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Star Wars - Episode IX: Reunion of the One

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It had been a long time coming. Flanked by a wing of fighters and followed by two transporters, a TIE whisper began its descent towards a planet that used to display a dark and blood red surface. Now, however, grey spots that had started to appear a few decades prior had grown so large that Mustafar was unrecognizable. The ships penetrated the atmosphere. The temperature that the heat sensors indicated was still high, but manageable. It wouldn’t be anything of note to him. Very few things were, these days.

Supreme Leader Kylo Ren of the First Order got out of his ship and took a deep breath. The air reeked of burnt wood, of constant fire, but there was something else. He heard his troops take position around him. Naked, sinewy irontrees stood all around, a silent and motionless welcoming party to the heir of the one who used to reign on this world. He took a few steps on the ashy ground, his shiny black boots quickly surrendering to the overwhelming filth of the place. Exhaling through his nose, he pressed on. He peered through the smoky landscape but saw nothing except for tall and thin shapes that belonged to more half-dead trees. And then his focus shifted. Something was coming. He could feel it through the Force. From all sides he could now perceive a good number of life forms that were converging on him. Their intent was unmistakable. He was an intruder. Kylo stopped walking. He would let them come to him. And they did. They formed a circle around him and his troops. Fifty or so faceless silhouettes brandished crude weapons made of stained steel and blasters that looked so old that one could honestly wonder if they even functioned properly. Kylo could feel their trepidation, their will to destroy the trespasser that he was. If only they knew… There was another emotion emanating from them, though. Ah, yes. Fear. They were right to be afraid. He sensed his troops’ feelings as well. They were ready. Obedient. Loyal.

The light wind made his cape flutter. His hair was moving around his face, too. He centred himself in the Force, went down to his core, searched for his fuel. Anger, hate, pain. He channelled them, let them flow through him, let them give him strength. His hand went to his side, and he gripped his lightsaber firmly. Kylo Ren took his fighting stance. He grew the gap between his legs, stomped on the ground, thus producing a cloud of ash, and ignited his cross guard red blade. They charged. Blaster fire erupted. He slashed and hacked and struck. He punched and ducked and jumped. He had already killed five of them under ten seconds. He dispatched another. Too easy. He felt another running towards him behind his back. Kylo didn’t even bother turning to face him. He slid backward, slightly bent, angled his lightsaber, and felt power course through him as the blade penetrated the creature’s insides. A cry of pain echoed through the forest, among many others. Two more died so easily that his anger grew at the idea of fighting such lowly adversaries. There was no challenge, here. No difficulty. That wasn’t quite true, though. There was one challenge. Far from here. He didn’t know where, but he would soon find out. She had successfully evaded his prying through their bond, but it would all change soon. He would soon have the power he came for. Resistance was futile. The dark side would win in the end.

A blade came so close to his face that his heart skipped a beat. It had filled his whole vision for just a second, and it was only through instinct that he had avoided it. When the attacker, no doubt encouraged by this close call, swung his weapon again, Kylo simply lifted a hand and stopped the blow mid-air. The creature growled, unable to move. He gritted his teeth. A low grunt came from deep inside him, rose in his throat and came out as an unhinged cry of anger, hatred, and… fear? This masked being had made him afraid. He looked at it for a second, then cut its arm. The creature screamed. Kylo then plunged his lightsaber through its throat, to make the noise stop. Blind with rage, he threw his saber to his next opponent, ordered it to come back to his hand when it had hit, and repeated, again and again, until the only bodies left standing in this field of death were those of his white-clad stormtroopers. Panting, he breathed and breathed to slow his heartbeat down to a steady pace. His brow was sweaty. Hair was sticking to it. He removed it with the back of his hand and looked up. Far off into the distance, his destination towered over him. Turning back to his troops he ordered them to sweep the area, look for more enemies, and kill them on the spot. They obeyed without hesitation and spread out.

Darth Vader’s castle sat atop a large wall of black rock. The obsidian structure seemed to absorb light itself, trapping it inside its dead walls. He moved toward it still, walking on burning rock that could at any moment, he could feel it, give way under his weight and plunge him into an ocean of fire. There was no way this was going to happen, of course. He had a rendezvous with destiny. Letting the dark side of the Force guide his way, he walked under what used to be a lavafall to access the residence from below. Echoes of the dark flowed through the air, the rock, and sang to him of things that he could do, if only he surrendered completely. The light was a lie. Only the dark was honest.

A presence suddenly revealed itself to him. It was the most unsettling thing he had ever felt. Except, maybe, for another one, of a very different kind. He was in a tunnel now, and there was very little light around him. He ignited his lightsaber again to see more clearly. For a few short moments more there was only hot rock around, until… a large cave, a room, dimly lit by small, circular pools of lava connected by concentric circles. He turned the saber off. There was smoke everywhere. No, not smoke. Steam. Steam meant water. Here? He moved his hands and the steam cleared. Kylo stopped moving. A dozen meters in front of him, at the very centre of the room, a larger pool, of water this time. The water was red, or at least that’s how he saw it. What was most troubling, unsettling, as he had felt it, was what was in the water. Disgust, discomfort, and fear rose in him. He was familiar with these emotions, having lived for many years under Snoke’s brutality and abuse, but what was coming out gave another meaning to these emotions. He steadied himself to look at it emerge from the ominously bubbly dark water. It started with two bright red eyes, thirty centimetres apart. Two long slits for nostrils followed, and then, a mouth like an old man’s: toothless and wrinkled. The body was white as a corpse, gross and thick. But that wasn’t the worst of it. There was something else beneath the creature. Its six legs were firmly planted, sunk, even, in what couldn’t be anything other than a giant, hairless baby’s head. It was red. More than the water, more than the planet’s surface: like blood. All that Kylo could see was its closed eyes, pointy ears, and nose like a snout. The mouth remained underwater. Another opened, though, belonging to the creature sitting on top of the child’s head, and when the words came out of it, they seemed to come out of the walls as well, and they resonated deep within his brain.

“Who… are you?”, it asked in a voice that was acute and deep, raspy and clear.

Kylo straightened, putting weight behind his own words. “Kylo Ren. Supreme Leader of the First Order.” he said.

“Hmm”, the creature slowly uttered, clearly unconvinced. “I am not here to be lied to, boy.”

Kylo swallowed, taken aback. “Who are you?” he asked, deciding to appear more confident than he actually felt.

The horror pronounced its name. It was impossible to repeat, impossible even to hold on to for more than a second. That language it spoke, it sounded more foreign to his ears than anything he had ever heard. It was ancient, so ancient that it felt like it came from depths of time so remote that even the stones around him had forgotten about it. He dismissed it quickly, however. It clearly wasn’t as important as what he had come here for.

“What you seek,” the creature continued, “the power… the knowledge… it is above, in the castle.” It paused. Kylo listened for more. “But it will not… bring you what… you… truly desire.”

What did it know of his desires? Nobody knew him. What he felt, what he wanted, nothing. There was no way through his soul, black as it was. There was no light.

“Know… that you are… mistaken,” the monster continued with its slow delivery. “Your feelings… for the other… will show you the truth…”

Rage soared through him like an angry snake. The other. The girl. Her name came to him, but he drove it out of his mind. She had closed the door on him forever. Lies. It was all lies. The only truth he needed was here. It was close. He could feel it. And with it, the power. He raised his hand toward the beast, seeking to hurt it with the Force. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t move at all. All it did was look upon him with an indecipherable expression. Kylo glared and tried again. Nothing. Without another word, the creature sank into the pool and disappeared, never ceasing to look at him. Through him.

When it had gone, red lines began to appear on the black wall behind the pool. From left and right, top and bottom, they drew complicated patterns, took strange turns, drew symbols, and finally joined in the centre. Kylo Ren stepped forward cautiously, his blade ignited for the third time. He walked around the pool, ready to strike at the slightest movement coming from underwater. His heart was racing. His thoughts moved at the exact same pace. That creature… everything about it made his skin crawl. The image of it was burned in his retina. And its words… Better not to think about it. About her. Better to stay the course.

He pushed what had become a door. It opened easily. There were stairs. He climbed them for a few minutes. Silence reigned during his ascension. He could only hear his own steps, could only smell his own sweat. When he finally emerged, he stood in a huge dark room. Dusty daylight came in from a large window in the shape of a triangle on top of a long trapezium. A circular platform was directly facing it, connected to where he was by a straight pathway reproduced on the other side. He walked slowly, taking his time to absorb the scenery. Vader had lived here. The dark lord of the Sith, in service to the Emperor. They had both failed and died. As powerful as Vader had been, it hadn’t kept him from being vanquished by his feelings, which Kylo did not intend to do. Feelings were the bane of power. He would be better. Stronger. More powerful than even his grandfather could have possibly imagined. Standing on the circular platform, he reached out to the castle itself, using the Force to talk to the obsidian, to make it obey his will, to make it reveal its secrets.

Above.

Kylo walked to a turbolift. The old machinery creaked a lot, but the cabin eventually came to him. It climbed through the structure, and with it, his apprehension. He was finally here. The room he arrived in was smaller and darker. Dust covered everything. He removed it with a wave of his hands. In the middle of the room, a pedestal, and on top of it: his prize. He realized that he was shaking. He stopped it. This was childish. He steeled himself from it. The pyramidal object at the centre of the pedestal had a red glow to it. A Sith holorcron, home to forbidden knowledge. What he could gain from it was immeasurable. Ultimate power. More than Snoke, more than Vader, more than Palpatine himself. His journey into the dark side of the Force would see him come out invulnerable. No one would resist him. Especially not her.

He took the holocron and looked at it for a moment before focusing his energy on it. Closing his eyes, he poured everything he felt into it. Anger, hate, suffering. He heard a metallic sound, then another. It was opening. Dark colours came out of it, swirled around him. The room had disappeared. He turned. Kylo Ren saw Kylo Ren, sitting on a large throne of black metal. He looked at himself and was content, for he was seeing what he had wanted to see. But there was someone else, standing close to the throne. He couldn’t see who it was but was intrigued. As if answering his unspoken question, the person stepped forward. Rey. But she looked different. Her hair was tied in a tight, single bun, and her outfit greatly resembled his own. Her facial features were still vague. She took a few steps in his direction, watching him curiously.

“Look at him,” she said to the Kylo that was sitting on his throne, “he looks so… I don’t know…disappointing?”

What? This didn’t sound like her. Didn’t look like her either. Her face was thinner, bonier, and her skin was pale, devoid of the sunburnt tone he knew it to have. Her lips moved but carried no life in them. And her eyes… where were they? Where was the brown, so like his own? There was nothing. Just white. Blind white. He took a step back, and for the first time in months, pronounced her name.

“Rey”

“Kylo Ren” she replied in a smile.

He swallowed. This was wrong. Something told him that it was. Something deep. But then something else told him that it wasn’t. This was what he wanted. Him and her, side by side, ruling the Galaxy. No Snoke, no Skywalker. The Resistance, once found, obliterated. Everlasting peace. Unlimited power. Rey turned her back on him.

“What do you think?” she asked the other him.

“I think he’s weak” he heard himself say. “I think he should prove himself worthy of this chair. Or die.”

“You’re so right.” Rey laughed, pivoting back, a double-bladed red lightsaber in hand, ready to attack him. She came at him with such speed that he barely avoided the first slash. His saber countered hers and they started clashing. She was ferocious. Her limbs moved recklessly, each time coming extremely close to one of his. He was panicked. It was the forest all over again. Pain surged through the scar she had left him. He winced and closed his right eye, stepping back from the fight. She laughed again and insulted him, called him weak, cowardly, unworthy, an imposter, a failure, a sad little boy. She kept going while at the same time attacking, targeting his face, his belly, his arms and legs. This couldn’t go on. This was too much. Rage flowed through him. Anger exploded in him. How could she do this to him? He counter-attacked, having completely submitted to his fury. The hand that held her lightsaber fell to the ground and she cried in pain. His own hand started hurting too, but he didn’t stop, refusing to listen to anything that wasn't hate, anger, or fear. He took another step forward and plunged his weapon into her stomach. Rey gasped, her blind eyes going wide. She lost her balance and fell backward to the ground, taking him with her. Colour came back to her face. Her white eyes found their brown again. She looked at him, and him at her. She was crying, pain inscribed on her soft, sunburnt face.

“Ben…” she managed to say, her remaining hand reaching for his face, for his scar.

She stopped breathing. The hand fell. Her haunted gaze went up to the dark ceiling.

He sat there, in complete shock. What had he done? He shook her, but she didn’t move. She was dead. A hollow place had just appeared where is heart had been a second before. But... she wasn't real. None of this was real.

“It can be. If you want it to”, he heard. It was Kylo Ren, standing high above him, eyes filled with contempt. He knelt and looked at Rey, then at him. “Do you see, now? This is the weakness you’re clinging to. I never needed her, or anyone. And neither do you. She’s the past, now. The past must die. And if it refuses to… you know what you have to do. For your sake, I hope you have the strength to do it. Fulfil your destiny”

He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. Instead, he watched himself walk away. When he lowered his eyes to looked back at Rey’s lifeless body, she had disappeared. There was nothing in his arms. The room had come back, old, dusty, inhospitable. He stood up. Unaware of his tears, he left the room, left the castle, left the planet.

Deep beneath the steamy waters, in a place that was nowhere and everywhere, red eyelids trembled.

Chapter Text

One with the Force. One with the Force. One with the Force…

The trees, the rocks, the small insects running between grass leaves, the fauna on the ground, in the sky, in the big lake. All her friends and... something was missing. Everything disappeared. She took a deep breath and refocused. The trees, the rocks, the small insects running between grass leaves, the fauna on the ground, in the sky, in the big lake. All her friends and... Leia. Rey opened one eye and looked at the older woman. The General's eyes were still closed. In meditation? Rest? Rey had no clue. Leia's light, diminished as it was after what had happened to her above D’Qar, still shone. A beacon in the night that the Resistance was going through. Their forces had grown after Crait, but it still wasn’t enough. Aftab and his fellow Mon Calamari had brought a few ships. One reminded those who were old enough of Home One. Another cruiser brought bitter memories of the Raddus for the younger fighters. Those that remained at least. Ryloth had been a failure, but the other missions had brought moderate success in capturing more ships. They would do with what they had. And, at the moment, it was very little compared to the might of the First Order.

Rey climbed down from the branch she had been standing on for the past hour. Her training didn’t go as well as she had thought it would. She still had trouble maintaining a constant connection to the Force. Leia knew how troubled the girl was, and why. She understood. More than once she had reminded her of a conversation that they’d had aboard the Falcon, about the fact that no important choice could be made by someone other than you. These things took time. Leia put her hoverchair in motion and they returned to the camp together. She had to manage her strength.

Leia felt a bit at home on Ajan Kloss. It reminded her of Yavin IV, minus the ziggurats, and her stay there, more than thirty years before. Thirty years… The planet, or rather, the moon, had been charted by her own people. Alderaan had elected not to disclose its existence to the Empire, for it could have been of great use as a hiding place for the Rebellion. Leia had kept it in her back pocket for as long as she had been able to. And now they were here. The third reason, and maybe the most personal, was that she and Luke had come here after Endor. It had only been the two of them. They had spoken of their lineage, of the Force and after a few days of complicated meditation, Leia had resolved not to pursue her heritage, choosing instead to walk in the path that her father, the man who had raised her to be who she was, had walked. She had been an Organa her whole life, and she would rather honour that name and all it meant for the homeless Alderaanians than change it to something that meant very little to her. Let him be the Jedi. Her choice, though it had brought hardship and tremendous pain, had been the right one. She had told herself so every day for so many years, yet there were still times, like Crait, like right now, when doubt found its way in.

They were moving in silence, each in their own head, struggling with sombre thoughts, when the sound of four X-wing engines resonated up in the sky. It grew louder and louder, until the four combat ships landed. Four ships. There were supposed to be five. Snap Wexley got out of his ship first, closely followed by the rest of Black Squadron.

“Where’s the Falcon?” Leia asked, rising out of her chair and grabbing her cane. She tried to get rid of the lump that was forming in her throat.

“Black Leader ordered us to go.” Snap began while removing his flight helmet. “We were leaving the Sinta Glacier when at least… I don’t know, three full wings of TIE fighters came out of nowhere.”

“It was pretty bad” Suralinda intervened as she was putting her hair down. Rey found the blue-skinned woman quite curious. She had been subjected to her gaze more than once, and Suralinda had even taken her face into her hand on one occasion, muttering to herself about make-up and camera angles.

“We managed to destroy quite a bit” Karé said, walking to her husband and taking his hand in hers. “But it quickly became hard to see anything with all the debris, the ice. Poe said they’d figure it out and told us to leave. So, we did.”

“Well, at least you obeyed your commander…” Leia sighed.

She looked at each of them in turn. Jess Pava was still talking to her astromech. Her ship had sustained some serious damage. She exchanged a glance with Rey. Poe wasn’t alone on that ship. Chewie was in the co-pilot’s seat, and Finn and Rose had gone with them.

“The Force will be with them.” Leia said for all to hear. “They will return.” She believed in what she had just said, but she knew, deep inside, that she could believe a little more.

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“That was close!” Poe exclaimed as he made the Falcon dip down to avoid a dark metallic structure that was half bridge, half something else, the use of which could be determined later, if they were still alive. He still had seven TIE fighters on his tail, and it was fortunate that they could not all fit side by side in the icy corridors. Only two could fit, and their blasts were weakening the shields at too fast a pace. Chewie growled something about Rey, to which Poe replied that he wished she was here too. Poe was a great pilot, he was the first to say so, but he’d seen Rey fly the Millennium Falcon a few times and… yeah, she was pretty good with this ship. He refocused his attention. The situation was not dire yet, by his standards. He had good people on board. Speaking of which…

“Finn, Rose, would you mind?”

“Doing my best, here!” Rose answered, slightly panicked. Armament training had made her a nice shot, but she felt much more at ease in less stressful situations. She took a deep breath and looked at her display, at the TIEs, then back at her display. There! She rained fire on the small craft, and it burst into glorious flames, taking its closest companion with it.

“Woo!” she exclaimed.

Two more appeared out of their comrades’ fiery demise and shot at them with even more rage. In the other turret, Finn was shooting methodically. One. Two. Three. Rose stole the fourth from him, and she once again let her joy explode in their ears. Fair enough. One blast hit his canopy. He screamed in surprise and fear.

“Finn, buddy, you okay?” Poe shouted in the comm system.

Finn reassured him effusively, his hearting banging against his rib cage, sweat suddenly flowing from his brow. He readjusted his position in his seat, took aim, and destroyed another TIE.

“Looks like we’re done!” Rose exclaimed.

“Looks like it, yeah” Finn confirmed. “Poe, Chewie, get us outta here!”

Chewie noisily approved and started the calculations for the jump to hyperspace. Halfway through it he stole a glance at Poe. The human had a nice head of hair, but not much anywhere else, like all of them. He also had good flying instincts that reminded him of Han. The skill, the cockiness… but the similitude ended there. Poe’s closed mouth went agape. Chewbacca raised a furry eyebrow. The human was staring straight ahead, and even from the side, he could see that his expression had changed from relief to… absolute terror. He looked out front, too. A swarm of TIEs was coming out of the end of the ice tunnel, so massive and dark that the light dramatically shifted. Chewie groaned. He had seen way too many of them. They had caused him and Han, but mainly him, hundred of hours of repair. Yet that was trivial, compared to what they represented. Empire, First Order: same thing, different name. They were tyranny incarnate. They had spread terror all around the galaxy for too long. They had destroyed and killed. They had enslaved Kashyyyk, reduced his tribe, his family, to beings stripped of their dignity, their strength. No more. Rage swelled in the mighty Chewbacca. He had an idea. He spoke.

“Really?” asked Poe, alternatively looking to the Wookiee and the deadly squadron.

Chewie nodded with determination.

“Alright, not going to argue with you, pal.”

Poe got out of the pilot’s seat, and Chewie got in. He was not used to the first mate position but, hey, there was a first for everything, and so close to death… why not?

Chewbacca instructed Finn and Rose to shoot, shoot, shoot. Poe was to reroute auxiliary power to rear shields in five, four, three, two… The Falcon did a one-eighty turn in the tunnel and started spinning on its own axis. The blasts that the two turrets were firing created a beautiful cylinder of green that destroyed one, two, five, seven, ten TIE fighters.

“Holy kriff!” Poe shouted.

Chewie remained silent, focusing on his flying. To the spinning he added lateral movement in the tunnel, thus making the Falcon an inescapable weapon that was difficult to hit at the same time. Behind them, explosions rocked the ice walls. A big chunk fell from the ceiling and crashed in the middle of the First Order fighters, causing another explosion. Fully confident in the outcome, certain that the Force was with him, Chewbacca told Poe to lower the shields down to five per cents and get the sublight thrusters to full capacity.

“Are you sure? We can’t afford to take more than-”

Chewbacca’s response was so loud that Rose and Finn jumped in their seats.

“Okay, okay, forget I said anything…” Poe said submissively.

He did as he was told. That one was a gamble. A big one. The navicomputer made new calculations. The Falcon lurched forward. Poe estimated that they’d be out of the tunnel in thirty, maybe twenty-five seconds. On the ground, it was short. Up here, it was an eternity. And they could not lose the hyperdrive. There would be no dashing escape. There would just be death.

The first hit came after second five. It rocked the ship. Finn and Rose were still shooting, but the cannons were hot, going on unrefined coaxium hot. The ship’s movement did not help. Poe’s head was starting to spin. Everything was becoming blurry. His stomach was genuinely upset, and it wouldn’t be long before it expressed this feeling in a concrete manner. The second hit came after second thirteen. It cost them in speed. Not a lot, but Poe felt the Falcon decelerate.

“I have a bad feeling about this…” Poe said under his breath.

Chewie’s big body was unmoving, except for his muscular arms. They made the ship move with unparalleled grace and fury. A beautiful, yet terrifying sight. The Wookiee was unaware that his teeth were showing. He had a beastly look on his face. Poe was glad not to be on the receiving end of that look. If the First Order pilots could see what he was seeing, they would fly away, and fast. The third hit came on second nineteen. Alarms blared all throughout the ship. Lights turned red. Sparks came out of panels.

A blast went over their heads. This one would have been fatal, he knew it. They were close. Closer. Closer. So close…

The narrow blue tunnel disappeared. They were out, out in the unforgiving void that now felt like a breath of fresh air. Chewie banked up, hard, screaming his victory in the cockpit, nearly getting rid of Poe’s eardrums in the process. He then pulled a lever, and the Millennium Falcon went into another, this time much safer, blue tunnel.

Chapter Text

            Kylo Ren sat on his bed, still in his ash-stained clothes. He hadn’t moved a muscle in the past hour. What he had gone through on Mustafar made him feel contradictory emotions. Going there had been a mistake, he could feel it deep within himself. While the Sith holocron had shown him what he wanted, it had also confronted him to his biggest fear. And he couldn’t make his mind move away from that. Conflict raged in Kylo Ren. He stood up and started pacing around the bare, dark room. His cape fell to the floor, as did his outer tunic, leaving him in a simple black outfit. There weren’t any mirrors in his room, but if there had been, all he’d see would be… well, nothing more than a man. But he wasn’t any man. He was the Supreme Leader. He clenched his fists. He was the Supreme Leader. He would not be swayed. He had to succeed. And he would. He opened a panel in the wall. Inside, a clean tunic. He put it on, draped his long, black cloak around his shoulders, and left the room. He was the Supreme Leader, and he had business to attend.

            General Armitage Hux was the last of his colleagues to arrive in the polished Supreme Council conference room. Their heads briefly turned to watch him enter before returning to their individual datapads. Without a single word he gave a brisk nod to no one in particular, and took his seat, directly facing General Enric Pryde. The older man had been recalled by Ren after Supreme Leader Snoke’s untimely death. His posting in the Unknown Regions had made him an almost legendary figure. Although he had had very little contact with the man, having only met him once or twice, he knew that Pryde, as a former Imperial, commanded respect in ways that Hux himself didn’t. His troops didn’t equal Phasma’s in ability, but their loyalty knew no bounds. He had brought with him a few dozens of Star Destroyers, including the one they were all currently living on: The Steadfast. Hux missed the Finalizer. It had been his own. And Ren’s. But mainly his own. The Batuu incident had enraged him to no end, and he had loathed each and every moment that he had passed on this ship. His own troops were outnumbered, here. This would not do. This would have to change. Pryde’s eyes were fixated on his face, his expression neutral. As uneasy at it made Hux, he remained as calm as he could, holding the gaze for a few seconds, then looking away in feigned boredom. Around the table, the others’ faces were still bathed in the light blue hue of their datapads. Griss, Engell, Parnadee, and Quinn: all had been handpicked by Ren himself to help him realise his vision for the galaxy. For only a fraction of a second had Hux wondered why he had been chosen to sit on the Supreme Council. It made perfect tactical sense, on Ren’s part. In the First Order, there were no friends to keep close, only enemies.

            In the past months, the First Order’s expansion had led to the capture of the most important systems of the Mid Rim and the Western Reaches, and they weren’t done yet. What happened next was the subject of today’s meeting. They spent the next few minutes in a silence that only the datapads dared interrupt. And then, the doors opened.

            Tall and dark and brooding, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren entered the chamber. They all rose. He sat on his chair at the top of the table and looked at each of them in turn. Hux forced himself to hold his gaze, hoping that Ren wouldn’t see through him. He had no difficulty admitting to himself that Ren’s possession of the Force scared him. The things these people could do… Hux thought of Ren’s phantom fingers on his throat, back on the Supremacy, after Snoke’s murder by the scavenger girl. He swallowed, just to see that he could. Something still didn’t sit right with him about that day, but now wasn’t the time to think about it. Ren addressed Pryde and Griss on the topic of their campaign to take hold of Colonies and the very few pockets of resistance that they still encountered in the Expansion Region.

            “Great progress has been made, Supreme Leader” said Pryde in his Core accent before Griss could even open his mouth. “The latter will be in our control in a matter of days. As for the Colonies, we should be ready to launch a full-scale coordinated assault in ten standard days. Many of our Resurgent-Class ships are ready and at your command, but some still need to be fitted with our newest ion cannons. Kuala-Entralla has been most… collaborative and forthcoming with new technology.”

            Ren nodded, his face an impassive mask. The others were then asked to give updates on their various areas of responsibilities. They calmly obliged. Hux studied them all. They were all so comfortable, so at ease. Clearly, none of them had yet had the misfortune of displeasing him because of their mere existence. Hux kept his yes on his hands, joined before him on the table, and waited for the meeting to end.

            “And what about your troops” he heard Ren say, “General Hux?”

            Hux looked up at the Supreme Leader. The man’s eyes were usually so dark that he was afraid to maintain eye contact for too long. This time however, Hux saw something different, or at least thought he did, but only for a fleeting moment. He cleared his throat.

           “As you know, Supreme Leader, the combined loss of Captains Phasma and Cardinal has greatly impacted our program.” He had a thought for Phasma. She had been a most precious ally. He knew that she would have gotten rid of him if it had meant advancement, and he could not help but think that he would have done the same. “But the last few months have been focused on the harvesting of more children from the occupied systems. I have personally appointed new instructors to turn them into compliant cadets in the briefest of times.”

            “Are you still uninterested in a clone army, General?” Ren asked. He got up and started walking around the table. “I’ve heard that the FN-2187 incident has occurred again, and that this time, six troopers have deserted.”

            Of course, he knew. Hux had hoped that Ren’s occult obsession with Force artefacts would have somehow kept him away from the day to day business of the First Order. He should have known that he had made an exception for him. Ren had him under a constant, close watch. He had also started to long for the old days, when Kylo Ren wore a mask. It was unsettling, but at least he didn’t have those eyes burrowing into his soul like this. Ren was standing behind Pryde, and Hux could have sworn that the other General’s thin lips were drawn in a smile. His hands were hot and sweaty under his gloves. He blinked several times, opened his mouth and started to speak in a voice that wasn’t so firm as it had been seconds before.

            “Yes, sir, TZ-1719 and JL-4410 among them, but I can assure you that–”

            Hux’s windpipe closed. Looking up at the Supreme Leader, he gasped for air. This time, however, he fought the reflex to bring his hand to his throat. Ren’s humiliation and torture were painful to undergo but somehow paled in comparison to what he had gone through as the bastard son of Brendol Hux. He could take it. His father’s abuse had been daily. Hux could now spend days without seeing Ren. He could take it. Ren let go, and Hux filled his lungs once more. See, he thought, I can take it. Ren resumed his walk around the table, taking his time to arrive behind Hux.

            “For your sake, General, I hope that this never happens again.”

            “It won’t, Supreme Leader.”

            “Good. Dismissed.”

            And he left the room. The other generals looked at each other, looked at Hux, then got up and left the room as well.

            When Armitage Hux returned to his quarters, he triple-checked that the door was locked before doing or saying anything. He went to his bedroom, closed and locked that door behind him too, and then he screamed his frustration and pain to his indifferent walls. He screamed and screamed until his throat hurt, and then he screamed again. In his mind, he went back to the Supremacy. He had been so close. So close. His subsequent attempts had all failed, but they had been too shy. He knew it. He would have to think of something better, something that would make the Parnassos beetle look like a childish ploy. The time would come.

            Kylo Ren walked faster than usual to return to his room. This meeting had been exhausting. He had only understood half of what his generals had told him. Hurting Hux had been unnecessary. It had brought him no pleasure. He had done it out of habit, to maintain appearances. The six troopers didn’t matter. He still had tens of thousands. The final image of the vision was still on his mind. She was still on his mind. Kylo took off his cloak and let it fall on the floor. He felt a little lighter without it. Standing in front of the bed, he closed his eyes and reached out through the Force. Whatever planet she was on, distance didn’t matter, for she was just behind the door that she had closed on him. He knocked on the door, but there was no response. He knocked louder. She felt it, this time. He turned around and opened his eyes. All he could see was a blurry silhouette that dissolved in a matter of seconds. She was still refusing him. Hopelessness fell upon the Supreme Leader of the First Order, so he sat on his bed and took his face in his hands.

Chapter Text

Rey had felt Kylo Ren’s presence behind her while she was studying the Jedi texts. She had stood up and focused all her energy on blocking him. He had not tried again. Through their bond she had perceived a hint of the conflict that raged inside him. She had also experienced the prevailing emotion that irradiated from him, and it had touched her, but she still wasn’t going to open herself to him quite yet. After he had gone away, she had sat on her stool again. Before returning to her studies, she had thought of the reason why she had pushed him away. She was afraid to see him. Having seen Ben Solo, who he used to be, who he could be, she couldn’t bear to face Kylo Ren again. If he wanted to commit to that persona, so be it. At this point, just like Leia had said months ago as they were searching for a place to hide, the choice was his.

She looked up from the old books. Leia was sitting in her chair again. Her health hadn’t fully come back, and it was doubtful it would ever do. She was talking to Commander Dacy and Lieutenant Connix in hushed tones. Rey looked at them for a few more moments, wondering what they were talking about, then brought her eyes back to the texts. Thanks to Threepio, she had managed to decipher some of the most ancient glyphs that populated them. Unchecked, the droid would often go into long conferences about grammar in archaic languages, so Rey had to amicably remind him that his job was to translate, not correct. The Jedi of old had quite the rigid mentality, she had observed. It seemed that a grave incident that had occurred thousands of years ago had provoked a dramatic shift in their philosophy, leading them to repudiate things like attachment to another being. They had even decided that new Jedi would be taken from their families at an early age. Too early to remember their parents. It sounded an awful lot like what the First Order did. Finn had been one of those unfortunate children. She looked at the clear, blue sky and thought of him. Let him come back to us. Let all of them come back to us. When she thought of her own parents, she saw nothing. Filthy junk traders. Dead and buried in a pauper’s grave. The nobodies who had sired a nobody. If she was strong in the Force, was there a way they could have been? Could they see her right now, the little girl whom they had abandoned? Better not to dwell on that too much.

The books also contained a lot of insight and wisdom about the Force. Rey had chosen to focus on these parts. She needed all the knowledge that she could get if she was to become the Jedi that Leia saw in her. She looked at a strange chart in one the volumes that were open before her. Small circles were linked together by lines that went in many directions and drew intricate constellations. Or so she thought. Around it, words talked about something called the Chain Worlds Theorem. She had no idea what it was or what it meant and decided that it could be left for later. The Unsolved Thorpe Theorem didn’t interest her either, but something else did on the previous page. Lightsabers diagrams. Rey frequently came back to them. They had helped her theorise on how she would fix the broken kyber crystal in Luke’s former weapon. She had decided to wait before attempting the operation. More research and understanding could only be beneficial. The Chronicles of Brus-bu had helped her tremendously as well. She knew that she was on the right path and that the time was quickly coming where she would make her own weapon. Even if the Force was silent these days, she had faith that she would succeed. She would not allow herself to fail.

Rey moved her long hair out of the way. She liked it that way and had let decided to let it flow freely after Crait. She changed her position on her stool, too. She missed the Falcon and her quarters on the ship. Knowing that Chewie was on the mission reassured her as to its fate. She liked Poe, he was a good friend, but he was also the most reckless pilot that she had ever known. He had told her many stories about his time in the Republic and the Resistance. One hand wasn’t enough to count the number of X-wings he had lost. She also thought of Rose. The former maintenance worker, who had risen to lead the Engineering Corps, was a few years older than Rey was. They had bonded over their shared knowledge and love of tech and machinery and had spent many hours working on the Falcon together.

“She still looks like a big pile of junk,” Rose had said one time after an afternoon of intense labour, “but she’s got it where it counts!”

Agitation around the camp woke Rey from her studying-induced reverie. She was so used to the sound of the Falcon’s engines that she had not registered its appearance above her head. Even from afar she could see that it bore marks of carbon scoring. She frowned. A crowd was gathering around the ship. The ramp opened and the small crew walked out. Poe was first, followed by Rose, Finn, Chewbacca, and R2-D2. Rey had a soft spot for the old droid. There had been nights when Leia had told stories of his heroics in the battles of old. More than once, Artoo had offered a correction or a relevant detail in a series of beeps that always got a laugh out of those who understood the binary language of astromech droids. They all looked fine to her. She ran towards them.

“Finn, Rose, are you okay?” she asked her friends.

They both nodded. Then Rose took a few steps away and threw up behind a tree.

“It was… eventful, to say the least.” she said when she came back.

“You didn’t ask me, but I’m okay, too” Poe said from behind her.

Rey turned back and looked at him. She wasn’t sure about his tone sometimes, didn’t know if he was joking or not. “Well, you’re more used to this kind of thing than they are, so I just assumed that you were.”

“Well…,” he started hesitantly, “I’m alright. I’m great, actually! We had a great time risking our skins to get that intel! Could have used you, too, you know. Jedi powers and all that. I don’t know how, but the First Order was on to us. They knew we’d be there, and we almost didn’t make it out. Chewie here did some amazing flying, and Rose’s modifications to the hyperdrive had a big hand in saving our lives, but I sure would have appreciated a little Force on my side.”

“You know I can’t go on every mission!” Rey replied as she walked to him to avoid having to speak too loudly. It would not do to make a scene for everyone to see. “Just like you. You should just delegate to someone else. Leia needs you here. There are some things that only you can do for her. I’m the Jedi, yes, but you’re the Resistance Commander. You have responsibilities here that you can’t avoid by ‘risking your skin’ out there.”

She left him with that and went to Chewie. They went back up the ramp together and started to run diagnostics.

“What did he do to my ship?” Rey exclaimed when she discovered the state of the power coupling. She realised what she had just said and looked at Chewie with an apologizing look. “Sorry, the ship.” Chewie shrugged and gave her the Wookiee version of a smile. It was alright. After taking note of all they would have to work on, they went back outside for the briefing. “Let’s see if that intel was worth the risk.” Rey said to herself.

Artoo was plugged in to the holotable. The tension around it was palpable. Maz Kanata was there, as were Aftab Ackbar, D’acy, Major Angon, and Lieutenant Chireen. Leia sat in her chair, flanked by Finn and Poe. Many other people, technicians, fighters and pilots were standing behind them all. The Resistance believed in hiding information only when absolutely necessary. They were all in this together, so they may as well know what was going on. The schematics and long written documents went up. All remained silent as they took it all in.

“Well, at least, it’s not another Death Star” Poe sighed.

“No,” Leia said in a voice that she struggled to control. “But it’s just as bad.” She turned to Finn. “What was the name of your source?”

“Boolio, General” he replied.

“May the Force be with him…”

What they had before their eyes was a detailed plan of attack on the Colonies, a region close to the Core of the galaxy. These planets were known for being among the wealthiest. Leia remembered a mission that had taken them to Cato Neimodia before the war. She remembered her mother’s dresses. They were now floating somewhere in space. What a painful waste. Carida had been where Han started his training at the Imperial Academy. Poe looked at the planet Abednedo and thought of his friend Oddy, of how the First Order had ruined his life. Whether or not they had ties to a planet, they all felt angered and helpless.

“So, what are we going to do about this?” asked Commander Gartfran from behind. The grizzled survivalist had his weapon in hand, as if he was already there and ready to kill.

“We’re going to formulate a plan, Commander” Leia answered patiently. “According to this data, we have over a week until the offensive starts. We’ll examine all of this closely and see what we can do to counter them. Major Wexley?”

Snap straightened and stepped forward. “General.”

“Snap, I’m sorry to send you back out so quickly, but I have complete faith in your ability to succeed in this. You have command of Black Squadron for this mission. I want you and your wing mates to do a reconnaissance flight around the main systems. See if you hear anything. I’ll have Rose and her people equip your ships with their new communications systems. You’ll be invisible to most ears but yours will be wide open. You leave tomorrow at first light.”

Snap saluted and turned around to get ready, his squadron behind him. Poe looked at them with envy. Rey’s words were still in his head. Leia needed him.

“Commander Dameron.” she said, startling him a bit. “You are promoted to the rank of Colonel. You’ll be responsible for the study of this intel and the conception of a battle plan. I’m counting on you.” she said with a smile before turning her chair in the opposite direction. “I need to rest for a bit. We’ll reconvene tomorrow.”

Poe looked at her with his mouth open. Colonel? There weren’t any other colonels in the Resistance. Leia had just made him the only one. Right under her. Did this mean that–

“Close that up, Colonel flyboy” Finn said close to his ear with a grin. “What do we do, now?”

Poe thought about it. Leia needed him. She counted on him. He turned to Finn, to Rose, and to the other officers. “We prepare.” he said, and they all nodded.

 

Hours later, Rey was sitting on a branch and breathing the night air. It carried humidity, which was delightful, compared to the dryness of Jakku. Although, most everything was delightful, compared to Jakku. She realized that it had been a long time since she last had a thought for her homeworld. The Falcon was her home now. Ajan Kloss was a temporary respite that would not last forever. She cherished the planet, however. It felt good to be surrounded by trees and the wildlife that thrived all around her. It felt good to be able to immerse herself in the nearby lake every morning. Rose had even taught her how to swim. All that would be gone in a matter of days.

Back on the Falcon, she went directly to bed and fell asleep in minutes. The day had been physically and mentally taxing. Her defences did not keep Kylo Ren from visiting her, this time. He could not see her surroundings, as usual, so he just saw her on his bed. She was asleep. She looked so peaceful. And alive. She was alive. That made him happy. He walked carefully, silently, toward the bed and knelt beside it. He then took the glove off his right hand and lifted it to her nose. He could feel the air coming out of it. He went for her cheek but stopped at the last second. She hates you, remember? You disappointed her, and now she hates you. Kylo Ren got up and walked out of his room. Rey opened her sleep-hungry eyes. There was no one except her on the Falcon, so whose steps had she just heard?