe them nothing, and have everything to gain by helping us.”

Kylo found that doubtful. The Resistance truly didn’t have much in the way of things to offer, unless one considered the experience of being on the run with dwindling resources desirable. He’d seen reports. While it could be in far worse shape, the Resistance was not exactly at full strength, and it would not take much to put the movement in danger of extinction.

“No. I don’t,” he admitted. “I don’t have any other options. But don’t think I’m not aware that your motives are hardly any different. You may not be about to use me as some bargaining tool, but you’ll still use me.”

She tilted her head back, and he saw a flash of exasperation on her face that he could recall all too well. It was the sort of long-suffering look she’d given Han on many occasions, or him, usually when he’d just come into their Hanna City apartment covered in filth or bleeding from some ill-advised adventure.

“Think what you like. I can’t tell you how to perceive what’s happening here. But I hope you’ll soon have reason to see it differently. Ben.” She fixed him with a sharp stare, and this time he refused to lower his eyes. “Do you accept these terms? They’re the best you will get anywhere in this galaxy or the next, I can assure you.”

Pardon and amnesty. He should have been happy about it. It was far more than he deserved. A slate wiped clean. All the things he had done since that night at Luke’s temple . . . well, not forgotten, and certainly not forgiven, but looked beyond. They were nice words, good terms, but they were just that. Leia had made a point to mention, several times, that his presence here was not celebrated by all. In fact, he rather doubted it was celebrated by anyone, except perhaps Han and Leia, and he wondered how sincere that was and long it would last when they found how little it would change.

“Yes. I accept the terms. I’ll tell you what I know.”

It would be less than she expected, most likely, but she looked so pleased it caught him entirely off guard. It was enough that when she told him to sit, he did, and when she offered him a cup of caf, he took it without glaring or refusing. For as much as he truly hadn’t wanted it—his stomach was not ready to accommodate anything, though at least a full day had passed since he had eaten anything resembling a meal—the first sip did make him feel more alert and even something like cooperative. It was different than the sort he was accustomed to, when he indulged, but it was good. He resisted the thought that she was treating him almost as a guest rather than the subject of some political bargain.

With the pretense of amenity out of the way, Leia looked over her shoulder and beckoned for the BB-unit, which had been sitting in dutiful silence the entire time.

“Beebee-Ate, join us, please,” she called back as she returned her attention to opening a fresh file on her datapad. The droid rolled up and waited as she inserted a holostick into one of its ports. “I would like the following interview recorded. Standard holo will do. It goes without saying, but what you overhear in this room must remain confidential.” BB-8 chirped once, its dome head bobbing. “Thank you.”

The droid blurped and moved into place a few meters from the desk, whirring as its lens trained on the proceedings. Kylo was unsurprised and unoffended; the greatest indignity he saw in this was the particular droid being used. After a cursory look, he refused to pay it further mind.

Leia’s first questions were about the obvious—Starkiller Base. Resistance intel was reasonably confident it had been the only one of its kind, but she still had some reservations about readily believing that. There had been, after all, two Death Stars, even if they’d been years apart.

But the technology and science behind Starkiller had been much different. It hadn’t been merely a machine; it had been a planet once, alive and real and thriving, before the First Order had hollowed it out and filled it with the mechanisms of destruction. If there were plans to create another, such a feat would be many years off. The inception of Starkiller Base had preceded Kylo’s involvement with the First Order, so he couldn’t pinpoint exactly how long the work had taken the first time, but it had been a singular threat, now nullified.

Besides, the First Order had plenty of other resources and innovative weaponry at its disposal. The loss of their ability to utterly destroy whole systems at the pull of a lever was inconvenient in terms of sheer threat, but it was like taking a particularly bad-tempered tooka cat and removing the claws on only one of its paws—almost pointless in the long run.

What Kylo could offer, though, was some insight into another piece of First Order technology that might soon prove a new thorn in the side of the Resistance. When he said the words “hyperspace tracking,” Leia leaned forward, her brow knitting together so slightly it would have been missed by most, her lower lip pressing up. He’d found something that interested her, then. To his surprise, he was almost satisfied to be useful, and spoke a little more readily than he had been until that point.

“I don’t know the particulars,” he qualified. He had just realized why divulging this particular piece of information was so pleasing to him: hyperspace tracking had been yet another project largely under the purview of General Hux. To undermine him from such a distance was perversely delightful, even if he might never know it. “It’s been in development a long time. As I understand it, much of the basis for the project was taken from old Empire archives. The First Order refined it over the years, and it hasn’t been used yet, but it’s ready. And will give them the ability to track any craft—or group of craft, I suppose—at lightspeed. Through hyperspace.”

“That’s . . . that shouldn’t be possible.”

“Would you rather risk believing that when you know what it could cost you?”

“No. Not at all. Plenty of things in my experience that shouldn’t have been possible proved to be just that.” Leia nodded tightly. “So. How did you come to know about it?”

She’d long ago taken up her datapad again, and her fingers had been dancing over it nonstop since then.

Kylo drank more of his caf before answering. “I was involved in fighter development, when it suited me. Sienar-Jaemus. The engineers talk and think no one’s up to understanding their jargon. Some of those I provided reports to were also involved in the tracking project. Discreetly.” Not anymore, apparently. “I can provide names. Planets where crucial components were likely manufactured, too.”

“Good. I’ll want them.” She pursed her lips and tapped a finger on her desk. “Do you know anything about how it works?”

“As I said, I only know what I overheard, which was enough but not much. There’s a particular sort of field generator involved. It creates a localized hyperspace field.”

“Something like that would require an enormous amount of energy to stabilize and contain it.”

“I suppose it would.”

Leia was still typing so fast it was almost impossible to imagine what she could be entering. “So they wouldn’t just have this anywhere.”

“No. Of course not. The most logical place would be the Supremacy. It would serve better than anywhere else in terms of resources and security.” Kylo became aware that he was toeing into the territory of sheer speculation now, and couldn’t help thinking the sort of position that would put him in should any of it prove inaccurate. “It’s only an assumption. My knowledge isn’t complete, and I wasn’t especially interested in it. The project was under the supervision of General Armitage Hux. I avoided most unnecessary dealings with him.”

“Hm.”

“All that to say, I was granted certain liberty. To act independently of the First Order. I wasn’t directly involved in any of the weapons development or tech research.”

“And the starfighter research? These reports you say you provided?” Leia’s eyebrows rose, and she looked up at him. “That seems to qualify as weapons development, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes. That. I tested new models. Evaluated special modifications, was consulted on their efficacy. But it was a . . . personal interest.” He felt idiotic admitting it, but, “I did that because I enjoyed it.”

He wanted to add that he hadn’t enjoyed Starkiller Base, he hadn’t enjoyed what it had been used to do. But he had also done nothing to delay its use, beyond briefly voicing his objections before allowing himself to be silenced on the matter. He’d reasoned, at the time, that of course his distaste for it had been treated as a nonissue. He was the one who had failed to retrieve the map, in a way the one whose failure had necessitated the weapon’s use at all. Claiming innocence of the matter now was ridiculous, especially when there were other things he certainly had enjoyed, which he knew he should be ashamed to admit, but wasn’t.

Leia expelled a long breath, poured herself more caf from the warming plate at the edge of her desk, and refilled his half-empty cup for good measure. “That’s useful. Very useful,” she said as she settled back in her chair. “What else? You say you operated independently in some capacity?”

So he told her about the position he’d been in, a part of the First Order and yet apart from it. He tried to explain the Knights of Ren: how he’d trained with them; traveled with them at Snoke’s behest on missions in search of esoteric and possibly nonexistent darkside artifacts and Force lore; been named their master and felt he truly deserved it by then. He divulged the names of the loose-lipped Sienar-Jaemus engineers, and the names of planets of interest for their resources or their land, their easily bought loyalties or their rumored rebellion sympathies. He told her until it felt like there was nothing left to tell, except the one thing she hadn’t yet asked about. He’d known it would be coming and dreaded it even as she finally broached the subject.

“And the map?” For some reason, she put the datapad down, as if she wanted to focus her entire attention on him and couldn’t even afford the distraction of recording information. “You’re certain the information it contains never found its way into First Order hands?”

‘Beyond your own’ seemed implied, and for the first time Kylo wondered if Leia knew he had never actually seen the map to . . .

“You mean the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker?” He was receding back into himself as his prior forthcomingness began to erode.

“You know I do.”

Kylo took a deep breath and stared at some imprecise space on the desk between them. He wished she would get back to her datapad; then at least her attention would not have been so undividedly on him. “Yes, I’m certain. No one there has any inkling where he is. Beyond their knowledge that the map has most likely been delivered here by that ball droid, they’re ignorant.”

“I’m aware that you interrogated the young woman who is also now with us,” Leia went on after a moment of deliberation. “After she had seen it. And you were unsuccessful. Unable to relay any of it to your superiors—correct?”

His superiors. That was rich. He’d had only one superior, and she knew it.

“Correct.”

If he elaborated he thought he might choke, so he didn’t. The reminder that Rey was somewhere in this very base, woken not so long ago from the very same dream he had, was provoking a confused flicker of emotions that were in no way conducive to his circumstances in the moment. But he did look at Leia, and he found that something in her face had changed. She was still the general who had spent the last hour recording every bit of information he could offer, but the facade was slipping. His mother was there now too, in a way she hadn’t been since they’d first seen one another again.

“Good.” She faltered, then cleared her throat and looked to the droid. “Beebee-Ate. That will be all for this questioning. End recording, please.”

BB-8 complied with a string of cooperative chirps, though it seemed surprised by the abrupt termination of the proceedings. When she had retrieved the holostick, Leia dismissed it. Only when her office door had slid shut behind it did she give any indication that she still had more to say, though Kylo had sensed something else was coming. He just couldn’t place what it might be.

“Will you tell me why you did what you did?” she asked. It was not what he’d expected of her. He hadn’t expected her to ask at all. By now she’d had plenty of time to accept whatever narrative she had been given. “I know it was Snoke, I should have realized it sooner, but I don’t understand what—”

Kylo laughed, just once, a sharp bark. He didn’t bother trying to hide his derision. So she had taken it, whatever story she’d heard, as the truth. He was not disappointed, nor was he surprised. It was everything he had suspected. And that was fine; he did not like to be wrong.

Leia’s face darkened. For all the time it had been since he’d seen her like this at length, in person, right before him, there was very little that seemed new. For instance, that look in her eyes, like a storm gathering—Kylo knew that. He had used to admire it, look for signs of it in himself as a boy; and there may still have been a part of him that did. If that part of him was still there, he couldn’t spare the strength to quash it now.

“What?” Her hands were clasped before her on the desk, her neck stiff.

“You have no idea do you?” he asked, leaning back in his seat, his feet planted firmly on the floor like doing so might channel some reserve of the determination he felt flagging. He echoed her words, carelessly bitter. “Why I ‘did what I did’? A nice, clean way to put it, by the way. Why not just say it?”

“Ben . . .”

“Say it. Students died that night, slaughtered in the temple, and it all started with me. Whether I ended their lives myself or not, it’s on my head. Right? Would you like to know their names? Or did he tell you those, too?” He swallowed, let his head jut forward, shoulders drawn up, let his eyes hold Leia’s, only half aware he was doing it at all. “Was he broken by it?”

“Wh—”

“Of course he was. If he wasn’t, he’d be here already, and you’d have no reason for a map at all.”

If she’d been expecting some sort of confession, he had none to give. Little she’d heard about his part in it was wrong, he thought. He’d been the reason for great destruction that night. He’d tried to kill Luke—and been convinced when he fled that he had, and felt no regret for it. And here she was, blindly assuming Snoke had been the reason for it all. As if Kylo had just given up after years and years of resisting it, for no reason other than he had simply tired of fighting.

“You’re right. I should say it. Are you going to tell me why those students had to die? Are you going to tell me why you left Luke for dead?” She’d recovered quickly from whatever way he’d managed to knock her off balance. “Because it seems like of the two of us, you have far more you wish to say.”

“I would, but I doubt you’d believe it.”

“Try me.”

Leia was growing angry; she could hide it, compose herself when it counted, but surely this was as difficult for her as it was for him. Or he might have thought that way, once upon a time, but he was angry too, and so instead he just took pleasure in the way her eyes went stony and her jaw clenched.

“Listen to me, Ben. I want to understand what changed. I need to. And . . . I need to understand what would make a man whose deeds saw him become more a legend than an actual person give up everything he’d worked for in the wake of such a senseless tragedy, rather than try to make something good come of it. But that man isn’t here to tell me, and you are. Please.”

Kylo drew an enormous breath until he was certain his lungs would burst if he inhaled any more deeply. He wouldn’t have minded if they did, actually. This was no longer a conversation he particularly wished to have, but his hands were more than tied.

“I felt that way about him too.” He was not at all sure what was going to come out of his mouth next. Thinking clearly was difficult. “That he was a legend. There was no way to tell what things I knew about him were real. When you handed me off to him. So many legends of the great Luke Skywalker . . . how about this one? I doubt you’ve heard it. It’s the legend of the man who stood over his sleeping nephew in the middle of the night and would have killed him in cold blood. A coward. A liar. That one is absolutely real, I promise you. I found out exactly what type of man Luke Skywalker is.”

Leia’s silence spoke more than any words could have, and Kylo almost immediately regretted everything he had just said. Not because he didn’t think it warranted saying—as far as he was concerned, it was years overdue, even if he had long ago given up any hope it might matter—but because of her reaction. Her lack of reaction. He realized his hands were shaking. She wouldn’t be able to see where they were hidden under the desk, but he balled them into fists anyway, and if nothing else it kept the tremors from traveling up his arms. If he let them, they would rattle him apart entirely.

She exhaled a tiny, almost silent sigh. “That can’t be.”

“No?” The nails of his right hand dug deeper against his palm. Later, he would be unsurprised to find he’d drawn blood. “Of course. You don’t believe it. Not like you believed him, so easily. Because he told you exactly what you always expected anyway. ”

“No. It’s not— I believe that something happened between you and him. I believe it could have led to whatever happened that night. But I don’t understand it. Why would he have done such a thing?”

“That is a good question, isn’t it? Could it be the very same reason you sent me away to him in the first place?”

“We didn’t send you away. You needed training. You were too— We weren’t enough.” She shook her head. “It was a mistake. But to say that Luke would try to kill you over . . . what?”

“Fear. Of me, and what I was capable of. He knew I was powerful and—”

“No. That can’t be all it was. There has to be more. Some explanation. It was . . . darkness. If Snoke—”

Stop bringing him into this!”

Kylo pushed violently back from the desk to stand, snarling. It was outrageous, having to explain himself, having to excuse Luke, excuse everything. He felt sick again, the cup and a half of caf he’d consumed acid in his belly.

“What are you going to say? That Snoke provoked Luke, somehow? Twisted his thoughts? No.” His eye twitched and his hands were balled in fists again. “No. I woke up and he was standing over me with his lightsaber, he was contemplating ending my life, would have done it, I felt it, and I was the one who made the decision to stop fucking fighting it any longer. It was pointless. So I tried to kill him, to save myself. I left the temple behind to burn to ruins along with the Jedi way, as it deserved. I did. Stop trying to— to blame it on something else.”

She was watching him with tempered alarm. The fingers of one of her hands gripped the edge of her desk; her other hand relaxed on the arm of her chair, like she hadn’t decided whether she felt threatened by him. But as his tirade began to wane, his pacing slowed with it, and he felt uselessly depleted.

Leia’s head dipped in a tiny, single nod. “I thought it had been the idea that he’d failed that made him run. But if what you say is true, it was guilt, too. Shame for what had happened and what he couldn’t bare to tell me. How can I— This complicates . . . everything.”

If what Kylo said was true. A crucial word. She still couldn’t grasp it. Maybe she didn’t want to, even as she reasoned out the logic behind it. He looked around the room, four mostly bare walls, nothing to focus his attention on aside from his mother. He wished there was a window, even some sort of questionable choice in artwork hanging on a wall or standing in a corner. Of course there was no place for such luxuries in an underground bunker, but it would have been a distraction.

Instead he folded his arms and turned aside, muttered under his breath, hardly aware he was doing it, “You cannot deny the truth that is your family.”

“What?”

“You’re so desperate to find a way to believe he must have had some reason. That I didn’t make the decisions I made without guidance.” Kylo waved a dismissive hand. “And he ran away, and let you believe whatever it is you do, and you . . . you let everyone think I died that night, didn’t you? Until I left you no choice.”

He wondered if that revelation had felt to her compatriots the way it had felt for him to find out, at the age of twenty-three, via a news holo, that his mother—and uncle—were the children of one of the most reviled members of the old Empire’s command. That no one had ever seen fit to tell him the truth about his family, about why he was the way he was.

“Yes.” Leia had gotten to her feet, her posture wide, hands planted on her desk. “I did.”

“The old man said that to me, right before I killed him at Tuanul. Lor San Tekka,” he said dispassionately, ignoring her. “He accused me of trying to deny who my family was, but denial is exactly the legacy of this family. None of you ever learn.”

He was half lost in the memory of the village. Though he’d been masked then, sensory input filtered, now he could imagine that Tuanul must have smelled so like the temple, burning wood and sand and chaos. It had felt like the temple. He’d let the electricity of terror and violence in the air that night mingle with his own anger and feed him just as he had years before. But he had more clarity now, and the vividness of his recollections made him feel hollow. He was almost startled to hear Leia’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Ben.” He didn’t look at her, had turned his back by then to face the shut door, but Leia continued to address him. Her voice was tender and careful. “For all of it.”

“I’m sure you are.” He eyed the door, then half turned to look at her. “Are we done here?”

She regarded him with a mixture of hurt and scrutiny. “Yes. I think so. For the time being.”

Moving away from her seat, she leaned over and opened a desk drawer, paused as she contemplated what she found there, and slowly reached into extract something.

In Leia’s delicate, jeweled hand, his lightsaber was comically oversized, and seeing her hold it provoked in him a visceral discomfort. Kylo thought of how many people had died under its blade—enough that he had lost count long ago—and he wondered if she could feel all the carnage it had been party to in his hands. The idea that she might, even though he knew she couldn’t, made him feel a hot flash of shame, but also perverse, defiant satisfaction, all compounded by how much he wanted to have the saber back at his side. He could have just taken it, even from across the room. It required every bit of his nearly depleted willpower not to do so.

“I’m returning this to you. Consider it a gesture of gratitude for your cooperation,” she said, holding the saber up to her face, still studying it. It went unsaid that his being allowed to walk freely at all was more than enough a gesture of gratitude. “And of confidence as well. Trust.”

“If I was planning to murder everyone here, I could have done so already.”

The sneer he’d intended became a wince. He really needed to stop saying things like that; Han hadn’t been wrong. To his shock, though, Leia laughed. It was an utterly humorless sound, but her amusement, macabre as it was given what he had just said, was real.

“Yes, I’m aware. Everyone here is aware. But I don’t believe you are, so I suggest you continue to let your actions prove it. You’ve been a help today.” She held the saber out, waiting for him to come take it. “Thank you, Ben.”

He inclined his head, then held his hand out and called the lightsaber to him from where he stood. Automatically, he gestured to clip it to his belt, then realized he wasn’t wearing one. He somewhat lamely tucked it into the waistband of his borrowed trousers instead, and waited to be told where to report next.

Chapter Text

He was dreaming again, soaked to the bone and shivering in the dark. The ground beneath his boots felt slippery, but soft too, like wet sand or tiny pebbles. A steady musical tinkle of water falling in droplets and hitting stone echoed off the walls.

Walls—there were walls. As Kylo’s eyes adjusted, he could see that. He was inside something, but not the tree, not like last time. That place had been warm, living or once alive. Here, in this chamber, everything was black, dark damp stone, and smelled strongly of cold.

This was only the third time he’d had a dream like this, but he knew exactly what it was and some of what to expect next. He looked over his shoulder. Rey was not so far off, her back to him, head bowed slightly, hands balled into fists at her side. She was muttering something to herself, but in the inverted stone bowl of the cave, her voice echoed, amplified with uncanny clarity.

“Not again, not again.” She was repeating it like an invocation, as if to ward him off.

Or maybe she felt it too.

He was tense. He tried to stay calm, but the cave was making him tremble, and not just for the way the chill seemed to have a sentience. He could feel the Force, alive and indifferent to him, and he could feel Rey in its strands, and he could feel the way it filled the cave and inhabited it. Being stuck here was like being trapped in the middle of an echoing yell, like something inside him projected outward, wrapping back around to ensnare him again. He hated this place; he hated it. He hated that Rey came here in sleep. He hated that there was some power that now ensured he was dragged along, tethered to her, and how it had to mean something that he couldn't grasp. He cast about for a way to leave.

One of the walls was smoother than the rest. Like glass, but devoid of reflection. Beyond it, though he could not see, something lingered. It sought a gap, a fracture, a sliver in the stone it could slip through, and then—

There was a way to leave, and it wasn’t through the cave, because the cave wasn’t real.

“Rey.” He barked it, then turned from the mirror and its slithery whispered promises and marched straight to her. “Wake up. Now.”

“There’s something in the mirror.”

She spun to face him, and her eyes darted from him to that wall that didn’t seem to fit, that seemed to offer things hidden in its depths. He didn’t like it being there, or the way it made him feel like running away from it and straight into it at the same time.

Rey’s hair was wet, stuck down around her ears and jaw, her clothing soaked through. Her teeth chattered, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Do you feel that?”

“Don’t,” he warned as she turned away and took a few steps toward the wall, one of her hands unfurling, twitching as if she were about to stretch out to touch it. “It’s nothing.”

At the very least, his warning got her attention. “No it isn’t. You feel it too, don’t you?”

He narrowed his eyes at the wall, which glinted darkly back at him. “Yes. And I think you should wake up now.”

He feels you here. Close to me.

“Who feels me?” Her voice bounced off the walls, left, right, only to be sucked out the hole in the ceiling.

“You heard that?”

He'd been positive he had only thought it. Maybe dream logic dictated that she could hear it. He would tell himself that was all it was. Dreams were not real life, even the dreams that weren’t quite dreams.

She frowned as if she hadn’t understood his question. “No. I didn’t. I . . . in my head . . . but this is already in my head . . . You’re in my head.” Rey looked at him again, and her mounting distress was evident. The way her breath was coming faster and clouding before her face, her balled fists shaking with barely contained frustration. “What the hell is happening? Why does this keep—?”

“Wake up,” he demanded again.

He wasn’t sure how to else to convince her. He wanted this to end. She did too.

Kylo started toward her, like he had the first time, and the second, like he had in the forest on Takodana. Each time she had shrank back with less fear and more defiance; she did not disappoint now. Baring her teeth, she backed away toward the mirror, but he could see the way her eyes flickered. The way the muscles bunched in her arms and calves. The way her chest rose and fell so fast with shallow breaths.

“What are you—?” she began to snarl, but he crowded her back, faster now, and she was slipping over the stones. She stumbled and made as if to push back at him, but he was undeterred. “You aren’t—”

in charge here.

Maybe not. But he could end it.

“Rey”—she was so close to the mirror, so close, what would happen if—“wake up.”

Her back collided with it, and it resisted her weight with a dull, hollow thud. For a moment she was many, an infinity of her reflected in filmy glass, and then she was gone and everything went black.

Kylo was awake and staring at aged durasteel overhead. The sheet clung to his skin from sweat rather than water, but the effect was identical. He shuddered and felt sick; his body was too hot. He couldn’t remember where he was. And then he did.

He would need to go soon. He had work to do, and he didn’t wish to be found where he was.

Elbow deep in the guts of a rather battered X-wing, it was easy for Rey to pretend she was home. The hangar wasn’t quite as dark as some of the wrecks she’d been accustomed to plundering, and it was certainly noisier with mechanics and crew and maintenance droids bustling every which way, but it was cool and dry, and it smelled of solder and heated machinery. Lying back on a creeper, sunk in the shadow of the sleeping ship above her, she was able to focus on the similarities and ignore the differences. She fixed the spanner around a bolt and gave it a firm turn, her muscles straining briefly before it loosened with a satisfying scrape of metal on metal.

This was something she knew. How to fix things. Take them apart. Envision what they could be. Put them together. Make them something new.

Old reflexes took over, and her mind began to drift to what must have become of her speeder. She’d been working on it just like this not so many days ago, checking on a dodgy valve. Last she had seen of it was at Niima Outpost, just before she had met Finn and left everything she knew behind. Now . . .

The security wiring would hold a while, she supposed, but scavengers were persistent and crafty. Someone would figure out how to disable it without getting shocked, or how to trip up the fingerprint reader, and then it would be either stolen or scrapped or both. It made her sad and angry to think of that now, light years away and no way to keep her beloved speeder from its fate.

It had been perfect, and unique, and hers in every way. She’d designed it. She’d chosen and gathered each crucial part. She’d pieced it together over months, slowly and with care, as she had so many of the other small luxuries she claimed. It was unjust that it should meet its end at the hands of some trader who would look at it and see only scrap. What had taken her over a year of toil would be undone in a matter of hours, the remains itemized by portion or trade value. Perhaps whoever had made those long-dead Star Destroyers that marred Jakku’s face would have felt the same to see her at work.

A solid, one-two thunk of someone knocking on the side of the chassis jarred Rey back into her task. Her hand and wrist had been moving automatically, rhythmically turning the bolt loose, and she came to just in time to catch it before it could fall and give her a knock on the head. The panel it secured rattled a little, kept in place now by only the shallow lip of metal around its sides. She craned her head to the side and squinted up at the face that appeared the next moment.

“Would you like a break?” Rose Tico was looking at Rey upside down, bent at the waist to peer at her under the X-wing. There was a thumb-wide smudge of oil ticking the left edge of her smile.

“Er . . . yeah. I could use that.” Rey dropped the bolt into a pan with the others, then began to push herself out from beneath the ship, rolling along on the creeper until she could sit up. She brushed herself off a bit, pushed her safety goggles up onto her forehead, and offered Rose the spanner. “Has it really been four hours?”

“Nearly five. I came by a while ago, but you seemed to be really deep in your work. Didn’t want to take you out of it.”

“You might say that. You came at a good time, though. I was getting a little too deep in. Autopilot.”

“So you’re a daydreamer.” Rose chuckled and twirled the spanner a few times in her hand, then slipped it securely into her belt. “Got it. Clear your head a while. When you come back I could use some help replacing a few coils on one of the A-wings. And maybe a second opinion on the state of its hyperdrive.”

They’d been formally introduced two days ago, in this very hangar, when Rey had volunteered to help with maintenance duties. She liked Rose, despite the fact that Rose had initially been skeptical of Rey’s skills. After a few hours of working together, that uncertainty had passed and Rose proved a fine compatriot. She was straightforward and smart, and her knowledge of machinery was so extensive that Rey found herself impressed—which was saying a lot.

Rose’s quick acceptance of her had probably been helped by the fact that Rey didn't need to be told much what to do. Rey knew she was well enough suited for mechanic’s work, though she’d also been suffering a little wounded pride—as she’d slept that first day, the droid she promised to have a look at, the R2 unit with the rest of BB-8’s map, had simply come to on its own, as if it hadn’t spent the last half-decade asleep. That opportunity lost, the hangar seemed a good enough place to prove her skills and worth instead, for however long she could offer it.

Since then, time was flying. Whatever intelligence Leia had gleaned from Kylo Ren, the most urgent matter revolved around some yet-untested tracking method the First Order had at its disposal. Resistance leadership was taking it seriously enough that all other activities had been halted, their schedule for abandoning the D’Qar base accelerated. They were leaving at dawn tomorrow—which meant any and all preparations for the fleet had intensified as well. The attack on Starkiller may have been a success, but it left them short several starfighters, and many of those that had returned were in need of service before they could be relied upon to reach their next destination.

Rey wandered toward the fore end of the hangar, trying to decide how to pass the time. Rose had told her to clear her head, but Rey tended to do that best by . . . well, doing. She didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of leisure. If Unkar Plutt had ever caught her looking like she was even thinking about slacking off, it would be halved portions for the day. And frankly, even without the risk of being caught and punished for laziness, a break meant less salvage. Less salvage meant less value, which meant less food in her belly at the end of the night and less possibility of finding herself with some useful material to repurpose. Breaks were not a typical part of Rey’s work ethic.

Until now. The last few days, she’d usually tried to find Finn, or Chewie, even. But Chewie was with Han and a handful of other pilots who had gone ahead to Pamarthe, the planet the Resistance would shortly be calling home. Han had some old connections there, or Leia did—Rey had only heard the news through second- or third-hand sources. Either way, Han was clearing the way, ensuring the rest of the fleet would have smooth passage and a place to land and conceal their ships on arrival.

As for Finn, she hadn’t seen him all day but had a few notions of where he might be found. If she happened across him, the company would not be unwelcome.

She was about to slip out of the hangar and see if she might be able to steal some time for herself outdoors—she loved the trees and the flower-fragrant wind and even the way the air was always thick with moisture—when a familiar burbling of binary caught her ear. Off to her left, circling the front end of a ramshackle, scorch-marked Headhunter, was BB-8.

The little droid noticed her within a moment, bleeped happily, and began to wobble back and forth in place.

“Well, hello,” Rey said, boots scuffing the tarmac as she paused with her hands on her hips. “Didn't expect to see you here. Is Poe arou—”

Her greeting was cut short by a growl of aggravation from somewhere behind the ship. “Move, ball!”

The smile dropped off her face. There was no Poe in sight, but there was a glaring Kylo Ren rounding the front of the ship and nearly stumbling over (or perhaps threatening to kick) BB-8, who was dawdling in a most inconvenient spot. He halted when he caught sight of Rey and stared at her for a few seconds like he was working out whether to acknowledge her further.

Unable to hold her tongue, she didn't give him time to decide. “Looks like you found the droid you were after.”

She raised her eyebrows and jutted her chin in the direction of BB-8, who had made an offended noise at Kylo and rolled closer to her.

“Right.” He huffed and frowned down at the droid, then began to rattle off Rey’s own smugly ironic description of a few days before, with some additions of his own. “BB unit. Selenium drive. Thermal hyperscan vindicator. Internal self-correcting gyroscopic propulsion system. Eyesore. Pain in my ass.”

Rey might have laughed, if it were someone else saying it. And she definitely wanted to laugh at BB-8’s reply, which was far more rude than Kylo’s assertion that he was a pain in the ass. Instead, she shook her head. “Surprising to find you two ended up so friendly.”

“Oh, friendly? Here I thought his master had set him to keep an eye on me. So relieved to know it's just fondness.”

“Keep an eye on you?”

“Waiting for me to do something questionable. Worth recording as proof of my ulterior motives for being here, no doubt.” Kylo turned back to the starfighter and cast a critical eye over it. “The only time I don't see that thing underfoot is when I’m asleep.”

He stayed with his back to her, maybe considering whether he preferred to continue his work rather than talk to her. Rey had known he was on maintenance. She’d heard rumors, at least, and complaints. Until now, she hadn't seen him in the hangar. He was dressed like any other Resistance member, which in theory should have made him at least a bit less conspicuous—but it didn’t work at all. In fact, he only seemed to stand apart even more and still projected an air of intimidation and superiority she suspected was perfectly intentional and did a fine job keeping most people away.

She considered whether she wanted to be one of them, but what he’d just said bothered her. She knew what he did see when he was asleep, because she had been seeing the same things. Evidently he wasn't going to address the bantha in the room: their shared dreams.

She remembered them with the clarity of experiences she had truly lived. The first time, she’d dreamt of the island, her island, and he’d been there, trying to drive something away. She’d thought at first that it was her he wanted gone, but when she woke and calmed down enough to think clearly, she’d realized there had been something else there with them. Something just beyond the bounds of whatever was connecting them.

It had happened twice more since then, each night. Every time was nearly the same, though the cliff had not reappeared—the second time, they’d been inside what she could only conclude must have been an enormous tree; the third, in a dark, slick cave. Only that time had neither of them seemed taken by surprise. Yet he’d been as agitated and roiling as in the first and practically ordered her to wake up, crowded her back until she had. It couldn’t go on like this; she was losing sleep, and patience.

But she still had no idea how to talk to him, about that or anything else, or why she felt the need to try anyway. Sarcasm, evidently, was not a deterrent. He appeared to be fluent in it.

Rey decided to try after all. It was private enough where they were, and she wasn’t sure she actually wanted to be alone with him. In her experience, being alone with Kylo Ren was never pleasant. She drew up beside him, careful to keep more than an arm’s length of distance (his arms, not hers—this close, she realized she had forgotten how tall and long-limbed he was), and looked at him askance.

“Is this something you’ve done?”

She caught his mouth twitching, his throat constricting. He knew what she was asking about. But then he only ran a finger down the side of the ship, leaving a trail in the layer of dust on it, and said, “The abysmal paint job on this Z-95? No, thankfully.”

“Stop deflecting,” she sniped, before she could think of who she was speaking to.

She didn’t like him. She didn’t know him—except she sort of did. She could count on one hand the number of times they had spoken in real life, and none had made her wish to repeat the experience. But she’d seen inside him, and she’d seen and spoken to him in sleep. It felt as if it counted for something. Enough of something that she wanted to be taken seriously by him.

“You know what I mean. Why have I seen you nearly every time I sleep since I’ve come here? It’s been the same for you. Hasn’t it?”

“Yes.” He stared at the side of the ship. “I don’t know why.”

That was a completely unsatisfactory answer, and it wasn’t lost on her that he seemed to feel the same.

Her tone more measured, she said, “It feels like a dream, but . . . I don’t think it is.”

“Because it's not,” said Kylo, as if that should have been obvious. “It’s something else.”

“Can you make it stop?”

“If I could, I would have already. I’m not doing it.”

She turned that over, disappointed. Of course it wasn’t so simple.

“You got in my head. Whatever you did. Mind reading,” she suggested after a few moments, rather dispassionately. “Maybe that's what started it.”

He scoffed, but he didn’t reject it outright. “You're blaming me? What about you? You did the same thing.”

“That was . . . different.”

Rey knew that wasn’t true, not the way he meant. Sure, she had done it in defense, and she hadn’t even known what it was until it was happening: she’d instinctively latched onto some current of connection between them and ridden it through. But the only reason she had let go was because Kylo, in the depth of his alarm, had been strong enough to sever it.

She’d thought he had severed it. She was starting to doubt that. She was also starting to think she’d taken more with her than she had realized—things her mind had tucked away in spaces she didn't know to explore. Things that now coexisted with a power she must always have had (neglected, that had been his word, though she didn't think that was quite right). Those things, whatever they were, now seemed in some ways like a key . . . if she would only look a bit deeper. She didn’t want to look deeper.

“No, it wasn't different,” he hissed. “Maybe you didn't know what you were doing at first, but you figured it out. And then you took pleasure in it.”

He was right. She had taken pleasure in overpowering him and the look on his face when she lashed back. It had been gratifying to see him feel so utterly exposed after what he had done to her. She was justified in that. He, on the other hand . . .

“As if you didn't.”

“Not particularly.” He frowned and glanced down at her. “I told you that. It didn't have to come to what it did. You should have cooperated.”

“Are you serious?” Rey glowered and refused to look him in the eye as she crossed her arms. “Amazing. You’re here servicing a Resistance ship, and you still have the gall to say something like that.”

“The only amazing thing is how naive you are.”

Naive? How dare— You don’t know anything.”

She would rather he had said it with derision; that fact that he only sounded distantly amused was somehow so much worse. Her face was beginning to warm. She was not naive.

“Neither do you.” Suddenly his expression darkened, and he sounded piqued. “I’m not a different person simply because I made one choice.”

“That’s too bad.”

Deflated, she took a step back. She wanted to ask him if he regretted that choice. She wanted to ask him why he had made it. She doubted he would tell her.

Rey studied him a moment—the pallor of his skin and the grayish half circles beneath his eyes, the way his hair hung slightly limp, the faint trace of stubble at his jaw. He had changed much in the days since he had first revealed his face to her, and not for the better. She peeled off to go. She was done here. There was fresh air awaiting her, and she was supposed to be clearing her mind, not cluttering it. But she only made it a few steps before she heard him call after her.

“Wait.”

As tempting as it was to make as if she had not heard him, it would also have been transparent and petty. So she stopped and turned halfway to look him in the eye. BB-8 whirred in agitation, his head swiveling back and forth between them.

“This isn't a good time to discuss it,” Kylo said, moving away from the fighter and toward her. He drew up short of her, but his voice had that odd, hushed evenness again, the way she’d heard a few times now, disarming in how it never seemed to suit him or the situation. It was the tone a person might use to talk to themselves rather than to someone else. “We should, though. Later.”

What was a good time? There wouldn’t be any chance for at least the next day, and she wasn’t sure there was a point at all. If he didn’t know what was happening, with all his training and knowledge of the Force, she certainly didn’t. But the fact that it seemed likely the dreams would only continue . . . she didn’t like that. She didn’t like the way they made her feel. They reminded her of how little she understood the dormant something that had so recently awakened inside her. Given the state of him, she realized Kylo was just as troubled, though she could hardly begin to imagine his reasons. At any rate, she did agree that it wasn’t a matter that would be settled here in this hangar as everyone was getting ready to flee.

Rey sighed and gave a shallow nod, then shrugged. “Yes. Fine.”

It wasn't so much a promise as a bid to put the exchange to rest. It had not at all gone how she’d hoped. Which was to say, civilly.

BB-8 was still humming quietly, his antenna twitching, and she gestured to him. “Beebee-Ate, would you like to come with me?”

The droid’s head tilted left, and he gave a doubtful trill.

“Let him work,” she said, beckoning again as she began to walk. “He isn't going to do anything.”

She didn’t have any real reason to be sure of that, beyond the fact that, as far as she knew, Kylo had been nothing but cooperative (if begrudgingly so). Somewhere in her gut it felt true enough, and Rey had learned nothing over the years if not to trust that. Her instincts were always sound.

Chapter Text

Working was easier when Kylo didn't have the ball droid circling.

The first day, BB-8 had made a play at being circumspect. Two days had passed since then, and by that morning he wasn't trying to hide to fact that he had been tasked with keeping a lens on Kylo. Kylo knew it was Dameron’s doing. It was his droid, and though Kylo hadn’t bothered trying to read his mind—a waste, surely—Dameron’s curt, chilly dealings with him were enough indication of his thoughts on Kylo’s presence on the base. Beyond that, his feelings on the matter didn’t really register with Kylo. He just didn’t care, beyond thinking it was a shame he had left him alive after interrogation, the same way it was a shame he’d left FN-2187—Finn, now, apparently—alone and alive after that indiscretion at Tuanul.

Kylo had worked that one out days ago, how much trouble the decision had caused him since, the ill effects of one leading almost directly to those of the next. He still couldn’t even quite pin down why he’d made it.

So much for foresight.

Finn had fled with Dameron. Finn had somehow found himself in league with Rey and the map and the Resistance. Finn had brought Han to Starkiller Base. Han had—

For that matter, so much for not thinking about any of it.

He had been thinking of it, a lot. His failure had been so grand that there seemed to be new breadth to it each time he turned it over, the start of it further back than he had last thought. If he revisited the matter enough, Kylo was now convinced, he would eventually find that it was in fact his very birth that was the mistake at the root of it all, and (probably) the only one he could not be blamed for. The only times he didn't seem to dwell on all of this was when he was working.

But working meant the damned droid rolling in sooner or later, which started the whole cycle over again.

So yes, the interlude with Rey in the hangar may have been troubling, but it had also been almost welcome. More importantly, she had taken the droid away with her. As misled as she clearly was about what was happening between them (not that he could claim to understand it any better), his ceding to her questions and accusations had earned him that favor, even if it was merely incidental. He somewhat doubted she thought of it that way—why would she wish to do him a favor?—and could not fathom why he wanted to himself.

It had left him to focus on other things, mostly the ship in front of him, a creaky Z-95 Headhunter he was surprised to find still in one piece. He’d been only slightly more surprised when Leia suggested he work in the hangar. It struck him later that perhaps the offer was, like returning his lightsaber to him, a gesture of trust. Or well-meaning, sentimental foolishness, which, really, was almost the same thing. Let the man who not a week ago would happily have seen to the destruction of her entire fleet get his hands on the internal workings of the individual ships. A wonderful idea indeed.

But Leia was not an openly sentimental woman; he knew that. So, most likely, she’d had more practical aims at the fore of her mind: she didn’t consider him enough of a true threat, and she wanted him busy, and relatively out of the way, and more or less hidden. All of which was fine with him. He was good at this sort of work, even if he hadn’t had occasion to perform it on such a scale in many years. It wasn’t the sort of knowledge that faded to nothing in short time, especially not when it was practically in his blood. Despite the circumstances, he enjoyed it, too, which he was less ready to admit out of some sense that doing so would immediately see it ruined.

Thus he’d been spending his days in the hangar, engaging with others when it was necessary but mostly doing his work alone. He was efficient and thorough, and constantly on the lookout for something to do, because being idle seemed dangerous. When he got hungry enough he took meals from the mess hall at odd hours to avoid unwanted run-ins, which meant any run-ins. He semiregularly tamped down the urge to throw the ball droid into a wall or lock it in some unused utility closet. And, until last night, he had been sleeping in the Falcon.

That was probably not well-advised—it was in fact the sort of suspicious behavior that most people were likely expecting. And it was absolutely not public knowledge.

He would wait until the base was relatively quiet—it wasn’t like he was getting much quality sleep to begin with—then slip up to the topside hangar, where the Falcon sat dormant, slightly set away from the other ships. Getting inside was easy; he didn’t need the access codes when a wave of the hand could accomplish much more than merely lowering a gangway. Then it was back to the relief bunk, right where it had always been, and sleep in the weird, unsettling familiarity of the space.

The first night he’d had a dream that he was a boy again, just a kid, hiding behind the panel of one of the Falcon’s hidden compartments and defacing the wall inside with his name and the year. He realized halfway through that it was not just a dream, but a memory. Then the panel slid open behind him and instead of his father finding him there in the midst of petty vandalism, as it had happened so long ago, it was the Supreme Leader and a fork of Force lightning, or maybe it was Luke and the hot green strobe of a lightsaber, and Kylo had been propelled into some other dream.

Not a dream, though. Like the memory that preceded it, this was something else.

Another small, tight, dark space, but no longer the hot metallic confines of a ship. It was wood all around, and loam underfoot, and sunlight streaming in from a twisted opening in—

It was a tree. He was inside a hollowed tree. He was himself again, as he was now. Rey was there. So was that third presence. The watchful eye. The clutching hand. And Kylo, he’d had to end it again, just like the first night he had seen her in his sleep. He’d spent the rest of that night on the Falcon anyway, but awake.

Despite that discouraging beginning, he’d slept there the next night, too, with similar results, but at least when he bolted awake sweating and breathing hard, he was alone. He had a feeling that Han probably knew where he was sleeping, somehow (and frankly, it was surprising that he hadn’t been sleeping there already), and just didn’t say anything about it. That was annoying, but it hardly mattered now. The Falcon, and Han, were gone as of that morning, along with Chewie and a select escort of Resistance fighters.

Han had actually tried to get Kylo to come along. He’d sought him out just the evening before, explained in his usual detached way that he and some others were going ahead to the next base—hideout, really—to assure all would be in order when the rest of the fleet arrived a day later. He’d seemed unsurprised when Kylo declined and indicated he needed to get back to work. Not long after, Chewie had come by to try to get him to reconsider, and Kylo was only mildly less chilly with him in his refusal.

So now Han was gone, which felt typical, and Leia was up to her neck in business and preparations, which was just as expected, and it all felt so much the same. Like nothing had changed very much at all except Kylo. And while the constant distraction of BB-8 was now taken care of, as he continued replacing a valve Kylo found himself dwelling on Rey’s questions and how he had been unable to answer them. She’d agreed to talk about it again at some better time, but he had no idea when that would be, or if he truly wanted it. It just felt necessary.

He knew what he would ordinarily have done when he needed guidance.

But this place was wrong, and why would his grandfather want anything to do with him now? Darth Vader could have nothing to offer such feeble, empty pleas for wisdom and strength. As for the Supreme Leader . . . it would only mean punishment, and likely no hope of redeeming himself.

Still the compulsion lingered, beneath the surface, stoked every so often in these moments of uncertainty, and it was so hard to resist them.

Something shorted above his head and sent a brief shower of sparks into his face, which he managed to deflect; but he swore anyway and gave the fuselage a punishing whap with the spanner. He frowned when he saw he had left a small dent. That was it—no more letting his mind wander. The next few hours passed in much the same way, though luckily with improved focus and less rebellious wiring. Kylo finished with the Headhunter and moved on to a Y-wing, which was conveniently far from the RZ-2 he’d caught sight of Rey working on with one of the other technicians, a short, dark-haired young woman who, as far as he was concerned, lived in the hangar.

He lost track of time. When he emerged from the depths of his concentration he was dirty and tired and hungry, and alone. The place had completely cleared out, though not long ago. He could still sense traces of the energy left behind by so many people at work. It was strange to see the hangar abandoned, but not particularly bothersome as he headed out to get some air.

The night was muggy. A short distance from the treeline, he could see lights that weren’t usually there, and, over the ever-present buzzy din of the jungle, he could hear a voice carrying. Kylo threw a look back at the entrance to the base, then decided to investigate. He rounded the hangar and came to an abrupt halt.

What appeared to be nearly the entire Resistance was gathered there in the clearing at the edge of the jungle. Some were sitting, others standing or leaning on transport vehicles half-loaded with cargo for tomorrow’s departure. The person he heard speaking was Gial Ackbar—Kylo was surprised he hadn’t recognized him sooner. That thick, watery voice was . . . singular. It took him a few moments to realize that Ackbar was listing names at a steady, solemn pace, and a few more before he understood what was happening. This was a memorial service for those who had died on Hosnian Prime and during the attack on Starkiller Base.

Kylo had been aware that it was likely to happen, but he’d put it from his mind and maintained careful, and genuine, disinterest. They weren’t his people. He didn’t want to be faced with whatever it might make him think or feel to hear those names and consider the losses from this side of things. Now he felt stuck. No one had seen him, because he’d stepped back into the shadow of the hangar as soon as he’d seen what was happening, but he was disinclined to leave.

He was morbidly curious. So he stayed, standing stiffly against the wall, listening and not watching. He recognized some of the names, though the recognition provoked little beyond itself, just as he’d thought—or dreaded—it would. These people meant nothing to him. They’d welcomed their losses, he reminded himself, and he couldn't, wouldn't, pretend to care.

It was a war. People died. And no one here would mourn any of those who had been killed on Starkiller just trying to do their jobs.

But there were a lot of names, and Kylo began to feel worn down. He was hungry and tired, and he needed a shower. He was going to leave. If everyone was here, it meant the mess hall and the ‘fresher would both be empty. It was perfect.

Then, improbably, one name stuck: Korr Sella.

The familiarity hit him like a punch, and at first he couldn’t even pinpoint why. But he remembered a rare visit with Luke to Hosnian Prime. They’d gone to meet Leia for the celebration of some old Alderaanian feast day. He hadn’t wanted to be there. By then seeing his family only reminded him of what he couldn’t have, and the pressure he always felt tearing at him from within had been worse than ever. It was a short visit, the first time in years that he had seen his mother in person, and barely at that. It was also the last; he wouldn’t see her face to face again until the events of the past few days. But that wasn't what stood out most of that night.

Instead, of all things, the memory hinged on Korr. One of his mother’s assistants or interns. He’d never met her before that night, but she seemed to know him anyway. She’d positively insisted on showing him the city, even though he told her he’d been there before. He remembered jogan fruit cake and a garden. A dark-eyed, dark-haired girl, eager and idealistic and talkative, resolutely stretching up to kiss him. He remembered his horror—he was nearly twenty-three, she was sixteen—and the way he’d fled. He had been embarrassed and confused, readier than ever to leave for wherever Luke had in mind next, longing for the night to end.

He could swear he hadn’t thought of it again until now. Korr Sella had wanted to change the galaxy. Maybe she thought she had. The Resistance was certainly sanctimonious enough that she’d probably bought it all, their philosophy and everything else. And she’d died, senselessly, with the Hosnian system and so many others there. This was all such a waste. He began to feel angry again, at that thought and at nothing else in particular.

He felt a bead of sweat roll down his neck and beneath the collar of his shirt. He really should go. To the mess hall. To the refresher. To another planet, the edge of the galaxy, Wild Space. Anywhere else. The humidity was stifling.

Something tapped the toe of his boot. He looked down and saw a number of small birds pittering around his feet, pecking at the ground for food. Sonar swallows. Their deep purple feathers glinted faintly in the dying light as they danced about. Scowling, Kylo waved his foot in their general direction until they flew off issuing little clicks of echolocation and darting after low-flying insects, probably cursing him in whatever bird way they had.

“This does seem like an acceptable place to come cry, doesn’t it?”

Kylo seized up and whirled. There was a woman barely more than three paces away from him. He hadn’t even heard her approach.

She was tall. Very thin, a bit bird-like, though not like the birds he’d just sent scattering. Something more elegant, or more ungainly. He couldn’t decide. By twilight it was difficult to tell, but her hair appeared to be violet. She was wearing a long, dark-colored dress, completely out of place on a jungle planet, and regarded him with an expression he couldn’t immediately identify.

“What?” he finally managed.

Her demeanor didn’t change, but she stepped closer. “I said that this is a good place to cry. Don’t you think so? A bit set back, away from all that. Nice and quiet. It’s a difficult time for everyone. Some prefer privacy, I suppose.”

Her voice was even and matter of fact, despite how nearly everything she said sounded like utter nonsense. She was familiar, too, which made her presence even more bothersome.

“I’m not here to cry,” he said, as if that wasn’t already obvious. “I didn’t know . . . that was happening. I was working.”

The woman stared at him for long enough that he thought she hadn’t heard a word he’d said, her hands clasped loosely in front of her, chin held high, eyes somehow both soft and sharp at once.

“Oh, my apologies.” Her expression changed at last: a small, placid smile that was also a little too knowing for comfort. “I assumed. Where I’m from crying isn’t something to be ashamed of, but so many other cultures seem to find it something better done in solitude. And this whole affair is surely stirring emotions.”

“Surely,” he echoed, tone desert-dry. He let his gaze slide off her, toward the entrance to the subterranean portions of the base, which suddenly seemed more like salvation than ever before. “I was just leaving.”

If she’d registered his response, she was choosing to ignore it. Her head followed him as he attempted to walk past her. “You’re Leia’s boy. Ben?”

Kylo flinched, shook his head and slowed despite himself, but didn’t say anything.

“Right,” she said. She nodded, infuriatingly calm. “I don’t expect you remember me. We met, oh . . . a few times, I suppose. A handful. But you were quite a bit smaller. And now look at you”—she chuckled—”taller than me. That’s a feat.”

He would rather have kept going. Instead he half turned toward her and fixed her with a hard stare.

“Yes. I remember you.” Her name was still eluding him, and he didn’t care enough to take it the way he knew he could. “Is there something in particular you want? I have things to do.”

She shrugged. Holdo. That was it, her name. Amilyn Holdo. A vice-admiral, if he recalled correctly, according to First Order records. But now he also remembered she was an old friend of his mother’s. That explained a lot, though perhaps not her hair or clothing decisions.

“No, nothing in particular. I saw you here by yourself and thought I should stop by.” Her eyes hadn’t left him, and it was beginning to be unsettling. “You were born under a troubled star, I remember that. People like that . . . they’re best not left alone. It doesn’t do them well.”

She had come over to talk to him about astrology? If these were the sorts of people in Resistance leadership, he really would be better off careening through Wild Space.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he returned, still facing partially away from her. “Try the dawn of the New Republic—I was born under that too, if you’re looking for clever analogies to make whatever point it is you think you are.”

“I’m not trying to be clever. But perhaps those are the same thing?” Holdo waved a hand. “The New Republic has seen more than its share of troubles.”

Kylo couldn’t help the short, harsh laugh that escaped him. “And caused them.”

“Hm. It doubtless has had its shortcomings. None of this would be necessary if it didn't. But the good it’s done can still be salvaged. I believe that. That’s all that is, over there.” She gestured behind her, where the memorial had ended a minute or so ago. The crowds were dispersing to finish all that was still necessary. “Honoring the lives of those who died trying to do that. And I think you understand that, or else you wouldn’t still be standing here.” She stepped toward him. “You are welcome, you know.”

He felt like he was being subjected to the strangest lecture ever, and hated it.

“I need to go.” He was positive this was the third time he’d indicated as much and was determined not to have his wishes ignored again. He’d reached the end of his limited patience. “Enjoy your crying, vice-admiral.”

Holdo chuckled again, like he’d said something that amused her rather than just been blatantly rude. He ignored it and set off, frustrated again, annoyed that he’d wasted enough time that his hopes for an empty base were sure to be dashed. He hadn’t yet considered the matter of where he would sleep tonight. The bunkrooms were the most logical conclusion and always had been, but he instinctively balked at the idea of sleeping in a space shared with so many others. If his absence had been noticed the last few nights, it had not been a source of disappointment.

As he crossed the clearing to the entrance, he felt something at the back of his head, like a soft breeze but not, and a clenching in his chest. He glanced around for the source of it until movement caught his eye. Back toward where the memorial had been held, Rey was walking along with Finn at a slow pace, going the opposite way of the rest of the crowd. Their heads were bowed close to each other, arms practically brushing, and Rey was gesturing with her other hand, palm open, miming something he couldn’t interpret.

If she had been alone, Kylo might have approached her—to finish their earlier conversation, that was all. But she wasn’t alone. So he didn’t.

Rey had made a decision. After several days of deliberating and trying to convince herself otherwise, she was going to tell Finn about what had happened to her on Starkiller Base before he and Han found her. Specifically, how she was now fairly certain (that was perhaps an understatement) that she was capable of using the Force.

“Using” maybe wasn’t right, either. It didn’t feel like a tool or a weapon. But she wasn’t sure how else to explain it. She was going to have to figure that out very soon, though, because as the memorial ended and she began to drift back toward the base, thinking of how nice her bunk would be shortly, Finn caught up with her. He wasn’t terribly talkative. She wondered if the service had affected him more than it had her. It had been a strange thing to be present for. She hadn’t recognized any of the names, or had any memories or feelings attached to them.

For that matter, she was still learning the names of most of the people who were still alive. Part of her felt a bit bad about her lack of true sadness—it was terrible that good people had died, and for such little purpose, but she couldn’t shake the reality of how impersonal the reality of it was for her. Mostly it just reminded her that she was an outsider. The people around her had lost friends and colleagues and loved ones. What right did she have to share their grief? What right did she have to turn around and make it about her own outside-ness?

As if he could sense the troubled course of her thoughts, Finn slowed their pace and said in an undertone, “Have you ever been to anything like that before?”

“No,” she said with a stubborn shake of her head. “Just . . .”

She waved a hand idly in front of her and felt it brush through a near invisible cloud of tiny swarming insects as she tried to come up with the words for it. Describing feelings was so difficult, especially when just having them and acting on them was far more straightforward. Rey felt . . .

. . . . a tug. In her chest, right between her lungs. Not painful, but not ordinary either—though she had felt it before. A few times, actually, over the last days she’d spent here. Usually it was accompanied by a—ah, yes, there it was. Something like a chill.

“Um.” She glanced around, suddenly distracted by the sensation of a shiver down her neck and convinced she would find its source sitting there for her to finally identify. Instead it was just people milling about to get back to their work or their routines. Among it all she caught sight of a figure making a swift break for the nearest base entrance.

Kylo. He was taller than most and easy to recognize in the deepening twilight even from the distance. He moved, as always, as if he had somewhere to be and woe betide anything that got in his way. Aggressive purpose—she’d been on the receiving end of that and was positive she’d never forget the feeling. Like prey caught in a trap.

“Yeah, neither have I. It was . . . kind of weird, right?”

Finn’s voice cut through the fog of distraction she’d been sinking into. She was grateful. Kylo had disappeared into the base, which meant she doubted she would see any sign of him again until tomorrow sometime. It probably depended on what transport he was assigned.

“Sorry,” she muttered. She passed a hand over her forehead to wipe away from of the grime that had settled there, mixed with sweat and left over from her work earlier. “I guess so. Weird. I didn’t know anybody they were naming. I’m sorry for everything that happened, but it was hard to feel . . . connected to it all.”

“It’s okay. I felt that way too. Like I was trespassing. I don’t think they expect us to just, you know . . . get it. What it means to be part of this.”

Rey laughed quietly and raised a hopeful eyebrow. She wasn’t so sure. “Are we part of this then?”

“Rey . . .”

“Relax, I’m only joking.” She needed to relax too.

He made a noise in his throat and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “Are you?”

“Mm. A bit.”

She had to say something. The longer she put this off, the longer it would seem like she was purposely keeping it from him. Which she had been. “Hey, Finn. Speaking of being . . . part of things. I need to— There’s something I need—want—to tell you. I should have, days ago, but I could never figure out how to bring it up, and I’m still not quite sure how to explain it. But . . . well. I feel as if I need to tell someone, and I think we’re friends. Me and you. Right?”

“Right . . .” There was a nervous edge to his voice, but his expression was only one of curiosity. “Yeah, we’re friends. Of course.”

“Good.”

Rey released a sigh and felt some of her nerves fade. She hadn’t actually done what she needed to yet, but this was a start. She cast around for a place to stop and sit. This didn’t seem like something they could just chat lightly about as they walked. It was serious. At least with the majority of people already busy again, privacy wasn’t much of a problem. She tugged Finn’s sleeve and gestured with her head.

“Here, come over this way? We should sit.”

Finn followed along until they stopped at a collection of large stones, not far from the lights of the base but isolated enough that they wouldn’t be overheard. Rey wasn’t sure why she was so concerned about that. This wasn’t a bad thing, not really. But she also wasn’t sure she wanted it to be public knowledge that she was a— What, exactly?

As they settled down onto the two most comfortable rocks, Finn was staring at her and looked as if he was just barely biting back the urge to tell her out with it already.

“Look, I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just get right to it.” Rey swallowed and looked up, willing him to understand. “I don’t know how, but I think I can use the Force.”

His eyebrows rose slowly, and his mouth turned down. Then, to her shock, he shrugged and nodded. “Wow. That’s . . .”

“I know, I know, it’s unbelievable, but—”

“No, it’s not. Not really.”

She was a little stunned that he was taking this so easily, particularly when the last time she’d brought the Force up in front of him, he’d been nearly unable to entertain the idea. Then again, the circumstances had been considerably more dire at the time. “It’s not?”

“Ahh. Okay, it’s kind of, well, it’s not like it’s normal. Common! Common, I mean. Not that you aren’t normal,” Finn began, faltering a little. Rey smiled at his attempt to apply some belated tact. She’d have just said it was weird and been done with it. “At all. And maybe I didn’t know exactly what was up, but . . . as someone who’s spent some time hiding things, I could tell there was something you weren’t saying ever since we found you.”

Rey was glad he was still fairly calm, but it also made her begin to feel bad about her own behavior. Here he’d known she was keeping some sort of secret the whole time. Had she been so transparent? She supposed the lack of sleep was beginning to show.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner,” she offered. This wasn’t the sort of thing a person did to someone she claimed to call a friend.

Finn just shook his head. “It’s fine. Really. Like I said, it’s not as if I’m a stranger to doing that myself. And anyway, with all that, I thought maybe you needed time to feel like you could trust me again.”

“Oh, Finn, it was never like that.”

“Maybe not, but it would’ve been understandable, if you did.”

She gave a mute nod.

“So yeah,” he went on, “I figured you might need time. I haven’t exactly made it seem like I’ll be around much longer. Why would you trust secrets to someone you think is just going to leave you?”

Rey felt a lump in her throat, for just a second or two before it was gone.

For a flash she was back on Jakku, scratching yet another tally into the wall of her home. Five thousand fifty-nine days. That had been the number last she’d seen the wall. It had been a few days since then, but she hadn’t forgotten her duty. Last night, after she’d woken from her dream and found herself unable (or unwilling) to fall back to sleep, she’d made the best of her time by adding a series of single, straight stitches into the soft cuff of her right boot: one for each day she had been gone from Jakku. If—when—she returned, she would mark the wall accordingly.

“Thanks,” she said, blinking rapidly as if she expected to find tears in her eyes. “That’s— I didn’t feel that way about you. It’s more that I don’t understand what’s happening to me, and I felt strange trying to explain it when I can’t even get a handle on it. I’m not used to feeling . . .”

“Helpless?”

“No, not that.” Except it was exactly that. And as good as it was to have told someone, the fact that Finn’s ability to offer advice was nonexistent didn’t make her feel much less so. She tried to come up with some less pathetic alternatives. “Confused. Annoyed.”

Finn gave a short laugh. “Hmm, yeah, that sounds like you.”

“Watch it!” She swatted him, fighting a grin.

He feigned offense and dodged away, then sighed and seemed to relax. Tipping his head back to look up at the darkening sky, he looked at her sidelong. “So does this mean no one else knows?”

“In a way. You’re the first person I’ve told outright.” She caught the way his mouth twitched with a small suppressed smile at that. Good—he deserved to know she considered his friendship something special. Maybe it would keep him with her. “But I think Leia may suspect something’s up. Based on some things I told her, about how I found the saber.”

She didn’t mention how Leia had practically suggested Rey was meant to be part of some grand cosmic design to bring Luke back. That hardly made any sense. She swallowed and folded her hands in her lap to stop them fidgeting. “And Kylo. Kylo knows, too.”

“What?” At last, Finn sounded alarmed. It had taken long enough. “Why?”

“He’s the one who— I think something happened when—” She was getting all tangled up in her own words. “I never told you everything about what happened when he interrogated me.”

“No. I didn’t want to press it.”

“And I’m grateful for that. I don’t want to dwell on it, either, because it was . . . well, it wasn’t something I like remembering, and he’s here now, so.” Rey waved her hand as if to dismiss the matter altogether. “But the thing is, he got in my head. Read my mind.”

She could see each subtle shift in Finn’s expression as he pieced it together. “That’s what you were worried about on Starkiller. With him and Han, you were babbling about some mind trick, or something, right?”

“Yes. No. Not quite. Sort of. He wanted information about BB-8, and the map, because he knew I’d seen it. And I wouldn’t cooperate, of course not, so he just . . .” She stretched a hand out, her fingers bent just so, wrist and forearm stiff—she could almost see him doing it, and feel the concentration in his face, disinterested and second-nature. “Reached. Into my mind with his. He . . . he saw things. That I think, and feel.”

Next to her, Finn had tensed, and when she looked at him she saw his expression had turned stormy. While she knew he had complicated feelings about Kylo’s presence, even after he’d stood up for him days ago, Rey didn’t want to give him time to get angry on her behalf. She didn’t need it.

“Not the map, though. And I got so . . . angry, when he did that to me. I was afraid, and furious, and I wanted to strike him back any way I could, and then it was like something snapped into place. And I could feel what he was doing, I could . . . I could just tell that if I latched into where he was, it would drive him out. But I—”

Suddenly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to tell Finn the rest of what had happened between her and Kylo. It felt almost the same as divulging Leia’s theories about Rey’s right to the lightsaber; like it was part of something bigger and strangely private. She cleared her throat. “So, I did. It was exactly what happened. I pushed him out of my head, and it wasn’t at all what he expected, and he left me there.”

“He just . . . left you there?”

She didn’t like how skeptical Finn sounded, but then she couldn’t explain something she didn’t understand. “I don’t think he liked being bested.”

He didn’t seem to have any objections to her explanation, feeble as it was, so she continued. She explained how a guard had passed by not long after, and she’d been inexplicably certain she could get him to let her out; as certain as she had ever been, when picking her way through a dark shipwreck, that the ground before her was solid and the path clear enough. Saying it out loud to Finn, she realized how absurd it sounded, maybe even a little scary, but it was too late.

“And I couldn’t believe it, but it worked. I let myself out and was on my way to an escape when you and Han and Chewie arrived with a better alternative.”

She stole a look at him. He didn’t look frightened of her—she knew what that looked like well enough—so that was encouraging. And he was still there.

“Do you think it was something Kylo did to you?” Finn asked after he let her story settle in the still air between them.

She shook her head, certain of that at least. “No. He was as surprised as I was.” She almost admitted she’d felt it as he had, like the emotion was her own for an instant before he drew back, but that would have required a whole new layer of explanation she wasn’t sure she had in her. “I think this was something from before. Maybe a long time that’s just been . . . there.”

Sleeping inside her. Waiting for something to rouse it.

“Lucky timing, then. I guess?” Finn offered. He was trying to lighten the mood, and while she wasn’t positive it was working, the gesture alone at least eased her worries that he might think there was something wrong with her. “If it helped you get out.”

Rey hadn’t been feeling very lucky lately, at least not when it came to that, but he had a point.

“That’s a way to look at it,” she allowed. If only she could put that all back away, the notion that there was something special about her. Different, anyway. Special was a word reserved for better people with bigger stories. Rey was not that person. She exhaled and nodded. “Thanks for giving me time to tell you about this. It’s been driving me crazy to wonder if I should say anything.”

“Maybe you should tell Leia, too.” Finn twisted around to face her. “You know who her family is. Maybe she can help you. Tell you how to manage it.”

She wasn’t sure it was something she needed to manage, exactly. By and large, the Force seemed perfectly happy to let her go on with her daily life unbothered by what she was able to do, or might be able to do. It could be useful, but she wasn't quite certain how far she wanted to press into finding out.

Practicality aside, the real problem was that she was having an impossible time keeping her mind from what it all seemed to mean. Why the lightsaber had called her. Why Kylo Ren had seemed to identify something in her—if she hadn’t known any better she would have said it intrigued him. And she couldn’t forget that when nearly every time she let herself drift off he was right there.

Finn was right. If Rey was going to start looking for answers, Leia might be the best place to start. The trouble was, Leia wasn’t exactly the most available person on the base. It was to be expected, but it also meant that Rey would need to find a good time to try to claim even a few minutes of Leia’s attention for herself She doubted it would be before the move from D’Qar. The first transports were leaving at dawn, and Rey was expected to be on one of them.

“You might be right,” she said, as much to herself as to Finn. “When everything’s settled, on the new base. Perhaps I can set up a meeting. Or whatever it is people do to get an audience.”

Finn snorted back a laugh. “She might be royalty, but I don’t think she expects people to get an ‘audience’ with her.”

“Fine, bad choice of words.” She kicked his calf lightly and got to her feet. “Let’s head in. I don’t know about you, but I’ve still got some things to finish up before I can sleep.”

“Early day,” he agreed, keeping pace with her as they walked on. “Did you hear anything about this place they’re setting up in? Poe says practically the whole planet’s wild seas and island chains populated by . . . ah, what did he say?” Finn rubbed a hand over the back of his head. “The words ‘half-crazed’ and ‘hard-drinking’ came up, I remember that much. Sounds like a repeat of Maz's place.”

Island chains.

Rey’s heart leapt in her chest. She knew it was too much to hope. She shouldn’t let herself hope.

Yet it was an easier feat in theory than in practice. For nearly her whole life, her nights had been marked by dreams of an island, her sleep mapped by sun glinting off of waves and the shrill call of seabirds she had never seen on any plane of reality. The thought that, somehow, tomorrow’s journey might put her there made it tempting to give in to a fanciful notion: that of all the islands in the galaxy, the one they were heading toward just might be hers. She wondered what she would do if it was.

Chapter Text

The caves sang at night. Stretched out on a down-filled woven mat and tucked tightly beneath a layer of thick wool camp blankets, Rey could hear it, and once she woke she could not get back to sleep. The song filled her head, even with the distance—the old house she’d been assigned for the night was one of those nearest the caves that lined the interior cliffside, and it was still a good ten minutes’ walk away. Yet when the torches had been extinguished and the majority of activity ceased for the night, there was only the high, hollow sound of wind caught in the stones and sent out into the fields beyond.

So, the moment she noticed the sky beginning to lighten, Rey rose from her mat and stretched her aching limbs. She performed a simple morning routine in silence to avoid disturbing the others still sleeping in the room. She pulled her fingers through her hair to rid it of the worst of the tangles, then nimbly restored her usual buns with a speed born of habit. She took a minute to add a new stitch to her boot cuff; she’d forgotten last night, damn her, but she’d been tired. Finally she found the cloak she’d borrowed the night before, straightened her bedding, and shuffled out to see what Pamarthe was like at the dawn of a new day.

They had arrived late at night. She’d looked out the viewport of the transport then, Finn at her shoulder, and seen little beyond the faint outline of mountains as they approached the island—just a jagged, deeper shade of black than the starlit sky above their peaks.

In the brightening gray of morning, those same mountains seemed smaller and less foreboding, mottled with gray and green, splotched with deep sulfurous yellow. Beautiful, and wild, and begging to be explored. A week ago Rey would never have dreamed that she would see even one new planet any time soon. Perhaps ever. Now, she had seen three planets in barely more than as many days, and each had been more striking than the last. Takodana had been greener than anything Rey could have imagined, so much that the very smell of it was locked in her mind only as the color, and the sunlight there had been a gentle kiss utterly unlike the bleaching glare of Jakku. She would remember D’Qar for its dense, noisy jungles and air thick with the fragrance of flowers and humid earth.

And Pamarthe . . . She was still forming her impressions. She longed to see it from the sky; the waves, the cliffs, the clusters of islands, the ancient rope and stone bridges that were said to connect them all. But one thing struck her immediately as she wandered over a field of smooth dappled stones and bare dirt, while the wind tore at the cloak she’d wrapped around her shoulders and threatened to undo the work she’d put in to securing her hair: Pamarthe was not a place for the faint of heart.

Yet for all of that, she had no sense of anything special about the place. It was not her island. She knew it immediately, and she tried not to let her disappointment show.

That was easy enough. There was more unloading to do now that the ships were concealed, and people to meet—always more people. She was beginning to wonder if this was what her life was now. Parades of welcoming strangers until she had the chance to return to what she knew.

Much of the day would be spent completing the task of seeing the Resistance properly settled into the place they would be calling home for the foreseeable future. As for Rey, she was planning to find out if Han might like some help with the Falcon. It had been a few days since she’d seen him, and the ship, and even if she had turned down his offer of work, she still liked the idea of getting to know the ship better. It had been her salvation, in a way; that made it special.

And perhaps, if she played her cards right, he would let her take it up to see the planet from the sky.

But first, a trip to the refectory. The long, low-set stone building stood at the very center of what must once have been a town and was ringed by structures now serving as dormitories, offices, and command centers. It all gave the strangest impression of being old and new at once. She grabbed a bite to eat, enjoying the relative solitude of the hour, then made her way back out into the morning with a carved wooden cup of some warm, spiced drink that was evidently in great supply. It heated her from within and left behind a funny sensation on her tongue, like little flames lingering there. It was . . . different, though not unpleasant. And it was certainly welcome; Pamarthe lacked the brutal daytime heat of Jakku, and the more pleasant warmth of the planets she had visited since. Instead it offered a sharp, biting chill that even the sun couldn’t quite mitigate as it crept higher into the sky.

It had begun to drizzle since she’d stopped inside, too. Another new phenomenon—in all her years on Jakku, she had seen rain precisely once, and it had been a vicious deluge that kept her trapped inside, hungry and restless, for nearly a week. She liked this gentle pattering far more and left her head uncovered, turning her face to the sky every so often to enjoy the feeling of it on her cheeks as she made her way to the caves.

The majority of the Resistance fleet was being housed in the depths of an ancient cavern in the rocks. The larger mouth of it faced the sea and made for easy ship access, but there were a few smaller hidden entrances landward—the source of all the whistling and howling that had kept Rey awake for part of the night—that mechanics and crew could use to slip in and out when needed.

Once inside, Rey found that she was not one of the first to rise after all. It reminded her of the hangar at D’Qar, though the space seemed smaller because of the darkness. Lights had been rigged around the rock faces and high above along the ceiling of the hollowed-out cliffside, but it was impossible to forget that she was inside the earth with a bracing, salty wind blowing in from the seaward mouth.

She was still taking in the space, trying to locate the Falcon among the din of people unloading cargo and seeing to simple repairs, when a hand clapped down on her shoulder and nearly made her spill the remaining contents of her cup when she jumped.

“Morning, kid.”

Rey turned and found Han peering down at her, clearly amused at her expense. He was looking well. Maybe being reunited with his ship had been having a positive effect on him; she’d have said the same of being reunited with his family, except she wasn’t sure how much he could actually have seen of them since they’d all returned from Starkiller. It wasn’t her business.

“Looking for work?” he asked a beat later.

She downed the rest of her drink (it was definitely best warm, she realized too late) and nodded. “Looking for you, actually.”

“Well, those are the same thing today.” Han gestured a hand at her to follow and waited until she fell in beside him to say, “I was hoping you’d find your way in here. Had a few questions I’m hoping you can answer about some of the other alterations that backwater idiot—Plunk?”

“Plutt,” she supplied, doing nothing to conceal her distaste.

“Right. Whatever he did to her, the Falcon, some funny stuff in the engine bay. Bad funny. This guy actually have any idea how ships work?”

Rey rather doubted it. “I don’t know. He was more interested in the value of their parts.”

Han gave a derisive snort and pressed on, dodging a few trolleys loaded with trunks and pieces of large machinery, and she kept up well enough, only slowed here and there by the draw of the cavern. It had been easy to miss at first with so much to draw the eye from its natural state, but it was gorgeous. She’d never seen anything like it in her life: the stone that made up the walls rose from the ground in thin, nearly symmetric, hexagonal columns of varying heights, all joined or butting up against one another in dizzying rows. From afar they looked like slender stacks of stone blocks. She couldn’t help thinking they would be fun to climb, if challenging.

“Hey, don’t get lost,” Han called back. “Need that brain of yours.” Rey scurried to catch up.

They soon reached the Falcon, which, as it had been in the last hangar, was grounded a short way apart from the rest of the fleet, near the mouth of the cave. Chewie greeted them, seemingly from out of nowhere, and behind him Rey spotted someone she had never met before: a young woman, outfitted in a pair of dark-blue coveralls. She was on the taller side and bronze-skinned, her shining black hair bound in a thick braid over her shoulder and pushed back from her face by a pair of safety goggles. Rey was positive she had not been with the Resistance on D’Qar.

“Greer, this is Rey. She, ah, stumbled upon the Falcon back on Jakku and couldn’t resist her charms,” Han explained, waving a hand at Rey as he made his way toward the others. “Rey, Greer Sonnel—one of the best pilots in the galaxy, and not a bad mechanic.”

The woman raised an eyebrow at Han’s last comment, but the smirk that tugged at her lips suggested she knew it was in jest. She offered a hand to Rey and clasped it firmly when Rey accepted. “Good to meet you.” She leaned closer and said in a sly undertone, “Captain Solo’s talked a storm about you the last few days. Think he wants to adopt you.”

“I heard that, Sonnel!” Han shouted, already halfway up the gangway.

Greer just shrugged and stepped aside to let Rey approach the ship. “Well, I guess we’ll put you to work and let you prove yourself, hm?”

Suddenly some routine tasks were beginning to seem a loaded situation, and Rey wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea of being supervised by a stranger. As she and Greer entered the freighter, she asked, “Were you with the Resistance back on D’Qar? I don’t remember you.”

“No. I live here,” Greer said. “Well, not here. Pamarthe. It’s my homeworld. But I’m no stranger to the Resistance. I used to work closely with the princess, before the war began in earnest. Years ago. I’ve been here on this planet, oh . . . nearly four years. My partner and I live across on the archipelago, near the northern tip. You might catch him about later.”

“Oh.”

That sounded serious, and a bit impressive. Rey wondered if the time was ever going to come when she no longer felt a little starstruck at being in the presence of so many interesting people. She hoped Greer wasn’t expecting such an auspicious history from her. Hello, I’m Rey, and I plunder ships for a living to keep from starving until my family returns for me. It's been almost fourteen years, but I've got plenty to keep me busy. Fascinating. “Is that how you know Han, then?”

“I knew Captain Solo before all that. He recruited me for one of his racing teams.”

“You were a racing pilot?” Rey was painfully aware of how much she sounded like a wide-eyed child, and silently scolded herself to rein it in. She would have given anything to do something like that, but Greer spoke of it like it was routine.

“Once upon a time. I ended up piloting for a better cause. Things changed, though. Anyway, enough about me.” Greer led them down toward the engineering bay and slid the door aside before ducking in, pausing for Rey to follow. The heat and closeness of it bathed her in a welcome wash of familiarity. “I heard you come from Jakku. What’s that like?”

“Terrible, by most measures,” Rey told her, surprised by the chuckled her answer got. “Hot by day. Freezing by night. A lot of nothing. A lot of the worst sorts of people.”

“I believe it. You look like you survived it all right, though.” Greer seemed to understand Rey had no great desire to go into it at length. “Happy to have you with us.”

Rey breathed a little sigh and nodded, smiling tightly. “Thanks. It’s . . . er. It’s been good to feel so welcome.”

As they worked, interrupted only when Han or Chewie popped in every so often to check their progress or get Rey’s thoughts on Plutt’s many egregious alterations to the Falcon’s systems, Greer spoke with pride of Pamarthe and its history, and Rey was just as happy to listen—it occurred to her for perhaps the first time that it was possible to be proud of where one had come from and eager to show it off, as Greer was fast proving to be.

Despite Rey’s prior ignorance of its existence, to hear Greer tell it, Pamarthe actually enjoyed quite a reputation in the galaxy for producing hardy soldiers and exceptional pilots. Or, as Greer put it with a pointed look that made Rey laugh and blush both at once: Pamarthens were known for their talent in the areas of “flying, fighting, or fucking—all three on a good day,” and were as capable by sea as by sky. But they were a people steeped in their own history, too, clannish and tradition-bound and a bit jingoistic.

Fortunately, part of that history also tied them to the original Rebel Alliance of a generation past and more recently had ensured their measured support of Leia’s renewed Resistance. It made the planet, for now at least, a safe haven tucked conveniently into a largely unfrequented corner of the Outer Rim. As for the island they had set up base on, it hadn’t been inhabited in nearly a century and a half—an earthquake had destroyed most of the small cities and villages, and a subsequent eruption of volcanic ash had smothered whatever remained. At Rey’s look of alarm (and, secretly, some excitement) at this news, Greer assured her the volcano had been dormant ever since.

And for the last four years, Greer, her partner Joph, and a small enclave of Resistance militia had been rebuilding the place over the bones left behind, fixing up the hardier buildings into bunkers and command centers and living quarters, eking out rudimentary hangars alongside long disused docks and ports, stockpiling weaponry and fuel—when they weren’t also running reconnaissance missions or forwarding intel along to the heart of the movement. In short, they had been preparing a place worthy of a long-term stay should emergency warrant it.

“Might be some chances to get groups over to the main archipelago,” Greer said, her voice echoing a little from where the upper half of her body was hidden by a bed of wiring and circuitry. “Not likely a good idea to risk it for Princess Leia and some of the more conspicuous faces, but you, a lot of the other nameless grunts—no offense—”

Rey snapped a panel shut and shook her head absently. “Been called worse.”

Greer’s brusque laugh filled the compartment. “Regardless, you won’t be stuck here if you don’t want to be. Once things are settled, we’re happy to take a few at a time over, for a change of scenery. Can’t have everyone going stir crazy. Best if you all maintain the story that you’re refugees from the Hosnian system, but if you think you can manage. . . . You ever been on a boat?”

“I’m not sure I’d know a boat if I saw one.”

“What!” Greer sounded positively scandalized. “That’s going to have to change.”

Rey smiled to herself and wiped her hands on her thighs. If she was going to be here a while as she figured out what she was meant to do next, she supposed there were worse places to be. Certainly more hostile ones. Ones with less food, worse company, harsher weather. It may have been the wrong island, but she was determined to like it very much.

It was afternoon by the time Rey realized she hadn’t seen Finn at all since they’d parted ways the night before. She’d worked for a few hours with Greer and would have been happy to stay far longer, except that Greer had somewhat suddenly excused herself, looking a bit gray in the face and like she had somewhere to be. Rey had stayed in the hangar for a while longer, but when Han found her eyeing one of the X-wings, he’d sent her off for a break. She’d found herself some food and then spent a few hours getting the lay of the land.

As the sky began to darken, she was feeling more at ease with her new surroundings, if not with what she was supposed to be doing in them. And she still had seen no sign of Finn; she was beginning to worry he might have talked to the right people and found a ride off the planet. Without even a goodbye.

But when she entered the refectory she found him almost immediately, sitting at a round wooden table with a handful of individuals she didn’t know. They were all human, and most had the same dark features and hardy looks about them that Greer did, though the main thing that struck Rey was that Finn’s was the only youthful face there: he was otherwise ringed by people with graying hair and weathered countenance. He caught sight of her before she had time to decide whether she wanted to interrupt what appeared to be an already lively conversation. He waved her over with a wide smile. She couldn’t say no to that.

Nearing the table, where there was indeed precisely one free seat, Rey spied a number of large platters and dishes filled with foods she had never seen before, though it was the smells that got her. Strong, sharp, hot. Her eyes felt as likely to water as her mouth. She dropped down into the chair and met Finn’s eyes, trying very hard not to immediately avail herself of the dinner on offer before at least getting in a greeting.

“Wondered where you’d gotten off to today,” she said, hoping that he understood she was only teasing. It wasn’t as if she had a right to keep him beside her all the time. That was no good anyway; Finn wasn’t a security blanket, no matter how comfortable his presence made her feel. No matter how much not having him near made her worry he would leave.

“Me?” he returned. Another smile tugged at his lips. “I thought for sure I’d find you in here first thing in the morning, but what do I hear instead? You’re down in that cave with Solo and that old junker.”

“Oy, that old junker saved our lives twice.”

One of the women at the table waved a hand between Finn and Rey. “Hey, you going to let your friend feed herself, or just gab her ear off? Looks like she could use a few good meals, eh?” The woman was middle-aged, her face worn and keen, silver threading through her russet hair. She snatched Rey’s dish and began spooning something from the nearest pot into it. “Fish stew, and from a good fatty catch this morning. Eat up, lass. Put some meat on those bones and fire in that belly.”

Finn snorted back a laugh and gave Rey an apologetic but nonetheless amused look. “You haven’t been on the receiving end of a whap from her staff, Erlen. Rey has plenty of fire in her belly already, trust me.”

“Not enough meat on my bones, though, probably,” Rey returned. She knew she was blushing, but she was trying very hard to take this all in stride.

“Staff, eh?” one of the men asked, giving her a hard look. “You fight?”

Rey bobbed her head, eyes still fixed on her dish as it was filled. “When I need to.”

His sound of tentative approval was lost on her as she accepted the dish from Erlen, then reached across the table to snatch up a fist-sized roll of what felt to be very dense seeded bread. On closer inspection, she couldn’t help thinking it looked rather like a lumpy stone.

“Soak that in the stew first,” Finn warned—though with a mischievous cast to his eyes. “I almost broke a damn tooth earlier.”

Rey grinned at him and did as he advised, but when she bit into the stew-softened bread it wasn't the lingering toughness of it that made an impression; she was too distracted by the fact that her mouth now seemed to be on fire. It was the effect as the drink she'd had that morning, but multiplied tenfold. When she’d been promised fire in her belly, she hadn’t thought they meant actual fire.

Oh.” A second spoonful halfway to her mouth, Rey coughed and set it down. “That’s—”

“Flavorful?” one of the men beside Finn supplied when Rey’s description broke off into another cough. He sported a magnificent coil of braids atop his head and looked as if he was enjoying a private joke, though his smile was mostly hidden beneath a long, thick beard.

“My mouth is . . . hot?” She was reluctant to entirely close it but also too aware that she must look like a fool with her tongue half out and tears in the corners of her eyes.

Yet she didn’t find the sensation disagreeable, as it settled. She sniffled and risked another—albeit small—sip of the broth. The flavor was truly unlike anything she had ever experienced. Food on Jakku was for sustenance rather than enjoyment, and portions all tended to have the same sort of nothing taste. A tear trickled down her cheek, and she wasn’t sure whether it was because of the way her tongue still stinging, or because she was so overwhelmed by how much she was enjoying herself.

Oh. I love this,” she mumbled through a full mouth, words barely intelligible. “I didn’t know food could taste this way.” She shoveled another spoonful into her mouth and savored the feeling of it.

“What, like swallowing a blaster bolt?” Finn asked, laughing, no doubt at the sight of her.

“Bah, off-worlders,” huffed a man with a wide, squashed nose—though his mouth was quirked in a grin. “Good to see someone else here has an appreciation for the bold.”

If scarfing down a bowl of spicy stew while red-faced, sweating, and sniffling earned her such a compliment—she thought it was a compliment—Rey was happy to go on doing so. And her being so occupied, it gave Finn and his companions a chance to fill her in on how it was he’d come to be the center of attention at the table before she’d joined them. The four men and women had sought him out the moment they’d learned there was a former First Order stormtrooper in their midst, because, decades ago, they themselves had all been either troopers or pilots for the Empire.

At least until the destruction of Alderaan. Although many Pamarthens had at first rushed to the Empire for the glory of battle and the promise of victory as clone troopers fell out of favor, the unveiling of the Death Star’s true purpose had soured their gusto nearly immediately. After that, droves of Pamarthen Imperial soldiers had deserted and joined the Resistance, where they served for the remainder of the war.

“Cowards, the lot, in Empire command,” Brecka, a stout woman with a cloud of black curls rising like a halo around her head, spat, as if it had all happened just yesterday. “Press a button, watch on a screen as billions of lives are snuffed out from afar. There’s no honor in that. No glory. That’s something else.”

“Something truly evil,” added Sten, scrubbing his hand roughly over his beard.

The squashed-nosed man, Orris, waved a hand. “And the First Order’s proved no different, to no one’s surprise. Though I’m proud to say no son or daughter of Pamarthe would have found themselves in league with that group. Not from the start, and not going forward.”

“This young fellow, though,” Erlen said with a fond smile directed at Finn, like she was looking on a son who had done nothing in his life but make her proud. “He left before all that monstrous business with the Starkiller. I only wish I could say it hadn’t taken an atrocity like the Death Star to spur me to do what was right all those years ago. You’re a man of true integrity, Finn. Bedrock to the core; I can sense it.”

She raised her flagon, and so did the other three, and if Rey hadn’t been in the midst of helping herself to a second bowlful of stew, she would have raised her own as well. Finn, for his part, just looked mortified as he ate and tried to pretend they weren’t all toasting to his health, bravery, and long life.

Chapter Text

“—and instead of using what you now have and finding him, you’re all sitting around in the—company of these sea-roving drunkards, biding time as if—”

“This is how things are done on this side of the war, Ben. We don’t operate from a base that is perpetually on the move—this isn’t the Supremacy. You’re hardly privy to everything going on behind the scenes. For—”

“Call it whatever you like. But—”

Kylo’s voice wavered and cut off, and Rey took a step back from the door to stand concealed around the corner that led off into another hall. After dinner with Finn and his admirers (oh, she was going to tease him for that more in the days to come), she had decided to brush her fears aside, take his advice, and seek out Leia for guidance. But as she’d drawn up to the room serving as Leia’s office, she’d heard voices arguing and realized she wasn’t the only one who had wanted Leia’s ear that night.

She hadn’t overheard much. She’d only been standing there for a minute or so, debating whether she should wait or leave and come back, and scolding herself when she realized she just liked being nosy. Rey drew further back into the shadow cast by the wall and wondered why they had stopped speaking.

She heard a soft sound and boots scuffing over the wooden floors. A moment later Kylo spoke again, with a hint of resignation. “You have another guest waiting.”

Rey froze and looked sideways at the slant of flickering orange light that cut across the floor from the office doorway. She should have been surprised he had noticed her, but she wasn’t. Had he known she was there the whole time?

“Ah.” A silence. “Yes, you’re right.” Leia sounded surprised and thoughtful. There were more footfalls, though they halted briefly when she spoke again in a tone Rey had never heard her use before. A uniquely gentle aspect blanketed her sternness. “There was a time, if I recall correctly, that you would have been over the moons to see this place. If the Force wills, we’re going to be here a while. I suggest you try to make the most of it. Please. Rather than being in such a hurry to get off it.”

That warranted a low, derisive chuckle. “You know this has nothing to do with me being merely restless, Princess.”

He emerged from the room just as Rey rounded the corner. They nearly collided, and though their eyes met, neither of them acknowledged the other further. She watched him stalk down the hall until Leia’s voice stole her attention back.

“The door is open,” she called. “Or nonexistent, actually. We’re working on that one. Come in.”

Rey swallowed and crept around the lintel, sheepish at having been caught eavesdropping. “Hi. Er. Princess . . . ma’am.”

Leia snorted in a most un-princesslike fashion. She was warmly dressed in a tunic and long trousers, wrapped in an ivory-colored shawl much like the one Rey had spent the day wearing, and standing beside an ancient wooden desk. The surface of it was cluttered with datapads and holocrons and a projector, a dissonance of old and new that Rey was accustomed to. The room was otherwise rather bare, but clean and cozy. A fire blazed in a deep stone hearth, and the R2 unit Rey recognized from D’Qar dozed in the corner, his standby light glowing faintly.

“‘Ma’am’ is fine. ‘General’ or ‘Princess’ will do, too. I’m not particular these days; not in the right company.” Leia smiled and leaned against the desk, arms crossed. “Though in here, ‘Leia’ sounds right. It’s late, and I don’t know if I have the energy to stand on propriety right now.”

Rey nodded, her nerves somewhat alleviated. “All right.”

“I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

That seemed charged. In the brief span of their greeting and the ease of their exchange, Rey had nearly forgotten where she had been moments before and what she had been doing. Her face warmed, and she hoped it wouldn’t show too much in the light. “No. Not very. A minute. Maybe two.”

Leia was silent for a beat as she considered. “Overhear anything interesting?”

“I’m sorry. I should have continued on my way when I realized he was here. That you were busy.” Rey looked at her feet and frowned.

“You could have done far worse, and I can hardly blame you. But I’d like to know what you heard. I’d rather you not walk away with an incomplete picture of it. That’s where trouble starts.”

“Something about holos. Or broadcasts.”

“Ah. That’s common news enough. Soon the rest will know.” Leia grimaced. “We’ve intercepted broadcasts since Starkiller’s destruction. It seems that the First Order is making as if Kylo Ren is still amongst their ranks.”

“How?”

It hadn’t occurred to Rey that such a lie would be possible or necessary. She hadn’t thought very much about the First Order at all since she’d escaped. She’d tried not to, at least.

“Quite easily. The First Order is enormous. The upper ranks are tightly guarded. And while Kylo Ren”—Leia blinked a few times, as if unsure whether to go on using that name—“was known to accompany forces on the ground, as I’m sure you’ve seen for yourself, he remained a separate entity in many other respects. Snoke kept him close. Masked and isolated. The mystery surrounding him was part of what made him such an effective weapon. His absence will be easy to cover up, for a while anyway.” She looked a bit smug as she added, “And they will want to do that, because the alternative is to admit that, along with their weapon being destroyed, their most powerful warrior left with the perpetrators. Maybe even had something to do with it.”

“The Resistance could just contradict that, though. We have him right here.”

Leia chuckled. “It would be declared slanderous propaganda, at best. Most would believe it. Holos can be doctored for lesser purposes. I admit I’d hoped . . .” She looked pained and a touch embarrassed. “I’d hoped that we might be able to try, at least. But I’ve seen that I can’t ask it of him. Not as things are. Just hinting at it tonight was enough for him to make very clear that he wants no part of anything like that. And he isn’t entirely wrong to feel that way.”

For the last few days Rey had let the fact that Leia was Kylo’s mother fade into the back of her mind, such that to hear her speaking of him now was jarring. It still made such little sense, that he should come from what he did and have become something so dark.

“He was asking why you haven’t used the map to Luke. I heard that too. Just before he left.”

Secretly, she had been wondering the same. Rey knew that relocating had been the priority, but now they had done so, and she had not heard any mention of the map since the day after Starkiller. She found it strange. The map had cost the Resistance so much to obtain. They needed Luke. Didn’t they?

“Of course.” Looking grave, Leia paced around her desk to sit in the creaky chair behind it. Like the desk, it was huge, simple, and made of dark wood, and it seemed to engulf her in its wide arms. She peered at Rey, searching her for something. “That matter is still very much at the fore of his mind. And mine.”

She thought that an odd answer, and one that did not explain the apparent change of plans.

“It was his mission,” Rey said simply. Something told her she had reached the end of Leia’s willingness to be forthcoming—whatever this was, it was more personal, and it was between Leia and Kylo. And that was fine. Rey hadn’t come to pry into family business.

“Yes, it was.” Leia cleared her throat and leaned forward to rest her arms on the desk, then nodded at the chair across from her. “Now. You wished to speak with me, I assume. Despite appearances, it’s a better time than most.”

“Yes.” Rey sat, albeit stiffly, still expecting to be chastised. “It’s about me. Or the saber.” Her hand wandered to her hip, where she still carried it nearly always, never certain where a safe place might be to leave it. “When I told you how I found it, and what happened after, I left some things out.”

“What sorts of things?”

Yes, what sorts of things, Rey? So many. She was grateful she’d had some practice at this already with Finn, but Finn wasn’t a Resistance leader. He wasn’t a member of one of the most legendary families in galactic history.

She started to speak, recounting again how she had seen things when she found the saber on Takodana, but this time she included the details of what those things had been. Painful things, hers and others’. And Leia just listened in silence, like she’d heard all this before or been waiting to hear it, even when Rey moved on to what had happened between her and Kylo as he’d questioned her; how his behavior had so baffled her; what she’d done after that; the sense that something had changed in her ever since.

She felt the weight of her story lifting again, surprised at how much it had lingered after she’d confessed it to Finn, knowing that this meant something different than that had. Rey was putting herself in Leia’s hands. Asking for her to do more than just hear her. For the first time, after days of ignoring it and hoping it would just go away, she let herself acknowledge it: She needed help.

Leia seemed, at first, about to offer it. She hadn’t looked alarmed at anything Rey had said. She’d been understanding and patient, not interrupting even once for clarification. Most likely, she hadn’t needed it, because she got it—that was what Rey told herself.

“I’d wondered about what you told me that first day,” she said when Rey, fatigued from telling, went silent at last. “I felt something was different about you. To say nothing of the fact that you heard my brother’s lightsaber call to you. That’s hardly something most could lay claim to experiencing.”

Rey sank further into her chair from relief. “I know.”

“How old are you, Rey?”

“Nineteen.” Nearly twenty, by her own estimates. Rey glanced uncertainly at Leia.

“I was only a little older than you are when I began to understand that I had certain gifts because of the Force.” Leia’s eyes flicked over her. “I know the feeling. Too well.”

And Rey knew that story, or bits of it, the parts nearly anyone could have recalled if asked. Legends of the Skywalkers were in great supply, even in wastelands like Jakku. Leia’s background was perhaps one of those parts least steeped in mystery and conjecture, even decades later. Yet her next words left the fragile buoyancy of Rey’s feelings adrift.

“And because of that, I wish I could offer you more advice on what to do next. That is what you want, isn’t it?”

Mutely, Rey nodded, unable to understand what the problem was.

“But what you’re experiencing, it’s— It’s quite different from what I’ve ever known. The Force has always worked through me in more subtle ways. What you describe reminds me of . . .” Leia faltered and looked hard at Rey with a fathomless expression, as if she wasn’t seeing Rey at all. “ . . . well. Of Ben. My son. And of Luke. Luke always understood it in a deeper way. It was more important to him. It meant something else.”

“So . . .” Rey tried to keep herself from sounding as disappointed as she felt. “So what do I do? If I’m gone from Jakku too long, what if . . .”

She lifted her head and looked at the fire in the hearth, now burning rather low and in need of tending. If there were tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, she didn’t want Leia to see them. Desperate for a way to keep from feeling the brunt of her disappointment, Rey went to feed the embers with wood from a pile in the corner. As she worked, Leia followed her and stood aside, watching impassively. When Rey looked at her again, she could tell exactly what Leia was about to say.

“And if I went back there, it wouldn’t stop it,” Rey said in a small voice of acceptance for things she already knew. “Whatever I’m feeling. Whatever’s . . . awake now.”

“No, it wouldn’t. This has always been part of you, in small ways. There isn’t a corner of the cosmos untouched by the Force. Certainly not Jakku. ” Rey began to wonder what she meant by that, but Leia approached and placed a hand at her shoulder. When she did, Rey felt a wash of calm. “I had a thought, when I saw you with that lightsaber, to send you to Luke straightaway, as soon as we had the map pieced together. If you would accept such a task.”

Rey dipped her chin; she thought maybe it was a nod.

“I was sure that was the path laid before us. So neatly. But things have changed,” Leia continued.

“You have the map, though.” What could have changed that drastically?

“We do. And that isn’t the problem. I’m not at liberty to elaborate, but . . . as it stands now, bringing Luke back won’t be as simple as I hoped.” She laughed shortly. “It was never simple to begin with.”

So something was different now than it had been that first day. Rey couldn’t fathom what it might be, beyond an inkling that it must be something to do with Kylo. As far as she knew, he was the last person who would have seen Luke. She wondered, had he not detected her waiting in the hall, if she might have learned more from his argument with Leia.

And so Rey understood innately that what was spoken in this room was to be kept in confidence. Had it been to do with anything else, she might have felt flattered to be trusted so. Instead, Leia couldn’t help her, not in the way Rey wanted, and the reasons for it hurt. She almost wished she hadn’t come at all.

“Call it intuition, but I still believe you’re meant to be here. That the way to move is forward, not back,” Leia told her, squeezing her shoulder once and stepping back to let her finish her work at the hearth. “And that when the time is right, you’ll find what you seek.”

An aged voice, the echo of a memory, whispered in the air around Rey’s head as the fire crackled back to life. The belonging you seek is not behind you—it is ahead.

Leia’s voice was nearly as like a whisper as she turned back to her desk. “Something we would all do well to remember right now.”

Rey was finally beginning to believe it.

Chapter Text

In the aftermath of his disastrous talk with Leia, Kylo wanted little more than to be left alone. Fortunately, such a thing was not difficult to achieve on a secluded island dotted with caves and ruins and where no one was at ease with his presence. Had it not been dark, he would have walked until he found a place far from notice and run through drills with his lightsaber until his body was on the verge of collapse and his mind was numb. But such a thing was not feasible in the near total dark of the island at night. So instead he walked until he came to one of the planet’s famed bridges and decided to see if the things were as daunting as rumor suggested.

The islands of the archipelago were connected by a series of them, sometimes up to a kilometer long and all constructed in the primitive style of centuries past: rope, stone, and wood. Relics of times long gone, kept up for the sake of tradition and having something more to boast of on an already proud world. Supposedly, they also discouraged invaders. Though as he stood on one now Kylo couldn’t see why, unless one’s army was chronically predisposed to motion sickness or vertigo. A pretty poor army, then.

He was still fuming from Leia’s request. No, he did not wish to be used to discredit the First Order’s claims of his current status. He almost wished she had done it anyway, without first requesting his permission. Or even after he had denied her, in defiance of his wishes. It would have given him another reason to stay angry. He could never have enough of those.

And he couldn’t find words to describe how it felt to realize she evidently had every intention of forestalling anything to do with Luke after what he had told her. She had the gall to claim it was in part for his own sake. It smacked of the message she'd sent him years ago, a tearful attempt to allay his crumbling resolve in the wake of her outing as Darth Vader's daughter. He had not realized until that day, faced with the reality of his true legacy, that it was possible to feel at once so untethered and yet so filled with clarity.

I should not have waited so long to tell you . . . Please know we only kept it from you for your own good . . . We wanted to be sure you were ready . . . That you . . . It doesn't . . . So sorry . . .

As if she knew best. Arrogant, as always. And yet she expected him to trust her intentions.

Even so, she may have had a point. What he thought would come of such a reunion with Luke should she pursue her original plan, he could not say. Nothing good. The prospect of encountering Luke again filled him with such an inscrutable roil of raw emotions: anticipation, dread, fury, righteousness, something else undefined but horrible. So it may have been fortuitous that Rey had shown up and prevented things from escalating, though in his agitated state he had noticed her too late to prevent her from overhearing at least some of the argument.

It wasn’t doing him any good to dwell on it. He chewed the inside of his cheek and looked upward. He didn’t trust himself to meditate; he was no longer sure what he should meditate on. But despite the day’s rain, the skies were clear once more, so he began to count stars and piece together familiar constellations. It helped to feel that, even here on the ground, he knew where he was in the galaxy.

The wind over the bridge was strong enough to set the ropes swinging gently, and the creaking of it was so loud that Kylo was surprised when he noticed someone walking by. He turned his face toward the rocks and mossy solid ground only a few meters away.

“Rey.”

It was only after he’d called her name that he realized he hadn’t actually heard her footsteps crunching through the gravel at all. And if he had, there would have been no way to say it was her out of all the dozens here. His brain had substituted the logical notion that the sound of her strolling by was what alerted him to the proximity of someone, and he had deduced it was her. Because the alternative, the truth of it, simply made no sense—that he’d just known she was there, as he had in Leia's office. He’d felt her nearness, and he didn’t understand how he had done so beyond his certainty that it was so.

All the more reason to settle this now. Or try to.

To his relief, he saw her shape take form in the dark, lit gradually by the flickering torches as she approached the start of the bridge. She was squinting at him, steps hesitant but not unsure over the stones. Her shoulders were wrapped in a roughspun woolen cloak, thick dark fibers woven through paler ones, and a few strands of hair blew across her cheeks and forehead. A moment later she must have realized it was him, though he had a difficult time believing she hadn’t known to begin with.

Rey sighed. “Oh.”

Her lips pursed and Kylo thought she was going to continue on her way. It was late and growing cold. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to, even not accounting for the fact that none of their encounters had been of the friendly sort. But then her shoulders drew back and she lifted her chin, and she walked out onto the bridge to join him with the air of someone bestowing a particularly magnanimous favor.

When she stopped a few paces away from him and turned to face the sea, he thought he would need to be the one to start speaking. He considered asking her if she had had fun spying on him in Leia’s office.

She prevented him from doing so by speaking first. “Nice night.”

He made a sound in the back of his throat that was half abandoned chuckle and half sound of noncommittal agreement. It was a nice night; but it was strange to hear her say so, like they were about to engage in more pleasantries.

“You look like you belong here,” he said, for lack of a decent answer as he glanced at her. His first instinct had been to make some quip about how this was a far cry from the desert she must be used to and probably for the better. And that would have been insulting.

“On this bridge?”

Such pique in her voice; she was hardly less prickly now than she had been at their last meeting.

“On this planet.” He gestured in the general vicinity of her head and shoulders. Dressed as she was, he thought she might almost pass for a local, though the real locals would disagree.

But there had been something unbridled about her from the start, ever since Takodana. So much of something inside her, barely contained—not simply the Force. Her time on with the Resistance, even after only a day, seemed to be magnifying the effect.

Rey raised an eyebrow and nodded, then returned her attention to whatever lay below the bridge. She was rapt on it, even if the dark robbed them of the actual sight of the water crashing and heaving.

“I've been told I’m good at blending in. It’s useful.” With a great shrug of her shoulders, she fastened her cloak more tightly around herself and turned to look at him. “Surprised you’re not more bundled up yourself. You seemed to be a fan of all the . . . layers.”

Kylo almost laughed, though it came out as more of a low chuff lost under the constant noise coming from below.

She returned an uneasy near-smile. “Are we going to finish our conversation from the hangar? Or were you suddenly interested in sharing the silence in company?”

The conversation in question had begun two days ago, and it was the only one they had any right to entertain. He’d barely seen her since then. It was not lost on him that she seemed better rested. No dreams the last two nights, at least none that had included him. He knew that much.

“If you think you can spare the time.” There it was—the dry edge he was more accustomed to assuming, though the effort felt hollow now.

Rey stepped closer and he almost drew away, because what he truly wanted to do, to his dismay, was move nearer. It was a concerted effort to stay where he was, though his hands curled more tightly around the ropes. If there had been only air he’d have been clenching his fists; the coarse, aged fibers bit into his palms instead.

“I have time,” she told him, voice nearly as chill as the wind. “But I also have a question for you, before we do.”

“You can ask.” He just didn’t have to answer it.

Kylo swallowed and dipped his chin against a particularly fierce gale that set the bridge dancing again. Despite her previous boldness, Rey’s posture stiffened and she crouched a little, like a startled tooka cat, and gripped the ropes more tightly as the bridge swayed. He heard her take in a sharp breath of alarm, though she was not long in recovering.

“When you—” She cut herself off almost immediately, and her brow twitched, as if her words were eluding her. “When I called you a creature in a mask. When you interrogated me . . .”

“I’m familiar with the occasion in question,” he said when she trailed off, seemingly waiting for something from him.

“When I called you that, you took it off. Your mask. Almost right away.” Her jaw clenched and she looked pointedly at him. He met her eyes with little concern. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t want you to think of me that way.”

His answer only seemed to confuse her further. “Why not?”

“Because I didn’t need it to—” Kylo lifted his chin and looked away briefly. Why was that so much harder to answer? He had wanted to show her he didn't need the mask; hadn’t he? Though that wasn't quite right. He did need it. And the affectation he didn’t wasn’t the only reason he’d removed it. “I don’t know. If you want an honest answer. I don’t know, but it felt important at the time.”

“An ‘honest answer’.” She gave quiet hum, like she was amused or at least considering allowing herself to be so.

A silence began to settle, until he shifted, the ropes groaning as he relaxed his hold on them. If she was mocking him, she was mistaken to do so. “I don’t like liars.”

“You don’t like liars,” Rey echoed him again and shook her head. Judging by her tone, she was not making light of his replies after all, but she did find them inadequate.

He had a moment of weakness where he wanted to tell her that he’d been lied to his whole life, by people he’d trusted, and so no, of course he didn’t like liars. Who liked liars? People like his father, perhaps.

It was too personal. She wouldn’t hear it from him. She wouldn’t understand it. The fact that he’d even considered it, felt almost compelled to say it, was borderline terrifying.

So instead he grew defensive. “No. But I don’t expect honesty was in great supply back in your desert. Or in the company you’ve been keeping since.”

“What are you— I’m being—civil, and all you can find to do is insult me?”

“I’m not insulting you. I’m trying to get you to open your eyes.” He leaned closer and spoke slowly. “You trust far too easily.”

He could tell by the way her mouth tightened, the way something in her eyes flared, that he was about to get a rise out of her, almost as he had in the hangar days ago.

“I do not. I didn’t stay alive on my own for—” She stuttered to a stop and shook her head. “My trust is earned. Get that straight. You keep talking like you know me, and you don’t. You—” Rey spun to face him and took another step closer, face turned up and voice raised to be heard over the wind. “You make assumptions, and you think you have the right, because you happened to get inside for a handful of moments. As if suddenly you’re an expert. You aren’t.”

She sounded like she had been waiting since the Falcon to say that to him. He’d anticipated it for days.

He managed not to sneer. “Yet you’re happy to stay with these people without questioning any of what they’re doing or why they’re so eager to keep someone like you hanging on.”

“Someone like me?”

Kylo couldn’t buy her ignorance. It was becoming tiresome. There was no way she could still deny it at this point. Rey’s presence in the Force, the power she possessed, was raw, crackling, and intense. He had never felt anything like it. When he focused too much on it, it possessed a near physicality, like a heartbeat throbbing back at him. If he’d wanted to, he could have reached into it right then and felt its push back, though he would no longer assume he could do so without her notice.

Was this what others—the Supreme Leader, his uncle, his mother—felt when they perceived him? Rey could do so much with that. If she harnessed it, truly made it hers, she could be something. Yet she preferred not to see it. She preferred to remain nothing at all.

“You know what I’m talking about. You’re strong with the Force. Powerful in ways they’re not. Not even the princess. They don’t realize it yet, but they will, even if you go on trying to hide it. And when they do, you’ll just be something they can use.”

“I ask questions,” she shot back, “when they matter.” It was difficult to tell in the dim flicker of the torches, but he thought the color in her face had begun to rise. “They're doing something good for the galaxy.”

“What good is it they’ve done?” He flung a hand out toward the sea, as if he expected her to dive in and find the answer beneath the black of the waves. “Lawless efforts that bring only more chaos? The wasted lives of their own?”

Rey blinked rapidly and grit her teeth, but he could tell she wasn’t sure how to answer, because he was right: she didn’t actually know anything about the Resistance. She hesitated a few moments more. “You don't have a right to criticize my being here. Not when you’ve stayed too.”

“Where do you suppose I would have gone instead?”

She opened her mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it. Even so, he could almost feel the current of her thought in the air between them. It’s a big galaxy. If he’d read her mind just then, it hadn’t been on purpose, and he almost wished he hadn’t. But she wouldn’t have been wrong to say it.

When Rey spoke again it was not to comment on her own choices or on the vast array of alternatives available to them both, and she no longer wielded her words like a blade.

“You say you don’t like liars, but you served Snoke, for years.” As if she had only then realized how close she was standing to him, she moved away a few steps and leaned back on the ropes. “I don’t know much about the First Order, but honesty isn’t a term I associate with it.”

“He . . . I was . . .” Weren’t they supposed to be talking about those dreams? Kylo couldn’t remember how they’d come to this instead. He didn’t have to explain himself to her, but part of him wanted to, even if the words that came out of his mouth didn’t feel like his own. “He is many things, but not a liar.”

“You served him,” she bore on, heedless of his feeble answer, “and you did it behind a mask, under a name that isn’t yours. What is honest about that?”

Out of everything she had said to him since they’d met—justified, or misinformed, or uncannily knowing—that was at last too far, and he rounded on her, seething.

“I chose to do so. In the service of a— When—” Kylo faltered as she took another step back, her hands clenched defensively, her eyes darkening, daring him to contradict her. He thought she must want to hit him. He would have welcomed it. He glared back and wrangled his unruly thoughts. “I chose that mask. I chose that name. I bought it with—” He drew a ragged breath. “It was mine. It is mine.”

“Are you not Ben Solo, then?”

Already he saw Leia’s influence on her. “Ben Solo is a hindrance.”

To his pleasure, her brow twitched with seeming hurt, but her recovery was swift and revealed nothing further of her feelings. “Right. And I’m the one who trusts too easily.”

Kylo stared at her, incredulous and fighting the very potent urge to leave the bridge without sparing her so much as another breath. She was one to speak of truth, when she was hiding behind something of her own making. He didn’t know what it was, but he’d felt it, like a wall inside her, protecting some mystery integral to who she was. It hadn’t been relevant before, but now he wondered.

How unsurprising she had taken so readily to a troupe of hypocrites; she was a natural.

But another strong gust shook the bridge, and when it stilled he let out a long sigh and planted his hands on the ropes again, stance wide, head hunched between his shoulders to look out over the fathomless expanse of howling wind and hissing water. The bridge was verging on uncomfortably cold, and it wasn’t only because of the conversation. He shouldn’t have eschewed that extra layer before coming out, particularly when he’d known he had no great desire to go back in.

“This isn’t why I called you over here.” The silence had begun to take root enough that he feared, and maybe hoped, that Rey would change her mind and leave him there. He was surprised she hadn’t done so already.

“Yeah. I know. I’m—” Her boots scuffed over the planks as she paced a ways up the bridge, then back to his side. She eased herself down to sit, letting her legs dangle off the edge of the wooden planks, her arms wound lazily around the nearest ropes. Dutifully, she said, “Let’s start over.”

He glanced down at the top of her head, which was half swallowed up in woolen wrappings. “The dreams . . .”

“They’ve been different, the last two nights. More the way they used to be. You’re not there. Maybe they're just . . . stopping.”

“I hate to divest you of that, but I haven’t been sleeping. Not last night, or the one before.”

“At all?”

Kylo tilted his head. “A few hours. During the day.”

“That doesn’t seem sustainable,” she said.

“Practical of you to say, and you’re right.” It wasn’t for the sake of avoiding her that he hadn’t been sleeping. He’d never slept well; this was merely the latest variation of the problem and, if he was being honest, it wasn’t the most unpleasant, either. “So we need to get a few things settled. These places you see when you sleep—that island—it’s your influence, not mine.” He held up a hand when she tipped her head back to argue. “I’m not accusing you of causing it. But those images in your head, I saw them before, when I searched your mind. Some of them.”

“Yeah. They’re . . . old.”

“Old?”

“I’ve dreamt of that island for my whole life. The ocean. Not all the time, but often. The dreams of it, they’re not always the same, but they’re old.”

“Do you know where it is?”

Rey’s head tipped back again, and she looked at him upside down, brows drawn in a withering expression. “No. And it wouldn’t matter if I did.”

“Why not?”

“What?”

He realized they’d been nearly shouting over the ambient sounds of the coast, even now that they were no longer on the verge of an argument. Supporting himself on the ropes, he crouched beside her to better hear and be heard. “I asked why it wouldn’t matter.”

“Because I couldn’t go there.”

“Why?”

Rey shifted and tucked her arms into her cloak. “Not important.”

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Saying it isn't important. If I'd spent years having dreams of a place”—Or a person—“I might start to think it worth pursuing.”

Rey turned her eyes on him, and he could feel her working something out. “You sound like you speak from experience.”

“Let’s stay on topic.” He pushed some hair out of his face, though the wind blew it right back. “The Force there, on this island of yours. It's strong. I can't tell if it's the place, or just you.”

“I don't know. I feel something's there too. I thought this might be it. This planet. My island.” She spoke with surprising derision, like she couldn't believe she had ever let herself entertain the idea. “It's not. I still don't . . .” Her voice trailed, and for a few seconds she dipped her chin and almost looked like she’d forgotten he was there at all. “Last time you were there, in my dream. Our dream. Whatever it was. You said someone feels me.”

He was still convinced he hadn’t actually said it, but it seemed needlessly picky to qualify now when it was all cerebral to begin with. “The Supreme Leader. Snoke.”

The air around her seemed to chill, the wind to cease for a fleeting moment. “What?” She pushed back from the edge of the bridge, drew her feet in, and scooted around to stare at him. Through gritted teeth, she demanded, “What do mean Snoke can feel me?”

Her alarm was understandable. Kylo hadn’t softened the blow of his suspicions. So he did her the courtesy of turning to face her as well, though he found it unexpectedly difficult to meet her eyes.

“I told him about you. After I left you in the interrogation chamber.” After he had failed to get the map. After he had failed to fend her off. After he had failed, failed, failed— “You’d— what you could do. He needed to know. Your power . . .” He shook his head. This was coming out so wrong. Why couldn’t he string a sentence together? “He felt an awakening in the Force. You. We both did. He felt it, and I did, before I ever found you. He knows about you. He’ll be able to feel you in it.”

“Are you bloody ser—”

He heard her teeth click together as she stopped abruptly and turned her face to glare out at the invisible horizon. Rey swore under her breath. It was in no language he knew, but he’d heard enough others to know the feel of an obscenity. Probably a good filthy one.

“I felt him. Maybe. Last night you weren't there, but I still sensed something else, when I saw that ocean . . .” She stared down at her hands, fingers woven tight together. “So. Does that mean he can find me? Because, you know, that’s . . . I’m not safe, and no one else here is either. And—” Her eyes were wide as she looked up at him. “And you. What are you—? Being here, it’s— You need to tell—”

“It’s not an issue. It doesn't work that way.”

“How do you know that?”

“Experience.” He looked sharply at her. “I know how to block him out. By degrees. I’ve been doing it a long time. It’s enough.”

It would have to be. He sounded more confident than he felt. He didn’t tell her that, until the last few days, he had barely bothered to try anymore. Snoke had always been able to read him when he wished, and there hadn’t seemed to be a point in resisting it. Until he’d left.

But it had been nearly a week. The Supreme Leader could bide his time, and he could be cruel (and Kylo would deserve it, it was the price of power, it was the payment for betrayal), and the two could be one and the same. But so far, Kylo thought he’d been succeeding. Though there were times he wondered if there was something else at play, beyond his own ability. It was vanity and foolishness to think the Force itself might be shielding him, but he couldn't help thinking it could be so.

It was the dreams that continued to worry him. The Force could work freely through such things. Dreams were fragile and the mind, asleep, more easily broken.

“Maybe it is for you, but . . .” Rey went on, controlling the tremor in her voice too late to prevent his notice of it. “What would he want with me? I’m nobody.”

As if either of them needed reminding. Rey was, by all accounts, nobody, from nowhere. The fact of her power seemed absurd, and yet it persisted.

“He doesn’t know any of that. All he’ll know is that there is another powerful Force user somewhere in the galaxy, eluding him, and he’ll want that.”

“To do what?”

He had to admit, Rey was taking this with relative ease. He felt her alarm and fear, but she was managing them—they were a faint pulse beneath the steadier thrum of a survivor’s instincts. She was evaluating, and to do that, she forced herself to keep a clear head. Hide fear, hide weakness. It seemed fitting. He dipped out of it before she had the wherewithal to notice he was checking at all.

“Kill you, probably. Maybe find out what you’re capable of first. Then dispose of you when he has what he needs.”

Thinking on it now, Kylo felt immeasurably foolish for the way he’d gone running to Snoke that day, bleating about Rey’s strength, insisting her nascent ability not be overlooked. What had he expected? That Snoke would let him take Rey on as a sort of pupil? He never would have. Snoke had his protege. He had his great work. He didn’t need another.

The thought that perhaps Snoke would have sought to replace him with Rey sent a shiver through him. He felt it a second time when he considered the more likely scenario—Snoke would have had Kylo kill her rather than do it himself. The Supreme Leader knew much about causing pain; he applied himself to the practice of it like an artist. The thing about killing someone was that it made it rather difficult to keep hurting them.

“Well, what then?” Rey asked. “If he can’t find me—or you—why does it matter?”

“The Force connects everything. He doesn’t need to have you physically near to influence you. If you give him an opening.”

“I won’t.” She said it with such ferocity he almost believed it was that easy. “You said you block it. How do you do that?”

“I think . . .” Kylo narrowed his eyes and flexed his hands over his knees. “You must already know how. You’re doing it now, or something like it. There are things you have locked away in your mind. I felt it.” The key to what made her as singular as she was. That had to be it. But there was something new rolling off of Rey as he’d said that: tension that hadn’t been there moments before. “Don’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kylo didn’t think she was avoiding his question. Rey truly seemed to have no idea what he meant, even though he was certain that if he tried to read her mind again right now, he would find the very same impenetrable wall, tucked back in the corners where her oldest memories resided.

Rey drew her legs up in front of her. “None of that explains why we’re seeing each other like this when we sleep. It’s like you’re really there.”

“I am. Really there. In a way.” Stars, that was a weird thing to acknowledge at all, let alone speak aloud.

“Is that a Force thing? Dream . . . er, sharing?”

“No. That’s not how the Force works.” Her ignorance was sort of funny. It had never occurred to him that someone might be as naturally gifted as she was and not have a ready means of learning what that meant. “At least not in any way I’ve ever known it to.”

The flash of amusement was gone already, replaced by curiosity. She might actually have a point. Yes, the Force did connect everything, but this felt like more than that. Could this be something new? Because every time it happened he felt it, the Force, between them. He felt it now too; it made him wonder if she did as well and just didn’t know enough to recognize it for what it was.

“It’s possible to receive impressions. Visions. That’s not unheard of,” he offered, attempting to fill her disappointed silence.

He saw it again, in her face and in the way her shoulders tightened: something he’d said was familiar to her. Interesting.

“But that’s not what this is,” she said.

He shook his head, drew in a breath, and forced himself to say what had been on his mind for far too long. “Perhaps you were right. What you said in the hangar, about this starting in the interrogation room, when we were— When our minds were connected.”

“That they still are.”

“For lack of better explanation, yes.”

Rey huffed a dry laugh. “Generous of you to admit it. Finally.”

Generous, maybe, but unhelpful. He bobbed his head and consciously loosened the knot that had formed between his shoulders.

“I don't think I like the Force very much,” she said, perfectly matter-of-fact.

“Tonight, we are in agreement.” He attempted to stretch his legs, which were beginning to fall asleep. “Unfortunately for us both, the Force in all its forms is indifferent to what people think of it.”

She let that sink in, then got to her feet and shook her arms out beneath her cloak. She was a few steps down the bridge before she stopped and turned to look back at him again.

“I’m going to stop for some of that hot wine, outside the refectory. Before I head back to the bunks. Maybe it’ll help me sleep. Not dream,” she said, then stood there in silence for several seconds. Finally she prompted, “Do you want some?”

“No.”

He hadn’t even fully comprehended the question, though he doubted his answer would have changed it he had. Was this what it was coming to already? Self-medicating with warm booze?

Rey nodded slowly, considered something, then began unwinding her cloak as she stepped toward him again. “Well, take this then, at least. If you’re going to be sitting out here. I’m heading inside anyway and won’t need it, and you’ve been shivering nearly this whole time.”

Had he? Kylo’s brow twitched as he stared at the cloak in her outstretched hand.

He took it. He didn’t draw it around himself immediately. It was still warm from her body, and the idea of joining that heat to his own made him feel acutely . . . several things. He let it rest beside him on the planks instead. “Guard yourself tonight. If you dream. If it feels wrong.”

She nodded again, seemingly satisfied. “Always do.”

For a moment he thought she was going to say something else. But she walked off the bridge, and he watched her go until she disappeared beyond the scope of the torches’ light, and he tried not to acknowledge how much he wished she hadn’t.

Chapter Text

Rey was almost afraid to think it, but her dreams seemed to be returning to normal, or at least what qualified as normal for her. The ocean. The island. The tree. Old places, like old friends she'd never had. They felt like a reminder that something else awaited. Overall, the impressions were fleeting.

Yet sometimes they lingered. Once, Kylo was there again, on the island, with her. He’d not been in a mood to talk much, but he’d been calmer. In fact, he had spent most of the brief time trying to figure of what exactly the place was. When he hadn’t managed to find an answer that satisfied him (complaining of the lack of stars by which to triangulate their location, as if that would solve everything), he’d asked her what the place made her feel. She hadn’t been able to describe it beyond ‘need’. They were on a mist-covered, grassy hillside when the dream crumbled away, and when she woke that feeling remained.

She'd felt that other presence as well, the one he claimed was Snoke, though she wasn’t certain she could believe it. It never did anything more than it had—worried at the fringes of her conscious, like it was waiting for an invitation to do more. Or waiting for her to accept an invitation in turn. It had something to offer. Whatever it was, Kylo had been right: she did seem to know, innately, how to keep unwanted intrusions at bay, even the ones that came from within, and by day she found herself busy and unbothered.

Pamarthe was agreeing with her, and with the Resistance at large. She’d been noticing the physical signs of it in herself over the last week alone—superficial things: the freckled tan of her skin had faded slightly; her face looked a little fuller; the drawn cast of her mouth was gone. She wasn’t sure she liked it. It wasn’t vanity so much as a fear that she would lose sight of where she had come from and be unsuited to return. She still thought daily of Jakku, and while she was no longer so uneasy about her time away, there were moments when she worried she might change too much if she wasn’t careful. She would forget and be forgotten.

She wouldn’t let it happen. She'd passed most of the day training vigorously with Finn and a few others. His former-Imperial friends remained quite infatuated with him, proclaiming as they supervised and participated in the casual drills that he fought like a man of Pamarthe; and that Rey wasn’t bad herself, for having come from a desert. Though as the hours wore on it became just her and Finn, and her quarterstaff. He had one too, borrowed from a weapons cache, though it was shorter and made of some dense, dark wood rather than cobbled-together metal.

Unsupervised, things between them began to take an even less serious cast than they had earlier. As the time for lunch came (judging by the insistence with which her stomach had begun to growl . . . there had been a time she could have gone hours longer without), they were more or less just joking around, smacking each other in a leg or arm, feigning charges, and trying to get the other to slip on the mossy rocks underfoot. Rey seemed to be having the most success of that last.

“So, Man of Pamarthe,” Rey cut in after she felled him again. She offered him a hand up, even if he didn’t need it. “Break? For lunch? I’d say we’ve earned it. I feel fit enough to take down a whole fleet of TIE fighters with just this staff.”

“I’d like to see that,” he said with a grin, accepting her hand as he got to his feet. “But first, yeah. Food.”

The sparring pit—it was really just a clearing right outside the western entrance of the base, ringed by tall rocks and cleared of most vegetation—wasn’t far, but they opted to take the longest route anyway. She’d actually not seen much of Finn at all the last few days. In some ways that felt like a good thing. Whatever he’d found to keep him here so far, it was no longer simply her.

“I think Erlen wants to marry you off to that daughter she keeps going on about,” she teased, gratified by the blush that instantly crept into his cheeks. “Or marry you herself.”

But he laughed. “I wish I could accuse you of exaggerating, but she’s not even subtle about it. Keeps saying she’s going to bring her over sometime from the ‘mainland’. Is it a mainland if it’s still just another island?”

“No idea.” Rey gave a little hum of amusement and decided it was good enough a time to bring up what had been on her mind all morning. “So . . . I was talking to Han yesterday.”

“How'd that go?” he asked, narrow-eyed. Before she could begin to answer, he went on, in an accented voice much higher than his own, “Good morning, Han!” He cleared his throat and spoke next in a rough, gravelly grunt. “Hnh. Kid.” And then, a high giggle and, “Oh, Han! You’re so cool! And your ship is the most beautiful piece of garbage I’ve ever laid eyes on!”

Rey gasped back a laugh and tried to look outraged. “I do not sound like that! Like a . . . kriffing skittermouse.”

His impression of Han was alarmingly good, so she had no protests to offer on that front.

“Don't you?” Finn grinned and tolerated a light prod of her staff to his ribs. “Nah, you’re right. Too perky.”

She narrowed her eyes and refused to dignify that. “I was talking to Han. He was saying he offered to set you up with passage off the planet . . .” Rey said with care. “And that you told him to hold off.”

Finn drew a deep breath and let it go in a long sigh. “Ah, yeah. That.”

“What’s that about then?” she pressed. “I’m not complaining. You know how much I want you to stay.”

“Yeah, you might have hinted at that.”

“So?”

“Well,” he began, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket. “A part of it’s seeing how things have changed. This place feels safer.”

Rey agreed silently, aware that a similar sense had been easing her own urge for flight. They were not being pursued. Not yet.

“It helps to think we’re hidden for now,” he went on. “Pamarthe was never on the First Order’s radar. Not built up enough. No factories, not ideal for manufacturing. The pilots are supposed to be great, but it’s hardly the only planet to boast that, and its reputation for being hard to invade isn't for nothing. And as long as they don’t know we’re here . . .”

“You think it might be a good place to stay?” Please, please, please.

“For a while, at least. The company’s helped.”

Rey suppressed a smirk. “Your fanclub?”

He groaned, but there was a smile fighting its way onto his face. “That is weird. And not what I mean. Look. I was taught that life outside the First Order is . . . nothing worth having. The opposite of order is chaos, right? That’s what we’re all taught. It’s how we think. We’re nothing if not in the service of the a new galactic Order.” Finn was dragging his feet. “So when I left, I knew the only options were run or die. Those are the only options, for traitors. For the noncompliant. They make sure we know that. It’s hard to stop thinking that way.”

That sounded too familiar. She’d never been taught that, exactly, but she’d been told she was nothing long enough to have believed it. Who she was didn’t matter. She was hardly a ‘who’ at all. She was the sum of what she could collect, worth only what she was able to do, her history an amalgamation of days spent waiting.

“Disappearing was the only way to live long enough to figure out who I am without all that,” he said. “Without a cause.”

“It seems sort of like you are, though,” Rey ventured. “Figuring it out.”

“Yeah. A little, lately. And I have no idea where that leaves me.” Finn heaved a long sigh and ran both hands over the top of his head as if to physically reorient himself. “But, I guess it . . . helps to see they’ve had good lives since they left all that behind. Brecka, Sten. All them. And are still here, doing this, when they could’ve just said, ‘The hell with that, we’re done with wars.’ They didn’t just run, after everything they walked away from. They found something better.”

“It’s a good way to see it.”

“Could be. It’s enough at least. I can’t pretend I don’t like the stability. I missed that, you know? Knowing what to expect day to day.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“Anyway. It’s a start. Maybe. But— Hey you still have that thing on you?”

“What thing?” Rey followed Finn's gaze to her right side, where the lightsaber rested partially exposed at her hip, easier to see now that she had unzipped her jacket. A little sheepishly, Rey grimaced. “Oh. Yeah. Always.”

“So, what, are you using it? Or is this more of a safe-keeping effort?”

“I’ve . . . dabbled.”

She thought back to the last few days. She still liked to wake earlier than most. It meant the hottest food in the refectory, and time to think without distractions—and it meant the opportunity to slip off into the sparring pit and train on her own. At first she’d only meant to make sure she wouldn’t go rusty with her staff, as if it wasn’t basically an extension of herself by now. Then one morning she’d been unable to ignore the way the saber seemed to hum against her side, as if gently reminding her that it was waiting to be used.

So she’d ignited it, for the first time in her life, and it had felt right. The same way her staff felt right, only the lightsaber responded to her in a way the quarterstaff never had. Despite that, Rey was not yet certain how to actually use the thing to its greatest advantage, and her seeming connection to it did very little to inform her practice beyond basic intuition. Surely there was more to it than flailing it around. Not everything she knew from staff-fighting was easily applicable; it felt so small and insubstantial by comparison.

Yet stranger still was a persistent feeling that the knowledge was there, rattling around in her head, just beyond reach, like something she had learned long ago and allowed to be covered over. She was starting to get the sense it might have been easier to come into had she not already been so skilled in her own accustomed style, but couldn’t think of why that should be so. Too much in the way. Practice, then, until she figured out how to take that elusive, preternatural knowing and put it to action.

“You used it before, didn’t you?” she asked, and hoped the question didn’t sound too leading.

Naturally, it did, and Finn immediately saw why she was asking.

“The one time, yeah. Don’t get too excited.” He must have noticed the way her expression began to light up. “I had no idea what I was doing with it.” He eyed it, then grinned at the memory. “Felt really good though. That power.”

She nodded, excited at the chance to have someone to talk to about it. At least they could share this. “And the way it sort of senses you? Like it has its own voice.”

Or perhaps it was only a way to make Finn think that, despite their tacit agreement that her recent discoveries about herself were perfectly fine and changed nothing, she might also be losing her mind. If he was thinking that, though, he was hiding it well.

“Mm, not so sure I know what you mean by that. The only voice I noticed was my own, in my head, saying something like, ‘Finn, don’t cut your own head off with this thing.’

“Probably a good thing for me to keep in mind for myself,” Rey said with a tight smile, happy to let the matter rest for now. If she wanted to figure this thing out—and it wasn’t as if she was lacking in time to do so—she would either have to do it alone, or look elsewhere.

There wasn’t a chance that no one else knew of the beach’s existence, but Kylo was reasonably convinced he was the only one making regular use of it. The sand was deep black, striking where it nestled between the blue of the ocean and the pale staggered columns of the basalt sea stacks. The stacks gave the illusion of privacy, dotted with a few shallow caves and home to cliff-dwelling seabirds that lived in the crags and whose warbling cries pierced cleanly over the persistent sound of waves rolling in. To get down to the sands, one had to either risk a vertical descent or take an hour’s walk past the base camp, then loop back around via a shallower, partially hidden trail carved out along the cliff face and grown over with lichen and moss.

He’d taken the latter way, having discovered it a few days before and guarded his knowledge since. He would concede that Leia had been right on one point: there were far worse worlds on which to be in Resistance custody. Sometimes he thought that this was what he ought to have done all those years ago, after Luke, instead of Snoke. Just disappeared and found someplace no one would think to look for him. There was something to be said for walking on a planet with nothing to filter his experience of it, breathing the clean air and letting the late-afternoon sun touch his face. The fresh, cold winds blowing in off the ocean were bracing, and they felt good, and he almost felt good being there—when he was able to get far enough from the base to have the illusion of freedom.

This was not to be one of those times. Someone was down there already, moving over the sand at a dash, kicking up ashy clouds of it in their wake as they hurtled toward a formation of tall, dark boulders. Their arm shot forward in a brutish jab, and suddenly there was a beam of blue so bright it was almost white and lost to the blue of the horizon behind it. Kylo realized with a sick jolt that he was watching Rey wielding his grandfather’s lightsaber.

She had no idea what she was doing with it. Even from afar he could tell her method was lacking. Of course it was. He doubted she had ever used it, or anything even close to it. While he could surmise she must have some combat knowledge (there was no way she could have survived where she did without it, and he’d put credits down on a bet that she could brawl quite well) any she did possess more likely applied to melee weapons rather than something as refined as a lightsaber.

He considered abandoning his plan and finding somewhere else to spend his time. There were plenty of options, and people tended to give him a wide berth. But he refused to be run off simply because she was there. In fact, she was probably the one person whose presence he didn’t find irksome. At least not for the usual reasons. He’d even found himself starting to think her presence was a far more compelling reason to stay than any he had been offered so far.

It was nearly twenty minutes more before he reached her, and by then she’d noticed his approach. For the majority of the time, she seemed committed to ignoring him or simply saw no reason to alter her activities. The idea that she was actually waiting for him began to invade his thoughts, and he quickly dismissed it as nonsense. Anyway, if she was just going to carry on, he would make the most of the opportunity it afforded him to suss out whatever style she did favor. Closer up, she seemed to have moments of more formal clarity amongst all the thrashing of the untrained. If nothing else, her enthusiasm was evident.

Rey finally acknowledged him when he was only a few meters away, though her greeting was an understated “Hello” before she turned and thrust the lightsaber blade toward one of the stubbier stones. It cleaved right through with a gritty hiss. He spied a pile of discarded clothing layers tucked up against the sunward side of the rocks—a dark blue jacket, a couple of thick wraps that were either cloaks or shawls. Most likely, she was warming them for her trek back. Her hair was bound up in a ridge-like braid high on her head, which seemed to be a popular style on the planet, though much of it had come loose in her exertions.

When she finally paused for a breath and deactivated the blade, Kylo observed, “I see you’re still taking your blending in very seriously.”

Rey squinted at him, her mouth open as she gulped some air and wiped the back of a hand over her forehead. “What?”

He gestured at her head, because it felt too strange to verbalize the fact that he had been evaluating her hairstyle as much as her fighting form.

Her eyebrows rose a fraction as she caught on. “Oh.”

She narrowed her eyes further and turned toward the things she’d left by the rocks. Besides the clothing, there was a quarterstaff and a battered rucksack, from which she extracted a metal canteen. The hand clutching the lightsaber came to rest on her hip, and Rey tipped her head back, revealing a sweat-sheened throat as she guzzled what must have been half the contents, then dropped into a crouch in the sand and stared up at him.

“Rose did it this morning. It was good for sparring. And having a go with this.” She wagged the lightsaber at him, and he couldn’t help thinking she was having him on. That ghost of a smile suggested as much. “Holds up with movement.”

Judging by how much of her hair was currently blowing in her face and hanging along the sides of her neck, he had his doubts. “Who the hell is Rose?”

“One of the mechanics.” She stretched a leg out to the side and regarded him with incredulity. “You’ve worked with her in the hangar. Several times. I saw you mucking about with a gyro-stabilizer on the same fighter as her two days ago. Are you serious?”

“I don’t memorize the name of every person with a pair of safety goggles strapped to their face.”

He actually knew quite a lot of names. It was useful to know who was glaring at him any time he turned his back, though out here with Rey alone he hardly cared. As for Rose, he thought he did know who she was referring to now: small, dark-haired, ever-present in the hangar, and looked at him as if he had done something new each day to offend her personally.

“She knows who you are,” Rey replied, as if that should have jogged his memory.

Kylo’s mouth twitched. “Everyone here knows who I am.”

“Pleased with yourself over that, are you?”

“Hardly.”

Rey huffed and rolled her shoulders, then secured the lightsaber to her hip, wedged into the pair of belts strapped there. She stood up and folded her arms. “What do you want out here?”

“The same thing you did, from the look of things.”

At his answer, her eyes scanned down his body, which put him momentarily at a loss. She wasn’t merely sizing him up as a possible threat—after the last week, he and she were beyond that point, and he could feel that she had no fear of him. But before he could begin to wonder what she was doing, her gaze settled at his belt, and the lightsaber clipped to it.

“You know how to use that,” she commented, as if the idea had just occurred to her and she felt foolish for not realizing some further implication sooner.

“I like to think so.”

His attention lingered on her, and he wished she would stop staring at him like that, even if her eyes had hardened with weariness at his droll reply. It felt as if, should she do so long enough, she would unravel him entirely. But then a smug realization hit him at once. It sufficiently distracted him from whatever her focus was making him feel.

“You . . .” Kylo tilted his head and looked at her sidelong. “You need a teacher.”

At the very least, his statement got her to turn her eyes elsewhere. She lifted her chin, then shrugged. “I do not.”

She spoke as if he had insulted her. He should have known; she was a proud one.

“No?”

“No. I’m perfectly able to teach myself anything I need to know.” He didn't doubt that. Her eyes flicked back to him and processed him as if in some new way. “I wouldn't turn away some pointers, though.”

He considered her suggestion, annoyed at first that she wouldn't ask directly, like deferring outright that he knew more than she did was still too difficult. To say nothing of that fact that he hadn't offered. Yet.

“I can show you. That, and more.”

“What, the ways of the Force?” she returned with a hint of mockery, though it sounded forced, more hasty bravado than actual disdain.

The idea that she might actually be considering his offer, that it might be what she wanted—By the Force, why had he offered? No, why had he waited so long?—sent a prickle of anticipation through his limbs. He looked at the lightsaber snug against her hip, itching to get his hands on it, ignoring the voice that told him to simply take it.

Something replaced that urge nearly as soon as it formed fully, and he was surprised to find himself uttering in his next breath, “Will you tell me how you got it?”

She appeared briefly puzzled. He hadn’t framed the question as a condition of his assistance.

“I told you already. It was in the castle on Takodana.”

“Yes, I know that.” He was trying to remain patient, but her continued evasiveness was exhausting. “But there's more to it than the where, and I want to know what it is.”

Rey receded into deeper uncertainty. “Why is it so important to you?”

“Because it should be mine.”

He knew how petty it sounded, how childish. An echo of his ridiculous, futile demand aboard the Falcon. He wanted to stop there, but he couldn't, and he was sure his next words would only make it worse. Yet it had been a weight over his head for too long, and this might be the only chance she gave him to find out.

“Because I can't fathom a reason it should have found its way into your hands and stayed there.”

By some miracle he managed to cut the flow of words before he could end it all with ‘What's made you so special?’, even if by then he may as well have spoken it aloud.

Rey dipped her chin and looked at him through her eyelashes, her mouth downturned and tight. As the flush of activity faded from her skin, the sun beat down into her face and lit the spots where the wind had begun to chap her freckled cheeks.

“I can’t either,” she said. “I can’t think of a reason it has. So if you expect an answer to why, I don’t have one.”

Kylo swallowed, annoyed and disappointed, hating how accustomed he was to that feeling.

But she wasn’t done. “I’ll tell you how, though. If it’s so important.”

He hadn’t been prepared for compliance, and it must have shown in his face, because for a moment he swore she was about to laugh. Rey didn't laugh, and she didn’t wait to begin explaining, either. As if afraid she might lose the desire to do so if she gave him a chance to reply, she sat there in the sand, back straight against one of the towering stones. Without preamble, she launched into an explanation of what led her to the cavernous lower floor of Maz Kanata's castle, and what she found there, and what she saw.

The lightsaber had been locked away in an old chest. Rey hadn’t just been wandering aimlessly, she claimed, not merely snooping. She’d sworn she heard something call her name, and felt something draw her in. So she’d found the chest, and she’d opened it, and like someone out of a fable she’d found herself faced with an artifact of history and legend, and like someone with a scavenger’s instinct to take what wasn’t hers, she’d touched it.

It had shown her things. Things she didn’t understand. Things she felt she had no right to see, or to know. Things she still couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of but thought she was beginning to. She had been terrified. She had tried to leave the lightsaber behind, she had tried to reject what Maz had told her, she had tried to escape, an aimless flight into the forest. He knew what had transpired after that.

“And when I escaped, back on the Falcon, I found the saber again. Or it found me. Like it had been delivered by the people who’d come to find me. It was . . .” She shook her head and looked at her hands, curled loosely in her lap. “So unsettling. After all that. After thinking something in me’s . . .”

“Wrong?”

She was silent for a few moments. “No. Awake.” He heard her draw a shaky breath. “That’s how I got it. As for why, or why I still have it, I don’t know. Your— Leia, she thinks I’m meant to bring it back to Luke. That he might be able to help me . . . figure out what's happening to me. If he’ll come back. It’s just. It’s taking longer than planned.”

She seemed as if she was about to say something more about that, but she didn’t, and he wasn’t sorry for it. He didn't wish to be reminded how much Leia, and Han for that matter, favored her so, and how they’d thought Luke would save them all.

“So go on tormenting yourself about it, if you like, but you’ll have to manage it alone.”

He hadn’t joined her in the sand, but he’d leaned against the other side of same stone and let the heat from it soak through the layers of his clothing, and it felt good against his back.

“What did it show you when you touched it?” he asked.

She had mentioned it, some sort of vision, but had seemed eager to push past the details. Evidently, she was still too troubled by them; or perhaps she didn’t wish him to know them.

Her heel scraped against the dark sand as she straightened a leg out, and to his surprise, she told him with a readiness that stilled him further. “I saw . . . a dark corridor. Inside a ship, maybe.” Her voice was quiet, like she was talking more to herself but didn’t mind if he overheard. “I saw— I saw myself. When I was small.” There was something tighter in her voice as she said that, but it was gone already as she continued, brushed right by. “I saw a huge building on fire, and a man in a cloak. I didn’t see his face, but I think it must have been Luke.”

He swallowed and grit his teeth, too aware of the pulsing twist of disgust he felt.

Rey said, more loudly, “I saw you. You killed a man and then you . . . it was like you saw me too. Then we were in a forest. It was snowing.”

Why did that feel so familiar? It wasn’t quite déjà vu. He didn’t feel as if he had experienced what she was describing. He knew he hadn’t; but it did feel as if he could have, or did, in another life, or in a dream. He could almost see it if he closed his eyes. He could almost feel the cold prickles of snow, the ache of his muscles, and burning pain, white hot—on his abdomen, his shoulder, a slice of brutal heat across his face, something inside him shattering.

Kylo opened his eyes. He was still on the beach. He pressed a palm to the stone as if to ground himself. Talking of dreams and visions was well and good, but it helped too to be reminded of material reality.

“Does that answer your question?” she called back. When he didn’t say anything, she twisted her body around to look in his direction, though not at him. She sounded vaguely worried.

“Yes.”

And no. It still didn’t explain what was so particular about her. Maybe it was nothing after all. She was nothing, after all. It should have been disappointing, but for some reason it wasn’t. It just made him more curious. “Somewhat.”

“Is this where you tell me whether I’ve earned my pointers?”

“This wasn’t a trade.” He thought he’d made that clear. For her, his offer was free. “But I’ll take that to mean you’d still like a lesson.”

Rey got to her feet and began to pull her jacket on over the loose, sweaty shirt she was wearing. “Pointers,” she corrected, almost good-naturedly. “And yes. I suppose I should. But not today. I need to get back. I’ve been down here longer than I ought.”

“Tomorrow then.” He turned to watch her as she continued gathering her things. She moved like someone accustomed to making hurried exits. “Early.”

“I can do that. After sunrise? May as well get it done first thing. I’m at my best then anyway.”

“Good. Yes, sunrise.”

It seemed unfair and unearned that he should be getting this, an opportunity to do something other than while away hours on a creeper, staring at the underbelly of a ship or with his hands tangled in wiring, distantly aware of how much time he was wasting. It was impossible not to think of how much he wanted to do something else instead: take off and fly until he ran out of fuel in some unknown system; go back to the First Order and face whatever death Snoke would give him; find Luke, demand answers, end six years of building wrath. He was getting no justice or fulfillment by waiting here. Yet he was chained, because regardless of his fluctuating desires, he could not harness the resolve to act on any of them. This at least felt promising, or like enough of a new distraction by which to bide his time. It would lessen his frustration until he could decide.

“Okay. I’ll be there." A wry twist of her mouth. "Here. See you, then.” She straightened up with a tight smile and walked past him, as untroubled as if their encounter had been planned.

Kylo acknowledged that with a nod. “We can’t seem to avoid it.”

Chapter Text

“I thought we said after sunrise.”

Rey didn’t let her eyes leave the water. She knew the voice, and she knew there was only one other person who would be out here at this hour. “I know what we said. I decided to come early.”

What she didn’t tell Kylo was that she had woken before dawn and been unable to fall back asleep. It was a common enough occurrence. One she thought he might understand, too, and thus not worth mentioning. Today she’d simply had a good reason to make that into an advantage rather than an inconvenience. She had agreed to meet him on the black sand beach shortly after daybreak, and waiting there before the appointed time wasn’t such a waste. The sun was slow to rise and hesitant to color the sky with its shades of purple and peach, and watching its shy ascent over the water soothed her nerves about what the morning might hold.

“You’re early too, by that logic,” she added, sparing him a look over her shoulder. Perhaps he had been as eager to begin as she. “Anyway, the sun’s up enough to work by.”

“How long have you been waiting?”

She tucked her knees up closer to her chest, though her backside was numb from sitting all this time, and the sand was not yet warm from the sunlight. It would be soon; yesterday it had seemed to suck up the heat. “An hour. Maybe a bit more.”

“You made that walk in the dark?” Kylo looked back the way he’d come, down a twisty, potentially treacherous path worn into the side of the cliffs.

She shrugged. She’d done far riskier things in the dark before, and her surefootedness had kept her alive through worse.

“It was getting light by the time I was halfway. It’s a lot quieter then, too.” Rey lifted an arm toward the cliff face and cast an annoyed look in the direction of the birds that were screeching and swooping about as they hunted for breakfast. “Those are all still sleeping.”

“What, the sea crows?” He made a derisive sound. “They’re scavengers. Where’s your sense of camaraderie?”

Rey scoffed, more out of a feeling of obligation to show disapproval. She no longer found the dryness of his remarks so much insulting as obliquely amusing, even if they were rude. She’d never claimed to be a model of politeness herself.

“When I decide to turn my sights from ship parts to carrion meat, maybe I’ll warm to them.”

He accepted that with a long, low humming sound that seemed to be caught in the back of his throat. Had he found her response funny? Rey hadn’t intended it to be, though she’d been getting the idea that he was someone who must appreciate a verbal spar as much as a physical one. Perhaps this served as a warm-up of what was to come.

His seemingly genuine tone when he spoke next took her by surprise. “Being here is the first time you’ve seen an actual ocean so close, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Dreaming of one for years hadn’t robbed her of the novelty, she had been happy to find. It was like a desert in some ways. Just as endless and unpredictable. Probably filled with as many things that could kill a person. But the newness was captivating, and she’d been happy to have the morning to herself to observe its ebb and flow in silence. Until the damned birds.

Kylo waited a beat, and she could sort of feel him deliberating before he asked, “Can you swim?”

Rey laughed to herself and stared back at him like she’d never heard anything so absurd. “Of course not. What use would it have been?”

Indeed, where she would even have learned? Certainly not in one of the watering troughs the happabores and other pack animals used—she knew for a fact those were more full of saliva and phlegm than actual water. Yet there it was again, some flash of an expression passing across his face, like he was amused.

“Well, it may be a pretty view, but you’re sitting awfully close to where the tide comes in for someone who finds the skill unnecessary.”

“I’m fast, I think I’ll manage to save myself.” Even so, she scooted back a few feet before looking over her shoulder at him. “You ask a lot of questions.”

“It’s a shockingly good way to learn things, though feel free to ignore them.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Keep that tone up and I might, soon.”

“Perhaps you’d be more interested in my opinions on your form.”

“That’s why we’re here, right?” Rey knew what he was referring to, it was the reason they’d planned such an early morning after all, but she felt a flash of warmth creep up her neck. “Shall we?”

“If you’re done ocean watching.”

For some reason, Rey thought that if she told him she wished to be left to it a bit longer and in peace, he would acquiesce and perhaps even join her. It was strangely tempting, and she brushed the idea aside. “I’m done, yeah.”

She pushed herself to her feet and swatted the bulk of the sand from her backside, then followed Kylo further down the beach toward the rock formations she had been practicing amongst the day before. They were a far cry from challenging adversaries, but they’d provided a good enough frame of reference when it came to her sense of aim. Dozens of burn marks scored the already dark stone blacker still, and some were missing larger chunks, scattered now in the sand and already half lost in tangles of washed-up seaweed.

As she shed her outermost cloak and the jacket she’d taken to wearing beneath it, she idly watched Kylo undertake similar preparations. Perhaps she should have considered this a bit more before suggesting it. He was a lot bigger than she was, though that didn’t worry her so much as the fact that he was far more skilled with the lightsaber now hanging in plain view from the right side of his belt, and in much greater control of his power in the Force. And now he had her alone, out here, isolated from the rest of the base.

For all that he seemed bent on getting her to embrace how powerful she supposedly was, Rey had her doubts about his motives. It couldn’t simply be that he didn’t want to be the only one, but she was beginning to feel that way herself. So far Kylo, of all people, had been the only person not to send her elsewhere with her questions or to tell her she just needed to be patient. Instead he was interested at every turn. He sought her, in fact, and his curiosity stoked her own.

Well, she’d done more foolish things than this before. And she was armed twice over. If he tried anything, which she truly did not think he would, she would at least make him regret it.

His back was still to her when he unclipped his saber and ignited it in a single smooth movement that took up far more space than she thought necessary, and for a few moments she could only stare at the blade. The crackling thrum of it didn’t just pierce the air—it completely obliterated her ability to focus on any other sound. Rey no longer heard the whisper of the surf, or the shrieks of the crows, or the soft shifting of sand underfoot. All she heard was that spitting blade. She knew the sound it would make as it moved. She remembered the way the red of it pulsed and flared like a growing flame, barely held back by whatever power gave it its shape. In an instant she was back in that forest, frozen in place with it pressed bare inches from her face, its vicious heat at her cheek.

She expelled a long breath and closed her eyes until her head cleared. This wasn’t Takodana. Kylo wasn’t a threat to her. He was helping, or trying to, because she had asked. She snatched the Skywalker lightsaber from her bag, activated it, and felt her focus return.

Kylo’s eyes wandered over her, pausing here and there like he was checking for certain things, and he gave his saber a lazy twirl. “Your grip isn’t completely wrong, but it’s far from ideal. You hold it like you would a much longer weapon.” He took a few steps closer, and his own hand shifted subtly on the hilt of his lightsaber, showing her the difference he perceived. “I saw you yesterday. From afar, but . . . you weren’t wielding it like a sword at all. It isn't a cudgel.”

Though unaccustomed to that sort of criticism, Rey just nodded and looked at the way her hand wrapped around the metal, then tried to alter it. Whatever errors he saw, she didn’t have the experience to catch them quite yet, and the change seemed wrong. She felt like she would drop it if she tried to fight holding it like this.

“I’ve only ever fought with a staff.”

“Yeah, I gathered,” he said with a glance to her quarterstaff, abandoned in the sand.

“It’s much heavier than this,” she muttered. She frowned and moved her thumb down another half inch. That felt off too. “More substantial.”

What the hell was a lightsaber blade even made of? The hilt was solid enough, but it was strange to get so little resistance from the long beam of light. There was some cognitive dissonance there that she was still grappling with and was positive he wouldn’t understand. If this went well, she might ask later. She was so curious about how the things worked; if it weren’t that it didn’t belong to her, and that she was still expecting to pass it off eventually, she might have taken it apart by now to get a real look at it.

“I’ve used pikes,” he offered after a moment, then paused again as he worked something over in his head. “Trained with them, anyway.” He looked her over again. “With something like this, the way you move, with your whole body . . . it needs to be bigger. Larger movements for the smaller range.”

She thought that sounded rather rudimentary, but she also knew it was one thing to have an understanding of a concept and another to put it to practice. He had seen her practicing yesterday, so it wasn’t completely unfair of him to assume he had her number a bit. She nodded and gave the saber a few experimental swipes high and low.

“Larger movements?” she echoed. “Is that why all the—” She cut herself off and kicked her foot out in a stomp to assume a wider and more aggressive stance, mimicking the move she’d seen him make as he ignited his saber, before relaxing again into her own natural posture.

Kylo narrowed his eyes. “What was that?”

She shouldn’t have been making jokes, not before they’d even started. Or at all. She wasn’t even sure what made her want to. Nerves. “A larger movement.”

“Quick study, I see.”

He was always so dry about everything, when he wasn’t pelting her with questions or doing his best to avoid her own, it was impossible for Rey to tell if he was entertaining her odd mood or simply making fun of her. Considering she had quite literally been in his head, it remained infuriatingly difficult to get a grasp on what made him tick.

“I can be,” she said.

Another twirl of his saber, almost compulsive. “Then show me.”

He didn’t seem to have much of a plan in mind. Perhaps he hadn’t expected her to actually turn up here this morning, though Rey thought that by now he must understand she was trying. So while she wasn’t certain what role, if any, she wanted him to have in this continued experiment of hers, Kylo was here today, and so far he had been patient. She didn’t have to look very hard at all to find value enough in that.

They sparred for a while. He said he wanted to see what she could do on her own, against an opponent, without instruction. And while Rey wanted to learn, she wanted nearly as much to cross blades with an actual human being. Rocks were unforgiving but boring opponents, even with the benefit of her imagination.

As she had yesterday, she moved easily over the sand, which she thought gave her a slight advantage to start with; the texture was a bit different, and even in her boots she could tell it didn’t shift quite the same underfoot as the dry, finer sand of Jakku. But her muscles were accustomed to the slight but sudden changes in footing, the need to dig her toes deep to get any traction worth having. When she looked up, she was pleased to see that Kylo seemed at least a bit less at home. He kept shifting like an uneasy animal more accustomed to having its way on turf it knew.

Even so, her efforts, though eager and earnest, were fast proving inadequate. Kylo easily fended off each advance she attempted. She could have dealt with that, even if it was a blow to her pride.

He was hardly even trying, though. That was where the real insult lay. Rey might think she was about to deal a blow—or as close as they would let themselves get to landing them—and then he’d dodge or counter in such a way that made her realize not only how wrong she had been, but that he didn’t need to put forth any real effort to do so. She would rush him, panting and hurling up great black sprays of sand in her wake, and he’d just stand there primed and ready, and she’d think, Hah! here it comes, and he’d be gone. Ducked out of the way, or stepped aside, or somehow behind her, a foot hooked to her ankle or a forearm nudged to her shoulder, and she’d be sprawled on her belly or stumbling with a mouthful of salty grit. Half the time their blades didn’t even meet, and when they did he parried with the air of someone swatting an annoying insect. He wasn't trying to hit her, he was hardly pursuing her, nearly every move he made was defensive—and barely, at that. The aura of oppressive terror she remembered rolling off him the last time he’d come at her with a lightsaber wasn’t even there. If she wasn't convinced she was boring him, she might have thought he was curious to see how far she would try to take this before giving up.

The problem occurred to her suddenly: she wasn’t worried that he would hurt her, because on some level she trusted him. And he wasn’t worried she would hurt him, because he didn’t think she was capable of touching him at all.

And that sort of pissed her off. It made her want to throw the lightsaber down and take up her staff against him. Or better yet, eschew weapons altogether and hurtle into his solar plexus shoulder-first or hit him low and take him down, see if he could hold his own grappling in the sand without his fancy Jedi sword to hold her off. With his long limbs and large frame, she thought he probably could.

The idea of doing so made her feel yet another crawl of heat along her arms that didn’t have anything to do with all the darting around they were doing. There was the instinct she always felt take over in a scrap, yes, but something else too . . . also instinctual but smoother and more insinuating, lower in the belly. She’d felt that before, some nights on Jakku. It had no place here. She chose to focus on the first feeling, the angry, spitting one with teeth and claws and veins running with molten durasteel, the one that always made her bigger than she was.

The feeling welled up, and something clicked. A slip of the mind in reverse, like she’d just remembered something she had given up as forgotten. That indignant stormy thing inside was a key, almost, and if she figured out what it opened . . . She twirled the lightsaber once, as she had seen him do, passing the hilt over the back of her hand as the blade hummed past her ear. When she gripped it again she felt as if she’d been wielding it for years. Rey knew what to do. She knew how to fight with the weapon she held.

Kylo saw and sensed none of this. He had strode further up the beach since their last clash, stretching his arms and neck as he went in what she found to be an ostentatious manner. Now, though, she picked up something else as she watched him. A current stretched between them, as it had when their minds linked. Rey followed it and charged him.

She saw the moment when he noticed, in the way his shoulders tensed and his right leg stiffened midstride; but she felt it too. His alarm rushed over her like a wave of needles as it morphed into impatient readiness. Or maybe that last was her own. She couldn’t dwell on it, because her arm was raised, saber held high and angled toward him, one foot planted, the opposite leg looser to let her rotate freely, and he was spinning, his own weapon primed to meet hers. Their blades collided hard enough to send up a splash of brilliant orange sparks that settled on her arm wraps and left tiny dark burn marks behind. As Kylo shook a swath of dark hair from his eyes, she swore there was surprise in his face. Not without reason—she had almost struck him.

Would she have followed it through if he hadn’t caught her blade just as he had? Rey wasn’t sure. She would have tried to stop.

But now he was onto her, and she didn’t need to. She let the feeling carry her onward instead, forward in a brazen onslaught. In some moments she swore she knew what he was about to do, as if she herself had decided it just as he did. There was a trick to it. If she thought too hard, tried to draw from experience and memory of her own, he started to overwhelm her again as he had been since they began. If she channeled the raw emotion, though, her mind followed and settled just where it needed to be, on knowledge she now possessed but had never earned.

Kylo was still far more skilled, but the change was clear to them both. He was no longer getting by on the bare minimum of effort. He had even broken a sweat. And he looked . . . exhilarated? The lightsabers met again and again, and with each dodge, dart, thust, parry, Rey felt her confidence deepen. She circled around to his right. She knew this. She knew it, she could do it, she—

“Oh!”

She cried out and stopped so suddenly she nearly toppled forward. She had landed a blow. A single, forward jab to the front of his left shoulder. There was a neat round hole, still black and sizzling, punched right through the fabric of his shirts. She smelled burnt cloth, and, fainter but still briefly gut-turning until the breeze swept it away from her, burnt flesh underneath. From what little she could see, that was blackened too. She’d barely felt the contact at all, just the barest hint of solid resistance at the end of her blade.

Kylo regarded her with astonishment, as if he had just witnessed something extraordinary. It was the first time she had seen his face so open since she’d voiced his greatest fear to him. As it had been then, his body was frozen at an odd angle, tilted away from her. This time, he had been prepared to make his next strike, his lightsaber held out stiffly to the side. He appeared to change his mind. Mouth parted, breathing hard, he tipped his chin and twisted his neck to see what she had done. He didn’t seem able to fathom it. Did he even feel the wound she had just inflicted?

“Damn it— I didn’t mean to—” she spluttered, aware a moment later that she still had the ignited lightsaber in hand and was waving it aimlessly in her distress. She deactivated it and dropped her arms to her sides, her empty hand clenching and unclenching. “Damn it. Are you all right?”

His head shook minutely, still inspecting his shoulder. He bent his left arm at the elbow, fingers stretched to touch the wound. “You . . .” He winced and drew in a sharp breath, raised the arm experimentally, then gritted his teeth and shrugged, just the right shoulder that time. “It's nothing.”

“Shouldn’t that be seen by someone at the base?” She gestured toward the burn she had made. Or cut? There was blood now, seeping over the ragged edge of the cloth and soaking the area around it. She’d thought perhaps it was cauterized, but evidently not. “Dr. Kalonia . . .”

“Can wait.” He gave his head another shake. “It can wait. Let’s continue.”

“We said no blows to the body. This wasn’t meant to become—“

Continue,” he repeated, and gave his saber a menacing flourish. He sounded a touch affronted now and was staring at her like he was searching for something specific and dismayed not to find it.

Fine. So he was annoyed she had gotten a hit in on him. That had to be it. Well, she was annoyed too. He should have stopped her. She wouldn’t feel bad about it. She scowled and lifted the saber again, gripping it two-handed, and was about to activate the blade.

“Wait. Stop.” Kylo’s brow twitched, and he looked exasperated. His eyes were fixed on her hands. “Your grip. Again. You had it before. Not this way.”

He tried to demonstrate as he had when they'd begun, her errors, his fix for them, but Rey knew the real problem. She was unbalanced and overthinking. Whatever space her mind had gotten into before, it was hidden again. Now she knew where it was, but it was hard to figure out what had opened it up to her in the first place. Her sense of his mounting frustration was little help.

“Just . . .” She drew up to him, nearly shoulder to shoulder, and held her hand out, lightsaber deactivated and held vertical. “Show me what you mean.”

“I’m trying—”

“Take my hand.”

“What?”

“Put your hands over mine and move them. Whatever the problem is, I clearly don’t see it, so show me what you mean.”

He looked at her sidelong and narrowed his eyes as if she had just asked him to stick his arm into a nest of hungry sandborer grubs. Rey could hear the faintest hiss of his wound still cooling and felt an unpleasant squirm in her gut.

“I’ll remember it better if I can feel it,” she insisted, and nudged her arms closer.

“Understood.”

Kylo belted his saber and leaned to place his hands over hers. He moved slowly, like he was hesitant to touch her for some reason. When she felt his hands settle over the back of hers, she had enough time to process that his palms were smooth and slightly clammy, and how his hands were large enough to almost completely envelop her own within them. And then she no longer saw them at all. She no longer saw Kylo, or the beach, or the pale blue of an impossibly distant horizon.

What’s . . . Her throat tightened. The sound sucked away with a deep hum, then returned, and it was not that of the surf and Kylo’s breathing. No. No, not this, not again . . .

Rey swallowed hard and fought the urge to panic. It hadn’t been such a violent throwing this time, not like it had been beneath Maz’s castle. This felt more like a blink, but it was the same, she was certain. The lightsaber was showing her something again. No, not the lightsaber—the Force. She didn’t want to see, yet she seemed to have no choice.

It can’t hurt you, she reminded herself. It helped enough that she could get her bearings.

She was in a small room, warm and comfortable, rough-hewn wood beams overhead, smoother wooden planks underfoot. A cool breeze floated in through the open window, and outside a deep purple night sky, perfectly clear, was pricked with tiny bright stars. A pair of full moons cast the room in gauzy blue. The quiet was interspersed with chirps of tiny insects. She could detect a hint of smoke in the air from a recently doused fire, and the scent of sawdust and something herby.

It was a peaceful scene. Not the chaos of last time. None of the turmoil and terror.

As Rey's eyes adjusted to the dim light, she was able to make out more. Near the center of the room, next to a cluttered wooden table, a thin shape was stretched out on the ground. A person on a bedroll, clad in a pale tunic, the blanket askew, one long bare foot poking out at the end. She stepped closer and peered down at the figure's face, already certain of what she was about to find.

Ben Solo was asleep at her feet. His frame was narrower, his hair shorter, his features somewhat younger, but it was him—the long nose, the soft jaw, the birthmarks on his face, the slight furrow of his brow, all unmistakable. He was lying on his left side, shoulder rising and falling with each slow, deep breath. His arms were folded tight across his chest, like he was fighting a chill, though the room was far from cold. One hand was slightly curled, tucked up against the crook of his shoulder. Somehow he actually looked small, and though he was unmoving, he was not at ease.

Why would the Force want me to see this?

Rey managed to tear her eyes from him and moved over to the small table. The objects strewn over its surface were interesting. Something like a compass, perhaps; a roll of canvas unfurled to show a collection of long, thin brushes secured within; a box containing a pot of a dark and viscous liquid—oil?; a vessel filled with scrolls of actual paper, which she had never seen in person before. A lightsaber, asleep and unassuming as its owner. To her eyes, this was a small treasure trove, and despite knowing better, she wondered if she could actually touch any of it. She stretched out her hand to find out, then froze.

The room had taken a green cast, and the very walls looked sickly with it. Something was wrong.

She turned back to Ben and found he was not alone. A figure stood over him, clad in a long robe, the sort of attire she could recall seeing in holos of the old Jedi Order, mostly ancient Empire propaganda. A man, middle-aged, with a short, dark beard threaded with silver, and wide, troubled eyes. He was holding a lightsaber, the blade a vibrant green and throwing its light across Ben's prone body.

The man stood there, stock-still, for several weighted moments. His hands trembled, and he raised his arm a fraction, uncertain, as if preparing for a strike he did not wish to deliver. He shook. He turned his face away. Rey actually saw his shoulders rise with the gulping breath he took.

Ben had awoken. She did not know when he had. He rolled onto his back and regarded the blade hanging over his head. The other man went rigid, and for a moment nothing seemed to happen. They shared a long look. She thought the vision had frozen. Then Ben flung an arm out, the lightsaber catapulted from the table to his hand, scattering everything in its way, and its white-blue beam scored the empty air to clash with the green. The blades locked. Someone yelled. A rumble built as Ben reached his empty hand up, closed it in a fist and drew his arm back as if pulling something heavy. The whole room collapsed in on them with a roar of rending wood.

Rey screamed. She was back on the beach, ducked with her hands raised over her head as she stumbled backward through the sand, still convinced the heavens were plummeting. The sunlight was so bright she had to shield her eyes, and she flung her other arm out. The lightsaber flew out of her hand and landed somewhere in the sand. She cast around for it, but Kylo was there instead, slack-jawed and looking disconcerted a few meters away.

He’d seen it. He'd seen something.

“Is that what happened to you last time?” he asked, recovering first. He sounded winded and was clearly unsettled. “What you told me about?”

Unable to find her voice yet, she nodded and straightened up. At least she hadn’t fallen on her arse again. Progress.

“Yes. I think so.”

“What did you see?” He had walked back over to her and was staring at her with urgency. She half expected him to put his hands to her shoulders to steady her, except that he appeared afraid to touch her again at all.

Should she tell him? It was nothing he didn’t know, and she knew how he felt about honesty. He had not given her reason to lie.

“You?” she said. Her voice didn’t quite sound like her own. “You. Sleeping. You were—” Alone. Hurting. Afraid. Angry. Fighting. She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t know any of that, but she did. “Someone came in. A man, he had a lightsaber and he ignited it over you and just . . . stood there, and then you woke up and— Was that Luke? Was that the night you—”

It was beginning to come together, the stories she had heard about what Kylo had done, about Luke’s temple, about where everything had gone so wrong.

“That’s what you saw?” Kylo wasn’t angry; she had no idea what that emotion in his voice was, but it was not anger. “You saw what happened that night?”

“Yes.”

He looked at the ground, mouth shut tight, jaw working back and forth.

“Is . . .” she began, flummoxed by the way his eyes darted back to her and fixed. “Was that real?”

The air around him seemed to flare, then settled an instant later. “What do you think?”

At a loss, Rey threw her hands up and shook her head. “I think . . . I don’t know. He— Luke stopped. I don’t think he was going to—”

She could tell by the way Kylo was staring at her again, eyes beginning to burn, that nothing she was saying was right. Or if it was, it was not what he wished to hear. Maybe he didn’t know himself. He had been asleep. What had he truly seen of that night? What right did she have to question?

She cast a baleful look at the lightsaber, where it still stuck up out of the sand, daring her to pick it back up. She recalled Han’s words to her. “They told me you turned on him and destroyed the temple.”

“And I told you,” he said, voice shockingly even, though she felt the simmer of anger just beneath the surface, “that they are liars. I told you that the first time we spoke, and you still won’t believe it, even when evidence is practically thrown in your face.”

“Then why don’t you tell them?” she asked. “You’re here now. You know what happened that night. Tell them the truth of it, so things can be put right.”

“Put right?” He scoffed, and his mouth twisted into something that might have been a smile were it not so touched with bitterness. “I have told them. He was afraid of me and would have killed me for it. Leia knows. Han must know by now as well. They don’t believe it. If they do, they don’t want to. Haven’t you wondered why their noble mission to bring him back hasn’t been spoken of since D’Qar?”

She remembered all too well what Leia had said of it when they spoke in her office. She remembered what she had overheard just before, of Leia’s argument with Kylo. It was not as simple as Leia had hoped, that was it. Rey wasn't certain Kylo was telling the truth, but she could think of no real reason for him to lie about it. It was true to him.

“They do believe it,” she muttered, “and they don’t know what to do.”

“I do. If they bring Luke Skywalker back here, I’ll kill him,” Kylo said dispassionately. “And if they send me after him, neither he nor I will leave the planet I find him on alive.”

The ease with which he declared it sent an uneasy twist through Rey. In the last few weeks, as she’d spent time with him and begun to form what she thought of as a tentative truce of sorts, it had become easy to forget who he was, and the things he had done, not long ago at all. He’d warned her himself that he was not a different person. Did he care at all to be something different, something new, something like what he must once have been? Sometimes she thought he wanted to, but . . . Rey recalled the face she had seen in the vision, the soft mouth and the faintly twitching eyelids as he slept, and it made her a touch angry.

She frowned at him. “I hope you haven’t told them that.”

“I haven’t. Though I will, if they ask again. Leia had the audacity to suggest I go to him.” He made an incredulous sound. “With you.”

All Rey could think was that she hoped Leia had the composite map well hidden, if this was where Kylo’s mind lay. She considered telling him that she was not sure everything he remembered was truly as it had been. Not now, though. It would not get through to him. He was maintaining calm seemingly for her benefit alone, and if she tested it too much, she was not confident it would hold.

But she could offer something, surely. Perhaps this was why she was here, why the Force was so stubbornly at work between them. She could do this, and then she could go home.

“Let me speak to Leia,” she said before she would reason with herself not to. “I’ll explain what happened here today. If I tell her what I saw, maybe some new way can be found to begin to fix it.”

Kylo looked at her with doubtful dispassion. “No.”

“Why not? What reason does she have not to believe me?”

“Very little. Which is exactly where the danger lies.”

“What are you talking about? She already knows I saw something when I touched the lightsaber. That the Force has . . . shown me visions.”

“She knows, and she said she doesn’t understand it. Does she know about the dreams we’ve shared?” Kylo demanded. When she didn’t answer, because of course he knew the answer was no, he shook his head like he felt bad for her. “Does she know what you sense just beyond them? No, of course not, because even you must know better than that.”

He just wanted to to drive a wedge between her and the Resistance, his family, any of the things he seemed to hate so much. He did. Of course he did. He was drawn to her, for some reason (and she would admit she was to him), and he wanted to guard that. She almost understood it. But there was something else. Perhaps he was truly worried for her.

How strange.

“I didn’t want to alarm her,” Rey said. And she didn’t want Leia to begin wondering if she was more a liability than a help . . . which was exactly his point. “But she would listen. She would.”

“To your face. She would be diplomatic. A politician,” he said with the shadow of a sneer. “But she wouldn’t forget it. She would wonder about you. And you’d realize, sooner or later, how she sees you as a danger. Didn’t she tell you she had wanted to send you to retrieve Luke?”

“Yes.”

“That he would help you?”

“Yes, she did. So what?”

His look of irritation, though quickly hidden, brought her some smug satisfaction. Yet the implication hung between them; yes, Leia had planned to do just that. And Rey had seen, in some way, how that had ended for Kylo, even if she did not understand everything that had led to it. She could trace the way he must be extrapolating now: Rey, not far into the future, asleep; her master, the man who was supposed to answer her questions and allay her fears, standing over her with a drawn weapon.

Kylo huffed through his nose. “Do what you like. But I wouldn’t advise you to tell anyone about this. It won’t go well for you, believe me. Be careful who you trust.”

“Stop telling me that.”

“Should I? You keep refusing to listen.”

She scowled and moved for the lightsaber at last, no longer afraid of what might happen. These things did not seem to be random. And indeed when she grasped it, she remained just where she was and knew Kylo was behind her, watching.

“I’m trying to trust you. Don’t you realize that?” She turned and found him still staring at her. “I want to. I think you must understand some things . . . some things I could stand to know. But it only goes so far.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That it’s difficult advice to take seriously from someone who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t trust a single person.”

The muscle under his left eye twitched. He looked fleetingly hurt.

“Thank you for the lesson.” She meant it and hoped the warmth of her voice convinced him, because it had taken far too much will power to summon it. Her eyes drifted back to his shoulder; she had nearly forgotten wounding him. The wool of his shirt, tacky with blood, sagged over the wound, and she could see the angry red of raw flesh and singed black edges. “I’m . . . I need a break. Can we do this again, though? Soon?”

“You want to?”

“Yes. And maybe you should . . .” She gestured at his shoulder again. Evidently he had forgotten too, though at this point she refused to believe it was not hurting him a great deal.

“I will. Later. I’m going to stay.”

“Suit yourself.” She began to head back to where they had started. She hadn’t realized how far down the beach they had moved. “I’ll look for you in the hangar.”

He followed her back to the rocks and lingered nearby as she gathered her things for the trek back to the base. She’d still been expecting, or hoping, that he would come back with her after all, even if she thought the walk was perfectly pleasant alone. She would have liked to ask him about lightsabers, how they worked, what was inside of one. There were a lot of things she wanted to ask him about.

But he was true to his intentions and remained on the beach, and she passed the climb thinking of what had happened below, wondering how long it would be until she felt fully in control of herself again. It was not until she arrived back at the base that she realized she had never asked him what he’d seen when their hands had settled together on his grandfather’s lightsaber.

Chapter Text

Ben would arrive any moment. He had told her he would, so he would. Leia refused to be anything but optimistic on that front. This once, she would ignore the realist within, with its persistent warnings not to hope too hard for too much.

Her son was back where he belonged. It should have fixed things.

It was never going to fix things, the realist reminded her. Not mocking, not deriding. Just . . . so damned realistic. It sounded annoyingly like C-3PO.

Oh, shut up.

She pushed back from her desk and tried to breathe out slow and even.

“You’re nervous.” There was a voice she much preferred. Beside her, seated on her desk top, Han squeezed her shoulder and stayed close after she rose. “Don’t be.”

“Easy for you to say,” she replied, casting him a dry but fond glance as she fought the temptation to pace. “You’ve spent the last half hour sipping— What is that again?”

Han winced at the drinking glass in his hand and shrugged. “I’m pretending it’s Corellian brandy.”

“How is that working out for you?”

“Probably just fine if I make it through another pour or two.” He threw back what remained, hissed, and deftly refilled it. “He’ll come. Have a drink. It helps.”

Judging by that face he had just pulled, Leia had her doubts, but she accepted the glass anyway when he offered it.

An hour or two was all she’d asked of Ben. Granted, she saw him fairly often, but such meetings were abbreviated and never couched as dinner invitations. He treated most of their exchanges like unwanted status reports, and it was only recently that she had sensed he was allowing himself to be even a touch less guarded with her. It was almost like he was testing her, and it was difficult not to see it as a false promise of better times to come. He was not faring well, and anything she tried to do to mitigate it—apologies, inquiries, assurances—seemed only to make him double down on his refusal to be helped.

Why could she not stop handling this the wrong way? He was hers, and yet she had never known what to do for him. She hadn’t realized how painful it would be to be reminded of that every day.

“Did you ever think we’d be doing this again?” she asked Han. She took a tentative sniff of the drink, which made the inside of her nose tingle unpleasantly. Oh, that would relax her, all right. “Just sitting around, eating, like nothing was wrong?”

Han’s eyes focused softly on the edge of the desk, and he ran his palm over the old wood. “No. I don’t even remember when the last time was.”

Leia opened her mouth to say she did, but it wasn’t true. It had been so many years it felt like a different lifetime. She just needed some reassurance that it wasn’t.

“Neither do I."

This was so strange. A facsimile of a normal life. Her estranged husband had returned to her but was still very much himself, which meant constantly on the move and nearly impossible to pin down. That, at least, felt familiar. As for her son, he was near enough, physically speaking. In every other respect he was just as impossible to pin, and very little of him was familiar. Her son was not gone, but he remained as distant now as when he had been charting the galaxy with Luke.

Luke . . . what happened? What did Ben do? What have you done? I trusted you. I trusted you both. I trusted in the Force . . .

Leia stopped the thought before it could prey on her darker fears. If she let it, it would soon turn into the temptation to reach out to a brother who had been little more than a void in the Force for years. A broken man who would not let himself be reached (and now who did that remind her of?) and whose presence she feared would spur further turmoil. She was beginning to court despair, and that was not her way. A leader couldn’t do things like that.

Instead, she sipped her not-brandy. Han was right—it was an acquired taste, and she did not think tonight would be the time to indulge the pour-or-two more that might increase its appeal. After all, she did have a modest dinner waiting to be enjoyed, or at least consumed, with the shell of her family, in the husk of an old home, at the edge of a galaxy falling apart in slow motion. Best to have all one’s faculties on hand for that.

The sound of the door scraping as it slid jerkily open shook her reveries apart. That clever mechanic Rose had helped with the installation a few days ago by rigging an updated automatic system to the remains of machinery leftover from a century ago. It worked, mostly, except when it didn’t. Tonight it was cooperating, and Ben stooped through the doorway. He wasn’t quite so tall that he had to, but he did it anyway, a swift dip of his head, and for a moment she couldn’t help seeing him as an adolescent not yet accustomed to how tall he was becoming.

She was still not accustomed to anything he had become at all. Yet he looked like the man she’d always imagined he would grow to be, the face she remembered from holos sent as he traveled, aged and longer and leaner, nearly all of the softness gone, but him. His eyes, though, once bright and warm, were leached of something, and reminded her of what Han had said of him sometimes, even when Ben was still very small. It had stayed with her all these years because of the eerie true-ness of it: their son’s eyes looked old and found comfort nowhere.

Leia wanted so desperately to believe he was still himself, if he could simply be found. The finding was the challenge, and she was no longer certain it was hers alone. He had to choose it as well. She knew he felt lost. Uncertain of who he was and what place he could possibly have anywhere. And if he didn't want this . . .

“I’m late,” he said, stopping short of her desk and looking to her and Han with a furrowed brow. A strange greeting, and obvious, but roughly what she expected of him. His gaze swept the room before settling on the glass in her hand and the bottle at Han’s elbow. “I see you’ve been steeling yourselves.”

“Don’t get touchy, we saved you plenty,” Han answered gamely, and Leia couldn’t fathom how he could be so flip. Scratch that, of course she could—it was exactly what he did whenever he was uncomfortable but couldn’t leave. He rose, bottle in hand, snatched another glass from the small table setting, and poured Ben a generous serving.

Ben regarded it with deliberation, and when he accepted it he drank it in a single gulp. If he found it as distasteful as they did, he didn’t show it beyond the slightest flush of his cheeks and a particularly sharp intake of breath that scrunched his nose.

“Nice of you to join us,” he said to Han, dry as dirt. “I’d heard you were off again. Kashyyyk? Gatalenta?”

“Bespin. Had some affairs to settle.” Unruffled, Han circled around to the table near the fireplace and sat as if it were his office and he was inviting Leia and Ben to join him. “Your mother keeps us all very busy. Even an old scoundrel with useful friends.”

Leia managed not to send Han a warning stare. He had to know that his evasiveness would only rankle Ben further, which might be exactly what Ben wanted. A reason to boil over and leave. Their son was no fool, though, and she saw the way his expression shifted from barely concealed discomfort to detached interest.

“Lando?” He rolled his empty glass between his hands, and his lips thinned as he swallowed reflexively. “The First Order had an eye on him for years. He’s clean.”

“Oh, he’s aware.” Leia would allow that much to slip. “And he has been exceedingly careful.”

As much as she wanted Ben to feel he was trusted, she could not abandon caution or protocol. There were things he needed to know, and there were many he did not. He did not need to know that Han had spent the last few days getting Lando up to speed on the latest. Lando hadn’t been in a formal position of power for many years and was as likely to be found on any number of scattered trading posts as he was in Cloud City, but he remained well-liked and influential in the Anoat system, and his connections stretched far beyond it. He’d been offering measured support when asked, usually via second parties that could not be traced back to him. She thought he probably craved the danger after going so long without.

She also hoped to put some of those connections and second parties to good use. There was still the matter of the First Order engineers Ben had named and the tenuous possibility that any of them might have become disillusioned in the wake of Starkiller’s catastrophic debut. Anyone with family or connections in the Hosnian system, or even a healthy enough code of ethics to be shaken out of whatever comfort they may have had regarding the First Order’s motives and methods.

The First Order was a massive machine, in the end, and only as strong as the people whose minds and hands had built it. All it would take was one on the inside, dissatisfied, disillusioned. Just a crack. Experience had taught her that. And Ben did not need to know.

He eyed the table, seemingly fixated on his tarnished fork. “I can't say I'm surprised.”

He did not pursue the matter further, aloof as ever any time a hint of Resistance affairs came up: how the threat of being tracked through hyperspace was paralyzing efforts of direct engagements; how they’d managed to covertly liberate a number of worlds that barely amounted to a blip on First Order agenda; how there had been scattered sightings of whoever the First Order now had posing as their erstwhile enforcer, masked, hulking, and terrifying. (Though she wondered whether anyone would bother to notice his lightsaber never seemed to accompany him anymore and how long it would be before the conspiracy theories began.) It all spoke of the lingering rift between him and everything else, herself and Han included. He simply preferred to know nothing, like he wished to exist in a space beyond all of that, if he had to exist at all. Ignorance of their situation afforded him some layer of protection.

She understood why he was resistant to trusting her and Han. They had eroded his faith in his family, over years of action and inaction as they tried to do what they thought was right for him and for the galaxy; and Luke, whatever had happened that night, had severed what little faith remained. Trying to give Ben what he needed had been and still was always a game of near guesses and tragic misses. Yet she knew he was less guarded with select others. He spent most of his time alone but had rarely rebuffed Chewbacca’s stolid company, and even less so that of the scavenger girl Rey. That sparked some hope. It meant he wasn’t unreachable.

“Yes, well. We didn’t ask you to join us to talk business.” She smiled warmly at him and was met with the wavering uncertainty he put up each time she tried to tease out more of who he was. It was better than the anger. “I’m happy you’re here, Ben. We both are.”

Leia said that every time, and she meant it every time, but she suspected it must sound hollow to him. He needed to hear it anyway, the same way he needed to hear his name.

“This is long overdue,” she said, “and I’m sorry for it.”

As she crossed to the table, she felt her son’s eyes following her. “You have many responsibilities.” His voice was tight.

Maybe she wanted a bit of the anger after all. This constrained tone he’d adopted instead during their last handful of interactions was unsettling, as if he had said all he wished to her and, finding her responses unsatisfactory, was bottling up what remained. Sometimes he reminded her of a star in the midst of collapse, and she wondered if Luke had felt this way too. Before. Waiting for the explosion.

Thinking like that was how all the trouble started. She would not think like that. Ben was a person, not a problem.

“Yes, that’s true,” she conceded. “But not an excuse. Let’s . . . let’s sit and eat.”

To her surprise, it went well enough for a while. Conversation was painfully strained, as she’d known it would be, and while she could tell Ben begrudged nearly everything he was expected to respond to, he did not lash out or attempt to provoke a confrontation. He listened. He engaged. And he was unhappy. She would have sensed that even without hearing him speak, because despite everything she still felt him in the Force, and he still let her. She suspected some part of him craved it. She knew Han perceived it as well in his own way, judging by the lingering glances she caught now and again. Ben dodged any attempts to dig deeper.

Yet Leia had some particular things she wanted to gauge him on, and, anticipating her need, it was Han who came out with a decent-enough segue, albeit in his usual brusque manner. “How’s the shoulder?”

There had been word a few days ago from Harter Kalonia that Ben had stopped by the medbay with an unusual burn to his shoulder. After much prompting, probably only to avoid suspicion about what he got up to when left to his own devices, he’d divulged it was a lightsaber wound and that he had sustained it while sparring with Rey.

Ben looked down at his food as his expression shifted rapidly until it settled at what he must have thought was neutral. To her, it was sullen annoyance, but there was something else too—maybe defensiveness.

“Healed well enough,” he said. “There’s a scar, but the arm is unaffected.”

“Rey gave it to you, is that right?”

It seemed incredible to her that Rey, who had shown great reluctance to even possess Luke’s lightsaber, had been proficient enough to wound Ben despite his years of practice. She expected some yet-unmentioned caveat to come to light.

He narrowed his eyes. “You know it is. Why ask?”

“I won’t prevaricate further, because I know you hate that. I’ve been curious about the nature of your interest in her,” Leia said. “Are you training her?”

“That’s a generous assertion.” The right corner of his mouth twisted in something like the way he’d used to smile, though dampened by skepticism. She hadn’t seen a single trace of the look until now. Anything else had been a mockery infused with bitterness or derision, and the ghost of it made her heart clench. “I found her swinging the lightsaber around on the beaches. She asked me to show her how to use it properly.”

“Must’ve done a really good job,” Han observed with a dry chuckle. “Either that or she’s got a natural knack for more than just ship schematics.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She has a natural knack for neither,” Ben said. “She’s studied schematics on her own for years. And her skill with the lightsaber . . . she was lucky. Once.”

“All right, all right, far be it from me to question.” Han ducked his head in a gesture of deference and helped himself to a second helping of the roast. “Sure as hell wouldn’t let her get a hit in, would you.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Didn’t think so.” Han chuckled and wagged his fork vaguely in Ben’s direction. “Doubt she’d appreciate it.”

“You would know.” Ben’s gaze darted back to the bottle between them, more than half empty.

Leia observed the brief exchange with careful interest. He was not saying all he could on the matter. Some of his discomfort might have been embarrassment at being bested by someone whose skills could not have matched his own, luck or no luck. She would hardly blame him for that. And frankly, the idea that he might have a positive task with which to occupy himself, something he had evidently chosen to do, something that sounded altruistic, was encouraging. She just wished she could overlook the unease it also made her feel.

Because the situation was troubling: Ben had struggled all his life with his relationship to the dark side of the Force. He had fallen prey to its draw in one of the worst ways she could imagine. She knew he still fought it. And now he was instructing a young woman who showed great promise but had no previous training at all. Rey was barely beginning to acknowledge that the Force existed, let alone that she might have potential as . . .

Leia was not sure what. The Jedi were gone. Luke was gone, and though she knew where he was, her opinions on how to handle the circumstances of his disappearance and the matter of his possible return remained difficult to untangle. Leia herself was not the right person to guide Rey; she had always found her calling in the material and political. There was seemingly very little place in the galaxy for someone so strong with the Force. Rey deserved help from someone qualified to offer it, but Leia could not deny her reservations about the possibility of Ben stepping in to fill that role.

Despite his claims that Rey had sought his instruction—which was likely enough . . . Rey appeared to possess a great capacity to see the best in all things—it was difficult to believe their interactions had stopped at that. She knew they had seen into each other’s minds, exchanged unwillingly a glimpse of their deepest fears. If Leia had had any doubt that such an event had left its mark on the two of them, she heard the proof now in the guarded way Ben spoke of Rey and in how he seemed to know things about her.

There was something about Rey. Leia felt it. Ben did as well, no doubt on a deeper level. The regard he had for her did not seem to be impersonal. It could be that Rey’s trust was having a beneficial effect on him. Yet there was a fine line between encouraging a productive connection and making it Rey’s job to play helpmate.

Leia had not been prepared for this possibility. She should have been.

“Do you intend to continue on with her?” It wasn’t difficult to keep the edge from her words. Her curiosity was genuine.

Ben was quiet, and she wondered if he would refuse to answer, thinking her questions a trap. “We have been. She seems to want to.”

There was a hint of surprise in his tone, like he was still becoming accustomed to the idea himself.

“But you want to as well,” she ventured, keeping her eyes on his face, which had become rather still. “I can’t imagine you’d spend the time on it if you didn’t think it worthwhile.”

“Is there a reason this interests you so much? I see a lot of Chewbacca, too, but you don’t seem very curious about whether we’ve been trading hair-styling tips or opinions on this year’s Five Sabers standings.”

“Still plenty of food. Maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet,” Han quipped. “What d’you think of Speedstar’s odds of pulling in a fourth win next year? Heard he might be making a return to the circuit.”

“Funny.”

“Ben, we know you aren’t happy here.” Leia could see this derailing so easily, with Han’s well-intended attempts to defuse things doing the opposite. “We aren’t blind, even if we can’t offer more.”

“Is it that I’ve dashed your hopes that by now I’d be . . . what? Decked out in orange and off with Dameron and his squadron on whatever meaningless liberation mission they're currently engaged in? Raring to go in the co-pilot's seat of that old junk heap you call a freighter?” He took another long pull of his drink. How many had he had? “It was never going to happen.”

“We had no such expectations,” she said.

“You’ve made it very clear where the lines lie for what actions you’ll take on behalf of . . . of all this,” Han said, solemn again. “I get that, kid, believe me. I’ve been there.”

“We can’t force you to give more than you’re willing.”

He wasn’t their prisoner, even if he acted as if he was being kept as one, and to force him to action in his current state would be irresponsible. She was not going to put him in the cockpit of a fighter, or send him into enemy territory as a spy, maybe not even if he had been willing. The degree to which that could go wrong was overwhelming.

Before Ben could respond, Han held up an apologetic hand. “Look, sounds like this is making it easier for you to be here, and I say good. Have at it. Maybe it’s . . . I dunno, connecting you to something you thought you’d lost. But . . .”

He glanced to Leia for help, already running out of steam. It was difficult for him to be sincere, but his words were perceptive and she was grateful for the effort. She would make sure to tell him so later. For now, to Ben, “Please, be careful.”

The look in his eyes chilled her. “You think I’ll mislead her.”

“No.” Leia spoke sharply, determined that her point not be misconstrued. “That is not what we’re saying.”

“If teaching her how to stab things with a laser sword is all this comes down to,” Han added, almost as much to her as to Ben, “it’s hardly cause for concern.”

“But— I know, we know, you’re still fighting something that tells you the choice you’ve made to be here is a mistake. You’ve been gone a long time. And the First Order runs deep.”

His face revealed nothing.

“We understand that you need time,” she went on, “and that things might not ever be . . .” The way they were? No, that wasn’t right. Even things as they had been, before Kylo Ren, before Snoke, before Luke, had never been quite right. She knew that now, with all the wisdom of hindsight and all the regret that attended it. Too bad it didn’t provide new answers. “That coming back hasn’t ended it. It’s not enough on its own.”

“It’s not. You’re right. So if you understand so much, why press the issue?”

The finality of his tone jarred her from the point she’d been building to, but she had faced far worse. “Because you’re still here, Ben. And that says much more about your strength than you realize.”

Ben shook his head and looked at her as if he was truly seeing her for the first time that evening. He sat up straighter, and she heard his feet sliding across the floor beneath the table as he stretched his legs out. His mouth tightened and then quivered in a way that made her think he was resisting something he wished to say—or not to say.

He seemed to manage, because he had nothing further to say of himself at all. “Rey has many questions, but she’s very guarded. And she doesn’t like to be told what to do, even when she’s asked for guidance.” He dragged a hand through his hair and pulled, like he was trying to ground himself with discomfort. “I assure you she’s at no risk of being tainted by whatever knowledge I might have to offer her.”

“That isn’t what I’m suggesting.” The idea that Ben could be an objective teacher was dubious, but Leia did not wish to dismiss Rey’s judgment. Maybe Rey was naive. Maybe she was lonely. Or maybe she was an exceptional young woman who had been burdened with a difficult life and the possibility of something great. A person like that did not place her faith in another lightly—and she had chosen Ben. “She’s sought you out. I believe she must trust you.”

He stared at her like she had slapped him rather than tried to offer encouragement. He opened his mouth as if to say something, closed it without a word, then tried again. “Right. Unless you’re about to give me some official order to cease my activities with her, I don’t want to discuss it further.”

Leia raised an eyebrow, unable to resist the urge to tease him. There was something about how he had just ruffled his hair (getting overlong, in her opinion) that made him look for an instant like a chastised boy. It was a feeling she hadn’t experienced in an age, rearing its head at a most inappropriate time.

“If I gave you one, would you obey it?”

He threw her a long-suffering look but said nothing, returning his attention instead to his meal. For the span of moments the exchange took, Leia was transported back to a time when he’d still been young enough for her to get away with giving him a hard time and when his exasperation at it had been harmless and endearing. She knew he felt her familiarity was unearned, that Han’s acting as if nothing had changed was insulting. But every time she looked at Ben her heart swelled with how much she loved him and broke with the weight of how many things she would go back and change if she could. She wished she could make him see that.

But the past was dead, and allowing oneself to be haunted by its ghosts bred an unwillingness to move forward with living. Neither she, nor Han, nor Ben were the people they were fifteen, ten, or five years ago, let alone a month ago. Things would align again in a new order when the time was right. For now, she needed to stay the course and trust that the Force was with them all.

Luke was not going anywhere; he could wait. Ben was here. She refused to lose him again.

“I won’t, you know,” she said, voice gentler but still firm. “If your intentions are to help her feel less alone—it could benefit you both.”

His mouth stretched in a grimace, but he held her gaze. “I told you that’s all I have to say on it.”

“Fine.” They had not come very far, but Leia felt this had been some sort of progress. Ben was talking, and it wasn’t all invective or blame. “Enough on that, then. Eat more. Please. If you’re training as much as you say, you must be hungry.”

He at least had no argument with that, and filled his plate again, and accepted more of the mystery booze when Han passed it along.

Later that night, she finally had a chance to relax in her quarters. For the first time in years she had Han beside her. He was sprawled and snoring, no doubt exhausted, and she let him doze. His mere being there felt miraculous. The last month had reminded her of how fortunate she was to have him at all, after everything that could have torn them apart forever. In fact, the whole evening might have been . . . well, it was not a good memory. Yet Ben had been there, and Han too, and though far from perfect, it was the best memory she’d made with them in an eternity.

Perhaps Ben was finally finding a way to make a place for himself here. Helping Rey might even be reminding him that there was more to the Force than darkness. It would be a slow process, but Leia could see the potential in that as well as the risk. A careful balance. The light and the dark existed in a balance, too. They could. They were meant to—Luke had taught her that. He had forgotten. She would not.

Chapter Text

They had given him a box. Kylo had not opened it when they handed it over to him at dinner, and he was not sure when, or if, he planned to. It was not terribly large or heavy, and it’d been easy enough to tuck under one arm as he’d made his way across the base. Things of his, Han had said, that Leia had kept safe. Maybe worth a look when he was ready. Memories. Artifacts from before. Ben’s things.

Kylo was not interested in seeing what they were. He had not missed them, so he could not have any use for them now. He was not intrigued by the way something rolled back and forth inside with each step he took. He would not be lured by the promise of nostalgia. Never mind the contents, the box itself exuded a slimy smugness that made him want to toss it off one of the cliff sides to be scattered in the sea. Yet he already knew he would not get rid of it. He would stow it away, try to forget about it, and remain incapable as ever of cleanly breaking with anything that cabled him to the past.

As it had since the moment he’d sensed Han’s presence on Starkiller Base, his link with his parents continued to unbalance him. He knew it was not their fault. In some way he even knew they wanted his unease to end and wished he would tell them how to help. He had no idea, which made the feeling even worse. It made him want to want to be here, like if he only had a little longer he might figure it out.

Which was exactly the sort of thing Leia would have him think. She had proved time and again that she didn't know nearly as much as she thought she did. Kylo knew what was true—the more time he spent with them, the more he felt it. Didn’t he?

Of course he did. Their stubborn sentiment, rolling off them and burrowing into him like a parasite. The way they used it, a smokescreen to convince themselves they were finding a way to right things: his mother’s careful questions, his father’s stilted attempts at earnestness. It was all manipulation.

Placate him. Exonerate themselves one smile at a time. Away from them, he saw that. Kylo saw exactly what they were doing.

He saw that he was indulging his attachment to them, too, his own sentiment, his need for them and their approval, letting them exploit it, letting it make him weak again. Until he broke, as he had before. Some nights he tried to convince himself otherwise and almost succeeded; most nights, he couldn’t. Doubts and needs and reminders were heavy things. The dark still called. The light still pulled right back. There was never any resolution.

The longer he was here, the more his sense of purpose withered away. Without that, what would he be?

He didn’t return to the bunk rooms. Instead, he made for the hangar. He had broken his unwise habit of sleeping on the Falcon weeks ago, in part because it was rarely there, but this place still felt more welcoming than any sleeping quarters did. He could be somewhat at ease around ships—the problems they presented were rarely the unsolvable sort, and it was tempting to get lost in the routine of them. Besides that, just now the hangar promised privacy. It was not often frequented so late, with a significant portion of the fleet away (on some mission he had, naturally, not been given details of), and so it was also somewhat emptier than usual.

He liked it like this, quiet enough that the dripping water at the cave’s mouth echoed in a way that was almost musical. The far end was lit by a handful of floodlights; he supposed someone must have been at work not long ago and left them on. He wandered deeper, toward the lights, somewhat curious, anticipating his irritation when he found that he was not as alone as he would have liked. Though no one was at work, what he did find jarred him in a way that made irritation preferable.

It was a sleek, regal starship with a glossy white exterior and an unusual W-shape. The seemingly frivolous shape, he knew, served a purpose: weapons concealment. The Mirrorbright had been Leia’s personal transport years ago. He had scattered memories of being aboard it and of how he’d used to think it looked like a misshapen egg. He supposed Leia must have retired it when she’d left the Senate. Too conspicuous for the covert terrorist activities of a burgeoning rebellion. For as much as seeing it again startled him, the familiarity of its lines was soothing, and while it was far from his preferred style of ship, it was the sort of thing that reminded him he was not immune to beauty. It was a work of art. And it had not been there this morning. As he ran a hand over the smooth fuselage he wondered if it meant she had some intention of putting it back into use.

He circled around and spied some equipment stacked neatly near the nose. Next to a datapad and a half-disassembled fuel cell was a folded green kerchief and a pair of protective goggles with distinctive blue lenses. He stared down at them. He had seen Rey cover her hair with that kerchief many times as she worked, and he knew she favored those goggles when she could get her hands on them because of the scanners they were fitted with. He had squabbled with her over them a few days ago. Hadn’t she mentioned looking forward to a special project when he’d seen her this morning? Something Sonnel had for her and her magic touch.

Fitting. Two of Han’s favored replacement brood, united under the belly of Leia’s New Republic-era castoff.

Of course he hadn’t been asked.

His neck felt hot and he turned away. Why had he come here? He wasn’t going to put himself to work. He felt too drained for that, and now slighted for no good reason, his mind threatening to wander . . . or perhaps begging focus.

He’d been avoiding this for too long, making excuses. He couldn’t meditate here, of all places, he told himself. But why not? This place was not so different from his former chambers. The hum of electricity was the same, the smell of metal, the dark and the heat. In the end, all he needed was himself.

As if that was ever enough.

He knocked his fist against the fuselage. Enough of this. He was being a coward.

Kylo put the box down beneath one of the Mirrorbright’s wings, then ducked and sat hunched with his back to it. He stared at the stark edge of the wing overhead and tried to soften his gaze until his eyes fell shut without his realizing they had done so and his breathing slowed. When the ambient sound of the hangar began to recede, he tentatively reached out into the Force, curious of what it would be like now. He had not done this in what felt like a very long time, and though he was always aware of the Force around him, actively engaging with it in a meditative act was a different sort of thing.

He felt it. Something warm and bright, close by yet nowhere near. The bite of night air. The ripples in a pool of water at the mouth of the cave. The wavering reverberation of an echo, almost palpable. The easy thrust of a crow’s beak into a half-rotted carcass. Mold growing in a split between the stones. The yawning blackness of the sky beckoning.

He only opened himself a smallest bit more, a hairline crack. That was all it took. Darkness, like the most complete void, crackled through, out and in. He’d been tamping it down, refusing to feed it, and it was angry and hungry.

Wasn’t he angry? Wasn’t he hungry?

Yes.

Wasn’t he tired of being denied? By the ones who called themselves his family, who called themselves his masters, his—

. . . Yes . . .

And did he feel that? How he wasted himself? All that potential. What weakness. And the girl . . . he was going to waste her too.

Kylo’s brow twitched and he gritted his teeth. His chin dipped against his chest as a cold tendril of air raised goosebumps on the back of his neck, over his shoulders, down his arms, as if he’d been doused with it. His throat constricted, trying to swallow it all back down. Instinct prickled a reminder: call on his grandfather. Invoke Lord Vader. He had known the dark side. He had mastered it. Ask for help.

Kylo could do that, but he would get nothing. He deserved nothing. He was a mewling child, a pretender, a man of straw. He was fundamentally flawed. But maybe . . .

Show me. Please.

Show him what? How much did one man need to be shown, over and over, before he grasped how inadequate his efforts were? Before he grasped that he never grasped anything at all?

He could leave. Right now. He was surrounded by unattended ships. He could steal any one of them with little effort. He was doubtlessly the best pilot here. He would be gone before anyone knew it. Because if he didn’t . . . if he didn’t, it would only be a matter of time. It was always a matter of time with him.

The dark was familiar. Not comfortable, never comfortable. But it was known to him, he’d welcomed it long enough, pulled it around him like a smothering shroud, fashioned it into an unyielding mask to hide behind.

He could let all of this go—another chance for something better, he was supposed to believe it was better, he was supposed to want this. He’d barely had it anyway. He had fooled himself. So let go of it. Lay waste to this place. Find Luke at last, destroy him as well, Snoke’s plans for him be damned. Kill the past in its entirety. Stamp out the Resistance, his family, and Ben Solo for good. He could see it unfolding. The fires, the bodies, the destruction. Again. Just like the first time and every time after. It would be no more difficult; it would be easier. His power had only grown since. He was a weapon, unfinished but crafted for destruction. Who would stop him? They might try, but none could.

Except, maybe, her.

She would.

She would hate him. He had seen that look in her eyes before, in the shade of a green glade, in the harsh glare of the interrogation chamber. He would see it again, and it would be all there was.

Darkness rises, and light to meet it.

Kylo’s stomach clenched like he might be sick. His eyes felt stuck shut, but he forced them open and let go. The images fled and took his nausea with them. Had they been images? Just ideas? He had always had too vivid an imagination, had always felt too much. Tightening his shoulders, he tried to shake off what remained of his botched meditation and blink the wetness from his eyes. They stung as if from smoke. What a terrible idea that had been. No guidance at all, only things he didn’t want to be shown. Things part of him wanted, things part of him was horrified by.

He had been on his own long enough to feel the difference in himself that his break with the First Order had caused. Being away only did so much, Leia was right about that much, but it lessened the sense of oppression. Sometimes he even saw how, before, his decisions had been his own, but clouded. The idea of thinking and acting for himself was no longer quite so impossible. He’d been doing it for weeks, and it was not easy. Still he let himself be pulled.

Yet it was almost sick, how much he missed being told he was fulfilling his destiny. The sense of direction and purpose. When Kylo thought of his time with the First Order now, it was with enough marginal distance to know it was not truly Snoke’s voice telling him how badly he had fallen from the path. It was his own, too learned in the things the Supreme Leader would have said if he could reach Kylo. He hardly needed to. Kylo still rebuffed any inklings of his influence, still felt that fog of the Force seeming to protect him, but the seeds had been planted long ago. There was no protecting him from himself.

With a growl of resignation, Kylo scooped up the box and began to crawl out from beneath the ship. Something flashed in the corner of his eye—brown hair, slender limbs, quick, assured movements—and around the hull of an A-wing.

“Rey?”

He rose too fast and struck his head on the underside of the Mirrorbright’s pretty swoop of a wing.

Damn it!”

The sounds of his voice and the collision, magnified by the hangar cave, buzzed mockingly in the air around him. There was no way Rey had not noticed him, yet she ignored him. Annoyed, he stumbled with a hand still clapped to the spot, checking for blood, and moved toward where he had seen her. But when he rounded the hull, there was no one. He called out again, mustering every ounce of command he could. At least that still came naturally.

“Show yourself.”

He scanned the area, listened. Not a soul. He was alone, as he’d wanted to be, at least until he’d thought she was here. It was disappointing.

This again, then. It had happened a few times. They had not dreamed together in over a week, and while he wasn’t sure he missed it, he noticed the absence. The only thing that seemed a passable explanation was that they had stopped as he had begun to seek her company. But twice now he’d sworn he saw her in places it made no sense for her to be, when he was certain he was by himself. Once, in the room where he slept, though he knew she had no business there and should have been in the next building over; and again, when he thought he had seen her just as he was stepping out of the ‘fresher. He’d nearly felt his heart drop into his stomach. Just the two times—there one moment, gone the next—but enough for him to wonder if he might be losing his mind.

It was the influence of what had happened that day they had touched the lightsaber together. Whatever was connecting them had woven tighter. He was certain. The strange thing was, though he kept waiting for her to ask what he had seen, she never did. It was as if she feared that he’d glimpsed some darkness from her past as she had seen one from his. He would not bring it up. He did not wish to invite her to speak of Luke again or act as if she might be some emissary between them. She had no right, and she would go on believing about it what she did, no matter what he said.

Yet he did know her now, better than he had. He had seen what was beyond that walled-off space he sensed when he’d been in her mind and sometimes even when he just brushed against her presence in the Force. Something she feared, something painful, something he could not reach on his own. He’d thought it would explain why she was so strong with the Force. Now he knew there was no grand secret to it after all. She simply was gifted, and he was foolish for not realizing it sooner.

The real secret was not her strength, but her weakness, and now he knew what it was. How wounded she was, cast off like another piece of sandblasted garbage by the very people who should have cared for her. She had written over it well enough that even she seemed to have forgotten, the truth obscured behind rows and rows of scratches on a wall, like bars on a prison.

Five thousand fifty-nine scratches. Five thousand fifty-nine histories rewritten in rust. Five thousand fifty-nine times she told herself a story as the sun set and believed it. And that was just on Jakku. She had been gone weeks longer, and still she clung.

It made him sad for her. They were more alike than she realized. His past and the people who had given him up were a weight around his neck, preventing him from reaching his potential. For Rey, it was just the same. So no, he did not want to ask her if she wished to know what he had seen. He did not want to ask if she had always known that her time on Jakku was pointless. He wanted her to admit it to herself. He wanted her to tell him. It would mean she trusted him the way she said she was trying to, the way Leia speculated she must, the way he wanted her to.

He wanted that so badly it was confounding. The odds that she could were miniscule, and he was tired of being disappointed. He was tired of seeing things, too—cryptic dreams for as long as he could recall; impressions of events that had never come to pass; her phantom out the corner of his eye; flashes of futures he did not want; flashes of futures he did want. To put much faith in any of it was folly. Insinuations of the dark, empty promises of the light, the conflict of the two was always a source of pain.

Yet Rey—the reality of her, when they were side by side, when she was close enough to touch—never was. He felt calm with her, or calmer, at least. More clear-headed, like his actions had meaning. She listened, and though there was much she did not understand, there was much she did, and the rest she was eager to fill in. Their exchanges left him wanting more. It was not just her power. It was not just how she remained a mystery he wanted to solve. It was not just that he felt increasingly that they had been meant to cross paths.

There were those times, when they sparred, when they spoke, when they worked, when he would catch a thread of what she was thinking or feeling without even trying to, so deep it felt like his own. Her sharp mind and quick decisions, or her explosive vigor, or her unflagging curiosity. Things he admired and recognized. He thought she had noticed it, too.

And he was beginning to think, foolishly, hesitantly, that she might be the closest thing he’d had to a friend in a very long time, though he was also not sure he remembered what that felt like.

When he felt himself in danger of falling prey to thoughts like these, he sobered himself the best way he knew. He thought of how she likely saw their interactions: he was useful to her. That was all. She knew he had something to offer her, and without that, she would not care. So he would remain useful, because the idea that she might want nothing to do with him otherwise made him feel as if something inside him was fraying.

Kylo looked up and saw stars peeking out around the ever-present cover of clouds. Wispy, noncommittal things tonight. He did not remember leaving the hangar, though he must have been walking a while, because the nearest entrance was far behind him and he was nearly at the edge of the base. He shifted the box in his hands as he crossed into the encampment, dismayed to find that his first thought was a hope he might find Rey outside and alone. The base was quiet and cold as a tomb. He drew a finger along one sharp metal edge of the box and hoped it would cut.

“I heard some interesting news.”

Even beneath the T-70 X-wing, laid back on a creeper, Kylo could hear Rose’s words as crisply as if she were right next to him. He was not the intended recipient of her gossiping—that would be Rey, also above, helping Rose examine one of the launchers—but she didn’t appear to mind that he might overhear. The general lessening of her prickliness around him was a recent development, and he wondered if it was because Rey had said something to her. Which only made him wonder what, exactly, Rey might have said.

“Do I get to hear it too?” Rey replied a few moments later, after something clanged. Subtly, Kylo shifted toward their voices overhead.

“Trip to the main island. The big one—Skith, right?” Rose paused and he saw her booted feet shuffle as she rounded the wing. “Whatever they call it. Too many islands. There’s a festival. In a few weeks.”

There was a heavy silence from Rey. “Is that . . . safe?”

“Apparently enough Pamarthens come back home from abroad for it, enough unfamiliar faces . . . those of us who want to can slip by unnoticed. The general has her doubts, but . . .” She huffed out a laugh. “Just a rumor. The atmosphere here’s sympathetic, but I wouldn’t test it. Still planning to keep an ear open, though. If it’s happening, I want to see something for once.”

Kylo glowered at the tangle of bright wires in the smooth underbelly of the fighter and slid the control compartment shut. He was done with his work, but he’d linger if it meant overhearing more. He preferred to select what information he became privy to, and he had some doubts about Rose’s belief in the general good-will of Pamarthe’s citizenry to their activities. More people coming into the planet’s territory for a day or two might increase anonymity—and it might also increase likelihood of spies slipping in, bounty hunters searching for signs of Resistance activity, unvetted ears overhearing just the right thing, recognizing just the right face . . .

It was naive foolishness. But lots of ships coming meant lots of ships going. For someone looking for a way off planet, it could prove worth keeping in mind.

Not that he was. His moment of weakness last night was just that. A moment.

Rey’s bright voice snatched his ear. “I’ve never been to a festival.” Her tone was one of hushed excitement, and he found himself smothering an amused huff despite himself.

“Me neither. Paige says if we get the go-ahead she’d try to get a spot on the boat over for me and her.” Rose’s foot lifted to scratch at the opposite calf. “You should come, if it happens. Convince Finn, too, while you’re at it.”

Rey laughed, a low, pleasant sound that seemed to heat the air around him. “Oh, your hero? I don’t think he’d need much convincing.”

“Stop. Believe me, once I talked to him, I figured out he’s just . . . you know. A guy.”

“Oh right, ‘a guy’.” It was impossible to overlook the great deal of warmth in Rey’s voice as she spoke of Finn, every time. “But a good one.”

“Yes, that too. And one who could probably also use a new experience as much as the rest of us.” Kylo followed the progress of Rose’s feet as she stepped lightly along the side of the ship. “As nice as it’s been to be in the same place for a while, I can’t say a change of scenery would be bad. I want to see what one of these cities is really like.”

Whatever Rey’s response was to that, it was nonverbal, and nothing in the way her stance changed gave him a hint as to what it might have been. The only thing he could tell was that they’d ceased their work as well, and Kylo began to wonder how long he had before they remembered he was there and decided to check his progress.

“Speaking of my sister”—Rose dropped a rag at her feet, then crouched to replace some tools in the kit—”I was promised a game of sabacc with her and some of the Cobalt crew, and I don’t plan to miss out. Want to come? There’s a free seat or two, and we won’t judge you for your dirty hands.”

Rey chuckled again. “I’d hold you all up—never played sabacc.”

“If it helps, none of us are very good. No better way to learn than by doing.”

“Normally, I’d agree, but . . . I think I’m going to stay behind. Maybe square away some things here. Next time?”

“Hm. Well. I am going to remember that and find you.” Rose sounded skeptical, and suddenly she’d crouched even lower and was peering at Kylo where he was still reclined and listening, very obviously not at work. She leveled a sharp look at him and called back up to Rey, “Make sure this one doesn’t slack off, at least? Looks like he’s doing more eavesdropping than actual work.”

There was another thing about Rose’s more relaxed attitude toward him—she had very few scruples about treating him as she did anyone else in the hangar. He still hadn’t figured out quite how to take it. So he raised his eyebrows at her and rolled himself out from beneath the fighter as she began to walk off, then shifted his attention to Rey, who was regarding him expectantly.

“What?” he asked, sitting up and stretching. “I’d hardly call it eavesdropping when you both talk loudly enough for half the hangar to hear.”

Rey scrunched her nose and turned, one hand ungloved and pulling the grimy kerchief from her hair. “She’s joking, you know.”

“I must have missed all the laughter.”

“What are you in such a mood over?” The toes of her boots were barely a hand’s length from his knee as she wiped her hands off on the front of her gray coveralls. “You’re usually . . . sort of pleasant in here these days.”

“I’m sort of pleasant to you.”

“And I have no complaints about that.” Rey looked around, then sank down to join him, positioning herself cross-legged beside him. Whatever she’d claimed she was staying behind to straighten up, he was beginning to wonder if it had just been an excuse. “Though maybe consider trying it with someone else sometime. I've learned recently that it helps a person make friends.”

He hadn’t been looking for advice, but he bit back a sarcastic rejoinder. “I thought you had work to do.”

“We didn’t spar this morning. I waited by the usual meeting point but you never . . .” She shrugged and looked almost embarrassed. “Is everything all right?”

Her concern was real, and he felt momentarily bowled over by the fact that his first instinct was to accept it rather than reject it.

Last night he had briefly entertained the paranoid idea that Leia had put Rey up to their continued rendezvous, asked her to report back on Kylo’s actions and words, seeking some sign of threat. Rey could be just another pair of eyes, Leia’s version of Dameron’s tacky ball-droid. Yet here, right now, looking back at those very eyes, sharp and bright as they were, he was reminded why it had been so easy for him to push that anxiety away. If Rey was being dishonest with him, he would have sensed it by now.

What he sensed instead was that the time she spent with him was her own choice. They trained, and they spoke often of the Force because she had an abundance of questions, and they both remained leery of letting things become too personal . . . maybe because anything personal they did exchange was typically wrested from them without choice. But then there were moments like now, when she was just there, like she was waiting for an indication that his interest in her might be more than practical. She'd seen him and still she sought him.

The doubt burbled up before he could stop it. Because you are useful to her.

“We’ve done it the last three mornings,” he said. “After yesterday I assumed you would want a break.”

The truth was, he hadn’t fallen asleep until nearly dawn, fearing what visions might arrest him in the night, and couldn’t rouse himself to meet her at the usual time. He’d regretted it the moment he’d woken only a couple of hours after finally drifting off, and the entire day had felt thrown for the lack.

Whether she sensed the hastily cobbled excuse, Rey took immediate issue with his explanation. “Hey, you’ve been pushing me harder, but I’m keeping up.” She was doing more than keep up—the ache of his muscles at the end of each day was proof. In fact, he was starting to crave it. “You're a much more interesting opponent than the rocks.”

“That is the strangest compliment I've ever received.”

“Look, I just . . .” She paused as if centering herself, then folded her arms in her lap. “If you aren't going to show one day, warn me. I was waiting, and— Eventually I decided to just go on my own, but I wasn’t sure if I’d missed you. I'd rather not waste my time.”

Tell her.

He wouldn’t. Certainly not here. Instead he let the flash of guilt fade. “I will.”

“Thank you.”

“You have other things to spend your time on anyway. Don't you?” Kylo felt his eyes drifting toward the back of the hangar, where he’d stumbled upon the Mirrorbright the night before. Since then, someone had covered it with a drop cloth, he suspected more to keep its pristine finish clean rather than for actual concealment. “Special project with Sonnel?”

He’d tried to keep the edge out of his tone, the disdain from soaking too heavily into his choice of words, but he could tell by the way Rey’s eyes narrowed that he had not succeeded.

“Does the Force give you the power to see through that drop cloth now? Last I knew that thing’s been covered up all morning.”

“If by ‘that thing’ you mean the Mirrorbright, it wasn’t covered up last night.”

“I knew it.” Rey’s voice was quiet as she said it, almost a whisper, but her face lit up with smug satisfaction, a bright flash of teeth and a dip of dimples. It was the same look he saw when she was proud of something she'd accomplished at the beach—making him stumble, blocking a tricky strike. “I knew you’d been in here. Near the ship.”

Had she been there after all, when he’d thought he caught sight of her? She couldn’t have been. He had no doubt she could be stealthy, but that would have been beyond even her abilities.

“You knew I’d been here?”

“Yeah. I guess I . . . I sensed it. When I came in this morning.” Her eyes flicked to him and she leaned a bit closer, almost conspiratorial. He couldn’t tell if her excitement was over the ship or her realization. “Honestly, I thought you were there before I was. I could feel you.”

Kylo wasn’t sure why those words—I could feel you—made him feel cold and warm at once. Maybe it reminded him of things Snoke would say, the way it made Kylo feel surveilled, observed, followed. But hearing it from Rey wasn’t the same. It felt expected and welcome, and it made him curious.

What did he feel like to her, in the Force? To him, she was something steady and magnetic, like a polar star. He could not imagine she saw him as the same. More likely, he was an erratic, sparking mess that snapped at the threads of the Force around it. No wonder there’d been something left behind.

“What were you doing here so late?” she prompted. “The ship didn’t dock until after dark. Greer gave me a quick overview, and we closed it up for the night.”

There was a faint bloom of pink to her cheeks, though he couldn’t imagine why until she leaned back and he realized how close she’d been to him. He had leaned closer too. Magnetic indeed. He waited until she was settled again before he answered her question, because at first he had no idea and only felt the sudden need to reassess what they were doing here.

“I came to . . .” He cast about for something vague, but not the blatant lie he’d told a few minutes before. Being dishonest with her was exceedingly difficult. “Think.”

“Too hard to do elsewhere?”

Her small smile had returned, less smug, more curious, though he still thought she might also be testing his evasiveness. For a long time she had not seemed to be a person who smiled much at all, and it was a new enough phenomenon that he was briefly caught up on it rather than her question.

“Meditate,” he amended with a dismissive shake of his head.

“Odd place for it.”

“Not really. It’s quiet. It was empty. The ships relax me.”

“Oh.” Her lips pursed as she let her head rest back on the ship’s side. “Actually, yeah, I get that. They feel quite like a shelter, right?” She gave a quiet chuckle. “They’re familiar.”

“Familiar and indifferent.” No chance of catching flashes of disapproval from a Headhunter, or judgment from a Starchaser, or suspicion from a Defender.

It struck him, in the silence that followed, how easy it was to talk to Rey about this, even in broad terms. Last night’s dip into the dark in this very room felt like a distant, inconsequential thing. The feeling would last until she peeled off to do whatever it was she did without him. He hated that such a thing seemed to hinge on her—he didn’t want it, she didn’t deserve it—but he didn’t hate it enough to deny himself its benefits.

He looked over to her; she was watching him again. He wondered if she realized how often she did it and how often he noticed. She never seemed to have a reason. All he could think to do was look back as if inviting a challenge—this near, he could make out the complexity of her eye color. A moment later her gaze darted away to focus on a pair of off-duty pilots across the room, who were laughing and passing a flask between them.

“So, how does that work then? The meditating?” she asked at last, breaking the thread of inexplicable anticipation. “Is it like a communing with the Force thing?”

Their conversations drifted this way more often lately. The technicalities of lightsaber combat seemed dry as dirt by comparison. He suspected she had begun to explore her potential without him, and the thought both pleased him and made him uneasy. These questions, the ones that made him think he was doing something worthwhile, were more stimulating anyway, and he made himself relax the tightness in his shoulders.

“More like shutting yourself off. Drifting until you feel everything as it is in the Force. Where you exist in it.”

“That sounds . . . er. Dizzying.”

“It’s meant to be centering. Or it can be damned near impossible.” Kylo looked at his hands and picked at a new callus that had formed at the side of his index finger. “I discovered little more than how out of practice I am.”

“Maybe it would help to remember how you used to do it,” she suggested, as if he were the one who had asked for guidance. “It must be the sort of skill that makes a permanent impression once you’ve got it.”

Kylo felt the alarming urge to divulge to Rey the true nature of his “meditations,” though the idea of it caused a surge of panic too. The only person who had known was Snoke, and he had by turns encouraged it and treated it as a cause for disdain when Kylo had disappointed him.

“I used to—” This would be where she got up and left. He worked his jaw a moment. The hell with it. “My version of the practice was hardly typical. I used it as a means to talk to my grandfather.”

Her expression flickered with uncertainty, but she didn’t go anywhere, and she did not sound the least bit surprised when she said, “Darth Vader? Why? He was . . .”

He could imagine what she was about to say, and he knew why she seemed to think better of voicing any of it.

“I want—wanted—to fulfill his legacy.”

Speaking of that drive as something past felt forced and false. He hated the idea of letting it go. It was part of who he was, what he had given up everything for, and now—

“Yes, I know.”

Of course she did. Rey had seen so much already; she’d seen what he feared a month ago and feared even more now.

“I needed his guidance.”

“Did he ever give any?”

Her question was direct, free of judgment or pity, as if the subject were little more than a natural continuation of the topic. Meditation in the Force; talking to one’s long-dead, dark-side-aligned relatives. Same thing.

“No. Not any that I could hear. I was just alone.” Admitting it aloud caused the same discomfort as picking at a scab, a perversely satisfying ache. “And last night.” He shouldn’t have been telling her this, should not have been telling anybody this. He did what he should have done already and checked again that no one was near, leaned closer to her despite the way his neck burned with dread that she would realize how unfit he was to teach her anything, or the fear that he would just want to move closer . . . to what? “Last night, I tried to do it the old way. The way I was taught, before I sought Snoke out. It didn’t work.”

Rey’s eyes were fixed on him, measured interest plain on her face, an acute yearning to understand. She was taking stock of what he’d. He could feel her ordering it all.

He swallowed and said, “I felt darkness. Like a call. I saw things . . .”

He couldn’t continue. The images had been so vivid, the scenes and possibilities so real. He breathed in and could smell the traces of smoke and hot metal, could feel the sizzle of heat on the backs of his hands, and hear the cries of the dying and explosions of ships plummeting into the sea. One moment it had promised satisfaction, the next it had guaranteed the deepest wound, soul-deep and unfixable.

Some of her calm was gone as she asked, so quietly he barely heard the words, “Was it Snoke?”

“No. It was me.”

It was sometimes hard to know what was his own mind and what might be Snoke’s interference. Yet he felt, in this case, that the Supreme Leader wouldn’t waste the time. He was most likely expecting Kylo to break sooner or later and come crawling back to be put out of his misery. As had been the case before, Snoke did not need to find him. The groundwork had been laid over years, and Kylo would come when his own weakness prevailed.

No, he wouldn’t.

“And what happened after that?” The chill of apprehension in Rey’s voice had already thawed.

“I stopped. I pulled myself out of it and went back to the bunks.” With her on his mind practically the whole time, which was an entirely different problem. “It was late.”

“Well, maybe that’s what matters more. What you did after.”

“I should have known better than to open myself in that way.”

“I thought opening yourself to it was the point,” she said, with such stern certainty that once again he felt like the one learning something, and he cast a dubious glance her way. Her legs were outstretched, and her eyes were fixed on some vague point at her feet as the toes of her boots tapped idly together. “That’s the impression I always got from the stories. About—” He braced himself for some mention of Luke to encroach even now, but it never came. Apparently she knew better. “About the old Jedi. All those legends.”

“I’m not a Jedi.” A terse reminder. “Their ways are obsolete.”

“And yet you were . . . trying to practice a Jedi meditation?”

“The Jedi don’t own the Force, or the methods of using it.” He scoffed. “Didn’t, when they still existed.”

If Luke really was out there, Kylo doubted he considered himself a Jedi any longer. As for Kylo, he was unwilling to detail further what he had experienced only hours ago, though it seemed perfectly likely that Rey would see it anyway, somehow, some time. The Force was nothing if not a meddlesome presence between them. It would not allow them to remain strangers to one another, and he was increasingly complaisant on that point.

Yet when she shifted, all he perceived was her chagrin. Perhaps she had not liked being reminded that the legends on which she had built her meager impressions were best forgotten.

“What does Leia have you doing with her old ship?” Something also told him that returning to the subject of the Mirrorbright might have the twofold advantage of redirecting the conversation and easing her discomfort. Her restrained enthusiasm before had been almost charming.

Rey still nibbled at her bottom lip a little before answering. “I didn’t ask why. She knows I’m good with ships. Maybe they just needed another for the fleet.”

He looked at her pointedly. She wasn’t buying her own supposition any more than he was. “Please. It may be armed, but the Mirrorbright isn’t a fleet ship. It’s a one-of-a-kind transport vessel, and it’s conspicuous as hell. And she knows it, but she brought it in anyway. She has a reason.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” She threw her hands up and shook her head in exasperation. “Greer’s had it here for a few years and kept it in good condition, but beyond that it hasn’t been out of atmosphere in a long time and needs some work. System updates. Armament evaluation.” Rey climbed stiffly to her feet—he was gratified to find he wasn’t the only one who was feeling the effects of their training—and stretched until her back gave a dull crack. “That’s all I was told. I’d say ask her yourself, but I know you won’t.”

“I’ve become predictable to you.”

“A bit.” With a reluctant chuckle, Rey beckoned at him to join her as she made her way back toward the rear of the T-70 and gave it a fond slap with her open palm. “Want to help me with this? Proton torpedo launcher’s jammed. We’ve been working on it all morning but it’s . . . complicated.”

“I bet. Would be a shame if you blew something off.”

“Careful what you say. Rose and I are too good at what we do for that.” She narrowed her eyes like he had some ulterior motive. “Though she’d probably be impressed if we managed it before she returned from her game.”

Kylo had no interest in impressing Rose Tico; and it had been years since he’d played sabacc, but he knew it was not a quick game regardless of skill. He and Rey would have plenty of time to work here uninterrupted, which was how he preferred things. So he nodded and stood and rounded the wing to join her at the weapon pod. Just as she had probably known he would. She was right. He was predictable. To her.

Chapter Text

She could still feel it, and she wished she could unsee it, unfeel it, unremember it.

It had started with a compulsion, fleeting but intense, just before she had fallen asleep. A disordered half-waking thought that she had to go back, as soon as possible, or, or . . .

Then she was there. The hulking rise of the Hellhound Two was at her back, hot metal sizzling through her shirt and wrappings. The door hung open, nearly torn from the hinges. When she stumbled inside, her wall of markings was dashed with dents and long, swiping burn marks, the years of tallies unreadable. What was left of her belongings lay scattered in the sand, spewed from the door like refuse. Her speeder was in pieces; some were still sparking. Her past, her history, all gone, all burnt up.

She knew one thing: she had been forgotten. Lost. Abandoned.

Years of welling fear surged and, as if from behind a crumbling wall, broke free. She was afraid, yes, but she was angry too, and the only thing she could think to do was feed it. Feed it, feed her power, starved so long. Because the other option was fear, and she if she let it, it would carry her away.

What else was she waiting for?

A blink of an eye, and she was at Niima Outpost. Everything was burning. Smoke on the horizon told her it was the same elsewhere, everywhere, the sun and sky choking with it. People were screaming, or dying, or terrified—but not Rey. Rey had nothing to fear. This was her doing. Her fault. Her fault for leaving. Her fault she’d been left there at all. Her fault that no one was ever returning for her.

Whoever you’re waiting for . . . they’re never coming back.

Yet something seemed to ask: Did she really need them? Did she see what she was capable of? What she had spent years shrinking from? She would destroy all this. Blot it out. Start again.

But there is someone who still could.

Rey walked through the wreckage like a queen through her wasted realm. There were piles of salvage everywhere she looked. Artifacts? Treasures? Stacks of them, absurd hoards, unwieldy mountains seeping darkness. She felt it tickling her palms, brushing her ears, promising things. And as she had in so many dreams, years of dreams, she felt she was not alone. She wasn’t. Kylo was there, as she had first seen him—masked, hooded, shrouded in shadow. But not a threat. A partner. Maybe he had done this. Maybe she had, or they had done it together. There was relief in the release. A predator's satisfaction and the anticipation of taking everything she’d ever been denied, everything she told herself she was waiting for.

She’d woken with that feeling, pleased and yet disgusted by the reason, a sense that she’d been used, like someone saw her wants, fears, and hurts and had sown doubt and pain and anger in their place. She wished she could wash it off but couldn’t because it was inside. It was a terrible way to start a day, but she scrubbed a hand over her face and pulled her eyes to the chronometer as she tried to reason it all out. None of that had happened. She wanted to go home, yes, and soon, but she didn’t want any of that.

And that hadn’t really been Kylo.

She knew the way those shared dreams felt—more like whispered conversations, intimate and hidden, facilitated by some cosmic current. She hadn’t had one of those in a long time. This had been the more ordinary sort, and she wished for a moment he had been there with her. But would she have wanted him to see that? No.

No more than she wanted him to see the one she’d had a few nights ago, when she’d woken in a state over why she should be having that sort of dream at all. Of his hands. Of his mouth. Of some other things. For some kriffing reason. If she’d still been alone on Jakku, or alone at all, she could have done something about it beyond waiting for her heart to stop racing and the suggestive flood of heat to fade.

Another reason to remind herself, as she did every morning: she decided what she did. Not some dream. Not some nightmare. No matter how real or vivid or . . . stimulating.

At least she had sparring to look forward to, an outlet for all her—

Wait, no, she didn’t. They had a routine now: three days on, one day off. After she had upbraided him for ditching her the one time, he hadn’t done it again. In fact, he took it to the other extreme, checking each day that the plan was unchanged, as if he thought she would decide she’d had enough and leave him hanging. Which was why she felt a prickle of sadness that today was not one of those days. She would have liked to see him in the morning, maybe told him about her dream—maybe—and how it had not felt right.

She would just find him at the hangar, then. Yet when she arrived, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t near the barracks, or the ‘fresher, or, it seemed, anywhere at all. Rose hadn’t seen him. Greer hadn’t, nor had Finn when she caught him for lunch. It seemed determined that today would be a day for some private practice.

She’d been thinking of doing that anyway, sneaking off by herself to test the extent of what she could do. It had never been easy to find the time. An hour later she found what seemed a suitable place, tucked away in a small forest to the south. As she walked, she’d entertained herself by making a list of what a person might be able to do through the Force. Assumptions, mostly, but based on evidence she had seen with her own eyes. She could recall things Kylo had done, and things she’d never seen anywhere but in her imagination, the legendary acts of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi before him. She already knew she could influence someone’s mind, though it had only worked the once and she was in no hurry to use a person in that way again . . . but who was to say she couldn’t pull Star Destroyers from the sky one day?

Not that she would ever have a need to do that when she went back to Jakku. Not that the fleet would appreciate her ripping their ships from Pamarthe’s atmosphere in the name of practice. Not that she could, at all.

The outlandish nature of her dream and the vividness of her imagination were taking things too far. Today, she would start small. She had time. If it meant she gained even a modicum of control, good. She needed it—she was doing this as much to sate her curiosity as to stop being afraid of herself. She left her staff and bag beneath a tree and wandered a few steps with the lightsaber at one hip, a blaster at the other.

“How do you use the Force?” she muttered. A long-bodied rodent with deep-green fur and enormous ears slithered out from beneath a clump of brush and scampered up a tree to regard her from above. She narrowed her eyes at it and looked away; she’d come out here to avoid an audience. “Thanks, very helpful.”

When she’d set out, she had been entertaining visions of grandeur—she’d lift some rocks. She’d choose a target, close her eyes, and hit it dead center with a blaster bolt. She’d stop the blaster bolt in midair. Now it all seemed silly.

Maybe you don’t use the Force.

It was how Kylo always spoke of it, true, and how she had thought of it at first as well. Something that would let a person read minds and make things move and control the world around them. But she was beginning to see that wasn’t quite it. She didn’t feel like she was using the Force when she wielded the lightsaber—she felt like she was conducting an instrument of the Force’s power. So, maybe, those who were strong with the Force were simply . . . bigger instruments?

She snorted so loudly the rodent startled and scurried into a knothole. “Yep, you’re a great big instrument, Rey, that’s all.”

But that did give her an idea. Her hand slipped down to the lightsaber at her hip. She could start with something she already sort of understood and felt tied to. She unclipped it, gave it a probing look, and tucked it securely amongst a knot of exposed roots. When she had worked herself up to ask Kylo about how lightsabers actually worked, he’d spent the majority of their walk back to the base explaining it and tolerating her many interruptions. So she knew that the hint of life and sentience she always sensed was the crystal inside, highly attuned to the Force, that focused the weapon’s energy. It was probably what had called to her in the first place. What if she called back? Would it be compelled to follow, as she was?

She positioned herself a few meters from the lightsaber and stared hard at it. Within seconds she could detect the faint vibrations of the crystal’s voice and tried to settle her attention on the way it sought her. The threads of its connection to her were still tenuous. When she grasped at them they were difficult to hold and seemed to suggest that she was too uncertain.

She didn't feel uncertain. Or maybe she did. She directed a thought at it. Come to me.

The lightsaber gave an indifferent twitch and stilled again. Rey set her jaw and stretched a hand out, as much to catch it if it came as to ground herself in the sense that she was reaching. Again she felt its energy, and she began to understand. It wasn’t a command. It was an invitation to engage. She needed to accept. This time she cleared her mind of thoughts until all she felt was the even pulse of her link to the weapon and the crystal inside. She reached again with feeling rather than thought.

Rey gave a cry of surprise when the lightsaber flew decisively into the flat of her palm, and the impact took her so off guard that her whole arm jerked as she closed her fingers around the familiar weight. She grinned at it and gave it a flourish over the back of her hand—she was getting quite good at that move. Bolstered by her success, she tried it a few more times and found it took less effort with each attempt, even from further away, even when it was out of sight, as if she were developing some new form of muscle memory. When the novelty began to wear off, she returned to her previous, more ambitious ideas. Worst case, she figured, she accidentally blew something up, and with nothing but rocks, trees, and the odd bird to witness her, she didn’t mind a bit of trial and error.

Her initial efforts were clumsy, but as with the lightsaber, her progress was inexplicably accelerated. The knowledge was there in her head; she just needed to access it. This time she didn’t bother to question why. She was caught up in an exhilaration that made it far too easy to let her imagine run a bit.

She was a Jedi knight stranded during the Clone Wars, keeping her skills sharp as she awaited rescue, pushing her way out of a landslide.

The loose stones and branches littering the ground at first had no real interest in budging more than a few inches when she attempted to make them do so. Then, suddenly, one rock to flew up into the air with such force it nearly hit her in the head. She tried again, this time remembering that the goal was to lift it, not call it to her. It rose into the air, hung there with a slight tremble, and tumbled down when she disengaged. Interesting. It wasn’t a physical task, but she had that feeling again, like she was warming muscles unused to being worked.

She’d been tasked with a secret mission by the Republic, known only to her . . . but first she had to fight her way through a hoard of mercenaries with only a blaster, in the dark, because her lightsaber had been stolen and she’d been locked up in a crime boss’s underground lair.

Shooting a blaster at a boulder with her eyes closed yielded mixed results she was fairly certain had nothing to do with the Force and more to do with luck. Maybe she would save trying to stop a bolt for the next time.

She would be found. Eventually. She was special, and crucial, and important.

All of the things she wasn’t in life. How was it that even in her fantasies she was left waiting? It was a sobering thought, and the draining effects on her mind and muscles hit her suddenly, like a wave. Squinting up at the sky, she saw that the slant of the sun through the trees was markedly different. Her immediate surroundings had fallen still and quiet, as if inviting her to do the same.

She sat to take a break and tried to find something more pleasant to think on, rueing that she hadn’t brought any food with her. Yet she didn’t think the faint wobbly sensation at her temples was a result of hunger or exhaustion. All around her the air was more alive. So was the cool grass under her hand. If she shut her eyes she could almost see the worms and insects just beneath the mineral-rich soil. A bird dipped overhead, and she had a fleeting impression of elation, the same sort she’d had the first time she took her speeder out for a ride. Though she was tired, she felt awake in a way she hadn't before.

And she felt something else. She closed her eyes, breathed out slowly, and let herself be led by the feeling. Her own thoughts fell silent. She reached out. She drifted. There was something there, something inside her and around her, everywhere. A push and pull, give and take, depart and return—a cyclical sort of thing, opposing forces, perfectly tuned, always in balance.

Doing this didn’t feel natural. Engaging in spiritual practice, if that’s what it was, always seemed to require self-examination. A daunting task. And yes, it was a bit uncomfortable, trying not to think, and thinking about how she was trying not to think, and why.

What am I doing? Is this meditation? Is that the Force?

If she listened she could pick up a more particular undercurrent, like a whisper growing louder. It felt . . . a bit dark, but not the way her dream had. Not threatening or frightening. It existed in a less rational place, with all her raw emotion and survivalism. It was the way she felt when she sparred with Kylo or rappelled into a wreck. Her eyelids twitched as she investigated it further. The deeper she delved, the more the world around her at once faded and grew more vivid. Whatever it was, it sizzled abruptly in her perception, like an electric current, and the shock of it made her open her eyes.

How long had she been out here? Hours. It would be getting late soon. Finn might worry. Maybe when she returned she’d finally be able to find where Kylo had gotten off to.

That feeling remained, though. Whatever that sizzle had been, that energy, she was inexplicably curious to find the source, and the curiosity outweighed any sense of responsibility to return. She tried to rationalize it: she’d never been out this far before, so it would be a waste to turn back now. But she knew that what called her onward had nothing to do with the forest itself, and everything to do with something deeper inside it. Rey gathered her things and continued on the way she’d been going.

The grove, when she found it twenty minutes later, was as cool as the rest of the island at this time of day. A faint rime of frost glimmered on the rocks and yellowed grass for lack of direct sunlight. The only thing that seemed exempt was the hot spring at its center. There, the water steamed. She could see the fog hanging over it, drifting up in tendrils and coils, winding through the series of large rocks spearing up from its deepest depths toward the center. As she drew closer, the warmth of it washed over her. The sensation pulled a long, low sigh from her before she realized she was making a sound at all. Rey crouched at the edge of the pool and tentatively brushed her fingers over its surface, then let them dip beneath it.

It was warm, then hot, but wonderfully so. She pushed her hand under up to the wrist, let the feeling of the heat crawl up her arm as her face grew dewy in the steam. Beyond just the effects of the heat, something inside her noticeably stilled. A thrum of energy clicked into place, satisfied.

Stay, it seemed to say. This is right.

She stood and looked around, as if there were some chance she might have been followed or missed a party of hikers hiding behind the trees. But, for the first time in so long, she was perfectly alone. That water would do wonders for her aches, the physical ones at least, and for the chill the briskness of the air had brought to her face. She would take a quick dip, have a sit in the hot, fragrant water until the sun began to fade, then head back.

With a final check over her shoulder, Rey dropped her rucksack and her staff beside a tree, then shrugged off her cloak and the jacket she'd been wearing beneath it. She pulled her boots off and stood them neatly with her thick socks stuffed inside, then tugged her trousers down and her light wool shirt over her head. She was down to her basics and accumulating quite a pile of garments, debating whether she wanted to strip off the rest. There was no one around, and if she went in with them on, it would mean walking back with a soggy layer of underclothing growing colder as she went.

Off with those too, then. Rey turned to face the spring and was about to shimmy out of her camisole when something in the water moved. Startled, she froze and stared, then crouched back and reached for her staff.

The thing in the water rose out. A dark-haired head; broad, pale shoulders; a long torso; narrow hips; and the very top of two well-shaped buttocks. Anything below that was a faint, blurry outline disrupted by ripples and steam. There was a naked man in the water. A moment later she realized that man was Kylo Ren.

Her mouth dropped open and worked mutely as her eyes darted left, then right, then down to her pile of clothing, then to anywhere else but at him, because that was precisely where part of her very much wanted to look.

She couldn't just creep away without her things (creep being the operative word). She could wait until he left, but who knew when that would be, and she'd freeze like this. Rey dared to glance up. His back was still to her, and he'd submerged a little, but then he rose again and started to turn, hands raised to scrape his wet hair back from his face, water running between his shoulder blades, and down, and down.

“Oh!” she cried, feeling like a complete idiot and aware her face was a shade of red even the worst sunburn had never achieved as she grasped for something to say. “Don't— Wait, I'm over here! Stay in the water!”

Kylo immediately sank down and spun around, sending up a splash of water that kept Rey from getting an eyeful of anything else. She was slightly disappointed by that and immediately annoyed to realize it.

“What the fuck!” Kylo sounded as alarmed as she did. That was somewhat comforting. “How did you— Are you really here?”

Too caught up in wondering the same—was this one of those dreams?—she found herself without an answer as he started toward her. A moment later he seemed to recall the situation and stopped before she had to remind him. He frowned and moved back again.

“How long have you been standing there?”

He was now concealed nearly up to his chest, which made it slightly easier to talk to him as if she hadn't just been inadvertently taking that and the rest of him in. Why was she reacting like she'd never seen a naked body before? She had.

But it was a nice chest.

“Several minutes,” she sniped back. Where the hell had he been? Not submerged that whole time, he wasn't a bloody fish. “You were not there. I thought I was alone. I checked.”

“I assure you I was definitely here.” Realization softened his scowl and accusatory tone, but only a little. “I was behind the rock.” He gestured to one of the tallest stones, and she forced herself to notice the way it reminded her of a high-backed throne rather than the way the muscles in his arm flexed when he did so. “Came around under the water . . .”

“Oh.”

She thought he refused to look at her straight on at first because he was embarrassed about her catching him in the midst of some naturism. But then she shivered and recalled that she was in nearly the same state. She froze, then made a lame attempt to cover up a bit, tugging her thin camisole down over her ribs and stomach and folding her arms over her chest. “I was going to get in. It seems like it must . . . feel hot.” She winced. Yes, the water was hot. “Good. Feel good.”

Clearly, he was already well aware. She wondered how long he had known the hot spring was here.

And now he looked like he was wondering something too, because his eyes were fixed on her. His chest expanded with a deep breath (it could get bigger?), and he swallowed so hard she could see his entire throat constrict. Her eyes darted to the scar on his shoulder. She was staring again at that—her handiwork—and then she was staring at the rest.

Did he . . . want her to? He’d done about the bare minimum to cover himself. She had a fleeting urge to continue on as she had been, just to see what he would do.

“I'll go.” She pressed her lips together until it almost hurt and bent to pick up her trousers. “Sorry. Never mind. I didn't realize . . .”

She was aware of his eyes still on her as she stepped into her trousers and crouched to rummage for her shirt without bothering to fasten them first. Or maybe she was just imagining it.

Wishful thinking.

No!

She lifted her head to check.

“Stop looking over here,” he called. “I’m getting out.”

“What? Why?”

A pause. “So I can put my clothes on?”

“Wh— oh. Yeah.”

Rey hadn't exactly been watching him in her rush to dress, but she could appreciate the fact that he might like to spare her another surprise—and spare them both further discomfort if she turned around just as he was climbing out. Anyway, it gave her time to focus on layering back up rather than be bitter about the interruption of her plan. She found it rather less appealing now and was further disappointed for some other reasons she didn’t want to dwell on. It was just a body, but . . . it wasn’t just a body. It was his body, and her body had been anything but indifferent to the sight of it.

By the time she had her jacket on and was lacing up her second boot, his voice carried over from not so far off. “I'm good.”

She snorted and twisted around to check, still half expecting to see too much. But he was dressed enough: barefoot, trousers in place, just pulling his shirt over his head.

“Should I wait for you?” she asked.

“Wait for me?”

Rey allowed her eyes to settle on the pale skin of his damp torso as she donned her jacket. She might have expected more scars, anything that would indicate the sort of life he’d been leading, but his skin was surprisingly unmarred in a way that made her think it must be quite smooth to touch.

“Yes. If you're going to go back to the base too, I can wait.” Her chilled fingers fumbled with the fastenings of her cloak; she thought it was the chill, anyway. She well knew the other reason her motor skills had suddenly taken such a dive. “If you want. It’s a long walk.”

Kylo nodded and leaned to pick a cloak up from behind the clump of brush his things had been hidden behind. “Sure.”

Soon they were both in much better shape for travel, and the embarrassment seemed to have passed enough that conversation came fairly easily as they departed. She kept pace with him, annoyed by the idea that he was probably altering his own for her sake.

“How did you find this place?” he asked—and sped up a little, as if he’d detected not only her annoyance but the reason for it. “It’s not exactly in view of the base.”

Rey chuckled. She should think it wasn’t, or it would be a rather poor place to come taking all one’s clothing off.

“No, it’s not.” She stretched her legs to keep up, the new pace comfortable enough. It would certainly keep her warm. “It was an accident. I was just going for a walk.” The omission of her real reasons for being out here was not a lie, she told herself. “I’ve been trying to see as much as I can of everything.”

“And how'd that go? See enough of everything?”

Is he serious?

She’d realized after the words left her mouth that there was some double meaning afoot, but she had not expected him to acknowledge it. Rey fought a grimace. When she glanced at him, he appeared faintly amused, though his face and neck—even his ear where it poked up from beneath his wet hair—were rather pink. That could easily have been an effect of the hot water he’d been soaking in.

“For today, yeah.”

She forced herself not to check his reaction. If he was trying to embarrass her, she would deal it right back.

“I’d walked a while and was going to turn back when, I don’t know.” She tried to gather her thoughts and focused her attention on their surroundings. The trees were dense and rather scrubby, all covered in thin needles instead of leaves and oozing thick resin from their crackled trunks, but they smelled amazing. The scent mingled with the heady mineral fragrance of the hot spring as they left it behind. “I had this feeling I ought to keep going. That I’d know when to stop.”

“Would have been nice if that feeling had told you your destination was occupied.”

Rey gave a light chuckle and nodded. Would have been nice if that feeling had warned her she was about to be treated to some unexpected but not unpleasant male nudity.

The more she thought about it, it had been a very similar feeling to the one she’d had on the Falcon after Starkiller, when she picked up the lightsaber and felt an inexplicable need to follow the tunnel to the galley. She’d even felt a bit like that on Takodana as she fled Maz’s castle, certain she needed to get not only away, but into the woods. And she’d run right into Kylo. Every time.

How was it that she continued to trust that feeling so readily?

“I didn’t realize it had been claimed, no,” she said, with some good humor. “How did you find it then?”

He was quiet for long enough that she wondered if she had said something wrong. But there was a rustle of his cloak as he drew it tighter around him, and he huffed sharply. “I read a lot about Pamarthe, a long time ago. So I know some things.”

“‘Some things’ such as . . .”

“Such as, the islands are known for a lot of particular natural features. Geothermal springs. The water’s very rich in minerals. Supposedly therapeutic. I wanted to see if I could find one.”

Rey was surprised not only at his candor, but at how considered his intentions had been. His interest seemed almost scientific.

“Why this planet?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Why did you read a lot about it?”

She was genuinely curious. She wasn’t so different. Scavenging had provided some opportunity to learn about any manner of things, and when she found the right datapads or holocrons or old educational programming, they’d become her only way to temporarily leave Jakku behind.

“I didn’t read about just this planet,” he said, as if the question was absurd. “There were others.”

“A whole galaxy, and you choose the volcanic island planet made of creaky old bridges?” Rey pressed with more than a hint of teasing. She actually quite liked all that.

“City life was boring.” He cleared his throat and ducked under a low-hanging branch. “This place has a reputation for particularly talented pilots. It was appealing, to a stupid kid.”

The conversation was fast becoming far more personal than Rey had been prepared for. She didn’t mind it much, not at all. For a moment she even found herself trying to imagine it: Kylo, or Ben, she supposed, many years younger, with perfectly ordinary interests and ambitions . . . she could sort of see it. She wasn’t sure how to reciprocate, or if she might soon ask the wrong thing and bring it to a halt. It was so difficult to know where the line was with him. It never seemed to stay in one place.

“I used to wonder what living in a city would be like. It never sounded boring.”

“Maybe not boring.” He seemed to regret his previous evaluation. “Repetitive. Constrictive. Everything is a grid.” His hands suddenly flew up in front of him, wafting the lingering smell of the spring toward her. He held them stiff, one palm facing out and the other inward, his thumbs and index fingers meeting to form a rectangle. “And in the grid are apartments, and homes built one on top of the other. Lights always on somewhere. You can’t see the stars. You stop realizing how noisy it always is. And you forget what it means to have silence. Or maybe you never knew what silence was to begin with.”

Rey kept her eyes to the path. This was definitely taking a turn; she wasn’t even certain he was just talking about cities, or addressing what she’d said at all. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“You’re not.” He expelled a loud breath as his hands fell to his sides. “I don’t have much opportunity to say things. Like that.”

“You can say whatever you like.”

He made a sound of disagreement, then tucked his hands beneath his cloak. “They’re overrated. Cities. They appear to offer more than they truly do.” His head cocked. “If I hadn’t lived in one, maybe I would feel differently.”

“Maybe.” As for her, she couldn't imagine her feelings on Jakku changing whether she had lived there whole life or merely visited; it was the sort of place to leave behind. One day she would. “What city did you live in?”

“Hanna City. On Chandrila. Capital of the New Republic for a time.” His voice grew steadily more derisive with each word. “There was talk of relocating to the new capital on Hosnian Prime. Then I went away.”

A knot formed in her stomach, because she knew enough by now to understand precisely what he meant by that and that poking at the wound would almost certainly see this so far enjoyable exchange end badly.

“Did you . . .” She trailed and looked at him. He was already watching her.

“Yes?”

“Did you want to be a Jedi?”

He didn't get angry, at least in no way she could see. In fact, he seemed to be thinking. Finally, he said, “No. Not at first. After a while I didn’t mind the idea. Which was a mistake.”

“Then why did you go?”

His steps slowed. “Because I was sent. They asked if I wanted to, and I said yes because it was what they wanted me to say.”

“It couldn’t have been easy for them, either,” she opined before she could stop herself.

“I know what they thought. They wanted it.” He spoke with a clipped finality that made her want to let it go.

“What would you have done instead?”

His eyes darted around, as if the question had confused him, and he gave a huff of concession. “I would've rather been a pilot.”

“What, really? Like racing?”

“Maybe.” He narrowed his eyes. “Something wrong with that?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “I . . . no. Definitely not. Just not what I expected. It would be exciting, right?”

There was an unspoken implication, maybe one she was reading too much into—except she’d been in his mind and heard the way he spoke of his father. He had wanted to be like Han. She wasn’t sure why that seemed like such a shock.

Kylo looked down at her. “Why are you asking me these things?” He sounded uncertain, like she might be about to reveal some agenda behind her questions.

“Curiosity. Shockingly good way to learn things, I think you said once.”

“And what do you hope to learn from this? Urban history of the core worlds?”

“A bit of that, sure.” It felt risky to say what else she was thinking, but it was a test too, to see how he would react. “And about you.”

He either found that answer satisfactory or wasn’t sure what to say back, because he returned his attention to the path before them, and they continued on in silence. It was beginning to seem like a good thing she’d had a change in plans: the sun was setting fast, and the woods were turning gray as the cool, failing light filtered through all the rich green. She would have been picking her way back, alone in the dark, with no guarantee she knew the path as well as she liked to think. Except maybe that leading feeling that always seemed to end with her finding the man now walking at her side.

“You stayed on Jakku. Why?”

Rey took in a sharp breath as if he’d slapped her. “What else would I have done?”

“I’ve seen it. There’s nothing there but wreckage and the people who treat it like it actually has value,” he said. She should have been more offended at how carelessly he insulted her homeworld and her occupation there; but what he’d said wasn’t far from true. She was more puzzled by how he seemed to have some other purpose in guiding their conversation that way. If she let him speak more, she might figure it out. “You said you wondered what cities would be like. You don’t strike me as a person who lets her questions stay unanswered.”

She needed a moment. “I couldn’t have just left.”

“Yeah, you’ve said that too. Claimed you couldn’t go. But you could have. I know how you got off the planet. You can pilot. Very well, apparently, with the right motivation.”

Rey was at a loss for what he could possibly be getting at, and she was more than a little flummoxed by how much he remembered about her and his insistence that she answer him.

“So why choose to stay?” he repeated. “You could’ve gone any time.”

“My family.” There was no real feeling behind it—the whole thing was a rote recitation. She didn’t even have to think about it. In fact, it felt better if she didn’t, and she just wanted him to stop asking. “I’m waiting for my family. They had to leave. But they’re coming back. So I had to stay. Or they won’t know how to find me. That’s all.”

“They couldn’t take you with them?”

Why not? Had they . . . ?

“I don't know.” Rey picked at a loose thread on her cloak, rolled the fibers between her fingertips. “I can't remember. I think it must have been a mistake.”

“How long has it been?”

Too long. She pursed her lips. “A long time.”

“And you truly never thought about leaving?” he pressed. “What if you’d had a ship?”

Rankled by his persistence, Rey fixed her eyes ahead. “A few years ago I found a ruined Ghtroc 690. It’s a small light frei—”

He gave a quiet chuckle. “I know what a 690 is.”

“Right,” she muttered. “There was enough of it salvageable that I decided to fix it. Get it up and running, sell it for more portions than I usually see in a year. And I did fix it, with help from two other scavengers. We worked on it together for months. We agreed to split the payout. I trusted them, I thought they were my friends. Allies, at least. But when the time came . . .” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket. “They stole it. They left the planet. I watched them fly away. I never wanted to use it to leave, I only liked the challenge and the idea of how much I would get for it, but . . .”

Buried in her pockets, Rey’s hands shook as she recalled how betrayed she’d felt that day when she realized how much time she had wasted, how poorly she had judged them, how she should have known better. Her throat felt tight, and she tried to clear it.

“So could I have left? Sure. But I didn't.”

He was studying her. “You’re angry.”

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t you be?” She tried to forget it; she almost had, until now.

“Yes. And still you plan to go back.”

“One day. To stay until my family returns for me. They will.”

It was hard to imagine returning to her home in the AT-AT, if it still stood at all, and positively dreadful to think what Plutt would have in store for her after what she’d done. She wouldn’t be able to work, and if she could, she would have to do it stripped of the privileges and protections her skill and service had gained her over the years. Her already difficult life would be nigh impossible.

“You sure about that?”

His voice was harder than she had heard in weeks, an edge fit to cut through something tough, and she couldn’t imagine why. Her decisions about where she was needed and why had nothing to do with him. Yet for the first time in a long time, Rey really had to think about it, and her answer came with less certainty than she was accustomed to. It was his fault.

“Yes.” Something in the back of her mind quavered and made her feel sick. Not pleased to find her thoughts wandering there—where?—she refused to let him pursue the topic further. “So did it work? The minerals in the water? Therapeutic?”

“I don’t know.” She sensed Kylo was annoyed at having been cut off, and she worried he might lapse into silence. But he kept talking. “Not really. Being yelled at probably didn’t help.”

She wasn’t looking at him, but she could swear there was a smile in his voice. Rey peered up out the corner of her eye—if he had been smiling, it was gone already, and she was a little sorry to have missed it.

“You know, when I put my hand in the water to see how hot it was,” she said, relieved to talk about something unrelated to her ties to a dead planet, “I felt a bit different.”

He tilted his head. “You’re going to need to be more specific.”

“Calm, I guess? Like something inside me go sort of . . . went still. Quiet. I didn’t think much of it then, but now I wonder if that’s what made me want to get in in the first place.” She looked up at him questioningly. “Did you feel it too?”

He shook his head. “No. Not like that. Though . . .” Kylo’s steps slowed a bit, and Rey turned to walk backward as she listened. His eyes scanned the horizon behind her as they continued on. “I didn’t feel you approaching.”

“Would you ordinarily have?”

“Yes.” He said it with certainty yet also seemed surprised by it, even though she was not. “I usually do.”

Rey thought about that feeling again—that pull—and how it always brought her to him, whether in dreams or visions or reality, and she considered bringing it up and asking him why he thought it persisted, because she had no idea. But maybe it was a discussion for another time. There was enough of the strange between them as things stood.

“But not tonight.”

“Not tonight.” He shook his head and looked as if he was deciding something. “If you intend to return and use it yourself, tell me.”

Her brows twitched. “Why?”

“To avoid any repeats of what happened today,” he qualified, like she might misread his request as an invitation to join him.

“Yes. Right. Okay. I might.”

“You should. I've been out three or four times, and I don't think anyone else is aware it's here,” he told her. “Or cares that— Watch yourself.”

He gestured behind her and made as if to grab the hem of her cloak, but she stopped walking and turned to find she’d been about to collide with another low branch. His open hand settled on her elbow instead and lingered there until she stepped away to continue on.

“Thanks.”

Keeping her eyes forward the rest of the way might be worth her consideration, though she’d been enjoying watching his face as he spoke. She’d been realizing some things about that face. That she liked it. That it was impossible to miss the brittleness there. That something behind it had broken and been slapped back together by inept hands, many times.

“Don’t tell anyone about this.”

Rey jumped a little at the sound of his voice so abruptly breaking the solid minute or so of silence that had passed. Her eyes sought his face again automatically, a stark profile against the darkening trees. “About what happened?”

Slim chance of that. She didn’t relish sharing embarrassing stories with other people, even now that she had people to do so at all.

“That, yeah.” He grimaced and turned his head to meet her eyes; there was an uncharacteristic calm in his own. “But the spring, in general. I don’t mind . . . sharing it. With you. Separately.” His gaze darted away. “I’d also rather it remain a good place to be away from all that.”

Rey nodded, uncertain how she felt about everything he had just said. Except for that very last thing—she understood that perfectly. “I get it. I wasn’t planning to.”

There was still a long walk ahead, and the light was fading. The temperature had dropped as a breeze picked up through the pines. She was no longer in such a hurry to be back. The journey might not be so bad.

Chapter Text

The horizon was a broad gray gradient. Heavy clouds, choppy waves, gritty sand, almost true-black. Though it had been hidden all day, the sun would be hanging low by now, and even with no rain yet, the weather was windy and brutal enough—the chapped state of Kylo’s face and hands were evidence of that. He might welcome a bit of water right now. Both his and Rey’s canteens were empty, and his skin was still overwarm beneath his shirt, the back of his neck prickled with beads of drying sweat. Further down the beach, Rey whooped and charged at him.

She was challenging him more than ever lately, not just out here, and she seemed to know it. She was cockier during spars and freer with her questions, which all but confirmed his suspicions that she had been taking her practice into her own hands. Yet she was evidently determined to guard it from him. He tried not to take it as a personal slight or a suggestion of distrust. It was simply how she was.

Still, it annoyed him, about as much as her attitude today. Their usual morning meeting had not happened. Part of the fleet had returned in the middle of the night, and so maintenance and repairs had filled the morning hours. When they’d finally gotten out it was the middle of the afternoon, and they decided to head down to the beach anyway to make up for lost time. Ever since then, she’d been in some sort of mood. She wouldn’t listen or be still, and every time he tried to show her something new she brushed him off and insisted she could figure it out herself. Which she probably could. It was the way she insisted.

If he’d known the reason for it, he might have tolerated it better, but it just made him think that perhaps their arrangement was drawing to a close. She was bored, or uninterested, or had taken what she needed. As Rey sped toward him, it almost looked like she wished to drive him off.

On a whim, he deactivated his lightsaber and stretched his other arm out toward her. An instant later she was disarmed as her weapon streaked through the air to his waiting hand.

“Hey!” she barked. She slid to a stop and caught her last stumbling steps through the sand. Winded, she shouted again, “What are you doing?”

Kylo belted his saber and held hers up for consideration. He hadn’t touched it since the day they’d both had those visions. He was a bit surprised it had answered his call at all. The realization was encouraging, though not enough to settle his urge to be petty.

“Is this boring you?” he called back. “Coming out here to do the same thing, over and over?”

“What? No. Why would—” An incredulous look flashed across her face, and she threw her hands in the air and began to stomp toward him. “Give it back.”

“Come take it.”

Rey scowled and halted. “This is ridiculous.”

A call of thunder echoed over the water, where the waves and wind were beginning to kick up. It was going to be an unpleasant trip back to the base, at this rate. He cast a dubious look toward the horizon, where the storm was gathering, and wondered how long they had before it hit. He could sort of feel it: electricity in the air and a drop in pressure. Returning his attention to Rey, he shrugged and turned as if to leave.

“Fine, don’t take it. Rain’s coming anyway. Let’s head back.”

He heard her spluttering with outrage behind his back and was chuckling to himself when he felt a slight surge in the Force and the sensation of his grandfather’s lightsaber being wrenched from his hand with violent determination. Barely a moment later he felt it again, this time at his hip, as his own weapon was pulled away with enough force to send him staggering back several steps and spinning around to face her.

Though she was still some distance away, the smugly satisfied twist of her mouth was obvious. She approached him with a lightsaber in each hand, holding them out before her like she was comparing their weights.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “You told me to take it.”

“I didn’t mean—“ Kylo kept his eyes on the lightsabers as he let the implication sink in. What Rey had done wasn’t a particularly complicated thing, but it was not something he’d told her how to do, either. She’d figured it out by intuition, and this absolutely was not the first time. “When did you learn to do that?”

She drew closer and tilted her head to the side. “What, would you rather I’d come up to you like this to take it back?”

“Answer my question.” His eyes darted from the lightsabers to her face, and when he moved to reclaim his weapon, she didn’t let it go. They jostled briefly, tugging the thing back and forth uselessly across the short distance between their bodies as more thunder rolled in. A gust of cold wind tore at their hair. “And whatever you’re playing at, stop. This is mine.”

She looked down at the sand, then bit her lip and fixed her eyes on his as she echoed his words. “So take it.”

He could. He could twist it away, or push her, or even use the Force. But he didn't.

This was infuriating—she’d had the gall to tell him he was being ridiculous only moments before?—and it was a waste of time. In any other circumstance he would have been genuinely eager to know what else she had been teaching herself and how, but he couldn’t focus on that at all. His mind was leaping to other things: the sound of her grunts and gasps when they sparred, or the shine of sweat on her throat, or how the muscles in her shoulders twitched as she tugged the saber away. Or what all those things might be like in some other context.

Rey’s eyes were bright and still staring, roving over his face. Her cheeks were pink, her lips pinker where she’d just pressed her teeth, a smudge of black sand streaked beneath them. If he let go of the lightsaber now, it might only be to brush the smudge away with a thumb. And if he did that, he might let his thumb return again to brush her lip. And if he did that, he might . . .

Kylo frowned, gripped the lightsaber tighter, and gave it a powerful yank. Rey relinquished it but didn’t step back, even though she was standing practically right up against him as another gale buffeted their bodies and swept stinging clouds of sand against their arms. She opened her mouth to let out a little puff of air, something between a scoff and a sigh, and moved closer still. He didn’t think it was the wind pushing her.

The skies opened up with a torrent of rain. A magnificent fork of lightning hit the water some distance away, then another, followed moments later by a third explosive roar of thunder. Rey jolted at the sound, eyes wide. She and Kylo exchanged a look, then bolted toward the rocks where they had left their usual supplies and extra layers of clothing. The lot of it was already soaked, except for the waterproofed cloaks, but they bundled it all into their arms anyway and made for the cliffs at a sprint. It had been raining for barely a minute, but they were drenched, and from the look of the sky it was not going to stop soon. The journey back to the base from here took over an hour under good conditions, and the path was treacherous enough on a milder day. As Rey began to veer off toward it, Kylo gritted his teeth and made a decision.

“Wait!” he called after her, already moving toward a new destination. “Rey!” She slowed, squinting at him through the sheets of rain. He shook his head to indicate they ought not go that way. “Come with me!”

She looked puzzled but followed him without hesitation. Saturated and miserable, they made it to a cave hidden around a basalt outcropping not long after. Neither of them spoke for a while as they caught their breath and Rey looked around. The cave wasn’t very deep, but it was spacious and sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain. Kylo threw his things to the ground and crouched to rifle through his bag.

The first thing he extracted was a bound stack of papers. The bottom edges were wet and clumping. “Shit . . .” His irrational panic dispersed when he gave the pages more than a cursory examination and found they were undamaged. He set them aside and dumped out the rest of the bag with little ceremony, then laid it out to dry.

Not far off, Rey was loitering near the wide mouth of the cave and watching the storm rage over the ocean. Her shoulders sank, though he saw her stiffen at the next clap-and-flash of thunder and lightning. She had left all her things near his—her cloak and staff, a bag full of who knew what, a blaster—and he contemplated seeing to them as well.

She turned back to him before he could act on it. Her arms were raised to wring out her hair, which hung in a bedraggled tail over her shoulder.

“Good find.” Her tone was light in a forced sort of way. “Too bad we can’t start a fire, hm?”

“You should dry this.” He grabbed the blaster and held it out until she took it, but his attention was elsewhere, somewhat further into the cave. He could tell Rey was following his gaze and would shortly see what he was looking at: a fire pit, recently used; a neat pile of camp bedding; a change of clothing and a cache of food. As he moved off toward it, she chuckled in understanding.

“Is there any place on this island where you haven’t made up a secret hideaway?” She sounded amused by it, as if she’d caught him at some childish game, but he thought he detected a hint of envy as well.

“They’re getting to be fewer.” He kicked some wood out of the fire pit and cast about for a fresher supply. “You keep finding them.”

“Uh, hey, you led me here, remember? I was going back to the base.”

“More likely to get blown off the side of a cliff if you tried that right now.”

“I would not.” She chuffed dismissively. “Don’t be insulting.”

“Well then, if you’re so eager to get back to your friends, don’t let me stop you.”

He shouldn’t have been sniping at her. She hadn’t done anything, despite that charged moment right before the rain and how she’d been acting strangely toward him all day. All week. She was right. He’d taken her here. She hadn’t stumbled upon it while snooping around, like she had at the hot spring.

That was the last thing he wanted to be thinking about right now. He looked over at her and could tell by the set of her jaw that his words had stung her.

“I didn’t mean that,” he said.

Her nose crinkled, and she began to attend to her blaster, dabbing at it with the corner of a blanket from the bedding pile. “So what’s with all the secrecy?”

“It’s what I prefer.” Candor came more easily when he was only half-focused on the conversation, when he could train his eyes on starting the fire. He should have brought a portable heater down with him last week, the sort found in a field kit, but the fire doubled as a light source and a means of cooking. He liked the smell. He liked the sound. He fiddled with the lighter and sneered at the paltry spark it gave, then tried again. “Out here, it’s easier to forget where I am.”

“Sure.” Something shuffled behind him, then clattered. Rey was sorting her own things, shaking out her hair, kicking off her boots. Her tone conversational when she said, “Though I don’t get why you’d sleep here, too.”

The fire finally caught and began to grow, so he dusted off his hands and tucked the lighter away in its case. Outside, he saw only more clouds rolling, spouting rain and crackling with electricity as the sun continued to set behind its shroud. It would be dark within an hour. Even if the rain stopped, the return journey would be less than convenient. Something to worry about when the time came.

Rey drew up beside him, her arms folded around herself. “Have you been?”

Her eyes were on his face, so he sniffed and wandered away toward his personal effects. “Yes.”

“Even the nights before we meet to train in the morning?” Her brow furrowed at his telling silence. “You can’t honestly be saying you’ve been sleeping down here, walking up there to meet me at sunrise, and then walking right back down to spar.”

“I’m awake anyway, and I like the exercise.”

“That’s insane.” She had hunkered down near the fire, hands extended tentatively, and was spewing all her opinions into the flames like kindling. “Why? The bunks are a little crowded, I’ll grant you, but they’re more comfortable than this by far.”

He pursed his lips and grabbed the food rations he’d brought down with him, snatched up the damp papers and a long leather case, and stalked back toward the fire.

“I’m still having nightmares. And I don’t like waking to them with other people around. Not when . . .” He dawdled behind her, then crouched inside the ring of firelight and tossed some rations her way. “If it’s Snoke trying to get at me, break me down, remind me of what I’ve done—even it it’s not . . . it’s best I’m left alone.”

It was difficult to describe how it seemed to come from inside and outside at once, always. The dreams and compulsions, the bad ones, flashes of darkness, like he’d felt when he’d meditated. The sorts he’d had since he was a kid. The sorts he’d had the night Luke stood over him in that hut and decided that what he’d found in Ben Solo’s head justified condemnation. Kylo had gotten stronger since those days, his power deeper, and Snoke hadn’t. Yet it was like before—he would duck his head and endure it. It made sleeping in the barracks a special kind of hell.

He knew what Rey was going to say before she said it, and still he could barely keep himself from scowling when she did. “You should tell someone.”

He yanked with undue roughness at the closures of his jacket and shrugged it off to lay it out by the fire, then started tugging off the heavier and wetter of his shirts with equal determination.

“I just did.”

“I forgot.” She spoke bitterly, but there was a tremor in her voice. “You tell me these things, but you never want a solution. Just a sounding board.”

He would have loved it to be that simple, to believe she, or anyone, had a solution. But he knew better, and he hated her implication that he was using her. They both lapsed into sulky silence. She shivered again and set her jaw, then drew her knees up to her chest. His eyes landed on a thick, clumped whorl of hair stuck to the side of her neck as she rubbed at her arms. In the flickering light he could make out the goosebumps stippling her skin. It wasn’t heightened emotion that made her voice shake and her posture close up; she was only wet and cold.

Kylo gestured at the pile near the bedroll. “There’s dry clothing over there. I’m not planning to use them.” An uncomfortable silence threatened to settle. “They’re clean.”

She smirked and rubbed at her chin. “Right.”

To his surprise she didn’t argue. She stood, grabbed a shirt, and retreated to a corner of the cave somewhere behind him, the assumption of privacy implied. Except the moment she did so, the knowledge that she was peeling off her wet clothing just out of view nudged his mind right back to the point he’d been trying very hard not to think of earlier: what had happened after their run-in at the spring, after he’d parted with her at the base and headed down here for the night to sleep.

It had been a difficult thing to accomplish, sleeping, even more so than usual, because he couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t noticed him in the water when she did. If she’d finished undressing, taken off all the rest, and gotten in. Not that there had been much left to begin with. He could see . . . enough, and not enough. The strong, lean lines of her bare limbs, the attractively pronounced curve of her backside in those briefs, the rise of her breasts beneath the clinging camisole she’d hiked up over her ribs. It had been so thin she may as well have not been wearing it at all. He’d tried not to dwell. The images were there anyway, inviting and distracting, and before he knew it he’d been hard and had his trousers tugged halfway down his thighs and had himself in hand, and he hadn’t done anything like that in years, but he couldn’t stop himself.

It had felt good. He’d wanted to feel good for once. He’d wanted to feel good the next night, too—so he’d done it again.

Now Rey was changing and carrying on and probably would soon be eating mere meters from where he’d brought himself to completion thinking about her, and kriff if that didn’t fill him with a storm of conflicted feelings. Half embarrassment. Half titillation. A brief flash of horror at the thought she might somehow know he'd made her a pathetic fantasy.

By the Force, they’d barely been here ten minutes, but they had to get out of this cave. A deep purr of thunder echoed off the cave walls and reminded him that they had a while yet to wait. Desperate for a diversion, Kylo busied himself with the sheaf of papers he’d salvaged from his bag. He unclipped them from their bindings and set the still-blank majority aside, weighted beneath a stone.

The rest he laid out carefully in front of him, six pages heavily marked with black and dark blue inks comprising swirling freehand lines, meticulous circles and arcs, and points scattered by the dozen and labeled in cramped, handwritten lettering. Occasional notes littered the margins. He was leaning over one to inspect a spot where the ink had run on the damp paper, and so he didn’t realize Rey had joined him again until her voice was practically in his ear.

“If you’re happy to sit around in wet clothes, what is it you’re so worried about drying?” She dropped down beside him, cross-legged.

He looked at her sidelong, and she leaned away, eyes flickering as she peered at the pages. She was practically swallowed up in the woolen shirt she’d borrowed (not really his, he reminded himself, as if that helped). He found to his warring delight and dismay that she had left her leggings to dry as well, hanging on a wire she’d rigged up across a low overhang, but not bothered to replace them. A long sliver of her thigh was in plain view, inches away, and looked far too intriguing in the orange light.

Nothing you haven’t seen, idiot.

“Figured it was better than laying it all in the sand. There’s still space if you want to, um . . .” she said when she saw him looking at her makeshift clothesline. Her eyes touched briefly on his wet shirt, then on him. She cleared her throat and pointed at the papers. “Star maps?”

He shuffled a hand through his hair, which was getting too long even for his taste and stuck annoyingly at his neck and temples. “Yeah.”

“They’re good. I had this busted up nav holo once that sort of let me fiddle with the configurations, but I haven’t seen anyone ever do them by hand before.”

His resolve not to open the box from Han and Leia had not lasted long, and though he’d brought it out here expecting an easy place to forget about it, he’d gotten curious and looked inside on the second night. As he’d expected, it was mostly useless trinkets he only half-remembered ever caring about. The one thing that caught his eye was a rolled leather case full of old-fashioned pens and brushes and two sealed bottles of ink, and when he hadn’t been able to sleep, he’d spent the night creating a fairly accurate rendering of Pamarthe’s current starscape. The next night he’d done another from memory and realized halfway through that it was Chandrila’s in late summer. So that was what he usually did out here, or sometimes he swam the cold shallows if the moonlight was good, all pure distraction, the sort to silence an unquiet mind. He told her all that, or at least the broader strokes.

“This one’s nice.” Rey lifted one page carefully—he hadn’t been able to figure out what system it was at all and suspected he’d made it up—and held it up to the light to admire the lines. “Where is it?”

“Not sure. I started with a lot of circles and didn’t stop until it seemed done.”

“Ahh.” Even if the design was useless for navigation, something about it had made it his favorite. The series of rings, surrounded by lines, rays, and points of stars, was pleasing to look at. Rey seemed to be of a similar mind. She settled it on her knee and traced a fingertip over a few of the constellations. The sound of her nail scratching lightly against the paper made him shiver. “Hm. Makes it a bit mysterious. It’s very pretty, wherever it is.”

He waved a hand and returned his attention to the others. “Keep it, if you think so.”

Rey issued a short, nervous laugh. “You serious?”

“Yes. Why not?” Kylo glanced at her. “I don’t need it. It’s not like it can get me anywhere.” His eyes flicked down the to paper resting on her knee. “It’s . . . got a smudge.”

“Oh, of course,” she declared with a snort of amusement. “Give the dirty scavenger the defective one. She loves garbage.”

He wasn’t sure whether he was more offended by her assumption that he considered the star map garbage because of a single flaw, or by her assumption regarding how he saw her.

“I don’t think of you that way,” he muttered, unable to keep the umbrage from his voice.

He began to stack the rest, then held out a hand for the one she was still holding. He knew a rejection when he heard one.

She didn’t give it back. Instead, she rolled it neatly and tucked it beside her.

“Keep up at this rate and soon you'll have a whole atlas of these,” she remarked. He said nothing, too busy trying to wrap his head around why he’d given her an impromptu gift, a very silly one at that, and why she’d accepted it. “Orrr . . . maybe you’re planning on going somewhere?”

He bristled for the instant it took him to realize she was only joking. “It’s a way to pass the time.”

“I know,” she said drily. “It’s just, what you said earlier about preferring to forget being where you are. I do that too. Used to. Well”—she scoffed—“I didn’t really have to seek out a place to be alone back home, I had one anyway, but I did a lot of . . . thinking about being elsewhere.”

Then stop lying to yourself about how you need to go back. If you hated it so much there, forget about it, the way they forgot about you.

He bit that back and said the only other thing that came to mind. “If you could go anywhere—and don’t tell me you couldn’t—where would you want to go first?”

For the first time she didn’t accuse him of mocking or questioning her certainty of where she needed to be and why. Maybe because he wasn’t. He really wanted to know. That, and whether she could be knocked loose, shaken free a little, convinced.

“Anywhere?” She looked at him questioningly, and when he only nodded, she gave a small, slow smile and shrugged her shoulders. “Mm. I guess I would try to find out where the island I dream of is. If I could get there and figure out what it is I’m meant to see, maybe everything else would fall into place.”

Rey was a person who liked to solve things, he’d realized. She didn’t simply enjoy it—she assumed she always could, even if the puzzle was insubstantial as a dream. Maybe that was what he was to her: something to sort out because she couldn't resist the impossible challenge. A compulsion. But at least she’d answered, even if that answer still smacked of an unwillingness to let go of what she’d left behind. He wondered if she ever did anything simply because she wanted to.

He was about to ask, but her eyes narrowed and she repeated, “You sure you aren’t thinking of going anywhere?”

“Being here isn’t helping me.” It was no secret. Anyone else would have said the same of him, with far less insight. Everything about the Resistance made him angry—their methods, their goals, their ideals—even when he swallowed the anger up and channeled it into his work. For them. The feeling was terrible and addictive. He knew where it led. “So. Yes, I think about it often.”

“Oh.” She dug her fingers into the soft, heated sand, drew a quiet breath, and held it. “I know you're conflicted. I can feel it.”

“Rey—”

What was he going to do, argue? No point. She knew it, she felt it. And she kept talking.

“There are . . . there are people here who care about you. Your family. And . . .” She tipped a handful of sand out of her palm and watched it fall, then brushed her hands off on her knee. “Give it more time.”

Leia always said the same, and he wasn’t sure how much time he could afford to give it.

After that they fell into their own activities for a while, chatting intermittently and checking occasionally to see if the storm had stopped, even though the sounds of it were pervasive. Soon the sky was dark. Once he looked up and found Rey levitating small stones and hunks of driftwood, all steely concentration as she sent them rocketing into the cave walls and ceiling. Later she was scarfing down a protein pack and engrossed in a datapad, her face coolly aglow as she swiped through schematics he recognized as the Mirrorbright’s when he sneaked a look. Neither of them commented on the unfortunate nature of their situation, possibly because neither of them truly found it unfortunate. That was how he preferred to think, anyway.

He was working on a new star map when he noticed a change in the noise—the thunder was fading, the wind gentling, the rain becoming a whisper on the sand. Under it all he picked up something new, light and rhythmic. Across the fire, Rey was curled on her side, knees tucked up under the oversized shirt, one arm sprawled, delicate features set in a slight frown. Asleep. Snoring. He hadn’t noticed her lay down, and if she’d said anything about taking a nap, he hadn’t heard it.

A realization hit him, in a way that nothing else had: Rey trusted him. She had to, or she wouldn’t lie there and let herself sleep with him sitting so near. He knew how dangerous that could be, and she must know it too. All he felt from her when he reached was drowsy stillness. If he waited a little longer, he could wake her and she could make her way back to the base. It would be difficult by night, but manageable.

He returned his attention to his work. Let her sleep. At some point he might let himself do the same.

Rey set out across the base at a jog. Despite that morning’s long walk up from the beaches, her legs were still stiff, her neck sore from having slept on the ground. No sooner had she made it to the hangar than she’d been accosted by Han and Chewie on their way out.

“Rey. Been missing this morning?”

Her heart plunged. “Overslept.”

“Don't bother stopping in there right now. Leia's been looking for you.”

The general had been looking for her? So early in the day? They hadn't spoken at length in weeks. She nodded and began to set off for the command offices.

“Hey, uh, hang on. You seen Ben around?”

“Not since yesterday.” Discomfort furrowed itself into her belly again. Why was she lying? “Maybe check the refectory?”

Han gave a grunt that could have been anything from amusement to disbelief, and she didn't wait around for more questions.

Nor had she gotten any clues as to what Leia might want with her. When Rey arrived, Leia was powering down a holoprojector but welcomed her with no comment on the difficulty she’d had in tracking Rey down. For some reason that just made Rey feel seen through.

“I know you've been very busy,” Leia said with a slight smile. She settled down at the table near the window. Rey hesitated, then joined her. “I'll try not to keep you long from the rest of your day.”

“It’s busy for everyone, I guess.”

Rey stared at the grain of the wooden table, then looked at Leia expectantly. There it was, the probing, seeing-through look again. Surreptitiously, Rey glanced down at her clothing—the same as yesterday’s, dirty and wrinkled, but dry. The way Leia was looking at her, she’d begun to wonder if she had forgotten to change out of the shirt Kylo had lent her in the cave.

She really had to stop worrying about that. It had been, and meant, nothing. In theory.

Leia smiled again as she poured a cup of caf and passed it to Rey, then filled her own. Though Rey didn’t particularly like the stuff, she thought she might need the extra burst of energy today and took a small sip. She expected the bitterness by now but hadn’t mastered hiding the way her mouth tightened briefly when she tasted it.

“No sugar, but there’s cream here, if you want.” Leia chuckled, indicating a squat earthenware pot at the center of the table. “Tends to help.”

Rey debated, then added a splash to her cup.

“How is the work on the Mirrorbright coming?”

Of course. The transport refurbishment was the only real reason Leia could have wanted to meet with her, though she was surprised she hadn’t already been speaking with Greer about it. While Rey was doing a good deal of the work herself, Greer was the one who oversaw and helped and made notes each day, and Rey had always assumed she was reporting to Leia daily on their progress.

Still, it was a topic Rey would be happy to go on about for hours, and her disposition brightened.

“Really well.” She smiled through a sip of now much more tolerable caf and bounced her leg under the table. “Nearly done. We’re waiting on a part for the interstitial dampers. Han said he’s going to have it for us by the end of the week.”

“He did mention that, yes.”

“Right. And then I’ve been making some improvements to the cannons on the outermost wingtips. The firing mechanism was a little outdated.” It occurred to her too late that perhaps she shouldn’t have been calling Leia’s personal vessel outmoded, though the general only huffed an understanding laugh. “I think I found a way to shorten the delay between blasts and give them a bit more range of fire.”

She forced herself to take a breath and another drink from her cup. Why hadn’t she thought of adding cream before? She’d drink a whole pot of caf if it tasted like this every time. When she glanced at Leia, the look on her face nearly made Rey blush. Evidently she was pleased, or maybe entertained by Rey’s enthusiasm.

“Greer thinks it’ll be ready to leave atmosphere again very soon.” Leia leaned back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “She’s pretty impressed with your know-how. Says it’s a shame she won’t get to fly with you.”

Rey was glad she wasn’t drinking just then, or she might have choked. “Fly with me?”

“Yes. You must be wondering why I asked for you to work on this ship in particular.”

Sure, Rey had been curious, but the ship had been such a gorgeous thing she hadn’t wanted to risk her opportunity to work on it by seeming ungrateful. Maybe Kylo had been right, though. Why hadn’t she asked?

When Rey only inclined her head, Leia continued. “Han needs the Falcon, and the Mirrorbright isn’t part of the fleet, so we can spare it for as long as is needed to . . . to make my brother see sense. And I need a good pilot.”

“To . . . go to Luke?”

“You’ve been patient, remaining here as long as you have. I had to reconsider my hopes for the role you might play in bringing Luke back, but I still believe you could benefit from his understanding. I’ve decided to accompany you. There is much I must say to him as well, and hear.”

“I know.” Rey sucked in a small breath when she felt Leia’s gaze sharpen, but it was too late. Before she really thought about what she was saying, blurted out, “I know why you waited.”

Leia gave no indication of surprise, only leaned forward a little and tilted her head. “Ben spoke with you.”

“Er, he— No.” She could have jumped on that explanation so easily, and it was partially true, but she wouldn’t lie to Leia. “I saw it.”

“Another vision?”

Now Leia was definitely interested, though Rey sensed no judgment. “Yes. I saw what happened the night he destroyed Luke’s temple. Part of it, at least.”

“Tell me.”

Though it felt private and Kylo had dismissed her desire to do so, Rey told Leia what the vision had shown her. It was easy. The images hadn’t left her mind, burned there like they were her own memories. Even the emotions of it were accessible to her if she lingered long enough. She tried to look beyond that and emphasize instead that whatever she had seen, she was certain it was the truth, not merely Kylo’s impressions of it. It was what the Force had wanted her to know.

“Ben knows you saw this?” Leia looked calm, though slightly troubled, and Rey felt lighter.

“Yeah. We were together when it happened. He has his own ideas of what Luke was doing that night. I don’t think he can be convinced otherwise.” She frowned. “He saw something, too, but I’m not sure what.”

Why had she never asked? It had been weeks, and it was as if her curiosity had shrank and shriveled up within hours. Even now, the idea of finding out scared her. It made no sense.

“I don’t think that Luke intended him any harm in the end. Whatever happened right before,” said Rey, though Leia appeared to need no comforting. “It . . . it seemed like a terrible misunderstanding.”

The general gave a dry chuckle. “An understatement. Though this makes me more certain than ever that you need to speak with Luke as much as Ben or I do.”

The prospect of speaking to a living legend still made Rey’s insides squirm with a mixture of excitement and inadequacy. Although, she’d been faring pretty well with Leia and Han, hadn’t she?

“And then . . . ?”

“Back to Jakku, if that’s what you still wish to do.”

“I do.” Saying it aloud seemed more crucial to convince herself than Leia.

“Then we’ll make sure you have transport there when we return.” If Leia had her own thoughts of Rey’s unchanged ambitions, she kept them to herself. She watched Rey pour another helping of caf, an amused glint in her eye as Rey fortified it liberally with cream. “The two of you seem to have become close.”

“Close?”

“You and Ben. Training, working. You spend a lot of time in his company.”

Rey shrugged. “I guess. I’ve gotten to be friends with a lot of people.”

Finn was a friend, her first ever. Rose was too. Greer. Chewie. Han—sort of. Kylo was . . . another sort of thing. She’d been battling with that feeling for a while, and she’d been hit with the full force of it last night and this morning, in that cave.

She’d woken to sunrise and sea chill, a light wind that whistled and smelled of salt and smoke, and the sight of Kylo sleeping across the doused fire pit. A slant of warm dawn light bathed the bottom half of his face. He’d had his lightsaber close to his body, in easy reach, as if he assumed he would need to use it immediately on waking. She couldn’t recall having fallen asleep there, but she knew she hadn’t done so with a blanket thrown over her, and yet that was how she’d awoken. The thought that he must have done it had warmed her.

It turned out he was a light sleeper. The moment she’d stood and shuffled over the sand to pack and dress, he’d startled and sat up, confused but fully alert. A moment later he’d risen to clean up the evidence of their camp without a word. They had split the last meal bar on the walk up the cliff.

“I’m not implying anything, if that’s your concern,” Leia said. “But, from where I’m sitting, he seems to have let you reach him in a way he won’t allow me or Han to do.”

“Oh. Yeah. In some ways.”

“That’s significant.”

The heat in her chest crept up her neck and tickled her jaw, like it had that morning as the sun inched over the horizon. “I think— It’s just— He knows I can use the Force. He’s always known. It interests him. And he’s helped me.”

Leia raised an eyebrow and gave Rey a look that was far too knowing. For someone who wasn’t implying anything, she looked an awful lot like she was implying plenty. And then the look was gone.

“I need to ask you something about him, and I’d like your unvarnished opinion.”

With that placid expression, Leia may as well have been asking what Rey thought of her hairstyle. There were so many things Leia could ask about Kylo or her interactions with him that Rey did not really want to answer.

“All right.”

“If our mission to find Luke led to his agreeing to return . . .” Finally, Leia’s face betrayed what must have been a good deal of inner turmoil. All at once Rey understood how hard it had to be for her, caught between two people she loved, people she had trusted, unsure who to side with or if she could bear to do so at all. “Do you think Ben would tolerate his presence here?”

“No.”

Absolutely not. It had been a while since she’d heard him say he would unequivocally kill Luke if he was forced to face him, and though she had pointedly avoided the topic since then, Rey doubted Kylo’s frame of mind had shifted much. If anything, he was less committed to remaining here at all, and she seemed to be the only person he bothered to confide that in.

“He . . .” Rey cast about for the right words. “He harbors a lot of hostility toward Luke.”

“Yes. He does. Fear and anger, so much of it stemming from what happened that night. And is he wrong? Can I expect a reconciliation after that?” Leia touched a hand to her temple. “You know, for a while at the beginning, he seemed incensed that we weren’t carrying out the objective to bring Luke back. And I found it so strange.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Since then I’ve realized how likely it is that Luke’s return would only have been an opportunity for Ben to enact some form of private justice, because he knew we would not.”

“I think that’s probably right.”

Leia’s lips pressed into a thin, solemn line, and she looked like she was holding something back, but she went no further. Rey did not envy her position, though she didn’t think her own was all that great either. At least Leia didn’t want her to play spy on her son.

“About the mission,” Rey said after a few moments, eager to move on. The mission. It should have been far more exciting, made her feel far more important, but it only made her feel like an end she didn’t want was fast approaching. “When will we go?”

Leia considered her evenly and was silent long enough that Rey wondered if her question had been somehow improper. Maybe that wasn’t her business.

“I’m going to tell you something that only a few members of high command know right now. For the time being, until we’ve gathered further information, it can’t leave this room. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“The First Order has had a decoy agent posing as Kylo Ren for the last month—he was first spotted barely a week after Ben returned. Since then there have been reports of him accompanying various military attachments, mostly to put down localized rebellions and oversee resource allocations. We’ve had spies keeping an eye on his activities.”

Beneath the table, Rey wrung her hands together. She’d known the First Order had been making as if Kylo had never left, but this was the first she’d heard of a decoy. Startling as that was, she couldn’t work out what that had to do with their own activities, or why it changed anything.

“I received a report yesterday evening that he and a small entourage have been sent on a new mission to find . . . well. We aren’t sure. We do know, based on their movements, that it isn’t Luke, and it isn’t Ben, but that their urgency rivals that of their hunt for the map we now possess.”

Rey’s hands were still clasped together, her thumbs running nervously back and forth. She was beginning to wish Leia hadn’t told her any of this at all.

“What worries me,” Leia continued, sounding not very worried at all, “is that if Snoke has prioritized this mission over finding the last Jedi or his own missing agent, whatever he’s after now must represent even more of a game-changer. Something more significant than anything Luke could offer to us, or than Ben once offered to him. Something that we don’t want the First Order getting to first.” She sighed. “Whatever passes between myself and Luke with regard to the past, I need his insight, if he has any to give.”

The direness of it chilled Rey enough that for a moment all she wanted to do was retire immediately to her backwater home, where none of this had ever seemed to matter. “We leave soon, then, sounds like.”

“The Mirrorbright is projected to be ready within the next week. The Pamarthen Eclipse Festival will last three days and nights. I would like us to be ready to depart on the final evening. When the majority of the visiting vessels are leaving the planet, ours will be among them.”

Rey had completely forgotten the festival, though now she remembered Rose’s excitement over it, and her own. She’d even convinced Finn to come with them, though once he’d heard there would be parties and dancing he had needed little more motivation. It had sounded, at first, like an undeserved break from the mundanity of life on the base. A dip into the sort of life she never thought she would have. Now it was something else entirely—the final days of her stay here, the beginning of her return home. It wasn’t nearly as good a feeling as she had expected.

Chapter Text

In terms of new experiences, seasickness had not been something Rey considered a possibility until she’d found herself on a boat with a dozen other people, spearing through the choppy waves at sundown. She’d been fine for the first half of the trip, and when the nausea set in she hadn’t immediately connected it to the activity of sailing until Greer threw a look at her from her place at the helm and quipped that she was glad to see Rey wasn’t good at everything after all. Somehow Rey had boarded convinced it would be little different than riding her speeder. She’d quickly learned that boats did a good deal more rising and falling. It was with great reluctance that Rey passed the rest of the sail seated on a bench with her head in her hands, pride wounded, a little annoyed with herself.

She’d forgotten her embarrassment in an instant as they drew near the big island, Skith, and nine mismatched starfighters shrieked low overhead. The middle of a race, she realized after a moment of shock. The pilots were not shy about showing off as their ships streaked onward and became dots that curved sharply around the mountains that ringed the island’s coast.

The sun was nearly down, and overhead, the three moons of Pamarthe were growing steadily brighter—and steadily closer to one another. Rey’s understanding of the Eclipse Festival was still piecemeal, but she’d gathered that it was thrown every seven years, when the planet’s lunar bodies aligned in a perfect line over the course of three days. Tonight, every time she looked up into the sky, she would be able to see the way the moons already appeared to overlap at the edges. Tomorrow they would align precisely and appear as one great glowing ball, then move apart on the third night. Apparently there were a good deal of legends and rumors surrounding the phenomenon, though she’d only caught snippets. It was hard to pay attention to all that when there was so much to see.

Skith was a considerably more developed island than the one the Resistance had set up their base on. The buildings, mostly a mix of dark stone and dull metal, were better cared for, and the streets and walking paths were clear and paved. Everywhere she looked speeders and swoops zipped by, weaving around and over knots of people and clustered stalls that seemed to clog every street or alleyway with ecstatic activity. As she and the rest of her group had navigated their way through the main thoroughfare, Rey had seen giant bonfires, musicians, dancers, merchants, games. Food-sellers practically shoved their offerings into her hands free of charge while revelers poured out of clubs and inns and bars looking for the next bit of excitement. If it reminded her anything of home, it was only for the contrast—in the spirit of celebration, everyone here was determined to give rather than take.

They were currently availing themselves of one of the bars. Though a few dozen had actually come over from the base, everyone had split off into their own groups nearly immediately after docking. Rey had stuck with Finn, and Rose had stuck with them, and so Rose’s sister Paige had stuck as well and brought with her a small army. After fighting their way through the crowds, they’d commandeered a corner booth at a place called Skella’s and not surrendered the prime territory since.

It was not the sort of building one was likely to find on Jakku, where shade from the sun was a premium. Skella’s had four walls, sure, but no real roof. Instead, awnings lined the perimeter, sheltering the bars and some of the tables, and the open space in the middle served for dancing and socializing. She’d spotted some force field generators rigged up, which she supposed could be powered up in the case of rain, but tonight there was no need. The sky was brilliant, the stars and moons were in fine form, the cool air smelled of smoke and spices and cooking things, and the music was fast, loud, and enticing.

Rey felt as if she was living someone else’s life. She was holding a mug of beer nearly the size of her head. She was well-fed. She was happy and only distantly worried about how long that feeling would last. She was surrounded by smiling faces. Female faces—Finn and Poe and a few of the others in their party had decided to brave the crowds in an attempt to bring back some more food. If anyone was paying for anything tonight, Rey had yet to see currency change hands.

“You know I haven’t been to one of these since I was a kid? Turns out it’s even better with booze,” Greer said, raising her voice over the ambient nightlife sounds. She leaned over the table and lifted her eyebrows briefly at the others. Rey was so used to seeing her as a serious sort of supervisor, it was alarming to witness the effect a change in environment had on her. She was relaxed here, almost easygoing, and her native accent seemed to have thickened.

“Isn’t that just fizz water?” Rose asked with a brow furrowed toward Greer’s glass.

“Maybe so.” Greer narrowed her eyes. “I got my real drinking done with early. Need to ferry you all back safely later, don’t I? I certainly have no intention of letting Joph handle it.”

“Much later, no?” said Tallie, one of the pilots who had come over with them.

“Mm, tell you what. You all drink twice as much in my honor, and I’ll enjoy the free entertainment. Make like a local,” Greer said, waving her hand around at them like she was dismissing her personal retinue. “Though maybe not too much like one. There always tends to be a . . . mini population boom whenever we have this festival. You’ve got all these people dancing, expats on-world for a few days, lots of drinking, lots of mingling . . .”

“Oh, ‘mingling’, is it?” Paige snorted and threw a look to Rose, who was concealing a smug grin. “I’ve already walked by about three couples getting frisky in dark corners, and that’s just in this bar.”

“Wouldn’t mind getting frisky in a corner myself.” Tallie tucked a curl of blonde hair behind her ear and scanned the room with heavily lidded eyes. Her comment was greeted by a general chorus of snickers around the table, and she beamed mischievously. “What? There’s time, right?”

“Plenty.” Greer drew her thumb around the rim of her glass. “Though watch out for anyone claiming the eclipses increase libido or any of that nonsense. Some people seem to think spouting old wives’ tales is a substitute for flirtation.”

“Pretty sure it’s more the alcohol and dancing than the moons,” Rose said, with a look to Rey for agreement.

Rey pressed her lips together and glanced away, amused but put on the spot. “I wouldn’t really know.”

The conversation took a decidedly bawdy turn after that as her companions began to exchange winking stories and innuendo-laden anecdotes. After a while Rey couldn’t tell if they were speaking in hypothetical terms or really recollecting their own preferences and experiences . . . and if it was the latter, she felt distinctly that she had nothing to offer. She wasn’t ignorant about sex, nor was she shy about it—it was part of life on Jakku as much as it was anywhere else. It just hadn’t been a big part of her life. She’d spent her earlier years living in an encampment with other scavengers, so of course she’d seen and heard things. When she'd gotten older she'd unknowingly scavenged the odd smutty holo now and again (and knowingly held on to most of them when she realized what she’d found). She’d supposed eventually she would find a place and a person and cross that threshold herself. Though she never had. Instead, it became increasingly difficult to foresee a situation in which she would let anyone get that close to her, even for a hurried tangle in a tent. If all it came down to was scratching an itch, she didn’t need a partner for it.

Yet lately the idea of it, which had been content to curl quietly at the back of her mind and was easily dealt with when it awoke, had been annoyingly persistent, nudging its way into her dreams and the occasional daydream. As the others carried on, it was uncurling again, spurred by hypotheticals. Her eyes were drawn across the crowded room. Kylo was easy to spot—even here he was taller than most. He was leaning against a wall near one of the bars with a drink in hand, in a deep brood, looking like he would prefer to be anywhere else.

She’d been surprised to see him on the boat; this seemed like the last sort of situation he would voluntarily put himself in. Maybe it was a sign that he was trying to accept all this. If she could get him alone she might ask, except she could swear he’d been avoiding her and everyone else since they’d docked. For the best, probably: right now the idea of getting him alone was taking a distinctly different turn as she watched him throw back the rest of his drink. The movement of his throat as he swallowed made her think of how it had moved at the hot spring as he stared at her. She couldn’t help following the line of it down to the collar of his shirt, because now she knew what was underneath.

What experience did he have with these sorts of things?

What do you care?

“Hey friend,” Rose said in an undertone, jabbing her playfully with an elbow. “You’ve been quiet.”

Rey jolted and tore her eyes from Kylo, who had turned to the bar for another drink. “Huh?”

“All this steamy talk embarrassing you?”

“No. No, I’m just . . .”

“Looking a little red in the face?”

“Oh.” Rey frowned and buried her face in her mug of beer, which was much emptier than she remembered. She wiped a line of foam from her upper lip. “I think I’m . . . uh. Not used to the alcohol. Or any of this.” She laughed weakly, then gave in to a flurry of giggles even she couldn’t find a cause for.

Greer gave a knowing chuckle and clapped her on the back. “I know what fixes that.”

“You better be about to say dancing, because that’s what I’m doing,” Rose cut in with a look to her sister. “Pae-Pae, come on,” She slammed her empty flagon resolutely onto the table, rattling glassware and plates. As she pushed her chair back and stood, she tugged Rey’s sleeve as well. “You too, you too. It’ll be fun.”

Rey felt in no condition to argue, though dancing was yet another thing she could not claim to have ever done. The music was so energetic, and seemingly coming from everywhere at once, that it was hard to resist the call. It might be an outlet for all the loose energy she’d felt full of since they arrived, the sort that required no particular outlet but demanded that something be done. At the very least, dancing was unlikely to nauseate her the way sailing had. She caught Finn’s eye as they wove their way into the crowd and looped her arm through his.

He flashed her a smile and followed, speaking loudly over the din. “What are we doing?”

“Dancing?”

“This I have to see,” he said with an uneasy laugh.

“Oh ho ho, what are you, some expert?”

He looked briefly taken aback, but eager again a moment later. “Uh. No. Definitely not.”

“Good. We can learn together.”

She was glad to have him with her in the thick press of bodies, even if she feared she was about to embarrass herself a bit. As she began to sway to the music, watching Finn’s own halting movements and Rose’s more assured ones, she was just buzzed enough that the prospect of a little embarrassment didn’t bother her much at all.

two more rounds of Port in a Storm and maybe a few kebabs, then—

—can’t believe he went off with that guy, when I find him later I’m going to—

—placed a bet on Helder to win, now I’m out 500—

—pretty sure this one’s never touched a tit in his life, but I’ll be damned it he isn’t good with his—

—transport’ll head out end of tonight, straight off the Skith landing dock, direct trip to Coruscant and then

Finally, something worth listening in on. Kylo had found an empty space at the end of the bar and claimed it as his own, and three drinks later no one had tried to take it. Yet. Which was good, because he had spent nearly the entire time passively dipping in and out of the minds of dozens of patrons. It wasn’t for fun. This skill had never been fun. The special brand of idiocy he’d found himself privy to tonight was a reminder of that, but as always, it had its practical uses.

He was listening intently, memorizing the information—public transport-class ship, leaving the planet in roughly five hours near the very port they’d made berth at, worth keeping in mind—and so he barely processed the fact that there was a woman beside him. When he did notice, he did nothing about it, because the last thing he expected was for her to try to push a tumbler of something clear into his free hand. If he hadn’t been surrounded by a crowd of inebriated strangers, he might simply have tossed it to the ground and lurched away from her.

Instead, Kylo settled to fix her with a glare that said he was not grateful for her unwarranted generosity. When she wasn’t deterred, he tried again. “I have a drink.”

Still she appeared unbothered—she shrugged, took the glass back, and guzzled the contents herself before returning her attention to him. “Yes, and it's your third. You'll have another, soon enough, hm?”

She’d been watching him. Why? If she was someone the First Order had sent after him, their standards had plummeted sharply.

“So.” She leaned toward him with a conspiratorial set to her face. “Do you party?”

Kylo’s glare heated to a proper glower as he tried to decide whether he had misheard her. The music and shouting were loud enough that it seemed likely. “What?”

“My friend and I think you’re pretty.” She gestured vaguely behind her, and Kylo automatically scanned the area she seemed to be indicating. He caught sight of a wiry man standing in a corner: large eyes, cropped dark hair, a tattoo crawling up the left side of his face. The man saw Kylo looking, winked, and dipped his face to snort something off the edge of a fruit-laden plate. Kylo blinked, and the woman kept talking, her eyes sliding over him in a way he did not like. “We wondered if you party.”

His temper simmered but was deadened by a few rounds of drinks, and he was so taken off-guard that it stayed that way. “Do I look like someone who parties?”

“Hard to say.” Her pale eyes—a little glassy, pupils large—sparked with interest. “You look like someone who ought to come back to our place and give it a try.”

With some reluctance, he reached into her mind to survey her intentions. It seemed highly unlikely she was some sort of spy or bounty hunter, but he needed to be sure. He should have left well enough alone—if he had, his mind’s eye would not have been met by the image of himself on his back with her grinding herself against his face as her companion lurked at the edge of the bed, still snorting something, or by the flood of her many colorful thoughts about the things she would like him to do with his pretty mouth.

Right, then. Only trying to proposition him. Kylo choked back his drink and looked away, neck warm.

“I don’t think so.”

He stalked off without another glance at her and heard her ordering another round before he was out of earshot. Kylo was reasonably sure that there had been a time in his life when he had enjoyed parties. But that time was long past, and he had not come here tonight to reclaim it. He’d come here tonight to leave.

When he’d decided to inform Leia that he wished to join the group sailing to Skith, the exchange had proven annoying and humbling. He’d hated that no matter how he cut it, he was basically seeking permission, like a kid asking to stay out late with his friends (which may well have been the last time he had found himself requesting her permission for anything). He’d done it, though, because he’d known Leia would not deny the request. Not if she wanted to maintain her claims that she trusted him and wanted him to have whatever she considered a normal existence here.

He had been right. The doubt in Leia’s face had been fleeting and underpinned by surprise and then relief, maybe even happiness. It almost hurt to see.

Yet he was beginning to think his deceit might come to nothing after all. The docks and ports were busier than ever. Visitors were coming and going at a faster pace than he’d anticipated, and there were starfighter races running almost constantly. He had toyed with the idea of entering one of those and making off into the upper atmosphere midcourse—it would be dramatic, if nothing else—but entrants were required to register their own ships. Stealing a visiting ship from one of the coastal hangars would be easier; a public transport might work, too, like the one he’d heard about leaving tonight. But he would need to wait hours and then find an opportune moment to slip away. And always, he knew he was being watched.

It didn’t have to be tonight, but if he could manage it, he would take his chance. He knew himself well enough to recognize that his resolve was a fleeting thing. It was already proving as much. He’d been drinking at a steady pace for the last hour, and the wealth of distractions was overwhelming. One in particular.

Rey had gotten up from the table she’d been sharing with some of the others and joined the mass of dancing locals; she was with Finn and that mechanic Rose and her sister from one of the bomber squadrons. They were all flailing and swaying with the rhythm of the music in a way that made him glad not to be among them, but Rey was the only one he couldn’t stop watching.

She was pretty. Her hair was braided around her head like a crown—she would never have passed for a Pamarthen, but she made a convincing-enough Hosnian refugee looking for a brief respite from grief and displacement—and she couldn’t dance very well at all. She was laughing, though, and her smile was luminous. He should have been looking for his way out, focusing on his task. He should not have been sitting here, getting drunk on liquor and self-pity and the sight of Rey enjoying herself. But he was. He could feel her enjoyment, and somehow it was having a far stronger effect on him than any alcohol ever had. He wished he could make it his own. Instead it was merely a tease of something just beyond reach.

Though the significance of it still baffled and unnerved him, he more purposefully tapped into that connection. It remained like nothing he’d ever experienced. It wasn’t a mere mental link, and it wasn’t the same as the way he could sense Leia or Han or anyone else in the Force. It tugged from some unnameable space behind his chest, danced over his nerves, and buzzed at the back of his head. It was unique, and for an instant he was happy to let it fill him.

Something else happened instead. Before he could stop it, his head was filled again with the image he’d seen in that woman’s mind, even more lurid, but this time it was him and Rey, no onlookers, her trembling legs pressed against his ears, his eager mouth pressed against her—

Kylo’s blood rushed and his pants began to feel too tight. He tore his eyes from her and took a long pull of his drink until he’d emptied the glass. When he palmed the residual moisture from his mouth and wet his lips with his tongue the gesture felt far more lewd that it should have.

This was getting to be a problem. The cave was one thing. That was his. That was private. He could deal with himself there. But a crowded bar?

He made grim eye contact with the barkeep. “Another of these. Better make it two.”

As he nursed his next drink, Kylo kept his back to the bar but pointedly avoided letting his eyes roam to Rey again. His thoughts, however, were less easily corralled. He could make any number of excuses, but if he didn’t make his move to escape tonight, the only real reason for it was over there in the center of the room, dancing with her compatriots. The Force had connected him to her. They’d both acknowledged it, and it seemed to have become so much a part of their relationship that they hardly brought it up anymore.

If he left, just up and disappeared the way he wanted to, that connection would still be there, and he would never find out what it meant. He would be gone. Rey would feel he had betrayed her trust. Abandoned her. Maybe she would try to make up reasons, deny it, something like what she’d done when her family left. Even a week ago being the cause of such a thing might have given him pause but not deterred him entirely. Tonight, faced with the possibility of dealing her a wound he understood the pain of too well, he couldn’t fathom leaving her behind.

Snoke had mocked him for this, sneered at Kylo’s compassion for the girl, known his interest in her had so little to do with her knowledge of a map and a droid. He’d been right. Such sentiment was a weakness. Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but it was a weakness Kylo was willing to indulge right now.

He dipped his head and watched the ripples move across the surface of the liquor in his glass with the thrum of the music. Somewhere in the crowd, Rey was moving too.

Her words to him that night during the storm floated to the front of his mind. ‘I know you're conflicted. I can feel it.

What else can you feel?, he should have asked, instead of trying to argue.

He was tired of reading minds for a lead. He was tired of being bumped against and jostled and propositioned. He was just tired. He would do what she suggested. He would give it time. A little longer, at least. But only for her sake.

Was tipsiness a cure for seasickness? Rey couldn’t think of any other reason the boat ride back to the base was so less-tinged with nausea. It might have been that she had nice, solid place to rest her head this time—Finn apparently held his alcohol much better than she did and had been happy to lend her and Rose a shoulder apiece. Far from the choppy ride of earlier, the waves now rocked the boat more gently, like an invitation to rest, and the water lapping against the sides of the boat washed over her as a comforting whisper.

The night, the festival, the dancing, it was all a tired haze of sensory details she could sort later and was grateful to have experienced. It had made it easy to forget how near she was to the end. Tomorrow she would complete her work on the Mirrorbright. The day after, she and Leia would leave the planet to find Luke. She still hadn’t told Kylo. Part of her wanted to, but the actuality seemed impossible. She knew how he would take it, no matter how she tried to explain.

She’d never intended to stay here. She’d only waited so she could return to Luke what was his and maybe find some answers. She’d never wanted to be part of all this.

Leia had assured Rey that she would speak with Kylo of her plans before they departed. It was her own responsibility, Leia had said. She was right; and Rey was glad, because the prospect of doing so made her feel almost physically ill. So maybe he already knew.

She doubted that very much, and she couldn’t kill the notion that she had to say something to him too. Explain herself. Before it happened. It was unavoidable. She owed him that sort of honesty, the trust that he would understand because he seemed to understand her so well in other ways. Yet every time she tried to conceive of attempting it, the end was always an argument, or accusations, or unkind words about liars and betrayals. It would hurt him; it would hurt her. She cracked an eye open and scanned the boat until she spotted him.

He was toward the back, slouching a little, wrapped in a cloak, one leg stretched out. She nibbled at her lip and leaned closer to Finn, who gave a drowsy grunt and shifted his arm to give her more space.

As Rey watched him, Kylo kept his eyes trained on the water. He was unhappy about something, she could feel it, though she couldn’t tell what. Only that it was making him restless, which gave her some good guesses. The wind was blowing his hair across his face, obscuring his expression from her, but she could imagine what it was. Far-off, sullen, aloof.

Forget where you are, she thought vaguely, and yawned.

Kylo twitched as if someone had come up behind him and grabbed his shoulder. He sat up straighter and looked around. He pushed his hair from his face, frowning until his eyes settled on Rey. Still mid-yawn, she regarded him with her mouth hanging open and that warm pulse of energy stretching between them. He stared at her a few moments longer, until she began to wonder if he’d somehow heard her, and if he had, what else he had heard. She lifted her hand in a small wave instead, and he nodded once to let her know he saw her too.

Chapter Text

The barracks were not much good to Kylo for sleeping, but they suited other activities well enough—even minor vanities. In front of him, a sink basin was set into the wall and boasted a somewhat grimy mirror that let him evaluate what needed to be done. Before, there had been droids to take care of this sort of thing. Here though, he could make do well enough with the wash station and a pair of scissors he’d swiped from the infirmary. He figured he wouldn’t completely botch a simple haircut.

He had slept here last night for the first time in a while, but only because by the time the boat docked, he’d been in no condition to risk the cliffs down to the beach. The worst part about it had ended up being the nagging throb of a hangover at his temples when he woke. Hours later it had mostly faded, and now he was taking some solace in the boring practicality of his task and the silence of the usually busy room. He ran the tap and bent awkwardly to wet his hair beneath it, then got to work on the front parts that had been hanging in his face for over a week. He’d almost convinced himself that doing this might ground him a bit, like it was an indulgence he deserved for good behavior. But he was never good enough to deserve anything, and he’d been indulging himself in other ways anyway. He couldn’t say they’d made him feel any more grounded.

He managed to finish the front and sides before he was interrupted. The sound of the door sliding open echoed in the empty room, followed by that of quick footsteps down the long row of bunks and pallets. He knew it was her before she peered around the partition that separated the washing area from the rest of the room.

“For some reason I was not actually expecting you to be here,” Rey said. She spoke as if in response to something he’d just said to her. More to herself, she added, “I should know better by now.”

He scoffed and looked at her through the mirror, then attempted to rearrange his damp hair into something more like the way he usually wore it. Just to check his progress. “Following a hunch?”

“You know what I followed.” She waited a few strides away, arms folded, watching him pointedly. “Didn’t you sense me coming?”

“When you got closer.” Kylo turned and leaned on the basin. He’d felt her, yes, approaching with something like nervousness, though now that she was standing in front of him she didn’t look very nervous at all. It was still there, though. He swatted the flat of the scissor blades across his palm a few times, realized he was fidgeting in a rather menacing way, and pushed them onto the basin. “You were looking for me?”

She wasn’t the only one. Leia had caught him that morning and asked him to stop by her office when he had time, as if she didn’t already know his usual schedule and whereabouts. He suspected she wanted to suss out how his night had been. More strained-casual interaction. He was in no mood for it and so had been in no hurry. He couldn’t say he felt the same ambivalence about whatever Rey wanted with him. Even ship-talk with her was far more engaging than it had any right to be.

“Yeah, I was. But it can wait, if you’re . . .” She eyed the scissors, then his head, and cocked her own, face serious. “Do you want some help?”

“With what?”

“Your hair. I used to do mine. The back can be tricky.”

He could have shown her the smaller handheld mirror sitting on the sink basin, even demonstrated for her how easy it was to set the thing levitating behind his head with a lazy flick of his fingers. She’d see he was handling it himself, she’d tell him that whatever she wanted to say could wait until later, and she’d leave.

He didn’t want her to leave. Not when he was goaded by the idea that Rey must want to touch him or else she would not have made the offer she had. It was a dangerous thought process to fall into. The more likely truth was that she was trying to be helpful, because that was what Rey did.

Still, his objections were perversely few, and he hated it even as he picked up the scissors and held them out to her. Her expression took on the satisfied cast he now recognized far too well, and she dragged a metal chair over for him to sit on.

“Such luxury,” he muttered as he dropped down onto it.

“For my benefit, not yours.” She gave the scissors a few experimental snips alarmingly close to his ear. “I’m not up for the neck cramps I’ll get trying to reach the back of your head if you’re standing.”

He had a dry response on the tip of his tongue, but it disintegrated before he could take another breath—Rey’s free hand was in his hair, running right through it from crown to nape, her blunt nails trailing gentle lines over his scalp. All he could do was hope she hadn’t noticed the involuntary shiver it caused. It would have been fine if she’d just done it once or twice to orient herself and then gotten to work. Instead she seemed almost to relish the contact, right down to the lingering touches at the back of his neck.

He had to be imagining that. Sure enough, she was all business in the next instant as she pulled some strands straight between her fingers, then dragged her nail over his skin like she was drawing a line.

“To here feel about right?” she asked.

“Just don’t cut it too short.”

It was a stupid thing to say, especially so tersely, as if she wouldn’t know, but he was having a difficult time keeping his thoughts straight. She only flashed a tight, close-lipped smile and finally started to cut.

He tried to keep his attention on anything but Rey’s presence and touch. The floor was abysmally dusty. The sink basin was marbled with water stains from who knew how long ago. He had an ache in his back from the damn barracks bunks. He’d had far too much to drink last night, like an idiot. How much more pathetic did he intend to let himself become? Was there any urge he could keep in check any longer?

Barely. Rey’s hands were on his head. Her body behind his was warm and close enough that he could feel each movement she made. She smelled like the hangar—ozone and solvent and the tang of metal and grease. Her breath was quiet and regular near his ear. Kylo looked up at the mirror and the reflection of her face in it. She was absorbed in her task, but he noticed the drawnness around her mouth anyway, the circles under her eyes.

“You look sick,” he commented, just before he decided there were several better ways to phrase the same sentiment.

“Good thing to say to a person holding a sharp object near your head.” Her tone was a little absent, but then she narrowed her eyes and gave his hair a sharp tug before pushing her palm to his head. “Chin down. I can’t see what I’m doing if you keep staring at me in the mirror.”

He tucked his chin with a sigh and a slight roll of his eyes, though he didn’t bother to argue. So she’d caught him watching her. Perhaps she hadn’t been as absorbed as he thought.

“I’m still recovering from last night’s excitement,” she admitted through a yawn a few moments later.

He snickered and raised an eyebrow. “You’re hungover.”

“Yes. Was, anyway.”

“Me too.”

He let his eyes settle on the water stains again, lest she accuse him of lifting his head too much in a breach of grooming protocol. It wasn’t so bad. If he let his focus soften enough he no longer saw the sink at all—he could call up a memory of her instead, laughing with a drink in her hand, and the ridiculous wish that she might ever look that happy around him.

Stop.

“Hemchar root helps,” he said, “if you can swallow your pride enough for a trip to the infirmary and don’t mind hallucinations.”

As far as he knew, the infirmary here did not actually have hemchar root. He couldn’t even remember why he knew anything about its supposed curative qualities at all. The only relief he’d found this morning was a glut of caf.

“Sounds fun,” Rey mumbled. “I think I’ll endure the headache.”

“Coward.”

She tugged his hair again. This time it confirmed his previous, hesitant realization that he enjoyed it almost as much as the feeling of her fingers combing as gently as they had before.

“Don’t worry, my hands are still very steady,” she said.

“Your grip certainly hasn’t suffered.”

“Not at all.” Her eyes were fixed back on her hands at work, but her expression had warmed a bit, and he realized it was his doing. Somehow. “The first time I had alcohol I didn’t know what it did. I lived in a scavenger camp near the outpost . . . me and some of the other kids swiped a bottle of—kriff, I don’t even know what the bloody stuff was.” Her face contorted with recalled disgust. “Tasted like happabore piss. Not that I’ve ever drank that.”

Kylo snorted despite himself, and Rey seemed to take it as encouragement to continue. “We finished the bottle and ended up sick the rest of the night and the next morning. I think we only got punished for it because it kept us from working as efficiently. No portions that day.” She spoke of the routine cruelty of her life with jarring, hard nonchalance, yet her mouth twitched with a small smile. “Tuanulberry bark tea helped with the headaches and dizziness. Didn't give anyone hallucinations, but it turned our teeth blue for hours.”

“But did it taste like piss?”

Rey’s teeth flashed with a fleeting grin, not a trace of blue tea stains in sight. “Close enough that I haven’t had it since.”

Perhaps nudged by her nostalgic tone, his thoughts began to wander back to some long ago experiences of his own. Nothing as clandestine as swiping a bottle of desert moonshine: a swig of jet juice in an engine room with Han; sips from some fragrant, fancy cocktail Lando was drinking during a visit; a half-glass of wine at the political events Leia had occasionally brought him to.

“We didn’t have any in the temple. Alcohol. Not permitted,” he said abruptly, then paused to allow for the faint shudder the brush of her thumb behind his ear provoked. It could have been the memory of the temple that did it. He was unaccustomed to remembering anything good of that time. The bright spots were buried. “One of the younger learners somehow sneaked some in. Not sure how she got it, but—you can imagine between five teenagers starved for stimulation the results were the same.”

Luke had been very displeased, and at the time Kylo had wondered if Luke blamed him for it rather than Tenal, a Zabrak who’d been a bit of a hellion even after a few years at the temple. Kylo hadn’t disliked her, though they butted heads. He'd done that with a lot of them, near the end.

Suddenly the levity of the conversation fled and he glanced up at Rey, positive she could sense the dark turn of his thoughts. To his surprise, she appeared caught up in her own. There was a troubled line between her eyebrows, and her lips were pressed tightly together.

He hadn’t forgotten that she’d sought him for a reason and that trading tales of first hangovers wasn’t it. Once or twice he thought to ask or wondered if she was about to change the subject herself. Yet the feeling of her fingers passing over his scalp or brushing at his neck and shoulders derailed him completely every time. He would try to catch her eye in the mirror, but she was always set on her task. He was starting to think she was refusing to meet his gaze on purpose. Her mind was elsewhere—which was worrisome.

Last night, on the boat from Skith, he’d caught a snatch of her thoughts without meaning to. He thought he had; just a few words and a feeling. If that really was what had happened, he wished she would slip and let it happen again now. Of course, he could do it himself, on purpose. Just take what he wanted from her mind and figure out what was distracting her so much. Yet her touches lasted longer than seemed necessary, and all he could think was that he didn’t want her to stop, and he didn’t want to take anything from her that she wasn’t offering.

“Done, I think,” she said. The air behind him was cold and empty when she moved around him to put the scissors on the basin. She turned and leaned forward to brush his shoulders off, her mouth curved into a slow smirk. “You can move, you know. I haven’t left any bald spots.”

Kylo shifted in the chair, sat up straighter, and turned his head to check her work from another angle. “Comforting. Thanks.”

She made a quiet sound of assent and remained standing there. Her hands were still brushing at him but more slowly, like she’d forgotten she was doing it. One glanced against his jaw. It was accidental, he assumed. But then she gave another, more critical hmm and did it again—slid her index finger back and forth a few inches from his chin—and narrowed one eye appraisingly.

“You should probably shave too, while you’re at it.”

He’d been planning to. He thought he was about to tell her as much, but his mouth was dry and operating independently of his brain. “Are you offering?”

“Hah. Maybe.” Rey huffed and looked away, but only for a moment. Her hand had returned to his shoulder, thumb tucked into the collar of his shirt like it could keep him in place. “Might have to charge, though.”

“What a shame I don't have any portions.”

“If I never see another portion it'll be too soon.” Her lips pursed, though something told him she was merely puzzled by his behavior.

That made two of them. What was he doing? Trying to flirt with her?

Maybe. Yes. The shocking part was that it seemed to be working, because she was still standing there, and she was still touching him. Absurdly, his heart chose that moment to begin racing.

Her tongue darted out to wet her lips, and her gaze shifted briefly to the room behind him. Then her attention was all on him, her knees bumping against his as her hand returned to his face. Just his jaw at first, the backs of her curled fingers brushing over a few days’ worth of stubble, her chin dipped to watch him react. Her hand opened and the pads of her fingers passed over his cheekbone, over his chin, and settled on his lips. She traced them once, then a second time, then again as if stuck there.

Kylo drew in a sharp breath and froze, unwilling to look away from her eyes because the temptation to stare at her mouth was too strong otherwise. Anticipation and apprehension unfurled together and filled his chest until he had no room to draw air into his lungs. It all felt unreal, and then it felt too real, how physically there she was. He could reach forward and wrap an arm around her, pull her into his lap, press her against his chest and feel the heat of her body through his shirt. Her fingers were light and cool on his skin, but still he waited for them to burn.

It was a dream, a vision, a fantasy. Next would come the waking moment and the disappointment. Inconvenient, fading humiliation, or shame, or dissatisfaction.

Or not. It didn’t have to be that way at all. He tipped his head back, uncertain why until the moment passed and it occurred to him that he was daring her to do more. That she knew it, and that he knew she wouldn’t turn it down.

He could swear he felt Rey’s lips on his even before her hand dropped from his face, before she leaned in and he stretched up to meet her. It was a relief. It was what he’d wanted. It lasted only long enough for him to realize that he should have been doing more. Being kissed by Rey was encouragement enough, all the validation he needed . . . in theory. Yet it was like the part of him that knew what to do—the part of him that could so easily call up countless nighttime visions of her—had been stamped on and shoved aside. It was slow in recovering, and by the time he felt it rousing she’d broken away with a shaky sigh.

That was it. Her lips brushing his. Him leaning into it. Waiting for more, wanting more, realizing he needed to be the one to offer it. Too late.

His face burned, his blood pounded in his ears and everywhere else, but he felt cold with regret already. She was right there, mouth parted, eyes wide, standing between his legs, and all he could do was ask, “Why did you do that?” as if accusing her of a misdeed.

Damned idiot.

“Because I wanted to.” Her answer was quiet but so instantaneous and decisive that he couldn’t do anything but believe it. “And I wondered if you would let me.”

Well, she had her answer to that, if only because he’d felt paralyzed in the handful of seconds the kiss had lasted. He would have anyway, though. Let her. He was beginning to think there were a lot of things he would let her do, in the right circumstances, at the right time.

She blinked and looked away for a moment, then back to him, mouth tense. There it was, the reaction he’d expected—the flicker of doubt. “Should I not have?”

He licked his lips, searching for a taste of her that was either already gone or had never been there at all. When Kylo continued to say nothing—it had only been a few seconds, he couldn’t think, he wished she would stop looking at him, no he didn't—Rey cleared her throat and took a step back. It left him enough space to stand, and he did, in a graceless, jerky movement forward that made the chair scrape against the wood floor. He didn’t know what else to do, but at least it meant he was moving. It was better than gawking at her like she’d slapped him.

Except now he was crowding her against the sink basin. She was staring up at him, color in her cheeks, hands awkwardly held in front of her like she was waiting to be told off or hoping to be told to continue and couldn’t decide which would surprise her least.

If he kept talking it was just going to be more useless banter, or else something truly embarrassing. He took her hand instead and drew it slowly toward him, back up to his face, pressed it to his cheek the way it had been before. He’d liked the feeling of her palm there, cool and smooth. Now, he liked how small her hand felt under his. He liked the way her arm was all soft skin and subtle curves of firm muscle when he ran his other hand from her elbow to her shoulder. He liked the way she was the one to gasp this time when he ignored the voice that was already berating him and leaned over her and kissed her.

This time he paid attention. Mostly to the idea that he could be doing much better at this, and that he felt as if his limbs were stuck through with wires that kept him from moving on his own. But there was Rey, too. The feel of her body and, for an almost-electric instant, everything else that made her what she was.

She did want this; he perceived that immediately. A warm wave of it—the want, her want, like the ocean at high tide—that had no physical origin coursed through him once and dispersed as if it hadn’t been there at all. Then it was only her mouth, her hands, and her unwavering presence as he tried to get nearer. Despite her eagerness, she couldn’t seem to decide what she was doing either, which was distantly comforting. She gasped again when her back hit the basin because he’d moved in so suddenly, then gave a stubborn grunt against his cheek and pushed back. Her hands danced too quickly from his arms to his waist, or from his chest to his face, and they never lingered very long before they were alighting greedily to a new spot.

At least she’d done something with her hands. One of his was stuck at his side. He forced himself to plant it on the basin, fingers digging at the smooth metal. The other was still clutching her arm, probably too tightly. He loosened his grip and tried to draw a breath through his mouth where it was crushed against hers—too hard, too desperate, slow down, do better—when he felt the insistent prod of her tongue at the barely open seam of his lips.

That was . . . new. Good new. He wanted this. He wanted more. He cupped the side of Rey’s face and stretched his fingers into the fine, smooth hair near her temple as he sucked her bottom lip against his teeth.

Do better.

The numbness that had stricken him was gone. It had melted through his veins and warmed his muscles, leaving a too-intense rush of nerves and need in its wake. This was not a fantasy. He had control in those, of himself, of her. Now everything was reaction and muscle memory, instinct in a fight he’d never trained for, almost frantic. Rey’s hand had found its way to his hair again and tangled itself behind his ear. When she pulled him closer the feel of it drew an embarrassing half-sigh-moan from him that he might have swallowed up if he hadn’t been taken so much by surprise.

His shirt was too warm, too restrictive, too heavy. Everything was, except her. She felt perfect. They were surrounded by beds. People rarely came in here at this time of day. If this kept going . . .

Do better.

She was pushing herself backward, not away from him so much as up, with short, quick thrusts of her legs, rubbing maddeningly against his groin. Trying to get onto the edge of the basin, a foggy part of his mind suggested. It didn’t tell him why, but it did make him think he ought to help her and find out. He took her by the waist and lifted, and though she barely seemed to weigh anything at all, she squirmed in surprise and kneed him in the hip. His hand slipped, and she dropped against the side of the sink with a yelp and a clunk, then stumbled unsteadily to her feet.

Jarred out of the moment, Kylo released her and looked away. He heard her breaths still coming fast between his own, and then a low, nervous laugh.

“Sorry,” she muttered. Her hand glanced his wrist, and her fingers, trembling with excited energy, almost shyly brushed his palm. “You hit a— Er. Sensitive spot.” She touched his hip where her knee had jabbed a few moments before. “You okay?”

“Yes,” he said quickly.

He looked at her and was unsurprised to find her staring up into his face with open, bemused expectation. The Force around her was bright and burning, like little hot fingers snaking underneath his clothing, through his skin, into his thoughts, stoking his emotions, good and bad. He still had that sense she wanted to tell him something—was this all is was? That she felt . . . something, for him, and hoped he’d felt it too? In his current state he could think of no other possibility, even if the question of what he felt was still a formless, intimidating entity. Their faces were already so close, their breath mingling again. The tip of his nose brushed hers when he looked down and found that he’d finally figured out what to do with his hands, but only because she’d wrapped them up in her own.

He swallowed. “Should we—”

What? For all that this felt like exactly what he’d thought of for weeks (the beginning, anyway), now it had happened and he wasn’t sure how to proceed. If he asked her to follow him to one of the empty bunks, what would she say? What would she expect? The same thing he expected, but the fact that it might be within reach was as daunting as it was titillating. At best they’d have a messy, awkward, too-quick grope in someone else’s bed and then . . .

She kissed him again, a swift press of her lips to his, and mumbled something that sounded like ‘come do this thing’ as she dropped away. Which made no sense.

“What?”

“The hot spring. Come with me.”

Heat crawled up his neck and down his chest, threatening to travel lower as the memory of her nearly naked and wreathed in steam flashed through his mind. “Right now?”

“No. Well.” Rey let go of him and leaned back, tucking some loose hair behind her ear and pressing her lips together. The blush on her cheeks had deepened, though her eyes were steady and hungry. “I’ve been there a few times since I found it, but—” He knew. He knew. He felt the faint echo of her presence diffusing over the water every time he went. “Meet me there later? Tonight, I mean. If you . . .”

He chewed the inside of his cheek as the implication made itself clear, along with something else. She desired him. Perhaps it was only on the basest level. Yet if she desired him, if she wanted to be with him, maybe it meant he didn’t have to wait here for her at all. If he did leave, would she go with him?

He barely managed to keep himself from blurting it out right there, and when he did speak it was not one of his prouder moments in terms of articulation.

“Yeah. Yes. Okay.” He nodded as his racing thoughts began to slow, and his blood was still pounding in his ears as new ideas struggled to take hold. He shifted his hand, which had somehow ended up dangerously low on her back, though she didn’t appear to mind at all. “Good.”

“Yeah . . . good.”

“The moons will be brighter tonight, won’t they? Better to see by."

Rey bit her lip to suppress a smile. “That’s practical.” She cleared her throat and straightened her shirt out, then stepped past him. “Let me help you clean up here?”

There wasn’t much to be done, but if she wanted an excuse to stay, he wasn’t going to argue, even if it just amounted to sweeping up hair from the floor and wiping the sink down. They hardly talked as they worked, which was strange and somewhat disconcerting. He had shared hostile silences with her, moody ones, companionable ones. This was different. It gave him time to order his thoughts, though, and to begin to form a new plan. How he would bring it up to her: his decision to go, why he needed to. How he would ask her to join him. Was it unfair of him to wait until after whatever would happen at the spring tonight?

He wasn’t sure that he cared what was fair. But he did care about her, in a way that was tenuous and unfamiliar. That mattered.

They finished up quickly and left the barracks together, and they parted ways near the hangar, where Rey was finalizing her work on the Mirrorbright. She’d still seemed distracted, like she might be about to say more to him before she went. Instead she just smiled and told him she would see him later—she’d said it to him dozens of times before, but now it carried new weight. The feeling from earlier returned, anxious eagerness and a sense that none of what had transpired felt quite real. But it was. It all was.

He didn’t need to leave Rey behind. He didn’t need to let her feel abandoned again. He could take her with him. She needed better than this place and these people. Someone like her needed more. Deserved more. She would go. He was sure. When Kylo turned toward the command offices it was with more resolve than he’d felt capable of in ages. Whatever the purpose behind Leia’s summons, it was inconsequential. He’d found the path forward: it was away, and he wouldn’t take it alone.

Chapter Text

Across her desk, Leia was little more than an arm’s length away, but the distance was far greater to Kylo. He’d known immediately on entering her office that he had been wrong. She did not wish to know how his time on Skith had been. Not only that, at least.

The hours he’d spent there had given him perspective; not that he would tell her that. Whatever Leia wanted with him this time, it went deeper than familial nicety. He didn’t think it was about Rey, either. His mother hadn’t broached that topic since dinner weeks ago, and this afternoon he was glad of the fact. If he dwelled too much on what had transpired a half hour or so before, he would feel the warmth and softness of Rey’s lips and the bold grasp of her hands, the steadiness of her eyes and her intentions, and his pulse would begin to race at the mere recollection.

There would be time later to consider what he’d agreed to and how vulnerable it had made him. For some reason he felt he could be, with Rey, and he struggled not to be too hopeful.

Kylo cleared his throat and eyed Leia from his chair. If this was not a personal visit, it meant she wanted information. Her spies had dug up new, spurious intelligence, and she planned to pick his brain to confirm what was of value. She’d done it before. She knew he would be cooperative.

So why did the look in her eyes fill him with a growing sense of dread? He’d seen that look, and though he couldn’t place it, it set his stomach in knots. It wasn’t her political face, nor was it the face she wore when she wished he would see her only as his mother.

It was how she’d looked at him the day he told her about Luke. It was how she’d looked at him years before that when she’d asked him—but not truly asked him—if he would like to train to be a Jedi. The dread tightened. He’d arrived here feeling far too light. Confused, riled, but less burdened than he had been in a long time; he’d known at last that there was a way forward for him. If he’d been paying more attention to the present instead of reliving recent moments and fantasizing about the near future, he would have seen it sooner.

This was a trap.

Leia folded her hands on the desk, and Kylo tightened his grip on the arm of his chair.

“You cut your hair,” she commented. “It looks good.”

She looked faintly pleased. The mundanity of the statement did nothing to dispel the tension, but he almost found himself saying how after seven weeks it was overdue for a trim, how it was getting in his eyes, how it was becoming unmanageable. For an instant, Leia’s observation only brought to mind Rey’s fingernails on his scalp and the mounting tension in his belly as her breath had caressed his ear. He sat up straighter as his jaw tightened.

He was letting Leia distract him. That was what she wanted. To set him at ease. It was the same thing she wanted when she broached the topic of Skith and the festival. He provided the barest details, focused on the generic and the things she must have assumed. Then he grew tired of waiting.

“This isn’t what you wanted to speak to me about, is it?”

He wouldn’t have to endure this much longer. A few days. He could make his case to Rey, and they would be gone. Then he would have her with him, and they could begin to figure out this thing that persisted between them. The prospect didn’t quite calm him, but it did numb him.

“So what do you need to know?” he prompted, tempering his impatience with indifference. “It’s been weeks. My information is more outdated every time you consult me.”

Leia’s chin dipped with a small nod—tolerance for his mood, he supposed—and her voice was suspiciously gentle. “It isn’t you, Ben.”

“Isn’t . . .”

“This isn’t about something I need from you. It’s about something I need from Luke.”

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“No.” She eyed him, probing for any sign of an outburst. He wouldn’t give it to her. “It had to happen, sooner or later. I— the Resistance still needs him.”

Kylo expelled a sharp, callous scoff. The dread had become a chill. “Ah, of course. The Resistance needs him. Never mind what he’s done. He’s still the hero you think will end years of war.”

“Ben.”

“I suppose I should be grateful you waited this long.”

“I waited this long to give you time. I thought it was what you needed most. I was wrong. But I needed time too . . . to let myself believe Luke could have violated my trust—your trust—to such a degree.”

His face contorted into a snarl.

“Let me finish,” she cut in, so sharply that an old instinct to defer to her overrode his compulsion to spit fire. “Please. I couldn’t believe it. At first. I didn’t want to. But not because I couldn’t believe you, Ben. Never that. I don’t want to know Luke’s side. He gave that to me six years ago, and it’s colored everything I’ve done since then, and I’m ashamed by how easy it was for me to accept. He made his choices, I made mine. You made yours. This is where it’s brought us.”

Kylo stared at the edge of the desk. He could split it in two with a wave of his hand.

“But this rift can’t persist. I’ve seen what that does to people. It festers. I need him to know that whatever happened that night,” Leia continued, “it didn’t end with a burning temple, or my broken heart, or your broken spirit. It ended with you here, right now, unable to move on because the man who made you believe you had nowhere else to turn isn’t here to let you.”

He would have preferred she deny him and claim that Luke was the only person who could give her the full truth. Instead she regarded Kylo with pity, like a shattered thing that needed the person who’d dropped it to piece it back together. He wanted to shout at her.

“He betrayed me.”

Leia’s eyes flashed with anger; to Kylo’s surprise, it was not directed at him. “I know that. I know it made you feel he’d given up on you. That what he saw in you wasn’t worth reaching out to. That the person who should have found the light in a dark situation condemned you and—and pushed you away after we had already done the same. Luke was wrong, so, so wrong, and he had no right to judge you as he did, whatever his intention in the end.”

She was looking at him like she’d been there watching as it all happened. He couldn’t take the way she spoke of it with such understanding. She didn’t understand at all.

“I know because I trusted him to take care of you. To help and protect you in a way I could not. And I couldn’t fathom what happened instead. That I had made that choice and left you to—”

“I don’t care. If you feel guilty or betrayed, I hope you do, because you deserve it.”

He saw that she had needed time to grapple with the crushing truth about her blameless brother. Yet Kylo revelled in his own power to renew that anguish with a few careless words. It had all been swirling inside him since the day he’d told her about what happened, when she’d claimed she was sorry and then done so little to prove it. She was right. He couldn’t move on, and neither could she. They couldn’t get past it.

“Yes, I do.” Leia’s voice quavered. “I was angry and in denial. I wanted anything else to explain it, but I couldn’t stay that way. Some of my reasons may have been selfish, but it was just as much for your sake. To protect you until I could figure out what to do to make it right.”

“I don’t need your protection,” he spat. Ever since D’Qar, her protection had provided little more than a place to cower and nurse his discontent. “You never did care to give it before.”

She glanced down at her hands with impassive acceptance. “I’d have preferred to wait longer. Until I thought you might be ready to face the possibility of a . . . meeting,” she reiterated. “I won’t force you into a confrontation. But I do need to face him. To build a bridge. And I need to ask him to help us.”

He saw through her claims. Her primary motive wasn’t to seek closure. The Resistance, always, was her first priority. He and Luke, and what both of them had done, were mere collateral. He had realized something many years ago and seen it every day since coming back: to his mother, family and rebellion had been the same thing for so much of her life that she no longer knew the difference between the two.

“Why now?” he asked, his voice just above a growl. “What’s changed to force your hand? Because it isn’t me.”

“You really want to know? Until now you’ve pointedly avoided knowing too much.”

For good reason, and she knew it. If he slipped and Snoke got through to him at the wrong moment, Kylo didn’t want to be responsible for what might be found in his head.

Still, he clenched his jaw and nodded. “Yes.”

Leia’s eyes traveled over his face. She looked wearier than he had ever seen her. “There’s something that Snoke is seeking now. Not you,” she said significantly, “and not Luke either, but the level of priority appears to be similar. I worry about what it could mean that he is pursuing it this pointedly after he was so close to obtaining the map. I hope Luke may have some ideas of what it could be, perhaps how to prevent him from obtaining it.” Her eyebrows rose. “Unless . . .”

“Unless?”

“Can you think of anything? Some object or relic? Some . . . vergence, even, that Snoke had particular interest in?”

Kylo thought for a few moments; he hated how easy it had become for him to play informant while his emotions stifled and suffocated.

“Snoke had collections. Mostly darkside artifacts and old Empire cast-offs. I’ve told you he liked gathering things of significant value for their power with the Force. Their potential to be weaponized or used to subjugate.” Things like me. “But if it’s something he doesn’t already have, I’m not sure.”

The idea made him want to flee more than ever, until something truly sickening occurred to him. “It doesn’t need to be an object,” he went on with reluctance. “The unlikelihood that it’s me or Luke doesn’t mean it can’t be another person.”

She was regarding him with suspended unease. There was more to this. He couldn’t imagine it being any worse.

“I have,” she admitted. “Which is another reason I think it imperative Rey speak with Luke.”

Speak with Luke,” he echoed sourly.

“I’ve asked Rey to pilot the Mirrorbright to the planet where Luke has been in hiding,” she said. “She’ll be coming with me.”

No.

That didn’t make any sense. Rey had mentioned nothing of the sort. It was impossible that she had only just been informed—he was the last person to see her before they parted at the hangar so she could . . . work on the Mirrorbright. As she had been for weeks, learning its schematics and systems, its quirks and controls.

Earlier she had sought him out because she wanted to tell him something. It had never been anything to do with what she might feel for him. She’d stood there and kissed him and lied to him.

Had she?

“When?”

Leia sighed, and she sounded truly sorry. “Tomorrow night, when the festival ends.”

It was a rock in the pit of his stomach. Tomorrow. It had been planned.

“She didn’t tell me.”

“She offered to, but I couldn’t make that her responsibility. I owe it to you myself. It was my plan to go to Luke, not hers. Please don’t blame her for this. She’s only known a few days.”

He wasn’t sure he blamed Rey. He didn’t want to think of her part in this at all. If he did, he had to accept the fact that in another day she might be gone.

“Han couldn’t be bothered to let you take the Falcon?”

“To the contrary,” Leia said, a little prickly. “When I first told him of what you revealed to me, I had to order him not to fly off and . . . oh, what was it? ‘Show Luke the business end of a blaster,’ or something to that effect.”

Kylo regarded her blankly, his mind abuzz with whether he found any of that believable. He did believe one thing: Han Solo would follow an order if it came from his princess. It had always been that way. It was what had gotten Kylo here in the first place.

“If I’m going to speak to Luke, I’d rather not have to intervene in a fight or end up with certain parties making attempts on each other’s lives,” she finished.

That was not just a jab at Han.

“Take Sonnel, then.” His voice was tight and too harsh. He had to keep it controlled, or everything else would overflow. This wasn’t worth it. If he could hold himself together before the Supreme Leader, he could do it before his mother. “She’s known the Mirrorbright for years.”

“Greer’s health won’t allow it.”

He’d seen Sonnel in the infirmary the night he had his shoulder treated—he’d come in just as she was receiving an injection, and he’d spied the empty hadeira vial after she left without a word to him. Bloodburn grounded pilots, or it killed them. He was surprised she’d chosen the former.

“And even if it did, Luke’s lightsaber didn’t call to her.” Leia looked at him significantly. “It called to Rey. She was always going to be the one to take that map and a ship, alone or not. You know that.”

“I know that Luke has nothing to offer her.”

“She needs to meet with him. There’s something about her. She’s seen things, felt them. She's full of fear and uncertainty. You’ve said yourself how strong she is with the Force. I’ve sensed it as well. This is not the place for her, Ben.”

“At least we agree on that,” he muttered.

“If Luke meets her and understands her need for guidance, he might—”

“Is she a bargaining chip now? Your gambit to tempt him back?”

“She’s not a bargaining chip. She’s a person who’s adrift and afraid and needs help.”

That was too much.

“What the hell do you think I’ve been trying to do?” he demanded, feet pressing so hard to the floor his chair slid backward. The chrono on Leia’s desk rattled as he lurched up to stand. “I know. I know exactly what she is and what she needs, and you have no idea. Don’t sit there and tell me you’re going to take her with you and drop her at Luke’s doorstep and expect everything to align the way you want it to. Do you remember how that turned out last time?”

For once she appeared at a loss, and he didn’t feel like giving her time to come up with more ways to insult him.

“Go. Take the map and see what good it does you.” He blinked rapidly and paced in a tight circle, fists flexing, eyes unfocused. “But your Resistance is still trapped here, hiding and running through resources.”

That wasn’t strictly true. The Resistance had been gathering resources at a steady rate—weapons, ships, fuel, intel. They were grounded, but they weren’t wasting the time. As far as he knew, they were nearly ready to make a move against the hyperspace tracker. If they succeeded they would be able to engage the First Order directly once more without fear of pursuit.

It wouldn’t be enough. Let Leia go to Luke and pretend it had anything to do with justice for the son she’d given up on. Kylo wouldn’t be around to see the aftermath.

“Luke Skywalker won’t save you.”

He didn’t wait to be dismissed. The door to her office shuddered open and squealed as it slid closed behind him. Shoddy workmanship. The thought that this had probably been the last conversation he would have with his mother barely registered. All he knew now was that he had less time than he’d thought. If he was going to go, it needed to be tonight.

There were a few hours left until dusk. He would have time to get to the beach, pack some things, and prepare for a journey. Rey would still be waiting for him after sundown, as they’d agreed. And he would still meet her.

They were getting no answers with the Resistance. He’d understood that almost right away, but she was too easily distracted by the flimsy allure of heroism. She needed to be reminded that there was no such thing. He could do that. He could be persuasive.

He could ask her, she could say yes, and his plan could still be salvaged. It was a foolish, guttering hope that refused to die, even after what he’d just heard—but he needed to be sure.

The moons would be brighter to see by. That was what Kylo had said that afternoon in the barracks, and for some reason that was the thing Rey had kept replaying in her head the rest of the day. Each time it had brought a small smirk to her lips and made her wonder what exactly he hoped to see. She had a few ideas, ever since the last time they’d been at the spring together.

She was making her way toward the path into the woods, taking a longer route that passed by the broken bridge, which afforded more privacy as a rendezvous point. They would meet there and continue on to the spring together—his idea. Practical, he’d said, though she couldn’t help taking it as a reminder that he simply desired her company. It was a good feeling, but its complications pecked away at her usual composure.

The spring would calm her, at least, as it had each time she’d visited and dipped into the water. Kylo thought the spring itself might be centered on a vergence—some sort of concentration of the Force that could have powerful, or subtle, effects on those sensitive to it. Maybe that was why she never seemed to suffer any strange dreams or visions after a soak there. Unfortunately, whether the spring’s calming effects were the product of the Force or minerals or mere suggestion, Rey could claim none of them just now. Instead, she couldn’t remember a time she’d felt such nervous anticipation.

Because what had she suggested, anyway?

Sometimes she thought she meant to suggest a more secluded, atmospheric place to kiss him again, talk a while, and kiss him some more. Sometimes she thought she must have meant more kissing and less clothing, or at least hands under clothing. And sometimes she thought all she could possibly have meant was very little talking, more kissing, no clothing, and far more touching. It didn’t help that she wasn’t sure what he expected, because kriff, neither of them had made that clear.

Which brought her to the other reason she had been on edge all day: she still needed—wanted—to tell him she would be leaving tomorrow night and was not sure when she would return. When she did, it would be only to bring Leia (and Luke, if she dared to hope for it) home to the Resistance. She might stay a day or so more to say a proper goodbye to the people here she’d come to care for. If she made Kylo realize he was one of those people, would it make a difference to him when she left for Jakku?

Rey was low on time to figure it out. The bridge was in view, and so was Kylo. He was standing on it with his back to her, a tall silhouette in the silver-white glow of the aligned moons. She had almost expected not to see him there, like she must have misunderstood what had happened in the barracks.

It was him, though, and the shudder of excitement returned, tightening behind her chest and radiating all the way to her toes. Suddenly there was very little question in her mind what she wanted to do with him tonight. It might be the last time she was alone with him. She wanted it to be memorable. The only thing that kept her from indulging a lewd fantasy involving a naked, slippery embrace at the shallow edges of the spring was that the object of it was right there, swathed in black and turning to watch her approach. The bridge swayed in the wind as she walked out the short distance to join him. He regarded her with a peculiar expression, leaning against the ropes as if tied to them.

Unsure of what came next—she’d expected him to be waiting on land, for one thing, not several meters out—Rey drew up to him and tipped her head back to look him in the eye. Sometimes she was startled by his height. Now was one of those times, and it made her more aware of his body than ever.

“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet and tugging the thick collar of her jacket higher.

“No.” His eyes hadn’t left her face, and they flicked quickly down to her mouth and over the rest of her before returning. They were the sort of eyes a person could fall into, she’d realized, though she had never let herself do so. “Not for you, anyway. I came out early to get a break from the noise.”

Rey gave a quiet hum of laughter. The base had been having a small-scale version of last night’s Skith festivities, either for those who hadn’t been able to risk going or simply because no one had quite had enough. She’d been enjoying it all over again, and later on the distractions had made it easy to slip away.

“Don’t like music?” she asked.

“Not that kind.” He huffed and tipped his head back. “It gave me some time to watch the eclipse, which I thought was the point of all that to begin with.”

She followed his gaze upward. The moons were just about aligned and different enough in appearance that she could see three distinct, glowing spheres outlined against one another in the purple-blue of the sky. She considered teasing him about how he ought to put it on a star map, but levity eluded her. It was difficult not to think instead about the superstitions Greer had detailed last night—nonsense about the alignment of the moons increasing sex drive and bringing luck in amorous pursuits that seemed too relevant right now and made her cheeks feel hot.

“Do you . . . need anything before we go?”

Kylo shook his head distractedly and glanced toward the end of the bridge. “I have everything I need.”

This was so strange. They ordinarily had an easier rapport. He hadn’t been this brusque with her in weeks. Was he nervous too? Was this a mistake? Had she made too many assumptions? But then he looked at her again and bent toward her. His hand cupped the back of her head to steady her as his lips touched hers, and in an instant she was reminded how it was that inviting him to the spring had seemed like such a good idea in the barracks.

Then, she’d had the impression that he had not kissed very many people before, though she had little basis for comparison herself. He’d been mechanical and slow to respond, as if he doubted his own senses . . . and then his tongue had been in her mouth and his hands had been all over her and he’d moaned when she grasped too roughly at his hair.

Something had changed since then.

He shaved, she thought with an absurd thrill that made her smile against his lips. There was no scratchiness of his chin against hers, and his jaw was smooth when she brought her hand to his face, his cheek chilled from the night air.

That wasn’t all. He knew what he wanted right away this time, and she was taken enough by surprise at his conviction that she could only melt into him and curl her fingers into the front of his jacket. Kriff, how could his mouth be this soft and pliant when the rest of him was so solid under her palms? Nothing had ever felt this easy—what a thought. The bridge quivered in another burst of wind as she backed him up against the ropes.

That was dangerous, maybe. And making out on a rickety bridge in the moonlight wasn't the plan.

She was about to remind him of their destination, but Kylo broke away before she could, his hand at her waist. This was still odd. He’d closed off with no warning, like he hadn’t found something he was after. He’d been hesitant last time, sure, but he’d also been eager. She’d felt it, a growing pulse of heat deep inside that wasn't all hers. He hadn’t looked at her as if he was seeing someone else. He was now.

Rey couldn’t do this. Not if he didn’t know. She’d made an impulsive decision because she was seeing the last month and a half slip through her fingers, and she’d wanted something to make it feel worth it. It wasn’t fair.

She had to tell him. Leia clearly hadn’t, or he would have been angry. He didn’t seem angry at all.

“Ben—”

When had he become Ben to her? Her words stuttered to a confused halt just long enough that whatever he’d started to say at the same time drowned it out.

“Rey, I—” He frowned, as if he’d processed her slip and wasn’t sure what to make of it, then shook his head. “I’m leaving Pamarthe tonight.”

Her mouth hung open with her own unfinished sentence. She couldn’t remember anything of what she’d been about to say.

“Why?”

The resolve in his expression faltered again. “You of all people shouldn't have to ask that question.”

“I shouldn’t, no. I don’t have to. I know.” Rey took a step back and expelled a rough sigh as she tried to reason out what to do. This should not have been unbalancing her so much. She knew how often he thought of it. “But—”

His hand left her waist and gripped the ropes again. Really hard. Despite the darkness she could see how white his knuckles were. “I want you to come with me.”

Her eyes, fixed on the wooden planks, darted back to him. “What?”

“Come with me,” he repeated, louder, more firmly, as if the only reason for her confusion was that she didn't hear him. He moved nearer again. Not threatening; more like he needed her proximity if he hoped to continue. His eyes hadn't left her once since he started. She wasn’t sure he’d even blinked. “I should never have come back. I let myself be fooled into thinking it could be different, but it’s all the same, being reminded every damn day that—”

“What are you saying?”

His jaw moved like he was biting his tongue, and his voice grew quieter, so much that she had to lean in to hear him. “I don’t belong here. Neither do you. You shouldn’t need to stay either.”

He was right. She didn't belong here. There was never a day she didn't remember that. She was not so sure about him. Yet what he proposed was not completely unappealing. Rey tried to center herself on the things that had always mattered: what needed to be done, promises she’d made to herself and kept for over a decade, responsibility, practicality.

“On what ship? We couldn't just go.”

“Is your work on the Mirrorbright complete?”

She felt the way she had on Takodana as he’d prowled toward her. This was what his face must have been like behind the mask—acute and awful knowing. It was not a good feeling.

Leia had told him. He knew, and he was testing her.

“Yes. But I need it. Leia needs it. Everything’s set.”

He made a humorless sound in the back of his throat. “Yeah, I know.”

“Then what the hell are you thinking?”

His expression darkened further. “Would you have told me before we . . .”

That stung. “Yes. I was. I was going to tell you right here, but then you went and started talking about leaving, and . . . I was going to tell you. I’ve wanted to all week. Earlier today—”

“But you didn’t. Because she told you not to.”

“I— Yes.”

She could have given him all the reasons. At the time they had seemed sound, and they still were, but she doubted herself more than she had. They felt more like excuses.

“So you follow her orders now.” He paused. “Is that what all this has been?”

“All of what?”

“Asking for my help. Speaking to me in the hangars. Seeking me out on the beach. Have you just been watching me for her?”

Rey gaped at him. What he was suggesting did more than sting; it hurt. It was insulting, and it made her wonder if he’d ever really had faith in her regard for him at all.

“Are you serious? What do you think I am, a surveillance droid?” Her voice had grown louder, and she forced herself to lower it, grateful that the music from the base would drown her out. “Anything I’ve done with you has been because I want to. All of it.”

Kylo drew a shaky breath and tore his eyes from her for a few moments. His lips compressed, and a muscle twitched in his cheek. When he looked back at her the blank, haughty remoteness was fading, but there was doubt etched in every line of his face.

“Then forget what they want from you here. You could be more. You could be better.” He made it sound so certain, like he knew more about her than she did. “Come with me. Please, Rey.”

She couldn’t stop herself. “Where do you think we’d go?”

“Away.” He returned her hard look, then seemed to understand she needed more than that. “I truly don’t care. Someplace none of this matters. Someplace I never have to hear about the First Order or the Resistance or any of it again.”

Rey wasn’t sure a place like that existed anymore, and she knew he didn’t believe in it either. No one understood better than he did the extent to which the First Order had spread its influence. It would follow him. Everything he said sent her back to the way Finn had asked her to do the very same thing. Run away together. Disappear into the obscurest reaches of the galaxy. Never find a place to stop.

He was hurting. He was desperate. He was still talking.

“Hell, we can find that island.” He’d gotten closer, too. Maybe he thought she was nearly convinced. In the brisk air, the warmth radiating off his body made her want to press herself into it. She managed not to, but she did not pull away when his hand sought hers. “The one you’ve seen all your life. I’ve seen it now too. I’ve seen it with you. It must mean something.”

“I don’t even know where it is!”

“Not yet. But it still calls you. Right?”

Rey set her jaw. Yes, she still saw it. Felt something reaching and calling.

“We could find it. That and everything else. The way the Force still binds us, the things we’d be capable of together if we . . . don’t tell me you haven’t felt it,” he pressed. “I felt it the first time I saw you.”

She shivered. He knew exactly the sorts of things to say to sway her. And why wouldn’t he? She’d shared herself with him, pieces at a time, so gradually she hardly noticed when it had become a habit. Now she wondered what sort of a person he had made from those pieces.

“When I leave here,” she said, trying to maintain a measured tone. His fingers tightened around hers. “When I come back with Leia, after we’ve found Luke and I’ve—”

Kylo gave a sharp, bitter hiss through his teeth and dropped her hand. Arms stiff at his sides, he turned away and strode down the bridge, toward land, before spinning back to face her. “She really has you convinced that he’ll have all the answers you need. Because, what, you found a lightsaber in a dusty basement and now you think you’re some sort of piece in the puzzle?”

“Why else would it have called me?” Her own resolve surprised her. Until now she’d been wary of letting that idea—the lightsaber called to something in her, this was her task to complete—take root, even when so many things pressed her to embrace it. She hadn’t, until now. Yes, she did need to go to Luke and return to him what was his. She could show him he was needed. She could get her answers. She could go home. “I’ve kept it safe. And I’m bringing it back to where it belongs.”

“Is that why you’ve spent the last two months learning with it? Testing yourself? To pass it off and do nothing?”

“I . . . I spent that time learning because I’m tired of being afraid of myself.”

“Well, you picked the wrong person to help you there.”

“No. I don’t think I did.” Rey squeezed her eyes shut. “But it still scares me, the thought of not knowing what it means. If it matters.” If she didn’t go, it would be another thing that haunted her restless nights. “I need someone who can show me my place in all of it, and Luke could be that person.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying that to me after everything I’ve—”

“You’ve helped me,” she interrupted, pouring every bit of sincerity she had into her voice.

More than he would ever believe if she repeated it a thousand different ways. With him, for a few weeks, she’d no longer felt alone with the questions and fears that plagued her. Yet they still plagued her.

“You have,” she said. “So much. But . . . you don’t even know your own place.” He opened his mouth to argue, but she continued. “You don’t. You’ve told me that in so many ways. You literally just said it. ‘Away’ isn’t a place to belong.”

His shoulders sank, and he seemed to bite something back. “He’s not going to give you a magic answer and fix it. It isn’t passing a baton. They’ve got you convinced you have some part in this, and you’re so desperate to be told you matter you’re eating it all up and refusing to see what’s actually happening.”

“Oh, please, then, tell me what’s actually happening, since you always seem to know!”

“I grew up with these people, being told that I would do great things because of who my family was. Because of what I’d come from. I remember what they said—Uncle Luke would help. Sound familiar?” He paused and cast a stormy look over the water. “Do you remember what I told you the last time we stood here? About how they would seek to use you when they realized what you were?”

Rey did remember. She remembered a lot about that night, but she almost didn’t care. “No one’s using me. I’m not here to fight a bloody war. I’m doing what’s right, I’m getting my answers, for me, and then I’m going home.”

“Home.” He said it with such derision she thought there must be no word he hated more. “Back to Jakku.”

“Yes. I don’t—” Her confidence wavered. Not for the first time that week, she was almost afraid to think about what came next, when she went back to her old life. Loneliness, long days, longer nights. Rey drew a resolute breath. “You’ve always known that was what I planned to do. I’ve never been anything but honest with you on that.”

Kylo shook his head. “You can’t even be honest with yourself about it.”

At his words, Rey physically recoiled. She felt her fists tighten, her stomach lurch, and her eyes begin to sting. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Something in his face flickered, through the hurt and the attempts he made to hide it—he was already angry with himself but was determined to push through it.

“You’re waiting for nothing. Do you really not know that?”

“What?” The word jammed up in her throat but she choked it out. She wanted to end this, storm off the bridge and leave him to his ill-formed plans, but she couldn’t move.

“You never asked what I saw that day when we touched the lightsaber together.” Kylo sighed and dropped his head, staring hard at the planks beneath their feet. “You never even brought it up again. Why not?”

She couldn’t look at him, she refused to, because if she did she would crumble and blow away. But she felt his eyes back on her, his gaze weighty and forceful as ever as she grasped for an answer. Why hadn’t she? She’d asked herself that question for a day or two, and it had never made her feel good. It felt like sticking her bare arm inside a compartment slicked with oil and groping around in the dark for a loose livewire.

“I . . .” She was surprised by how uneven her voice had become and choked back what might have been tears. “I didn’t want to. It didn’t matter, not when—”

What? When what she’d seen had mattered so much more? Made her feel she could be part of fixing something broken?

“How long have you been lying to yourself about this?” Kylo rushed over his words as he bit out each syllable. “Kriff, I’d hoped you would realize it. I thought you’d finally admit it if I led you there, but you . . . you really believe it.”

His voice was strained, like he was barely containing a growl of frustration. Then he started toward her, and for the first time, her instinct was to shrink away.

“Stop it,” she spat. A tear rolled down her cheek and tickled her lip, and she didn’t know what she was crying about except that this hurt. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about what I know, what I saw in your head—the Force showed me the truth about you.” Kylo continued to approach her, his steps slower than they had been but no less determined. “The family you’ve been waiting for isn’t coming back for you. No one is coming back to that galactic sinkhole to take you off it.”

Stop.”

“No. You need to hear this.”

Rey had never forgotten how frightening he could be, but right now she wasn’t sure that he was what scared her.

“You’ve wasted years, for the sort of people who would abandon you there with no messages, no promises, no reasons for leaving.” He peered down at her face, and she could swear she saw a sheen in his eyes too, or maybe it was just her own tears clouding her vision. “You do know, though, don’t you? But you won’t say it . . .”

His voice trailed, like he was waiting for her to wake up and respond. She grit her teeth. He was wrong. He felt betrayed, and he was being cruel because he knew how to hurt her.

He had never been cruel to her. Her certainty buckled again.

“They were never going to,” he said, almost full of pity, as he had the first time he spoke to her, and she hated it all over again. The fear of that day and the need to protect herself welled up and coursed inside her. “Your parents were lowlifes who sold you off, and that was it, and now they’re d—”

“You shut up,” Rey snarled, pushing away from him. “I don’t want to hear this from you anymore.”

“I used to wait too, you know. And think the day would come when someone came back or gave a damn or said it was enough, but no one—”

Without thinking, she threw an arm up at him, as if to launch something from her hand. Instead the air thickened between them for an instant, a wave gathering strength, and Kylo stumbled backward into the ropes like he’d been pushed by someone bigger than him. He looked startled and then angry, but she barely registered it. Her head was swimming, her whole body was shaking, and she wanted to lie down and sleep. She wanted to shut her mind off and stanch the flood of confusion.

“You aren’t talking about me. You’re talking about yourself,” she managed between gritted teeth.

He looked more stricken by that than the push. Even in the dark she could see his face redden. Kylo shoved himself away from the ropes and stood at the center of the bridge, looking lost.

“There is nothing for me here.” He seemed to realize his poor choice of words a moment too late. For an instant she thought he might apologize. “The sooner you stop fooling yourself into thinking it’s any different for you, the better.”

More tears slid down her cheeks before she could palm them roughly away. She glared at him, then tried to clear her throat. “Don’t do this, Ben. When I come back we can—”

“You don’t get to call me that. No one does.”

She couldn’t think of a way to respond. She was numb and felt as if she’d made a huge mistake. And he was already gone, stalking toward land and into the dark, leaving her there on the swaying bridge, drained, angry, and heartsick. When her legs stopped quivering she tried to follow, but he’d disappeared. She could have found him in the Force and pursued—he was there at first, sparking and jumping, before she hardly felt him at all, like he was trying to cut her off—but she couldn’t face him right now. Not after those things he’d said to her.

Projection. Presumption. Lies.

Why would he make that up? part of her questioned. It’s not like him.

Rey shut it up with an assurance instead. It wasn’t her he was angry at. It was himself. Everyone. The galaxy. If she went after him now they would argue again. She needed to be alone, to think and calm down and prepare for tomorrow. She would find him before she left and try to make this right. Nothing was unfixable.

Chapter Text

The Mirrorbright’s boarding ramp lowered with a hiss delicate as a whisper, and Kylo covered the length of it in a few heavy paces before it even touched the ground. Despite the haste of his entry, he stopped short at the top of the ramp. The interior of his mother’s old ship was different than he remembered. Many years ago, there had been a cleanliness and warmth. It had been welcoming. Now the air inside was flat and almost sterile, as if to warn him away, the space calcified by disuse and idleness. It was the sort of thing he could imagine happening to himself.

Yet to the eye, the rest of it was familiar, as pretty on the inside as it was on the outside: simple, sophisticated, and tasteful; dimly lit by warm yellow lights along the cabin interior; everything in shades of cream and sand, moon gray and slate. An aristocrat’s ship, nearly as known to him as the Falcon .

He shook off the paralysis of memory and followed the short corridor past the lounge and into the cockpit. Briefly, he noted the empty pilot and copilot seats before his eyes settled on the control console that spanned the space beneath the viewport. Rey’s words echoed in his head, the only ones he would let himself call up, because they were useful— Everything’s set . He cast a look over his shoulder before sinking down into the pilot seat and running his hands once over the primary controls. He let out a long breath as he considered their smooth white array, then powered the Mirrorbright up.

To his immense satisfaction, the transport hummed to life around him as the console buttons began to glow gently. It was so silent he might have missed it if not for the telltale vibrations through his feet. He did love that feeling. It had been far too long since he’d been able to enjoy the immediate sense of control that came with being in the pilot seat of a spacecraft.

Kylo ignored the instinctive drive to take the thing and go (pointedly refusing to acknowledge why he no longer needed something that seated two) and turned his attention to the navigation interface instead. This part was a bit of a gamble, but he still trusted some of his instincts, and he had a good feeling about this.

Everything’s set .

Chewing absently on the inside of his cheek, he sifted through stored sets of coordinates and years-old flight data recordings until he spotted one item that stood out. A transgalactic map entered yesterday via an external data source. His hand was steady as he selected it. A moment later, the navigational chart leading to Luke Skywalker danced before his eyes in holographic miniature, a galaxy he could have held in his cupped hands.

Everything inside him froze for an instant. Months of searching that had melted into weeks of doing nothing, and there it was, pieced together and whole. It was anticlimactic, and then it was unexpectedly overwhelming. He remembered to breathe and scanned it hurriedly—yes, this was it, he recognized the incomplete parts that had mocked him so many times—as he noted a few recognizable star systems before his eyes fixed on the destination. An unnamed, unmarked planet far into the Unknown Regions. It looked like nothing at all and yet had cost him so much. For a moment he hated it. Better that it might have been blasted to pieces than any other planet or system. And yet it was out there, somewhere, waiting.

He expelled a harsh sigh and closed the map, then reached into his pocket to withdraw the data stick he’d brought with him. He inserted it into one of the ports and entered a perfunctory series of commands. As he waited for the data to transfer, Kylo dared to let his mind drift.

His encounter with Rey had been disastrous. She was more set in her fruitless fabrications than he’d let himself believe possible. She was unable to see past any of it. That was her choice. He couldn’t waste any more time on it, and if the Force persisted in connecting them, he would ignore it until that withered too.

Still, he felt like a fool for not realizing how disposable she considered him. This would be simple if he could be angrier at her. Instead he pitied her. It was what he’d felt for her the whole time. That was all. Compassion was a prettier name for pity.

His real anger was for Luke; always, always. Blinkered as he’d been by his need to protect himself from Snoke’s influence, Kylo had made a mistake. Today had made him see that, with its constant reminders of who was truly to blame. He’d let himself forget—Luke’s influence over Kylo’s life was as dangerous as any sway Snoke had ever possessed. It was insidious and complete and it infused every decision Kylo had made since that night. Leia at least saw that much: it was an open wound. One Snoke had prodded and let fester. One Leia preferred to throw a bandage over and hope it healed well enough.

This was the price Kylo paid for failing to finish what he’d started. He would have no sort of life worth living until the task was done. He would go to Luke himself, and he would end it the way he should have the first time. If he could have nothing else, maybe that would be enough.

Complete the objective. Finish it.

As for anything after that, he couldn’t see it, but he didn’t care. It was better than feeling himself decay. It was better than anything that had come before.

Outside the ship, something scraped loudly across the floor of the hangar and tore him from his fuming. The sound should not have been so clear. With a jolt, Kylo realized he had not bothered to shut the boarding ramp. He rarely had use for stealth and had been in no mood to practice a neglected skill set when he’d arrived—another mistake. He froze for the second time, breath caught in his throat as he strained to listen. Another scrape, followed by a disgruntled, animalistic growl, then something heavy and metallic hitting the ground and being dragged.

Shit.

He ripped the data stick from the port, closed the interface, and shut the ship down, then moved to the ramp to investigate, making more of an effort this time to keep silent.

A long shape lurked not far from the Mirrorbright, pushing a large crate from the shadow of the Falcon , which had returned earlier that evening. The silhouette of a Wookiee was unmistakable. Kylo considered waiting this out. Whatever Chewbacca was up to, it would not take all night . . . except he had already noticed the disturbance and was abandoning his load to see who else was creeping around the hangar at such an hour. Despite his advanced age, Chewbacca still moved with the confidence of an individual who knew he had few equals in terms of physical power and ferocity.

Few, but not none.

Kylo grit his teeth and stepped down the boarding ramp, then set it to shut behind him as if there were nothing out of the ordinary. He wasn’t naive enough to think Chewbacca would believe he had any business being here, but he hadn’t yet decided how to handle this, and it bought him a few more moments. Chewbacca paused a short distance away and watched him in silence before he issued a low growl of greeting. Shyriiwook was not a forgiving language on the ears or vocal chords, yet Kylo had picked it back up easily enough despite the many years since he had heard it with any regularity. Now, he caught the tones a Wookiee reserved for family and the casual but cautious question he knew would come.

The insubstantial weight of the data stick in his pocket was as present to him as if it were made of lead. Rather than answer, he turned Chewbacca’s question back on him.

“What are you doing here?”

With a dubious lift of his chin, Chewbacca relaxed minutely and informed him he was unloading a shipment from the Falcon , though he did not specify what the shipment contained. Weapons, Kylo supposed, or perhaps ship parts.

“Is my—” Kylo swallowed and narrowed his eyes, listening, feeling. He already knew the answer but finished the question anyway. “Is Han here with you?”

He was not. Chewbacca was working alone tonight, enjoying the rare emptiness of the hangar—or so he’d thought. And Kylo had still not answered his earlier question: What was he doing here?

No longer entertaining enquiries into his activities, for one thing.

“Nothing to concern yourself with. I was just going.”

Chewbacca looked skeptical, and he bared his lower teeth fleetingly as his head tilted with another series of guttural observations. He hadn’t realized Kylo had business with the Mirrorbright , at this hour or at all. So what was the story?

“Listen.” Kylo eyed him sharply and could feel the moment approaching when he’d have to make a decision he didn’t relish but would make anyway. Chewbacca stared back, small dark eyes knowing and calm. “Go back to your work, or leave. Whatever. Just keep out of my way.”

He could tell what Chewbacca must be thinking. He’d given Kylo a chance to lie: to say it was routine maintenance, albeit at a strange hour and completely unsupervised, on a ship that was known to be under someone else’s purview. He hadn’t. Something shadier, then. Kylo might be in the midst of some act of sabotage. Or, closer to the truth, he might be attempting to desert.

It wasn’t desertion. Kylo had never put his lot in with these people. Not really. He was here by choice, hands tied or not, and now he was leaving by choice. Chewbacca stepped closer. What Kylo saw in his face wasn’t suspicion or outrage: it was compassion. Pity . The last thing he needed.

Chewbacca continued to approach, and Kylo reflexively set his hand on the hilt of his lightsaber, clipped to his belt and hidden beneath the flap of his jacket. Overkill. He didn’t want complications. He didn’t want to leave a maimed body behind, let alone a corpse. Chewbacca had been decent to him all this time, when he’d been around. But—

Another warbling growl, more like a purr, firm but almost appeasing.

Or was it condescending?

“Yes, I’m going. That’s it.” He made an attempt to sidestep Chewbacca, which was easier said than done. Still, he ducked past him and didn’t look back as he continued on. “If you insist on interfering, you won’t—”

A heavy, fur-covered hand landed on Kylo’s shoulder and squeezed. Not hard enough to cause injury, but hard enough to remind that it could, though it didn’t want to. Without thinking, without waiting to hear what else Chewbacca could possibly have to say to him, Kylo ripped himself out of his grasp and pushed a hand out toward him, feeling the Force build instantly against his palm and flare out with intent to repel. With a startled howl, Chewbacca was wrenched several feet into the air and propelled backward until he collided hard with the fuselage of a medical transport. He hit the ground with a dull thud and did not stir beyond a brief twitch of his massive leg.

Kylo swallowed and stared. He felt a flash of guilt, followed by the wash of fragile numbness he was accustomed to burying such responses beneath. He turned and walked away.

The ship he’d decided to take was an RZ-2 A-wing interceptor, slightly battered but in top shape, as far as that went for the Resistance navy. He stowed his bag in the storage compartment beneath the cockpit, which was already half-crowded with the customary survival kits and stores of medical supplies, then boarded and prepped for departure. The controls were straightforward, and the layout was typical of a Kuat model, its similarities to a TIE immediately evident. Kylo hardly needed that to find his way around a ship that wasn’t his, but the familiarity was a welcome perk. As the RZ-2 juddered to life it gave a low mechanical hum, and it moved with smooth, gratifying speed as he coaxed it into the air and steered it toward the wide sea-facing mouth of the hangar cave.

A storm had been rolling in when he’d last been outside, and since then it had picked up force and was raging in earnest as he broke into open air. Kylo kept the RZ-2 low at first, just above the chop of the waves as he pointed the nose toward the curve of the coastal mountains ahead and accelerated. He’d piloted far superior starfighters before, though he would admit the interceptor’s wedge shape lent it impressive speed, and while its maneuverability was responsive to the point of being fickle and slippy, the slight challenge was a worthy distraction.

And the weather. It was one thing to navigate the uncanny calm of open space, and another to lose oneself in the mortal urgency of a dogfight. But he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had the sheer insane pleasure of flying through a storm over the surface of a planet. The wind buffeting the ship. The waves clawing upward to strike it. The rain lashing against the viewport. All of it conspired to destroy him, yet it also provided cover and a surge of adrenaline he couldn’t resist. For a while he let himself reach into the unfeeling chaos and ride its power. He kept the ship always just on the edge of control, letting the storm think it had won and then wresting himself back at the last possible moment as he surged toward the mountains and disappeared around the cliffs.

Soon he would rise above it all, and then he’d be gone.

 

 

The dreams came back that night, the ordinary sort, somehow worse for how they started.

The hot spring, first. What might have been. It began so good. Kissing against one of the trees by the bank. Layers falling away, discarded in the grass. An impossibly hasty escalation of touch, feel, and urge spurred on by the thick heat of the spring and the close, secret darkness of the forest at night. Yet the things he’d said to her were there too—he was whispering them right into her ear between every huff of breath, branding them into her with every sweeping caress and brush of his lips against her skin—things that were impossible because it was impossible that she could have lived her life for nothing.

Wrong. He was wrong. He had to be wrong.

Hurt and anger surged shamefully back. It was her, and him, and the water, and the steam, and it was an irrational, greedy need for him to take it all back and stay. It was her skin sliding against his as she struggled to find purchase on the smooth stones at the edge of the spring and everything kept slipping. It was her hands grasping at his wrists, and him letting her do it, and her letting him pull her down with him into the gravel and mud where he braced her body too firmly against his. His tongue tasted like the sharp, stinging heat of Skithan whiskey. He hissed when she bit his lip, and then it tasted like iron. She rolled her hips and felt him inside. He was hard and hot and pressing very deep. If she looked down she could have seen where their bodies joined. Instead she reared back and took him again, deeper, harder, until it almost hurt, but that was fine because it meant he was there. When people disappeared there was always an ache left behind.

But he wasn’t there. Or he was, but the scene had changed. There was no spring. No heat of his body soaking into hers. No ache. It was cold, and he was falling, or maybe being pulled. A mouth opening up in space, time, the fabric of existence, sucking and destroying. Everything swirled as stars quavered and elongated the way they did during a hyperspace jump. She tried to grab him, to hold him back and take him away, but it was too strong, whatever it was, and he was tipping, slumping, wavering, let go

Heat. Jakku, again. She was alone and surrounded by stacks of salvage. Something crept over her mind; it made it hard to think clearly, a thick fuzz like mold on fruit. It reminded her of her anger and uncertainty. It reminded her of home.

She was tired of that life.

She could be more. She could be better.

Kylo’s words. Not Kylo’s voice.

It made her cold and resonated in her head until her jaw ached. She could still taste his blood on her tongue. She felt another vibration, and heard the shocking sound of something cracking overhead.

Rey startled awake as a second thunderclap made the windows rattle. She was in the barracks, in her bunk, with a blanket thrown loosely over her. She remembered coming here, though she wasn’t sure how much time had passed since then. A few hours, she guessed. There was no more music outside, and the flickering of firelight had long since died. The base was as quiet as it ever could be in a storm. Just rain sliding down wind-shaken panes, thunder rolling, and the occasional flash of lightning.

She was sick of the weather here. The novelty was gone. Mind still sluggish, as if it hadn’t quite shaken off that heavy feeling of the dream, she wondered if the planet Luke had chosen to exile himself on was any better. If she were going to hide someplace, she would make sure it was beautiful and green, with warm breezes in the day and fresh, cool air at night, and just enough rain to keep the world alive.

Someone was snoring. The iron tang of blood from the dream was real, her own from where she must have bitten her tongue as she slept. She licked her lips; they were dry, and there was a trace of saltiness at the corners. She’d fallen asleep with tears still drying on her face. At least she’d been alone. She hadn’t wanted Finn or anyone else to see her like that and worry when she could hardly explain what the problem even was. Or maybe she was just too proud. Brow furrowed, Rey rolled onto her other side and squeezed her eyes shut as she tried to banish intrusive thoughts of Kylo. It was impossible, after what had happened on the bridge, after a dream like that one. A complication of arousal and anger and regret.

In the immediate aftermath of their fight she’d held on to two convictions, and she grasped to recall them now: what he had told her could not have been true, and he would not leave tonight. He had made it clear he had no wish to do so without her. He had made it clear he would say whatever he thought he needed to in order to convince her to join him.

He wanted so badly for them to be the same. She had wanted that too. She still thought they must be, in some ways. There had been too many moments when she saw understanding in his face when he looked at her. She felt it. But perhaps she had been too hasty. There was goodness inside him, she was certain, but he considered it a weakness. He had far less interest in nurturing that potential than in putting a wedge between her and anything that wasn’t him.

No wonder he saw darkness when he reached out into the Force; no wonder it clouded his attempts to find direction. Why would he so readily trust something he claimed it had shown him? Why would she trust that over her own mind?

This wasn’t helping. She was lying here getting angry all over again, with an ache below after all, her throat tightening with more tears as she contemplated the mess everything had become over the course of a single day. She felt a flare of outrage as if from a distance, calling from somewhere outside herself. It faded so quickly she wondered if it had been there in the first place. More echoes from a dream.

Home was so much simpler. It was a good thing she was taking a step tomorrow. A step forward that would lead back, in the end, to things she knew and understood. There was nothing wrong with that. Billions of people throughout the galaxy lived exactly the same way. She was nothing so special as to expect more for herself. She was tired of being told by other people where she belonged and why.

Rey rolled over again, pulled the blanket up to her chin, closed her eyes, and tried to sleep.

 

 

For the second time in as many minutes, the navigation display beeped, seemed to freeze for an instant, and began to reroute the RZ-2. Either the starfighter’s systems were faulty (they weren’t , he’d worked on the thing last week), or he’d stolen himself a defective map. Given the deep, infuriating indignity of the second option and the nature of his luck of late, Kylo felt instinctively that it could only be that. He’d cleared Pamarthe’s gravity without interference and made the jump to hyperspace not long after. He should have realized it had been too easy, even with Chewbacca and the violent weather. Now he was careening through a tunnel of endless blue and struggling not to lose his temper.

If he let himself succumb to his mounting anger, he wouldn’t be able to figure out the problem. He curled his fingers harder around the controls and waited until the tightness in his chest subsided, then forced himself to relax and watch the screen closely. For lack of a holomap projector, the map itself was reduced to a simplified version of itself, pared down to coordinates, general waypoints, and ideal hyperspace channels. That was not the problem. The problem was that he could swear they were not the same coordinates they had been when he loaded the data into the RZ-2’s systems and made the first jump.

It seemed impossible, until he caught it again. The system gave a sharp beep and inexplicably began to calculate a new route. This time, right before his eyes, the series of numbers changed —not all of them. It was a subtle enough shift that he might have missed it at a glance. But all it took was one number for the entire thing to be thrown off. Less likely defective than encrypted, then. He watched as another minute passed and the coordinates altered again at the same fixed interval.

With a frustrated snarl, he tore his eyes from the display and focused on the hypnotic motion of the hyperspace tunnel as he weighed his options. For a few moments he tried to take himself back to the Mirrorbright and what he had seen there, but nothing was certain beyond his relief at the time that it was the correct map. He could chart a course based on the portions he did remember, the ones that had once led to a gaping hole in the fabric of the galaxy, and then drift and hope he caught something promising. Idiotic, and more likely to end with him in a stranded spacecraft with limited resources. He had certain talents for navigation, but they only took him so far in a case like this.

There was a chance he could figure out how to get the map data functioning properly; if the copy he had stolen had been encrypted, there would be a way to trick it or extract the information he needed. But not inside the cramped confines of a stolen ship that was being rerouted every minute. Not when every newly calculated route might steer him toward not a planet but a gravity well or dying star or any number of perilous, unwanted destinations.

With the slight head start he had and the unlikelihood that Luke would actually abandon his exile to return with Leia, Kylo’s prize would still be there when he arrived. He could afford a brief detour. He’d find a place to stop just as long as it would take to recalibrate the map himself or, worst case, find someone to do it for him without any inconvenient questions. He used to be good at making people do what he wanted them to. His most recent failures were the result of not resorting to the methods he’d once been able to employ with very little remorse. He wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. He answered only to himself.

Resigned, Kylo exhaled hard through his nose and uttered a string of curses under his breath, then switched the ship from auto to manual control. After another breath, he confirmed his current position through narrowed eyes and let them fall shut as he loosened his hands on the controls.

Hyperspace contained countless channels of exit and entry, but a far smaller fraction were advisable at any given time from any given position within it. Navigation computers were the most reliable way to safely chart a route between two or more points via hyperspace. Kylo had an edge there that many—most, in a galaxy where hardly anyone believed in using the Force any longer—did not, though recent experiences made him hesitant.

This wasn’t going to go that way. He wasn’t meditating or expecting help from some other plane, like a fool. The stars were indifferent. This was strictly practical.

He screwed his eyes shut tighter and let himself reach into the Force until he sensed the close, frantic pulse of the hyperspace channel urging his ship onward at impossible velocity. The longer he did so, the more he connected to it, the more he saw into and through it. There were little cracks here and there. Spots that felt thinner or weaker, almost membranous. Spaces that felt right, others that seemed to repel, branches that led off endlessly. And beyond those, the yawning infinity of space: debris, asteroids, stars, planets, whole systems. The trick was to ignore all the noise and know what to feel for. Planets, at least the sort he needed, felt like clusters of ever-shifting vitality.

Unbidden, he remembered watching the destruction of the Hosnian system. The instant the lasers made impact he’d felt the implosion of that same life energy being reduced to its meanest components, leaving nothing in its wake but silence.

Kylo’s skin crawled as he steered his thoughts back to the task at hand. He was on the verge of finding what he needed . . . there . Not much nearby, but it was populated. He returned to himself and checked the navigation computer. Its calculations gave no indication that there was an approaching point to safely make the shift out of hyperspatial travel, but he knew one was there. He’d felt it. He just had to wait until the ship was upon it and time his exit correctly.

Rather on dwell on the very real possibility that he might miss the moment by a fraction and end up sending his body and the ship in a million different directions at once—blown straight to stardust, what a way to go—Kylo steeled himself. He watched. He listened. He kept his hand ready, poised over the controls.

 

Rey was dreaming of stars spinning past when she woke again, and she immediately knew that something was wrong. Heedless of the fact that the sun hadn’t yet broken the horizon, she flung herself out of her bunk and rushed outside into the rain, which had tapered off somewhat but still soaked into her clothing as she ran. As the hangar came into view, she realized she was right. The base at large was still waking up, but there was a small crowd gathered around the nearest cave entrance under the harsh glare of floodlights, muttering in disapproving alarm, pulling hoods up, and shuffling under ponchos and jackets.

She spotted Finn in the mix and darted over to him, but before she could ask what had happened he leaned closer and looked at her with alarm.

“I was about to come find you,” he said, then noticed how sodden she was and beckoned her to follow him beneath a narrow jut of rock that offered some protection from the weather.

“I’m already soaked, it’s not going to get me any dryer,” Rey muttered, smiling uneasily as she huddled next to Finn and craned her neck to see the hangar. “What’s happened?”

“You’re not going to like it.”

She had known that much the moment she woke up with the feeling that something had fallen out of alignment, very deep inside. Still, she had to hear it, and though she didn’t want to, it was better from Finn than anyone else. “Just tell me.”

His face scrunched with distaste, and he followed her gaze to the entrance. “Han found Chewie in the hangar. He’d been attacked. Knocked out.”

“That’s . . .” Not what she’d been expecting to hear, yet it sent a prickle of anxiety through her. “Is he all right?”

“I think so. They took him to the med center. He’s awake.” Finn looked as if he was recalling his own brush with an injured Wookiee and thinking that he was glad not to have been the one to find him this time. “The thing is, he said he found Kylo Ren in the hangar last night, tampering with that ship you’ve been working on.”

“The Mirrorbright .”

“Yeah, that one. The pretty one. Anyway, he tried to get Kylo to explain what he was doing there, Kylo threw him against the side of a transport hard enough to crack a few ribs, and now they’re saying one of the starfighters is missing.”

Rey was quiet and stared at the pattern the raindrops made as they struck the surface of a puddle.

“And . . . no one’s been able to find him?” she prompted when Finn’s silence dragged. “Kylo.”

“He’s not usually that easy to find anyway, but no. He’s missing too.”

She balled her hand into a fist to stop it from shaking. “You said Chewie’d seen him doing something with the Mirrorbright ?”

“That’s what he told Han—that he was unloading some cargo, noticed one of the ships had been powered up, started to approach to see what the deal was, and saw Kylo disembark.” He paused again, and she felt him searching her face. “You don’t seem too surprised by any of this, you know.”

“It’s . . .” Her eyes widened, then she shook her head. “Are you?”

Finn looked baffled. “Uh. Well, after a few weeks of trying to make nice with the guy and getting not-so-subtle brush-offs in return, I have to say I didn’t become too chummy with him. Not the way you did.”

Her gaze hardened as a chill seeped into her lungs.

“Could be a misunderstanding,” Finn added somewhat lamely after a few moments.

A nice thought: a misunderstanding, and Kylo was only down on the beach, in that cave, doing whatever it was he did when he was alone there, while he thought of a way to explain why Chewie had found him in a place he should not have been and why that had ended with Chewie in the med center and Kylo nowhere to be found.

“Do you think so?” Rey asked.

“No. I just . . . I kind of get it. You know. But it’s not great. People are already saying he must be going back to the First Order and that we should prepare for a fight.”

“He wouldn’t.”

Finn regarded her with a soft expression, then gave a tiny nod. “I don’t think he would either.”

“Really?”

“I’ve sort of gotten the sense he might have as much reason to hate the Order as any of us do. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“We're not the only ones who think that,” he said, “believe it or not.”

“I know.”

Her mind was caught up in a dozen possibilities, and none of them quite caught. All she could think was that it was her fault. Rey closed her eyes and tried to focus on the Force, then to feel out the tenuous stretch of that power between her and Kylo. It was still there; it had never not been there. But it was slippery. She couldn’t grasp it, let alone properly feel him at the other end of it. Just like last night, after they’d fought, it was a dead end. She grit her teeth and tried again.

“Rey?” Finn’s hand settled gently on her forearm, and she gasped, startled. The connection slipped from her perception. “Hey, sorry— You looked like you were about to be sick. You all right?”

“Yes. Just a headache.” She blinked rapidly and forced the corners of her mouth into a fleeting smile. “I’m . . . I’ll stop at the med center. See how Chewie’s doing. I’ll be fine.”

Chapter Text

Greer confirmed Rey’s worst suspicions when she reported that, after a thorough check, the only part of the Mirrorbright that appeared to have been tampered with in the wee hours of the morning was the navigation system.

“He didn’t even bother to shut the thing down properly,” she said, running through the exact sequence Kylo must have followed to rip the data he’d wanted. “Wasn’t going for subtlety, that’s for sure.”

Rey stared at the map and wondered where Kylo was within the stretch of space it revealed. “I don’t think he cares much for subtlety.”

“And I think you’re probably right,” Greer agreed, eyebrows knitted in concentration. “So, seems all he was after was the map to Luke—though what gave him the idea it had been uploaded to this system, I can’t say.” Rey didn’t meet her eyes but felt them on her anyway. “And he must have gotten it, except it’s not going to work on the A-Wing he stole. Or any nav system that isn’t the Mirrorbright ’s. Which means wherever he is now, he’s pissed.”  

She said that last with a hint of bitter amusement. All Rey could think was that suddenly the flash of anger she’d felt last night as she tried to get over her dreams (and grapple her own frustrations) made far more sense. Kylo knew he’d been thwarted. Even now, she felt traces of his presence in the cockpit, knitted into the fabric of the Force like tiny shadows.

“He was aware of our plan,” Leia commented after a few moments, her eyes settling on the holographic planet, “so he may have considered this the best place to look first. I suppose if he’d come up empty he might have ransacked my office next.”

She straightened up in the copilot’s seat, studied the map a few moments longer, and powered the navigation system down. Rey and Greer had spent most of the morning going over all the work they’d completed the day before, reconfirming that nothing else was amiss—no fuel lines cut, no wiring out of place, no crucial parts removed or compromised—and Leia had joined them about a half hour ago. By now Rey had been in Leia’s presence enough times to know when her composure concealed worry. While she, like Rey, seemed firm in her belief that Kylo was not returning to the First Order and did not pose a direct threat to the Resistance’s concealment, the situation was still deeply troubling.

“Do you think he’ll bother going through with it when he finds out he can’t use the map?” Greer asked.

“The scrambling encryption will delay him, but I doubt it will stop him entirely.” Leia sighed. “He’ll find a way around it, and then he’ll carry on as he intended.”

“So get there first. He’s got a bit of a jump on you now, but even if he finds a place to stop and gets a slicer, that’s time and distance.”

Leia nodded and glanced across the console to Rey, who was huddled in the pilot seat, hoping her silence wasn’t too conspicuous. “It is, but that assumes Luke agrees to return with us straightaway, and I’m not certain he will. There’s a great likelihood we’ll still be there when Ben finds his way, or at the very least that Luke will be.”

Only after Leia did not elaborate further did Rey catch the faint frown that crinkled Greer’s brow. It occured to Rey then that Greer would not know the full extent of Leia’s desire to speak to Luke. She, like the rest of the Resistance, only knew the parts about some powerful artifact at large and a blind race to figure out what it could be. Greer would not know the mire of personal reasons behind Leia’s intent. When Rey considered it now, what Kylo’s disappearance truly meant—what he must mean to do—she found herself speaking without thinking.

“Maybe I ought to go alone.”

Both Leia and Greer looked at her at once, but Rey only returned Leia’s gaze. Perhaps she’d spoken without weighing the implications, but now that she had, it felt right, and she couldn’t take it back.

Leia’s eyes drifted to Greer, who had been waiting in silence. With no further prompting, Greer cleared her throat, smiled lightly, and said, “It sounds like you two may have some plans to discuss. I’ve got to lend Han and Joph a hand anyway with the rest of the cargo from last night. Turns out having a Wookiee to help throw heavy things around makes a huge difference, especially when that Wookiee’s suddenly in the sick bay.”

Leia chucked and nodded. “Thanks, Greer. You and Seastriker make sure Han doesn’t overwork himself. He mentioned some twinge in his back last night.”

“I’m sure he’ll take it well when I tell him you think he’s too old for this type of work anymore and that he should sit down and let us kids get the real lifting done.”

“If you’re going to be so obvious and phrase it like that, please know I’m denying everything.”

Greer grinned and made her exit with a jaunty wave. Not for the first time, Rey was reminded of how very easy a rapport Leia and Greer had between them. She didn’t think she’d ever feel that comfortable around Leia, no matter how kind the general was to her. A short silence that settled as the ramp of the Mirrorbright rose again was a reminder of that, and Rey look cautiously to Leia.

“So.”

Leia paused. She had spun the copilot’s seat a quarter of the way to face Rey, and Rey, hoping it might seem more respectful, mirrored her. Their knees were only a handspan or so apart. It felt startlingly intimate, and Rey detected that particular aura of peace she had come to associate with Leia—not placidity so much as conviction so profound it could only provoke trust in those within its reach.

“So,” Rey echoed. Unsatisfied by the lack of confidence in her voice, she cleared her throat before continuing. “I . . . I meant it. About doing this alone.”

“I don’t doubt you meant it. But I’m curious about your reasoning.”

There was no way to say this without risking offense anyway. Directness would have to do.

“You said to me a while back that Kylo— Ben . . .” This was already awful. She no longer had any idea what to call him, not even to Leia. Her confidence in who she’d begun to think he was remained shaken. There were a few things, though, that Rey still believed. “You said to me he had let me reach him, in ways you or Han couldn’t. And I know I brushed it off then, but I think you were right.”

She paused, assuming Leia must have some thoughts on that; but the general only watched her, attentive and quiet, her face giving away very little. She was listening. It was at once unnerving and reassuring, enough so that Rey took it as permission to continue.

“He trusts me. Did, at least. If he’s planning to go to Luke, if there’s a chance he would encounter us there as well, I’d been thinking it might be . . . more difficult, if you were present. Given what he’s said about how a  . . . how he intends a meeting like that to go. If he took the map, he has a reason, and I don’t think it’s a friendly chat he’s after.”

Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to voice the fact that she assumed Kylo had gone off with the intent to kill Luke when he found him, but she wouldn’t have to. Leia knew that already. Did she believe he could?

Leia tilted her head a fraction and folded her hands in her lap. The ring on her finger caught some light from outside the viewport and sent a fractal reflection across the ceiling. “Are you telling me you think my presence would complicate matters?”

There was no way to tell what sort of answer Leia was expecting, let alone wanted.

“Yes,” Rey ventured, then rushed on lest Leia become angry at the impudence of her statement. “It’s not just . . . just Ben, either. I know things between you and Luke are . . . er. Difficult.” Leia made an odd chuffing sound, and Rey couldn’t say whether it was dismissive or amused or offended. “If it were me alone, I might be able to convince Luke to come back, or at least share any knowledge he might have about what you need.” What Rey needed, too, but by now that went without saying. “I’d just be a stranger with a mission and something that belongs to him. He would have no reason to feel defensive toward me. No good reason to tell me to leave. And if—when—Ben gets there, I might be able to reason with him. Keep things from getting worse.”

“And if I were there,” Leia cut in smoothly, cutting straight to Rey’s point, “my brother’s feelings toward me would be an obstacle, and my son’s feelings toward me would stir more conflict.”

“Yeah. It could. It’s not the only reason, though. You’re needed here. I’m not.”

She felt like she was describing how to disable a particularly testy network of security wiring. To Rey’s surprise, Leia chuckled as she had at Greer’s comment about Han minutes before. Rey couldn’t imagine what had been funny about what she’d said.

“You may have a point.”

The humor was gone from Leia’s voice, but she was thoughtful, not angry. Rey nodded, resisting the urge to pick at her nails.

“And,” Leia went on, “I know that you and Ben developed a certain understanding during his time here”—now Rey had to ignore the rush of blood in her ears and hope that Leia would not notice any changes in the color of her face—“but this won’t be a small task, even if it only comes down to you and Luke.”

“It wasn’t going to be a small task when all I had to do was bring Luke his lightsaber and ask him to come back, either. Right?”

“Right.”

“But I could have done that. And I can do this.”

There was a sparkle in Leia’s eyes as she glanced at the viewport, which looked out onto the back of the hangar, an uninteresting span of natural basalt growths and metal sheeting. “You are so much like him. The way he was once. Han thinks so too.”

Rey knew who “him” was, because Leia had said as much once before, but was at a loss for how to respond. Leia didn’t seem to notice. She was still looking out the viewport, but Rey didn’t think she was seeing the cave walls. Her gaze was distant and present at the same time, like she was looking within and waiting to hear something.

“How can you be so calm about this?” Rey blurted, more curious than accusing.

She immediately felt silly for asking; Leia was a politician and a general. She’d fought a war practically her whole life. If there was something in the galaxy that would rattle her, Rey doubted it would come down to anything that had transpired today.

Leia gave a tight smile. “Many years of practice. You know what it is, though, don’t you?—it doesn’t mean you aren’t feeling anything. You do what needs to be done.”

“Right. Yeah, I know. Sorry. None of this is what I expected it to be.”

“It’s not.” Leia shifted in the copilot seat, and Rey sensed she was on the brink of a decision. “When Luke was young, after the war ended and the Empire was dismantled, he spent most of his time traveling. I hardly saw him for years, and when I did he was so full of stories and theories and ideas it was like meeting a new person, after all the time he’d spent seeking out knowledge of the Force and exploring how it’s understood across the galaxy. Through history. It wasn’t all about Jedi and Sith. It never was. There are as many beliefs about the Force as there are planets.”

Rey wasn’t sure where Leia was going with this, but her interest was piqued, as it always was when she stood to learn something new. “I’d hear all sorts of stories, growing up at the outpost. About the things he did and saw. A lot of them sounded sounded unreal.”

“I have no doubt some of them were,” Leia said with amusement. “And I can hardly claim any expertise, but one idea he told me about that always stayed with me and brought me peace of mind when things seemed to be heading for the worst is that the Force is a tide. It rises and falls. It approaches and recedes. Things always connect in a cycle of change. And a person doesn’t control it, but they can trust that what departs will return.”

Rey understood that. Today, she couldn’t help wondering if there was ever a point when that much hope changed from a boon into a burden.

“We don’t despair the sun every time night settles, do we? So that’s what I’ve tried to do all these years. For Ben. For Luke. For Han, too.” Leia’s voice dropped. “It isn’t easy. I’ve still made many mistakes.”

Rey swallowed. “So have I.”

She could have elaborated, easily. Starting with last night, and maybe the weeks before, but it was too fresh. The sudden warmth of Leia’s hand on hers where it rested on the edge of the seat was startling but welcome. Her skin was soft and smooth, and as the metal band of her ring pressed against Rey’s knuckles, Rey couldn’t help thinking Leia knew where her thoughts had begun to drift.

“Less than you think, I bet,” Leia said, giving her hand a light squeeze. “You go. See it through. Whatever waits ahead, it’s yours to seek, not mine.”

 

 

The mission was hers again: find out what Luke knew that might help the Resistance; try to convince him to come back; hope that he could help her make sense of what was happening to her. In a matter of hours she would be aboard the Mirrorbright , leaving Pamarthe behind, on her way to meet a legend.

It would be fine, but for the fact that the more time it took, the more likely she would need to contend with the arrival of a wrathful Kylo Ren.

Rey was in the barracks, packing up her meager belongings for the journey. The task should not have taken her long, but she kept being distracted by inconvenient details. When she tucked away the sewing kit she’d been given, it occurred to her that she had been lax in counting the days—the last time she’d stitched a tally mark into the cuff of her boot had been the morning after she’d slept on the beach with Kylo. Over a week neglected, and it hardly bothered her. Like it didn’t matter how long she’d been away.

It did matter. Days were days. She would fix it later.

When she shook out her pillow, she heard a dry crinkling sound and found the piece of parchment she’d had stuffed into the pillowcase. She pulled it out and unfolded it carefully, then sat on the edge of the bunk to look at it. It was the star map from the same night, with the mysterious circles and stars that apparently existed nowhere but in Kylo’s mind. She’d told herself she was stowing it in her bunk for safekeeping, because it had been a gift and she’d been given very few of those in her life.

The truth was, she’d hoped that having it near while she slept might make her dream of where it was. She never had, at least in no way she could tell. There was no practical reason to take it with her when she left tonight. She hadn’t even looked at it since the night in the cave. Still, now she sat for a few minutes, following the lines with her eyes and running her finger absently along the edge of the parchment. She couldn’t decide if it fascinated her so much because of its clean, simple beauty or because of who had made it.

The sound of footsteps roused her attention too slowly, and she was only just looking up when Finn poked his head around the edge of her bunk with an easy smile.

“Need some help?”

Rey twitched and hastily folded the parchment, cursing herself a moment later for not being more careful with it. Or more casual. Finn raised an eyebrow.

“Am I . . . interrupting something?”

“No. Definitely not.” Shaking her head, she tucked the parchment between some spare clothing in her bag. She would take it with her. Decision made. It wasn’t as if it added extra weight. “Sorry, I was trying to decide what to bring. Got caught up. Help would be nice.”

Finn still looked like he found her behavior a touch strange, but he didn’t pry. “What can I do?”

“Er.”

Rey had stood and was regarding the array of things on her bunk, half of which had yet to be packed away. Everything she needed, really. Clothing, rations, basic medical supplies. The datapad that Greer had loaned her and now insisted she keep. Her staff. A blaster. Luke’s lightsaber—best to start thinking of it that way again now, as she’d gotten into the unconscious habit of calling it her own. The Mirrorbright was stocked with a few weeks’ worth of necessities as well. Rey would be well provided for during the trip, and if she ran out of the basics, she was good at improvising. Wherever Luke was, he had survived for years. She could manage for a fraction of that.

With a skeptical hum, Finn stood beside her and folded his arms. “Not a lot, from the looks of it. I forgot, none of us actually owns much of anything.”

“Most of the stuff I care about is back home.”

“Yeah, same. That old white helmet. Really miss it.” He snorted. “Ah, wait, nope. That’s back in the desert too. Maybe you’ll find it someday.”

Hearing someone else speak of her intent to go back to Jakku like it was fact rather than fleeting desire or foolish naivete was very strange, and less satisfying than she would have expected. She chuckled anyway. “Yeah, maybe. Want me to send it your way if I do?”

“Nah, you can keep it. I plan not to have a use for it ever again.”

“It could make a good flower pot, if it’s in one piece,” she suggested with a grin, stuffing a few light shirts into the bag. Finn took the hint and started folding a pair of her trousers with military efficiency.

“They have flowers on Jakku?” He held the folded trousers out to her and jutted his chin toward her packing. “You know, I can take a look at that and fit all this inside in half the space.”

“Oh. Sure.” Rey stepped back, observing as he took stock of her things, emptied out what she had already stuffed inside, and began to reorder it with some evident method. “And yeah. The flowers, I mean. Not many, but you can find them, some places. Crevices, mostly. Or when it rains every few years and the moisture gathers in certain areas. The flowers pop up then—you have to know where to look or you miss them.”

The flowers were usually spiky, hardy growths, not very pretty but still prettier than most things on Jakku. A few even had blossoms that gave off a dry, sweet smell and made a nice nightbloomer tea if she could spare the water. She told Finn about those, and they continued their ironic speculation on alternative uses for discarded stormtrooper armor and rare desert flora as Rey sorted and Finn systematically refilled her bag, and soon only her weapons remained untouched.

“Are you nervous?”

The casual tone of his voice was forced as he gestured at the bag, inviting her to inspect his work, but she appreciated that he tried anyway.

“About Luke?”

“Hm.”

“A little.” She wasn’t understating it to seem brave. More than anything, the prospect of her voyage to find Luke, while not comforting, gave her the feeling of doing something right. “More that I’m not sure what to expect. What he’ll be like. How to talk to him.”

“Hey, think of it this way: in a matter of hours you won Solo over so much he offered you a job. Skywalker’ll be a piece of cake.”

“Maybe. Though the way Leia talks about it . . . she told me that when he went away to train during the last war, he was gone a while. It’s like she knows something I don’t.”

“Training, huh?”

“I’m not going for training.”

“Is that what you told the general?”

“Yes.” Rey shrugged. “And she knows that—she’s the one who gave me a message for him. What to tell him to make him understand why the Resistance needs his help.” Rey carefully omitted the parts about Kylo, and the ominous cast of Leia’s more personal words for Luke on that front. “But she also told me to keep an open mind to what the Force might be showing me.”

He laughed drily. “A true believer, isn’t she?” Rey wasn’t sure what to say to that, and Finn’s expression became more thoughtful. “Well. I doubt you need to worry about Skywalker. I meant more if you get any . . . extra company, while you’re there.”

She avoided his gaze and busied herself with the closure of her bag, grateful for once that it had a tendency to get stuck. “Not really. If Kylo finds the planet and I’m still there with Luke, I’ll . . . think of something.”

It sounded far less promising when she put it like that.

Yet Finn seemed to be considering her answer, like he wanted to ask something else. “I wasn’t sure if I should say anything about it, and I guess it’s not my business, but I wanted to mention it anyway. In case there was something else you wanted to say but felt like you couldn’t.”

“About what?”

“I saw you two the other night.”

Her eyes flicked to her hands.

“You and Kylo. On the bridge?”

“Oh.”

Had he seen them arguing? Or what had come just before? She wasn't sure which she preferred less.

“I didn’t stick around spying or anything. It looked like a private moment, and . . . yeah.” What had come before the argument, then. Thinking back to how Kylo had kissed her then, like they were on the verge of something, it seemed impossible that it had happened at all. But Finn had seen. “I’d noticed you heading off and wondered if everything was all right when you didn’t come back.”

“It was fine.”

“Yeah, it looked fine to me, too,” he said, a hint of levity in his voice. “Which is why I was a little surprised by the news I woke up to.”

Rey felt the flare of an instinct to protect herself, but Finn of all people would understand.

“He . . . wanted me to go with him if he left. And I can’t, obviously, so I told him that, and we fought about it. I didn’t think he’d do it alone.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“It’s okay. It happened. It was my mistake.”

Finn looked equal parts bemused and sad for her, which she didn’t like very much but couldn’t do anything about. The more distracting issue was that talking about it had her thinking about it again. She was trying so hard not to and had thought that the more time passed, the easier it would be—and it hadn’t even been a full day yet, so she should have been more patient with herself. But it only seemed to get more difficult not to overthink each thing Kylo had said.

She’d dismissed so much of it as how he identified with her too much, yet she had felt that kinship as well. She still did. If she thought about where that feeling originated, she began to see that she must have hurt Kylo very badly. It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t go with him; it was what she had chosen instead and her reasons for doing so. He felt discarded and given up on. He had for a long time. And she’d done it to him again. It was a terrible realization. She knew how that went, how deep the wound cut when someone you trusted—

The metal of the bunk creaked as Finn cleared his throat conspicuously, rested a hand on one of the bars, and tilted his head to catch her eye. “So—he a good kisser?”

“What?” Rey’s eyes widened as she threw a look Finn’s way and tried to figure out if he was being serious. “Why does . . . Compared to what?”

“Damn, that bad?”

“No! I don’t know. I guess if—” ‘Bad’ was not on the list of words she would have applied to it. Still at a loss, all she could do was emit a short, nervous laugh and as she tried to look stern. “What the hell, Finn?”

He grinned at her, though there was still something in his expression that suggested he was sorry. “You were starting to look far off again. I figured that might get your attention.”

“Well, you did,” she said, lips pursed as the heat faded from her cheeks.

“I don’t actually want to know, by the way.”

She huffed another laugh through her nose and tugged the closures of her bag shut. He really had done a much better job at packing it than she would have. Now all that was left were goodbyes. “What are you going to be doing while I’m gone anyway? You’re not involved in the stuff with the tracker, are you?”

“Not so much. I helped get them an idea of what to expect on the inside, but they’ve got a few other people for that too. The thought of going back there still feels too . . . close. For now.” Finn shrugged. “I’m actually heading out with Solo the next time he has a supply run.”

“Really? That sounds exciting!”

“Jealous?”

She swatted at his shoulder with the back of her hand. “No. A little surprised. The way you talk about him, I’m never sure you actually like him very much.”

“Ah, he’s all right. Cranky, but so are you, and I like you just fine.”

Rey returned his teasing smirk, then looked at him with greater sincerity. “Then try to be here when I get back.”

“Whenever that is, right?” He pulled her into a good, solid hug, which she returned with equal force. It was helpful to remember there were still people here she could be close to, who wanted to be close to her, who cared when she wasn’t around. “I’ll do my best.”

Her friendship with Finn may have been new, but his best had always proven far more reliable than he probably realized. Right now, it was exactly the type of reassurance she needed to get off the ground.

 

 

Perhaps the Force was with him after all. When Kylo had located a safe hyperspatial exit point and prepared himself to catch it, he had not given much thought to what planet he felt beyond. All he had cared about in the moment was that it was populated enough to have a spaceport and that spaceports usually meant markets and supply stations, a place to fuel up, a place to get the blasted map decrypted and then be back on his way. Yet when he entered real space and scanned the nearest system to get an idea of what exactly he was dealing with, his recognition was immediate.

Kylo knew the forested world of Batuu for two reasons: its Black Spire Outpost provided a haven for people hoping to slip out of notice at the edge of the Unknown Regions, and it had figured in to more than one story Han or Lando had told when he was a child.

A hotbed of dissent, then, but a convenient one. So isolated that the First Order simply didn’t care about it, it was the ideal place to be anonymous for however long it took him to move along. A day or two, no more. Another good thing about this planet: people minded their own business. While he had not liked the idea of leaving the RZ-2 unattended in one of the docking bays, he was confident enough that the ship would not be interfered with in his absence. Besides, there was a good chance he’d be sleeping in the thing, and he would be returning to it shortly to get to work once he’d acquired what he needed.

But first, he needed to stretch his legs and eat something. He had been cramped up in cockpits for longer than it had taken to get him from Pamarthe to Batuu, but he could not remember the last time he had gotten any food, and his body was showing signs of fatigue. And disorientation.

He had spent much of the last five years sequestered on the enormous Supremacy , where things like day-night cycles were ruled entirely by constructed measurements of time rather than any natural cues. Visits to planets had been too brief for any sort of regularity to set in. His month on Pamarthe had been a strange experiment in that regard and, if he was being realistic, had exacerbated his sleep troubles as he adjusted. But he had adjusted, his body and brain had begun to associate sleeping and waking with that planet’s rotation, sunrise, moonrise, and now . . . well, Batuu did not run on Pamarthe time, and he had no idea when he had last slept.

That could wait a while longer. He’d get himself fed and hydrated, then figure out where in the labyrinth of markets he could get his hands on a decryption module and see if he couldn’t get the map working for him by the time the suns returned. That sort of thing wasn’t his area of expertise, but how hard could it be?

The atmosphere of Oga’s Cantina was too distracting for him to begin indulging self-doubt. It was fairly busy at the moment, which did not surprise him given the hour, and he was presently more concerned with the feeling that he was being watched. It seemed unlikely that he was the specific object of anyone’s attention. He could count on one hand the number of living people within the First Order who knew what he looked like unmasked, and none of them were likely to be found in a Batuu bar.

If anyone here was looking at him, it would only be because he looked like the sort of person to avoid in a place like this. When Kylo gave any thought to his physicality, it was usually in those terms—how much of his appearance could be weaponized. For a long time, the amount of space he took up had been in his favor, because he had no face or humanity and that was what made it dangerous. The last month stood as a reminder that it could also just be uncomfortable; his size, span, and intimidating demeanor conspired to make him conspicuous.  

He shifted in his seat at a small table near the back corner, where he could keep his back to the wall and watch the bustle of activity outside the wide arched doorway, and leaned into the shadow cast by a nearby pillar. The bar at the center of the room was circular and bright with lights, technology, and conversation, a star around which patrons and staff orbited and never seemed to settle. More bottles than he could count stood arrayed in neat, colorful rows, like unmined crystals. There were screens scattered here and there too—a few flat monitors, a few holoprojectors—broadcasting a disparate mix of newscasts, sporting events, and what appeared to be an Ithorian holodrama. How anyone was actually supposed to focus on one over the rest was lost on him, but his attention was drawn to a particular screen anyway.

It showed a podrace over some snow-covered terrain. At first Kylo thought it caught his eye because it was easier to parse than the others, but after a few moments he began to think it looked familiar. A rock formation crumbled suddenly, perhaps provoked by the vibrations of the race, and a tumbling, ice-covered boulder struck one of the pods, knocking out one of its huge engines and sending the rest to spinning toward the ground, where it erupted in a fireball against the snow. Kylo remembered that crash. It wasn’t a live feed, or even a recent recording. It was from at least fifteen years ago, maybe more. The scene cut away to another race clip moments later, this one on the outskirts of a glittering city. Some sort of compilation, then.

Kylo scanned the room, then eyed the screen again. While he’d all but demolished his meal within a few minutes of sitting and was already feeling somewhat better for it, he still had a beverage to finish. No alcohol this time. He regretted how much he’d let himself indulge at that eclipse festival, and he refused to sink that low again. Especially when the temptation to be lost in such temporary excess was quite potent. He did not need to get drunk; he needed to remember his training and remain resolute.

Even so, he let himself get caught up in the onscreen action as he drank, because otherwise he was going to start thinking about failure, and guilt, and Luke, and Rey. This was better. It wasn’t even mindless—watching a race could be an act of analysis if a person had a more-than-basic grasp of flight maneuvers—and it wasn’t only that first race that was familiar. Nearly all of them were: the one playing now was a snippet of a race in the Hosnian System to commemorate the tenth Festival of Liberation, which he definitely remembered because he had been there, one of thousands of spectators.

“Rising moons, stranger. Hope I’m not interrupting.”

The voice to his right made Kylo jump, and his hand flew automatically to his belt as he evaluated the intruder.

A familiar intruder. Tall, black-haired, dark-skinned, smiling. Impeccably dressed. A bit stouter than Kylo remembered, mustache a bit grayer, but it had been over a decade.

He kept his hand on his lightsaber, but did not move to use it. Instead, he stared up at Lando Calrissian and hoped the set of his jaw communicated what an unpleasant, unwelcome surprise this was.

How had they found him so quickly?

Lando cracked a smile and glanced at the empty seat across from Kylo. He was surprised Lando didn’t invite himself to take it. Instead, Lando crossed his arms and let his gaze drift to the empty plate on the table.

“I couldn’t help noticing you managed to get a complimentary meal and drink out of the bartender up there.” He jabbed a thumb toward the bar, the movement shifting the fall of his cape just enough to reveal the blaster holstered at his hip. “I would love a pointer or two.”  

Kylo scowled and cursed himself for not heeding instinct earlier—and for his probably very obvious use of a mind trick to get some free food. Another thing he’d need to get later: credits that wouldn’t be traced.

“How long have you been watching me?”

“Since the docking bay,” Lando said, neither apologetic nor smug. “May I join you in your very attentive watching of”—he turned away and made a show of squinting at the distant screen Kylo had been transfixed by, then gave an approving nod—“ahhh, some of Vespina Vye’s best races, looks like? You heard she’s retiring? Big deal in the circuits, lots of talk about what she’ll be up to next. There’s a rumor she—”

Kylo refused to be drawn in by the casual turn of Lando’s conversation. “Will you actually go away if I say no?”

“Nope.”

Lando pulled out the chair and sat, looked meaningfully at Kylo, and placed his blaster on the table. As if Kylo had had any reason to fear for his own life in the presence of an old schemer past his prime. Even so, he did not return the favor. His concerns about Lando’s presence remained, and they tended more toward the fact that it must mean the Resistance knew he was here. In fact, he would do well to leave immediately, which left him adrift in the galaxy with a map that couldn’t actually take him anywhere.

“I heard you were on Bespin,” he said after a few moments.

“Funny thing, the wonders of space travel, eh?”

Kylo glowered.

“Anyway, if we’re playing the who-heard-what-about-whom game, I heard you were on Pamarthe with the Resistance,” Lando continued gamely. “And yet here you sit, light-years away.”

“I’m not playing games. How did you find me?”

“Your face hasn’t changed that much in ten years, believe it or not.”

“Can’t say the same about yours.”

Lando’s smile was slow, but his laugh was sudden and loud, like Kylo had told the most amusing story he’d heard in years. “And look at that, your charming sense of humor hasn’t changed much either. What a relief.”

“What do you want? Did Leia send you here? Han?” He searched Lando’s expression for any sign of collusion, but the man’s sabacc face was still second to none. “I suppose they must have noticed I’m gone by now.”

He had no idea. Hours had passed since he fled, so the likelihood was high, but who knew if anyone cared that much about his presence at all? Not even Rey would be seeking him out after how their last meeting had gone. If he hadn’t left Chewie behind the way he did, it seemed entirely likely that his absence would still be unnoticed.

It was a sour feeling.

“What, did they send me here to fetch you? Like a babysitter? Thought those days were behind us, no?” When Kylo said nothing, Lando chuckled again and ran his fingers over his mustache as if to hide the return of that crooked, avuncular smile. “I noticed you near Bakkar. I got curious. I’m afraid this is mere uninteresting coincidence.”

Kylo didn’t believe in coincidence; events had reason, actions had purpose. He no longer believed the Force was with him in this, either. Landing on Batuu was beginning to feel less fortuitous and more like a sick joke.

As if sensing the further darkening of Kylo’s mood, Lando adopted a somewhat less equable tone and relaxed against the back of his chair. “I’ve been doing business at Black Spire since before you were even an idea. What’s your excuse?”

If nothing else, Kylo could appreciate Lando’s candor and that he wasn’t treating Kylo like he was a dangerous explosive. They might have been two old friends meeting for a casual drink. But that was Lando, wasn’t it? All the more reason to tread cautiously and end it quickly.

“Passing through. I need some supplies and then I’m moving on.”

“Ah. Of course. Well, this is the place for all that, isn’t it?” Lando eyed Kylo’s tumbler and looked as if he sorely regretted his own lack of beverage. “Though the markets are mostly closed up for the night. Unless you’re looking for more strictly adult-oriented activities.”

Kylo stared at him blankly. “No.”

Judging by his gracious smile, Lando was unruffled, and his next words were utterly disarming.

“So, how’ve you been?”

“What?”

“How. Have. You. Been? I’d heard about your recent . . . change of perspective. Last I saw Han.” There was a generous way to look at it, one Kylo did not find wholly accurate. “What was that, a month ago? More? Then not much else. And now you’re here.”

“You’re asking how I am ?”

Lando glanced around as if searching for some interfering entity. “I get that it’s loud in here, but I thought the question was pretty straightforward.”

“The answer isn’t.”

For a few precious moments, Lando was silent and seemed to contemplate the space behind Kylo’s head. As for Kylo, he didn’t know why he was still sitting here, entertaining a man he hadn’t seen in years and who had every reason to tip the Resistance off to his current whereabouts—no, he did know. It was because he had been sitting here alone, and before that he’d been flying alone, and he’d felt devastatingly alone in the hours before that. If Lando was still here, it meant a reprieve from that .

“Well,” Lando resumed, “judging by what you’ve said, no one else knows you’re here aside from me. Which is interesting and suggests my questions are the last thing you want.”

“Perceptive.”

“But if you needed a place to lie low a while—”

“I don’t. As I said, I’m passing through, like everyone else here.”

“And as I said, the markets are closed, which means these mysterious supplies you’re after will have to wait until at least the morning. So you may be passing through, but you’re not doing it tonight. And judging from your use of what I assume was some Force-enabled discount trick earlier, you’re not rolling in credits. You even have a place to spend the night?”

“I have a ship.”

“That A-wing? I saw it. Looks real comfortable.” He leaned in a bit. “How long has it been since you slept? No offense, but you look like you just pulled your ass out the wrong end of a sarlacc.”

Incredulous, Kylo huffed something close to a laugh and wondered whether there was a right end.

A nasty feeling in the back of his mind warned him that this was unwise, an exchange for the foolish and weak-willed. Lando was not a friend. Lando was a risk. Kylo considered this, then ignored it and stared back at Lando and did not move to leave.

“I don’t . . .” When he’d left in the middle of the storm, it was the dead of night. When he’d arrived at the spaceport near Bakkar Spire only a few hours later, dusk was beginning to fall over the outpost and the hulking, dark shapes of petrified trees that surrounded it. The last time he had slept was too long ago, he knew that—nearing two days, he supposed—and it was no doubt affecting his judgment. “Does it matter?”

“Guess it’s not for me to say, except that you look like you could use some, in a place with a bed and maybe a refresher. And that I have an apartment here with a spare room.”

Of course he did. Lando had apartments on several planets across several systems, and where he didn’t, he had enough useful connections to render actual ownership irrelevant.

“That sounds like a great way for you to keep me in one place while you contact your friends to let them know you’ve apprehended me.”

Lando regarded him with studious silence.

“Do you remember that gift I gave you when you were . . . What, ten?” He was looking at Kylo very seriously. As if realizing that description did not narrow it down much at all, he added, “The one with the note.”

It took him a moment, but Kylo remembered. It had felt very conspiratorial at the time, because he was a child, and stupid: Lando had visited, waited until Han and Leia were out of the room, and slipped him a box. It was nondescript, which was strange for Lando. It was also strange that he told Ben to open it later, alone, because usually Lando couldn’t just give a gift, he had to present it, and for that to work people had to be around.

But Ben had waited, and when he’d opened it he couldn’t see what the need for all the secrecy was. It was a blaster. Older model, from the look of it, maybe even a little older than he was, but nothing to be so discreet about. There had been a note, too. The exact wording had long ago fled his memory, though it boiled down to one thing: if Ben needed help and Han couldn’t do it, Lando would. At the time, Ben could not imagine being in such a situation.

Now, Kylo could not imagine how he had been ten years old and still that profoundly naive.

“Yes. I remember that.”

Lando looked surprised but pleased. He nodded as if some deal had now been struck, pushed slowly back from the table, and holstered his own blaster. Kylo half expected him to offer a handshake.

“Wonderful. Well, it’s good to see you looking . . . alive,” Lando said. Kylo scoffed. “If you do decide that your passing through can wait until the morning, and that you do want a place to go that won’t feel like sleeping in a box—cut through Merchant Row ‘til you hit the tea shop, hang a right, and follow that street all the way down. Apartment complex’ll be on your right. Big orange banner outside, well-lit, you can’t miss it. If you reach docking bay four, you’ve gone too far. I’m number seventy. Stop by. No questions asked.”

Kylo wanted to disagree, but he no longer felt up to arguing, and Lando was already weaving through the crowd as he made his way toward the door. It would be easier to ignore it and forget this exchange. For a while, that was exactly what he did. But an hour or so later Kylo was the one making his way out the door, and he was the one whose feet were taking him toward Merchant Row, down past the tea shop and all the rest, until he was looking at a door marked number seventy and fighting the urge to turn away and walk back to the spaceport.

The door slid open, and it was too late.

“This is for one night.” Kylo squinted in the light that shone from within. “I don’t need anything else from you. I don’t want anything else from you.”

Lando grinned at him, then stepped back to invite him inside.

 

Chapter Text

Supposedly this place was the site of the first Jedi Temple, and during her flight, Rey had a lot of time to speculate on what that might be like. Perhaps something a bit grand, or the ruins of an ancient settlement. There might be towers or some large central building full of records and art. Though the Jedi were said to be all about simplicity and self-denial, weren’t they? She was still considering possibilities when her destination came into view: a dull gray, green-mottled sphere in the black expanse. From there on, the business of preparing to enter the atmosphere and begin her descent was too consuming to let her wondering continue. 

Maybe for the best—especially when the Mirrorbright broke through the wisps of white cloud and Rey was afforded her first real glimpse of the planetscape below. Her immediate response was a surge of panic. She’d circled right back to Pamarthe. What the hell had happened?

She realized quickly enough that it was merely a strong resemblance. The rocky islands and vast oceans were similar, as was the way a shimmering mist hung over every surface. But this place had no clear signs of habitation. The cluster of landforms she was looking down on now appeared to have never been settled at all. No ships raced past on the horizon. No bridges connected island to island. With all that open space, she could land almost anywhere she wished.

Which was nice, she supposed, but didn’t help very much when it came to figuring out where to go after that. Had she really thought she was going to arrive and find Luke Skywalker waiting to welcome her? Well, no, she hadn’t, of course not. That would have been rather unsettling. But this place wasn’t small, and— 

There it was. As she cut over the high rise of a mountainside on the largest island, she saw a space cleared out in the rocks and grass and a small collection of domed huts. Signs of sentient life after all, though they looked abandoned. Her flagging confidence was restored by the sight nonetheless.

 It wasn’t just that. Something down there was calling to her in a cold, gentle whisper. It enveloped her like a chilled mist breaking over her skin. It was happy she had come. There was such a power in her. She was not happy though, was she? If she would listen, it would tell her anything she needed to know. Everything.

What did she need?

Rey’s eyes fluttered open. She did not remember closing them. And she was about to careen the Mirrorbright into the wide slope of another mountain.

“Shit!”

Shaking off the sinuous suggestion of the call, Rey veered the ship smoothly away from peril and drew it around to circle the island again. She’d survey until she found a good place to set down. No distractions this time. Yet even as she did so, she couldn't ignore the nagging idea that she had known that feeling before. Every night on Jakku, when she closed her eyes to sleep and the sand dunes outside her door became stretches of sparkling sea and the hulking wrecks of spacecraft became the jagged rise of islands. A particular island with a hole in the ground, a hollowed out tree full of knowledge, and hillsides that sang her name. 

The one she was flying above right now.

This had been it all along. She had seen this place her whole life, and if she was here now, if all of it came back to finding the lightsaber on Takodana, to leaving Jakku, to being left on Jakku. This was intentional. It should have been comforting to think it had meaning after all, that she was doing the right thing. Instead it was terrifying. Suddenly it mattered so much more. 

If she failed . . .

“One thing at a time, Rey.” She had yet to identify a place to land, find Luke, and make her case. “You only fail if you don’t try.”

Within twenty minutes the Mirrorbright was grounded on a low, flat cliff overlooking the water lapping at the rocks below, and Rey had disembarked. As tempting as it was to spend more time getting her bearings, it was imperative to locate Luke first. Yet ever since landing, Rey was aware of how very strong the Force was here. She might have noticed it sooner, if she hadn’t been as caught up as she was in practical tasks, but now it was just her and the island. She had never felt anything like it.

Instinctively, she reached out to it and was drawn deeper. Strong currents of life and death, birth and decay, warmth and cold, peace and violence, a cycle of forces calling back and forth to one another. Enough to drown in. It might not even feel so bad . . .

Rey wrenched herself back with a quiet gasp. In all of that, she hadn’t sensed anything that indicated another human being was out there. That was unsettling. Had Luke died here? 

Her hand sought the lightsaber at her hip—Rose had made her a simple clip for it, and Rey hadn’t had the heart to remind her she wouldn’t likely need it very long. When her fingers brushed the saber, the usual thrum of knowing was there as always. It was seeking something too. 

Up.

Luke was here, alive, somewhere up the hillside. Rey shielded her eyes from the sun and tilted her head back. There was a winding path of steps carved into the hill, folding back on itself many times as it ascended. She would find him there, at the top. She wasn’t sure how or why she knew it, but she did, and she would not question it. She was familiar with how this worked. Hoisting her staff over her shoulder, she took her first steps and set off up the hill.

 

 

As the sun rose on Kylo’s second morning on Batuu, the map remained an infuriating puzzle. In fact, he was starting to think each effort to restore it to its true form was actually making it worse. He’d spent a good deal of the day before tracking down a decryption module, which had not been the simple matter he assumed it would be. Since then, he’d slept only enough to keep his mind focused, but not enough to sacrifice too much time or sink into confusing dreams. Yet his routines were evidently enough to satisfy Lando, who seemed delighted by how much better Kylo looked after a shower and some rest. Kylo doubted that and found Lando’s effervescence annoying.

Yet for the most part, Lando left him to his work and had not been a nuisance. He hadn’t even asked Kylo what he was so fixated on getting done or what sort of supplies he needed to do it. True to his word, no questions had been asked. Still, it was difficult not to wonder when the other shoe would drop. Though Kylo remembered him mostly as a staple in his early life, Lando’s history with trustworthiness was checkered. Growing up, it had almost been a joke Han would tell.

Hey, remember that time you sold me out to Jabba and told the Empire where we were?

To which Lando would always respond, Hey, remember that time I blew up the second Death Star? Remember all the other times I’ve saved your ass?

Then they would laugh, and Leia would narrow her eyes, and Ben would think it was a bizarre sort of exchange to have. That his father could be friends—best friends, even—with someone who had broken his confidence so badly, more than once. Over the years he’d realized that his father was the exact same sort of person, that like attracted like, and it all made sense after all. So despite Lando’s hospitality and, fine, the fact that the apartment offered comforts Kylo hadn’t experienced in over half a lifetime, he was wary of duplicity. 

There had been other advantages, even so. The first morning, Lando had asked one question, in a way, when he’d caught Kylo about to leave for Merchant Row.

“You still need money.” The question was not in Lando’s tone, but it was implied. Against his better judgment, Kylo had halted at the sound of Lando’s voice following him. “I assume that whatever you need, it isn’t free. And forgive me for saying, you don’t have much to barter with.”

“I’m fine.”

“More mental games?”

Kylo’s plan had been to acquire what he needed the way he had in the cantina—a nudge of someone else’s perception. He didn’t really like using his power that way. It was cheap, like an insult to the Force. He should have been too proud for such deception, but apparently he wasn’t. He’d done it, and he would do it again.

“It’s not your concern. I doubt the people who deal in what I’m after are any more honest.”

“Probably not.” Lando had come closer as he toyed with something in his hands. “But take this anyway. Pretty soon someone will notice if you keep hoodwinking your way through the markets.”

He’d held out a slim case and slid it open to reveal the contents: a neat collection of credit sticks. Kylo pushed it away and turned to go.

“No. I’m not here on charity.”

“It’s not charity. It’s yours, actually. If we want to get technical. Has been for . . .” Lando’s eyes rolled up as he thought. “Ah, I don’t know. Maybe the last twenty-five years or so. This isn’t even all of it.”

“All of what?”

“I put some money aside for you. Added to it every year. I was going to give it to you when you came of age, thought you could use it to get yourself a ship, a speeder, blow it all on a wild gambling trip, whatever. But as you and I both know, circumstances changed.”

“So why did you keep it?”

“You might've had a use for it when you finished training with Luke.” Lando shrugged. “Then . . . sentimentality? I figured you’d died at the temple, it might make a meaningful donation somewhere in your name when this damned war was over. Except not so long ago I found out you’re not dead, and it looks like you could use it after all. So. Not charity.” That time he’d pushed the case into Kylo’s hand and stepped back. “Just what belongs to you already. If you’re worried about them being traced, don’t—they aren’t in anyone’s name.”

Kylo had looked at it a few moments and pocketed it. “How much is this?”

“More than enough. We can talk particulars when you get back.”

They hadn’t done that yet, but it had proved a huge help, loath as Kylo had been to admit it. It had taken a while to find a place that was selling a decryption module, let alone the sort he needed, but once that was handled he’d been able to purchase some other things to make his impending travels less rough-and-ready. Since then, he had devoted most of the last day and a half to the map, without much to show for it. 

It was beginning to wear on him. Caf would have been nice, something to eat, a quick shower, none of which he’d done in the last six or so hours since he’d woken. His patience was running thin and his frustration high. All it did was make him want to double down and get it to work already. 

He was so deeply sunk into his task he didn’t hear his door slide open.

“Hey.” Evidently, Lando was less shy about being a distraction today. He leaned against the doorjamb and folded his arms across his chest. “Whatever you’re doing, take a break and do something else. Might do some good.”

Kylo spared him a bland look, too on edge to be annoyed, and shut down the holoprojector he was using to review the map as the module hummed busily. “Not with this.”

“Well then do it for my sake. I’m tired of all the commotion in here.” 

“Commotion?”

“Let’s say you were never quiet about venting your frustrations, and I’ve come to see that hasn’t changed much either.”

“Not my problem.”

Lando regarded him in calculated silence, to the point that Kylo was about to snap at him to go. Just as he was opening his mouth to do so, Lando arched an eyebrow and said, “Give yourself an hour away from this. I’ve got sabacc ready to go out there in the dining room. Come have something to eat, clear your head, let me kick your ass. That’s all I ask. Hm?”

Kylo should have said he wasn’t open for a negotiation. What came out of his mouth instead was, “Bold of you to assume you’ll be the one kicking my ass.”

“Well you surely won’t be kicking mine, so I like my odds. Is that agreement I hear?”

Which was how Kylo found himself an hour later, not exactly regretting his decision to step away from the map, but regretting the fact that he had let himself fall so out of practice when it came to sabacc. He had never been especially good at it—it would be easy to cheat, but a lot less interesting—though there was a time when he would have fared better than he just had. The one bright spot was that they weren’t playing for any real stakes, or he might have found himself in trouble.

Lando was clearly resisting the urge to gloat as he collected the cards and shuffled them with typical flair. “If you have any interest in a rematch, we can consider that a practice round.”

It was somewhat tempting. If his need to restore the map weren’t so dire, he might have been enjoying the challenge of figuring the puzzle out. But its urgency made it demoralizing, mostly, and he hadn’t realized how much until he wasn’t constantly in its sway. When he returned to it, he would be trading one ass-kicking for another. 

“No. Not now anyway.” He paused and ran his finger distractedly over the edges of his losing hand. The Mistress of Staves glared up at him from the card on top, her expression serious and cold. Kylo frowned back and passed them off to Lando. “Thanks, though. This was sufficiently humiliating.”

Lando gave a dry chuckle. “I knew it would be. Maybe now you’ll have some fresh insights about how to unravel your map to Luke.”

Kylo had been draining his glass of brandy (because of course Lando couldn’t let them play without appropriate libations) and nearly choked on it. 

“What?”

“I did hear from Han. Yesterday while you were out. Says you did Chewie real dirty during your grand exit. Not cool.”

“I gave him the opportunity to walk away.” Kylo pushed back from the table and began to stand. “And it looks like I’m done here. I’m not waiting around until they send—”

“Hey, let me finish. Han wanted me to keep my ear to the ground, if I happened to catch wind of your whereabouts. I said I would stay alert. But I didn’t tell him you’re here.”

Reluctantly, Kylo lingered where he was, looming over the table, fists clenched. “Why should I continue to trust you if you’ve just admitted you’re lying to them?”

“Ah, so you do trust me. Could’ve fooled me.” Lando narrowed his eyes and relaxed back into his chair. “Would you prefer me to tell them? They’ve got plenty of spies that come through Batuu anyway. Moradi was skulking around about a week ago, if I recall correctly, following some rumors of dissent among the stormtrooper ranks. Hell, she might be out there now, for all I know. You picked a funny place to crash if you’re trying to stay out of Resistance sights.”

“I didn’t pick it.” 

He barely stopped himself from saying it had picked him. It was a feeling he couldn’t quite shake, but it sounded absurd. 

“Here’s how I’m seeing this,” Lando went on. “I’m holding up half my end of that deal—I’m keeping an eye out for you. And here you are, looking better than you did when I stumbled upon you two days ago.” 

Kylo stared back at him with cool incredulity.

“But I made a deal with you first. I’m not talking about back at Oga’s. I mean years ago, when I gave you that blaster and you read that note, and I told you that if you ever needed me to, I’d help you get your shit sorted—paraphrasing, here, of course. That deal’s been standing more than half your life, so I’m choosing to honor it for as long as you’re here. Han and Leia don’t know it yet, but they’ll appreciate that I’ve looked out for you in my own way. Right?”

Lando winked, and Kylo frowned, unconvinced. That sounded like very circular logic and a slippery understanding of how one honored a promise. But this was Lando he was talking to. It was about as on-brand as the fact that the man was now refilling his own glass and reaching to do the same to Kylo’s.

“Have another drink.” It was a command in the guise of a friendly invitation. When Kylo didn’t sit, Lando sighed, slid his glass over to him, and waved an impatient hand. “Come on, indulge me twenty more minutes. I’ve heard one side of this mess from Han. I’m curious about yours.”

“That’ll take more than twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, I remember. ‘Answer’s not straightforward,’ was it? I’d like to hear anyway.” He gestured toward the brandy. “Bottle’s full enough.”

“You’re trying to get me drunk,” Kylo observed as he sank back down into his chair and ignored his glass.

“Please, look at yourself. You’re no lightweight. The brandy’s for the pleasure of it. So, have some, and then tell me how it is we got to this point.”

Kylo stared at the bottle, then at the overly generous pour Lando had offered him. The amber color of the liquid was as warm and benign as the smile curving Lando’s lips. It promised easy nerves and a loose tongue, neither of which Kylo thought would do him much good right now. He expelled an irritated sigh and took a sip anyway, then let the heat of it settle on his tongue and throat before he allowed himself to speak.

“There was something I was meant to do. I let myself be fooled into thinking there was another way. A better way. A way back . But it’s a lie. It took me too long to realize it—because that’s what the Resistance does. Distracts. It’s a distraction.” 

As much of one as the First Order. Centuries of galactic history, of the same push and pull, as if any of it was ever going to find resolution. He exhaled sharply and hunched his shoulders, darting a look across the table to Lando, who watched in thoughtful silence. 

“There’s this girl with them now. A young woman. Just a scavenger, but she’s stronger with the Force than anyone I’ve ever encoun—”

Lando’s eyebrows had flown up, and now he was grinning like he was trying not to grin because he knew it was the exact sort of thing that would make Kylo up and leave. 

“Have I said something amusing?”

“No. Not really. Just that there’s always some woman, or man, or other person in these stories, and I guess I wasn’t expecting one to come up in yours.”

“It’s not like that,” Kylo said with a scowl. 

First he was offended that Lando was reducing Rey to some sort of failed romantic pursuit, and then he was offended by Lando’s surprise that Kylo might have any sort of thing like that at all. He should not have brought Rey up. He wasn’t sure why he had. Had he meant to make her an example of how the Resistance toyed with people? The very sort of trap he refused to be pulled into again? Yes, that had to be it. 

“She has potential to do something with that power. I thought she did. But she’s no different. Drawn in by things that don’t matter. I tried to make her see the truth of it all, but she’d rather buy the lies and go to Luke at Leia’s behest. Like an errand girl. And then go . . .” He thought he was done stewing over it. Not so much. “It’s a waste, and it’s insulting. I wasn't letting them do it to me too.”

“So what’s all this then? You figure you get to Luke first, put a stick in the Resistance’s plan, maybe get back in the First Order’s good graces?”

“My business with Luke has nothing to do with the First Order or the Resistance,” Kylo spat. “Haven’t you been listening? They don’t matter . I’m giving him the end he deserves, and then I’m done with all of it. Let the galaxy rip itself apart again, it means little to me.”

“That’s quite an outlook you have.”

Kylo downed the rest of his brandy and immediately regretted it. It felt like something had exploded behind his lungs, and his voice was hoarse when he said, “I think I’ve earned the right to it.” 

“Yeah, could be.” Lando’s chair creaked as he leaned back again, stretching his arms behind his head slowly. It was strange to see him looking so much older. He had always been one of those people who seemed beyond age—an observation Lando had probably made himself more than once. “Or it could be that your trouble with this map is the universe’s way of giving you some extra time to reconsider before you do something you’ll regret.”

Kylo scoffed. Forget the universe, or the Force. This wasn’t preordained. It was Leia’s way to remind him, light years away, of how much smarter she thought she was. See sweetheart ? she was saying, I know you better than you think, and I was one step ahead . And she was right. 

“It’s too late for that.”

“Is it?”

Disinterested in explaining the many reasons why it was, Kylo sighed and kneaded a hand over his forehead as Lando persisted.

“You’ve done things. I get it. No one’s hands stay clean—definitely not these days.” He paused and drummed his fingers on the table. “I’m not going to pretend to know what went down between you and Luke. If you want to tell me, I’ll listen, but I get the idea you don’t. I’ve heard things. And I’d be willing to bet the things I’ve heard are only part of the story. Would you agree?”

“What’s your point?”

“Is what you plan to do when you find him going to make everything you’ve done worth it? Because you say you’re doing it for yourself, but it sounds an awful lot like what you were doing before, for someone else, because they told you it was what you were meant to do. To serve a cause you yourself said doesn't matter.”

He went quiet for a while, as if to let Kylo sit with it. The worst part was, Lando was only echoing doubts Kylo himself had felt burrowing into his mind since he’d arrived. For all his righteous anger, when he tried to visualize what he would do when he faced Luke, it left him feeling terrified and empty. If Kylo managed to kill him at all—because no, he wasn’t sure if he could—he didn’t know with any certainty that it would make anything worth it. It would sever a rotten tether to the past, and he would have nothing left after it. He pulled a hand through his hair and twisted until the roots began to sting, and Lando leaned in, face solemn.

“You’ve been given some time here. Alone. Without the ‘distractions’. Maybe put some of it into remembering what’s important to you, apart from all the rest. Because you seem awfully caught up in what’s behind you, and pretty bleak about what’s ahead.” Lando stood with his own glass, but left the bottle behind. “Take this from someone who took way too long to figure it out for himself—as long as you can choose to do better, ‘too late’ is just an excuse.” 

 

 

Rey found Luke fishing. It was a striking first impression. As she crested the hill, he had just landed after vaulting on a pole across a chasm that stretched at least fifteen meters between two grassy cliff sides. If he noticed her approach, he didn’t acknowledge it. He was already too engrossed in the task of removing the carcass of an enormous fish he had impaled at the end of his vaulting pole, which was sharpened to a brutal point. As for the fish, it was almost as long as Luke was tall, and it was not quite dead.

Only when Luke was balancing it over his shoulder did Rey break her stunned stupor and decide she would need to be the one to make herself known. 

“Master Skywalker? I’m here on behalf of—”

He paused and glanced at her, his face mostly hidden beneath the hood of his cloak, then continued on his way down the path as if Rey’s bid for attention were no more than a strange noise on the wind. She took a few moments to process the fact that she’d been cold-shouldered by a glowering beard in a poncho, then took off after him. Repeated attempts to get him to acknowledge her presence were about as useful as the first, and by the time they were nearing one of the clusters of huts she’d spied from the air, she had reached the end of her patience. Maybe she hadn’t expected a warm welcome, but she hadn’t been prepared to be treated as if she were invisible.

Luke was standing by a large, waist-high, flat stone, unloading his catch and reaching for something beneath his cloak. While she was not optimistic that he would be any more amiable now, at least he was stationary. Rey drew up to the opposite side of the stone, planted her hands flat on top if it, and looked him in the face as if he were already doing her the same courtesy.

“Master Skywalker, I've come from the Resistance.” Still no response, but he wasn’t walking away. That was something. “Your sister sent me here to—” 

Luke finally pulled his hood back and deigned to meet her eyes, which stopped her mid-sentence out of sheer surprise; in the next motion, never breaking eye contact, he extracted a large knife from his cloak and swiped the blade along the edge of the stone a few times as if sharpening it . . . or as if daring her to continue speaking. Rey had the fleeting thought that this might not be Luke at all. Perhaps it was a marooned galactic traveler, crazed by years of isolation on a planet no one knew existed, and she would need to defend herself from an unprovoked knife attack. 

“No one’s called me ‘master’ in years,” he said. His voice was gruff and low from disuse. “If you’re going to keep talking, make yourself useful.”

As he continued sharpening, it was impossible to tell what he might be thinking. The half of his face that wasn’t concealed by an unkempt beard was lined with age and hardship, though his eyes were wide and bright blue. Now, he looked more doleful than frightening. And he hadn’t told her to go away, had he?

She eyed the fish with hesitant curiosity. “What should I—”

“Hold it in place. Watch your fingers.”

“Not a fan of letting people finish what they’re trying to say, are you?” she muttered to herself. Or thought she had. 

“Not when they have so little worth saying.” He fixed her with another stare, then raised his eyebrows and waved the knife at the fish. “Now hold this in place, or I’m going to assume there’s no reason I should continue letting you loiter outside my home.” 

Rey bit her tongue and reluctantly gripped the fish, one hand at its head, the other near its tail. She tried to ignore the way its huge round eye stared blankly at her. It had finally expired on the walk from the water, but its skin was cold, slippery, and slimy, and the rough scales rubbed uncomfortably against her palms as Luke began to scrape them away with short, deliberate strokes of his knife. She had dealt with far worse treatment before, but it had been long enough that it no longer felt like the norm. She wondered how she had endured it so many years. 

If her success here didn’t depend on getting in Luke’s good graces—a task that was seeming more impossible with every pass of his knife—she would be tempted to leap across the stone, grab him by the collar, and shake some sense into him. Or common decency, at least. She had traveled light years for this ?

“You sister sent me here to ask for your help,” she said after a while, when Luke appeared satisfied enough with her assistance that she didn’t think he would leave mid-task. Gathering up her resolve, she pressed on, reciting the Resistance’s plight as Leia had instructed her. “The Resistance has been grounded in the Outer Rim to avoid being tracked through hyperspace by the First Order. They’re prepared to disable the tracker, but something else has happened. The First Order is after something. An artifact of some sort. It must be very powerful, or they wouldn’t be redirecting their resources from locating you and Kylo Ren. Leia hopes that you might have some kn—”

Luke abruptly ceased scraping.

“Locating me and Kylo Ren?”

Rey grit her teeth and resisted the urge to snap at him about being interrupted again. “Yes. The First Order wiped out the Hosnian System with a new superweapon, but the Resistance managed to destroy it. Kylo Ren deserted during that mission and returned with them.”

“Why?”

“I don’t—” She remembered what she had seen in her vision of Luke and Ben the night Luke’s temple fell—she wasn’t sure she wanted to share much of what Kylo had told her. Not before she knew she could trust Luke. “Han was there. He convinced him.”

Han ?” Luke looked flummoxed, which was not what she’d been aiming for, but it was a genuine reaction of interest. Finally . That felt like progress. “He’s— Kylo Ren is with the Resistance now?”

“No. He’s gone. He may be coming here to harm you. Which is another reason you need to leave this place.”

Luke gave a sour chuckle and returned to his scraping. He was getting near the gills. Rey surreptitiously moved her hand. She was pretty sure he wouldn’t feel too bad about maiming her if her fingers got in the way. “Coming to ‘harm me’?”

“Yes. He has the map.”

“If he’s coming here, it’ll be to wipe out whatever’s left of what he destroyed the night he and his comrades burned my temple to the ground. Let him.”

“What?”

“Does it look to you like I’m here to rebuild something?”

Rey couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had expected some resistance from Luke, but not such hostility. In her mounting frustration, she spoke before she could temper her irritation.

“It looks to me like you’re here to hide from something you’re ashamed of.”

Luke narrowed his eyes and ripped the fish from her grasp to flip it over onto its other side. He was refusing to look at her again. Any headway they had made was slipping through her fingers—she should not have made such an accusatory statement. 

“Thanks for the extra set of hands.” He did not sound grateful at all. “I’m finishing this alone.”

“And what am I supposed to do?”

“Leave. You should never have come in the first place.” He paused, hand and knife poised over the fish. A look of doubt flickered across his face and disappeared as he began to descale with more force. “Send Leia my apologies. I can’t tell her what she wants to hear.”  

Rey’s throat was tight, her heart hammering. This couldn’t be it. He was trying to send her away, but she wasn’t going to let him. There had to be something she could do or say to make him take her seriously and stop treating her with such flippant disinterest. Something that might mean something to him. A reminder that he was still needed. 

She unclipped the lightsaber from her hip and placed it on the stone, then stepped back and crossed her arms, waiting for him to respond. It did make him pause. He regarded it with a blank expression, like she’d picked a rock up from the ground and presented it to him instead. The fingers of his robotic right hand scraped over the surface of the stone. After a few weighty moments, he shook his head and got back to work. 

“I don’t have any use for that.”

“Neither do I. It’s yours.” Rey tried to conceal her confusion. He didn’t even want to know how she’d gotten it. “I’ve brought it back to you.”

“Take it with you, leave it here. Whatever you want. This island’s full of relics that have outlived their time.” When Rey said nothing, only stared hard back at him, Luke sighed heavily and turned to go. “Better yet, on your way back to your ship, you’ll pass a dropoff over a cove. Have a look and you’ll see what you can do with it.”

With that, Luke trudged up a slight incline, stepped into one of the huts, and slammed the door behind him. Not an actual door—as Rey stared at it, stunned by his stubborn treatment, she thought it looked an awful lot like an S-foil. Whatever it was, if he thought that could stop her . . . 

She shoved the lightsaber roughly in to her bag, scampered up after him, and began to knock. She knocked for what felt like a very long time. Enough to make her fist begin to ache and to draw the attention of the odd, pudgy birds all the commotion had initially startled away. They were waddling and warbling nearby, tentative and curious, when she gave up with a growl and spun around to go. 

Before she began her defeated descent, she paused by the table stone, where Luke had abandoned the fish she supposed was meant to be his dinner. Several dinners, from the size of the thing. She opened her bag and poked around inside until she found the circular, palm-sized machine Leia had given her. It was a message for Luke, recorded into a portable holoprojector. She’d been tempted to see what it said, but it wasn’t hers. Luke, on the other hand, would have to come back out for his catch eventually. If she couldn’t convince him, Leia might.

Or he might see the thing and throw it over a cliffside without giving it so much as a second glance. At this point, Rey was agitated enough not to care. 

For now, she would go back to the Mirrorbright , have something to eat, and think of what to do next. Because she sure as hell wasn’t leaving. As she picked her way down the crumbling stairway, one of the birds (the things were everywhere ) swooped right in front of her face, narrowly missing her as she cried out in alarm and watched it alight over a small, rocky cove below. 

She wondered if this was the one Luke had told her about. Despite feeling ill-used, she couldn’t resist following his suggestion and taking a look over the edge. There was indeed something big under the water, obscured from view as a wave crashed against the rocks. When the surf settled, she could make it out just fine—there was a ship only a few meters beneath the surface. An X-wing, rotted, rusted, and grown through with plants. Unsalvageable. The sight of it made her groan in dismay. If Luke saw as much value in that as the lightsaber, she was in trouble. 

 

 

After enduring Lando’s lecture, Kylo returned to his room and did not venture out again. He needed to focus, because if he didn’t, the things Lando had said, the things Kylo had already been thinking, would burrow deeper. When he began to feel agitated or discouraged, he allowed himself a break, but only if it involved powering up the viewing screen and checking the HoloNet for any news of interest. The networks couldn’t always be depended on to report the truth, but at this point he was willing to settle for something mindlessly distracting, and it could give him an idea of what to do in the always-nebulous ‘after’.

His current distraction ended up being a continuation of the one that had captured his interest so thoroughly in Oga’s Cantina that Lando had managed to get the drop on him—the retirement of Vespina Vye, the Loneran podracer whose best-of compilation he’d been watching, was bigger news than he realized. It made sense when he considered it. She’d been a hot ticket in the racing business since before he was born, and she was basically a polymath. She’d had her nose in countless pursuits outside of the podracing circuits for decades, was insultingly wealthy, and would likely have as interesting a life in retirement as she had for the last fifty years. Right now, she was being interviewed about her plans to increase her involvement with the Archaeological Association, starting with a privately funded relocation of assets from the Cosmatanic Steppes and her own personal collections throughout the galaxy to a new museum. 

“ . . . and it’s one of your former residences on Chandrila that’s been converted to house these collections, isn’t that right? ” the interviewer was saying. “ Would you say it’s a history museum, then? I think most people were expecting something oriented toward your illustrious career behind the engines.”

There was an ingratiating laugh from the audience and from Vye herself as she drew a clawed hand through her silver-shot mane of fur. “ Oh, it is. In a way. A museum of my own history, you might say. It’s all there. When people hear the name Vespina Vye, I don’t just want them to think of my five consecutive victories in the Cantonica Classic. I don’t just want them to think of who still holds the record for fastest completion of the Theron Spiral Circuit after seventeen years. I want them to remember the digs I’ve funded throughout the galaxy, my post-War philanthropic efforts, the important work I’ve contributed to . . .

As Vye continued to joke and banter with the interviewer, Kylo felt his mood begin to curdle. At some other time, he would have found this fascinating—her involvement in historical societies had been the thing that had made her one of his favorite racers years ago. It was appealing to think that a person could indeed do everything . Right now, it was annoying him. 

Her flamboyant affectations and self-aggrandizing chatter. The jaunty streak of chartreuse dyed into her fur. The frivolity of it all. The fact that she clearly couldn’t bear the idea of retiring into quiet obscurity. Probably a narcissist, albeit a lucky and talented one.

There were whole worlds of people like that, acting like the galaxy wasn’t tearing itself apart a few systems away, in their own systems, acting like entire systems weren’t disappearing. They were happy to ignore anything beyond the bubble of their own concerns. He couldn’t even say he was any better anymore, could he?

So much for something mindless.

He muted the viewing screen and powered the map projector back up. The miniature galaxy lit up as he connected the decryption module to the projector’s auxiliary port and activated it. Rays of yellow light appeared among the planets and stars, touching here and there, connecting point to point in dozens of permutations, rejecting them all, reorienting, starting over, trying to weave a sensible web out of layers of scrambled data. The galaxy rearranged itself a minute later, and the process began again.

Kylo worried his lip in annoyance. First Order resources would have had this done in an hour. Less. Here he was, pecking away at it with a decrypter he found in a shop nestled between a kebab cart and a scrap dealer’s storefront. That had made him think of Rey, and he couldn’t get away fast enough, like she was going to pop out from behind the shelf of discarded circuit boards near the entrance and take him hostage.

The map blinked again, the stars realigned, the decrypter analyzed the new set of false coordinates, again, again, again. She was somewhere in that starscape right now. Right where he should have been already. She and Leia would be with Luke, speaking to him, hearing his lies, subjecting themselves to his denials, and probably gladly letting it overwrite everything Kylo had warned them about. 

Again. Again. Again.

He felt a prickle of anger as he sank back in his chair. No, an actual prickle. It jittered up the back of his neck and across his scalp, as if someone had run their nails over his skin. The air in the room felt very close for an instant, and he could have sworn he detected a low, rhythmic thrum, like a heartbeat. It was gone in the next moment. Sounds from outside, probably. 

He was unfocused, and it was making him feel weird. Lando was out for a while. It was a good opportunity to avoid him and get something to eat, some caf, some air. Kylo left the projector running, stood, stretched his arms over his head until his shoulders cracked, and turned toward the door. He stopped dead after one step. 

There was a woman in his room, pacing slowly, staring at something in her hand. Her brown hair was wet and drawn back from her face, though she was loosening the three buns that held it. She was wearing a white shirt and a sensible pair of gray trousers. Her feet were bare. She frowned, reached up, and rubbed the back of her neck.

It was impossible. He really was starting to hallucinate. He cursed his heart for leaping anyway.

“Rey?”

 

Rey gasped and nearly dropped the homing device in her hand as she whirled. The sight that greeted her made no sense at all. Kylo was here. He was inside the Mirrorbright with her. 

Her mind raced for an explanation. He’d fixed his map, found his way, spotted her ship. He’d left a tracker on the Mirrorbright when he’d stolen the map. He’d never left at all, had simply stowed away and been very patient and very quiet. There was a holoprojector she hadn’t noticed, inexplicably built into a random spot on the floor, and he knew how to contact it. 

It couldn’t be any of that. She felt another surge of confusion, and then relief.

“Be—” She cut his name short, remembering the way he’d snarled at her the last time she’d uttered it, and shook her head. “What the hell is this?”

He was staring at her, as if he was asking himself the same question. The way he was standing gave the impression he had spent a while sitting—he looked tight and tense. When he didn’t offer any explanation, just took a step closer and turned his head to take her in from a different angle, she circled around to one side of him. 

“This is a dream. It is, right?” she demanded. “Like before.”

Of course it was. Here she was coming up with outlandish theories, and all that had happened was that she had dozed off in the relief bunk. Simple.

Kylo narrowed his eyes, still wary. One corner of his mouth ticked upward. “No, it’s not.”

He said it like it intrigued him as much as baffled him. Like he was already wondering what it meant. For her part, Rey remained mostly baffled.

“How do you know that?”

“Because I’m not asleep.”

That wasn’t really proof, but she understood. She wasn’t asleep either. 

“And this has happened to me before,” he said a moment later. His tone was almost conversational, but his expression was distant and closed-off. “I would see you in places you couldn’t be. I saw you in the hangar one night. But it wasn't like this. You were gone right away. I thought . . .”

“You saw me in the hangar?” 

Forget why this was happening. Right now she would settle for Kylo to start making some sense. He’d already moved on. During their exchange he’d come nearer. It seemed his interest in proximity had more to do with figuring out how this worked than being closer to her. She didn’t like the way that thought morphed into disappointment. The last time they’d seen each other, they’d fought, and then he’d gone and made some very stupid decisions. She was supposed to be angry at him, or want to apologize, or— 

“What do you see around you?”

He was behind her now, interrupting her thoughts again with his questions, and she turned on her heel to face him, hands on her hips. After Luke, her patience had not yet recovered. 

“I see the room I’m in.”

“No, I mean—” His eyes narrowed and drifted, tracing her shape. “It’s like you’re here, where I am. I don’t see your surroundings at all. Just you.”

The way his voice caught on the last two words sent a warm, almost liquid sensation from her neck to her toes, right beneath her skin. For a few moments she was afloat in that—those words, his voice, and his eyes on her. Rey swallowed and turned away to put some space between them. He was standing far too close now, and it was making her wonder if she would be able to touch him. 

There was no reason for her to touch him.

But it made her realize something. This was strange and novel, and that excited him. It excited her too, though some of the reasons were of the sort she wasn’t willing to explore. She remembered what happened last time. It would be a risk to open herself to it again.

At the very least, she needed to stop looking as if she was running away from him. 

“That connection between us, I don’t suppose it’s gone,” she suggested. She’d tried to reach him through it several times since their parting. She almost told him that now. Her pride had been wounded enough today, though. “And I’m not doing this.”

“No, you couldn't be.”

“Could it be the Force, then?”

Kylo grimaced and paced a short distance away. “I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before, but it makes as much sense as anything else.”

“Convenient.” 

Rey sighed and scanned the area around him. To her eyes, it looked as if he was standing near the bench she’d eaten on a few minutes ago. Was this going to go on indefinitely? Alarmed, she pictured herself chasing after a recalcitrant Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren in tow, smug and murderous. That would be torment. Would Luke be able to see him?

She eyed Kylo again. He was already looking at her, standing very still, expression thoughtful. Uncertain how to proceed, she asked the first thing that came to mind. 

“Are you someplace safe?”

The question appeared to cause him more confusion than anything that had just transpired. He stopped looking at her, as if he had to check elsewhere before he could answer.

“Yes.” His jaw squirmed. “Are you?”

Rey tried to wrangle the sour expression off her face. “Yeah, I’m safe.”

That was about all she was. She hadn’t left the Mirrorbright since returning after her first encounter with Luke. She’d wanted to set up camp in one of those huts until she could determine her next move, but then it started raining. Torrentially pouring, more like. It was enough to make Rey think she might be better off waiting until tomorrow to move her personal effects and dare to put herself in Luke’s radius again. 

She had everything she needed in the Mirrorbright anyway. Food. A place to sleep. Entertainment. The Force projection of a man who she had a riot of confusing, inconvenient feelings about.

"What's in your hand?" he asked.

“Hm?” Shaken out of her fuming, she glanced down. “It’s a homing beacon.”

He processed that for a moment. “So you’re there.”

“Yes.”

“Is Leia with you?”

“No. I’m alone.”

That seemed to surprise him.

“Have you found him?” 

She didn’t like the way his voice had changed, or that hers had changed to match it. Hard, terse, distrustful. “Yes.”

“And?” His expression was self-satisfied. “Is he what you expected?”

What an ass.

There was so much she had wished she could tell Kylo—how this was it, her island, their island. Rey couldn’t do that now. She couldn’t even contradict him, because he was right. Luke was nothing like she had expected. Even when she’d considered worst-case scenarios, they’d usually come down to deficiency on her part, not Luke’s. 

Of course it had to landed back on this. They’d never resolved it. Kylo opened his mouth to speak, brow furrowed, but she never heard what he wanted to say. The connection ended with the same faint buzz of power over her skin. It faded so quickly she wondered if it had been there at all. The feeling of him, so strong and potent and there , receded into the greater tide of the Force, and then she really was alone.




Chapter Text

The towering tree had been meticulously hollowed out. Inside, it smelled dry and warm, and when Rey sneezed, a cloud of sawdust puffed up in the single beam of sunlight slanting in from a narrow crack overhead. Nestled into a nook at the very back among thick, twisting branches, as if at the heart of an arrested explosion, was a small shelf of eight mismatched books. They should have looked out of place, yet this seemed the only place they could belong. She had never seen real ones before—not in person, at least—but she remembered this place from a dream, and she remembered the books. Kylo had eyed them with disdain, as though their presence was an affront. She had been almost afraid to touch them. Now, though . . .

They had drawn her in as she made her way down the hill. A whisper on the wind. A secret she was meant to see. Nothing to be afraid of.

Rey checked behind her, unable to shake the feeling that she was being watched. She’d been having it all morning and chalked it up to the strength of the Force here. Of course she would feel seen—the planet itself seemed to know her. Yet no one was there, so she approached the shelf. A gentle current of energy prickled across her palms as she reached for a book, then rolled over the rest of her. She had just enough time to think it felt familiar.

“If neither of us controls when this happens, we should figure out how to do so. Before it becomes inconvenient.”

Her arm darted back to her side, and she looked to her right. Kylo was standing beside her, as real as he had been the day before. Immediately around him, the air was cooler than inside the tree. Though her face warmed as she recalled that he had been here before too, she saw no recognition in his expression. 

What had he said last time? He couldn’t see where she was. He was looking only at her, one eyebrow slightly lifted. “Don’t you agree?”

Rey huffed. The books weren’t going anywhere. Given how this had gone before, the connection would end as suddenly as it had begun, so she gave Kylo her attention. It had been barely a day since she’d seen him last, though now he looked calmer and less tired, almost like he’d been waiting for a distraction. If he was willing to forget how their last exchange had ended, for the time being, so was she.

“It’s already inconvenient,” she said. “But I’m open to suggestions.”

A few moments passed before he spoke again. “What were you doing the first time? Right before this happened?”

Rey thought back. She’d come in from the rain. She’d been thinking how it reminded her of that downpour on the beach with him and how it felt strange to be here alone.

“I was . . .” She frowned, debating how to phrase it. The sight of his damp hair provoked the memory of how it had felt between her fingers. So shockingly soft. Focus . “Thinking about you, actually.”

“What?” 

The flash of bewilderment on his face nearly made her laugh.

“Sort of,” she qualified. “It’s more that . . . this is it. The island. I’d wanted to tell you, that’s all.”

Already he had regained his composure, though he didn’t look as pleased as she’d hoped he would. There was a touch of fear in his expression. Or perhaps he felt foolish for not realizing it sooner. She had.

“You’re sure?”

“I know it almost as well as I know the Goazon. I’m in that tree right now. The big dead one with those books. You remember?”

“Yeah, I do.” His brow twitched, and she noticed a familiar quirk of his mouth—he thought he had something on her. “‘ Those books .’ You don’t know what they are?”

“I was about to find out.”

Rey’s gaze drifted back to the shelf, and Kylo’s followed, as if he was looking through her eyes. The words on the bindings were in no alphabet she knew, but the books possessed a gravity that transcended language and held her in their orbit. The Force around them was calm and inviting.

“They’re Jedi texts,” he said. “Very old, self-important fallacy.”

If he was trying to goad her into a debate over whether sacred Jedi scripture still had any value, he would have no luck. She had no insight on the topic anyway. All he did was remind her of what Luke had said to her about the island being full of things past their prime. It only stoked her curiosity.

“I know where I am. It feels right.” She almost told him about the quiet, cold voice she found when she reached into the Force. She had no fear of getting lost on the island, but that voice, wherever it came from . . . she might lose something there, if she wasn’t careful. “Don’t you know what that’s like?” He said nothing, so she turned to look him in the face. “I’ve never been more certain of anything.”

Kylo met her eyes but remained silent. Though she was wary of touching him through whatever power made this possible, Rey stepped closer and peered up at him. “You said yourself we should try to find it. Well, I’m here now.”

He made a sound of dry amusement but didn’t move away. “You know I have every intention of finding it.”

“It doesn’t seem that’s working out very well.”

“No better than Luke is for you, considering your non-answer last I asked.”

She’d been silly to think her revelation would soften him at all. He still couldn’t fathom any reason he might come here beyond retribution. Even so, she sympathized. Her own feelings toward Luke were far from positive. 

That morning, she had returned to the settlement and found him already gone. The only suggestion that anything had changed was the long strips of salt-crusted fish hanging to dry in the sun and the fact that the holo from Leia was no longer where she’d left it. As she’d spent the next hours exploring the island and trying to stay out of the way of the disapproving natives (she’d noticed them at work around the settlement and wondered what they thought of Luke’s presence here, since they clearly begrudged hers), the man himself remained elusive. She did not anticipate their next meeting going much better than the first.

Rey pursed her lips and stepped back. “What will you do if I’m here with him when you come? He’s a miserable . . . person, but I’m not going to let you murder him. You really think that’s why the Force has shown you this place?”

“This isn’t your business .”

“It is. And there’s got to be a better way.”

Kylo looked annoyed, and like his mind was elsewhere. “I would prefer not to hurt you.”

His voice had lost its edge, but his words didn’t tell her what she needed to know. He’d already hurt her. She hadn’t forgotten. She hadn’t really forgiven him for it, either.

“You don’t have to hurt anyone,” she said quietly.

“I’ll decide for myself what I have to do.”

Rey felt it coming this time—the end of the connection. It was that prickly feeling over her skin, and the faint sound, almost a purr, at the back of her skull.

“I hope that’s true.”

The next instant it was just her and the books once more. Kriff, this was weird. Kylo was right: it might be smart to figure out how to control it. Next time. If there was a next time. Maybe this had been the last.

But no, she knew better. It would happen again, the same way the dreams had persisted on Pamarthe, along with the feeling of being drawn to him when they were apart. The admission brought surprising reassurance. The link was still there, like something abiding and preordained, and Kylo was still at the other end of it. 

 

 

In the end, it was Luke who found her first. Rey was checking the Mirrorbright at dusk for Resistance transmissions—none, disappointing—and planning to head back to the settlement. She would have some dinner, then sit outside and wait to catch sight of Luke. As for what she would say or do then . . . she would determine that on her walk up. Yet when she reached the bottom of the boarding ramp, he was waiting a few meters away. Nonplussed, she leaned on her staff and waited for him to do something.

“I listened to Leia’s message,” he said after a few moments. “She had a lot to say.”

“And?”

His eyes narrowed. “A lot to say—but very little about you.”

“Oh.”

Leia had been quite transparent about her belief that Rey was meant to find something she needed here. Which was why it was so surprising to hear that, apparently, she had shared none of these opinions with Luke. 

He walked toward her with such determination she thought he was about to board the Mirrorbright . Instead, he stopped short of the ramp and looked at her. Yesterday it had bothered her how unwilling he was to do so. Now, to be scrutinized so plainly was uncomfortable, especially when he appeared to find little to interest him.

“She said she preferred to let you speak for yourself. So far, all you’ve done is regurgitate messages from the Resistance that I have no interest in hearing.”

“You made that clear.”

“So speak. Tell me why you’re here. You .” His gaze flicked up to the shining white hull, and there was a flash of rueful recognition in his eyes. “Leia wouldn’t choose a random messenger.”

“I’m not a messenger. I’m trying to . . . I need . . .”

“Are you even really with the Resistance? For all you claim to speak on their behalf, you say ‘they,’ not ‘we.’”

So he had been listening, far more closely than she’d realized. No, she wasn’t really with the Resistance. She hadn’t signed on, hadn’t pledged herself. That didn’t seem the sort of answer to help her case.

“I’m not used to belonging anywhere, that’s all,” she said.

“You must have come from some place.”

“I came from Jakku.”

Luke gave a short bark of humorless laughter. If he’d heard of Jakku, his opinion of it wasn’t so different than that of anyone else she had encountered. “Then do you have a name?”

She expelled an irritated sigh. “It’s Rey.” 

“Rey.” He said it like she might be lying. “Why are you so special that Leia’s tapped you to change my mind after all this time?”

“Everyone keeps asking me that. What makes me special.” 

Reflexively, her hand brushed the lightsaber, which she’d used only a few hours before on some boulder formations near a cliff. She’d needed to work out the tension Kylo’s abrupt appearance had left in her gut. 

“There’s something powerful inside me. It’s been there a long time, like it’s been waiting for a . . . a moment. It’s made me dream of this place since I was small. It led me to this”—her fingers absently touched the lightsaber once more—“and I know it’s awake now. I feel it all the time. The Force.”

She looked to Luke for any sort of response, but he was as impassive as ever. She was nothing. A small, inconsequential grain of sand.

“But I don’t know if that makes me special. You have it too. I thought if I brought this back to you . . .”

She felt so foolish saying it to him now. Maybe Maz and Leia were wrong. Maybe she was wrong. Luke’s airy reception made it hard to believe otherwise. He ignored the lightsaber, eyes sliding over it as if it wasn’t there, and folded his arms.

“You want me to teach you,” he said, even though she had given no such indication.

“No, I . . . I want to learn what it is. How to stop being afraid of it.”

His mouth compressed into a thin line. “I’ve seen you today. You walk this island like you know it. You wield that lightsaber like you’ve used it many times. You’re not completely untrained.”

“You’ve been watching me?” 

She’d known, though. She had felt it and written it off. 

Her hand tightened around her staff; as if she was going to do anything with it. Carelessness like that could have gotten her killed back home. And forget about how he’d so easily stayed out of sight—how had she not felt him? She recalled her brief panic on landing, when she couldn’t detect another human life in the Force. She couldn’t feel him now, either, though she could have touched him with her hand. Where he should have been in the Force was ghostly absence.

“You didn’t make it difficult,” Luke told her. “I caught sight of you as you were heading into the library.” He lifted his chin, and his gaze became flinty. “Who were you speaking to?”

A new flare of panic jumped in her gut. The sound of her conversation with Kylo had echoed down the winding entrance of the tree. She tried to remember if anything she’d said could have made it obvious who the other person was. 

“Myself. Habit. I lived alone a long time.” It wasn’t even a lie. She’d spent half the flight from Pamarthe talking to herself and regretting that she hadn’t asked Leia if she could take a droid with her. Rey tilted her head and raised her eyebrows, willing her face not to betray her worry. “You don’t?”

Luke huffed dismissively. She doubted he was buying it, but he didn’t press the issue or accuse her of lying. He probably didn’t care enough to bother. Yet she had some momentum now—they were having a conversation. If she chose her words carefully, this could be her chance to convince him she was worth his time and that the Resistance was too.

“They’re Jedi texts, aren’t they?” she asked.

His look only grew more suspicious. “Yes. Sacred scripture—original works of the old religion, left here by the first Jedi masters.” 

“Is there a way to read them?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I’ve been trying to teach myself. So it feels like it’s in my control. I can lift things without touching them. Call the lightsaber to my hand. Kylo was helping me train with it.” She remembered the guard in the interrogation room, what felt like ages ago, and spoke with greater confidence. “I’ve even been able to—”

“He’s been instructing you?” Luke regarded her with unconcealed dismay. “Kylo Ren has been guiding you in the ways of the Force?”   

Startled by his insistence, Rey took a step back. “Well, no. Not— Not really. He wanted to, but we only ever sparred. The rest I started figuring out on my own. We worked together, though. He helped me. Answered my questions, when I had them. I thought I was helping him, too, but—” 

“Do you have any idea what you were exposing yourself to?”

She thought she had pissed him off during their first encounter, but no—he’d only been annoyed. This was something else. Luke was looking at her with the wariness of someone evaluating a trap. 

“I wasn’t exposing myself to anything,” she insisted. “I felt alone. And he did too. He understood what I’ve been experiencing more than anyone has.”

Certainly more than Luke was now, glaring at her, mouth contorting as he replied. 

“That’s how the dark side works. It offers you things you think you need. Understanding. Fulfillment. Control. You cannot imagine the darkness I saw in him. With the years he’s spent under Snoke’s hand since, it can only have gotten worse. The fact that you’re so blind to that, that Leia can't see how careless—”

“He’s conflicted . Constantly,” she cut in. Let Luke know what it was like to be interrupted for once. “It’s why I want your help. He’s too weighed down by his anger . . . his fear, to see his own way, let alone help me find mine.”

“Of course he is. Fear is a direct line to the dark side.”

“Fine, then—his darkness, yes. But he’s told me. You say I can’t understand it, but I do, because I listened. I felt it. I understand perfectly well. And if he comes here for you, I know I can make him see there’s another path.” Luke scoffed, but she ignored it. “But I still need help finding my own. I don’t . . . I don’t know who else to ask. There isn’t anyone else. Please.”

Luke took a slow step back. His fists were clenched at his sides as he eyed the lightsaber, then her face. There was nothing in the way he looked at her to encourage hope.

“I came here to make sure the Jedi way of life dies with me. I can’t help you,” he said. He turned and began to walk back toward the crumbling steps. “Go back to Jakku. Forget the Resistance. Forget the war. Forget the lie that there’s some mystical shortcut to winning it. You’ll be better for it.”

She watched him go, shaking with hurt and outrage and the ever-present dread that she was doing this wrong. It made her long for home, where she understood how things worked and knew how to make her way. Here, everything she did felt like trying to pick her way blindfolded through the Sinking Fields.

For the first time in nearly a day, Rey sought the Force. It was the only source of comfort she could think of in the moment. Everything there was as it should be, but she had never felt more out of place within it. 

 

He needed to take a walk. It was the fourth morning since he’d taken up in Lando’s apartment, and Kylo was beginning to find himself feeling too comfortable with it. He had wanted a place to forget the war, hadn’t he? Perhaps he’d found it. Batuu saw little conflict. What intrigue there was existed enough beneath the surface that it was easy to ignore. He had sensed nothing from Snoke in weeks. He could stop tormenting himself with a useless map. He could disappear here. 

Except when it came to Rey.

It had shocked him, the first time. Yet when the initial surprise wore off, it gave way to a sense that of course this was what it had become. Even after he’d left and tried to shut it out, he’d known they were still linked. She was right there at the other end of a cosmic strand if he wanted to reach her. 

He hadn’t wanted to reach her. The Force had other plans. It had built this. A connection of minds. Dreams shared. Flashes of her , gone like ghosts. Always that perception of her, heightened and brightened by the power between them. And now, this impossible thing—to appear across light-years, so close and real he was certain he would be able to touch her. 

He doubted she would allow it. Probably, it would be a bad idea. 

Stars, he wanted to know how it worked, though. The degree of power it required should have been beyond either of them. Yet it seemed unlikely that she would have any interest in teasing it out with him. He would need to do so alone.

As he made his way, cloaked and hooded, through the market streets, past the shipyards, and into a stretch of dense petrified forest beyond the outpost borders, he was unsurprised to detect the now-familiar disturbance in the Force that announced the connection slipping open. It didn’t matter whether either of them wanted it. They were fish caught in a net, lashed together, tossed and bound and pulled against the current. 

But he craved it too. It was a chance to be alone with her, even if their limited time always devolved into how little she understood what he was trying to do. Last night had been proof of that, as she stood there and told him there was a better way. She sounded like Lando. Worse, she sounded like the light.

 This time, she was sitting on a rock just off the beaten dirt path, and she looked anything but light. Her stiff posture and blank expression spoke of frustration and defeat. He’d seen her in distress before, and he’d always been the cause. Not knowing the reason now was intolerable. Kylo stopped in his tracks and turned to her.

“What happened?”

She stared grimly ahead, as if she hoped by refusing to acknowledge the connection it would end more quickly. “I’m not in the mood.”

“I’m not either, but we don’t have much choice.”

“Not for this . For that smug look on your face when I answer you.”

Kylo blinked and pressed his lips together, painfully conscious of his expression. Smug? He’d thought he was being . . . well, not that. He ran his thumb along the edge of his hood, then pulled it back.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“If I answer your question,” Rey said, lifting her chin, her eyes pointed aloft with impatience, “you’ll gloat at me that you were right. And I don’t feel like hearing it, because you’re not, so just . . . make as if I’m not there. Here. Wherever.”

“I’d rather not.” 

Without waiting for permission (and because she didn’t seem about to offer an invitation), Kylo checked that he was truly alone, then joined her on the rock. She looked at him askance but didn’t object, though she scooted a little further away. Petty.

Yet her tone was almost apologetic when she muttered, “This won’t last long anyway.”

“No, it won’t.” It bothered him how she spoke as if it was a burden they had to endure rather than an opportunity; admittedly, he himself still struggled to overlook the invasive aspects. “You find this unpleasant.”

“I find it confusing.”

Though he agreed, she offered nothing else and continued to exude distracted discontent. Kylo sighed and said to the dirt at his feet, “If you thought my intention was to feel superior, it wasn’t. You looked . . .” Upset. Dejected. Lonely. “Displeased.”

“You ought to stop making presumptions.”

“Was I wrong?”

Rey considered this in silence, then drew her feet up and folded her legs in front of her. “Haven’t gotten any thoughts on how to keep it from surprising us like this, have you?”

That was a fair question, and it reminded him of the problem he’d been having since their last meeting: this was becoming a much more intriguing puzzle than the map. While the decrypter ran, he could occupy himself with the possibilities of what this meant and the reality that he had no idea. Nothing in his training had given him to believe something like this was possible.

“No. Not yet. You?”

Rey shook her head. “I’ve been busy.”

“Right.” Around him, the flat, vacant peace of the dead forest was jarring in contrast to the outpost’s clamor of life and machinery on the clouded horizon. “You haven’t told me what the island is like.”

Her eyebrows rose, and she looked at him with bemusement. “You’ve already seen it.”

“Only very specific parts,” he reminded her. The dreams had been vivid but not revealed much—some hillsides, the tree, that unsettling cave. The even more unsettling hole in the ground. “It hardly paints a picture. I’d offer to reciprocate, but all I have is fossilized trees.”

She hesitated, seemingly searching for how to begin as her eyes drifted over a scene he could not see.

“It’s a bit like Pamarthe, honestly. Lots of rocks. Lots of green. Cold. Windy. Picture that, but smaller and emptier and crawling with these fat little birds.” She expelled a long, soft breath and shrugged. “Quiet. Though it’s . . . distracting. I don’t know how to describe it really—the Force is so, so strong here. You were right about that. It’s like when it’s too quiet, you can hear it at work. Speaking, or calling.”

“You said the island’s always called to you.”

“Yeah, but this is different.” Rey sat up straighter and scrubbed her hands over her face, pulling her skin tight over the delicate curves and angles of bone. “It knows I’m here.”

The way she said that made the hairs on his arms stand up. “What does?” 

“I don’t—” 

She flinched, and in the same instant Kylo felt a sharp sting at the inside of his wrist and slapped the spot with an open palm. The long, curved shape of a wood wasp darted out of reach, its wings moving so rapidly they were invisible as it disappeared against the marbled trees. He peered down at his skin, where a drop of blood welled at the center of the small welt forming beside a vein. 

“What is it?” Rey asked.

“Nothing.” He threw a look at her and caught her scratching idly at her wrist, as if she didn’t realize she was doing so. Her thumb kept circling the same spot that was now tingling and throbbing on his own. He had the urge to reach for her and still her hands. “You were saying?”

But whatever she’d been about to tell him, she appeared to think better of it now. They’d been having a moment there, where it felt like they might trust each other again. Now that artificial wall was back. 

“You know, I don’t even know what this place is called? It’s very beautiful, but it’s very lonely. And Luke . . .”

She trailed, as if remembering the fragility of this truce. Her demeanor had changed again, strained as it had been when he found her. 

“What about him?” 

There was no answer she could offer that would please him, so he waited and settled to wonder why he’d asked. She was looking at her hands, suddenly very interested in her knuckles. 

“You asked if he was what I expected.”

“And he’s not.”

“No, he’s not. Because I didn’t expect him to remind me so much of you.”

His throat tightened. He felt as if he was listening to someone slowly tease out the details of a disaster, each turn more grisly than the last—but there was nothing so complicated or circumspect in Rey’s words. Just one sentence, and he wanted to take a lightsaber to every tree in sight. His fingers twitched, his arm began to move, and he realized that he didn’t have the lightsaber with him at all. He couldn’t remember the last time he had willingly traveled anywhere without it.

“What the hell do you mean by that?”

“Exactly what I said. He’s completely . . . shut off. Like the things he’s done, the mistakes, have only left him afraid to see what might come after. He has no hope of anything being made right, so he’s determined to cut everyone off.” She wasn’t even looking at him now, but it was clear her assessment had been burdening her. “It’s selfish . He’d rather hide from the war altogether and see the Jedi end than—”

“Stop. That’s enough.” 

Rey glared at him, her thumb glancing over her wrist again. “You weren’t keen to stop when you were telling me things you thought I needed to hear.” 

There was no cruelty in her voice. Only an ache. Kylo didn’t want to hear how she saw all his deficiencies and failures reflected in Luke’s. He wanted this to be over, before one of them made it worse. 

And then it was. The connection ended with the usual sudden perception of absence. This was the third time. He knew the feeling. He knew to expect it. Yet Rey hadn’t left him this unmoored since the bridge on Pamarthe, when she refused him.

It was worse now. It forced him to confront the nagging realization he’d had in the hours after and avoided since. Despite the mental gymnastics he’d done to absolve himself, he had done something wrong that night. He’d known Rey’s weakness, her hurt, her fear—he’d been entrusted with that by the Force—and he had chosen to use it as a weapon. 

How he had built up the moment of revelation. She would realize it for herself because there was something she wanted more. He would be there to tell her she wasn’t alone. Maybe at the time he truly believed he was only doing it to relieve her of an old burden. 

All he’d actually done was use it to break and hurt her. He’d made her feel foolish and tried to convince her that he had the only worthwhile alternative. He’d provoked her until she dug her heels in and lashed back. A person could only take so much of that. Put in her position, he had done worse. 

So no, he had nothing to be proud of from that night. True or not, it was exactly the sort of thing Snoke would have done. At last, a lesson Kylo had not utterly failed to grasp. Part of him, a part that was less easily provoked than it once had been, was almost proud. He let it be, for a few moments, and then was filled only with disgust. 

Lando had asked him what was important to him. The answer was still too difficult to conceive of, but one thing had crystalized. Every choice he made led him to the same impasse, because he was making them for someone else. Not Snoke or Luke, or Leia or Han, but a version of himself he finally had enough distance from to recognize for what it was. He was becoming something he hated. 

 

 

Rey had not had much on Jakku, but her sleeping accommodations had been far better than the stone bench she was curled up on inside the hut. She’d considered retreating to the relative comfort of the Mirrorbright, but she could not afford to show any sign of weakened resolve. Every morning when Luke walked out of his hut and every evening when he returned, when he spied the makeshift home she’d made herself across from his, he would remember that he could no longer hide. Not from her, not from the Resistance, not from the galaxy. 

He thought yesterday’s brush-off was the end? She’d let herself feel discouraged, and then she’d pushed that feeling aside and walked back up those steps. Tenacity was woven into every fiber of who she was.

Unfortunately, that extended to the mess with Kylo, too. She’d still been brooding at the bottom of the hillside when the connection had opened and brought him to her for another handful of tense minutes. As ever, the emotional whiplash of the encounter had left her reeling and disconcerted—though for once, she thought she had left him feeling far more so. It didn’t seem like a bad thing. 

Yet now she was lying here on this dreadful bench, her right side aching, her arm numb, her nose cold and lips chapped from the chilled air that blew in off the ocean. It was frustrating to fall asleep in a state of agitation about Kylo and to wake bare hours later, the sun not even fully risen, with the prospect of Luke’s continued dismissiveness ahead of her. Yesterday’s session with the lightsaber had given her an outlet to vent until her arms ached and chunks of rubble were scattered at her feet. As she eyed the saber now, where it was tucked into her bag, she couldn’t muster the will to rise and troop out to some secluded-enough spot. A one-sided spar at sunrise was far too reminiscent of those mornings on Pamarthe.

Not that, then. She had another idea—the one good thing about being this alone for the first time in so long. There were certain activities she preferred not to do when there was a risk of being interrupted. 

She looked over at her makeshift door anyway (a borrowed panel from the Mirrorbright ’s interior), as if she could assess the odds of Luke barging in unannounced. After their last off-putting exchange? Unlikely. As for the other inconvenience, she would take her chances. If she refrained for that possibility, she’d probably find herself lying here in an hour, more tightly wound than ever, mind racing, having wasted a perfectly good opportunity for some easy relief.

 And she doubted the Force was that cruel. 

Shifting beneath the blanket, Rey rolled onto her back and pretended the surface beneath her was more forgiving. Once sensation started to return to her right arm, she bent one leg and shifted the other out until her knee bumped the wall, then expelled a slow, steady breath to center herself. Was she about to meditate or masturbate? When had that even become a choice?

Rey licked her lips and curled her fingers into the front of her shirt for a few moments to warm them, then slipped her right hand beneath the waistband of her pants. Back home, she’d had this collection—albeit small—of holos she’d found in a few of the old Empire shipwrecks. One of those unexpectedly humanizing things she sometimes ran across when delving: a stray pornographic holofilm left over from some Imperial grunt’s stash of standbys for a lonely night. She knew none of them were particularly realistic , but they got the job done. After a certain age she had started to have lonely nights too.

There was one in particular that she liked. It was sort of amusing because the scenario was ridiculous and the participants attractive in a way that was unsettling in its artificiality. Still, it was a surefire way to get herself going when she needed inspiration. At this point, she could visualize it easily: an Imperial officer conducting a very unconventional (and, after about three minutes, very naked) interrogation on a smuggler. Except this time, the picture had changed. She was the smuggler, Kylo was the officer, and she knew it was all too close to lived experience and shouldn’t have been appealing at all, but . . .

A delicious bloom of heat unfurled just below where her waiting fingers glanced over her mound, an invitation to touch that deepened and spread outward from her core. She rubbed lightly at first, barely more than a tickle, then stretched her fingers through to the familiar wetness inside. Yes, this would do. There was no need to rush. Her toes tensed and relaxed and her eyes drifted shut as she let the rest of the tiny room drop away.

If this had been that other room, she’d no longer be bound to the interrogation chair. Not by mechanical restraints—but she might let him hold her there. He wouldn’t even have to use his hands. It would be tendrils of the Force itself, not hard and unyielding but soft, supple, and steady as a heartbeat. She would have better uses for his hands. She might let him ease her trousers down her legs, her shirt over her head, strip her to the skin layer by layer, his own clothing to follow in a heap on the floor. She might let him touch her as she was touching herself now, her palm becoming slippery, two fingers tracing slow circles around her entrance, her other hand stuffed up her shirt to increase the fuzzy tingle of friction at her nipples. She might let him take her to the very edge of release and only then lower his body over hers and finish the job in a wordless obliteration of every ache and need and quivering, unanswered question.

Rey screwed her eyes shut tighter as a strong rush of pleasure shuddered through her limbs. She flattened her palm against herself and pushed her fingers deeper, curling them in search of the particular angle she sometimes found as that greedy little bundle of nerves throbbed for more attention. Her scalp tingled. Goosebumps danced over her skin. The blanket rustled when she lifted her hips to roll them firmly upward. She ignored the hard scrape of stone at her shoulders. 

She was choking back a moan when the sound of something falling to the ground only feet away froze her where she was. Her eyes cracked open. Her mouth felt welded shut. She had been alone a moment before; she wasn’t anymore. The Force, evidently, truly was that cruel.

 

 

After indulging Lando in a quick dinner and card game, Kylo returned to his “project,” as Lando insisted on calling it, and promptly dozed off at the desk. He woke some interminable amount of time later with the holonav’s lights blinking in his face, the decryption module whirring in his ear, and a parched mouth. His dreams had been almost feverish—nonsensical situations and images that shifted and mutated and felt like warnings as he dreamed them and like the worrying teeth of guilt when he woke. 

He was going to need to make a decision soon—next time the connection opened—because the facts were there. Right now, Rey was in the exact place the Force had given every indication they both needed to be. It also happened to be the planet he’d spent months pursuing, seeking an end he’d been doubting ever since he grasped the means to reach it. That island was where he needed to be and where the choices he made might change everything. If he could stomach any of them.

For now, all he could stomach was some water, which he was taking back to his room when he sensed the change. The Force thrummed, and he knew that when his door slid open, Rey would be on the other side. He’d hoped he would have more time. A few hours, at least. But he steeled himself nonetheless and entered. The sound of the door hissing shut behind him evaporated, lost entirely to the scene that greeted him.

Rey was in his bed. Her body was hidden beneath a blanket that had not been there when he left, but there was no mistaking what he’d walked in on. The stiff arch of her back. The way her head tipped back against the pillow, her exposed throat taut and dewy. The fervent movement of her hands between her bent legs. The slackening of her lips as her mouth dropped open and she moaned. 

He dropped his cup and cursed himself for taking one of the metal ones as it clattered to the floor and noisily rolled halfway to the bed before stopping, alerting her to his presence. If she was frozen in horror, Kylo was on fire with it—and several other things. Horror was very low on the list. He should have turned and left, given her at least the illusion of privacy to compose herself until the connection closed. All it would take was a minute or two. The longest of his life.

Still some stubborn part of his brain insisted this was his room, and an even more stubborn part of his body insisted he knew exactly what to do about that. As he struggled to comprehend the fact that Rey was pleasuring herself a few steps from where he stood, his legs at least offered some cooperation. Without a word, he took one step back, then began to turn.

She snapped out of her stupor and sat up in a flash. As the blanket slipped to her waist, her hands ceased their busy twitching and were now occupied only with straightening her shirt out. Her face was deep pink, and while he knew it was likely her embarrassment, it could just as well have been arousal that had her so flushed and wide-eyed. 

What had she been thinking about? His blood began to rush again, and as he felt his cock stir ominously against his thigh, he resumed his effort to leave.

“Wait.” 

The sound of Rey’s voice was a shock, even though her little moan was still rattling around in his head, echoes of it jolting down his spine and settling at his extremities. On the desk, the decrypter was a persistent, annoying hum. He moved to turn it off. It was a way to defer to her but also not get any nearer. Her eyes followed him the whole time.

He could have stayed at the desk. Instead he looked back at her and waited, willing his body to calm down. He was usually good at control when it mattered, though right now it was a brittle veneer. 

“What?” He spoke more sharply than he’d meant to. It was either that or let her hear how breathless he was. “I was going to—”

“Have you . . .” Her interruption faltered as she shifted again, twisting the edge of the blanket in her hands. She sounded breathless too. “Have you ever wondered if you could— if we’d be able to touch each other through this? Whenever it opens, it feels like you’re really here.”

He flew through the reasons she could be asking him this question, in this moment, and there was only one answer that made sense. The stirring returned, more insistent—the sort that seemed to say I told you so as his pulse raced to the point of aching. 

Kylo eyed her carefully, clenching and unclenching one hand at his side. “I wonder every time.”

“So’ve I.” 

A small crease formed between her eyebrows as she watched him expectantly. There was plenty of space beside her on the bed. Before he could think of any of the ways this could go wrong, he sat at the edge and faced her, one hand resting on the crumpled blanket. The soft woven fabric was warm from her body. That was encouraging. If he could touch something from her end, surely . . .

Her fingers crept toward his hand. He held his breath, watching the slow diminishment of distance, still thinking it was impossible that they should meet. Yet her skin brushed his, and his breath caught. It was barely a touch at first, the tips of her fingers bumping against the tips of his, but for an instant he felt so much more than that. It was like she’d closed his entire body up in her cupped hands: warmth, and dark, and the security of being held. A jolt of almost electric power followed, so strong he was surprised it hadn’t thrown him across the room. 

Rey leaned closer. He turned his palm upward, and her fingers slid over that too, as if they hadn’t already shared touches like this, as if touch itself was a novel phenomenon. It occurred to him where those fingers had been a few minutes before. She was leaving invisible traces of herself in the lines of his palm. They would be there when she disappeared.

The corner of her mouth ticked upward, as if the simple, momentous strangeness of it was a private joke. “Is that all it is?”

It had passed in a blink, that ephemeral surge of power, but its crackling urgency remained. Every strand of the connection twisted tighter than ever. Her eyes flicked from his face to where their hands touched. 

His gaze followed and darkened as he trailed his fingertips up the inside of her wrist. “That’s all it is.”

She grasped his hand and pulled it closer to her, like she meant to lead it somewhere, but all the rest of him followed until his mouth crashed against hers. With a hum of satisfaction, Rey wound her free hand into his shirt and drew him haltingly back with her, his feet on the floor as his chest pressed over hers. The sensation was strange; more than the slide of her lips and the way her body moved against his, it was like he’d fallen and was suddenly in two places at once. He had the idea that if he opened his eyes and looked around, he’d see his own room and wherever she was superimposed or guttering in and out by turns. 

That would have required him to look. All he wanted to see and feel and know was her.

As they kissed, Rey didn’t seem interested in tenderness, giving or receiving it. That was fine. He wasn’t sure he was capable of it, and he had done nothing to warrant it from her in return. Wherever she had been when he interrupted, she was already back there. He couldn’t stop the greedy thought that he’d been there too, and that in some way this was exactly what she’d wanted.

Her hand found his again and guided it down. His mind was too fixed on the tangle of her fingers at the back of his neck and the way she smelled faintly of sea-wet stone to notice exactly what she wanted—and then it was impossible to make any mistake. Rey was urging his fingers between the waist of her pants and the flat, warm skin of her stomach. 

For a moment, he didn’t even question it. She’d been touching herself. She wanted him to touch her now. He wanted to touch her. The fit was tight as he wormed his fingers beneath the fabric. Perhaps one of them ought to have opened her pants; perhaps it wasn’t too late. He didn’t really care. Beneath his palm, the muscles of her stomach flexed and held taut as she tilted her hips, trying to afford him some space, her breath coming in shallow gasps against his mouth.

She sounded like a desperate, panicked animal. Something about it shook him enough that he drew back to catch her eye. Her hand tightened around his wrist, pushing him to continue, and the expression on her face was only one of eagerness. He knew that look. Blazing bright and waiting for what came next. This close, it was almost too much. Kylo dipped his face to kiss the crook of her neck just as his hand disappeared into the front of her pants and her thin briefs. 

As she arched into his touch and sighed, he couldn’t help marveling at how this small, hidden portion of her body could contain such complexity: smooth, warm skin; a fine layer of coarse hair; hot, silky wetness deeper inside. She was so soft. So much of her body was angles and muscle and bone. Pressed this tightly to her, he felt it all. But here she was soft. Here she was open.

He knew what he should be doing—he was inexperienced, but he wasn’t an idiot—and he was doing something . Rey kept squirming and panting and sighing every time his fingers stroked or rubbed, and her hands wound tighter in his hair until he thought she would come away with tufts of it clutched in her fists. She’d already had herself part of the way there. It shouldn’t have been a complicated thing to take her the rest of it. 

Except Kylo could hardly move his hand, let alone find a good angle or make an attempt at any finesse. Seconds stretched. Her frustration became evident, unspooling between them. He was beginning to feel like an inept lout. He withdrew his hand abruptly, eyes stuck for a moment on the shiny, translucent web of her arousal between his fingers. He’d get her pants open and try again. 

Before he could assure her that he wasn’t about to leave her half finished, she regarded him with affront and began to sit up. “Why are you stopping?”

“There’s not enough—“ 

Kriff, he’d been right. He blinked and for a flash the room around him swam and changed. He saw stone, gray light, a dirt floor. He smelled the ocean. He heard birds shrieking. The bed buckled and shrank. Then the space was his own again, but his balance failed him and sent him sprawling on top of her. 

“Shit.”

“Wait, stay . . . this might . . .” She huffed, hooked her arms beneath his, and wriggled her legs out to either side of him until his hips were cradled against hers. It felt exquisitely right. Too right. “Oh!”

Shit.

Rey’s face shifted from confusion to realization as the obvious ridge of his erection settled solid and heavy at the exact spot he’d been trying to navigate with his hand. Even through their clothes, the sensation of it wrenched an immediate groan of relief from him. He’d been aggressively ignoring the throb of his own needs, and this was all it took—now Kylo could think only of how good it would feel to move with her like this.

She was making her own interest clear, dragging herself against him a few times with slow, barely maintained deliberation. “Oh,” she said again, and this time it was a request for more. On the next upward grind of her hips he returned the pressure, too forcefully bucking her into the mattress. She expelled a rough sigh, squeezed her thighs at his hips, then buried her face in his chest and clung to him as they continued to move.

The whole thing was frantic and ungainly, a fumbling mess of limbs as hands and mouths seized whatever was in reach. It was better if he didn’t overthink it, just let his body pursue what felt good. Rey was what felt good. Every one of his senses was attuned only to her and the absence of space between their bodies. Even like this, they fit. It felt as right as all things with her did.

Something he should have realized was, in its singular, graceless way, too good to last. He was settling his weight more firmly over her when the vise-like pressure of her arms vanished, along with the heated friction of her body against his cock and her sharp gasps in his ear. It was just him in his bed, with the slow-dawning realization that he was grasping at nothing and rocking his hips against the mattress, on the brink of coming undone. There was no one to witness it, but it was humiliating anyway. He pushed his face into the pillow—it held her heat, it smelled like her—and let out a snarl.  

There had been things he wanted to tell her. Things he’d thought she might want to hear. So much for that. Instead he was lying prone in a too-quiet room, hard, aching, and wondering what he could afford to send flying across the room in a fit of indignation. He’d have said it was a vivid dream, except that when he balled his hand into a fist and rolled over, it was still damp with her. 

Fine. He checked the door, undid his trousers, and grasped himself roughly. This wouldn’t take long anyway. When it was done, he’d get back to work. He’d finish his planning. The next time the connection opened, he would hope to find Rey in less distracting circumstances. They had a lot to discuss. 

 

Chapter Text

“You’re still here.”

In the empty stone chamber, Luke’s voice echoed low and ominous. Rey only just managed to swallow her gasp of surprise. When she twisted around to look at him, he was half shrouded in shadow. 

“It’s only been a few days,” she said. “I’ve waited longer.”

Admittedly, waiting was made more tolerable by a good battery of routines; but the island held no shortage of novelties to busy herself with. And then there was what had transpired only a few hours ago as the sun rose. 

She wasn’t sure she’d have been so bold if Kylo had really been standing there in flesh and blood, but the feeling that lingered when the connection closed was real. The heat of his breath at her neck, the brutal softness of his lips, the slight tremble of his fingers sliding down and then inside. The shock of touching him and being touched with only the Force as their conduit had left something behind.

No more sleeping after that. She’d taken to early-morning wandering again. 

She hadn’t seen this part of the island before, not even in her dreams. It was a tall chamber facing the ocean and, like the Jedi’s abandoned library tree, had been hewn straight from the environment. Sunlight spilled in from a narrow opening in the rockface, though it could not dispel the velvet darkness of the furthest corners. Just a few feet from where she sat was an old mosaic: a single humanoid figure cross-legged at the center of an ellipse, head bowed, a sword in hand. It was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. Its clean contrasts and simple symmetry were as soothing as they were striking, and the tranquil pose of the figure depicted had begged imitation—though by now her legs were beginning to fall asleep.

“Is this a temple?” she ventured after more interminable silence, stretching slowly.

The sound of his cautious steps caught on the high, rough-carved walls as he approached. “Not a temple— the Temple.”

“I thought so. The Force is very . . . big in here.” 

She was grateful Luke wouldn’t see the way she grimaced at the childishness of her words. Saying the Force was “big” was like saying the stars were hot. But it was . The enormity and intensity of it was overwhelming when she brushed it with her consciousness. 

Rey rasped her callused fingertips together, as if testing the air for something unseen. “I feel so much of it at once, I mean.”

“The spot was chosen because it sits over a vergence,” he told her, as if he begrudged sharing even that much knowledge. “Do you know what that is?”

She was so accustomed to his barely tolerant disinterest that she was unfazed by his presumption of ignorance. 

“Yes. There was a thermal spring on Pamarthe we—I—thought might be one. It was sort of the opposite, though. Quieter.”

He hummed sourly. “There are many kinds of vergences. You’ll find several on Ahch-To.”

“Ahch-To. That’s this planet’s name?”

“One of them.” Luke’s gaze swept over her again, taking in her posture and disposition for the first time. “You were meditating.”

“Trying to.”

He was standing right behind her now. She could feel his eyes on the back of her head and wondered if he was trying to peer inside. 

“Is that something you do often?” asked Luke.

“It’s getting to be.”

“And what do you feel when you do?”

“Everything.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Well, it’s my answer.”

“Try again.”

She grit her teeth to keep from sniping back. “It’s like . . .”

“Yes?”

“Floating,” she said. “Surrounded by so much energy that I might as well be alone. And then . . .”

The moment she let herself slip into that intangible, open state, she found herself close to losing control. Things she couldn’t name tugged her one way or another when she ventured too deep. She was curious about what would happen if she let herself be pulled under, as if answers waited far below, in the places where shadows shifted and whispered.

Yet in all that, one piece was always missing.

“I don’t feel you at all. Not ever.” She frowned and looked back at him. “When I landed, it was like I was the only human being on the planet.”

Luke finally circled around to face her, sharp with scrutiny. “I cut myself off from the Force when I came here.”

“I wondered.” 

And just as quickly dismissed the idea. It had seemed too extreme. 

“You could learn,” he said.

“Why would I want to do that?” 

“You came to me for guidance. There it is. It’s the best advice I have.”

That ’s your best advice?”

“It would make things easier for you.”

Rey swallowed the rebuttal on her tongue. He had a point. If she cut herself off, it would be as if nothing had changed. Yet now that she had seen and felt the things she had—how could she sever that part of herself? It would be like stumbling upon a sumptuous feast but resolving to eat only the crumbs.

“You do have great power,” Luke pressed. His voice was not gentle, but there was a placating tone that belied his coldness. “I can see that well enough on my own. It’s the kind that draws attention. Ben had it too.”

There it was: Ben Solo, cautionary tale. She worried her lip, trying not to consider the implications of Luke’s words or how familiar they sounded. “What was he like?” 

“Headstrong, but secretive. Bright. Exceptionally perceptive. A promising student—but not always a good one.” He was staring somewhere in the vicinity of her feet, eyes scanning slowly over the mosaic between them. “And full of doubt. Eager for approval, for a solution, and angry when he didn’t find it. His fervor to learn often seemed to be a cover. He was never comfortable.”

It sounded like Kylo as she knew him. He insisted he was a different person than he had been, but any time she spoke to someone who had known him, it became more evident that he was the same. They both knew it.

Just Ben after all.

“I’m not him,” she said.

“I don’t really know what you are.”

“It isn’t my fault that you refuse to look.”

“I see enough. I see a young woman troubled by the burden she carries and with no understanding of how vulnerable it makes her. I’ve seen that before. I can’t fix it for you—but I’m offering you a way to cut yourself free of it.” 

Rey stared coldly up at him. She wasn’t asking to be fixed or freed. If Luke saw her only as another disaster waiting to unfold, that hurt, but it was his own guilt and regret blinding him. It wasn’t on her.

“Do you think he would have been better off if you hadn’t trained him?” she asked. “If he’d just cut himself off instead?”

“After what happened to him and everything I tried to build? Yes. I do.”

“He might agree.”

“And you,” he said, growing surly, “continue to speak as if you know him.”

“I do.”

His shoulders rose in a dismissive shrug as he made to leave. Trying to argue in his nephew’s favor was going to be a lost cause. Piqued, Rey tried a riskier angle.

“Do you remember when you asked who I was speaking to in the library?” she called after him.

“Yourself, yes, I remember.” Luke’s pace slowed but he continued on. “Can’t say I was convinced.”

“I was speaking to Kylo. To Ben.” 

He stopped and turned to her. Even in the dim light, she could see his face had blanched. “How is that possible?”

“The Force.”

“You’re going to need to be more specific.”

“It’s been connecting us. At first it was just a feeling. We shared dreams, and visions. And now we can see each other, and speak, and,”—her neck warmed at the memory of that morning—“and touch. It’s stronger all the time. I have no idea how or why, but neither of us can control it or stop it.” 

“You know, this is a hell of a way to bury the lede.” 

“You didn’t like the idea that he and I interacted at all. I had good reason not to elaborate.”

“So why tell me now?”

“Because it seems to make no difference to you that he came back.”

“It doesn’t undo the past.”

“No. But he tried.” Unlike you , she barely managed to keep back as she climbed to her feet. “I know there are things I don’t understand. But I don’t think you understand that there’s something happening here, ever since he left the First Order, and you’re part of it. I didn’t want any of this either, but I’m tired of trying to make you listen.”

To his credit, Luke didn’t immediately run her out of the temple, down the hill, and into the Mirrorbright to send her on her way. He didn’t leave, either. He scrubbed a hand over his face and paced a short distance from her, muttering to himself, his demeanor unchanged.

“When did it start?”

“I don’t know.” She collected her thoughts. “At first I thought it might have been when he interrogated me. We got in each other’s heads and something snapped. Aligned? But now I’m less sure. I’ve started to wonder if it’s always been there, dormant like the rest.”

“How often do you feel it?”

“It’s hard to say.”

After their last encounter, she felt it all the time. They’d touched, and something had changed. The bond had pulled tighter than ever, woven strong and resilient as durasteel cabling. Rey was certain that if she wanted to, she could take her ship and find him wherever he was in the galaxy, without so much as a set of coordinates to guide her. 

If that worked both ways . . . would Ben feel it too? What would he do if he did?

“Have you ever heard of anything like this?” she asked, trying to allay the anxious flutter that beset her. “He hadn’t.”

“The Force can forge connections between people sensitive to it. Family members, usually, or an apprentice and their master. It isn’t common, but it does happen. My sister and I  . . . she had it with Ben too.” He sighed and began to walk nearer. “It’s possible to use such a connection to communicate over great distances—maybe not words, but feelings. Strong emotions and ideas. Psychological states.”

Luke’s explanation was was familiar but inadequate. Whatever the Force was doing between her and Ben, it was far stronger than a mere exchange of ideas.

“There’s more to it than that.”

“Yeah, sounds like it.” 

He was giving her one of his steady, impassive looks again. Still, one thing was clear: he saw something entirely different in her than he had before. Maybe not for the reasons she’d hoped. Maybe this would come back to bite her in the ass—probably that. But Luke was listening, and he was taking her seriously, and she didn’t know him well enough to say, but she could swear he looked intrigued.

“It’s why I’m so certain about him, ” Rey said, surprising herself after days of doubt and worry. “You say he stopped fighting the dark side when he destroyed your school and turned to Snoke, but you’re wrong.”

“Listen to me—” 

“No, you listen. He’s still fighting. I told you last time that I feel that in him, and I meant it. His mind is so open to me it’s terrifying. He hates who he was before.”

She knew what it was to be made to feel worthless, but she was beginning to see the lie of it. Ben could too. 

“If I could make him see how wrong he is, I would. But I wasn’t the one who let him believe he was a lost cause,” she said as her surge of righteous anger began to recede. “I saw what happened that night.”

The waves hissed outside the temple, and she had to control her urge to fill the silence inside with hurried explanation. Finally, Luke gave a minute nod, barely more than a twitch.

“I’ll leave you to your meditation. There are things I need to do this morning,” he declared.

“You’re leaving again?” She dashed after him, appalled. She’d just bared one of her deepest secrets to him—not even Leia knew the depth of her connection to Ben—and his interest had given her hope this might not end in more rejection. “Don’t you have any idea what—”

“I do. And that’s why I need to think,” he said as she caught up. “I’ll find you later. You’re going to tell me everything about this connection you’ve been experiencing. All of it. No side-stepping this time. Got it?”

Rey breathed a short sigh of relief. “Got it. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet.”

And then he was gone, off to spear fish or collect milk or exchange judgmental looks with the island Caretakers. At this point, it didn’t make much difference. For the first time since arriving, Luke hadn’t left her frustrated and hopeless about the prospects of her mission. Yet she was unsatisfied. 

The Force could create bonds between family members, he’d said, or an apprentice and master. She and Ben could easily have fallen into the latter sort of dynamic, she supposed, though things between them had always felt more like a partnership. She had been teaching him some things too. As for family . . .

How had she never thought of it before? 

Buzzing with possibility, Rey returned to her seat by the mosaic and stilled first her body, then her mind. She reached out and was immediately awash in the feeling of being stretched thin in all directions. The island was as loud a voice as ever, demanding attention and reciprocity. She brushed it aside and delved past. If her family was out there in the galaxy, some part of her had to be connected to them after all these years. Wherever they were. No matter how far. She could find them.

What did she know of them? If she could feel them now, what would they be?

Family was the smell of sun-heated engine oil. Family was the sound of metal being hammered flat, reshaped, repurposed. Family was rough, grit-covered hands absently squeezing her fingers with something like affection; the sour, tangy smell of cheap trading post brew; the blue lights of a transport receding overhead, winking and gone. 

A mound of earth, hastily piled. Cold, windblown desert nights. The lightless mouth of space. Emptiness. A dead end. The same unsettling blankness she felt when she tried to find Luke, where something should have been but instead was absent.

Nothing

Rey’s concentration buckled. Her ease in the currents of the Force wavered. The island called her back. She felt herself pulled down as the smooth whisper of that place returned—the cavernous throat of the hole in the ground, vomiting vines and wet weeds, and the cavern beyond, cold as a grave. Always calling, so patient, waiting for her. She knew all about waiting. She knew what was down there. 

Didn’t she want to see?

What are you afraid of, scavenger?

The Force was a roaring echo, carried on the waves, bounding off the rocks.

They’re never coming back.

“No!” 

She wrenched herself away and returned to her body with such suddenness that she nearly gagged on the sensation of drawing breath. Her arms were shaking, limp at her sides, and she felt as if she’d just been doused with icy water. In her confusion, she wouldn’t have minded opening her eyes to find Ben sitting across from her, casting a long shadow over the mosaic between them. He was no stranger to the sort of thing that had just happened to her. He would understand.

She looked around the chamber, waiting for something to happen. The space across from her was full of light but nothing else. 

Annoyed by her disappointment—though it was better than the fear—Rey climbed to her feet and made her way outside. The bond followed her. It was like breathing, she’d realized. Always there, always happening, but noticeable only when she consciously made the effort to feel it. She did so for a few moments, until she felt as if she was dancing along a wire, then pulled back and continued on her way. If Ben appeared, she wasn’t sure what she would say to him.

 

 

He woke to the sensation of being plunged into a frigid pool and the realization that he couldn’t move. As his mind struggled to make sense of it, Kylo forced himself not to panic. It was not Snoke’s power that held him immobile as his muscles strained to act; this was only one of those things that happened sometimes. It just hadn’t happened in so long. His arms and legs would come back to themselves in a few moments. He was alone in mind and body. The Force was quiet. He couldn’t figure out why he expected to see Rey standing by, watching patiently.

She wasn’t. It had only been a few hours since he’d last seen and felt her, and it was too much to hope that he’d be granted another opportunity so soon after the way they’d parted. He wondered if she would acknowledge it at all. It had been so much like a dream—one of the rare good ones—he wasn’t even sure he would. What was he supposed to say? ‘ Sorry I couldn’t manage to get you off after interrupting your private moment’ didn’t quite suffice.

Never mind that she’d made her enjoyment clear; he’d found another way in which his pride could wound itself. 

He rolled to his side and squinted into the dark. On the desk, the decrypter and holoprojector were still shut down. He had no plans to change that.  

What had happened between him and Rey had done more than provide a release of tension. When their fingers first brushed, he’d been stunned by the intensity of the power that coursed between them. The connection itself had become something solid as muscle and bone, yet it struck him on a level he could only define as spiritual. 

What surprised him was that it hadn’t ended as it usually did, receding into a space he couldn’t access. 

Rey had disappeared, she was far away, and he could not name the place she was any more than he could will her to his side. But he knew how to find her in the same peculiar, instinctive way he could navigate hyperspace through the Force. It was a distillation of the sense he’d had on Pamarthe, drawn to where she was without knowing what he was following. The single, winding line between them now spanned the stars.

That was it then. He didn’t need the map that had burdened him so. The truest path to Luke lay between himself and Rey. Maybe it had been there the whole time, undiscovered, and he had been too busy looking in the wrong direction to see it. Typical. 

Kylo slid out of bed, groped around in the dark for his shirt, then swatted at the light fixture until the room was bathed in a gentle glow. The long, round window on the ceiling revealed a night sky bruised by a mottle of red, purple, and blue clouds. He could make out the bright patches where Batuu’s moons hid as they progressed in their slow crawl across the heavens. That was where he needed to be. No use waiting around anymore. 

No use clinging to useless things, either. The identity he’d dragged with him when he left the First Order, the one bit of armor he hadn’t figured out how to shed, no longer protected him. It cut and choked and paralyzed. It had never fit at all. Why had it taken six years to realize that? This was a decision he was making only for himself. If he was going to own it, he was going to own it as Ben Solo.

It didn’t feel better; but it didn’t feel worse either. It was more honest, at least.

Ben began to pack. It didn’t take long. He’d had little when he’d arrived and not acquired much since. He was dressed and halfway to the kitchen before it hit him that it was hours until sunrise. Had this been a few days ago, he would have had no qualms about slipping out without so much as a curt nod to Lando’s bedroom door. Now, to repay Lando’s undeserved patience and generosity with arrogant ingratitude made him feel distinctly dirty.

Damn it

Ben stole a look at the front door, dropped his bag, and began to move toward the hall to Lando’s room. He would wake him and say he was leaving. No need to provide details. Lando most likely wouldn’t want them. Or perhaps he could just leave a message behind him. Yes, that would be better. Less complicated. Yet no sooner was he stalking past the small study than he sensed a presence within and heard the sound of a throat being cleared.

When he peered inside, he found Lando seated in a chair by one of the windows, a datapad balanced on his knee, a mug of something hot on the table next to him. He looked unsurprised to find Ben stealing around the apartment in the dead of night.

“I didn’t realize you were awake,” Ben said needlessly. 

“I just got in a little while ago.”

“At the cantina?”

“Could be. I hadn’t planned to be out so long, but sometimes duty calls.”

Duty could have been some wager or game of chance that had spiralled, or maybe it was Resistance business. Ben wasn’t sure which interested him less. 

“Anyway,” Lando went on, “I was catching up on the news feeds before I turn in. There’s another chair there, if you’re not planning on sleeping.”

The offer was tempting. This was the first place he’d been in ages that felt like an actual home. 

If he started thinking like that, he’d lose his resolve to depart. He’d always known this was temporary.

“Actually, I was looking for you.”

“Oh yeah? That’s new.”

Ben issued a dry sound of agreement. “I’m moving on.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.” 

If he delayed even an hour, fear of what lay ahead and all the old, simmering anger would congeal over his clarity of purpose. Right now , he knew where he needed to go. What he needed to do when he got there was less clear, but he wouldn’t figure it out by sitting around half a galaxy away.

“Interesting timing.” Lando placed his datapad on the table. “Had a stroke of luck with your map, I suppose.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Well, you don’t look like a man who’s off to finish a fight,” he observed. “So should I be worried?”

Ben lifted his chin. “I didn’t realize worry was an option for you.”

“Hey smartass, I try to limit it to about once a year, but it happens.”

“Then don’t waste it on me.”

“Wouldn’t be a waste. But I’m happy to save it.” He rose and stretched, then beckoned Ben to follow as he slipped by into the hall. “Your ship still down at the port by Bakkar?”

“It better be.”

“And I see you’re packed,” he said as Ben swung his bag back over his shoulder. He followed Ben’s deliberate progress toward the door. “Can’t tempt you with a farewell drink, can I?”

“I’d better not. Thanks, though. For . . . all this.”

“It was a pleasure. Mostly.” Lando chuckled to himself and ran a hand over his thinning hair. “It help after all?”

“I’m going to find out.” The door slid open and Ben stepped out into a night that was balmy and laced with the scents of spices and damp earth. There were things he’d be sorry to leave behind here. In the middle of the night it was easy to forget the overcrowded markets and noisy thoroughfares that erupted with life in the daylight. “What’ll you be doing next?”

“I’m heading back to Bespin myself in a couple days. Was going to let you stay behind, if you wanted, but . . .” Lando gave a cavalier shrug, leaning on the doorframe. “Maybe this is how it was meant to go from the start.”

“How sentimental of you.”

“Ah, you know. Such things happen with age.” He gave Ben a probing look, then clapped him on the shoulder like they were two old friends parting after a chance meeting. It was as much of a sendoff as he needed. “Take care, starfighter. Maybe I’ll see you around again soon.”

 

 

Rey had become so accustomed to the futility of her daily checks for news from the Resistance base that she almost didn’t trust her eyes when she spied a blinking light on the Mirrorbright ’s comms console. At some point over the course of the day, she’d missed a request for contact. Her excitement was tainted by anxiety. She’d been waiting for any sign she hadn’t been forgotten here, but fear that the news awaiting her would be of the worst sort never quite left her. Still, it was something , and she threw herself into the pilot’s chair and sent a response signal. 

It was accepted within seconds, which allayed her fears just enough. Her heart positively soared when the face that greeted her as the connection caught was none other than Finn’s. Nothing about the way he beamed at her suggested disaster. 

“You have no idea how good it is to see you,” she said, drawing her legs up onto the seat and leaning closer. “When I saw I’d missed you earlier, I couldn’t believe it. That was you, right?”

His smile widened with hers. “Yeah, it was. The general thought you might like to see a friendly face.”

“She’s not wrong. It’s been chilly here.”

“Funny, that doesn’t sound like a comment on the weather.” Finn’s brow dipped with concern. “You find Luke?”

“I found Luke,” Rey confirmed. She managed to keep her grimace from becoming a scowl. 

“And?”

“He’s not easily convinced.”

“Leia gave that impression. Though . . .” He squinted at her, evaluating something. “ You’re looking like yourself.”

She gave a bemused grunt. “Was I meant to look like someone else?” 

“Rose and I may have a wager going about whether you’re going to come back all” —he flapped a hand in the air, fingers waggling—“ enlightened . Full of all that ‘may the Force be with you’ Jedi wisdom.”  

The fact that he and Rose had been taking such an interest in her progress was a shocking comfort.

“Which side were you betting on?” she asked slyly. “Enlightened Rey, or tragically mundane Rey?”

“‘Mundane’ is never a word I’d use to describe you, first of all,” Finn said. “And for what it’s worth, I didn’t think you’d change.”

“Well, at the rate I’m going here, there’s still time for me to ascend to some higher plane. I’ll be sure to send my regards if that’s the case.”

“Maybe keep the regards to yourself. Rose can be really smug when she’s right. Which she is, a lot.”

Rey laughed again and fought to rein in her smile. “I wish I had more to report, aside from the fact that I’m doing what I can. I might need more time.”

“Not too lonely?”

“Nothing I’m not used to.”

Except for the whole Ben thing.

“Hmm, not the most encouraging answer, but I guess I’ll take it.” With alarming prescience, he lowered his voice and said with care, “No word about what might’ve happened to Kylo, either. He’s completely disappeared.”

“Believe it or not, I’m not too worried about it.”

He looked puzzled. 

“Right. Well. Good. You shouldn’t.” Finn cleared his throat and glanced at something over his shoulder, then sank a little, as if he was sitting down. “So, you’re probably wondering why I tried to reach you.”

“Good news, I hope?”

“It’s good. Big, but good. The mission to take out the hyperspace tracker was a success.”

She was ashamed to admit it, but in the handful of days since she’d come here, she’d all but forgotten it. Ahch-To was so remote that being here was like being in a completely different galaxy. Still, she felt a weight lift. Even if she wasn’t doing such a great job with her end of things, the Resistance was seeing some much-needed success.

“That is big. And . . . forget good, it’s fantastic.” She shook the stunned look from her face, then let her feet drop to the floor and scooted to the edge of the seat. “When?”

“Two days ago. I wasn’t there, but by all reports the First Order was taken completely by surprise—like they didn’t think it was possible.” 

“People with that much power always think they’re untouchable.”

“Yeah.” His face had hardened briefly but was untroubled when he looked at her again. “Here’s the really crazy part. The generator that made the tracker so powerful was extremely volatile. Rose would explain the technical stuff better, but basically what it means is that when we sabotaged it, the collapse of the hyperspace field caused an enormous surge over the entire Supremacy . It severely compromised all of their major systems for over half an hour.”

What ?”

“I can still barely wrap my head around it—that ship is the size of a city, Rey. But we’ve had reports since of what was happening in the aftermath. Even backup systems weren’t functioning at full capacity. And to mitigate that, they temporarily cut off life support to areas deemed expendable. But they cut off parts of the prison wings, too. Including the sector for stormtroopers sent for reconditioning.”

“But that’s . . . they sentenced them to death, is what you’re saying. Prisoners. Their own forces. It’s barbaric.”

“It’s a convenient way to get rid of soldiers who prove themselves a little too independent-minded.” Rey saw the simmer of anger in Finn’s expression return just beneath the surface. She wondered if he felt he could have done something, if he’d known. Perhaps it was just a reminder of how it might have been him. Yet there was a brightness in his eyes, too. “Except we just had a report this morning that in the time it took to get systems back to full strength, nearly all of the escape pods from evac areas in the same wing went missing, along with a significant number of probationary stormtroopers from the reconditioning pool. No bodies found.”

“So there are a bunch of First Order stormtroopers just . . . cut loose now?”

“That’s the theory. The smart ones will find a place to lie low. I doubt any of them will go back willingly.”

“What if the Resistance gets to them first?”

“Most will probably be like I was when I first got away. Emphasis on away ,” Finn said with a rueful twist of his mouth. “But now that we can move more freely again, Leia’s already making plans to get word out—quarter for the survivors. A place they can fight for a cause that values their—”

A sudden tightness seized Rey’s chest—not her lungs, not her heart, but an unnamable space that was not physical at all. The faint vibration of movement. The narrowing of an orbit. Like breathing , she remembered. Always there, only noticeable when she thought about it. It was noticeable now, because she couldn’t do anything but think about it. 

Ben was coming. He’d figured it out. He was using her to find his way right to Ahch-To.

Right now.

Her certainty was so overwhelming that she couldn’t focus on anything else. Finn’s mouth was moving, but she couldn’t hear his words. The seat beneath her was solid, but she felt like she was suspended in midair. Relief and panic warred within her. Rey believed this was where they were both supposed to be, but Ben had given her no reason to think his intentions had changed. All she could sense was resolve, narrow and sharp as a pinpoint. It didn’t tell her enough.

“Rey.”

She jolted and looked at Finn. “Sorry?”

“You were somewhere else for a second.” His eyes on her were curious but knowing. “Maybe Rose was right.”

“It’s this place, that’s all. Easy to get distracted.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yes. I— Finn, I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I need to cut this short. There’s something I’ve got to do. Can I use this call sign to reach the base again?”

“Yeah. Might not be me, but someone’ll direct you to who you need to talk to.”

“That’s perfect. I’ll be in touch—soon, I hope.”

Finn looked at her askance, then nodded. “Me too. And hey, I mean this totally unironically, but  . . . may the Force be with you.”

“Thanks. You too.”

The image of Finn faded in a wobble of blue static, replaced by the indifferent solitude of the Mirrorbright ’s pristine cabin. Rey rose and dashed toward the boarding ramp. Luke hadn’t found her yet since that morning, but she couldn’t wait any longer. Soon they would have company.



Chapter Text

Luke had just sunk down onto the bench when the door to his hut creaked open and Rey slipped through. He nodded a greeting as she did her best to shut the door against the wind. 

“I seem to remember saying I’d find you,” he commented.

“Your door was open.” 

“Was it?” 

He knew. He’d purposely left it open a sliver rather than locking her out as he usually did. She struck him as the sort of person to notice the difference and see an open door as an invitation, even if it was barely cracked. 

“Yes.” She cast a glance over him and the tiny table beside him, which was cluttered with the makings of dinner. Her tongue flicked out to reflexively wet her lips. The next moment she tore her gaze away from the table and fixed it back on him. “This couldn’t wait. Ben’s coming here. Right now.”

“Using the map? Or—”

“Using me.”

“Ah. Your connection,” he said with care, looking her over with more interest.

The steady rainfall that started an hour or so ago had taken its toll on her; Rey more resembled a drowned womprat than a human being. She gave a curt nod and shuffled further into the room, abrasive as ever despite her bedraggled appearance and unwilling or unable to be still as she hurried through an explanation. 

“I can feel where he is. Really feel it—like if I wanted to find him right now I could just go and the Force would guide me.”

“That’s new?”

“No. Not exactly. Something similar happened on Pamarthe a few times, but not like this. That was almost on accident; this is so much stronger. There’s . . . there’s intention to it. And he’s been so far away that I didn’t think . . .” She bit her lip in consternation. “I should’ve known he would sense it too and take advantage of it.”

“When I said I wanted you to tell me more about this,” he groused, “I wasn’t hinting that I needed a demonstration.”

“I’m not here to prove anything. If I’d thought this was possible before, I’d have told you so from the start. You said you wanted to know more. Well?”

Her expression was so miserable and harried that Luke felt his heart move for her, if only a bit. He hummed dubiously and waved a hand at the table. 

“Sit down and have some food. You look like you could use a good meal.” His eyes darted over the sparse offerings. “ A meal, anyway.”

Rey hesitated only a moment before sinking to the floor and beginning to help herself. “I bet this is leagues better than the worst I’ve had.” 

“Funny show of gratitude.”

“I just mean— Thank you.”

She ate like a person who had learned early on to get as much down as quickly as possible before someone else came along and took what remained. Even so, while she ate she spoke at length of the feeling she’d had before seeking him out and how she had inexplicably known what it meant. 

“It’s like the response to a call I never sent out,” she said moodily, pushing a few wet strands of hair back from her face as her eyes tracked over the room. 

“Did you try to disengage?”

She shook her head and scooped another spoonful of eggs into her mouth. “I think I could block it, but not for long.”

Luke said nothing to that and did not speak again until she rose and walked over to the spigot in the corner with her canteen, which she’d drained after a few bites of roasted meat and overly salted dried fish.

“How much time until he arrives?” 

She took her time at the spigot but slowed on her way back to the table, her focus turned inward and then somewhere beyond, almost meditative.

“It’s hard to say,” she told him as she sat back down. “He’s not close . Hours, maybe?” Something seemed to come over her, like she’d been hit with a chill. With more certainty, she said, “By dawn. A bit before.”

“What else do you feel from him?”

“He’s tired. But so focused that I don’t think he realizes it. There’s something here that he wants very much. You, must be.”

Luke had his doubts but kept them to himself.

“And when you reach for him that way, do you see anything?”

“See?”

“Yes. His thoughts. Intentions. What’s in his mind. The state of the Force around him.”

Rey narrowed her eyes and drew a fingernail along a deep groove in the table, making a poor show of pretending to study what remained of their meal. 

“I might be able to.”

“When we spoke earlier, you said his mind is open to you—so open it scared you.”

“We don’t . . . we’ve never done that to each other,” she said with a quick, accusatory look. “Not since the first time. And, well, what happened on the beach. But that wasn’t our intent. It wasn’t the same.”

Piqued, Luke leaned forward, focus sharpened. “What happened on the beach?” 

“We touched the lightsaber and both had a vision. I saw the night he destroyed the temple. Or whatever happened—he wouldn’t tell me the rest, and I never asked again.”

“Why not?”

“Because it hurt him to have me see it. I felt that much. I didn’t want to feel it again.” Her tone softened as she went on. “I didn’t see all of it, but I saw enough. You and him inside a hut at night. And you . . .”

“I what?” Luke pressed, dreading to hear what she would say.

“Were you really going to murder him?”

“What do you think?”

She let out a short, surprising burst of laughter.

“That’s funny?” 

“He said the same thing when I asked if what I’d seen was real,” she said, though her amusement had already faded. “And I . . . no. I don’t think you were. I felt all his fear and betrayal, and his anger. But I felt you too. You were afraid too. Conflicted. You were ashamed to have thought of it at all.”

He looked at her impassively, but he knew she had caught the flash of surprise in his eyes.

“But he doesn’t know that, and I don’t think it’d matter if he did,” she went on. “I’d feel the same as he does. You were the person who was supposed to help him. Protect him.”

“He told you that?”

“Not those words, exactly, but I know what he meant.”

Luke looked away, tapping a finger absently on the edge of the table as his eyes drifted around the room, landing everywhere but on her. The rain was picking up outside; a day ago he might have kicked her out into it.

“He’s right. I was supposed to help,” he finally said. “I was the last resort—Leia never said that, but we all knew it. The circumstances of his coming to me were not exactly . . . smooth. There were many things unsaid. Things none of us understood.” He slouched in the bench, leaning against the wall and tipping his head back, eyes closed. “But as for what happened in the end, it wasn’t always like that between me and him.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were close, for the first few years. I remember the first exchange we had when he and I left Chandrila—he asked if he was supposed to start calling me Master Skywalker, and I said he had better not, and he said that was a relief because he had no plans to do so but would try to be a good student.”

Rey snorted.

“I could tell he begrudged coming to me, but he was sincere, too. He was difficult to reach yet so desperate to live up to something, and he let me in. He trusted me, and . . . well, I trusted him. I wanted to. And I’d never wanted students, but when I saw how things could be, with him , it made me reconsider. I realized there might be a place in the galaxy for a sort of academy again. But new. Better. Open to other ways of seeing the Force.”

“He never told me any of that,” she said. “Any time he’d speak of training with you, it felt like he was remembering things himself for the first time. I don’t think he trusts his own recollections.”

“He wouldn’t. With Snoke’s lies deceiving him for years, molding his point of view right under my nose, and then . . . what I did. I looked into his mind that night and saw such darkness. Terrible things. I made a decision. And it cost me everything. It cost him everything.” 

Luke felt a pang of understanding he’d been avoiding for years. Who was he to speak of honesty and cost, after what he had let Leia and Han believe all these years? He’d told himself his decision to come here had been necessary. It was the only way to stop the cycle. But it hadn’t stopped anything. 

“The stories we tell ourselves can be very convincing.”

Rey shook her head absently. “We all have our own way of remembering things.”

“Yes.”

“Look, this is all very . . .” She trailed and gnawed at the end of a bone, then tossed it aside. “You told me that it’s rare to find connections like this. And that they’re between people who already have reason to be linked.”

“That’s right.”

“So why him and me? We never asked for this. We didn’t do anything to cause it.”

Nuisance though she was, Rey presented an interesting contradiction. She was as guarded as Ben had ever been, but she was not secretive. She was desperate to share herself with someone. It was no wonder that she had been drawn to Ben. 

Still, nothing he had ever encountered quite explained what was happening between her and his nephew. On the surface he could only see the risks: an impossibly intimate bond between a Force-user who barely knew her own power and one who had been mired in darkness for so long that Luke struggled to understand the circumstances of his return. 

He wanted to find the nefarious thread beneath the connection, the dark vein deep within. He wanted to deny its truth. Yet he had no choice but to believe her—the evidence was right before his eyes, sodden and shivering in his hut. If he dared to reconnect with the Force, he had no doubt that he would feel the weight of that same powerful connection in the air around her. 

He was not worthy of this young woman’s confidence, and somehow Ben was. For a moment Luke wanted to be too.

“The will of the Force is often inscrutable, even when it seems clear as crystal,” he allowed. “Efforts to discern it can be as perilous as actively working against it—that’s the lesson I learned too late.”

“Please don’t tell me to close myself off to it again. I can’t.”

She sounded so defiant, but afraid too, as if she thought he was about to demand of her something she could not bear.

“I’m not. I’m going to warn you to be wary.” He couldn’t believe what he was about to say, but he forced it forth through grit teeth. “But remain open to it.”

Rey looked at him with cool disbelief. The anxious tightness around her mouth melted slowly away. “That’s the exact opposite of what you were trying to convince me to do this morning.”

“Yeah, well, you were withholding some crucial facts. Make no mistake, part of me does want to tell you to close it off. But what I know of these things . . . they don’t exist without reason. It could be that there is something the two of you need from each other.”

In the warm firelight, he thought he detected a deepening of color in her face. Interesting, but something he’d rather not speculate about. With Ben on his way, Luke had too many other questions on his mind. How things between them could possibly be mended, for one. He wasn’t sure he had it in him to give first. But now it felt real—the young man he’d failed had come back. 

“The things he’s done, and the conflict he feels,” he continued in a lower tone, “if what you tell me is true, you can’t fix them for him. I know that. I tried.”

“I know too,” she said. “But maybe him coming here now means that he’s starting to see a way to do it himself.”

“What will you do if he gets here and only wants to fight?”

“He won’t.”

Her stern, unflagging optimism had a certain annoying charm. It wasn’t quite naivety but a desire for matters to fit into her stubborn worldview: something would be so because she wanted it to be, because she believed in it hard enough, because she told herself it had to be that way. She was a force of will. So he concealed his skepticism and did not argue. 

It had been years since he’d been this curious about anything. Once again he was seized by the urge to reach into the Force and let himself feel its presence.

Rey flinched and began to stand. “I should probably go. I want to see if there’s been any more word from the base—I had to cut a friend short. Thank you for the food.”

The rain beat down on the roof harder than ever, and Luke cast his eyes upward as a gust of wind sent the door rattling in its frame.

“It’s only gotten worse out there,” he observed as she busied herself at the spigot again. 

She hummed with annoyance. “I’m used to it.”

“Any messages you’re waiting on will be there in the morning.”

“Are you asking me to stay until it’s calm again?” she asked, turning to him with a raised eyebrow. 

“Believe it or not, you haven’t completely decimated my food for the night. And there’s still a lot you haven’t told me. If you’re willing.”

Her mouth twitched into a small, quick smile. She took a long swig of water, then joined him at the table.

“Since you’re listening.”





As Ben crested the latest in a series of rolling hills, he caught a flash of movement near the nose of the Mirrorbright where it was grounded amid a stretch of empty, grass-mottled rock. He swept past and began to guide the RZ-2 back around to make a proper approach but let his eyes linger a moment longer than he ought—Rey. Had he been drawn to this spot because she was waiting there? Or had she decided to wait because she knew it was where he would be? It made no difference; applying logic to the bond was a slippery, circular task.

Minutes later, his heart was pounding as his ship touched down a short distance from the sleek white transport. It wasn’t the landing that had him in such a heightened state. The glimpse of Rey alone made the bond flare to a degree that registered as a rush of physical need. He’d been flying for many hours, that was all. His body was sore and jittery, his head aching, his stomach snarling with hunger. He was painfully restless and painfully aware of how the connection urged him to go to her

Yet as the sky lightened, part of him wanted to stay in the cockpit a bit longer, cagey and uncertain in the safety of solitude even after he cut the engines. He’d had the whole flight to determine what he was going to do and say when this moment came, but every possibility was obliterated by the mere sight of her pacing near his mother’s ship. 

Go to her

Still roiling, Ben disembarked and strode from his ship to hers, affecting far more confidence than he felt as he grit his teeth against the angry protestations of cramped muscles. The air smelled of recent rain and was weighted with a lingering dampness that sunk immediately into his bones. Mud and slick stone lay underfoot, sucking at his boots and challenging their grip. As he closed the distance, Rey’s proximity began to draw his unordered thoughts to a steadier point.

Her expression was cautious, her hand not far from the lightsaber at her hip, but he sensed her relief even as her eyes roved over him several times and skittered over his own weapon. For an instant all he could think of was the last time they’d faced each other. How close they had been then, the unplanned, frantic intimacy of that moment and the weighty distance of what was unresolved between them. It felt like weeks, but it had been barely more than a day. His mouth went dry, and his palms itched to touch her again just to confirm she was really there. 

Was she thinking of it too? Did she know that he was?

He couldn’t stand the quiet. 

“Are we alone here?” he asked, ignoring his compulsion to crowd her as he slowed a few feet away.

“Yes.” Her eyes narrowed, either in uncertainty or from the sudden slant of early sunlight breaking the horizon, but her mouth twitched with an almost imperceptible smile as she looked past him to the RZ-2. “I’m surprised you didn’t opt to steal a flashier fighter.”

“I wasn’t going for style. We aren’t all lucky enough to be gifted other people’s ships,” he returned, an eye on the Mirrorbright. 

She looked rueful, then shrugged and came closer. “It’s more a loan.” 

“Are you—” He bit back the question before it emerged— Are you happy I’ve come? —deeming it too stupid and desperate. “Where is he?”    

“Around.”

“You’re not protecting him—”

“I’m not putting myself between the two of you,” she interrupted, finally relaxing despite her insistence. Her eyes were probing. “What have you come here to do?”

“I’m no longer so inclined to kill him, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’m not worried.” A quiet breath puffed out between her lips. “I spoke to him last night.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because I felt you coming.”

“I know that. I let you.”

“Well, he knows too. He needed to be aware. And he— I told him about the way the Force has been connecting us.”

Ben’s immediate reaction was a flare of anxious outrage. That wasn’t hers alone to share with anyone she pleased. Luke had done nothing to earn that knowledge. The twist of betrayal was sharp but short-lived. 

No, the bond wasn’t hers alone, but it was hers. And Ben had been the one to leave her dangling at one end of it. If he hadn’t—if he’d waited for her instead of trying to make her run with him—maybe she wouldn’t have felt the need to tell Luke anything at all. 

He bit back a snappish retort. “Why?”

“I couldn’t convince him that I had reason to trust you,” she said. “But I thought—I know what I feel from you when we’re together. And if he understood why I can believe it, he might listen.”

“You . . .” 

He hated that it was so hard to believe she still trusted him, that it came as such a shock. When he didn’t finish that thought, she touched a hand to his arm, a brush of her fingertips over the fabric of his jacket.

“I think he is. Listening.” She pressed her lips together. They were chapped; her cheeks too. She would taste like the sea if he kissed her again—which was not what he’d come to do. Not all he’d come to do. Already he was too distracted. Her hand dropped back to her side. “Starting to, at least.”

“How magnanimous. So where is he?”

“I don’t know, exactly. He keeps himself busy.”

“Hiding.”

Her eyebrows rose with defiance. “This island is not large. He does the same things every day, and he’s out there now, doing them. He can’t hide anymore. If you’re here to face him, there’s nothing to stop you. I’m not.” 

He stared, feeling seen through and called out. She was right. He was standing here talking to her because he wanted to; because it was infinitely preferable to facing the man who had haunted his wrath-fueled nightmares for years. 

“What’s with this welcoming committee, then?”

“I wanted to be the first person you saw when you arrived.” 

“Is that trust, or caution?”

“It can be both.” She returned his look evenly. “I don’t think he knows what to say to you.”

“He’s had long enough to think about it.”

“Then you know what you’ve come to say, do you?” she pressed. 

He expelled a sharp sigh and half turned, eyes scanning the craggy hillsides as if he might find Luke lurking there, waiting to pounce. All he saw were rocks and birds, but his gut churned anyway. He was far more on edge than he’d expected to be, and Rey standing by hardly mitigated it.

“I suggested an apology might be a good start,” she said less pointedly, “but he didn’t seem to think that was what you’d want.”

“Well, you can tell him he was right.”

“Tell him yourself. I’m not playing messenger. You and I have enough things of our own to settle.”

He swallowed, looking at her sidelong. “I know. We need to talk.”

“Yeah. We do.”

Ben wasn’t sure he was ready to hear the things she had to say, even if he deserved them. He had things to say too, but his temples throbbed. He was armed and awake but hadn’t felt so irrationally unprotected in years. Luke was close by, somewhere but not in the Force. And nothing could have prepared him for what it would be like to stand in the middle of a vergence so dense and complex. The call from the dreams was there, the intrusive influence he’d thought was Snoke and now knew without a doubt came from the island itself. It was a presence that compelled and repelled in the way only the dark side of the Force could.

“Can it wait?” he asked. 

“Wait?”

“It’s  . . . I’m not at my best.” Rey had told him the island was loud with the Force—she hadn’t said that the loudness was a sort that would overwhelm every one of his senses if he let it. Even a person wholly ignorant of such things would be unable to ignore its presence, and it was making him tense and sick to his stomach. “You deserve my best. Or something closer to it than I can offer right now.”

A frustrated line appeared between her eyebrows, but it smoothed quickly. 

“I’ll take you to a place you can settle in. There’s loads of empty huts at the old settlement.”

“The old settlement . . .” His eyes darted toward the hill. “Up there?”

“There’s just the one,” she said, tugging on his sleeve as she passed and began to walk toward the RZ-2. “Oh, and the place the caretakers live, but that’s far down the beach. They don’t like me nosing about, and I doubt you’d have better luck with them.”

  “I don’t want to sleep near him.”

The words fell from his lips before he could catch them. He should have been past such abject fear—he thought all he had left was the anger of betrayal and thirst for vindication—but there it was, burbling up until he felt he would choke on it. His gaze drifted from her toward the Mirrorbright

“You’re not going to steal that next, are you?” Rey asked. Her tone was light and teasing, as if she sensed his unease and sought to distract him from it. She was very close to him again. “I sort of need it.”

“Wondering if it still has the sleeper bunk.”

There was a slight blush high on her cheekbones, though she only flashed him the quickest glance. 

“Yeah, it does. You could use it. Probably more comfortable than the huts.”

He considered asking her why she hadn’t been using it herself; he even had the notion that he ought to ask her to relocate and stay there with him. Having her in his sight, in his reach—in his bed—was a potent temptation. Judging by that fleeting look she’d given him, her thoughts might have been wandering down a similar path. 

Or not. Rey was already heading toward the boarding ramp, beckoning him to follow, so he pushed those thoughts into a corner of his mind and headed back toward the RZ-2 to fetch his belongings.





This time, when Rey opened her eyes in the Temple, she did find Ben sitting across from her, the mosaic spread between them in the weak rays of fading sunlight. She’d heard his heavy footsteps on the stone and felt his heavy presence in the Force approaching long before that. It was a sensation she’d been content enough to bask in, an added depth of focus to her meandering meditations. 

His hands were folded in his lap. He looked too big and long-limbed to be sitting like that, cross-legged, back straight, eyes locked on her face, interested but not prying.

“Where’ve you been?” she asked. 

“The Mirrorbright . And then some charming cliffs covered in bird droppings.”

She chuckled, and her posture relaxed as she let her awareness return to the space between them. “No, sorry, I mean before you arrived. You said it was someplace safe. But I wondered.”

“I knew what you meant.” Ben slumped a little, mirroring the loosening of her muscles. “Batuu. It’s an outpost, a good place to not be noticed. A lot of people pass through. Which is what I intended to do, but I ran into a . . . friend.”

“A friend ?” Rey lifted an eyebrow and hoped her teasing did not come off as true skepticism. “I didn’t know you had those.”

The corner of his mouth twitched with the shy hint of a smile that was gone before it could stick. 

“Yeah, neither did I. He let me stay with him. It was good for me. Better than Pamarthe was.”

“I can tell.”

He didn’t seem happy, exactly, and while she’d sensed his resolve, now that he was here she could feel it wavering. Fear and hurt hung around him like a delicate, trembling web, yet there was something new—though the fissures and cracks remained, they no longer seemed likely to give way to new ones at the slightest provocation. He’d reclaimed some of his own strength, and Rey was grateful to whoever this friend was that had given him a place to find it. 

“Is this where you spend most of your time now?” he asked, his eyes traveling over the cavern. “Asking the Prime Jedi for guidance?”

“I don’t understand.”

“This.” 

Ben gestured at the mosaic and let his eyes linger on it. The derision he always affected when he spoke of the Jedi was there but mellowed—even he deferred to the significance of this place. 

“Oh.” She took in the ancient artwork with the same careful interest she had dozens of times since finding it here, then scooted a bit closer to trace her fingers over the edge of the design. “This was a real person? I thought it was just some sort of symbol.”

“It might as well be. Whatever truth there is to it is thousands of years gone by now.” 

“You say that with an awful lot of authority for someone who hates the Jedi.”

He paused as if to gather himself. “One of the first things Luke tasked me with was transcription. He’d gathered a lot of knowledge by then—histories and legends, mostly—but his recordings were a mess, and he seemed to think that the project would do as much for my learning as my state of mind. This symbol”—he waved dismissively at the mosaic again—“came up many times. The first of the Jedi, supposedly. They reached a sort of . . . perfect communion with the Force in all its aspects.”

Rey drew her hands up the middle of it, tracing the invisible delineation between the sides. The mosaic had been created in a slight dip in the floor, so some water had collected over it since her last visit. Its coolness was soothing on her sore hands. “The light and the dark, you mean.”

“And whatever exists in between.”

“Exchange?”

“Maybe,” he muttered. “Before the dark was so reviled in the name of proscriptive purity.”

“So is this a sort of tomb, then?” 

The idea that this figure of myth might be present in body somewhere deep inside the island, beneath the very spot they now sat, was morbidly fantastic. That, she could grasp readily—it was tangible, grounded, real. She ran her open palms over the pebbled floor. All the secrets the island held, its strange pulls and calls, would have made such sense. 

But Ben only chuffed.

“Please. A simple death isn’t nearly outlandish enough for Jedi legend.” 

There was a glint in his eyes—he was enjoying this. Teaching her again, even if it was on a topic he found dubious. She’d missed their exchanges too. She’d missed the way he danced around her questions or the blade of her lightsaber and countered them with his own. 

“Oh, of course not,” she replied, straightening up and folding her arms judiciously as she called upon some tried and true tropes of old Jakku ghost stories. “What then? Mysterious disappearance in the dead of night? Voices on the wind?”

“It’s said their body didn’t die—it simply . . . um. Transferred.”

“Into what?”

“They reached a state of perfect enlightenment, and their entire being became one with the Cosmic Force. And when they did, the power it generated was so great it triggered the birth of a distant star system.” Ben paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, then rolled his eyes. “The only thing left behind was their lightsaber. Their followers supposedly guarded it as a holy relic for many years after, though there are no records of such a thing ever existing in actual fact. Just stories.”

She observed the object in the figure’s hands—the straight two-toned blade, the long knobby handle, rather like a staff. For a moment she could almost feel its power buzzing against her palms. She rubbed them over her thighs and hummed. 

“Or maybe . . .” she said, tone hushed, a conspiratorial grin tugging at her mouth, “it’s still here, buried deep in the earth, waiting to be found.”

Ben made a derisive sound and gifted her a wry smile. “Have it your way, scavenger. If you want to go digging, I’ll give you some privacy.”

That look on his face and the way he said it sent a wave of heat over her body that had no place in discussions of lore. “You sound skeptical.”

“I think it’s a passable myth. And that a figure or figures like that probably existed. The Jedi way had to crawl up from somewhere. But do I believe it goes back to a single, imminently powerful being? No.”

“So I was right. It’s a symbol. And you remember far more of this stuff than I’d have thought.”

“Despite my best efforts.” Ben dipped his face and frowned, then looked back to her. “I envy you.”

  “Oh?”

“You know so little of all this, but you throw yourself into it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world despite your ignorance.”

“Ah, so I’m . . . ignorant?” she said lightly, brows rising. “Yes, that’s very enviable.”

“What? No— it’s more— That’s not what I meant. There’s no one telling you what it means or what you ought to be doing with it. I was never given that opportunity.”

“It’s not as nice as you’d think. I feel pretty blind most of the time,” she admitted. For a moment she had wanted to point out all the opportunities he had had—but they had only made him a target. “Pretending to be more confident than you are is a useful trick.”

“It is.”

She caught a look of annoyance on his face, a tight squirm of his jaw as his hands clenched into fists and then loosened again. Her eyes fixed there, on his hands with their long fingers and large knuckles, and she thought of the morning before, how they felt on her body and inside it. It had been a fit of frustration, a physical honesty that brought him closer than ever even as it held him at a distance—but they owed each other more than that right now.

“I’m sorry, Ben.”

“Why?”

“Because I kept things from you. I should have told you about Leia’s plan to come here, or made sure she told you sooner than she did. You’ve had enough people making assumptions about what you should know, or not know, or do. I told myself it was to avoid hurting you, but I was just afraid. I should have known better.”

It was clear he still had no idea what to do when confronted with an apology—hell, she hardly knew how to give one—but he cleared his throat and nodded. “I gave you no reason to think I’d take it well. I doubt my response would have been much different.”

“Maybe.”

“And let’s not pretend I wasn’t an idiot to try to make you leave with me.”

“I sort of wanted to.”

“Oh.” 

“I’ve wondered what might have happened if I did.”

Dozens of scenarios had played out in her mind, in dreams and passing thoughts and half-formed fantasies. None of them had been realistic, but they’d been a fine balm for loneliness.

“It was good you didn’t,” he said. “No place would have been far enough away for me. You were right. And alone, I was so fixated on coming here to end this, I didn’t even know why anymore. But I wasn’t alone. Maybe neither of us wanted it, but you were there. And some of the things you said to me—I’d been wasting a chance to make a better start. Or at least a different one.”

It was her turn to be surprised. She hadn’t known anything she’d said to him during those brief spans of time had made any sort of impression at all, let alone struck a chord so deeply. The realization made her happy and a little proud, maybe a touch smug—as if she was in any position to tell another person how to live their life when it was becoming clear that she had very little idea how to live her own.

“That’s good,” she said, then rallied herself. “Because it hurt me when you did go. I didn’t think you would. I thought I’d lost my chance to fix it. And the things you said . . .”

“That was wrong of me. Not what I said—that was the truth. It was what I saw. But I shouldn’t have used it to try to sway you.” 

The memory of his claims about her family was one Rey had fought nightly to put from her mind. This was the first time she’d let herself speak of it since. It was as much a twist of pain as it had been then, but the gentleness in his voice softened it. 

“I don’t know what to say about that.”

“Neither do I,” he said. “Just that I’m sorry. It was your secret, but I made it a weapon. I was cruel.”

“No, you were— Damn it. It’s not my secret .” The wall she kept up was coming to pieces. “I don’t bloody know. I’ve believed one thing for as long as I can remember being alone, and there’s nothing else. If I don’t have that, what the hell do I have? I’m the idiot who’s spent almost her whole life telling herself stories in the most miserable corner of the galaxy.”

“That isn’t true.”

“No? Do you have any idea what it’s like to realize you can’t even trust your own mind?”

The air around him was charged, though he was quiet for several moments, face blank.

“I have every idea of what that’s like.”

“Shit.” She hissed through her teeth and looked at him apologetically. “Of course you do.” What a thing to have said to him of all people. The irrational, defensive flare ebbed, though her frustration remained. “I was so determined not to believe you. I told myself it had to be some darkness. A lie.”

“You made that abundantly clear on the bridge.”

“But then I came here. The way this connection between me and you has gotten stronger, it’s been making me question all sorts of things,” she said, voice somber. “And I did something I can’t take back.”

He looked at her expectantly. The memory of what she’d tried to do the day before crept back; it had been waiting for the tiniest fissure in what remained of her denial. She and Ben had barely been in one another’s presence for a day and already she felt herself opening for him again in ways that had nothing to do with the Force.

“I tried to reach them. My parents. It’s ridiculous because the memories I have of them are so fragmented, it’s all . . . feelings, and sounds, and smells.” Or maybe all those were false too, just sad impressions of the family she’d have liked to have. She would have settled for the bare minimum of affection, security, and a home. To not be discarded and forgotten. “But I thought if they were out there, the Force must be binding me to them, and if I could find you through it, why shouldn’t I be able to find them?”

She had been staring very hard at the floor, so she was surprised to see that Ben had moved closer when she looked up. He was still seated, a little off to the side now, easily within an arm’s reach yet not close enough. She scooted nearer until she could feel the heat of his body beating against hers. It made her shiver. 

“There was nothing there. Not even a wall. It was all dark, like I’d reached the edge of something and fallen off. I tried ignoring it at first, but I can’t. Because they’re not there. They were hardly there when they were there.”

“You’re worth more than that.”

“Am I? I don’t know what comes after this. If it matters. Because nothing before did, and I don’t even know why.” 

Her eyes stung and she knew the tears were about to brim, but she didn’t care. She didn’t mind. Ben was the first person she’d told, though he’d already known. She’d barely admitted it to herself—part of her railed against it, desperate for a more palatable solution—but it finally felt real. How had she never realized how exhausting it was to keep it back?

He didn’t say or do anything. He just let her lean and let her sniffle while the tears ran their course, because it was what she needed. She could see that blank nothing in her mind’s eye. She could feel the way the island had brought her back to the secret place beneath the ground. It had scooped her in right when she felt most lost and adrift, and it never stopped beckoning. Now that Ben was here, she wasn’t sure she had a reason to resist. 

When her vision cleared and it became easier to speak, she straightened up and asked, “Do you remember the dreams we had when you first came back with us?” 

“Yes.”

“And that hole on the cliff, like a great long tunnel? It led down into an underground cavern.”

“I remember it. It’s been calling again ever since I landed here.”

“Me too. It was practically the first thing I felt, and now you’ve come, and it’s more insistent than ever. You were right, you know. I was seeking guidance in here. But it’s so hard to hear anything else now.”

She understood now what he’d felt on Pamarthe—reaching out into the Force and being diverted again and again down the same dark, fathomless path that promised satisfaction in exchange for surrender. 

“It’s waited all this time,” she told him, “and I can’t see a reason not to find out what there is to see down there.”

Ben seemed to consider, his mouth compressing and relaxing a few times before he spoke. “Have you told Luke about it?”

“No,” she said, flexing her hands in her lap.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t want to.”

“You were afraid of what he’d think because you know what that place is.”

“It’s strong with the dark side of the Force.”

She’d always imagined it would be more obvious, like the way the air sometimes crackled around Ben or how it had felt to be swept into the swirling storm of his emotions and fears. This was none of those things. It was the cool prickle of something hidden and not quite right but impossible to place; a jackal in the dunes, patiently stalking its prey and looking for that crucial misstep. 

“The dark doesn’t give freely,” he told her. “You might find something you seek down there, but it will come at a cost.”

“I don’t have much to lose.” Less and less, lately. She looked up at him seriously. “And it’s not just about me. We were always there together.”

His impassive expression shifted with a tremor of unease. “You want me to go with you.”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to do it alone. I don’t want to.”

“No one ever does,” Ben said quietly. His hand slipped against hers, then gripped lightly until she pressed back. “But you don’t get a choice.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve been there before.”

“How—” 

“Not there , exactly, but in the same sort of place. Early in my training under Snoke, he brought me to a remote swamp planet. There was a vergence there like this one—another cave. The power there wasn’t mere darkness, it was . . . evil. Malicious. When I entered, it showed me things I didn’t want to see. Things I had to destroy because they made me weak and afraid.” 

“Did you do it?”

“I tried. And I failed.” 

“Oh.”

“So I destroyed the cave instead.”

“There’s a solution.” Rey chuckled humorlessly and bumped his shoulder with hers, then let herself lean into him again. His solidity was something she’d missed, even though the bond had offered something so close it felt real. “I don’t suppose you want to go down and destroy this one too?”

“I’m trying not to repeat past mistakes.”

He released her hand and threw her a sly, pointed look, but it was gone before she could figure out what to make of it beyond a twist of desire for it to last a bit longer. He was deflecting the discomfort of a bad memory, but it wasn’t just that. She’d forgotten he could do that—tease her in a way that made her want to deal it back and goad him into continuing until the tension reached a breaking point and then . . . 

For an instant the whole temple seemed to warm, the air grow humid and thick. She felt as if she was back at the hot spring, trying to comprehend the fact that he was having a bit of fun with her after an embarrassing moment, or on the beach, inches from his face, wondering what would happen if one of them crossed the line. If they could recover that familiar ease they’d briefly built, anything might happen.

But the moment, if it was a moment, had passed already. Ben looked away, observing the sunset through the narrow temple entrance.

“If this is your version of gently telling me you want nothing to do with it,” she said as his eyes slid slowly back to her, “I prefer you when you’re blunt.”

“Fine. Don’t go in there unless you’re ready to find something you might not want to see.”

“And you?”

“I don’t think I can face that again. I don’t trust it.” His mouth tightened, like he was reluctant to share his next words. “The thought of what it might show me or compel me to do makes me feel sick. I don’t trust myself in it.”

“Ben.”

“Hn.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

There was no hesitation. The weight that had hung around her for the last few days dissipated into gratitude that far outweighed his simple answer. She was leaning in again before she could stop herself, grasping for intimacy she wasn’t sure he would grant. But his arm slid around her waist and drew her closer until his face was tipped against the top of her head, and she felt like a fool for doubting it. 

“Good,” she said. “ I trust you.”

His throat bobbed against her forehead as he swallowed. “I know.”

“Good.” 

She tilted her head back, and his lips were already waiting for hers, and she was lost again in the distinct but unnameable difference it made to have him here in the flesh. The connection thrummed dimly somewhere in her chest, in her head, in her blood, and in him, vibrating like an echo off the temple walls. Yet it wasn’t enough to block out the perpetual call of the current beyond, which insinuated itself into a moment that was meant to be theirs alone. If Ben felt it he didn’t give any indication, only deepened the kiss as if to ward it off. 

Even as she wound her arms behind his neck and lifted herself to settle over his lap, she felt like she was being pulled away. She clung to him but saw it again, the dark and the offer of something that would satisfy her.  It roared in the back of her mind until she couldn’t tell the difference between it and the crash of the waves outside, so close to the edge, if she could just will herself to fall in. 



 

Somehow he’d missed the square of paper tacked up to the pilot’s side of the cockpit. His eyes passed over it once and he recognized it—the star map with the blotched ink and the unknown point of origin, the one he’d given Rey weeks ago in a fit of sentimentality. He hadn’t thought he’d see it again; he hadn’t thought she’d deem it worth holding on to when it was functionally useless. It had a few new creases, as if she had folded it up small to keep it close. He imagined it tucked into her pocket, against her thigh or her breast, or stuffed under a pillow while she slept and dreamed.

Not really the sort of thing that ought to get his blood going, but that was the effect it was having as he stretched out in the pilot seat and shifted his attention to the newsfeed he had pulled up on the holocom. His attention lasted about thirty seconds before it was drifting back to the map and then to the memory of temple. They’d stayed until dark had fallen. He’d asked her to go back to the Mirrorbright with him—she declined. 

It didn’t hurt as much as he’d thought it would. He’d been able to sense her distraction as they kissed, as he pulled her closer and touched her and let her touch him. He’d remembered the way she shuddered and gasped and pulled away from him suddenly. Not from him, really, but from the other thing fighting for her focus. He felt its source. He understood. Still, it was wearing on him to have so many near misses. He had never wanted anyone like this. He had never felt wanted the way she made him feel wanted.

Which was why it was tempting to let himself believe he’d come here just for her, rather than for Luke. He’d seen the settlement from afar and just been able to pick out the dim glow of a fire inside one of the huts, a slow creep of smoke winding up from a hole in the roof. To go to him at night would be far too like the last time they’d seen one another, and he didn’t want Rey anywhere near for it. So he’d resolved to seek Luke out tomorrow and catch him alone.

That was it. He didn’t know what he’d say or do, but lately he was having far better luck with instinct than plans.

The newsfeed was interrupted by a low, repetitive beep. A light blinked on the console, beside the feed toggle. Communication incoming. It wouldn’t be for his eyes, and his lack of desire to embroil himself in Resistance business was unchanged. If he ignored it now, he could tell Rey tomorrow and she would come check herself. She might be more inclined to stay too, if whatever it was kept her awhile. 

His curiosity got the best of him. Ben accepted the signal and watched the feed melt away into a face he knew.

“Rey—hey, I know I said— Oh.” Finn’s expression was businesslike, but the warmth behind it faltered as he realized his message had been intercepted by someone other than the intended recipient. He took Ben in for a few moments, jaw set. “This is unexpected.”

“The feeling is mutual.”

It was obvious Finn was trying not to look as if he expected the worst—doing a pretty good job of it too. “Is Rey with you?”

“No.” There was a spark of alarm in Finn’s eyes, so he reluctantly clarified, “She’s staying in some settlement nearby. I’ve taken the ship. Not taken it, but I’m sleeping here.”

“And she’s not?”

“Should she be?”

Finn’s eyebrows rose. “Guess not.”

For the first time, it occurred to him that Rey may have confided some things in Finn; there was no chance she hadn’t. He didn’t begrudge it exactly, but he didn’t like the idea that Finn might be sitting there smugly forming ideas about the nature of Ben’s presence on the island. Just what did he know? Ben was prepared for suspicion and distrust, but he had no idea what to do about that little flash of understanding he saw fade from Finn’s expression as he said,

“Last thing I heard, you were heading there to make good on your old plans.”

“I know what you heard. I’m not here to harm anyone.” Not unless Luke tried something. Regardless of how confidently Rey spoke of understanding and second chances, Ben wouldn’t put it past him until they faced each other. “I can’t prove that to you, but if you’ll wait until tomorrow, you can speak to Rey yourself and take her word for it.”

“I believe you.” 

“Really.”

“I don’t know where your head’s at right now, but I’m sure Rey does. And I know she wouldn’t leave you in any position to be talking to me now if you’d shown up blasters blazing. Lightsabers . . . lit. Whatever. You get what I mean.”

“Do I?”

Finn let out a quiet growl of frustration and rubbed a hand over his hair. “Can we start over? There was a reason I was trying to reach her.”

“Here I was starting to think I’d intercepted a social call.”

“That would be nice, for once. But no.”

“I assume it’s not something for me to hear,” Ben said. 

For a moment Finn seemed about to agree. Then he turned his head a bit to regard Ben sidelong as a new idea took its place. “Actually, it might be.”

That was the last thing Ben had expected to be told. Part of him didn’t want to know—this sounded like a heavy-handed way to draw him back in and make him take part in something that had caused him pain. But an equal part was intrigued, and Finn seemed to take his thoughtful silence for budding interest.

“Can I put you through to the general?”

His hand tightened on the armrest. “My mother?”

“She asked me to brief Rey, but now that I have you, I think it’d be better if I just—”

“It’s fine,” Ben bit out before he could change his mind. “Transfer me.”

“Right. On it.” As Finn busied himself with the controls at his end, he threw Ben a curious look. “Does all this mean we might be seeing you again after all?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Finn chuckled, his mouth drawn up in a crooked grin as he returned his gaze to his task. “Fair enough. I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to apologize to a Wookiee for attacking him either.” 

“He tried to—never mind. How is he?”

“Breaks all healed. Not so sure about his pride, but I tend to give him a wide berth,” Finn assured him, smile fading as his focus hovered between two places at once. His hand moved with finality over his console. “Hold tight a minute.”

The image of Finn flittered into an intermittent skip of blue static as Ben waited for his mother’s to replace it. There was a hang of dead air for a handful of seconds, a blip of the connection catching, and then she was there. 

“Ben. It’s so good to see you.”

She meant it. He knew what sincerity sounded like in her voice. He saw it in her eyes and the tilt of her mouth. This was the first time in so long that he was able to trust it. “Yeah, you too.”

“Have you and Luke . . .”

“Not yet.”

Leia nodded, not once looking away from him. “How does it feel to be there?”

“Like it’s the last place in the galaxy I want to be.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I can think of a few places you might like to be less,” she said with a crooked, sardonic quirk of her lips. So could he. “But you still went on your own terms. And seem to be staying.”

“I want this to be over with, that’s all,” Ben said. 

“I do too.”

Her voice was sad. They both knew she was speaking of so much more than Luke, and Ben wasn’t sure what to do after. If Luke went back, would he go with him? The Resistance was no place for him, and though Leia would say his place was his family, he still couldn’t see the line between one and the other. Things would never be normal.

And what about Rey? She seemed no more inclined to join a cause that wasn’t her own, but the war wouldn’t stop for them and he couldn’t simply ignore it. He doubted she could either.

“There was something you wanted to tell me?” he prompted. “Or Rey.”

“Yes. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have burdened her with it, but I thought it was something Luke ought to see because he’s been so damnably resistant to reason, but . . . I didn’t expect to find you here. It’s fortuitous. I hope.” She shifted to the side a bit, her eyes darting momentarily to something else. “I’m going to transmit a data file to the Mirrorbright’ s system now. It’s a brief clip of security footage we were able to enhance.”

“From what, exactly?”

“Do you remember the Archive of Cuphia?”

Ben nodded. It was the oldest library on Gatalenta, housed at the center of its capital and home to a closely guarded collection of Jedi texts and artifacts that had been secreted away during the purges of the civil war. Luke had taken him there once; supposedly no one was granted access without extensive checks—most didn’t even know of the collection’s existence—but they had been ushered right in, riding the reputation of the Skywalker name.

“It’s been a long time, but yes.”

“There was a break-in—most of the place was untouched, but the special collections were ransacked. Several archivists killed, like they were just in the way.”

  “And you think this might be something to do with this artifact Snoke is after?”

“It has to be. They attacked at night but didn’t seem to fear being seen. Seven individuals, led by your imposter.”

He glanced at the viewscreen, where the footage Leia had sent was repeating on a loop. It was brief, but what it revealed sent his body into an instinctive state of high alert. He’d known the First Order had someone keeping up the ruse of his presence, but seeing it was unsettling. To him the difference was conspicuous—how could anyone think that was him ? Yet even with such distance, the dread it inspired was real. Maybe that was all it took.

Six others milled about in the foreground, armed, masked, and cloaked, kicking their way through wrecked shelves and piles of discarded artifacts and tech. He recognized them too. He hadn’t seen them in nearly two years. One of them stepped over a body slumped in the corner as if it were a piece of scenery.

“You know them,” Leia observed after giving him a short while to take it in. “Don’t you?”

“My knights.” Not his anymore. Now they belonged to another, but he felt a flare of possessive annoyance like he’d just been personally insulted. “I last saw them in the Unknown Regions.”

“Yes, you told me that. It seems they’ve found something more worthy of their time.”

Ben breathed out a long sigh. It had been easier to ignore the idea that Snoke had some powerful artifact in his crosshairs—it could be conjecture, he might never find it—when it had just been some ragtag group of hired guns searching for it. But if the Knights of Ren were involved, it was more serious. He couldn’t ignore that . Eventually, they would find what they were after. They always did.

“I still don’t know what it is,” he insisted, though suddenly he dreaded to find out. He scanned the screen again, racking his brain. “Can I keep this?”

“I was hoping you would.”

“You were hoping Luke would.”

Leia raised an eyebrow. “Never mind him. It’s better in your hands. I’ll leave it to you whether you choose to pass it along. But if you know anything . . .”

“Yeah. I’ll contact you.”

“Thank you, Ben. Truly. I know this is a matter you’d prefer not to be involved with.”

He nodded broodily and let the footage run. “Is this all there is for now?”

“It is. When we uncover more information, we’ll be in touch. The one bright spot seems to be they left without what they were looking for.”  

“How do you know?”

“For everything that was destroyed, nothing was missing.”

“Right.” He leaned back in the chair. “I won’t keep you. I’m sure you’re busy.”

She looked as if she might argue, then smiled and dipped her chin. “We’ll speak again soon. I’ll make sure of it. Send Rey my regards.”

“Sure.”

“I hope you find what you’re looking for there.”

When the connection cut out, Ben was left with an insatiable urge to act and no practical means by which to do so. He’d spent too much time in the bunk sleeping off his journey—the thought of trying to do so now was incomprehensible. He was trying to process what he had just seen, and he hated the way it compelled him to do something despite every selfish instinct warning him away. 

He wanted to talk to Rey. She might not have advice, but she would listen. Right now, that would make all the difference.

Ben was trudging up the hillside minutes later, heading toward the settlement and hoping she wouldn’t begrudge being awoken in the middle of the night because he needed to talk . Yet the further on he went, the more he became aware that he wasn’t approaching the settlement at all. He was following the pull to Rey, yes, but it was leading in another direction, toward the cliffs. Unease began to build, but he pressed on, new urgency speeding his steps. Rey was wandering the island at night. After their discussion in the temple, he could think of only one reason she might be doing so.

He came to the edge of a short drop-off and saw it for the first time with his own eyes: the moonlight was bright, painting the wet stones of the cliff shiny silver, but the hole in the ground was as round and black as it had been in dreams. The soft whisper of the Force was now a bidding that shrieked out of it, sinuous as the eruption of vines around its edges. And a slender figure crouched at its mouth, jacket collar pulled up around the back of her neck, face peering down into the dark, insensible to her surroundings.

“Rey!” 

He called too late. No sooner had her name left his mouth than Rey slipped out of sight, as if the earth itself had sucked her up. He wasn’t even sure she had heard him. Without thinking, he clambered down the drop-off and ran to the hole, where he dropped to his knees to look down. Being so close to it, he understood her inability to resist. It enveloped him in the cold of the cavern below, urging him closer even as he had never wanted to be farther from it.

“Rey!” he barked again. The vines squelched thickly under his knees and hands.

His voice didn’t echo, though he was sure it should have. He called her once more to the same effect. Many feet down, he saw a glimmer of water. He remembered the lake. Rey had just plummeted into it. And he remembered one other thing: she had told him once that she couldn’t swim. He fought the urge to panic. 

But it was a difficult thing to do when it hit him that he could not feel her anymore. The connection between them ended in an emptiness, as if she had never been at the other end to begin with. That was enough. All it took to drive him over the edge and down into the water below, where the cold stole his breath and the darkness his sight.



Chapter Text

Rey surfaced numb and gasping for air. The water was frigid and thick, grasping at her clothing and churning sediment as she flailed her limbs beneath the lapping ripples. 

Don’t panic, don’t panic, find an edge, keep your head above—

She forced herself forward, surging gracelessly toward a welcoming ledge of solid, slippery land a short distance ahead. With a grunt, she clawed her way out and hoisted herself to her feet. She was accustomed to dark spaces, yet her eyes took longer than usual to adjust. The darkness was thick in the same way the water was, and it swarmed and settled over her like a cold second skin. 

She wrapped her arms tight around herself and looked upward. The opening in the roof of the cave was as round as a porthole. The night sky trembled with winking stars and a gray, cloud-wisped half-moon. A bright whistle of wind ruffled her hair.

How far had she fallen? 

“Rey!”

At the sharp sound of her name, she froze and looked again. Ben was there, leaning over the mouth, heedless of his own safety. His presence surprised her for a reason she couldn’t place. Why it felt strange to see him but not . . .

She couldn’t feel him. He was right there, outlined against the sky, calling again with an unmistakable edge of worry in his voice—but the usual spread of his Force signature was gone. The absence was an appalling, stark contradiction of how present he was overhead. It made her shudder. Her mouth opened to call back and warn him something was wrong, but already she had missed her chance. Ben straightened up, then hurled himself over the edge in a headlong dive that ended with a heavy splash into the lake.

Confused and alarmed, she sank to her knees by the edge of the water and scanned the surface for any sign of movement. All she found were the fading ripples of his landing and a few clusters of murky foam. No air bubbles, no shape of him beneath the water. Nothing at all.

She plunged her arm beneath and felt around, already aware it was fruitless. If he’d sunk, he would be farther down than she could reach—with her hands, anyway. Staring hard at the water, which was now as still and unbroken as the span of reflective stone behind her, Rey forced herself to be calm. She tried to hone her focus, to sink into the Force, to listen and feel. Her hand extended over the surface, seeking the answering snag of his presence. She could pull him up, she was certain.

“Where are you?” she murmured, desperate for any sense of him below. For a while, her attempts carved swaths out of the water, sent it shifting and rolling like a claw raking through it. But the gesture quickly became draining, and then it was almost painful, as if she were trying to push her hand through a solid wall. She broke away and let out a growl of anxious frustration. “ Damn it, where are—”

He’s here. And it doesn’t matter.

Rey didn’t know where the thought had come from. It flowed through her, only to be swallowed up in the darkest reaches of the cave. No, it was that wall: like a mirror, almost, when she looked at it long enough. She remembered dreaming of it. She just couldn’t remember what had happened after. It always ended before she saw beyond.

She heard him again, calling her, but it was as muffled as her memory. A disembodied voice swallowed too soon in the chamber, or else the tickle of a whisper right into her ear, deep and fleeting and offering no comfort. It might as well have been an echo trapped for eons. 

It doesn’t matter. You came here for yourself. 

For all her anxious need to know , the suggestion cast her worries in a velvet fuzz of shadow. If Ben was here, he was not in the water. He was near, and he was far.  He was fine. He had warned her, hadn’t he? If she came to the cave, she would do it alone, no matter what she wanted.

So she was fine too. She had come for a purpose, with a question, with an open mind. 

She had the feeling she sometimes got when faced with the option to return to the bright, stark openness of the desert or delve deeper into a buried wreck. Rappel into the dark to find what was hidden or climb back to what was known and exposed to the light. Rey cast one last troubled look at the lake, then turned and approached the mirrored wall where something drifted, reflected and waiting. 

     

— 

 

There was still no sign of Rey when he dragged himself out of the lake after several minutes of futile searching beneath the surface. His eyes were burning, and he had scraped himself up a fair bit groping around in the murky water. And what had he found there? Nothing he sought. She was nowhere in the cave that he could see.

He hated this. He hated that he couldn’t feel her and that all he could feel instead was this wretched cave. There was never going to be an end to his failure to escape the dark. It would always pull him back. 

No, he’d always throw himself into it, seeking connection after whatever had most recently left him behind. Almost dejectedly, he uttered her name one more time as his anxiety resolved into bitter acceptance.

“Rey . . .?”

Nothing about this was natural. The sound of her name echoed and faded, twisting like smoke until it was the pretense of her voice in a mocking reply. His senses were struggling, as if his head and body had been wound up in wool. Even time felt slippery and unreal. The only sense that was unhampered was the one attuned to a presence he couldn’t see but knew too well: the shadowy allure of the cave. Already it was stoking his doubts. He was better than this. He wanted to be—he kept having moments, entire stretches of time, when he thought he knew what it felt like to be better, but they never lasted long. Something inside him would respond too readily, too eagerly, because the other option was fear, and the thing he feared most in this place was himself.

He should have been afraid. He was a fearsome thing. He was forgetting that, letting himself be seduced by a light so bright and hot he would crumble to nothing in its presence and remain forever unfit. The dark was patient, and forgiving, and it would wait for him to see that and return.

If he could take everything back and regain the stark, unthinking simplicity of his conviction and the crucial moment when everything started to unravel . . . 

He shook his head. Those weren’t the thoughts he needed to be having. He didn’t want them. He’d never wanted any of it. If he could, he would excise that part of himself entirely.

Ben felt his eyes drift toward the wall anyway. With the moonlight filtering down, it had a faint sheen, attractive in a way it had not been when he dreamed of it. For an instant, he saw someone else reflected beside the featureless outline of his own body. A smaller, slender shape, moving purposefully with a hand outstretched. He wanted to look away. The sight of it did not feel good—it was almost repulsive—but he couldn’t keep back. He practically stumbled toward it, and when his hand met stone, the world guttered and dimmed.

 

 

Her clothing was dry, the air even drier. The sun shone hard on her shoulders, pulsing like a heartbeat. For a moment the heat was glorious. It sank right into her bones. But it quickly became too much; the sort of too much that sizzled and blistered, the sort she’d known for years. She was on Jakku. Somehow. She didn’t question it. It required little more than the logic of a dream. She had been in a dark, cold cave, it offered to show her something she wanted, and so she saw it. She wanted to be back home— did she ?—and now she was.

Or maybe she didn’t want to be here. Not anymore. Not now that she knew the truth she’d hidden from herself for so long. It was impressive, in a way, how she could make the prospect of remaining chained to this place for weeks, months, years seem like a purposeful choice she was making and that it would eventually have meaning. It had never been anything like that. She was a master of nothing but her own deception.

This isn’t about what you want. It was her own voice she heard now, low and convincing. This is about what you need.

As her eyes adjusted to the brightness of the scene, she recognized Niima Outpost, with its maddening buzz of traffic, trade, and travelers. It wavered like a mirage, but she could smell the musk of bodies and animals and spent fuel, and she could taste the arid, dusty air. She’d used to be comfortable here, or as close to comfortable as one could hope to be in such a place. Now it suffocated her. She couldn’t shake the gnaw of disquietude and imbalance as she watched them all with their eyes on the ground or their work or other people’s purses. People she knew, could have known, could have been.

This was the interminable future she would have had for herself. Toiling away under the suns for barely enough to survive. Anonymous and eventually forgotten, buried in the sand, worn away to dust, survived by a few thousand scratches on a wall.

The sight made her sick. It made her afraid. It made her so, so—

 

 

He was trying not to be angry, because that was exactly what it wanted him to be. It would have been so easy to let his temper flare, yet he didn’t want to give this place anything. Still, it saw him and knew him. To try to hide was a useless exercise. 

The darkness of the cave had melted into another sort, less complete but just as menacing. The smells of wet stone and cold ocean air were replaced by those of oil, metal, and heat, and the sounds of dripping water became the creak of machinery and a distant hum of electricity. Ben recognized the massive chamber, wreathed in pale smoke and cut through by shafts of dissonant light. He saw the bridge that stretched in a narrow, lethal line across the great chasm of Starkiller Base’s core.

A nondescript figure stood out in the middle of the bridge, blurred by plumes of steam. The harder he tried to make it out, the more difficult it was to grasp. He was going to need to walk out there and see.

He would not get any sort of easy answer as he began to move toward it, yet he asked anyway.

“What phantoms would you have me face this time?” 

He already knew. 

Only the one you fear the most.

 

 

Rey turned away from the glare and found herself inexplicably faced with the rubbery countenance of Unkar Plutt as he sneered down at her from behind his stall. The surface between them was covered with an impossible amount of scrap. Days’ worth, surely, and all hers. He surveyed it with narrowed eyes.

“All told,” he said slowly, relishing the way she hung on each word. “Hmm.” He paused to smack his lips. Rey felt a flare of ravenous impatience. The hunger was the angry sort. “Three portions.”

Three?” She swept her eyes over the spoils again. It was a spectacular haul. His offer was as egregious as he was crass and cruel. “This is a week’s worth of good material! It should be worth atleast—

“You’ll take it or leave with nothing, girl.”

She was owed far more than three portions. She was owed far more than this

Now did she see? Forget what she was owed. She had the power to take whatever she wanted. She’d been wasting it ever since it awoke in her. All her routines had done was keep her stupid, docile, and obedient when she was brimming with passion and potential. But now she knew it, and she could take everything everything she deserved after years of waiting, overlooked and abused. 

Self-denial was for the weak and clouded of vision. Her destiny was power; her due was everything it bought. It wasn’t too late.

The heat in the tent was unbearable. Rey’s palms itched. Her hands burned. She was seething with the anger of injustice, deep inside her like a consuming sun—rage, pain, loneliness, fear, disappointment, all of it tightly bottled, swirling in shadow, and on the verge of explosion.

Blobfish—she hated him. She hated this place. She wanted to see it burn. 

Plutt scoffed at her impudence and pushed the pile of salvage toward her. It tumbled off the desk and scattered at her feet. Rey bared her teeth, glared up at him, and reached forward, palm outward, fingers taut and curling. His laughter cut short the moment his feet left the ground, and then he was choking, and then he wasn’t making any noise at all, just thrashing clumsily like a fish speared at the end of a pole. 

What a high: an explosion of ferocity, a flash of enjoyment at overpowering someone who had been little more than a torment to her for years. She gathered the Force into an anger-honed wedge and hurled his body against the opposite wall. A precariously stacked pile of dead batteries toppled over and scattered around him.

For a moment she was appalled with herself, but then she remembered—he deserved it. And she deserved to take her first steps down a new, better path. One she forged on only her own terms.

So take them.

 

 

The base seemed to breathe in a slow, wheezing gasp, and the bridge stretched like it might go on forever. Before him, the figure was motionless and waiting. The closer he got, the realer it felt—every emotion from the last time he stood in this place came roaring back. Mostly fear, clumsily plastered over with conviction. It was fear of his own weakness, but also of what he must do to conquer it, his doubts that he could, and how hard it was to convince himself that he would, he must, or the pain would never stop.

And he still feared it. It was why he had run again, unable to face the idea of what he hadn’t done but might still do, one day, because he had nothing to keep him from it. He had no idea who he was and never had. Eventually it was going to tear him apart.

The chamber groaned, and Ben stopped short, just shy of colliding with the figure and lost in his own head. It wasn’t his father. It was Luke. At first it was like he didn’t see Ben at all; but then his eyes cleared and he looked at Ben the way he had that night at the temple. Ben remembered it very clearly—the shame and horror on his uncle’s face, because of what he had seen, because they both knew then it was too late. But now Ben saw hatred in his eyes, and he saw fear. He saw the man who had lied and run.

“There’s no place you’re fit for,” Luke said to him. “All you do is fail the people who waste their time on you. What makes you think you’ll fare any better now?”

A pain twisted inside Ben’s his chest, thrashing and snarling like a caged beast. 

“You didn’t come here to grovel. You didn’t come here for apologies.” The corner of Luke’s mouth twitched in a sneer. “You still want to kill me.”

“No.”

A tiny voice suggested it might be easier. It would feel like justice. A life for a life. Luke may not have let his blade fall that night, but he had nevertheless killed Ben Solo.

“Ahh, you’re running out of places to hide, young Solo,” Luke said. There was another layer to his voice, an uncanny echo magnified by the high, distant walls—the deep, suggestive, mocking tones of the Supreme Leader. “Do you see where your weakness has brought you?”

Ben did see. He couldn’t stop seeing.

Aimless hatred surged. He could end this so easily. It wasn’t real. It didn’t matter—except he understood what it meant. 

It did matter. He’d been here before and failed in the same way. His hand flexed around empty air, and he took a step back. He didn’t want this. What did he want?

“Without him, without that mask,” Luke seethed, “you’re nothing.” 

A dark-clad arm burst forward as if from inside Ben’s body, a crackling, fiery lightsaber clenched in its fist, and ran his uncle through. The blaze of hateful derision dimmed in Luke’s eyes, then was gone altogether. The vision of his body tumbled over the edge of the bridge and was swallowed up in smoke. Pain roared through Ben’s mind and throbbed in his chest, as if a fissure had been cut open deep inside, past the point of closure. Unable to find words, he stumbled mechanically backward several paces. His boots sounded heavy on the metal bridge underfoot. As he pulled away, his shadow elongated like a spreading stain and grew until it had separated entirely, leaving him face to face with himself.

That was Kylo Ren, as he had been the last time Ben had worn the mask, the cloak, and all the rest—all except the lightsaber. Ben was holding it now. Its raging voice vibrated up his arm and crawled over his skin as if to incite his worst impulses. Now the hatred had an aim. It was rolling off of Kylo like a wave of heat, and Ben felt it rise up in himself as well, a perfect mirror, pushing back. It was the product of his own failures, and Han’s, and Leia’s, and Luke’s, and Snoke’s. But always his own, the shadow that stalked him. How he despised this part of himself, and how that only fueled it. 

“Kill it,” Kylo said, voice warped, distant, and impassive. “You have to.”

Ben looked at the saber, then lifted it to strike.

 

 

Niima Outpost was on fire. Thick, black clouds of smoke billowed up in the distance, a stormcloud stalking her from above. She’d gone far, though she wasn’t sure how. The desert was vast. Her focus was torn by a sound overhead. 

A freighter trundled across the sky at a steep angle, momentarily blotting out the sun as it gained altitude. A Ghtroc 690. The ship she’d repaired and planned to sell—until the people she thought were her friends stole it and left the planet. Or it was her parents’ shuttle, the day they’d left her, the day she screamed and cried and begged them not to go. Or it was Ben taking off in a stolen A-wing in the dead of night, leaving her to wonder if she’d ever be worth staying for. 

All her hopes and plans amounted to abandonment, and she was the fool who let them be taken. This time she could make them stay. She’d never have to be alone.

Desperation and desire surged again, just like at the outpost. It was agony for a moment until she realized pain could be fuel too. She had accumulated so much of it. She had an unlimited reserve. It practically fed itself. 

She raised her arms and felt the Force catch again, a massive, tightly wound tether of power between her and the ship. She pulled. Every muscle in her body screamed. Her mind was ablaze. Her heart was bursting. The ship roared, it buckled and tilted, struggling to break free from the gravity of her fury.

“NO!”

It began to come apart, piece by piece, hunks of burning metal falling back into the sand. Soon she was surrounded by the wrecked remains, and the heat scorched her face, and she felt vindicated, and it was good.

“You’re angry.”

Startled, Rey looked up. Kylo was there. Kylo with his mask, the metallic baritone of his voice, and his billowing black, a phantom figure from a dream. She remembered this conversation. How it had seemed to mean so little that day she’d walked with him in the woods; but now she understood. 

“Wouldn’t you be?” she said, breathless. She tasted blood in her mouth and spat it into the sand.

Though she couldn’t see his face, she felt him smiling darkly. It filled her with a delicious flush of pride.

 

 

He hesitated. His arm felt too heavy, the lightsaber an impossible burden. If he struck Kylo down now, it would be more of the same pain he’d been inflicting on himself since before he could articulate that it was happening. Ignoring the dark had done nothing but give it time to ferment and grow stronger. He had tried for so long to bury Kylo Ren, to smother him and pretend he had never existed. 

Becoming him had felt like freedom—for a time. And then it smothered Ben in turn. It strangled the light that struggled to overcome it. It deepened his misery and revealed its true nature, a mistake that still dogged him.

Ben lowered his weapon. Kylo Ren stood there, stock-still, menacing but silent. He’d always be there. He was part of Ben. But only a part; a part he could face now and see for what it was. He was just a shadow. And Ben was far more than that alone. 

He cast his eyes over Kylo one last time, then held the lightsaber over the edge and let it drop into the core of the base. Ben turned and walked away, toward the end of the bridge, toward the light.

 

 

She was home, in the AT-AT, staring at the wall. Her shadow fell across it so deeply it created a her-shaped void. Each line she’d made was elongated like the bars of a cage. Her past was a prison. There was a heavy presence at her hip, humming with readiness to be used. Her hand wandered there and settled on a lightsaber. Why did it feel so much like his?

Because you are alike. He strayed from his path. He denied what he was. He was too weak. You could be stronger. You could have everything.

She didn’t think Ben was weak. Not at all. But she wasn’t either. That much was right. She was stronger than ever, full of fire, unyielding as the blade in her hand when she ignited it and the light sprang forth with a crackling hum and a flare of orange deep as sunset. 

Each time she had scratched another mark into this wall, a part of her had wanted to keep scratching, keep chipping, pick it apart bit by bit until nothing remained but a mountain of metal shards and her raw, bloody hands. She would do that now, and then she would be free. No more living to survive. No more living like prey. No more living for anyone but herself, her desires, her passions—the purest form of acceptance, the deepest sense of belonging. 

The first cut was the hardest. Part of her protested, and she barked at it to shut up. Another swipe followed, and another, sparks flying as she whaled on the wall again and again until daylight began to leak in through the rent metal, so bright it hurt her to look at. Her arms ached. She kept cutting. It wasn’t enough. She could destroy this whole place and it would never be enough, but the anger and pain would consume whatever was left. When she failed to feed the shadow, it would eat her up too. 

She had nowhere left to go. She had everywhere left to go. If she embraced herself as she was, there were no bounds that could hold her.

The wall erupted outward and she fell through. 

 

 

In a blink it was dark again, but a dark he knew. The cave, and the wall, where his reflection was a smear of pale color against the black. He had just enough time to process a second shape beside him before it toppled heavily into him and nearly knocked him to the ground. All at once the feeling of Rey in the Force enveloped him like a white-capped swell, and then he really did fall to his side, dazed and disoriented with her sprawled beside him.

Her hand landed on his face, then closed painfully around a hank of his hair. “Ben?”

“Think so.”

A sad laugh burbled from her lips as she clumsily curled around him for a moment, then just as clumsily scooted away to sit up. “Where were— Have you been here the whole time?”

“Unfortunately.” He pushed himself to his knees. He felt like he’d run for miles, and already a headache was worrying his temples as blood pounded in his ears. “Are you all right?”

She looked as if the question confused her and glanced uneasily at the wall. Her body convulsed with a shudder. 

“I— No. Not— It’s fine. I’ve had enough of this. Let’s get out.”

“Couldn’t agree more.”

Though they had come in from above, there was an exit through the lake, which opened out onto the ocean. It seemed an easier task than trying to climb their way out over steep, slippery stone, though he got the distinct impression Rey would have tried it if left to her own devices. Instead, they waded out together. The sky was cloudless and deep blue, the moons pale, and the crisp air and chill water of the cove dragged him from his stupor. Though the tide was low, the shallows soon became too deep to walk, so he helped her swim toward the rocky shore. It was clear she knew just enough not to drown, though to say she was awkward in the water was generous, and he’d had enough of the feeling of losing her for one night.





She didn’t realize he was still behind her until she was just outside her hut, about to push the door open. When she turned to look at him, he appeared to be just as surprised to find himself where he was. His eyes met hers and cleared, like he’d finally stepped out of a fog. They stood like that for a time, soaked, drained, and trembling. The sky was clear. No wind, no stars when she broke eye contact with Ben and looked up—no clouds, either. Just flat, black sky, as if the pinpoints of light that ought to be there were hiding from her. It made her feel profoundly ashamed, though she had done nothing wrong.

Her eyes dropped back to Ben. He was watching her with expectation.

“Can you stay?” she asked. 

Before tonight, she’d thought she knew what it was to be alone—she’d had no idea. She never wanted to feel that numb, ghostly emptiness where he should have been again. He could go now, and she’d still feel him; she didn’t need him to be here. But this wasn’t about need.

“I don’t want to be alone.”

“Neither do I.”

Rey grabbed his hand and pulled him into her hut, shutting the door tight behind her. It was even colder inside, and the familiar sights and smells of the space she had eked out for herself brought little solace. Every time she blinked she saw destruction. If she inhaled too deeply she smelled burning and blood and felt unused power crackling in her limbs. Desperate for useful distraction, she crouched near the fire pit and immediately set to starting a small blaze. Her hands were shaking, though, and she couldn’t get the lighter to catch. Ben stooped across from her, took it gently, and got it done himself despite the tremors in his own fingers. He stepped back without a word and let her finish rearranging the turf to feed the small flames that licked at the air. 

Light and warmth, growing in strength with each moment that passed. A good start. That accomplished, she turned to check that Ben was still there. He was seated at the edge of the bench, hunched over himself, his arms drawn in, head ducked as he watched her. 

“Do you sleep up here?” 

“Have been.” She rose and sneezed, then wiped a few particles of peat from her hands onto her thighs. Her pants were sodden and clinging to her skin, same as her shirt and jacket. Same as Ben’s clothing. She couldn’t miss the way he shivered, though he’d tried to hide it when he spoke. “But there’s not much space, obviously. If you want . . .”

She eyed the floor. It was a bit dusty but otherwise clean. With her cloak laid out and her blanket atop it, the space could be cozy—a little nest a safe distance from the fire.

“If I want the floor?” he supplied. The ghost of a smile ticked at the corner of his mouth.

“If you want to share it. It’d be more comfortable, or warmer, at least. I was thinking about trying it anyway; that bench is hell on my back.” He chuckled, and she stole a look at him before turning to the corner where she’d been stowing personal items. As she picked through her small stash of spare clothing, another practicality occurred to her. “You don’t have anything dry to change into, do you?”

“Back on the Mirrorbright .”

“Right. Sorry.” Stupid question. She located a fresh shirt and briefs and, back still to him, threw a look over her shoulder. “Well, I’m going to get changed.”

“Sure.”

She didn’t wait to check if he would avert his eyes or turn his attention elsewhere while she peeled her wet layers off and shook her hair out; she didn’t dwell too much on whether she could sense his gaze on her body as she pulled the dry things on, or whether she hoped she would. If he was watching, if he was expecting something to happen, she wasn’t sure what she would do. He’d already invited her to stay with him on the Mirrorbright. She knew what was implied. For some reason, she’d turned him down, though they’d been dancing around this for what felt like ages. 

Now, she longed for closeness, but not that sort.

When she turned, he was still on the bench, flicking water from the ends of his hair. His eyes landed on her briefly, darted from her face and down to her bare legs and back up. For a moment his mouth squirmed, then he ran a hand through his hair and cocked his head. 

“I don’t suppose you’d have anything that would fit me.”

Rey snorted, and the tender tension was dispelled as she rubbed goosebumps from her arms. “I doubt it. Maybe a poncho? Length of tarp?”

He raised two skeptical eyebrows.

“Though you should still lay out your things,” she said. She was already gathering her own and spreading them carefully outside the edge of the fire pit, thinking of how she and Ben had been in a situation like this not so long ago and how different it felt now. “They’d be dry by sun-up, I bet.”

He nodded silently, then tugged his shirt off and rose to place it near her things, setting his lightsaber beside hers on the bench. She made a concerted effort not to stare overlong at his naked torso in the firelight. Physically, he hadn’t changed much since the time she’d caught him soaking at the spring—he was a touch thinner, maybe, but no less broad—though there was a subtle difference in how he carried himself. Everything about him was looser, even while he was shivering next to her, seemingly lost in thought. And that was a little fascinating, that change, and it did provoke a hot, secret twinge, and she did find herself looking a bit longer than she meant. 

But why the hell not? What did she have to be shy about at this point? 

So she told herself, until he stood from removing his boots, unfastened his trousers, and dropped those too, leaving him in a pair of thin black shorts that were clinging just a bit too much in interesting places and sitting low enough that she could make out the shadowed curve of his hipbone and a shallow dimple on his lower back, and yes, that was enough with the looking for now. She may have seen and touched, but somehow this was all becoming far more intimate than anything that came before. 

Rey shifted her focus to moving what meager bedding she had to the floor and arranged it with her cloak and a few other soft items as best she could until it did indeed appear to be a cozy set-up—more than she’d have thought possible, though that was to the credit of her company. 

Without ceremony, she dropped to the floor and began to make herself comfortable as he hovered at the perimeter a few moments as if plotting his entry, then sank down to join her. She made a fuss of rearranging the woven blanket to hold as much of their shared heat as possible before she stilled. It wasn’t terrible, not at all, though the few inches that remained between their bodies seemed a shameful waste of warmth and comfort. Rey sniffled and shuffled closer until her bent arm was trapped snugly between her chest and his. Though his skin was chilled and damp at first, he warmed quickly and was somehow both firm and soft at the same time, and she couldn’t prevent the quiet sigh of relief in her next exhalation. As the shivering began to subside, she closed her eyes, doubtful that she could fall asleep with so much on her mind but determined to try.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

His voice jolted her with the way she could feel it rumbling in his chest. She grimaced and shook her head, unsurprised but reluctant. “Not right now.”

He didn’t make any sort of sound in reply. She supposed he must not want to talk either. Yet the silence sparked a little urge to be understood, even if she didn’t have the words for it in the moment. 

“You could look, though,” she added, peering at him through her eyelashes.

The answer seemed to trouble him, and his lips formed his next words with deliberation. “Is that what you want?”

“I don’t mind.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“What? I said I don’t m—”

“Wanting something and tolerating it aren’t the same thing.”

He sounded so tired, but his voice was sharp. She hesitated. 

“Then yes. I want you to.”

Ben nodded, or she thought he did because his forehead brushed hers—but then it stayed there, just resting. A strand of his hair tickled her temple. She swallowed and stiffened a little under his arm. Did she want him to see? Maybe what he found would dismay him. Maybe it would feel like the last time he had pushed his way into her head. But his hand drifted up into her hair until the back of her head was cradled in his palm, and she relaxed as her eyes fell closed again.

It felt nothing like last time. This was a gentle sifting, almost pleasant, like fingers combing through her hair. She knew he’d found it already, where it roosted at the fore of her mind: what the dark had shown her, her willing response, the way it had felt so good despite the scorch of unease left behind. She wasn’t consciously thinking on it, but she sensed where his mind’s eye had caught. She waited, breath shallow, as a slight sinking feeling bloomed in her chest and squirmed down into her gut. Her heart wrenched, or maybe his. 

And then, to her surprise, she began to perceive something in return. Images, emotions, raw sensory input, none of them her own. She was glimpsing what Ben had seen when he’d been alone in the cave. He was letting her. 

Rey cricked an eye open. His face was mere inches away, his eyes closed and expression taut with focus; but there was a shimmer of moisture caught in his eyelashes, just at the corners. Her vision blurred with tears. She swallowed thickly, closed her eyes again, and waited until he had receded. The link between their minds dissipated like vapor.

He expelled a long breath. “Oh.”

She sought for something to say, to explain herself, but he folded an arm around her and pulled her closer before she could. A moment later his hand slid with peculiar care up the back of her shirt until his forearm was resting against her skin.

It was so nice. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d just been held like this, whatever ‘this’ was. Like he was bracing her or holding her up, though there was nowhere to fall. His fingers rubbed between her shoulder blades, and she pulled her arm out from between their bodies and let it drape at his waist. 

“Why did you go?” he asked.

He wasn’t accusing or judging, only curious. It was the first time she’d really thought about it since it happened. 

“I didn’t plan to. I was just— I couldn’t sleep after what we talked about. I was restless. So I decided to take a walk. But then I kept walking, and soon I realized where I was walking to, and I didn’t care. I was so tired of hearing it. I wanted to see. I wanted . . .”

“What?”

“Everything I thought I had to go back to doesn’t matter anymore. It was all a stupid lie. I wanted someone to tell me what I’m supposed to do now.”

“Nice thought, but overrated in my experience.”

It wasn’t remotely the thing she was expecting him to say, and she gave a dry laugh. “Well, in my experience, some of the stuff most worth finding is deep in the darkest places. I thought that might hold down there too.” 

“Do you still think so?”

“Sometimes.” When he said nothing to that, she ventured, “What were you doing out anyway? I thought you wanted nothing to do with that place.”

“I didn’t. I was trying to find you. And I saw you fall.”

“So your first instinct was to leap in after me?”

“You were— I—” Affront flickered in his eyes before he blinked it away, and his hand stilled on her skin. “There was no one to catch you.”

“Oh.” What a strange reason. And though it told her nothing about what he wanted in the first place, right now, she was content to pretend this moment was all that existed. She bit her lip to temper another tired smile. “I managed.”

“I know.” 

“Though I had some regrets when I hit the water.”  

“Just when you hit the water?”

“And, you know . . . all the rest. All pretty regretful.”

He was quiet a moment, his eyes half-closed, like he was about to nod off suddenly. Then, in a barely audible murmur, “I’m teaching you to swim.”

That time she did laugh, tired, loose, and delirious, enough to shake both of them and to get him doing the same, which felt like a small light in the dark. She’d never seen him smile like that before—a real, full smile. She didn’t even know he could. It was so novel and exciting that for an instant the only thing she wanted more than to stare at it was to feel the curve of it against her own lips. She leaned forward and kissed him, pulling away before he could offer anything more than a grunt of surprise and a slight peck back. A loosed thread of the unexpected peace he felt brushed her consciousness. 

Maybe he was just tired, or maybe it was because of the kiss, or the warming press of skin to skin. Rey didn’t care much for the reason. It made her feel as if she’d been cocooned in something as close and secure as his arms around her. As Ben fell still and silent, she tucked her face down into the blanket and waited for sleep or morning to come.