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Hiraeth

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H I R A E T H

~ Love Letter for a Monster ~

 

 

Hiraeth (Welsh) – a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for lost places of your past.

 

 

 

Prologue: Lost in Translation

 

 

 

 

Toronto, October 2009

 

 

They cut off his hair.

True, he looks different in other ways too. Older. Paler. All suited up. She’s never seen him with a tie before. He’s lost weight - all skin and bones, he is, and for a moment she catches herself worrying for his health. It startles her. She didn’t think she’d still be capable for such a thing – not anymore, not after all these years. Yet here she is, suddenly alarmed, wondering if he might be sick.

It’s a sensation she’s almost forgotten, and feeling it again makes her itch. She wants it to stop.

No matter how much he has changed, however, it’s the hair that makes the biggest difference. He always had it reaching his shoulders. With his head shorn like this, his face looks too long, his nose too big, his lips too thick, the angles of his cheekbones too sharp. His ears are sticking out. He’s ugly, she realizes for the first time. He’s all crooked lines and mismatched parts, he is ugly, he looks grotesque.

Like a monster.

He opens his mouth to speak, but it’s not his voice that she hears. An interpreter speaks over him instead: a woman, her tone flat and professional. The interpreter chooses her words carefully. She sounds impersonal - too measured, too calm, her sentences reasonable and too well formed.

He never spoke like that.

Rey takes the remote and shuts down the television.

“Hey,” Poe protests, “I was watching that!”

She wants to tell him to fuck off. She wants to crack a joke – it’s a perfect opportunity for a witty one-liner. That’s what a movie character would do, and all her life she’s been feeling as if she were trapped in a godawful Oscar bait drama. But all of a sudden there’s a lump in her throat, and she realizes that if she speaks back, she’ll begin to cry.

No tears, she tells herself. It’s been too much time. It won’t do anyone any good. Calm down. Breathe.

“Hey,” Poe says, his voice much gentler. “Do you feel alright?”

She sits on the couch clutching the remote, and it takes her a moment to focus. Something akin to anger rises in her chest. It’s not supposed to be like this. She never thought she’d need so much willpower to remind herself of the simplest things: her life is normal now. She is in her own home, far and away. She's no longer a teenager.

She is no longer in love.

Not like that.

And even if she were, that man she’s just seen on TV looks nothing like the ghost she cannot get rid of.

Poe slides closer to her on the couch, careful, unsure if he’s supposed to give her space or offer comfort. He clears his throat.

“Are you alright?” he repeats.

“No.” It is a relief to say it out loud. “No, I’m not.”

Poe slowly nods.

“I understand,” he agrees solemnly, his eyes a tad too kind, and all of a sudden there is a feeling of dread blooming in her stomach: he knows.

But as he continues to speak, he reveals his own demons.

“I understand. All that fighting and sacrifice, and in the end, we end up here.” He gestures vaguely at their garden, where the Canadian fall is coloring the trees in a deep shade of red they never saw back in their home country. “I can't even turn off the fucking translation on TV.”

Poe bites his lip – whatever he’s about to say, it’s been tormenting him for a while. He struggles to find the right words.

“We’ve won, Rey,” he concludes. “But it feels like defeat.”

Unexpectedly, she smiles.

That’s exactly the word she’s been looking for - defeat. She should feel triumphant, she knows. They did win. And yet seeing even a glimpse of that goddamn trial, seeing him aged and withered and with his hair cut so short, it leaves an aftertaste so bitter she could vomit.

Uninvited images suddenly invade her mind. The mole above his eyebrow. The thickness of his hair, the smell of it unwashed. The feeling of his large fingers caressing her back. His bite marks on her skin. How he'd blush like a schoolboy whenever he’d make her happy. How he used to smile – clumsy and shy, yet so sweet, nothing like the villain the press made him out to be.

Only he was a villain. He was. There’s no other way to say it.

“You're correct: this is defeat,” Rey tells her husband as she begins to sob.

She can't remember the last time she cried. It’s not a pretty sight: there’s mucus running from her nose, and she makes foul hiccuping noises she cannot control.

Fuck.

She lets out a long sigh that almost sounds like a shriek, and finally gathers the courage to articulate a truth she didn't want to face.

“There’ll never be justice.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

PART ONE:

B L O O D F L O W E R S

 

 

A Sea of Faces, a Sea of Doubt

 

 

 

The Capital, November 1993

 

 

It’s a miserable year.

Granted, for Rey, every year is miserable in its own way, but 1993 is outstandingly wretched – as if it’s finding new, creative ways to make her life more of a mess. Then again, it’s not as if Rey is special in that regard. No one seems to get it going on these days.

The country is not at war, god forbid – tanks and bombs and burning villages and civilians with brains smeared all over the pavement are something that happens on the other side of the border. But the consequences of the war, they’re everywhere. The country is isolated. The economic sanctions go as far as to include culture and entertainment - movie theaters show nothing but reruns of the 80's flicks, and there’s little to counter the endless hours of government propaganda on television. There’s no fuel at gas stations. Instead, smugglers sell gasoline brought from Hungary and Romania at street corners in Coke bottles with peeled-off labels. Food shortages are a daily thing – shops are infinite rows of empty shelves, and Rey can't remember the last time she tasted real chocolate. What they’re giving them in the Home for Children without Parental Care is progressively getting worse: canned meat of a suspicious green-grey color, as if someone has tampered with the expiry date. Rey is constantly hungry. As the winter approaches, the upcoming power restrictions become a frequent topic, and Rey can already picture it – sitting in the common room under a blanket that smells like mold, in the dark, her toes freezing, her stomach rumbling.

Fucking 1993.

The list of things that lift Rey’s spirit is short. She used to like school, but between frequent teacher strikes, cold classrooms, and the fact that most of her fellow students seem to have completely lost their minds in this warmongering craze, education is no longer a thing she can hold on to. She stopped going to the library: she’d read all the books she was interested in, and it’s been more than a year since they had the money to order new titles. On some days, she walks around the city. She takes the tram and goes to the center, and then she aimlessly strolls down the streets, watching the passersby, trying to come up with their life stories if she feels too bored. It doesn’t take her long to realize she doesn’t have a novelist’s imagination: in her world, all these people are unhappy. She comforts herself that they probably are.

There is, however, a place that Rey really likes. 

It’s near a park with linden trees, behind the building of the old Fine Arts Academy. It’s where the cool kids gather: those troublemakers in leather jackets and Doc Marten boots who smoke one cheap cigarette per group of five and don’t give a fuck for the current fashion fads. It’s where the music market is.  It’s improvised and illegal, just like too many things in 1993. Makeshift booths made of cardboard boxes. Second-hand records scratched so badly that Rey wonders if any gramophone would ever play them. Cassette mixtapes of popular MTV bands with tracklists handwritten in block letters – piracy at its best. It’s all foreign music. You don’t get to hear it often on the radio these days - or maybe you do, Rey isn’t sure. She’s not the one picking out the station in the common room of the Home.

When she stands among them, it’s obvious: Rey is not a cool kid. It’s difficult to be a part of their tribe when you’re a ward of the state, living in the Home for Children without Parental Care. Yet recently, she’s not coming here in a sad attempt to find a place to belong - she’s hanging out around the music market for a reason.

She has a plan.

She found an old Walkman in the trash – not that she’d rummaged through the trashcan, not really, but it wasn’t too badly damaged and she’s good at fixing broken things.  For weeks, she’s been saving money to fill it up with music – writing homework for other kids, doing small errands for Unkar, putting her meager allowance aside instead of getting treats on the black market.

But then fucking 1993 hits again.

They say it’s the worst inflation in mankind’s recent history. Money literally loses value overnight: from one day to another, an entire salary is no longer enough to buy a loaf of bread. The state responds by printing out new banknotes, with badly drawn faces of important historical figures and more and more and more zeroes. The record breaks at five hundred billion dinars on a single bill. It’s actually hilarious, Rey thinks, looking at money that still smells of fresh paint - such a rotten country, and yet they’re all billionaires. 

All the cash she saved becomes nothing more than brightly colored paper.

“It was enough yesterday,” she tells the vendor, who looks at her from behind rows of cassettes stacked in boxes.

“Sorry, kid.” He shrugs. “It’s tough times. You should’ve saved up in deutschemarks, or dollars. That money you’ve got there is only good to wipe your ass with.”

Rey feels bile rising up her throat. She won’t cry, she thinks. She’s too strong for that.

“Can’t you make an exception?” 

“And ruin my reputation?” the vendor retorts, but then his face softens and he seems to genuinely pity her, which only makes Rey feel worse. “It’s not how this works. Even in these fucked up times, I’ve got a business to run.”

For a moment, she wants to throw the banknotes in his face and spit on his pirated mixtapes, but she decides she’s better than that. It’s not the man’s fault.

“I see.” She cannot think of anything smarter to say.

“Better luck next time,” the vendor sighs. “And remember: you wanna make it in this hellhole, you go for foreign currency.”

Rey turns her back and leaves.

It’s just a minor battle lost, she tells herself.  No big deal. She must accept it like all other misfortunes she has no control over and carry on. Find a way around it. Get used to the new lows, survive another day. Rey is proficient at spinning self-help mantras - it’s a skill she has polished and perfected over the years.

The problem is, sometimes, it’s simply too much.

She won’t cry.

On impulse, Rey approaches the trash can and empties her pockets almost theatrically. She slowly tosses the crumpled bills with too many zeroes, one after another. For a second, she contemplates throwing in the Walkman too, and she even holds it above the trash can, but then she reconsiders and puts it back to her bag.  She fiddles with the zipper, her fingers suddenly lumbering. She’s not in a rush, she tells herself, there’s no need for such hurry, and yet she’d rather be anywhere else right now than at the music market, surrounded by the mixtapes she’ll never have and the cool kids she’ll never be like.

It’s in that moment that she realizes there’s someone standing behind her.

She freezes.

“What happened there?” the man asks.

“Nothing,” Rey replies reflexively, her eyes locked to her feet.

She didn’t do anything wrong. She’s sure of that. Even if she did, though, this man – whoever he is – still has no reason to come at her like that. Maybe he’ll leave if she waits, she thinks – but seconds pass, and he’s still there.

He’s standing too close.

“I saw what you did,” he says finally, and Rey notices how deep his voice is. “Threw money to the trash. People don’t do that on a whim.”

So he’s a busybody, Rey concludes, and it reignites her anger. He has no right to judge her. She almost gathers the courage to spit out the answer she’d give to any meddlesome bastard – the fuck do you carebut then she turns around and lifts her head.

The man is broad and tall, she has to crane her neck to look him in the eyes. His face is difficult to forget, with a prominent nose, a trimmed goatee, and moles scattered across his skin like freckles. His dark hair is thick and long – a rarity in this day, when everyone seems to favor military-style haircuts. He’s dressed in a well-tailored black coat that looks soft and warm, and Rey is suddenly aware of each stain on her hand-me-down beige cardigan.

She catches herself staring at his lips for a second too long.

“It’s not nothing.” He shakes his head. “So tell me. What happened?”

“I, um…” She doesn’t want to reply, yet finds herself explaining. “I’ve just discovered that all the cash I’ve been saving for weeks isn’t enough to buy even a pack of gum.”

“Mmm.” He makes a humming sound that she finds oddly pleasant. “But it wasn’t chewing gum you wanted to buy, I take it?”

“No,” she sighs, taking in his features. “Look, it was my money, I had the right to do with it as I pleased, and it wasn’t worth anything anyway.”

He looks behind her for a second, glancing at the mixtape vendor. There’s a strange hostility in his eyes as he scans the cardboard booths and rows of records, Rey observes, but it passes all too quickly.

“You wanted music,” he states the obvious. “What was it?”

Instantly, Rey is taken aback by how intimate the question feels. It’s uncanny. She can't remember the last time someone asked her what she liked or wanted, and she feels the same prickling in her eyes she thought she vanquished a moment ago. She hates it.

“Sisters of Mercy,” she answers in a small voice, failing to stop herself.

The stranger’s reaction, however, is more than perplexing.

“Sisters of Mercy?” He raises his eyebrows, staring at her too intensely. She wonders if he ever blinks. “You’re listening to Sisters of Mercy? You?”

Rey frowns.

A while ago, there was an older girl living in the Home. An oddball of the sore-thumb-and-proud-of-it kind of way, she mostly kept to herself – when she got into fights, she bit and clawed and hit below the belt, so other children quickly learned to leave her be. She shaved her head, dressed in dark colors, and wore too much makeup, with dramatic eyeliner and lipstick almost black. She named herself Asaji-hime, after a character from a black-and-white Japanese movie – Rey had never seen it, but if she got the plot right, it was some tragic samurai princess ruined by her own murderous ambitions. Yet Rey knew that Asaji-hime was not as cold and ruthless as she wanted others to see her. Once, Rey caught her listening to a song in English: it had a deep male vocal, a soothing, melancholy melody and a strong bass line, and it was so hypnotizing that she stopped in front of the shaved-headed girl’s door.

“I like your music,” Rey said. 

“So you should.” Asaji-hime nodded. “It’s good music. Not like that brainwashing crap the others are listening to. Patriotic songs, my ass.”

After that, Rey regularly went to the older girl’s room. Asaji-hime helped her discover new songs each time, enthusiastically translating the lyrics. The music was about death and pain and loss and loneliness, about wanting to be someone else somewhere else, about greed and mechanical empires crumbling, and approaching storms that were coming to get you. It was dark and sad, and maybe a tad too melodramatic, but Rey found it more relatable than she wanted to admit.

Then one day, Asaji-hime moved out of the Home and took her music with her.

Rey doesn’t miss her, not exactly. They were never friends - though sometimes she wonders whatever happened to the girl, whether she still shaves her head and calls herself after a Japanese villainess.

But Rey does miss the music.

“Last time I checked, it wasn’t illegal to have a good taste,” she finally answers the strange man, squaring her shoulders.

To her surprise, he makes a sound that could pass for laughter.

“No, it isn’t. I just didn’t expect it.”

His eyes become a tad warmer, and it occurs to Rey that she likes holding his gaze. She studies his face: he could be in his mid-twenties, she thinks, but she cannot decide whether he looks younger, or older, or both.

“What album?”

Rey contemplates briefly.

“Any,” she says. But then she changes her mind and quickly adds, “The one with ‘Marian’.”

“Ah. So it’s ‘Marian’.” The stranger's lips tug upwards slightly, and Rey assumes it’s a smile. “That’d be ‘First and Last and Always’ from 1985 – a good gateway into better stuff. But why that particular song? The Sisters have had much bigger hits than ‘Marian’.”

Rey swallows.

In truth, the song makes her feel things. It fills her with want and yearning, and she daydreams about being someone’s Marian. But she can't say that aloud: it’s girlish and silly, and she’ll come across as a fool.

“I like the lyrics,” she ultimately answers.

There’s a sudden spark in his eyes, and then he smiles, this time for real. His teeth are crooked and too sharp – Rey can't agree if she finds it menacing or endearing. She's certain, however, that something has just changed between the two of them, but what exactly, she can't tell.

“I see.” The stranger nods. “You shouldn’t buy it here, though. You shouldn’t buy anything here. This shit is bootleg, the tape will malfunction in no time. Better get an original.”

For a moment, she thinks he’s mocking her, but then his eyebrows knit together and he looks genuinely concerned. He has no tact, it would seem. No social skills. Who the fuck he is, she wonders, so out of touch with reality that he can't realize she’s piss-poor and too young and slightly scared and there’s a war around them.

“Um,” she begins, hesitantly. She wants to sound cooler and more assertive, but she’s unsure how. “You said it yourself, you saw what I did. I kinda don’t have any money anymore. And even if I did, where the hell would I find a decade-old Sisters of Mercy album in this shithole of a country?”

His jaw clenches and his eyes narrow, and suddenly she knows she said the wrong thing.

“Not much of a patriot, are you?”

Rey feels it’s a trick question. 

She takes a few moments to come up with the correct answer, and he observes her, quiet, unflinching. It occurs to her how intimidatingly large he is.

“Difficult being a patriot these days,” she says at last.

“Quite the contrary.” The stranger frowns, a deep line cutting between his eyebrows. “It’s never been easier.”

Rey dislikes his answer, isn't even sure what he means by it, but she doesn’t speak back.

They stand in silence for a while, the tall stranger looming over her. She wants to flee, her instinct keeps telling her to turn away and run, yet at the same time, she wants to learn more about him.

They could talk about music. He seems to know a bit about the topic, and truth be told, Rey has no one else to speak with. The situation makes her realize how lonely she is, since she’s willing to shush the red flags for a tidbit of conversation. It’s humiliating. Then again, a man who knows the year in which “Marian” was released can't be that bad, can he?

“What’s your name?” the stranger suddenly asks, his deep voice soft like a whisper.

“Rey.”

It’s not what’s written in her student card, but it’s the name that she chose.

“And how old are you, Rey?”

“Sixteen,” she lies, and immediately feels embarrassed. She wonders if he sees through her.

“You hang out here often?”

Ah. This one she really shouldn’t answer. She’s not naïve, she knows that random strangers who approach little girls to ask too many questions pose a threat – especially in this day and age when people can disappear overnight, especially to little girls no one gives a shit about. She wonders if anyone would even bother looking for her.

But no matter how hard the stranger glares or how freakishly tall he is, his full lips make him look boyish and vulnerable, and his eyes are way too easy to read. She likes his eyes, she decides – the longer she looks at them, the safer she feels. Rey is sure the man is a bad liar.

“Yes,” she admits at last. His scowl softens, and again there’s that tug of his mouth that resembles a smile.

“Tell you what, Rey,” he says as he turns to leave. “Wait for me here tomorrow. Same time. I’ll bring you something you’ll like.”

And just like that, he walks away.

Rey watches him disappear, his tall frame standing out in the crowd, his long black coat visibly more expensive than the over-worn leather jackets of the cool kids who flock in front of the cardboard booths to rummage through music. His gait is inelegant, as if his own body is too large for him to carry. She almost expects him to trip. What a weird man, she thinks. At the same time dark and mysterious, and painfully awkward.

She’s always disliked that expression about butterflies in stomach, found it too cheesy, too clichéd. Yet that is exactly how she feels right now.

It’s only when she loses him in the crowd that she realizes he never told her his name.

 

Chapter Text

 

Bright City Lights

 

 

The adults in Rey’s life are always arguing. By now, she has learned to accept it as an unvarying truth.

“Unkar, that’s bullshit!” Maz points her bony finger at the fat man’s chest. “I know you’re one stupid fuck, but I cannot believe you’d sink so low as to actually buy that steaming load of crap.”

There are two things in life that Rey picked up from Maz Kanata, the resident psychologist of the Home for Children without Parental Care: her political beliefs and her vocabulary.

Unkar scratches his bald head. The look he gives Maz is somewhere between snooty and defensive – his face is red and there’s a vein bulging on his forehead. Rey thinks it’s hilarious.

“The man’s a cartoon,” Maz concludes and downs her coffee in a single gulp. “Jesus, this tastes horrible, calling it battery fluid would be flattering. Fucking end of times, the black market’s flourishing, yet a woman still can't get herself a decent cup of coffee.”

Unkar seems unmoved by her grumbling.

“I wouldn’t call Professor Snoke a cartoon,” he says.

“Professor?” Maz lights a cigarette and slides her heavy glasses up her nose. “If that man’s a professor, I’m Marilyn fucking Monroe. Tell me, Unkar, which university does he teach at? What is his subject? Did he write any books – and by that, I don't mean this bestselling nationalist fiction that he tries to pass for actual history, but y’know, real science books that are used for university curriculum? What do his students say about him?”

Unkar blinks in silence.

“And most importantly, tell me where the fuck he was all these years before the war, and how come no one has ever heard about him before the goddamn government gave him a prime time TV slot so that he can spin his bullshit about national myths and global conspiracies?”

Maz Kanata is a passionate woman, but this is the first time Rey sees her lose her calm to this extent. Her hands are trembling, and suddenly she looks smaller and older, and Rey finds the quarrel is no longer fun to observe.

“All the cockroaches and buffoons and witch doctors came crawling out of the deepest pits of hell to sell their lies,” Maz says, her voice colored with fatigue, “and we allowed them to be taken seriously. Fucking end of times.”

She puffs out smoke and dramatically opens the newspapers (the front page reads: “Moles in Our Society: Traitors on Washington’s Payroll Exposed”), and Unkar knows better than to persist in their arguing. He grunts and stretches his arms, his chair creaking, and then his eyes fall on Rey, as if he notices her for the first time.

“The fuck you’re looking at?” he spits.

Rey often wonders how a man who so visibly loathes children ended up becoming a live-in caretaker in the Home.

“Nothing,” she says quietly. “Doing my homework.”

“Do it somewhere else, then!”

She pauses for a moment, staring at the spread worksheets in front of her, and then she dutifully picks up her notebooks and raises to leave. It has become too difficult to focus in the common room anyway.

“Just you study, sweetie,” Maz speaks from behind the newspaper wall. “That’s the safest bet to get an immigration visa.”

Rey shrugs and paces back to her room. She fumbles with the doorknob – her hands are slightly shaking. She slept badly and she’s been tense since she woke up, to the point her stomach churns and she didn’t finish her lunch – and that, in return, makes her feel all the more restless. She planned to distract herself with math problems. Numbers make her happy, Rey discovered long ago – their world is safe and predictable, and she always knows what to expect. But with Maz and Unkar going at it yet again, and the afternoon pitilessly approaching, the equations in her worksheets start blurring before her eyes.

The very thought that something – someone – could affect her so strongly is terrifying.

Rey has a choice, of course. She is well aware of that. She can pretend that the encounter never happened: spend the afternoon in the Home, study some more, maybe even watch TV in the common room if the program isn’t too horrible. She’ll force herself to keep acting normally, and then forget all about the strange man in the weeks to come. It’s not as if he can track her down in any way – and besides, why would he?

It’s even more likely, Rey thinks, that he is the one who won’t appear today. It would be a relief. She realizes she’s almost hoping for this. The stranger’s clothes were too expensive and he asked questions as if the world owed him answers – Rey tries to convince herself he doesn’t look like a man who’d go out of his way to keep a promise casually given to a random underprivileged girl.

But then she remembers how he smiled when they talked about “Marian” – his entire face lit up with a goofy, clumsy grin that revealed his crooked fangs, and he looked almost like a boy. It was sweet, she finally admits. The more Rey replays the moment in her mind, the surer she is that the stranger doesn’t get to smile very often. It makes her feel responsible

It is then that she knows that if she doesn’t return to the music market today, she’d never be able to listen to the Sisters of Mercy again without thinking about the stranger’s dark eyes.

She won’t give him that, she decides. He won’t take the music away from her.

So Rey puts her notebooks aside and spends too much time delving through her clothes, trying to pick an outfit in which she won’t feel so preposterously ashamed when standing next to the stranger’s fancy coat. And then she finds herself on the tram, counting stops until the music market, almost hoping she’ll be late and he’ll leave.

Yet in spite of the traffic jam and timeworn tram lines that make the train crawl and grey November skies that slow down the passage of time, she arrives a few minutes before the hour of their scheduled meeting.

To her horror, he’s already there.

He’s sitting on a bench under a linden tree, dressed in black from head to toe, just like yesterday. He’s painfully conspicuous – the wooden bench looking tiny beneath his body, his overly long legs stretched in front of him, the bulky lace-up boots making his feet appear even bigger. With his long coat and goatee and wild hairstyle, he almost looks like a rock star, Rey thinks. Like a grunge singer. She hates that it makes her heart beat faster. He’s toying with an object, she sees – neither a cassette nor a record, it’s something smaller, thinner, shaped like a perfect square. She has an idea of what it might be, even though she’s never seen one before. If she’s right, the entire situation is even more ridiculous than she could’ve imagined.

When he notices her approaching, he jumps.

“Rey...” 

She never thought her name could sound so expressive.

“Hello, um…” She wants to say his name, but she realizes she doesn’t know it. “Hello. Well. This is awkward. Hello, stranger.”

He frowns, as though he finds her words particularly disappointing.

“You think I’m a stranger?”

And there, he did it again – in a matter of seconds, he turned into this looming creature of doom that makes her regret her choices and feel as if every answer she might offer is the wrong one.

“I, uh…” she begins, but he interrupts her, raising his palm.

“You’re afraid of me.” 

He looks confused, as if it’s the first time it has dawned on him that he might actually be frightening.

Rey doesn’t know what to say.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of me.” The stranger shakes his head and presses his lips together, and there’s an abrupt flash of sadness in his eyes. “I’m not a monster.”

“Sorry,” Rey whispers, not knowing what she’s apologizing for.

Instead of assuring her that everything is fine, the stranger pushes the object he brought into her hands.

“Here. Told you I’d get you something you’d like.”

Rey takes the item, only to confirm her doubts. She stares at it, incredulous. 

“This is a CD.” She nearly feels like laughing.

“Yes,” he agrees, bemused. It takes him a while to figure out what’s wrong. “Well, fuck.”

It’s in that moment that Rey loses it and starts to giggle. Tension and fear and years of frustration come spilling out, and she snorts, very unladylike. 

“I screwed up, didn’t I?” The tips of his ears protrude from his hair: they’re deep red.

“No.” Rey shakes her head and bites down her laughter. The CD is beautiful, she thinks as she flips it in her hands. She likes its weight, how real it feels against her palm. The cover is designed in good taste, with the band’s name in bold letters and classy red and black patterns that make her think of Asaji-hime.  The Sisters of Mercy, she reads. First and Last and Always.

“No, you didn’t. It’s just that… it’s a fucking CD. I have nowhere to play it.”

Rey opens the box, studying the rainbow flare that spreads on the disc as the streetlights hit its surface.

“This is original, isn’t it?” she whispers in awe. “Where on Earth did you get it?”

“New York, 1989.” The stranger shrugs. “Bought it after their live gig. Can’t remember the name of the club, though.”

She almost drops the album.

“You… you saw them live?” Her voice is higher-pitched and instantly she sounds so young it’s embarrassing. “You saw Sisters of Mercy live? And you were in New York?”

She can't decide which she finds more unbelievable of the two. And it was only four years ago. Suddenly, all the misery and the greyness of their reality tighten around her throat.

The stranger’s lips twist into that non-smile of his.

“What was it like?” Rey asks quietly.

“The Sisters? They were okay. Eldritch was kinda weird, going through one of his phases yet again, as high as a kite. Bet my ass he didn’t even know where he was. It was shortly after the clusterfuck with Patricia Morrison, so I guess he was in a foul mood during that entire tour. Then again, Eldritch is always in a foul mood, isn’t he?”

Rey has no idea what he’s talking about, but she still nods enthusiastically.

“I hoped the concert would last longer, but they split before midnight,” he continues. “The after party was cool, as far as I recall. Though I might have overdone the drinking a bit. My uncle was raging mad at me the next day, and I still remember the headache.”

Before she can stop herself, she frowns and the stranger winces.

“I don’t drink anymore,” he clarifies, an urgency to his voice.

He’s looking into her eyes, unblinking, and she gets this odd feeling that he needs her to acknowledge that he changed for the better in some way. She nods and smiles, and his posture relaxes slightly.

He’s standing too close again, she notices. Today, however, she doesn’t seem to mind.

“What’s New York like?” Rey finally asks. Sometimes, she finds it difficult to grasp that it’s a real place where actual people live, and not a fantasy land where Harry meets Sally and that Scottish guy must cut off people’s heads because there can be only one and Rosanna Arquette desperately seeks Susan and you need to call the ghostbusters to get rid of the gigantic marshmallow man before he stomps on yellow taxis and breaks all the skyscrapers in two.

“It’s bright.” The stranger's lips curve, and there it is at last, his toothy grin. Rey beams in return. “The lights are so strong and everything glows. The streets, the cars, the giant neon signs, the skyline… It’s beautiful.”

He gestures as if trying to draw the outline of Manhattan in the air.

“I had problems sleeping when we were there.” His voice gets deeper when he talks about personal things, Rey observes. “Got hit by jet lag pretty hard, ended up with a nasty case of chronic insomnia. So at night, I’d sneak out of our apartment, and walk the streets all the way from St. Mark’s to the fucking Times Square. It was, um, a bit overwhelming. All that light, so easy to get lost in it, so tempting to make a wrong turn on purpose and end up god knows where. I remember the effort it took to focus, you know, to force myself to return home before sunrise…”

Rey can picture him: a tall figure in black amidst the gothic skyscrapers and brick buildings with fire escape stairs, walking the streets of New York bathed in light, as steam from manholes swirls around his feet. It’s surreal, like a movie poster, but for a moment Rey can almost feel the neon signs of Times Square reflected in the gloomy late November afternoon. 

She wonders if he still has trouble sleeping.

“Do you ever miss it?” Rey asks. She’s certain she would – in fact, as she listens to him speak, she feels a profound craving for the bright lights he describes, not unlike hunger.

But the stranger shakes his head, and the softness in his eyes fades away.

“No. I was aimless back then. Now, I have a purpose.”

And just like that, the moment is gone.

Rey takes a step back from the man.

“Thank you for this.” She points at the album. “It’s the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a very long time.”

His entire face blushes. It’s an endearing sight on such an intimidating man, Rey thinks, even if a tad funny.

“I was stupid about it. Wasn’t thinking.”

“I bet that happens to you a lot,” she teases, surprising herself with this sudden burst of courage. “Not thinking.”

He gives her a sharp look, and for a moment she’s afraid they’ll revert back to the prickly tension from yesterday, when talking to him felt like walking a mine field. But then, he spits out that throaty sound she has learned to recognize as his laughter.

Rey grins. “I don’t think I can keep it.” 

She tries to give him the album, but the stranger pushes it back into her hands. Their fingers brush for the briefest second.

“No,” he insists. “No. It’s yours. Please. I have no need for it. I don’t listen to that music any longer.”

“But it’s a CD. I can't play it.”

He huffs, but doesn’t allow her to let go of the album case.

“We’ll think of something,” he says, a little too unconcernedly.

Rey almost drops the CD.

We?”

He freezes. All of a sudden, Rey sees: he’s the one who seems afraid of her.

She likes it, sort of.  

“Well, you did say you hang out here often,” he begins, cautiously. “And, um, there’s a reason why I’m at the music market. I’m looking for someone, you know. Someone I haven’t seen in a very long while. Recently I was told that this person was seen here. Buying records.

The way he snarls the last line implies that he finds the very thought of this person enjoying music despicable. Rey is once again reminded that there’s something off-key about the stranger, too awkward and a tad disturbing.

“So, I thought you might like to keep me company,” he continues. “Not every day, of course. When you’re free. When you want to. We could talk about music. Or New York. Or whatever you desire.”

There: cards are on the table. His eyes are wide and he’s too attentive, and there’s a desperate tone to his voice - it's even a touch repulsive. Yet on the other hand, she derives a strange satisfaction from the feeling. It’s as if she’s needed.

Rey doesn’t think of what this means. She’s no fool, she knows she should, but she doesn’t.

“Yes,” she answers, smiling. “Yes. I’d like that.”

And so it is done.

“I have a question for you.” Rey fidgets, putting the CD in her backpack. “What do I call you? Obviously, ‘hello stranger’ doesn’t work.”

It takes him a moment to answer.

“Kylo,” he replies at last. “You can call me Kylo.”

She feels there's more to this, something he's not telling her, but still, she nods. Maybe he needs time. She can understand that, actually.

For in spite of cashmere coats and trips to New York and worldliness and being at least a decade older, Rey can feel it: this Kylo fellow is one miserable, lonely wretch.

Just like her.

 

 

Chapter Text

I Am the Son and the Heir
(of a shyness that is criminally vulgar)

 

 

In the last week of November, they’re told that the schools will close.

It’s only temporary, of course. The economic sanctions have left the country with a serious shortage of heating fuel, and the state has no choice but to shut down the schools until further notice. The TV presenter reads the news with a serious face, chanting litanies about the unfairness of sanctions and the martyrdom that the country must suffer because we’re in the right and the world is in the wrong. Many children are happy, though: hooray for the longest winter break ever. 

The inflation keeps rampaging – Unkar is even running bets on who’ll be the next poor sod in the nation’s history to embarrass himself on the newest banknote. He only takes wagers in deutschemarks, however. Rumors flow about what’s happening across the border – cities under siege, sniper fire, people who cannot leave shelter even to bury their dead. Streets are covered with bodies, it is said. Maz rants more and swears more and smokes more, and on particularly bad days she even laments that it is high time for somebody to do something, because if enough decent people would get their heads out of their asses, maybe they could even put a stop to this madness.

Yet as of late, Rey finds it progressively more difficult to care.

They meet every day.

Every fucking day.

As the afternoon draws near and the early winter skies darken, Rey hops on the tram, excitement making her light-headed. When she arrives, he’s already at the music market, waiting. She has no idea how he always manages to come a few minutes earlier, but it makes her happy that he does. When he sees her approaching, he grins - and the world disappears.

He keeps his promise, and they talk about music. He’s seen so many bands live, Rey discovers, that she cannot keep up with their names anymore. So she asks him to make her a mixtape, and he does. She listens to it late at night on her salvaged Walkman, in her room in the Home for Children without Parental Care, staring at the planks of the bunk bed above her. She tries to imagine herself in a nightclub in a foreign country: a place that smells of tobacco and beer and sweat and hairspray, where people yell the chorus in unison and dance stepping on each other’s feet. She’s unsure if she’d be having the time of her life, or feel lost in the crowd. She wonders how he felt.

He translates the lyrics for her – the songs are all appropriately desolate and dark, but she expected nothing less. He enjoys it, she can tell, playing the teacher, helping her discover the things he loves, even though he insists that his clubbing days are long behind him. What Rey likes the most, however, is listening to him reciting in English. His accent is soft and barely audible - unsurprising for a man who’s seen the world as much as he has, but she still finds it delightful.

It’s not only New York, she learns. He also traveled to London (“best nightclubs ever”), Paris (“fuck them French”), Berlin (“the sky’s different there, the clouds feel so close, you think if you reach out your hand you could touch them”), Rome (“Vatican’s overrated, it’s those Capuchin crypts that are worth visiting, thousands of human skulls and bones arranged like flowers, memento mori motherfuckers”), Oslo (“I never thought I’d be the one to say this, but boy did I miss sunshine after a few days of Norwegian winter”), St. Petersburgh (“cheap Russian vodka ain’t that cheap”), and even as far as Tokyo (“now let me tell you, Rey, those Japanese are really something, their technology is so advanced it feels like science fiction and yet the entire society rests on traditional values, we could learn so much from them”).  

She gets used to him in ways she did not think possible. She enjoys their height difference when they walk next to each other. She’s amused by how he waves his hands when he gets carried away with a story. She likes the shape of his nose, but she doesn’t ask how many times he’s broken it. She thinks his floppy ears are adorable, all the more so after he admits he began growing out his hair to hide them. She even starts finding his lack of charm charming – there’s something raw in his bluntness, something naked and sincere, and unlike other adults in her life, she feels she can trust him. Even if he’s not telling her everything.

One day, he lends Rey his favorite novel. She expects it to be a Russian classic, or something German and philosophical, or even a fantasy like “Lord of the Rings”, which, last year, she devoured in less than a week - all three books. Yet it’s something else entirely. “Cien años de soledad”, he says in Spanish as he hands her the book, jungle trees swallowing a city on its cover. A century of loneliness. It’s a novel about politics and family curses, he explains, and fate and bad life choices and never getting what you want. It’s poetic and magical, yet brutal in its cynicism. He talks about it so passionately that she wonders how he can identify with so many different characters at once.

He’s never been to Latin America, he admits. Never had the opportunity. And now that his life has changed and he doesn’t get to travel any longer, he thinks he never will.

Maybe they could go together one day, Rey is just about to suggest, but she keeps her mouth shut.

She doesn’t talk about herself. There’s not much to tell, really. She’s a nobody from nowhere – end of story. She does admit she lives in the Home, though, and after that he’s silent for a long time. It’s a small miracle, given how prone he is to asking questions he has no right to, but this time he does not pry.

She’s almost disappointed.

“Why do you do this?” she asks him on a particularly cold day, when they sit in the window of a coffee shop across the street from the music market, from which they have a good view of the booths.

“Why do I do what?”

She takes a sip of the hot chocolate that he ordered for her and savors the taste. It’s so hot it’s burning her tongue, but her jaw pleasantly tingles at the sweetness. She’s almost forgotten how it feels.

“Why do you spend time with me?”

He’s taken aback, panic rising in his eyes, and again she wonders about the nature of this power she seems to wield over him.

“You don’t want it?” 

Rey's heart lurches and she almost chokes on the chocolate.

What's wrong with you, she wants to ask, what happened to you? Who the fuck hurt you so badly that you feel insecure even in the company of an orphan teenage girl? What’s this mysterious purpose that made you turn your life around?

What are you hiding?

But then it’s Rey who’s suddenly afraid that, if she gets too curious, he’ll find a different way to spend his afternoons.

“Of course I want it,” she exclaims, her voice perkier than she feels.

“Then that’s the only thing that matters.” 

Kylo grins, crooked teeth and all, and she’s done for.

She wonders about this person they’re stalking in their little stakeouts at the music market. Who could it be, really? She assumes it’s an ex-girlfriend. Someone beautiful, Rey thinks, and sophisticated, and worldly.

Rey hates her, a little.

November turns into December, and the holiday season begins.

Maz comes up with a recipe – the “embargo cake”, as she calls it, or how to make a dessert with no chocolate, no cinnamon, no butter, no nuts, no milk and no eggs, just minimal amounts of flour, sugar, water and contraband cocoa, and one apple for flavor. It tastes like shit, but Maz assures them it’s much healthier than the teeth-rotting Mars bars that cost a fortune on the black market. They can't afford a Christmas tree. Unkar offers to go to the park and chop down the first pine that’s suitable enough, but in the end Maz decides they’ll just improvise by making decorations of cardboard cutouts. Rey helps out. She spends her mornings working with the younger children: they draw reindeer and Santa and nicely wrapped gifts and lollipops and Mickey Mouse, and they hang them all over the grey hallways.

It’s absurd.

The power restrictions are getting longer.

“What would you like for New Year’s?” Kylo asks one day.

Rey is confused. No one has ever asked her that before.

“You mean, as a gift?” she says. “Or what I’d like to do for New Year’s Eve?”

“Both.” He shrugs.

She struggles to answer immediately, the sudden torrent of emotions suffocating her. Strange, who would have thought that joy could feel so crushing.

“I… I’ll think of something.” Her voice sounds so squealing it makes her cringe.

But then he looks at her with warmth in his eyes, and all is right with the world.

It’s on a particularly dim mid-December afternoon that Rey’s life goes to shit.

She sees Kylo from afar – he’s waiting for her at their usual spot at the music market, but he’s not alone. He’s arguing with someone.

The man he’s talking to seems to be a real piece of work, Rey thinks. Grey-haired and scruffy, he must be pushing sixty, yet he’s following fashion trends that look ridiculous even on men half his age, with a bright-colored tracksuit, shiny and slick, bulky Nike running shoes, and a massive golden chain tucked under his collar. His jovial appearance doesn't match the expression on his face: he looks concerned, and sad in a very particular way, as if he's disappointed.

Kylo, on the other hand, is raging.

This is not mere anger. This is fury: he snarls, his teeth bared, his hair falling wildly on his face. He looks too large and too dark for the street corner where they stand, like a black hole sucking in the last wisps of winter sunshine. Rey remembers why she was petrified the first time she saw him, and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

She almost hesitates to approach them.

“And who are you?” the old man asks upon seeing her. For a moment, his eyes flicker between Kylo and Rey, and then he frowns. There’s something here he doesn’t like.

Kylo gestures her to stand behind him. The movement is so natural that she obeys without thinking.

“She’s none of your business,” he growls, before Rey can speak for herself. “How the fuck did you find me anyway?”

The old man sighs.

“Half the city knows where to find you.” He rolls his eyes. “Kid, if you think you’re being inconspicuous sitting here every day like the goddamn Nevermore raven, you might wanna reconsider your tactics!”

“Do not mock me!”

The man takes a quick step back and stares at Kylo, wide-eyed. He’s afraid of him, Rey sees. He's actually afraid – and it seems he's not used to the feeling.

“Okay.” The old man raises his hands in defeat. “Okay. Let’s talk then. Like grown men.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.” Kylo clenches his jaw. “Now, get out of my sight.”

The man doesn’t move, however.

“Listen, kid,” he begins cautiously, his voice between calming a child’s temper tantrum and taming an enraged animal. “Please listen. I know.”

He waits for a reaction, but Kylo just crosses his arms and glares coldly.

The situation is becoming increasingly ugly.

“There are rumors going around in the street. I heard what he’s planning, I know he wants to continue.” The old man makes a weighty pause. “It’s not too late. This time, you can do the right thing.”

Kylo huffs out his almost-laughter, but it sounds so uncanny it makes Rey’s skin crawl.

“Did I just hear you right? You are telling me to do the right thing?”

The old man swallows and doesn’t answer, and Kylo shakes his head.

“Because what you’re doing is oh so right, isn’t it, Han?”

Rey winces - she’s never heard a name pronounced with such revulsion before. People around them almost stop to observe the argument – but one quick look at the figure in black, and they divert their eyes and speed up their pace. Kylo makes a step towards the man, who keeps backpedaling, his hands still in the air. 

What happened between them to leave such bitterness?

“Tell me, what’s your favorite route these days?” Kylo sneers. “Romania? Hungary? All the way to Austria?”

The man – Han – narrows his eyes, but he doesn’t say anything.

“What is it that you’re smuggling?” Kylo tilts his head in mock interest. “Is it cigarettes? Gas? Is it something more trivial, like sausages, or instant soup, or Nescafe and Oreos?”

Suddenly it’s Han who gets angry.

“The shops are empty. The people are starving.” He raises his voice. “If it weren’t for us taking risks…”

“So now you’re some kind of a hero?” Kylo interrupts him. “The people are starving. They also happen to receive their salaries in food stamps. Tell me, do you take food stamps for the shit you sell? Or do you ask for deutschemarks?”

It feels like a slap in the face, Rey sees. She almost feels sorry for this Han fellow, who suddenly looks a decade older, all shabby and wrecked in his shiny tracksuit. The old man all but trembles.

“Kid,” he whispers and reaches out for Kylo, but lowers his hand before touching him. “Cut it out. Don’t go.”

Kylo watches him with open disgust.

“I am doing the right thing, Han,” he declares. “Someone has to. Now fuck off.

Han doesn’t move. He just stands there, looking at Kylo with heartbreak in his eyes. The moment lasts too long, Rey thinks, as tense as a movie scene and painful to observe. She wants it to end.

Finally, the old man sighs.

“As you wish. You won this time, kid, I’ll scram. But I’m not giving up. You can’t make me.”

He turns to leave, but then he abruptly stops and looks at Rey.

Han wants to tell her something, she sees. He inhales and even opens his mouth to speak, and Rey suddenly dreads what he might say. But he changes his mind midway and shakes his head in disapproval, as if he caught her doing something she wasn’t supposed to. Or as if he pities her. She takes a step closer to Kylo.

At this, Han waves his hand curtly, turns his back and finally walks away, bouncing in his running shoes. It takes him a while to reach the end of the street, since he deliberately steps slowly and keeps glancing back.  

But even with the old man gone, the tension does not diminish.  

Rey looks at Kylo.  

She knows that the reasonable thing would be to ask, why all this anger – he owes her an explanation about this Han person and whatever doing the right thing might mean. She knows.

And yet, out of the entire conversation, there is only one sentence that weighs on her mind.

“He said…” she begins, but pauses. She finds it difficult to articulate the question. “Um. He said that you’re going somewhere. Is that true?”

Kylo doesn’t meet her eyes, staring stiffly at the sidewalk in front of him. His lips twitch downwards, and suddenly he doesn’t look large and menacing any longer. It alarms her.

It takes him a moment to respond.

“Yes.” 

Well, then.

“But you’ll be back soon?” She makes every effort to control her tone. “It’s just one of your trips, isn’t it? You’ll return, full of stories.”

He lifts his gaze and looks at her like a kicked dog.

“This is not that kind of a trip, Rey.”

She grits her teeth.

“Please tell me you will return,” she says a tad too roughly.

Kylo’s half-smile is full of misery.

“I… I don’t know,” he whispers.

No.

“But… What about the person you were waiting for here?” Rey tries bargaining. “We spent weeks here at the market. Was it all for nothing?” 

“Rey.” His voice quivers when he says her name. “For a while now, the only person I’ve been waiting for here was you. I thought you knew.”

No. How dare he?

He cannot say that to her and leave. He has no right to.

Fucking adults.

“Liar.” Tears sting her eyes. She has no will to bite them back, not this time. He deserves to see her pain. “You fucking liar. You said we’d be together for New Year’s Eve. And now… Is this the last time I see you?”

Kylo presses his lips together.

“This is not something I have control over,” he says, and she hates him for having the audacity to sound so disheartened. “But it is something I must do. Please. Try to understand.”

“You can't leave me.”

There, she melts down in tears, cold winter air snipping at her cheeks. She struggles to breathe.

“Don’t cry.”

“Fuck you, Kylo!” she barks, and he flinches. “You don’t get to tell me what to do!”

Tears run down her throat and into her shawl. It’s not even humiliating – a part of her is glad that the charade is over. She’ll be free now. No more butterflies in stomach.  

“You know what?” Rey sobs, wiping her eyes with the back of her palm. “It’s okay, actually. Everybody leaves sooner or later. Everybody. Why would you be any different?”

He stares at her. It feels too good to shout at him – she can see that he hurts.

But then, suddenly, he leaps and hugs her.

It is the first time he’s touched her.

It is the first time anyone has touched her in a very long while.

For a second, Rey feels trapped - she wants to resist and push him away. But he wraps his arms around her, and she senses the warmth of his coat and the smell of his aftershave, and damn it all to hell. His body is tense against hers, and his goatee tickles the tip of her ear, and she thinks she almost hears his panicked heartbeats despite the thick layers of fabric between them.

She begins to bawl.

“Hush,” he whispers into her hair. “Hush, please. Rey. Listen, I promise. I’ll return to you. Do you hear me? I’ll return.”

She nods weakly, her face buried in his chest. The tears won’t stop coming, and she’s ruining his coat, she thinks. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands.

His breath is warm.

“I won’t leave you,” Kylo continues. “I’ll do what it takes and I’ll come back, I promise. So wait for me. Don’t cry and wait for me.”  

She feels his fingers in her hair. It’s nice. It makes her want to weep harder.

“Mmm?” He makes that humming sound she likes so much. His chest vibrates slightly against her cheek. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” she says, tentatively placing her hands on his back. He hugs her tighter.

Asshole. As if there’s another answer she can give after that, even if she feels that she is only sinking deeper. Water is closing above her head.

“Good,” he sighs.

He takes her face between his palms and lifts her head to hold her gaze. His eyes are red-rimmed too, she observes, and his look is somewhat frantic, off, but she likes that intensity about him.

She knows what can happen in movies in moments like this, and she feels an unwelcome flush of heat.

She wants to wriggle out of his arms. She never wants to let go.

But then he just grins.

“I’ll come back to you,” he repeats.

And the first winter snow of 1993 begins falling in that exact moment. It fucking had to, obviously.

 

Chapter Text

In Between Days

 

 

 

The last days of December are the time for gifts – the Home for Children without Parental Care is visited by Santa. The man wears a wrinkled red suit that smells of moth balls. His fake beard is too curly and he’s overly slim for a passable Saint Nicholas, but he tries his best, so Rey plays along and helps him entertain the younger children. They’re given notebooks and coloring pens, an anthology of children’s poetry with patriotic themes, and a box of second hand toys that have seen better days, with shorn-haired Barbie dolls and teddy bears missing their noses. The Red Cross also drops by, bringing a batch of clothes. Rey forages through worn out jeans and sweaters, coordinating colors, trying to find something in which she won’t look like she doesn’t have a pot to piss in. It’s the first time she does that.

Unfortunately, the choice is meager.

“I’m sorry about this,” says the Red Cross worker. “We’re under too much pressure. The refugee centers are filled to the brim, and people still keep coming. All the humanitarian aid is focused there. You guys get what’s left.”

“What, orphans aren’t fashionable any longer?” Maz retorts dryly. “Fucking end of times.”

New Year’s Eve comes and goes. Maz spends it with her family, so the children are stuck with Unkar. He allows them to stay awake until an hour after midnight, watching a variety show on the national TV. Regime-approved celebrities sing and dance in full regalia: there’s glitter and bowties and updos and a gigantic Christmas tree in the background, and at midnight they pop open a champagne bottle and toast to a better future. It’s a mind-boggling display, a play-pretend game of normalcy, but Rey does feel relieved about one thing: that godawful 1993 is finally over.  

Contemplating about the future, however, fills her with a profound sense of dread.

It’s been three weeks since Kylo left.

Rey is worried sick.

She believes the problem is that she has too much time on her hands. The city slows down over the New Year’s break. The schools are closed and there are no more of their delightfully awkward afternoon meetups which she still has no idea how to label – everything is on hold and Rey doesn’t know what to do with herself. She volunteers to help out in the Home – cleaning duties, feeding the youngsters, teaching them nursery rhymes, reading fairy tales aloud. Unkar rolls his eyes and warns that this won’t earn her any pocket money, but it’s not as if she needs it, and the children occupy her time. She listens to the mixtape Kylo made her until the Walkman chews it up and she must carefully wind it back with a pen. After that, she treats the cassette like a relic, something sacred and fragile, and she’s too afraid to play it again. She reads and re-reads the novel he gave her, imagining the humid heat of Latin America – the sunshine, the buzzing of crickets, the family curses that last one hundred years to a day. It makes for a nice contrast with the snow outside. She reverts to her habit of aimlessly wandering around the city, but it’s too cold and grey and the slush goes through her shoes, so her toes freeze in wet socks.

She feels like she’s running in circles.

It’s been three weeks, and she has no idea where he is.

Rey still drops by the music market every afternoon. She hopes she’ll see him there, waiting at the usual spot, but of course he’s not around – there’s no one, not even the cool kids, it’s too fucking cold. Even some of the vendors have closed down their booths. She doesn’t stick around for long, but she does stay a while, half an hour maybe, hoping that he’ll appear from behind the corner. Sometimes, she thinks she had it better before, when there was no Kylo and she knew she had no one in the world – but then she decides that waiting gives her a purpose.  

He promised he’d be back. He did.

“Hey,” a music vendor calls out one day, waving to her to approach. “Where’s Kylo?”

She needs a moment to process the question.

“You know Kylo?”

“Well, I don’t know him.” The vendor suddenly looks uncomfortable. “I don’t think I’d ever have the courage to speak to him, if you see what I mean. But I know of him. Everybody does.”

Rey is confused. They do?

“He’ll be back,” she says, unsure how to proceed with the conversation.

“Oh, will he?” The vendor raises his eyebrows. “Well. It was so weird to have him around all this time. Gotta say, he was scaring us shitless, and that’s not really good for the customers!”

It’s as if in that moment he realizes what he just said – an inexplicable wave of panic mounts in his eyes.

“I meant no offense,” he quickly apologizes.

Rey does not understand.

“None taken,” she utters, perplexed.

“Here!” The vendor gestures at the cassettes displayed on his booth, his nervous smile not making sense. “Take your pick. Whatever you like. It’s a gift. For Kylo’s girl.”

Rey returns to the Home with the greatest hits of The Smiths – she knows he’d approve – and too many questions. She can see why people would find Kylo terrifying – she’s been there herself, he’s a hot mess of darkness and anger and no social skills until you get to know him. Yet the vendor’s reaction was still a tad exaggerated.

Must be because of his knowledge of music, Rey thinks, with all the places he’s been to and the bands he’s seen. Of course he wields respect at the music market.

Days pass. She listens to The Smiths. It’s been four weeks since he left.

On a cold yet sunny mid-January afternoon, when the air is so crisp that Rey wonders if she could blow rings with her breath the way Maz does with smoke, there’s someone waiting for her at the market.  

It’s not Kylo.

“Hey kid,” Han says, buttoned up in a worn-down leather jacket on top of his tracksuit. “I’ve been told you still hang around here.”

Rey’s first thought is to turn away and leave. She vividly remembers the argument she witnessed – bad blood and heavy words, a lot left unspoken, Kylo losing his temper, the old man desperate to interfere with something that Rey could not quite make sense of. Han being here now, looking for her specifically, means nothing but complications and trouble.

On the other hand, he might now where Kylo is.

Rey does her best to look confident and mature.

“Last time I saw you, I thought the moral of the story was that you should fuck off!” She straightens her back to appear taller. “I don’t think you’re Kylo’s friend.”

To her surprise, the old man laughs.

“You’re right about that,” he confirms. “I’m not his friend. I’m his father.”

Rey is dumbfounded.

She studies the old man again. Sloppily shaven, wrinkled, dressed in a weird combination of a shabby old jacket and clothes too young for his age, but with a grin that oozes coolness and charm, he looks like someone streetwise and quick-witted, maybe even a bit fun. It doesn’t add up. She cannot picture this man in the same context as black cashmere coats, angst-ridden music and trips to Tokyo and New York. 

“Didn’t see this one coming, did you?” Han’s smile widens. “That boy has a bit of a stick up his ass, I’ll admit, but I’m not the one to blame for that. He takes after my wife’s side of the family. Well. Ex-wife’s. They’re the snobby intellectual bunch.”

She almost chuckles.

“What do you want from me?” 

“Nothing.” Han shrugs. “Just checking up on you, to see how you’re doing.”

Rey frowns - she can tell that this is not entirely true.

“And, maybe, to see if you know anything about when my son will return,” he adds after a while.

So he doesn’t know either, Rey concludes, disappointed.

“I have no idea.” She crosses her arms and spreads her legs in a defensive stance. “And even if I did, it’s not as if you’d be the first person I’d tell.

“Aren’t you a feisty one?” Han sighs, but there’s a sparkle of approval in his eyes.  “And so loyal to my dumbass son. How old are you, sweetheart?”

“Sixteen,” she replies too promptly. The old man squints.

“You’re not sixteen.” He gives her a knowing smirk. “And I’ll bet he doesn’t know it, does he?”

Suddenly Rey feels offended.

“He didn’t try anything inappropriate!” 

“Of course he didn’t,” Han agrees, and Rey is relieved to see he actually believes it. “He’s always been a total dork around girls.”

She’s blushing, Rey realizes, and in an instant she feels like an idiot – vulnerable and childish, caught in a situation that is not quite normal, and beyond her control. Fuck. Han’s expression softens as he looks at her – he seems to be quickly catching up with the train of her thoughts.

It’s suffocating.

“Now what?” She glares, trying not to think about how uncomfortable she feels. “You’re gonna tell me I should stop seeing him?”

The old man’s smile colors with melancholy.

“If I told you that, would you do it?”

Rey knows the answer immediately, but still takes a moment before saying it aloud.

“No.”

“I thought as much,” Han says. “Listen, kid, there’s something you should be aware of. Kylo is a very troubled young man.”

There’s a strange undertone to his voice as he stresses his son’s name.

“I know,” Rey declares. “I knew that from the start.”

Han scoffs.

“You don’t know the half of it, sweetheart. And right now, I’m torn between spilling the beans and freaking you out for good, or keeping my mouth shut, because the less you know, the better.”

Rey is taken aback – he’s dead serious, she sees, and she remembers the fear in his eyes the other day when Kylo raged and advanced on him. What is it, she thinks, what could be that bad? Drugs? Crime? Both seem unimaginable for a man who swears he no longer drinks and frowns upon his father’s smuggling business. Is it mental health, perhaps? That seems possible, even if a bit like something straight out of a movie, or one of their angst-ridden songs. Maybe he’s in an institution. Maybe that’s why he didn’t know when or if he’d return.

But he did say he’d come back to her. Rey can live with a touch of insanity, she decides.

“He’s good to me,” she says finally, lowering her gaze.

“Kid.” Han's voice is filled with unwelcome understanding. “You’re not used to people being good to you, are you?”

Rey doesn’t answer.

“Listen,” the old man begins. “I have a booth up on the Boulevard. Well, it ain’t exactly a booth, since I sell stuff from out of my car, but I’m there every day, more or less. If you feel lonely, or miserable, or you just wanna talk to someone, you can find me there. Okay?”

She nods, feeling defeated but unsure why.

As time goes by, however, Rey surprises herself when she does take him up on that offer.

On some days – not too often, never too often – she goes to the upper part of the Boulevard, where the street has mutated into an open air bazaar filled with goods difficult to obtain. Just like he said, Han runs his business from the trunk of his car – a blue-grey pimped-up Yugo 45 which he calls the Falcon and claims to be the most reliable piece of junk in the world. He always appears genuinely happy to see her.

He entertains her with stories – mostly about his youth, how he used to run scams all over the old country, from the seashore full of foreign tourists to the mountain resorts where he played cards with the Communist Party officials. His tales are full of gentlemen thieves, and damsels in distress, usually singers or movie stars, and car chases, and illegal casinos where aging musicians wasted their talents waiting for a career boost, and policemen who were either corrupt or stupid or part of the game. Rey doesn’t believe half of what he’s saying, but he makes her laugh. Han particularly likes talking about how he wooed Kylo’s mother, a well-bred daughter of a Lieutenant General of the People’s Army – a true princess, as he puts it. She spent all her life sheltered in a villa in the elite part of the city, between piano lessons and private tutors for French – but in the summer of 1968, the summer of love and fire and mutiny when the student riots were shaking the capital, she decided to rebel.  And rebel she did, Han says with a smirk. He recollects her hippie hairstyles and white summer dresses, and he sighs, and Rey can tell it’s been a while since he shared this story with someone.

He hasn’t spoken to his ex-wife in years, Han admits. She’s focused on her career as a university professor. She also has strained relations with their son, as far as he knows.

Rey tries to imagine Kylo as a boy - gangly, floppy-eared, prone to mood swings. Difficult. Lonely too, probably, being the only child of parents who were constantly arguing, because princesses and scoundrels have happy endings only in romance novels. She cannot picture him as cheerful.

Han never talks to her about Kylo, and she never asks.

In early February, it’s six weeks since he left. It means they’ve spent more time apart than together.

Rey doesn’t allow herself to question if he’ll return.

The snow is melting.

 

Chapter Text

The Man with the Moonlight in His Eyes

 

 

 

On a Tuesday morning in the second week of February, an odd thing happens in the Home for Children without Parental Care.

Maz receives a phone call.

It must be important, because she excuses herself and goes to the office to take it, interrupting the creative workshop she organized to keep the children occupied while the schools are closed. It is strange – Maz has never left the classroom in the middle of a session before. Rey is almost certain that it is a family matter. Something urgent.

However, when the working hours are over and the evening arrives, Maz doesn’t go home.

Rey returns from her stroll around the city only to find the psychologist still in her office. She knocks and takes a peek inside, if merely to assure herself that all is fine, but Maz appears edgy and distracted – her hair is in disarray and she’s taken off her coke bottle glasses. There is a full ashtray on her working desk, but not all the cigarettes are smoked to the butt. 

“Do you need something?” Rey asks, trying to mask the feeling of unease that tightens her chest. In spite of her dramatic monologues and sailor vocabulary, the woman is a pillar of stability in Rey’s life - if Maz is about to lose it, now of all times, when Rey feels so dejected and he’s been away for the seventh week, the goddamn world will fall apart.

“I’m fine, dear.” Maz rubs her temples as if she’s trying to chase away unhappy thoughts. “Don’t you worry about me.”

Rey hesitates for a moment, standing in the doorway.

“I, um…” She fidgets with her hands.  “I’ll be in the common room, watching TV, if you change your mind.”

“Just don’t let Unkar choose the channel, sweetie, or you’ll lose brain cells.”

Rey smiles and closes the door.

For the next hour and a half, she tries to focus on the rerun of a Canadian cop show – she’s seen the episode before, she should know who the killer is, yet the plot suddenly seems too challenging to follow. Unkar is eyeing her suspiciously – usually, she doesn’t stay in the common room this long.

It’s well past nighttime when Rey thinks she hears a commotion in the entry hall. Footsteps. A male voice. Something heavy being dragged in – a travel bag, perhaps. This is not normal: the visiting hours are over and the curfew is long gone. She almost rushes to see what is happening, but Unkar gives her a stern look that keeps her rooted to the spot.

She forces herself to stare at the TV. The Canadian detectives are arresting the killer. The woman shouts that the victim was a scumbag who had it coming: a bullet between the eyes, just and well-deserved.

Rey tries not to think about this idiotic fantasy in which he doesn’t wait for her at the music market, but comes straight to the Home, in the middle of the night, fresh from his travels, unshaven, tired, dragging his travel bag, ready to pick her up and take her somewhere far and away, where life full of adventure awaits.

It’s retarded. It will never happen.

An hour before midnight, Rey knows that soon she’ll have to retire for bedtime. It is then, however, that Maz suddenly bursts into the common room.

Maz looks exhausted, Rey notes. She seems furious too – yet it’s not her usual anger at the cruel world and ill-advised politicians, this looks more specific, more personal. More serious.

Unkar squints questioningly.

“What happened?”

“Fuck off, Unkar,” Maz retorts almost automatically. Then, without warning, she turns to Rey.  “Sweetie, could you give me a hand please?”

Rey jumps. “Of course!”

Maz pushes a red paper bag into her hands. The package ruffles, and Rey can sense the rich smell of ground coffee infusing the stuffy common room air.

“It’s my secret stash,” Maz explains. “For special occasions only. Be a good girl, go to the kitchen and make me two cups of this. Extra strong.”

Before Unkar can protest, Rey hurries to the Home’s improvised kitchenette and fumbles to put the water pot on the stove. The little room is bone-chilling. She observes the peeling wallpaper as she counts the minutes before the first boiling bubble of water floats to the surface.

It’s almost midnight.

The smell of coffee fills the hallways, and Rey pours the warm liquid into plastic cups. It’s too hot for her to carry, so she places them on a plate. She hopes she won’t drop them, as she puts every effort into walking steadily, shushing her excitement.

Rey stands for a moment in front of the closed door of the psychologist’s office, gathering up the courage to knock. She counts to five, then to ten. Then to twenty.

It’s true: something is happening in there. There’s someone inside – a man, it seems. Rey can hear his voice.

“There are three of them,” the man says. “There’s this ginger guy. Scrawny, haughty, his uniform impeccable at all times – a weasel if ever there was one. Always complains about something. Never gets his own hands dirty. Then, there’s a woman – she’s goddamn huge, Maz, the biggest girl I’ve seen in my life. A true Amazon. But she’s a bully and a brute, and she laughs like a fucking maniac.”

The man pauses. Rey hesitates to press the doorknob.

“And finally, there’s him,” the man whispers, his voice getting so quiet that Rey must focus to listen. “He’s the worst, Maz. He’s a fucking nightmare.”

The man needs a moment, it seems, to get a hold of himself and continue his story.

“He’s a mess. A bloody psycho. I’m not kidding, he’s not right in the head. I’ve never seen someone who’s so bottled-up and so out-there at the same time. When you look at him, when you see this madness in his eyes, you gotta wonder how come his head doesn’t explode.”

Maz sighs audibly.

“Finn,” she says. “It’s all behind you now.”

Rey knocks. Before Maz can tell her to come in, she plunges through the door, almost spilling the coffee.

Indeed, it is Finn.

Rey remembers the black boy well. His story was a popular piece of gossip among the Home children. His father, they said, was an African student who came to this part of the world to get a medical degree, back in the 70’s, when the Non-Aligned Movement was a fashionable political game and the cultural exchange with distant and exotic countries thrived. Sometimes, rumor had it that his father was actually a chieftain of an ancient tribe, or a former freedom fighter hiding from the Belgian colonizers, or an illegitimate son of a well-known dictator – all wild embellishments, Rey knew, but the children needed tales of this kind. Not a single rumor mentioned Finn’s mother, interestingly – as if it was too difficult to come up with a story for a woman who would dump a boy like this to the Home for Children without Parental Care.

They’ve never spoken: Finn was a few years older and preferred to keep to himself, while Rey was never adept at forging friendships. She knew that he left the Home the very day he came of age. Probably went to Africa to look for his father, the children said.

Obviously, that is not what happened.

Finn is wearing a uniform. It’s loose-fitting, as if he borrowed it from someone bigger – or he simply looks too small for it, as he sits in the chair hunched, his head lowered, his shoulders stiff. The fabric is stained – Rey can see that despite the dim office light and the greens and browns of the camo print, and he reeks of sweat and motor oil.

There’s a patch on his sleeve. It’s a black field framed by thin stripes in the colors of the national flag, displaying an angry red sun that looks old and pagan, yet strangely modern. Underneath, there are two words embroidered in the rune-like Cyrillic letters of the nation’s first Christian kings.

First Order.

“Thank you, sweetie!” Maz suddenly sounds too loud for the grim mood in the office, as she takes away the plate from Rey and offers a cup to Finn. “I can give you booze to drown your sorrows, or coffee so that you come to your senses. As your psychologist, I choose the latter. Now, drink.”

Finn takes the cup with both hands and slowly inhales the smell. He is trembling, Rey notices. He clutches the cup too tightly, as if he needs something to keep him steady, and Rey is afraid that the plastic will crumple.

Nobody tells her to leave, so she lingers in the room. She withdraws into a corner trying to blend in with the furniture – she’s good at it, being invisible and insignificant enough for people for have intimate conversations even though she’s standing right next to them. All the Home children know this skill.

Finn takes a sip and loudly exhales.

“You don’t have to talk if you’re not ready,” Maz says.

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” he replies. Still, he spends the next few minutes drinking coffee in silence, breathing heavily and staring at his feet.

“They gave us uniforms, weapons and stuff, and put us in a truck,” he finally continues. “Took us across the border. It’s different there, y’know. We think we’re having it bad here, but once you get to the other side, that’s where the real shit happens. The real war.”

“It’s because we’re not at war here,” Maz imitates the affected tone of TV hosts, rolling her eyes. Finn huffs, but doesn’t comment.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a house without bullet holes in the walls. Or that wasn’t flattened with tanks. Or burned down to the ground. Everything stank of fucking smoke – and spoiled meat. There were corpses by the roadside, y’know. Half-frozen, half-rotting. Cattle, most often – dead cows with swollen bellies, attracting flies in goddamn January. But sometimes people, too.” He takes a swig and sinks deeper into the office chair. “We weren’t allowed to wander away from the truck or leave the road, not even to take a shit. The fields are rife with mines, you see – one wrong step, and boom, your body parts rain down on your comrades.”

Finn pauses, as if he needs a moment to get rid of the picture. Rey wonders if he saw it happen.

“For the first couple of weeks, we didn’t really do anything,” he carries on after a while. “Drove around. Watched our bosses meet with other paramilitary hotshots. Camped in burned villages. Wrote graffiti on the walls, the shittier the message, the better. Did some target practice – you get the idea. But eventually, word came down that we had a mission. And… Well. That’s when…  That’s when the… Um…”

His hands start shaking so badly that he crushes the cup and winces as hot coffee burns his fingers. Rey almost leaps up to help, but stops in mid-movement, afraid that she’ll be chased out of the room if she draws attention to herself. Maz picks up a box of tissues from her desk and passes it to Finn, gently placing a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m okay,” Finn says, wiping his hands. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”

It is obvious to Rey that lately he’s been repeating these words too many times for the spell to work.

“They… They told us there was a village up in the mountains sheltering enemy fighters.” Finn is still rubbing his fingers, even though there’s not a droplet of coffee left. “Someone had to do something about it, so up we went. Fucking snow everywhere.” He sighs. “It was a small village, just a few houses, but the guys said it was rich. Locals went to work in Germany back in the day and came back loaded, they said. But when we got there, um… There was no trace of any soldiers.  Just… Just people. Ordinary people.” 

Finn suddenly lifts his eyes, and Rey is taken aback by their how haunted they look.

“Fucking ordinary people.”

Maz’s grip on Finn’s shoulder tightens.

“We were… We were told to… To round up the villagers.” He quickly lowers his gaze again. “We broke into the houses and, uh, forced them out. They tried to hide, but they were horrible at it. Some of our guys shot in the air. People screamed – and that was it. They didn’t offer any real resistance as we dragged them outside.”

His fingers are twitching, Rey notices, as if he’s pulling someone’s clothes.

“When all the villagers were outside, that’s when he appeared.”

Finn closes his eyes firmly, frown lines splitting his forehead. He is shaking, his whole body is shivering in waves, and Maz puts both hands on his shoulders.

“He’s a nutjob, Maz. He really is. But he has this look in his eyes, and he’s huge, and you should hear him speak, you should hear his voice, I pissed my pants, honest to god. He approached the villagers, looming like a fucking death god, and asked to talk to the person in charge.”

Finn shrugs away Maz’s hands, as if the touch is bothering him. She withdraws, leaning back into her chair, and knowingly nods.

“Go on.”

“An old guy stepped forward,” Finn resumes, wrapping his arms around himself. “Really old. White beard. Droopy eyes. Said he was the village elder or something. It really took guts to do that, y’know, to come up and face him like that. He asked about the soldiers. Where they were.  How the village supported them. The old guy said he knew nothing – they were a far-off community, trying to stay away from trouble. They were innocent. But then, he… He made this sound. This hissing noise. Took me a moment to realize it was his laughter. Fucking chilling. And then he shrugged and said, dead calm, calmer than I’ve ever seen him - ‘Not a single one of you is innocent!’ - and took out his gun and shot the old man. Shot him dead.”

With two fingers of his hand, Finn imitates the gun discharging.

“Just like that. A bullet between the eyes.”   

A pregnant silence falls between them. Maz slowly exhales, finally taking a sip of her own coffee – it must have gotten cold. Finn twitches. He still hasn’t stopped trembling. This is not the end of the story, Rey realizes, horrified. The punchline is yet to come.

“What happened to the villagers?” Maz asks cautiously, even though the conclusion is predictable.

“He, um… He…” Finn’s breathing becomes labored, tense, as if he’s trying to speak between hiccups. “He ordered us to kill them all.”

Finn wheezes. The tips of his fingers dig deep into his knees, crumpling the camo fabric of his uniform.

“It took them a moment to figure out what was happening when we opened fire. As if they didn’t expect we’d actually shoot, not even after all that happened. They… They screamed, but I couldn’t hear them over the gunshots. Didn’t want to hear them.” He lifts his hands and places them over his ears. “There was blood, Maz. So much fucking blood. It sprayed everywhere, worse than in the goddamn movies, and it stank, and there was this crunching sound when bullets hit the bones… Did you know, Maz, that people often shit themselves before they die? Did you?”

Maz looks at him sternly, unblinking.

“Did you shoot?” she asks.

Finn doesn’t answer.

“Finn.” The tone of Maz’s voice is so harsh that Rey winces. “Did. You. Shoot.”

“No,” he replies at last, and Rey feels a burst of relief. “I… I couldn’t.”

Suddenly, Maz slaps Finn across the face.

The blow cracks, resonating in the dimly lit office. Maz sure seems to hit strongly for such a small woman. Finn stares at her in shock, cupping his cheek with his palm. He stops trembling.

“This,” Maz says, rubbing her hand, “this is for being stupid. For ever thinking it was a good idea to join that wretched hive of scum and villainy. This is for daring to believe you’re not good enough as you are. What did you try to prove, you fool? That you belong? That you’re ready to fight to earn your place in this country? For fuck’s sake, Finn. This is for thinking you could shoot!”

Finn sighs. For the first time since Rey entered the office, the black boy looks collected, she thinks – despite the tears sliding down his face.

“I did something awful, Maz,” he says quietly. “I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

“No shit.” Maz crosses her arms. “Now tell me. Are you in trouble?”

“No. Well. I don’t think so. Not anymore.”

He shakes his head and bites his bottom lip, as if unsure how to assess his situation. Then, for the next few moments, he’s silent. Must be picking words, Rey concludes. He has to tell the story to the end – otherwise, he’ll shatter.

“We, um, we burned down the village,” he carries on, clearing his throat. “We barely built the fucking fire with all that snow. Then they ordered us back into the truck, and we drove downhill.  I peeked through the curtains. The flames… The goddamn flames were beautiful, Maz. Burning in the night. And I felt sick to my stomach.” Finn almost spits. “That’s when I said I’m quitting.”

Maz raises her eyebrows. “And they let you leave just like that?”

“Of course not. He… He lost it.” Finn’s voice starts shaking again. “He lost it completely. Called me a traitor, jumped at me. Wrapped his hands around my throat. He’s so strong, like there’s something inside of him, like a force or something. Like he’s possessed. I thought he’d strangle me. I thought I’d die. And the worst… The worst thing was, I thought it was okay to die.” 

Finn rubs his neck, as if it’s still hurting.

“But then the ginger, Hux, said it’s bad for publicity to kill off recruits. If I wanted to leave, I was free to go, he said – I was ‘an impure piece of shit’ anyway. I swear to god, after everything, I took it as a compliment.” He chuckles awkwardly. “And, well, that’s it. More or less. They took away my weapons and I was confined to the truck for the rest of the stay. No one was allowed to talk to me. Then, they dumped me out as soon as we crossed the border back here. That was last night. I had to hitchhike to get to the city.”

He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“I am sorry, Maz, for doing this to you. But I don’t have anywhere else to go. Hell, I don’t even have a change of clothes, still wearing this shit.” He pulls at the fabric of his uniform. “Help me burn it.”

Maz lights a cigarette, the first one that evening. She savors the smoke, inhaling slowly, and raises her hand as if she’s ready to deliver a speech – but then, her gaze lingers on the dark corner of the room. She frowns.

“Rey, dear,” she says, her voice chillingly sweet. “What the fuck are you still doing here?”

Finn jumps, as if caught undressed, and Rey senses a surge of shame and panic rising. Her cheeks flush and she doesn’t know what to say.

“I… I didn’t mean to…” she mumbles, feeling all the more foolish.

“Get out,” Maz hisses. “Now.”

She rushes out of the office, tripping over her feet, slamming the door behind her.

It’s only when she gets to her room that she realizes she’s shaking.

That night, Rey has trouble falling asleep, guilt weighing her down like filthy winter mists.  When she finally does, she dreams of flies and flames and a looming monster, and gunshots tearing apart the night skies. She wakes up before dawn, and counts the minutes until the sun rises.

She misses him so much she could scream.

In the morning, expectedly, she’s summoned to Maz’s office. She’s not punished – but she’s yelled at, and frowned upon, and criticized with bitter disappointment, and the values of privacy and confidentiality are explained to her as if she were a dimwit. A feeling of inadequacy eats her up from the inside. She worries that, after this, Maz will never look at her the same, and she’s not sure if she can cope with that.

Fucking rock bottom. Everything’s gone to the dogs. The threads are slipping through her fingers – and it stings. She has never felt worse.

When the afternoon comes, Rey is so miserable that she almost skips her ritual visit to the music market. She forces herself to board the overcrowded tram, and closes her eyes as they pass the stops. She doesn’t remember when she started hating the route.

But then, underneath the linden trees facing the market booths, there is a dark figure sitting on the bench.

Rey barely believes her eyes.

It’s him, all right. Ridiculously large. In a black coat. At the usual place. Arrived a few minutes early. Staring at his feet, fidgeting with fingers, brooding like a Morrissey song – shy, and sullen, and a tad dorky too, but so sweet that Rey thinks her heart will burst. She’s astonished by how much comfort it gives her just to see him.

He came back.

He came back to her.

She wants to run to him, but it’s as if her feet have turned to stone. Tears tingle in the back of her eyes.

He came back.

He lifts his gaze and sees her, and immediately his face lights up in a smile, the chipped fang flashing in the corner of his mouth. Rey gasps. He’s clean shaven, she notices, and his hair is longer. How did it grow so fast? He looks tired too, with swollen dark circles under eyes. For the briefest second, she wonders where he went to return this exhausted, but decides it doesn’t matter. He fucking came back.

“Rey!”

Even his voice sounds huskier. Her skin prickles with goosebumps.

She doesn’t know what to do.

“You returned,” she finally states, needing to say it aloud to believe it. His smile widens, and Rey is sure she’s never seen anything more delightful.

“I promised I would.”

He stands up and goes to her, and Rey hopes he’ll crush her in a hug, like the last time. Yet he stops a few steps away. It’s frustrating. She craves for his touch of any kind, she realizes.

The thought is frightening and appealing at the same time.

“I think I like you more like this,” she blurts. Her tone sounds too confident, and it’s silly, because that’s the last thing she feels. “Without the beard.”

“Oh.” He touches his chin, confused, and she can swear he blushes. “Then I guess I’ll have to shave more often, mmm?”

Rey giggles.

And just like that, the butterflies are back.

 

 

Chapter Text

The Rite of Spring

 

 

“No!” she exclaims.

“No?”

“No.”

Kylo pouts.

“Why not?”

Stubbornness embodied, this man. He won’t let go now, Rey knows.

“Because I say so,” she tries.

“That’s not a reason.”

Rey frowns – he has her cornered. There is, of course, a whole list of very real reasons, but opening that can of worms is not something she wants to do – not now, when life finally isn’t awful.  

Because she’s never done it before, for one.

Because it scares her.

Because it’s inappropriate.

Because she lied.

“I don’t want to,” Rey says at last.

“I don’t believe you.” He shakes his head, and dark hair falls into his eyes. “I know you.”

The way he stresses the word kindles a warmth in the pit of her stomach, making her tickly and excited, as if her skin’s too tight. It’s true, though – he does know her like no other. The lie hurts all the more because of that.

“I’m not allowed not to want things?” 

She aims low – whenever she implies that he’s pushing her to do something against her will, his insecurities kick in, and he gets flustered. Works like a charm.

“But it’s your birthday!” He panics, and she feels a prick of remorse. “You’ll be seventeen. It should be special.”

Rey chews on her bottom lip. If only he knew. Then again, with this situation between them such as it is, does her actual age even matter? It’s not as if anything is happening.

Is it?

She looks at their hands on the bench seat, not even an inch apart. If she were to reach out with her pinky finger, move it just a little bit, slowly, subtly, she could touch his knuckles.

She wants to know what his skin would feel like under her fingertips – yet she’s afraid of what he would think, if she were to do that.

She wonders what she wants him to think.

The light wind carries the scent of blooming plum trees. It’s so sugary it makes her dizzy.

“Let’s try it like this,” she says. “It’s one of the priciest, fanciest, most fashionable restaurants in the city. Even I have heard about it – and we, the Home orphans, we’re living under a rock. You cannot take me there.”

“Why?” The more he pouts, the lusher his lips look, and she’s barely handling it. “You think you won’t like the food? You think I can’t afford it?”

Rey bursts into sharp laughter, but quickly stops. He’s giving her that kicked dog look again, as if it hurts him physically to displease her, and it makes her anxious. She’s afraid of what one wrong word might do to him. She wants him to be happy when they’re together.

“Fuck, Kylo, you cannot be that dense!” She tries to keep her tone light and teasing despite her words. “Look at yourself. Where did you buy that leather jacket – Italy or the States? How much did your boots cost? What’s the brand of your jeans? Now look at me. I have holes in my shoes. I don’t know how many people have worn this hoodie before me, but I bet a lot, since it’s patched and stained, and it reeks of the 80’s. What do you think, how would people react in a posh restaurant if someone like you were to walk in with someone like me?”

Kylo brushes his fingers through his hair, a gesture she’s learned to read as buying time, hesitating, contemplating what he’ll say next.

“I don’t care how you look,” he finally utters, a tad too seriously. “And I don’t give a fuck what people think. As for your clothes, we’ve already had that conversation.”

“You cannot buy me things!” She raises her voice, and regrets it immediately. “Please. It’s like with the CD player. I cannot turn up in the Home with a bunch of brand new stuff and no acceptable explanation of how I got it. Saying it was a gift from a kind-hearted stranger would only make it worse, trust me. Wanna get me grounded?”

“I just wanna do something nice for you.” He sounds desperate.

You idiot, she thinks.

In these few months since they met, he did more for her than anyone else in her life. He came back, for start - the only one ever who made good on that promise. And he knew she’d be waiting for him at the music market, he didn’t doubt it for a second – he went straight there as if he sensed she’d come. As if they shared a bond or something.

She told him how she almost lost it while he was away. Went crazy with worry and uncertainty – life sucked, and he wasn’t there. It upset him – as it should have – and he frowned, thinking hard and deep. Then, he gave her his phone number – wrote it on a piece of paper, his handwriting surprisingly elegant. He’s always home at night, he explained. If she was ever lonely, or needed to talk, or just wanted to hear his voice and feel reassured she’s not alone, she was free to call.

Rey learned the number by heart that very evening.  She’s never dialed it – it’s not as if she has her own private line for nightly calls in the fucking Home for Children without Parental Care. Nonetheless, the mere thought of knowing he’s on the other side, ready to catch her if she falls, is more than enough.

And now he’s all tied in knots because she doesn’t let him do something nice.

“I’ll be happy if you buy me burgers on the street corner and we eat them in the park.” 

“We cannot have that.” He knits his eyebrows and shakes his head. “We do that every other day. It has to be special.”

“You won’t give up, will you?” she asks as gently as she can.

“No,” he grumbles. But then he smiles, and she knows the storm is over. “How about this, then. You come to my place, and I’ll make you the best dinner you ever had.”

The flush of heat that hits her is so strong it makes her ears buzz.

“You, um…” She’s completely at a loss. She presses her fingers against the bench seat, so that her hands don’t visibly tremble. “You know how to cook?”

“Do I know…? I’m great at it!”

His grin widens adorably, and Rey feels the fucking butterflies climbing all the way to her throat. Then, suddenly, she pictures him in the kitchen – hunching over the stove, cutting carrots and potatoes, in a ruffled polka dot apron. It’s so ridiculous she starts sniggering.

He frowns slightly, but keeps smiling.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Oh, I do…” she says. “It’s just unexpected, is all.”

Kylo beams, looking proud and genuinely pleased with himself – it’s such a rare sight. Rey wishes to hug him, to throw herself on him with all her weight and participate in his joy.

She doesn’t move, however.

“If you want to...“ he begins, and in an instant he’s nervous again. “If you want, you can come earlier. We can cook together. I could teach you. Would you like that?”

Even though she’s never been particularly interested in kitchen activities, Rey suddenly feels as if there’s nothing in the world she’d wish for more.

“Yes!” she almost shouts.

“Good.” Kylo turns towards her and Rey holds her breath. He raises his hand, and slowly, tentatively, touches the tip of her nose. The gesture feels overwhelmingly intimate. “We have a date, then.”

She thinks her heart will stop.

It’s the spring, she decides. The goddamn spring is doing things to her.

Indeed, the plums and the cherries and even the magnolias are in full bloom, the skies are cloudless, and the city is no longer all brown and grey – life, for once, feels good. Sort of. Things have changed.

In early March, schools opened, and Rey found herself back in the classroom. She doesn’t mind – it gives structure to her life. The school principal threatened that until the end of the year they’d have classes on Saturdays too, to make up for time lost, but the teachers just shrugged – no one wanted to work on weekends. Hence, Rey accepts that some lessons will remain forever unlearned. There could be worse things in life, she supposes. A brutal economic reform has put a stop to the inflation – all of a sudden, money has value again. Even the street smugglers begin to accept the local currency. It feels odd. With the first proper pocket money Rey earned in a long while, she bought doughnuts at the school bakery. They were horrible, in truth – stale and chewy, with jam too sour, but she bought them with her own money, so of course they tasted like heaven. She brought one to Kylo. He barely finished it, visibly forcing himself to swallow, but he smiled and praised her, and it only made her like him more.

She does like him. Rey has made peace with that. In fact, she even likes liking him – although it scares her at times, she accepts that there is joy in finding such belonging with someone. What makes it unbearable, however – to the extent it’s difficult to focus in school or fall asleep at night or look him in the eyes – is that she isn’t ready to admit how she likes him.

Not when he’s a decade older. Not when she’s unsure what he wants.

Not when she lied.

Fucking spring, messing with her head.

She spends the rest of the day daydreaming, grinning like an idiot, touching the tip of her nose.

“You’re in love,” Finn tells her a on a Sunday morning, a few days later, in the courtyard of the Home for Children without Parental Care.

“What?” Rey jumps.

Finn’s been living in the Home ever since he returned. It was against the rules for someone who’s almost nineteen to reside among the children, but Maz had a long fight with the bureaucrats from the center for social welfare, mentioning the goddamn state in which no rules applied any longer and the fucking end of times, and so he was allowed to stay, if only temporarily. Rey wasn’t sure that she liked it. Shame still hounded her whenever Finn was around, so she paid heed never to be at the same place at the same time, even if it meant less television watching in the common room.

Now, however, he has caught her unprepared. She had her headphones on, lost in music, enjoying the sunshine, and she didn’t hear him entering the courtyard.

“I’ve been watching you.” He lights a cigarette – the worst habit he could have picked up from Maz. “Sighing, smiling, pretending to study while you stare out the window. You’re totally in love.”

“Whatever,” she retorts roughly and gets up to leave.

“Wait, don’t go.” He quickly steps in the doorway, blocking her exit. “I didn’t mean to startle you or anything. I wanted to tell you I don’t hold any grudges because of what happened the other night. There’s no need to avoid me.”

He smiles, flashing his perfect pearly-white teeth, and extends his hand.

“Friends?”

Rey frowns. You don’t become friends with someone by saying “friends” and shaking hands. Yet Finn’s smile is sweet and his eyes are kind, with just a hint of mischief – such a contrast with the train wreck he was a few weeks ago. He seems to bounce back quickly, this one. It makes Rey feel less guilty.

She accepts his hand, if a bit hesitatingly.

“My love life is still none of your business, though,” she grumbles.

“Too bad.” He chews on the butt of his cigarette. “You looked like you needed to talk to someone, and I’m a good listener.”

He seems disappointed, and Rey rolls her eyes. Yet suddenly Finn’s expression softens, and he doesn’t look as cocky any longer. His eyes are bloodshot, she sees – a sign of worry, and not enough sleep, and too much tobacco. Maybe the boy whose father was an African chieftain or a freedom fighter or an heir to a dictatorship doesn’t heal so quickly after all.

She wonders if he dreams of the monster.

“One more thing,” Finn continues. “You happen to know my dirty laundry, y’know. All the nasty shit. And I haven’t heard you screaming from the rooftops. That ain’t easy in this place here.”

He closes his eyes and takes a long, deep drag, blowing smoke through his nose.

“I want you to know I appreciate it. Like, truly appreciate it. And if you ever need someone to keep your secrets, I’ll be more than happy to be there for you.”

It’s true, she didn’t tell a living soul about what she’d heard that night – not even Kylo, even though more than once she almost began recounting, only to change her mind mid-sentence and jump to a different topic. This is the first time, however, that it occurs to her it actually means that she and Finn share a relationship.

Friends, eh?

Instead of leaving, she leans on the wall next to Finn, the late March sunshine drawing freckles on her skin. Finn chuckles, but it doesn’t sound mocking in the least.

“So,” he says, “boyfriend?”

“No,” Rey quickly answers. “Wait. Yes. Well. I don’t know. Maybe.”

Finn eyes her sideways.

“Whoa. That bad?”

Rey doesn’t want to talk about it – she really doesn’t. She tries to quash it before it’s too late. But fuck, after all this time, it’s difficult to keep pushing it back.

In a flash, uncontrollably, almost like a physical force viciously tearing down her defense walls, it comes pouring out of her. 

“You have no idea,” she gushes. “I don’t know what we’re doing any more. It’s like a motherfucking merry-go-round – push and pull, one step forward two steps back. We’ve been seeing each other since November, almost every day, and I can swear on my mother’s grave he spends every second of his free time with me. He met promises no one else has ever had. And he says these things, like I’m the only one who matters in his world! But nothing happens. Nothing. The moment I think I know how he sees me, or what he wants from me, he withdraws, and we’re back to square one. He touched me three times in total – once by accident. I know there’s stuff he ain’t telling me about, and I’m fine with that. I know he’s awkward, and shy, and really fucking weird, because there’s no other way of putting it. And I like him like that – fuck, I like him because of that. But I can't put up with this shit any longer!”

Rey almost begins to cry, the last shreds of her dignity melting. She huffs, scratching her shoulder violently, even though nothing itches. Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe. Girls like her cannot allow themselves to lose control.

Finn offers her his cigarette, but she pushes it away, frowning.

“Ever been with a man?” he asks matter-of-factly.

“No.” It was a source of attention she has never pursued – for little girls from the Home for Children without Parental Care, that particular adventure never, ever ended well.

“But this boy – you’re sure you want things to happen with him?”

Rey wishes to answer ‘maybe’ or ‘probably’ or ‘I guess so’ – or at least come up with a line that doesn’t sound as absolute and final.

“Yes,” she admits despite herself.

 Something screams inside of her, and she wants it to drown.

“I see.” Finn nods. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“No one you know.”

Finn laughs out loud, and Rey finds the sound unexpectedly agreeable.

“Sister,” he says, throwing the cigarette on the courtyard floor and squashing the ember with his foot, “for a master of mixed signals such as this idiot of yours, we’re gonna need a strategy.

Rey wrinkles her nose, but listens.

Exactly two days later, when she meets Kylo after school, Rey proposes to go for a walk.

She wants to visit the Fortress, she says. It’s not a place she gets to see often. Even though it’s easily accessible and free to enter, going there means penetrating the very heart of the city. She’s wary of it – the pedestrian zone with its historical buildings and stylish cafes, its painting galleries with conceptual art she’ll never understand, its overpriced shops that showcase the same pair of shoes for months, and its streets named after the 19th century aristocrats they don’t even study any longer. She feels as if she’ll never truly belong there, lost between the new war-profiteering elite that has all the cash in the world but no taste whatsoever, and the old school high society madams with their pearl strings and fur coats and deep disdain for everything that reeks of smallfolk. It’s the only part of the city that makes her feel like a fucking Dickensian orphan, and if she sits on a bench, she dreads the humiliation that someone might toss her a dime.

But the Fortress itself is beautiful.

It’s all about the remnants of long gone times, she can tell. Romantic as fuck – a tourist trap in the making, if only there were any tourists in their godforsaken country. It’s turned into a park with basketball terrains and children playgrounds, where weed grows from run-down bulwarks made by the Austrians, or the Turks, or the Byzantines, or even the goddamn Romans, for all she knows. Way too many ancient empires thought it was a brilliant idea to build a stronghold right in this place.

Kylo is thrilled. He loves the Fortress, she discovers.  Little surprise there – of course ruins of crumbling civilizations would make him happy. She wonders why this hasn’t crossed her mind before. He tells her how he used to play here when he was a boy – running around the ramparts, climbing the old canons, hiding in guardhouses, getting lost in tunnels which he incorrectly called the catacombs. His mother worried sick, he says. Rey finds it strange. In his memories, Kylo sounds like a happy, if a bit unruly child – so different from what she gathered when Han told her about the earliest years of their family life. She wants to ask him about it, but then concludes he wouldn’t approve that she was seeing his father while he was absent.

Rey feels a brief pang of guilt – she hasn’t visited the old smuggler in weeks.

Kylo takes her to his favorite place at the Fortress. It’s a small church built into the walls, completely covered by dark green vines, with a sharply pitched roof and a modest nave displaying Jesus in the company of obscure local saints and the last emperor of Russia. Yellow, earthy-smelling candles  are lit for the living and the dead, and the church chandeliers are made of bullet shells. Rey stares in awe: hundreds of thousands of bright bronze bullets hang from the icon-painted ceiling. She isn’t much of a church person – Maz and her opinion of organized religion had a strong impact on Rey growing up – but she has to admit there’s something unexpectedly spiritual in the contrast. Kylo is happy that she likes it. It’s an old military church, he explains. Soldiers used to come here to pray before going to war. Lighting candles, hoping they’d come back to their loved ones.

On their way out, the priest briefly nods to Kylo as they pass him by.

“Can we go up?” Rey asks in the church yard, pointing at the tallest wall of the Fortress. “I wanna watch the sunset.”

It takes them a while to climb the rampart, but it’s worth it – the view from up there is exceptional.

Rey observes the Fortress park. The flower beds are colorful, matching the first days of spring – lilac and white and yellow, roses and carnations. People walk their dogs. A group of boys are playing soccer on a nearby field, laughing when a puppy runs after the ball. Couples push baby strollers. It amazes her – it feels so normal. Even in these majestically fucked up times, she thinks, when beyond the horizon there are villages burning in the night and a monster shooting people between the eyes, life goes on: flowers grow and dogs fool around and children are born, wanted children, with happy young parents holding hands and looking forward to the future. 

Not long ago, she felt trapped in this city, confined right under the sky. Now she almost cannot remember the feeling.

She looks at Kylo, illuminated by the reds and the purples of the sunset. The wind is blowing his hair. The shirt he’s wearing under the jacket is tight, she notices, stretching across his chest, revealing his collarbones. She studies how his Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows.

She wants to touch the moles on his face.

“Let’s go,” she whispers. “My curfew is soon.” 

There’s a reason why she dragged him all the way up to the highest point of the Fortress. While climbing the walls is not particularly difficult, getting down requires some skill.

“Ask for his help,” Finn said. “Make him feel strong and protective. Get him to hold your hand while you do something you can’t do on your own. Boys love that shit.”

Rey hops down the wall, light on her feet, and then reminds herself that she needs to appear clumsier. It’s confusing, pretending to be helpless about something she’s actually good at – she isn’t sure she can pull it off convincingly. 

But then she glances back at Kylo, who balances on the rampart stones in his stiff, heavy boots, his feet too wide apart. His frown is focused and his gaze is locked on the steep descent to the ground, as if he’s painfully aware that a single misstep may land him on his ass. She can tell he begins to sweat.

Rey nearly laughs – for all that intimidating aura he seems to present at times, all she sees now is a too-tall, leather-clad, dark and brooding Bambi on ice. It’s glorious.

“You okay there?” 

“Yeah.” The effort to sound cooler than he feels is palpable. Rey has never found him more endearing. “Should’ve brought a different pair of shoes.”

“Here.” She offers her hand. “Can’t have you fall. You’re way too heavy for me to carry.”

He smiles, half-shy, half-pleased, and not quite certain what he’s supposed to do – but then he takes her hand.

Her breath catches. She’s thrilled by how spontaneously this is all unfolding, better than she ever dared to imagine. Almost like a scripted scene.

Bloody hell.

His hand is huge, and bony, and a tad calloused, which she didn’t expect. It completely envelops hers. His skin is dry and warm, and she fights the urge to caress it with her thumb. He squeezes her palm, as if he actually needs help going down, and she fears that if she lets him go, if she ever lets him go, he’ll fall.

When they reach the ground, she keeps holding his hand.

Kylo looks at her questioningly. Maybe he wants to ask for permission, she thinks. It makes her panic. She doesn’t want him to verbalize what’s going on, she’s not ready – not yet, not now. So she just keeps walking, as if everything is normal, clutching his hand, staring at the road ahead, not saying a word.

After a few steps, he entwines his fingers with hers.

They hold hands all the way to the tram station, in silence, not looking at each other. When they part, he pouts, as if it breaks his heart to let go of her, and she catches herself wondering how his lips would taste.

She blushes boiling hot and blood red all the way to the Home for Children without Parental Care.

Her birthday is in ten days.

 

Chapter Text

No Room for Error in a Balanced House of Cards

 

 

 

 

“What did she say?” Rey asks as Finn enters the common room, carrying an empty mug. The best way to put Maz in a good mood is to begin the conversation with freshly brewed coffee, she knows. Their attack was well prepared.

“We’ve got the green light.” Finn winks, in full-on conspiracy mode. “Since it’s your birthday, you’re allowed to stay out until eleven.”

Rey almost giggles aloud, but doesn’t want to draw too much attention to them in the common room. As Finn sits down next to her, she throws him a low-five under the table.

“I think Maz likes it that we spend time together, bless her,” Finn says quietly.  “It went smoother than I thought. We just gotta stick to the plan. You understand?”

She vigorously nods, and Finn rolls his eyes and gives her a smirk that’s at the same time playful and full of understanding.

“Nod some more and your head will fall off,” he teases. “The plan, I said. We need to have some rules. Number one: officially, you’re with me. We’re going for a walk, and then out for dinner – nothing too fancy, it must sound plausible. I told Maz I’m taking you to that pizza place around the corner. Confirm if she asks you.”

“Will do.” For a second, it crosses her mind that there’ll be a shitstorm of monumental proportions if they ever get caught, but she dismisses the thought quickly. They’ll be careful.

“Number two,” Finn continues, counting on fingers. “I promised we’ll have a tame and age-appropriate celebration, so whatever you do with your loverboy, no drinking. You gotta return sober. And I second that one – no matter what happens tonight, you need to be conscious at all times.”

“Don’t worry about that.” Of all the things that may come about this evening, Rey thinks, drinking is the least probable one.

She tries not to ponder too much about what actually may happen.

“Number three.” Finn suddenly becomes very serious. “To make it believable, we must return to the Home together. So I’ll come to pick you up at ten-thirty. And you’re gonna say that to this boy of yours. Tell him a friend will pick you up, right in front of his place. He should know you ain’t alone. That you’re well taken care of.”

Rey smiles.

This sudden friendship with Finn is almost violent in its intensity, storming into her life uninvited and smashing down her safety walls with little patience and loads of glee. But she must admit, in these circumstances, she feels grateful. It’s very different than what she has with Kylo, and it is exactly what she needs – a bit of goddamn support. Besides, Rey knows, even with the cigarettes and the bravado and the smile worthy of toothpaste commercials, Finn is yet another miserable wretch looking for ways to while away the time and cope with his loneliness.

They could form a club.

“Thank you,” she says.

Finn scoffs and fidgets in his chair, as if he suddenly feels uncomfortable. 

“You’re sure you wanna do this?” There’s a slight frown on his face, and Rey’s excitement plummets. She hopes he won't change his mind. “His parents ain't around, you said. The two of you will be on your own. Stuff can happen. You trust this boy?”

“I trust him with my life,” she promptly answers, her voice clear and louder than usual. “He won’t do anything I don’t want him to.”

Finn gives her a long look before finally nodding his head.

“Alright then. We have a plan.”

Giving her one last wink, Finn gets up to leave, but then he stops.

At first, Rey doesn’t understand what changed so that suddenly Finn’s face reminds her of that night when he trembled and spilled coffee all over himself while talking to Maz. His eyes project disgrace, loathing, and a handful of fear.

Then she notices – the TV is louder. 

Unkar is watching his favorite show.

In a studio, a man is speaking to the camera. He’s sitting in a chair of heavy wood, groping the carved handles, the bright red studio walls striking a sharp contrast with the black of his almost-throne. He’s thin, and old, and probably very tall, judging from the way he is hunched. There’s a thickened scar splitting his bald head. He’s wearing a golden lamé shirt with high collar and loose sleeves – a fucking disco top, Rey thinks. Yet instead of looking ridiculous, he comes across as ancient, and dignified, and important, like a high priest in ceremonial robes.

He preaches.

“It’s that Snoke guy,” Rey explains. “Professor or something. Maz calls him a cartoon.”

She’s seen Unkar staring at the screen as though he’s hypnotized many times before, but she has never paid attention to what the old man was saying. Now, however, she listens. 

Professor Snoke speaks like a trained actor: his voice is deep, with a pleasant lilt. He’s stressing the lines as if he’s reciting poetry – it’s ominous, yet captivating, with big words and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. Rey realizes she’s unable to stop listening. He speaks of blood rights and true faith and solemn sacrifice and the homelands of our ancestors, of duty and grit, of the world shrouded in darkness and decadence and decay and our nation being the only remaining beacon of truth. He promises that old wounds will heal and old wrongs will be righted and old values will shine again. He smiles, and his yellowed teeth only make him look older. When he speaks, he points his finger straight at the camera, and Rey has the uncanny feeling that he’s addressing her in particular.

His words have an odd, slippery quality to them. Even though she feels affected by his voice, Rey discovers she’s unable to repeat a single thing he said.

She doesn’t like him, she decides.

“I know very well who Snoke is,” Finn says, a deep frown pulling his eyebrows. “He’s the guy behind the First Order.”

“Really?”

Finn nods.

“He’s the um – what’s the word – the ideologist. The troops are basically there to implement his vision.”

Rey squints, staring at the screen. It is difficult to imagine the old man standing in the mud of the warzone in his golden shirt. Then again, she thinks, with his messages of pride and myth and the nation’s martyrdom, perhaps it does make sense.

“He ain’t no cartoon, that one,” Finn grumbles, sighing heavily. “He knows what he’s doing. People like him, you see, they get off on pulling strings to push the world off a cliff, while they sit in their fancy chairs, smiling for the cameras. And all just to prove they are right. I can’t believe I was that stupid.”

He looks so dejected that Rey wishes she could change the channel.

“I’m going out for a smoke.” Finn's fingers twitch nervously. “You go and pick something nice to wear. This is supposed to be a good day. A perfect day. Let’s not spoil it.”

Later, in her room, Rey chooses the only dress she owns. It’s not the best fit – not any longer, she got it last year and she’s grown in the meantime. The shoulders are too tight, the skirt is shorter than she likes, and she cannot do up all the buttons in the back. But it’s a dress.

She feels embarrassed. Finn claims she looks cute and talks her out of changing into jeans.

The rest of the afternoon crawls. She stops counting how many times she has gone into the common room to check the clock on the wall.

As hours go by, it takes more and more effort not to think about what will happen in the evening.

The lie chafes against her conscience, leaving behind bloody blisters. She should tell him, she concludes. She really should. He’d understand, she believes. Maybe he wouldn’t even get angry.

Then again, him knowing would change everything, wouldn’t it?

She squeezes her fists so tightly that her nails leave painful imprints in her palms.

The fuck are you doing, Rey?

She wonders if he also spends every second when they’re not together thinking about her.

When the time comes, Finn knocks on her door.

“We need to leave together,” he says. “I’ll come for you later. Have a good time. Be smart. Don’t do anything you don’t want to. And make him lose his mind.”

Kylo gave her an address. It’s in the old part of the city, not far from the music market. The street is narrow and dark, paved with cobblestones, with chestnut trees in full bloom and unkempt backyards occupied by hordes of stray cats. She smiles – she can tell why he likes it here.

He lives on the second floor. The door to his apartment is unusually heavy, she notices, with two sets of high-security locks, as if he keeps a safe in there. Funny. The name plaque is small and discreet – it only says “Tarkin”. 

Who the hell is Tarkin?

Not that it matters. Kylo is probably renting the apartment anyway.

When she presses the bell, he opens the door so quickly that she wonders if he was standing behind it for hours, waiting for her to ring.

“Happy birthday, Rey!” he rushes. Then, suddenly, he takes a step back and gives her a good look, eyebrows raised. “Oh. Wow. First time I’ve seen you in a dress.”

She likes how his eyes widen as he studies her.

“Thank you,” she answers. “I see you’re dressed up too.”

It’s true – he’s wearing an elegant black shirt and tightly fitting slacks, the kind of clothes one chooses when aiming to make a really good impression. It gives her confidence, to see that he’s trying so hard, to note that he can't stop staring at her. Fuck. Something will definitely happen tonight, for here he is, ready for it. His hair is still wet, dripping on the collar, and he’s freshly shaven, smelling of amber and musk. She wants to lean in and bury her face in his neck.

He’s barefoot, and for some reason, she finds it particularly distracting.

“I can stay longer than usual.” She tries not to sound too eager. “A friend will come to pick me up at ten-thirty. Until then, I’m all yours.”

He blushes deep red, and she wonders if her wording was too bold.

Careful, Rey. Careful, lest you slip.

Kylo keeps standing in the doorway, looking at her in awe, a dumbstruck smile still plastered on his face.

“Can I come in?” She gestures toward the living room.

“Oh, of course, please.” He finally lowers his gaze and moves aside. “I don’t have visitors often, so I’m not a good host. But um. I don’t know. You’re not exactly an ordinary guest, are you?”

Her heartbeat picks up at the last line – it’s her who’s blushing now, she feels.

This is the first time that Rey has entered someone’s home. A proper home. No matter the euphemism the welfare system uses for its orphanages, the Home isn’t a real home. All Rey knows about places where real people live real lives is from movies and TV and books.

She doesn’t tell him that.

The apartment is not what she expected, however.

She imagined something that would unmistakably take after him. Something personal. Dark walls. Band posters, probably: the Sisters and the Cure and Joy Division and Siouxsie Sioux, for all his talk about her being the most interesting woman of her time. Furniture that’s a strange blend between worn-out second hand couches and overly expensive antique armchairs. Dim lights. Bookshelves. Maybe a dried-up plant. Souvenirs from his travels – a calligraphy print from Japan, a postcard with skulls and bones from Rome, a black-and-white photo of the Berlin sky. A bit messy, a bit stylish – just like him.  

Yet she’s facing white walls.

The room is so bright and bare, it almost hurts her eyes. The furniture is modern and neat and functional. The carpet is beige, and Rey is almost afraid to step on it. The windows are huge, with no curtains – only aluminum screens. Everything is impeccably clean.

It’s almost as if no one lives here.

“Make yourself at home.” Kylo is smiling so nervously she finds it irresistible.

There are cardboard boxes in corners, Rey notices, sealed shut with duct tape. She wonders if this is where he keeps the things he’s been bringing her – the music, the books. On some level, she's not surprised. He likes to underline how different he is from what he used to be a few years ago, even though she believes that the majority of that change is in his head only. He’s weird that way.

On the coffee table, there is an old, sepia-toned photograph in a bronze frame. It’s the only personal object in the room.

She reaches out to take the photo, and Kylo nods encouragingly. From what she can tell, it’s really old – 1930’s, she thinks. A few years give or take. It shows a young man in the parade uniform of the Royal Armed Forces, stripes and epaulettes and medals contrasting with his youthful face. His hair is slick, as was the fashion, and his eyes are piercingly blue – it’s visible even in the sepia picture. He’s handsome, Rey must admit. And he knows he’s handsome. The studio photo could pass for a vintage movie star poster – as if, while posing, he was aware that one day someone will keep it framed on the coffee table. There’s arrogance crossing decades here, Rey notes, and she isn’t sure what to think of the young man and his decorated uniform.

“It’s my grandfather,” Kylo explains, and there’s pride coloring his voice.

“Is it?” Rey compares the faultlessly good-looking officer to the big-nosed, floppy-eared young man standing next to her. She doesn’t see the similarities. She likes Kylo better. 

“Mmm.” He nods. “He was a colonel of the Royal Armed Forces, a pretty high rank for his age. Stayed true to himself – remained loyal to the king all the way to the bitter end. Paid the price for it when the communists came.”

Rey frowns.

She knows a bit about the Royal Armed Forces’ officers who “stayed loyal”. She heard things from Maz, who has a very passionate opinion about it. Despite the currently rampant historical revisionism, Maz says, in the last days of World War II those who “stayed loyal to the king” actually sided with the occupation forces – they preferred the Germans as the devil they knew, to the communist partisan movement which fought not only for liberation, but also for a revolution. In the end, out of stupidity and despair, they ended up committing some remarkably nasty things against their own people, with full German support – all in a futile attempt to prevent the communist uprising. They were no martyrs, Maz claims, even though admiring them is a fashionable thing in today’s warmongering madness, when everybody has rediscovered nationalism, shying away from the communist past. 

But wait. Something doesn’t add up. Didn’t Han say that Kylo’s mother came from a communist family? It’s impossible to imagine the handsome young colonel in his glamorous uniform as Han’s father.

Just about when she wants to ask more about this enigmatic grandfather, the phone rings.

Rey nearly jumps, startled at the sound.

So strange, she thinks. Sometimes she forgets that Kylo has a life outside of their afternoons together. She doesn’t monopolize him, Rey tells herself. There are people who will call him on the phone.

Still, she feels something akin to possessiveness. 

The ringing echoes against the bare walls. Kylo rolls his eyes dramatically, and picks up the call.

“Yes.” The tone of his voice is so harsh that Rey almost pities the person on the other end. “Armitage. Yes. I’m busy, I told you not to bother me. None of your business. Fuck you. Yes, I’m with her.

Kylo looks at Rey as he stresses the word, and she feels a flash of pride. So she’s important enough that people who call him know she has a special place in his life. Good.

“He said that?” Kylo continues the conversation, playing with the cord of the phone, sounding even more agitated. “And it has to be tonight? Shit. You goddamn twat, you’re enjoying this. I know you’re doing it on purpose. When?”

He lowers the receiver and covers the cap, catching Rey’s eyes.

“You said you must leave at ten-thirty?” 

Rey nods. Kylo clenches his teeth, and she wonders if she should be worried for this Armitage person.

“Fine,” he growls into the phone. “You win. I can make it later tonight. Yeah, fuck you too. Asshole.”

He slams the phone so hard that Rey thinks he might have broken it.

“I’ll kill him one day, I swear.” He twists the phone cord as if he wants to squeeze someone’s throat.

“It’s okay.” Rey reaches out and touches his hand. “Hush. We’re good. We still have the evening to ourselves.”

Kylo looks her in the eyes. In an instant, his grin widens enough to uncover the chipped fang. He lets go of the phone and takes her hand into his – and just like that, the rage is gone. It astonishes her how quickly he flips between moods.

When he’s with her, however, he always smiles.

“You’re right.” His tone is suddenly soft like a whisper. “We have a lot of cooking to do.”

He guides her by the hand across the apartment, walking backwards in front of her, unwilling to break eye contact. It’s silly, and she’s afraid he might trip over the furniture, but the look in his eyes gives her goosebumps. She squeezes his hand tighter.

“It was fucking difficult to choose what to make,” Kylo declares seriously when they enter the kitchen – dark brown and big and even a tad messy, the only place in the apartment that actually reminds her of him. “Easy enough for you to learn, but still worthy of a celebration. So I opted for Italian – pasta carbonara, and tomato arugula salad with parmesan cheese. And, um, there’s cake. But I cheated there. It’s bought.”

Rey stares at the things displayed on the kitchen counter. She’s had pasta before, in the Home canteen – overcooked, sticky lumps of goo that she avoided whenever there was another option on the menu. She’s never tasted parmesan, although she knows it’s some kind of cheese. She has no clue what the hell ‘carbonara’ means – and as for arugula, from what she can tell, it looks like weed freshly picked in the park, like something that dogs piss on. The only thing she’s comfortable with here are the goddamn tomatoes.

Kylo chuckles.

“Don’t worry.” He ties on an apron which is neither polka-dotted nor ruffled. “We’ll take it one step at the time.”

It turns out Kylo did not exaggerate – he indeed knows how to cook.

He’s patient in his instructions, but his passion is contagious. She didn’t expect that crushing garlic and grating cheese and chopping tomatoes could be so stimulating. He knows the ideal temperature of the frying pen to get the crispiest bacon, and how to crack open eggs to easily separate the yolk, and how much salt and olive oil one must put in the boiling water to achieve the perfect pasta texture. He asks her to pass him the pots and has her smell the spices before he sprinkles them on food, even though ground pepper makes her sneeze. He feeds her a piece of raw bacon, his fingertips almost touching her lips, and places a hand on her hip while instructing her on how to properly hold the knife. He laughs. He flips his hair and rolls up his sleeves and laughs, and he looks content – Rey notices an unexpected swagger to his posture. It’s odd. Such unbridled self-confidence makes him more attractive, kind of.

There’s bliss in cooking together like this, she concludes – a special kind of intimacy.

Domesticity.

Family.

Is this what it feels like?

“My mother grew up with a residential chef,” Kylo explains later, during dinner, as Rey happily gulps down her second serving. “So she never learned. For her, cooking was something that hired help should take care of. My uncle was even worse, junk food all the time. I have no idea how he didn’t drop dead before he turned fifty. In the end, if I wanted to eat right, I had to do it myself.”

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” Rey says, scraping the last traces of carbonara sauce from her plate. “Keep cooking like this, and you’ll have to adopt me!”

Kylo gives her a sheepish half-smile, but his expression turns serious too quickly.

“Would you like that? To live with me?”

Rey stops in her tracks.

He means it, she can tell. He does.

Fuck.

“I’m not your pet, Kylo,” she retorts, even though she can easily imagine herself bringing life to this white and beige apartment.

“I never said you were.”

He reaches for his shirt pocket and takes out a tiny red envelope, so small it fits into his palm.

“Here.” He pushes it towards her. “Happy birthday.”

She feels the blood rushing to her face.

“What is it?” she asks quietly.

“Open it.”

A chain dangles from the envelope as she tears it open – thin and long, the color of pale gold. There’s a small pendant on its end – it clanks as it drops out of the package and hits the table surface. Rey takes it cautiously, feeling its delicate shape between her fingers. The design is minimalistic, almost abstract, and it takes her a moment to recognize what it is.

It’s an angel.

“I, um…” Kylo stutters, the smoothness and the swagger gone. “I… I know. It’s a bit cheesy. Kitsch, if you want. But it’s just that… Just that… Fuck. I have no idea how to say this.”

He leans forward in his chair. His lips quiver, and his knuckles are white from pressing his hands against the table top. For a second, Rey thinks he’ll flip the table over, since it’s in the way.

“When I saw you for the first time back then, throwing money to the trash, I don’t know what came over me.“ His voice is low, shaking. “See, I’ve never done that before. Never approached someone in the street. But you looked so upset and lost and I knew I had to talk to you. And then… And then, you mentioned the music. It’s not just the Sisters of Mercy, you know. It’s ‘Marian’. Of all their songs, you picked that one. When I… Shit. When I heard you say that, I almost lost it. I thought, fuck it, it’s fate. Maybe she’s the one. Maybe she’ll understand.”

Rey wants to say something, anything, but words fail her. She feels as if she’s barely breathing. Kylo stares at her unblinking, his gaze heated, yet oh so vulnerable.

The butterflies are going wild.

“I want you to know what you are to me. So I got you this.” Kylo points at the pendant. “It’s small. And discreet. You can hide it under your clothes. No need to explain why a stranger is giving you gifts. So yeah. Um. You like it?”

Rey nods, and Kylo almost smiles.

“May I… May I put it on you?”

“Yes,” she whimpers, cringing at the sound of her voice.

He hesitates for a moment, then promptly gets up and walks over to her.

“Come.” He reaches out to take the pendant from her hand. Something in the way he articulates that word makes her go weak at the knees, and she has to focus to rise from the chair.

He towers over her, and their height difference has never been more appealing.

Carefully, he wraps the chain around her neck and fastens the clasp in the back. She feels the weight of the little angel dropping down, falling into the neckline of her dress. The metal is cold.

Then, slowly, he touches her collarbone. His caress is gentle, tentative, almost shy – tickling her skin, sending shivers down her spine. His fingers ghost over her throat, drawing upwards, to her chin. He lifts her head up, and traces her bottom lip with his thumb.

And then it happens.

He leans in for a kiss.

It’s exactly what she wanted.

She feels the warmth of his breath in the corner of her lips, and the smell of musk and amber makes her mouth water. In a second, he’ll be truly hers.

Panic hits her as hard as a punch in the gut.

This is wrong. Wrong.

Fucking immoral, even.  

It went too far. She’s tricking him into doing something that may horrify him if he knew the truth. She has no right to do this.

Rey, you fool.

She doesn’t know how to undo this mess she made. Shame and remorse pool in her belly, mixing with desire, twisting her insides. It hurts so much she feels the tears welling up.

Rey turns her head away.

Kylo stops. His body tenses, and she hears him gasp.

He waits for a moment, but she doesn’t move.

“Rey,” he whispers at last, uncertainty clear in his voice. “You don’t want this?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Rey… Look at me.”

Her eyes are locked on his bare feet. She doesn’t dare to lift her gaze.

He runs his fingers though her hair, gently touching her scalp. It feels good, and it makes her all the more miserable.

“You… You want me, don’t you?” he says softly, pleadingly. “I didn’t misunderstand?”

Rey lowers her head, pulling away from his touch.

He swallows.

“Please.” She’s never heard so much sadness packed into one word. “It’s okay if you don’t want me. But I need to know.”

She should tell him. She should tell him now, consequences be damned.

“I do,” she hears herself speak, and no, no, that’s not what she meant to say. “I want you. I just… I need more time.”

His sigh of relief sounds like a pleasant purr, and he pulls her into a tight embrace. Rey doesn’t resist. The last time he hugged her like this, they were separated by his heavy coat, but tonight his shirt is thin, and she feels the muscles of his chest against her cheek. His heartbeat is frantic, almost as quick as hers.

He smells so nice.

“Alright.” He rests his chin on the top of her head. “It’s alright. I can wait.”

She doesn’t deserve him, she thinks.

It’s in that moment that the phone rings again.

“Crap.” Kylo wraps his arms tighter around her. As minutes pass, the phone keeps ringing, even though he doesn’t rush to answer. Someone is persistent. “I must get this.”

The instant he lets her go, she craves his warmth.

“Eat shit and die, Armitage,” Kylo snaps into the receiver immediately after picking up. Rey wonders if anyone ever calls besides Armitage, whoever that may be, and why he even bothers because Kylo obviously does not like him much.  “You just had to call a second time, didn’t you? Asshole. What? Whatever. You come and pick me up, okay? Ten-thirty is fine. Fuck you too.”

He hangs up, and for a moment, Rey thinks she may have to stop him from pulling the cord out of the wall.

“Friend troubles?” she asks in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“That dickhead ain’t my friend,” Kylo hisses. “He’s an ass I have to put up with for work. I don’t exactly have friends, you know.” He suddenly looks into her eyes, slightly lifting his eyebrows. “Just you.”

He extends his arm, and she obediently hurries back into his embrace. It’s not normal, she knows, for a grown man to have no one but a girl he met in the street. But nothing has ever been normal with him. This is why she likes him – he makes her feel needed.

It seems that her wish to become someone’s Marian did come true.

“I have something embarrassing to confess,” he says, fingers tracing along her back. “I’ve never been in a real relationship. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Rey chuckles. She isn’t surprised.

“That makes the two of us,” she responds. “We’ll figure it out along the way.”

And somehow, Rey concludes, that makes it all seem better. They’ll figure everything out. Everything. They only need time. If it were up to her, she’d agree to spend eternity with him in a heartbeat.

First and last and always. Wasn’t it so?

“It is time,” he whispers after a while, pointing at the wall clock, his other hand playing with a strand of her hair. “Your friend will come for you, and I have to meet with fucking Armitage. See you tomorrow?”

She nods. “See you tomorrow.”

She waits for him to change, peeking into the bedroom, watching him lace up his boots and fix the buckle of his belt. He takes something from the upper drawer of his cabinet, but she cannot see what it is. The jacket he puts on is not the one he usually wears – it’s too large, hiding the shape of his body. It’s strange, she thinks, he prefers form-fitting clothes, yet she doesn’t pay it much attention.

“Let’s go.” He takes her hand and Rey smiles – it seems that hand holding is now expected. She likes it.

Outside, in front of the building, there’s a young man waiting under the lamppost.

“Ren,” he says, the tone of his voice conveying boredom and annoyance. “About fucking time.”

The man – Armitage, she assumes – is tall, slim and dressed in a perfectly tailored dark suit. From what Rey can tell under the dim streetlights, his hair is reddish. He would have been handsome, she thinks, if it weren’t for the condescending expression on his face – he looks like one of those people who are amused when nasty things happen to those around them. Rey has learned to avoid children like that a long time ago, and she sees why Kylo doesn’t like him. His mouth is pulled downwards in a disgusted scowl, and he frowns as if the entire world conspires to waste his time.

“Don’t bullshit me, Armitage.” Kylo rolls his eyes. “You arrived a moment ago.”

Armitage huffs and raises his hand as if he’s about to protest, beginning yet another one of their arguments that she has witnessed on the phone – but in that moment, suddenly, Kylo freezes.

His whole body stiffens – she senses the strain as he squeezes her hand. He straightens his spine and clenches his jaw, and in an instant, he appears darker and taller. She’s seen it before, but never this extreme.

He looks fucking dangerous.

It is then that she notices Finn approaching them down the street.

Just as she is about to give him a wave, Finn stops, and takes a step back. His mouth drops open, as if in shock. For a moment, he looks frightened, horrified even – and then his face distorts into anger. But why?

She hears Kylo grinding his teeth.

What the fuck is happening here?

Armitage is the first to speak. He raises his eyebrows and curves his lips in an ugly smile.

“Is this some kind of a joke?”

From the way he looks at Finn, Rey concludes they have definitely met before. Finn’s face darkens. She’s never seen him this grim, not even on the night when he returned. If there’s indeed a joke at work here, she doesn’t find it funny. 

“Rey,” Finn says, his eyes narrowing, his tone unexpectedly grave. “Step away from him.”

It takes her a moment to process what she heard. Step away from whom? Kylo?

What?

“Traitor,” Kylo growls, his voice so low he barely sounds human.

Slowly, deliberately, puzzle pieces start falling into place.

Rey doesn’t want them to fit.

This is not happening.

“Do you know who that is, Rey?” Finn tentatively makes a step forward. “Do you know how many people he killed?”

She quickly glances at Kylo. He’s snarling now, hair in his face, eyes wolfish and mad and so dark they look pitch black, and there’s nothing charming about his sharp, crooked teeth. She barely recognizes him.

His grip on her hand is so strong it begins to hurt.

“Kylo?”

“Not now, Rey!” he barks through his teeth, spit dripping on his chin. There’s a muscle twitching under his left eye, and he looks as if he could go wild at any moment. He frightens her.

She didn’t believe it could be possible.

She remembers the story of the droopy-eyed old man, and flames, and villagers who shat themselves as they were dying.

Rey pulls her hand away. He doesn’t react, as if he doesn’t notice.

“Wait, wait, let me get this straight,” Armitage says, the only person who appears to be having fun. “This is the infamous girlfriend? I’ve always known you’re a creep, Ren, but congratulations, you just outdid yourself! What is she, twelve?”

“She’s fifteen! Turned fifteen today, you freak!” Finn shouts, and there – her secret is out in the open.

Kylo’s eyes widen in realization.

He throws her a questioning glance, and for a brief moment it seems that the shock is strong enough to make him come to his senses. His brows are furrowed, but the expression reveals pain rather than anger. He shakes his head, and fuck, he looks devastated.

“Is that true?”

Guilt cripples her. She didn’t want him to find out this way.

But it’s all irrelevant now, isn’t it?

She nods, and doesn’t look him in the eyes.

His ragged breathing gets louder.

“What did you do to her?” Finn presses forward with a sudden burst of courage.

“Nothing,” Kylo utters. He attempts to reach out for her almost instinctively, but she takes a step back. “I didn’t do anything. I… I didn’t know.”

But Finn doesn’t seem to listen.

“How could you? How? She’s a child from the Home. She has no one. You thought you’d get away with this? That you’re allowed to do anything to anyone without consequences?”

“I would never hurt her!”

Kylo raises his voice, and she wants to believe him, she almost does – but then she notes his snarling face, she sees the fucking darkness gathering around him, inside of him, and she’s terrified.

“As if a sick fuck like you can breathe without hurting people!” Finn yells.

In a split second, Kylo reaches under his too large jacket and takes out a gun.

The black metallic barrel glistens under the pale streetlight.

“Call me a sick fuck again and I’ll blow your brains out. Should’ve done it when I had the chance.”

He aims at Finn’s face – right between the eyes.

Rey feels the reality cracking all around her, shattering, collapsing. Sharp shards are falling down like broken glass that cuts.

This is not happening.

She thinks she’ll choke.

“Ren,” Armitage says with practiced patience, as if he’s been in this situation one time too many. “Enough with the tantrums.”

Kylo doesn’t move. Armitage rolls his eyes and clears his throat.

“Put the gun down, Ren. Let the traitor and your orphan child bride go their merry way, and we won’t speak of this again.”

“Shut up, Armitage.”

Finn stares at the gun muzzle, barely breathing, too petrified even to tremble. This is the second time it’s happened to him, Rey thinks – Kylo threatening his life. She doesn’t know what to do.

“Ren, for fuck’s sake!” Armitage steps towards Kylo, but pauses before he gets too close. Even he is afraid, she realizes. “You don’t shit where you eat. You cannot shoot people here! Not again. If you need to vent, we’ll send you across the border!”

Kylo grins – a fiendish grimace, ravaging the last remains of Rey’s reality.

“I can do whatever I want.”

He pulls back the hammer.

“Stop it!” Rey screams.

Kylo freezes.

His face softens a little, so subtly she thinks no one else noticed. He lowers the gun for an inch, but keeps aiming at Finn.

It takes him a moment to look at her, as if he’s gathering up the courage.

“Rey…” he whispers, his voice trembling in a way she recognizes too well. “You… You lied to me. Why did you lie to me?”

Damn you, Kylo.

She thinks how happy he looked as he taught her how to cook, how much he laughed. She thinks of the almost kiss they shared in the dining room, his breath on her lips, his fingers on her collarbone. She thinks of the angel. She thinks of “Marian” – her voice above the maelstrom, in a sea of faces, in a sea of doubt, in this cruel place in which she almost believed she found a fucking soulmate.

Then she remembers the burning village. How many slaughters did he order that she didn't know about?

“You lied too,” Rey retorts. “You said you weren’t a monster!”

He tenses again.

“Is that what you think I am? A monster?”

Rey frowns. The answer to that question is the most terrifying part of the evening.

“Aren’t you?” 

He raises his eyebrows, as if he cannot grasp her words. His eyes have always been overly expressive – this is why she likes them so much – but now they mirror only pain, and disappointment, and betrayal. She hurt him, she realizes. She bloody wrecked him, and a part of her almost thinks it’s good, because someone like him doesn’t deserve anything better. But her own heart is breaking too, and all she wants is to rush into his arms, hug him tightly and promise that everything will be alright.

How can things go downhill so spectacularly in a matter of fucking minutes? 

The muscle tic pulsates under his eye, and Kylo starts shaking.

He lowers the gun.

“Go,” he says.

For a moment, she thinks she misheard him. Finn stares in disbelief, too terrified to make a move.

But then Kylo shouts.

“Go!”

The next thing she knows, Finn grabs her by the hand and pulls her into a run.

What follows is a blur. She has no idea how long they’re running. They stop at some point because she gets sick, and she vomits in the street, under someone’s window, while Finn holds her hair. She struggles to walk after that, and Finn has to help her stand. She’s ruined her dress, she sees. She doesn’t know where they are, or what time it is. Suddenly they’re in a car – a taxi, she assumes, because they’re in the back seat, and Finn is talking to the driver trying to sound casual. The city lights pass her by as she stares through the car window.

The spring is beautiful outside, she concludes. All blooming trees and fresh breeze and neon lights, and it’s her birthday, and her life doesn’t hold any fucking meaning any longer.

When they reach the Home for Children without Parental Care, she does not have the strength to go inside, even though she’s certain it’s long past eleven. Maz will be furious tomorrow.

So they sit on a bench in the park across the street for hours, and she stares at the Home gates, and she screams, she screams, she screams. 

 

Chapter Text

Blind in Darkness

 

 

The street is noisy.

Children laugh as they run around. A dog barks. Cars honk. Drivers hold down their horns and blare, as if that will make the traffic jam disappear – everybody’s nerves are thin these days. The tram clatters, tooting its whistle. Crows caw – the ill-famed residents of the Boulevard who nest in the plane trees and happily shit on passersby walking below. The church bells ring. Street vendors yell, announcing all the smuggled goods they carry, competing to shout the loudest. 

It is too crowded, Rey thinks, and everyone has something to say. People talk too much.

She was grounded, not allowed to go outside for three weeks. She forgot what it feels like to be surrounded by noise.

“He should be over there,” she tells Finn, pointing at the grey-blue Yugo parked in front of a fast food joint. “Please give us some privacy. I’ll signal you if I need you.”

Finn nods, and leans against a plane tree. Since she’s started going out again, she feels safer when he’s around. They share too many dark and dirty secrets, the two of them. Little wonder that he became the only person Rey feels she can trust.

She swallows. She rehearsed this meeting many times in her head, but now that it is finally about to happen, anxiety weighs down her feet. She thought that after everything she’d be too numb to care, that the butterflies would be long dead, but she still feels them – fluttering, rotting inside her stomach, tearing her apart.

She hasn’t slept normally in days.

At first, she doesn’t see anyone in front of the grey-blue car, and it’s almost a relief – she has an excuse to turn back and leave. But then the old smuggler walks out of the fast food joint holding a burger, and his smile widens as soon as he notices her.

“Hey kid!” Han says, charming and cheerful as always. “Long time no see. How’s life?”

Well, now. What do you answer to that?

Rey clenches her fists. No tears. Not again.

“You okay, kid? Did something happen?”  Han raises his eyebrows curiously, but then his expression turns grim, an unwelcome understanding dawning on his face. “Oh. My son happened.”

He doesn’t sound surprised.

“Did he hurt you?”

Rey isn’t sure how to respond. He didn’t, in truth. He didn’t do anything to her.

And yet he did. Her wounds are bleeding all over the place, and she has no idea where to turn.

She shrugs.

“What do you want me to do?” Han asks, fidgeting, awkwardly staring at his half-eaten burger.

“I just…” Rey hates how her voice trembles. “I just want to talk.”

The old man presses his lips together in a way that unpleasantly reminds her of him. 

“Fine,” he utters, resigned.

He doesn’t feel like talking, that much is obvious, but she respects that he didn’t tell her to leave. She needs a long moment before she musters the courage to come up with her question.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Han puts on a practiced half-smile that serves as a shield from difficult conversations. It must have driven his ex-wife mad, Rey thinks. He throws his burger into the trash and exhales heavily – the topic weighs on him like an open scab, she sees. She cannot tell if he prefers to avoid it, or he’s welcoming the moment to profess all the ugly details.

“I didn’t tell you because you didn’t want to hear, for one,” he says at last, his voice gruff and tired. “Because I didn’t know how, in all honesty. See, kid, ain’t easy facing that shit. His name is pretty famous in the street, y’know – Kylo Ren of the First Order, the dark warrior, killer of infidels, defender of the national cause. He almost has a fan club – dumb fucks who gush over all the stupid shit he and his cronies do across the border. And I didn’t tell anyone I’m his father – anyone – even though it might buy me favors. Couldn’t bring myself to say it. It’s difficult, y’know, putting it into words, admitting that your son is a… a…”

“A monster,” Rey helpfully finishes the sentence.

Han curtly nods.

Rey chews on her bottom lip, pondering. “What made him that way?”

“You really don’t beat around the bush with your questions.” The old smuggler shakes his head, but not without sympathy. “You think something made him that way? Is that why you came to me – so I can give you excuses for why he fell to the dark side?”

She lowers her gaze. In truth, she is not sure what she came here for. She just needed to talk to someone who knows.

“Fuck, kid.” Han gives her a sad smile. “You still love him.”

She doesn’t answer, but squeezes her fists tighter. No tears.

“That’s okay. I do too.” He sighs, and passes his fingers through his grey hair in a gesture she finds all too familiar. “Have it your way, then. I’ll tell you what I know, you draw your own conclusions. But I can’t promise you’ll understand him any better. God knows I don’t.”

They spend the next few moments in silence. The old man really seems to struggle with how to tell his story – Rey can relate to that. She gives him the time he needs. She throws Finn a brief glance – he’s still leaning against the tree. He winks at her and waves, smiling supportively.

“Ben,” Han finally begins, “was not a planned child.”

“Ben?” Rey frowns. “Who’s Ben?”

“Ah. Kylo isn’t his real name. He didn’t tell you that?”

“No.” Suddenly she feels very stupid.

The old man does not comment, but from the way his eyes soften, she can tell he understands too well. It makes her feel even more embarrassed.

She tries to picture him as a Ben, though. The name does not suit him. It sounds too plain, and old-fashioned, and stable.

“He happened by accident,” Han continues. “But I was very much in love with his mother, and it was about time to get settled, so I thought, why the heck not. We got married. Didn’t last long. His mother, my ex, she was very young. Still in her final year of college. She wanted to finish her studies, to have a career. And that’s okay – she was brilliantly gifted and smart, and all her life she’d been told that great things awaited her one day. She wasn’t ready to let it all go to waste for a marriage with me, or for a kid she didn’t even plan. And I don’t blame her one bit.”

He smiles, and Rey realizes that he indeed doesn’t hold it against her. He must have loved her a lot, she thinks, some of that love lingering even today. Or he must have screwed up something really badly himself. Or both.

“If we’d had a different child, maybe things would’ve worked out, but…” he hesitates. “We ended up with Ben. Needy. Whiny. Prone to temper tantrums. Always breaking his toys. Ready to burst into tears whenever his mother would leave the room. Fucking ugly, too. Don’t look at me like that, he’s mine and I have the right to say this – little Ben was not a pretty sight. And all the other kids hated him.”

She sighs. So far, Rey thinks, the story mostly goes as expected. She’s guessed all this before.

“He had his qualities. He did. He was smart. Sensitive. A book worm. Those are good things, right? But I, uh… I…” Han gives her a heartfelt look, and she can tell it’s important for him that she understands this part of the story in particular. “I was a shitty father. I can say that now. I did want a son – show me a guy who doesn’t. But I wanted a son whom I’d take to soccer games and teach him how to drive and give him advice about talking to girls – not Ben. So I hit the road as soon as I could, and left my ex to handle the mess. She braved her way through it, best she could. He used to drive her insane – purposely getting lost when she took him to the Fortress, to see if she’d cry if he were to disappear. And cry she did, y’know, she cried out of sheer frustration, and she’d call me to ask for help with the little spawn of Satan. But I’d always tell her I was too busy. I’m not proud of it.”

 The old man bows his head.

“And then, puberty hit. Sweet Jesus. Overnight, he grew tall and strong – too tall and too strong. That’s when the problems with violence began. At the drop of a hat, he’d beat the shit out of someone. Kids stopped bullying him – he fucking terrified them. His mother sent him to so many child therapists I’ve lost count. But nothing worked out. Still no friends. Still messed up. Still too fucking violent. ‘Unhinged’ – I heard that word so many times, it lost its meaning. By the age of fourteen, he’d changed schools four times – mostly thanks to my ex-wife’s connections. By the age of sixteen, he’d dropped out of the system for good, after breaking a teacher’s nose. Even the connections couldn’t help any longer.” 

He makes a pause. He’s ashamed, Rey sees. In a way, she thinks, he should be, even though she finds she cannot get angry at him. She’s seen too many parents who abandoned their children to someone else’s care for various reasons. Han is far from being the worst case. 

But yes – a violent, teenaged Kylo fits too well into the story. She almost wishes they’d met back then. Maybe she would have soothed his frenzy before it became too late.

“What happened then?” she asks after a while.

“My wife, my ex-wife, you see, she has a brother. A really weird guy.” Han huffs through a smile. “I met him during the student riots in 1968, he was one of the protest leaders. Studied philosophy. Was all about the human condition and cycles of history and that shit. Got his PhD ridiculously young and started teaching at university. Funny thing, of all the adults around him, Ben got along with my brother-in-law the best. They bonded over their love for music. I never understood all that snobby gibberish about jazz fusion and progressive rock and post-punk and whatever you wanna call it, but they could talk about it for hours. He was the only one who could handle the boy, and so, my ex sent Ben to live with his uncle.”

Rey nods. “He often mentioned his uncle.”

“Mmm,” Han hums, and the sound gives her the chills. “For a while, it seemed to function. They travelled together, when my brother-in-law went abroad for work. Took Ben all the way to fucking Japan. But then… Then, one day, something happened. They had an argument. Who knows why, but it must’ve been big. Luke, my brother-in-law, never revealed the reason – even though Ben beat him black and blue and broke his arm in two places. He even refused to call the police. I wasn’t there when it happened, but that’s what my wife told me. My ex-wife. After that, well, you can imagine. My ex severed all contact with Ben, and I don’t know, I guess it’s understandable. Luke quit his job and disappeared from public life. No one has seen him in years.”

Rey squints as the answer to a mystery that’s been troubling her for months unexpectedly comes along.

“His uncle… Back in November, do you know if he was seen buying records at the music market?”

“No idea, kid.” Han shrugs. “But it sounds like something Luke would do.”

So it’s not an ex-girlfriend, she thinks, even though it’s been obvious for a while. A part of her feels satisfied – she’s indeed his first. Then, she catches her train of thought, and flinches. None of that matters any more.

Rey, you fool.

“What became of Kylo – Ben – after that?” she asks quietly.

“Haven’t had any news for a few years. Next thing I know, I hear he’s joined the army. At first, I thought – way to go. Maybe they’ll be able to knock some common sense into that stubborn head of his, teach him some self-control. But then, the war erupted – fuck them all, kid, and fuck their political games, and may they rot in hell for ruining my country, all of them with no exceptions. It’s then that I heard that, actually, he’s part of a paramilitary group. The First Order. Calls himself Kylo Ren. Talks about warrior’s honor and spilling blood in the national interest. Commands a death squad. Kills people.”

Han catches her gaze suddenly, his eyebrows raised as if he struggles to believe his own words, and he looks haunted, and old, and broken beyond repair.

Kills people.”

Rey closes her eyes.

“I know,” she whispers.

She won’t think about the village again, or the black gun barrel pointed at Finn’s face. She won’t.

“I, um…” Han continues, and the old smuggler’s voice starts shaking. “I went to speak to him several times. No one else would do it – not his mother, not his uncle. But I did. I went to him whenever I knew where to find him. I figured, if someone were to speak to him, if he could explain why he was so angry, if I could apologize and he’d listen, maybe, y’know, maybe he’d get his head out of his ass and cut the crap.”

Rey chortles humorlessly.

“But it doesn’t work like that,” she concludes.

“No, it doesn’t. You saw for yourself.”  

They don’t talk for a while. Suddenly, Rey becomes aware of the street noise again. A murder of crows squawks above her head, scattered in the tree branches – fucking scavengers, ganging up on her, making her feel cornered.

The pavement is covered in bird shit and black feathers.

“So.” Han interrupts the silence, his tone firm again. “Happy with the explanation, kid?”

She frowns – Han sure did fill in the blanks. However, she decides, the problem is that he didn’t say anything new. No plot twists. No traumatizing, tragic events that could make a person break and go insane, turning a hero into a villain like in the movies. Just an ugly life story about a failed marriage and bad parenthood and a lonely boy who was simply too much.

“Not really,” she says.

“What did you think I’d tell you?” Han replies bitterly. “I fucked up. My wife fucked up. Hell, Luke probably fucked up too, somewhere along the way. You can point your finger at us all you want. But at the end of the day, my son, he’s… He is what he is. A monster – your words, not mine. He made his own choices. He decided to live his life the way he does. And you can’t blame the world for his mistakes.”

The line rings painfully true, and it makes her feel guilty for reasons she cannot quite grasp. She shrugs.

“I suppose I can’t.”

Han raises his hands and shakes his head in defeat, frowning at the busy street, at life, at the world.

“I’ll keep trying. He’s my son, I love him, and I can’t abandon him just like that. Not after everything. But to be frank, the more I think about it, the more I conclude I’m doing it for myself.” He touches his chest over his heart. “He’s… He’s beyond salvation, y’know. Lost. Blind in darkness, that’s what he is. So, kid, a piece of advice: stay the fuck away. This time, it ended well. He didn’t harm you. But I’m not sure what he’s capable of doing when his anger hits the roof. And I wouldn’t trust him.”

He’ll never hurt me, Rey wants to say. He’ll never hurt me. She still believes it, she realizes – and it’s a demoralizing thought. 

She wishes to leave.

“Thank you for your honesty,” Rey says, extending her hand. An uncanny feeling strikes her all of a sudden – this is the last time she will see the old smuggler. She feels at a loss for words. How do you say goodbye in such a situation?

“Good luck,” she finally utters clumsily, and turns to go. She sees Finn walking over, ready to accompany her back to the Home.

“Kid… Rey. Wait.” Han stops her, placing a hand on her shoulder. His grip is too strong. “I’d like to see him. You wouldn’t happen to know where I can find him, would you?”

His look is intense and desperate, eyes shining as if brightened by tears. Kylo has his father’s eyes, Rey notices.

She shouldn’t do it. She’ll regret it, she can tell already.

“I know where he lives,” she says too quietly.

She learns about it two weeks later, on a particularly warm late May day that smells of linden trees in bloom, the sky above the city blue and bright and sunny as if the summer came too early.

She has no idea why she decided to go up the Boulevard again. It’s a strange place for a leisurely walk after everything, and without Finn to boot – but here she is. Maybe she had a premonition that something was amiss.

When she sees the car of another smuggler parked in the place where the heavily modified grey-blue Yugo usually stands, she is certain that her gut feeling was right.

“Where’s Han?” she asks the owner of the car – the intruder, she thinks.

“Oh.” The man studies her from head to toe, and then curves his lips in sad smile, as if he wants to offer compassion. “You don’t know?”

Her stomach sinks.

“Know what?” she asks, even though deep down she can sense the answer.

“Han’s dead,” another smuggler joins in. His tone is less sensitive than the one of his colleague, and he looks as if he barely refrains from rolling his eyes. “The old fart had it coming.”

She wants to be surprised, but she isn’t.

She wants it to hurt, but it doesn’t.

She wants to jump at the man and claw his eyes out.

She counts to ten.

“Bala-Tik, for God’s sake, show some respect,” the first man snaps. “Han Solo was a living legend in the street. And it was a fucking ugly way to go, really.”

Rey takes a deep breath.

“Was he…” She needs a moment to control her voice. “Was he shot?”

She points at her forehead, touching the place between her eyebrows. The first smuggler solemnly nods.

“See, Tasu.”  Bala-Tik smiles triumphantly. “Even little girls know the old fart had it coming.”

She should cry, she thinks, it is an appropriate moment, but the tears won’t come. In a strange daze, she stares at the two men, realizing that tomorrow she won’t be able to remember their faces.

 “It’s his unhealthy obsession with Kylo Ren that got to him,” Bala-Tik continues. “It wasn’t normal – all those questions, all the time. Seek for the devil and you’re bound to find him. The First Order doesn’t put up with snoopers.”

“Kylo Ren is a violent psycho,” Tasu says, and for a second Rey isn’t sure if she feels grateful or offended by the comment.

Bala-Tik frowns.

“Now you show some respect! Kylo Ren is doing so much for the nation, with all what’s happening across the border. He fights and bleeds for us, you should be thankful!”

“Maybe,” Tasu sighs, wrinkling his nose. “But it doesn’t change the fact he’s a violent psycho. And poor Han deserved better.” 

“I, um, I…” Rey interrupts their argument. She cannot stand to stay a moment longer in this overly crowded place. “I need to go.”

As she runs, bumping into passersby, all she can hear are the crows.

On her way to the Home for Children without Parental Care, in the tram, Rey feels the passengers’ eyes on her. She touches her face, only to discover it is wet with tears. How odd. She wasn’t even aware she was crying.

Her mind is blank.

Yet still, Rey ponders.

She’ll never know what happened exactly. She can only speculate – and as time passes and the tram gets closer to the Home, too many scenarios arise in the back of her mind. She tries to picture the scene. Where did they stand in that white and beige apartment? Did they argue? Who said what, and in what tone of voice? Did Kylo yell and growl, or was he quiet and creepy? Did Han say too much and go a step too far in his sad bitterness, did he even manage to apologize? In what moment exactly did Kylo pull out the gun? Did he shoot straight out, or did he hesitate?

Did his hand tremble?

Was there a blood stain on the wall?

She tortures herself, she knows. Guesswork has never done anyone any good.

There is only one thing that is certain, however. It’s her fault.

 

*** 

 

By early June, Rey has lost so much weight she can button up her only dress again. She still throws it to the trash.

She also tosses her Walkman into the same garbage bin she found it in.

Finn has to nudge her to eat. Now and again, she finds it annoying, and she snaps at him and argues – yet deep inside, she’s grateful. She knows that his days in the Home are about to expire. Once that happens, he won’t be able to stay by her side at all times, and she has no idea what she’ll do when he goes away. Initially she panics, but then she decides it’s a good thing. It will force her to learn to rely on no one but herself.

She’ll never grow dependent on someone again, she swears.

At first, her school grades plummet, and Maz calls her for a series of serious conversations. The psychologist patiently smiles, smokes and downs one coffee after another, and she asks all kinds of roundabout questions, trying to trick Rey into revealing what’s really wrong. But Rey doesn’t say a thing. Instead, she decides to focus on school – doubling her efforts, doing homework in advance, seeking solace in the world of facts and figures, formulas and equations. By the end of the school year, as she completes her eighth grade, she’s the best in her class. Maz finally stops prying and nods proudly. In spite of Unkar protesting that it’s not practical, she decides to go to a proper high school – a gymnasium. It will open new doors for her, she concludes, and that’s what she needs. She’ll be able to proceed to university.

Rey remembers well what Maz told her once. The only way out of this motherfucking country is to get a degree.

She doesn’t go out much these days. The entire city feels contaminated. She chooses to see it as something she can use to her advantage – the more time she spends indoors, the more she can study.

Yet even though her waking hours are structured, and busy, and organized, Rey dreams.

On some nights, she dreams about the dark alley – chestnut trees and pale streetlights and cobblestones and stray cats scattered in shadowy corners, their eyes glistening in the night. Sometimes, everything plays out the way it did that night, only in the end Kylo shoots, and she finds herself with Finn’s blood splattered all over her dress. Sometimes, it is her that Kylo holds at gunpoint – she stares at the muzzle, helpless, yet he only grins, his face deformed, his eyes yellow like a wolf’s. She cries, tasting the salt of her tears, begging him not to do it, and the dream ends with the clicking of the trigger.

Those are good dreams, however. At least, in them, everything is clear.

On other nights, Rey dreams that all is fine. They’re celebrating her birthday in his dining room. He fastens the pendant around her neck, and then he leans forward, and this time she doesn’t turn away. He’s kissing her, kissing her. His lips are soft and she feels his tongue in her mouth, and the smell of amber and musk makes her head spin. His body feels so firm against her breasts, and she yearns to touch more of his naked skin. She gasps as his hands slide under her dress, calloused fingertips caressing the inside of her thighs. She wakes up in sweat, with an uncomfortable throbbing between her legs, and she hates herself. She cannot fall asleep afterwards.

Yet, there are worse dreams than that. 

There are nights when she dreams of the Fortress. The sunset is more dramatic than it actually was on that day – vibrant purple and pink and red, with stars already visible in the sky like a dash of silver glitter. She takes him all the way up to the ramparts, and they talk, and she studies the moles on his profile against the brightness of the constellations. But then she decides she’s had enough, and she hops and slides down the rampart stones with ease. She doesn’t wait for him, nor does she offer him her hand. She knows he’s stranded without her, unable to descend by himself. She knows he depends on her. Yet she abandons him up there, a desperate figure tall against the starry sky, and she walks away, not looking back.

When she wakes up, she cries.

She’ll never admit that she misses him. Never.

At first, she sees him everywhere. In every dark coat and leather jacket, in every too-tall young man with long black hair, in every pair of large hands and broad shoulders – in every street, in every park, on every bench. It feels like a trap made to measure, and she fears she’ll never escape. So she grits her teeth and squares her shoulders, and works hard on convincing herself it’s all in her head. There is life outside of him, she tells herself. There must be. The spell works only partly, she finds, but it’s good enough to survive.

Sometimes, she wonders how come he let her go so easily. She does not understand. She won’t say it, but she’s almost disappointed.

He’ll strike again, she believes. Monsters do that.

One day, when she least expects it, she’ll find him waiting for her in the night, tall and brooding, his hair in his face, his eyes mad, smoke and shadows swirling around his dark coat. It is inevitable. She’ll be well prepared, though. She has long rehearsed all the things she wants to yell at him. Sometimes, she wishes for it to happen already – she’s tired of their imaginary arguments, it is about time he hears what she has to say. On other days, however, she feels insecure and frightened, and she hopes that the confrontation will never come to pass, and she’ll continue to hone her fighting prowess until she’s really strong enough to resist him.

Every day, every hour, she waits for him to return to her life.

But he doesn’t.

He doesn’t.

 

 

END OF PART ONE

 

Chapter Text

PART TWO:

H U N K Y   D O R Y

 

 

Seimeni

 

 

 

The Capital, December 1996

 

 

“Embarrass me in front of my friends,” Paige declares, her index finger menacingly pointed at the winter sky, “and I’m gonna kill you all. No mercy. I know exactly where to bury your bodies so that no one will ever dig out your bones.”

Rey struggles to contain her laughter. Over the years, she grew fond of Paige’s deadpan sense of humor – all the more when the older girl’s colorful threats are specked with grains of truth.

“Paige, dear, you know you can count on me.” She nods wisely. “I’ll even help you cut up the bodies and clean away the blood.”

“Hey!” Rose protests. She tries to elbow Rey in the ribs, but Rey makes a calculated step back, Rose’s blow landing in empty air. “You’re forbidden to conspire with my sister in matters that are clearly aimed against me!”

Rey gives up and starts giggling, her chortle louder as Rose’s face flushes a deeper red.

“Rose, love of my life, light of my eyes, not my fault you get excited way too easily.” Rey looks at Paige who promptly nods in agreement.

Rose frowns, deep lines furrowing her brow.

“Do not!” she exclaims a tad too defensively. She looks as if she’s about to burst into tears. For a second, Rey can't tell if her friend is simply playing along, or she’s upset in all seriousness.

Weird. Rose is prone to oversharing, bless her – she usually tells her everything, even things Rey doesn’t want to hear, which have necessitated stepping up her skills of pretending to listen and nodding at appropriate moments. But now, it seems as if Rose is keeping a secret. It’s so obvious it’s comical.

She studies her for a moment. Even though her body is turned towards Paige, arms crossed in a resolute stance, Rose is discreetly, from the corner of her thick glasses, looking at Finn. 

Ah.

Finn shakes his head and pouts, blissfully unaware of the position he has found himself in. Rey wonders if she should tell him, or keep her mouth shut, bring on the proverbial popcorn and let the soap opera unfold.

“Here’s an idea: how about we all calm down now.” Frozen puffs of breath mix with the smoke of Finn's half-burned cigarette when he speaks. “We’ve got stuff to do, right? So let’s get it over with, before I’m forced to put this shit in my ears to cope not only with the goddamn noise, but also with your yapping.” He takes out a pack of silicone ear plugs from his pocket and pushes them in Paige’s face theatrically. “Spent a fortune on them already.”

“Whatever you say, non-aligned boy,” Paige snorts, knowing very well that Finn hates that nickname. “God forbid that your sensitive ears spend a moment longer exposed to the noise.”

Finn is right, however – the ruckus is indeed unbearable.

It’s seven-thirty in the evening, and the streets are chock-full of people. There are tens of thousands souls in the crowd – maybe even more. Everyone came well-armed: whistles, trumpets, alarm sirens, bells large and small, key chains, rattles, squeaky toys, pot lids paired up like cymbals, wooden spoons banging against frying pans, anything that can ring, blare, squeal, clatter, roar, drum or produce any kind of noise, the more obnoxious the better. Everybody participates – elderly ladies, their wrinkled faces blue from the effort of blowing their whistles, young couples walking terrified dogs whose barking contributes to the cacophony, children who have no clue what’s going on, yet enthusiastically bang their pots and turn their rattles. In a street nearby, there is a particularly creative man who took his vacuum cleaner out to the balcony and attached a concert trumpet to the hose. It must be quite a sacrifice, Rey thinks, for the instrument is expensive and she can imagine it wasn’t meant to be played by a vacuum cleaner, but the sound the contraption makes is deliciously hellish. Every evening as they pass by his building, she makes sure to wave to the man who stands elatedly on the balcony, wielding the howling trumpet like a parade flag.

It’s seven-thirty in the evening, and the noise ritual is repeated day after day, for almost a month.

In early November, a fucking miracle happened.

For the first time since this mock-up democracy was introduced after the fall of communism, allowing the people to vote for whomever they saw fit – even though, at the end of the day, the regime would always find ways to triumph – the opposition won the elections.

Local elections, that is.  

To her dismay, Rey wasn’t able to vote – with her eighteenth birthday a few frustrating months away, these were the last elections she had to skip. Still, she followed the situation obsessively, huddling with Rose in the small room they shared in the school dorms, listening to the news on screeching underground radio stations as votes were counted all over the country. The results were so outrageously hopeful that the girls jumped and cheered aloud, pinching themselves to make sure that it was real. Seven major cities, including the capital, were lost to the regime. The goddamn opposition won. The forces that disapproved of the war and advocated for values such as reconciliation and civil rights finally gained some power. Fucking unbelievable.

As it happened, however, the regime wasn’t about to surrender without a fight. The government lied about the election results – as simple as that.

However, what followed made Rey believe that not everything was forlorn in this miserable country of theirs.

The people rebelled.

Starting from November, every day they protest in the streets of the seven liberated cities, demanding justice and change and peace and the goddamn results acknowledged. They joke and come up with the funniest slogans, carrying banners that openly ridicule the regime. They play music that calls for a revolution so loudly that the speakers crackle, thousands of voices singing along in the crowd. They perform the noise ritual – at seven-thirty sharp, just as the regime’s main news program is about to begin, every capable citizen has the duty to rattle and clatter, in an attempt to outshout the government’s lies. And everybody happily does their part, the crowd only getting bigger as days go by.

There is joy and optimism in the streets, Rey thinks, and a long lost feeling of camaraderie. There’s no fear, but humor and hope that things actually can change for the better. It doesn’t even feel like an angry anti-government protest – more like a never-ending carnival.

It is fun.

But it seems that not all her friends share the sentiment.

“You disapprove.” Rey lowers her whistle and side-eyes Finn, slowing her pace so they can fall behind the Tico sisters. “I can feel you radiating waves of disapproval. The hell, Finn?”

Finn pushes the silicone plugs deeper into his ears, his movements deliberately slow.

“I hate the fucking noise.”

No matter how much he claims he paid for them, it seems that the plugs aren’t really effective, since he hears her well and still cringes as the ruckus gets louder. Rey sighs.

“We both know this isn’t just about the noise.”

Finn shakes his head curtly. She doesn’t enjoy this – poking at him, dancing around the subjects he doesn’t like to discuss. But she feels better when she has his approval for what she does, and all the sighing and frowning and jaded comments only confirm that Finn doesn’t have a high opinion of civic activism.

“It’s one thing to protest against the election theft,” he grumbles at last, lips curving in a scowl. “That, I can understand. But getting involved? You’re still in high school, Rey. You didn’t even vote. What makes you so desperate to get behind the scenes?”

Rey leans against him and gives him a half-hug, clinging onto the sleeve of his winter jacket. The fabric is slippery.

“You don’t get it, do you?” She reaches out to take the plug out of his ear, but he bats her hand away. “This isn’t about the local elections any longer. This is about true changes. There’s an uprising happening. You heard what Paige said about the student strike. These people, Finn, the students, the professors, they’re the ones who’re the backbone of the protests – not the bloody politicians, but them. They’re the real resistance fighters. They’re risking their studies and their careers to give the middle finger to the regime. You don’t find it inspiring? You don’t wanna shake their hands? Paige, she’s… She’s even friends with that Dameron guy!” 

The more passionately she speaks, the harder Finn rolls his eyes. It annoys her. She wants to explain it better, but she isn’t sure how – listening to herself, she indeed sounds childish and overzealous. But why can’t he understand that, after all the crap their country has been through, this could be their last chance at normalcy? If it goes well, Rey thinks, all will be right with the world. The reset button will be hit.

She won’t have to make those obsessive immigration plans any longer.

What would Maz do?

“It’s our saving throw to put a stop to the fucking end of times,” Rey says, and in spite of himself, Finn chuckles.

“This ain’t no uprising, sister. You’ll see,” he concludes grimly, finally returning her hug. “But fair enough, we'll go meet your resistance heroes. Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

He doesn’t say “again”, but the unspoken word hangs heavily between them. Rey frowns, her mood suddenly plummeting.

There are things they never talk about, the two of them. Not even after all these years.

There are things that are better left buried.

“You guys coming?” Paige looks back, waiving at them to hurry up. “The march will begin soon, and you don’t wanna miss Professor Organa’s speech.”

Rey speeds up her pace, pulling at Finn’s sleeve to make him follow.

The student strike began a few days after the street protests. Their demands are essentially the same – more democracy, less lies – but the strike leaders have distanced themselves from the opposition parties, insisting they don’t advocate for political options, but for fundamental social reforms. That’s exactly what Rey likes about it – that, and the fact that the cleverest slogans and the boldest speeches came straight from the university amphitheaters. From a distance, it looks like a world that Rey wishes to be a part of. Now that she’s about to see it up close, she’s genuinely excited, Finn’s naysaying be damned.

Leaving the noise behind them, they arrive at the Faculty of Philosophy, the unofficial headquarters of the student strike. Rey must mind her step: the floor of the entrance hall is sticky, covered with crushed cigarette butts, crumpled leaflets and empty water bottles, with an occasional beer can here and there. There are sleeping bags in the corners – she knows that many students, and even some professors, sleep at the university, and Rose told her that Paige often stayed overnight. Rey chuckles at the graffiti on the walls – best wishes to the president and his lovely wife indeed. The air is stuffy, and it’s so warm inside that droplets of sweat trickle down her back underneath her coat.

Still, it reeks of victory.

Rey feels the awe exactly as she hoped she would, and dammit, the sensation is wonderful.

“Just follow me.” Paige navigates them through the corridors, greeting fellow students on the way with a pat on the back or a kiss on the cheek. She knows all their names, Rey notes, and they exchange in-jokes and gossip and information that actually sounds like something rebellion leaders would talk about. Rey’s fascinated – she knew that Rose’s sister was a badass, but seeing her in action is different.

She wishes she could be like that one day.

When they enter the central amphitheater, a young man waves to Paige. Rey knows who he is.

She’s stumbled upon his pictures in newspapers, since he gave interviews to every independent journalist willing to listen, always sounding measured and charming and oh so smart. Seeing him in person is surreal – almost like meeting a movie star – and Rey must focus on shushing the ticklish feeling of anticipation that blossoms in her stomach.

“Hey Paige,” the man says, his smile impeccable. “I see you brought reinforcements.”

In person, Poe Dameron is disappointingly short – they’re the same height, Rey notes. His skin is pleasantly tanned even though it’s the middle of winter, and his dark eyes are framed with long lashes that soften his cocky demeanor. He speaks with a strong Southern drawl, an unexpected feature for someone who became the poster boy of the capital’s academic circles, and he carries himself with the proficient confidence of a man who is well aware that his every move is judged by the public. Still, he manages to make it come across as natural.

“Told you I would.” Paige gives him a quick hug. “These are my kid sister, and her roommate, and um, a friend.”

“I’m Rey,” she blurts, extending her hand. She feels her lips spreading into a hopelessly girlish smile she can't control.

“Delighted to meet you.” Poe holds her hand a moment longer than necessary. Rey can tell she’s blushing – her palms are sweating, and the heat in the amphitheater suddenly becomes unbearable. Behind her, Rose quietly sniggers.

“And I thought I’m the one who gets easily excited,” she murmurs, yet it isn’t discreet enough.

Poe Dameron gracefully pretends he didn’t hear. “Welcome to the rebellion, guys. Loads of stuff to do around here. Now, come. The speeches are about to begin. Professor Organa will take the floor, it’s bound to be spectacular.”

Poe and Paige lead the way toward the front seats of the amphitheater, where the other strike leaders are gathered.

“You like him,” Finn says, leaning to whisper into her ear. It’s not a question.

“Finn!” She tries to be quiet, yet Paige throws her a stern glance of disapproval.

“You totally like him. I can see why – the big soulful eyes, the Latin lover smile, the swagger, the heroic aura of a resistance leader, even the accent…”

“For fuck’s sake,” she snorts. “You sound as if you like him.”

Finn chuckles, but the laughter does not reach his eyes.

“I’m not judging, sister. I actually think it’s good. It’s time you start liking guys, y’know. Even if it’s fucking Dameron.”

“Not interested,” Rey grumbles determinedly, even though she isn’t sure that’s entirely true. Her dignity feels oddly hurt. “I’m here for the protests, not for dating.”

“I know, peanut, I know.” Finn pulls her into a hug, and she happily leans into his arms. “Just teasing you. Now let’s hear what this professor everybody talks about has up her sleeve.”

There are three people standing next to the lecture podium: an older man and two women.

“Allow me to give you a brief introduction.” Poe Dameron turns towards them with a dashing smile, gesturing at the professors. “Over there, that’s Gial Ackbar. Used to teach Roman Law, but he’s long retired. As old as yonder, as deaf as a doorpost. Still, he’s a legend of the old guard – was one of the professors who participated in the student riots back in 1968. Probably the last one still alive.” 

The old man scratches his large bald head, his bulging, fish-like eyes scanning the crowd as if he isn’t quite sure what’s expected of him.

“That’s Amilyn Holdo.” Poe points at the thin woman in an elegantly tailored coat. Her silver bangles clank as she reaches to tuck a strand of perfectly coiffed hair behind her ear. “She’s the Head of the Department of Psychology here at the Faculty and one of the first professors who have openly supported the strike. She runs the headquarters. Don’t let the obscenely expensive designer clothes fool you, she’s one mean… um, person.”

His smile falters almost unnoticeably, but Rey can tell there’s something peculiar between Professor Holdo and Poe Dameron. Perhaps, one day, she’ll learn what happened there.

“And finally, here’s our General, as we call her.” There’s clear admiration in Poe’s voice as he introduces the other woman – short, slightly overweight, with lipstick too dark and hair arranged in an elaborate updo that Rey finds fascinating and silly at the same time. Still, the woman’s posture is commanding and regal, but without appearing arrogant – like a natural born leader who inspires respect with ease, someone you’ll be happy to follow into the depths of hell.

There’s fire in this woman’s eyes, Rey thinks, and it’s genuine. It’s been a long time since she’s met someone so intense.

“Professor Leia Organa,” Poe explains. “She used to teach at the Faculty of Political Science, but resigned after refusing to incorporate the regime’s propaganda into her courses. She’s the brains behind what we’re doing here. But you’ll figure it out for yourselves. Just listen.”

Professor Organa takes a step forward and raises her hands. Instantly, the entire amphitheater falls silent, as if following an order. The students lean forward, eager to hang onto every word, and Rey must admit she’s impressed.

“These people,” the Professor begins, her voice throaty, yet surprisingly pleasant, “they ruined my country for me.”

The statement is met with an attempt at applause, but Leia Organa promptly cuts it short.

“And let me clarify that. I am not talking about the misery they brought onto us – the chaos, the corruption, the impunity of crime. The war and all they did in the war even if they deny it. The sanctions and the isolation. The poverty. The hunger – hunger for peace, for dignity, for a normal life. This isn’t about the shit we’ve been through in these six years since they’re in power.”

The Professor wields the swear word with striking precision, and Rey catches herself grinning. Funny how a detail like that can instantly make her feel closer to the woman they call the General.

“This is about something much more personal,” Professor Organa continues. “They ruined my country for me.”

She pauses, letting the words sink in. The crowd is silent, everyone waiting for the next line.

“All these years, these six horrible years, they’re telling me that what they’re doing, these atrocities, it’s done in my name. The national interest. We know it’s their favorite excuse. But think carefully about what these words mean. The national interest is not an abstract term from political theory. It is something that concerns every single one of us. Me.” She points to her chest. “You as well – all of you sitting in this room should know that these people claim they do what they do in your name too. Can you imagine how it makes me feel?”

Rey can imagine it very well. She bites her lip, finding herself more engrossed in the speech than she expected.

“I feel shame. Shame. I’m ashamed of my country and its ‘national interest’. I’m embarrassed to say where I’m from, when foreigners ask. I cringe at the national flag – because of these people, I don’t see it as a symbol of pride, but as a brand of disgrace standing for the atrocities done in my name. These people, you see, they made ‘patriot’ feel like a dirty word. They corrupted something sacred. And you know what? I will never, ever forgive them for that.”

The faces in the crowd solemnly nod. She feels Finn tense behind her, his hug suddenly becoming stronger. She reaches out to squeeze his hand in support.

“Our task is to reclaim our patriotism,” Leia Organa declares. “To win back our country. To be free – free of shame, free of war, free of corruption – and to wield our flag with pride. To be a part of the world again, accepted and respected in the global community. Do you think we can do that?”

The audience roars, and the turmoil feels so uplifting that Rey almost joins in. Professor Organa smiles, nodding in approval – and all of a sudden, something in her posture feels vaguely familiar, opening the floodgate to blurred memories Rey cannot define.

She doesn’t know what just happened, but it’s enough to undermine her excitement. She keeps listening.

“The world judges us based on what these people do. On the map of Europe, we’re the blacked-out zone: here, there be dragons. Vain, haughty, reveling in martyrdom, happy to kill in the name of the fucking national interest. They see us as the aggressor: the men in camo uniforms massacring civilians for fun. The rapists. The fairy tale villains. In the eyes of the world, we’re the monster.”

Rey gasps.

It’s a word she hates. She banned it from her own vocabulary a long time ago. But used like a punchline, the forbidden word sounds disturbingly powerful.

Bloody hell.

“Tonight, we must prove the world wrong. They’ll be watching: the CNN, the BBC, the French and the Italians and the Germans, all those who’ve been calling us the monster for the past six years. They’ll be in the streets, filming our protests. And we must show them how mistaken they are. They must see that here, in this shithole, there are decent people – thousands of good, honest, peace-loving people who’re brave enough to fight the regime and work hard to turn our country into a better place. Again, do you think we can do that?”

The entire amphitheater erupts into cheers. Rey realizes she’s participating as well, clapping frenetically, her palms almost numb. Behind her, Finn huffs – he doesn’t applaud, but she can tell he’s not unmoved.

“Here’s what we’ll do.” The General raises her fist above her shoulder to underline the point. “Tonight we’ll march, joining the protests against the robbed elections. And we’ll carry a banner. There’s a very important message on that banner – it says ‘We Are Part of the World’.”

Chills run down Rey’s spine – yet it feels so empowering.

“The world must hear our message loud and clear, and they must see you carrying it – our youth, our future. And we’ll be cunning when we do this. Girls.” She reaches out her hands towards Paige and a group of young women standing nearby. “I want you in the front row carrying the banner, together with me. If the world imagines us as thugs and brutes, we must clearly demonstrate how fucking different we are.”    

The applause is so loud that it rivals the noise outside. Rey inhales deeply, lightheaded with excitement and heat – she’s surprised by how much she enjoys the feeling.

Paige and other women promptly jump at the podium, taking the banner from Professor Holdo and unfolding it. The cloth is white, the letters are bold and red, and the banner is large – it will take quite a few people to carry it.

“I wanna do it too,” Rey says.

Finn wrinkles his nose.

“Sister. What did we say about not doing stupid shit?”

“This is not stupid, Finn. This is the right thing to do.” Her voice doesn’t falter, and for once she doesn’t sound like an overexcited child – she’s almost proud of herself.

Finn studies her for a long moment. His brows furrow slightly, but it’s not disapproval she senses from him. It’s worry, perhaps, with a strange touch of sadness.

“Go on then,” he sighs at last. “Do your right thing.”

Rose Tico is already at the podium, taking her place next to her sister as they fumble with the banner. When Rey joins them, Rose gives her the sweetest smile ever, beaming from ear to ear – it’s so endearing Rey wants to pinch her cheek. Paige nods, almost as if it’s a military salute, and even Poe Dameron flashes a brief smile from his position next to Professor Organa.

Leia Organa raises her head and straightens her spine. Even though she barely reaches Rey’s chin despite her puffy hairstyle, the General looks genuinely grand.

“And now we march,” she states, her tone almost playful.

When they exit the Faculty carrying the banner, the winter cold and the screaming noise biting hard after an hour spent in the stuffy classroom, Rey thinks that she has never before in her life felt more powerful.

Over the next couple of weeks, she spends every moment of her free time at the Faculty of Philosophy.

She helps clean up. She volunteers to distribute leaflets. To her surprise, she develops a talent for talking to people – as days go by, she cracks wittier and raunchier jokes about the regime when she invites passersby to join the protests. People tell her they like her smile. True, sometimes unpleasant things happen – not everyone supports the protests, and there are those who’ll crumple the leaflets and spit on her for what she’s doing – but she quickly learns to read people’s faces, assessing who might be an ally and who’s better left alone. She takes money from Paige and another girl – she thinks the name’s Kaydel – and sometimes even Amilyn Holdo herself to go and buy water and sandwiches for the camping students. Lately, however, more and more people bring them food – middle-aged housewives who bake the cookies themselves, restaurant owners who deliver entire wagons of pizzas, warm cheese melting on cardboard boxes. She unloads the wagons together with the boys, and they tease her when she steals a slice.

Every evening, she marches together with the others, carrying the banner that says “We Are Part of the World” in big red letters. She looks at the protesters in the streets who bang their pots and blow their whistles and wave at the students as they march by, sending kisses, raising fists – and yes, dammit, it makes her feel better. There is hope.

She works hard. She’s always had a knack for working hard, but now, it feels sweeter somehow – it has a purpose. The peak of her resistance efforts is when, one day, Poe laughs so hard at a joke she made that he orders it to be printed as a slogan. It makes her snicker for days.

Day after day, Rose is there with her. They go to the Faculty together after school, and Paige is very proud that her little sister fits in so well. Finn comes along sometimes, but not too often, and he smokes too much while he walks behind Rey during the march, poking her in the back, murmuring cynical comments. She loves him for being there, but she doesn’t tell him that. She expects he knows.

She prods Professor Ackbar to tell her stories about 1968, shouting like a fishwife so that he can hear her questions. She enjoys chatting with Poe Dameron – the master of big smiles and small talk and lighthearted flirting that ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. She’s not sure if she’s disappointed or relieved. But what makes her feel the most pride is when Leia Organa, the General herself, starts greeting her with a warm smile and a slight bow. She’s startled to learn that Professor Organa knows her name.

As weeks go by, Rey comes to a strange realization: she’s happy. It took her a while to recognize the feeling.

She had forgotten what it’s like. 

A few days before New Year’s Eve, when the school year is over and the holidays are about to begin, Rose and Paige leave for their hometown. The Tico sisters come from a mining place in the Southeast of the country – a rusted, impoverished hellhole, as Rose describes it, ruined by sanctions and industrial collapse and shady privatization when a regime-friendly tycoon bought the mines and laid off more than half of the workers. Still, Rose is happy to spend the holidays with her parents, and Rey isn’t sure if she envies her, or rejoices that she’ll have the room entirely for herself.

She keeps spending time at the Faculty, even without Rose. The protests are ongoing, entering their second month, with neither the government nor the people willing to yield. There are rumors about a huge event for New Year’s Eve, taking place on the capital’s main square – a celebration that will at the same time be a rebel yell, with many famous musicians playing for free, risking their careers to support the revolts. Everybody’s excited about the preparations, and Rey counts the days remaining until 1997.

On a Friday in late December, a particularly cold evening with crisp air and cloudy skies closing over the city as if a snowstorm is about to arrive, Rey stays at the Faculty longer than usual – too many things to do, too many people to talk to. Looking at her watch, she’s afraid she’ll miss the curfew. It’s later now than it was when she was living in the Home, but she’s still expected to be in her room at a reasonable hour.

She rushes to the school dorms taking shortcuts from the bus stop, her footsteps resonating in dark streets. Her toes are freezing and the woolen hat makes her ears itch. She wonders when the snow will begin. Hopefully, the weather won’t be too foul for New Year’s Eve.

There’s someone in the street, she sees: a lone figure squatting on the sidewalk, back leaned against the building, body wrapped in a large jacket with a hood. A homeless man, she assumes. He’s not having it easy – the bone-chilling wind blows right through his clothes, and he’s sitting on the frozen pavement all cramped up, hood pulled tight over his head. Perhaps he’s too drunk to care.

She starts fumbling through her pockets, her fingers numb in thin gloves. If she finds some change to spare, she’ll toss him a dime – she’s in a good mood, why not share the joy with those whom life has treated with a kick in the groin. It’s a feeling she knows well, after all. 

As she approaches, however, the man shifts, and she notices how unusually large he is.

Rey stops for a moment. She feels the hair on the back of her neck standing up.

It doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t.

She pulls her hand out of her pocket and hurries her step, head bowed, not looking in the man’s direction.

But just as she is about to pass him by, the man rises.

He’s fucking tall.

No.

The feeling is unreal – as if, all of a sudden, all the sounds are sucked out from the night, and the air becomes too thick to breathe.

She wishes to run, but her legs are cemented to the floor.

The man steps under the streetlight and pulls down his hood, long black hair spilling on his shoulders.

It’s been almost three years.

His lips twitch into a non-smile, and he whispers, his voice rasping like the winter wind.

“Rey.”

 

Chapter Text

And Fools Don’t Run Away

 

 

 

He looks like shit.

His hair is too long, falling across his face in greasy strands as if he hasn’t washed it for days. He grew out his beard again – it’s thicker than when they first met, but unkempt, as if it’s too much of a hassle to shave. His skin is sleek with sweat and ghostly pale, with red patches around nose and lips, and his moles stand out like wound scabs. Across his right cheek and all the way to his forehead, there is a scar, swollen as if not fully healed, its color an angry pink. It looks painful as it tugs on his flesh.

His eyes are bloodshot – she can tell he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for far too long. Still, he stares at her with the same intensity that she remembers.

Rey knows she should be terrified, but somehow, all she feels is confused.

“Been a while,” he says.

Been a while indeed. Three fucking years.

She used to wonder where he had gone.

He had removed himself from her life with remarkable efficiency – no trace, no attempts at contact, no accidental meetings. No threats, most importantly. Vanished into thin air. Years went by, and he didn't reappear.

Often, she hoped he was dead. Shot in the head somewhere in the war zone, his fancy black coat rotting on his bones in an unmarked grave.

It would be a good ending, Rey thought. If he were really dead, then one day she’d finally dare to speak about him. After a glass too many, she’d share the cautionary tale of her first love that ended in tragedy, and he’d turn into an anecdote – a harmless piece of gossip to entertain friends when drunk. 

But things didn’t go that way.

What brings him back after three years? Why now, when she has stopped obsessing over him?

There are many insults she prepared, in case they ever met again. Murderous snake. Sick son of a bitch. There are arguments she practiced, accusations she honed, all these fuck-yous and how-could-yous she waited to hurl in his face. But now that he’s finally in front of her, she’s astonished by the first words she says to him.

“Are you alright?”

His non-smile widens, but it only makes him look more pitiful.

“You mean this?” He touches the scar on his cheek. “It’s nothing. I, um… I had a little accident.”

Rey nods, observing him. He looks strange: his face is angular like he’s lost weight, yet his shoulders are even broader than before, as if he’s bulked up in these three years. She imagines the rippling muscles under that hooded jacket he's wearing. His body doesn’t feel familiar any longer.

She feels at a loss.

“I’m late,” she finally says, because she has to say something.

“I know. Froze my ass off waiting for you here.”

So he wants something. Of course he does.

She has no idea how to talk to him. It would be easier if she were terrified.

“I’ll be in trouble,” she adds after a while, more conversationally than it's appropriate. She won’t get to simply walk away, she knows – it’s just that a part of her wants to postpone the moment when he reveals what he’s come for.

“You won’t. Don’t worry about that.” He shakes his head with such certainty that he gives himself away.

Rey feels so relieved she could laugh.

At the end of the day, even with sorrowful eyes and unhealed scars, he’s still this evil villain of doom who thinks he has the god-given permission to intrude on people’s lives. She feels anger rising in her chest, and it’s good, it’s good.

Sick son of a bitch.

“What did you do, Kylo?” she spits. “Threatened you’d break someone’s kneecaps if I’m not allowed to stay out at night?”

“I pulled strings.” He shrugs casually, as if he doesn’t see anything wrong with the situation.

Fuck.

It dawns on her that all this time, in these three years in which she started believing she’s managed to gain control over her life, she’s never been safe.

The realization hits her so hard that she instinctively takes a step back.

She wonders, if she breaks into a run now, will she be faster than him? If she screams, will anyone come to her aid?

Or has he pulled strings there as well?

“I need to talk to you,” he whispers, his voice tinted with a longing she’s deeply familiar with. She hates it. “Don’t look at me like that. I mean no harm.”

“You’re capable of that?” Rey raises her chin. “Meaning no harm?”

He puts his hands in his pockets, his movements abrupt, and she flinches - she dreads what he may take out from there. But then she sees that he’s trembling and realizes that he’s just cold, frozen from sitting on the pavement in goddamn December.

May he get pneumonia.

“You’re cruel, aren’t you?” Kylo says softly, and it only stirs her anger more, because how dare he call someone else cruel, how fucking dare he. “Fine. Have it your way. Ask me.”

He doesn’t make sense.

“Ask you what?”

“You know what.” He cocks his head. “He told me, you see. That night he came knocking on my door, he told me how he found out where I lived.”

Fuck you, Kylo.

The blow is so strong that she feels as if it has knocked the wind out of her lungs.

She worked hard on this. Too hard, for too long. She rationalized it, broke it down to components, countered each agonizing, self-flagellating thought with reasonable arguments as to why it could have happened anyway. She built walls, brick by brick, grasping at straws in order to survive. She managed to convince herself that, no matter what, she still had the right to sleep, to eat, to wake up in the morning and make plans for the future. It wasn’t her, she repeated the mantra until the words wore down, it wasn’t her, it wasn’t, she’s not the one who made the decision to pull the trigger.

He has no right to tear it all down.  

“Rey, don’t,” Kylo suddenly says. “I did it. Not you. So ask me.”

She pauses. She didn’t expect this.

She stares at the scarred man with his shoulders too broad as if she’s seeing him for the first time.

It’s not that she trusts him, oh no – not after everything. Then again, it seems like he actually wants to talk about it. To get something off his chest, perhaps. Or to confuse her even further.

She’ll never understand him – and once, she believed him to be her soulmate.

“Did you…” She hopes her voice won’t falter. “Did you really hate your father so much that…?”

“I didn’t hate my father,” he interrupts her, as if all this time he was waiting for someone to ask him the right question.

Again, he doesn’t make sense.

“Then why did you… Why…” She can't articulate it.

Kylo finally smiles baring his teeth, but his eyes reveal nothing but misery. He doesn’t force her to finish the sentence.

“Because I’m a monster, remember?”

His voice trembles with barely suppressed grief – and suddenly, her rage dissipates.

She can't stand to look at him.

“Do I have your attention now?”

Rey sighs. “What do you want, Kylo?”

Her tone is rougher than she intended, but she decides it’s better that way.

“Tomorrow…” he begins. “Tomorrow, don’t go to protests.”

She did assume that his sudden reappearance could have something to do with her new life – but she wasn’t prepared for such a clear-cut command.  

“What…?”

“The shit you do every day. Leaflets. That stupid banner. Marching. Don’t do it.”

“Why?” It’s a stupid question, she realizes the moment she speaks, but she feels baffled and somewhat insulted, and she doesn’t know what else to say. “The fuck you care what I do?”

“There’s a… There’s a good reason not to do it tomorrow.” He fidgets as he stands, more visibly shivering from cold. “I’m not being told everything. But I do know enough. Don’t go out. Promise me.”

She stares at him, blinking. She’s trying to process his words, but it’s hard.

“The girl with glasses and her sister, they’re out of town, so they’re good,” he continues, and she feels panic spreading through her body. He knows so much, fuck, how come he knows so much?  “The traitor, maybe you should tell him. Ask him to come keep you company or something. He ain’t too keen on the protests anyway, and he’s a piece of shit, but I know he means a lot to you, so it’s better to keep him close. As for the others, I don’t give a fuck. You can tell them, for all I care, but I doubt that goddamn Dameron or that woman would listen to the voice of reason. Too stubborn for that.”

Cold sweat erupts on her back and she feels sick to her stomach.

“Kylo.” His name weighs heavily on her lips. “What will happen tomorrow?”

“I told you, they didn’t give me any details,” he huffs, raising his voice for the first time. “But don’t go out. Promise. Don’t make me come up with ways to keep you inside, because you know I can do that.”

He takes a step forward, lips twitching as if he can’t control a snarl, and suddenly she’s reminded of the dreams in which he had yellow eyes.

“I know you want me gone, but I won’t leave until you promise. Say it.”

Rey swallows.

“I, um, I… I’ll stay,” she stutters, loathing the intensity of his gaze. “I’ll stay home.”

She’ll tell him anything if it will make him go away, but a part of her is horrified that she actually means it.

He studies her for a long moment, unblinking.

“Good.”

And just like that, he turns around, ready to leave.

She barely believes it. It’s too fucking easy. Same as the last time.

But he never did really disappear, did he? For how long was he watching her – all this time, or just for the past few weeks when her face might have been caught by the cameras filming the protests?

Sick fuck. Creepy stalker.

“Will I see you again?” she suddenly says.

She has no idea why she asked him that. She wants to think it’s because she wishes him gone for good.

Kylo stops, turning back to look at her.

“Would you like that?”

Rey doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what to say.

“Thought as much.” He pulls the hood back, tucking his hair underneath. “Goodbye, Rey.”

She watches as he shambles into the night, his limbs stiff from the cold and his gait as inelegant as always, as if his own body is too much of a burden.

It’s only when he’s gone from sight that she allows herself to tremble.

When she arrives at the school dorms, well past the curfew, the night guard unlocks the door without a comment.

That night, for the first time in a long while, she dreams of Han.

They are somewhere on the seashore. Rey has never been to the sea, so she has no idea what the beaches of Han’s youth actually look like. In her dream, it resembles the Riviera from James Bond movies, with seagulls and open roof cars and tall cocktail drinks and women with cat sunglasses, and everybody’s speaking French. She’s younger than she is and she wears a dress. They sit on a restaurant terrace with a view of the beach, and they play cards. Han laughs and calls her “kid”, but he doesn’t explain the rules of the game to her, so she’s randomly flipping queens of hearts and fours of clubs and aces and eights. She keeps losing.

“This isn’t fair!” Rey whines in a singsong voice she’d never use while awake.

“Life ain’t fair,” Han says, but when she lifts her gaze from her hand of cards, it’s the long black hair of his son that she sees.

She wakes up late, her pillow soaked with sweat, and her head hurts so badly she hopes she has a fever. At least that would give her a real reason not to go out today.

But somewhere around noon, she realizes that no excuse will calm her conscience. She goes to the common room of the school dorms and asks to use the phone, saying she wants to call Rose, unsure why she lied. Then, when there’s no one standing too close, she dials the number of the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy.

It takes her four attempts until someone finally fetches Poe Dameron on the phone.

“How can I help, Rey of sunshine?”

She has no idea how to begin the conversation.

“Poe, I, um, I heard…” Rey stammers, trying to pick the right words. “I heard some rumors.”

“If it’s girls saying I’m the best lover they’ve ever had, I can assure you everything is true.”

She doesn’t find it funny.

“Poe, please. I heard these rumors. I think… I think something bad will happen at the protests today.”

There’s a pause on other the end of the line.

“Sunshine, we hear rumors like that every day,” Poe declares dryly. “Hell, several times a day. It’s not a big deal, trust me. Don’t worry about it.”

Rey doesn’t know how to get him to listen. She isn’t even sure what she’s trying to say.

“It’s from a reliable source.”

She hears him inhale deeply, and imagines him face-palming while he sits on the office desk.

“What source?”

Fuck. She twists the phone cord, wrapping the cable around her fingers. How does she explain this?

Poe doesn’t wait for her answer.

“Listen, sunshine, I gotta go. Let me tell you this. You’re young, you have no experience with how propaganda gossip works. If you’re nervous, that’s normal. So why don’t you stay home for today? You’ve worked very hard, you deserve a break. We need you well rested for New Year’s. And don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”

He hangs up before Rey can protest.

She feels like an idiot.

For a moment, she contemplates phoning again and asking for Professor Organa, but she quickly concludes she’ll never manage to reach the General.

Maybe Poe is right, she thinks. Maybe rumors fly all the time, and this is nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe the sick fuck simply lied.

She considers calling Finn to come over, but she realizes she’s not ready for the explanations she’ll owe him. At least she’s certain he won’t go to the protest without her.

Around five in the afternoon, when she usually leaves for the Faculty, Rey is still sitting in her bed.

She replays the meeting with Kylo over and over and over, until it becomes a background noise in her head, a recording she can't turn off.

He looked horrible. He tried to scare her. He threatened her. He was desperate, falling apart all over the place, untidy, unwashed. He wanted to talk about his father. He admitted he’s a monster. He fucking stalked her.

Still, he seemed to genuinely believe that whatever he tried to warn her about was real, and he left the moment she promised she’d stay safe. He didn’t look too eager to return to her life.

She’s angry. She feels that if she stays home, it would be an admission of defeat. She tries to comfort herself by thinking that, once in a while, she can take Finn’s advice on not doing stupid shit. There’s no shame in sitting out on one day of protests.

Besides, it’s what Poe Dameron told her to do.

She idles away the time solving crosswords and folding the clothes in her wardrobe and trying to read a romance novel that Rose has left lying around, which she throws across the room the moment the plucky heroine crosses paths with the moody yet handsome dark knight.

She should have called Finn, she thinks.

She’s lost the habit of being so alone.

It’s around eight in the evening that Rey notices something is amiss. She didn’t perceive it immediately, for the dorms walls are thick and Rose has stuffed pillows and crumpled newspapers between the window panes to keep the cold out, so their room is generally quiet. But it’s a sound she has grown accustomed to, and its absence feels alarmingly odd.

There is no noise.

Quickly, Rey jumps out of the bed and fumbles with the batteries of the pocket radio she and Rose keep for listening to underground stations.

The moment she hears the police sirens in the background and the reporter’s panicked voice, she knows.

The sick fuck was right.

She grits her teeth, forcing herself to focus on the news.

It’s not easy to follow the events with the reporter’s breathless rambling and the screeching of the signal, but from what she gathers, this is what happened.  

When the marching protesters reached the main city bridge, the riot police blocked their way. The protesters didn’t want to disband, and so the police intervened.

There was no visible reason for police intervention. Today’s protest was no different than yesterday’s or last week’s – same banners, same whistles and rattles, same revolutionary songs. Even the same route across the fucking bridge. Something did trigger the regime quite strongly, however, for the crackdown is brutal – the reporter sounds both furious and frightened as she describes the policemen’s stomping boots, batons, helmets and bulletproof shields, and terrified protesters who don’t know where to turn to and run on the bridge. There are water cannons and armored cars, she relates, and the sound of helicopters is loud in the winter sky. Her eyes are irritated by tear gas – it stings, she says, it hurts, she struggles to breathe, she can barely follow what's happening. Her voice is getting raspier. She sees people falling down the stairs of the bridge pushed by the policemen, bouncing like rag dolls, hitting their heads on the stone steps. There are claims that some protesters ended up in water – either tossed over the fence, or jumped on their own to save their lives, but she didn’t see it herself it so she can't confirm. The river is freezing. It’s fucking December.  

Rey pulls the blanket over her head, and lifts the radio to her ear.

There’s blood on the pavement, the reporter recounts. She almost slips. She runs, and it’s difficult for her to speak. For a few moments, Rey hears only panting and police sirens, and she closes her eyes, imagining she’s this woman. It takes her a while to get to a safe spot. The conflict is spreading, the reporter says, it has reached the streets near the bridge. She sees broken shop windows, there are glass shards everywhere, she isn’t sure whether the police or the protesters did it. Some protesters take up items from shops – to throw at the police? To steal? The reporter doesn’t know. Her eyes sting. No violence, the message is spreading, no violence, the reporter screams from the radio, if you fight back you’ll just give them the excuse they need to use lethal force.

She should be there, Rey thinks. She should be there and bleed there, and she was stupid enough to let him take it away from her.

It’s in that moment that someone knocks on the door of her room. Rey nearly jumps out of bed.

“Rey?”

It’s one of the girls living in the dorms, one of the very few who didn’t go back to their hometowns during the holidays.

“You have a phone call,” the girl says. “It’s a man.”

Rey’s breath hitches.

Of course. What did she expect?

Nodding curtly, Rey shoves the radio under her pillow – a silly gesture, but one that makes her feel safer. She wobbles barefoot to the common room, her socks slippery on the cheap linoleum.

At least she’ll be able to use all the insults she thought up in these three years, she thinks, pressing the receiver to her ear.

“Peanut!” Finn shouts. “You’re safe! I was worried sick!”

“Finn?”

She sounds more confused than she should be.

“Damn right! Are you okay? I mean, obviously you are, you’re not at the protest, but…” Finn’s voice falters. “Why aren’t you at the protest? What’s happening?”

“I had a fever this morning,” she says, unsure if it’s a complete lie or not. “Poe told me to stay home.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

Rey pauses. She can't think of a good reason why she didn’t. Her ears still buzz from the crackling of the radio station.

“Sister.” Finn knows how to interpret her silences. “Are you really okay?”

She waits a moment before she answers.

“I should be there, Finn. I should be in the street.”

“Rey.” Finn rarely uses her name. He makes it sound like a reprimand. “What happened today is despicable and unjust. But your personal contribution the clusterfuck would only be another cracked head for doctors to stitch up. So cut it out with the melodrama and take it easy on yourself. Stay home. I’d come, but the city’s under siege. Tomorrow’s a new day. We’ll see what the aftermath of this will be, and then you’ll know how you really can help.” 

Rey inhales deeply. He doesn’t know, and she can’t tell him, not yet, maybe not ever. She’s not ready to share yet another dark and dirty secret that will only reopen old wounds. But even so, Finn’s words are surprisingly soothing.

“You sound like Maz.”

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing.” Finn chuckles lightly, and she feels relieved. “Everyone deserves a Maz in their life. But seriously. Thank god you weren’t there. Now, stay safe. Be smart. And in the morning, we’ll make plans.”

She’s tempted to prolong the conversation, to talk about anything as long as he’s on the other side of the line, but Finn urges her to go rest and promises he’ll come over tomorrow.

When she hangs up, Rey notices she’s alone in the common room.

It’s quiet, almost eerily so, and a bit cold.

The walls are painted grey-green, a color that allegedly stimulates learning, but she finds it bleak, as if the shadows are closing in on her. The room smells like pine air-freshener – stale and artificial. It’s suffocating.

Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by a crushing feeling of loneliness.

She stares at the phone in front of her: a banged-up old thing, with numbers half-erased on its round dialer and a receiver held together with duct tape. Perhaps she could fix it, she thinks, if she gives it a try.

She puts the phone into her lap. For a long moment, she only breathes, counting to ten, to twenty, to fifty.

She thinks she should put the phone back to its place and go to her room and pull the blanket over her head and listen to the news. She thinks of cracked heads and fractured bones and smashed teeth, and tear gas that stings the eyes and burns the lungs, and people soaked wet from water cannons in fucking December.

Did someone die?

Still, she doesn’t move.

Why is she doing this? She shouldn’t be doing this.

She lifts up the receiver. She’d like to think that her hands tremble, but they don’t. The plastic circle crackles and ticks, spinning as she dials the number. She still knows it by heart.

She stares at the receiver before she finally presses it to her ear: it rings.

One.

Two.

Three times.

Of course there’s no one there. That place has probably been abandoned for some time. Who knows, maybe even the phone itself is out of service, only nobody bothered to disconnect the number, so now it’s ringing into the void.

But suddenly, there’s a click on the other end of the line.

“Armitage?”

Fuck.

She wasn’t ready for this.

It was a very stupid thing to do. She should hang up.

But wait. It means that three years later, three fucking years later, he’s still spending his evenings alone in his home, and he’s still living in the same apartment – how can he after what he did there? – and Armitage is still the only one who calls.

“Armitage, the fuck are you doing?”

It’s sad, she realizes. It’s goddamn depressing.

She breathes into the microphone. Even if she wanted to say something, words elude her.

She should hang up now.

“…Rey?”

It’s just a whisper, but the way he says her name makes her skin prickle. It always did.

She slams the receiver so hard she feels the plastic cracking in her hand.

Rey spends the rest of the night in her room, blanket wrapped around her legs, listening to the radio as the reporter relates that the violence has finally calmed down but there are still police everywhere, trying to fix the broken telephone receiver.

She doesn’t sleep.

Chapter Text

Sorrow in My Footsteps

 

 

 

“Can you explain it to me once again, but slowly?” Amilyn Holdo crosses her arms, the sharp-tailored shoulders of her blazer making her look formidable. “In which universe exactly what happened last night is a good thing?”

Poe Dameron blinks. He must have a nasty headache, Rey thinks, for there’s a visible bump on his forehead, protruding from a bruise so dark purple it’s almost black.

“I’m just saying that cards are finally on the table,” he rasps, his voice hoarse from tear gas. “The regime has demonstrated how evil it is.”

“Because we didn’t know that before?” Professor Holdo raises one perfectly shaped eyebrow.

“Because they showed their true face! It was uncanny, you know, that they allowed the protests to go on for almost two months without lifting a finger. Now we know how far they’ll go to get away with election theft!”

Professor Holdo sniffs. Her eyes are irritated, visibly red-rimmed in spite of proficiently applied makeup. 

“And all it cost us was countless people hospitalized, demoralized, scared to death, and who knows, maybe seriously crippled,” she hisses. “They do their job well, these police brutes – you were lucky, Dameron, just a smack on the head, they usually aim for internal organs. Liver. Kidneys. Makes you piss blood for life. It could have been avoided, if only we paid heed to the warnings. But hey, it’s a good thing – we’ve discovered that the regime is evil!”

She’s taller than him, Rey notes. He withdraws, both hands raised, and there’s a strange spark in his eyes – an emotion that Rey isn’t sure how to interpret.

“Amilyn, I…”

“That’s Professor to you, Dameron!”

She looks at him with such fury that Poe flinches like a child expecting a slap.

“Okay, that’s enough, both of you!” Leia Organa stands up from her desk and removes the large sunglasses that have been covering half of her face. Her eyes are badly swollen, Rey sees, as if she’s spent the entire night crying.

Rey wonders if it’s just the tear gas. Then again, Professor Organa doesn’t look like a person who gives in to despair – she cannot imagine the General in tears.

“Now, I don’t claim that it was a brilliant idea to wave away the warnings and rush into the trap, but there’s a point to what Poe is saying here,” she says vigorously, as if a sleepless night of violence and terror is nothing out of the ordinary. Rey envies her. 

“There is?” Amilyn Holdo plays with her long beaded necklace – if she twists it any more, it will snap.

“Think about it.” Professor Organa smirks. “The government is in a delicate position. On one hand, they don’t want to admit defeat and hand over the cities they lost. On the other, there’s the issue of the peace treaty they signed last year.”

It’s true, Rey thinks.

The war across the border did finish last December. It was quite a big deal – a majestic ceremony with presidents in tuxedos and army commanders in parade uniforms and tastefully dressed young women who handed out luxury pens to sign the treaties ending the conflict. It was broadcasted by every channel in the country, interrupting the regular program – Rey remembers people complaining they weren’t able to watch their favorite shows.

What was it again? A civil war? A war for secession? For independence? Everybody seemed to call it something different, Rey noticed. What’s important is that the region is pacified at the moment – or at least, that’s what the officials claim.

A question occurs to her. What does he do with his time now, when there’s no war to fight in?

Does he sit at home all day and wait for Armitage to call? Is he ever bored? What happened to him so that he ended up with a slash across his face in the times of peace?

Where does he go to vent?

For a brief second, she stops regretting her stupidity from last night. At least she knows he wasn’t in the street, doing ungodly things.

Rey closes her eyes. She won’t think about him.

“Since the regime took part in signing the treaties, they want the world to see them as peacemakers,” Professor  Organa continues, her smirk becoming playful. “Not that it works very well. The world still rolls its eyes at our government, and rightfully so. But they feel watched, and they want to make a good impression, so they’re careful. That’s the reason why they allowed the protests in the first place.”

Poe Dameron relaxes, no longer looking like a chastised pupil, and Professor Holdo lets go of her necklace.

They don’t pay any heed to Rey. Years have passed, and it seems she still cannot undo the curse of the Home children – in important situations, she’s invisible.

“I think they hoped that people would get bored and lose their momentum, that the protests would wither away naturally.” Leia Organa shrugs. “But that didn’t happen, so someone out there lost their patience and gave orders for yesterday’s mess. They wanted to teach us a lesson – yet it backfired on them.”

“Because it made them look bad?” Amilyn Holdo asks.

Professor Organa nods. “Because all foreign press agencies reported that the tyrannical government viciously cracked down on peaceful protests. It hurt their image really badly. And you know what it means?”

“They have to be nice for a while,” Poe Dameron concludes enthusiastically. “No police brutality.”

“Exactly.” Leia Organa spreads her arms triumphantly, as if she’s giving a speech. “Therefore, the protests can continue. And we’re going to throw one hell of a New Year’s party.”

So, everything is not as hopeless as it seemed yesterday – the incident will not undermine their battle. Good, Rey thinks. It’s a relief. The General marches on – that’s exactly what she needed to hear.

Still, it felt odd, this meeting. She knows it’s normal for leaders of any movement to disagree in stressful times. But watching them squabble reminded her of an old truth she’d rather forget: the adults in Rey’s life are always arguing.

Even though now she’s a fucking adult herself.

“Does it hurt?” she asks Poe when they exit the office, stepping on crumpled papers on the floor. There is new graffiti on the walls, she sees: creative obscenities on the account of the police, with little phallic doodles drawn with shiny black marker.

“You mean my head? Or my pride after being shouted at by Amil… by Professor Holdo?”

“Head, you idiot.” She points at his bruise. “Your forehead is the color of an eggplant.”

“Hurts like a witch’s curse, sunshine,” he huffs in his Southern drawl, trying to smile and wincing at the attempt. “Worst pain of my life. Took half a bottle of painkillers, yet it still feels like I have church bells clanging in my head. And if you wanna sound really fancy, the word is ‘aubergine’.”

She manages a brief chuckle. Poe expected it, she notes: he’s used to people finding him charming.

“Why did you take me with you?” she finally asks. “It’s not as if I was needed at the meeting.”

“To apologize,” Poe says very seriously. “I didn’t listen to you yesterday. Not only that – I didn’t let you speak. I was impatient, and I thought we had everything under control. I am very sorry.”

Rey feels she’s blushing. She wasn’t prepared for such straightforward honesty from the rebellion’s king of public relations.

“I should’ve explained it better,” she grumbles.

“Not your fault, sunshine. And you weren’t the only one waving the red flag: we had word from other places too. But we made the wrong call, and in the end, well, you heard. Luckily it turned out to be a good thing, eh?”

“No one died,” she says. When she listened to the news in the morning, before going to the Faculty, this seemed like the only actual good thing that happened last night.

“Well.” Poe rubs his tanned hands together. “Sunshine, I must ask you something. You mentioned a source?”

Ah. She nods.

“A reliable one?”

It took her a while to think of a story that would sound convincing. She’s still not happy with what she came up with – but fortunately, she’s an experienced liar.

“You know I’m from the Home for Children without Parental Care, right?” she begins. Poe’s eyes widen, his expression suddenly softening in a way she doesn’t like. He didn’t know. “There’re a lot of different children in the Home, lots of problematic kids. Some of them grow up to be thugs, some join the police.”

“You have an old friend who became a policeman?”

“Not a friend.” She doesn’t know why she needs to clarify. “But yes, a boy from the Home. Met him the other day, he told me to stay away from the protests. Didn’t explain anything – just said I shouldn’t go out.” 

“I see.” Poe Dameron slowly nods. If he finds her explanation lacking, he doesn’t show it. “Well, if you stumble upon him again and he says something useful, next time I’ll listen, I promise.”

“Deal,” she agrees, and then quickly excuses herself. She’ll go help with the preparations for the evening’s march, she says. She needs something practical to do.

In spite of bruises and bandages and eyes swollen from tear gas, the students do not appear to be overly downhearted. Rey admires their spirit. A few people are hospitalized, she hears, some of whom she knows. Internal injuries, mostly. There was an emergency during the night when a boy with a rare blood type needed transfusion, but in the end a donor was miraculously found. They think Professor Organa used her connections – there’s nothing that woman cannot do.

Fuck the police, the students say. It sounds like a salute. Fuck the police, they repeat, and fuck their helmets, and their plastic armor, and their mindless obedience – they’re the real traitors here, beating their own people bloody for a salary worth shit. Fucking Stormtroopers. The students laugh, but Rey isn’t sure the joke is that funny. 

Finn drops by to visit her at the Faculty, even though he underlines he won’t stay for the march. He’s worried, Rey sees, and he doesn’t like the atmosphere in the hallways. He fidgets and smokes and avoids eye contact, so she decides to tell him everything – almost everything – hoping it will calm him down. However, the explanation only deepens his scowl.

“See, that’s my problem with politics,” Finn complains. “There are people who’ll unashamedly say that last night’s horror was a good thing, because it scored them a point against the regime. It’s like they see it as a game. Makes you wonder if they went headfirst into the trap, knowing they could use it for later.”

Rey glares at him. She’s dumbstruck – she’d slap him if she could.

“Fuck, Finn, how can you say that? I know you’re in your cynical phase, but really? What are we supposed to do, call it quits and allow those bastards to steal the elections?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Finn bites his lip and looks at her with that same sadness she doesn’t quite get. “It came out wrong. I’m sorry, okay? You keep doing your right thing, sister. Just remember: play it smart and stay safe.”

“Maz would approve of the protests, you know,” Rey murmurs bitterly.

“What makes you so sure?” He stifles a laugh. “If I know one thing about that woman, she’s all about equal opportunity. Everybody deserves criticism.”

He winces when Rey elbows him.

That evening’s march is brisk. People walk at a faster pace, huddling closer than usual. They avoid the bridge. The noise is as loud as always, but the crowd isn’t as diverse – there are no children, Rey notes, or dog walkers, or elderly ladies. Armored cars are parked on street corners, with policemen leaning against their shields and observing in silence. At first it makes the protesters ill at ease, but the policemen look bored rather than eager to intervene, so the tension quickly dissipates. The protesters wave at the cameras of foreign press agencies, and have them film as they give the middle finger to the police. A very important message, Rey thinks, smiling. When the march is finished, it’s almost as if the crowd has managed to win back some of their optimism.

So the General is right. They’ll have their New Year’s Eve, and it will be glorious.  

But the most difficult part of the day is still ahead of her.

When the bus reaches her stop near the school dorms, Rey hesitates to get off until a woman behind her pushes her in the back because she is blocking the way. She drags her feet as she walks home, stopping for no reason, drawing sad faces and exclamation marks on frozen windshields of parked cars. She isn’t even sure what she’s trying to delay. She’s been pondering it all day, despite all her attempts to stay busy and be useful – and still no conclusions.

She hates it.

She brought it upon herself.

Rey sees him from afar – he’s there, of course, same place as the last time. Her own monster, lurking in the shadows of the dark street she has to cross to get home. Always there a few minutes early.

This time, at least, he’s smart enough not to sit on the frozen pavement.

The first thing Rey notices is that he’s washed his hair. The second – he’s smiling.

He must think he’s won, the sick fuck. Proved a point. She stayed home when he told her to. She called him in the middle of the night, him of all people, when outside in the street her friends were running for their lives and having their bones crushed by police batons. Of course he knows it was her on the phone, he must have ways to confirm the identity of the caller. Stalker. 

Once again, she regrets she wasn’t on that bridge. A broken nose or a plastered arm would be worth it if they’d wipe that self-satisfied smirk off his face.

“Fuck off, Kylo,” she spits, and it surprises her how easy it is to be mean to him when he doesn’t look as if he’s about to fall apart at any moment. “Crawl back into whatever hole you’ve been in for the past three years.”

He doesn’t seem moved by her insults. He leans against a lamppost, his arms crossed and his grin wide enough to reveal that chipped fang of his – she’s forgotten how crooked his teeth are.

She decides she no longer finds it sweet.

“You don’t mean it,” he declares cheerfully.

Fuck him and his mood swings and the memories she worked so hard to suppress.

She wants to pass him by, to keep striding down the street and not look back. That would send a clear message.

However, Rey finds herself stopping right in front of him. She crosses her arms mirroring his stance, and squares her shoulders to demonstrate that she isn’t afraid.

“Don’t you dare tell me what I mean!”

He doesn’t take her seriously. He keeps grinning, the bastard.

It frustrates her, but it’s also liberating – he’s a murderer and an asshole, and being angry with him is the right thing to feel.

“I assure you, I want you gone from the bottom of my heart,” she hisses. “And drop the fucking smile.”

“You called me last night.” Kylo cocks his head, the streetlight illuminating his scar. It looks inflamed, all red and sore. “I know it was you. What, now? I’m not allowed to be happy?”

Rey draws back, startled. She didn’t expect such candor.

“You’re… happy?” she asks hesitantly.

He lifts his eyebrows like he’s challenging her. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Suddenly, she realizes that his expression isn’t smug at all.

There’s discomfort in his smile, she observes, and coyness. And layers of all kinds of insecurities she’ll never understand, as if he’s afraid that life will screw him over the moment he starts believing all is right. It’s not the face of a man wild with joy.

Rey shakes her head.

“You’re not happy.”

It is odd, though not surprising: Kylo Ren of the First Order, the dark prince of trenches and warzones, hates his life.

“You don’t say.” His voice is husky and he sounds tired. “I wonder what gave me away.”

She isn’t sure how to respond to that.

It was a terrible mistake to call him last night. Life would be easier if she were in hospital, she thinks, her skull cracked open by police brutality.

Her toes begin to freeze.

“We shouldn’t be in the street,” she says at last.

Kylo chuckles cheerlessly. “You’re afraid that your revolutionary friends might see you with me? That I’ll ruin your reputation?”

She can’t tell if he’s teasing her, or if there’s genuine bitterness in his voice.

“It’s fucking cold, Kylo.”

His grin finally falters. But then his eyes light up with hope, and it only makes it worse. 

“That means you’re willing to go somewhere with me?”

And there’s the trick question.

No, she wants to say. Never again. Fuck off.

Kylo fidgets with anticipation, extending his hand.

“I know a place,” he says.

For a moment, Rey fears he’ll try to touch her – but he just stands there, waiting for her answer, his back against the lamppost, half of his face covered in shadows and half in neon streetlight.

Rey’s own skin tingles when she looks at that scar.

“Please, Rey.”

She wonders what will happen if she refuses now. Maybe he’ll walk away. The other day, he seemed ready for it.

“Lead the way,” she sighs.

Kylo nods, his relief so visible it almost makes her change her mind.

“It’s very near,” he says, pointing down the street. “Ain’t much. But you won’t run into anyone you know, that’s for sure.”

It disturbs her how easy it is to fall into step. Even their height difference feels natural when she’s walking next to him, the top of her head reaching his shoulders.

They used to hold hands when they walked like this, once. When she was a child entangled in a lie.

Rey shoves her hands in her pockets.

Kylo pulls his hood up, his hair falling into his eyes. It seems to be a new habit he picked up, she notes. She wonders if the hood serves a purpose, or it’s just that it’s December and he’s cold.

“What happened to your black coat?”

“Doesn’t fit any more,” he grumbles. “Too tight across the shoulders.”

“Shame. I loved that coat.”

He nods, and Rey immediately regrets her choice of words. She doesn’t want to tell him anything nice, anything that can make him believe she has fond memories of what they shared once.

“I’ve been, um, spending a lot of time in the gym lately,” he explains. “It… It helps.”

So that’s why he’s so weirdly buff. Rey tries to imagine him in the gym – dripping with sweat, a wet t-shirt clinging to his body, hitting the boxing bag with a snarl, wolfish, unable to control his anger. It’s good, she assumes. It could be someone’s face. He could be holding a gun.

Rey suddenly stops in her tracks, the image of black metallic barrel pointed between Finn’s eyes popping up in her mind. 

He pulled that trigger, she thinks. Only a few days later, he pulled that trigger, and a good man died.

How could he?

What the actual fuck is she doing?

Noticing that she has stopped walking, Kylo turns back, his eyes worried and wide. It’s the kicked dog look, Rey thinks. She remembers that one – it means he’s afraid.

“We’re almost there,” he murmurs, his brow furrowed.

“Kylo, I… I don’t…” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t think I can do this.”

He freezes. She sees his jaw moving as he clenches his teeth.

“So that’s how it is.” His voice is but a whisper, and she cannot decide if he sounds hurt, or annoyed, or both.

But then he explodes.

“What do you want from me, Rey? I was ready to let you go, but then you called me. You called me. Why reach out, if you don’t want me in your life?”

He waves his hand in an angry gesture, and Rey thinks he’ll advance on her – but he actually makes a step backwards.

“Is this a game for you? You want me to play a role?” He recoils as if she’s hurting him on purpose, and she notices the muscle tic under his eye pulsating. “You want me to force you, so that at the end of the day you can say it’s all my fault, and still get what you want? I refuse to play along, Rey! I may be a monster, but I ain’t your personal villain!”

Damn you, Kylo.

“I don’t know what I want from you!” Rey raises her voice, trying to outshout him.

She yells so loudly that a dog starts barking in the distance. They pause for a moment, both breathing heavily. A window lights up in the building nearby: Rey sees the silhouette of a woman, checking out who’s arguing in the street.

“Tell me to leave and you’ll never see me again,” Kylo says quietly. “Or come, and we’ll talk like adults. God knows you’re old enough now.”

She tries to make herself look him in the eyes.

She cannot tell him to leave. She cannot.

And the sick fuck knows it.

“Let’s go, Rey,” he pleads, his tone crushingly gentle. “It’s really close, and you’re trembling.”

The place he takes her to is a tavern, she realizes when she sees the flickering neon sign at the door.

It’s an old-school tavern – one of those that are rapidly going out of business since they’re not deemed fashionable any longer, with their checkered tablecloths and tin ashtrays and wooden chairs and waiters who know way too much about human nature.

The air reeks of cheap tobacco and male sweat, and it’s too warm inside. The place is empty, except for a group of older men with rough workers’ hands who drink beer and play cards, laughing aloud. The radio is on, the sound of accordion echoing from the dark walls decorated with dancing Christmas lights and fake spruce garlands. It’s a typical tavern song, its lyrics straightforward and its tune sad yet easy to sing – the kind of music Rey loathes. There are framed photos everywhere: long forgotten celebrities from the seventies hug a short bald man with a protruding belly – the owner, Rey assumes – and everybody smiles.

It’s a salt-of-the-earth place, Rey concludes, poor and painfully blue-collar. It looks faded and covered in dust, as if it’s trapped in time. How the fuck did a man like Kylo Ren end up coming to such a tavern?

But then she thinks – Han would have loved it here.

They sit at a remote table and she orders blueberry juice. Kylo asks for a double shot of vodka.

“I thought you’d quit drinking.”

He shifts, the wooden chair creaking beneath his weight.

“Times have changed.” He lifts his shoulder in a half shrug, avoiding her gaze.

Rey observes him. He trimmed the beard a little, she notes. She hoped he’d shave it off completely. The sweater he’s wearing is obscenely close-fitting, as if two sizes too small – she can’t tell if it’s because he enjoys showing off his bulked up body, or he just couldn’t bother buying new clothes. Either way, she doesn’t like it.

The hair, however, isn’t that bad when washed.

“Well, then,” he says and finally raises his eyes.

He’s staring at her expectedly, unblinking as always, his fingers circling a cigarette hole in the tablecloth. He wants to talk, she sees, but he doesn’t know how to begin.

But what’s there to talk about? Is a casual conversation between them even possible?

Can they pretend to be normal?

“So how’s the First Order business?” Rey asks, because someone has to start. “Do you even exist, now that there’s no war?”

The instant she says it aloud, she realizes how ridiculous it sounds.

Kylo’s face darkens, however.

His grip around his drink tightens – Rey can see his knuckles turning white. A bit more force, and the glass will shatter.

There’s something here, she thinks.

“Is that Snoke guy still alive?” Rey pursues. “Haven’t seen him on TV for ages. Still wearing disco tops?”

Kylo lowers his head, strands of silky black hair covering his face.

“The First Order is doing the First Oder things,” he answers cryptically, staring at the glass in front of him. “And Professor Snoke is in excellent health, thank you for asking. Armitage is still a dickhead, I’m afraid.”

She chuckles, remembering the stuck-up redhead and his expression of perpetual disgust, and Kylo smiles, a twinkle in his eyes. He seems pleased that he made her laugh.

It helps ease the tension, a little.

Maybe they can achieve normalcy, if they try.

“What about you?” he asks. “Is it better living in the school dorms than in the Home?”

“It’s… different.”

She’s cautious. It’s a topic she’s never keen on discussing – especially not with him.

Still, she finds herself explaining.

“I don’t know. We certainly have more freedom. And the food is better. And we’re not treated like this, well, like this liability that no one wants to deal with but they have to take care of. Like leftovers.” Rey pauses, her own sincerity making her uncomfortable. “But on the other hand, in the Home, we were all in the same boat. The girls in the dorms… They have families, you see. They only came to the capital to study. So when the holiday season begins, like now, they all go home. And I… I…”

She cannot finish the sentence. Kylo slowly nods, as if he understands.

She doesn’t want his understanding.

“You won’t ask me about what I do at the protests?”

She wants to provoke him, she realizes. She needs them to argue.

“Oh, I know all about that,” he says dismissively, like it’s a normal thing for him to be informed about her life. “It’s bullshit, these protests. Wrong people and futile causes. But it’s okay, Rey. I get it. You’re going through a phase.”

Rey blinks. She expected him to start ranting about patriotism and the national interest and evil foreign influences that support the protests just because they want to see the last truly independent regime in Europe fall. Yet somehow, this is worse.

How fucking dare he write off what has become her life purpose as a phase?

For a second, she’s tempted to get up and leave. Maybe even throw some money at him, for the blueberry juice.

But then she glances at him. He’s downtrodden, she sees, chugging down vodka, drumming his fingers against the table as if he cannot stand a moment longer in his own skin. His ghosts are eating away at him, gnawing at his bones, and he looks like the embodiment of the fucking tavern songs that she dislikes so much. Life is artlessly ugly in these songs, a string of bad luck and heartbreak and betrayal, and the only remedy is a drunken stupor.

Rey leans back in her chair.

“What happened to your face?” she quietly asks.

It takes him a moment to answer.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

The crowd in the corner suddenly laughs – everyone’s in stiches except for one man. Rey assumes he was the butt of the joke. The men pat their unsmiling friend on the back until he joins in the laughter, and then they order another round of beer. Rey wonders what they teased him about. One of the workers winks at her, when he catches her observing.

They’ve had too many cigarettes, she thinks, noticing the crushed butts falling out of ashtrays on their table. The air has become thick and stuffy, and she feels as if the bluish filter of smoke is clouding her reality. Her clothes will stink of tobacco for days.

On the radio, a man wails about his lover’s feelings for him melting away like the snow come spring. His voice is deep and throaty, and he sounds as if the suffering is giving him joy.

She wishes she could crush the fucking radio to pieces.

“I missed you,” Kylo suddenly says.

It’s the vodka, Rey thinks.

She didn’t miss him. She dreamed of him, but he doesn’t need to know that.

“Fuck you, Kylo.” She hopes it comes across as playful, not stern, and it’s a relief that he chuckles.

But then he inhales deeply, and holds his breath for a long moment before whispering again.

“You loved me, once.”

It sounds like an accusation.

He catches her gaze, and his eyes are veiled with a sadness so heavy it makes her sick to her stomach.

“I was a child.”

“I know.” He bites his lip, teeth sinking in so deeply she fears he’ll draw blood. “I know that now. But you loved me once, and you looked at me like I was the only man on Earth, and you made me feel good about myself. And I almost believed I could be happy.”

Kylo sighs, swirling the drink in his glass.

“But that was years ago, and you’re no longer a child, and times have changed, haven’t they?” He downs the vodka in a single gulp. “And life turned to shit.

Rey stares at him, wordless.

Her eyes sting, welling up with tears. It’s the fucking smoke, she thinks.

“My turn to ask,” she says. She hates how her voice trembles. “What do you want from me?”

Kylo’s lips curve into a sad smile.

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head as if he’s apologizing. “I thought I knew, but I don’t.”

Before she can respond, he signals the waiter to prepare the bill.

“Finish your drink, Rey. I’ll walk you home.”

On their way to the school dorms, they don’t speak.

She wonders if he’s regretting that he came to see her tonight. Whatever he’d hoped for didn’t work out, and she can tell that something has broken inside him. Maybe now he’s ready to let her go for real. No more stalking.

But that’s good, isn’t it? She doesn’t need a monster in her life.

When they arrive in front of the dorm building, Rey hesitates to enter.

“Now what?” she asks, a lump in her throat.

Kylo lets out a heavy sigh, pressing his lips together.

“Now nothing. Because there’s nothing left, is there?”

There’s a strange gravity to the moment, as if something critical is about to happen, and Rey feels her heartbeat quickening in anticipation.

Kylo grits his teeth. She thinks he’s choosing the words for what comes next. Yet looking at him, all she sees is raw pain, and that godawful scar tearing him apart. 

She has never touched his face.

When she was fifteen and in love, she often fantasized about it, but she never gathered up the courage to do so. Now, she feels as if she’s overwhelmed by an impulse she cannot control.

Before she can stop and reconsider what she’s doing, she reaches out with her hand.

“Rey?”

Kylo’s eyes widen in surprise, but he doesn’t pull back from her touch.

His face is burning hot, feverish almost, and slick as if covered by wound balm. It feels unexpectedly smooth under her fingertips. She traces the scar from the corner of his jaw all the way to his eyebrow, caressing his skin, studying the swollen texture of newly healed flesh. She has to resist the urge to press harder. 

“Does it hurt?”

“Yes,” he says, and she isn’t sure if he’s talking about the scar.

He closes his eyes, and she hears his breath hitching.

“Don’t do this to me, Rey,” he whispers, his lips quivering.

It’s in that moment that she snaps back to reality.

Shit.

What did she just do?

“I’m sorry,” she blurts before she can bite back the words, because she owes him no apologies. “I’m so sorry!”

She doesn’t give him time to react.

She doesn’t even say goodbye, but rushes to the dorm entrance, not looking back, her pace all but running. Her entire body shivers, and she fears she’ll trip.

The night guard greets her with a nod, unlocking the door.

“Hope you had a nice time, Miss Rey.”

As she enters the building, she throws one last glance at Kylo.

He’s still in the street, gazing in her direction, his hand on his scarred cheek. She cannot tell from afar, but she thinks he isn’t smiling.

Chapter Text

Velocity

 

 

 

“But never mind me,” Finn proclaims joyfully, lifting his legs onto Rey’s writing desk in spite of knowing how much it annoys her. “Any progress with Dameron?”

For a moment, Rey thinks she misheard.

“What…?”

“Sister.” He grins like the fucking Cheshire cat. “For the past hour you’ve been sitting here all spaced out, head in the clouds, nodding at regular intervals like a goddamn robot. I bet you have no clue what I was talking about. You can pull that shit on Rose, but I know you better than that. So speak up. Any progress with Dameron?”

Rey stares at him, blinking.

“It is Dameron, isn’t it?”

“There’s nothing going on between Poe Dameron and me,” she says a tad too loudly, feeling a warm flush rising to her cheeks. 

To her dismay, it seems that her answer is exactly what Finn wanted to hear.

“I knew it!” He clasps his hands theatrically. “That ‘sunshine’ business was a dead giveaway. Poor Rose, missing out on all the good stuff while she’s stuck out there in her Bumfuck, Nowhere. So how far did you get? Did he ask you out? Kissed you yet?”

She studies his expression – with a bleached-white smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he looks genuinely excited. As if he’s happy for her.

If he only knew. 

“On my mother’s grave, Finn,” Rey declares, her tone unnecessarily stern, “there’s nothing between Poe and me.” 

Finn nods, a pout on his lips.

“Whatever you say, peanut. A small reminder, though: it’s New Year’s Eve. Everyone will be at the main square. Just imagine - the wild atmosphere, the euphoria, the booze, people losing their shit. One thing leads to another. So, y’know, tonight’s the perfect opportunity to snatch the rebellion’s bootleg Latin lover.”

Ever the fucking matchmaker.

Rey wishes she could tell him.

It was an effort just to get out of bed in the morning, to get dressed and wash her face. For the past two days, she’s been feeling sick – nauseated, slow, her hands shaking, her mind a mess. Her mouth still tastes of bile.

She tries to imagine how Finn would react, if he knew. He wouldn’t believe it at first, she thinks. Then, he’d be angry – furious, even. He’d shake his head in painful disappointment, disgusted and heartbroken, and he’d call her a reckless dimwit.

And he’d be right.

“Sister, don’t make a sad face.” Finn stands up from the chair and comes next to her on the bed, pulling her into a hug. “Can I not tease you? I told you, I think it’s great you’re finally interested in someone. So use tonight. A new year is about to begin. Do something. Live a little.”

He hugs her closer. It’s warm in his arms, and his cheap aftershave smells cozy and familiar, but it doesn’t make her feel any better.

“Life ain’t only about studying and hard work and political activism,” he says, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. “It’s okay to be a bit selfish sometimes. Now go fix your makeup. I want you to be beautiful.”

Rey takes her time to get ready. She’s not even sure why she’s prettying up – so that Finn can shove it, she tells herself.

She observes her face in the bathroom mirror. At first, she thinks she overdid the eyes – the makeup is dark and dramatic, and she’s not skillful enough to achieve the subtle blending of shades like Rose can. She doesn’t look like herself. But the more she stares at her reflection, the more she likes it, she realizes. It feels like wearing armor.  

Finn seems to be very pleased.

“Poor Dameron,” he says, whistling. “Doesn’t stand a chance.”

They leave the dorms around ten in the evening, and Rey is torn between fearing they’ll miss the speeches at the beginning of the concert, and feeling like she doesn’t want to go at all.

When they approach the city center, she notices that the streets are packed – but fortunately, the good mood is contagious. She sees children again, and young couples holding hands, and laughing groups of friends drinking wine from the bottle and giving away home-made cookies to passersby. The crowd is so thick it’s difficult to walk. A lot of people are wearing party hats made of glittered cardboard, decorated with pins wishing nothing but the worst to the regime in the upcoming year. Rey chuckles – it never ceases to amaze her how people can joke about things that are dark, and fucked up, and deadly.

“The guy who’s selling those should be named the entrepreneur of the year,” Finn says, pointing at the glittery hats. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place. It’s crazy. Like, literally two days ago there was blood in the streets, and now everybody wants to party.”

“Poe said that people would come from other cities too, to show support.” She studies the crowd, taking in the smiling faces and the festive optimism. “As for partying, well, the best way to show the regime that we’ll fight to the bitter end is to respond to their violence with humor. No pasarán, Finn!”

Finn rolls his eyes.

“Save the slogans for the idiot who calls you ‘sunshine’. I just hope we’ll manage to find him in the crowd.”

She’s not particularly eager to meet up with Poe Dameron, Rey thinks. But she doesn’t say that to Finn.

There’s a large stage at the city’s main square, and when they arrive, the concert has already begun.

The stage lights color the sky of the last day of the year in vivid blue, followed by green, then gold, then red. For some reason, red stays on longer than the other shades. The color is dark, almost burgundy – she watches it reflecting against the winter clouds, with flocks of birds kept awake by the noise flying across the sky. Rey knows the band that’s currently performing. She’s never cared much for their music, finding it too snobbish, yet she feels a newfound respect for them. It takes courage to go up there and sing for an audience who aren’t your fans, and who only care about one thing – that you hate the regime as much as they do.

She’s surprised to discover she knows the lyrics to the song they’re currently playing – and it’s difficult to resist singing aloud.

“Look!” Finn points his finger towards the stage fence. “That’s Dameron over there, next to the security guys! You’re under a lucky star tonight, sister! To think I believed this would be like looking for needle in a haystack…”

Indeed, she sees Poe talking to the staff – he’s probably explaining how he got his war wound, since he’s pointing at the bruise on his forehead which started getting a greenish ring around the lavender purple. The men laugh and pat him on the back. He’s alone, however – Rey doesn’t see any other student leaders or professors nearby.

That’s strange.    

It takes effort to walk through the masses to reach him. Finn holds her hand – it’s easy to lose someone in the singing crowd which is, from what Rey can tell, getting progressively tipsier.

“Rey of sunshine, you made it after all!” Poe gives her a half-hug to greet her. “You look lovely.”

She can feel Finn beaming behind her back.

“Sorry we’re late,” she says.

“Oh, please. Tonight’s a party, not a rally. Besides, the opening speeches weren’t from our people, but the goddamn politicians. I don’t like their kind, sunshine. Always playing games.”

Behind her, Finn stiffens – she knows he has a lot to add about politics and games, but thankfully he doesn’t say anything.  

“Where are the others?” Rey asks. “I thought we’d be together here, as a group.”

“They’re scattered everywhere.” Poe shrugs. “To be honest, I haven’t seen most of them since I arrived. It’s normal – the whole point of tonight is to have fun like nobody’s watching. But also to make sure it looks good on camera. You know what the General says – the world must see who we really are.”

He winks.

They spend the next few minutes in silence – an odd thing for Poe, who’s usually a chatterer. Rey swings to the beat of the music, murmuring the lyrics, feeling increasingly awkward. She isn’t sure what to do.

She wishes she had stayed home. Or asked Finn to go to his place and binge watch their favorite movies until the video tapes give out. Or begged Rose to return earlier, because she misses her giggling. Anything but this.

And she was so looking forward to New Year’s Eve.

“Sunshine,” Poe says after a while, “where did your friend go?”

It takes her a moment to understand his question.

“You mean, Finn?” she asks, confused.

Rey turns back, only to discover that Finn is no longer behind her.

Of course. Of course he fucking did it. Meddlesome idiot. And he’s probably very pleased with himself.

Damn him and whoever didn’t teach him that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

She doesn’t know how to answer without making Finn sound like an ass.

“Maybe he saw someone and went to say hello, and now he can’t come back because it’s difficult to walk through the crowd,” she tries explaining.

To her surprise, Poe suddenly looks uncomfortable – he folds his arms, and there’s an inexplicable flash of panic in his eyes.

“You two did arrange for a meeting spot in case you lose each other, didn’t you?”

“No.” She squints, unsure why he’s behaving as if she has caught him doing something inappropriate. “Why?”

Poe presses his lips together, and she sees he’s forcing himself not to frown.

He’s hiding something, she thinks. And whatever it is, he’s painfully embarrassed about it.

“Sunshine.” He raises his palm dramatically, like a trained public speaker, as if that will help him choose his words better. “I don’t know how to tell you this. I, um… I won’t be staying here for long. Actually, I should leave any minute. I’m meeting with someone, you see, and it’s… Um. It’s private.  I’m supposed to come on my own.”

Oh.

Oh.

So that’s how things are.

She feels such a strong surge of relief that she almost laughs out loud.

“I just think it would be very, um, ungentlemanly on my part to leave you here on your own,” Poe continues, rubbing his hands as if he’s cold without gloves. “I have no idea where the others are, and your friend’s gone. Do you want me to help you look for him? Or, I don’t know, I could keep you company for a while longer. Do you have any plans for after the concert, do you know how long you wish to stay?” 

The corners of her mouth turn up – it’s her first genuine smile in days.

“Go,” she says.

“Are you sure?”

He looks at her with a mixture of hope and guilt, and surprisingly, his expression doesn’t appear as if he’s rehearsed it in front of a mirror. Rey wishes she could ruffle his hair, the way she did to younger children in the Home when they felt confused about life.

“I’m positive.” She nods. “Go. Have fun. Happy New Year. And just so you know – if you ever need to talk to someone, I’ll be there. No judging. I sure know what it feels like to keep a secret.”

Poe Dameron blushes so deeply that even his bruise turns a shade darker. He gives her a quick hug, and kisses her on the forehead clumsily.

“I owe you one, sunshine,” he says, leaving.

It’s only when he’s gone that she realizes she’s all alone in a crowd of a few hundred thousand people.

The band has changed. Whoever is performing right now is playing a ballad – the audience sings, fumbling with lyrics, holding lighters and raising up sparklers. The stage lights are red again – bloodshot clouds are closing above her head. She should find Finn, she thinks. She has no idea where he could have gone without her.

It’s almost midnight.

Rey starts pressing through the crowd, uncertain of where she’s headed. There are so many people it’s difficult for them to move to let her pass. She collides with strangers – they bump into her shoulders and step on her toes and say they’re sorry, or “Happy New Year”, or “smile, darling, we’re making history tonight!” She’s offered whiskey, and mulled wine in a plastic cup, and chocolate candy from a little girl whose father is carrying her on his back, but she doesn’t take anything. She’s unsure how much time it takes her to crawl from the stage fence to the center of the square, but it feels like eternity.  

And all can think about is the same fucking thing she’s been dwelling on for the past two days:  the pain in his eyes, and how his skin felt beneath her fingertips.

She wants to go home, she realizes.

She isn’t sure if it’s the school dorms, or the Home.

She closes her eyes, biting down a scream.

“Rey?”

It takes her a moment to recognize the voice.

Professor Leia Organa lifts one eyebrow in mild surprise, looking at Rey as if she didn’t expect this encounter. Her hairstyle is particularly elaborate tonight, Rey notes, with braids wrapped around her head. She looks like a princess from Russian fairy tales – like a drawing from a picture book Rey read as a child, in which Vasilisa Prekrasnaya outwitted the monstrous Koschei the Immortal because she was smart and brave and didn’t give a fuck about his immortality.

“Are you alone?” the Professor asks.

Rey shrugs helplessly. “Lost others in the crowd.”

Then she sees – next to the Professor, there’s a man.

She cannot get a good glimpse of the stranger’s face, since he has pulled the hood of his baggy brown coat almost up to his nose. The only thing she sees is a long, bushy beard streaked with grey, almost wizardly in its quaintness, falling to his neck like a scarf.

What an odd couple these two make, she thinks – a princess and a sage.

But then, the man pulls back, crossing his arms over his chest in a defensive stance, his posture radiating annoyance and mistrust.  

Rey suddenly feels as if she’s interrupted something she shouldn’t have.

“This is Rey,” Professor Organa explains. “She’s one of our youngest and most dedicated activists.”

Rey waits for the man to introduce himself, but he doesn’t.

“You know what, Leia?” he says after a long moment. “I think I’m gonna head home.”

“You won’t stay for the countdown?” the General asks, but she doesn’t sound too hopeful.

“Nah.” The man waves his hand brusquely. “I’ve stayed for too long already. Besides, this kind of music ain’t my cup of tea.”

Leia Organa exhales deeply and nods, as if she’s used to the man’s whims. He tugs at his hood almost as if he wants to assure himself it’s still firmly in place, and then turns his back and leaves without saying goodbye. Strangely, it doesn’t come across as rude.

He’s surprisingly agile in moving through the crowd, Rey observes.

She wants to ask who that was, but somehow, it feels inappropriate.

“Having fun?” the General says casually, as if she wants to steer the conversation in another direction.

“It’s a…” Rey struggles to find the right answer. “It’s a very impressive event. You must be proud.”

Leia Organa lifts the corner of her mouth in a shrewd smirk, as if she understands the situation a tad too well.

“Proud is not the word I would use, but yes, I am quite pleased. There’s good energy here tonight. People are gathered around a joint cause and they’re having a great time, which gives them hope. And, well, hope’s important.” She chuckles briefly. “But this is not the moment for a speech. We’re all human, you know. And just like you, I’d rather be somewhere else.”

Rey’s shoulders stiffen. “Am I that obvious?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to work on your poker face, dear. Especially if you want to continue with political engagement.”

Professor Organa takes a sip from the cup she’s holding. Her drink smells like cinnamon and anise.

“So. A boy giving you trouble?”

“He’s not exactly a boy,” Rey clarifies. When the General asks you something, you answer.

And she really needs to talk to someone.

“Ah.” Professor Organa nods matter-of-factly. “I also liked them older, for what it’s worth.”

Rey inhales sharply, observing the people in the crowd around them. All she sees are broad smiles and glittery hats, tinted in red, reflecting the stage lights.

“We, um, we had a thing,” she begins.  “A long time ago. But it ended badly. Like, really badly. Really, really badly.”

She pauses, unsure how much she can reveal before saying anything she’ll regret. The General just listens, her expression neutral.

“But then, we met again recently, and there’s, um… There’s…”

“There are still feelings between you?” Leia Organa finishes her sentence.

Rey thinks for a long moment before answering.

“There’s something.”

The General tilts her head knowingly, but her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

In that moment, the music stops.

“Fuck,” the General says, “it’s midnight.”

Thousands of voices speak in unison, counting down the last seconds of 1996.

“Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two… One!”

The sky explodes in red.

Fireworks whizz and crackle, blossoming between the clouds. Swirling sparks cascade down onto the cheering crowd. People wave, and blow whistles, and hug strangers to wish them all the best in the upcoming year. They toast to changes and democracy and a better tomorrow, spilling their drinks and laughing it off.

The air suddenly smells of smoke and sulfur.

“Happy New Year,” the General says dryly.

Rey nods, feeling grateful that Leia Organa does not appear to be the sentimental type.

They spend a while looking at the sky, watching the fireworks burst and splatter in a thousand sparkles.

Then, suddenly, Professor Organa reaches out and takes Rey’s hand.

“My dear, take advice from a lonely old woman who screwed up too many things in her life.” Her grip is tight and her fingers are surprisingly warm. “As you age, you’ll realize one horrible truth:  the worst regrets are not for the things you did, but for the ones you did not do. You think there’s something between this man and you? See what it is, then.”

With her other hand, the General raises her cup to the crimson skies, as if she’s toasting to someone who isn’t there.

“Because if you don’t,” she says, her voice softer than usual, “you’ll never stop wondering.”

Rey spends the next hour attempting to find a goddamn phone.

She tries a few restaurants near the main square, but they shoo her away from the door, insisting they have their own festivities ongoing and that only paying guests can use the phone. The bars she sometimes frequents with her rebel friends are closed, since all their usual customers are at the concert. Finally, to her surprise, it’s the receptionist of a highbrow hotel who takes pity on her and invites her inside. The woman points her to the phone booth in a secluded corner and, strangely, wishes her good luck before giving her privacy.

Rey observes the lavish decorations in the hotel lobby as she dials the number.

There’s a large Christmas tree near the phone booth, its reflection clearly displayed in the polished marble tiles. All the ornaments and the tinsels and the flickering lights are red.

He picks up the call too fucking quickly.

“Yes?”

Funny that it’s no longer automatically “Armitage”.

“Happy New Year, monster,” she says.

There’s a pause on the other end of the line, and then she hears a quiet laughter.

“Rey…”

He’s doing it again – saying her name as if it carries some special meaning for him.

She closes her eyes.

“I didn’t think you’d be home,” she continues, preventing a pause that would allow her to change her mind.

“I only got back a moment ago. Snoke had me accompany him to some stuck-up reception. Neckties and evening gowns sort of thing. Regime people mostly. Businessmen, celebrities, military brass. Big money. Everybody faking politeness.” He lets out a loud sigh. “It was horrible.”

There’s something in his voice that puts her ill at ease.

“Are you drunk?”

“No,” he slurs, and she knows he’s lying. “Snoke doesn’t allow me to drink in public. There were a few… incidents. So I opened the bottle only when I got home. Didn’t have time to get drunk.”

Rey pictures him on the couch of that godawful white and beige apartment, gripping the bottle, staring at the ceiling.

It’s pathetic.

“Please stop.”

“Why?”

She thinks he’s asking it on purpose, baiting her to tell him that she still cares.

“Because I say so.” She leans against the booth wall, picking at the phone cord as she twists it. “Please.”

He changes the topic. “Where are you?”

“In a hotel near the main square.” She glances around. The receptionist is at her desk, not paying any heed to Rey. “It's the only place where they allowed me to use the phone.”

“Did you have a good time at the concert?”

Her answer is devastatingly spontaneous. “You’d hate the music.”

Kylo laughs, and it sounds heartfelt and genuine, as if she made a joke that only the two of them can understand.  She feels she’s grinning too.

“I want to see you,” he suddenly says. “Can I see you?”

He catches her off guard with the question, but it would be a lie to say she's surprised.

“Now?”

“Mmm.”

The purr he makes resonates deep inside her belly, stirring feelings she thought were long dead. She twists the phone cord so hard it almost cuts into her skin.

Drunken asshole.

“You think the place where we were the other night is open for New Year’s?” she asks.

Kylo takes his time. Obviously, the smoke-filled tavern is not what he had in mind.

“Can you… Um. Can you come here?”

Rey falters.

She wasn’t prepared for this. She’s so startled she nearly hangs up.

“Rey, please.” There’s a sudden urgency to his voice, as if he realizes he has pushed things too far. “I don’t… I don’t want anything from you. We don’t have to talk. You don’t even have to look at me. Just… Just be here. So that I’m not alone in this place. I don’t… Shit.” He pauses. “I don’t think I can handle it. Being alone here. Not after you called.”

For a long moment, all she hears is heavy breathing.

“Please. I won’t drink, I promise.”

This is it, she thinks.

She’ll make a conscious decision this time. No more rashness and impulses and all those moments of the-fuck-you’re-doing-Rey. It has to stop.  

It all has to stop.

One way or another.

Rey clutches the receiver so strongly her fingers begin to hurt.

“Alright,” she agrees, her tone more resolute than she expected.

She hears him heave a sigh of relief.

“Take a cab,” he says, self-satisfaction and anxiety mixing in his voice. “I’ll wait for you in the street with the money.”

When she hangs up, Rey asks the hotel receptionist to call for a taxi.

“It went well?” the woman says while they’re waiting. It will take time, Rey knows. There must be a queue on a night like this.

“I don’t know yet.” She shrugs, unsure if she wants to be left alone or to talk.

“Don’t give up, honey,” the receptionist counsels, tapping her perfectly manicured nails against the desk. Her nail polish is red. “Tonight is a good moment for new beginnings.”

When the taxi arrives, the clock in the hotel lobby shows it’s well past two.

She wonders if he’s been waiting in the street this entire time. He must be freezing.

The ride is slow – the streets are chockfull of people, and the driver frequently honks to drunken partygoers who tap on their windshield and wave, wishing them happiness in the new year.

Still, Rey has this strange feeling of velocity pushing her forward, of knots untangling and springs uncoiling.

Something will happen tonight.

And in the morning, her life will be different, for better or for worse.

“Going home?” the driver asks conversationally.

“Going to meet someone.”

“Shipping yourself to your sweetheart for New Year’s.” The taxi driver gives her a dreamy smile. “How adorable.”

But when he sees Kylo pacing in the street, waiting for them, his smile withers.

Rey doubts that he knows who Kylo is – that would be too fucking much. It’s just that he didn’t expect that the “sweetheart” is large and glum, visibly older, with mad eyes and a scar across his face. When Kylo knocks on the window and slips him a bank note that far exceeds the taxi fare, the driver frowns disapprovingly.

He doesn’t wish them a happy new year, and drives away the moment she slams the car door.  

Rey decides she finds it hilarious.

Distracted by the taxi driver, she doesn’t notice immediately that Kylo is staring at her with his lips parted.

“You, um, you look different,” he says, pointing at her face. “It’s the makeup. I think. Well. You’re beautiful.”

The cold seems to have sobered him up a bit, Rey notes, for he doesn’t slur.

“Froze your ass off again?” she asks. She won’t think about how it makes her feel that he finds her beautiful.

He nods. “Been waiting for an hour. Can we… Can we go inside?”

Rey follows him to his apartment without a word.

It’s funny how some things make sense now, she concludes, watching him as he opens the door. The unknown last name on the plaque, two sets of high-security locks – it’s a true secret lair of the monster.

She hesitates for a moment before crossing the threshold.

Breathe, Rey, she thinks. Breathe.

You’re in control.

When she enters, she’s horrified to discover that nothing has changed in these three years.

Still the impossibly light colors. Still the cardboard boxes in corners. Still no personal details.

No wonder he cannot stand to be alone here.

Kylo takes his jacket off – he’s still wearing party clothes, she sees, but the shirt is wrinkled and half-unbuttoned. She wonders what kind of impression it made at the stuck-up reception with celebrities and regime high-fliers.  

He fidgets, looking around the room in panic as if he’s suddenly hit with the reality of their situation.

“I meant what I said. You can do whatever you want. Just be here.” He brushes his palms together. “I think there’s tea, if you need to warm up. Or, um, I can make you something to eat. Would you like that?”

She sits on the couch, but gets up quickly when she sees he’s too nervous to take a seat. His hands are trembling.

He reminds her of the fucking fireworks, she thinks – sizzling and crackling and red, about to explode all over the dark winter sky.

“Actually, I want to talk,” she says.

He raises his eyebrows, his expression vulnerable like a dog expecting a blow.

“You do?”

Rey takes a deep breath.

“I want to understand,” she declares solemnly. It’s the line she’s been rehearsing in her head all along the taxi ride. “Help me understand.”

Kylo shoves his hair back away from his face, uncovering his scar for a brief moment. It looks as if it’s splitting him in two.

“Understand what?”

Rey pauses. Her voice must not waver for what she’s about to ask.

“Why the First Order?”

He is taken aback, she sees. He didn’t expect this.

His eyes wander and she follows his gaze: he’s looking at the vodka bottle on the coffee table, right next to the framed photograph of the mysterious grandfather.

The bottle is a good third empty.

“You promised, no drinking.”

He licks his lips and swallows heavily. She observes his Adam’s apple moving.

“I did,” he says.

Rey takes a step towards him.

She’s cautious, however. She must not come close enough to touch.

“Talk to me, Kylo.” She holds his gaze, and the intensity of his stare makes her stomach knot. “I’m here, like you wanted me to be. So talk.”

He slumps on the couch, his movement abrupt as if his knees suddenly gave out, and she knows she’s won.  His body feels heavy, at the same time boneless and as tense as a bowstring, and he appears weary and older than his late twenties. It must be exhausting, she thinks, to be constantly on edge, pulled apart by extremes.

She carefully sits on the other end of the couch.

Rey glances at her watch – it’s three in the morning, yet she’s never felt more awake.

“You… Um,” Kylo begins. “You know that I have a bit of a temper.”

She almost laughs.

“No shit.”

The corner Kylo’s mouth pulls into a non-smile, as if he wants to show that he can take a joke.

“It’s something I’ve been struggling with all my life,” he continues, leaning his head against the couch cushion. “This… This rage inside me. I feel it itching all the time. Always simmering under the surface. Always erupting at the worst moments. I have… I have these blackouts.”

He closes his eyes, and for a few moments he just breathes loudly.

“Sometimes I can’t control what I’m doing or what I’m saying or how I react… And my family, they… They ditched me, Rey. They fucking ditched me the moment I became too much of a hassle.”

Rey remembers the story of a boy named Ben, too tall and too strong, friendless and needy and violent, who changed four schools and countless child therapists, until the word “unhinged” lost its meaning.

She thinks of the uncle whose arm he broke in two places.

“Snoke, the Professor, he… When I met him, he helped me.” The way he says it makes it sound as if no one had offered any real help before. “He was the first one who didn’t try to fix me. And he didn’t judge. Instead, he listened to me, and guided me, and made me understand myself. He taught me that I can use my rage for good.”

Rey’s mouth falls open.

She stares at him in disbelief.

“For good?” she slowly repeats, emphasizing the word as if she’s unsure he understands what it means. “Because killing civilians is good?”

Kylo lifts his chin and grins, revealing his overly sharp teeth.

“You don’t understand anything, Rey, do you?” He speaks to her as if she’s still a child. “There are no civilians in a civil war.”

Bloody hell.

Did he just say that?

She lets the words sink in. It takes her a moment to recover.

“Do you hear yourself?” she asks, her voice calm. “Do you hear what you’re saying, Kylo?”

He rolls his eyes dismissively.

“Don’t tell me you’re so naïve as to think that the other side committed no crimes,” he sneers. “You know jack shit about what was really happening.”

Fucking sick fuck.

“I know that our country was not part of the war!” she shouts.

Kylo leans towards her, the couch crunching under his weight. His eyes appear darker than usual, and she sees the muscle tic twitching.

“You know what, maybe it should have been. Maybe, instead of just giving verbal support, we should have gotten involved for real! Our people, our kin, our blood who lived across the border, they were dying in that war. No one to defend them. No one to help them. The world turned its back on them – and so did we. Our country acted like a goddamn coward!”

It takes effort to look him in the eyes.

“But you weren’t a coward?”

“No.” He shakes his head wildly, hair falling in his face. “I did the right thing. And I used my rage for good.”     

She feels her lips turning downwards into a scowl she cannot control.

Poker face, Rey. Remember what the General said.

Then again, a part of her wants him to know how disgusted she feels.

“You won’t stop calling it good, will you?”

Kylo clenches his jaw, his teeth grinding audibly, but he doesn’t retort.

“The world…” Rey begins, raising her palm – but then she recognizes the gesture and puts her hand in her lap. “The world was very clear about which side was the aggressor in that war. We got smacked with years of sanctions only for supporting it. And you still claim that what you did was good. So the entire world was wrong, and you’re in the right? I expected more from you than parroting government propaganda.”

To her surprise, Kylo merely huffs through a crooked smirk, as if he’s genuinely amused by her words.

“Propaganda of any kind is dangerous, Rey. Don’t think that your precious world is any better. The Americans and the Brits, with their oh so enlightened CNN and BBC, they didn’t give a flying fuck about the context. They just wanted a story that’d sound bombastic when they spun it in the news. And for that, they needed a fucking Hollywood film – with the good guys and the bad guys, the light side and the dark.”

He does that thing again, when he squares his shoulders and straightens his spine to look bigger and more terrifying, slipping into shadows as if they give him strength. He’s not even conscious that he’s doing it.

It doesn’t scare her, Rey thinks.

“We didn’t bow our heads, so we were labeled the villain, while the other side had the time of its life playing the victim. It’s framed as such a simple, neat narrative. But it’s all lies, you know. The West is fooling around with its games of power and money, using little countries like ours as the playing ground.”  The flame in his eyes reveals not only how firmly he believes his words, but also how thrilled he is to have an audience. “I’ve seen the world, Rey, and I can tell you this: democracy is but an illusion. It’s all rigged. That thing you’re marching for every day – it doesn’t exist. You think you’ll have freedom if you bring down the regime, that you’ll have social justice if the world accepts us back into civilized society? Think again, Rey. In western democracy, the only choice you’re actually given is whether you’ll buy Coca-Cola or Pepsi.”   

Kylo pauses, panting, as if the speech has left him drained. He’s not finished, she sees.

She gives him time to come up with the punchline.

“I don’t expect you to see the light right now. You’ll grow up. You’ll learn. Sometimes, to do the right thing, you must make hard decisions. Do ugly shit. End up with blood on your hands.” He lifts his palms, as if he expects to see red stains on them. “But it’s still the right thing.”

And with that, he’s done.

Rey stares at him, wordless. She doesn’t want to think about what he said. Not now.

She counts to twenty.

“Okay. Fine,” she says at last, clenching her hands into fists. “Explain this, then. If you’re so proud of the First Order and all the shit you did in the war, how come you’re so fucking miserable now?”

She shouts too loudly – her voice echoes against the empty, white walls. It’s inappropriate, even for New Year’s Eve, when the neighbors are probably awake although it’s the middle of the night.

But then, just like that, his zeal dissipates.

It’s as if someone has pressed a switch. He hunches, sinking into the couch, an ugly frown cutting deep into his forehead.

He tries to smirk but it comes across as a grimace of pain, all she sees is the broken man with an unhealed scar and a drinking problem whose face she touched two nights ago.

Rey catches him glancing at the bottle again.

Wretched, stupid monster.

“I told you,” Kylo says, his voice unpleasantly soft. “Times have changed.”

That’s not an answer.

She’s done with him hiding things from her.

“How exactly have the times changed?” Rey insists. “You’re depressed because you can no longer shoot people and feel self-righteous about it?”

He chuckles bitterly, lowering his head, letting his hair cover his face.

“You really enjoy being cruel to me, don’t you, Rey?”

That’s not fair to say, she thinks. But then she sees he’s shaking.

She hesitates for a moment before sliding towards him on the couch, coming so close that their knees almost touch.

“Talk to me, Kylo.” She’s tempted to reach out and brush the hair out of his face, but she doesn’t do it. “What happened to you? Tell me what’s wrong.”

He lifts his gaze.

“So that you can tell me to fuck off?”

The sorrow in his eyes is unbearable.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispers. It’s only when she says it aloud that she realizes it’s true.

But Kylo only shakes his head and laughs, as if she made a joke.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, Rey.”

There’s a question that has been simmering in her mind ever since they’ve started talking. It feels like a lump in her throat that she’ll choke on if she speaks, but she cannot leave it unanswered.

She’ll begin to cry, she realizes. She blinks, thinking that her makeup will smudge.

“Was it because of me?” she says.

Kylo narrows his eyes.

“I don’t understand.”

“Your… Your blackout. It was a blackout, wasn’t it?” She bows her head. “Was it because of me? I lied to you, and called you a monster, and ran away from you. Did I push you over the edge? Is that why you…”

She pauses.

Breathe, Rey. Fucking breathe.

“Is that why you lost it when your father came to you?”

Kylo stiffens, his expression suddenly very serious.

“Rey,” he says too gently, “don’t do this to yourself.”

She looks up into his eyes. “So it was me?”

He doesn’t answer.

She feels tears sliding down her cheeks, melting her mascara.

“Your father, he… He was a good man. And he didn’t ditch you.” Her voice breaks. “He didn’t. And yet you… You… How could you?”

“Rey,” Kylo utters, “it wasn’t you.”

She wipes her face, smearing the back of her palm with black stains. She can’t remember the last time she cried – she used to tell herself that she ran out of tears, that she’s too old for that shit, all grown up and hardened, and yet now it comes back like a torrent.

Her nose is running.

“Did you do it in this room, Kylo?” She sniffs. “Or at the door? Did the neighbors see?”

She hears the couch creaking as he jumps and drops on his knees in front of her, coming so close that she can smell his cologne.

Amber and musk. Fuck the memories it triggers.

“Rey, love, listen to me. You did nothing wrong.”

She sobs, covering her face with her hands.

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better!”

Suddenly, Kylo reaches out and grabs her by the wrists.

Rey freezes.

His grip is gentle, yet firm. Slowly, he pulls her hands apart and catches her gaze. His lips tremble, and up close his scar looks so painful it gives her shivers, a slash of red on pale white skin.

“Rey, look at me,” he whispers. “I’m the monster here.”

She wants to push him away, but she doesn’t.

And then he leans in and kisses her.

His kiss is not chaste, as she imagined it would be when she was fifteen.

His lips are soft and slick, and he tastes of mint and liquor, mixed with the salt of her tears. His beard feels rough against her skin. He’s impatient, his breath hurried and desperate – she senses his hunger as he brushes his tongue across her lower lip and slips it into her mouth. Her skin prickles. He moans low in his throat and lets go of her wrists, but instead of fending him off, she wraps her arms around his shoulders.

She realizes she’s kissing him back.

It’s happening too quickly. Her head is spinning.

She feels his hands on her waist, pulling her closer until she almost falls off the couch. His body is hard against hers, muscles tensing behind the thin fabric of his shirt, and she rakes her nails through his hair – it’s so thick.

“Tell me to stop,” he begs, kissing her along the jawline, nuzzling against her neck.

She wants to, she thinks.

But she doesn’t say a word.

 

Chapter Text

Seven Days, Neither Up Nor Down

part I

 

 

From the moment she met him – at the age of fourteen and seven months, when she thought she was old enough to have the world figured out – she knew there was something wrong with him. He was damaged goods. Misfit, charmless, uncool in a strangely cool way, gullible enough to fall for her lie in spite of all his worldliness – always self-conscious and always tense, no matter what he said or did. A fucking mess. At some point, she even suspected a mental illness, she remembers.

Thinking back, the problem is that this was exactly what she liked about him.

Damaged as he was, he was willing to commit to her, a nobody from nowhere. He needed her, she was his Marian. He gladly let her become the only person in his life. She knew he’d put up with her possessiveness and cater to her whims, and he would never, ever leave her. And he would be her first, she thought – her first one to love, to kiss, to sleep with. First and last and always.

But then all hell broke loose, and his secrets came spilling out, and she called him a monster, and he did a thing so loathsome she’d never be able to name it, and she spent the next three years hoping he was dead.

Look at them now.

If she’s allowing this to happen now, after all this time, now that she has a life and friends and an actual purpose that gives her dignity, only because he still needs her – what does that say about her?

“Do you want to go to bed?” Kylo asks quietly, his breath tickling the skin of her neck. Then he stiffens, and she sees the tip of his ear blushing. “That came out wrong. I mean, you can take the bed. I’ll sleep here.”

He’s lying on top of her on the couch, curled around her body, his arms hugging her waist, one leg sprawled across her thighs. He’s heavy. His weight presses her into the cushions and bears down on her ribs, and the couch is too small for the both of them.

But he’s warm, and his hair is impossibly soft as she twirls it between her fingers, and there’s something soothing in the sound of his breathing.

“I’m comfortable like this,” she lies. “Don’t move.”

Her lips are swollen and sleek, kiss-bruised, and when she licks them, she thinks she can still taste him. Her chin tingles from his beard. When she closes her eyes, she feels a pleasant light-headedness, as if the room is spinning around her, and the only thing that’s keeping her grounded is the large body in her arms.

“It was my first time,” she confesses. “Kissing.”

There were opportunities, in these three years. There were. She just chose not to pursue them. She can't explain why.

“I know.” He chuckles, sounding unusually smug. “I could tell.”

She pinches his earlobe until he yelps.

Then, with the tip of her finger, she traces the shape of his ear. It’s big, floppy and oddly bent, hopelessly protruding from his hair.

She loves his ears.

“I’m sorry,” he says suddenly. She’s unsure what he’s apologizing for – it could be anything. The list of his screw-ups is long.

“Fuck you, Kylo.” She hugs him closer, inhaling the smell of amber and musk mixed with sweat. “Sleep. It’s almost morning.”

He sighs, rubbing his nose against her neck, kissing the side of her throat. She wonders if he left any bite marks there.

“I’m afraid, when I wake up, you’ll be gone.” 

Rey laughs. “I’m not going anywhere.” Funny, when she says it aloud, it sounds so definite. It should scare her, but it doesn’t. “Too late for that now. Besides, with you lying on top of me like this, I can’t sneak out unnoticed. You’re too fucking heavy. So sleep.”

“Mmm,” he hums, and she feels it reverberating in his chest.

That sound will be the death of her.

Soon after, Rey drifts into a slumber, listening to his even breathing, caressing his cheek and ear, her fingers still entangled in his hair.

She dreams, but it's blurry and vague – red clouds and birds and something about a path leading to a dark forest in which a woman is waiting for her. Her mother, maybe. Rey isn’t sure. She can’t remember her face anymore.

The ringing of the phone cuts her dreams short.

Kylo gets up from the couch and stumbles, his limbs stiff from sleep. She hears him cursing, his voice too quiet to understand what he said. It’s a relief to feel his weight lifting from her body, but Rey instantly misses his warmth – she nearly pulls him back, before she realizes what she’s doing and turns to the side, face towards the couch cushions.

She bites her lower lip until it hurts.  

Kylo’s footsteps are heavy as he paces across the room to pick up the call.

“Armitage,” he scoffs.

Of course. Who else?

“No, I have no idea what time it is. I was sleeping. For fuck’s sake, can I not sleep?” His voice is a barely restrained growl – he’d rather shout, she can tell, but he’s afraid he’d wake her up. “I’m sober. I don’t have a hangover. None of your business. You’re not my fucking mother, Armitage.”

He’s silent for a while, huffing into the receiver. It seems that Armitage is talking about something at great length. Whatever it is, it’s making Kylo nervous, for he’s tapping his foot against the floor.

“What, today?” he asks at last, annoyance clear in his tone. “No. You heard right – I said no. You deaf? Don’t yell at me. I’m not going anywhere today. No. Not leaving the house. I don’t give a fuck how you’re going to explain that to the Professor. I have the right to say no, you prick.”

Suddenly, Kylo laughs – the sound is muffled and oddly malicious.

“Your problem, asshole. Don’t call again.”

He hangs up without slamming the phone the way he usually does. Rey is impressed.

She hears him walking around the apartment, going to the bedroom, to the bathroom. Water is running for a while – it seems he’s taking a shower. When he comes back, he smells of men’s soap – clean and fresh, but generic. He stands for a long moment above the couch, observing her.

She wonders what kind of expression he has, looking at her the morning after. Is he happy? Can he be happy? Is he anxious, perhaps, because he fears her reaction when she wakes up?

She isn’t even sure why she’s pretending to sleep. 

He goes to the kitchen then, and after a while she hears the fridge door opening and the clanking of pots. He’s making something fried. She smells onions and eggs and cheese, and some spices she can't recognize, and it’s so delicious her mouth begins to water. What a strange man, Rey thinks, listening to the rattling of plates and cutlery as he sets the table. War crimes and blackouts on one hand, goddamn cooking on the other.

She’s starving, she realizes. Her stomach growls like a hungry child’s.

Kylo returns to the living room soon after, and crouches next to the couch. He hesitates for a moment, and then caresses her face – his calloused fingers feel so gentle on her skin. She expects he’ll kiss her, but he doesn’t.

“Rey, love, wake up,” he says softly. “I made you food.”

She opens her eyes slowly, and it’s only then that he kisses her – a cautious, shy peck in the corner of her mouth.

It’s bright outside, she sees, yet the light is dull. The first of January is a grey day of cold winds and winter mists and frozen window panes, and she imagines the air smells of smoke and snow that is yet to fall. Kylo’s hair is wet, curling around his ears, dripping on his clothes. He’s wearing sweatpants and a dark blue hoodie that looks worn-in and comfortable, and his feet are bare. He seems to like being barefoot at home.

“You look like a raccoon,” he jokes, touching the tip of her nose. She wants to take offense, but the way he says it is disarmingly intimate, as if he deems he has the right to tease her. “There’s hot water, if you wanna bathe, and I’ll try to find you a change of clothes. It’ll be a few sizes too large, but I guess it’s still better than these things you slept in. First, though, you must eat.”

His eyes are wide open and full of hope, and she could swear he looks happy, happier than she’s ever seen him. Still, there’s something oddly fragile about his smile.

“Come. Food’s on the table.”

Rey goes to the bathroom to wash her hands. When she sees herself in the mirror, she flinches – she looks tired and filthy. Her clothes are rumpled, her hair is disheveled, and black mascara tears are smeared across her cheeks. There is a round purple bruise blossoming on her neck.

She shuts her eyes and remembers the touch of his tongue and teeth on her throat, and suddenly she feels a flush of heat pulsating between her legs.

Rey staggers, frantically rubbing her hands with a towel. Maybe she should go, she thinks. If she stays, at this rate, something more than kissing is bound to happen, isn’t it?

And then, when she looks in the mirror, what will she see?

But in that moment she notices Kylo leaning against the doorframe, a boyish grin on his face, staring at her as if she were the sun. The joy in his eyes is honest and frail, and she can't help but smile back. She wants to hug him, she realizes.

Fuck.

She discovers he made scrambled eggs with vegetables and melted cheese, along with buttered toast and coffee so strong it could raise the dead. She wolfs down the food – the flavor is rich and spicy, and she’s surprised that a meal so simple can be this tasty. Kylo eats slowly, as if he prefers to watch her enjoy herself, and his posture is unusually relaxed – no lip biting or fidgeting like his own skin is too tight. It’s odd. 

He is happy, she concludes. He’s so fucking happy it’s sad.

“Did you rest well?” he asks at last, his first attempt at conversation since yesterday. “I wasn’t too heavy?”

Rey stretches her neck to the side – it makes a loud cracking noise.

“I’m fine,” she says, but Kylo shakes his head in disapproval.

“Tonight…” he begins, and then pauses as if he needs a moment to compose himself. “Tonight, I think we should sleep in bed.”

Rey almost chokes on the food.

“Tonight?”

Kylo leans forward, his eyes desperately searching her face, and all of a sudden all his insecurities come flooding back. He swallows before speaking.

“Stay.”

She blinks at him.

This is getting out of hand. Actually, it already did, a while ago, and now it’s only spiraling downwards, and she has no idea how to stop it.

The worst thing is, a part of her would like to stay. To spend another night kissing and stroking his hair and listening to his breathing. To see what else may happen. She touches her neck where he left the bite mark.

Shit. So much for being in control, Rey.

“It doesn’t work like that, Kylo.”

“Then…” His hands start shaking again – she sees how he grips the table’s edge to steady himself. “Then what should I do to make it work?”

Stop being a monster, she thinks. That would be a good start.

But she doesn’t say that. Instead, she deliberates for a long moment.

“You can begin by being honest,” she declares at last, her voice stern, and she looks him in the eyes. “Tell me the truth. What’s wrong? How have the times changed?”

He pushes his plate away like he’s suddenly lost his appetite.

“You won’t let it go, will you?”

Rey shakes her head. “If… If you want me to stay,” she says as if she will actually do it, “I have the right to know.”

Kylo exhales loudly, his shoulders hunched, wet strands of hair sticking to his face. He doesn’t want to talk about it, she sees. It’s almost like he’s ashamed.

For a moment, she thinks she’s pushed him too far. He’ll give up and send her home. But then she remembers how hungrily he kissed her last night, and knows he’ll do anything to keep her by his side. She only needs to give him time.

She waits.

“Professor Snoke,” Kylo finally begins, his eyes downcast. He places one hand in the middle of the table as if he hopes she’ll reach out and touch him. “He’s a great man. A brilliant man. I owe him a lot. I’m grateful for everything he did for me. He stood by my side when everyone else abandoned me, and I’ll never forget that.”

She observes his hand on the tablecloth, large and shovel-shaped, his knuckles scarred, his fingernails bitten.

“But…?” she probes.

“But when the war ended, everything changed, and so…” he hesitates. “And so did the First Order.”

It’s the hand in which he holds the gun, she thinks.  She wonders how many people he’s killed, over the years.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Kylo sneers, his voice colored with revulsion. “It was supposed to be about doing the right thing, you know. About making difficult but necessary choices. What I told you. But the moment that peace treaty was signed, all of a sudden, the game changed. It… It all became about the spoils of war. Splitting the loot. Profiteering. And Snoke, he… He’s a part of it.”  

With the tip of her finger, Rey touches the rough skin of his knuckles. He smiles, his mouth twitching upward almost uncontrollably, and she’s amazed that a gesture so small can have such an impact on him.

“Money,” he spits, as if the word itself is dirty. “Rigged tenders. False privatizations. Giveaway of state property to regime bootlickers. Well paid memberships in steering committees of public companies – places from which you can steal unpunished and fill your own pockets while pushing the country into bankruptcy. It’s… It’s selfish. And so… So shameful, Rey. That’s not what the First Order was created for. We were supposed to help the people, not fucking add to their misery.”

She finally places her hand on top of his, and he immediately intertwines their fingers, pulling her closer.

“Armitage, he’s having a blast. I mean, of course he is. Fucking coward, always so pristine. Never had the guts to get his hands dirty and actually do anything useful. I’m not surprised in the least. But I, Rey… I…”

He looks at her, clutching her hand, his eyes suddenly wide and glassy and full of panic, and she realizes he needs her help.

“You want out?” she suggests, because if she doesn’t, he’ll never say it aloud.

He nods, and for a moment she fears he’ll fall apart right then and there, a seasoned killer on the verge of tears, squeezing her fingers so strongly that it hurts.

“I want it to stop!”

Rey stands up from her chair and walks around the table. When she approaches him, he hugs her, wrapping his arms around her hips, nuzzling his face against her stomach, and he inhales her scent, the tip of his nose pressing into her navel.

“I want it to stop,” he repeats. “I didn’t… I didn’t fight in this war so that it all ends in corruption and greed. I want no part in that. It’s not who I am, Rey.”

Kylo shakes his head, his forehead rubbing into her belly, and she holds him without a word. She’s afraid to interrupt him, now that he has finally started talking, and he still hasn’t said what she wants to hear.

He’s silent for a while, his breath heavy, his shoulders shivering.

“I’m done with it, love,” he admits at last. “I can’t put up with this any longer. I’m done.”

And there it is. The relief she feels is so strong it terrifies her.

“It’s okay, Kylo.” She leans down to kiss the parting in his hair. “Hush. It’s okay. I’m here.”

“Don’t leave me.”

“I won’t.” Rey gently squeezes the tip of his ear. “I’m staying. I’ll help you. We’ll find a way out.”

Kylo nods and holds her tighter, until his breathing calms down and his hands stop trembling and his hug starts feeling like a lover’s embrace, and not like a drowning man grasping for life. She doesn’t know how much time they have taken – the food will be cold, she thinks. Not that it matters.

It dawns on her that she promised she’d stay for the night. Or forever, perhaps. She feels an abrupt surge of fear crawling up her throat.

Then again, this is good, isn’t it? Couldn’t be better. It’s a victory. He wants out. He’s willing to let the past die – he said so. And that means there could be hope for them. Actual hope. Even though he’s thoroughly fucked up, and she has no idea what she’s doing, and she isn’t even sure what she’s hoping for. 

“I love you,” he blurts out.

Rey’s heartbeat quickens.

“I know,” she replies after a while. “Monster.”

She hears a soft chuckle against her wrinkled blouse.

“Yes, I am. But I’m your monster.”

Even if she won’t admit it, Rey likes how it sounds. Tenderly, she grasps his chin and tilts it up, caressing his beard, tucking his hair behind his ears so that she can see his face.

“Look what you’ve done.” She points at the bruise on her neck.

Kylo grins, his expression suddenly very pleased, and she can’t stop thinking it’s his crooked fang that left the mark.

“Does it bother you?” 

Rey pouts, rolling her eyes. “People will ask.”

“So let them,” he says, all smiles, and he looks fucking happy again. “They should know you’re taken.”

“I am?”

It’s difficult to put a label on what they have, she thinks. She’s afraid even to try.

“You’re mine even when you’re not mine,” Kylo declares very seriously, one hand slipping under her clothes to stroke her back, and she senses a wave of shivers running down her spine. “Never forget that.” He lifts her blouse and places a quick kiss on her stomach. “Now go bathe, my love. You still look like a raccoon.”

She pushes him so hard he almost falls off the chair.

In the bathroom, Rey takes her time. She soaks in warm water until her fingers prune up, scrubbing her skin, massaging her scalp as if she wants to chase away a headache she doesn’t have. She’s using his soap – they’ll smell the same, she thinks, clean and generic and manly. It’s funny, sort of.

Long baths are not a habit of hers, but she needs this moment to herself.

She wonders what just happened there in the dining room.

He’s done with the First Order. His own words. Fuck.

But can he really walk away just like that, with no consequences? Is it possible? Will Snoke allow it, if he’s used to Kylo doing the dirty work? Will his life be in danger?

She promised she’d help. She fucking means it. It’s just that she doesn’t know what to do.

She tries to imagine asking someone for advice – the General, she thinks, or Professor Holdo, or even Poe. But how would she explain? My war criminal boyfriend needs help to get away from his past. He has killed people, you see, for which he’s not exactly sorry, but all these financial scams are making him feel really bad.

How would they look at her if she were to say something like that?

Finn would kill her, if he knew. Then again, after last night’s blunder, Finn’s opinion doesn’t bear the same weight anymore.

In that moment, Rey hears the phone ringing, but the sound is quickly cut short by a loud bang – as if an object is smashed against the wall.

So he finally did it. Rage-possessed tantrum-throwing monster.

Her monster.

Rey pulls the plug out from the bathtub and watches as the water drains away, a tiny whirlpool spiraling between her feet. Suddenly she feels very cold.

She returns to the living room dressed in his t-shirt that falls to her mid-thighs, and sweatpants so large she had to secure them around her waist with her hairgrip. Kylo is slumped on the couch, his face lighting up with a smile when he sees her – it seems that he likes how his clothes engulf her body.

The remains of the phone are scattered across the floor, and there is an ugly dent in the immaculately white wall. Rey laughs, because she doesn’t know how else to react.

“Armitage was persistent, I take it?”

“Told him not to call again,” Kylo hisses. “Dickhead.”

It crosses her mind that now, without the phone, she’s actually cut off from the world. She'd wanted to call Finn – to wish him a happy new year, yell at him for being an idiot, and tell him not to worry, even though she’d be gone for a while. She realizes that Finn will be on pins and needles with no news from her – and now she can't contact him.

“Rey?” Kylo panics, because of course he does. “Is everything alright?”

She fakes a smile. “I’m okay.”

She sits next to him on the couch, folding her legs. Kylo reaches out and wraps his hand around her bare ankle, as if he’s afraid that if he doesn’t hold her in place, she’ll vanish. His palm is dry and warm, and he tenderly rubs her joint with his thumb.

It feels so nice her toes curl.

She promised she’d stay. She did. Now what?

“What do you do with yourself?” she asks. “Alone all day long in this place. No books, no music, no TV. It’s almost like solitary confinement.”

“Well, um… Well. I’m not here all the time.” His hand trails up her calf, massaging the tense muscles. “I do stuff for Snoke. I organize things with Armitage. Takes a lot of willpower to work with him. Or I go to the gym. I told you that. The gym helps. But when I’m here on my own, I… I hit the bottle. Don’t hate me for it. And I think.”

“What do you think about?” She leans into his touch.

“You, very often.”

“That’s creepy.” Rey frowns. “And obsessive.”

“But I am creepy and obsessive,” he agrees, his grin too wide. “You know that. I’m a freak.”

She places her foot on his thigh, to give him better access, and watches as his large hand disappears up the loose hem of her sweatpants.

“When did you stop being Ben?”

She doesn’t know why she asks that.

He suddenly freezes, his fingers pressing into the skin of her calf.

“My father told you about my birth name?”

It’s fucking surreal, to hear him mention Han so casually after everything. After yesterday.

“He did,” Rey confirms.

Kylo grinds his teeth, a sign indicating that a temper fit is not far away, and Rey tenses in expectation.

“I always hated that name.” 

She makes herself giggle, poking at his arm to lighten the mood. “Why? Ben’s too plain for a prince of darkness?”

“It’s not about that,” he grumbles, his forehead creasing. “Come. I need you closer.”

He lays back on the couch and pulls her into his arms, placing her head on his shoulder. He’s so warm, she thinks, comfortable even, although his body is anything but soft. She can feel his heartbeat. 

“I was named after a family friend,” Kylo explains. “Old Ben Kenobi. He died shortly before my birth. It was my mother’s idea, like most of the things in my childhood – I don’t think anyone asked for Han’s opinion. And it’s not that the name’s old-fashioned. Or, um, plain. It’s that it came with a set of expectations.”

He laughs, but it’s a brittle, unamused sound.

“Like Old Ben, I was expected to be graceful, and wise, and noble. Well-tempered. Well-behaved. Charming too, preferably. The ideal offspring of a proud long lineage. And, well, it backfired big time.”

Rey tries to picture Kylo’s mother – ambitious and smart, slightly spoiled, raised for great things, too young to have a child, giving her son a meaningful name as if she were casting a spell. She must have been beautiful, Rey imagines, in her white summer dresses that Han used to love so much. She must have been so hopeful for her baby boy, only to watch it come crashing down.

Rey realizes that she inexplicably resents the woman.

She snuggles closer into Kylo’s arms, kissing his neck, rubbing the tip of her nose against the stubble on his cheek. It scratches pleasantly.

“I never met Old Ben. Obviously. Maybe he was a great guy, y’know. Someone you’d want to be friends with.” Kylo turns to face her, and from up close, she sees the specks of green in his dark eyes. “But fuck, Rey, I spent my childhood hating him. See, no matter what I did or how hard I tried, while I still tried, it was never good enough. I always felt inadequate. Clumsy, ugly, angry, unhinged – never like good Old Ben. Never living up to expectations.”

He heaves a heavy sigh and bites his bottom lip, and Rey decides that she too hates the word “unhinged”.

“So it’s not that I stopped being Ben,” he concludes bitterly. “It’s more that I never was.”

Rey sits up on the couch.

For a brief moment, Kylo looks alarmed, unsure as to why she would leave his embrace so suddenly. But then she straddles him, sitting on his thighs, one hand on his chest, other cupping his cheek where the scar is. She holds his gaze, and slowly, almost solemnly, says the words she believes he has needed to hear for a long while.

“You’re not ugly, Kylo.”

He blinks at her, confused.

“No?”

His face darkens and he frowns, as if he can't fathom he could be anything but hideous, and Rey feels a strong burst of rage against everyone who ever mocked him for his looks.

Shame on them, she thinks. Shame on his family too.

“Actually, I find you quite attractive.”

Kylo’s eyes widen, as if no one has ever told him anything similar. 

“You do?” The look he gives her is so dumbfounded her heart aches. “Even with the scar?”

Rey smirks. “Chicks dig scars.”

“I don’t care what chicks dig.” He reaches out to place his hand on the crook of her neck. “I care about what you think.”

He looks devastatingly exposed, lying flat beneath her like this, lost and visibly love-starved. She’s overwhelmed with a baffling need to protect him, to fucking shield him from the world – a man ten years her senior, large and mad and dangerous, with undried blood on his hands and a head full of crazy ideas. She isn’t sure what she did to deserve such unconditional surrender on his part, but the more he gives her, the happier she is to tear down her own defense walls.

Fuck, Rey thinks. Is this love? Is this how it feels?

It disturbs her that she’s well aware of the answer.

“I like how you look,” she admits after a while. She feels his breath hitching under her palm, and it makes her heart race. “I like your moles. And your big nose. And your eyes. Took me a while to figure out their exact color.”

With the hand resting on his chest, she pulls at his clothes, suddenly irritated by the fabric that’s keeping them apart.

“I think your hair is beautiful. Seriously, Kylo, what do you do to make it so silky and soft?” Her fingers are in his locks now, entangled in the messy black waves. “Your ears are adorable. I also love it that you’re tall. And that stupid fang of yours, chipped as it is, it does things to me.”

He grins, this time in a rather deliberate manner, and she’s happy that she gives him confidence.

“I even like the scar,” she concludes. “It’s a part of you now.”

Kylo inhales quietly, looking at her in awe, defenseless. The tips of his fingers suddenly dig into her shoulder in a greedy gesture that sends a shivering wave of heat down her body.

“You… You want me?”

He asked her something similar once before, she remembers, on her fifteenth birthday, when she was crippled by shame and guilt and a lie she had told without even knowing why. It was easier to answer back then. It didn’t imply things.

She senses she’s blushing.

“Why do you ask that, when you know the answer?”

“Say it,” he pleads, his voice soft and deep. “Please.”

Rey closes her eyes and slides her hands under his clothes, feeling the firm muscles of his stomach, the smoothness of his skin. His chest is hairless, she notes, slick with sweat and so very broad. She hears him stifle a moan.

“I do,” she confesses finally. She isn’t sure why it took her so long. “I want you.”

It’s what he was waiting for.

Kylo lurches forward, pulling her into a kiss. It’s all tongue and teeth again, needy, messy, soft bites between strangled groans, as if he can't stop until he runs out of breath, but she’s learning to like it that way. She tugs at the bottom of the fucking hoodie – it’s in the way. Kylo laughs between kisses, understanding what she wants, and in a quick move, he pulls it up and over his head.

It ruffles his hair, static electricity crackling quietly. 

Rey studies his body. His skin is pale, the constellations of moles spreading down his neck all the way to his chest, and there is a round scar on his left shoulder. An old bullet wound, she assumes. It must have hurt, she thinks, to get shot in the bone like that, it must have taken a long time to recover. She wonders if it ever aches, when the weather turns, like they say that old wounds do.

“Don’t be shy, love,” Kylo whispers, though he’s the one blushing so deeply that even his neck turns a pale pink. “I’m yours to touch.”

She caresses his shoulder, tentatively. The texture of the scar is coarse. She sees goosebumps rising on his skin.

Then, while she still has the courage, she grabs the hem of her own t-shirt and takes it off.

She’s never been naked in front of someone before – not even in the Home, where it took a lot of yelling and threats to ensure her right to privacy. Her first impulse is to cover her breasts, small as they are, but she clenches her fists, forcing herself to keep her hands on her thighs.

Kylo’s pupils widen. His eyes turn so dark they’re almost black, and he licks his trembling lips. He desires her, she realizes. She was well aware of it before, of course, but the thought was kind of abstract – naïve, almost. This is too fucking real. She watches him as he swallows heavily, his gaze going down to the hollow between her breasts, to the freckled skin of her stomach, and even lower, where her hairgrip keeps the too large sweatpants on her hips. She can read on his face how carnal his desire is, what he wants to do to her. What he will do to her.

Suddenly she feels very young, and she needs to remind herself that she is not afraid.

He reaches for her body, and she thinks he’ll touch her breasts, but he doesn’t. Instead, he lays his palm flat on her chest, right on her heart, pressing into her ribcage. He smiles lightly, as if he’s very pleased to discover how quickly her heart beats: it flutters.

“Bed?” Kylo asks, breathless.

She nods.

He picks her up in his arms, bridal style – she didn’t expect it, and for a moment she’s startled, grasping at his neck a tad too tightly. He is fucking strong, she notes as he carries her to the bedroom. It’s the first time she sees his strength for herself – it makes her feel weightless and small, as if he can snap her in two. It’s exciting, she thinks, and manly in a stupidly primal sense. His muscles tense against her bare skin, carrying her weight, and she bites his shoulder, chuckling when he gasps.

“I’ll drop you,” he protests.

“Then we’ll continue on the floor.” She doesn’t know where this boldness comes from, because deep inside she’s mortified.

He pants as he pushes open the bedroom door. “Say it again, love, and I will drop you.” 

The bed is crumpled, as if he hasn’t bothered to make it for days, and the sheets are unpleasantly cold. Still, it smells of him – his cologne and sweat and that distinctive scent of his hair – and it fills her senses with a strange kind of yearning. As he lays her down on the sheets, she pulls him on top of her, and giggles when he almost loses balance.

The hairgrip falls from her sweatpants, plastic thudding loudly as it rolls onto the floor, and her hips are revealed. Kylo quivers. He kisses her again, one hand on her hipbone, other fumbling with the fabric, tugging the sweatpants down. She lets him. She savors the softness of his lips, the bristling of his beard, the tangy taste of his sweat on the tip of her tongue. It makes her dizzy. She thinks she’ll choke, and yet, she can’t get enough.

Then, all of a sudden, she senses a hardness pressing into her leg, rubbing against her thigh.

“Stop,” she says, but he’s too far gone to listen, so she has to shout. “Stop!”

Kylo freezes – in an instant, all the bravado is gone.

He pulls back from her, panting. He’s confused, she sees – his eyes are covered by strands of hair as he bows his head down, but she can still tell they’re filled with fear.

“You don’t want this?”

Fuck his insecurities and the constant need for reassurance.

Then again, she knows that if she were to reject him, he’d let her walk away without a word. The thought is oddly empowering – and sort of sad, a little.

“No, Kylo, no, it’s not that.” She leans forward to kiss him quickly, because he needs it. “It’s just… Do you have something, you know… Like protection, or something?”

She has to be responsible.

She has allowed her world to crash and burn in a matter of days, all carefully laid plans and firm decisions thrown away like yesterday’s trash. She must keep at least a sliver of control.

“No.” He shrugs awkwardly, his palms still caressing her hips, like he’s afraid to let go. “It’s not as if I bring women in here. Or that I expected things to happen with you now.”

Damn you, Kylo.

Then, a strange thought occurs to her.

“You… You’ve done it before? Right?”

He gives her a rushed nod, avoiding her eyes, as if he’s ashamed of the answer.

“I have, a few times. But never properly. And it was a very long time ago. During my clubbing years. Long before I met you.”

She feels an inexplicable surge of jealousy. It’s ridiculous – even if he’s never been in a relationship, of course he has some experience, he’s almost thirty. It was stupid to assume otherwise. Yet she draws her nails across his back possessively, enjoying how he shudders under her touch. She hopes she’s left marks.

“I can be careful. I can,” he whispers into her ear, caressing the skin of her neck. “Trust me. But if you don’t want this now, love, we don’t have to.”

Rey pauses. It would be the right decision, she knows – to stop while it’s not too late, to wait, to think about all of this once again.

To change her mind.

“I want you, I said. And I do want to do this.”

She gives him a long kiss, a greedy one, the kind she knows he likes, sucking his bottom lip between her teeth. He moans, and it makes her see stars.

“But please be careful. Please. We cannot…”

“I know, Rey.” He tenderly presses their foreheads together, and for a moment she thinks she can forget he’s a monster. “I know. You’re still too young, love. I won’t do anything stupid. Promise.”

She nods, and lifts her hips from the mattress so that he can pull the sweatpants all the way down. She hears the sound of clothes rumpling on the floor, but she doesn’t lift her head to see where they fell. She decides she won’t think about the sight that she makes lying naked on his bed, amidst the wrinkled sheets, her hair disheveled, her lips parted, waiting for him to climb on top of her.

When they first met, during an equally cold winter a fucking lifetime ago, it took them five months to dare to hold hands. Now, less than a week has passed since they reconnected, and here she is. After everything.

What a first day of the year.

His hand trails down her body, caressing her breasts and the side of her waist, circling around her navel, softly tickling the skin above her mound, and then sliding downwards.

He touches her there.

The sensation is odd, foreign – his fingers are too large, too rough-skinned, and he doesn’t know where to press to make it feel good. She thinks she’ll need too much time to get used to this. But he’s trying, gently, patiently, his fingertips exploring deeper into her folds, his breath hot and labored against her throat – and ah, ah, there it is.

A familiar excitement stirs between her legs, winding up, tightening. She hears herself whimper, and presses her hips upward to meet the movements of his hand. It’s so near, she thinks, so near, almost within her reach, and yet she can’t really let herself go. 

She grabs his wrist, stopping him.

“Come,” she says, before he can start agonizing over what went wrong. “Come to me.”

Hurriedly, he slides his sweatpants down his legs, kicking them off, and Rey closes her eyes.

She doesn’t understand where this sudden shyness comes from, but she can't make herself look at him down there. Naked. Hard from his desire for her. She feels the tip of his arousal against the skin of her thigh. It gives her goosebumps, and her mouth goes dry – she isn’t sure if it’s anticipation or fear.

“Love,” Kylo whispers too softly, stroking her hair. “We can still stop.”

“No.”

“Look at me, then.”

Slowly, she peeks through her eyelashes, and there, it’s all written on his face – love, loneliness, bliss, crippling self-doubt, a lust so strong it clouds his mind, and this bizarre loyalty he harbors for her from the moment they met. He can't believe that this is happening, she sees.

She realizes that in spite of his age and a few fumbling one night stands in some nightclubs god knows where, he actually has very little experience. It’s endearing how he pretends that he knows what he’s doing, while in truth he’s as scared as she is, if not even more. It devastates her, his tenderness, his devotion, it makes her feel naked with more than just clothes, and she’s filled with a deep sense of sadness that mixes with a dazzling joy.

Can you love a monster?

“Come to me,” she repeats.

In a swift movement, he pushes forward and sinks into her.

Rey’s not uninformed. She knows it’s supposed to hurt. Discomfort is normal, they say. It will pass after a while.

But she wasn’t prepared for a surge of pain so strong it feels like it’s splitting her in half. She digs her nails into his shoulders and winces, stifling a cry.

“It's okay, my love.” He kisses her forehead. “Just breathe.”

She nods, trying to relax. It’s not easy, and she feels beads of sweat forming on her brow, but it helps when he resumes his kisses, his tongue in her mouth, his beard tickling her jawline. She catches herself wishing he’ll leave new bite marks on her neck.

Then, he starts moving.

He wants to be gentle, she sees, to take it slowly, and she loves him for it. But soon enough, it seems it’s too much for him. He loses control, picking up the pace, grinding his hips against her core, grunting quietly, a low rumble that vibrates deep inside his throat. She likes the sound. The pain lessens, to her surprise, and for a moment she almost believes that this can feel nice, good even. Her body is responding, opening up to his pleasure, and she moans – is that her voice?

But then it’s all over.

He pulls out, urgently, shuddering on top of her, and she senses hot strings of liquid spilling on her belly.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, his voice stuttering. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

It takes her a moment to process what just happened.

Kylo collapses onto the bed next to her, his breath still shaky, pulling her into his arms, skin on skin. He’s sweating, and tastes of salt when she kisses the bullet scar on his shoulder.

He shouldn’t apologize, she thinks. Not for that.

“Don’t be sorry. It’s normal.”

She even finds it sweet, a little, but she doesn’t say it.

“Did it hurt… Did it hurt too much?”

Rey squeezes her thighs together, experiencing the soreness.

“That’s normal too.” She wonders if she bled. “I didn’t mind.”

He gives her a light kiss in the corner of her mouth, wrapping himself around her like he did while they slept on the couch. She enjoys the pressure of his weight. 

“Fuck. I didn’t… I didn’t last even for two minutes.”

Rey grins, very childishly, and touches the tip of his nose the way he likes to touch hers. “A dry spell can do that, or so I’ve heard.”

His look is wide-eyed, vulnerably intense, and for a moment she thinks he’ll ask her if she regrets it, or even worse, that he’ll thank her. But then he smiles, his expression both shy and smug.

“We’ll need to practice.”

The way he says it sends a swift flush of heat to her lower belly, and she feels she’s blushing.

His seed is cooling on her skin, drying, dripping down her side, but instead of finding it repulsive, she’s strangely aroused.

“I should go wash.”

“Don’t, not yet.” He hugs her tighter. “Please stay like this for a moment longer.”

It’s so comfortable it’s difficult to disobey.

She wonders if she should feel any different. This is supposed to be a big step in her life, she knows, the rite of passage into womanhood. So many books and movies and TV shows glorify this moment. Rose often talks about it, gulping down her trash romance novels and daydreaming about the ideal boy she’ll never meet.

But oddly, Rey doesn’t feel as if much has changed. There’s just more of him in her life now, right where she thought he once belonged – her damaged goods of a man, her first to love, first to kiss, first to sleep with. Her monster.

She’s predictable, isn’t she?

“Are you sleepy?” Kylo asks, whispering into her hair.

“A bit.” She realizes she’s barely keeping her eyes open. “We didn’t get much rest yesterday, on the couch and all. And it’s been an, um… an eventful day.”

She doesn’t know what time it is. Early afternoon, perhaps? Or later? It’s getting dark outside already, shadows gathering in the bedroom, but with everything that happened, it’s difficult to tell the passage of time. As if it has stopped at some point.

Kylo chuckles, caressing her cheek. “So sleep, my love. I’ll watch over you.”

She closes her eyes, cuddling into his arms.

He wants to leave the First Order, she repeats to herself. Maybe they can pull this off. Maybe they can be normal. Maybe they can have a fucking future.

But as she sinks into sleep, there’s only one thought on her mind.

If she has allowed all this to happen, if she’s as happy about it as he is, then what does it say about her?

 

Chapter Text

 

Seven Days, Neither Up Nor Down

part II

 

 

In the early afternoon of January 3rd, it begins to snow.

The snowflakes are large and feathery, stark white against the ashen sky. They fall to the ground slowly, with a calming laziness fit for the holiday standstill, first melting as soon as they touch the window sill, then piling up, gradually. It’s hypnotizing to observe.

The day is quiet, Rey notes, and there is no wind. She sits by the window in the kitchen, watching as the snow covers the houses across the street – the bright orange roof tiles, the antennas and satellite dishes, the balconies with rusty iron fences, the ceramic pots with brown remains of dried flowers. At this rate, soon enough, they’ll be snowed in. At least that will give them a proper excuse not to go out.

Behind her, Kylo is washing dishes – now and then, she glances at him, observing how the muscles on his back move as he soaps and scrubs the plates. For lunch, he made chicken marinated in soy sauce, with thin rice noodles and chewy black mushrooms whose tangy flavor was a pleasant surprise. She’d describe it as Chinese food, even though he passionately argued that it was nothing like what people actually ate in China. Rey smiles – that man and his cooking. No wonder that the kitchen is the only place in the apartment that actually resembles him.

Kylo is humming while he works, but it’s too soft and quiet, so she cannot recognize the song. His voice is lovely, though – rich and deep and melancholy. She’s certain he’s not aware of it.

His happiness is such a rare, precious thing, Rey thinks. So raw, so difficult to attain.

And it belongs to her.

“We’re running low on groceries,” Kylo says as he’s finished with the dishes, wiping his hands with the kitchen cloth. “I need to do some shopping. The stores should be open by today. Wanna come with me?”

Rey imagines getting dressed, going out to the cold, feeling the crisp winter air and the snowflakes melting on her skin.

“No,” she replies. It’s too comfortable idling around in the overheated apartment, wearing nothing but his too-large t-shirt. She gave up on the sweatpants a while ago.

“Is there something you’d like me to buy?”

She thinks for a moment. “Chocolate. But the good one. With whole hazelnuts.”

Kylo chuckles, his eyes full of warmth. “You’ll never stop being a kid, will you?”

Rey sticks out her tongue, and he laughs louder, but then his expression suddenly turns serious.

“Um, I’ll also…” he begins, the tips of his ears reddening. “I’ll also get condoms.”

She nods vigorously, feeling that she’s blushing, too.

They’ve been practicing.

A lot.

Three times in the bedroom, twice on the couch, once in the bathroom.

And once on the kitchen floor.

Rey giggles to herself.

It’s getting better. She’s nearly there. He slides in with ease now, the discomfort all but gone, and he lasts longer, but he still hastily pulls out before she can reach her relief. It seems that the promise of her pleasure pushes him over the edge – just as she begins moaning aloud, letting go with abandon and angling her hips to meet his thrusts where it feels good, he’s done. Oddly enough, she doesn’t find it frustrating. She loves watching him when he comes. He’s beautiful: his eyes roll back, a slight frown creasing his forehead, he bites his lip and he growls, a deep sound coming from the bottom of his stomach. And then he spills, trembling and calling her name, and he’s too dizzy to get up or clean them up or even move. Whatever he feels, it must be earth-shattering. She wants it too.

She wants more.

He’s afraid, she can tell. He wants to be careful, for her sake. It will be different once they get protection.

Still, Rey enjoys it. He tells her that he loves her when he’s inside of her, between hungry kisses and heavy thrusts, and Rey can’t get enough. He lets her explore his body. She adores the firmness of his chest muscles, his strong long legs, his wide hips, the trail of hair that begins below his navel and goes all the way down. The first time she touched him there, wrapping her fingers around his arousal, she was surprised by how it felt – thick and heavy, rock hard, yet delicate, the skin thin and velvety. He let out a muffled grunt that made her mouth water, pressing his forehead against the crook of her neck, and she felt powerful, and cherished, and desired. Thinking about it makes her want to do it again, to jump on him as he’s getting dressed to go out in the cold.

It’s madness what they’re doing, she knows. Madness.

Yet she doesn’t want it to stop.

In the outside world, life goes on. The protests continue into the new year – Rey hears the noise in the evening. She wonders if someone has noticed she’s missing. Finn has, that’s for sure. He must be looking for her by now, raising the alarm bells, contacting her friends, maybe even going to the school dorms to see for himself what’s happening. He’ll be foaming at the mouth with fury once she comes back, and she still hasn’t thought of a convincing explanation as to where the fuck she’d disappeared to.

She’ll have to come back, sooner or later, won’t she?

But for now, this is good. Just the two of them, alone in the world, while outside it snows.

While she waits for him to come back, Rey decides how they’ll spend the rest of the afternoon. She rummages through the kitchen drawers, looking for a pair of scissors – a knife would do as well, technically, but she wants it to be symbolic. A step forward in whatever this is that they have. A change.

She places the scissors on the coffee table next to the framed photograph, as conspicuously as she can, and she sits on the couch, biding her time. It takes him a while.

“What’s that for?” Kylo asks when he returns, his hands full of bags as if he’s stocked up on supplies for a year-long siege.

Rey gives him a mischievous grin. “Today, we’re going to open the boxes.”

“We are?” He puts the bags on the floor and crouches, picking up the scissors, his expression unreadable.

She kneels next to him and takes his large hand into hers, entwining their fingers.

“It’s time, Kylo,” she says patiently. “You’re changing your life, aren’t you? That means you should face the things you’ve stashed away. They’re part of you, y’know. Besides, you cannot live here like this, with nothing but the furniture and all the good stuff packed in boxes. I cannot live here like this.”

“You want to live here?”

His eyes light up with hope, and she immediately regrets her choice of words. Of course that’s the only thing he’d hold on to from everything she said.

Then again, would that really be so horrible?

“Well. It ain’t possible now. There’s school. I can’t disappear just like that from the dorms, you see, even if you pull strings. And, um, I’m a ward of the state for a few more months. But I don’t know, afterwards, then… Then…”

Kylo leans forward and hugs her for a long moment, kissing the crown of her head. He smells of winter, she notes – snow and charcoal smoke.

“Bring out the fucking boxes,” he sighs.

There’s a thick layer of dust on the pale cardboard, and the duct tape is dry and brittle, the glue having lost its stickiness. The last time he opened the boxes must have been when they were meeting at the music market, when he used to bring her things, bits and pieces of his youth. It would be easy to tear the boxes open with bare hands, Rey thinks, but she still insists he does it with the scissors. She wants it to feel like a ceremony.

Inside, it’s a mess.

There are books, and pieces of paper with rows upon rows of his neat handwriting, and old clothes, like a washed-out Joy Division t-shirt with ripped off sleeves. There are CDs and cassettes and even a few vinyl records, and magazine clippings, and crumpled concert tickets too faded to read the name of the band. There are postcards, and photos of a young Kylo – Ben – all lanky and slim and uncomfortable in his own skin, his hair barely reaching his ears, in front of the Eiffel Tower, and on the London Bridge, and standing next to a short man with a neat beard in a garden with lavish golden fountains – Peterhof Palace, 1988, is written on the back. The man seems oddly familiar, Rey thinks, but she can’t pinpoint why. There are comics in English and French and Italian, or maybe Spanish, she mixes up the two, and a series of bizarre objects that must have curious stories behind them: a small bust of a Roman emperor Rey doesn’t recognize, a skull-shaped beer mug, a large black spider framed in glass, a piece of driftwood with a face carved into it, three elongated silver spoons with a pattern of holes in them – she can’t fathom why someone would need a spoon with holes – and is that a fucking katana?

Looking at the tangle of discarded tidbits of a past life, Rey suddenly feels a strange sadness. It must have been difficult, she thinks, to choose what to keep and what to throw away. She wonders if it was a painful process for him, or quite the contrary, he found it liberating.

She tries to imagine what actually went into the trash. 

“What’s with the holes?” she asks, toying with one of the silver spoons.

“It’s for serving absinthe. Sugar cubes should melt on the spoon and slowly drip into the drink. I got it in Berlin.”

“Absinthe?” She lifts the spoon to the light, observing the ornate pattern of holes: it resembles leaf veins. “Like that green thing that the French painters used to drink and everyone went mad?”

Kylo laughs, leaning in to kiss her. “Now you know, my love. I have an excuse for going mad.”

She leaves the spoon on the table and takes the photo from the Peterhof Palace, examining it.

“This is your uncle, I take it?”

Kylo shrugs clumsily, as if he can’t explain why he kept the picture. “I really liked the place, you see. Even though it’s kitsch as fuck. And I don’t have any other photos from there, so my uncle didn’t end up in the garbage bin.” 

“Well, you’re not tall on that side of the family.” She sees no resemblance at all. The man in the picture is bright-eyed, with a friendly smile and self-confident demeanor, and there’s something wise and heroic about him – as if he’s used to people treating him like someone whose opinion matters. Next to him, the boy named Ben looks even more awkward. “Why did you two argue?”

Kylo tenses. “You know about that too?”

“You broke his arm,” Rey says after a longer pause. “In two places. Another blackout?”

“It’s the one I’m not sorry for.”

She narrows her eyes. Does this mean that he actually regrets his other moments of sanity slippage? Is he even aware of what he can do to people when he loses control, or is it like a hole in his memory?

Could he ever hurt her, if a rage fit hits the roof?

Strangely, Rey doesn’t think so.

“It was because of him,” Kylo says finally, pointing at the framed photo on the coffee table. “Our argument.” 

Rey lifts her eyebrows, confused.

“Wait, what? You broke your uncle’s arm because of your grandfather?” It sounds insane. “How does that even work? Your uncle disapproved that grandpa was a German collaborator, and it made you see red?” 

“Dammit, Rey, don’t jump to conclusions!” Kylo pouts, and surprisingly, he seems offended. “No, it’s not that. What do you take me for? It’s Armitage who gets off on that ‘Mein Kampf’ bullshit, not me. This was something else entirely.”

He extends his arm, and Rey knows – he wants her as close as possible, because the topic is difficult for him. She dutifully slides into his embrace.

“It’s a long story, love, and quite fucked up.” He hesitates, as if he isn’t sure where to begin. “But okay. You have the right to know. I started seeing Professor Snoke shortly before the war. I told you, he’s the first person who made me feel as if I shouldn’t hate myself for who I am. But my uncle and Snoke, um, they… They didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye.” He sniggers as if he made a joke. “Well. My uncle despised everything Snoke stood for. So when he found out I was interested in the First Order, he flipped his lid. Shouted, called me names. He dismissed all my arguments, everything I tried to explain. Didn’t even listen. And then he told me the story of my grandfather.”

Rey frowns questioningly. “You hadn’t heard it before?”

“Fuck, I didn’t even know that grandfather existed.” Kylo pauses, looking at the sepia portrait in the golden frame, and then at the Peterhof photo that Rey still holds in her hand. “My mother and uncle were adopted, you see. I didn’t know it until then. They never, ever mentioned their real father. Not even once.” He scoffs. “Anakin, that was his name. Colonel Anakin Skywalker. Nicknamed Vader by the Germans, who knows why. Yes, he was a collaborator. But he did it because he thought it was the only way to stay loyal to the king in the middle of a communist uprising, and I don’t know, love, that deserves some respect, doesn’t it?”

Rey isn’t sure that it does. There are some things that are unforgivable. But she doesn’t think she has the right to protest – not now, when she’s cuddling in his arms.

“Rumor had it that Anakin was also, um, prone to rage fits. Violent, especially during the last years of the war. Did some ugly shit.” He says it calmly, as if he never committed anything similar. “Eventually, he was captured by the communists and shot without a trial. And my uncle told me, without batting an eye, that I was walking the same path. Not only that I was a mentally unstable piece of work, as he put it, but I was a mentally unstable piece of work about to become a ‘fascist war dog’. He actually used those words. And in the end, he said, I’d meet the same fate – erased from family, with no one to mention my name. An old shame pushed under the carpet. Forgotten.” His voice sinks to a low growl. “Because I didn’t turn out the way they expected me to.” 

He squeezes her shoulder. His hands tremble, she sees, for the first time in days.

“No one deserves to be forgotten just because they’re not who you wanted them to be. You think Anakin Skywalker was a piece of shit? Fine. But fucking say so, instead of pretending that the man never existed. Instead of threatening me with the same.”   

She hesitates, thinking about what he said. “That… That’s what made you lose it?”

He nods slowly. “I remember yelling, and hitting him the first time. I remember a crunching sound, I think it was his nose. Then, it’s all blank, until I heard my mother’s screams.”

Bloody hell.

Rey doesn’t know to respond. She pictures the boy named Ben swinging his fist at the bearded man who’d seemed painfully unsurprised by yet another disappointment. She imagines the sound of bones breaking. There must have been a lot of blood. She’s horrified, she is, but she also pities the boy he once was. Would he even have gone to the First Order, she wonders, if his uncle hadn’t made a scene, if it hadn’t ended with a rage fit and a scandal?

Suddenly, she remembers Han’s words. She cannot blame the world for Kylo’s mistakes.

But she can try to save him, can’t she?

Rey puts the photo down, flipping it, so that the boy and his uncle and glitzy golden fountains are away from sight.

“You’ve never asked me about my family.” She changes the topic.

“I haven’t.” Kylo shrugs. “I figured, you’ll tell me yourself when you’re ready. Or you won’t. That’s okay too.”

Rey smiles, and turns to give a quick kiss to his shaking hand on her shoulder. She’ll never be ready, she knows.

Some things never stop aching, no matter how good you become at lying to yourself, and it fucking hurts to tear away scabs from wounds.

But the longer she hesitates, the more difficult it will be to start.

And she needs him to hear this.

“Well. My mother, she… She left me in the Home for Children without Parental Care when I was four,” she begins, her voice more resolute than she feels. “I don’t know if the man who was with her was my father. Maybe. Maybe not. On my birth certificate, the father’s name is left blank. She said she’d return to take me back, once she fixed some things that needed fixing. And we’d have a nice life. A house. A dog. All the toys I wanted. And a baby brother, she said, or a little sister.”

Rey takes a deep breath, swallowing heavily.

She’s never shared this with anyone. Not even Finn.

It’s harder than she thought.

“She did visit me a few times. Three, in total, I think. Twice shortly after she left me. Once when I was already five. She brought me a cake, I remember, even though my birthday had long passed, and I blew out the candles, trying to hide how confused I felt. It hurt, but I was still happy she came. Funny how some moments stay with you.”

The image is there, when she closes her eyes: the chocolate cake dusted with icing sugar, the flickering of candles, the Home children singing the birthday song, off-key, uninterested in someone else’s happiness. Rey cannot recall her mother’s face, not anymore, but she remembers what she smelled like – of bubblegum, and old sweat, and a cheap fruity perfume that came in a pink bottle. Strawberry, she thinks. Or cherry.

She feels Kylo’s fingers in her hair, detangling the knots, massaging her scalp. It’s soothing.

“And…?” he asks cautiously.

“And then, one day, she disappeared.”

Rey isn’t sure how long it took her to realize that something was amiss. Weeks? Months? Did she even notice that things had changed, or had she just kept waiting for mother to return?

She focuses on Kylo’s touch. The warmth of his body calms her down, like a goddamn security blanket.

“On a late August morning – it was a warm day, I remember, and I was excited because soon I was about to start school – a woman came to the Home.” The words come a little easier now, she thinks, almost as if she can’t stop them. “An older woman. Back then she seemed really old to me, but perhaps she was only in her forties. Skinny. Hair in a bun. Male clothes – a flannel shirt and jeans, I found it funny. A frown on her face. A permanent one, you know the kind – like, you could really see that life screwed her over more times than she could count. They brought me to her, and she looked at me, she looked at me really carefully, and she wrinkled her nose as if I smelled bad, and she said: ‘I don’t want her.’ Of course, I had no idea what it meant. I didn’t even know who she was.”

It’s strange – while her mother is a distant ghost, all hazy and grey, this woman is a scorching light in her memories, the kind that burns if you get too close. Rey remembers her face like it was yesterday. She’d recognize her in any crowd.

Not that it would help.

“So I spent the next few years waiting for mother to return. And I talked about her – I mocked the other kids, saying my mom does want me back. I didn’t need to impress any potential adoptive parents. I just had to wait. Only, y’know, years passed, and my mother didn’t come for me. So, yeah. I think I was nine, or even ten, when Unkar – I don’t know if I mentioned him before, he was a live-in caretaker in the Home, a horrible man – told me my mom was dead. Overdosed on heroin. She was a fucking junkie, and a whore, and he was doing me a favor in breaking my delusions. That woman who came to see me, he said, that was my grandmother. Of course she didn’t want me. No one wants a whore’s daughter.”

There – she said it. In the end, it’s just words.

But for a time, that was her nickname in the Home. The children ran wild with it, the little shits – it allowed them to get back at her for all her tall tales of a loving mother and a house and a dog. She hated it, while it lasted.

Until, one day, she decided she would be Rey.

“To prove I ain’t just a whore’s daughter, I made a set of rules.” She raises her hands and starts counting on her fingers. “Excel in school. Stay out of trouble. Work hard. Learn everything you can. Be respectful and respectable – but not soft and spineless, you must show people there are boundaries. Never hit it off with the wrong crowd, which was fucking difficult, because sooner or later, every crowd was wrong. No wonder I was friendless. And never, ever fool around with boys – for little girls from the Home, that was the quickest way to fall from grace. It wasn’t always easy to follow the rules, y’know. But I was managing, I was. Only my grandmother never came back to see what a good girl I’d become. Not even to check if I was still alive. And years went by. And then…”

Rey turns to face him, touching his mouth lightly, tracing his scar with her fingers.

“Then I met you, Kylo.” She smiles, because if she doesn’t, she’ll begin to cry, and she’s had enough of tears. “You’re the only one who ever came back to me. Remember that? Because I do. And you know what? Fuck our families that didn’t want us. I want you. That’s the only thing that matters.”  

She realizes that she’s never told him she loves him back. It’s stupid, her hesitancy. She’s crossed all the other lines, consequences be damned, but these words are still stuck in her throat. 

She knows very well why she can’t say it. But for one afternoon, she’s already pushed herself too far.

“Fuck them,” she repeats instead. “I’ll be your family.”

Kylo’s eyes widen, glistening with that heated intensity of his that’s at the same time brittle and mad. And then he smiles, delighted, as if he’s finally gotten what he wanted.

“Rey,” he says solemnly, and she loves it, she fucking loves how her name sounds on his lips. “You know I’ll never leave you.”

She nods. “I do.”

“That woman didn’t deserve you,” he spits. “I can find her, if you want. Just say the word, love. I’ll bring you her head on a silver platter.”

Rey pulls back. For a moment, she can’t tell if he’s joking or not. It frightens her how easily she can imagine him doing it – snarling, drawing blood, shattering bones with his bare hands, giving in to his self-righteous anger, his eyes glowing yellow. It frightens her more that she’s not appalled. 

But then he laughs, shaking his head as if he can’t believe she took him seriously. His grin spreads wide and his sharp teeth flash in the dark afternoon. She wants them on her skin, she thinks.

“Monster.” She pushes him away playfully.

He kisses her neck. “At your service.”

Later in the evening, as they tumble in bed on freshly changed sheets and Rey pretends not to hear the sound of rattles and whistle blows coming from the outside, she notices that his kisses are different. Slow. Lazy. Sated, almost. The possessiveness is still there, which she likes, but there is no greed, no hunger. No rush.   

She tries to pull him towards her impatiently, wrapping her legs around his waist, but he resists.

“I want to try something, love,” he whispers, lowering himself on the bed, his voice husky and deep. “I want to make it really good for you.”

She guesses what he’s about to do. Her heart beats in her throat, quickening in anticipation, and goosebumps prickle all the way down her back. She’s scared.

She’s been hoping for this.

When he spreads her open, baring everything under the dim lights of the bedroom, there’s no room for shame. The first touch of his tongue between her legs makes her quiver, and she gasps – it’s wet and warm, she thinks, slick, so soft, so different than fingers. It slides with ease, every movement eliciting new sensations. His breath is heavy and hot, and the tips of his ears tickle the inside of her thighs.

Rey moans too loudly, and Kylo chuckles, following her lead as to what feels good. She squirms, but he places his hands on her hipbones, steadying her. His palms are rough. She raises her head to look at him, and he holds her gaze – eyes darkened, and lustful, and burning with need, but confident, like he’s finally in control. He’s enjoying this, she sees. She wonders how hard he is.

“Let go, love,” he pleads, nipping gently the sensitive skin of her inner thighs. “Let yourself go for me.”

The pressure builds up quickly, some of it from the flicks of his tongue, some from the sheer thought of what they’re doing. It overwhelms her, coiling tightly between her legs, spiraling up her belly, making her toes curl – it’s almost unbearable. She hears herself shout, no, scream, and she laughs – the neighbors will know.

Or they won’t, she suddenly thinks. Outside, there’s the noise, surpassing every sound, and her friends march in the snow, while she’s lying in the bed of a war criminal, his mouth on her mound.

It’s in that moment that the peak hits her.

It feels like falling.

Rey clutches the crisp, clean bedsheets and grabs a fistful of his hair with her other hand, and she falls, breathless. The world melts around her, dissolving into pleasure, into nothingness, making her head spin. It ruins her. She trembles, pulling his hair hard, listening to his groans, and she lets go.

Fuck.

This, the neighbors must have heard.

Kylo climbs on top of her, his patience running low. He slides in – and god, it isn’t over yet, she still feels it rippling through her as he fills her. He didn’t put the condom on, she doesn’t think so, but at this point she’s beyond caring. She just wants him there.

“Mine,” he grunts as he shivers inside of her, a heartbeat away from his own release. “You’re mine.”

“Fuck you, Kylo,” she responds, raking her nails across the sweaty skin of his back. “You’re mine too.”

She smiles, satisfied, as he pulls out in the nick of time, his seed squirting all the way to her throat.  

That night, Rey cuddles up to him. She lays with her head on his chest and listens to the beating of his heart. It’s calming – his steady breath, the rhythmic rise and fall of his ribcage. It allows her to feel small.

Outside, the noise has stopped.

“So much for clean sheets,” she murmurs sleepily. “And condoms.”

He kisses her forehead as if she’s a child. “There’s always tomorrow.”

Is there, though?

It’s been three days that she hasn’t left his apartment, she thinks.

“What are we going to do, Kylo?”

“Take it one day at a time?” he suggests. “I don’t know. We’ll think of something.”

They spend the next few moments in silence, and she almost drifts into sleep.

“Did you like it?” he suddenly says.

It makes her roll her eyes. Then again, there’s something disarmingly boyish in his question, insecure and eager to please – the pure opposite of the man who made her scream an hour ago. She can’t hold it against him, she realizes.

“You just had to ask, didn’t you?” She touches the tip of his nose. “I thought it was obvious.”

He chuckles. “It was my first time.”

“I know.” She returns the smile. “We’re both absolute beginners, aren’t we? And we found ourselves neck deep in shit.”

“We’ll make it, my love.” Kylo sighs, shifting to curl himself around her the way he likes. “You’ll see. We’ll make it.”

Rey holds onto his words as she falls into a dreamless slumber.

On January 4th, she spends the entire morning reading a comic she found in one of the boxes – or a “graphic novel”, as Kylo insists.

It’s as thick as a book, and it has an oddly designed cover, with a zoomed in yellow smiley face splotched with what may be either blood or a ketchup stain. It’s in English, so she reads slowly, struggling with the slang, and she feels that too many pop-culture references fly over her head. Kylo helps her, translating entire sentences, correcting her pronunciation, explaining the meaning of words and the context of the mid-80’s comics. Nerd. He’s amused, she can tell – just like with the music, he loves being her teacher. Until it’s time to make lunch, he sits on the couch by her side, watching her as she reads, ready to answer questions, a stupidly sweet smile plastered on his face.

The comic is all about the superheroes. The American comics usually are, from what Rey knows – though she never got further than a campy Batman flick she’d watched that summer with Finn on a pirated video tape, in which the actor who played Jim Morrison embarrassed himself for what must have been a hefty paycheck. But this is different. Serious. Cynical. Mean, even. As if it takes the fantasy idea of people donning silly costumes in order to fight for justice and applies brutal realism to it, until the characters are laid bare and there’s no place to hide from the ugliness of the world. At times, it’s painful to read, too dark, too honest, and she isn’t sure she always likes it, but it’s gripping. Rey cannot stop.

“So who’s your favorite character?” she asks in the end, as she reaches the last pages of the comic.

“Rorschach, of course,” Kylo shouts from the kitchen. Then he returns into the living room and starts reciting in a changed voice. “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’... and I'll look down, and whisper ‘No’. Fuck, after all these years, I still remember that quote word for word.

Rey laughs – she isn’t surprised in the least. “I knew it. And I bet you hate Ozymandias.”

He wrinkles his nose. “Lying son of a bitch. How can I not hate him?”

She puts the comic in her lap. “But he made hard decisions and did ugly shit and got his hands bloodied for a higher cause. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? Isn’t that what your own philosophy is all about?”

Kylo’s face darkens and he clenches his jaw, and for a moment she thinks he’ll protest. Good. Bring it on. It will be an interesting argument.

But he’s not in the mood for a debate, it seems.

“Who do you like the most?” he asks instead.

She has her answer ready. “Nite Owl. The second one, Daniel. He’s kind and compassionate, and he believes in doing good for the sake of doing good. And in the end, he’s the one who gets the girl. I don’t know, sometimes I feel it’s okay to let go of the bigger picture for a piece of personal happiness.”

This makes him smile.

“Come, love. Food’s almost ready.” 

After lunch, they make love on the couch. It’s hasty and he’s still half-dressed, but Rey doesn’t mind. She’s not chasing after the world-stopping feeling from last night, there will be time for that. She just wants him as close as possible. Inside her. Rey mounts him this time, straddling him, his hips between her thighs like on that afternoon when she told him she wanted him. She likes this position. It allows her to watch him, and he’s quite a sight – hair disheveled on cushions, lips parted and kiss-bruised, breathless, the skin on his neck and chest blushing a light pink. He looks younger than he is, lost in bliss like that.  From the way his eyes shine as he studies her naked body on top of him, she can tell he likes what he sees too.

Rey isn’t sure when they’ll get enough. Never, probably. She yearns for more. She wants to go further, she thinks, to do what he did for her. To take him in her mouth. She pictures his face as she goes down on him – he’ll be irresistible, she knows. The mere image makes her clench so hard that a brief, shallow burst of pleasure catches her by surprise, and she screams again, and then he urgently lifts her from his body.

They still haven’t opened the condoms.

“You’ll drain me dry, love,” Kylo complains as he wipes her thighs clean, even though it’s obvious he’s enjoying every moment. “I’m too old for this.”

“Serves you right for seducing a minor.” Rey laughs, laying down next to him. “Cradle-robber.”

Later, as the day passes, Rey concludes that perhaps it’s the little things that she appreciates the most.

For instance, he doesn’t let her wash the dishes because he claims the soap is too rough for her hands. It’s ridiculous, but she lets him get away with it. When she wakes up, he brings her breakfast in bed – pancakes with plum jam, her favorite, and strong black coffee, like the one Maz used to drink. She’s never thought she could become spoiled rotten so quickly. He asks for help to apply the wound balm to his scar. They turn it into a ritual, every morning and evening, and as her oiled fingers glide across his broken skin, Rey finds it as deeply intimate as lovemaking. The scar looks better, she notes, less sore and inflamed. Soon enough, it will heal.

She doesn’t ask who’d hurt him.

There are so many little things that make her happy. The other day, they tried to fit into the bathtub together, like couples do in romantic movies, but he’s too fucking big, and it ended with a splash of warm water all over the bathroom tiles. She laughed so hard her cheeks hurt. She hounds him to read aloud in French, from one of the old books he kept. It’s poetry, and Rey doesn’t understand a word, and she thinks if he were to translate she’d find it silly and melodramatic, but the sound of his voice is lovely. Like when she catches him singing. Sometimes, however, it’s the silence she enjoys, when she wakes up before him, before dawn, and it snows outside and the window panes are frozen. She caresses his face while he sleeps, tracing his crooked nose, counting the moles on his cheeks – he snores at times, but quietly, and she finds it sweet.

“You think that, maybe, we can get a CD player?” she asks him that night in bed, while he twirls the strands of her hair between his fingers. “You wanted to buy me one, back then. Remember? Well. Can I have it now?”

He responds promptly. “Of course.”

“I miss the music,” she explains. “Haven’t listened to it since… You know. Since that day.”

“You know what’s funny, love? We’ve talked about music so much, but we’ve never listened to it together.”

It’s true, she thinks. Suddenly she’s excited. She wonders what it will feel like, to listen to her favorite songs with him by her side. To kiss with the music in the background.

There are so many things they have yet to do.

“Can I… Can I also have a TV?” She pushes her luck. “For here?”

Kylo rolls his eyes, as if he can’t understand why someone would want to own such a stupid device. But then he smiles. “You can have anything you want.”

She almost believes him.

She wishes this could last forever. Life would be so easy.

In the early morning of January 5th – Rey thinks it’s the 5th, she’s stopped counting – they are awakened by the doorbell.

She jerks in bed, stunned, hair falling in her face. For a moment, she can’t quite fathom what’s happening.

She’s forgotten there’s a world outside.

“What…?”

“Dickhead,” Kylo growls, rubbing his sleep-swollen eyes.

The doorbell is loud – it’s one of those that buzz, making a continuous, hellish noise as long as it’s pressed.

“You mean it’s…?”

“Ignore it.” Kylo leans back into the pillows and drapes his arm around her waist. “He’ll get bored and leave.”

The buzzing is persistent, however. It changes rhythm, from a series of brisk staccatos, to long, drown-out clangor that lasts for what seems like minutes. If it keeps up, Rey thinks, the doorbell will give out.

She waits for Kylo to react, but he just places his hands on his ears and sinks deeper into the pillows.

But then, there’s banging on the door, thumping as if someone’s going at it with a blunt object. The paint is bound to chip. The noise is followed by shouts – high-pitched, proficiently annoyed, so loud that they can hear them in the bedroom.

“Open the door, Ren! I don’t have all morning!”

“Shit.” Kylo’s lips twitch to reveal his sharp teeth.

“Ren! There’s no use in pretending you aren’t home. I know you’re inside! You were seen in the supermarket, stocking up for the bloody zombie apocalypse! So open the goddamn door!”

“Aren’t you going to…?” Rey quietly asks.

Kylo snarls. “No!”

“Ren!” Armitage is happily yelling his lungs out. Rey almost believes he’s enjoying this. “Are you so fucking drunk again that you can’t get up from that ugly couch?”

The banging repeats, as does another round of doorbell abuse. The entire neighborhood must be alarmed by now. Rey wonders if the people living in the building know the real identity of their moody neighbor – they must have heard some rumors, at least. She wonders if they’re ever afraid.

“For fuck’s sake, Ren! I’ll break the door down if I have to! Don’t think your deadbolt locks will do you any good – I paid the company that installed them!”

Kylo jumps up from the bed and grabs the sweatpants from the floor.

“This is it,” he sneers. “Today is the day when I kill him.”

For a second, Rey thinks that she should try to stop him, to pull him back to bed, but with quick strides he’s already at the bedroom door.

“Stay here,” he tells her. “I’m gonna break his fucking neck.”

Rey can see it happening.

Her heart races. She pulls the covers up, all the way to her nose. She’s tempted to pull them over her head.

She’s naked underneath.

Kylo crosses the room with too heavy footsteps, as if he purposely wants to draw attention to his body weight, and then she hears the door opening with such a loud bang that the doorknob must have left a hole in the wall.

“You’re a dead man, Armitage!” he growls.

But then, to her surprise, a woman’s voice speaks.

“Rise and shine, Ren. I hope we can discuss matters calmly.”

She sounds a tad too composed, Rey thinks, as if she’s playing a role. Kylo sniggers humorlessly.

“Armitage, you fucking coward,” he hisses. “You’re afraid of me. Couldn’t come without Phasma to protect your sorry ass, could you?”

She hears swift footsteps as Armitage enters the room. He has expensive shoes, she notes, with thick heels that click when he walks. It takes a special kind of character to put on shoes like that on a snowy day. Behind him, the strange woman moves slowly, heavily, almost like Kylo. Rey imagines she must be very tall.

“I’m not a coward, thank you very much,” Armitage explains scornfully. “I’m just a man capable of assessing the circumstances he found himself in and taking measures accordingly. Unlike you. What were you thinking, you dimwit? You really believe you can disappear just like that for five days?”

Then, a pause.

“What the fuck happened to your room?” Armitage sounds genuinely astonished. “Comics? Seriously? What is all this junk?”

“Ain’t junk.” She can hear the rage in Kylo’s voice. “And none of your business. Say what you came here to say, and get the fuck out.”

But Armitage doesn’t seem to be listening.

“Are those… Dear god. Are those scratch marks on your back?” It’s difficult to tell whether he’s fascinated, or disgusted, or both. “Ren, you son of a bitch. You got laid.”

The woman suddenly bursts into a quick, unpleasant laughter, and Rey remembers Finn’s words from years ago. There was a woman among the leaders of the First Order, he’d recounted, a true Amazon, but a bully and a brute, and she laughed like a maniac. 

“Dammit, Ren. I’m right, I see. You blush like a school boy,” Armitage concludes gleefully. “But wait. She’s still here, isn’t she?”

Rey hears the brisk clicking of his heels approaching the bedroom door.

“One more step, Armitage, and I will kill you. You know very well that Phasma can’t stop me.”

The footsteps falter. Armitage is afraid, Rey realizes.

Good.

“Speak up,” Kylo spits. “And then leave.”

There’s a long pause, and then Armitage clears his throat.

“The Professor is very upset,” he finally says. “He’s demanding to see you. You had duties to attend to, Ren, and you were gone for days. You owe him an explanation, and I’m afraid that ‘I was too busy fucking’ won’t do the trick.”

“Fine,” Kylo retorts noncommittally. 

She hears Armitage let out a loud sigh.

“Careful, Ren.” His voice drops, and Rey isn’t sure if it’s a threat, or there are specks of genuine concern there. “I know it’s difficult for you, but don’t be an idiot. Last time you acted stubborn, it didn’t end well.”

Kylo takes his time to reply.

“This is different.”

She’s surprised by how resigned he suddenly sounds.

“That’s what you think,” Armitage declares unenthusiastically. “Provided you’re capable of thinking. However, I don’t believe the Professor will see it as any different. So don’t be an idiot. Send home that trollop who was crazy enough to bed you, make yourself presentable, and drag your ass to the office. The sooner the better. I’m tired of picking up your broken pieces, Ren.”

The silence that follows is long. Rey realizes she’s holding her breath.

Then, Kylo finally speaks.

“Tell the Professor I’ll be there shortly.” His voice is quiet. “I must… I must talk to him about something anyway.”

Armitage waits for a few moments. Rey imagines him staring at Kylo, searching his face to see if he’s telling the truth.

“Don’t screw this up, Ren,” he sighs at last. “Be reasonable. Just this once. For your own good.” Then, he curtly orders. “Phasma, we’re leaving.”

The clicking of heels echoes away from the bedroom door, and she hears the woman’s heavy steps following.

“Don’t take too long. The Professor is quite snappy,” Armitage says instead of a goodbye. “No time for another quick fuck, I’m afraid.”

When they leave, Kylo slams the entrance door so strongly that the chandelier rattles.

He doesn’t return to the bedroom immediately. Rey imagines he needs some time to compose himself. It takes him quite a while, she thinks. She begins to fidget as she waits.

Just as she is about to get up and go to him, Kylo comes back. He stands in the doorway for a long moment, hesitating to enter.

He’s shaking, she notes, sizzling like a firecracker about to go off, and the tic pulsates under his eye.

Well, now.

“I need to… I need…” he stutters, as if it’s difficult to put it into words. “I need…”

“I heard.” Rey interrupts him. “Didn’t know the First Order has an office.”

He swallows heavily, passing his hand through his hair.

“Don’t look at me like that, love.”

Rey realizes she’s frowning. She tries to pull her lips into a smile, but she isn’t sure how believable it is. 

“Are you in trouble?”

Kylo shrugs. “Well. I’ll talk to Snoke, Rey. I’ll… I’ll explain. He’ll listen to me. He’ll understand. He has to.”

He sits next to her in bed and reaches out to embrace her. Rey readily leans into his touch, inhaling the scent of his hair, kissing his stubble-covered cheek. He’s always so warm.

“Will you wait for me here?” he asks.

Suddenly, the very thought of going outside terrifies her.

Out there, there’s real life. The protests go on. Who knows what she’s missed, she hasn’t listened to the news for days. School is about to begin. Rose will return from her hometown, and she’ll be all chipper and perky, sharing stories Rey doesn’t want to hear and asking questions that she cannot answer. Finn will yell. She deserves it. She still hasn’t come up with the lie she’ll tell him – hell, she’s even stopped thinking about it for a while. Her room in the dorms will be cold, with its windows stuffed with old newspapers and walls painted grey-green like the sea bottom. Her bed will be small, too clean, uncomfortable.

Rey wonders if she’ll be able to fall asleep in it alone.

She doesn’t want to leave his apartment.

“I also have a life I must get back to, Kylo,” she says. “Finn has probably called the police by now.”

He nods. “I understand.”

“I’d call you in the afternoon to check on you, but you destroyed the phone.”

“I’ll get a new one.” He lets out a brief chuckle. “Not the first one I broke either.”

Then, he gets up from the bed and goes to the cabinet, opening the upper drawer, rummaging loudly through the clutter inside.

It’s where he keeps the gun, Rey remembers.

“What are you looking for?” she asks warily.

“This.” He pushes a set of keys into her hand. “For here. I want you to have them.”

Rey stares at the keys – they’re heavy, oddly shaped, with complex ridges and contours, and the metal is cold against her palm. A small glass figure dangles from the keychain: it’s a rabbit.

She doesn’t know what to say.

“Come to me after the protests.” Kylo leans in to kiss the parting in her hair. “I know you’ll go marching. I just want you for myself afterwards.”

He hugs her then, wrapping his arms around her shoulders so tightly it almost hurts – if he were to squeeze any harder, she thinks, her bones would snap.

“It will be alright, love,” he whispers. “Everything will work out, I promise. You’ll see.”

Chapter Text

 

Dancing Queen

 

 

“Where were you?”

Rey doesn’t answer.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you, sister.”

She raises her eyes briefly. Finn is frowning, but he doesn’t look angry - his face reflects a mixture of heartbreak and concern and a bitter, terminal disappointment.

It would be easier if he were angry.

“I’m here now,” she murmurs.

“So you expect me to pretend it’s normal that you vanished into thin air for five fucking days and shrug it off just because you came knocking on my door with a big smile and a box of chocolates? Life doesn’t work that way, sister!” Finn finally raises his voice. “Where the fuck were you? Do you have the slightest idea how worried I was?”

Rey drops her gaze, focusing on the coir doormat on his entrance porch. It’s filthy, she notes.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry? You’re sorry?” He’s shouting now, a vein bulging between the dark wrinkles on his forehead. “I kept waiting for you to call! Dragged the phone next to the bed and spent three sleepless nights staring at it, expecting it to ring. But it didn’t. So I looked for you, sister! I went to the Faculty, talked to that idiot Dameron. He told me he’d left you at the concert and hadn’t seen you since. I almost punched him right in that bruise of his for abandoning you like that. I called Rose to see if you’d gone to her hicksville in a fit of temporary insanity, but you weren’t there either. I went to the dorms every day to ask about you, but that guy, that night guard, he yelled at me, chased me off… Said it’s none of my business where you were, threatened he’d call the police if I keep coming. Can you imagine how I felt? Five days, Rey. And now what – you’re sorry? Really? What the fuck were you thinking?”  

Rey fidgets. She doesn’t know what she was thinking.

“Please, Finn. I’m not a child.”

He points his finger at her chest – the gesture is harsh, accusatory.

“Last time I checked, you were still three months short of eighteen.”

She wants to retort – she inhales and raises her palm, but words fail her, so she just stands on the porch with her mouth open, feeling foolish. Eventually, she shrugs. Finn studies her face, his lips downturned into a disgruntled pout, and then he narrows his eyes as if he’s come to a particularly unpleasant conclusion.  

“You’re doing stupid shit again.”

It sounds like a verdict.

 The tone of his voice is complacent, underlined with an unspoken I-told-you-so as if he’s always known that one day it would come to this. A sudden burst of resentment crawls up her spine – Rey doesn’t want to think it’s because Finn is right.

“Well, look who’s talking,” she hisses, pulling her scarf up to cover the bite marks on her neck. “As if the man who left me alone in the crowd so I could hook up with the guy that he likes has any right to lecture me about not doing stupid shit! See, Finn, Poe at least asked for my permission to leave, while you – you simply walked away! Ever paused to consider how that made me feel? What were you thinking? Asshole!”

Finn pulls back.

He didn’t anticipate that the conversation would turn this way, Rey sees, and his scowl falters. For a brief moment, she feels guilty.

“You… You’re angry about the New Year’s?”

“You left me in the crowd,” she repeats, cringing at the wounded sound of her voice. “You left me. What did you expect? That I’d be grateful that you abandoned me among thousands of strangers, even if I did want to try my luck with Poe, which I’d repeatedly told you I didn’t? Fuck you, Finn! How dare you call me out on stupidity?”

If he hadn’t have left, Rey thinks, if only he hadn’t have left, then none of this would’ve happened.

Except that it would have, she knows.

Maybe not for New Year’s Eve, maybe not so quickly and uncontrollably, maybe it wouldn’t have resulted in five days of nothing but talking and cooking and laughter and Kylo buried to the hilt inside her, but it would have happened. It was inevitable.

And it made her so happy that merely thinking about it sends a flush of heat to her cheeks.

Fuck her life.

“Where were you?” Finn asks for the third time, but now his voice is cautious, gentler.

“At the dorms,” she answers at last, surprised by how easily the lie rolls off her tongue. “I was so pissed  that I asked the guard to send you off if you came looking for me. I wanted you to feel guilty. I’m sorry.”

Finn nods, and even though he’s still frowning, his expression is pained, worry pooling in his eyes.

“I thought… Sweet Jesus, sister.” He gasps as if he’s been holding his breath. “For a moment there, I thought that maybe, y’know, maybe he managed to find you after all these years.”

Rey clenches her teeth.  

They have a silent agreement never to mention the night of her fifteenth birthday. Never. Not in passing, as a slip of the tongue, not as an anecdote to impress friends, not even when they’re alone, during sleepover nights at Finn’s place, when they talk about their memories of the Home and Maz and all the children that have passed through their lives. Never, as if it hadn’t happened.

She wonders what he would say if she were to admit the truth.

Finn hugs her tightly and kisses her cheek - she senses he’s trembling.

“I’m sorry, sister. I am. I’m sorry that I left you. But don’t do that again, please. If you’re angry with me, say so. I’m a big boy, I can handle a bit of yelling. Just don’t disappear.”

“I’m fine, Finn,” she sighs, closing her eyes, stroking his close-cropped curls. “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything is fine.”

She should be ashamed, she thinks, yet all she feels is a profound relief.

In the early afternoon, as the last wisps of winter sun scatter against the glistening snow, Rey catches herself looking at her watch too often.

By now, Kylo must have arrived to the office, she assumes – the office, for crying out loud, as if the First Order was nothing but a preppy business corporation. She tries to picture him among polished desks and flipcharts and computer screens and ergonomic chairs on wheels – the sight is so absurd she stifles a giggle. He’s already talking to the old man in golden robes, she imagines – the cartoonish witch doctor who speaks like a trained actor and who has switched his trade from sending young men to the warzone to stealing money in rigged privatizations. Maybe he does need an office for that.

Will Kylo manage to keep his calm and explain what’s on his mind, Rey wonders, or will it end in yelling and a rage fit and a blackout?

Her stomach churns.

Suddenly she feels very lonely.

“Gonna hit the road, Finn,” she says, taking her coat, getting ready to step out into the cold. “The protests will begin soon. Last thing before I leave, though: your plan will never work anyway. Poe’s in love with someone else.”

“Really?” Finn raises his eyebrows, helping himself to another chocolate candy – it’s obvious he hasn’t had expensive sweets in a long while, and Rey’s grateful that he didn’t ask where she got them from. “But… But I’ve never seen him with anyone.”

She rolls her eyes. “That’s because you don’t know how to look.”

An hour later, when she arrives at the Faculty of Philosophy, Rey finds the place deserted.

She wanders the empty corridors, disoriented, stepping over the scattered trash, staring at the newly scribbled graffiti. It doesn’t make sense.

The protests haven’t stopped, she thinks. It’s impossible. Finn would have mentioned something – with all his disdain for politics, he’s not entirely in the dark. This is beyond odd.

After a long search, in the amphitheater she finds a girl she knows by sight – she’s sitting in the professor’s chair, visibly bored, blowing bubblegum and reading the regime newspapers. There’s a picture of the president on the front page, his chin raised, looking all important, and beneath it an article in fine print: “A Small Handful of Protesters Keep Disproving the Election Results”, the headline reads. 

“What happened here?” Rey’s voice echoes too loudly in the vacant amphitheater. “Where is everyone?”

“At the disco,” the girl responds, crumpling the newspapers and tossing them on the floor. “Left me here to keep watch. Someone has to.”

Rey stares at her for a long moment before she repeats, confused. “At the disco?”

“Haven’t been around for a while, have you?” The girl grins. “Head for the main square. You’re in for a surprise.”

Rey rushes outside, sprinting down the streets as quickly as the frozen slush allows.

She hears it before she sees it.

It’s not the usual racket of trumpets and whistle blows, nor the regular revolutionary playlist with subversive local bands, punk rock and Spanish civil war songs.

It’s fucking Donna Summer.

The music is loud, like a thunderstorm. There must be a professional sound system involved, Rey thinks, for she feels the cheerful disco beat resonating in her chest – looking for some hot stuff, baby, this evening, I need some hot stuff, baby, tonight, I want some hot stuff, baby, this evening…

Then, as she approaches, she sees the dancers.

Before her eyes, there’s an endless sea of winter coats, stuffed jackets and fur-trimmed parkas, tweed and fleece and slick polyester, jumping and swinging to the rhythm, hands up in the air, fingers pointing at the sky. The people’s faces are flushed, and puffs of their breath freeze in the cold, lingering like a thin fog. They must be sweating – who knows for how long they’ve been dancing – but in their smiles there’s nothing but cheekiness and bliss. There are hundreds of dancers, Rey counts – no, make it thousands, and they all look as if they’re having the time of their lives.

Behind them, there’s a large truck, parked in the middle of the street. It carries the DJ booth, along with concert loudspeakers just like Rey has guessed, and an outsized disco ball that lazily turns, shimmering, catching the reflection of streetlights. A banner hangs from the truck’s side, hand painted in letters that imitate the 70’s groove: “Welcome to the Cordon Bleu Discotheque – the world’s largest dance club in the open.”

Rey frowns. Cordon bleu? Like that chicken and cheese dish?

What?

But then she sees it. In front of the truck, surrounding the dancers and blocking their passage, there is a police cordon.

They’re armed, Rey notes. The weapons are visibly displayed – batons and tactical rifles, black and heavy, ready to cause harm. They’re wearing helmets, their faces masked and anonymous, and their blue police uniforms are covered with plastic Stormtrooper armor.

Disco ball lights shine back from the clear riot shields.

It’s in that moment that Donna Summer is replaced by ABBA. Synthesizers squeal and high pitched vocals wish for a man after midnight, and the dancers cheer, and it’s so surreal that Rey shakes her head in disbelief.

“Sunshine!”

She almost doesn’t hear it over the music. It takes her a moment to remember it’s her nickname.

“Rey of sunshine, where have you been?”

Poe Dameron pulls her into a quick hug – cordial yet measured, lasting but a second too long. Rey wonders how guilty he feels for walking out on her on New Year’s Eve.

“Around,” she answers, hugging him back.

“Your friend came looking for you. Gave me quite a hard time for what happened at the concert. You sure you’re okay?”

“We had an argument, is all.” Rey shrugs. Then, she gestures towards the cordon and the disco dancers. “What the hell is all this, Poe?”

“Wanna go somewhere more quiet?” Poe shouts over the booming ABBA chorus. “We have a lot of catching up to do.” 

In a nearby coffee shop, as she orders a slice of cheesecake and a double espresso, Poe Dameron begins to explain. 

“You saw it yourself, sunshine, the New Year’s party was a blast. There were half a million people attending the concert. We were all over the news – the foreign ones, of course, the regime media are still playing pretend that nothing’s happening. I gave an interview to the CNN.” He smiles, flashing his perfect white teeth. “It was horrible. Got so excited that all those years of language school went down the drain in a second. Butchered the Queen’s English so badly I think no one understood what I wanted to say. In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided not to air it.”

“But what’s with the disco?” Rey asks, stifling a frown – the cheesecake is tasteless compared with the one that Kylo made her. “When did that madness begin?”

“Two days later.” Poe drags the words in his Southern accent. “After the concert, the regime figured out they had to do something about the protests. Since another display of brute force was out of question, they decided to strategically place cordons along the main streets, to prevent us from marching. But then the General, bless her, fierce as she is, she raised her fist and said – ‘If we can’t walk, we sure can dance. Bring me my disco shoes!’”

His impersonation of Professor Organa’s stiff upper lip is so accurate that Rey snorts, giggling.

“Ever since, it’s a never-ending party, twenty-four seven. So far, so great. It’s not only about sticking it to the police, you see. The people are actually having fun as they dance their anger and powerlessness away – and the capacity to have fun when faced with danger is what gives them strength. It’s a way to show the regime they don’t own us. They can’t scare us. One day, sunshine, when someone writes a book about the history of civic protests all around the world, our little discotheque here will be given an entire chapter.”

“Did you rehearse those lines for an interview?”

Poe laughs heartily, slouching back in his chair. “Maybe. Just don’t make it in English, or I’ll screw up again.”

They spend the next few moments in silence, Rey struggling with the cheesecake, Poe staring through the window, observing the passersby as they walk past the coffee shop to join the dancing crowd. The music is so loud they hear it inside – it’s the 80’s now, Michael Jackson and Madonna and that “you-spin-me-right-round” song that Rey hates because she’ll keep humming it for days. 

“And how are you really, Poe?” she finally asks.

He stares at the tea he ordered, holding the cup with both hands as if he’s trying to warm his palms. It takes him a while to speak.

“I don’t know what to do, sunshine.”

She sighs. “That bad?”

“My life is secrets and lies.” Poe frowns, eyes still fixated on the tea. “Making up excuses. Sneaking around. Spinning bullshit to the people I love, just so I don’t get discovered. I’m becoming paranoid, I’m afraid I’ll forget which lie I told to whom. It’s eating me away. I want to be happy, I really do, but I don’t know… It’s suffocating. On the other hand, this is the only way to go. If any of this goes public, we’re both done for.”

Rey tenses. All of a sudden, she feels too warm in the coffee shop – droplets of sweat trickle down her back, making her shirt cling to her skin. She turns her hand discreetly, trying to catch a glimpse of her wristwatch. Is Kylo still at the office?

“I can’t… Um. I can’t imagine what it feels like,” she murmurs, dropping her gaze. “But are you sure it would really cause a scandal?”

“Oh, you bet it would!” Poe raises his hand, his gesture oddly defensive, like he’s trying to cover his face. “She’s twice my age, sunshine. And married. And a professor, while I still count as a student. Not that her marriage is thriving, or that she’s my professor, but no one gives a damn about such details when it’s the woman who’s so much older.  And we’re both among the so-called leaders of this little rebellion – which is hilarious, mind you, since we never see eye-to-eye as to how things should be managed. Always at each other’s throats.” He smiles. “Maybe that’s what started the spark.”

He takes a sip of tea and winces, as if he’s forgotten how hot it is, and then puts down the cup hurriedly, with a loud clang, almost spilling the steaming liquid across the table.

“It’s one juicy scandal waiting to happen,” he sighs, licking his burnt lip. “The regime press would have a field day – what an embarrassing way to discredit the protest leaders, just what the fucking doctor ordered. And our people? Perhaps the General would understand. Perhaps. As for the rest, it would be nothing but disappointment and betrayal. See, sunshine, at first glance, it’s the kind of story that everyone hates: a highbrow ice queen having an affair with a social climber who’s young enough to be her son. Not your typical star-crossed romance.”

“But you love her?” Rey blurts.

Suddenly, the answer to that question seems very important. She doesn’t know why.

Poe inhales to speak, but stops midway, mouth hanging open, eyes wide like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Then his lips curve into a pained smile, as if he’s apologizing for something he’s not sure he did wrong. He looks hesitant, Rey thinks, nothing like the rebellion’s rising star who knows the best camera angles for his profile, and for the first time ever she believes they could become friends, real friends, for life.

“Yes,” he finally breathes, his voice little more than a whisper.

“I understand.” Rey slowly nods. “I actually do.”

Strange, she feels as if a crushing weight has lifted off her shoulders.

“I’ll keep your secret, Poe – I mean, of course I will, I promised. I’m good with secrets. Hell, listen, I’ll even cover for you, if need be. Just… Just try to be a bit more discreet. I figured out something was going on long before the New Year’s.”

She pushes her half-eaten cheesecake across the table and offers him the fork, almost regretting that she has no glass to raise – a toast for secrets and lies and bullshit.

Poe lifts his eyebrows, gaining back some of his trademark charm as if he suddenly woke from a spell. “You’re a real sunshine, aren’t you?”

“Doing my best.” Rey shrugs, but returns the smile nonetheless.

She looks at her watch again. By now, Kylo must have left the office. Maybe he’s home already.

Outside, Freddie Mercury is singing about wanting to break free.

As the afternoon turns into evening, Rey concludes that a night at the disco may not be her thing.

The music is too loud, she finds, aggressively happy with its major keys and dancefloor beats and frivolous lyrics. The light show is dizzying – disco ball reflections twirl across her face, making her head spin, and after a while she starts feeling as if she’s the only person in the crowd who doesn’t have fun.

She decides to leave earlier than usual, in spite of Poe’s protests.

“If you run across your policeman friend, sunshine, ask him if he knows how long this will last.” He tries to outshout the music as they part ways. “I love showing off my dance moves, but after what happened at the bridge, it’s better to be prepared. Just in case.”

The bus ride takes too long, with all the major streets cut off by police cordons, and Rey catches herself counting the stops. It’s a childhood habit she has long abandoned, and it reminds her of the clacking of tram wagons and the cool kids at the music market – a memory she’s worked hard to suppress. Now, oddly, it makes her smile.

When she arrives to Kylo’s apartment, it takes her three attempts to insert the key into the lock. Her hands tremble, she notes. She’s never owned keys to anything before.

He’s home.

She hears him swearing in the living room, his choice of words so colorful that she chuckles. But then there’s the sound of paper tearing and plastic bags rustling and a loud thud, as if he’s slammed his fist against the table.

“Monster?” She rushes inside. “Is everything alright?”

Kylo is sitting on the living room carpet, barefoot, sweaty hair stuck to his face, surrounded by crushed cardboard boxes, crumpled bubble wrap and a tangle of cables and plugs. There are pieces of Styrofoam on the floor, footprints visible on squashed white clumps, and a booklet with instructions on how to set up the stereo system lies discarded by the door, as if it was flung at the wall.

“You’re early,” he says, blushing beet red as if she’s caught him doing something inappropriate.

Rey looks around the room.

Right next to Kylo, she sees a pair of loudspeakers, tall and thin and glaringly modern, their design slick and futuristic. The coffee table is swallowed up by a too-large TV screen and parts of the stereo system, wires hanging from the edge and curling around the framed photograph. On the couch, yet another device rests between the remains of torn cardboard, its casing steel grey and glossy.

“Is that a VCR?”

Kylo nods, clearing his throat.

“This was… Fuck. This was supposed to be a surprise.” His lips twitch into an anxious smile. “Ta-da.”

She crouches next to him, picking up a manual to inspect – a detailed scheme showing how to connect the CD player to the loudspeakers, colors and numbers marking the wire sockets.

“Wow,” she utters. She can’t come up with anything better to say.

“I, um… I take it you like it?” Kylo’s grin widens, but it only makes him look more miserable. “Please tell me I didn’t screw up.”

Rey shakes her head and reaches up to caress his cheek. “You’re crazy, you know that?”

He leans into her touch, lurching forward to kiss her – it’s long and sloppy, wet, sharp teeth nibbling at her lower lip, and he tastes of mint and salt, comforting and familiar. She’s missed him, she realizes. She’s fucking missed him, even though it was only this morning that she left his apartment. 

“That a problem?”

“I can live with it.” Rey pulls him closer to feel his warmth and runs her frozen fingers down his sweaty back, chuckling when he winces. “Been struggling with this for long?”

“The whole fucking afternoon. I can’t believe someone paid money to the idiot who wrote the set up instructions – they come in five languages, love, five different languages, and none makes sense.”

“We’ll do it together, then.” She tucks the wet strands of his hair behind his ears to trail kisses along his scar. “Or even better, let me handle the technology, and you go fix us something to eat. How does that sound?”

His brow furrows, and for a moment she fears she said something wrong, challenged him in a way that only further undermines his confidence. But then he heaves a loud sigh of relief.

“Sounds perfect.”

Rey spends the next hour straightening out cables, flipping through manuals, sorting out remote controls by the type of batteries they use. The components make pleasant clicking sounds as they snap into their slots, and the protective foil purrs as she peels it off the TV screen. She’s not quick, but she enjoys the task – it’s neat and precise, with exact answers that bring immediate results.

So delightfully straightforward.

Kylo leans against the kitchen doorway, his apron around his waist, observing her as she works. His gaze is soft, and the corners of his lips are slightly turned upward – Rey is sure he’s not aware that he’s smiling.

“You look like you could do this all day,” he says. “And I guess I’m just too stupid for this shit. Sorry.”

“You’re far from stupid. You’re just impatient, with your short fuse and monster temper. Luckily, you have me.”

They’ll need extra shelves, she concludes, surprised by how small the living room seems with the TV and the stereo and those giant loudspeakers mounted.

She doesn’t want to know how much money he spent.

“Did you talk to Snoke?” she finally asks, her gaze locked on the VCR wires.

Rey hopes that her question came across as casual, conversational, without reflecting this feeling of dread that makes her stomach twist to the point she fears she won’t be able to eat, even though whatever he’s cooking smells delicious.

“Yes.”

She waits for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t.

“And…?”

Kylo shrugs. “He believes I’ll change my mind. He insists on giving me time.”

She twists the wires between her fingers, takes a deep breath, exhales.

She must be careful, she thinks, or a wire may snap.

“But you won’t, will you? Change your mind?”

“Of course I won’t, love,” he sighs, turning his back to return to the kitchen. “I told you, I’m done with it.”

The way he says it sounds determined, unwavering, so she nods to herself and continues fiddling with the VCR. She wants to know everything, of course, all the little details that she kept imagining throughout the day – what Kylo said, how Snoke responded, if Armitage happily tried to make matters worse with his comments, if the Amazon woman laughed like a maniac – but she’s well aware that she won’t get a better answer for now.

She’ll try again tomorrow, she decides. Or the day after tomorrow.

As they sit down to eat – rump steak in smelly-yet-delicious blue cheese sauce, a meal well planned, including her favorite blueberry juice poured in tall wine glasses – Kylo surprises her with a question.

“Did you dance?”

She lifts her eyes from the plate, only to see him smirking.

“You know about the disco?”

Kylo raises an eyebrow, his expression shrewd as if he’s pleased to show he’s aware of everything she does when she’s not by his side. Stalker, she remembers. But then he chuckles, rolling his eyes.

“Half the city’s blocked, love, the fucking cordons are everywhere.” He pours her another glass of juice. “It’s impossible to avoid the topic. You should’ve heard Armitage talk about it – he called it ‘the boogie bacchanalias of poverty and frustration.’”

“Dickhead,” she hisses spontaneously, and Kylo laughs so hard he almost spits out the food.

Rey waits for him to calm down before she proceeds with her next question.

She didn’t think she’d have the courage to raise the issue.

“Do you… Um. Do you have any idea how long this will last?” She swallows. “This cordon thing?”

“Spying for your rebel friends?”

She feels her ears burning hot, but then Kylo laughs again.

“I’d tell you if I knew.”

“You would?” Rey’s breath hitches. “Even though the protests go against your ideals?”

“I came to warn you that one time, didn’t I?” His expression suddenly turns too serious, and he reaches across the table to take her hand. “It’s stupid, this cat-and-mouse game that the regime plays with the resistance. Fucking child’s play. It has nothing to do with my ideals.”

Rey entwines their fingers, pressing into his knuckles a tad too hard. It makes her ill at ease when he speaks about his beliefs – the better she understands them, the more distorted they seem, and at times she isn’t sure that Kylo himself fully grasps this strange system of values he’s built.

Good thing that the war is over, she thinks.

“I’m… I’m glad to know you’d tell me.”

Kylo caresses her palm with his thumb. “You didn’t answer my question. Did you dance?”

“No,” she admits. “I wasn’t in the mood.”

She expects he’ll ask her why, or tease her in some way – he likes teasing her, a habit he’s assumed only recently, as if before their first kiss he was afraid she’d resent him for it – but his lips pull up into a smile that Rey finds unexpectedly sad.

“I’d like to take you dancing, someday.”

“Really?”

She can picture it. Funnily enough, it’s not a nightclub that comes to her mind, but a ballroom with crystal chandeliers and lacquered wood flooring and mirrors in golden frames mounted on the walls. He’d be wearing something black, because of course he would, and she’d be dressed in a gown with a long train that whooshes every time it sweeps across the floor. And outside, as they dance, the world would fall down. It’s ridiculous, Rey thinks, like a poorly drawn cover for one of Rose’s romance novels, and she has no idea where this embarrassingly girlish fantasy comes from, but she almost smiles.

“Where would you take me?”

Kylo sighs. “Nowhere in this city, obviously.”

“Why not?” she blurts before she can bite back the words. She knows why.

But then he surprises her.

“Because you’re ashamed of me, love.”

Rey blinks at him.

She wants to protest, but the words stick in her throat.

She imagines them walking in broad daylight as a couple, kissing, holding hands, touching each other in that distinctively intimate manner that reveals they make love every night. Sooner or later, a stranger – or worse, a friend – will recognize Kylo for who he is. She imagines the contempt in that person’s eyes. Will they dismiss her as a mere gold digger, or conclude she’s a lost soul who supports bloodshed and warmongering, or deem her a traitor who spends her days at the protests and her nights with a war criminal?

Will she ever be able to tell Finn?

She does feel shame, she realizes.

Poe’s words echo in her mind: secrets and lies.

“It’s okay, love,” Kylo whispers. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. Now come help me with the dishes.”

That night, she goes down on him. She’s inept, and he’s too large to fit into her mouth, and it takes her a while to figure out what to do with her teeth – but the strangled whimpers he makes and the way his hips arch up to meet the flicks of her tongue assure her that the pleasure she gives him is what he needs. She knew he’d be irresistible.

He comes in her throat, his fists in her hair, her name on his lips, and his whole body shakes, chest rising and falling rapidly, skin breaking out in sweat. His semen spills down her chin. The taste is curious – sharp, a little bitter, and not overly pleasant, but she thinks she’ll get used to it. It tastes of him.

Kylo props up on his elbows, still panting, and urgently passes her a paper towel.

“You didn’t… Fuck… You didn’t have to do this just because...”

“I wanted to.” She wipes her mouth and looks at him in awe – he’s so beautiful, undone. “Kylo, I… I…”

She can’t say it.

“I know, love.” He leans forward to hug her. “It’s okay. I know.”

In the morning, immediately after breakfast, Rey says she must leave.

“Gotta pick up stuff from the dorms. Can’t walk around forever in your t-shirts. After that, I’ll go straight to the Faculty. But don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. Earlier than you think.”

She has a plan for their evening together – she’ll drop by a video rental store on her way back and get them a movie to watch. For all his nerdery, she’s noticed that Kylo’s knowledge of pop-culture is surprisingly thin when it comes to movies. It makes her happy that, for once, it’s her who can help him explore new worlds.

On her way to the dorms, she makes movie lists in her mind.

When she enters her dorm room, it looks foreign to her – almost as if she’s never lived here. It’s cold inside, her breath shows. She forces herself to sit on the bed, her coat buttoned up, and she stares at the grey-green walls, trying not to think about the passage of time. Her little radio is still hidden under the pillow, she discovers.

She must get used to this again.

Rose is about to return, and she’ll have expectations – things to do, places to go, stories to share. With Rose around, managing the time and hiding the love bites will become more complicated.

Rey wonders if Poe will agree to cover for her, every once in a while.

She stuffs a change of clothes in her backpack and rushes out, heading to the Faculty of Philosophy. Today, she intends to volunteer to keep watch in the amphitheater and let the others enjoy their boogie bacchanalias. She’s in no mood for dancing.

Outside, there is a woman standing in front of the gates.

She’s unusually tall, Rey notes, and dressed rather oddly – a pair of cargo pants with large pockets hangs from her hips, and a puffy silver jacket, its shine blindingly metallic, makes her shoulders appear even wider. Her hair is cut short and bleached white-blond, and she’s smoking in the street, bored but patient, as if she’s waiting for someone who’s late.

When Rey approaches, the woman suddenly shifts, stepping into Rey’s way.

She narrows her pale blue eyes, studying Rey for a long moment. Her gaze is hard and determined – Rey feels like she’s judging her. Then she wrinkles her nose, looking disappointed.

“So you’re the one they call Rey,” she says, crushing her cigarette with a loud crunch of her boot. “Well. Can’t see the appeal, gotta say. Then again, who knows what goes on in that fucko’s mind.”

Rey recognizes the voice.

She feels her mouth going dry.

“Can I… Can I help you?”

“Sure you can.” The woman cocks her head, thick tendons protruding from her muscled neck. “Come with me. Someone wants to meet you.”

The woman is too big, Rey observes, and she looks like she enjoys using every advantage that her size can offer.

Rey takes a step back, quickly glancing at the dorm entrance. If she gives her best, maybe she can reach the door. Lock it behind her somehow.

Call for help.

“I wouldn’t run if I were you, little girl,” the woman sneers. “I was told you’re smart. So be smart and don’t make a scene. It will end ugly.”

The tone of her voice implies that things ending ugly is exactly what she’s hoping for.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She reaches out and grasps Rey’s elbow, her grip supple but firm. “It’s just a talk. Nice and polite. Now, come. There’s a car waiting.”

The woman pulls Rey by the elbow and starts walking. Her stride is long, and Rey has to rush to keep up the pace.

She won’t be dragged, she decides.

She won’t be humiliated like that.

“You don’t scare me.” She hopes her voice sounds determined enough to preserve her dignity.

“Oh, but I wasn’t trying to scare you, little girl,” the woman replies sweetly. “If I was, you’d know.”

It’s only then that Rey feels her knees quavering.

Behind the corner, there is a large black car.

It’s too luxurious for the neighborhood, with its darkened windows and matte paint and plates displaying only a few numbers. It’s the kind of a car that, if a crime happens, people will claim that they haven't seen, even though it was parked right under their balcony.

A man is leaning against the windscreen. His copper hair catches the rays of winter sunlight, a screamingly conspicuous touch of red that contrasts with the dark cashmere of his coat.

As Rey and the woman approach, he hops up to open the car door, his gesture theatrically chivalrous.  

“Orphan child bride, what an unexpected pleasure.” Armitage smiles as if he’s genuinely happy to see her. “Who would have thought that after all these years it will be you.

 

Chapter Text

 

The Man Who Sold the World

 

 

“Where are we going?”

To Rey’s surprise, Armitage is the one driving. She expected the tall woman, Phasma, to play the bodyguard role to the hilt, but the way Armitage caressed the gearshift when fastening the seat belt made it clear that no one else was allowed behind the wheel. The car is his, obviously. It smells of him – crisp cologne and real leather seats and pine air freshener and expensive tobacco. Cigars, Rey concludes, not cigarettes.  

“Worry not, my dear,” he chirps. “It’s a short ride.”

With the main roads blocked by the cordons, the ride is anything but short. They crawl down the snowbound backstreets, tires screeching on cobblestones, and with equal enthusiasm Armitage curses the protesters’ Saturday night fever and the road maintenance idiots caught by surprise with the goddamn snow in January. He’s witty, Rey admits grudgingly, his sense of humor as sharp as vinegar, and Phasma diligently laughs at his jokes. Still, Rey feels the woman’s eyes glaring at her from behind, her knees poking into the back of the passenger’s seat. One misstep, Rey thinks, and Phasma will break her neck.

Armitage never gets his own hands dirty.

“You were quick to find me.” Rey changes the topic, attempting to put a stop to the pretend friendly banter.

“It’s not as if you and Ren made the job difficult.” Armitage smirks. “Him, I understand. He’s a mentally deranged brute thinking with his cock. But you? So much recklessness, child bride, going in and out of his apartment all love-struck and carefree, without checking even once if someone’s watching. Let this be a lesson, hm?”

Rey frowns – suddenly she feels as if she’s failed a test. “A lesson in what?”

“How to play games, of course.” He side-eyes her, lifting one hand from the steering wheel to fix the rearview mirror – Rey briefly catches the reflection of Phasma’s ice blue gaze. “Speaking of which, a few words of advice: mind your manners. Don’t stare. Be polite – speak only when spoken to and don’t ask stupid questions. No need to be spineless, a bit of spunk might even be welcome, but do refrain from venturing into smartassery, that’s so tacky.”

Rey swallows heavily, closing her eyes, gathering the courage to repeat the question.

“Where are we going?”

“Why, the office, obviously.” He sniggers – the bastard seems genuinely amused by her unease. “The Professor said he wanted to meet the little girl who made Ren lose his mind. Not that matters of the mind were Ren’s strong point to begin with, but whatever you did to him, child bride, it made the Professor quite …” He pauses, looking for the right word. “…grouchy, so to say.”

She feels cold sweat tingling down her back, her palms clammy as she shoves her hands in her pockets.

“Now, now. No need for the long face, my dear,” Armitage consoles. “Play along, and it will be over within minutes.”

They park in front of a business center in the southern part of the city.

Rey is familiar with places of this kind. In the early 90’s, in the brief window of time between the fall of communism and the onset of war, buildings such as this one were popping up all over the city landscape – modernly designed shopping malls and business centers made of glass and steel, eagerly constructed to welcome a better future that never came. With the sanctions and the misery that followed, the buildings started decaying at a surprising rate, the shine of their stainless steel dulled, their glass panes cracked, their hallways empty.

She finds it oddly appropriate that the First Order is located here, on the top floor – there is even a sticker with its logo, a red sun in a black circle, glued next to the elevator button.

The first thing that Rey notices when they enter the office is the Christmas tree in the waiting hall. Chain lights blink red and blue, illuminating the wall.

The office furniture is fashionably minimalist – dark leather and glossy metal. A woman in a smart black suit sits behind a computer screen, throwing Rey a deliberately uninterested glance. A door opens, and two young men, wearing matching red shirts stretched tight across their bulky bodies, peek inside. One carries a brown paper bag from the bakery, as if he’s getting ready for his lunch break. A calendar hangs on the wall: the image for January 1997 shows a luxury car speeding on the highway, with snow-covered mountain tops in the background.

Yet Rey is still staring at the Christmas tree, unable to grasp why such an ordinary object is present here, in the very headquarters of the wretched hive of scum and villainy.

It gives the entire place an unwelcome touch of normalcy.

“Move.” Phasma pushes her in the back.

“Don’t be afraid, you may even profit from this,” Armitage says, knocking on the heavy black door in the very back of the waiting hall. “Nothing will happen to you.”

“For now,” Phasma adds joyfully.

The black door opens, and they step inside.

Snoke’s workroom is predictably spacious, with burgundy wallpaper and tall shelves full of books, most of which he has written himself. Framed diplomas, paintings of medieval battles and icons decorate the walls – the Christian cavalry bravely charges at the Ottoman conquerors, and sad, serious faces of angels and saints stand in contrast with their golden halos. There is incense burning in the corner of the room. It smells oily, making the air stale, too thick to breathe.

Snoke is sitting behind an antique desk of dark polished wood – oak, Rey thinks. He is dressed in a dusky red jacket, its color matching the wallpaper. In front of him, there is nothing but a battered Coca-Cola can with its top sawed off, full of sharp writing pencils, and a globe.

“Welcome, young Rey,” he says. “Have a seat.”

Phasma unceremoniously pushes her into an office chair with wheels. Rey nearly trips, her bottom flopping onto the cushion without an ounce of dignity, and she has to dig her soles into the ground to stop herself rolling away.

A horrible first impression.

She won’t falter.

“Haven’t seen you on TV for a while,” she snaps, attempting to regain her composure. “What happened, low ratings?”

Armitage told her not to be spineless, yet she sees him rolling his eyes as if he cannot believe what she just said. It makes her realize how she sounded – a child masking her fear with lines ripped from movies.

Snoke lets out a quiet chuckle, but he cuts it short quickly, slamming both hands on the desk as if to indicate he will not tolerate misbehavior.

“Such spunk,” he sighs, shaking his head. “Come closer, child.”

Phasma pushes the chair forward.

From up close, Snoke looks worse than she remembers – his skin is wrinkled like a parchment, his scarred head covered with liver spots. She can’t assess his age. One side of his face hangs oddly, as if he suffered a stroke in the years since he’s disappeared from television, and it gives a strange imbalance to his features. Only his blue eyes are stunningly clear – keen and observant. Predatory.

He reminds her of a creature from old horror movies, Rey thinks, from back in the days when vampires were not Hollywood heartthrobs in Victorian clothes – skeletal, bald, with pointed ears and large front teeth, prowling at night in search of prey to sink its claws in and suck it dry.

Nosferatu, she thinks that’s the word.

“Now let us speak,” Snoke booms. “Where to?”

Rey twitches. “I beg your pardon?”

Her tone is inadvertently polite – to her dismay, there’s something in the old man’s posture that compels her to manage herself.

“When I was young, it was Germany.” Snoke vaguely points at the globe on his desk, his thin finger crooked. “Austria too, for some, but mostly Germany.”

At first, it sounds as if he’s stressing words at random, but the emphasis gives an odd melody to his speech, making her anxious to hear what he will say next.

Rey leans back in her chair – she won’t let him believe that he can seduce her with his words.

“It was destroyed, Germany was,” he continues. “All those beautiful old cities bombed to ashes in the grand finale of the Second War. So many lives perished, so many works of art lost to humanity. A tragedy, one could say.” 

He places his hand upon his heart, as if he’s personally mourning the loss.

“Therefore, in the years after the war, Germany needed workers to rebuild what was destroyed. And one by one, thousands of healthy young men and women from our country happily left their farms and their jobs and their families to toil in the Bundesrepublik.” A pause, to set up the punchline. “They had forgotten that Germany had bombed our cities, killed our people, wiped out our heritage, and built camps on the shores of our rivers. An easy thing to forget, when you receive your salary in deutschemarks.” 

He takes one of the pencils from the can and starts twirling it between his bony fingers, tapping occasionally against the oaken desk. The sound is brisk – a beat to his lines.

Despite herself, Rey looks at Armitage. His eyes narrow ever so slightly, as if he’s signaling her to keep her cool. Stay quiet.

"The Good Book says: ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage,’ – Psalm, 33:12,” Snoke recites suddenly, his songful voice resonating in her chest. “But you are not one of those who are familiar with the Good Book, are you, child? No, you aren't. I know your kind. You’re a dreamer."

He said they would speak, but she realizes all too well that Snoke does not expect her to answer. The incense fumes are sticking to the roof of her mouth, filling her lungs, making her lightheaded.

Tap, the pencil clicks. Tap. Tap.

“You dream of the West, my child,” the old man concludes, smiling all but kindly. “Where life is rich and beautiful and easy, as seen on television. And for this dream, you have turned your back to the Lord, and you protest and you march and you dance. You care little for the injustice the West has brought upon us, you do.  As selfish as the workers who went to Germany, you sell your soul for thirty pieces of silver. But it is not up to me to be your judge, no. That is God’s work.”

A tap, so loud that even Armitage flinches.

“I am here to make your dream come true.”

Her stomach sinks, and Snoke grins wryly, pulling his pale lips wide to reveal his yellowed teeth.

“What…” She won’t stammer. She won’t. “What does that mean?”

“At first, I thought France,” Snoke continues, ignoring her question. With the tip of the pencil, he spins the globe – it jangles as it turns. “I could see you there, a romantic little girl like you. But you do not speak the language, and in the proud nation of Molière and Voltaire and Rousseau, that just won’t do.”

Rey leans forward, holding onto every word, but then she catches herself and forces her body to slouch. Her hands are shaking. She presses her palms together, fingers digging into skin until it hurts. The smell of incense is suffocating.

Armitage is watching her – she feels his gaze on her face, so intense it burns.

“The obvious choice would be Great Britain, of course, the Proud Albion, with its Queen and its cricket teams and its marvelous elite schools.” The old man smiles like a reptile. “You would love it there, my child, so many things to learn, so many adventures to be had. But the weather is foul, grey skies and rain all the time. I cannot send you to such a place. And it helped me realize another point of concern – it is close. Too close. Anywhere in Europe is too close.”

Snoke pushes the spinning globe toward her and taps the pencil against the desk.

“The United States of America then, what do you say?” He nods to himself. “Land of the free, home of the brave. You might find it interesting that the First Order has excellent connections there, even if the country itself is the spawn of freemasonry and devil-worshipers and Jews. But connections are exactly where our problem lies, I’m afraid.  Too many sympathizers means too many eyes and ears. Given time, a bleeding heart will get sentimental and tell my foolish apprentice where to find his lost Lenore, and then that will undo all our hard work, won’t it, my child?”

Tap.

“So I made a decision.”

With a sudden movement, too quick for such an old man, Snoke snatches the globe and stops it from spinning, and then slowly turns it as it screeches, looking for a place on the map.

“Here.”

His nail digs into the top of the globe.

“Canada,” Rey whispers.

The old man nods dramatically.

Almost like America, but not quite,” he declares. “Stable. Beautiful nature, very picturesque, autumnal landscapes a tapestry of reds. Somewhat cold, but nothing worse than January here. True, people tend to complain it is a tad boring – uneventful, as they say. But dreamers like you are pragmatic souls, stability is what you look for in the West, isn’t it? So Canada it is, my child. Aren’t you excited?” 

His steel blue eyes burn with zeal beneath the bushy eyebrows.

Breathe, Rey tells herself, even if the heavily perfumed air is making her sick. Breathe.

She wants to count, to ten, to twenty, to one fucking hundred, but she knows she cannot.

“You want to send me to Canada?”

She hates how her voice sounds.

Rejoice, Rey!” Snoke raises his hands and looks at the ceiling as if he’s addressing the sky. “I am making your dream come true. A life in the West. A scholarship in a good private school. All living expenses covered.  All you have ever wanted. And worry not about papers and permissions – you are a ward of the state, and the state does as I advise. So, let us see a smile. ‘Make me hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice’ – Psalm, 51:8.”

Rey presses her lips so tightly that her chin begins to quaver.

“I will give you time, I will,” the old man sighs benevolently. “But if you do not take what is offered, child, I’m afraid that there are other, less savory ways for little girls to disappear.”

He snaps the pencil in two, as easily as if it were a twig.

The crack is thunderously loud.

Rey flinches away from the desk, the wheels on her chair pushing her straight into Phasma’s hands.

“Take her away,” Snoke orders. “I can’t stand to look at her any longer.”

Phasma pulls her up, and even though her grip is unpityingly rough, it feels like a relief.

The moment they reach the waiting hall, Rey props herself up against the wall, almost falling over the Christmas tree. Her legs wobble. Everything stinks of incense – her hair, her clothes, even her very skin. She swallows, fighting the urge to vomit.

Canada.

Really?

“You need water?” Armitage asks. “Coffee? A shot of something hard, to come to your senses?”

“Fresh air,” Rey answers before she can stop herself. She doesn’t want his help.

She feels his arm wrapping around her waist to support her. 

“I’ll handle this, Phasma,” he says, pulling Rey to lean against him. “Take the rest of the day off.”

Phasma hesitates for a moment, narrowing her pale eyes – Rey can see she’s deliberating, assessing the situation. Then she slowly nods, as if they’ve just agreed on something much more important than who’d take Kylo’s girl home.

“Keep me in the loop,” she says and steps away, leaving Rey alone with Armitage.   

They exit the office quickly. Rey struggles to walk straight, still feeling like she can’t breathe, and she almost stumbles down the stairs on their way to the parking lot.

“I’ve got you.” Armitage holds her, unexpected gentleness in his touch. “Come on, child bride, it’s over. You made it.”

He helps her into the car and leaves the window half-open. The crisp winter air wakes up her senses – she inhales deeply, allowing the coolness to fill her lungs.

As they drive along the slush-covered alleys, she tries to process what just happened.

Psalms and books and icons staring at her from the wall, and an old bloodsucker chanting to put her under his spell, and a spinning globe, and fucking Canada, and now nothing will be the same any longer.

Is there a way out of a mess this deep?

She still hears the cracking of the pencil as it breaks.

“So tell me.” Armitage interrupts her thoughts. “French? Italian? Something exotic – Chinese, maybe?”

“What?”

“The restaurant, of course. I’m taking you out to lunch. Consider it a compensation for the mental anguish you’ve suffered – the Professor put on a really good show back there.”

Rey stares at him. What kind of a man can say something like that so casually, after the scene he’s just witnessed?

“I don’t want anything from you.”

Armitage scoffs. “See, this is where you’re mistaken. You’re allowing your dislike for me to cloud your judgement, instead of looking for solutions with a cool head.” He stops at a red light, and uses the opportunity to lean towards her, lowering his voice. “Think carefully, child bride. If you want to play your cards right, I’m your new best friend. Seafood?”

She studies him for a moment.

He used too much gel, she notes. If she were to touch his hair, it would crack.

There’s a smirk dancing in the corner of his mouth, as if he knows that things will go his way in the end – it’s cocky, different than the perpetual pout she remembers him for.

“You’re not doing this out of the kindness of your heart,” Rey concludes. “You think I have something you want.”

“There’s my clever girl.” Armitage finally grins. “I knew we’d get along. Now, can we settle for seafood? There’s a new dish in my favorite restaurant, slow grilled salmon with sweet and spicy glaze, and I’ve been dying to try it.”

He takes her to a place on the riverbank, at the bottom of the Fortress – a part of the city that Rey has carefully avoided over the years.  The name of the restaurant is in Italian, and through its windows she can see the snow-covered tree branches, the chunks of ice floating in the water, the thick winter mists swallowing the other shore so that only the skyscraper tops peek through. The tables are covered with brocade and decorated with silver candlesticks, and the waitress looks like she belongs on the red carpet, all dolled up even though it’s only past noon.  All her life, Rey thought that if she were to walk into a restaurant like this, people would stare, judging her second-hand clothes, her cheap makeup and her lack of table manners. But as Armitage guides her towards what’s obviously his private booth, no one even spares her a second glance.

He orders the salmon without looking at the menu. Rey opts for French fries and breaded fish sticks – it sounds childish, so plain it’s offensive, and she hopes it will make him frown. To her disappointment, he merely rolls his eyes.

There is a visible ‘no smoking’ sign above their heads, but Armitage still takes out a gilded Zippo and lights a long, thin cigar. It smells like vanilla.

“You know, at first I was flabbergasted, but the longer I think about it, the more it makes sense,” he declares, closing his lighter with a loud click. “Ren and you.”

She feels her brows furrowing. “You don’t say.”

“A nutjob full of love to give and an orphan desperate to belong, both suffering from abandonment issues – you two are a textbook example of tragic codependency. But I get it, I do.” He blows out a puff of sweet-smelling smoke that goes in her direction. “I hope you’re happy together.”

Rey waves her hand in front of her nose. “We’re not here to discuss our happiness, are we?”

“Oh, but you’re wrong – that’s exactly why we’re here.” Armitage smirks. “Tell me, do you understand what happened back there in the office, or you need me to explain?”

She pauses for a moment.

“Snoke wants me shipped to Canada because I’m a bad influence on Kylo.” Saying it aloud makes it seem more real, and she hates it. “What’s there not to understand?”

Armitage shakes his head, as if she couldn’t be further away from the truth, and Rey suddenly realizes she’s intrigued. Hopeful, even, though it’s a feeling she must be careful with.  

She remembers him talking about lessons in playing games.

“The Professor reacted a little… emotionally, I daresay. I’m not surprised. Ren is his favorite toy, almost like a trophy – ‘the-nephew-of-Luke-Skywalker’ and all that. Keeping him under control is not only a matter of pragmatism, but pride too – and even before you popped into our lives, Ren had been a bit, well, difficult.” He stresses the word as if it doesn’t even begin to describe the adversity of the situation. “The plan has its merits. You choosing a life in the West over your feelings for Ren will make him run back to the First Order with his tail between his legs, guaranteed. So the Professor acted out back there, put a little extra oomph in his performance – I was almost tempted to applaud.”

“But you didn’t,” Rey states curtly.

“No, I didn’t. Because there is another solution to our problem.”

The waitress arrives with their food. It seems too quick, Rey thinks, but seeing how the woman fusses over Armitage makes it clear he’s the most important guest in the restaurant at the moment. She wonders if someone like him tips well. He puts out his cigar, crumpling it even though it’s only half-smoked, and spreads the embroidered serviette in his lap.

The salmon smells delicious – Armitage makes an obscene groan of pleasure as he chews his first bite. Rey stares at her French fries and fish sticks, hesitating. She feels nauseous. She thinks it will taste like incense.

They spend the next few minutes eating in silence.

“How well do you really know Ren, my dear?” Armitage asks after a while. “Do you know what he did during the war?”

Drop dead, dickhead.

“Killed people,” Rey says dryly, her voice firm, her gaze downcast, her finger tracing the pattern on the tablecloth.

It’s in the past now.

“Well, that’s one way to put it.” Armitage gives a suppressed laugh. “He sure did kill people. Your traitor friend must have told you stories, but damn, you had to be there to fully grasp how glorious he was. Some called him a death god, a nickname that the Professor really liked, but personally I never found it fitting. It implied divinity, dignity, and there was nothing dignified in what he did. He was an animal.”

His pupils widen, and again Rey senses that odd mixture of fascination and disgust seeping from his voice.

“Covered in blood and soot, standing among fire and ash with that snarl of his that clearly showed he wasn’t right in the head, he never lost his sense of purpose, or hesitated to pull the trigger,” he narrates, his words carefully chosen. “Others were often a bit, well, squeamish when certain things were expected. But not Ren. If it needed to be done, he’d get down to it, no questions asked. No matter how ugly it was. The shit I saw him do…”

He sighs, slicking back his gelled hair.

“There was something badass about him, I’ll give him that. Once, I remember, we were left behind the enemy lines, just a handful of us, outmanned and surrounded, bullets flying over our heads. Honest to god, I thought I’d leave my bones there in that mud. But he got us out. Led the charge headfirst. Got shot along the way, a bullet to the shoulder, bones shattered to pieces – yet he kept on fighting. I saw him beating on his wound to stay focused. Can you believe that?”

Armitage pulls his lips into a half-smile, and surprisingly, it doesn’t come across as mean.

“He left so many dead enemies and burned villages and mass graves in his wake that I’ve lost count. Kylo Ren, the king of the warzone – invincible and undismayed. A legend. And as it often happens with men like him, it’s the peace that broke him.” 

Rey picks at her food, smearing mayonnaise across the plate.

“You… You think he’s broken?”

One of his eyebrows shoots up, as if he’s shocked by the silliness of her question.

“Have you ever seen him drunk, or is he besotted enough that he’s on his best behavior around you?”

Rey frowns.

She knows he’s been hitting the bottle lately, he said so himself. She saw it that night in the tavern, when the double shot had made him tipsy and loosened his tongue. Their first kiss tasted of liquor, she remembers, and then there was that broached bottle of vodka standing on his coffee table, which she flushed down the sink at the first opportunity, just in case.

But she has never seen him go overboard.

“Thought as much.” Armitage takes her silence for confirmation. “It’s a rather depressing sight, Kylo Ren in his cups – the poster boy for the horrors of booze. Vodka, mostly, like a true Slav, but at some point I had to hide my cologne from him, afraid he’d chug down anything with alcohol. I’m amazed his liver hasn’t given out yet. He loses it completely when he’s plastered, and then it’s fun times, since you never know how the evening will end – if he’ll slur angry tirades about fat cats and money grabbers, or he’ll beat someone to near death, or he’ll fall asleep on the floor in his own piss and vomit. Or all three. Did he tell you how he got the scar?” 

Rey isn’t sure what to say. “He had an accident.”

Armitage chokes out a laugh, snorting, and his whole face reddens as if it’s been a while since he heard something so hilarious. Suddenly, she doesn’t want to know the truth – but he mercilessly continues, stabbing his fork into a piece of asparagus. It crunches.

“A while ago, shortly before the protests began, the Professor organized a reception. It was supposed to be a magnificent event, a gathering of anyone of any influence in this country, people that you want and need to be friends with.”

He says it with such pride that Rey thinks he personally composed the guest list.

“Here’s the problem. The Professor loves parading Ren in front of the bigwigs – like a mad dog on a leash, if you want. I understand. It’s a powerful propaganda tool, showing he’s in control of the man who did all those things during the war. The only downside is that it can backfire spectacularly when said mad dog shows up shitfaced and threatens your VIP guests, calling them liars and thieves and unpatriotic scum.” He presses his lips together, as if the memory makes him cringe. “It was quite an unpleasant moment. Poor Professor, embarrassed like that in front of everyone and forced to show he still held the leash. So he did what he had to do – he took a bottle and cracked it open against the table, wine spilling everywhere, and then he smashed it across Ren’s face.”

With a slow gesture, Armitage draws his finger along his cheek and forehead, following the line of Kylo’s scar.

“Nearly poked his eye out.” He taps against his eyelid and grins, and Rey feels a wave of toothless anger that makes her sick. “For a moment, I was afraid that Ren would retaliate, draw his gun out and do something stupid, and then everything would go to hell.  But praise be to baby Jesus, he didn’t lash out – he just collapsed on the floor, blood dripping on the carpet, and then he started barfing. Threw up his soul, right on my shoes. Italian, real leather. Ruined forever.”

Rey closes her eyes, remembering how the scar felt beneath her fingers when she first touched it – swollen flesh tugging at his skin, warm and inflamed, slick with balm.

He said it hurt.

She wants to flip the table and strangle Armitage with the laces of his overly expensive Italian shoes. She could do it, she believes, when Phasma isn’t around to stand guard, and the mental image almost makes her smile.

“After that, believe it or not, things did improve.” Armitage cuts a piece of salmon and covers his mouth with the serviette as he chews, his table manners the embodiment of elegance. “He did as he was told and gifted me with a blessed few weeks free of drama. He didn’t even drink in the open. Kept getting smashed on his couch every night, of course, but at least it was away from the public eye. But then…” He raises his fork and points towards Rey. “Then you came along, child bride. And off he goes, AWOL for five days, lost in his happy place where he got to fuck your underage ass from morning to night.”

Rey lifts her chin. She should feel offended by the vulgarity, she thinks, but oddly enough it only empowers her. Someone like Armitage will never understand how it feels to share your bed with the one you love.

Because she loves her monster, doesn’t she?

She helps herself to the fries with her bare hands, licking salt from her fingers, and she chews with her mouth open. But Armitage only smirks, as if he finds her defiance endearing. 

“Anyway. Now that he’s back, Ren’s head is full of these wild ideas. He wants to leave the First Order, he says. He wants to be left alone, live his life the way he likes and similar bullshit. Which brings us to the root of our problem.”

“What do you want, Armitage?” Rey says coldly, pushing her plate away, enjoying that her fingers leave grease stains on the brocade tablecloth. “Snoke wants me out of the picture, but I don’t think you share the sentiment, do you? So what is it?"

Armitage bites into the last piece of salmon and chews, delaying the answer as if it amuses him to put her on edge. When he finally speaks, his tone is playful.

“What do I want? I hold no grudges against you, child bride – as far as I’m concerned, I wish you nothing but the best. Now, if you ask me what I want for Ren, it would be to place him in a nice institution, with clean white walls and sunny rooms and lots of fresh air, and good people who’ll make sure that he takes his meds and paints landscapes in creative therapy and gets tied to the bed whenever he misbehaves.” He smiles, tracing the gilded plate rim with his finger. “But life’s a bitch, sadly, and we can’t always get what we want. So we must make do with what we have – and we’ve been dealt a rather shitty hand of cards. Do you follow me?”

She does, Rey thinks.

The mere thought of playing along makes her feel filthy.

“I’m afraid I’ve lost you.”

“Think for a moment, my dear,” Armitage huffs. “I’ve seen your school grades, you’re smart. You can do this.”

She waits for a moment before she inhales to speak. When she does, she feels the bile rising up her throat.

“If I… Um. If I were to, um, disappear, that wouldn’t be good for you in the long run, would it? It’d be a just a temporary victory that would leave you with a very frustrated Kylo, drinking, raging and ready to explode all over the First Order.” She swallows. “You can’t handle him broken. You need him cooperative and functioning, you need to give him a purpose. And for that… For that, you need me.”

“Bingo.”

He grins from ear to ear, like a bearer of good news.

“It’s annoying, you know, his holier-than-though attitude, his reluctance to play his part in the business side of the First Order, as if he’s too fucking good for it. But he’d do it for you. To provide for you, give you a comfortable life. I’ve seen how smitten he is, he’d do anything for you.”

Rey licks her dry lips. She understands too well, yet she still proceeds with her question. “You want me to convince him to stay in the First Order and help you steal money?”

“It’s not stealing, my dear, it’s financial management. And when it comes to negotiations, a certified psycho like Ren is quite an asset. You can always give people a choice: would you rather close the deal with Hux, who’s as charming as he is handsome, or would you prefer that we send over the perpetually trigger-happy Kylo Ren, so help you god?”

He laughs as if he’s cracked a joke, but Rey doesn’t find it funny.

“Does Snoke know?”

“Don’t worry, he’ll accept it when the time comes.” He gives her a reassuring nod.  “I told you, child bride, we’re here to discuss happiness. What I’m proposing is the perfect solution. Think of it like this: the Professor’s happy because Ren acts like a good boy, Ren’s happy because he gets to fuck you every night, you’re happy because you’re living life in the lap of luxury, and I’m happy because Ren is no longer my goddamn problem. Everybody wins! Now, am I a genius, or what?”

She stares in front of her, eyes locked on the silver candlestick on the table. “I don’t want a life in the lap of luxury.”

“That’s what you say now.” Armitage knowingly smirks. “But I’ll bet you love your new VCR, don’t you?”

Rey gasps, pulling back, squinting at him as if looking through a gun sight, but he just winks like he’s sure he’s won the battle.

“Let’s go, child bride. I’ll take you to Ren’s place.”

Back in the car, he gives her his card – red letters on glossy black paper with the stylized pagan sun above his name and title. He tells her to call if she needs anything, anything at all, and it horrifies her to realize that he’s the only person with whom she could actually discuss her love life.

Not that she would ever do it.

“We both know you don’t want to go to Canada any more than I’m eager to babysit a drunk, violent madman for the rest of my life. So talk to him, Rey,” he says as they’re parting, using her name for the first time. “It’s your move now, talk some sense into him. This could be the last chance at happiness for the two of you. Don’t let it go to waste because of some imaginary scruples.

She watches him drive away in his matte black car, standing in the street for a long moment after he’s gone from sight.

When she enters the apartment, Kylo is not home.

It’s a relief. She doesn’t want him around for what she’s about to do.

She begins in the kitchen. She opens the cupboards and empties them item by item – the spice jars, the tin boxes with sugar and flour and rice, the bags with spiral-shaped pasta made in Italy, the cans with green beans and sun dried tomatoes and her favorite peach halves in syrup, the chocolate stash, so much pricey, delicious food that once upon a time she never dreamed she’d have at her disposal. She climbs on a chair to reach the highest shelves. She looks behind the plates and the pots, and in the fridge, and under the sink where the cleaning products are, but to no avail. She puts the items back carefully – Kylo knows his kitchen, he’ll notice if something is amiss.

She searches the living room next. It’s still in disarray, swallowed up by the devices he bought, with all the things he kept in boxes scattered around on the carpet. She won’t find it here, she knows, but nonetheless she examines the couch with special consideration, opening the drawer underneath. In there, fortunately, there’s nothing but folded bedsheets.

She proceeds to the bedroom closet, rummaging through his clothes: black, so much black, old jeans, hoodies, sweatpants, a cardigan, one or two rumpled dress shirts discarded on the bottom. When they met, he used to dress better, she remembers – his clothes looked expensive, stylish.  She doesn’t see the leather jacket he wore on that day at the Fortress – it probably went the way of the cashmere coat, thrown away since he can’t fit into it any longer. She carefully inspects the corners of the closet bottom, but finds only shoes.

She checks under the bed, just in case, and starts searching the cabinet drawer by drawer. T-shirts, underwear, socks – some folded, some merely stuffed inside in a rush. The upper drawer is a mess. She finds a broken old phone, a flashlight, more keys opening god knows what, bundles of unused sticky notes, a pair of leather gloves and his gun.

Wherever he is, he didn’t take it with him. Good, Rey thinks. But then she freezes – what if he needs it? What if his life is in danger, and he must defend himself? Could that happen?

She stares at the gun. The metal is dark, almost black, and it looks heavy. She doesn’t want to touch it, doesn’t want to think about what he did with it. She wonders if she could ever shoot, if push comes to shove.

She shuts the drawer closed and rushes to the bathroom.

It’s too much, she thinks, she won’t find it here, but she still opens each shampoo bottle and sniffs to make sure of what’s inside. People hide these things in the most improbable places. She knows that. She heard stories from the Home kids whose parents were remarkably creative.

It takes her a quarter of an hour to conclude there’s nothing in the bathroom.

The bottle of vodka that she spilled into the sink was indeed the only alcohol in the house.

Rey sits on the bathroom tiles and starts crying.

Fuck the old man and his Bible quotes and his overly dramatic threats, and fuck Canada.

All these years, she’s been waiting for the opportunity to leave this hellhole of a country, and now that she’s offered the chance, it feels like the worst thing that has ever happened to her.

And the alternative… The alternative is…

Could she do it to him, trick him into something he loathes just so they can stay together? Would she be able to live with the consequences of such choice, surrounded by the luxury she never wanted and fully aware of what he does to earn that money? Is this indeed their last chance at happiness, could they be happy living like that?

And what happens to little girls who disobey – they get snapped in half like twigs?

She’s shaking, hugging her knees close to her chest, and her nose is running.

Breathe, Rey. Breathe.

There must be a way out.

Breathe.

She wants to go back to the five days when the outside world didn’t exist.

When Kylo returns home an hour later, she’s watching TV on the couch.

“Rey?” He sounds surprised. “You’re here this early? Did you even go to the protest?”

He reeks of sweat, and a tight black beanie on his head makes his ears stick out, but she still finds him gorgeous.

She jumps up to hug him.

“Don’t, I was at the gym, I need a shower!” Even though he protests, he wraps his arms tightly around her waist, squeezing her close. “Is everything alright, love? You aren’t upset, are you?”

She should tell him, she thinks.

But then again, what if he loses his temper and does something reckless?

Can things be worse than they are?

“I missed you,” she muffles into the fabric of his jacket, reaching for the zipper to take it off. She needs to feel his skin.

She slips her hands under his hoodie, pulling it up, and tugs at the hem of his sweatpants.

“Oh.” He’s confused, but she senses his arousal hardening against her body. “Well, that’s… Wow.”

He leans down for a kiss, slipping his tongue between her lips, and his mouth tastes of sweat and salt and winter. As he moans low in his throat, she yanks his wet t-shirt so strongly that it almost rips.

“Wanna shower together?”

Kylo nods, boyishly eager, and quickly lifts her up like she’s weightless. On their way to the bathroom, they shed pieces of clothing, leaving behind a rumpled trail.

Later, she thinks. She’ll tell him later.

For now, all she needs to know is that he loves her, and that he’s happy, and that no one can hurt him as long as he’s in her arms.

 

Chapter Text

How You Turn My World, You Precious Thing

 

 

 

Days pass.

Rose returns from her hometown, bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, and she brings home-made jam, and cheese pie, and tangy pork cracklings that crunch and melt on Rey’s tongue. She says she misses her family as soon as she unpacks, complains about the unbearable cold in the dorm room, and asks to hear all about the protests and the disco and the city blocked by cordons. Rey answers vaguely. No, she has no idea who might be Poe Dameron’s newest sweetheart. No, that fight with Finn was just a minor squabble, nothing to worry about. No, she doesn’t know how long the siege will last.

No one knows that.

Rey spends the night in her own bed for the first time in the new year, listening to Rose’s soft breathing, staring at the water-stained ceiling unable to sleep. In the morning, she feigns a cough and blames the chilly radiators in the room, and she starts packing, saying she’ll stay over at Finn’s place until her cold recedes. It might be in the suburbs, but at least the heating works.

She calls Finn from the common room, constantly glancing over her shoulder to check if someone’s listening. She announces she’ll spend the next few days with Poe.

“Sister!” Finn whistles, and she can tell he’s smiling on the other end of the line. “Wasn’t he supposed to be into someone else?”

“He is.” Rey frowns at the receiver. “It’s nothing like that, we’re just hanging out. But please, in the unlikely case you bump into Rose, can you tell her I’m with you? You know how gossipy she can get. I don’t want any rumors about Poe and me going around, it’s enough I have to put up with your matchmaking.”

“Whatever you say,” Finn chirps, and he sounds so happy for her that she almost feels a pang of guilt. “Have fun. Ask him to teach you how to dance.”

She shows up at Kylo’s place with her winter clothes packed in grocery bags. Her backpack is too small, she says, and she doesn’t own a suitcase. He buys her one that afternoon.

Days pass, and Rey settles into a routine. She leaves the apartment around noon and takes a long walk to the Faculty, where she keeps watch in the amphitheater while others go dancing. She becomes proficient at idling away the time: she cleans, arranges tables and chairs, prints out posters with new slogans, makes lists of items to buy and chores to do for the rebel headquarters to run smoothly. Professor Holdo nods in appreciation, patting her on the back. The Professor’s ring-adorned hand always lingers for a moment too long on Rey’s shoulder, and Rey wonders if Poe has told her anything – but Holdo just smiles, and Rey doesn’t ask.

On some days, Rose drops by to bring her lunch. She fusses that it’s unwise to go out if Rey’s feeling sickly, and asks about Finn, a faintly disguised teenage crush clear in her voice. Rose stays the afternoon every once in a while, but not too often – she prefers dancing, bless her, and Rey finds it sweet that she’s always excited about the music she’ll hear and the people she’ll meet. Sometimes, it’s Poe who comes to keep Rey company. He makes her laugh with his tales of the protests – they organized a beauty pageant the other day, he says, to choose the most handsome police officer in the cordon, but it was fucking difficult to see through their helmets. Poe tries to convince her to join him at the disco, but Rey just shrugs – she insists that she doesn’t dance.

Once, the General herself comes to sit with Rey.

“I’m an old woman and my knees hurt,” she grumbles in her throaty voice. “What’s your excuse for not hitting the dancefloor?”

“Two left feet,” Rey lies, mopping the sticky amphitheater linoleum.

Leia Organa scoffs. “That’s never an excuse.”

“I’m not in the mood.” Rey bends down to pick up a crumpled leaflet and shoves it in a black trash bag. “Is that better?”

The General narrows her eyes, studying Rey with a shallow smirk as if no secret can escape her.

“Things didn’t turn out the way you wanted with your old flame?”

Blood rushes to Rey’s face, so abruptly that her ears start buzzing.

“No, um… No. That ain’t half bad, actually. It’s just that life has found other ways to be complicated.”

“Ah.” The General’s sigh is packed with decades of determination and disappointments and wisdom. As she crouches to help Rey with the trash bag, her knees crack loudly, and that makes her laugh.

“How long…” Rey begins, stifling a giggle since the General’s laughter is contagious. “How long do you think this can last? This stalemate, I mean. The disco, the cordons. It feels as if time has stopped.”

Leia Organa thinks for a moment.

“We’re almost there, I’d say. The capital’s paralyzed for days, and in turn, the whole country’s fucked.” She swears with such unbridled joy that Rey’s smile widens. “Someone’s bound to cave in, and it won’t be us. Therefore, the darksiders can either withdraw their cordons and let us march, which would mean admitting defeat, or… Or they can cut the crap and accept the election results.”

Her smirk falters slightly for what she’s about to say next.

“Or we’ll have tear gas and batons and water cannons again,” the General declares, her chin held high and her shoulders square. “That’s also an option.”

Rey’s daily shift in the amphitheater ends by late afternoon, and every evening, she calls for a taxi to go back to the apartment. (“Fuck buses,” Kylo said, pushing crumpled bills into her hands. “With the cordons and all these people in the street, it’ll take you ages to come home by bus. Just get a cab.”) When she arrives, dinner is ready and the table is set. They eat together, and then they argue about the movie they’ll watch – Kylo likes obscure European cinema and despises comedies, but he always lets her have the final word, no matter how dramatically he complains. On some nights, they listen to music and read, cuddling on the couch. Kylo’s head is in her lap and her hands are in his hair, untangling the knots dreamily as she murmurs the song lyrics, and he teases her that her English sounds too Slavic and rough. Like a Russian femme fatale in a Bond movie, he says.

Sometimes, they rush straight to the bedroom.  

She screams every night now, neighbors be damned. She grips the bedsheets as his tongue works between her legs, or she clenches around him, savoring his hardness, digging her nails into his lower back to push him deeper in, and as her pleasure reaches its peak, she moans so loudly she can’t recognize her own voice. It took time, but he’s learned to read her body – now he knows exactly where to lick and suck and touch to make her see stars. “You’re mine, Rey,” he whispers against her throat each time he makes her come, his voice breathy and darkened with want, “and I’m forever yours.” She finds beauty in it, in this gradual journey, in their messy exploration of intimacy. There is no part of her body left untouched.  She gets used to the rubbery smell of condoms and the harsh taste of his semen, and she still likes it the most when she’s on top, so that she can watch him quiver beneath her, strong and large, dizzy with need, looking at her through hooded eyes like she’s a wonder.

Days pass, melting into each other like snowflakes on asphalt, and it is not easy to separate yesterday from the day before.

There are moments when Rey almost forgets there’s a noose hanging around her neck.

She knows why she’s been given time. The old man wants to frame her departure as a betrayal – the longer she stays with Kylo, the more it will hurt when she disappears. 

Fucking Canada.

It’s a clever idea, it is. Playing on human greed is always a safe bet. A brand new life in the country often described as one of the most welcoming destinations for immigrants is not a small gift – a lesser person would jump at the opportunity. She can almost see the old man cackling like the cartoon villain that he is, delighted by the deviousness of his own mind.

Strange, it seems that Snoke is dead certain that she will accept the offer. Someone like her is trash in his eyes, she knows. Selfish and unprincipled, that’s how he sees her – a carpetbagger who’ll always choose her own interest over her country or the man who loves her. Still, Rey is not offended. She finds it ludicrous that the old man is so confident in his judgement that he hasn’t even considered she might tell Kylo what’s going on. It’s a huge risk on his part.

Except that he is right.

Days pass, and she still hasn’t mentioned anything to Kylo.

She’s waiting for the right moment, Rey tells herself. She has to time it properly. She has to choose the right words. She can’t just take his hand and say: “And by the way, for your information, that creepy old dude who calls himself the Professor, you know the one, the man you unreasonably worship because he’d taught you how to embrace your rage even though he sent you to war and cut your face in half, well you see, he wants to fuck you up even further by shipping me to the other end of the planet, but that’s how life goes, so please don’t overreact, and don’t do something violent or impulsive or stupid.”

Can she?

The longer she waits, the more difficult it is to broach the subject.

Rey wants to think it’s because she’s not ready yet, but she knows it’s bullshit.

Days pass, and more and more often, she catches herself staring at the glossy business card of Armitage Hux.

Financial management, he said. It’s just money games. It isn’t real crime, is it? Hell, as far as she knows, it isn’t crime at all – no one gets killed, and all is in line with the letter of the law.

She’s not tempted. She’s not.

It’s just that she’s never experienced it before. All her life, she had to struggle to get what she wanted – set goals and work hard to have them within reach, plan every move, pinch every penny, toil and suffer and sacrifice, and hope that one day it would pay off.

And now, suddenly, the world is at the tip of her fingers. Money is no longer an issue – whatever she may wish for, Kylo makes it possible, as happy as a lark to bring a smile to her face. Food. Clothes. A whole room full of state of the art gadgets. Stupid daily expenses, like the fucking taxi fare. He’d buy her the moon if she asked for it, she knows. She doesn’t need Canada – life can be easy even in this shithole of a country, even in the middle of the protests, when the city is under siege.

Privilege, that’s what it’s called.  

She’s not tempted, she’s better than that.

She just wishes some choices were easier to make.

“Kylo…” She hugs him from behind one evening as he’s washing the dishes, wrapping her arms around his waist and rubbing her forehead against his naked back. “What will you do when you quit the First Order? You think you can get a job?”

He’s silent for a long moment. Plates clatter as he rinses them, lemon-smelling dish soap spilling from the edge of the sink.

“I’ll think of something,” he answers, and Rey can almost hear Armitage’s snippy voice saying that thinking was never Kylo’s strong side.

She hugs him tighter.

This can’t go on forever, she knows. They’ll have to talk, sooner or later, and then things will get ugly. Or worse, she’ll run out of time and the old man will make his move.

But as the stalemate continues, Rey stalls, trying to steal another day of this stupid domestic happiness, wishing she were a lesser person who wouldn’t hate herself for giving in to temptation.

In the last week of January, the temperature drops: the Eastern wind blows through the bones, and it’s so cold that Rey’s ears hurt, even under her favorite knitted hat. The skies are the color of steel, closing in on the city, and tree branches crack and fall under the weight of snow. The disco goers do not falter, however. They come up with new choreographies, dancing with their umbrellas, raising their hands up towards the sky to catch the twirling snowflakes. Famous DJs volunteer to play their music at the Cordon Bleu, competing against each other who’ll rouse the crowd with more energy. School does not start, to Rey’s relief – the beginning of the semester is delayed, as the teachers’ union supports the protests by going on strike. She tells Rose she’s having a great time spending the winter with Finn, and she tells Finn that Poe is slowly becoming one of her best friends, and every night she watches Kylo while he sleeps, thinking that in the morning she must tell him the truth. 

And then, for the first time in a while, Rey dreams of Han.

They’re on a boat, in the middle of the night. Everything is black except for the chunks of ice floating in the water, and she feels the wind on her face, the boat deck rumbling beneath her feet. She’s a child again, wearing the same beige hand-me-down cardigan she had in the winter of 1993, and she’s cold. She doesn’t know where they’re going. Han is talking to her, but she can’t hear his voice – the wind howls, and the boat engines roar too loudly. She looks away for a moment, eyes fixated on pitch black waves, but when she lifts her gaze Han is no longer there. She’s alone in the night, travelling across broken ice, standing on deck boards smeared with a greasy stain that may be motor oil, or blood.

“Is everything alright, love?” Kylo asks in the morning as he’s making breakfast, poached eggs and crispy bacon and toast with plum jam. “You seem a bit… off. Did you sleep well?”

No, Rey wants to answer.

No, everything is not alright.

It would be so easy, she thinks. It’s just words. Just a speech: “Hey monster, listen, it’s time to put things into perspective, you know how I feel about you, you know I want to spend my life with you, but it ain’t that simple, we can’t live off air and we can’t keep spending your savings, we need an income, but I’m too fucking young to make money for the both of us and you can’t exactly hold a normal job, can you, so swallow your pride and talk to Armitage, it’s only money games anyway, you can’t possibly claim it’s worse than killing civilians or beating on your own wound to stay focused in the warzone mud.”

She sighs, sinking her teeth into her lower lip until it hurts.

“Love?” Kylo reaches across the table and takes her hand, entwining their fingers. “What’s wrong?”

She looks at him for a moment. His hair has grown so long, it’s almost past his shoulders now, and she loves the way it curls.

Rey takes a deep breath and opens her mouth to speak.

“I…” She pauses, exhaling sharply. “I talked to Snoke.”

Kylo freezes.

His jaw clenches, lips pressed together tightly, and then he slowly blinks, as if he isn’t sure he understood her right.

“What?”

There’s no going back now.

“I talked to Snoke,” she repeats, her tone stronger than she feels. “I was, um, taken to him. To the office. The First Order office. He wanted to meet me.”

He stares at her, dumbstruck. A frown creases his forehead and his gaze clouds with confusion. He still can’t grasp what she’s telling him, Rey sees.

His voice is soft when he finally speaks.

“Why?”

Rey swallows. Every word she’s about to say must be carefully chosen.

“He’s unhappy that you want to leave the Order.” She realizes she’s clutching his hand so tightly it must hurt, but Kylo doesn’t flinch. “He blames it on me. He gave me a choice: I can either move to Canada on a paid scholarship, or I can, um, disappear in an unsavory way. That’s what he said.”

His eyes narrow into slits.

“He wants to hurt you?”

She hesitates for a moment.

“Not really. I’m unimportant. Just a means to an end.” She grips the table edge with her other hand to stop herself from trembling – a gesture she’s learned from him. “I think he wants to hurt you.”

There. It is said.

Rey waits for him to explode, to start shaking and twitching, to call forward the darkness and give in to his rage.

But Kylo just nods, eerily calm.

“I see.”

Somehow, this is more unsettling.

“When was this?” He reaches out to take her other hand, prying the crumpled tablecloth from her fingers. “Yesterday?”

Rey squeezes her eyes shut.

“Two weeks ago.” She struggles to keep her voice steady. “Almost three.”

“And you’re telling me now?”

She feels the hair on her back standing up.

“Kylo, I… Please. I didn’t... I mean, I couldn’t… I…” Rey hiccups, gasping for air.

Kylo pulls back, and for a moment she fears he’ll think she delayed the conversation because she was actually considering Snoke’s offer. She can’t read his expression. It terrifies her – usually, his emotions are written all over his face.

But then he leans forward and startles her with his next question.

“Do you love me?”

He stares at her with the intensity she remembers well – like she’s the only person who matters. If she says the wrong thing now, she thinks, the world will fly apart.

Her breath hitches. “You know.”

“Not good enough, Rey.” Black hair falls into his face as he shakes his head. “Say it.”

“I do.”

“You do what?”

Her last defense is crumbling before her eyes, and she digs her nails into the calloused skin of his palms.

“Fuck you, Kylo!” She lashes out. “I love you! Okay?”

She sounds like a child, her voice high-pitched and shrill, echoing in the kitchen.

She didn’t want to say it this way.

“Good.” Kylo nods. He waits for a moment, and then adds, his frown softening a bit: “You should have told me earlier.”

She isn’t sure if he’s talking about Snoke, or her feelings.

Kylo lowers his gaze, eyes locked on their joined hands on the table. With a slow gesture, he moves his thumb to caress her knuckles, the rough tip of his finger grating on her skin. He breathes too loudly, panting almost, and for a long minute, his labored huffs and the ticking of the wall clock are the only sounds disrupting the silence.

The moment drags on.

“Kylo?”

When he lifts his eyes, she almost expects them to glow yellow.

“They all think I’m stupid, but I’m not,” he sneers. “You said so yourself. I’m impatient, and I have a short fuse, and I never pause to think things through. But I’m not stupid.” His chuckle is brief, subdued. “I can play games too.”

Rey shifts in her chair.

“What… What does that mean?”

“It means there’s a way out of this.” Kylo bares his teeth, crooked fang flashing sharply. “It’s okay, my love. I’ve got this. I know exactly what to do.”

His tone is resolute – Rey wants to trust him, but this sudden burst of self-confidence puts her ill at ease.

“Now I need you to start packing. Good thing we got you a suitcase.”

“Packing?” She frowns as she tries to make sense of his words. “You want me gone?”

“Just for a few days, until the dust settles. Won’t take more than a week, I promise.”

Rey tenses, clenching her fists. She won’t budge, she thinks, not until he explains what he’s about to do.

But then she feels her skin prickling, droplets of sweat gliding down her back.

Does she really want to know?

“Call the traitor. Tell him you’ll stay over at his place.”

This surprises her. “I thought you hated Finn.”

“He’s a piece of shit.” Kylo lets go of her hand to pass his fingers through his hair – a gesture meaning he’s nervous. “But he’s had military training and knows how to use a gun. And he loves you enough to defend you to the bitter end, if shit hits the fan.”

Rey nods slowly. She needs more time to process what’s happening – it still doesn’t feel real.

“Fine. I’ll... I’ll get going, then.”

Without warning, Kylo pulls her across the table, plates rattling loudly as he pushes them out of the way. He kisses her long and hard, desperate, tongue shoved in her mouth, sharp teeth nibbling at the tender flesh of her lips.

“We belong with each other, love,” he whispers, pressing their foreheads together. “We’re destined by fate. And I’ll do whatever it takes to stay by your side.”

Rey spends the rest of the morning packing in silence, pretending not to notice that her hands shake.

A taxi takes her across the city to the industrial suburbs where Finn is renting the ground floor of a modest brick house. All along the ride, she keeps glancing around, checking the road, sneaking looks into the rearview mirror. No car seems to be following them, as far as she can tell.

She’s not sure she’s right, however. She doubts it’s as simple as in the movies. Life never is.

It’s quiet in the outskirts of the capital – Rey finds the tranquility strange after weeks of living with the noise in the besieged city center. The snow is thicker here, white and untrodden. She sees the skyscrapers in the distance, social housing shaping the skyline, communist brutalism at its best. The concrete buildings are the same grey color as the winter sky. A freight train passes by, its wagons covered with graffiti in vivid blue and pink – curse words in stylish block letters and feral, distorted faces cackling at the world. A dog starts barking, roused by the rattling of the railway tracks.

She asks the taxi driver to leave her a street away from Finn’s house. She doesn’t want him to know that she didn’t come by bus.

“Peanut, you okay?” Finn gives her a bear hug as soon as he opens the door. “What happened, trouble in paradise with Dameron?”

“Nah.” Suitcase wheels clunk over the threshold as she enters. “It’s just that I feel a bit funny, as if I’m about to go down with flu. I need a few days break from the protests. I can’t keep imposing on Poe, and the dorm is too fucking cold – my breath’s freezing in the room.”

Finn gives her a toothpaste commercial smile. “Will I sound like a total asshole if I say I’m happy? Not that you’re getting sick, of course, but that you came here. Been a while since we got to hang out properly, you being busy with activism and all.”

“Sorry,” Rey murmurs. She has nothing better to say. “How’s life?”

“Shitty, if you ask.” Finn’s lips curl down, even though the smile still lingers in the corners of his eyes. “While you guys are partying with the police in your disco joint, us mortal folks are struggling to live normally. It’s like you’re holding the city hostage. I’ve been working in that pizza parlor for two years, sister, and this is the worst month ever. Yesterday we had one customer for the entire evening. One. And I’m supposed to live off tips.”

She almost apologizes again, opening her mouth to offer excuses and ask for understanding. But then she realizes that this is not what she feels sorry for. If she owes Finn any apologies – and god knows she does – it has nothing to do with the protests.

“It’s for a greater good,” she says dryly. “Professor Organa said it’d be over soon.”

“Whatever,” Finn huffs. “I just hope your Professor is as good at predictions as she is at giving speeches.”

Finn’s living room is crowded with shabby furniture – a table with one shorter leg, a pull-out armchair in which Rey usually sleeps, a couch so old she sinks into the cushions when she sits, springs squealing sharply underneath her butt. The house smells of tobacco and laundry detergent. The walls are yellowish, in desperate need of fresh paint, and covered with posters of Tupac Shakur and Bob Marley and Grace Jones posing on orange background, with a square buzz cut and square shoulder pads, a stark white cigarette hanging from her lips. Finn’s most prized possession is an African tribal mask that he bought on the flea market, as a gift to himself for his twentieth birthday. It’s a knockoff, of course it is, for it was cheap and obviously mass produced, but to him it means something.

“You know the drill, make yourself at home,” he says, smiling. “I’m working tonight, but I won’t stay too long. I’ll bring food, and we can watch a movie when I return.”

Rey swallows, glances at her watch, hesitates for a moment before falling down on the squeaky couch.

All she can do now is wait.

She’s good at waiting, she tells herself.

Waiting and fixing broken things.

When Finn leaves for work, locking the door behind him because she asked him to, Rey finally gives in and cries in silence, tears soaking the collar of her shirt until it gets so clammy that she has to change.

As hours pass, she tries to make herself useful. That’s always her first urge.

She vacuums the house, and then spends the better part of the afternoon repairing the wonky cleaner hose with duct tape. She glues the wrinkled poster edges back to the wall. She fishes beer bottles from under the couch and empties ashtrays, counting the cigarette butts, scrunching her nose in concern. She cleans the bathroom, rubbing the black stains between tiles until her fingers hurt. It’s good. Work is making her tired, helping her focus.

It distracts her from thinking.

Finn returns late in the evening with cold pizza, complaining about the total collapse of public transport since the city center is barely passable. They watch TV together, snuggling on the couch under a heavy blanket that feels cozy even though it smells like wet dog. They don’t talk much, but Rey prefers it that way. She thinks she must have fallen asleep on Finn’s shoulder, for she wakes up in the middle of the night curled up on the couch, carefully tucked in, the rattling of a freight train echoing in the distance.

She misses Kylo’s weight on top of her.

As days go by, it becomes more and more difficult to stay busy. For the most time, Rey stares at the screen. She learns the TV program by heart: Bugs Bunny cartoons, news filled with lies so spectacular she sometimes laughs out loud, musical shows with too much glitter for her taste, black-and-white movies with Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat solving crimes, reruns of teenage dramas and murder mysteries and romance flicks, soap operas in Spanish with bad acting and swanky costumes and plots so silly she catches herself eagerly awaiting the next episode. She tries cooking, but Finn’s fridge is nearly empty and her skills are far from Kylo’s, so she quickly gives up. She learns to recognize each dog in the neighborhood when she hears them bark. 

And she waits, while outside it snows.

Often, she stares at the phone. It’s embarrassing, almost as if she’s trying to will it into ringing. But days pass, and nothing happens: no calls, no news, no attempts at contact.

She thinks she’ll lose her mind.

“Why did you join the First Order?” she asks Finn one night, as they’re watching a bizarre 80s horror that she can’t focus on.

Finn stiffens, clutching his beer bottle, the couch creaking under his weight.

“Are we really having this conversation?”

Rey picks at a cigarette hole in the blanket, her eyes down. “We’ve been successfully avoiding it for three years.”

He takes his time to reply, gaze fixed at the screen where a monster in bad makeup is chasing a screaming girl down the cobblestone streets of a Mediterranean town. He holds the bottle with both hands, gripping tightly – if he keeps doing it, Rey thinks, his beer will get warm.

“Well. I thought it was because there’s nothing to say. The answer’s obvious, sister, ain’t it?”

With a swift movement, Finn lifts his hand and rolls down the sleeve of his sweater, pointing at the dark color of his skin.

“Okay, so you say it’s obvious.” Rey reaches out to grab his sleeve and pull it up, and then proceeds to hold his hand, leaning onto his shoulder. “Fucking 1993 – it was bad, I remember. The nationalist madness was really flying off the handle. It makes sense for a black boy caught in the crossfire to do something dramatic, if stupid, to prove where he belongs.”

She swallows a scoff.

“But goddammit, Finn. Did you ever actually believe any of that shit? Y’know – the just cause of the war, the holy martyrdom, the need to defend our people from their people while the evil West takes sides based on what looks better in the news?”

Finn studies her, his face illuminated by the TV, that sad smile of his ghosting his lips. Then, he offers her the beer bottle and laughs when she pushes it away.

“You’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, haven’t you?” He raises his eyebrows curiously. “Why?”

Of course he won’t answer. What did she expect? His favorite method for dealing with unpleasant topics has always been to counter them with difficult questions. 

“I dunno.” Rey shrugs, her gesture a tad too quick. “I guess the protests make me ponder about politics. I keep wondering how can someone who’s not, well, a bad person, just somewhat troubled, fall for the bait and end up doing horrible shit. Like support the regime. Or commit crimes in war.”

“Because the message they’re selling is tailor made for troubled people. That’s why it’s bait.” Finn takes a long swig of beer, foam dripping down his chin. “And it can work both ways, see what I’m saying? That’s why you should be careful with your activism. Keep a cool head, sister – or you’ll end up seeing the world in black and white.”

Rey frowns. She wants to argue: you can’t compare the two, jumping to the call to do nasty shit in war and peacefully protesting for human rights and democracy. You just can’t. Some things are fucking black and white.

But then she looks at Finn. He’s tired, she notes, worn out from long commutes and double shifts he’s been working lately, trying to make ends meet for the month. The bags under his eyes are swollen. She doesn’t want to raise tension, she realizes. Not now, when her world is so fragile.

Outside, a freight train rattles in the night.

Rey changes the topic.

“You think someone who’s been in war, y’know, who’s seen the things you’ve seen, fuck, someone who did those things, you think they can live a normal life once it’s all over?” She clears her throat in an attempt to stifle the anticipation in her voice. “Like, get a job? Start a family? Find, well, redemption?”

“I don’t know, Rey.” Finn waves his hand dismissively. “It’s not as if I’m in touch with my old squad mates so that we can compare notes.”

He’s silent for a long moment. Rey wants to push him, ask him more, but she bites back the words. If she keeps prying, she thinks he’ll start suspecting there’s more to this conversation.

On screen, the monster has caught the girl – the camera zooms in on her terrified eyes, fake eyelashes fluttering dramatically, and then technicolor blood splashes over the cobblestones.

Suddenly, Finn begins to speak.

“It stays with you. You can pretend you’ve moved on, but it’s there.” He scoffs through a weak smile. “It’s not always bad, you see – not every dream is about burning villages or rotting corpses by the roadside. Sometimes it’s harmless. You dream of a guy you knew, someone from your squad, someone you were almost friends with – you do stupid stuff together, like go for a ride, or share a cigarette. It’s only when you wake up that you remember you watched him die.”

Finn toys with the nearly empty beer bottle, peeling off the label.

“Or you think you’re having a regular day, but bam, the sound of a tire popping reminds you of gunshots. God forbid that every loud bang gets to trigger you, but this one just did – and there we go, the flashbacks begin, and then you’re thoroughly fucked up for the rest of the week. Dammit, sister. It sticks, this shit, like stepping into bubblegum. Like a stain you can’t wash away. You never get over it.”

Rey watches the silhouette of his profile in the dark living room. She didn’t know. He never talks about it.

The silence lasts for too long, the moment as brittle as glass, and she’s afraid that whatever she may say, it will come out wrong.

“But still,” she finally murmurs. “You’re living a normal life.”

Finn gives a bitter laugh.

“I wait tables in a pizza parlor trying to charm customers for tips. I ain’t got no school and no plans for the future, and at my age, I stopped believing in miracles that’d turn my life around.” He pauses.  “And trust me, I’m not the worst one out there. At least my conscience is clear. I know who I am. I know I couldn’t shoot.”

Without waiting for her answer, Finn stands up from the couch and slams the bottle to the table with such force that its shorter leg makes it wobble. Then he walks to the kitchen to take another beer – it’s not often that he has two for one evening.

“Rose is in love with you,” Rey blurts before she can stop herself.

She needs to tell him something hopeful.

“I know,” he sighs, nodding. “I’ve known for a while. I just don’t think someone like me can make Rose happy.”

In the movie, the monster in bad makeup is chewing on the plastic prop of a ripped off female arm. And then it howls into the night, and the screen fades into black.

In the early evening of the last day of January, after a full week of no news from Kylo, the phone rings.

Rey’s heartbeat quickens. She stares at the phone, hesitating. She counts how many times she should let it ring before she jumps to answer, hoping her voice won’t reveal the helplessness that’s been weighing her down for days. 

It’s probably nothing, she tells herself. Maybe someone’s looking for Finn – it has happened before. Or it’s Finn calling from work to ask if she needs him to pick up anything on his way back.

She braces herself and lifts up the receiver.

“Rey, baby!” Rose yelps gleefully. “How’s your flu?”

“I’m… I’m okay,” she nearly slurs, unsure if she’s disappointed or relieved. “I think I’ll be better in a day or two.”

“Well. Told you that you should’ve stayed at Finn’s if you were feeling sickly.” Rose giggles, but it’s stiff, insincere – Rey knows that Rose is a bad actress.

Something’s wrong.

A pause follows. Rey hears Rose breathing through her mouth, cautious, as if she’s contemplating what to say next.

“What happened?” Rey finally asks.

“A man approached me this afternoon,” Rose says. “He asked about you.”

Her stomach sinks.

“A man?”

Another pause.

“Yeah. He knows you’re at Finn’s place, said he can’t reach you there.”

Rey breathes out a heavy sigh and shuts her eyes, leaning her forehead against the wall.

“Late twenties? Very tall, long black hair?”

“No…” Rose falters, noticeably confused. “A ginger. Really well dressed.”

Fuck.

Fuck.

Sweat beads above her upper lip – Rey licks it away, tasting the salt.

Her voice must not break. “What did he say?”

“He wants you to call him. He said it’s urgent.”

Rey’s knees wobble and she slumps onto the couch, rusty springs making an ugly sound under her body.

Fuck.

Rose waits for a moment before speaking again.

“Rey, are you in trouble? You’ve been kinda weird lately, that’d explain a lot.”

“I’m fine,” Rey lies promptly. “All is fine.”

Still, she can tell that Rose will want to know everything about this tall man with long black hair who first came to her mind.

“I know what the ginger wants, Rose, it’s no big deal,” she offers. “Don’t worry. Thanks for letting me know.”

She hears Rose inhaling, breath catching as if she has something to add, but after a long moment, it seems she has changed her mind.

“Take care, Rey,” she says instead. “Please. Talk to you soon.”

Rey holds the receiver to her ear long after Rose has hung up, letting the flat dial tone reverberate in her thoughts.

She counts – ten. Twenty. Fifty. One hundred.

It’s not enough.

She sighs, gaze focused on the posters on the wall. Grace Jones is staring at her, perfectly made-up dark eyes filled with contempt – she’s judging her, Rey thinks.

Good. She deserves to be judged. At the end of the day, she’s nothing but a foolish little girl who’s gotten herself neck deep in shit she can’t handle just because she was chasing after a man.

A fucked up mess of a man who’s barely able to function as a normal person.

But there’s no way she’ll ever let him go, she knows.

Rey bites her lower lip and takes out the glossy business card from her wallet.

He picks up after the first ring – he’s been expecting the call.

“What do you want, Armitage?” she spits, lowering her tone to her best attempt at a growl.

A shocked gasp resounds in the telephone receiver. “Manners, Rey! Is that the way to greet a friend?”

He sounds both amused and scandalized, and Rey hates his skill to perfectly project conflicting emotions.

“Leave my friends alone.”

“My most sincere apologies if I spooked the cute little glasses girl.” He’s smirking, she hears it in his voice. “I didn’t want to risk calling you myself and bumping into the traitor – I don’t know when he’s at work. Much to my dismay, I can’t have all of you followed.”

She frowns – and here she thought there was no one behind the taxi that brought her here. “So you followed me? Is that how you knew where to find me?”

“No, my dear. Ren told me where you are,” he says as if it is obvious. “He wants me to take you to him tonight.”

Rey wrinkles her nose. This doesn’t make sense. Armitage is the last person that Kylo would confide in, let alone involve him in his plans or ask for favors.

“Why you?”

He chuckles aloud. “Because it seems that I’m the only person in this city who owns a fucking car, and your monster needs my driving services.”

He emphasizes the words as if he’s sharing a secret code, a proof that it is indeed Kylo who’s sending him, but his tone makes it clear he finds the nickname hilarious. To her annoyance, Rey feels that she’s blushing, and she’s grateful that Armitage can’t see her.

“Now that the trust issues are hopefully out of the way, I kindly ask you to get ready. I’ll be there in one hour, if gods of traffic are merciful.” He pauses, and then adds the punchline through a malicious grin that oozes from his voice. “Wear something nice. He hasn’t seen you in a week, I’m certain he’ll be eager.”  

And just like that, he hangs up.

Rey sits on the couch with the phone in her lap, chewing on her bottom lip until she tastes blood.

This is ridiculous.

Kylo spoke with Armitage, that much is certain, even though she cannot fathom why they would suddenly work together. It’s beyond suspicious. And yet, it’s not as if she has much choice. If she wants answers, she thinks, if she wants to see Kylo soon, her only option is to play along.

She rummages through drawers until she finds a spare pair of keys so that she can let herself out of the house, and scribbles a note to Finn – “Had to leave urgently, revolutionary business, don’t worry, will call tomorrow.”

She hears the car arriving – all the neighborhood dogs bark to greet it.

It’s cold outside, winter pinching her cheeks, and the air smells like charcoal. The lamppost in front of the house blinks as if it’s about to give out, its orange light dim, electricity buzzing audibly. Rey looks up at the sky – the moon is full.

The expensive car sticks out like a sore thumb in the barren street. Armitage rolls down a darkened window and waves.

“Dear god, this place is a fucking dump.” He pouts. “My heart breaks for you, child bride. It must’ve been abysmal to spend a week here with no news.”

“Think of it like this: if it weren’t for me, you’d never get to discover all the charms of the capital.” Rey does her best to imitate his haughty tone. “Now be a darling and help me with the suitcase.”

For a long time, they drive in silence. It’s odd, Rey thinks. Armitage is gifted with the talent of small talk, a skill she’s never quite mastered herself, and he loves the sound of his own voice, especially if he can be derisive or mean. The situation gives him plenty of opportunities for malevolent jabs – and yet he’s quiet, eyes locked on the road.

She stares through the car window, watching the snow-covered fields shine brightly in the night, illuminated by the highway lights and the moon.

“How is he?” She finally breaks the silence.

Armitage sighs heavily. It takes him a moment to reply.

“Never been better.” He says it as if it is bad news.

Rey nods slowly, picking at her seat belt. Something in his answer puts her ill at ease.

“He didn’t do anything…” Violent? Stupid? Dramatic? What’s the word she’s looking for? “…radical, did he?”

He rolls his eyes. “Patience, child bride, you’re about to find out in a matter of minutes. Where’s the fun if I spoil the ending now, hm? But you’re on the right track, I’ll admit – radical is a good word to describe the situation.”

He’s withholding information on purpose, Rey sees, but this is not mere teasing. Something serious is going on. She can’t tell if he’s tight-lipped because things are indeed too complicated to explain, or he simply enjoys watching her squirm. Or both, because it’s Armitage. He throws her a quick glance, and she notices his forehead furrowing slightly, like a frown he’s trying to suppress.

She tenses, squeezing her hands into fists. “You… you’re angry with me.”

“Angry?” Armitage lifts an eyebrow. “Heaven forbid, my dear. Do not confuse me with Ren – it’s not often that I get angry. I’m annoyed, that’s what I am. And utterly disappointed.”

Rey swallows.

“Because I didn’t go with your plan?”

To her surprise, he shakes his head. “You don’t have the slightest clue what you did, do you?”

A wave of goosebumps prickles up her spine, and she feels a pang of shame she cannot explain.

“What… What did I do?” She sinks her nails into the soft leather of the passenger seat.

Armitage sighs, like he’s too tired, and fed up, and a heartbeat away from stopping the car right there and walking away into the night.

“Color me blind, Rey, I thought you were smarter. The joke’s on me – and on you as well. What a fuckery. To think we could have had it all…”

Dickhead.

She wants to confront him – stop speaking in riddles, son of a bitch, just spell it out already. She has the fucking right to know what’s going on, after a week in the dark when she had all the time in the world to come up with worst case scenarios. He cannot imagine what it feels like to drown in the fear of losing the one you love.

But then she notices.

“You… You missed the turn.”

They drive past the sign signaling the exit for the city center, staying on the highway that takes them to the other end of the capital, towards the elite suburbs.

“So I did,” he observes calmly. “I said I’d take you to Ren, not that I’d drive you to his apartment.”

Rey closes her eyes, breathing in the pine-scented air in the car, the smell of vanilla cigars.

“Am I in danger?” She feels very stupid for asking.

“You? No. Not you.”

Her throat is going dry, like sandpaper, and she licks her lips as she tries to word her next question.

“Whose side are you on, Armitage?”

“Little old me?” He smiles crookedly, and for a brief moment he resembles the charming man who took her to lunch because he was dead certain that things would go his way. “I’m always on the winning side.”

She doesn’t know how to respond to this.

As they drive deeper into the suburbs, she observes the luxury mansions, their outline vivid against the moonlit sky: vaulted roofs, wooden gates with heavy locks, high fences of wrought iron, long walls with flower ornaments and marble pillars and scenes from World War II depicted in mosaic, brightly illuminated French windows, sculptures of Greek gods and partisan heroes with their rifles raised, and stylish gardens full of trees, their bare branches black and wiry in the glistening snow.

Rey knows who lives here: the wealthy and the powerful. Old money, or what’s left of it. Politicians – dwindling communist bigwigs and burgeoning regime bootlickers. Mafia bosses, with their German watchdogs and security cameras. Celebrities who lavishly decorate their newly purchased villas, the showier the better. A few foreign diplomats who still remain in the country, to witness how the times are changing in the neighborhood. 

She’s never been in this part of the city before, not even out of curiosity. It was too different, too intimidating for an orphan girl with holes in her shoes.

Kylo’s mother grew up here, she remembers.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re almost there.”

She thinks she hears a slight tremor in his voice.

Armitage parks in front of a secluded villa with a white stone fence. She sees marble lions mounted on the gates – they bare their teeth, snarling at visitors, their claws frozen in mid-movement, their roaring muzzles silent.

“Now listen to me carefully.” He leans towards her and lowers his voice, as if they have a secret to share. “There are three things I need you to know before we enter the hornet’s nest and the show begins. One: you have my word that nothing will happen to you. Promise. Not a hair on your head will perish. Two: in order to make it possible, I need you to cooperate. No matter what happens in there, you stick with me. You don’t run to Ren, you don’t pull any stunts, you don’t try any of the stupid shit you’ve seen in movies – you don’t leave my side. Nod your pretty head if you understand.” 

Rey squares her shoulders – she doesn’t want to obey. But he’s searching her face with an intensity that doesn’t suit him, as if he expects her to understand what’s at stake even though he won’t explain, and his eyes flash with worry. Despite herself, she nods.

“Excellent. Now let us go.”

Rey stops him, pulling the sleeve of his coat.

“What’s… what’s the third thing?”

Armitage chuckles dryly. “Glad you didn’t forget. Three: I wash my hands of what’s about to happen. I didn’t want any of this.”

With that said, he turns his back and presses the intercom, and the gate slowly opens.

The brick paths are cleared of snow in the spacious courtyard. She sees a set of garden chairs, a barbecue grill with its lid closed, a swimming pool covered with a nylon sheet for the winter, and a limestone fountain with icicles hanging from its edge. Rose bushes are planted in the garden, but at this time of the year they’re nothing but a black tangle of barbs, like the wall of thorns that bars the entrance to the Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle. The two-story house is old-fashioned and large, with white painted window frames and a porch that imitates the dreamlike mansions of the American South. 

Whoever lives here, they’re awake and waiting: all the lights are on.

A man exits the house and comes to greet them.

“You brought the girl?”

“As you see.”

When he approaches, she recognizes him – it’s the young man with the brown paper bag from the First Order office.

Fuck.

Her pulse beats in her ears, blocking out all other sound.

Why did she allow herself to get this stupid?

“Jesus, Hux, you’re armed,” the man says, pointing at the bulge beneath Armitage’s coat that she hasn’t noticed before. “Haven’t seen you with a gun since the war ended.”

“It seemed appropriate, given the circumstances.” He looks at Rey, his expression carefully schooled. “We should hurry inside, no time to waste.”

Rey wants to say something, but words escape her – her mouth hangs open helplessly. If she tries to make a step now, she thinks she’ll fall.

She feels Armitage’s arm wrapping around her waist, supporting her, pushing her forward.

“You know…” the man begins, hesitating nervously. “You know, I gotta confess something. I feel kinda bad about all this. Like it ain’t fair.”

Armitage frowns. “But you made your decision, didn’t you?”

“I did.” The man nods.

“Then stick to it. This is just business, now.”

She sways up the stairs, leaning on Armitage, absently staring at the rose bushes in the garden.

The front door opens and a boy appears, dressed in a carefully ironed blue shirt. His face is pimpled and he looks barely older than Rey – too young to have participated in the war, she thinks.

“That’s the whore?” His voice is exaggeratedly cocky.

Armitage presses his fingers into her waist, in a manner that’s almost reassuring.

“Don’t let Ren hear you.”

The boy scoffs. “As if he can do anything about it.”

Inside the house, the lights are so bright that she squints.

The lobby is huge, enormous – an extravagant waste of space that only the rich can come up with. A massive stairway leads to the second floor, its hand rail gilded. The floor is covered with glossy black and white tiles – the contrast of darkness and light dances before Rey’s eyes, making her dizzy. The only piece of furniture is a high antique table with a porcelain vase on it, greenish-white winter roses arranged like a mourning bouquet.

That – and a chair, placed in the middle of the hall.

“Ah,” Snoke booms. “The audience is finally here.”

She hears the door closing behind her. It’s just a faint click, but she feels as if it has sealed her fate.

“Hey there, little girl,” Phasma greets her with a smile.

Kylo sits slumped in the chair, shoulders hunched, head hanging, legs bent awkwardly. His eyes are shut and his hands are handcuffed behind his back. Matted hair clings to his face, dark and wet, sticky with blood, and his nose is swollen. Broken.  So deep purple it’s almost black.

The chair looks too small for him, like it’s made for a child and he’s forced to sit in it. It would be funny, she thinks, it would be hilarious, if only it weren’t so fucking humiliating for a man like him.

Stupid monster, who believed he was cunning enough to play games.

“Kylo…” Her voice cracks. “…Kylo?”

He doesn’t seem to be conscious.

Two more men – Snoke’s bodyguards, she assumes – stand next to Phasma, close to her side. They sure do believe in the strength in numbers, cowards. One of them wears a dress shirt and a tie, Rey notes, like he was getting ready for a celebration when duty suddenly called.

“We have gathered here today to discuss an important life lesson,” the old man announces solemnly, both hands raised like he’s holding a sermon. “The value of gratefulness.”

He’s wrapped in a bathrobe of golden velvet, the house clothes for idle rich people who want to look important even when they do nothing. He looks timeworn, and prideful, and so certain he holds his thin finger on the pulse of the world.

She wants to spit in his face.

“Wake him up,” Snoke barks an order to Phasma. “I don’t want my words wasted.”

She yanks Kylo by the hair, shaking his head, and he twitches in pain. It takes him a moment to crack open his bruised eyes.

Rey tenses. “Kylo?”

He doesn’t answer, as if he’s not aware that she’s there. She feels Armitage pulling her closer.

“As I was saying, we’re here to discuss gratefulness,” Snoke continues. “Children. You have disappointed me gravely, you have. Both of you. Here I was, ever so generous, ready to offer you everything you’ve ever wanted – a life with a purpose for Ren, a life in the West for Rey – and what did you give me in return? Ingratitude, that’s what. Betrayal. A stab right into my poor old heart.”

He presses a skeletal palm to his chest.

“Please.”  Rey never begs, she doesn’t. She thinks she’ll choke on her own words. “Please. We… We don’t want anything. We won’t bother you, ever. Just… Just let us go. Leave us on our own. You’ll never hear from us again.”

“Oh, is that so?” The old man’s bushy eyebrows shoot upwards, as if he’s astonished by her proposal. “You’ll be happy with a quiet life, you say? Foolish child. But fine – I have told you once, it’s not up to me to be your judge. I wanted to give you more, I truly did, but it seems that a quiet life will have to suffice. I will let you go.”

She looks at Kylo, hoping to see a reaction on his battered face, but he doesn’t move. Is he drugged?

“You will…?”

“You, yes.” Snoke reveals his yellowed teeth. “But not him.”

It takes her a moment to understand what he said.

If it weren’t for Armitage, she thinks she’d throw herself at the old man to claw his eyes out with her bare hands.

“I gave you time, and you chose wrong.” Snoke bows his bald head as if he feels bad for her. “You could have been in Canada, child, living a happy life. Think of the opportunities that awaited you there, the goals you could have achieved. What a shame, all your potential gone to waste because you just couldn’t leave my foolish apprentice alone. Had to give him ideas. Made him conspire against me, thinking he could outwit me.”

He approaches Kylo and takes a strand of his long black hair, twirling it between his fingers almost affectionately.

“And now he has to pay the price.”

Rey feels she’s grinding her teeth. “You can’t do it.”

“I can’t?” Snoke savors the word, as if it’s the first time it rolls off his tongue. “I can’t, you say? Watch carefully, now. Watch and memorize every moment. And when it is done, I will let you go.”

He points toward the door, nodding to underline his promise.

She raises her chin. “I’ll destroy you.”

The old man gives a raspy laugh.

“Oh, you will, won’t you? What will you do? Report the crime to the police?”

Armitage tightens his grip around her waist, but if Rey were to fight, she’s sure she could fend him off. She searches Kylo’s face, desperate to see something, anything – a sliver of hope, of defiance, of merely acknowledging that she’s there for him. But his eyes are hazed.

“Go on, Phasma,” Snoke says. “It is time.”

Phasma approaches the chair, grabbing Kylo from behind and tilting his chin up. She bares his neck. Rey can imagine the woman being handy with a knife.

No, she thinks.

No.

This is not how their story should end.

But then Kylo smiles.

She hears a click, and something metallic drops to the glossy tiles. A pair of handcuffs, she sees.

Rey isn’t sure she quite believes her eyes.

Snoke takes a step back. His bodyguards stand awkwardly, as if they don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

In a split second, Armitage takes out his gun.

Rey gasps. He’ll shoot, right? Kylo is an easy target now. Or he’ll take her hostage? That would make sense. She thinks she can already feel the ice cold barrel pressed against her temple.

But instead, Armitage shoves her behind him, and throws the gun to Kylo.

What follows is mayhem, difficult to put into words.

Time slows down, and the air becomes too thick to breathe. She sees surprise dawning on Snoke’s face, blue eyes widening in horror. The old man makes a break for the stairs, tripping over the hem of his bathrobe, and his age shows in the way he runs. She sees Phasma bending her elbow, slamming the man nearest to her on the nape of his neck. He drops to his knees, flinching in pain. She sees Snoke’s bodyguards falling back in panic, fumbling, reaching to grab their weapons. They’re too slow – it’s no use, she can tell, and they know it too. She sees Kylo grinning, enjoying the weight of the gun in his palm, and as he unfolds to his full height, she sees the darkness gathering around him. He aims at the boy in the blue shirt.

Rey shuts her eyes, squeezing them so tightly her eyelids hurt.

A gunshot follows. It’s louder than she thought it would be. It deafens her ears and makes her choke on the acrid smell of gunpowder – and something else. Something human.

Glass shatters, and heavy items crash to the floor, and grown men scream. Another gunshot resonates. There are thuds, and clangs, and painful whimpers, and then a voice begs for mercy. She hears a crack – maybe it’s someone’s bones.

“Open your eyes, child bride,” Armitage whispers into her ear. “You caused this, you don’t get the easy way out. Watch.”

She peeks through her lashes.

The floor is covered with porcelain shards and red stains and crushed winter roses, petals scattered across the tiles. Her shoes are specked with blood. The bodyguards’ guns are far from reach, kicked away to the far end of the lobby. She sees empty bullet shells – they’re beautiful, round and gold, like a child’s treasure.

The man with the brown paper bag is lying near her feet, face frozen in shock and eyes wide open. His neck is bent at an odd angle, snapped spine tenting the skin. The boy in the blue shirt is smashed against the wall, his legs spread wide and his body twisted. A gunshot wound blossoms on his face, large and gaping, and the wallpaper behind him is sprayed red. His jeans are stained between his legs – he has pissed himself before dying. It stinks.

Phasma has locked the third man in a chokehold, her smile chilling as she presses onto his windpipe. His eyes are bugging out, but he doesn’t make a sound. Kylo is standing on the man with the tie, one booted foot on his wrist, other positioned right above the chest bone. He aims with the gun between the man’s eyes – his favorite mark, Rey knows. She sees the man’s fingers twitching, face blue in pain, feet jerking uncontrollably.

“Kylo…” Red tainted spit bubbles on his lips as he tries to speak. “Kylo, please, I…”

“Shut up.”

He pulls the trigger – the gunshot blast makes Rey flinch. Blood and skull pieces splash across the tiles, and then the jerking stops.

Still standing on the dead body, Kylo turns towards Phasma.

“Have fun, fucko,” she tells him as she releases the man and steps backwards.

The poor bastard tries to run to the door. It’s futile, Rey sees, stupid even, but she knows too well that people do stupid shit when they think they have no other choice. He makes only a few steps before Kylo slams the chair across his back. Wood breaks, bones break – it cracks like dry twigs, like snapping a writing pencil in two, and the man falls, screaming in pain. He tries to crawl, but Kylo steps on his spine, pressing with all his weight to make it hurt more. The man wails and Kylo grins, slowly revealing his crooked teeth. She’s never seen him smile like this before – feral and confident. Happy.

She hopes it’s a blackout, but she can tell he knows what he’s doing.

For a moment, she thinks Kylo will shoot, but he doesn’t. He grabs the man’s chin from behind and twists, neck popping loudly, and then he lets his head drop to the floor with a blunt thud.

Silence ensues.

Rey realizes she’s crying.

“The Professor’s upstairs,” Armitage indicates, dusting off his shoulder. “I think he’s trying to call for help. Poor man, he’s in for a surprise.”

Kylo nods slowly, reaching out with his gun-free hand to wipe the hair from his face. He touches the bridge of his nose, as if to check how badly broken it is, and frowns. Rey wonders if it hurts.

Then he cracks his neck, stretches his shoulders, examines his gun briefly while muttering something to himself, and starts walking toward the stairs, his gait as inelegant as always. 

“Kylo…?” Rey calls after him, her voice weak, but he doesn’t seem to hear.

Heavy footsteps echo in silence as he climbs to the second floor.

The door is locked, but he breaks it open with a kick to the doorknob.

They don’t see what’s happening upstairs, but they hear. Two shots, one after another – brisk, not as loud, not from Kylo’s gun. Then, the old man’s voice – he shouts at first, almost in control, but quickly his tone turns low, flat, devoid of theatric embellishments. He’s begging, Rey thinks. She can’t discern the words. Then, a loud slam – furniture breaks, a table perhaps, and there’s a crunching sound, and something thuds dully, like weight thrown against the wall.

And then Snoke screams.

Phasma raises her eyebrows curiously, and Armitage shakes his head, visibly disgusted.

It’s doesn’t last long. A thunderous gunshot terminates the old man’s cries, and then silence falls.

For what seems like eternity, nobody moves.

“Fuck my life,” Armitage declares finally. His throat bobs as he swallows. “What an ending.”

Phasma heaves a sigh of relief, her body slumping, and her quiet laugh doesn’t sound as manic.

The ruined door slams open again, and Kylo emerges on top of the stairway. He grins like a wolf, all teeth, and his eyes shine mad from the darkness of his blood-covered face. A fresh wound adorns the left side of his chin, as if a bullet has grazed him, but he doesn’t seem to care. He looks at Rey.

“It’s over, love,” he says, searching her eyes, and his smile turns a tad softer. “It’s done.”

With a slow movement, he tosses the old man’s body down the stairs.

Rey swallows a cry.

Snoke tumbles down, his golden bathrobe opening as he falls. The old man’s bony legs are fully revealed, underwear on display and wrinkled skin flashing pale white, and there is something both comical and obscene about the sight. He remains stuck midway, without reaching the floor. He’s shot through the eye, Rey notes – the back of his skull is missing.

Slowly, Kylo starts descending, his pace steady and his jaw set. He’s looking away from the old man’s body, stepping over it as if it’s trash.

But then, after only a few steps, his knees buckle. He’s barely standing, she sees.

“Rey…” Kylo calls her name as he begins to shake, gripping the hand rail.

She pulls back reflexively.

“Rey…?” he repeats, and in an instant the wolf in his eyes is gone. “Love?”

He rushes downwards, nearly stumbling over his own feet, and he struggles not to collapse as he jumps to the ground.

“Don’t look at me like that.” His voice trembles as he reaches out a bloodied hand toward her. “Don’t. Come to me, love. Please…”

Rey winces.

He stands before her splattered with dark red stains, his knuckles swollen from the fight and his gun hastily pushed into the belt of his jeans. She knows what he is. And yet he still looks vulnerable, and needy, and so lovesick it makes her head spin.

Damn you, Kylo.

She closes her eyes and lets herself fall into his embrace.

His kiss tastes like blood, like old copper coins and bitter salt, and he smells of smoke and gunpowder and raw meat. His forehead is burning hot. He’s bleeding on her – it’s the gash on his chin, she assumes. It’s wet and warm, soaking into her shirt, sticking to her skin. His hands shake as he tangles his fists into her hair, licking her neck, squeezing her so tightly she thinks she’ll choke.

“I love you,” he whispers as he leaves bite marks on her throat.

A heavy sob makes his whole body tremble, and she realizes – it’s not just blood on her clothes.

He’s crying.

“We’re free, Rey.” Kylo rubs the tip of his broken nose against her jaw. “You understand, my love? We’re free. We’re free.

 

Chapter Text

King Jeremy the Wicked

 

 

She feels sick in the car.

In the villa, strangely enough, she managed to keep it together – but now that they’re on the road, and the heating blows blazing hot, and the sweepers rhythmically clack, and the pine-scented air mixes with the smell of blood and cigars and Kylo’s sweat, she thinks she’ll vomit. Rey inhales deeply, swallowing a mouthful of thick saliva.

Perhaps Armitage does deserve to have his car ruined.

They’re sitting in the back, curled up on a thick blanket that Phasma has laid out so that the leather seats don’t get stained. The blanket’s texture is coarse, woolly – Rey is picking at it, rolling clumps of lint between her fingers. Kylo lies wrapped around her, breathing into her hair, pressing onto her ribs with all his weight. He’s heavy.

When she closes her eyes, she sees a puddle of blood spreading on black and white tiles, and crushed winter roses, and a blue shirt, and skinny, wrinkled legs sprawled across the stairway.

Kylo shifts, kissing the side of her neck with chapped lips. He’s quiet, sleepy almost, like a sated dog. Like he’s coming down after a bender.

Rey can’t stand the silence.

“What happened back there?”

Her own voice startles her – she sounds raspy and tired, and older in a way she didn’t expect.

To no one’s surprise, it’s Armitage who answers.

“You saw for yourself. A bloodbath.”

“I… I know,” she sighs. “I know. But… What happened?”

“That, I’m afraid, you’ll need to discuss with your monster. Once he’s done fucking you silly, of course. I have a sinking feeling he’s been sporting a boner throughout the entire evening.”

Kylo chuckles softly, squeezing her tighter. He’s not aroused, she doesn’t think so, but she still feels a gentle nibble on her throat, his hands slipping under her shirt.

She catches the reflection of Armitage’s face in the rearview mirror. There it is again, that slight frown, the feeling that she thought was anger but he called it disappointment.

“Armitage…?”

“Yes, my dear?”

“Why…” Rey falters. She isn’t quite sure what she wants to ask. “Why did you help us?”

It takes him a long moment to reply. When he finally does, his voice is colored with an odd touch of misery.

“I told you. I’m always on the winning side.”

Armitage takes them to Kylo’s apartment, parking in front of the building and sighing dramatically as he turns off the engine. Rey doesn’t know what she expected – that they’ll hide in a safe house, maybe, or see a doctor for Kylo’s broken nose and chin wound, or talk to a suited-up lawyer, or flee across the border with forged passports and hastily packed baggage – but certainly not this. She finds it surreal to casually return here after all that happened.

She feels like she doesn’t know anything anymore.

“I’ll call in the morning,” Armitage says as he’s getting ready to leave. “Rey, make sure he answers the phone. Have fun, lovebirds – you have a lot of catching up to do. Don’t mind me and my sleepless night of cleaning up your mess.”

Suddenly, it’s strange to be alone with Kylo again.

As they climb up the stairs, she notices that Kylo’s limping. How badly hurt is he, she wonders – worse than she has initially thought? Or, perhaps, this is just the side effect of the adrenaline rush after surviving mortal danger, and pulling off a batshit crazy plan, and killing five people in cold blood. One of whom, she remembers, was his mentor for years. Some of the others were probably his old war comrades.

And all for her.

Black and white tiles are still there when she closes her eyes, and scattered rose petals, and the blue of the shirt.

“Are you okay?” It’s a stupid thing to ask, but she doesn’t know what else to say.

“I will be, now.” He smiles as he unlocks the apartment, and it’s his dorky grin again, sincere and sweet – the one that no one but Rey gets to see. Warmth rushes to her face, and despite herself she feels she’s smiling back.

It’s so easy for him to make her heart race.

Kylo drops his jacket to the floor, and then proceeds to peel off the t-shirt drenched with blood. It sticks to his skin – he winces as he pulls it over his head, exposing bruised ribs. The stains are changing as they dry, Rey observes: they’re no longer red but brown, the dull color of mud and rotten fruit. It looks filthy in an ugly, uninspiring way. No wonder they never make it realistic in movies.

“Gotta wash,” he says. “Get this shit off my skin. And… I got you dirty too. Sorry.”

“Do you… Do you need stitches for that?” She reaches out to carefully touch the gash on his chin. It has stopped bleeding – there’s a scab congealing on his beard.

“Nah.” Kylo leans into her hand. “You won’t stop finding me attractive if I have another scar, will you, love?” 

“I won’t,” Rey sighs, and he smiles again and plants a quick kiss on the tip of her nose.

In the bathroom, she helps him undress. She unbuttons his jeans and slips the boxer briefs down his hips – he’s not hard, far from it, and she feels an odd surge of relief. She isn’t sure what she would do if he really wanted to go all the way now. She’d let him, probably.

“Who did this?” She carefully touches the dark purple marks blossoming on his ribcage. “Phasma?”

Kylo nods. “She did a great job. Made it seem like she was beating the living shit out of me, while still pulling her punches. Had to whack the nose, though. For the show.”

He steps into the bathtub, folding his long legs as he sits, and Rey turns on the shower. Warm water splashes down his back and Kylo lets out a soft hum. 

“Did you…” Rey moves the shower head to soak his hair. “Did you have to make it so, well… showy?”

He scowls, wincing as pain shoots up his broken nose. “Snoke deserved it. I wanted him to think he’d win. I wanted to see the look on his face when everything went to shit and he realized he ain’t in control.”

Steam rises from the bathtub. Kylo closes his eyes, letting the water glide down his face, parting his lips as he licks away the droplets. He moans when Rey starts soaping his shoulders, a low growl rumbling from the bottom of his chest. The sound is both indecent and desperately tired.  

“Sorry you had to watch,” he adds after a long pause.

Rey nods.

She discovers that it isn’t easy to wash away dried blood – it sticks to the flesh, peeling off too slowly, brown scraps coloring the water that pools in the bathtub. She grabs the sponge and starts rubbing his back, careful not to press too hard on his bruised ribs. Pale, mole-covered skin turns pink as she scrubs it clean.

“It was difficult,” Kylo suddenly says. “Doing it.”

Rey reaches for the shampoo bottle. “You mean, pulling off the plan?”

“No…” he whispers, his voice shaking slightly. “No, I mean doing it. Killing the old man.”

She says nothing as she lathers his hair, her fingertips gently massaging his scalp, prying out clots from matted strands.

It certainly didn’t look difficult.

“The Professor, Snoke… He did many bad things, I know. Many. Especially as of late.” He turns his head to catch her gaze. “He wanted to send you away from me. To hurt you. But… Fuck, Rey. He was the first person who didn’t turn his back on me. Who helped me understand myself. So… You get it, don’t you? It was difficult.”

Kylo blinks, wet eyelashes fluttering rapidly, as if he wants to keep the shampoo out of his eyes, as if he wants to bat away the tears. And then, after a heavy sigh, he growls again.

“He deserved it.”

Rey wonders how he felt after killing Han.

For a long moment, they don’t speak. The shower gurgles, the sponge scrunches as she squeezes it, and Kylo breathes too loudly, blood oozing from his nose, but they share no words. Finally, he reaches out and wraps his fingers around her wrist. Rey stops her movements.

“Come, love.” He smiles weakly. “Take your clothes off and come. You need to wash too.”

She hesitates, leaning on the edge of the bathtub. Her shirt is getting wet, she feels. Strange, they have showered together so many times, and yet now there’s something different about it. She can’t tell what it is.

“Come,” Kylo pleads.

Rey sighs, defeated, and playfully slaps his shoulder. “Up. You know we can’t fit together when you’re sitting.”

He grins, holding onto the handrail to stand up. And then Rey closes her eyes and allows him to pull her into his arms, and all she feels are his hands in her hair and his teeth on her throat, and the taste of soap in her mouth.

She relaxes under warm water when she realizes that he only wants to wash her.

An hour later, Rey is drying her hair on the couch in the living room.

She’s cold. She’s wearing sweatpants and the hairdryer blows hot air into her face, but her skin still prickles with goosebumps. Kylo is curled around her, his head in her lap. He yawns widely, lazily, not bothering to cover his mouth.

“Wanna go to bed?” he asks.

“I don’t think I can sleep.”

Rey looks at her watch – it’s almost four in the morning. She thought it was later – or maybe even earlier. It’s hard to tell the time.

She feels as if she’s lost the beginning of the night somewhere, and the morning will never come.

She places the hairdryer on the floor and lays her hand on Kylo’s cheek, carefully avoiding his new wound.

“Monster…” she finally begins, suddenly finding the nickname uncanny. “What happened back there?”

Her voice still sounds coarse, and tired, and too old for her age.

The silence is long before he answers. She notices the wall clock ticking, rhythmic raps clicking in the dark.

“I killed Snoke,” he says matter-of-factly.

Rey grits her teeth. “You know that’s not what I asked.”

She waits, holding his gaze.

If she’s patient, she hopes he’ll finally explain what the fuck she witnessed a few hours ago, why they’re not on the run. But Kylo just presses his lips together. It’s childish, she thinks – as if he believes that if he doesn’t speak about it, it didn’t happen.

Rey clears her throat before continuing.

“You, um, you killed an important man. A big player. Like, one of the best known regime’s… warlocks. And four of his goons.”

Four, they were four. The boy in blue, the man with the paper bag, the shirt-and-tie man who dressed up for his own death, and the poor bastard whose neck Kylo snapped at the very end. She still hears the sound.

“But then we waltzed out of the crime scene like it was nothing.” Rey exhales through her teeth. “And now we’re here – sitting in your fucking apartment, discussing when to go to bed. Goddammit, Kylo.” His head bounces in her lap as she fidgets. “You… You’re protected somehow, aren’t you? You had the green light to do what you did.”

He blinks slowly, confirming what she just said.

Shit.

A wave of shivers travels down her spine. She wants to pull him up, to make him face her properly, but she’s afraid that if she pushes him, his wounds will hurt.

“At first I thought that Armitage helped you because now he’ll take over the First Order, but he… He was against this, he told me so. And he doesn’t look like someone who just won the game – he’s miserable, even if he did play for the winning side. So how the fuck did you get him to cooperate?” Rey swallows the lump in her parched throat. “Who has your back?”

Kylo shrugs, still not speaking. She feels the pressure of his weight on her thighs – he’ll crush her. She’s trapped.

The wall clock ticks.

“Talk to me, Kylo.” She caresses his face, tracing his mouth with the tip of her finger. “What did you do?”

He sighs and finally sits up, leaning away from her, slumping onto the cushions on the opposite side.

Rey feels like she can breathe again.

“I…” There’s a new kind of anxiety in his voice, and it terrifies her. “I made a deal.”

She takes a lungful of air, sitting tightly on her half of the couch. Their bodies don’t touch.

“What kind of a deal?”

There’s a long pause before he opens his mouth to speak. “With the regime.”

“With the regime?” Rey repeats.

She feels stupid, but the only way to process his words is to say them aloud. Kylo nods, the movement of his head deliberate.

This is crazy. Snoke was the regime’s favorite.

She must have misunderstood.

“How? You’re not making sense.”

Kylo pulls back, sinking into the shadows.

“I’m not?” He cocks his head curiously. “What do you think, love, who’s more valuable to the regime – an old man hungry for money and power, or me, who’s willing to fight in war?”

Rey blinks.

What war?

The war ended over a year ago.

“There is no war, Kylo,” she says very slowly.

But then he smiles, and she knows.

She knows.

Life slips through her fingers. She almost feels it physically.

“While you were busy with the local elections and marching and all that human rights bullshit, reality happened behind your back.” Kylo’s expression is strange – part triumphant and part sad. “I told you the protests were irrelevant. A waste of time.”

Rey licks her dry lips. “What war?” She hears herself through a filter, like it’s someone else who’s speaking.  “Where?”

“Nowhere yet, but soon,” he answers too calmly. “The province. Down south.”

Bloody hell.

The southern province has always been the soft underbelly of their country.

Rey knows that – it’s an often repeated fact. On one hand, the place is sacred: the cradle of their national identity, the blood and soil, the holy land where the first Christian kings had built their monasteries, one more spectacular than the other, to buy off their souls for the afterlife. It’s on the cover of every history book since Rey has started going to school. But on the other hand, the south is a black hole – the moonscape of poverty and barren dirt, long abandoned by anyone who’d ever wanted to accomplish something with their lives. Moving into the deserted lands, the neighboring ethnic minority has gradually become the majority population there – speaking their own language, bringing their own customs, spreading their beliefs and playing their own games.

Rumor has it they actually wish to establish a state for themselves there, but none of Rey’s friends take it seriously. The southern province is simply a known powder keg, impoverished and underdeveloped, prone to unrests every once in a while – the place that everybody knows to show on the map, but no one wants to go there.    

Isn’t it?

“The separatists were piling up weapons for a while,” Kylo explains. “Years, probably. Decades. They’re using this… this mess now, with all the former republics splitting from the old country, to try for independence. But we can’t have that. This isn’t a former republic – it’s a province. Our ancestral land. The cornerstone of our history. They want something that ain’t theirs.”

His voice gets progressively stronger as he speaks, and he shakes his head vigorously, as if he personally won’t allow such insolence. Strands of hair fall onto his swollen nose.

“The regime needs someone with a firm hand to go down south and put some order there. They need me.”

He pauses, waiting for Rey to acknowledge what he said, but she doesn’t.

“That was the deal,” Kylo concludes, his tone wavering slightly. “So I could do what I did tonight.”

Rey won’t close her eyes. Winter roses and blood splattered tiles are waiting for her in the darkness.

She counts.

One, two, three, four, five… Ten, eleven, twelve… Eighteen, nineteen...

Twenty.

Tick-tock, the wall clock clicks.

“You’ll go south?”

He nods. “Soon. But don’t worry, love, they’ll let me come home. I’ll have regular leave. Hell, I’ll probably spend half of the time here with you. And you can live in the apartment while I’m away.”

She wants to think that he was forced.

Gambled with the only thing he had and played a bad game. Got tricked into a deal he couldn’t avoid.

“You don’t have to do this, Kylo. We can still flee.” She points at the phone, almost jumps from the couch to fetch it. “Call Armitage. I’m sure he ain’t eager to go to another war. Maybe he’ll help us get across the border. We’ll think of something to offer him.”

But Kylo remains still.

“You don’t understand, do you, Rey? My country needs me.”

Fuck.

And to think that for a moment she was hopeful.

“You… you want this?”

“It’s not about wanting.” His upper lip twitches, tugging up to reveal his fangs. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

Seeing him snarl brings back images.

A body trembling under steel-toe boots, a voice begging for mercy, stripes of red saliva dripping down from thin lips. A wound splitting open a pimpled face, crumbled skull shards in pools of blood. Kylo’s wolfish grin, savage and happy, and the golden bathrobe flying open as the old man’s bone-thin body falls down the stairs.

“No.” Rey’s entire body quivers as she shakes her head. “No, no, you can’t do that. Don’t do that.”

“This is not a choice, my love.” He shrugs like he apologizes. “I have to. It’s my duty.”

She imagines him covered in brown grime that may be dried blood or trench mud, sharp teeth flashing from the shadows of his dark hair. He pulls the trigger confidently, with no second thoughts, and people who are not Snoke’s goons fall dead beneath his feet.

Villagers. Shitting themselves as they die.

“You… You’re going to kill civilians again.”

Kylo rolls his eyes. “I told you once, there are no…”

“…civilians in a civil war, yes. But it’s… It’s wrong, Kylo!” Rey starts shouting, her voice shrill in the dark room. “It’s all shades of wrong! Do you realize how insane it sounds?”

He pulls back, offended. A frown creases his forehead – it looks painful on his bruised face.

“What, you think I’ll go there and randomly slaughter women and children on a whim? The fuck you take me for?” He waves his hand sharply. “It’s not like that, love. These people are separatists. Terrorists. Do you even understand what the word means? Do you think there’s another way to deal with them?”

Rey gasps – he isn’t even trying to deny it.

“You’ll kill people. I… I can’t even… Fuck, Kylo. Don’t do it.”

He begins to shake.

She hasn’t seen him tremble in a while – unless it’s the shudders of pleasure when he’s inside her. His lips quiver, and his fingers twitch, and the tic under his eye pulses wildly. He sizzles, like a crackling livewire, like fireworks ready to rip apart the skies.

Like something about to explode.

“You have no right to say this to me!” His voice is a low hiss. “I’ve never once asked you to stop doing what you believed in, Rey! I was happy that it made you happy, no matter how stupid it was – be it spending time with the traitor, or protesting, or seeing my mother…”

For a moment, Rey thinks she hasn’t heard him right.

“Your… Your what?” she interrupts.

His shoulders slouch. Even with all the scowling and the ruggedness, he suddenly looks like a boy. 

“My mother,” Kylo repeats. “Leia.”

There’s a glint of misery in his eyes, and she knows he regrets what he just said.

“Leia Organa is your mother?”

She can’t wrap her mind around his words.

It’s simply too much. Too many coincidences. Things like this don’t happen to normal people in real life.

She remembers noticing the fire in the General’s eyes the first time she met her, how the passion and the intensity seemed strangely familiar, and she couldn’t pinpoint why.

Shit.

It takes an effort to breathe.

“I told you, love, we’re destined by fate.” Kylo’s tone softens and he reaches out to take her hand, but she pulls it back. “I’m yours and you’re mine. Don’t you see? Everything that happens in your life is connected to me in some way. It’s there to bring you closer to me.”

He holds her gaze, his breath hitching and his eyes ablaze with longing and pain, and she feels it, she feels the pull – the need to touch him is so strong that resisting it makes her sick to her stomach. Damn him, and damn the blood on his hands, and damn his family secrets – he’s offering her the absolute belonging she’s been dreaming of ever since she was a little girl in the Home, crying herself to sleep and spinning fantasies to survive. They’re wrecked, both of them, but their broken pieces fit together into a new whole, and she feels complete only when she’s in his arms.  

Is it really fate?

She almost, almost leans forward to take his hand. 

But then Kylo makes a mistake.

“Can we stop arguing now and go to bed?” he says. “Please. It’s late. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Rey freezes.

No.

He can’t act like this is just a spat.

They won’t sleep it off. This is not something that can be easily dismissed. It will still be there tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that, like a rift between them, like a pit of darkness swallowing her alive, like the image of blood on glossy tiles she sees whenever she closes her eyes.

Some things are black and white.

“Kylo, this… This thing you’re about to do, I…  I can’t accept it. I can’t.”

It’s only when she says the words out loud that she realizes what they mean.

“I can’t,” she repeats. “I can’t live with it.”

Kylo watches her from the shadows, quiet. His jaw clenches and unclenches.

The wall clock ticks – it sounds like a countdown.

“What are you saying?”

He holds back, frighteningly patient, as if he wants to give her time to change her mind.

Rey doesn’t answer.

That’s when he understands.

“You can’t do this, love.” His eyes harden, the pain in them mixing with bone-chilling fury. “You can’t leave me twice!”

The last word lands like a blow. Rey flinches, wrapping her arms around herself.

“You’ll kill people,” she whimpers.

His nostrils flare and his throat bobs as he swallows – she can tell it takes him every effort to stay in control.

“You… You knew who I was.”

He extends his hand toward her again, but quickly lets it drop, as if he remembers she doesn’t want his touch.

“You knew what I did. You knew. And still, you said you wanted me. You promised you’d be my family. You said you loved me, Rey. You did! No one has told me that before, not like that. You’re my first love – and my last. My only. Do you understand what I did to stay with you? Do you realize this is all for you? Do you?”

His voice shakes, shouting too loud in the night.

“You cannot leave!”

It hurts to hurt him.

She doesn’t want to do this, she doesn’t, she swears on her mother’s grave that she doesn’t – but she can’t follow him down this path.

“You’ll kill people,” Rey spits through clenched teeth, “and you see nothing wrong with that!”

He stares at her, eyes wide, vulnerable, but without a trace of remorse. Tears are gliding down her cheeks, she feels.

“Goddammit, Kylo. You are a fucking monster!”

She sees the exact moment when he snaps.

His muscles tense and he leaps. He won’t hurt her, Rey wants to believe. He’d never hurt her, not her, he’d never do it, but he’s quick and big, so fucking big, like a whirlwind of darkness and rage, and the look in his eyes is blank, as if he’s not truly there.

She bends down, covering her head with her hands.

She hopes it will be quick.

But instead, Kylo jumps away to the other end of the room, far from the couch.

His back hits the wall.

“Out,” he hisses.

Rey peeks through her fingers.

He’s like a cornered beast: eyes narrowed, mouth in a snarl, glaring at her like she terrifies him. He’s a monster, she sees it clearly, he is, he takes lives without blinking – but he’d never hurt her.

The look of betrayal on his face makes her heart break.

“Get out!”

Rey winces, too dumbstruck to move. Tears flow down her neck, salt drying on her cheeks. It’s a struggle to draw in air.

Kylo makes a step forward.

He grabs the VCR from the table, ripping cables from the wall sockets, and smashes it against the floor with a thunderous bang.

“Get the fuck out of my life!”

Rey’s body reacts before her mind.

She jumps from the couch, stumbling, her knees giving out as she tries to keep her balance. She rushes to the door. It’s at the other end of the room, only a few feet away, but the distance is hard to cross – like in a nightmare when she has to run for her life, yet every step she makes brings her closer to the monster.

She hears him crying behind her back.

She grabs her shoes, and snatches her coat from the hanger, and she lingers for a moment too long before pressing the doorknob, waiting for god knows what.

Kylo doesn’t chase after her. 

When she closes the door behind her, Rey screams.

Ugly sobs shake her body, choking her as she breathes, and she leans against the wall in the cold hallway – she’ll wake up the neighbors, but she doesn’t give a shit. Let them suffer.

Kylo can hear her too. Rey knows he’s falling apart in there, the sick fuck. He’s in pain, alone in the dark. She imagines him on his knees, clenching his jaw, whispering her name through tears. And when he’s done crying, he’ll demolish the apartment – all those pretty things he bought for her will end up crashed to bits. He needs to vent.

It had to go this way, Rey tells herself. It had to.

Still, if he were to open the door now, she thinks, if he were to spread his arms to invite her into the warmth of his embrace, she isn’t sure what she’d do.

She’s grateful that he doesn’t.

Rey shambles down the stairs, holding onto the handrail, and exits the building.

A gust of cold winter wind blows into her face, ruffling her hair. Tears almost freeze on her cheeks. It feels strangely good – it numbs her mind.

She hails a cab, digging out some money from the pockets of her coat. The driver gives her a long look and wrinkles his nose in concern.

“Rough night?”

“None of your fucking business.”

If he asks a single question more, she thinks she’ll claw his eyes out, but the man fortunately doesn’t, letting her cry in silence. She tells him to keep the change when he leaves her in front of the school dorms.

It’s almost morning – the sky lightens to a murky steel blue, feeling like a cage above her head. The pathway to the door is frozen. She wobbles on the ice, the soles of her shoes gliding, and for a brief moment she wishes to let it all go and fall, crash down with all her weight, break something. Make the hurt tangible. She quickly chases away the thought – it’s not in her nature. That’s something Kylo would do.

Rey stops, hesitating to make the final few steps.

He won’t do something stupid to himself, will he?

He won’t, she concludes. His country needs him. If the mighty Kylo Ren loses his wits over a broken heart, there’ll be no one to kill terrorists and burn villages down south, claiming it’s for a greater good.

The night guard lets her in without a word, but his heavy sigh tells her he isn’t surprised.

She’ll wake up Rose, she thinks. She has no idea what she’ll tell her. Not that it matters – nothing matters anymore.

But when Rey enters her dorm room, there’s nobody there.

She slumps on the bed, her coat and shoes still on, and for what seems like hours she stares at the water stains on the ceiling, looking for patterns and shapes, feeling the pillow under her head get soaked with tears.

Rey jerks up when Rose noisily opens the door.

She isn’t sure if she was sleeping. Her eyes are crusty and dry, her lips chapped, and her nose so clogged she can barely breathe. It’s bright outside, an oddly sunny day, but she has no clue what time it is.

“Rey…? You’re here?” Rose takes off her fogged up glasses, mouth open in surprise. “You look like shit. Is everything alright?”

“Where were you?”

Rey’s voice croaks. She shivers – she knows this voice, she remembers it well. This is what her mother sounds like in her dreams. 

“Out with Paige.” Rose cautiously approaches the bed, glancing at Rey’s shoes. “You sure you’re okay?”

Rey props up on her elbows. “Why were you out with Paige until morning?”

“You… You don’t know?” Rose sits on the edge of the bed and wipes her glasses with the hem of her shirt. “You didn’t watch the news last night?”

Rey chuckles – as if she gives a fuck about the news. She must have made an odd expression, for Rose frowns, taken aback.

“The president gave a speech,” she explains slowly, pushing the glasses back on her nose.

Ah. So it happened.

It’s sooner than Rey thought.

“When…” She clears her throat. “When does the war start?”

Rose’s eyebrows shoot upward in almost comical disbelief.

“War? What war? Rey, are you on drugs?”

Rey can’t help it – she bursts into a hiccupped, uncanny laughter that only deepens the crease between Rose’s brows.

“I’m in a bad mood, nothing more. If I were doing drugs, I wouldn’t be all miserable here,” she sighs, licking her lips. Her mouth tastes like ash. “So tell me, Rosie. What is it?”

Pushing aside her confusion, Rose finally beams and leans forward to touch Rey’s hand.

“The president announced that he’d accept the election results.” Her smile widens. “It’s over. We… We won, Rey.”

With a loud giggle, Rose stands up from the bed and draws open the curtains, letting the sun shine through their newspaper-filled window.

“Can you believe it? We won.”

 

*

 

Two days later, the night guard brings Rey her suitcase.

Along with her clothes, she finds a few unexpected items carefully packed inside: the CDs of Bauhaus and Killing Joke and the Cure, the book of French poetry, the superhero graphic novel that she enjoyed discussing so much, and one leaf-shaped silver spoon with holes – it clangs loudly as it drops to the floor, falling out of the pocket of her favorite jeans.

She knows that this time everything else went to trash.

Rey cries under the shower until her fingers prune up, and the water runs cold, and the girl waiting behind her in line threatens she’ll call the management. And then she stashes the items away into the same box in which she keeps the Sisters of Mercy album, the broken mixtape and the angel pendant, shoves the box under her bed, and tries to forget that it has ever existed.

It doesn’t work like that, but she tries.

The celebration of victory is grandiose.

Concerts are organized in the seven cities liberated from the regime. People cheer, and rock bands play, and politicians give speeches about justice and perseverance and democracy, calling these elections a historical turning point – the proof that one day the country will become part of the united Europe. Pinwheels pop as they sparkle, and fireworks explode coloring the sky in gold and red, and confetti rains down like a shower of glitter, shimmering like stardust. Everybody around Rey laughs, triumphant, disgustingly joyful, dancing in slow motion and shaking the glitter off their hair – but Rey realizes that fireworks remind her of one thing only, and she watches the celebration from the sidelines.

The mood is odd at the Faculty of Philosophy – it feels like waking up after a long dream. The student strike was ongoing for weeks – for three fucking months – and now, the protesters are supposed to tidy up, pack up the banners and the posters, wipe away the graffiti and go home, only to return once the classes begin, when actual lectures will replace the political speeches in the amphitheater. “We won,” Rey hears them say in the corridors, patting each other on the back, as if they need a reminder that it is time to return to normal life. “We won,” they repeat like a mantra, like a spell to be cast to make sure that what happened stays real. “We fucking won.”

There’s never been a victory more important since the end of World War Two, some of them claim – a pretty idea, Rey thinks, if only it were true.

The picture of Poe Dameron appears on the cover of the nation’s biggest opposition magazine. The article calls him the country’s future, the best and the brightest of a new generation of leaders. Rey reads the interview and laughs out loud – it’s easy to see when Poe is being honest, and when he’s reciting frilly lines he’s learned by heart just to make an impression. Still, he looks good in the picture – solemn, handsome, inspiring – and at the end of the day, she guesses that’s what counts.

In early February, on the very last day of the protests before the Faculty closes down to prepare for normalcy again, Rey bumps into the General.

She looks at the woman, really looks at her, and a lump clenches her throat. Leia Organa radiates strength and hope, but suddenly Rey finds it unwelcome.

She’s so tiny, Rey observes. So unlike him.

“Getting ready for school, Rey?” the General asks. Her hair is braided tightly again – all regal, like a crown around her head. It’s difficult to imagine her young, with hippy hairstyles and flowy white dresses.

Rey nods. “We start on Monday. That strike is over as well.”

“Hooray for normal life,” Leia scoffs. “Don’t be fooled, however. The politicians are all self-important now, but these local elections, this is but a small victory. A step on the way. We won’t be truly free as long as these fuckers from the regime still hold the power.”

Rey notices she’s keeping a safe distance from the General – if she gets too close, she feels like she’ll catch fire.

“So…” she begins, even though she has no idea what she’s aiming at. “So, I, um… I hear you have a son?”

Leia Organa tilts her head and narrows her eyes suspiciously, a slight pout curling her full lips. In that moment, the resemblance is so obvious that Rey thinks she’ll scream.

“I had a son,” the General corrects her, as blessedly unsentimental as always. “He died.”

Rey isn’t sure if she admires the woman, or envies her, or hates her like she’s never hated anyone in her life.

The General walks away with a confident smirk, waving at students and snapping instructions for the right way to fold the banners. Rey waits to see if she’ll slow down, look back perhaps, but she doesn’t.

Well, then.

Time heals all, Rey tells herself. It should become easier as days go by. Maybe, one day, she’ll also turn into that.

Only it doesn’t stop.

Every morning, she still wakes up sick.

She wants to cut it out of her body, to cauterize the wound with a flaming sword and leave behind nothing but scorched earth – but it doesn’t work that way.

You can’t switch off a button and make it disappear. It stays – love and lust and yearning, and fucking plans for the future, and the way someone smiles in the morning, sleepy and boyish, and how his hair smells, curling when it grows too long, and how his skin is warm and his ears are floppy and his lips are soft, and how his muscles tense under your nails when you sloppily make love before breakfast.

It stays.

She begins dreaming of the Fortress again.

When she wakes up, she’s haunted by a fear that he’ll drink himself to death, and it’ll be her fault, and then she cries until there’s no tears left, feeling stupid and angry for worrying.

He doesn’t deserve it.

Rey wonders if he’s stalking her again, if there’s someone who follows her footsteps and records her every move. She doesn’t think so, not this time. There was something final in his last words, like he really wanted to cut ties. Like she’s dead to him now.

It’s better like that, she knows.

Once, Rey sees a matte black car near the Faculty, driving suspiciously close to the pub that she frequents with her friends. She runs out to the street, almost shouting Armitage’s name, but then the traffic light turns to green and the car drives away. For a long moment, Rey stands in front of the pub, dumbstruck, her coat still inside, and it’s only when Rose comes out to see what’s wrong that she snaps back to reality.

Rose is a good friend, bless her, even if a bit exasperating at times. And Finn is her brother, the only one she’ll ever have. But Rey doesn’t feel comfortable with either of them lately – they read her too well, and she’s not ready to answer their questions.

So she spends her time at Poe Dameron’s place.

Poe lets her sit on his couch, and fill his fridge with junk food, and surf the channels of his TV, not complaining even when she watches soap operas in Spanish. He sees that something’s amiss, he’s not a fool, but he doesn’t ask what – and that’s all that Rey needs at the moment.

What she likes the most, however, is when Amilyn is there.

Amilyn smells like cinnamon and sunflowers, and has a quirky sense of humor that Rey doesn’t always understand, and dresses nicely even when they don’t do anything but sit on the couch all evening, and carries a strange sadness deep within her, behind the rose gold shimmer of her pearly eyeshadow. Rey didn’t notice it at first, when she was Professor Holdo who ruled the rebel headquarters with an iron fist, but now she sees it clearly. She feels drawn to it. It’s an odd brand of sadness – nothing crippling or destructive, just a constant melancholy simmering in the background, like a lifelong companion without whom Amilyn can no longer do. There’s longing for youth in this sadness, Rey thinks, and a quiet disappointment that life didn’t turn out how it was supposed to be – but there’s also resilience and strength and stability, of all things.

Amilyn teaches Rey to do her makeup, and gives her rings and bangles she claims she no longer wears, and treats her like an adult when they talk. She never says anything about Poe, and Rey doesn’t ask, but there are days when she does share her feelings. Lately, she says, she has this impulse to do something really crazy, really inappropriate – something that everyone will see, that cannot be kept secret or covered up by lies. Like dye her hair purple.

“So tell me,” Amilyn begins one evening when Poe isn’t sitting with them in the living room, too busy typing an article for the student newspapers on his recently purchased computer. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” Rey replies promptly.

Amilyn raises an eyebrow and swirls the wine in her tall crystal glass. “Best conversations always begin with a juicy ‘nothing’.”

Rey digs her nails into the soft fabric of the couch. Behind her, she hears the soft clicking of the keyboard and Poe murmuring to himself as he types.

“I, um…” She can’t believe what she’s about to say. “I loved someone. And he… He loved me.”

It doesn’t feel right.

“Okay, scratch that. Present tense: I love someone, and he loves me. But… He’s fucked up. Like, seriously fucked up. And he’s doing horrible things.”

Amilyn takes a sip of wine and patiently waits for Rey to continue. The glass looks so elegant in her perfectly manicured hand.

“I thought that… I thought my love would help him change. Get a grip on himself. I thought I could save him. I… I honestly believed that what we had was strong enough to make him live normally. Find redemption and all. But…” She swallows. She won’t cry, not in front of Amilyn. “But it all came crashing down.”

Amilyn sighs and places a hand on Rey’s shoulder, her bracelets clanging.   

“Rey, honey, you’re young. You’ll learn – life’s a bitch.” Loose curls bounce around her face as she nods to emphasize her words. “Tropes are for fiction. Love fixes problems only in romance novels. Redemption doesn’t come overnight. You can’t change a man just by loving him, and you certainly can’t save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved.”

She smiles, and the sorrow she carries in her soul flickers brightly in her blue eyes – the grief for Rey, for herself, for the world in which love doesn’t get to win.

“It doesn’t make it hurt any less, I know.” She gives Rey’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “But in real life, love simply isn’t enough.”

Rey leans into Amilyn’s touch, bowing her head, inhaling the smell of cinnamon and sunflowers that she will forever associate with sadness.

In early April, a few days before her eighteenth birthday, Rey goes for a walk with Finn.

It rains, but it’s a warm spring drizzle – the kind that makes the grass grow, giving it an impossibly intense shade of green. She smiles: the color is perfect, just like in children’s drawings.

“Do you feel stupid?” Finn suddenly asks.

Rey sneers, giving him the side-eye. “All the time, Finn.”

He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and flicks open the lighter with a loud click. Rey scrunches her nose in disapproval, but Finn ignores it.

“You know what I’m asking,” he says, deeply inhaling the smoke.

She waits for a moment before answering.

“You want me to admit you were right. I won’t. You weren’t right.”

Finn laughs, raising his palms in disbelief while the cigarette hangs from his lips.

“Sister, you guys protested every goddamn day for three months, be it snow or rain. You didn’t give up until you finally had it your way. And then these assholes fuck it all up in… how much time was it, again? Four weeks?” He blows out an impeccably round smoke ring, just like Maz used to do. “I’d feel stupid if I were you.”

Rey scoffs. He does have a point, she knows.

As early as in March, the coalition of opposition parties that had won the local elections fell apart spectacularly. The politicians started squabbling over the spoils of war – titles and trophies, board memberships, management positions in city-owned companies, well paid jobs that were just perfect for someone’s daughter or nephew or neighbor or old friend from school. Soon enough, the parties started playing games, voting against each other in the city council, obstructing the parliamentary work. It became a sad, embarrassing parade of backstabbing and sabotage, in which the only real winner was the regime.  

“Still,” Rey grumbles. “It proved that changes are possible if we fight for them.”

“Peanut, please.” Finn rolls his eyes. “The sun will rise in the west and rivers will flow backward and skies will turn green before any actual changes can happen in this country. But enough with the politics. What do you wanna do for your birthday?”

Rey shrugs. She’s silent for a long while, enjoying the April breeze in her hair, the smell of rain-drenched grass everywhere around her.

“I dunno. I’m not sure that I care.”

“Of course you do.” Finn pulls her into a half-hug. “You’ll finally be legal!”

Rey chuckles unexcitedly. “Hooray.”

She leans into Finn’s hug as they walk, nodding her head absently while he goes on about the plans for the party.

Despite the rain, it’s a lovely spring day. A flock of seagulls screeches above their heads. A boy plays with a dog on the meadow next to the path – the boy’s jeans are stained with green on the knees, and the dog is completely wet from rolling in the grass, but neither seem to care. An elderly couple passes them by – grey-haired, hunched, walking with canes to support their wobbly knees, but still holding hands. She wonders how many decades they’ve spent together. There’s a faint scent of gardenias, coming from the flower beds nearby.

Everything is so calm.

Rey closes her eyes, waiting for another war to begin.

 

 

END OF PART TWO

 

Chapter Text

PART THREE:

F I R S T   A N D   L A S T   A N D   A L W A Y S

 

 

All Your City Lies in Dust

 

 

 

The Capital, April 1999

 

 

“Again?” DJ asks, his voice crackling over the phone. The lines are horrible these days. “That’s like the third time?”

Strange, whenever the conversation concerns the prospect of spending money, he doesn’t stutter.

“It’s the third time, yes.” Rey nods into the receiver, staring at the glass shards scattered across the floor. With the way they catch the reflection of the orange sky, it feels like her living room is on fire. “In less than two weeks.”

A pause, as if he isn’t certain how to respond. She hears him chewing on his mouth, his curses too quiet to discern what he says. She could have waited until the morning to call him, Rey thinks. Then again, it’s not as if she woke him up.

No one is asleep. Not now.

“W-w-what do you want me to d-do?” He sounds annoyed. “I c-can have the panes replaced t-tomorrow, but it’s a matter of time before they get blown to b-b-bits again. These f-fuckers won’t stop any time soon.”

They won’t, Rey agrees, but she doesn’t comment.

“You’re the landlord,” she says too calmly. “I’m paying you the rent. You should do something about the goddamn windows.”

DJ huffs through his teeth. 

“The only way to do something about the goddamn windows is to bring down the goddamn planes!” he yells without stuttering once. “And that ain’t g-gonna happen, is it? So, you can either p-pack your things and stay with friends until the shitstorm’s over, or you c-can get used to living without windows!”

Rey clenches her jaw. At Finn’s place, it’s even worse. His house is near the military airport, a primary target – the panes are long broken there, with plywood sheets nailed to the window frames and plaster falling from the ceiling each time the ground shakes. When they spoke earlier that evening, he said he’d noticed cracks in the walls, and she barely heard his voice over the blasts in the background. She could stay with Poe, she knows she’s always welcome there, but with Amilyn and him arguing about everything lately, his place feels like a warzone. And on the very day this mess had begun, Paige put Rose on a bus to their hometown, protecting her little sister from the danger and the stress.

Rey can’t think of anyone else she could impose on.

“I’ve nowhere to go,” she says, twisting the phone cord.

“T-t-tough luck.” DJ chuckles into the receiver. “I’ll drop by tomorrow, see what we c-can do about them windows. B-b-but I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you. Instead, I’d be grateful the weather’s nice.”

Rey slams down the phone and curses quietly, a flood of creative profanities rolling off her tongue.

She met DJ a year ago when she responded to his rental ad, after deciding she no longer wanted to live in the student dorm with its curfews and squeaky bunk beds and roommates she could not choose. From the first moment, she knew the man was a scoundrel. His speech impediment, laidback charm and hobo fashion were carefully cultivated to make him come across as harmless. He’d be a bad landlord, she could tell – eager to collect the rent, but never there to help with the maintenance.

The problem was that she really liked the apartment. 

It was small and rundown, located on the fifth floor in a building with no elevator, with hallways reeking of cat piss and walls covered by graffiti – names and hooligan slogans and song lyrics mostly, though one did stand out, reading “God, please let me be normal for a day. The neighborhood was humble, blue-collar, close to the railway station, and greyish in tone as if the sun never truly shone there. Its shops were cheap, its bars shady, its streets crowded by people who were only passing by, perpetually looking tired. Yet it was in the city center, a few bus stops away from the main square. From the balcony, Rey could see the round rooftops of the capital’s fair, and the skyscrapers of the financial district in the distance, across the rails, on the other side of the river.

She liked the imperfections – it made the place seem real, like something that could actually become her home. Most importantly, the rent was affordable. She could cover it every month, combining her student allowance with the salary from her part time job at the copy store. 

That’s how she found herself here.

A year ago, when she signed the rental agreement, Rey didn’t know what living here would mean one day – but now she does.

It feels like a bad joke.

She’s in the fucking middle. A few blocks from her apartment, up the street and to the right, there’s the Government building, as pretty as a postcard with its dome roof and stained glass windows. Next to it are the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces General Staff, its extravagant palace of red stone one of the capital’s landmarks. The Ministry of Interior is on the left, down the block and across the park – a huge building, dark and monumental, worthy of housing the striking fist of the regime. On the other side of the street, there’s the Police Administration, with paddy wagons and armed cars stationed in front. 

Targets. All of them, targets.

Bombed day after day after day.

And there’s more, Rey thinks.

The fair and the railway station and the financial district are all walking distance from her home – she fucking sees them from the balcony. But they’re not priorities, or so she’s told: rest assured Rey, all is fine, those are civilian buildings, they’re not on the to-bomb list. Not yet, at least. Maybe later, if the bombing drags on for too long, and they run out of priority targets.

She thinks she hears the buzzing of airplanes, a mechanical hiss swishing above her head, but perhaps she’s imagining it – these super-stealthy NATO bombers are supposed to be undetectable. The explosion that follows is loud and clear, however. The ground shakes, and the glass shards jingle on the floor, and the window frames tremble, but there are no panes left to shatter.

Rey laughs. At first, each blast would make her fall, but now she’s used to it. She’s learned to walk like a drunken seaman, always keeping her balance.

Smoke rises, thick and black. Its smell is sharp, acrid, like burnt plastic and molten metal and coal dust. It stings her lungs and makes her eyes water. She breathes through her mouth. Outside, the sky is crimson – fire climbs up to the clouds, flames illuminating the night, and everything burns, crumbling down in ashes.

It’s just another Tuesday.

Rey kneels to the floor and starts picking up the glass shards, waiting for the flat sound of the all-clear signal.

 

*

 

It began on March 24th – a lovely spring day. The weather was warm enough to go outside without a coat, a welcome change after a long, stifling winter. Plum trees were in bloom, fluffy specks of white in the city’s parks, and the air smelled of pollen, and sunshine, and fresh grass. Not that any of that would matter soon enough. At 7 PM sharp, every TV channel in the country interrupted its regular programming and started broadcasting the government’s news. A thin man in a grey-brown suit – not one of the regime’s favorite anchors, surprisingly – stood in front of a digitally rendered national flag and announced, his voice lilting as if reciting poetry, that the country was at war.

Except that he didn’t say it like that. Not in those words.

Their country was the victim of an aggression, the thin man explained, a cowardly display of violence committed by the devious NATO forces. The North Atlantic Alliance finally revealed its criminal nature by attacking a sovereign nation without the approval of the UN Security Council. It was the death of the international law, the man lamented, the birth of a new world order, the beginning of a long night that would cast its shadow in the years to come, in which the strong and the mighty would always find excuses to trample upon the just and the weak, if it suited their interests.

It sounded fucking insane.

Rey had a satellite dish on the balcony of her apartment – a banged up old thing covered in bird shit and rotten leaves. She didn’t watch the foreign programs often since the image was blurry, lines crossing the screen, but now she was grateful that she could receive CNN in any form. When she switched it on, a group of experts were gathered in the studio. All men, Rey observed, serious and solemn, with double breasted jackets and narrow ties and glasses in golden frames. They nodded their heads, speaking about the southern province, underlying how the regime overused the force there – ethnic cleansing, as they called it – and then they applauded the initiative for a noble, humanitarian intervention. It would be the crown jewel of modern warfare, they said, a targeted bombing of strategic goals that would break the country’s willpower and bring the dictator to his knees. In the end, they cheered as the cameras showed the bomber planes taking off from a military base somewhere in Italy, near a city whose name reminded Rey of a mineral water brand.

“Did you see this?” She called Finn immediately, the TV screen still flickering in the background. “Are you watching the news?”

“Peanut, they’ve been talking about the bombing for months, it was a matter of time.” She heard the restraint in his voice, as if he was forcing himself to sound more collected than he felt. “But if they strike, I’m sure it’ll be in the south only, down in the province. Y’know, where the shit actually happens. Even the goddamn NATO ain’t crazy enough to bomb a European capital just like that. They’re civilized folks.”

Rey agreed, because Finn sounded reasonable, and pretended she felt better after hanging up the phone.

One hour later, however, the howling of the air raid siren ripped apart the sky above the capital for the first time.

And then the first bombs fell in Rey’s neighborhood, and she spent her first sleepless night crying, listening to the news, cleaning up the shards from the shattered window panes, and wondering what the fuck he had done down there in the south to make them deserve all this.

 

*

 

“My windows broke last night,” she tells Finn when she calls him in the morning. “Again.”

It takes him a while to process what she said.

“Third time, eh?” Finn sounds tired, almost distracted – obviously, he didn’t get any sleep either. “Is that stammering hippie gonna do something about it, or…?”

Rey sighs. “There’s no point in fixing them now and you know it.”

He pauses for a moment, huffing into the receiver, looking for a solution.

“I can come and close them with plywood, like I did at my place.”

She shouldn’t have told him, she thinks. Now he won’t let it go.

“I don’t want to live in the dark.”

“Sister.” Finn’s tone is firm, like she’s a child again and he’s about to give her a lesson in avoiding stupidities. “You can’t live without the fucking windows. It’s dangerous. Debris is flying all over the place, it can kill you. It’s true: a girl died like that here in my neighborhood. A bomb fragment flew in and killed her on spot in her own bathroom, and all because the window was open.”

“Finn, if I get in the way of a bomb fragment, no window can save me.” Rey almost laughs as she imagines the scene – pieces of rubble rotating towards her in slow motion as she bravely stands behind a thin layer of glass, both hands in the air, arms wide open like a welcoming embrace. “And I really can’t stand living in the dark. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of myself. I just called to hear your voice. I need to get ready now, or I’ll be late.”

When she hangs up, Rey fixes herself a second cup of coffee, extra black. Then, she takes her time with the makeup, opting for reddish eyeshadow. It brings out the hazel in her eyes. She chooses her outfit carefully – ankle boots and form-fitting jeans and her favorite off the shoulder top, a flawless combination for such a sunny day. She’ll walk to work, she decides. She has time, and the weather is too damn nice to waste an hour on public transport.

Little things, Rey repeats to herself. In the end, it’s always the little things that get you through the day. 

As she walks down the street, she tries not to stare at the charred leftovers of bricks and steel and concrete that still smolder in the corner of her eye.

On top of the Government building, there is a hole where the dome used to be, and shards of stained glass windows are scattered all over the pavement.

 

*

 

They always bomb at night.

The days are normal – as normal as circumstances allow. Rey goes to work, the copy store being busier than ever. Her university operates under a strange schedule – there are no daily lectures, but once a week the professors receive students to give them homework and arrange for tests and exams. She meets her friends, hangs out with them in pubs and coffee shops. She sits in parks on fresh grass peppered with daisies and forget-me-nots, and goes window shopping in the pedestrian zone. There are sales in every major store – suddenly, Rey can afford things she’s been admiring from afar for too long. She purchases a pair of bulky over-ear headphones, guaranteed to shut out any outside noise. She needs those.

The days are normal – enjoyable even, with life being slow, and the spring so riveting.

When the night falls and the sirens howl, all hell breaks loose.

It’s like living in a fairy tale, Rey thinks. Once upon a time, there was a city under a curse. By daylight, its inhabitants could live as they pleased – some of them even genuinely believed they were happy. But when the sun would set, the monsters would come out, and they snatched people at random, tearing down the city bit by bit.

Rey can no longer stand the TV. The government’s propaganda is all lies – it’s always been, but now it’s unbearable. In between chunks of news, children sing patriotic songs and weird-looking old men spin batshit conspiracy theories – Snoke would have thrived here, she thinks. The president gives a speech every other day, assuring the nation that they will endure this unwarranted aggression. Hearing his voice makes her skin crawl. She tries switching to CNN, hoping to learn what’s really going on, but it doesn’t help. They show her city in ruins, flame and smoke everywhere, lone walls where buildings used to stand, and then they gloat, pert and optimistic, congratulating themselves on precision and efficiency and battle spirit. They air footage shot in the cabin of a bomber plane. The pilot flies above a railway bridge somewhere in the south, on their side of the provincial border, close to Poe’s hometown. He releases the missile by pressing a button, as if he’s playing a video game, and when the bridge explodes, he laughs.

He laughs.

So Rey spends her nights marathoning movies, her new headphones protecting her from the mayhem outside. She stays away from action flicks, sick and tired of things blowing up, and even the best drama films can’t hold her attention – she can’t empathize with someone else’s pain. But romantic comedies? Bring them on, the stupider the better. Her favorite ones are when the heroine is sassy and independent, but secretly waiting for the right man, whereas he’s a jerk with a heart of gold, yet ready to change himself for his true love.

She doesn’t even hate them for getting their impossible happy endings.

 

*

 

“Happy birthday!” Finn chirps, crushing her in a bear hug. Rey hasn’t seen him in weeks, even though they talk on the phone several times a day. Feeling his warmth again makes her eyes fill with tears. “I brought champagne!”

Rey doesn’t drink, has never even tried. But after one look at the bottle wrapped in bright, bubble pink foil, she decides it’s the perfect moment to be adventurous.

“It’s Hungarian bootleg, fresh from the black market.” Finn opens the bottle – it pops, but not as loudly as in the movies. “Probably tastes like rat piss, but hey, it’s champagne.”

The taste is odd indeed – fizzy, like soda, sugary and sour, and in truth nothing special, like grape juice past its expiry date. They drink from coffee mugs, sitting on the sofa in Rey’s living room with no window panes. She feels lightheaded after a while, a pleasant buzz whirring in her mind. It dulls her senses and makes the world a little less scary. She sees how it can become addictive.

Never again, she promises to herself as she gulps down the sparkling wine, never again – but tonight, it will do.

When the first bombs drop, making the entire sofa shake, she giggles. 

“Fuck you, people, it’s my birthday today!” she shouts at the ceiling. “I’m twenty at last! Can’t you give me a break, just for one day?”

Explosions rumble in response, echoing against the clouds like a summer thunderstorm.

“Well.” Finn raises the coffee mug as elegantly as if he were holding a champagne glass. “One day, you’ll brag to your children that you celebrated your birthday with fireworks.”

She laughs aloud, and then she cries, but just a little, and then they hug, as the room fills with smoke and dust.

“Seriously now, sister,” Finn grumbles, tucking away a strand of hair from her wet face. “Gotta do something about those windows.”

 

*

 

Sometimes, she has these thoughts.

It’s foolish, she knows. Irrational and wrong – so very wrong. And it won’t do her any good, except to torture herself. 

But she can’t stop it, when the thoughts come at her at night.

If only she were a lesser person, she thinks, greedy and selfish and without scruples. If only she were someone unprincipled, willing to go along with shady plans. Then, she would have listened to Armitage before it became too late. Snoke would have been alive, and Kylo would’ve done as he was told. The First Order would have remained a suspicious business corporation, not a paramilitary force sowing death, and there wouldn’t have been anyone to carry out the carnage in the province. The NATO forces would have no excuse to man their airplanes.

And none of this would have happened.

It’s stupid, she tells herself. Stupid.

Stupid.

The province was a time bomb with or without Kylo, she knows. He wasn’t the regime’s only war dog. They would have found ways to wage war without him, and the outcome would’ve been the same – the overuse of force and ethnic cleansing. Nothing would have changed, nothing – once again, the NATO would’ve been all too happy to put their country in its place.

No matter what she did or did not do, Rey tells herself, it would’ve ended with the bombing anyway.

But sometimes, she has these thoughts.

 

*

 

The regime starts organizing anti-war protests.

Concerts are held on the city’s main square – indie rock bands and pop celebrities perform together from morning to night, their music louder than the air raid sirens, and thousands of people gather to sing along in the crowd. They all have the same sign on them: black and white concentric circles stylized like a target, printed on paper and pinned to their clothes. They carry banners with funny slogans and cartoons mocking the NATO and its almighty leaders – Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky affair gets more than one mention, with drawings that leave little to the imagination. Children ride on parents’ shoulders, waving the target sign in their tiny hands, and teenagers climb to the nearby trees to hang the national flag. People sing and dance, jumping to the beat, shaking their fists at the sky.

It reminds Rey of their protests, and she hates it.   

It’s as if the regime has appropriated something beautiful and authentic, rebellious, and then rebranded it by twisting its purpose, making it sleazy and vulgar, turning it into that. Watching these concerts makes her feel violated.

To make matters worse, many people she knows – colleagues from work, friends from university, neighbors from her building – normal, reasonable people who have never supported the regime, now go to protests every day, to carry the target sign and yell angry slogans at NATO airplanes.

“I don’t get it,” she complains to Amilyn one afternoon, when they meet for coffee. “How can they? It’s as if they’re directly backing the president!”

Amilyn slides a pair of designer sunglasses down her nose, their shape carefully selected to flatter her oval face.

“You don’t think it’s understandable they’re angry at someone who’s dropping bombs on their country for five weeks straight?”

She arches an eyebrow curiously, and Rey fidgets, wrapping her arms around herself, trying not to stare at the people with paper targets who pass them by in the street.

Then Amilyn smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “You fell into the same trap as Poe. You think that if you say aloud that the bombing is wrong, it means that you approve of what the regime did in the south.”

It’s not a compliment to be compared to Poe, given how much they’ve been arguing lately. Rey opens her mouth to protest, but says nothing. She feels a rush of blood to her cheeks – she must be beet red in the face.

“They’re asking him for interviews, you know.” Amilyn pushes back her sunglasses to cover the sadness in her eyes. “The foreign press. They call almost every day. But he gets completely paralyzed – speechless, even. As if he doesn’t know what are the right answers he’s expected to give, and that drives him insane.”

Rey pauses to think, chewing on her bottom lip.

“Do they even exist? The right answers?”

Amilyn chuckles quietly, lifting her shoulders in a shrug. “I’m afraid all we have at the moment are the right questions.”

They walk in companionable silence for a while, pushing through the crowd that rushes to the concert.  There are so many people, Rey thinks, more and more each day. Looking at the black-and-white target signs that surround her makes her head spin, like a hypnotizing wheel, and she lifts her eyes up towards the clouds.

The weather is so nice – a perfect day for early May.

“The southern province is a complex problem, no matter how you look at it. And what the regime did there was brutal. Despicable. Never doubt that,” Amilyn suddenly says, adjusting her glasses again. “And yet, over the years, the West had many opportunities to prevent that from even happening. They could’ve supported the local forces that opposed the regime, for instance, helped them become a more viable political option.  But they didn’t. Instead, they chose to do this.

She points to the sky.

“Just because they could. And they wanted to. So it’s perfectly normal to feel confused right now. Betrayed, if you will. And, well, angry.” She nods sharply to underline her words. “Very, very angry.”

Rey tilts her head, looking away from the protesting crowd.

She needs coffee, she concludes, they should find a place to sit urgently. A generous nip of caffeine will help her get her thoughts straight.

“How’s Leia?” She changes the topic.

Amilyn frowns, her palm raised, inhaling to speak. But she doesn’t answer right away.

After a long moment she exhales loudly, looking resigned and tired. And then she arches her eyebrows and shakes her head, clearly unsure where to begin.

 

*

 

There’s a court in the Netherlands.

It’s a special court. It was established with only one purpose: to investigate and prosecute the war crimes that took place during the conflicts in their country. The big, old country, that is – the one that Han used to love so much.

As the bombing enters its seventh week, the court in the Netherlands presents a new set of indictments. They cover what happened in the south before the NATO decided to intervene.

At first, Rey is surprised to see that the local newspapers are even allowed to report about the indictments. But as she reads the article, she realizes she should never doubt the regime’s creativity to turn everything into propaganda: they frame it as a proof of conspiracy against their country, because the heroes who fought against the terrorists in the province are now accused of being war criminals.

The president himself is one of the indicted, the first on the list, along with the prime minister and half of the government. The top of the military is also wanted by the court: generals, colonels and majors, looking solemn and important as they pose in their parade uniforms.

And then, there’s him.

Ben Solo, Rey reads, known as Kylo Ren, born in 1969, commander of the First Order. Charged with crimes against humanity, as the court formulates it – murder, deportation and persecutions, and violations of the customs of war.

Well, now. It’s not as if she didn’t see it coming.

There’s a picture. He has aged, Rey thinks. His hair is neatly combed, still long but the wild curls are gone, and his goatee is trimmed so short it looks like stubble. His two scars are but thin lines, as if someone has drawn them on to make him appear more villainous, like an escaped convict from old-fashioned wanted posters. He stares at the camera, grim and uncomfortable, and frown lines cut deep between his eyebrows. 

He’s not happy, Rey can tell.

She rips out that page from the newspaper and puts it in her drawer. She tells herself it’s a reminder that he’s a monster, nothing more.

She certainly didn’t do it because it’s the only picture of him that she has.

 

*

 

In the second half of May, the rules change. They start bombing the infrastructure.

Bridges. Roads. A hospital too – but it happens only once, and NATO blames it on having outdated maps. Factories. A pharmaceutical plant is razed to the ground because supposedly it can be used to produce chemical weapons. One night, they focus on an oil refinery in the outskirts of the capital. It is bombed methodically, to the fullest extent, and on the next day the entire city stinks. It smells like burned gasoline, Rey thinks, but maybe she’s just imagining it.

They also bomb the building of the national television. The NATO promptly declares it’s a strategic target – it spreads the regime’s propaganda, they explain, encouraging bloodshed and war mongering. Many people die that night. Technical staff, mostly – cameramen, sound engineers, a makeup girl. Many others are trapped between the crumbling walls, and firefighters burn to death as they struggle to set them free. The building hasn’t been evacuated on time, the NATO says. The regime is to blame.

Rey hopes that the president will yield already and stop this madness, but in his next speech, he promises only more perseverance.

They use all kinds of missiles. The so-called cassette bombs – which should be prohibited by a number of international treaties, as far as Rey knows, but it seems they’re still around. She’s learned to recognize them by the sound they make. Then, allegedly, there’re the depleted uranium bombs, but Rey isn’t really sure about those. She thinks it’s just gossip. It’s too dramatic, too crazy to be true – yet rumors run wild, saying that in twenty years everyone will die of cancer.

And then, there’re the graphite bombs. The non-lethal ones. Their only purpose is to disable electrical grids, and lately they fall more and more often. They’re beautiful, Rey observes – brief discharges of purple light, like horizontal lightning bolts – but the power blackouts they cause are a pain in the ass. She can’t go to work any longer. The machines in the copy store need electricity to run.

It’s a shame, the copy store was working at full speed. For the past few weeks, Rey’s been making photocopies of people’s personal documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, bank statements, medical files, papers confirming real estate ownership. The bigger the pile, the better.

They need those copies for a single purpose, she knows – to apply for an immigrant visa. Every day, hundreds of buses leave the capital and go up north, to Hungary, where people wait in lines in front of embassies, their papers neat and ready, hoping that a country would deem them good enough to let them move in. Doesn’t matter which country, any destination in the West will do. Not many of them make it, rumor has it – the majority get stuck in Hungary, spending their savings and withering away as they wait in lines.

She could have been in Canada, Rey thinks.

The only bright side of power blackouts is that the regime can no longer hold the goddamn concerts.

 

*

 

Rey stares at the phone for minutes after hanging up. Maybe even a full hour, she isn’t sure. She’s lost the track of time, she only knows it’s getting dark. The sirens will blare soon.

Bloody hell.

She crosses her legs, sitting on the floor, and places the phone in her lap.

These things happen to people you read about in the newspapers, not to someone you know. A person you care about shouldn’t end up as a statistic. There’s even a word for it: collateral damage, it is called. An error. Oops, we didn’t mean it.

She should cry, that would be the proper way to react. But oddly enough, now that it’s actually serious, her eyes feel dry, like they’re full of dust.

She has to tell Finn.

“Sister!” He’s happy to hear her. “A bit early for our regular nightly call, ain’t it?”

For an instant, she thinks she should prepare him for the news, make an introduction. Soften the blow before she delivers it.

But she just can’t.

“Rose called,” she says flatly. “Paige is dead.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line, and she’s grateful for it.

It’s normal not to know what to say.

Outside, the traffic noise is slowing down. People are rushing to get to safety before the bombing resumes.

“What?” Finn asks at long last, his voice shaking. “How?”

Rey inhales, hiccupping for air. “She was in that train that got hit. Maybe you’ve heard. This afternoon. She was going home, to her town, and normally she’d take a bus, but she heard people saying trains were safer. That’s what she told Rose before leaving.”

She waits, picking at the phone cord. The moment lasts. Shadows dance in the room as the sun goes down.

“It was an accident. Allegedly. The train was delayed, the tracks were supposed to be empty at the time. And no one expected they’d bomb the railway in mid-afternoon. So, yeah.”

There’s nothing more to add.

She hears Finn breathing into the receiver. Slow and steady huffs resonate rhythmically.

Minutes pass.

“How’s Rose?”

“Fucked up,” Rey sighs. “Big time. She’s barely able to speak.”

Another pause follows.

Rey can tell that Finn is thinking. There’s gravity to the moment: it’s solemn, game-changing, and she feels she won’t like what he’s about to say.

The hair on the back of her neck stands up.

“I’m gonna go pack now,” Finn finally declares. “And first thing tomorrow morning, I’m gonna take a bus to that fucking hicksville. Rose shouldn’t be alone now. Someone should hold her hand. And… Fuck, sister. It should be me.”

Rey’s stomach twists into knots. She wants to think it’s because she’s afraid for him.

“Finn.” Her voice rasps. “It’s dangerous to travel.”

He gives a bitter laugh before beginning to shout.

“Yeah? And you know what else is dangerous? Living next to primary targets in a place with no fucking windows!

He spits it out so loudly that Rey’s ear begins to buzz. She lowers the receiver, waiting for him to calm down.

It’s almost eight o’clock, she sees. The show will begin any moment now.

Breathe, she tells herself, just like when she was younger. In and out. Breathe.

“Finn?”

“Sister,” he responds, his tone suddenly soft. “Promise me you’ll get the fuck away from there. Promise.”

Rey swallows.

She should try convincing him it’s a bad idea to travel across the country. She should offer to go with him.

But she doesn’t have the strength for any of that.

“Promise me,” he repeats.

“Fine,” she says. “I promise.”

His sigh of relief is what finally brings her to tears.

Long after the conversation is over, she sits on the floor in the dark, blowing her nose in a soggy handkerchief and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. When the sirens finally go off, she doesn’t even flinch.

God, she thinks. Please let me be normal for a day.

Rey laughs. This is the new normal now.

 

*

 

When she inserts the key, her first thought is that this will never work. He must have changed the locks.

But then the key clicks and the door opens, and Rey stumbles inside, almost caught by surprise.

Until a day ago, she thought she’d never set foot in this place again.

She was prepared for a full panic attack – tears, flashbacks, shaky breaths and trembling hands. However, she feels oddly calm. Serene, even.

It’s not like coming home, she tells herself. It’s not.

She enters the living room. Nothing has changed and everything is different.

He kept the old furniture, she sees – the couch, the coffee table, the beige carpet. The walls are as naked and white as ever. Expectedly, all the devices are gone: the TV, the loudspeakers, the CD player. She firmly believes he smashed them on the night she’d left him, broke them all up, trampled on the parts. The boxes are thrown out too, just like she’s assumed. There’s nothing in the corners of the room but shadows and cobwebs.

It’s sad, Rey thinks. Grey. Lonely.

The framed sepia photo is no longer on the coffee table, and it’s the only thing that strikes her as odd. He must’ve taken it with him. He wouldn’t throw it away. Not that.

Rey expected that the place would smell of him, but it doesn’t. All she feels is stale air, as if it’s been a while since the windows were open, and a faint scent of dust.

She checks the bedroom to find that the wardrobe is mostly empty, and she opens the fridge – there’s nothing inside. Even the cupboards in the kitchen are bare, except for plates and pots. And spices. He hasn’t been home in a long time, she concludes – a full year, perhaps.

 Good. She knew he wouldn’t be here.

He’s still in the south, he must be. That’s where he’s needed. That’s where the real war happens.

Or perhaps he’s dead. Blown to bits by a NATO bomb, body parts ripped apart and burned, flesh turned to charcoal, nothing left for a proper burial. As simple as that – just like Paige. Someone should inform the court in the Netherlands there will be no trial.

Rey chuckles. Would she feel it, if he died? A disturbance in the force? A special kind of pain for losing her soulmate?

She remembers Amilyn’s words from years ago: tropes are for fiction.

When the sirens howl in the evening and the power goes out, Rey is happy to note that here she’s tucked away. It’s a good part of the city. The ground doesn’t shake with the explosions and she barely hears the blasts. The windows are intact. Firmly closed.

She puts on her headphones, just to be fully soundproof, and slumps on the couch, pulling a blanket over her head.

This is fine, she thinks. It is safe. It will do.

She can’t make herself go to bed, however. Not where they slept together. The couch is more than good enough.

 

*

 

Days pass. It is June.

The power blackouts are permanent now, and the water supply is gone – the pumps can’t operate when there’s been no electricity for that long.  When Rey turns on the faucet, there’s nothing but the gurgling of pipes. She gets fresh water from a tank truck that comes to the neighborhood once a day, and she cleans herself with wet wipes. She smells like cotton flower and lemongrass. It could be worse.

The phone lines aren’t dead yet, but it’s nearly impossible to get through. Finn is still with Rose in her hometown, last time they spoke he didn’t know when he’d return. She told him she was staying with a friend from work, and he seemed pleased. Poe and Amilyn are not on speaking terms, again, but Rey knows it won’t last long. DJ said she wouldn’t have to pay the rent for that month – how very generous. He didn’t mention anything about the windows.  

She listens to the news on her old radio, the small piece of junk she got when she was in high school. She must change its batteries too often, and the sound always crackles – but it’s working. It’s difficult to figure out what’s happening, however, except that the bombing won’t stop any time soon. The president won’t yield. There are rumors about carpet bombings of the capital if this persists, or a land invasion, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

The early summer is beautiful. Sunny but not too warm, with a light breeze carrying the scent of linden trees in bloom.

Rey reads. Sleeps. Works out in the living room – simple crunches and squats and jumping jacks, just to make her body move. She goes out, but never stays long. In the evening, she lights candles. She sits surrounded by dozens of tiny flames that flicker like fireflies, and the sight is so pretty it takes her breath away. She can admire it for hours, feeling the candlelight reflect in her eyes.

Little things. They’re important. They get you through the day.

She sleeps too much.

She should feel uneasy for living here, but she doesn’t – and ironically, that makes her uncomfortable.

Sometimes, she imagines him returning home. Filthy, reeking of sweat, in a camo uniform, fresh from the warzone, unlocking his door just to find her curled up on the couch, staring at dancing candle flames. What face would he make? Would he yell at her, kick her out? Or would he be happy that she found safety in his home, of all places?

And what would she do? Talk to him, calm and collected? Smile that he’s still alive? Explain everything reasonably – she had nowhere to go, except for here? Or would she scream at him, spitting all the insults she never got to say – you sick fuck, you murderer, you nutjob, this is all your fault, your fault, the sirens, the blasts, the smoke and the orange sky, the fucking windows that keep breaking, it’s your fault! You’re to blame for concerts and target signs, for buses going to Hungary, for power blackouts and lines for fresh water! It’s because of you that Rose had to bury an empty coffin!  

But days pass, and he does not return.

She begins sleeping in the bed. It’s more comfortable after all.

 

*

 

The bombing ends on June 10th, early in the morning. It lasted for 78 days.

Rey listens to the news on her radio that crackles, holding it close to her ear. After too many failed attempts, it seems that the last round of negotiations did bear fruit – or, perhaps, everybody’s fed up, and they all just wanted to see this finished. Some sort of a compromise is achieved. An agreement is signed, and a Security Council resolution is passed. As far as Rey understands, according to the deal, the army, the police and the civil administration must leave the province, which will be placed under direct control of the United Nations. On the other hand, the province will not be granted independence – not officially, at least. Not yet.

And that is all.

In his speech, the president proclaims a historical victory: a small nation successfully resisted the vicious aggression of the world’s largest military power for 78 days – he really likes repeating the number – proving that justice, grit and courage are indeed rewarded in the end, and that David will always triumph over Goliath. Rolling her eyes, Rey switches to a radio station in English, which broadcasts the NATO’s press conference. It’s a historical victory for the North Atlantic Alliance, the spokesman says, an outstanding achievement of modern warfare. It brought peace to where it was dearly needed, saved lives, and showed that humanitarian interventions are indeed honorable and just.

Medals are about to be shared left and right, and everybody congratulates themselves.

What an extraordinary war, Rey thinks, if both parties can happily claim they have won.

Whatever.

She feels too tired to care, even though lately she’s done nothing but sleep, tucked in the bed, a pillow over her head.  The only thing that matters is that it’s over.

It’s over. Over. Over. She has to repeat it several times, say the word aloud to make it feel real.

Now what?

She calls Rose’s number. It’s long distance and the lines are still a mess – it takes her too many attempts to break through. When the phone finally rings, it’s Rose’s mother who answers. After clumsily murmured condolences, Rey asks to speak to Finn.

“You heard the news?”

Rey knew she wouldn’t sound cheerful, but the overly flat tone of her voice still startles her – as if she’s forgotten how to feel joy. She’ll have to work on that.

“Yeah,” Finn answers curtly, and then a silence follows.

She clears her throat before continuing.

“You coming back?”

It takes him a moment to answer, and Rey’s stomach sinks as she waits.

“Yeah, um…” He hesitates. “Rose and I will return together. In a few days.”

There are several layers of meaning in his words and Rey can hear them all. One: he’s not alone in the room over there. There are things he wants to tell her, but he cannot now. Two: they seem to need him, because he’ll stay longer even though he doesn’t have to. Or maybe they just like him, and they want him to be around the family. Three: Rose.

So it has happened.

She should feel happy, she’s been rooting for this for years, and yet her lower lip starts trembling as if she’s about to cry. Fucking bombing, it messed her up so much.

“Sister?” Finn breaks the silence. “Are you okay?”

“All is fine,” she whispers. “Say hi to Rose. Call me when you can.”

She hangs up, and then looks around her as if for the first time she’s truly realizing where she is. She should get the fuck away from this place.

Rey packs her clothes, cleans the bathroom and the kitchen with wet wipes, makes the bed and neatly folds the covers. For a moment, she contemplates leaving a trace that she was here: melted candles on the coffee table, food in the fridge, her sleeping shirt rumpled on the floor. Dirty plates in the sink – he never let her do the dishes anyway.

But she decides against it.

She locks the door behind her and shoves the keys in her pocket. She’ll keep them. Not that she’ll ever need them again, but she’ll keep them.

The light outside is strong – she squints, blinded by the sunshine. She feels the warmth on her skin, lets herself enjoy it for a moment. Soon enough, her nose will be covered by freckles.

Rey takes a deep breath.

It’s over.

The future seems so uncertain now, unpredictable and without any goals ahead, and it fills her with dread.

Slowly, Rey starts walking home, her suitcase rolling behind her.

It’s time to get those bloody windows fixed.

Chapter Text

A Veteran of the Psychic Wars

 

 

 

The Capital, August 2000

 

 

Rey hears footsteps in the courtyard, echoing from the other side of the fence. They clunk sharply on the stone path, as if someone’s wearing wooden clogs.

“Coming, coming,” the man shouts, noticeably annoyed. “No need to go wild with the doorbell, I ain’t deaf.”

She glances at her wristwatch: it took him twelve minutes to answer the door.

The heat wave that chokes the capital has only just begun – the forecast for upcoming days threatens that the temperature will keep rising. Rey finds it unbearable already. The skirt of her polka dot sundress is sodden with sweat, sticking to the back of her thighs. She must look awful, after traveling here for more than an hour in an overcrowded bus. She takes out a paper tissue and dabs her face, careful not to smudge the makeup.

The white summer sky presses down, sunless but scorching hot, and the buzzing of crickets in yellowed grass makes her head spin. Warm, muggy air fills her lungs – it feels like breathing soup. Pressure builds in her temples. She won’t faint, Rey tells herself. Not now, not like this. He will invite her inside.

The man grumbles from behind the fence, profanities rolling off his tongue. The lock clicks, but the door hasn’t opened yet.

Rey looks around. She’s never been in the northern suburbs before, a notoriously underdeveloped part of the city. Almost every house in the street seems unfinished, brick walls bare and roofs half-tiled, but families live in them nevertheless. Toys are scattered in courtyards, bicycles rest tied to grid fences, clothes dry on ropes. A pair of shoes hangs from the wire between two utility poles covered with layers of old ads – people selling land, looking for lost dogs, reading fortune from tarot or tea leaves or palm lines, offering lessons of English and math, suitable for school children. Patches of grass grow between the cracks in the pavement, and the air has that distinct stench of zoo, like musk and dung and matted fur. Farm animals, Rey guesses.

Why would anyone choose to move here if they didn’t have to?

The door opens with a loud screech, and Rey is suddenly faced with a stained t-shirt, a bushy beard, and a pair of squinting blue eyes.

The man takes a step back, bemused, examining her from head to toe. The pin on Rey’s overstuffed shoulder bag catches his gaze – his forehead creases as he lifts an eyebrow curiously. He must recognize the Resistance logo, she’s certain of it, he can’t be that much of a hermit. The raised fist symbol is everywhere these days. 

But just as Rey is about to open her mouth to speak, the man rolls his eyes.

“Fuck off!”

And as simple as that, the door is slammed to her face.

The bang is so loud it makes her flinch. Rey blinks, holding her breath.

Oh no, you won’t.

“Mister Skywalker!” She presses the doorbell again, letting it buzz for a while. “Mister Skywalker, please!”

The wooden clogs thump away from the door. Rey hears another litany of curses – he’s quite imaginative, based on the tidbits she discerns.

“Mister Skywalker?!”

She knocks with all her might, tempted to kick the door. A dog starts barking in the neighboring yard, and a woman peeks over the fence to see what’s going on.

“Please! I’ve been standing for a while in this heat! Can you at least give me a glass of water?”

The clanking of clogs stops.

“A glass of water and then I’ll fuck off!”

There’s a pause. Rey can tell that Luke Skywalker is deliberating what to do. She lowers her hand from the doorbell – annoying him further will do her no favors. The neighbor arches her eyebrows in expectation, clearly enjoying the show, and Rey must count to ten not to shout at the woman to take a hike.

Finally, the door opens again.

“Shame on you for pulling the ‘poor-soul-dying-of-thirst’ card,” Luke Skywalker grumbles. “That’s cheap and manipulative. But fine. It is fucking hot.”

He moves aside, gesturing with his chin toward the stone path leading to the house.

Rey hesitates, surprised that she actually made it. Then, before he changes his mind, she quickly steps inside.

The courtyard is messy, but she expected nothing less. Dry grass grows tall, speckled with puffy dandelions turned white, and all she sees on the lawn are filthy plastic chairs crooked from the heat. Leaning on the wall, there’s a discarded garden parasol, and next to it a tin bucket, suspiciously banged up. God knows what he did with it. As she walks towards the house, in the bottom of the courtyard, Rey notices a wooden fence, like a barn of sorts. How odd. It’s then that she realizes – the stench of zoo comes from here.

A goat sticks its head between the bars of the fence.

White. Scraggly.

A fucking goat.

It’s a male, Rey concludes. Or at least it reeks like one. Its horns are large and its glare is unpleasantly intense, disapproval seeping from its horizontal pupils. Patches of fur on its head resemble frowning eyebrows. It raises its ears in wonder, as if it doesn’t quite trust her, and its wiry beard moves rhythmically as it chews.

Rey can’t look away.

“That’s George,” Luke Skywalker explains. “Don’t stare at him like that, it’s rude. He might take offense.”

She nods slowly, unsure how to properly react.

This is going to be more difficult than she thought.

“My name is Rey,” she says as she follows him into the house.

“Your name doesn’t matter.” Luke Skywalker shrugs. “I know exactly who you are.”

She almost stumbles over the doorstep. “You do?”

Luke nods, pointing at the pin on her shoulder bag.

“You’re my sister’s project.”

Rey feels her jaw tightening. “I beg your pardon?”

The beard conceals his self-satisfied smirk, but she can tell it’s there – a fucking family trait.

“You’re one of the pretty kids she finds brilliant for one reason or another, so she mentors them to become future leaders of this democratic utopia she thinks she’ll have here one day.” He gives a dry chuckle. “Right?”

Leia tried to warn her, she did. “You’ll see, he’s a bit of an ass,” she said. “Living there did things to him.” Rey nodded like she believed her – admittedly, it was easier to blame the suburbs for someone’s difficult temper.

She wasn’t prepared for this, however. Luke’s words are oddly specific.

And they sting.

“Like that Dameron boy,” he carries on, savoring her discomfort. “What a pretentious prick, that one, thinking that his big smile will open every door. It felt really good to tell him to fuck off.”

He grins smugly, waiting for her response, raising his chin in challenge.

This is bait, Rey thinks.

Her first impulse is to protest – if a goddamn goat can take offense, she can too. She’s no one’s project.

But then she makes herself remember: for years, this man was the only person who could tolerate living with the boy named Ben.

Floppy-eared, freakishly tall, charmless and irreparably unhinged, little Ben wasn’t exactly the material for a future leader of a democratic utopia, was he? Still, Uncle Luke took him in. Put up with Ben’s tantrums and blackouts and insecurities, showed him the world from New York to Japan.

Until the day he called the boy a mentally unstable piece of work about to repeat his grandfather’s downfall.  

Rey studies Luke’s nose. Its tip is slightly bent to the side, like it’s been badly broken once.

“Well,” she says. “There are days when I wish I could tell Poe Dameron to fuck off.”

Luke Skywalker laughs – the sound is rough, uncanny, rusted from a lack of use. But the corners of his eyes crinkle, and Rey knows she scored a point.

“Come in.” He opens the front door.

Inside, the light is dim. Heavy curtains are drawn over the windows and the wallpaper is darkened from years of smoking. Not cigarettes, no – the smell is sweetish, stifling. Pipe tobacco, probably. Perhaps not just tobacco. As Rey walks into the living room, her feet sink into a thick carpet. Its exotic pattern is mesmerizing – Persian warriors on horseback swirl across the floor, waging war amidst brown and burgundy flower vines. He must have brought it from an old journey, she thinks, paid for it dearly. She wonders if the boy named Ben was with him.

A ceiling fan flaps above her head, spinning dust, and the TV is on. Inside of a spaceship, a pointy-eared alien with a bowl haircut greets an alien with a rubber forehead by raising his palm and parting his fingers: live long and prosper. Rey swallows a chuckle. Based on what she heard, she’d never have pegged Luke Skywalker for a space opera fan.

“How is she?” Luke asks, his clogs clunking as he proceeds to the kitchen.

“Same.” Rey shrugs to herself – there’s nothing else to say. “Stubborn.”

He returns quickly, bringing a glass of ice-cold water still cloudy from the tap. Rey gulps it down so greedily that her throat aches, and a wave of goosebumps ripples down her back. The water leaves the metallic aftertaste of suburbs and bad plumbing.

“Okay, project girl.” Luke raises his wrist to look at the watch. She notices an ugly scar on his forearm, left from a surgery to piece together a gravely fractured bone.  “I’ll give you thirty seconds sharp to convince me that doing my sister’s bidding is a good idea.”

Rey stifles a frown. What?

She wasn’t ready for this. Thirty seconds? They were supposed to have a conversation – not Rey reciting unrehearsed lines as if she’s trying to sell him something he doesn’t want.

Luke rolls his eyes, making it clear her time is ticking.

“Mister Skywalker,” Rey begins, suddenly aware she’s about to blow it. “You know we came to a decisive moment in our combat for a normal life in this country. The presidential elections this September will give us an opportunity to change things for real, peacefully and legitimately, and everyone’s united around this cause. But for that we need a proper candidate, and a strong campaign, and your sister thinks…”

“No.”

He reaches out his hand to take the empty glass.

“You didn’t let me finish,” Rey says flatly. “I have ten seconds left.”

“I ain’t gonna waste ten precious seconds of my life on your propaganda bullshit.” Luke Skywalker grins, all teeth. “And I know very well what my sister thinks. Time to fuck off.”

Rey narrows her eyes. Fuck him, and fuck his beard, and his unfinished brickhouse, and his goddamn goat.

Especially the goat.

She didn’t volunteer for this just to watch herself fail.

In panic, she glances around the room, looking for anything that would prolong her stay.

Behind her, there’s a large shelf. The first thing she notices is that it’s free of dust – Luke really cares for whatever he keeps there. Rays of light that peek through the curtains fall on thin objects crammed together so tightly that the board is curved under their weight. It’s not books, she sees.

Records. Rows upon rows of vinyl records.

Of course.

“You’re a collector?”

“No.” Luke walks to the door, expecting her to follow him, but hesitates when he sees she’s still staring at his shelf. “Collectors are pretentious assholes who spend a shit-ton of money hoarding stuff they never use, with the sole aim to impress other collectors. I happen to love music.”

Rey nods, cocking her head to read the names of artists and albums.

There’re a lot of classics – Bob Dylan, whose songs she knows mostly from cover versions; the complete discography of the Rolling Stones mixed with a few albums of the Beatles; Led Zeppelin and Genesis and Pink Floyd; the Ziggy Stardust phase of David Bowie, even though for her he’ll forever be the Goblin King in obscene leather pants. A whole row is dedicated to jazz. She’s heard of Miles Davis, it rings a bell, but there’s a bunch of names she’s not familiar with – they sound American, African, Indian even. Paco de Lucía. The flamenco guy, wasn’t it? Some cardboard sleeves are badly damaged, she can barely decipher the retro-styled letters, some album titles are unexpectedly imaginative. “In the Court of the Crimson King” makes her think of a horror movie, not a rock project. 

And then she sees it – Blue Öyster Cult.

She remembers the story about them. She laughed like an idiot when Kylo first mentioned the band’s name – who the fuck thought that calling themselves Blue Öyster Cult would be a sure gateway to success?

“I know these guys.” She slides her finger down the jagged edge of the album. “That fantasy author who hated Tolkien wrote lyrics for them. Right?”

Luke Skywalker observes her with narrowed eyes, as if he sees her for the first time.

Silence stretches for a while. The ceiling fan flaps, setting a beat to the moment.

“Michael Moorcock,” Luke finally says. “And he didn’t write for them, it was an occasional collaboration. Also, before you dismiss him as the jerk who blasphemed against the father of fantasy, try to get familiar with Moorcock’s work. Poor man really didn’t deserve to be referred to as ‘that guy who hated Tolkien’.”

To her surprise, Rey bursts into a giggle. The corners of Luke’s eyes lift a little, and she can tell he’s struggling to maintain a stern expression.

“You have his books?”

“Maybe.” He huffs through a smirk that for once isn’t mean. “But for a moment there, I thought you were more of a music person.”

Suddenly, Rey doesn’t know how to respond to that. She feels her smile faltering.

Once upon a time, when she was a little girl living in the Home, she thought that music was one of the most important things in life. It had a soul-defining, life-changing power, it brought the right people together, and no one could take it away from her.

Now, she doesn’t even own a stereo in her rented apartment. 

“Did I say something wrong?”

There’s a speck of concern in Luke’s gruff voice. It’s funny how, of all the preposterously wrong things he’s been sniping at her from the moment he opened the door, this is where he thinks he crossed the line.

“Yes.” Rey chooses blunt honesty. “You reminded me that life’s a bitch.”

Luke Skywalker isn’t the one to apologize, not when it matters – again, a family trait – but at least he has the decency to step away from the door.

“But that’s fine,” she adds quickly. “Reminders are useful, every now and then.”

He nods, as if they’ve reached an understanding of sorts.

Then, he fetches the remote from the table and shuts down the TV.

“Have you ever actually listened to Blue Öyster Cult?”

“Can’t say I have,” Rey answers carefully.

“Sit down.”

The couch squeaks under her butt, and for a split second she has a flashback to happier times – it’s gone before she can process it properly. Luke takes the album off the shelf, smiling as he looks at the cover. Slowly, he pulls the record out of the sleeve and proceeds to wipe it with a soft cloth he keeps next to the gramophone. His movements are deliberate, ceremonious, as if he’s about to begin a ritual.

“Let me tell you something: CDs are crap.” He places the record on the gramophone and raises the needle. “That thing never gets the bass right, and we can’t have that. Bass is the fucking heartbeat of music.”

Luke puts the needle down. The vinyl crackles as the synthesizers begin playing a moody melody. 

“Relax, project girl. Close your eyes. Let yourself feel.

Taking a long breath, Rey shuts her eyes and sinks into the music.

Two hours later, she leaves the bare brickhouse in the suburbs with her bag full of books in English. A silver-haired, white-skinned young man glares from the dust covers – his eyes are shell-pink, his dark sword is decorated with rubies, and he almost looks like a girl. The books are heavy. The strap of her shoulder bag cuts into her sunburned skin, but still, it’s a victory. A trophy.

Rey promises she’ll return the books in a week. She’s welcome to drop by any time she likes, Luke says, as long as books and music are the only topics of conversation – she’s prohibited to mention the Resistance, the presidential elections, or Leia Organa’s insane political games.

Well. It’s a start.

To be honest, she actually had a good time. She almost forgot there was a reason she went all the way to the suburbs to seek out a man who’d retired from public life a decade ago. 

Rey keeps sweating during the bus ride back to civilization, her hair sticking to her forehead and neck. All until they reach the ruins of the bombing, a telltale sign they’re in the city center, she has impression she can feel the lingering stench of zoo.

The first thing she does when she gets off the bus is to fish out the cell phone from her bag – her chunky Nokia, an old model she inherited from Amilyn, always seems to fall to the bottom. Its buttons beep as she scrolls down to Poe’s number on her list of contacts.

“Sunshine!” Poe Dameron picks up immediately – ever since he purchased a cell phone, he strolls around carrying it in his hand. “Did you make it?”

Rey keeps walking as she talks, holding the phone between her chin and shoulder, careful to avoid bumping into the clammy skin of people in the street. 

“Well, unlike someone, I got invited into the house.”

She smiles – hopefully, Poe can hear it in her voice.

He doesn’t answer immediately. Poe is in the Resistance office, Rey knows, so he must be looking for a place where he can talk in private. The fewer people who know, the better, Leia said.

“So?” There’s an echo when he speaks again, sound reverberating against tiles, like he’s in the bathroom. “Do we have him on board?”

She hesitates before replying, takes a breath and holds it in.

“No.”

A disappointed scoff resounds on the other end of the line. At least he isn’t surprised.

“Poe, are we sure this is a good idea?” Rey rushes on, before he can come up with more questions. “The man lives in the middle of nowhere with a fucking goat, watching ‘Star Trek’ reruns all day long. He doesn’t seem to be into this. He really doesn’t. We should leave him alone, if that’s what he wants.”

Poe gives a quiet sigh, suddenly sounding tired. “The General said…”

“Leia is not always right, you know,” she interrupts him.

“Rey.” His voice is soft, almost sad. “Don’t.”

Rey bites her lip. Fine, she thinks. Fine.

She won’t.

They don’t speak for a while, even though he’s still on the phone. Rey hears his even breathing. She hurries across the street, her pace swift, her heavy bag hitting her hip as she walks. She stares at her feet on the zebra crossing, averting her eyes from the white skies and the sunlight that reflects off car windows.

She should get sunglasses.

“Sunshine?” Poe finally asks. “You coming to the office?”

“I can’t.” She contemplates whether she should explain why. “I’m meeting someone.”

“Ah.” Poe’s voice regains some of its trademark playfulness. “Someone special?”

This almost makes her laugh – if only he knew.

“You can say so. Someone very special.”

“Have fun, then,” he concludes with a chuckle. “See you tomorrow. I’ll find a way to let Leia know, so we can figure out the next steps.”

Rey hangs up, shoves the phone to her bag, feels it drop to the bottom.

She observes the city as she walks – indeed, the raised fist is everywhere. The sign is stenciled in black spray paint on walls and gates, scaffolding fences and park benches, tram wagons, newspaper stands, garbage bins and bus stop covers. Occasionally, the word “Resistance!” is written next to the fist, always in Cyrillic letters – as advised by a marketing agency, to give the movement a stronger sense of national ownership. Rey finds the added exclamation mark endearing, as loud and angry as it is.

It’s the youngest members who’re tasked with covering the city with the fist symbol. With their hoodies and bandanas and fingers stained with spray paint, they harbor a battle camaraderie that makes them act like a tribe. They remind Rey of the cool kids who used to hang out at the music market, once – young and defiant. Too young, perhaps. Still in high school. When the elections come in September, they won’t even have the right to vote. Still, their role is important – turning them into graffiti squads was a shrewd move on Leia’s part. If the police pick them up for vandalism, they won’t be arrested. They’re minors.

Just kids.

Rey turns left, taking the street that goes straight to the riverbank. She looks at her watch: there’s more than enough time, no need to rush. Slowing her pace, she passes by the ruins left by the NATO bombs. The headquarters of the regime party used to stand here, she remembers – now they’re in a new building, of course. She smiles when she sees that even the charred walls are covered with stenciled fists.

In the year after the bombing, the Resistance grew from a group of protest veterans who gathered in a pub every Wednesday afternoon to badmouth the regime, into a registered movement that rented an office downtown, hired a marketing agency to design its campaign strategies, and had members all over the country – hundreds of thousands of people wearing pins with the raised fist. It became a “force to be reckoned with”, as Poe would say in interviews – the voice of democracy and the vehicle of change, above any kind of political partisanship. And now, with the presidential elections approaching, the eyes of the world are on the Resistance, expecting it to play a crucial role in the efforts to topple the dark side.

That’s a lot of work, Rey thinks.

On her way to the restaurant, her voice quiet and off key, she keeps humming the Blue Öyster Cult song about psychic wars and shakes going on, fully aware she’s mixing up the lyrics.

The river has a specific color in the summer – murky brown, cloudy, like rye bread or bruised apples. It stinks of oil spills and dry mud. The smell isn’t pleasant, not in the least, but there’s something comforting in its familiarity. Rey almost likes it. She sees a few men fishing, leaned against the river fence, straw hats pulled over their eyes and rods held firmly in calloused hands. Patience embodied, they wait for the fish to take the bait, putting up with the heat. She wonders if they’re fishing just to while away the time, or they actually eat what they catch in the murky water. Make it into a stew, perhaps. Add enough chili and anything goes.

She arrives a quarter of an hour too early. Good. She counted on that time.

The restaurant hasn’t changed much over the years. Heavy brocade tablecloths, silver candlesticks and fashionably dressed waitresses are all still here – perhaps only the color of the walls is slightly lighter. Still, as a stylish young woman guides her to the private booth, Rey feels less out of place than the last time. 

She sits down, closes her eyes, enjoys the air-conditioned coolness around her. The bag has left an ugly red stripe across her shoulder, she hopes it will pass soon. She takes out her pocket mirror and studies her face – her eyeliner is smudged and the tip of her nose is shiny, but she has enough time to fix everything.  Add another coat of lip gloss, too. She needs to look perfect for this.

Makeup can be armor and weapon both, Amilyn has taught her, and it often puts men ill at ease. 

He’s late.

When she finally sees him, strutting down between tables like he owns the place, Rey’s breath hitches. Three and a half years have passed, but he hasn’t changed one bit. He’s dressed in a summer blazer, rocking long sleeves in spite of the heat – the light blue linen goes well with his pale skin. There’s not a drop of sweat on his brow, as if the summer cannot affect him, and he doesn’t take off his elegant sunglasses, even though the light in the restaurant is dim.

He smiles when he approaches the booth, giving her a slight nod of approval.

“Long time no see, Rey. You look like a grownup.”

She smirks. “And you still use too much hair gel.”

Armitage laughs, and she knows he’s rolling his eyes behind the dark sunglasses. He slides into the booth, sitting opposite her, and Rey won’t admit how many times she has imagined talking to him in these three and a half years.

Now that he’s here, she isn’t sure how to begin.

The waitress comes to take their order. Rey can’t eat, the heat has killed her appetite, so she hurriedly agrees when Armitage suggests nothing but lemonade with mint and cucumber. Her throat is dry, it feels like sandpaper when she swallows. A glass of something cold will soothe her. They chat lightly while the waitress is there, commenting on the dog days and the parking problems downtown, almost like old friends – but the moment the woman leaves, they grow quiet.

Armitage pushes the menu aside and leans back in his chair, waiting for Rey to speak.

She lets the silence last.

“You won’t ask how he is?” He takes out a thin cigar from the pocket of his blazer and taps it against the table.

“If I wanted to know how he is, I would’ve called him, not you.”

An arched eyebrow peeks above the sunglasses frame.

“So that’s the game we’re playing?”

“Jesus, Armitage.” Rey scoffs. “As if I ever cared for your games.”

He nods, clicking open his Zippo with a proficient flick of the wrist. Ember sizzles, and Armitage takes a lungful of the vanilla-scented smoke. When he blows it out, a ring-shaped puff floats straight into Rey’s face.

Some things never change.

“He’s still a violent nutjob, but his current position forces him to control his temper the best he can,” Armitage begins. “He can even pass for normal, when he tries – you’d be amazed. He still lives in that awful two-room apartment, even though he could afford so much better, and still has that ugly couch on which he fucked you more times than you can count. He’s still painfully, miserably alone – you know him, ever the bachelor. And last but not the least, he still doesn’t want to see you.”

He points the cigar at her, his gesture coming across as strangely accusatory.

“I tried, over the years. Told him: ‘let’s send someone to check on our dear friend Rey, a courtesy call for old times’ sake, maybe take a few pictures, if they turn out nice you can carry one in your wallet.’ But the way he’d scowl every time I mentioned your name quickly taught me that if I wanted to keep breathing, I better avoid the topic.” Armitage spreads his palms theatrically. “So there you have it, my dear. A comprehensive overview of things you didn’t want to know.”

Once a dickhead, always a dickhead.

Rey nods slowly, takes a sip of her lemonade, watches as ice cubes clunk between cucumber slices and mint leaves. Nothing he said comes as a surprise. She knew it, in a way. She was prepared to hear it.

An image invades her mind: she’s curled up on the couch, candles lit around her like constellations while outside the city burns, and she waits to hear the front door opening, to know he’s still alive, to hurl insults to his face. Only he never comes.

“Does he… Does he drink?”

Armitage sneers. “What do you think?”

The tone of his voice makes her flinch, but she doesn’t show it.

“It’s getting better, however.” A whiff of bluish smoke whirls in front of his face, and he waves it away. “Baby steps, true, but it’s progress. Now it’s what they call functional alcoholism. That means he can down a whole bottle of vodka and still walk straight, or hold a conversation, or shoot someone right between the eyes with perfect symmetry.”

Rey swallows, holding his gaze beneath the sunglasses.

His grin broadens, pale lips tugging up, and she can tell – he’s not so different, is he, if he’s wielding this carefully nurtured smugness like armor and weapon both. She wonders why he agreed to meet her. To tell her everything she didn’t want to know, maybe.

Maybe because he missed her too.

“And how are you?” she asks.

It takes him a moment to answer.

“You know me, my dear. Enjoying life to the fullest.”

Slowly, he takes off the sunglasses and Rey realizes she was wrong. He has changed.

There are wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, crow’s feet cracking the skin. Blond eyelashes stand in contrast with red-rimmed lids. His blue eyes look tired and dry, as if it burns when he blinks – chronic insomnia, it seems. Perhaps something more. He doesn’t drink until he loses it, Rey thinks, he’d never give up control, but she bets that lately he’s been taking more than a nip of whiskey before bedtime. To cope, to survive, to play for the winning side.

“What was it like down there, during the bombing?”

She didn’t mean to ask this, but here she is.

Armitage gives a bitter chuckle. “Better than a vacation in the Bahamas. Best three months of my fucking life.”

Her eyes downcast, Rey twirls her glass, making the ice cubes click.

“It wasn’t my fault, you know,” she says too quietly.

Armitage shifts in his chair, wood creaking beneath him, and puts the sunglasses back on his nose as if he feels naked without them.

“Rey, darling, as the bombs were falling on my head and Ren had us carry out orders that grew more gruesome by the day, there was one thought alone that kept my poor heart all warm and fuzzy. See, no matter how I felt, I knew that you and Ren had it worse.” He sniggers, vanilla smoke oozing between his teeth. “The two of you, you did what you did because you thought it was the only way to stay together – you told him about Snoke, he went on and made that deal. Yet it’s exactly what you did that ended up breaking you apart. Made you lose everything. Now, isn’t that just glorious? Fucking irony at its finest.” 

He takes a long drag, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs to savor the taste, and then exhales through his nose.

“To think we could have had it all…”

He’ll never stop rubbing it in, Rey realizes.

A part of her thinks she deserves it. She did blow their one chance at happiness.

The other part knows that no matter how cunningly designed his plan was, it would have never worked out in the long run – not with Kylo, not with her, not in this fucking country such as it is. Because life’s a bitch, Armitage said so himself once, and we can’t always get what we want.

There’s no more lemonade in Rey’s glass, but her throat is still parched.

“So, what can I do for you, my dear?” Armitage breaks the silence expertly, before the mood gets too uncomfortable. “I presume you want something.”

Rey licks her mouth, feeling the strawberry taste of lip gloss.

When she rehearsed this in her head, it seemed easier. She thought the words would flow.

But if she starts reciting the lines she’s prepared now, they’ll ring hollow, weak – and that’s not the game she wants to play with Armitage Hux.

“Come on, Rey, you can do this,” he teases. “I doubt you called me out of the blue after all these years just because you’ve been missing my charming company. You have a request.”

He leans across the table and lowers his glasses just enough for Rey to see the gloating in his bloodshot eyes.

“Let me help you: start with a ‘please’. That one’s always nice to hear.”

Rey looks at him for a long moment, resisting the urge to reach out and take off the fucking sunglasses.

“Please,” she says.

This takes him by surprise.

He pulls back and squishes the cigar in the ashtray, rolling it slowly. Rey fears he’ll burn his fingers.

But then he smiles again, just a soft tug of lips. She can’t tell if it’s malice she sees in his expression, or if there’s a touch of concern there, mixed with a weird kind of sadness – or all of that at once, because it’s Armitage.

“I… I have a message.”

He gives her a curt nod. “Of course you do.”

Rey puts her bag on the table and opens it.

“I know he doesn’t want to see me. That’s fine. I prefer it that way, too. Actually, if possible, I’d like to keep communicating through you. That’s why I called you.”

A frown pulls at his eyebrows, but he schools his face before it becomes noticeable.

“What happened?” His voice is almost gentle as he whispers the question.

Rey rummages through the bag – she should have prepared it earlier, taken it out while she was waiting, but then again, she didn’t want him to spot it before the right moment comes.

Amilyn would probably understand, she thinks. She’s open to pragmatic solutions if they’re given a reasonable explanation. Poe wouldn’t get what the fuck is going on – not that she’s counting on him, he’s out of touch with these things anyway. But Leia? Leia would kill her.

Good thing she doesn’t have to know.

And someone had to do something.

“Here.” Rey finally takes out a piece of paper from the bag and slides it across the table. “It’s a list.”

Armitage cocks his head curiously, hesitating before he reaches for the paper. He unfolds it with a rustle and starts reading, his lips moving silently as he articulates the long, complicated words.

Then his face darkens.

“We, um… We’re not without connections,” Rey begins to explain. “We pulled every string we had. Only this time… This time it ain’t enough. You can’t find this stuff here, we turned over every stone – but it’s available abroad. We checked. Even in Hungary. Now, we could ask someone to bring it, or go fetch it ourselves, but… It costs a fortune, and… Well.”

She clears her throat.

“The problem is, we need a steady, long-term supply. And that’s currently possible only with the regime connections.”

She waits for him to snipe something awful and condescending, but he doesn’t.

“Are these meds?” he finally asks.

Rey nods.

“Tell him…”

Her voice almost cracks, but she won’t allow it.

Rey pauses, inhales deeply, leans over the table and takes Armitage’s glass. Cool droplets trickle down her chin as she finishes his drink.

And then she’s ready. 

“Tell him that his mother is dying.”

 

Chapter Text

I Think I Thought I Saw You Try

 

 

 

“What the fuck are they doing?”

It’s odd to hear Amilyn use a swear word.

Rey lifts her gaze from the press clippings she’s been organizing, cut out articles covering her entire desk. Amilyn is flipping through a magazine, her expression hidden behind the covers – it seems that the comment is about something she has read. On the front page, there’s a dark silhouette of a male figure, with a stark white question mark where his face should be.

“Fucking fucktards.”

A fan rotates in the office, making the magazine rustle each time it blows in Amilyn’s direction. It’s set to the maximum speed, vibrating against the wooden floor as it rolls, and Rey has to put pebbles on her cutouts so that they don’t fly away. She doesn’t complain, though. It’s too hot, and Amilyn is too nervous.

“Are you okay?” she asks, trying to sound casual.

“A bunch of Goldilockses, that’s what they are.” Amilyn tosses the magazine aside, shaking her head. “This one is too young, this one is too old, this one swings too much to the left, this one went too far to the right, this one is an old communist, this one is a known monarchist… For fuck’s sake, people. The elections are next month, and the goddamn opposition still can’t come up with a joint candidate!”

“Maybe we’re in the wrong fairy tale,” Poe chirps behind his computer screen. “Cinderella would be better. Then, at least they’d have a glass slipper that contenders could try on until the dream president-to-be is found.”

Amilyn narrows her eyes, lips tightened in a wine-red line.

“You’re not funny, Dameron.”

Years have passed, and he’s still “Dameron” in public.

Rey expects him to retort, but he bows his head instead, keyboard clicking as he resumes typing – only a slight line between his eyebrows shows that her words have affected him. Maybe they’ll argue when they return home, Rey thinks.

Or maybe he understands that Amilyn is not having it easy these days.

Until the day her illness made her too weak to sit straight, no matter how tough she pretended to be when people were watching, Leia Organa ran the Resistance with charm and wit and fire in her eyes. Alliances were created effortlessly, donors opened their pockets, and everyone nodded their heads when the beloved General gave her orders – the graffiti kids and the office volunteers and the political hotshots alike. The woman was – and still is – a living legend.

Rey knows better, she does. It’s disappointing how things can never be the same once you see the person behind the symbol. But she’s not naïve, not after everything – she understands fully well the importance of legends.

And Amilyn is not Leia.

Still, the Resistance is a formidable, self-sufficient machine. Running smoothly, with enough manpower and money that pours in from private donations, or diaspora, or international friends, as they’re told, it follows a well-organized campaign step by step, marching towards a clear goal. It is the backbone of popular anger – a catchphrase often repeated in the year after the bombing. But the rules have changed. Sitting at her desk doing paperwork, Rey finds that nowadays activism boils down to marketing and strategies, public opinion polls and carefully curated trademarks. Branding – that’s the word.

All throughout the summer, the Resistance office is visited by people Rey hasn’t seen around before. They have blazers and Italian shoes and laptops with a shiny apple logo, and they say things like “intellectual capital” and “grassroots movement” and “viral content creation”. It’s necessary, Leia explains when she’s strong enough to use the cell phone in hospital. This is a now-or-never moment, every resource must be employed. The D-Day is in September. If democracy doesn’t triumph over the regime then, what will follow will be another decade of tyranny and isolation and darkness, until their country is erased from the global map forever, like the black hole that it is.

It’s working, the raised fist campaign, Rey thinks. It is. It gives people hope.

But too often, she catches herself missing the mess of the old protest headquarters at the Faculty of Philosophy: the sleeping bags in corners, the squashed beer cans on sticky floors, the graffiti on the walls, the camaraderie. The times when Amilyn was Professor Holdo, whose only duty was worrying about the logistics, and not dealing with marketing moguls and flipping her lid because the coalition of opposition parties can’t produce a joint candidate.

Fuck a perfect rebellion campaign if the people don’t have a person to vote for, in the end.

“Amilyn?” Rey asks, headlines of cut out articles dancing in front of her eyes in a blur. “Did it ever occur to you that Leia wants her brother involved because, well, in theory, he might run for office?”

Poe stops typing, raising his eyebrows at her in a mixture of disbelief and amusement. It does sound stupid when she says it out loud, she agrees.

“I know he’s, um, special, but from what I gather he was a cult figure in 1968,” Rey carries on, trying not to feel like an idiot. “And the fact that he withdrew from public when the war began is good, right? He didn’t give any embarrassing statements, didn’t get entangled in political games, didn’t have corruption scandals… He’s a clean slate. An ideal candidate, of sorts. You think that’s what she has in mind?”

Amylin is silent for a moment, lost in thought, tucking a stray curl that the fan has ruffled behind her ear. Rey is grateful she’s not instantly told to get real – she sees that Poe’s eyes narrow, as if he’s actually considering the idea for the first time.

But then Amilyn sighs. “You met the man. Would you vote for him?”

Rey doesn’t know what to say.

“Well. Suppose you would. Suppose that many people would, since they’d rather vote for the devil himself than for the president. The problem is, that’s not enough, according to polls. The joint candidate must be someone who’ll give hope to non-voters, who’ll make them believe a change is possible even if the elections are rigged, so they come out and do something. That is the path to victory – that’s why the opposition asshats are struggling so much to find the right person. And with all due respect to Luke Skywalker, 1968 was thirty years ago.”

She frowns, and Rey notices a new shade of blue to the sadness in her eyes.

“Our people, we have the collective memory of a goldfish,” Amilyn continues grudgingly. “We’re repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again – that’s our curse. If there were justice, the future of this country would never depend on the goddamn Goldilockses again, not after their spectacular fuckup in 1997. But they’re the only opposition we’ve got, and beggars can't be choosers, so we have to wait for them to make up their minds. And in the meantime, well, we must keep fighting for every vote.”

“Fucking end of times,” Rey concludes. It’s only when she says the words that she realizes how long it’s been since she last heard them – a wave of nostalgia hits her so strongly her breath catches.

To her surprise, Amilyn dissolves into laughter. A cheerful sound resonates against the office walls, and even Poe joins in, pushing away the keyboard. The fan rotates, whipping up stale air, and as it blows on the discarded magazine, it falls from the desk, straight into the trashcan. Amilyn snorts, covering her mouth, but it only makes her laugh more, and Poe’s eyes gleam with tenderness as he observes her. There’s an odd intimacy to the moment, fleeting and fragile, and for a second Rey actually feels good.

It is then that Poe’s cell phone rings.

“Unknown caller.” He frowns as he picks up, interrupting the ringtone, a mechanically rendered Bon Jovi song that everyone but him finds annoying. “Dameron speaking. What can I do for you?”

Rey glances at her own phone, tucked under the stacks of newspapers she’s been cutting. No new messages. Armitage told her he’d text if he had news.

“Come again?” Poe jerks up. His chair rolls backwards, hitting the wall with a sharp bang, and Amilyn stops laughing. “Slow down, slow down. Can you repeat, please? And try to speak louder. I'm barely hearing you over the siren.”

Poe’s accent grows thicker, words rolling off his tongue with that strong Southern twang like every time he doesn’t think about how he speaks. Rey feels the back of her neck prickling – it’s unbearably hot in the room, but the sweat beading above her upper lip runs cold.

“How bad is it?” Poe asks.

She hears a muffled voice through the phone – high-pitched, boyish, making breathless, squeaky pauses between words, stuttering as he speaks. Whoever it is, he doesn’t seem to be in the best shape, and it takes him a while to explain everything.

“Where are you?” Poe leans over the desk, takes a pen, scribbles something on a piece of paper. “I see. Are they still there?”

Amilyn raises her hand, gesturing questioningly, but Poe waves her away – not now. And then his face turns pale. On his tanned skin, it’s the color of ash.

“What?” He grabs his wallet from the desk drawer, folds the paper he wrote on into the pocket of his shirt. “I’m taking a cab. I’ll be there in a few. Do not let them take you to the precinct before I arrive.”

When he hangs up, Poe pauses, taking deep breaths like it’s an exercise – in and out, slowly, to regain control. Then, he bolts straight for the door. There are dark sweat stains on the back of his shirt that weren’t there a moment ago.

“Care to explain what happened?” Amilyn asks.

“It’s Temiri,” Poe says.

Rey vaguely remembers the boy: wide-set eyes, a button nose, a Batman cap worn backwards. Small, shorter than her. Talks too fast. Still in school.

“A group of men attacked his team an hour ago while they were putting up posters. Beat them black and blue, used baseball bats. Temiri lost two front teeth, can’t move his left hand, can’t breathe properly. Broken ribs, he thinks. Another boy seems to have concussion.”

Amilyn’s eyes go wide, and Rey feels her mouth drying, a buzz in her ears making the room spin around her.

Goddammit.

“Are the police there? Is that what the siren is about?”

“Of course the fucking police are there!” Poe snaps. “And they want to arrest our people – battery charges, believe it or not. They won’t let them go to hospital.”

Amylin picks up her purse from the back of her chair and shoves her feet into a pair of heeled sandals she kicked off under her desk as soon as she came to the office. The fan ruffles her hair as she stands up – it blows around her head like a halo, like a special effect in a movie scene.

“You’re not going alone.”

Poe hesitates. “Amilyn…” His voice shakes, and Rey thinks he wanted to call her something else – sweetheart, or honey, or something more personal, a nickname only the two of them know. “It might be dangerous.”

“Exactly.” She nods. “That’s why you’re not going alone.”

Rey expects him to protest, but he doesn’t. Poe’s eyes twinkle again – it’s pride, she thinks, paired with such boyish adoration that Rey feels happy for them and sick with envy at the same time. And then he smiles, white teeth on display as if for a fashion shoot.

“Let’s go,” he says.

Amilyn follows him – she almost reaches out to touch him, but they don’t hold hands, they never do. They look odd next to each other. Incompatible. Rey wonders if people who don’t know can ever guess the truth, even if all that squabbling and long gazes and secret touches when they think no one’s watching make it glaringly obvious.

Probably not. People see only what they want to see.

“Rey?” Amilyn says, looking back. “You coming?”

Rey doesn’t need to be told twice.

Shoving the phone into her bag, she hops on her feet and hurries out of the office, rushing to keep up with the clicking of Amilyn’s heels.

In the taxi, Rey sits next to the driver, staring through the window as they race down the streets. Amilyn calls someone promptly, phone buttons bleeping as she dials the number, and then she speaks in a low voice, as if forging conspiracies. It’s a lawyer, Rey assumes – she hears her mentioning criminal proceedings and underage clients and being on standby until further notice.

Someone should tell the boy’s parents. Rey waits for Amilyn to call them, but she doesn’t.

The sun is setting, twilight coloring the sky in red and purple and indigo blue, and a neon shade of pink that slowly bleeds across the horizon. The colors reflect in the windows of concrete buildings, breathing life into the greyness of social housing – it looks like a postcard. Were the sunsets always this stunning? Rey remembers reading it’s the air pollution that enhances the colors by changing the way the light refracts. Well. At least the toxic dust left behind by the bombing serves a purpose – apart from causing cancer, that is.

“…don’t twist my words, I’m not saying this is good,” Poe quietly argues with Amilyn on the back seat. “I’m saying that if the regime is getting violent, it shows they’re afraid. And that is good. They’ve been quiet for too long.”

“Children got hurt, Poe.”

“I know. I know.” There’s a hint of guilt in his tone. "But if they’re scared, it means they take us seriously. It means we actually stand a chance”

Rey hears Amilyn scoffing, and then they sit in silence. Moments pass.  

“Back then, I was right,” Poe says after a while. “The bridge incident allowed us to keep protesting without police brutality. And that gave us victory.”

“Oh sweetie,” Amilyn sighs. “Back then, the regime actually cared what the world thought of them. Now, they have nothing to lose – and everything.”

Poe doesn’t answer. Rey’s stomach sinks, and she tenses in the passenger seat, pretending she didn’t hear anything.

When they arrive at the scene, the first thing she notices is the police patrol car. Its light blinks red and blue as it spins, illuminating the street, clashing with the colors of the twilight sky. Thankfully, the siren is off. The car is parked next to a wall of scaffold boards covered with half-glued posters with the raised fist – “keep resisting”, the slogan says. There are more posters in the street, crumpled, scattered like leaves. Glue leaks from an overturned bucket, milky stains glistening on asphalt, and it mixes with something dark and congealed and not quite red.

Blood.

A boy – Temiri – jumps up to greet them when they exit the taxi, but a police officer stops him with a hand on his shoulder. The boy’s face is twisted by bruises, split lips bleeding, eyes so swollen he can barely keep them open – if she didn’t know it was him, Rey wouldn’t have recognized him. His hands are cuffed. Behind him, there’s a girl sitting on the sidewalk. Her knees are scraped, torn jeans clinging to the cuts on her skin, her cheeks striped with traces of tears. Another boy is in the police car, crouched on the back seat. He doesn’t move, doesn’t appear to be conscious.

There are two police officers, uniforms stained with sweat and guns on display, and they both look bored.

“Poe!” Temiri wheezes. When he opens his mouth, Rey sees that his teeth are smashed.

Poe winces, eyebrows pulled in a pained frown, and Amilyn clutches her purse tight to her chest. Rey doesn’t react, however. She’s seen worse.

She still dreams of crushed winter roses, sometimes.

“You’re that Dameron dude,” the officer says, tightening his grip on Temiri’s shoulder. “Boy, do you like to bullshit in front of cameras. All these years in the capital, and you still speak like a redneck.”

“All these years in the force, and you still have a beer gut,” Poe retorts, his accent thicker than ever. “What, arresting children doesn’t burn enough calories?”

No one laughs at the joke.

The officer squeezes the boy’s shoulder, his knuckles turning white, and Temiri whimpers. Poe almost steps forward, but then the other policeman assumes a menacing pose, legs apart, both hands hooked to the belt next to his gun, and Amilyn clears her throat. Rey shivers.

This began badly.  

“What happened here?” Amilyn asks, her voice not betraying emotions.

“We were… We were putting up posters over there and… And then, these assholes came… Four of them, they were four, with baseball bats… And then they… Shit. I already told Poe…” Temiri stops, cut short by coughing. Was his voice always so childlike?

“They hit me a few times. Stopped when I fell,” the girl carries on, rubbing her cheek with the back of her palm. “Beat the shit out of the boys, though. As you see. Then, they called the police, and these fuck—the officers, I mean… They got teleported here within a minute. Like they’d been waiting.”

“Lying little shits.” The policeman grins.

“I assume you have a different version of the event?”

Amilyn is too composed as she speaks, dignified even – shoulders squared, chin raised, makeup flawless while everyone around her shines with sweat and caked blood. The policeman squints as he studies her, gaze lingering on designer sandals and jewelry and blow-dried curls. She’s taller than him. His face hardens, even if he keeps grinning.

He hates her, Rey realizes – and it has nothing to do with the situation. This is a different kind of hate.

She wonders how he would have reacted to Leia.

“These little shits here were vandalizing the state property when a group of concerned citizens kindly asked them to stop,” the policeman begins, his voice lilting as if he’s having fun. “But instead of obeying, these hooligans viciously attacked the citizens. Poor people, they had to defend themselves – the kids acted wild. Probably drugged out of their minds. The citizens barely managed to fend them off, and then they called the police. So here we are, about to take the little shits to jail. Battery charges. My favorite.”

Rey almost laughs. Is he for real?

But then Temiri trembles, violent shudders shaking his body. The handcuffs rattle, and Rey wishes to leave bloody scratch marks on the officer’s face.

“You can’t arrest them,” Poe says. “They’re underage.”

“That’s what the juvie’s for.” The second policeman finally speaks, his tone far from playful. “Battery charges are serious business.”

The girl makes an odd sound – a swallowed whimper, like she won’t let them hear her cry, and Rey suddenly regrets not knowing her name. Amilyn steps forward, towering above the talkative officer with her arms crossed.

He doesn’t flinch.

“These children need medical help,” she says. “You’re putting their lives in danger by holding them here. Will you be able to live with yourself if something happens to them?”

The policeman shrugs.

“They chose their own fate, stupid little fucks. Because people like you filled their heads with fairy tales.” He raises his palms as if he’s apologizing. “So, ma’am, if something happens to them, we’re not to blame. You are.”

Rey gasps. Shit.

Amilyn clenches her jaw, long earrings swinging as she shakes her head in disgust, but Rey can tell – his words have shaken her more than she will admit. She hopes that the policeman doesn’t notice.

It’s then that Rey realizes: this is all staged.

It has to be.

The patrol car came too quickly to the scene. The officers allowed Temiri to call Poe, but then instead of taking the kids to the precinct, they calmly waited for the Resistance to arrive. And now, they are about to arrest two beaten up boys and a traumatized girl right before the eyes of the people who encouraged them to fight for a better future. This is a fucking show, a lesson to be learned. A message – even if you’re the leaders of the Resistance, at the end of the day you’re powerless, and there’s nothing you can do to stop two low-ranking policemen from doing as they please.

Damn them and their uniforms.

Amilyn seems to have understood as well, for she shifts in her stance uncomfortably, balancing on high heels.

“Your names and badge numbers, officers.”

It’s the other policeman, the less jovial one, who speaks. “You’re really looking for trouble, ma’am?”

“Names and numbers.”

The talkative officer laughs, taking out his badge, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “If our lady here wants adventure, her wish is my command.”

Poe fidgets nervously. For a moment, Rey thinks he’ll try to do something brave and chivalrous and stupid to draw attention to himself, but he doesn’t. He looks oddly young, standing lost like that.

“What… What will happen now?” Temiri asks, swollen eyelids fluttering. He’s talking to Poe, but it’s Amilyn who answers.

“You’ll go to the precinct with these fine gentlemen here.” She scribbles down the badge number into the notebook she took out of her purse. “We’ll be there shortly with a lawyer. And an ambulance. We’ll contact your parents, too. We’ll raise hell.

She shoves the badge into the policeman’s hands with such force that the man steps back, and then she smiles, white teeth sharp against her dark lipstick.

“You think that we’re helpless, but we’re not. Just keep pushing us, and you’ll see. We will strike back. And when we do, you won’t like it.”

He nods, hatred and spite burning in his eyes. “Good luck with that, ma’am.”

Amilyn turns on her heel and starts walking away, not looking back, sandals clicking on hot summer asphalt.

“Hey!” Poe runs after her. “Are we really leaving?”

“Sure we are,” she spits. “We have a rough night ahead, and we’re done here.”

Rey looks at the girl again – the officer pulls her to her feet, snaps the handcuffs around her wrists. The girl holds his gaze, all youthful defiance, but doesn’t say anything. How old is she – sixteen, seventeen? Younger maybe? As young as Rey was when she had met him?

Did she also lie about her age so they would allow her to take part in street actions?

“Courage,” Rey says, realizing how trite it sounds. “Keep calm. We’ll be there for you shortly.”

She doesn’t stay to watch the policemen push the children into the patrol car.

In the taxi, on their way back, Amilyn calls the lawyer again, this time speaking loudly, making plans, spitting out promises. Rey has never heard her use so many swear words in one sentence. She glances at the back seat – Poe is looking at Amilyn as she shouts into the phone, his face scrunched in concern. Their hands are almost touching. Now’s the moment, Rey thinks. He should hold her hand. No one will see.

He doesn’t, though.

“Rey, sweetie, we’ll drop you off at your place.” Amilyn reaches out to squeeze Rey’s shoulder. Her fingers are eerily cold. “Try to get some sleep.”

Rey frowns. “You don’t want me to go with you?”

“There’s no point, sunshine,” Poe adds as if he’s apologizing. “Amilyn and I will take care of this. You come to the office first thing in the morning. We’ll need someone well rested, with a clear head, to help us handle things tomorrow when the show begins.”

He sighs, drumming his fingers against the car seat as if he isn’t sure what to do with his hands.

“Shit’s about to get real.”

When they leave Rey in front of her building, the sky is dark. Streetlights illuminate the city in pale neon, but in her neighborhood, it’s not enough – there are black holes where the bombed buildings used to stand, spreading shadows and loneliness and an odd smell of decay, like crushed bricks and long burned wood. Rey watches the taxi as it drives away, and then takes out the phone from her bag. She unlocks the screen.

No new messages.

She’s dizzy from the heat, and filthy, sweat mixing with stale deodorant, dust sticking to the sunscreen on her shoulders. Her stomach rumbles, but she doesn’t feel like cooking, not tonight. She’ll take a chocolate from her stash, she decides. With hazelnuts. And then she’ll read the books she borrowed from Luke. She isn’t sure that she even likes the albino prince and his soul-sucking sword – it’s too flamboyant, too dramatic, and in the end he always ruins everything he touches – but tonight, all she needs is for a tale to take her far and away from her life as it is. She’s fucking bone tired.

She feels like crying, but not quite.

Rey climbs the stairs, dragging her feet. The stench of cat piss tingles in her nostrils – it always gets worse in the summer. It takes her a moment to fish out the keys from the clutter in her bag – her hands are shaking, a little. Thinking about the chocolate makes her mouth water, and she licks her chapped lips.

It is then that she notices: the door is unlocked.

She should have seen it coming.

There’s light in the living room, warm and dim, with a reddish glow. It’s her reading lamp that’s turned on, her favorite one, carefully chosen to make the rented apartment feel like home. He’s sitting on a wooden chair, head cocked to the side, long legs crossed, large, and dark, and out of place. The room is too small for him – even the shadow he casts swallows up the entire wall. He’s dressed in a grey shirt with a crisp collar, its sleeves rolled up to his elbows – an oddly elegant choice. It suits him, though. Even if it looks like something Armitage made him wear.

He’s reading.

His lips are parted and a frown splits his forehead, but he doesn’t appear annoyed, no. Dreamy, perhaps. Pensive. Absorbed in the book. A hint of a smile dances in the corner of his mouth – barely there, but Rey knows how to recognize it. He turns the page, and his eyebrows arch in wonder. There’s something disarmingly sincere in his expression – eager, hungry, so painfully young. A lost little boy finding refuge in the fantasy books his uncle has given him.

Rey wonders what he thinks about the prince who ruins everything he touches, bringing nothing but death in the end.

But then he lifts his gaze, and the boy named Ben is gone. All that’s left in his stead is the scarred war criminal wanted by the court in the Netherlands.

“I thought you didn’t want to see me,” Rey says.

Her heartbeat picks up, but only a little, and she hates how his smell makes her feel.

Kylo closes the book and puts it aside on the table, large fingers tracing the cover as if he’s unwilling to let it go.  

“I, um… This thing we have to discuss. I thought it was better to do it in person.”

Rey’s knees sway. His voice is nasal, deeper than she remembers, and he sounds tired.

“Don’t blame Armitage,” he adds quickly. “He’s an ass, but this is not his fault.”

She nods.

“How did you…”

She needs to sit. She pushes her rumpled clothes off the chair opposite him and plops down, folding her legs, crossing her arms.

This is fucking surreal.

“How did you get in?”

Kylo hesitates for a moment.

Rey isn’t sure if she sees strands of grey in his hair, or it’s just a trick of the light.

“Your, um, your friend, DJ… He’s pretty open to negotiations, when presented with the right arguments. But I think it’s only fair. You still have the keys to my place.”

She feels a rush of blood to her head, so sudden it makes her ears buzz.

“I know you were there during the bombing," Kylo sighs. "You… You fold the bedsheets in a distinct way. Very tidy. Must’ve learned it in the Home.”

Fuck.

He smiles weakly, a clumsy tug of lips upwards, and it horrifies her to see that after all these years, the yearning in his eyes hasn’t waned.

“It’s okay, Rey. I’m not mad.”

She can’t tell if he’s drunk.

She’ll kill DJ for what he did, she thinks, even if she isn’t surprised.

Kylo has opened the windows while he was waiting. A light wind blows the curtains – they float, thin sheets of cheap lace hanging in the air, like sea foam, like ghosts between them. A group of girls giggle below – Rey often hears them passing by, on their way to the nightclubs by the river. She’s never been there herself. Outside, it smells of wet asphalt, freshly washed by street sweepers, and fruity perfume mixed with coconut sunscreen, and river mud, and the last days of August, when you can feel the summer slipping between your fingers.

“You like it here?” Kylo gestures at the room, his tone barely a whisper.

“Well.” Rey shrugs. “It’s mine. I mean, it isn’t, but… You understand, don’t you?”

He gives her a brief nod, lips pulled in that non-smile of his.

“You live alone?”

He knows the answer, of course he does. He just wants her to say it.

“I… I considered getting a pet,” she replies instead. “A dog.”

“You want a dog?”

To her surprise, this makes him grin – crooked teeth flash in her dimly lit room, that chipped fang glinting in the corner of his mouth, and Rey looks away, fixing her gaze on the carpet stains.

“A cat would be more practical, I know,” she says too softly. “I spend too much time away from home. But, I… I just think I’m more of a dog person.”

In truth, from what she knows, cats are independent, capricious creatures, and Rey doesn’t want that. She wishes for a pet that’s loyal, openly affectionate and eager to please. And dogs are needy.

But she can’t tell him that.

Kylo’s grin widens – even in his thirties, he still smiles like a dork.

“I can see you with a dog,” he says.

Now this, it hurts in a way she didn’t expect.

It implies things. It makes her think of a life that was never to be.

They could have had a fucking dog.

Damn you, Kylo.

“I’m not…”

Rey isn’t sure what she’s trying to say, and she needs to pause before her voice breaks.

“This. Us.” She gestures between them. “I’m not doing it for a third time.”

Kylo blinks, visibly taken aback. His smile dissipates – for a moment there, he almost looks offended.

“I know that.” Black hair falls into his eyes as he nods – once, she would have tucked it behind his ear. “That’s not what I’m here for. And I agree. I… I don’t want it either.”

Rey believes him. He’s always been a bad liar.

Suddenly, she regrets saying it out loud, and she wraps her arms around herself, feeling the stickiness of her sweaty skin. She needs that shower.

“It’s okay, Rey,” Kylo repeats, slurring ever so slightly. “I only want to talk.”

He is drunk, she concludes.

Maybe he can no longer be sober at all.

He falls silent for a while, chewing on his lip, staring at the curtains that blow in the wind. Rey observes him. He does seem calmer indeed, quieter – no longer like a firecracker about to explode. She can see why Armitage said he could pass for normal. Perhaps it’s the vodka that dulled his edges, she thinks, now that he has learned how to function with it. She doesn’t like it.

There’s a deep wrinkle cutting between his eyebrows – serves him right for frowning all the time. It makes him look older. The wound on his chin has healed well, it’s almost invisible, like a mere fold in his skin. Like it’s not from a bullet that almost claimed his life. It’s the other scar, the one Snoke gave him with a cracked bottle, that still splits his face in two. It’s so fucking convenient. The laziest way to describe a villain is to make his face disfigured.

His eyes haven’t changed, however – but she has already noted that.

“You’re in college?” Kylo asks after a while.

“Mechanical engineering.” Rey points at her textbooks on the shelf behind him. “Third year.”

“Ah.” He turns around, glances at the books, nods. “You’ve always been so smart. And you had a knack for those things. You…You’ll be a brilliant engineer.”

He says it as if he’s proud of her, and Rey feels that she’s blushing.

Fuck you, you sick fuck. You sad drunk. You won’t make me cry.

“How’s the traitor?”

She narrows her eyes – of all things, this is what he wants to know?

But the question makes her pause, and she hates it. When was the last time she talked to Finn – four weeks ago? Five?

She should give him a call, one of these days.

“He’s doing well, thank you.” Rey chuckles dryly. “Want me to give him your best regards?”

Kylo smirks and shakes his head, waving dismissively with his hand. In a different life, she would have found these clumsy attempts at small talk endearing, sweet – but their circumstances are what they are.

Maybe she’s supposed to ask him about his life.

Then again, all she needs to know is in the cut out article she keeps in her drawer. Crimes against humanity, it says – murder, deportation, persecutions, and violations of the customs of war.

A burst of laughter echoes from the street. This time of the year, in the dead of night, she can hear every word said beneath her window, even on the fifth floor. The girls are in an exceptionally good mood tonight. Ready to party. Not giving a fuck about anything – be it war crimes, or the upcoming elections, or the fact that this very evening, two boys and a girl got beaten up and arrested for putting up posters.

May they choke on their giggles.

“Been a while, eh?” Rey says, because she has to say something.

“Too long,” Kylo agrees.

Three years, she thinks. Three years and five months. Give her a moment, and she’ll calculate the exact number of days since the last time she saw him.

And here they are, talking about dogs, ignoring the unasked questions that hang between them.

He doesn’t mention the Resistance, for instance. He’s not curious where the books came from – although it’s obvious he knows, he knows it well, he had read them before, he could barely let go of them now. She wonders if any of the stains she saw on the yellowed pages were left behind by the boy named Ben.

He doesn’t ask about his mother.

And he even broke into her home with the fucking excuse they had a thing to discuss.

"Will you do it?" Rey interrupts the silence. "Will you get the meds for us?"

Kylo frowns, the line between his eyebrows deepening, and he swipes the hair away from his face, exposing the scar.

"And why would I do that, Rey?"

She gives him a sad smile. He really wants her to explain?

Because it's your mother, for one.

Because it's the right thing to do.

Because you weren't there for it – the long waiting hours at the doctor's office, the tests, so many tests, the hospital nightgowns, ugly, always striped, the surgeries, one worse than the other, the never-ending cycle of remission and relapse, all the times she said “I'm-fine-stop-fussing”, all the bad jokes about shopping for wigs they still diligently laughed at, all the doctors who shook their heads sadly because the basic therapies were no longer available, because the fucking meds became rare goods, you were away, Kylo, you weren't there to see it.

But that's not what she says.

“Remember that night?”

His throat bobs as he swallows. It’s not as if either of them will ever forget.

“You… You said, ‘my country needs me’. Those were your exact words.” Rey huffs. “I still remember the tone of your voice when you said it. And the look on your face.”

Kylo leans forward, eyes glinting, glossy with vodka. He’s so close she can smell his cologne. A small movement, and she could touch him, reach out and close the distance, feel how puckered his scar is against the sweat on his skin.

Not that she’ll ever do it.

“Well. This country…  It needs your mother, too.” Rey nods, as if to assure herself. “You of all people, you should understand.”

There. It’s in the open, now. She wonders how he’ll take it.

Kylo grins again, but his expression doesn’t reflect joy. He inhales to speak, lifting his palm.

“Rey, love, I…”

He freezes, realizing what he said.

Fuck.

“Forgive me. Force of habit.”

He doesn’t finish the thought.

Rey looks away. She hugs herself tighter, knees tucked into her chest, heels on the edge of the chair, and she blinks rapidly, feeling that her mascara begins to run. She won’t rub her eyes in front of him.

The laughter outside finally stops.

“Armitage will make arrangements,” Kylo says after a long pause. “He’ll call you. Or text you. I don’t know how you communicate, now that you’re friends.”

Rey raises an eyebrow at the odd touch of jealousy in his voice.

She shouldn’t pay attention to that. It doesn’t matter.

What’s important is that all is settled now, isn’t it? She wonders why he agreed to it so fast, without the discussion he’d promised, but she doesn’t ask.

Kylo pulls a cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans. It looks ridiculously small in his hands, and his thumbs fumble as he types.

The Nokia in her bag buzzes.

“That… That’s my number. Save it. In case you need something directly.”

Rey nods slowly.

“Are you gonna leave now?”

“Do you want me to?”

She doesn’t answer.

Kylo waits for a moment, sitting tense on the wooden chair, eyes downcast, hair hanging in his face. He expects her to say something, she sees, anything – to kick him out or ask him to stay or continue their awkward conversation about college and pets and friends that once were. She keeps her mouth shut, however. She doesn’t trust her voice if she begins to speak.

Finally, he stands up.

He wobbles slightly, and Rey wonders how much vodka he had for the night.

“I’ll be going, then.”

He pauses, hesitating as if there’s something he wishes to add. He hasn’t said a word about his mother’s illness, she notices. Did it upset him at all? Will he help them get the meds for Leia’s sake, or because it’s Rey who asked him?

Monster.

Her monster, after all these years.

Kylo’s hand hovers near her shoulder. For an instant, she thinks he’ll touch her, but he doesn’t.

“Take care, Rey.” Weighty footsteps echo in the room as he walks away. “Call me if Armitage gives you trouble.”

She doesn’t turn back to watch him leave.

When the door clicks behind him, Rey rushes to the kitchen.

Her hands shake as she rummages through her stash of sweets. She rips away the tinfoil and bites into the chocolate, hazelnuts crunching under her teeth, and sugar explodes on her tongue so strongly her salivary glands hurt. The taste is sharp, rich, it almost makes her gag, but she keeps chewing, her mouth open, her body leaning against the wall.

His smell still lingers in the room.

For the next hour, or two, or longer maybe, Rey stands by the window, lace curtains dancing around her like veils. She thought she’d read but she can’t stand the idea of touching those books now, so she observes the dark street – the silhouettes of bombed buildings, the closed shutters of shops, the dull, blinking light of lamp posts, the rare passersby who go home from nightclubs, swaying drunkenly. She's waiting for the girls to pass on their way back – she's sure she'd recognize them – but it seems they're having a late night. Tears have dried on her cheeks, along with melted mascara and chocolate stains, and yet she keeps postponing the moment she'll go wash.

She doesn't even notice when the dawn comes - only that the sky is suddenly bright.

Well, now.

So much for being well rested at the office tomorrow, when shit becomes real.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dance the Ghost with Me

 

 

“Come again?” Rey shouts into her phone. “You gotta be louder, I can’t hear shit!”

She bends down in her chair, trying to take cover from the noise, but it doesn’t help. It’s a madhouse at the Resistance office. Phones are ringing, keyboards are clicking, the radio is clattering in the background, and two TV sets are on – one shows the government’s news, the other, CNN. Activists come and go. Spunky high-schoolers mingle with free-spirited housewives who bring food and politicians who sweat in their shirts and ties, and someone in the room next to Rey’s yells in English, all cuss words and name-dropping. It’s impossible to keep track of who’s who.

It’s been like this for days.

“I’m asking, did you read the article?” Rose repeats, straining her voice to speak louder.

Rey blinks. Is this a trick question?

“Rose, sweetheart,” she says very slowly, “I was there when she wrote it.”

“Oh.” Rose sounds genuinely surprised, bless her. “Wow. I only got to read it today.”

Rey doesn’t mention that she was there when it happened, too. Rose might ask for details, and now is not the moment. She can’t focus on chitchat with all this noise around her.

She isn’t sure how to talk to Rose anymore.

“So what do you think?” Rose proceeds. “It’s so powerful, it made me cry. I barely managed to finish, my eyes were full of tears.”

Rey shakes her head, glad that Rose can’t see her grimace, and takes a deep breath before replying.

“Amilyn has her way with words. She wanted to pursue a writing career, once,” she explains. If Rose were still around, working with the Resistance, she’d know these things.

Rey doesn’t blame her. It’s not fair, not after Paige. Not after Rose dropped out of college to get a job so she could help out her parents back in their hometown, not after one hobby after another had to be abandoned, not after all personal ambitions ended up sacrificed for this thing called adulting.

But Rose is happy, she is. She moved in with Finn, barely three months after they’d officially started dating. She exchanged her coke bottle glasses for contact lenses. She giggles aloud, and blushes, and tosses her hair in a way that’s both girlish and seductive, and she jokes about babies – nothing serious, of course, it’s all in good taste, but it still drives the point home in no uncertain terms. 

And it makes Finn smile.  

“So what happens now?” Rose asks. Rey presses the phone to her ear so strongly it hurts.

“Now we wait,” she shouts. “Listen, Rosie baby, I’d love to talk, but I’m kinda busy here, and the noise is insufferable.”

There’s a pause, and a sigh so heavy that Rey can hear it despite the clamor. 

“I understand. Well. Tell Amilyn she kicks ass. And, um, Rey…?” Rose hesitates for a second, but it’s enough for Rey to feel a sudden weight on her shoulders. “Come to dinner, one of these days. When you have time. Please. Finn will be really happy to see you.”

“Will do,” Rey says, and she wants to believe she truly means it. “Take care. Say hi to Finn. Gotta go now.”

She hangs up and flings the phone to her desk – the old Nokia clunks as it hits the wooden surface. Then she turns back to her computer screen, browsing through web sites in search for mentions of the Resistance.

Unsurprisingly, the internet is all about the article that Amilyn wrote.

The Resistance spent the first day after the arrest in a panicked haze – angry, sleep-deprived, in a frantic search for a solution. The children’s parents cried, the phones in the office rang all day long, and suited up lawyers frowned, talking about the police state and human rights and how to reduce battery charges from felony to misdemeanor. Raise money to pay a fine, they said, and the kids would be free to go. But by the end of the day, nothing happened. They didn’t even know if the children were taken to jail, or still detained in the precinct.

Then, on the second day, Amilyn came late to the office. She wore a flowy dress in a strange color that was neither brown nor purple nor dusty pink, and wide silver cuffs bought in an Indian store that made her look like a warrior queen. She opened a bottle of wine – well chilled rosé, her favorite – filled an elegant crystal glass to the brim, and told Rey that, if someone came looking for her, she had her permission to tell them to fuck off.

And then she started writing.

Her story was about a country that destroyed its youth. A whole generation grew up in this decade of madness. Too young to remember happier times, their education marred by teachers’ strikes and shortened school hours, these kids had never been abroad and had no idea what normal life felt like – and yet, they survived three rounds of civil war, even if the only official conflict was the one with the NATO. She wrote of boys taken to the front by force, kicking and screaming, and boys who volunteered because the state told them it’s their duty, or a friend of a friend said the quickest way to get rich was to loot burning villages. She wrote of parents too busy with survival, leaving it up to TV to bring up their kids; of erosion of values, brainwashing, propaganda; of girls taught that motherhood is the only worthwhile goal, girls turned into gold diggers, girls who went across the border chasing their dreams, only to end up sweeping floors in Vienna or smiling at tourists in Amsterdam’s window shops. As for those kids who did try to play by the rules – go to school, get a job, grow up and live a life – for them, there was no future, she wrote. Not unless they had connections. And the only way to fight for their rights was to do it in the street – fuck the country in which every regime had to be overturned by a revolution.

It was well written, evocative, passionate, and yet nothing but another think piece about why everything sucks – until the last paragraph.

There, Amilyn described the incident. She brought the scene to life with vivid precision: dramatic colors of the sunset, crumpled posters, all that blood on hot summer asphalt. Temiri’s toothless mouth, his left hand limp in the handcuffs. The girl – her name was Arashell, Rey had learned – crouched on the sidewalk with her knees scraped. The other boy lying in the police car. Two officers, signed with their names and badge numbers, ready to put children behind bars just to make a statement: your fate is in our hands. This is what happens to those who resist.

In the end, despite a whole army of lawyers, the kids were still under lock and key. They could be your children, Amilyn wrote. Your boys and girls.

They could be you.

Well, fuck that.

Cut the crap and show the bloody regime that it can’t scare us. Things must change in this country. Rise up. Resist. Rebel.

You are the spark that will light the fire that will burn the dictator down.

You have the right to a normal life.

Fight for it.

Amilyn’s nail polish got chipped while she was typing, and her voice sounded hoarse when she read the lines aloud, taking breaks to stretch her neck and crack her fingers. By the time she finished, the bottle of rosé was gone. Rey watched her send the document to a few selected e-mail addresses, and then sink into her chair, shoulders slumped, a curse on her lips – “Fuck…”

And that was it.

By the next morning, the article was published in every opposition newspaper, shared on the internet, and quoted on the radio. By the afternoon, it was translated to English, French and German. Amilyn was giving interviews, surprisingly fiery in front of the cameras, and opposition politicians started waving with the newspapers, asking for justice for the arrested kids. By the evening, a group of protesters gathered in front of the precinct, carrying raised fist signs and “Fight for it” slogans, and the Ministry of Interior even issued an official statement, saying that it has nothing to apologize for, because it is the duty of the police to protect the citizens from vandals and hooligans desecrating the streets.

But the people wouldn’t have any of it.

The Resistance doubled in members in a matter of days, and Amilyn became a star. There were even suggestions that she should run for president as the joint opposition candidate, and while it made some people chuckle in disbelief, many nodded their heads.

Still, the office feels like a battlefield now. Like a military staff. Rey doesn’t know the names of half of the people who hang out here, and Amilyn is too busy to even take a proper coffee break.

Not to mention she started smoking again.

“Hey, sunshine…” Poe Dameron knocks on the doorframe to Rey’s room, leaning against it with his arms crossed. “I’ve got good news.”

Rey lifts her gaze from the computer. Poe’s posture is slouched, and he hasn’t shaved for days. If he didn’t announce he was bringing good news, she would’ve thought that someone died.

“I talked to Leia’s doctor,” he says. “A miracle happened. The meds, well… The hospital managed to get hold of them. Everything from that list. So, um… The therapy can continue.”

“Wow!” Rey raises her eyebrows as convincingly as she can, placing her hand to her heart. “That’s the best news of the day!”

Poe gives her a clumsy nod. She’s used to seeing him without his mask by now, but it’s still a tad strange how lost he can look when he’s not wearing his lady-killer smile.

“Does it mean that Leia could make it?” she asks.

Poe thinks for a moment, then swallows, biting into his lower lip. “I don’t think so. That thing she has is damn serious, and she’s been without therapy for too long. But she can get a few extra weeks, a month even. Maybe she can make it to the elections. That would be something, you know – to have her around when we claim victory.”

He smiles, but it comes across as sad.

They should go visit her one of these days, Rey thinks. Buy some flowers. Something large and fragrant that will suppress the hospital smells – irises, for instance. They’d go well with the General.

Would he send flowers to his mother, if Rey asked him to? Would Leia throw them in the trash?

Rey clears her throat. “Speaking of which, do we have that joint candidate?”

Poe gives her a dramatic eye-roll.

“The Goldilockses are still at it, I’m afraid.” He points to the room next door. “Half of them are here right now. You can ask them yourself, if you want.”

She looks in that direction, and for a moment she’s tempted to take a peek and see what’s going on, but then she shakes her head vigorously and starts laughing. Poe joins in, but his laughter is quiet, weary.

“What’s wrong, Poe?” she finally says.

“Everything’s pitch perfect,” he lies.

Rey sighs, resting her elbows on the desk, cocking her head.

“I’m here for you, if you wanna talk.”

“I know.” Poe nods. “I know, sunshine. Thank you for that.”

When he leaves, she’s alone amidst the noise again. Voices and ringtones and litanies of news clamor around her like an angry sea, and the air in the office is stuffy, stale – it’s too small for this many people. Someone’s smoking on the balcony. Whiffs of tobacco enter her room, and the rotating fan does little to help with the heat. Rey suddenly finds it unbearable.

She catches herself staring at her phone.

No, she thinks. She shouldn’t do it.

It’s shortsighted.

Stupid.

Even unkind – in a reckless, selfish way.

And yet her fingers are itching.

She takes the Nokia, unlocks the screen and scrolls down the list of missed calls from a few days ago. She didn’t save the number, didn’t want to. She convinced herself she wouldn’t need it.

But life never goes according to plan, does it?

Rey holds her breath for a moment, giving herself time to change her mind, but she doesn’t.

It’s Rose’s fault, she decides. An odd restlessness has been gnawing away at her since she hung up that call, a foolish sense of guilt, and she wants it to stop.

Fuck it.

She licks her lips and begins to type.

Thank you.

The phone key beeps as she presses ’send’, and a pixelated envelope sprouts wings and flies away irrevocably. And then it dawns on her what she did.

Rey, you idiot.

For the next hour, she fidgets in her chair, rolling on wheels and twirling in circles, and she stares at her computer unable to work, colors on screen melting into each other like a passing smoke. When a volunteer drops by to ask if she wants pizza for lunch, she chases him away. She can’t eat.

But then nothing happens.

Time passes, and there’s no reply – no matter how often she checks her phone.

In the evening, when her shift in the office is done and she’s free to go home, Rey starts thinking she’s gotten away with it.

Good.

The sky is already purple with twilight when she returns to her apartment. She turns on the TV, skips the news, flips through channels until she finds a soap opera in Spanish. She barges in just in time to see the heroine clutching her pearls, eyes full of tears, ready to throw herself at the slick-haired male lead. It’s a show she doesn’t watch, so she has no clue what the drama is all about, but she still leaves it on. She’s gotten used to the sound of the language, and it makes her feel less lonely when it twitters in the background.

Her feet bare on floor planks, Rey pads to the kitchen to make dinner – nothing complicated, just scrambled eggs with cubed tomatoes. Done in five minutes. She sweats standing above the stove. One of these days, she’ll ask DJ to install air conditioning in the apartment – after that majestic fuckup from last week, it’s the least he can do to make amends. She briefly contemplates whether to dig into her chocolate stash but decides against it, and concludes that the perfect end for the evening would be to play a movie. Something stupid – a comedy, preferably. Something she’s watched before.

But then she hears the message alert tone.

Three mechanical notes bleep like a fire alarm, their sound stabbing directly into her nervous system, and Rey’s hand jolts. She almost burns her fingers on the hot oil in the frying pan.

Of course it’s from him. She knows it even without looking.

Rey takes her phone, scrolls to the envelope icon in the corner of the screen, opens it. Her eyebrows shoot up.

Really?

I didn’t get to ask you the other day, the message reads, how do you like Elric?

She won’t laugh, she thinks. It’s so silly, it’s sad.

Her fingers fly across the keys as she furiously types her reply. She should have guessed that the boy named Ben would find his idol in the doomed albino prince.

He’s a moping manchild who fucks up everything and then blames the gods for his fate, Rey writes. What’s there to like?

She holds the phone long after sending the message, staring at it even as the screen darkens. Then, a sudden smell of burned eggs stirs her from her reverie – it reeks of charcoal and hot metal and bad memories from the Home.

She’s ruined her dinner.

Her Nokia bleeps again – the reply has arrived too quickly.

That was cruel.

Well, maybe it was, Rey thinks. But it’s the truth.

She pockets the phone and proceeds to scrap the blackened remains of tomatoes and eggs into the trashcan. The thick smoke makes her eyes water. Opening the window, she stands for a moment to observe the dark street – she’ll have to go to one of the fast food joints to grab a bite. Chocolate is no dinner.

It’s only when she sees her reflection in the window pane that she realizes she’s grinning.

Fuck her life. She doesn’t write back, and Kylo sends no new messages after that.

A day passes in silence, and then another one.

Rey’s busy. There are many things that need to be done in the office, and she volunteers for every task available. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, she firmly believes, and with all the cleaning and scrubbing and emptying ashtrays and organizing timetables for protests in front of the precinct, she has little time to think.

But then on an impossibly hot day in the last week of August, as she’s having her second cup of coffee sitting in front of the fan that makes her hair fly and her skin prickle, Rey’s phone pings with three mechanical notes. She almost chokes on the coffee – she just knows who it is.

Where are you?

What the hell…? Rey needs to read the message twice to make sure it’s not a trick of her mind.

She throws a quick glance at the wall clock: it’s only past lunchtime. Way too early to get sloshed.

Then again, it’s him.

The phone bleeps again in a matter of seconds, vibrating in her hand.

Seriously, where are you?

Her Nokia shows correspondence with an unknown contact. Just a string of figures. Rey still hasn’t saved the number – she doesn’t want to.

She contemplates whether she should reply, tell him it’s none of his business. It’s the only right answer. But then she pauses. Maybe something is about to happen, she thinks – something terrible, and he’s trying to warn her like he did that one time.

A third message arrives in less than a minute – she’s surprised by how quickly he can type with his thick fingers on that tiny phone.

Ah. Of course you’re THERE.

Rey swallows.

She lifts her gaze, looks around the room. A group of kids are sitting in the corner, three girls and a boy. They occupy office chairs, wearing t-shirts with the Resistance logo, and every once in a while, they laugh. The boy seems delighted to be the center of attention. Poe is typing, walled up behind his computer screen, his face scrunched in concentration. In the room next door, someone’s replaying the interview that Amilyn gave to the foreign press. Her heavily accented English echoes the corridors, volume pumped up to the maximum, and all Rey hears is how people should resist, and rebel, and fight.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Is Kylo stalking her again? Is there a mole in their ranks, is that how he knows?

It’s possible. Probable, even – too many people have joined the Resistance in the past few days. They can’t trust them all.

On the other hand, maybe he simply assumed where she’d be. It’s not difficult to guess.

Her phone bleeps for the fourth time, rumbling against the desk as it vibrates.

Saw some dogs playing in the park. Made me think of you.

Rey huffs and shakes her head, unsure if it’s relief or anger she feels, or both.

The sick fuck truly gave her a scare.

Stupid questions come to her mind. Why is he in a park, this time of the day? It’s too hot for a stroll, the August sun will be merciless to his pale skin. Besides, monsters are supposed to be nightly creatures. It makes for a poor impression if he’s simply out for a walk.

What does he do now, anyway?

From what Rey gathers, he’s still working for the regime – he has money and power and connections. But the wars are over, the curtain call has long passed, and in the aftermath there’s been no need for a mad dog such as Kylo Ren to unleash upon the enemies.

So what does he do?

She could ask Armitage, she thinks.

The only problem is that he’d tell her.

It takes Rey more than two hours to grab the phone and type her reply.

In case you’re wondering, your mother responded well to therapy and she’s feeling better.

There.

For the rest of the day, her phone is quiet.

Kylo’s answer arrives in the evening, when she’s already home, eating cold pizza she brought from the office and watching a random episode of that soap opera in Spanish she denies she’s gotten hooked on.

I’d rather talk about dogs, he says.

She doesn’t write back.

In the morning, Rey decides that she won’t go to the office. Time to pay Luke Skywalker a visit.

The heat is excruciating in the suburbs – thick, humid, sticky, the rhythmic chirping of crickets only making it worse. Hot air dances above cracked asphalt, refracting the rays of blazing white sun, and everything stinks of manure and tire rubber.  

When he opens the door, Luke carries a shovel and reeks of sweat, and there are dark brown stains on his wooden clogs – it seems that he was cleaning the goat pen when she interrupted him.

“Project girl!” He rolls his eyes, but doesn’t seem unhappy to see her. “What brings you this time, music or books?”

Rey takes out a magazine out of her bag. Amilyn’s picture is on the cover, looking glamorous and fierce – it’s almost impossible to notice the shadow of sadness in her blue eyes.

“Actually, I’ve brought you something to read.”

She’s aware she’s breaching their agreement to avoid politics at all costs, but this, he has to know.

“Ah.” Luke throws the magazine a dismissive glance. “I’ve read that already.”

She frowns. Wasn’t he supposed to be a hermit, uninterested in the real world and daily news?

“You have?”

“Yup.” Luke shrugs.

She follows him through the yard into the goat pen, where George patiently waits, absorbed in chewing. Blades of dry grass stick from his mouth. He gives Rey another gaze filled with disapproval – she wonders if indeed she has done something to offend the goddamn goat.  

“And…?” she asks cautiously.

Luke wipes the sweat off his forehead as he resumes shoveling the droppings into that banged-up bucket – Rey finally knows its purpose.

“Amilyn’s always been proud of her writing, bordering on vanity, but it ain’t up to my standards. Not really.” He wrinkles his nose as if he smelled something bad. “Too much theatrics, if you ask me, with bits of purple prose – all those adverbs piled up like that… But fine, I guess it works for what it is. She’s sure drawn attention to herself with it.”

Rey schools her expression, trying not to scowl as stone-hard droppings clink against the tin bottom of the bucket.

“That’s all? You… You’re not moved by what she said?”

Tobacco-stained teeth flash beneath Luke’s bushy beard. “Why would I be?”

And to think that for a moment she believed that this man might be the one who’d unite everyone around a just cause.

“Are you really so unaffected by what’s happening around us?” Rey’s voice comes out quieter than she intended.

Luke stops, leans against the shovel handle and sighs. All of a sudden, he looks tired – a messy old man who’s stepped into goat shit, crushed by the heat that makes it difficult for him to finish his task.

“This… This fight for democracy, however you wanna call it,” he begins, “it’s not going to go the way you think.”

He pauses, letting his words resonate.

Rey takes a step back. She searches for a sign that this is nothing but bait, yet Luke arches his eyebrows almost as if he’s apologizing, and she sees that he actually means it.

“What makes you say that?”

“Because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

He reaches out to scratch the goat behind his ears. For a moment, George stops looking so awfully judgmental, closing his eyes as if he enjoys the attention, but then he lifts his tail and shits, covering the floor with a fresh load of droppings.

Luke gives a dry chuckle.

“I’ve been in your shoes, project girl. Thirty years ago, I tried. I thought I won. I thought that things would be better. And yet look where we are now.”

“But we stand a chance now,” Rey insists. “We do. If the opposition comes up with a good candidate, we can win, for real.”

“The opposition?” His forehead scrunches. “You mean the same guys who did such a splendid job after the local elections four years ago?”

She swallows, fidgeting with the belt of her bag. “It’s different this time. We have international support.”

“Oh you do, don’t you? Because what, people will rush to vote for your candidate just because Bill Clinton told them to? The very same Clinton who bombed the shit out of us for 78 days, if memory serves me well?” Luke laughs, sounding genuinely amused. “Go ahead, brag with that one. Put it on a poster. Your candidate will be wiped off the map faster than the regime can say ‘depleted uranium’.”

Rey narrows her eyes. “You’re one bitter old man, aren’t you?”

“Bitter?” He waves his hand curtly before he continues shoveling. “Nah. Ain’t bitter. Just realistic.”

She doesn’t want to think he might be right.

“Leia feels better, y’know.” She changes the topic.

The shovel screeches against the pen floor, and he grips the handle so tightly his knuckles turn white.

“I’ll visit, one of these days,” he whispers.

Rey nods as if she believes him.

He’ll come when he’s ready, she thinks. Or he won’t.

Cutting off things they’re not willing to confront seems to be a family trait.

“I, um… I heard she has a son,” Rey begins, carefully observing Luke’s reaction. “You think we should let him know?”

Luke freezes, clutching the shovel. He doesn’t meet her eyes.

“Who told you about him? Leia?”

“No.” She shakes her head. “I heard.”

When he finally lifts his gaze, he doesn’t look angry, to her surprise – just sad and defeated, like he’s never truly recovered from a battle lost too long ago.

“That guy is nothing but bad news.”

“Why?” She already knows the answer, but she asks.

“Because he keeps making one bad decision after another, and then blames everyone else when it bites him in the ass.” Luke starts scratching the scar on his forearm, clipped nails leaving red stripes across wrinkled skin. Rey is certain that nothing really itches. “A master of ruin and self-pity, that one. He did horrible things, unspeakable, things you can’t undo. Shit that taints the soul. Trust me, you don’t wanna go near him.”

He resumes cleaning, his movements quick and brisk, and sweat starts beading on his furrowed forehead. George bleats.

“And…” Luke suddenly raises his index finger, as if he has one more thing to add. “And he doesn’t deserve to know.”

With that, he is done.

What a clusterfuck.

One day, she’ll gather up the courage and tell him, Rey thinks. She will tell him everything.  

But today is not that day.

When she returns home, she can’t shake off the feeling that everything reeks of goat.

That night, Rey can’t fall asleep. It’s so hot that sweat trickles down her legs, and she has to cover the couch with a towel before she can sit on it – she loathes the feeling of rough woolen fabric against her skin. She opens all the windows and doors in the apartment, hoping to create a draft of air, but it doesn’t help. The curtains aren’t moving. At past four in the morning, when the sky turns a shade lighter and the smell of fresh bread starts spreading from the bakery across the street, Rey is still wide awake, wet hair plastered on her forehead, her t-shirt drenched. 

Her own skin feels like a layer she can’t shed.

She tries watching a movie she rented from the video store that afternoon. She asked for something different, and the boy working there recommended it with unbridled enthusiasm, gushing about how smart and creative it was. She was going to love it, he promised. One hour into the movie, and Rey can agree that it’s different, but she isn’t sure that she fully appreciates its uniqueness.

It’s then that her phone pings.

Can’t sleep. Too fucking hot.

Well.

She isn’t surprised, not in the least. He always seemed to radiate heat – his skin so warm, his breath scorching hot like he was burning from the inside. The dog days must be taking their toll on him. Rey wonders what it would feel like to sleep next to him on sweat-drenched sheets, when outside the air is too muggy to breathe. Would she be able to stand it, or would she crawl to the opposite end of the bed?

Then she realizes what she’s thinking about.

Another message arrives too quickly. He’s picked up this habit to write on, even if she doesn’t answer.

You awake?

For a moment she thinks she should pass, pretend that she’s sleeping – he’ll never know. Maybe in the morning she’ll devise a snippy comeback. But despite herself, Rey pauses the movie and responds with a question.

You drunk?

Kylo replies immediately – he surely types fast.

Maybe. Hard to tell nowadays.

Then, before she can properly process what he said, there’s a new message.

Haven’t slept for two nights. Don’t know what to do.

Rey can picture him, she can. Hair matted from sweat, bags under eyes swollen, that ugly frown splitting his forehead, he’s lying on wrinkled bedsheets he hasn’t changed for too long, breathing through his mouth, bottle of booze in one hand, phone in the other. He’s waiting for her to answer.

Is it really just the summer that gives him sleepless nights? Does he ever dream? If he does, what is it about – the orange sky in the warzone, the mass graves in frozen soil? The father he killed? The old man’s golden bathrobe and skinny legs sprawled across the stairs?

Does he dream of Rey?

He deserves every nightmare.

If you had anything else there but bare walls, she types, maybe insomnia would be more bearable.

Kylo doesn’t reply right away. Rey almost goes back to her movie, her hand hovering above the remote, but then the phone bleeps.

You didn’t mind the bare walls during the bombing.

Fuck you, Kylo. That was a low blow.

It almost makes her throw the phone across the room.

He writes again immediately, with urgency, as if he feels that he’s crossed a line he shouldn’t have.

Why aren’t you sleeping?

So it seems he wants to keep the conversation mannerly. Not below the belt.

Fine.

Too hot, as you said, Rey answers. I’m watching a movie.

One of your shitty comedies?

She switches off the tone on her Nokia. She’ll see when the messages arrive, and the mechanical bleeping is too sharp for this hour of the night.

Nope. She decides to elaborate. A Japanese cartoon. They have motorcycle chases and then they blow up Tokyo.

Ah. That’s a good one.

Rey chuckles. Of course that he immediately recognized the references, nerd that he is. And the movie seems like the exact kind of pretentious shit that he loves – she can see him smiling as he types.

But then the next message makes her breath hitch.

Wish we could have watched it together.

Fuck you, Kylo, she thinks again.

She knows how it would go. He’d pause the movie often to talk, and explain, and paint the wider picture for her – Tokyo in the 80’s, post-apocalyptic themes, the fear of the bomb, the Japanese animation. He’d tell her what it felt like to be there back then, when this movie was fresh in theaters. He’d elaborate on its place in pop-culture. It would take them twice the time to finish the thing, but by the end credits, Rey would’ve understood what made this movie so unique. Maybe.

She won’t cry.

In another life, she types.

After that, Kylo doesn’t write back, and Rey falls asleep on the couch, the towel terrycloth leaving red imprints on her skin.

She dreams of a dark forest again, and the boy in the blue shirt having Temiri’s face, and that woman with a stern bun, in male clothes, who had once said she didn’t want her.

Rey feels dizzy in the office the next day. It’s like there’s a filter around her, like she’s moving through water – like the cacophony of voices is coming from a distance, and she sits all alone, drowning in cotton wool. There’re too many people in the office, too many – they’re all sweating, it’s agonizingly hot. She’s slow. Poe must explain the daily tasks twice before Rey understands what she’s supposed to do.

It’s around noon, as she’s downing her fourth cup of coffee, that she gives in and takes out her phone.

Had a shitty dream last night, she writes. I’m barely functioning today.

Oh, Kylo replies instantly. How very eloquent. But a new message appears within seconds. I’m sorry.

As if it’s his fault.

Then again, maybe it is.

The coffee makes her hands shake and her heart beat faster. She finds refuge in manual labor – vacuuming the carpets, throwing out the trash, asking people to lift their feet so she can wipe the floor beneath their chairs. Poe tells her to stop, insisting they’re paying a cleaning lady to do that, but she doesn’t. She ends up alphabetically arranging the books on Amilyn’s shelf. 

There’s a calendar hanging next to the bookshelf – it’s almost September, she sees. Four weeks to elections. The kids are under arrest, whereabouts unknown, and the opposition still doesn’t have a joint candidate.

A single-word message arrives in the afternoon.

Better?

Rey replies with no hesitation. Keeping myself busy. It helps.

You always did that when you were upset.

She smiles, realizes she’s smiling, and then presses her lips in a tight line.

What do you do? Hit the gym?

The answer comes promptly, as if he had it ready.

The gym, yes. The bottle too.

Fucking sick fuck. He knows she disapproves.

Rey doesn’t take the bait.

He’s silent for the rest of the day. Maybe he’s busy, whatever it is that he’s doing nowadays.

In the evening, Rey lies slumped on the couch again, a towel beneath her butt, terrycloth itching her skin. She has no patience for Japanese cartoons – she’s watching her soap opera in Spanish. She begins to catch up on the plot: the mean rich lady is actually the heroine’s real mother, since the babies were swapped in hospital, and the hero has an evil twin, so there’s this sweet, marriage material version of him, as well as a dark, cutthroat counterpart. The audience knows all the twists, but the characters have no clue, and it’s fun in a sadistic way to watch them suffer.

She’s waiting for Kylo to text her, but he doesn’t.

Perhaps he finally fell asleep. Or he’s too plastered to type.

She remembers: you’re mine even when you’re not mine, he told her once, like putting a spell on her. A curse. Over the years, she’s gotten used to it, learned to live with it like it’s a chronic disease – quiet and persistent and essentially non-deadly. She thought she could handle it. But now?

Fuck you, Kylo.

She purposely leaves the phone in the living room, still on silent, and goes to sleep, even if she spends the better part of the night staring at the ceiling.

In the morning, she forces herself to make breakfast and savor a pitch black cup of coffee before she goes to check her phone. A pixelated envelope blinks in the corner of the screen.

She shakes her head – of course the silence didn’t last long. But what he wrote takes her by surprise.

When are you getting the dog?

Rey frowns. What’s with this fixation on dogs?

Not soon, she replies. Then, she adds, I’m never home, you know.

And after a minute, she types again.

I don’t wanna fuck up. Dogs need attention.

She realizes she sent three messages in a row.

Kylo doesn’t answer.

It’s a mess at the Resistance office that day, worse than usual. The marketing moguls are back, laptops in their hands, and there’s a film crew around – the corridors are blocked by clunky spotlights and oversized umbrellas with silver-white lining, and Rey must step over bulks of coiled cables to reach her desk. They’re shooting a campaign video with Amilyn, Poe explains. A man with mutton chops orders everyone around, yelling at volunteers as if they owe him obedience, asking them to move furniture and arrange posters so they look just right for the camera – it’s the director, it seems. Poe doesn’t like him.

“Asshole thinks he’s Spielberg,” he grumbles. “He should just let Amilyn do her thing. All the fuss is making her nervous.”

Rey lifts an eyebrow at him. “I thought you’d be the first to appreciate well-made publicity material.”

“Yes, but this…” He fidgets with his hands, his accent slipping. “It’s different.”

Rey sees Amilyn only once that day, from afar – she uses a break in shooting to sneak out to the balcony and have a smoke. She seems tired, Rey observes, leaning on the fence, rolling a lipstick-marked cigarette between her fingers. She also looks more dazzling than ever.

When the evening comes around, Rey is all too happy to rush home.

At first, when she unlocks the door, she doesn’t notice that anything’s amiss. She kicks off her shoes, lets her hair down, peels off the soggy dress and leaves it lying on the floor. She pads to the living room to open the windows, let some air in, even though there’s no wind outside. The clouds are heavy, lead-grey, like there’s a summer storm rolling on the horizon, and everything is quiet.

That’s when she sees it.

It’s right there on the table.

For a moment, she thinks it’s a figment of her imagination. He’s not that crazy, is he? Rey closes her eyes, counts to ten, opens them – it doesn’t disappear.

A goldfish.

The glass bowl is small and round, its bottom covered with stark white pebbles. The fish isn’t quite gold, no – its color is a burning orange, like the sun when it sets, and its scales catch the light of Rey’s dim world as it lazily swims in circles. Its fins are nearly transparent, threads of silk floating in water. The whole scene is surreal, too perfect, like a picture from an interior design magazine, like a memory from someone else’s childhood. 

It’s fucking beautiful. 

A note stands next to the fish bowl, handwritten in unusually elegant cursive.

“Until you get that dog,” it reads. “Hope it keeps the shitty dreams at bay.”

Rey slumps to the floor, folds her legs, wraps her arms around her knees.

Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe.

Breathe.

There we go.

The first drops of rain are already sprinkling on the window sill when Rey spills the entire contents of her bag to the floor and picks up her Nokia.

You’re insane.

Kylo answers fast, as if he was waiting with the phone in his hand. Didn’t we establish that a long time ago?

Rey’s laughter resonates in the dark room, louder than the drumming of rain against the roof gutters. Thunder roars through the clouds.

Are you out in the storm? she asks.

I’m home. Though it’s tempting to go out. Feel the rain on my skin.

She laughs again – if he’s drunk enough, the sick fuck might actually do it.

You’ll catch a cold.

There’s a pause before the next message arrives. Can I call you?

Rey takes a deep breath and holds it, rubbing her temples. She looks at the screen – she still hasn’t saved the number under his name. Maybe she should. Not as Kylo, though – just K. It’s enough.

She decides she’ll call him first.

“Hey,” she utters, because she doesn’t know what else to say.

“Hey.” She hears the smile in his voice. “Do you like the fish?”

Rey looks at the red-gold creature swimming around in circles. Is the bowl too small for it?

“I do. I really do. Very much.” She doesn’t thank him. “How did you get in?”

“Made a spare set of keys, back then.” He stifles a chuckle. “Did you give DJ a hard time?”

Rey approaches the window, watches the rain as it falls. The smell outside is fresh – like ozone and wet grass. “Actually, I haven’t mentioned it at all.”

This time, Kylo’s laughter is slightly louder. “Poor guy. His head must be brimming with questions.”

She reaches out with her free hand through the window, feeling the weight of raindrops on her fingertips. They’re pleasantly cold – a wave of shivers rushes down her spine.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I dunno,” he whispers. “Anything.”

His voice is hoarse, raspy. Too quiet. This isn’t just the vodka.

“You sound tired.”

The phone crackles as he huffs into the receiver. “It’s my fourth day without sleep.”

Rey observes the rain trickling down her fingers, and then slowly brings her hand to her face. The strawberry taste of lip gloss mixes with the rainwater she licks from her palm. When she was a child, she loved to catch raindrops on her tongue. “Get some rest. Open the windows, listen to the rain.”

“I will.” There’s a long pause. She hears him breathing – long, heavy breaths, a full lungful each time. “Don’t hang up, not yet. Please.”

“I’m here.”

He doesn’t say anything after that, but his breathing slows down, becomes steadier. Rey cuts the call only when she’s certain he’s asleep.

Fuck you, Kylo.

She sleeps tight that night, without dreams, and wakes up only to get a blanket because outside it has actually turned cold.

In the morning, she feels well rested for the first time in weeks.

The kids’ parents are in the office when she arrives. Temiri takes after his mother, Rey observes – the same small stature and wide-set eyes. A whole room is full of journalists – it’s foreign press, mostly, fidgeting with their microphones and cameras as they wait. Amilyn and the parents are about to give a joint statement. Poe closes the door of the room in which Rey works, attempting to secure a quiet zone, but it doesn’t make a difference. Rey frowns at the pile of newspapers on her desk – the Resistance gets so many media mentions lately it’s difficult to keep up.  

She puts her back into the task, doing her best to focus. It doesn’t last long.

“Poe?” Rey peeks behind her computer screen. “Where does one buy fish food?”

Poe blinks, visibly puzzled. “I don’t know. A pet store?” He cocks his head. “Since when are you into fish?”

Rey scoffs. “Don’t ask.”

She wishes she could tell him. She needs to talk to someone, before this gets out of hand.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Kylo at least admits he’s insane.

Rey grabs her phone. In another life, she would’ve called Finn – but it’s not his number that she dials.

“It’s me.” Her voice is insecure when he picks up the call, and she hates it. “You free for dinner tonight?”

Armitage cackles for what seems like a full minute, before he says yes.

Not even half an hour later, Rey’s phone buzzes.

Tell Armitage he’s a dickhead.

She bursts into a giggle, rolling in her chair, and she laughs until she snorts, her mouth open, her cheeks tingling.

“Was that the special someone from the other day?” Poe quirks an eyebrow.

Rey freezes. “Why do you think so?”

A shrug, as if the answer’s obvious. “I’ve known you for years, sunshine, since you were a lanky teen, and I’ve never seen you giggle like that.”

She suddenly finds herself at a loss for words.

“No, I… It’s… No. It’s complicated.”

Poe seems happy with the explanation. “Life’s complicated.”

His face darkens, thick eyebrows pulled together in a frown, and he sinks behind his screen. The keyboard rattles as he resumes typing.

Rey pushes away the pile of newspapers and walks over to him, her chair spinning behind her.

“Talk to me, Poe. It’s not in your nature to sulk.” She sits on his desk. “What’s wrong?”

He sighs, eyes locked on the keyboard. His fingers hover above a set of keys on which the letters have worn off. Then he suddenly lifts his head and looks around, like he’s afraid someone might be listening.

They’re alone in the room – everyone else is at the press conference.

“It’s just that… I mean this whole situation… Shit.”

He’s not used to struggling with words, so he waves with his hands as if that will help him get the meaning across.

“The spotlight on Amilyn. On one hand, I think it’s great. She deserves it. She has it in her. If anyone can push us through this madness, it’s her. But on the other hand, it… It does things to her. And, well… Well. She insists on being extra discreet.” Poe scoffs. “We barely see each other these days.”

He lowers his gaze, bites into his bottom lip so strongly Rey’s sure it hurts.

“And I’m fed up with secrets and lies.”

This, she can relate to, she thinks. Rey reaches out and squeezes his shoulder, and he leans into her touch. His muscles are tense, she feels the knots.

“I know, we’re a shitty country. Conservative values and whatnot. Some things will always be frowned upon,” Poe continues, placing his palm over Rey’s hand. “But it’s different than when we started. She’s separated from her husband, and I graduated a long time ago, and… Dammit, sunshine, I’ll be thirty in two years – and she still thinks she’ll be ridiculed as a cradle robber if this goes public.”

Well, now. What do you say to that, Rey wonders – what kind of comfort to offer?

“Maybe there’s a reason for discretion,” she begins gingerly. “You know there are people who think she should be the one?”

It takes him a moment to answer. He squeezes Rey’s hand tighter.

“I do.”

He doesn’t elaborate, letting the silence stretch.

“What do you think about it?” Rey asks finally.

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

Poe brushes off her hand and gets back to typing, and it’s clear to Rey that the conversation is over.

In the evening, she meets Armitage in a Chinese restaurant near the main square – a delightfully kitschy joint that takes pride in its shiny red curtains and dragon statues and cheap calligraphy prints hanging crookedly on the walls. There’s a bamboo forest in the middle of the hall – plastic green stems are covered with a fine layer of dust. Armitage insisted they needed a change, they’d been in that Italian place too many times, but Rey is sure it’s just an excuse for a new dish he wanted to try.

She remembers what Kylo said – the food served in restaurants here has nothing to do with what people actually eat in China.

Armitage doesn’t wear his sunglasses, thankfully, but the wrinkles around his eyes stand out under the neon lights of electric lanterns. He looks distracted, tired, as if he has a headache – a victim of dog days and weather changes and the violent, drunken madman he’s forced to babysit. He orders sweet-and-sour dumplings, saying the dish name in Chinese – the waiter’s lips twitch almost unnoticeably, and Rey is sure he didn’t pronounce it right. She settles for chicken with black mushrooms. She’s missed their tangy taste.

Using the chopsticks isn’t as easy as Rey thought. She struggles to catch the noodles that keep gliding around her plate.

“How’s it going, being on the winning side these days?”

Armitage shakes his head, smoothing down his overly gelled hair in a compulsive gesture.

“My life is an acid trip. A black abyss. I fell down the rabbit hole.”

Rey swallows a chuckle. “That bad?”

“You have no idea. Whenever I look at Ren, he’s on his phone. Typing, always typing. I’m sure he doesn’t send you half of the shit he writes. He types so fast – did you notice? I have no clue when he got to practice, he never sent me a single text in his life. Or, he scrolls through old messages, blushing like a school boy, all the way to his ears. And then he giggles. Have you ever heard him giggling? It’s creepy as fuck!”

The mental image is at the same time disturbing and sweet. Rey presses her lips together, careful not to smudge the makeup.

“Why do I have a feeling you think it’s my fault?”

“Oh, please.” Armitage snatches a black mushroom from her plate. “I know why you asked me out, Rey.”

A noodle slips off her chopsticks, soy sauce splashing on red tablecloth. “You do?”

There’s a pause, and then a grin flickers between his sauce-stained lips. “You want me to talk some sense into you.”

Rey doesn’t answer – just raises an eyebrow.

“You count on me to be an asshole and say something atrocious that will be the wakeup call you need.” Armitage puts down his chopsticks and pushes away the plate. “Give me a moment, I’ve got this.”

He cracks his fingers, clears his throat and leans across the table, a smug smirk twisting his entire face. And then, he begins reciting.

“For fuck’s sake, child bride, enough is enough, third time’s no charm, you had your chance and you blew it, an alcoholic war criminal won’t turn into a Disney prince if you’re patient enough, you know who he is, don’t make me remind you, you saw with your own eyes what he’s capable of, so get away, get a life, go raise revolutions, do whatever it is that you’re doing, just stay in your lane, stop with the texting, flush the goldfish down the toilet, because this is it, I’m sick and tired of going through the same shit again, for the third fucking time, and goddammit, you should be too.”

Fuck him and his hair gel.

Armitage spreads his palms, his grin widening, and Rey almost expects him to bow.

“How was that? Too harsh? Do I get an applause?”

Rey squints. She’s tempted to give him a dramatic, slow clap, but she doesn’t.

He picks up his chopsticks and raises his hand, showing her how to hold them properly. Then he heaves an exaggerated sigh, as if he’s done with playing games.

“But that’s bullshit. If you really want my opinion, I say, go for it.”

Rey stiffens.

“What?”

“You two fucktards, you deserve each other.” Armitage looks at her with a mixture of concern and disgust and pity, and she hates holding his gaze. “I told you once, you’re a textbook example of tragic codependency. Even now, after everything, you can’t let go of what you had – and you never will, not until the world burns down to the ground.”

He helps himself to more rice, licking a drop of sweet-and-sour sauce from the corner of his mouth.

“Ren’s transparent, his heart is on his sleeve. On the other hand, you, darling, you’re much better at simulating normalcy – the rising star of the Resistance, the hard-working girl that everybody likes. The million dollar smile. And yet on a Saturday night, instead of being out with friends, having fun, here you are with me.

Chopsticks click, and he steals another black mushroom from her plate, smirking like he’s only getting to the point.

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend, Rey? A nice young man your age, a rebel, one who wants to be Che Guevara when he grows up and thinks that fighting for his country means stenciling that godawful fist logo all over the city.” He points at the Resistance pin on Rey’s bag. “Who designed that ugly thing, by the way? It looks so tacky – kind of Bolshevik, I daresay.”

Rey observes him, lips firmly pressed in a line. Fuck the makeup.

“You’re a dickhead, Armitage.”

This makes him chuckle – but it’s a weary, dry laughter, like he knows he’s so much of a jerk that sometimes he can’t stand himself either. For a man who claims to be on the winning side, he looks a tad defeated.

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Armitage drops her off at her place, promising that next time they’ll try sushi – life is strange, and new restaurants are popping up in their war-torn, bombed-out, impoverished capital. For those with deeper pockets, there’s everything – even the Japanese raw fish on rice.

“That professor of yours, she really ruffled some feathers with what she did,” he says as they’re parting. “A beautiful woman. Not exactly my type, but I admire a person with such a consistent sense of style.”

Rey smiles and rolls her eyes, careful not to bang the car door.

“You think she’ll run?” Armitage squints as he asks this. For a moment, she can’t tell if this is mere curiosity, or there’s something else behind his question.

She goes for the truth. “I… I don’t know.”

Of all people, Armitage Hux is the only person she’s never lied to.

“Say hi to Phasma.”

She slams the door so strongly that Armitage winces.

Alone in her apartment, Rey feeds the fish, carefully following the instructions on the box, changes from her sundress to a baggy t-shirt, and plops to the couch. She takes out her phone and fiddles with it, going through messages.

Nothing new from K.

She thinks she could call him, but she doesn’t.

Rey ends the evening with her soap opera – in the final episode, the mean rich lady apologizes for everything she’s done, her makeup impeccable despite the tears, and the heroine chooses the evil twin, because he falls to his knees and weeps and promises he’ll change.

Go figure.

She falls asleep on the couch, the remote on her belly, and she doesn’t dream.

It’s Sunday the next day. The city is quiet, its streets deserted, but the Resistance knows no rest. Another hectic workday passes – more newspaper cutouts, more internet articles to read through, more people whose names Rey doesn’t know, more clicking of keyboards and ringing of phones.

At least it’s no longer insanely hot.

Rey waits, but Kylo is strangely silent – no texting, no calls. He’s having a busy weekend, it seems.

To her annoyance, she isn’t relieved.

Late in the afternoon, Rey brews a cup of coffee, adding cinnamon and cream and a spoonful of sugar. This one isn’t for her.

Amilyn’s room smells of tobacco and sunflowers – the perfume is strong, dizzying, as if it’s been freshly sprayed. A pack of thin, ladylike cigarettes rests on the desk, only half-smoked. It could be worse. There’s a pocket mirror, and next to it an open palette of eyeshadows – pearly greys and pale purples, shimmering like dragonfly wings. Rey finds the colors oddly melancholy.

The coffee mug clinks as Rey places it on the desk. She sees three empty cups that Amylin hasn’t returned to the kitchenette, but no plates.

She’s lost weight, Rey thinks as she observes her.

Amilyn is alone in her room, a rare sight these days. She’s holding the phone, as if she’s just hung up on someone.

“That was the lawyer,” she says, her voice hoarse. “We made it. The charges are reduced, from felony to misdemeanor. All that’s left is to pay a fine – and hope that the kids haven’t lost their wits while they were in jail.”

Rey smiles. This is great news, isn’t it? A victory. Something to celebrate.

But then she looks into Amilyn’s eyes. The sadness is there, it always is – an old friend, deep blue like the ocean. However, it’s no longer quiet. It has come to the front, eating away at her.

“Why… Why aren’t you happy?”

Amilyn shrugs. “Because, with this regime, every victory comes at a price.” She takes a long sip of coffee. A blood red lipstick imprint stains the mug rim. “I’m scared, Rey. Don’t tell anyone, though.”

Rey lingers in the room, clutching the tray to her chest. Slowly, she picks up the empty cups. Pottery jingles.

It takes her a moment to gather the courage to ask.

“Will it be you?”

Amilyn’s lips curve, as if she can’t believe Rey’s words, but she immediately understands the question.

“Sweetie, I’m a horrible candidate. Statistically, I fail in every aspect. I come from academia, with no political background. I’ve never been a member of any party. I’m a woman – the kind of a woman that rubs many people the wrong way. And then, there’s…”

She doesn’t finish the sentence.

“It’d never work,” she adds at last.

Still, Rey hesitates to leave.

“But if they ask you to… Will you do it?”

“They won’t ask, Rey. It’s just rumors. They need someone who can win these elections – and that’s not me.”

Rey nods and heads to the door.

Tropes are for fiction, she repeats to herself.

In the evening, when Amilyn announces their victory, the whole office applauds. Hooray. A bottle of champagne is popped open, just enough for everyone to take a sip, and there’re talks of throwing the kids a welcome party when they return. Smiling faces are everywhere: Poe and Amilyn and all these politicians who came running. It doesn’t even look fake – only cautious, as if they know that winning this one battle means more hard work and uncertain prospects.

They’re exhausted, and the election campaign hasn’t even begun properly.

Night has fallen when Rey returns to her neighborhood among the bombed ruins. She has no idea how she’ll while away the time – she’s not sleepy, and her soap opera has ended. Thinking about the fish makes her smile. It’s dumb as fuck, swimming in circles, repeating the same motions over and over, but at least there’s a living creature waiting for her at home.

She should name it, one of these days.

Rey inserts the key into the lock, only to realize the door is open.

Ah.

To be honest, it was a matter of time.

She finds him in the kitchen. All the cupboards are open, jumbled up, as if he struggled to find the right pots for what he’s cooking – it shouldn’t be funny, but Rey chokes back a laugh. He’s barefoot, like he always is at home, and his shirt lies discarded on the chair. The wife beater top he’s wearing makes his arms look thicker. Maybe the sick fuck really spends every spare moment at the gym, when he isn’t too plastered for bench-pressing. His goatee is trimmed really short, the way he knows Rey likes – she can’t tell if it’s on purpose. Whatever he’s making smells delicious.

He looks tired, but these days everybody does.

“You can’t keep breaking into people’s homes, y’know.”

Kylo lifts his shoulders dismissively, his gaze locked on the frying pan.

“I didn’t break in. I have the keys.” He glances at her quickly and almost smiles, before he resumes stirring the food. “Besides, you started it first.”

Fuck you, Kylo. It’s not the same.

She should tell him to leave, she thinks. She should say aloud all those insults she’s saved up over the years – stalker, murderer, creep. You shouldn’t be here. Get the fuck away from my home, and my life, and take your goldfish with you. Whatever you’re hoping for, it’s not going to happen.

But Rey just shrugs and starts setting the table for two.

She hesitates only when she isn’t sure what kind of a glass she should give him. “You can’t drink here.”

“Don’t worry. I took care of it before coming.”

He doesn’t seem under the influence, but it only makes her more concerned.

It’s sautéed veal that he puts on the table, in a thick sauce with mustard and garlic and another spice Rey can’t recognize. Her mouth waters – this is different than scrambled eggs or always the same takeout. There are steamed vegetables too, fresh and crunchy, she admires him for making cauliflower taste good. Rey chews vigorously, to hell with table manners, and Kylo gives her a non-smile, soft lips tugged to the side.

He doesn’t look happy, however. He wouldn’t be here if he were.

“Bad day?” Rey asks.

“Very bad day,” Kylo agrees. “You?”

“A good thing happened today, actually.”

She wonders if he knows about it. She’s never sure where exactly he stands on the scale between doing what he thinks is right and helping the regime stay in power at all costs.

“But it’s strange,” Rey continues. “As if it’s hard to be happy about it.”

Kylo sighs through his teeth, nodding like he understands too well. He starts cutting the bread, but loses patience quickly – instead of a neat slice, he passes Rey a torn-off handful.  

“How is… Um. How is she?”

It’s a question Rey didn’t expect. She searches his face for any sign of emotion, but he stoically stares at his plate.

“Better.” She shouldn’t give him false hope. “It won’t end well, though.”

“Nothing ever ends well.”

Rey wants to protest – that’s not true. Happy endings are possible, every once in a while. It’s important to keep believing.

But saying it to Kylo would make her a hypocrite, wouldn’t it? Ultimately, the two of them are not rooting for the same outcome. The victory of democracy would mean the downfall of all his ideals.

She chooses not to respond.

“I’ll visit her next week,” Rey says instead, dipping the bread into sauce. “I can call you afterwards, if you want.”

To her surprise, he nods.

When they finish, Kylo carries the dishes to the sink. He winces when the tap water runs too hot, curses, and then rummages through cupboards in search of dish soap. Rey doesn’t tell him where it is. The scene is disarmingly domestic – she forces herself to walk away, heading to the living room.

Rey turns on the TV, flips through channels until a documentary catches her attention. An old man with gold-rimmed glasses and posh British accent explains the birth of a supernova, and the screen fills with stars.

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little,” Kylo says when he enters the room. “A space pilot.”

Rey smiles. “You never told me that.”

He doesn’t sit on the couch, but plops to the floor, next to her feet. “Because it’s silly. And unoriginal.”

“When I was little, I wanted to fix broken machines and build new ones,” she sighs.

 Kylo looks up at her, and from this close, she can see – there are indeed traces of grey in his dark hair.

“You should be proud of yourself, then. Not a lot of people get to live their childhood dream.”

Rey huffs – if only it were that simple.

She studies him, crouched at her feet like that. His face is wet – he must have touched it while doing the dishes, rubbed his eyes. A droplet of water falls from his eyelashes and glides down his cheek, leaving a glistening trail, and Rey wishes she could wipe it away. He’s too close, the fucker. She can feel the smell of his hair, the warmth of his skin – he truly does radiate heat.

If she were to shift in her seat ever so slightly, her knee would touch his shoulder.

Rey stands up from the couch and straightens her skirt.

“All that food made me sleepy,” she lies. “And it’s been a difficult day. Gonna go to bed.”

Kylo watches her for a long moment, eyes focused, unblinking. She realizes she’s holding her breath.

“Okay,” he says at last. “I’ll tidy up the kitchen before leaving.”

Rey nods, a quick jerk of the head, and then rushes to the bedroom. She tries not to slam the door behind her, but the clunk of the knob is still somewhat too loud. Kylo remains on the floor – of course he doesn’t follow her. With all his blunders, there are things he’d never do uninvited, and fuck her life, she still trusts him.

She changes into her nightgown quickly, and pulls the comforter up to her chin even if she’s not cold, and thinks she won’t be able to fall asleep until she hears the entrance door clicking, a sure sign that he’s left. But it doesn’t go that way. It has been a difficult day, and soon enough Rey finds herself drifting into a shallow sleep, drool seeping on the pillow cover.

For what happens next, she isn’t sure if she’s dreaming. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking she’d never admit to when awake. Perhaps. Or maybe it’s all real, it is, and the only way to stay true to herself is to label it a fever dream.

Late in the night, Rey thinks she feels the mattress shifting. He’s heavy, the sick fuck, thicker and more muscled than the last time they slept together. The bed dips in under his weight, rusty springs squealing, and he wraps himself around her like he used to, large, warm, so fucking comforting. Steady breaths huff into her hair, making the back of her neck prickle with goosebumps. It feels good. Safe. He snores – he always did. It’s probably even worse since Phasma broke his nose, but Rey finds the sound reassuring. She shimmies in her sleep to fit better into his arms, her back to his chest – he’s warm, he’s so warm – and she thinks she entwines their fingers. The skin of his gun hand is as calloused as always.

It’s a dream. It has to be.

There’s no other way to accept it.

When Rey wakes up on Monday morning, he’s gone. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Seventh Symphony, Movement Two

 

 

 

On the first Wednesday in September, Poe Dameron comes to the office late, with a cheesy grin and a twinkle in his eyes, humming a tune Rey recognizes as an anti-regime song that’s become popular in the streets. He’s painfully off-key. A half-melted ice-cream drips from his fingers, threatening to stain his shirt, but he pays it no heed. He slumps to his chair, wheels rolling across the wooden floor, and lifts his legs to his desk, nearly crushing the keyboard. The ice-cream cone crunches as he chews.

Rey can almost believe he’s in a good mood.

“You’re doing this on purpose.” She gives him a proficient eye-roll. “You want me to ask what happened.”

They’re alone in the room, she observes – a perfect opportunity to talk about Amilyn. Maybe the things between them have turned for the better.

But then Poe cocks his head and spreads his arms and grins even wider, camera-ready, and Rey suddenly knows that whatever he has to say, it’s important.

“The Goldilockses did it, sunshine,” he announces. “We have a name.”

Rey lifts her eyebrows. “Oh.”

She shouldn’t be surprised, she thinks. They were running out of time, it’s fucking September. It had to happen.

Still, she feels as if the news has knocked the wind out of her chest.

“So, uh… Who is it? Do you know?”

Poe’s grin dwindles. “Not yet. They’ll reveal it at a press conference this afternoon. I only received a message to get ready for a more intense campaign.”

Rey quickly nods, picking up the cut out articles from her desk and shoving them into the drawer. The mere thought of a more intense campaign makes her want to sit on the floor and scream, but she schools her expression into a smile, feeling her lips stretch.

This is good news, she tells herself.

Good news.

“What does Amilyn say?”

“I have no idea.” Poe wipes his hands from ice-cream stains, rubbing the tissue against his skin so roughly that his knuckles turn red. “She’s avoiding me, you know. Doesn’t answer my calls. I tried, more than a dozen times this morning, but she won’t pick up. She didn’t even come to the office today. I think she’s with the Goldilockses.”

Rey sees it in his eyes – he’s jumping to conclusions. He’s wrong, though. What he fears won’t happen, Amilyn was adamant about it. It will not be her. Just grit your teeth, Rey wants to say, and brave through the storm, and soon it will be over. You’ll go on with your lives.

But she isn’t sure.

With a loud sigh, Rey walks over to Poe’s desk and snatches the tissue away from his hands. She rolls it into a ball and throws it to the trashcan, but misses, and for a brief moment, it makes them laugh.

“Did you argue again?”

“We argue all the time.” He shrugs, biting his lip like he always does, and Rey can tell he’s a step away from falling apart. She’s never seen him like this. “But it doesn’t matter. None of our personal shit matters. What’s important is that we have that name, and we’ll soldier on with the campaign, and we’ll be true and brave and unstoppable, and we’ll win. We fucking have to.”

She gives him a soft chuckle. “You’re much better when you don’t rehearse your speeches in advance, but I’d save the big words for the rallies if I were you.”

Poe grins again, a flash of porcelain teeth against tanned skin, and he rubs his chin, wiping away the last droplets of ice-cream.

“You tired, sunshine?”

“Don’t get me started,” she huffs. “I haven’t slept normally in weeks.”

She doesn’t say why. Better that he thinks it’s the Resistance work that’s running her into the ground. 

“Why don’t you go for a walk, then?” Poe points at the window – the sky’s blue outside, she sees. “There’s nothing much to do until that press conference anyway, and then we’ll need every ounce of strength. It’s a lovely day, go to a park, sit on a bench. Buy yourself an ice-cream. That parlor across the street ain’t half bad, I recommend banana chocolate chip.”

Rey makes herself laugh, straightens her dress. “Will you be okay on your own?”

The office is full outside their room, volunteers camping in corridors, and yet she feels as if she’s leaving him all alone.

“Please.” Poe’s still grinning – with all the practice, it even looks convincing. “I’d love to join you, god knows we could all use a break, but someone has to stay. Besides, I’m waiting for Amilyn.”

She nods, grabbing her bag, and her heels click as she walks out of the room. Fifteen minutes later, Rey finds herself on her way toward the neighborhood park, walking slowly so that her ice-cream doesn’t drop because she’s stuffed too many scoops onto the cone.

It’s a lovely day indeed – she's always been fond of early September, when the summer is over and horse chestnuts cover the grass in the parks, falling from trees, bright auburn and slippery to touch. They smell like earth and wood and the first days of school. She plops down on a bench, feeling the melted ice-cream drip down her chin – caramel and vanilla and lemongrass, and banana chocolate chip. It’s sticky. From where she’s sitting, she sees the playground – children laugh, climbing the ladders and tumbling down the slides, and mothers buy sugared apples and shiny balloons from an old man standing in the corner. She looks up at the tree crowns above her head – the leaves are rimmed with brown, she notes. Soon they’ll begin to fall.

It’s almost as if the fall has sneaked behind their backs while they were busy complaining about the heat.

She doesn’t blame Amilyn for not coming to the office. Victories can be wearing. After handling too many press conferences in the aftermath of the kids’ release from jail, it’s normal to wish for a getaway.

Careful not to stain her bag, Rey takes out her phone.

No new messages.

Great. She should be relieved. For once, Kylo is behaving like a rational adult, giving them space instead of rushing into madness.

She still isn’t sure what happened that night. She searched for signs when she woke up – sniffed the sheets to see if his smell still lingered, looked for strands of black hair coiled on the pillow cover. She found none.

Maybe it was a dream.

And yet his silence annoys her more than she’s willing to admit.

Rey starts typing, her fingers sticky on phone keys, but she doesn’t know what to say, so she ends up running in circles, deleting every line she begins. 

Fuck you, Kylo.

A chestnut falls right in front of her bench, scaring a flock of pigeons that’s been pecking crumbs on the path. Wings flap, and Rey watches them fly against the clouds, ready to shit on the monuments of very important historical figures that stand guard above the park.

Hours pass, but she’s not looking at her watch. The luxury of wasting time feels like the guiltiest of pleasures.

There’s a new group of children at the playground. Chains squeal as they swing, wooden seats rushing towards the sky, and Rey thinks they laugh too loudly.

And then, her phone vibrates in her hand.

Finally.

She wonders what the sick fuck has to say after two days of silent treatment.

Rey unlocks the screen and clicks on the envelope icon. As it opens, however, she sees that the message is not from K.

It’s Larma D’Acy.

She blinks. It takes her a moment to put a face to the name. She remembers a quiet woman with pale, droopy eyes and a patrician nose, a member of the rebels’ team of lawyers. Amilyn’s friend from high school, or something. Rey has saved the number only because she’d been told it might be crucial one day, if the regime went on with the arrests.

Come back to the office immediately, the message says, it’s urgent.

Her lips move as she reads the words aloud.

Well, fuck. So it is Amilyn, in the end? It must be.

Fuck.

Rey jumps up from the bench, her overly stuffed bag hitting her on the hip as it swings. She picks up the pace, walking so quickly that the straps of her sandals cut into her toes, and sweat trickles down her thighs even though the summer is gone.

She sees it when she turns the corner, approaching the office.

A police car. It’s parked in front of their entrance, right in the middle of the pedestrian zone. Lights rotate, blue and red, coloring the fist logo that hangs above the door.

Is someone getting arrested? If so, why did Larma D’Acy ask her to come?

But then tires screech, and another car enters the pedestrian street – a press van.

Rey swallows, pushing open the heavy door, and rushes up the stairs.

“She’s here!” a volunteer shouts the moment she enters the office. “Larma, she’s here!”

The girl grabs her by the elbow, pulling her toward the main room. Rey sees puzzled faces of people whose names she doesn’t know, and old comrades sitting on the floor, their heads in their hands, and blue police uniforms. Office chairs and Amilyn’s bulky fan are thrown outside the room, cluttering the corridor. Someone’s crying.

What…?

“Thank god, Rey!”

Larma D’Acy wraps her arms around her in a long hug – it feels strange, coming from someone that Rey has met but a few times. She puts her hands on Larma’s bony shoulders, only to discover that the woman is shaking.

“He’s in the bathroom. Locked himself in.” Larma takes a step back and Rey sees that her droopy eyes are glassy, red-rimmed. “Go to him, I’ll handle the mess.”

There’s a familiar buzz in Rey’s ears, and her stomach churns. The last time she felt it was in the room with black and white tiles.

She thought that, after that night, nothing will ever push her over the edge.

“What happened?”

Larma D’Acy opens her mouth to answer – her lower lip trembles as if she’s about to break into tears. But booted footsteps echo through the corridor, and a police officer comes, clearing his throat as he approaches.

“Ms. D’Acy, ma’am? We need your statement.”

Larma nods, her movement jerky, and gently pushes Rey away. “Go.”

People part as Rey walks down the corridor – some of them avoid her gaze, others shake their heads or offer sad smiles. She realizes she’s holding her breath. Whatever happened, she thinks, it has nothing to do with the presidential candidate.

She knocks on the bathroom door.

“Poe?”

There’s a pause. She hears rustling inside, clothes shuffling, like someone’s crawling up from the floor, and then a long, strangled sound resonates against the tiles, muffled by the closed door. A wail?

Rey knocks again. “It’s me.”

The lock clicks and the door squeals open.

Fuck.

He’s barely standing – for a moment, Rey fears he’ll lose his balance and fall. Wet hair is plastered to his forehead and tears run down his cheeks, dripping from his neck. The collar of his t-shirt is drenched with dark stains. He inhales sharply when he sees her, breath wheezing, but can’t form a sentence – his lips quiver, and it turns into sobs. There are pale red stripes across his chin, as if he cried so badly that his nose began to bleed.

Pieces fall together, and everything starts making sense, and Rey wishes she could slam the door shut instead of facing what happened.

Every victory comes at a price.

Poe reaches for her and pulls her inside, and the doorknob clunks behind her.

His whole body shakes as she hugs him tightly. He won’t stop crying, Rey sees, he can’t, but that is fine. At least he has someone to hold him. He hiccups into her neck, gulping like a child, and she thinks he tries speaking, but only sobs come out.

“Shhh, it’s alright,” Rey lies, because everything is wrong. “Hush.”

She pulls them to the floor, it’s easier to sit if this will take a while. The bathroom smells of bleach and lemon air freshener, and she sees that someone has scribbled on the walls – song lyrics, and slogans with exclamation marks, and a badly drawn fist logo. Poe’s nose is running. With one hand, Rey rummages through her bag until she finds a pack of tissues, and he winces when she wipes his face. She wants to smile, but she can’t.

The tiles are cold against her bare thighs.

She has no idea how long they sit on the floor like that. She has stopped paying attention to the noise outside.

She wishes she could cry too, but her mind is working too fast.

Slowly, Poe’s breathing calms down.

“When?” Rey asks finally, but then realizes it is the wrong question.

She needs to know.

“How?”

Funny, a premonition stirs in the pit of her stomach, and she’s almost certain where this will go.

When Poe speaks, his voice is a barely audible rasp, and the one line he says feels like pulling teeth.

“It was quick.” 

He falls silent. She should leave it at that, Rey thinks – no more questions. She’ll hear the rest from the police, or Larma D’Acy will give her the details. If not, she can wait for the press, they’ll jump to it. They always follow the blood.

But she needs to know now.

“Go on.”

Poe rubs his eyes and wipes his nose with the heel of his palm. It takes him a while to continue, but Rey waits, stroking his back in encouragement.

“At least that’s what they said. That it was quick.”

He sniffs, and then pauses, breathing through his mouth. The moment lasts.

“It happened last night, I think…? They found her in the morning, right there on the path. Left like roadkill for everyone to see.” The sound he makes is both a shriek and a chuckle. “A fucking message, Rey.”

“The path?” Rey asks, her voice too calm.

Poe gives her a nod. “The jogging path in the park. She used to run there, late at night, when there was no crowd. Said it helped with the stress. I… Shit. I shouldn’t have let her go alone, I should have known, it was careless, stupid, but I… we…”

He sobs again, but Rey barely hears it. Her heart starts beating so fast, hammering against her ribs like war drums.

Breathe, Rey.

Breathe, you idiot.

Or you’ll choke.

“The path in the park,” she repeats. “Are there… Are there dogs in that park?” 

Poe lifts his eyebrows, confused by the question. He shrugs vaguely, doesn’t know the answer perhaps, but it’s alright.

Rey knows.

There’s one last piece of the puzzle that she needs.

“You didn’t tell me.” She hugs him closer, hoping that her tone isn’t too stern. “How?”

His mouth trembles again, and she sees he isn’t ready to talk about this, not really. Rey wishes she could give him more time. But she meets his gaze and lifts his chin up, her grasp firm.

“Execution style,” he whispers at last. “A bullet between the eyes.”

She almost laughs.

All is crystal clear, so predictable it’s pitiful. There’s her answer to what he’s doing now, when there are no more wars to wage, but the regime still needs a mad dog.

He can’t do anything but kill, can he?

Fucking sick fuck.

To think it was so easy to give in and fall back into old habits.

“…Rey?”

Rey’s body jerks like it’s a sleep twitch – she hasn’t even noticed that Poe was talking to her. “I’m sorry.”

He nods understandingly and blows his nose in the wet tissue. “I said, we can’t stay locked in here forever. Even though, y’know… I really don’t feel like going outside.” 

She ruffles his hair, careful not to reveal what she feels. “You think you’re ready?”

A scoff. “I’ll never be ready.”

Poe gets up, joints cracking as he wobbles on his feet. When he sees himself in the mirror above the washbasin, he flinches.

“But I have to man up and face the music.” He opens the faucet. “Go to the police. Give a statement.”

Rey dutifully proceeds with what she’s expected to say. “Do you want me to go with you?”

For a moment, Poe thinks. He leans over the washbasin, and Rey fears he’ll fall down headfirst.

“No,” he says finally. A sickening surge of relief crawls down her spine. “No need for you to get exposed, sunshine. Larma will be there, the other lawyers as well. I’ll bet the Goldilockses will come too. And the press – all of them, like the vultures they are.” Poe chuckles dryly. “Holy shit, it’s going to be hell.

Water splashes as he washes his face, droplets catching onto his eyelashes, and he blinks them away.

“They’ll ask me to say a few words about her. I’ll have to give them something. Play by the rules.” He licks the water off his upper lip. “And it’s going to be a bunch of bullshit – commonplaces about sacrifice, promises we’ll never give up the fight. Eulogies that she was the best of us all. Nothing…” His voice shakes again. “Nothing personal.

Rey gets up from the floor and hugs him from behind. She sees his reflection in the mirror – mouth twisted in a scowl, an ugly frown between the eyebrows. He’s breathing deeply, in and out, a stress relief trick he’s mastered – Rey isn’t sure it helps. The cameras await as soon as he leaves the bathroom.

“Poe?” She hesitates as he trembles against her. “Is it okay if I… Well, if I disappear for the rest of the day? There’s something I must do.”

He looks up, catching her gaze in the mirror, and she’s afraid he’ll ask her what it is.

But then he closes his eyes and nods. “Go on, disappear. Do what you must do.”

She kisses him on the cheek before squeezing his shoulder one last time, and turns on her heel to leave.

“Sunshine?” Poe asks when she almost reaches the door. “Do you, um… Do you remember how she and I, we were always fighting about whether it was a good sign if the regime resorted to violence?”

His Southern twang sounds different somehow, melancholy like a melody, and it gives Rey the shivers.

“Well. What they did was stupid, when you think about it. They created a martyr, and now they’re gonna lose support in spades.” New tears start gliding down his freshly washed cheeks, and she can tell he’s not going to leave the bathroom anytime soon. “But… Shit, Rey. I… If I knew this would be the price, I’d rather live in tyranny.” 

Rey nods, because there’s nothing to say. She stands at the door for a long moment before slipping away, clumsily waving goodbye.

Outside, it is indeed hell. The corridor is so crowded she can barely walk through – cameras click, flashlights bursting before her eyes, and boom poles hover above her head, hitting the chandelier. A group of journalists surround Larma D’Acy, yelling questions, to which she mostly replies with firm no-comments, all serious and dignified. Near the entrance, there are more cameras, barely fitting into the hall. They’ve ganged up on someone, Rey sees – it’s Temiri, to her surprise, so small his head barely peeks above the microphones pushed into his face. The traces of the beating he took are still visible, bruises turning pale green, and he’s crying.

Rey’s hands clench into fists. She kicks open the entrance door with brute force, almost hitting a journalist who was on his way in, and rushes down the stairs without looking back.

Fresh air startles her in the street – it’s cooling, vitalizing, but instead of calming her down, it makes her heart race.

She needs to sit, she realizes.

She needs a moment to think, if she wants to do this properly.

Rey spends the next hour in the same park in which she whiled away the afternoon. Chestnuts fall on the path around her, but she doesn’t hear them clink as they hit the pavement. When she finally musters the will to take out her phone, she expects her hands to shake, but they don’t. Her movements are confident. 

It must be because she knows that things have finally come to their place.

She breathes in, caressing the phone keys with her thumb, and then she makes herself dial that number she had learned by heart at the age of fourteen.

No one answers.

Rey lets it ring until the call disconnects, a sharp click echoing in her ear. Then she promptly presses the redial key – the phone rings into the void again.

He’s not home.

Good.

On the count of three, she tells herself, she’ll get up and start walking.

She throws one last glance at the park – children play on swings, young mothers gossip, covering their mouths as they giggle, shiny balloons fly high, blue and green and gold, catching the evening light. Soon, it will be time to head home.

One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. Three, one thousand.

Go.

Rey walks to his apartment. There’s something soothing in the sound of her heels against the cobblestones, click after click, like a beat to a trance. It’s empowering, and she can’t slow down. People in the street make way to let her pass, their backs against walls and parked cars, but she barely notices them. She keeps the phone in her hand, dialing the number from time to time – there’s no answer, he hasn’t returned.

In front of his building, she pauses for a moment, staring at the entrance door.

The shape of her reflection in the dusted glass is blurred, just an outline. Her hair is a mess, she observes. She smooths it down, not knowing why, and then takes the keys out of her bag.

She’s been carrying them around since the bombing. 

The door screeches heavily as she enters. She doesn’t check if there’re security cameras around, or if some of the neighbors have seen her – she doesn’t give a damn. Toying with the rabbit keychain, she climbs the stairs, and shakes her head when she sees that after all these years, it’s still “Tarkin” at the name plaque.

The apartment smells of him.

He’s left the windows open, but it doesn’t change much – she can feel his aftershave, amber and musk, mixed with the tang of his sweat and the sharp reek of booze. Her knees buckle, but Rey grits her teeth and marches into the living room.

She will be strong for this.

The grandfather’s sepia portrait is back in its place on the coffee table, and the floor is covered with rumpled dress shirts. Lately, he seems to be fond of dark grey. There’re empty bottles in the corners, too many of them – glass rattles as Rey walks by. Smirnoff. He must be going through his stash rather quickly, she thinks, or he hasn’t thrown out the garbage for way too long. She doesn’t know which is worse.

Rey enters the bedroom – the bed is unmade, with sheets so disheveled they’re pulled from the mattress. She can picture him tossing as he can’t fall asleep, dark eyes locked on the ceiling, head too woozy from vodka to think straight. Not that thinking was ever his specialty.

Monster.

Strange, there’s a knot in her stomach, but she doesn’t feel distressed, or hesitant. Just calm. She has a purpose. 

He always used to say that it was fate that brought them together. Maybe it did, in the end.

She approaches the cabinet and opens the upper drawer.

It’s there.

A lifetime ago, she remembers, as she rummaged through his apartment looking for hidden booze, she spent a full minute staring at the gun nested between all the junk that cluttered the drawer. She wondered if she could ever shoot, if push came to shove. Funny how things have come full circle.

Rey takes the gun out, savoring its weight in her hand.

It’s heavier than she thought. Cold. The checkered grip is rough against her palm. It's well used, she sees – the black paint is chipped around the edges, revealing dark metal, and it smells of oil, rubbery and pungent and a little sweet. She lifts it, pointing at the wall, just to test how it feels.

It can’t be too difficult to shoot, can it?

She will be strong for this.

All that’s left now is to wait.

Hours pass, and outside it is night. Rey sits on the unmade bed in the dark, holding the gun so tight that her palm bruises. She counts: from zero to one thousand, and then backwards. And again. Mix and match: odd numbers, even numbers, prime numbers. Repeat. Focus. Don't give in, don't overthink.

Her own breathing is too loud.

The moment feels frozen in time, and Rey doesn’t move, not even to brush away the hair that sticks to her sweaty brow. She tells herself this is something that only she can do. Every so often, she fears she might change her mind, and it is then that the gun slightly trembles in her hand – she squeezes it tighter. As the hours slip away and the numbers roll off her tongue like a litany, she is more and more certain that there is no other way.

It is fate.

The wall clock ticks, resonating from the other room, and somewhere in the street, a dog barks.

It's past midnight when he comes home.

The door clicks and he enters, clunky steps thumping on wooden planks. And then he abruptly stops. He must see that something is amiss, Rey thinks. She didn’t bother to cover her tracks – the door’s left unlocked, the lights are on in the living room.

She hears his breath catch.

“Rey?”

Fuck her life, there’s joy in his voice.

How dare he?

Footsteps approach, and she gets up from the bed.

She will be strong, she will. She will.

“Rey…?”

She sees him in the doorframe, so large he’s blocking the light. There’s a flicker of a smile – she won’t look, won’t notice how his chipped fang glints in the corner of his mouth – and then he sways, holding onto the wall. The sick fuck got shitfaced after a job well done, didn’t he? Obviously. She needed to see this, a proof she is right - it makes her clench her jaw and square her shoulders and revel in righteous anger. After everything he had done, after all the shit that taints the soul, this ending, it is what he deserves. Mad dogs must be put down.

Rey lifts the gun.

Kylo freezes. For a few breaths, they just stare at each other.

Then, slowly, he takes a step back.

It’s not fear she reads on his face, no – shock, maybe. He’s stunned. That’s good, Rey thinks. Good. She wants him to know how it feels.

Never had someone hold you at gunpoint, did you, creep?

You had it coming.

She pulls back the hammer the way she saw him do, and feels her finger trembling on the trigger.

But in that moment, Kylo's expression softens.

“Go on. Do it.”

He nods, almost like in encouragement, and a sad non-smile tugs at his lips. 

The gun is heavy, it’s an effort to keep it raised. She fears her hands will start shaking. Kylo cocks his head slightly, a calm acceptance in his eyes, and as his smile widens, she can’t stand the emotions she sees in there.

“Here.” He taps at the center of his chest. “Aim for the heart. If you don’t, I might not die, or it’ll take too long.”

All of a sudden, Rey tastes salt – her cheeks are wet, she notices. She hasn’t realized she started crying. She licks her lips – it’s bitter, like seawater – and makes herself think how Amilyn felt looking down the barrel, tired, stressed, pushed into a role she never wanted, her eyeshadow shimmering like dragonfly wings. Fuck the victory that comes at such a price.

The gun rattles as Rey’s hands begin to shake.

“Was it you?” She doesn’t even know why she asks. “Did you do it?”

“If I say yes, will it make it easier?”

Rey blinks, eyelashes heavy with tears. Her eyes begin to burn. She feels her aim dropping, but she bites her lip and lifts the gun, pointing at his chest. Kylo smiles again, nodding like he understands – it looks so sad it makes her want to scream.

It was him, wasn’t it?

“Do it, Rey,” he whispers, and it sounds like a plea. “It’s okay if it’s you.”

The gun clunks when Rey drops it to the floor.

She remembers Finn’s words from years ago – there are people who can shoot, and those who can’t. Her eyes clouded, she looks up at Kylo. He doesn’t reach for the gun, but just stands in the doorway, unnervingly calm.

Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe. The spell fails, however – she’s choking.

It takes her a moment to register that the sound that she hears is her own wail.

Fuck.

Rey folds onto herself and curls up on the floor. The carpet wool is rough against her knees, coarse. Her skin’s aflame. The tears pool on her upper lip, salt dripping into her mouth, and she’s screaming, she thinks. How the fuck can she be so loud, when she’s struggling to breathe?

Then, the floor creaks. Light surges into the room as Kylo kneels by her side, warm arms wrapping around her shoulders, pulling her close. Her nose brushes his neck – his scent is overwhelming. She feels his heartbeat thumping against her chest, mad, frenzied, but he’s still so firm.

Rey inhales a noisy gulp of air.

She wants to push him away, but grabs his shirt so tight the fabric rips at the seams.

“It’s alright, love,” Kylo whispers, and she isn’t sure if there’s a soft touch of lips on her forehead. “Let it all out, I’ve got you. I’m here.”

She can’t remember the last time someone held her while she cried.

“It… It wasn’t… It wasn’t you. It wasn’t.” His shirt is silky under her palm, slipping between her fingers, and Rey grips it, claws at it. “It wasn’t.”

“No.”  Kylo shifts her in his arms and she whimpers, enveloped in his warmth. “Wasn’t me.”

A sob shakes her body.

“But… Everything made sense… It did!” Rey shivers. She feels stupid, stupid. Irrational.

Ashamed.

“Fuck, Kylo… There were dogs in that park!”

It’s only when she says it aloud that she understands how ridiculous it sounds.

A calloused thumb caresses her cheek, wiping away the tears, ghosting across her jawline.

“There’re dogs in every park, love.” He hugs her tighter. “And I’m not the only one doing dirty work for the regime.”

She knows that. She should have known that.

Not every act of unspeakable evil is his deed – it can’t be, no matter what she may think, what she wants to think. No matter how badly she wishes to be free of him. 

And still he would have let her go through with it without a word.

It feels like waking up from a dream. Rey shrieks again, drowning.

“I’m sorry. I… I don’t know what I was… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.”

It’s the first time she has ever apologized to him.

“Hush, my love. Hush.”

He kisses her hair, she feels it this time. She’s sitting in his lap, she realizes, his long legs folded around her as if to shield her from the world. Or to trap her.

“I told you, it’s okay if it’s you. It would’ve been a good way to go.”

Rey huffs, but it makes her nose run, and she thinks she could almost laugh.

“You… Fuck you, Kylo. You’re one sick fuck, do you know that?”

Something akin to a chuckle rumbles in his chest – the sound is familiar, comforting. It brings back memories. Rey presses her forehead into the crook of his neck, and wants to say something more, but doesn’t know what. The tears are drying on her face, trails of salt tightening the skin.

She breathes.

It’s cold outside, September breeze blowing through the open windows, and Rey suddenly feels exposed in her summer dress. Goosebumps prickle up her shoulders. She cuddles up to Kylo, craving warmth, but he pulls back. Why?

Rey tilts her head to meet his gaze, and he cups both her cheeks, holding her firmly.

Time stops.

“Kiss me,” he says.

And there it is.

She’s never hated him as much as she does in this moment. She knows why he’s giving her the choice.

May you rot in hell, Kylo.

Rey closes her eyes and leans forward.

At first, the kiss is chaste, tentative. Almost childlike. It lasts but a heartbeat, however – Kylo grunts and rakes his fingers through her hair, pulling her closer, and then there’s tongue, and teeth, and hunger. It tastes of tears and vodka, of the last remnants of strawberry lip gloss. Of him. His kisses were never soft. He licks into her mouth, crooked fang grazing her bottom lip, and Rey struggles for air again.

It’s been so long.

“I may be a sick fuck, my love,” Kylo moans, “but you’re still mine.”

The room is spinning around her, and she’s sinking. Her hands roam – she touches the rough denim of his jeans, the silk of his shirt. Rey pulls at the fabric – the shirt rips loudly, buttons falling to the carpet, and Kylo chuckles against her throat. He bites into her skin, and then licks the bruise, and Rey hopes it will leave a mark. It’s all so fucking familiar.

Her mouth waters when she senses the bullet scar beneath her fingers. It’s round, puckered, bone fractures bumpy under the skin. She digs her nails in, and Kylo’s shoulder erupts in goosebumps. He groans, a low growl coming from the pit of his chest, and when he grinds his hips against the thin cotton between her legs, she feels it. He’s hard.

It’s been so long, so long.

She won’t stop to think what she’s doing.

It’s okay to take comfort in the familiar.

It’s okay.

It’s okay if it’s him.

Fabric rustles, and Kylo hikes up her dress to her waist. She feels a brush of fingers across her inner thigh. Rey wraps her legs around his hips – he’s so hard, her monster, so impatient – and Kylo lifts her up to the bed. The wrinkled sheets are soft under her skin, they smell of him. His belt clicks, and he rushes to unbutton his jeans. Rey reaches out to help him, but he’s fast, and suddenly she feels the hot, velvety skin of his arousal against her palm.

He groans at the touch.

“I’ve missed you, my love.”

She’s missed him too, Rey thinks as she closes her eyes, but she won’t say it. She slips the panties down her thighs and spread her legs, pulling him on top of her, and her breath hitches when she feels his weight pressing her into the mattress.

“Monster,” she whispers in his ear.

Kylo shivers as he sinks into her.

It hurts, at first. It’s been too long, she’s lost the habit, it’s uncomfortable. For a brief moment, she even enjoys that it’s awkward – like their first time, vulnerable and intimate. But he knows her body well. He slows down his thrusts the way she likes it, heavy, needy, fire spilling out, his teeth sharp against her throat, and fuck, it’s there – she feels it coiling up between her legs, blossoming in the depth of her belly. The moan she lets out is obscene. The muscles of his back ripple under her palms, sweat making his skin slick, and Rey drags her nails down his spine, digging in deep. Kylo shudders – good. She hopes she drew blood.

She wants to tear him apart.

The world shatters when she comes, squeezing his waist between her thighs, and she presses her heels into his bottom to push him in deeper.

“Mine.” Kylo bites her, kisses her, whispers into her hair. “Always mine.”

He pulls out, trembles above her, and strings of hot liquid burst on her stomach. Rey remembers the taste. She reaches out to touch his face – he’s beautiful, she thinks as she caresses his scar, he’s always been beautiful when pleasure made him gasp.

Kylo collapses on top of her, his semen sticky between them. She feels it gliding down her ribs, dripping on the sheets. He’s heavy. Rey hugs him, tangles her fingers in his hair – it’s so thick, raven black in the dark. He shifts, and the belt of his jeans clicks. He didn’t take them off, just pushed them down to his knees.

Her dress must be stained, she thinks.

“Are you okay, love?” he breathes against her neck.

Rey nods – she can’t speak.

They lay like that for a while.

She keeps waiting for the guilt to kick in, the horror of realizing what she’s just done to shake her, but nothing happens. She feels peaceful. Sated. And he’s so warm.

“Will you stay?” Kylo asks at last, his voice barely a whisper.

It takes her a moment to answer.

“We have no future, Kylo.”

She hears a scoff, as if he doesn’t like being reminded. “I know that. But still. Will you stay?”

Rey pauses to think.

It’s September, three weeks to elections – the event that will change the fate of their country. The Resistance is shaken to the core. Amilyn is dead, dead, shot like a dog and left for everyone to see, Poe is crippled with pain, and Leia lies in hospital. All that the opposition has is a name that the politicians may or may not have revealed that afternoon, if there ever was a press conference, considering. A terrible fight is ahead of them.

And here she is, spiraling into insanity headfirst.

“I’ll stay,” she says. “For now.”

 

Chapter Text

 

If Only Tonight We Could Sleep

 

 

 

At some point in the night, they get up from the bed to remove their clothes.

She lets Kylo undress her. The act carries a meaning for him, she can tell – he treats it as something sacred, ritualistic almost. Like a ceremony. His lips curve as he fumbles with the zipper and peels down the polka dot fabric that clings to her skin, and there it is at last, his happy smile, fragile and raw and so difficult to attain. The one that belongs to her. Rey traces his mouth with the tip of her finger, savoring the smoothness of his kiss-bruised lips. They’re dark against his pallor, red almost, like crushed berries.

The dress drops to the floor and she’s naked before him.

Kylo takes his ripped shirt and starts wiping her skin, gently rubbing away the dried trails of his semen. The silk ruffles, tickling her, and goosebumps prickle down her ribs. Rey chuckles quietly. He likes that – his smile widens into a grin, crooked teeth sharp against soft lips, and suddenly Rey feels shy. She can’t explain why.

A few hours ago, she thinks, she believed she could shoot.

“You… you want a shower, maybe?” He leans forward to plant a kiss above her navel.

“I’m fine.”

Kylo nods, his forehead pressed against her stomach. His hands ghost across her waist and the curve of her bottom, calloused thumbs grazing her hipbones, a caress both rough and tender. Then he lowers his head, and she feels his warm breath between her legs, followed by a brief, tentative lick – soft, wet, just the tip of the tongue. Like a promise.

Kylo sits back and looks at her with hooded eyes.

“Wanna go to sleep?”

For a moment, she thinks it’s not sleep he has in mind, but then she sees the fatigue on his face. The light is blue in the room, the first hour of dawn brightening the sky, and shadows creep into their world, dancing across his creased forehead and the hollow bags under his eyes.

Rey touches the tip of his nose, like he used to do to her when she was little. “Yes.”

He chuckles and picks her up like she weighs nothing – the sick fuck is genuinely happy, even after what she has tried to do – and when he lays her down on the bed, he wraps himself around her like all is right with the world.   

Maybe he knows her better than she does, Rey thinks. Maybe he knew she’d never pull the trigger. Or maybe he was really ready to let her do it, because he’s mad and this is all wrong, and there are no simple answers, only tradeoffs that become more and more complicated.

Fuck her life.

Kylo falls asleep quickly, steady snores huffing into her hair. No insomnia after getting laid, it seems. His eyelids flutter like he’s dreaming, and Rey hates that she finds it sweet. She has marked him well, she sees as more light penetrates the room – his shoulders are striped with scratches. At some places, she even broke the skin. With the tip of her nail, Rey traces the pink web of bruises she has created, resisting the urge to kiss the marks, or dig in deeper.

He looks younger when he’s asleep.  

It’s morning outside, she hears the birds chirping. Blackbirds, probably. They should be around, she sees them in the parks, specks of darkness in the grass, orange beaks glistening like gold. Or could it be nightingales? Are there even nightingales in the city? It’s a miracle there’re any songbirds at all in this neighborhood, she thinks, with all the stray cats lurking to strangle them. All that remains are feathers scattered on the cobblestones.

Rey shifts and cuddles up to him, her hands wandering across the firm planes of muscle, looking for new scars. She finds none – it appears that the war in the south was merciful to his body. Or perhaps he wasn’t in the hot spots, now that he’s in command. But no, he’s not the type – the sick fuck takes pride in getting his hands dirty. Of course he was there to personally carry out the horrors that made sense in his head. Crimes against humanity, Rey recites: murder, deportation, persecutions, and violations of the customs of war. She studies his profile, reaching out to gently trail the shape of his nose. Once, she used to find joy in touching him like this, like a special kind of intimacy that only the two of them could share.

It’s the little things she liked the most, Rey remembers.

She can’t sleep. She fears what the world will look like when she wakes up.

The birds have flown away and outside it is bright, a lovely sunny day. Someone is trying to start a car right below their window – the engine stutters, and it takes three attempts to get it going. She hears children laughing, yelling, chanting the same anti-regime tune that Poe sang yesterday – they make it sound like a nursery rhyme. It seems they’re on their way to school.

She tries counting, but loses focus quickly, numbers trailing off, slipping away like smoke. She breathes. She can’t keep her eyes closed.

She listens to his heartbeats, her palm resting on his chest, right on the place where he told her to shoot him. 

It begins to get hot in the room, like it’s the first day of an Indian summer, when Rey finally drifts into a shallow slumber. She dreams, of course she does, but it’s vague and slippery and she can’t grasp the meaning – a series of moods rather than images. There’s shame and arousal and anger, she thinks, anger so strong she shouts at someone but doesn’t know whom, and she’s too young again, and she’s told a lie, but can’t remember what.

“Love?” Kylo presses a soft kiss in the corner of her mouth. “It’s past noon.”

She feels like she’s fallen asleep just a breath ago.

Rey sits up in the bed, her head spinning. She touches the sheets – they’re damp with sweat. Her heartbeat picks up as if she’s startled, even though she isn’t. It takes her a moment to realize there’s food: she smells bacon, and toast, and freshly brewed coffee – black, the way she likes it. Her mouth waters. The last thing she ate was the ice-cream, yesterday.

“You have pillow lines on your cheek.” Kylo caresses her face. “Come. I got hungry waiting for you to wake up.”

She stares at him. Fuck.

It’s strange to be naked like this, awake in broad daylight, with everything on display.

Rey sways as she gets up from the bed, an odd headache building up in her temples. The carpet feels rough beneath her soles, and her joints pop as she stretches. The gun is no longer on the floor, she sees – that’s the first thing she checks – and she wonders if he returned it to the drawer, or stashed it away somewhere where she can’t find it. Her stained dress lies discarded by the bedpost. She glances at it, doesn’t feel like putting it back on, but Kylo readily hands her a large grey t-shirt.

The memories of back then hit her like a fucking gut punch.

She wants to say something, a good morning at least, but she can’t find the words.

“I think I made too much food,” Kylo says as she pads behind him to the kitchen, the hem of his t-shirt reaching her mid-thighs. “But it’s okay. It’s late. It’ll be like lunch. And we can eat later, too.”

Of course there’s a later. She said she’d stay.

“Don’t you…” Her voice rasps – Rey pauses to clear her throat. “Don’t you have to be somewhere? Do stuff? Take care of the, uh, First Order business?”

The unasked question of what the First Order is doing these days hangs between them, but Rey isn’t sure she wants the answer – not after everything.

“I called Armitage. Told him I wouldn’t be around today.”

“Did you tell him why?”

He doesn’t say anything, but grins too widely, and all of a sudden there’s something cocky in his posture, a swagger she’s not used to seeing. She finds it unbearable.

“We’re not in a relationship, Kylo.”

He rolls his eyes. “You’re getting repetitive, y’know.”

The bacon is gone within seconds, and the toast crunches when Rey bites into it. Crumbs fall from her chin – she’s always been a messy eater, she can’t help it. A loud slurp escapes her lips as she licks the melted butter from her fingers, and Kylo swallows a chuckle. He likes watching her eat, a smile for every bite she takes. Rey understands. In part, it’s because he’s the one making the food – the bastard’s proud of his cooking, and he feels good seeing it’s appreciated, cherished, especially since he knows too well how she grew up in the Home. On the other hand, well, he simply likes watching her. She should find it unsettling, but she doesn’t.

Rey glances at the plum jam on the table, reaches out to turn the jar and check the label. It’s her favorite brand. The sick fuck was well prepared, it seems. She wonders when he bought it – before or after the goldfish?  

She can’t sit in silence.

“Did you know?”

Funny, of all the things she could have asked, he understands exactly what she means.

“Not directly, no,” Kylo says, and proceeds to pour himself more coffee. He takes it with sugar. “I knew she made them uncomfortable.”

He doesn’t meet her eyes, staring at the table in front of him, stirring the coffee. The metal spoon jingles as it hits the ceramic, rhythmic chinks continuing even after the sugar has melted. It’s a new mug, Rey sees: glossy, big comic book letters spelling out a cheesy slogan – Do I look like a fucking people person? A gift from Armitage, she’ll bet.

She doesn’t expect him to go on, but he does.

“They were afraid of her, y’know. Thought she might win, if she ran. I’ve heard rumors, people saying something had to be done, but nothing, well, official. For lack of a better word.”

Kylo takes the spoon out – brown stains blossom on the tablecloth as he throws it among the plates. When he lifts his gaze, his eyes are wide open.

“To be honest, I was surprised too.”

With a nod, Rey picks up the spoon. The metal is warmed by his hand. She waits for his words to sink in, but he’s not finished yet. Whatever he has to say, it seems to be difficult to articulate, and he opens and closes his mouth several times before coming up with a sentence.

“I knew her. She was my mother’s friend.” He licks his lips, presses them together the way he always does when he’s stressed. “I’m sorry.”

Ah.

It rings true, Rey must admit. She can almost believe he feels bad about it.

Almost.

“But if you knew, would you… Would you have told me?” she asks. “Given me a warning?”

And just like that, all traces of this thing akin to remorse disappear from his face.

“If the regime loses, love, if they fall, that’s it for me.” Kylo snarls – the uncontrolled twitch of his upper lip makes him look like a wolf. He points to the sky when he says they, as if he’s talking about some vicious pagan gods living in the clouds. “I’ll be done for. Arrested. Shipped off to the Netherlands for a sham trial.”

It feels strange to hear him acknowledge it.

All this time, the war crimes indictment had an abstract quality to it, like a symbol of sorts, a scarlet letter proving he’s a monster. It has never crossed her mind that there could be an actual trial, with judges and lawyers and witnesses and a verdict, and all that comes after.

Is he afraid?

“You think the trial would be rigged?”

Kylo frowns as if he’s frustrated she’s asking something so stupid. “What do you think it’d be, love, a fair process?” He huffs. “I don’t believe in the Western justice. They’ve decided a long time ago who’re the villains in this story. They must keep holding onto their lies, or this bullshit narrative they’ve built will fall apart. The trials will be just for show, so they can publicly pronounce us guilty.”

Rey squeezes the spoon so tight she thinks she might bend it.

“But aren’t you?” She looks up into his eyes. “Guilty?”

Kylo’s face darkens.

“I did what had to be done.”

There it is, his favorite go-to excuse. It had to be done.

“If you were doing it for the good of the country, you did a shit job.” Rey holds his gaze, doesn’t flinch when she sees his jaw clenching, the tic under his eye pulsating in rapid flutters. “What had to be done got us bombed.”

Kylo jumps up from the table, nearly kicking over his chair. The plates rattle as he storms by the counter. He lifts his palms in the air, a gesture of resentment and exasperation, and for a moment she sees it again – the red hot flames of rage flickering through the cracks in his façade. Rey squares her shoulders, expecting him to flip over the furniture and break something – he’s always enjoyed the feeling of things losing shape, snapping between his hands when the anger was too difficult to handle.

He doesn’t scare her, she thinks.

But then Kylo stops, breathes in, suddenly too calm. When he speaks, he sounds sad.

“Fuck, Rey. Years later, and you’re none the wiser. Still buying the bullshit.”

He rubs his temples, his movements measured as if to practice patience, and then he exhales loudly, like it’s hard to choose the right words for what he’s about to say. Rey already knows she won’t like it.

“The West bombed us because it served their interests,” he declares at last. “Your precious Resistance, it’s the same. You exist because they want you to.”

Rey stiffens, shifting in the chair.

What?

“That’s not true.”

“Yeah?” Kylo sneers, visibly pleased with her reaction. “Ever wondered where the Resistance funds came from? Brand new computers, an office in the pedestrian zone, all those PR dipshits who cost a fortune. You think the money fell from the sky, or are those dollars dripping in because the Americans need you to play a role?”

So he’s talking about the money. 

Rey knew that – Leia had said that the majority of funds were coming from international donations. That is fine. Without the support of the global community, they can never succeed in their goal.

It’s all fairly transparent, right?

She frowns. “Well, at least it’s a good role.”

Her words make him laugh – he breathes out a quiet, guttural rumble not unlike a growl, both amused and unhappy.

“Good, eh?” A dramatic pause. “Remember how, years ago, you mocked me when I told you that all I’d done was for good?”

Fucking sick fuck.

“How dare you compare the two?”

Heavy footsteps echo as Kylo crosses the kitchen. He leans above her and grabs her by the chin, rough fingers stroking her jaw as he’s holding her. But despite his size and strength and the darkness that makes his hands shake, the gesture is nothing but gentle.

“Look at me, love. Look me in the eyes. Do you really believe I’ve never done anything good?”

His pupils are dilated, Rey observes – she can almost see her reflection in them. He breathes through his mouth, lips parted, and the muscle under his eye tics even though he is calm, waiting for her response.

She doesn’t know what to say.

“You think I’ve never saved lives, defended people? Bled for them?” he continues. “Stopped the terrorists from burning down our villages, from killing everyone who isn’t them?”

Goddammit, Kylo.

If this is the goodness he has in mind, it means that after all these years he hasn’t changed one bit.

“And you did that by burning down their villages and killing everyone who isn’t us.”

Kylo scoffs, letting go of her face. 

The absence of his touch feels odd, like she’s suddenly cold, even though it’s a hot, humid day outside. He walks over to the counter and opens a cupboard, taking out a glass.

“Why so naïve, Rey?” He doesn’t look at her, his eyes locked on the empty glass as if it’s holding answers. “No one got away from this war with their hands clean, love. No one. You should know better, you were here – fuck, you were right here – during the bombing.”

Kylo points at the room, waving with the glass, and Rey crosses her arms, elbows on the table, chin raised high.

“You know the West was dropping cassette bombs on civilians. You do. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen what it actually looked like, they weren’t showing that shit on TV. It’s bad for any propaganda.” He gives a bitter chuckle. “I’ve seen it, my love. More than once. Good luck identifying a body after it’s been blown to bits.”

Suddenly, she thinks of Paige.

She remembers Rose crying on the phone, the sound distorted by the bad connection, half crackling, half teary hiccups. They couldn’t hold a proper funeral, Rose kept saying. They couldn’t.

There was no body to bury.

But Kylo keeps talking.

“And yet, no court in the Netherlands will hold the fucking West accountable for the crimes they did. That’s not how the world works, my love. That’d never fit the narrative in which they’re the heroes and we’re the villains.”

She’s afraid to examine what he says – if she tries thinking through his words, who knows what she may find, and now is not the moment.

She wants to make him shut up.

“You’ve always been good to me,” Rey admits. “Always.”

And you got the meds for your mother when I asked you, she thinks. You did. She doesn’t say it aloud, though.

“But I watched you kill, Kylo. I saw. I know how you smile when you take a life.”

The lines between his eyebrows deepen and he shakes his head, suddenly looking older, too tired to keep arguing. He stares at her with narrowed eyes, as if he’s waiting for her to change her mind or clarify her words, but Rey doesn’t. Then, finally, he scoffs and opens the upper cupboard to take out a bottle, one of many that look just alike.

The cap creaks as he twists it open, and he fills his glass with clear, sharp-smelling liquid. Fucking Smirnoff.

“Don’t do that,” Rey says.

Kylo lifts the glass as if he’s toasting.

“I don’t think your opinion counts. We’re not in a relationship, remember?”

Shit.

Yesterday, when she held him at gunpoint, tried to shoot him for fuck’s sake, he seemed less upset. The disappointment in his eyes hurts, and Rey hates that it can still affect her.

“I didn’t mean to argue.” Her voice is soft as she whispers.

“Oh yes, you did.” Kylo shrugs and downs his vodka in a single gulp. “Now come, love. Help me with the dishes.”

Rey leaves him hunched above the sink, the open bottle at hand, shimmering dish soap foam spilling over the counter as he scrubs the plates a tad too vigorously. She makes her way to the living room, plops down to the couch, lifts her legs up and crosses them – her limbs are still stiff from the lack of sleep.

If she wants to go home, she thinks, this is a good moment. He’ll let her leave without lifting an eyebrow.

But she promised she’d stay.

Rey picks up her bag from the floor and takes her phone – she hasn’t checked it since yesterday, left it on silent, too scared of any distractions that could’ve made her think about what she was doing. She shakes her head when she unlocks the screen. Two missed calls from an unknown number, she sees, plus four from Rose and eleven from Finn; three texts from Poe – one that he’s doing okay, other to call him when she can, the third something about t-shirt prints that she doesn’t quite understand; and finally a short message from Armitage – You’re an idiot, it reads.

Well. They agree on that.

Rey sighs, holding her breath to the count of five, and then she starts typing.

Can’t talk now. Will call later. What’s with the t-shirts?

Poe doesn’t answer right away – for a moment, it makes her feel guilty for leaving him yesterday, alone and in pain among all those cameras. She shouldn’t have done that. It was stupid and selfish, a base impulse disguised as rambling about purpose and fate. She should have recognized how insane her thinking was.

Who knows where Poe is now or how he’s coping, and she’s exhausted from being worried.

But then her phone vibrates.

I’ll explain. You’re with your special someone?

Rey peeks behind the couch armrest, glancing at the kitchen door – the dishes are still clunking, the rattle louder than usual. It’s a wonder he hasn’t broken anything yet.

Yes, she replies.

Take your time, sunshine. Enjoy every moment of happiness you can :)

She smiles, rolling her eyes at the silly emoji sign, but when she reads the message for the second time, she feels the tears building up in her throat.

Fuck her life.

Rey chuckles wryly – the words have become her personal mantra.

The noise in the kitchen stops, and the silence feels odd, too sudden, like an echo of her headache that’s increasingly getting worse. She can hear her own breathing – she had no idea it was this loud. Then, Kylo enters the room. He smells of dish soap: lemon and chemicals and cleanliness, and a bright shade of green. She expects him to say something, but he doesn’t. He stands near the door, hesitant, wiping his hands with a checkered napkin and chewing on his bottom lip. He’s wet, she sees – the soapy stains make the wife beater top cling to his skin.

Rey moves to the side and folds h