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The Commander and the Cook

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            On a mild evening in early August, shadows creeping across the surrounding woodlands and tugging everything down into dusk, Irena turns to Venya. Side by side they sit, out on the veranda of their little log cabin, sipping at their tea.

            Venya feels utterly at peace with the world; his golden wedding ring gleams comfortingly on his right finger, just as Irena’s does on her own finger. They have shared a meal of grilled venison and roasted potatoes and fresh green beans, after finishing a long day of work at their diner in the nearby town of Eureka. They’ve even managed to have sneaky rushed sex twice today.

            “I went to see Doctor Tano this morning, after my classes,” she says, hardly above a whisper, offering up a soft smile. He understands her hushed tone — all around them the earth sings a twilight lullaby, and it feels wrong to disturb it. Crickets chirp out their cheerful secrets to one another, trees whisper in the light breeze and somewhere far away, a pack of wolves howl a mournful canine evensong. He responds in kind, low and soft:

            “And?”

            She bites the corner of her lower lip, then slowly, deliberately — she nods.

            He releases a gusty exhale, a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. A smile lifts the edges of his mouth.

            A baby. They’re going to have a baby. It will be him, and her, and something else —  something all its own. This is what they've been trying for, this has been their hopeful mission for months.

            When he inhales, just as deeply, he takes in the sweet scents of the cooling pinewoods — sticky tree sap, pink mountain heather, Rey’s mint tea, the herbal soap they used in the shower they shared this morning.

            “Venya? Say something, please,” she murmurs, calling his attention back to her face, where her smile has faltered and her eyes have begun to cloud with doubt.

            “A baby,” he utters, reverent, voice and throat thick with elation. “Ours. Боже мой. Come here, tsarina.”

            He holds out his arms to her, setting the tea aside; with a relieved little sigh, she crawls over the armrests and into his lap. Something in his chest shifts, warmth flows through him — joy. Her eyes, his hair. A baby, chubby, with round cheeks and tiny toes. Bringing his nose to Irena’s temple, nuzzling her face, he exults in the dimple creasing her cheek, in her smile, in the soft chuff of laughter she lets out. Joy, this is joy. He rests his hand on her flat stomach, spreading out his fingers, as if to feel for something stirring down beneath the layers of skin and muscle.

            His fingers —  his tattooed fingers. Fingers that have pulled countless triggers on countless guns, fingers that have grabbed and choked and ripped and torn life from limb, fingers that killed his own father. No, they have not been used to this end for over three years now, but… can they ever truly be clean? A cool northern breeze rushes in, the flesh on his bare arms pebbling as something ugly, frigid, and raw lodges itself in his chest — doubt. This is doubt.

            How can I hold a defenseless, innocent child in these hands? How can I taint a young life like that? How can these hands ever deserve to hold Irena’s child?

            “I’m so happy, Ven,” she sighs. “Are you happy? You’re not saying much. Are you okay?”

            “I am,” he coughs out, a hand on her jaw bringing her face around so he can brush his lips against hers. “Beyond words.” But her brows are still knit together, a troubled expression on her face and so he adds, “So happy. I’m going to take care of you, and it. This child—it will never want for anything.” 

            She murmurs, “I just want it to be loved. I just want it to know that we love it. Always.” 

            “That,” he says, solemn, “that — love — it will want for least of all.”

            “Good. Good.” She curls her body into his, he rests his cheek upon her hair, they breathe in sync, watching the last vestiges of daylight slip away.

            A son, he marvels, still reeling. Or a daughter. Maybe both—twins run in the family. A helpless newborn, and then an infant, a toddler, a child, an adolescent, young person, an adult. And all the while, a soul who will need him — who will look up to him, who will require love, and soon enough, guidance.

            I know I am capable of the former. Can I be trusted with the latter?

            “I love you.” As she speaks, her breath puffs across his collarbone. And this is true, he already knows this, but she still says it to him all the time, and he has never, could never, will never grow tired of hearing it. Never in Venya’s life has he loved anything as much as he loves Irena, and the warm glow of joy suffuses the moment.

            And yet. In his chest, doubt has gained a foothold — he finds that for all the speed with which it rushed in, it is not so quick to leave. Even after all this time, everything he and Irena have suffered and fought for, the question still plagues him —

            Do I deserve this?

            Does a child deserve to grow up with parents who must live under false names, with a father who must hide from his former partners-in-crime?

            “I love you too, milaya,” he says, and squeezes her tight, bringing her close, as close as two bodies can be.


            In the middle of the night, after they've had sex in the bed that Venya built for them — her fingers pressing furrows into his muscled back, his hips cradled between her thighs, slow, tender, full of hushed vows of devotion — after she’s drifted off in his strong, tattooed arms — Irena wakes to a cold bedroom full of silvery moonlight and bereft of her husband.

            “Ven?” she warbles, muzzy from sleep.

            Nothing, no response — and no lights on in the living room, which she can see through the bedroom’s open doorway.

            She disentangles herself from the sheets and pads through the moonlit rooms, silently surveying the contents of their life. The house has an open floor plan; the living room, with its overstuffed couches and massive stone fireplace, has no walls to separate it from the little kitchen, where Venya cooks all their meals for them. Garden windows in both rooms, big panes of glass that let in the light, overlook the forest glen in the back of the house, making the space feel airy and larger than it really is.

            Their home, which they have spent the last three years building. Irena can just spy him through the screen door — he’s out on the veranda again, in the chair they long ago tacitly agreed was his.

            “Ven.” She leans on the doorframe, pressing her cheek against the door’s mesh surface.

            “Sorry,” he murmurs, turning his head ever so slightly to the left. He doesn't look back at her, and his strong profile in the wan light takes her breath away, just as it always has. He is hers, he is so beautiful, and she wants to take on whatever is worrying him, wants him to share the burden with her. “Couldn't sleep.” 

            “Come to bed?”

            “Soon,” he says. “Go on, I'll be there soon.” 

            Still she lingers, hoping—

            “I love you, волчонок.” A faint smile tugs at his lips; his eyes flit back to her, then away again.

            “Love you too, baby,” she sighs, as she turns and heads back to bed.


            Later still, sky fading to grey and a robin’s carol heralding the dawn, Irena wakes with a start from shapeless, anxious dreams. Venya’s side of the bed remains empty.

            She finds him where she left him, and although she wants to cry at the sight of him, slumped and sleeping in his chair, refusing himself the luxury of their warm bed — she takes a bracing breath, stifles that urge, and fetches a hand-knitted blanket made for them by Quinn, one of their teenage runaways who stayed with them for a few weeks, a while back. Slowly opening the creaky screen door, careful to be as quiet as possible, she drapes it over his tattooed chest, then leans down to press a gentle kiss against the crown of his head.

            “You deserve this life,” she breathes, a whisper against his dark hair, and hopes that wherever he's gone to in his sleep, those words find him. “You’re going to be such a good father. And I love you more than anything.”

            Then she shuffles back to bed once more.

            Because Irena, she knows how Venya is when he gets like this, knows what he needs: time, and space. He loves her, of that she has no doubt. He wants this child, wants this life they’ve built together. It's been six months since they signed their names on their marriage certificate, stood before a Justice of the Peace at the Eureka town hall, and promised each other that this was 'til death do them part. They’ve talked about children enough times, both before and after the wedding, for her to feel certain that this is what he wants, too.

            And she knows that when he’s ready, he will let her remind him of all the wonderful things he’s done since his days with the Solntsevskaya Bratva. She will remind him how he killed Ivan Ivanovich Snoke, how he testified against the Bratva, how he chose her, how important and loved he makes her feel every day.

            But for now, he needs her to be patient with him, as he is so often with her. So she burrows down into her nest of blankets, and eventually, she slips into a light drowse.



            Rey doesn’t have much. Not because she expects to drop everything and move at a moment’s notice, but because she has never had much, not that properly belonged to her: only what she’s needed to survive, and a few other items for decoration or for entertainment. Even as she’s come to have more, more excitement, more people, more purpose, her collection of things has remained reasonably small. She hadn’t taken any of her personal possessions with her from Jakku when she initially left, and never returned for them; all she owns is what she’s accumulated over the last three years.

            She arranges the few ornamental trinkets on the top of her standard-issue bureau in her new room on the Conquest II, the flagship of the First Order faction that’s branded itself the New Galactic Imperium. The room is larger than any she has ever called her own, but functional, austere. It needs all of the help that it can get. So she carefully positions the spare copper wire that Rose had clumsily molded into the shape of a flower — something she said her sister Paige used to do — next to a small, glowing chunk of rock Finn had found on one of their many adventures together. That’s something. Some warmth.

            Padmé Amidala’s silver hairpiece is the last thing to leave her pack, and Rey waffles about where to put it. It’s the only thing of real value that she owns, and she’s tempted to squirrel it away somewhere so it won’t be stolen. But even though she recognizes this as a lingering impulse from her Jakku days, she still wrestles with it for a minute or two.

            Eventually, she settles on a compromise, and sets the piece on top of the dresser wrapped in the scarf she’d made from her gala dress. There. She can look at it and know what it is, but no one else will.

            Rey stands back, hands on her hips, and surveys the space. Little personal touches can only do so much, but they’re better than nothing. Perhaps she can find something more, some scrap fabric to pin to the walls, or some flowers from the biodome. Were she and the Grand Imperator on better speaking terms…

            “I think they gave you the bigger room,” Finn teases, from the doorway.

            Rey turns to find him leaning against the doorframe, arms folded, propping the sliding door open with his shoulder. As the designated liaison between the Resistance and Kylo Ren’s New Galactic Imperium, his wardrobe’s received an upgrade. After all, Resistance uniforms tend to be a little threadbare, which won’t pass muster on this sort of ship. Finn’s eschewed an officer’s uniform, but the dark blue jacket he wears is new, and carefully pressed.

            “You’re imagining things,” she tells him. From what she knows from living on the refurbished Vigilance, these are fairly standard senior officer’s quarters. Given the First Order’s, or Imperium’s, or whoever’s penchant for conformity, Finn likely has a room that’s equal in every way.

            “Nah.” He makes a show of peering around Rey’s room. “Definitely bigger.”

            Rey leaves her things for now — she’s practically finished unpacking, anyway — and comes to join him at the door. “I’m glad we’re neighbors,” she says. “How does it feel to be back?”

            Finn shudders. “Weird,” he says. “Really weird. Technically I’m not back back because this ship was built after my time, but it feels just like the Supremacy. And you know what? I don’t like it.”

            “Me either.” Rey had grown accustomed to the Conquest II during her last brief stay, but the prospect of an indefinite one, after hiding with the Resistance for three years on a lush jungle planet, is another matter. She says, “I vote that we spend most of our time in the biodome where they grow all the fruit.”

            Finn’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’ve seen a biodome?” A little excited despite himself. “I never had that clearance.”

            “Yeah, I—” she begins, then pauses for two reasons. First: she can’t exactly say to Finn Kylo took me there, as if it were nothing, as if she were just speaking candidly of an outing she might take with any of her friends.

            And second: there is Kylo, as if summoned by her thoughts, striding down the hall with a younger officer trotting to keep pace at his side. He keeps the force bond between them pinched tightly shut, locking her out of his mind, but picks up his head a mere second after she notices him, as if he’s sensed her standing there.

            The Supreme Leader — sorry, the Imperator now — looks tired. That’s what she notices about him first, the dark circles under his eyes, the slightly deeper-than-usual stoop. It’s striking to Rey, at least, but someone else might not notice; Kylo Ren is otherwise impossibly well-groomed. His dark curls are shiny, his clothes impeccably tailored to his powerful form, with red trimming to brighten the black, but he is exhausted, even if he and Rey are the only ones who know it.

            Rey opens her mouth, then closes it. She doesn’t know that she should be the one to greet him. They’d come to an accord, and they’re technically on the same side at the moment, but she isn’t sure where they stand personally. Surely not at the intersection of pleasantries and small talk, yet? They have spoken since everything went wrong, but it was all about arrangements, and details. If he wants to talk, he’ll talk.

            She isn’t kept wondering, because he draws nearer to them — not up to, but nearer — and then stops. He looks at her, but doesn’t allow himself to look for long, and turns to Finn — but no, he doesn’t seem to talk to Finn either. She watches him press his lips together, and speak to the empty air next to Finn’s head. “You’ve arrived,” he says.

            Finn glances at Rey, disconcerted. “Uh,” he says. “Yeah. This morning.”

            Kylo Ren nods, more to himself than anyone else. “Your rooms are enough?”

            “Yeah,” says Finn again, awkwardly. “They’re, uh. Big. I guess.”

            This is ridiculous. Rey folds her arms. “I’m right here, if you have something to say to me.”

            “Oh.” Kylo Ren blinks, and makes eye contact with her chin. “Rey.”

            “What are you doing here?”

            “I live here,” he says, slightly bemused.

            “I know where you live.” Rey nods down the hall. She’s been to his quarters. Neither of them are likely to forget that anytime soon. “You live half a kilometer in that direction.”

            He shifts his weight from the ball of one foot to the other. They both know he was unlikely to end up here by accident. “Well, I like walking.”

            Just admit that you wanted to stop by, Rey thinks, but she only says, “Okay.”

            And Kylo Ren says, “Okay.”

            Finn looks between them, increasingly uneasy. “I don’t know if you’re expecting us to thank you for the rooms, but, uh,” he says, “it’s really the least you can do. Put us up. After everything.”

            “Yes. It is.” A pause. His throat bobs as he swallows. “I have...”

            “Work?” Finn supplies.

            “Matters. To. Yes.” He glances at Rey again, as if she might give him a reason to stay. What does he want from her? He was the one who told her to leave his ship. He was the one who sent her away. And then he was the one who asked for her back.

            “Imperator,” she says.

            With a little nod, he replies, “Jedi.”

            And with that, he goes, cloak flaring out behind him as he walks down the hall, the officer nearly tripping over himself as he trails behind. Rey sighs, a long sigh, and allows her eyes to close, just for a moment. This has to work. It must work. For the sake of their alliance, and the sake of the Force-strong students they’ll both be teaching, they will need to set aside their differences and… move forward.

            But how are they to do that if they can’t even talk to each other?

            “So,” says Finn, from behind her, a single syllable burdened with a thousand questions. “Rey.”

            “Are you hungry? I’m starving,” she lies, a blatant lie: she’s barely eaten in the last few days, which she attributes to the nerves of relocation. But she’s told Finn she doesn’t want to talk about it so many times, and this is kinder. The truth would be unlikely to make Finn, or anyone, very happy.

            Even so, the weight of a secret can be so hard to bear, alone.


            Kylo Ren returns to his chambers that evening, weary to the bone. For much of his life, he could not remember a time when he didn’t feel weary. The promised power of the dark side coursing through his veins only ever lasted so long before the fire burned out, and he was left with only a cold void in his chest, the echoes of strength, and a flickering light from which he had to turn his face away.

            And then— Rey had returned.

            He sits at the foot of his bed to remove his boots, but undoes the buckles without looking and instead slowly turns his head, eyes flitting from one far corner of his too-quiet, too-still rooms to the other. No one ever told him how irrevocably his space would be changed by a lover’s fleeting presence. From the edge of the bed he contemplates the open door of one of his closets, and sees the ghost of Rey ducking into it, hears her asking him what he needs so much space for if he wears the same outfit every day. Her clothes used to hang there, the ones he had commissioned for her; he’s had all of the articles but one delivered to her new rooms, loath to purge her entirely from his life.

            Rey had returned, not for even a fortnight, and in that short space of time she had changed him irrevocably. She opened him to an entire emotional spectrum he’d long ago closed off. She had lain in this bed and embraced him, canted her hips up against his, dug her nails into his back, wailed his name, but beyond that, more than that, she had fallen asleep beside him, allowed him to hold her when she was most vulnerable, allowed him to learn the language of her soft, whistling snores. She revealed more of herself to him than anyone ever had.

            And then it transpired that she had come to him on the orders of her Resistance. So she can insist all she wants that her feelings were genuine. They might be allies now, but he cannot let her back in.

            However much he wishes he could.

           He stands, strips to his shorts. He sleeps hot, even in the cold depths of space. Until Rey, he could not have envisioned himself sharing a bed with anyone. But somehow Rey tucked up against him, soaking up the heat from his body like she might the heat of a sun, worked. Somehow they worked.

            It is impossible to escape her. She lives here, now, on his ship, by his agreement, as part of the alliance between their factions, so he can keep her safe. But even in his bedchamber, into which she has not stepped foot in for a month, he keeps finding her hairs, everywhere. He plucks one off of the pillow next to his, a long strand, shiny and brown. He thinks of telling the cleaning droids to do better, then thinks better of that, too.

            Kylo dreads sleep. The Force keeps overtaking his dreams to show him visions of Rey in pain, under siege from something he can’t see. And while he would love to shrug the Force off as he so often has in his life, tell it that she is no longer his to mind, he can’t. It would be a lie of the highest order.

            And much as the visions turn his stomach, he must rest. So he closes his eyes.



            Venya dreams.

            Barefoot and bare-chested, he rises from his chair, steps off the veranda and onto the dark, damp soil. As he makes his way into the forest, eddys of fog swirl around his legs. Uncanny golden half-light filters through the towering trees, illuminating a swarm of butterflies that flit in and out of the shadows. Is it dawn or dusk? It doesn't really matter, he thinks, as he spins to check on the house, except —

            No house. No Irena. No birdsong, no buzzing drone of cicadas, no distant river’s burbling. There is only silent forest, only ageless larches and pines and firs, only fog and this strange light, for as far as the eye can see. He’s not even sure, as he takes in his surroundings, if this is his Montana woodlands he’s dreaming of — or the Russian taiga. Perhaps a jumbled amalgamation of the two, he supposes.

            He is alone. And Venya, he knows that none of this is real. But when he looks forward once more, deeper into the heart of the forest, he finds that a path has been cut through the fog — and he thinks he hears the baleful howling of a wolf beckoning him from somewhere far away.

            This is not real, but that does not rob it of meaning. Venya needs to know, wants to understand what he’s being shown. To that end, he gives himself over to the dream, and sets out upon the path.


            The instant Kylo’s breathing evens out and his grip on the conscious world falls away, he finds himself not thrust into a familiar nightmare, but another, a new one, much more colorful. He picks up his head and squints against the horizon, where the sun is either rising or setting in a red-purple haze. His bare toes curl into cool yellow sand. Somehow, he knows this is Jakku, the planet Rey called home for so many long years.

            As he stands in the sand contemplating what this might mean, a bird darts over his shoulder, so close to him that the slipstream tickles his cheek. It soars past him high into the air, then circles back around, approaching him but never again getting as close. When it slows, gliding in the twilight sky, he sees that it’s a convor, but one of unusual coloring — white and green. Kylo knows them to prefer jungle forests, temperate climates. He saw them on Takodana, which he visited with his father as a boy, and to which he returned many years later to retrieve a droid but found Rey instead.

            There are no trees on Jakku, no forests to in which to hunt, no life of which to speak. Those who survive on this desolate planet leech off the bones of dead machines. You’re not at home here, he thinks to the bird. But then again, neither am I.

            The bird hoots at him as if in response, almost imploringly. It swoops behind him, then takes to the sky again, charting a clear path straight forward. Kylo has the mad thought that it wants him to follow.

            He looks to the left and right, then behind him. All identical planes and dunes. Rey, who raised herself here, would be able to tell them apart. But he is not a native, and they all look the same to him.

            Right, then. Follow the bird. It’s not as if he has anywhere else to go.


            After some time, Venya comes to a wall of stone, whose parapet he cannot glimpse because it seems to simply rise and rise, all the way up into the heavy grey clouds overhead. Nor can he find a way around it, because when he shifts to glance in either direction, it stretches out into the forest, also seemingly without end.

            The wall is curious. There’s a painting directly in front of him, its ink so bright it might have been applied to the rockface only minutes ago, for all he knows. In it is depicted a circle of silvery wolves, each one’s nose almost touching the long furry tail of the wolf that runs before it. Within the ring of wolves stand four individuals. After a moment’s study, Venya realizes he knows them well — from his father’s bedtime stories.

            To the left, Triglav — god of the underworld, mortal realm, and heaven — sits upon his rearing black steed. His three stern faces wear golden blindfolds, to hide the world’s sins from his censorious eyes. Beside him stands Živa, the goddess of fertility, full of youthful beauty and knowing serenity. She offers up a golden apple in her outstretched hand.

            And on the right, Dolya and Nedolya — goddesses of fates either fair or foul — cling to each other, their spindly limbs glowing a soft golden hue.

            As he gapes at the painting, something very strange begins to happen — it comes to life. It’s jarring; the gods and goddesses draw breath and blink down at him, a wolf here and there throws back its head to release a howl.

            He rubs his eyes to clear them, wondering if he’s imagining things. But he’s not.

            Živa smiles coyly as she brings the apple to her mouth, then sinks her perfect teeth into its golden peel, revealing its soft white flesh in the bite mark left behind. Dolya hums a cheerful tune while Nedolya groans, a pitiful anguished sound, and clutches her ever tighter. Triglav’s horse bellows out a furious neigh, its powerful front legs kicking at the air; the three-faced god grips its mane in a large fist, and grim laughter spills from his three mouths. The wolves begin to run in earnest, their calls joining together into a continuous forlorn medley, each howling in succession as they sprint round and round — faster, faster, and faster still.

            And then they have broken free of the ring, racing off along the wall. Venya looks to the gods for guidance, but only Dolya offers any answers, in the form of a pointed finger she casts in the retreating wolves’ direction.

            He shrugs and complies, following at a light jog as the wolves charge forward. Just as his side is beginning to burn, his feet sore from the rocky earth and tree roots he keeps stumbling over —

            The pack comes upon a dark triangular opening in the wall and they disappear inside, one after the other, their wolven chorus fading as they do.

            The light falls only a few feet into the looming entrance, just enough that he can see it is a corridor, triangular like the opening, its walls roughly carved. He takes one more look around, but he can no longer see the painting of the gods and his home is long gone — there is only the soundless forest around him, the neverending wall behind him. So he pivots back to the odd entrance, takes a deep breath, and steps forward into the coal-black shadows.


            Kylo follows the convor for minutes, or hours. The bird continues to double back for him, as if afraid he’ll wander off. Whenever he looks behind them, his footprints have already been swept away by the wind that ripples across the dunes.

            Eventually a shape appears in the distance, something with hard edges, something metal, slumped and half-buried in the sand. He knows it immediately. This is Rey’s erstwhile home, the abandoned AT-AT walker she’d shaped into a habitable space. Hellhound Two. He visited it once before, when trying to track her down during the three long years she’d eluded him, but the moment he stepped inside he knew she had never returned.

            It’s not difficult to see why. Even in this dream, he has to stoop to enter the AT-AT and keep his head lowered to avoid hitting the roof, such as it is. The place is filled with half-repaired machinery, half-cleaned parts; not very homey. Still, it is a home of sorts: it shielded Rey from the elements and kept her safe, all that time growing up.

            And it was a very long time that Rey had been alone in this AT-AT. At least nine years. She kept track of that time with a wall full of tally marks; his chest aches to look at it too long. He looks around, instead, and finds the doll she’d cobbled together as a pile, a human figure in an orange jumpsuit. A rebel pilot. This, too, he has seen before, but he reaches for it, turns it over in his hands. Such a small, whimsical thing, important enough for her to keep but not for her to retrieve. Of course, Rey now has real pilots for friends. No need for child’s play. No need to pretend. Of the two of them, she, at least, is not alone.

            Surely this cannot be what the Force wanted to show him. He looks around, past the tally marks, through the dusty air, over the piles of half-cleaned junk and repaired machinery that Rey might have hoped to barter at Niima Outpost. Why had he been led here? There was nothing left here for Rey. Why should there be anything for him?

            Kylo hears a soft hooting, and then he feels wings brushing at the back of his neck. The convor. He turns his head around to look at it, but sees nothing. Then a hoot by his other ear, his left — again he looks, again nothing.

            “No more riddles,” he says. “What do you want?”

            Wings beat at the nape of his neck, and as he brings his empty hand up to swat the convor away, he glances back down at the doll in his other hand only to find that it’s changed. It had been a clumsy thing, all scrap fabric and twine, but now it’s a near-perfect model of a white-faced, dark-clad man. The doll’s red eyes and cloven feet unnerve him, and yet he finds he cannot look away from it. This bird, this doll— there is something familiar about them that he can’t quite place, as if they’re characters from a story he read when he was a boy.

            Then he notices the doll’s one outstretched arm, pointing above at the AT-AT wall.

            The tally marks. These too have changed. They’d been in slanted, uneven rows as Rey had strained to make them reach the ceiling, but now a blank circle of wall has been exposed before him, untouched by a lonely girl’s scratches. The tallies come to form a border ringing this circle, giving it shape, definition.

            “I don’t understand,” he says to the doll, to the convor, to Rey, who is not here, to no one. He reaches out to touch the circle with his free hand—

            And sinks through the wall, and into an inky blackness.


            Darkness envelopes Venya. At first, anyway. He walks with painstaking care, gingerly placing one bare foot in front of the other, his arm extended before him in the hope he will not crash nose-first into a dead end. For a few minutes, there is only this.

            When his eyes adjust, he understands at once — he’s not in Montana anymore.

            All around him, distant stars wink and flash. There is no more cave. He is on a dark skybridge, so smooth it gleams like wet black glass, and theoretically this is impossible — Venya may have dropped out of secondary school when he was only sixteen, but even he knows the human body cannot survive the hostile, lifeless emptiness of space.

            Nevertheless. Here he is, treading the void, breathing air that should not exist. He doesn’t even feel particularly cold. The skybridge seems to reach out into infinity, seems to cover nothing but space itself, and when he peers over its side, the only sight to greet him is more stars amidst swirling gaseous clusters of nebulae. There are dark triangular portals along the bridge, edged and illuminated by thin lines of glowing white light arranged in patterns he cannot decipher. No two are the same. Glancing back, he realizes that he has stepped out of one such portal.

            And ahead, he spies a figure — a man. But not just any man.

            No, Venya thinks, as he stares at his own face on the mysterious doppelganger striding towards him. That shouldn’t be possible. Their identical faces, the almost indistinguishable similarity of their tall, stocky builds — the very scars upon their bare chests — Venya supposes he should feel shocked. But then, none of this should be possible.

            He doesn’t really feel much of anything, though. Despite wandering into this impossible hinterland, his emotions float along with dreamlike disconnect — until he notices that this Venya’s torso is completely free of the mafia-related tattoos that cover his own. No church, no rose, no executioner, no Cyrillic, no stars, no knife. Nothing, just pale skin and scars.

            Shock, ice-cold and marrow-deep. He clenches his jaw, trying to understand. He cannot. Have I died? he wonders. Or is this some sort of subconscious punishment for my doubts?

            “You,” he says, reflexively. “You’re not me.”


            This is the Force at work. And Kylo knows it to be the Force, although he has never encountered anything like this world, not in all of his studies. Another vision? Maybe, but his surroundings feel oddly tangible, even if they are impossible. There’s too much tactility for this to be a real dream. The absolute stillness in the air is not one he would feel on a starship. The walkway under his feet might be a thin layer of glass. And there, just ahead, a man with his face stares at him.

            It is like looking in a mirror, if a mirror showed all true sins, for this Kylo has drawings etched across his skin, more than Kylo’s eyes can track. Upon his bare torso, a building with spires reaching tall, stretching up into the pale canvas of his pectorals. A second pair of eyes, unblinking, adorn those muscles too. Stars on his kneecaps. A jagged rose. And words… words in a language Kylo cannot read, although he knows a good few. Pictorially, the language seems not too far removed from his own Aurebesh, although he cannot make heads or tails of it.

            The other Kylo speaks to him in a voice not unlike his own — perhaps it is his voice, and his own voice is just far deeper than he thought — although Kylo does not register the words he says this far into his own icy shock. He approaches this man, cautiously, silently, and comes to meet him on the platform where he stands. The Force, if this is indeed the Force, allows them a moment to appraise each other, with caution, with curiosity, piercing eyes roaming over each other’s impossible forms. They share a height, and a build, and nearly everything else. Outside of the tattoos, the differences between them are small. This man, he must be a—

            Without warning, the ground shifts under Kylo’s feet. He tries to step back, but the frictionless surface offers him no purchase, and he falls, he slides down this ramp, the portal at its end swallowing him up before he can even think to scream.

Chapter Text

            When Irena wakes in the morning, anxiety has already begun turning her stomach like a bad hangover. Venya’s side of the bed is cold and unrumpled. The waves of nausea do not abate as she recollects his bearing from the night before: drawn face, nervous fingers, tense shoulders.

            You promised each other to be forgiving, she reminds herself, it was in your wedding vows.

            The castigation does not help. In fact, her nausea grows more intense — sharp bursts of cramps in her stomach, a rolling sensation as if the mattress is riding atop a dizzying wave, sour saliva pooling in her mouth — so after another second of wallowing, she forces herself up and out of bed. As soon as she's standing, she knows she's going to be sick. She makes a mad dash for the bathroom, and just narrowly avoids painting the bathroom walls with last night's dinner.

            When she finally comes up for air, having emptied what feels like a week's worth of meals into the toilet bowl, she feels shaky, but a bit better.

            Well enough to hunt for Venya, anyway. He's not in the bathroom, she knows that, and yet, she still draws back the curtain on the empty tub, as if perhaps without her knowledge he's elected her the seeker in a game of hide and seek.

            Not in the living room, nor in the kitchen. Only one place remains, unless he’s left the house.

            She breathes a sigh of relief when she spies his profile through the screen door; he's sitting in his Adirondack chair, broad bare torso slumped over in that way that tells her he is still asleep. Her Venya, right where she left him. From time to time his troubled mind might take him away from her, but he never really leaves, and when he loses himself to his recollections, he always finds his way back to her. In this, she trusts.

            “Venyusha.” She cringes as the door groans out a rusty protest at being opened. He doesn't stir, not even when she nears his chair. She runs a hand through his thick locks.

            She tries again, still muted. “Ven.” Nothing. She leans down over the wooden slats of the chair back and awkwardly drapes her arms in a loose ring around his neck. His eyes are closed, full lips relaxed — he breathes the steady rhythm of the deeply sleeping.

            Pressing her lips to the scar that cleaves his cheek, she asks, “Hey sleepy head, you want some coffee?”

            Irena directs her eyes down, ready to do a little surreptitious admiring of her husband's thickly muscled body. And immediately, she recoils — as if his bare flesh could burn her.

            This is not her husband's bare torso. This man's skin is scarred and pale like his, with barely any hair like his, this man's pectorals and shoulders are solid and wide and strong like his, but —

            This man, who is wearing her husband's face, her husband’s body, he —

            He has not one single solitary tattoo anywhere.

            “What the—” She flicks her gaze back to his face in time to see him rouse. There is a fleeting instant where something like longing flashes in his dark eyes, and then — nothing. His gaze is shuttered, his lips pressed tightly together.

            “Rey?” That is her husband's voice. God damn it, he has the same voice. What is this? Is this a prank?

            She springs back, edging away until she collides with the screen door. The man rises — he cannot possibly be her husband, can he? He stares at her, head cocked like a puppy who's just heard a new sound. There's recognition in the way he regards her, but — in her heart, Irena knows. Even if he had Venya's tattoos, she would know. This man is not looking at her the way only one man has ever looked at her. This man, impossibly, inconceivably, but undeniably, is not her husband.

            “What the fuck?” she snarls.

            He stands up. He's tall, just as imposing, just as unmistakable a presence. But if this is not Venya, then who is this?

            “Rey,” he says at last, as he darts curious glances around the veranda and beyond it, out towards the glen and the forest. “Is the Force doing this?”

            Irena can feel herself grimacing; agitation makes her legs twitch restlessly. The force. The force? She shakes her head; she has no idea what he’s talking about.

            “What force?”

            “The—” he hesitates, his dark eyes drinking her in. He takes a very small, very cautious step towards her. “The—”

            Again, the words seem to die on his lips — he’s still looking around, as if he is trying to find something he’s lost, although his eyes seem to find their way back to her for longer and longer stretches of time.

            There's a shotgun inside, stowed away in the cupboard that sits directly next to the screen door.

            Irena isn't certain she can shoot this stranger with Venya's face any more than she could shoot Venya back when she aimed a pistol at him in the kitchen of Luke's Brighton Beach home, what feels like a lifetime ago.

            “You,” he says, head still tilted. His eyebrows raise, then draw together again.

            But she could pull the door open behind her, step inside, reach into the cupboard, and have the gun in her hands in a matter of seconds. Venya always keeps it ‘cruiser ready’, a term he learned from some police procedural television show; the magazine is loaded, the chamber empty, the slide unlocked. All she’d need to do is grab a round from the shelf beside the gun, rack it in, and she’d be ready to fire.

            Or at least, she could convince him that she’s ready to fire.

            “Yeah, me.” She feels like she might be sick again, feels the strange desire to scream at this man whose unruffled presence she cannot comprehend. Instead, she cups her hand over her lower abdomen. “And who are you, exactly? How—how are you—where is Veniamin?”

            He doesn't answer her question, merely continues tracking her movements with hawklike focus — emotions travelling across his face like passing clouds. Anger, unease, puzzlement, interest. Irena knows them all, recognizes them well from the years she has spent with her husband. And so for a long, fraught moment they stare at each other — neither willing to make the next move.


            Rey awakens to a jumble of alien words cascading through her mind and a potent sense of wrongness.

            Her heart stutters and jumps as a crush of panic overwhelms her to the point where she feels pressed flat on her back in the bed. Her skin crawls simultaneously with the urge to bolt. This isn’t her, this isn’t her room, this isn’t where she should be. And in that unknown language: Какого черта? So strong is the feeling of disorientation that she holds her own hands up in front of her face to verify that they are, in fact, her own hands, and she is, in fact, within her own body. She blinks once, twice, her head spinning, on the verge of being overwhelmed by confusion and fear—

            And then she realizes that the feelings are not her own. The bond is open. This is coming from Kylo.

            For a moment, her own panic compounds his; for him to have reopened the bond without warning, even though she hadn’t earned back his trust, something horrible must have happened. He must be under attack, or he must be having some sort of fit, or… the most unthinkable possibilities flood her mind. She springs out of bed and into action, pulling on a pair of trousers as her heart thuds away in her chest, threatening to burst through her ribcage.

            Rey sprints to the door, still barefoot, although she does at least think to swipe the code cylinders that will allow her reentry into her room before she leaves. She takes off in the direction from which she feels him — he’s near his chambers. He’s walking, staggering through the halls — this she knows instinctively. What’s happened to him? What ails him? Could Hux’s people have snuck an assassin so deep into the Imperium’s flagship? Or perhaps one of the officers who had not gone with Hux remained for this very reason, to make an attempt on Kylo’s life while he slept?

            She doesn’t think to answer these questions. She just runs. The corridors twist and wind, but she’s walked them before, with Kylo. She hadn’t realized she knows them by heart. Perhaps this, too, is the Force’s doing, allowing her to reach him quickly, before irreversible damage is done, before—

            There.

            She spies him at the end of a corridor. His form is unmistakable. The broad shoulders, strong arms, powerful thighs, and that shiny dark hair. But something is wrong. He’s only wearing his shorts, which is troubling enough; Kylo would never leave his chambers so exposed. His back is turned to her, and splashed across his skin she sees — paintings. No, tattoos, ink etchings in his skin. A large portrait of a woman holding a child, and a black-striped creature curled over one of his shoulder blades. She doesn’t recognize the animal, not from any of her travels, but judging by its teeth and claws, it’s a predator.

            Her first thoughts are impossible ones. The Force conjured those pictures on his skin. Or someone cloned Kylo, perhaps, and switched him for his clone in the night. But none of those thoughts make sense. Why would the Force cause pictures to appear on his skin? Why switch Kylo for a clone, if the clone is marked in such an obvious way that anyone would know it’s not the real thing?

            “Be— Kylo?” she calls, taking a few, cautious steps forward. “What’s going on?”

            The man turns around, stopping Rey in her tracks. It is Kylo Ren, and it isn’t. His face is the same. Those eyes, that mouth, that nose — all the same. But he bears more markings on his front: a building with spires reaching tall, a pair of unblinking eyes, words, carved in a jagged and unfamiliar script across his torso. Stars on his knees. Ugliness and beauty blanket him, co-mingling to tell a story she doesn’t understand. Rey reels as she attempts to categorize them all. There’s no sensible way that this could have happened to Kylo overnight.

            But the tattoos aren’t the only sign that this isn’t the Kylo Ren she knows. There are so many others. One — the open, naked confusion on his face, which barely abates upon him seeing her, although Rey does see his eyes flash with recognition. Another — the panic, which she realizes upon making eye contact with him comes from the dizzying unfamiliarity of his circumstances and some sort of inner turmoil.

            And the last — the thing he says when he sees her, his voice small and desperate as he looks at her like someone’s lost pet tooka-cat: “Irena, what’s happening to me?”

            Rey gasps, softly.

            This must be the Force at work, but Maker, what has it done?

            Whatever is happening here, she knows she can’t just leave this man alone, not while he’s in such distress. She would help him even if he didn’t wear Kylo’s face. So she says, “It’s all right,” and takes another step toward him. He doesn’t move to attack or to flee at her approach. Good, that’s good. She has to get him out of this corridor before anyone sees him and mistakes him for Kylo.

            But first she’ll have to calm him down. It’s his panic that she feels over their Force bond, and she knows that now. Somehow, the connection she shares with Kylo extends to this other person who shares his form. And he isn’t thinking to shut her out. She’s getting all of it.

            “There’s so many,” he says, eyes darting wildly around. “There’s so many of them.”

            “It’s all right,” Rey says again. This close, she can feel what ails him: thousands of beating hearts, thousands of thoughts, thousands upon thousands upon thousands drowning him like a waterfall. The Force is strong with him, she realizes, and his abilities are advanced, but he has no idea how to control them. He’s sensing everyone on the ship.

            Rey inhales. It would be enough to drive anyone mad. But if she can establish a real connection with him quickly, she could help him rein in his senses and more; she’s learned some soothing techniques from the Jedi texts that might pacify him. She makes her way quickly down the corridor and comes to stand right before him. Underneath the tattoos, he has Kylo’s— everything. She jerks her eyes up to his face and away from his bare chest.

            He seems to want to keep looking at her, but his head keeps turning this way and that, as if he’s seeking the source of a sound she can’t hear. “Irena,” he says again, and the word is practically a despondent moan.

            The word ripples through her body with prickle, both chilling and exciting. Rey frowns. It’s not her name, although it has her name in it. What in the universe… Later. It can wait. “Let me help you,” she tells him.

            The man closes his eyes, lets out a long, shuddering exhale, and nods, once, twice.

            And Rey puts her hand on him.


            Kylo looks at the woman who isn’t Rey. And she looks at him.

            “What is this place?” he asks her, looking around. “What system is this?”

            “System?” she echoes. She takes a step away from him, sideways, edging toward the handle of the door. Kylo can tell she’s frightened, but the depth of her fear seems to go beyond her surprise at finding him at her home and mistaking him for someone else. There’s more there, although he cannot fathom what.

            He cannot fathom any of this. He had gone to bed on his ship, dreamt his way through Jakku and a starry void where he encountered his own double, and then awoken in a wooden chair on a wooden veranda in this beautiful, foreign woodland, with a woman who looks like Rey, exactly like Rey, but who doesn’t recognize him at all. Who is afraid of him.

            And yet, she is his only hope for understanding. So he tries again. “What sun does this planet orbit?”

            She frowns at him. “It orbits the sun.”

            Her voice is wrong. She doesn’t have the refined Coruscanti accent that Rey does, acquired from a youth spent growing up on Imperial and rebel flight simulators alike. Her lack of fundamental understanding of his questions disconcerts him further. He needs answers. He feels numb. He feels—

            Nothing. He’s surrounded by plants, and life. This is a lush, green planet. He should feel the resonance of every single thing here. He should be able to feel her. And yet— nothing.

            He cannot feel the Force anywhere.

            “Who sent you?” demands the woman who isn’t Rey. “Was it the Bratva?”

            “What?” he asks, still reeling from this revelation, and then he notices her hand straying for the handle of the door. She must have something inside. A weapon. He knows Rey, and Rey is never unarmed for long. He says quickly, “No one sent me—”

            “Where is Venya?”

            “Who?”

            “My husband!” He knows that look on her face, the way her voice falters. He knows that she’s upset. But he can’t answer her questions. “Why do you look like him? What have you done with him?”

            Kylo shakes his head. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

            “This is your only warning,” she says. She opens the door an inch or two, and it makes an awful sound. They both look at it, and for a moment there is silence. It is not enough to break the tension between them.

            “I don’t have answers,” he says, seizing the opportunity to speak. “You have to believe me.”

            She turns her face back to him. Her eyes are hard, and determined. It’s a look that Kylo knows well. It’s a look that he will never forget. Rey wore the same one, in the forest on Starkiller base. “Three,” she says.

            “Wait—”

            “Two.”

            “Let me—”

            The woman darts inside the door, and Kylo realizes that they’re far past the point of reason. He desperately doesn’t want to hurt her, but he will need some way to defend himself. He glances around— there. Leaning against the banister, a simple splitting axe. Kylo knows axes. Many of the luxuries of technology were withheld from the students at the Jedi Temple. They had to start their own fires. Chop their own wood. He’s held an axe before.

            Kylo crosses away from the door to pick up the axe by its polished handle. It has clearly been recently sharpened, and has a good weight to it. He raises it, gripping it as if he’s prepared to swing. He doubts himself capable of harming this woman who wears Rey’s face, but hopes a sharp metal blade will at least keep her at a safe distance until they figure out what’s going on.

            He has less than a second to talk himself through his plan, such as it is, before the woman reappears in the doorway again. She’s fast; in the blink of an eye, she’s back out on the porch. She has retrieved what appears to be a simple blaster rifle, so long she has to hold it two-handed. Upon further inspection, it’s not a blaster — the shape is similar, but it has no power pack. A projectile weapon, then. Some kind of slugthrower. A bit unsophisticated, but it would probably do a significant amount of damage at close range. Kylo does still happen to be at close range.

            His proximity visibly surprises the woman, who presumably thought she would find him sprinting off through the tall grass and into the surrounding forest, as any sane person would. She recovers quickly, to her credit, and swings the barrel of the weapon up to take aim at his chest. Then she sees what he holds and her eyes widen, but not in fear.

            “Are you insane?” she asks him. “An axe?”

            Kylo looks at the axe in his hands. It’s a rudimentary thing. Just metal and wood. The weapon she points at him also seems to be made of metal and wood. He frowns at it.

            “What is that?” he asks.

            Her eyebrows creep up even higher on her forehead. That’s clearly not what she was expecting to him to say. “What is what?”

            He nods at her weapon. “That.”

            “This?” She holds the gun up a little higher, clearly incredulous. “It's a Winchester Model 97.”

            “What does it fire? Slugs?”

            A frown darkens her face. “It’s a 12-gauge,” she says, as if that should have some meaning to him. “Five rounds. But one will do the trick, so—”

            “Are they metal?”

            “What?”

            “The slugs.”

            “I.” That little crease appears between her brows, the same one that appears between Rey’s when she’s puzzling over something. “Yes. Lead.”

            Kylo hefts the axe in his hands. Lead is soft, and the axe head seems strong enough. It might be able to survive being blasted. “I could deflect them,” he says.

            “With an axe?”

            “Yes.”

            She no longer seems violent, just incredulous. She lowers the gun, but only by a few centimeters, as if she’s not focusing on her form anymore. With skepticism saturating her voice, she says, “I don’t think your reflexes are that good.”

            “You’d be surprised,” he replies, permitting himself confidence. If he had the Force on his side it would be easy to stop a slug, but he doesn’t. As vibrant and alive as this place seems, the Force has forsaken it. It’s forsaken him. It has left him stranded here. But she doesn’t need to know that.

            The woman stares at him for a moment with Rey’s eyes, with Rey’s look of disbelief. Then she shakes her head slightly. “I don’t— want to hurt you. But I don’t know what’s going on.”

            “I don’t either.” His eyes flit from her face, to the gun, then back to her face. “Want to hurt you,” he clarifies.

            Her throat bobs with a swallow, and it draws attention to the divot between her clavicles, that little hollow, there. If she were Rey, he’d want to press his lips to it. She looks so beautiful, holding that gun.

            “Prove it,” she says. “Drop the axe.”

            Kylo makes himself look back at her face. “Will you shoot me?”

            “Not if you drop the axe.”

            He shrugs, lowers the axe, and then drops it almost nonchalantly down by his feet. It clatters against the wood of the deck, and the woman jumps, as if startled by the sound. She says, “On your knees.”

            “You don’t need to do that.”

            “Get down.”

            Kylo sighs, but he lowers down, crouching first before finally coming to kneel before her. The wood beneath his knees is rough against his bare skin. As he looks up at her again, his eyes graze over a scar that begins above her kneecap and vanishes under the hem of the large shirt she wears. Rey doesn’t have that, nor does she have the small scar on her neck that this woman does.

            This woman isn’t Rey. This woman continues to stare down the barrel of the gun at him, but his cooperation is weakening her resolve. He can see it in the slight tremor in her hands, the way she worries her lower lip with her teeth.

            “I’ve done as you asked,” he says. “Now let me ask you something.”

            “You’re not really in a position to make demands,” she points out.

            Kylo disregards this. “What’s your name?”

            “What?”

            “Is your name Rey?”

            “It—” Still biting her lip, she lowers the gun so that it now points harmlessly down at the ground. “My name is Irena.” Ee-rey-na, Kylo repeats in his mind. It’s an elegant name. After hesitating slightly, she adds, “People used to call me ‘Rey.’ But how could you know that, if you aren’t from the Bratva?”

            “Because I know you,” he says, sincerely. “Because where I come from, your name is Rey.”

            “How is that possible?” Her voice dissipates to a whisper across the length of that question.

            “I don’t know. The Force…” He trails off, shaking his head. The Force holds no answers for him here, and besides, Irena wouldn’t understand his explanations of it. “I don’t know.”

            “Venya,” she says. “Veniamin. My husband. He looks like you.”

            Kylo feels a pang in his chest at the word ‘husband.’ She’s said that before. Her husband. Kylo looks like him. He notices, for the first time, the ring which she wears on the wrong hand for marriage but must signify it regardless. He had been too preoccupied with the absence of the Force to fully understand, but understanding dawns now.

            He recalls his dream, and his doppelganger. “Does he have marks on his skin? Tattoos?”

            “You have seen him.” She stares at him. “Where is he?”

            “I don’t know.” He swallows. “I don’t know how I came to be here. But I saw him in a vision.”

            “A vision?”

            “Or a dream.”

            Irena shakes her head. “None of this makes any sense.”

            It’s half a desperate plea, but not to him. Perhaps she’s speaking to whatever helps her order her universe, if not the Force. Or maybe she’s appealing to her husband, somewhere far away. Her husband. In this world he’s fallen into, there is a Rey who is married to someone like him.

            If Kylo’s reality had not already been shattered, it would shatter again the opposite way. He and Rey, married. And this— their homestead? A wooden house on a green planet, a living planet, vibrant and full of color. The stream, there. The trees, there. The sun shining brightly down upon them. Breezes to tangle their hair. Blankets and cushions and other soft things. The simple comfort of each other’s arms. Hot tears prick at the corners of his eyes, and he looks down to conceal them. Married, somewhere quiet, with a home. It’s more than he ever dared hope for. Here, they have it. Another him, another her, they have it.

            As though she can read his mind — which she cannot, without the Force — Irena asks quietly, “You have a Rey? Where is she?”

            “I don’t— know,” he admits, his voice breaking in the middle of the sentence. Rey. His absence will soon be noticed, he’s sure. Will it be noticed by Rey? Will she care? Will she try to find out what happened, and where he went? His lips part as he thinks of it, and then he says, “I guess where I left her. On my ship.” Safe, at least. She would be safe on the Conquest II.

            “Are you in the Navy?” Irena asks.

            “What?”

            “Are you a sailor?”

            “No, I’m a…” Kylo trails off and averts his eyes, distracted by the thoughts of Rey and his recurring visions of her in pain. She is more than capable of protecting herself; he knows this firsthand. But she doesn’t know what’s coming. Perhaps he should have told her. Perhaps they should have spoken about that, and about so many other things, before this happened.

            Just at the edge of his field of vision, Irena leans over and sets the shotgun on the chair he had vacated minutes before. “All right,” she says, trying to reassure him, and he realizes that he must have let some of that pain and regret show on his face. “Just. We’re just. We’ll… I don’t know.”

            She comes to kneel down in front of him so they can speak face to face. At least, that’s initially why Kylo thinks she kneels, but then he sees how pale she is, and how shaken. Maybe she couldn’t stand any longer. Maybe she wanted to be nearer to him, so as not to be alone. He wishes he could touch her, but as much as he feels like he knows her, he doesn’t. She might not mind, but he can’t be sure. So he watches her, quietly, as she gathers up her thoughts, her bare knees matching his on the deck, her trembling hands lowering to her thighs.

            Eventually she inhales, once, exhales, once. Inhales again, and says, “Just… tell me your name.”

            Kylo looks up at her, this stranger with Rey’s green-brown eyes set in Rey’s pretty, earnest face with the wrong voice but Rey’s ferocity and honest desire to help a stranger. He opens his mouth to answer her, but not a sound comes out. He presses his lips together, and tries again, unable to look away from this not-Rey who doesn’t know him, who doesn’t know what he’s done, who only knows him as a lost thing far from home.

            Then again, when has he ever been anything other than lost?

            “Ben,” he says, his voice rough and croaky, as if it had been dragged through the mud and the roots of the forest on its way back to him. “My name is Ben.”


            Venya opens his eyes. Now that things have gone quiet, he can process his environs for the first time. Now that he no longer feels a hundred thousand pulses under his skin, a hundred thousand hearts beating wildly inside his chest, he can think.

            This hallway, if he is forced to make a comparison, reminds him of the long drab halls of his boarding school in East Berlin, except —

            Except it’s lined with massive windows, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. And once Venya has taken a look out the one closest to him, he tries not to do so again. This dream is verging on too much, too real and yet too strange by half.

            For when Venya looks out the window, all he see is space. Stars and stars and stars and between them, inky abyss without shape or meaning. He fell asleep in Montana, he walked through a forest and wall of stone; he crossed a dark bridge over the cosmos and met himself, he came to in a strange apartment and now, somehow, he has arrived in a very clean, very shiny, very institutional-looking hallway with windows that look out into space.

            What is this?

            What were those voices? Why could hear he them as if they came from inside his own mind? What was that feeling, like both the ousia and the energeia of God himself was surging within his own mortal flesh? Even now, blood pounds furiously in his ears, his head throbs, he is trembling.

            Space.

            Voices.

            A sensation of — thoughts, fears and desires, lives being lived.

            And so many of them.

            This woman, this not-Irena — she cannot be Irena, because she is looking at him with alarm, with trepidation, and there is no scar on her throat — her hand rests gently on his bicep. Her touch is light, her fingers calloused but still delicate, still nimble. Just like Irenushka’s.

            What is this?

            Is this madness?

            Is this death? Is this purgatory, or worse, is this hell? Where is Irena, where is his home?

            “It’s all right,” she says, again. The accent is a little different, a little crisper, like those of the Oxford-educated professors of his schoolboy days, but all the same — that is Irena’s voice.

            His wife, his little wolf. Except… no. It’s not right. Venya does not feel the panic that blinded him a moment earlier, but he is still deeply unsettled. He thinks she might be too; worried lines crease her proud forehead. Of course he cannot be certain, but if he had to guess, he would say that it almost looks as if she is concentrating very hard on something.

            He clears his throat. “What is this?”

            “I—” She seems as shocked as he is, and gives a tiny shake of her head. “I’m not sure, exactly. Just come with me, and—we can figure this out. It’s all right. You’re safe.”

            He feels like screaming. Why are there only stars outside, in every direction, even below? Is this a spaceship, like in the old science fiction programs on television?

            Venya remembers them well. A memory, uninvited: a small boy sitting alone on the thick Turkish rug in his parents’ Moscow apartment. Planted in front of a Rubin black-and-white television set, he watched as young Vitya Sereda navigated the spaceship Dawn to the Cassiopeia system with his teenaged co-pilots, or as the crew of the Tantra fought their way off a hostile planet so they could return to Earth.

            How young he’d been. Of course, the spaceships were nothing more than plaster and sheet metal, erected in the warehouses of Gorky Film Studios, no doubt disassembled after filming so that the materials could be reused.

            But this. This is no fantasy. The air has a taste, recycled and a bit stannic, like that inside an American shopping mall. He can feel this woman’s hand on his arm, feel its weight, feel its warmth. He is cold. The floor is smooth under his toes. His head still throbs. These are not the elements of a fantasy, are they?

            The Soviets dreamed they would own space one day, Venya recollects with abstracted bemusement. He wants to ask not-Irena if this future he’s stumbled into is communist. He wants to ask if there can be utopia in the abolishment of capitalism, if Marx was right all along.

            But she is so lovely — it seems he cannot speak, cannot make his tongue form words, cannot make his jaw move, cannot push air past the proper vocal chords. She’s wearing a pair of simple trousers and a taupe-colored shift, made from a light linen fabric. It leaves her arms bare, and he notices a scar on one bicep, like two hands reaching for each other. Her hair — the same faceted, glossy brown as Irena’s — brushes just below her collarbone. Venya quickly averts his eyes when he realizes that he can spy her nipples, two tight buds the color of a dusky rose, from underneath the shift.

            “Let me help you,” she says, again.

            He looks down at his own body: he is dressed in nothing more than his boxers, something he had not noticed when he’d stumbled from the apartment, upon waking. An embarrassed flush heats its way up his neck and ears. So he merely nods, dumbstruck and mystified.

            This not-Irena shifts her stance, not fully trusting him with her back but indicating with a slight jerk of her chin that they must return to the apartment. She takes a step in that direction, and in response, he does the same. Another step, and another. There is no one around them — and that seems strange, to Venya, considering the amount of noise that bombarded him when he first stirred. But mostly he is grateful for this welcome, albeit unnatural, silence.

            “Come on,” she urges. Her hand remains on his arm. “Let’s get inside.”

            This time, as he steps over the threshold between apartment and corridor, he is more cognizant, he is not full of frenzied terror. So he pauses, taking a moment to inspect the space. Irena’s doppelganger steps away. He thinks she might be attempting to get a better look at the myriad tattoos that cover his body; her eyes seem glued to them. Fine, let her look — and he will look as well.

            The apartment is not a welcoming home, if it is indeed home to someone. The walls are a matte steel of some sort, lusterless grey and cold. The floor is the same shiny black material as the corridor, something lacquered, unforgiving. He is reminded, vaguely, of a high-rise condominium in Brighton Beach — there is a severe eighties-style edge to everything, from the red lights embedded in the floor that send a sinister scarlet glow up the walls to the sharp angles of the furniture. And that furniture — a narrow black leather couch with two matching armchairs, a dull metal coffee table between them — sits in the center of the room, uncomfortable and uninviting.

            A terrible place for a baby, let alone an infant who can crawl or a child who can run, he muses. So who is this the person that lives here? He sees no personal effects, no sign that anyone does, to be honest.

            As if skimming his thoughts, she asks, “When you woke up, did you—see anyone? Maybe someone who looked like you?”

            He shifts his attention back to her, considering the question. There was someone, in his dream of a bridge that traversed the stars — someone who looked like him, absent the tattoos.

            But that was only a dream. Or was it? This feels so real, isn’t it possible that the stars and the bridge and the other him were, too?

            The woman is absorbed in her own perusal of the place, turning her head this way and that, craning her neck to peer around Venya, towards the frosted glass partition that halves the apartment.

            “No,” he says. “Just—the voices. But they’ve stopped now.”

            “Right, that’s good.” She nods, although she seems distracted.

            “Someone is supposed to be here? I mean—who? Who lives in this apartment? And who are you? You are—you’re not Irena,” he rambles, feeling more adrift with each question.

            “I—not to my knowledge, but I… ”

            Venya waits for her to explain... something. Anything. She’s grown pale, he notices.

            “I’m Rey,” she says, at last. “What’s your…?”

            “Veniamin.” His voice is a choked gasp. He opens his mouth, shuts it, tries to figure out what the correct thing is to ask next — how he can get at the truth. They stare at each other, neither one able to summon words and Rey, pulling in a deep shuddering breath, looks pained. She’s even paler than she was a minute ago.

            “Could you—excuse me? Just for a—”

            She doesn’t finish the thought, instead pivoting on her heel. There is no time for him to answer; she’s already rushing towards the wall. Where there once was a panel, a doorway has now appeared, and as she disappears into the inner chamber, the panel slides shut behind her with a pneumatic ‘whoosh.’

            “Oh,” he says, to no one. “Okay.”

            Irena once went by the name “Rey.” This woman has the same face, the same hands, the same body, although she is clearly not the same woman. He conjectures: could this Rey be a reincarnation?

            Another memory: when he was very small, Venya’s father used to sit on the edge of his bed at night and tell him folk tales. Some of them were about a special place called Vyraj.

            Spring, Han would say, comes to us once a year from Vyraj, a land of paradise. Birds fly there in the winter, and souls travel there after death. But everything in Vyraj always returns — Spring, and the souls of the dead. Both are carried back to earth on the silvery wings of the chirruping nightjar.

            Where do the nightjars take the souls? young Veniamin would ask.

            They deliver them to the unborn children, Han would whisper.

            Do I come from Vyraj, papa? he’d ask, the same question, every time.

            We all do, synok. And we’re all headed there, too.

            But that was just a folk tale, just a bedtime story. Wasn’t it? Answerless, he drifts towards the partition, then into the bedroom.

            It is no warmer nor more welcoming than the parlor. A large bed takes up most of the room, the one in which he first stirred to wakefulness; the silk black sheets are still disheveled from his hasty departure. There are no photos or artwork hanging on the sloping walls above the pillows, no tchotchkes on the end tables nor piles of laundry on the floor.

            Suspicion blooms in the back of his mind — Venya thinks he knows who owns these rooms. He clenches his teeth together, blows out a breath through his nostrils, then returns to the main room, where he takes a seat on the couch.

            His knee bumps against the coffee table as he sits, and this bring his attention to a detail he hadn’t noticed before: there is a panel embedded in its flat surface. Remembering how the door in the wall reacted to Rey’s advancing towards it, he brushes his fingers across this one. And in response it retracts, revealing a glass surface, like those in the desktop computers he has seen at the Eureka public library. When he taps it, figures — a kind of script, some foreign writing system which he cannot read — light up in bright neon blue across the dark screen.

            It’s a dead end, he figures. But an idea occurs to him — inspired by his and Irena’s recent late night viewings of the old television series, Star Trek. What if this computer can hear and understand him?

            “Hey. Computer. Wake up,” he says, without any real hopes of success.

            It emits a couple of staccato beeps and whistles, then goes silent. Nothing happens for a full minute — he’s certain he’s reached another dead end.

            And then the door leading out to the hall splits open, its interlocking pieces receding into the wall.

            In the doorway stands a being.

            A mechanical humanoid being, to be precise, who has begun to shuffle clumsily into the apartment. It is a robot. A robot. A fucking robot. There is a shiny black robot in the room, and now it is walking towards the couch where Venya sits, immobilized by shock.

            “Imperator Ren!” it cries, in a haughty British man’s voice. It has no mouth, although it does possess a face on its head, with two glowing electric-yellow eyes. Where a mouth should be, there is a grid-like panel of lights that brighten and dim as it asks, “You called for me, Your Excellency?” It dips its head, appearing to study him. “Oh, my. Are you unwell? Your skin is discolored, perhaps an infection—”

            “Ren,” Venya cuts in. He twists on the sofa to check if another hidden door has opened somewhere — if he has been joined by some sort of crown-wearing space royalty.

            There is no one. He turns back to the robot, watching as its hands flit through the air — almost nervously, he might say, if he thought that robots could have nerves. “Did you call me Ren?”

            “Actually, sir, in point of fact — I called you Imperator Ren.”

            “Боже мой, you are talking to me,” he mutters, studying the robot’s obsidian limbs, the exposed wiring around its gut, between where the carapace of its torso ends and its hinged hips begin.

            “Your Excellency, if you would like to enact the usual ‘do-not-speak-unless-spoken-to’ protocol I would be more than happy to—”

            “Ah, I see you found your protocol droid.”

            He tears his eyes away from the robot to find Rey standing beside the coffee table. In his fascination, he hadn’t noticed her reenter the room; her presence brings the scent of mint, just a subtle waft of it as she lowers herself gingerly into one of the armchairs. She leans forward a bit, lips pursed as her eyes rake over him — perhaps the sight of him on this couch evokes memories for her.

            “Is this—this Imperator Ren, whatever that means—do you think I am him?” he wonders aloud. “Is that why you keep looking at me like I am someone you know? Because you—you look like someone I know.”

            Unconsciously, his left hand gravitates towards his right, and he twists the golden ring upon his fourth finger. Seemingly stricken by his question, she follows his movements with shining eyes as she forces out a heavy sigh.

            “You look just like him,” she says, quietly.

            Venya nods. “As do you. Just like Irena. And this is—a spaceship. We’re on a spaceship. With robots.” He laughs, a small dry rasp. “This is—where I come from, we do not have these. Is this… the future? What year is it?”

            The robot perks up. “The year is thirty-seven ABY, Your Excellency, and you are aboard the Conquest Two, the flagship of the New Galactic Imperium. Really, sir, it would be most prudent to consider some kind of bacta treatment for your skin infection, as it may be interfering with your cognitive abiliti—”

            “Yes, thank you, EmTwoThree, that’s enough,” Rey replies, harried.

            “ABY? What is ABY?” He cannot stop the frown that pinches his face.

            “After the Battle of Yavin,” she says, with a little more patience. She is also frowning, although her eyes are soft — troubled, the way Irena’s get when she's worrying about one of the kids who work in their diner.

            “What’s a Yavin?”

            “It’s a forest moon,” she explains, creases in her forehead deepening, “that orbits the gas giant, Yavin Prime.”

            He can feel the old muscle spasm start up beneath his left eye. “A moon? There are—multiple?”

            “Well—yes, four of them.”

            Like Jupiter. “Ah, Yavin has four moons. I—I see. Are we close to Yavin?”

            “Not particularly?”

            “Are we close to Earth?” he tries.

            Rey shakes her head, a baffled gesture. “Earth?”

            The twitch is intensifying. “You know, planet Earth?” he cries, as a new bubble of panic swells up in his chest. “The sun? Russia and America and your home—England?”

            Whatever color her face has regained is quickly draining away again. “I’m from Jakku,” she says.

            “Ah,” he coughs. “Jakku. And—is that close to Yavin?”

            “No.” She seems regretful, when she tells him this. Like she is sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

            Perhaps the world I come from has crashed and burned, he thinks.

            Perhaps this is another galaxy, where Earth’s sun is but a distant star. Perhaps I have been thrown so far into the future that there is no longer any Russia, any America, any Montana, any communists or capitalists, any oligarchs. Any Bratva.

            Any Irena.

            The air suddenly seems difficult to pull into his lungs, so he takes quick, short, shallow breaths. Yet it does not help — the room spins around them, the floor lists as if the entire ship is lurching violently onto its side. And then — Rey’s hand is on his forearm, obscuring the cursed axioms inked there in Cyrillic. The spinning ceases, the ship rights itself.

            “Breathe,” she whispers, and he does. His lungs draw breath with ease, and his frantic spiral into panic is halted. “I’ll help you. We will figure this out, I promise.”

            “Yes. Okay.” He takes another deep inhalation, then he shifts to look at the mechanical being, who is still hovering by the other end of the couch. “You—do you know where planet Earth is, robot?”

            The thing cants its head, jerkily leans forward then stands straight. “I am—unable to find any information in my databank pertaining to a planet named Earth, Your Excellency. Currently we are in the Inner Rim, on the eastern edge of the Iseno Sector. Perhaps if you could inform me of the sector or region of this Earth planet—”

            “Okay robot, go back to not talking now,” he mutters. It gives an offended little ‘oh!’, and falls silent.

            When he returns his gaze to Rey, she is lost in thought, staring at the robot with a speculative air.

            “EmTwoThree,” she says, her voice strengthening with resolve. “Will you please retrieve my datapad from my quarters? And try to find Finn—ask him to come to the Imperator’s chambers, as soon as possible.”

            It gives an ungainly bow towards her, another towards him, and — wordlessly, remaining obedient to Venya’s command — exits the apartment.

            She is still touching him. Her eyes are cast down where her hand lays on his forearm. She is tan, in comparison to the pale tattooed skin there. There’s no ring on her finger — with a glance, he discerns there is none on her other hand. She makes a small choking sound, covered with a light cough, and then abruptly, she shoots up out of her seat.

            “I’m sure you have more questions, and I do too. But— first let’s get you dressed,” she babbles, already moving the direction of the bedroom.

            “Clothes—would be good,” he says, sounding strained to his own ears, as he rises to follow. In the bedroom, opposite where the bed sits, there is another wall panel, and it opens as they near it.

            “Is there a reason all the rooms in this apartment are hidden?” asks Venya. Rey shoots him a sympathetic grin.

            “Боже,” he repeats, at the peek he gets over Rey’s head. Two rows of garments hang — impeccably tailored, immaculate, as though they have never before been worn. “That’s a lot of black.”

            A bureau stands against the back wall, and atop it sits a metal torso, which is adorned with glossy onyx armor. Manica. The word flutters up, a memory from some old book he read about Roman gladiators — and indeed, this piece has been forged in that style. It covers the left shoulder and pectoral, with layered plates that run down the mannequin’s left arm, and leather straps that cross the chest to keep it in place. The manica is not pristine like the clothing — there are plenty of nicks and scuffs on its plates.

            This is a man who has known battle, Venya surmises, stepping into the closet. The clothes are neatly arranged — tunics, jackets, capes, trousers, a few floor-length surcoats that remind him of the cassocks worn by Russian Orthodox priests, a line of boots standing on a low shelf. They’re mostly made from thick, sturdy fabrics like quilted wool or nappa leather or heavy cotton. The only hint of color he can locate in the entire wardrobe is the odd red embellishment or detail here and there. A few items have red thread running through the weave, but it is subtle — barely noticeable, except from a certain angle.

            There are also a few lighter tunics and undershirts that, if he had to guess, are intended for exercise. Perhaps training, if this Imperator is in fact a soldier or warrior of some sort.

            He opens one of the drawers, with a glance back at Rey. She watches him closely, but says nothing. In the bureau, there are thick heavy belts, woolen cowls, leather gloves, and underwear — also all in black, he notes.

            Everything looks as if it would fit him perfectly, and perhaps it is that detail that brings all of this home to him.

            Just like him, Rey had said. He thinks about it: the way she has been staring, the manner in which the robot kowtowed. His headache, the cold floor beneath his feet. This is no dream. This is no dream. His mind reels as he finally — really — completely — accepts that this is actually happening. He is on a ship surrounded by people who probably have no knowledge of Earth or Russia, who measure years by a battle he has never heard of; he is standing in a closet full of clothes made for someone who calls himself by a name Venya once used, alongside a woman who is not Irena but who is also not not Irena.

            “Боже,” he repeats, a third time, for lack of anything more eloquent to say.

            And then, between two cloaks — one that sweeps the floor as he pushes it aside, another that would probably reach his knees — he sees it. A garment, different from all the rest.

            It is a robe, sheer and gossamer and flowing, and it was not intended for him. He knows this instinctually: it is the only impractical item in the closet, for one thing. And for another, it is not black but rather a rich forest green. It is more delicate and smaller than everything else, but he imagines that if Rey were to put it on — it would fit. It must belong to her, he thinks, as he reaches out to touch the shiny silk sash that hangs from its belt loops.

            This time, when he twists his neck to look back at Rey — she is not watching him. She is spellbound by the robe, and she is blushing, deeply.

            No ring on her finger, nor any other jewelry. The heartsick expression on her face, the way her mouth hangs open, her eyebrows pinched together, one hand balled up in a fist and the other clenched around the hem of a tunic. There is a telltale sheen of tears welling up in her eyes, which are the color of dark moss under the closet’s soffit lighting.

            “Rey,” he starts, and she winces at the caution in his voice, but this question can go unasked no longer. He must know. “What are we— or, what are you and he, to each other?”

            Her head sags to the side, in the same sad, tired way that Irena’s sometimes does when her past is haunting her. And then she sighs.


            “I just need to run to the diner for a bit,” the woman with Rey’s face who calls herself Irena says, as she stuffs various items into her handbag. “I’ve said you’re— I’ve said Ven’s feeling under the weather and shouldn’t come in, so— and I’ve called in a couple of extra hands. It’ll be fine.”

            She sounds more like she’s trying to reassure herself than to reassure Kylo, who sits on the couch, hands on his knees, just watching, just listening. Irena has given him one of her husband’s shirts — a t-shirt, a name Kylo does not understand but apparently means it’s short-sleeved and made of light material — and a pair of his trousers, which she called “blue jeans.” These thick, sturdy, and, yes, blue work pants allow for some freedom of movement and are honestly more comfortable than anything he would normally wear.

            The whole dwelling, as a point of fact, might be described as comfortable, or cozy. The entire building seems to be constructed from a warm red-brown wood. The ceilings are not high, but they are high enough for a man like him to stand comfortably. The cabin is not large, but large enough for the essentials, most of which he can see from his place on the sofa: a small kitchen — he guesses kitchen from the appliances, and from the stacks of plates and dishes very similar to ones he would use — in the far corner, a dining table and chairs, then, walled off from the open spaces but visible through a half-open door, a bedroom. He assumes the washroom adjoins the bedroom and is tucked out of sight.

            One could not call the cabin fancy. Most of the furniture looks slightly worn, as if it has been purchased second-hand, but plush. The table and chairs seem crafted by hand, with incongruities in places — a warp here, a chip there — but those only add to the set’s charms. The quilt that Kylo had thrown off in the morning when he stood now lays beside him in a crumpled heap. It’s a clumsy thing, with uneven stitching and slightly mismatched colors, but clearly made with care. This is a home well-lived in, and one that knows love.

            It is unlike any place Kylo has ever been before.

            The love is inescapable. Above the fireplace mantel hang still pictures, images framed by gold leaf-covered wood and protected by glass — images of his own life, if his life had any happy endings. There is a man who looks like him, sitting in a booth with Luke Skywalker and, impossibly, Lando Calrissian, all three men looking out of the photo, a grin stretched on his own face that he has never seen. Another: he is with his mother, a healthier version of his mother, and his sleeves are pushed up to the elbow as his tattooed hands knead some sort of dough. For bread, or pastry? Regardless, Leia Organa looks fond. And another still: himself with Rey, leaning down to press a kiss to her cheek as she laughs, flashing white teeth. Happiness crinkles the corners of her eyes.

            The longer he looks, the more paralysis seizes up his chest and he finds himself unable to breathe. For his own protection, he turns his face away.

            “It’ll be fine,” Irena says again. She’s pulled her hair back in a low tail away from her face, and has the end of it slung over her shoulder. Her cheeks are flushed as she races around the small cabin, desperately trying to piece her life together. Rey’s cheeks flush when she exerts herself, too.

            Kylo just sits on the couch and tries to take stock of everything he knows. He does not know this planet. From what he observes in the cabin, the technology here is primitive; the most advanced electronic item he can see is a gray box with a glass screen that stares at him from the other side of the room, and although he is uncertain of what its purpose might be, it seems rather unwieldy. The last thing he knows is that Irena is here, and she wears Rey’s face, and that her husband wears his own. Did he walk through a dream and into a different galaxy, or into the past? Are Irena and her husband truly past versions of Rey and himself? The thought is oddly reassuring — this copy of them is married, and settled — but also unnerving. If he is indeed in the past, he may well be trapped there, and then he’ll never see Rey—

            “Ben.”

            He turns his head. Irena is standing by the doorway, jagged, silvery pieces of metal in her hand. Keys. Those are keys. Where he comes from, no one has used keys like that for centuries, if not millennia. He works his jaw, then manages, “Yes?”

            “I don’t want to leave, I really don’t. But usually Ven would oversee the diner this morning, and I just have to make sure things don’t fall apart while he’s… before we…”

            She trails off in the face of the uncertain future, and Kylo shrugs. She is leaving. Whether or not she wants to doesn’t really matter. But he says, “Do what you have to.”

            “Just please— stay here,” she says, with a note of true beseeching in her voice. That voice — so similar to Rey’s beautiful alto, but with an entirely different accent. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

            “Promise,” he repeats. Anger rises in his chest, the knowledge of Rey’s betrayal of him — how can he trust her, even though he so badly wants to? But this woman is not Rey, even though she has Rey’s eyes, and her mouth, and her kindness. She is a stranger. And Kylo can’t assign any of that anger to her.

            “Yes,” says Irena, and because there’s no bond between them she’s entirely unaware of the turmoil within him. “I… live here. So I’ll be back.”

            “Right,” says Kylo. “Soon, then.”

            Irena stares at him for a long moment, then just says, “Okay,” before opening the door and closing it softly behind her.

            He hears the crunch of her feet on the ground, and then some kind of engine powering up. That piques his curiosity, and he musters the strength to stand from the sofa and go to the windows that overlook the veranda. He spots Irena’s silhouette behind the wheel of some sort of small groundcar, which purrs as she fiddles with its controls. He watches as it begins moving in reverse, turns, and rumbles off down a long road paved with small blue rocks, eventually disappearing into the trees.

            Now he is truly alone.

            Kylo stands by the window and clasps his hands in front of himself, wondering what it is that he must do. He cannot stay, as much as he might want to. He cannot stay, even though in this world a man who is like him has wed a woman whose friends call her Rey, and they own a small cabin in the middle of the woods. Kylo Ren has responsibilities. He has a war to win. He has his own Rey, to… he doesn’t have her, but he once did. And although it would be less painful to just abandon that, he cannot. He knows in the pieces of his broken heart that he cannot.

            But he suspects there is no way for him to leave this planet. Everything around him reeks of the past, of a society that has advanced so little it still calls the star it orbits the sun, as though it is the only sun in the galaxy that matters. And if he is in the past, would he be able to make his way back to his time and place, even if he did find a way off the planet? Would he be able to see Rey again?

            Has Rey even been born? Has he? Have his parents?

            If he had the Force, he might be able to sense Rey, somewhere out there in the universe. He might be able to answer these questions. But the Force marooned him here. It guided him through a maze of a dream and then abandoned him.

            Or did it? He is unbalanced. That much is certain. These trying circumstances would be enough to unbalance anyone. But perhaps this is a matter of regaining balance. Perhaps if he does that he will be able to find the Force again. After all, no Force spits in the face of everything he has ever known. The Force binds the universe together. And he must be in the known universe. If he isn’t, that means… he doesn’t want to think about what that means. He can’t let himself fall into that trap. He will start to feel insignificant and powerless against the vast unknown.

            And he is not powerless, even stripped of his powers. He reminds himself that his mind and body are still sound. He may not have the Force, or his lightsaber, or his armies, but he does have himself.

            A voice in the back of his mind, one that whispers and hisses as Snoke’s used to when he was a boy, asks: When has that ever done you any good?

            Kylo ignores it. He glances over his shoulder at the empty cabin. He is briefly tempted to explore the cabin, to press the buttons on the gray box or to turn the dials in the kitchen and get a feel for what they do. But then his eyes find the framed faces of the people from his life, find his own face, which smiles as if to make a mockery of him. If he stays here, he’ll burst out of his own skin.

            He opens the door, which makes that same awful sound again — of course, they must not have a droid for those small fixes — and steps outside. The still axe lays diagonally across the planks of wood, where he dropped it before. He picks it up, then heads out into the forest, walking parallel to the bank of the small stream that cuts across the property. How much of this land belongs to the couple? Where is their nearest neighbor? Not for kilometers, most likely. It must be wonderful to live so far apart from other people.

            Briefly, he allows himself to think that this would be a wonderful place to raise children, if they decided to have any. Then he shakes that thought off and continues to walk toward the surrounding forest. The trees are tall and thin, with needles instead of leaves, and become more densely clustered the longer he walks. They perfume the air in a way that Kylo had never appreciated of trees until this moment. The scent he inhales is at once fresh and bright, and grounded and earthen. If this place can’t clear one’s mind, he doesn’t know what would.

            After following the stream for a minute or two, now unable to see the small cabin, he comes across what he’s looking for: a large, low stump, with logs piled up nearby, ready to be split for firewood. Given the heat, Irena and her husband — Venya? — likely wouldn’t get around to splitting them for months. But here is a way for him to channel his anger, frustration, and helplessness; he can’t very well break anything in the cabin, but he can cleave logs in two. He doubts Irena will mind.

            Kylo sets the first log up on the stump, standing it on its side. It’s been nearly a decade since he’s had to split firewood, but he remembers the principle just fine. Grip the axe with one hand at the end of the shaft and one near the head. Arms straight out in front, err on hitting the side of the log closest to you. Take advantage of existing cracks in the wood. Beware flying woodchips. Use all the force you can muster. Not the Force, he can hear his uncle saying. Just force.

            He raises the axe over his head and brings it down hard on the log with a grunt, cleaving it easily in two. He looks at the split halves laying on the ground. He needs more. More anger, more— just more. He retrieves another log, and, growling, raises the axe over his head.

            Again, then. And again, and again, until his arms shake from exertion and his cotton t-shirt is drenched with sweat, and his anger and frustration are both depleted, and still, even still, he can’t feel the Force. Spent and empty, he plants the axe head-first in the stump and wipes his hair from his brow with the back of his wrist. That exercise lent him no clarity.

            But it did feel rather good.

            Panting, Kylo looks around, and notices for the first time that some of the trees ringing the clearing have little notches in them, deep enough to expose the pale sapwood hidden by outer layers of bark and cambium. He goes over to one tree, which looks otherwise healthy, and examines a group of these notches, brushing his fingers over a couple. It looks as though someone has taken this axe to that tree, not with any intent to cut it down, just— to hit it.

            If this is Venya’s work, then Kylo feels a sense of kinship. It makes sense that they should both vent their anger onto things that can’t fight back. Kylo felt catharsis chopping the logs, as he had whenever he destroyed anything back where he came from. His anger would bleed out into the target and dissipate.

            Still… he thinks the notches are a bit low for someone of his stature to have made. And he doesn’t know exactly what compels him to do so, but he picks up his axe once more and swings it, stopping just short of the tree trunk. There. The bite out of the tree falls much lower than where his axe would connect with the bark. If this Venya has his face and build, presumably he also has his swing.

            These must have been carved by Irena.

            But that makes no sense. Her life is idyllic. She has everything he has ever wanted. What would prompt her to come out here and scar the trees?

            Or perhaps… perhaps the better question is: what has scarred her? He recalls the scar running up her thigh, and the smaller one, the nick on her neck. The sort of scar a knife’s blade would leave in passing. And the strange question she had demanded that he answer: who sent you? As if he had come here with intentionality, on someone’s orders. As if she and her Venya were hiding from something, and he had come here to disrupt their fragile peace.

            Kylo curls his hand into a fist, feeling the urge to protect this stranger rising in his throat like bile. He swallows it down. He doesn’t know this woman, he reminds himself. She has her own version of him. She is not his to protect. Neither is Rey, for that matter. And if Irena is anything like Rey, she is more than capable of protecting herself. Even so, the thought of anyone hurting someone who wears Rey’s face…

            He shakes his head. One thing has become clear, and it’s that the forest has no answers for him, only further questions. And he hadn’t found the Force here, either, not with his usual means of channeling it through anger. Weary, Kylo sighs and begins his trek back toward the cabin.

            As he emerges from the forest and enters the clearing where the little dwelling sits, he considers that there’s still one thing he hasn’t yet tried. He could fall back on the training his uncle gave him, and access the Force through a sense of serenity, of sincerity, with a clear mind and intention. The thought makes his skin feel a little too tight, especially given the circumstances, but nothing else has worked. This might.

            Kylo tosses the axe aside with little regard for where it lands, and then he lays down in the grass beside the creek, rests one hand upon his lower ribs, and looks up at the cloudless, serene blue sky. He closes his eyes and focuses on evening out his breathing, slowing it down, bringing his heartbeat into time with the rest of this lackadaisical, peaceful land. He allows his mind to clear, his cautious thoughts to unspool and fall away.

            He breathes in. He breathes out.

            Still nothing. He can hear the buzzing of the insects that dart between the tall blades of grass, the quiet babbling of the stream. He can feel the sun warming his face and a quiet breeze brushing over his skin. But he has no awareness of the tension between these things, between the insects and the grass, the stream and the rocks over which it rushes, the sun and the breeze. The push and pull that shapes the universe is absent. There is no wellspring of power from which to draw, no energy for him to shape into action. He is utterly alone, in a way he has never been before, not even in his darkest hour.

            Kylo is tempted to open his eyes, to yell, to scream, to weep, to curse the perfect sky, for if there is no Force, how is he meant to find his way back home? But before he even stirs, another thought floats up from the murky depths of his mind. When has the Force, the legacy of power he inherited from his mother and his grandfather, been anything but a burden to him? When has it ever been anything but a curse?

            But now: no burden. No curse. He is free.

            He is free.

            Kylo Ren, a free man for perhaps the first time in his life, lays by the stream for a quiet hour, allowing rays of sun to kiss his cheeks, and birdsong to fall lightly upon his ears, and clean forest air to fill his lungs.

Chapter Text

            “This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Rey groans, looking up from the tiny flat computer. Datapad, Venya reminds himself. “The writing in these texts is cryptic at best, and none of them mention anything like what’s happened to you and Kylo.”

            From his seat on the couch beside her, he peers over her shoulder at the glass screen. The leather breeches and loose tunic he’s donned, along with a worn pair of leather riding boots, were the most relaxed attire he could find in the closet— yet he cannot keep from fidgeting, tugging at the tight crotch, uneasy in another man’s clothes. In doing so he unintentionally draws her attention to his lap, and across her cheeks blooms a vivid pink blush. When her eyes flick up to meet his, they are open wide. Unnerved, maybe. Venya is just considering making an apology, when—

            A pneumatic hiss interrupts the moment. Finn, Irena’s oldest friend, stands in the doorway, a leery frown on his face. Rey pops up as he approaches, with M23 in tow.

            “Finn, I’m so glad you’re here. Something strange—”

            “Finn!” he exclaims, rising from the couch. Accustomed to receiving warm hugs from his and Irena's annual visitor, Venya stretches his arms wide. “Здравствуй, друг мой! You are here too! Is Poe?”

            He takes a step towards him, but is pulled up short by Finn’s expression: utter confusion.

            “Uh, what?” he asks, directing his question to Rey; although he doesn’t for a second take his eyes off Venya.

            Venya's arms wilt back down to his sides.

            “I know,” she says, with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows. “I found him like this, when he woke up. There’s been some kind of mix-up. He looks like Kylo but, he's… not. He’s from somewhere else—he calls it Earth? Says the year is nineteen ninety seven.”

            “My name is Veniamin Hanovich Solo,” he supplies, feeling more unsettled than ever. “Most people call me Ben. You do, anyway.”

            Finn eyeballs him. Again he demands, “What?”

            “Yeah,” murmurs Rey. “I know.”

            “Where I come from—you know me, Finn,” he insists. “You are a good friend to Irena. And to me. You live in New York City with your boyfriend, Poe!”

            “Um—”

            Venya can't seem to stop himself now. “Yes. You two come by train to visit us every summer. We meet you at the station in Whitefish, and you bring me good Beluga caviar and medovukha, because I cannot find them in Montana. We drink beer together, and sing old folk songs.”

            “Are you sure he didn't just hit his head?” Finn asks. He has maintained a safe distance; he's made no move to hug Venya, or even shake his hand. Rey presses her lips into a thin pale line, and together they stare at him.

            This Finn is not like your Finn, just as she is not your Irena, he realizes. “Oh.”

            “We aren't friends,” Finn informs him, not unkindly. Merely a statement of facts. That sense of wrongness returns, redoubled and piercing. Disappointment compounds in his gut like a meal gone sour. Not married, not together, not even friends. So many not’s in this life.

            Venya takes a second to mull over the difficult, halting explanation Rey had given from her place, seated on the bed, while he’d dressed in the clothes of the man who belongs to this world.

            There are two sides of a war—and we were supposed to be enemies, she'd said, and his heart had sunk. But we—became close.

            He’d exited the closet, feeling self-conscious in Kylo’s clothing. Seemingly silenced by the sight of him, she gaped.

            You were lovers? His guess had struck true— her mouth had snapped shut, followed by a forlorn little nod in response.

            Not anymore, she’d uttered, the words ringing with finality. M23 returned a second later to deliver her datapad— and there was no more discussion of Rey and Kylo’s relationship, after that.

            Now, an awkward, stagnant silence threatens to suffocate the three of them. Someone must speak soon, if they are to have any hope of surviving this encounter.

            Finn is the first to pipe up. “You should go back through the original Jedi texts.” He gestures to the datapad. “Maybe those translations are missing some—illustration. Or diagram! There might be diagrams.”

            "Yes, that’s a good plan,” Rey agrees, visibly relieved.

            He thumbs towards Venya. “What’s he going to do, in the meantime? We have an Imperium, and apparently no Imperator. This could be bad. Very bad.”

            Venya opens his mouth to ask about this word, Imperator, if it means what he suspects, but Rey replies before he can: “We’ll—figure something out. Things can—operate without him. For a little while.”

            Then she turns to him. “Veniamin, can you stay here, in these quarters? Just for a bit. EmTwoThree will be outside your door. If you need anything, you can reach him by comm—like you did before. Right Em?”

            “Anything I can do to be of service, ma’am,” the robot sighs.

            “What will I do?” he asks, unnerved by the idea of being alone in this strange place.

            “Clear your mind,” she suggests. “See if you can remember anything from before you woke up—how you got here, maybe. It might help.”

            “You want me to... meditate?

            Rey’s eyes flit to Finn, then back to Venya. “Something might come to you—a reason for this, some inkling of what to do about it. We can’t discount anything. Will you try?”

            He works his jaw— he knows when he is being given a menial, meaningless task. But what help can he really provide? It seems important to Rey that the absence of her... Kylo... not be discovered. So he will cooperate.

            “Fine,” he assents, tersely.

            A grateful nod from Rey, a raised eyebrow from Finn. “Right,” she says. “You—get to it, then. I'll try not to be long. Finn, a word? Outside?”

            “Ma’am, what ever shall I say if someone wishes to speak to his Excellency?” M23 asks, sounding flustered, as the group makes it way out of the apartment. Venya stays rooted, and watches them leave.

            “Just tell them—the Grand Imperator is not to be disturbed,” Rey instructs, with a final glance back at him. He gives a pathetic little wave, and she returns it.

            “Oh dear, do you really think they will listen to me? Officers so rarely do,” the robot frets, his voice growing faint when they disappear through the doorway.

            Fainter still, he hears Rey’s reply: “They might.”

            And then, right before the sounds of the hallway outside are drowned by the squeak and hiss of the closing door, he can just make out the warning in Finn’s tone when he adds:

            “They better.”

 


 

            Eyes closed, Venya sits on the couch, boots planted firmly on the floor. He tries to pull up the details of his dream: the forest, the stone wall, the wolves. The old gods, glaring down at him. The strange tunnel, and on the other side— the cosmos.

            The face of a man— his face.

            He can barely remember what came after that. There was a loss of equilibrium, like the bridge he’d been standing on had tilted, sending him careening towards a portal— not one that led back to his forest, though.

            And then? Space. Voices. Heartbeats. Rey.

            Before he can delve any deeper, the door slides open and Finn peeks his head in.

            “Hey, uh—how’s the meditation going? Been in here a while.”

            “It’s shit,” Venya grunts. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

            Finn releases a nervous puff of laughter and steps fully into the apartment. Using both hands, he carries a massive glass jug filled with dark amber liquid, which looks remarkably similar to beer. “Okay, that’s the most normal thing I’ve ever heard you say.” He settles against the other armrest, leaving a good meter of couch between them as a barrier, and sets the jug on the low table before them. A tense moment follows wherein he gawks at Venya, without shame. Venya stares back, nonplussed.

            “So, there’s another me, huh?” Finn asks, at last, curiosity giving his query a singsong lilt.

            Grateful for the overture, an unspoken offer of company in this cheerless place he has already begun to despise, Venya grins. “Yes, and here… there is… another me?”

            “Yeah. Kylo Ren. What do I call you? You said the other me calls you Ben…”

            “Call me Venya,” he tells him, and Finn shrugs his acceptance. A beat of strained silence, and then Venya adds: “You… are very happy, in New York, with your boyfriend, Poe. Do you—have a boyfriend named Poe here, too?”

            “I have a... friend named Poe. Who is a bo—man... he's a guy. He's my friend.” Finn shifts in his seat, discomfited, then rises and passes to yet another panel in the wall that is, in fact, secretly a door. He disappears for a moment before re-emerging with two glasses from the chamber hidden within. As he uncaps the jug and pours them both a generous, heady serving of what he assumes to be beer, he says, “So. Let’s—talk about you.”

            “Cheers, first. За здоровье!” He raises his glass to Finn.

            “Sure.” Finn reaches towards him. The soft clink of their glasses resonates in the quiet room. “Cheers.”

            Both men drink deeply, glad for the distraction. The beer is good, hoppy with a faint sweetness, not unlike the dark ales of his homeland.

            Belatedly, full of false bravado, Venya concurs, “I think we should. Talk about me, I mean. But… not me. The other one, Kylo. I want to know about Imperator Ren.”

            “Stars, where do I even begin?” sighs Finn.

            “What sort of man do you think he is?”

            Finn rubs his face, regards Venya for a beat, then two, and takes another long pull from his beer. “He's declared himself Grand Imperator—Emperor, really—over most of the galaxy,” he says. “That’s the sort of man he is.”

            “A dictator,” he chokes out. Dread creeps in, coils itself around his organs like a boa, begins to constrict. “He is a despot. And—not a good man?”

            “Uh… no.”

            Is there enough beer in the world to make this revelation less painful? Venya doubts it.

            An emperor— like the strongmen who dominated the Soviet Union, like the leaders of the crime syndicates and the prison gangs. Like Snoke. One man after another clawing his way to the top of the pile, a bloody brutal climb, only to squeeze everything he could from his people before he died or was killed. A succession of men who knew only greed, only power, only how to instill fear, only how to punish and subjugate—

            “You seem all right, though,” Finn says, interrupting his ruminations. “For a guy who looks like Kylo Ren.”

            “I’m not an innocent,” he demurs. “I was not a good man, for... a very long time. Even now, I try to be a good man, but sometimes… I don’t know if I am.”

            “Well—you’re trying. That’s something, right?”

            With a sigh, Venya places his glass on the table and lifts up his tunic. “These,” he points to the striped, bulbous domes of the church that rises up his front, “represent the years I spent in prison—years that I deserved, for the crimes I committed.” He pulls the neck of the tunic aside, to display the knife inked above his clavicle. Finn watches, his lips tightened to a grimace. “This is for the men I killed in prison. Three drops of blood, three men.” Rolling one sleeve up his forearm and then his bicep, he turns it so Finn can see the hooded executioner inked there. He jerks his chin towards it. “Because I killed a member of my family.”

            “...Oh,” Finn says. “Was it—”

            “My father,” he mutters.

            “Han… Solo…?”

            He nods morosely.

            “Oh.” Finn looks nauseated.

            “I left a trail of destruction and death in my wake,” he says. “For many years, I thought I was a righteous man. And even when I stopped believing that, still I stayed—because I saw no other choice.”

            “Kriff.” Venya doesn’t know what that word means, but he guesses— from Finn’s tone— it is an expression of his dismay. He adjusts the tunic until it is covering his form once more, then reaches for his glass.

            “If you have done evil things, are you ever free of them?” he asks, almost rhetorically.

            “I… don't know.”

            “Me neither. There’s more?” he asks, nodding towards the jug.

            “Lots more,” Finn confirms.

            “Good.” He upends the glass, drinking until the beer is gone. Finn gives an impressed little “huh,” refills both glasses, and a thorny silence unfurls between them. They both stare straight ahead at the far wall of the room as they imbibe.

            When he is about half-finished, Venya screws up the nerve to speak. “Is there a God, in this future? Is there a Christ?”

            “A Christ? I don’t know about that, but… some people think there’s a god. Some people think there are lots of gods,” Finn answers, contemplative. “People think a lot of different things. It's a big galaxy.”

            “And you?”

            He shrugs. “I don't know what I think. I was raised to believe that the highest authority was this.” He swings his arm out to indicate the apartment, or perhaps the ship, or perhaps the people who own the ship. “The First Order.”

            “I was raised in a strange country,” Venya recounts. “Many people still believed in one God, the God, although they weren’t supposed to. And my father told me stories—stories of many gods living side by side with people, from a time before the one God. But the leaders of my homeland insisted there was nothing, no gods. No anything. And then… one day I met a man who told me that the only true god was Power.” His tongue has become unstuck again, self-restraint a distant memory; he senses that perhaps he should check himself, but it feels good to come clean like this.

            Finn takes a deep swallow of his beer, and says nothing.

            “And the only way to please this god was through mayhem,” he continues. “He was the only one who could prove it, the existence of a god named Power, and he convinced me that everything else was a lie. So—I followed him. I believed him.” He, too, drinks deeply, when he is finished his confession.

            Finn’s gaze has turned sharp. “Was this man called Snoke, by any chance?”

            Venya whips his head around to study Finn. How could he know that? Unless— the boa squeezes his organs ever-tighter— it is the same here. “Yes,” he says, “Ivan Ivanovich Snoke, the Krestniy Ot—er, the Authority.”

            “He was Supreme Leader here. Of the First Order.” Finn turns towards him. “You and I, the… other you—that's never going to stop being weird—we were on the same side, once. I was raised in the army of the man you used to serve.” He rubs the back of his neck, takes another sip. “But when the time came, I couldn't fight. So I ran. And now, I fight for the Resistance.”

            Venya finishes his beer. He lets his head roll until it rests on the hard back of the couch. “There is no shame in running. I ran, too,” he admits, “when the time came.”

            A wry chuckle from Finn. “Yeah, well maybe you have more sense than the other you. He killed Snoke, but he stayed—took his place, actually.”

            “Power,” he gasps, understanding all too well what Finn is trying to tell him. The man who lives in this apartment— when the time came, he chose Power.

            “Yep,” sighs Finn.

            It feels as though the boa is crushing him internally, a vicious breath-stealing assault on his senses. How could you not have learned your lesson, you who are me and also not me? How could you have chosen so poorly, when that same choice was my salvation? Venya bleeds for this Imperator, who could have been him.

            “Power,” he repeats, “the only god that shows itself—besides Love and Money. The one that demands the most of those who follow it, though.”

            Finn rests his elbow on the arm of the couch, his temple in the palm of his hand, and blinks thoughtfully. A lull follows, and then: “Hmm. Maybe.”

            “I chose love, Finn. Why didn't he choose love?”

            Neither man says anything for a long time, lost in their own thoughts as they finish their second round. Finally, Finn pulls the jug close, and pours them both a third. “So,” he starts, with a glance at the ring on Venya’s right hand, “is that…”

            He nods. “Our anniversary is very soon, Irena’s and mine.” The thought does not help his mood— he should be home taking care of his pregnant wife, tending to her needs as her body begins to change, as the life they have created begins to grow within her womb. He should be holding her, he should be warming her bed, he should be fucking her— slow, with soft words of praise and love peppered across her tawny skin.

            If their final night together was the last they will ever have, Venya knows in his heart that he will never forgive himself. The tension he allowed into their house— the fierce swell of fear he felt at the thought of failing his family, his absurd belief that he didn’t deserve to be the father of Irena’s children— all for what? She chose him too back in Brighton Beach, didn’t she?

            What if he is not there when his child is born?

            “I am a fool,” he wheezes, and drinks until his glass is empty. “A fool.”

            Finn shifts, lifts his hand as though he is going to pat Venya’s shoulder, then seems to think better of it and withdraws. He looks down into his own glass instead.

            “Irena, huh? That’s a nice name,” he says, stilted.

            “It’s her real name, the name given to her by her Russian mother,” he explains. “Most people call her Irene, or… Rey, sometimes. You—the, hm, the other you—call her that.”

            Head tilted, Finn’s jaw drops. “Hold on. You're married—to Rey?”

            He closes his eyes, and conjures up the image of Irena: standing in the Eureka town hall in the simple white cotton dress she’d bought from a thrift store, the daisies woven into her braided updo more beautiful than a tsarina’s bejeweled diadem, the soft glow of her sweet face, how she smiled at him when the deed was done— when she was officially Missus Benjamin Smith. “Yes,” he says, a breathless whisper.

            “You married Rey. You and Rey… are married.” Venya opens his eyes to find Finn’s are bulging. He’s not sure the man is breathing.

            “We’re very happy, too,” he assures him.

            “Uh-huh,” Finn grunts, and takes a sip.

            “She’s pregnant.”

            With a wet strangled cough, and Finn spews his beer out across his lap, onto the table. Venya pats him on the back until he waves him off, but even then— he convulses for at least another minute before he’s able to produce words again.

            “Are you all right?”

            “Uh,” he coughs, before stammering in a choked rasp, “y—yes, yeah. Sorry… about the beer. I’m okay. And, um… congratulations?”

            Venya frowns. “You look—”

            “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Finn waves him off.

            “—unwell. You’re surprised,” he deduces, “because of your Rey. And the man who looks like me.”

            “Maybe. I mean—yeah.”

            “They aren't…” he trails off, hoping Finn will help him.

            “No,” he shakes his head emphatically. He twists on the couch, offering Venya his back. “Look, you—the other you… he gave me this.” With an upward tug at the hem of his linen shirt, he reveals a gnarled scar that travels down his back like an angry mountain ridge.

            “Иисус Христос,” he mutters. “Блядь. That's bad. Very bad.” He looks down at the jug, ashamed of the actions of someone he doesn’t know. “But… you brought me beer.”

            Finn turns back, then gives a small twitch of his shoulders. “You said we’d had beer together. I figured you liked beer. And you seem—” he pauses, inhales deeply, blows it out through his nose. “I mean the other you and I... we're not friends. But you—you, I don't know. Maybe we could be.”

            Venya nods, too overcome by this generosity for words.

            “The way you looked... it seemed like you kinda needed one. A friend. I know Rey’s being Rey, off thinking she can do it all on her own, but…”

            “But?”

            “Sometimes people need to not be alone.” Another shrug.

            “Could you—forgive the other me, who did this to you?” he appeals. “Do you hate him?”

            “I mean—I don’t like him.” Venya hums dispiritedly, in understanding. “Rey likes him, which is why she doesn’t say anything about him. To be honest, I don't know where that leaves me.”

            As Finn shrugs this time, a smile pulls at his lips, his eyebrows are raised— his face is open, not shuttered.

            “You're a good man,” Venya asserts. “A good friend.” And then, when Finn only huffs, a small punchy sound, he says, gravely serious: “Finn.”

            “Yeah?”

            “This other me—I’m not happy to hear this.” An understatement, but it will suffice. “About who— what he is.”

            “None of us are.” His words are spiked, his tone dry.

            “Finn. We're going to need a lot more beer, I think. And liquor too. Vodka, if you have it.”

            Finn nods in agreement. “Y’know what? I think I can manage that.”

 


 

            As Irena rolls the old truck slowly over the two muddy ruts that serve as the road to their forest home, the odd low-hanging branch smacks her windshield, but she barely notices. She is trying to parse the baffling events of the morning.

            The clamor and momentum of the breakfast rush had distracted her for a while. Ensuring that Quinn, who has recently been promoted to kitchen manager, could handle things; working the counter for an hour when a tour bus stopped in and left them completely swamped; checking in on Lando, who had occupied his customary booth while crushing the mayor in a game of chess, loser buys breakfast— all of that had pulled her attention away. But now there is calm.

            Now there are no diversions except for the purr of the truck’s engine and the euphony of a sylvan summer afternoon, drifting in through the open windows. Now, she has nothing left to focus on except the arrival of her uninvited visitor.

            She checks on her cargo, carefully positioned on the passenger seat; a plastic bag, within which there are two styrofoam boxes full of cheeseburgers and french fries. Vaguely, she wonders if he’s a vegetarian. If he is, more for me, she decides.

            There are more important things to contemplate, of course. How has this happened? Ben said he saw Venya in a vision, or a dream. But were those the ravings of a lunatic? Has a mystical force— didn’t he mention something like that, something about a force? — performed some kind of cosmic swap? She considers alternative possibilities. Venya has certainly never mentioned a twin, or even a sibling. It’s possible there are two men in Russia who look uncannily alike but then… Ben’s accent, from what she could tell, bore no remnants of a Slavic language.

            And his demeanor?

            It’s true that no one has ever looked at her the way that Venya always has. But she’s not sure anyone has ever looked at her the way Ben did this morning, either. It was as though he was seeing the ghost of someone else’s face in her face, just as she did with him— like even through his fear and confusion, he was pained and healed by the resemblance. He held himself like an arrogant prince, but almost from the moment he spoke, the chinks in that armor began to reveal themselves. And underneath, he seemed to Irena to be as much a lost soul as Venya was, back when they first met.

            The real question she comes back to, again and again, more pressing to her than his origins or his purpose or the source of his sadness or even the sheer impossibility of his existence, is this: what if Venya never returns?

            He was not at the diner, obviously. Before she began her shift, she checked in at the community center, she searched every inch of the library, the local bars, the bowling alley. She spoke with Luke and Doctor Tano, she asked around at any place Venya and she had ever been in town. Hell, she even interrogated old man Yoda, over at the hardware store.

            No Venya.

            Her husband, it seems, has vanished into the very air from which this strange-yet-familiar man has appeared. Has he really been sent to the place that Ben comes from? Has he met a woman who looks like me? Is he afraid, is he alone? She doesn’t want to panic. She doesn’t want to call the police if she can help it. A missing person report will draw attention— they don't need attention.

            But where is he? Is he coming back? She feels hysteria mounting, like a drop of sweat trickling down her spine. It’s not full-blown yet, it’s just hovering at her back. But it’s there.

            Will I have to raise our child alone? Will this man who has appeared in my husband’s stead want to step into the life Venya and I have created? Could I let him? Could I love him, one day? The questions pile on, one after another, increasingly absurd.

            Stay calm, Irena, she tells herself. There’s no use getting ahead of yourself. And whatever happenshe’ll never be your Venyusha.

            Besides, he has his own Rey. She suspects— from the expression on his familiar features, the soft hush of yearning in his voice when he spoke her name— that there is more to that story than what he has shared.

            Irena needs something to focus on besides her fear and panic, and this— this stranger's sad history— seems like her best bet.

            Other Rey, if you’re out there, maybe sailing around the ocean somewhere—I’m going to give him a nudge in the right direction. And later, when we’re all standing at the pearly gates, you can thank me in person.

            She’s reached the gravelly plot of their small driveway, so she parks. Plastic bag in hand, she climbs down from the truck. A deep bracing breath, and she passes into the house through the front door, located on the opposite side of the cabin from the veranda.

            There’s a small mud room that serves as an entryway, separating the outside world from the living room. Various winter coats and accessories hang on the hooks covering one wall, snow boots and snow shoes line the floor; against the other wall there is a deep bench for sitting while lacing up boots, and two pairs of second hand skis from the winter Venya tried to teach her the sport. The sight of them halts her in her tracks— the memory of those grey afternoons spent laughing and clumsily sliding through the deep snow, Ven grinning back at her, encouraging her, the hot cocoa he made for her when they finally returned home, red-nosed and exhausted, how he held her on the couch as they warmed up in front of the fire—

            Irena bites her lip. No crying. No panic— not yet. “Ben?” she calls out, passing into the living room.

            “Yes,” he says, sounding distracted. “I’m here.” He’s seated stiffly on the couch, almost exactly where she left him, but he's holding something. The television’s on— she wonders if they have TVs where he comes from— and there's a soap opera playing.

            “I brought you some comfort food,” she says, and plunks herself down next to him. Now she can see what’s in his hand— again, she finds herself biting her lip to fight back her unwelcome hysteria.

            It’s a framed photograph. A candid, taken in the kitchen of the diner; Leia and Venya are kneading dough together. A few of their teenage employees stand around laughing, watching.

            He notices where her gaze has fallen, and clears his throat. “It was on the wall.”

            An explanation, she supposes. Not an apology, per se, and that reminds her so much of Venya, who is still sometimes reluctant to apologize. A holdover from his difficult past, when apologizing was as good as showing weakness— which could get him killed.

            “Oh, it’s—okay. That was the summer Ven’s mom came out to visit us. We’re not really supposed to talk to people from our old lives, it’s not safe. But—I think it was important. That she come see him, in his new life.”

            “Ah,” he says, with a curt nod.

            “She was helping him make dough for pirozhki, there. They were one of his father’s many specialties,” she adds.

            Ben looks up at her now, his gaze like a vivisection. “You’re so happy. Your life is happy.”

            “It is, now.”

            “It wasn't always,” he observes, and his eyes flick down to the raised line of skin that bisects her throat. A lump seems to be forming there; air is suddenly hard to come by. She doesn’t want to talk about it— not the scar, not that day, not the nightmarish days that preceded it nor the anxious ones that followed.

            The soap opera, she notices, is of the standard variety. The colors in the background are muted, everything has the odd gauzy blur that comes from excessive lighting and filming on videotape. For a couple minutes, she watches the events unfold, keenly aware that she has let his observation go unremarked upon and that he is staring at her, brows knitted. On the show, two identical, blandly handsome men are arguing. A pretty blonde woman with a square jaw and deep-set blue eyes stands between them, one manicured hand pushing against each man’s chest.

            “So, you, uh—figured out the TV. You know you can switch the channels, right? These soap operas are pretty trashy,” she mumbles, finally, hazarding a glance his way.

            “No,” he says, with a shake of his head. “It’s a good holodrama, despite the antiquated technology.”

            “Oh yeah? What exactly is happening here?”

            Ben takes a steadying breath. “This Blade… Bladeson—has a supposedly evil twin, Rick. They were separated at birth. Now, Rick has returned, and he intends to ruin Blade’s life.”

            “What a monster,” she deadpans.

            “Is he?” Ben bites out, looking slightly vexed. “He has his reasons. Blade left him to drown—to die—in the ocean, years ago. When they first found each other.” He pauses, arches a dark eyebrow. “Blade thought Rick drowned. As you can see—he did not.”

            Irena scoffs. “Ridiculous.”

            “Is it? For most of my mother’s life, she had no idea she was the twin sister of—”

            “Luke Skywalker?” Her voice cracks, ever so slightly. How strange, the ways in which the stories of their lives run parallel. How strange, the ways in which they differ.

            He startles. “Yes. Is that the same here?”

            “Yeah,” she says. “They’re twins. But… they grew up together with their father, Senator Skywalker.”

            “Ah.” He’s quiet for a time, his gaze drawn back to the teary-eyed confrontation on screen. “Senator Skywalker. That would have changed things.”

            “Ben—”

            “I learned, late in life, that my grandfather was a Darksider,” he interrupts. “Evil.” There is something confessional in the subdued, distant way he speaks, as though he is unearthing a very painful secret he has kept hidden for a long time. Irena is transfixed by the slump of his shoulders, his downcast eyes. Ben rubs his pointer finger across the image of his mother’s smiling face. “Darth Vader. Feared and hated, throughout the galaxy. I never knew—my mother never told me.”

            “Holy shit,” she mutters, before lapsing into shocked silence. Then: “Venya’s grandfather… was just some asshole politician.”

            A sardonic twist of his lips; a rueful sigh. “I’d had suspicions—nothing concrete. Not until she confirmed it. By Holonet message.”

            She swallows down her pity at the sight of him, looking so defeated. You don’t know this man, Irena. The emotion lodges itself in her chest anyway, making it difficult to speak.  

            “I—oh. That’s—”

            He interrupts her sputtering. “Because a political opponent made the connection public knowledge.”

            “Oh.” Irena feels stupid, useless, unable to come up with anything more insightful or comforting to say. Instead, she lays her hand on Ben’s, which clutches his knee in a white-knuckled hold.

            “So you see, this program isn’t so ridiculous. Not to me.” He stares at their hands, hers resting atop his. He has a great big paw of a hand, just like Venya, and also just like Venya’s, it is warm. Slowly, as if by no small effort, he loosens his grip on his knee.

            “Ben. That’s awful,” she manages to whisper. “What happened to you was awful.”

            When he looks up at her, his eyes are adumbral, but not fathomless or without texture. They are whelky, alive, aflame. Dark coronas rim his irises, which are the color of bister— a charred branch flecked with gold and raw umber. She cannot look away, even as they shine with the threat of tears.

            “Yes.” That’s all he says— just one word of agreement, but in that one word rests years of unspoken pain. The eye contact spans one second. Then two. Then three. Then Irena is not sure how long they have been sitting and staring at each other.

            “I—I got us, um, some burgers! From the diner,” she squeaks, and pulls her hand back so she can remove the styrofoam boxes from the plastic bag.

            “Burgers,” he echoes. His eyes follow her movements as she unhinges the lids and swings both containers open. The burgers sit upon beds of crispy golden french fries; Irena’s mouth starts to water at the savory aromas of grease and potato and meat that waft up towards them.

            “Beef, bun, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles?” she prompts. “America’s gift to the world?”

            He dips his head. “Yes, I’ve eaten a burger before. Is it made from bantha or nerf meat?”

            “What? It’s beef. Cow.”

            “Hm,” he says, aiming a suspicious glare at the food.

            “Just—” She pulls some napkins out of the bag, depositing one on his knee, then flits over to the kitchen to grab the ketchup and mustard from the fridge. “...try it, okay?”

            He watches as she squeezes out a sizeable dollop of ketchup into the lid of the container, then does the same. It is not until she takes her first huge bite from the burger, followed by a fry that’s been swirled around in the ketchup, that he gingerly picks up his own burger and sniffs it. Irena pretends not to notice, and plucks a fry from his container, giving him a cheeky grin as she bites down on it.

            That does earn her a soft chuff, at least. He leans over the table, takes a careful bite, chews slowly. And then his eyes slip closed.

            “It’s good,” he concedes, once he’s swallowed.

            “Comforting,” she suggests.

            “Yes.”

            “Try the fries—with the ketchup.” He does as she’s directed, and she think she catches him making a faint groan of pleasure before he devours several more.

            “Good?” she asks, pursing her lips to keep from laughing.

            He peeks up at her, then back to the fries. “Very good.”

            “Do you have fries, too, where you come from?”

            “Perhaps… it's a big galaxy,” he tells her. “I've had fritzle fries before. These are different.”

            “How?” she asks, wondering what a fritzle is. German, maybe? There is so much about wherever he comes from, whoever he is, that she doesn’t know. She hardly knows where to begin in any interrogation she might launch.

            “Greasier. And these aren’t black,” he says, before resuming his attack on the burger.

            “Oh. Huh. Do you have a favorite food, there?”

            He pauses mid-chew, his eyes flicking over her. Irena takes a bite of her own burger, savoring the intermingling medley of sharp cheddar, sirloin, crisp romaine, fresh summer tomatoes, and sesame bun.

            “No,” he replies, “I don’t think about food.”

            She marks that down, another tally for the ‘different from Venya’ category.

            After another few minutes of quiet eating, he asks, “And yours?”

            “This.” She smirks at him, just a little, in the hopes of seeing his lips twitch again in response— and she isn’t disappointed. His bearing seems more lighthearted, she reflects, compared to how tense he was this morning. But then— she was tense as well.

            It was a tense situation. It still is. Yet she can’t help but feel that Ben is more afraid of her than she is of him; it makes her wonder about that other Rey, as she eats. She wonders about who they are to each other. What have they done to each other, to make Ben look at her with so much apprehension and longing?

            She’s just finished her burger and is working on the last of her french fries, covertly eying Ben’s to ascertain if he’s going to eat them or not, when he speaks again.

            “These… images,” he murmurs, nodding at the framed candid of Venya and Leia, then at the others that hang on the wall. “Do you have more of them?”

            This is good. This is something they can share. Maybe in showing him photos of the life she and Venya have made here in Montana, Irena can glean some idea of the life that Ben has left behind. She gives him a close-mouthed grin, conscientious of the mouthful of food making one cheek bulge, then finishes chewing.

            “Do I ever,” she says when she’s done, and he almost— almost — smiles back at her.

 


 

            The day escapes Rey. She intends only to return to her chambers, change, and consult the books she’d stashed away in the lowest drawer of her bureau. She and C-3PO had embarked on a painstaking collaboration, one that had taken the better part of two years, to translate the sacred Jedi texts into Basic; the result of their collaboration is stored under layers of secure encryption on her datapad. But the elegant drawings and swirling diagrams that appeared every few pages were lost in translation, and perhaps those contained a clue to what had happened to her new mysterious guest— and to Kylo Ren.

            But mere minutes after she dons real clothes, asks for a cup of caf to be sent to her room, and begins leafing through the books in earnest, Jessika Pava appears at her door, fresh off a Resistance transport.

            And Rey realizes it had completely slipped her mind that her Jedi pupils were due to come to the Conquest II.

            That was, after all, why she had returned here. Finn is here to represent the Resistance’s interests in the Imperium, but Rey is here to consolidate her Jedi school with Kylo’s, and to serve as their head teacher while Kylo leads the war effort against Hux’s First Order. Rey had arrived on the Conquest II a day before her students to acclimate herself before they arrived. And she had succeeded at reacclimating— until the Force dropped this surprise into her lap.

            Seeing her students is both a profound relief and a source of anxiety. At the very least, watching them gawk at the Conquest II’s massive hangar bay, one of many, gives her cause to smile for the first time that day. Even Taylin, who had been most apprehensive and most reluctant to leave the Vigilance, can barely keep his eyes from bugging out as he peers around. After the makeshift Resistance base on the moldering wreckage of an Imperial-class Star Destroyer, the Imperium’s massive, well-maintained flagship must seem an impossible technological feat.

            Hours later, Rey winds her way back to Kylo Ren’s chambers, a bit nervous as to what she’ll find there. Getting her students settled and introduced to Kylo’s had taken much longer than she anticipated, and while she was loath to leave Veniamin alone for so long, it was important to do that properly. A few of them sensed her agitation, and Kaela even pulled her aside to ask about it, but this whole situation is very much not their concern. Besides, how would she begin to explain it? Oh, I’m just distracted because the Force saw fit to replace Kylo Ren with a very sweet but confused version of himself from another time and place.

            She’d sound insane.

            So the secret of Veniamin is hers alone, for now, and will remain so while she pores over the translations of her Jedi texts to see if any of them mentioned anything about being displaced from one’s own universe any where. This couldn’t be the first historical example of this happening, could it? It better not be, because she needs some way to return Veniamin to his home, and his life, and to get Kylo back where he belongs.

            With you, whispers a little voice at the back of her mind. Rey ignores it.

            She returns to those familiar doors to find the M23 still posted out front, which is comforting. He grants her access to the room, and she steps inside, only to hear— off-key singing.

            It’s half a bar of a song in a language that Rey doesn’t know, then Veniamin’s deep voice stopping and saying, “No, no, it’s not ‘бэлогривого,’ it’s ‘белогривого.’ Byell. And roll the ‘r’. Byell-a-grrrree-vah-vah.” And then a resonant laugh that belongs to—

            “Finn?” Rey asks, peering around one of the glass partitions that separates the sitting room from the bedchamber.

            Veniamin and Finn are sitting near each other on the edge of Kylo’s bed, apparently in the act of singing a drinking song in a language neither Finn nor Rey knows. Rey opens her mouth, then closes it. She spots a couple of empty glasses on the nightstand, and looking behind her into the sitting room she sees one empty jug, and one near-empty jug. There’s a mystery solved then.

            “From the top,” says Veniamin, who has not seen her. “On three, and two, and—”

            They begin to sing again. Finn, who did not grow up singing, doesn’t have much of a natural instinct for it, but he is able to roughly follow the tune even as he stumbles over the lyrics. But Veniamin has a nice voice, dark and deep, a voice that might drown someone.

            She’s never heard Kylo sing anything. She wonders if he sounds the same.

            Eventually the same word that Veniamin had been coaching Finn on trips Finn up, and they fall silent, looking at each other. Then they begin to laugh again, as if this is the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened to anyone in the history of the galaxy.

            Rey decides this is as good a time as any to butt in. “Looks like you’re having fun.”

            “Rey!” Finn exclaims.

            “It’s Rey,” rumbles Veniamin, as though he is disclosing a secret. He beams at her with a boozy fondness, his eyes the color of the liquid remaining in the jug.

            “It is Rey,” Finn agrees, waving. “Hi Rey. You know this guy? This guy—” He claps Veniamin on the shoulder. “Is not so bad. Actually, he’s pretty great.”

            Veniamin looks amused. “Well, this guy is the best,” he informs Rey. “But I already knew that.”

            “So did I,” she says, smiling despite herself. Then she tells Finn, “Sorry to break up the party. I’ll help you back to your room.”

            “I don’t need help,” Finn insists, pushing off the bed. As soon as he’s upright, in the loosest sense of the word, he sways, and Veniamin puts a hand on his back to stabilize him.

            “Easy,” he says.

            “Woah.” Finn shakes his head. “Did we just come out of hyperspace?”

            “That’s all you,” says Rey, covering her mouth with her hand to suppress a giggle. She crosses the room to Finn, lets him get an arm around her shoulders. “Thanks for looking after him.”

            “Ah, it was fiiiine,” Finn says. “He’s got Kylo Ren’s face, but he lost the worst parts of his personality back… somewhere.”

            “That’s not what I meant.” Rey nods at Veniamin. “Thanks for looking after my friend.”

            “Hey!” Finn exclaims, indignant in only the way a drunk can be.

            Veniamin nods and gives her a little smile. Rey thinks she feels a glacier melting behind her ribs. “Come back soon,” he says.

            “Our quarters aren’t far,” Rey assures him. “I’ll be back.”

            She leads Finn out the doors of the Supreme Leader’s chambers, acknowledging M23 with a little jerk of her head on the way out. Finn keeps his arm around her shoulders and lets her guide their course, but otherwise she can feel him trying not to put too much weight on her. They lurch together slowly, like a two-headed tortuce, down the corridors that lead to the officers’ chambers. Half a kilometer isn’t so far after all, Rey reflects, although at this pace it might as well be quadruple that distance.

            As soon as they’re far enough away from those heavy double doors for comfort, Finn says, “You know, Venya’s pretty all right.”

            “Venya?”

            “He said to call him that.”

            Rey hums noncommittally. “You two seemed to have bonded.”

            “Yeah.” Finn contemplates this, as if it is a statement of weighty significance. Then he asks, “Can we keep this one? Just not switch him back. I feel like that’d be better for everybody.”

            She chuckles, and hopes Finn doesn’t notice that she sounds a bit sad. “No, we can’t keep him. He’s got his own life to get back to.”

            “I guess,” Finn sighs. “He does seem to miss his wife.”

            Rey nearly freezes in her tracks for an instant, but manages to take a step and hopes Finn doesn’t notice her faltering. Attempting to keep her voice casual and disinterested, she says, “Oh?”

            “I mean, yeah. You saw the ring on his hand.”

            “Sure,” she says hollowly, and she had, although she wasn’t sure what it meant— possibly engagement or marriage, but only assuming that an extragalactic visitor abides by the same marriage customs as they do. It might have meant nothing. It might have meant everything.

            Finn is quiet as he stumbles a few more steps down the hall with Rey walking next to him, back straight as a post, steps steady as the ticking of a chronometer. And then he says, “She’s actually you.”

            “What?”

            “The wife. She’s you.”

            Rey feels as though someone has gripped her stomach in a vice. She doesn’t know how to process this information at all. Better for him to be married to someone like her than anyone else, isn’t it? But what does that mean for this galaxy, for this life? For her life?

            “She’s not me,” Rey mutters. “That’s ridiculous. I’m me.”

            “Yeah, but she is to you as Venya is to— whoops.” Finn stumbles, and Rey hopes that’s broken his concentration enough to make him lose his train of thought. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. “Sorry. Can you imagine? You and Kylo, married, going to have a kid...”

            “Going to have a—” Rey cuts herself off. During her and Kylo’s few blissful days together, she’d dreamed up all sorts of unlikely possibilities: Ben Solo abandoning the First Order and returning with her to the Resistance, or even Rey staying with him as an advisor, helping him build a safer galaxy from his seat on the throne. But marriage? Children? She certainly hasn’t thought that far ahead. But an odd feeling settles in her chest as she realizes she can’t imagine marrying anyone else.

            Children, though, she sets aside until she has the time and place to properly deal with it.

            “Bunch of little Supreme Leaders running around,” Finn continues, slurring slightly.

            “Imperators,” Rey corrects. “And I’m glad you find it so funny.”

            “Look, this you and Kylo thing— if I don’t laugh about it, what else am I gonna do?”

            This does make Rey stop and look at him. They’re not far from their rooms now, but she can’t keep going until she knows what he meant by that. “What?”

            “I’m not stupid.” Finn waves his hand, which nearly throws him off-balance, but he recovers. “Look, Rose has one theory, Poe has his—”

            Rey snorts. “I told Poe—”

            “I’ve been waiting for you to be ready to talk about it, but I don’t know when… I don’t know when that’s going to happen.” He shakes his head. “If you just said something, maybe we’d all know what to do about it. You like him. Do you like him?”

            She doesn’t respond.

            Finn frowns deeply, and then asks, “Do you love him?”

            “I like him,” she says quickly. “I do, Finn. I’m—”

            “No, don’t say you’re sorry. Don’t. ‘Cause I know that if you had a choice about it, you’d…” Finn trails off, and then he just shakes his head again. “We mean the awful one, right? Not the Venya one.”

            With a bit of despair, Rey says, “We do.”

            Finn exhales. “Well.” He lets that sit for a long moment, and then asks, “Why?”

            “I don’t— know.” Rey rubs her eye. That’s not honest, and she owes Finn honesty. She opens her mouth again, and it all spills out of her at once, as though she’s a bottle uncorked, bubbling over.

            “I do know. We connect in a way that’s beyond anything I’ve ever felt. Some of it’s the Force. Some of it’s where we— come from. But some of it’s that he listens to me. He hears me. And—” She inhales. “By the Light, he’s funny, Finn. He’ll say something completely straight-faced and it’ll be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He has no idea how to talk to people and it’s— it’s easy to mistake for something else at first, but it’s strangely endearing. And there is so much potential in him to be nurturing, and kind. I know because he’s shown me.”

            She pauses for breath, then looks right into Finn’s brown eyes. “And I am sorry— don’t you dare— I am sorry, because of what he’s done to you and so many other people. You’re right. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t want it to be this way. Because it hurts so much , and I don’t know how to fix it…”

            She trails off, unsure of what else to say. She can feel Finn’s eyes on her face, studying her. And then that arm around her shoulders slips down around her waist, and he pulls her in against him. Once again, they both nearly fall over, and this time Rey urges the Force to swell up and tip them back upright. Finn doesn’t seem to notice. He says into her hair, “You’re crazy.”

            Rey sniffs, only partially because he reeks of beer. “Probably.”

            “I don’t like this.”

            “I know, Finn.”

            “But I don’t want it to hurt,” he says. “I don’t want that for you. You should be happy.”

            Wetly, she confesses, “I don’t know how to make it not hurt.”

            “Yeah, me either. But you know what?” He loosens his grip on her, which allows her to look back up at him. He gives her a half-hearted smile. “You’re Rey,” he says. “You fix things. You’re good at it. So if anyone can figure out whatever this is, it’s you.”

            Rey elbows him lightly in the side. “Oh, come on.”

            “I mean it!”

            “I know.” She smiles at him. “I love you, you know?”

            “Yeah, I know, I know,” he mock-grumbles, and Rey knows he’s trying to mask the sting. He picks his head up and jokes, “Everybody loves me. I’m a big deal, remember?”

            “I’ve heard it said.”

            “And we’d better get back to my room soon, because I think I’m gonna puke. You and Kylo Ren…”

            “Oi!” Rey cries, but it inspires a little bit of a chuckle. She pulls his arm back up over her shoulder.

            “There is no good mental image,” Finn moans. “None.”

            “Well, stop thinking about it.”

            “I can’t!”

            “You mean to tell me,” Rey teases, “that you can’t stop thinking about Kylo Ren… naked?”

            “Kriff,” says Finn, as they approach his door. “It’s just not right.” He reaches out and grasps the doorframe, then adds, almost thoughtfully, “You know what? Venya said that in his world, I’m with Poe. Can you believe that?”

            Rey grins. “I can.”

            He looks at her, but his eyes only focus on her a moment later. “What?”

            “He’s always been sweet on you, Finn.”

            “What?” Finn repeats. “No. No way. Poe’s my friend-guy. He’s just nice to me because he’s nice. … Right?”

            Rey leans against the doorframe opposite him and folds her arms. “It’s funny,” she says. “My students are getting to the age where they have romantic drama, and I think they’re about twice as good at handling it as we are.”

            “We’re not setting the bar that high, here,” Finn points out.

            “No, we are not,” says Rey, and she leans forward and kisses him on the cheek. “Lie down. Get some food in you. You’ll thank me in the morning.”

            “If I remember, in the morning.”

            “If you remember,” Rey agrees. Part of her hopes he won’t, and part hopes he will. Theoretically, she could make him forget the whole conversation with a wave of her hand. It seems like the easier option, in many ways. But she could never do that to her best friend, not unless the need was dire. And this hardly qualifies as an emergency.

            It will do her good to start owning up to her emotions, she supposes, even though it’s the last thing in the galaxy she wants to do. At the very least, Finn knowing feels much better than carrying it all alone.

            She bids Finn good night and returns to Kylo’s chambers, head spinning. Once again, she half-expects Venya to have wandered off. But M23 assures her he remains in the room, and she finds him sprawled out on his back across Kylo’s bed, still humming softly to himself. He doesn’t seem as inebriated as Finn— his eyes fix on her as she approaches— but whatever it was the two of them shared has certainly helped him relax. Almost all of the tension in his body has ebbed away.

            Rey is struck, not by him— not only by him. She has rarely seen Kylo so relaxed, but she has, a few times. Not just the one time they accidentally drank themselves to a hearty buzz at a party, and he kissed her hand (and later, her face) in front of all the guests, although that is a bittersweet memory. No, they had spent a couple of dreamlike days together where she’d seen very much of Ben Solo in him, and very little of Kylo Ren. Ben Solo had joked with her, and smiled at her, and danced her around the room. He had opened himself enough to make love to her, on his bed— on that bed.

            “I’m a sight for sore eyes, huh?” Venya asks abruptly, clearly teasing.

            Rey nearly jumps. “What?”

            “You’re staring.”

            She shakes her head. “I was just trying to figure out how drunk you are.”

            He pushes himself up to a nominally seated position. “Not drunk,” he grunts. “Takes more to get me drunk.”

            Skeptical, Rey studies him. “Well, you’re not sober.”

            “True,” he agrees. “But there is a longer road than you might think between ‘drunk’ and ‘sober.’ A long, winding road.”

            He’s more talkative than Kylo, Rey notes, something she had vaguely thought this morning but notices more now. She supposes the alcohol in his veins might account for some of it. She feels it over the bond as a heady buzz. So unsettling, to be this attuned to a stranger. Rey hadn’t realized how accustomed she had become to Kylo.

            “Clearly, you know more about drinking than I do,” she says, and then hastens to add, “I didn’t mean—”

            He just seems amused. “Probably so. We’re known for that, where I come from.”

            “Really?”

            “It can be very cold,” he says. “Drinking warms the body and the spirit. Whether cold or lonely.” He is taken by the ceiling for a moment, then adds, “That’s what we were singing about.”

            Rey approaches, sitting down on the corner of the bed. She has to nudge one of his legs out of the way, and he moves it obligingly. “I don’t know the language, but it sounded sad.”

            “Yes. The song asks the frost to spare the singer and his horse. He has a wife to go home to, after all.”

            There’s that feeling again, like someone’s run a lightsaber right through stomach, leaving a hole that burns and smolders at the edges. He isn’t Kylo, she reminds herself. “A wife?”

            “Yes. A jealous wife, a beautiful wife, waiting sadly for my return.” Venya holds up his hand, studying the outline of his ring.

            Rey doesn’t know what to say to that. “Is she?”

            He looks over at her. “Hm?”

            “Beautiful?” she prompts. “And, well— jealous, I guess. Your wife.”

            “Not jealous, no,” he says, shaking his head. “I give her no reason to be.”

            “Well, that’s… good,” Rey says, awkwardly. “For a marriage, I mean. I think. I— assume. I’ve never been married.”

            Venya chuckles, but not entirely at her. More the absurdity of their whole situation. “And beautiful— yes. Like a glimpse of the sun on the coldest day. She is my polyanitsa, my warrior, and I am her…”  He trails off, and sighs. “Oh, Reychik.”

            Rey frowns at him. “What’s a Reychik?”

            “You are. I’ve decided, just now.” Rey notices with a faint twinge of amusement that a slight accent is emerging in his speech: it’s still Basic, but with a slight roll to his r’s, a slant to his vowels. “Where I come from when you are fond of someone, you give them a... nickname, of sorts.”

            “It’s going to be a challenge to make my name shorter than it already is,” she points out.

            “Ah, Reyushka,” he sighs. “Reyunya, Reychka, we are a creative people. We add to the name, we don’t take away from it.”

            Rey presses her lips together to keep from laughing. “I’m pretty sure you’re just making things up.”

            “I’m trying on your names to see which one fits.” He squints, then holds up his hands up, forefinger and thumbs extended, and peers at her through the frame of hands. “Hmm.”

            She reaches out and wraps one of her hands around his wrist, gently tugging it down. “Do I get to make up a name for you, Veniamin? I feel like that’s only fair.”

            “‘Veniamin’ is too long. You can call me Venya, too.” His face softens. “Irena… she’ll switch. Ven, Venya, Venyusha. Rarely Veniamin. And she is my Irenushka, my tsarina.”

            “Do they have a lot of free time on your planet? It sounds as if all you do there is drink and come up with names for people.”

            “Not my planet,” he corrects, but gently, as he sets his hands back down on his knees. His posture is a little looser than Kylo’s, she notes. His shoulders aren’t as stiff, his arms not held as rigidly to his sides. “My country. On Earth, there are many different countries, with many cultures. And many, many people.”

            Rey sits forward. “How many?”

            “Almost six billion.”

            “Six billion?” Rey repeats with incredulity, her voice rising to an excited squeak. “Billion?”

            “Yes. And in Russia, there are, let me see—” He seems to count on his fingers for a few seconds, muttering calculations to himself. “About one hundred and fifty million.”

            “Wow.” Rey clears her throat, and feels the need to explain herself. A man who’d spent his life planetbound on a world of six billion could never understand her shock. “The planet I grew up on had fewer than twenty-five thousand.”

            His eyebrows shoot up. His face is so expressive compared to Kylo’s; then again, he doesn’t seem to have anything he wants to hide. “So few?”

            “It wasn’t very big,” she says. “And it was all desert.”

            “Ah. Жалко. Desert.” He looks out across the room, his eyes losing their focus slightly. “Too much heat, too much sand.”

            “I have been to a planet with one trillion people, though,” she says. “Coruscant.”

            “Боже.” That same expression of surprise. Rey recognizes it from before. “Is it very large?”

            “It’s a city,” she tells him.

            “What, the planet? The entire planet?”

            “Yes.”

            He frowns at this, and then swings his attention back to her, as if unwilling to spend too much time contemplating the idea of a planet out there inhabited by more people than he can fathom. He hums, then muses, “Reychik, I think. Usually not for a woman, but…”

            “Venya?”

            “Yes?”

            “You may be a little drunk.”

            He huffs, but doesn’t deny it. “I’m out of practice,” he says. “Your— Imperator Ren, does he drink much?”

            Rey shakes her head, and bites back the urge to say He’s not mine.

            “No, Kylo doesn’t—” Her lips tingle when she calls him Kylo, as if they’ve been stung by an insect. It feels wrong. Venya watches her closely, as Kylo does, with that curious appraising gaze. But Venya’s gaze holds endless warmth. She aches to tell him everything, but she can’t. Familiar face or no, he’s still a stranger.

            “He doesn’t,” she begins again, and then realizes her head is spinning. Stars, is she going to be sick again, like she was this morning? What’s the matter with her? She clears her throat.

            “Ben,” she says at last, collecting herself. “I call him Ben. Called. And he doesn’t drink much.” She remembers sharing in his intoxication that night before the gala, and adds, “Actually, he’s much more of a lightweight than you are.”

            Venya gives her the sort of easy grin she’s never seen on Kylo’s face. “So we’re not the same after all,” he says.

            Rey doesn’t think he means anything by that grin. Maybe he was like Kylo, once, and rarely smiled. She wonders how long it had taken him to learn. Had that smile grown over time, stoked by encouragement from his wife (his wife!)? Or had one small crack in his veneer sent the whole thing crumbling away? Maybe he’s someone who smiles often, now. She doesn’t know him well enough to say. That grin may not mean anything from Venya, but it would mean something coming from Kylo.

            She has so many questions for him, but most urgent among them: where did he learn to smile in a way that made her cheeks so warm?

            Rey can’t concentrate with that grin turned her way. “We should get some food in you,” she says to Venya. “Then more talk.”

 


 

            It is not, as it transpires, the photographs of Irena’s wedding to her Venya that move Kylo the most, although the photos are, of course, moving. There she is, this woman with Rey’s face, smiling her most radiant smile, one that rivals the brightest of Rey’s smiles: the one she’d revealed to him from her bed in the medcenter, the first time he’d seen her laugh; the ones she’d flash him when they trained together; the small one she gave him, hair mussed and cheeks flushed, after they’d made love on the floor of the Conquest II ’s hangar. And there he is, the man with his face, beaming back at her with an expression he’s certain has never graced his own features.

            No, of course seeing Irena on her wedding day, in a simple white dress, with tiny white flowers braided into her rich brown hair, affects him. Of course seeing Venya, whose jacket strains to accommodate his wide shoulders and broad chest, leaves him dizzy. And then there are the guests: Luke, with a red-haired woman of similar age he doesn’t recognize— Luke had never had a long-term companion that he knew of— and his mother. Kylo has to swallow down a lump in his throat at the sight of her so poised and present, recalling how frail she had seemed the last they met. Of course Dameron and the man he knew as FN-2187 had been present as well, although Kylo thinks he manages to disguise his irritation at their attendance. The ragtag gaggle of adolescents, seemingly of no blood relation to the happy couple, prompts him to ask a few questions, but mostly he listens and nods as Irena tells him the story of the day.

            For Irena, everything about her, is what truly captures him. The tremble to her slim fingers as she turns the pages of the “photo album.” (Kylo points out that it seems a precarious storage system for memories, and that she might consider switching to a more easily duplicated format instead, ideally digital). The smiles that tug up the corners of her mouth, briefly. The almost dreamlike quality to her voice. The way she forgets her current sorrow of Venya missing, swept up in the romance of the past. Kylo can’t stop looking at her, even when he’s supposed to be looking at the photos. He doesn’t flatter himself by thinking that Rey tells the story of their fleeting affair to anyone, but if she did, would she look and sound like this?

            “Oh, see there, Poe caught my bouquet.” Her face takes on a strange expression, one of disappointment, or wistfulness. From the inquisitive tilt to Kylo’s head, she seems to intuit that he needs some explanation— remarkable how she can do that, without the Force— and adds, “That means that he and Finn should get married next. Except…”

            She trails off. Kylo looks from the photo, where Dameron and “Finn,” handsome in their matching suits, smile at each other, to where Irena sits on the sofa, looking forlorn. “What is it?”

            Irena’s eyebrows draw in, and she frowns at him, puzzled. “I mean, they can’t. They can’t get married.”

            Kylo looks back at the photo, studying it as though he will be awarded some answer if he just looks hard enough. He doesn’t feel any particular affinity for Poe Dameron or the man Irena calls Finn in his own place and time, but Rey cares for them, as Irena cares for hers. He can at least muster the energy to solve this puzzle.

            “Why not? Are they together?”

            “Yes,” Irena says, with some surprise, and then she looks wary, as if she’d forgotten who she was talking to and divulged something she shouldn’t have. “I mean— you seem to know them. Aren’t they, where you’re from?”

            “Not yet,” says Kylo, thinking back to the way he’d seen Dameron touch Finn’s shoulder at the summit. It would only be a matter of time, he supposes. Strange that with Dameron’s reputation for derring-do, he hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to make a move. “But if they are here, then why not?”

            “Well…” She blinks at him. “It’s not legal. The government doesn’t allow it.”

            He exhales harshly through his nose, almost a snort. Apparently, Irena takes it for one of derision.

            “I think it’s unfair, too,” she says. “They clearly love each other. Why does it matter that they’re both men? But not a lot of people agree with me.”

            Kylo stares at her. “You’re serious. They can’t marry?”

            “Could they where you come from?”

            “Where I— yes.” Now his brows draw together. “Of course.”

            Irena lets out a little laugh, flavored with bitterness. “You say that like it’s so obvious.”

            “It is obvious. It doesn’t make sense to restrict marriage on the basis of gender. There are so many—”

            “So many?” Irena asks faintly.

            “—not to mention the number of species—”

            “Wait. Stop. Species?” She goggles at him. “Do you mean— you don’t mean— animals?”

            He nearly recoils, but manages to rein it in. Does she think so little of him? But then again, he reminds himself, this may well be a planet without space travel. Perhaps these humans think themselves the only elevated life forms in their galaxy— or indeed, the universe. So with patience he wouldn’t reserve for anyone else but Rey, he explains, “No, I mean other species. Sentient species. From other star systems—”

            “Aliens,” Irena whispers.

            He blinks, surprised and impressed that she’s caught on so quickly. “Yes.”

            “You’re from space.”

            “I was born on the planet Chandrila,” he says, in an attempt to reassure her. “I moved to Hosnian Prime with my mother when I was still young, but—”

            “Oh, you’re from space.” Irena covers her face with both hands and lets out a fluttery, nervous chuckle that’s not far removed from a sob.

            The statement makes no sense to him— no one is from space. Surely some people must be born on ships, or space stations, out among the stars, but those are places with names. There’s an order to the galaxy, chaotic though it may seem, mysterious though he knows it to be.

            He leans toward her. “Are you—”

            “I’m fine,” Irena says, in a tone of voice that’s high and strained. He’s not sure he’s ever heard it from Rey before, which unsettles him. She elaborates, without removing her hands, “I just woke up this morning to find my husband gone and a man who claims to be from another planet in his place, so either you’re crazy or I’m crazy but it’s all. Just. Fine.”

            “Irena—”

            She looks up at him, her eyes wide. Her face has grown very pale. “So you’re an alien.”

            “No, I—”

            “You’ve replaced him. You’ve replaced Venya. You’re—you’re a pod person!”

            Kylo shifts on the couch, which feels much smaller now with both of them on it. He knows that this must be a shock to her, but he can’t account for her sudden change in mood. If she were Rey, and if he had the Force at his disposal, he would be able to reach out to her and know what ailed her. He might even be able to calm her down. He thinks that physical touch might have the same grounding effect, but he doesn’t know if he can touch Irena. She set her hand on his earlier, but that time, she had initiated.

            The only way to find out is to ask.

            Slowly, he holds out his hand and opens it to her, palm-up. Irena looks at it. “I’m not a— pod person,” he says slowly, unsure of what that means. “I’m human, like you.”

            She eyes him, still wary.

            Gently, he urges, “Go on.”

            With caution, and tenderness, she sets her hand down on his, fingers against his palm. She closes her eyes, apparently reassured by the warmth of his skin. Kylo forces himself to stay in this moment, and not relive when he and Rey had touched hands over a flickering fire, or when he had offered her his hand and she’d refused it, thousands of shining sparks reflected in her eyes.

            “I don’t understand what’s happening either,” he murmurs. “But I am human.”

            Irena sniffs. “I’m sorry,” she says, wiping beneath her eyes with her other hand. “I’m so sorry. I haven’t— been myself lately. I just...”

            “Neither have I,” he replies. It means more than she could ever know.

            Irena lifts her fingers from his palm, and the pit of Kylo’s stomach swoops with regret before she places two, her index and middle fingers, back down on his wrist, and presses gently. She frowns, and moves them around slightly, as if searching for something. Kylo stays still and quiet as she does.

            Her lips quirk up at the corners. “Yeah.”

            “What?”

            “Pulse.” She nods, seemingly satisfied. “You are human. Or close enough.”

            Kylo looks back up at her face, meeting her eyes. She has forest eyes, shifting shades of brown and green. He can’t imagine her anywhere but this forest. Perhaps a forest is where Rey belongs, too.

            He says, with sincerity, “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

            They stare into each other. Given that she’s a married woman, he holds eye contact a little too long. But Irena doesn’t seem to be able to bring herself to look away from his face, either. He wonders if her cheeks are heating up under his gaze, as his are under hers. He wonders if she notices.

            Finally, Irena turns her head, breaking the spell, and looks toward the windows. “It’s late,” she says, withdrawing her hand from his wrist, and Kylo is surprised to see that the sun has already set. They must have spoken longer than he realized.

            “It is,” he agrees. “You should rest.”

            “I should?”

            “Long day.”

            “I’m not the one with—” Irena begins, then stops herself and lets the rest of the sentence die out in a flutter of her hand. Having seen the photographs, though, Kylo understands. The man she calls Venya, her husband, is sun-gilded and well-rested. While Kylo isn’t wasting away, he must look pale and ill-used by comparison, endless days on his command ship having shielded him from any natural starlight.

            “I’ll rest too,” he says, sparing her further embarrassment. He glances around the cabin, even though he knows that there is no guest room to be seen. Well, the couch has enough give, and it’s been his closest companion all day. He sets his hand down on the cushion. “Here is fine.”

            He watches her wrestle with that offer for a moment, a tug-of-war game of courtesy-relief-longing playing out across her delicate features. Once she’s decided to accept his offer, she gives him a little nod. “We have spare blankets,” she says, collecting the empty containers (“styrofoam,” she had called them) and standing up. “And pillows. For when people crash here. I’ll get them for you.”

            We. Kylo nods, and marvels at how she speaks as if she and her husband are one unit, even though he’s nowhere to be found.

            Before she can vanish into the bedroom, he says, “Rey— Irena.”

            Irena looks back at him, just as he turns on the couch to look at her.

            “Your husband will have met Rey by now,” he says. “The Force is strong with her, and she’s resourceful. She’ll find a way to send him back here.”

            She seems to understand this statement as what it is— further reassurance, and thanks for her kindness. She nods. “Okay.”

            He keeps his eyes on her until she disappears from his sight, and listens to the rummaging as she retrieves the spare linens. With his eyes on the ceiling of the cabin, he thinks of Venya with envy, and pity. His life is perfect. Kylo’s must have come as a great shock.

            But Rey would be there to ease the transition, as Irena had eased his. Very suddenly, Kylo’s skin prickles all over. He hadn’t fully considered the implications of another man taking his place. Rey. Irena had described Venya as nothing less than a perfect gentleman. Would Rey prefer to have him in Kylo’s place?

            These thoughts keep Kylo awake, tossing and turning under borrowed blankets, folded up on a couch shorter than he is tall, until he finally finds some reassurance: he would move the stars to return to Rey. No doubt Venya would do the same, for Irena.

            How could he not?

            This is how Kylo consoles himself until his body, exhausted from the shock of his ordeal and the weeks of inadequate rest that had preceded it, finally gives itself over to sleep. He drifts off to a noisy chorus of chirping insects, and the quieter rustle of Irena’s sheets as she tosses and turns in the other room.

 


 

            “The text you were reading, before,” Venya says, feeling slightly more sober after they’ve quietly but companionably eaten a meal containing soup, salad, some kind of meat and rice-looking dish, and a heaping basket of rolls. He settles back into the horrid couch, in an attempt to get more comfortable. “You said it might have answers.”

            “It didn’t. They didn’t. At least… not that I could find.” He frowns, and Rey catches it, then assures him, “I'm not giving up, though. We'll figure this out.”

            “I couldn't read it—the script.” And that’s true, he couldn’t, although a curved slope here and a sharp corner there did remind him faintly of the Cyrillic alphabet.

            “It’s called Aurebesh, but the language is Basic. Most of the galaxy speaks it,” she tells him.

            Interesting that here, too, the language and the writing have separate names, he thinks. “Basic must be close to English, if I can understand you.”

            “What’s that other language you speak?” she asks. “I know a lot of languages, but I don’t know that one. When you woke up, you were afraid, and your thoughts— I couldn't understand them at all.”

            Something, shock perhaps, fizzles its way across his scalp and down his spine. It has a sobering effect, and he feels his buzz ebb. “How—I speak Russian as well, but—how can—what?”

            Another sigh from Rey. Venya has begun to feel like a collector and a connoisseur of these— in the few hours that they’ve known each other, he has already seen her sigh in puzzlement, in frustration, in amusement, in dismay. Life has treated you no more kindly than it has Irena, he thinks, if you have developed such a varied arsenal of sighs.

            She presses her lips together, fiddles with the delicate spoon still sitting in her empty soup bowl. At last, she asks, “Where you come from—is there such a thing as the Force?”

            The force? He shakes his head. “I don’t understand. The force of what?”

            She nods somberly, her lips pressed into a thin line, as if this is what she was expecting him to say. “The Force is what binds the universe together—the balance, and tension between all things...” She trails off at his expression, which he imagines must convey his doubt.

            “Right. Close your eyes,” she directs. Venya does so. “Can you feel the lives onboard? Try to sense them—the way you might know, even without seeing or hearing, that someone is watching you. Try to feel them.”

            At first, there is only sound, and the light that reaches through his eyelids— rendering his world not quite black, but deep dark plum, upon which the ghostly white negatives of the room remain. And then, as those fade, he searches. Slowly, the voices return, along with the pulses and the sensation of life. All life— animal, plant, even mineral. Not the violent deluge that washed over him when he awoke, but a gentle push and pull, like the lulling rhythms of a tranquil lake.

            “Yes,” he gasps. “I feel them.”

            “And? What else?”

            He concentrates, and their lives burst into view, a sharp and flashing phantasmagoria, like a prismatic kaleidoscope of all the galaxy’s combined experiences. But again— not a tide that drowns him. Just a feeling of being surrounded. Of being included.

            “Fear,” he says, plucking at the emotion thrumming through so many bodies on board. It’s one of the most prevalent, but it is not the only thing he feels. “Hope. Yearning. Pain and sickness, death. Love.” He pushes past all of that when he senses something, a cluster of presences that are brighter and clearer than the others. “There is youth. Teenagers, I think. They’re very… powerful?”

            “Our students, yes. They’re strong with the Force. Perhaps later—” she pauses, considering him for a moment, then settles on: “You’re doing very well.”

            Although he wonders what she might’ve said, he doesn’t pry. He does open his eyes, however, to discover that Rey is staring at him, her gaze as momentous as the feeling of all the lives onboard combined.

            “And am I?” he asks. “Strong with the—the Force?”

            “I suppose you are,” she says.

            “You are teachers? You and… Kylo? Together?”

            She shrugs. “Sort of. It’s complicated.”

            “So you’ve said.”

            “It's… you’ve spoken to Finn. About who—and what— he is.”

            “Yes,” he says. "And you’ve told me what he was, to you."

            She stands a fork on its tines then twirls it, her eyes trained on the task. After a few minutes, Venya looks away, and accepts that she is finished speaking about the him who is not him. Softly, almost under her breath, she mutters, “That’s all in the past, now. We—we’re just allies.”

            “Just allies?”

            Everything about Rey at this moment— her slumped posture, her restless hands, her refusal to meet his gaze— suggests that this is not entirely true, or at least, still not the entire story. “Yes,” she says. “It’s all very new. An… alliance. Between our two sides of the war, and… aren't you tired?”

            But Venya feels a bit like a dog with a bone, needing to get at the marrow of this question: why aren’t you two together?

            So he persists. “Finn—your Finn—he said he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive him, for what he’s done. The… he showed me his scar, and… I can understand.” He points to his own disfigured cheek. “I thought I would never forgive the man who gave me this. It was not until long after he died that I let go of my anger towards him.”

            She blinks, visibly confused. “A… man gave you that scar?”

            Rey has gone a little pale, but she’s yet to offer up any enlightenment; Venya coughs a little, offers her a small smile. “But what about you, Reychik?” he asks. “Have you forgiven him—Kylo? Could you?”

            “A man,” she repeats.

            “Yes,” he says, undeterred, “the leader of a rival gang. While we were in prison. You—Irena, that is, she killed him. Saved my life. Are you avoiding my question?”

            “Maybe.” From the corners of her eyes, she looks at him, a dimple appearing in her cheek as she suppresses a smile. “You're very keen. I just—Ben has that scar too.”

            The man on the bridge; a face just like his. “Yes. I remember it.”

            “Just figuring out what's the same and what's different,” she says softly, “It’s funny because you’re very…” Here she falters, choosing instead to wave her hands around as though she is casting some sort of spell on Venya. A grin, unsuppressed this time, steals at the corners of her lips.

            He tries not to laugh at that, although he is undoubtedly relieved to see her looking happier.

            “That!” she cries, pointing to his mirroring grin. “There. You smile much more.”

            “He is,” Venya pauses to survey the sad apartment, “not a very happy man. I don’t have to know him to see that.”

            She shrugs, opening her mouth to speak, but before she can, he says, “But I do know him, Rey. There was a moment… I could have made the choice that he made. I could have had… something like this, in a sense.”

            “You made a different one, I’m guessing.”

            “I did.” In an undertone, he adds, “Thankfully.”

            Rey shifts, stacks a few of the dirty, empty plates from their shared meal, then neatly arranges the gilded silverware in a line on the top plate. At last, she says, “I could forgive him. If he showed he’d change. He started—kind of. I thought…” She chews on her lower lip, looking troubled.

            This is good, he decides. There’s still something— there. It heartens him. He doesn't want to think about a future or a past or another universe or wherever the hell they are, and know that in that place some version of him and Irena couldn’t make this work. Tentatively, he reaches out, as Rey instructed him earlier. It’s easier this time; almost immediately, he can sense her feelings, there at the periphery of his own. She is heartened too, by his presence and this talk. She is also confused, and terribly, terribly sad.

            A stray lock of russet brown hair has fallen down over her creased brow, and gently, he pushes it back behind her ear. When she looks up at him in surprise, he nods his encouragement.

            “He accused me of not—of thinking he was only worth kindness if he proved his merit,” she says, shuddering. “But that's not it.”

            Venya hums, a supportive sound.

            “I know he can be more than he is. I lost sight of that for a while, which was my mistake. But I know…” she trails off, her eyes gone round and haunted before she looks away, down at her boots. “I guess you could say he’s got a few things to forgive me for, as well.”

            As he is considering this, Rey lets out a giant, jaw-cracking yawn. A vegetable for every season, he thinks. This has been enough for one day.

            “Sorry,” she mumbles, wearing a sheepish expression.

            “Well, Reychik, forgiveness will come at its own pace, and… it will not be rushed, I think. But now it is time for sleep.”

            She agrees eagerly with this, nodding as she springs up and brushes her hands down the front of her thighs to displace any stray crumbs.

            He peers at the sharp-cornered furniture, and asks, “Will you stay, in the apartment?” Venya does not want to be alone in this place. “I’ll take the couch.”

            “Really?” she asks, raising an eyebrow at the rigid upholstery, the hard armrests. “That's ridiculous, I…” she hesitates, eyes unfocused as though she is reliving a memory. Venya closes his eyes, searching for her, and there it is: a man with his face, eyes beseeching as he sits on the edge of the bed. What are you afraid of? asks the stranger, and Rey is awash in emotion: regret, worry, something…

            Oh, Venya thinks, a sudden awakening, when he recognizes the feeling. This woman— Rey— she is younger than his Irena. More tried in battle, but less experienced in love. And love is the something that she keeps trying to push to the fringes of her mind. Does she hope it will languish there, unnoticed and untended?

            He no longer bleeds just for this sad Imperator Ren, who might have been him. He bleeds for them both— the man who has cursed himself, and the woman who cannot help but love him.

            She shakes her head, a sharp jerk, and Venya feels himself being pushed out of the memory, out of her mind, out of the swirling nebula of her emotions. The smile she gives him is tighter than the one from minutes earlier. “I can't make you sleep on this couch. It's awful.”

            “Who even buys a couch like this?” he agrees in a forlorn tone, accepting her refusal to speak of what he’s just seen. “To what end?”

            “Well,” she sighs, with a peek behind her at the bedroom, where the black bedding is still mussed from his and Finn’s hours of inebriated lounging. “It’s, uh… a big bed…”

            He’d wondered if this would come up, and sighs in harmony with her. In the gentlest but firmest tone he can employ, he says, “I am married, Reychik.”

            In his Solntsevskaya days, Ivan Ivanovich Snoke would sometimes send him to torch a place— a restaurant or club or something— whose owner had missed too many payments. He and his men would spend thirty minutes dousing everything inside with gasoline. Then, they’d open a fresh pack of cigarettes. A lighter would be passed around, each cigarette dutifully lit and smoked. The men would loiter, leaning against the back wall of the building while they inhaled tobacco and nicotine, exhaled lewd jokes and bravado into the sharp night air. And then, when they were down to the stubs, each man would throw their cigarette inside the gasoline-drenched establishment.

            Within minutes, it would be engulfed in brilliant orange-red flames.

            And yet, at this moment, Venya is sure that the blush that flares up across Rey’s cheeks moves faster, burns brighter and hotter than any fire he’s ever seen or set. She’s redder than a tomato, she’s verging on a beet— and is that the sheen of sweat across her forehead?

            “No no no! I know that, I—I know,” she sputters, eyes wide.

            “Just sleeping,” he says, again, still— as kindly as he can.

            “Yes! Of course.”

            “So you’ll stay. And… we’ll sleep.”

            “Just sleep,” she assures him, and he nods, relieved.

            And after another exploratory journey through Kylo’s closet for a tunic and trousers soft enough to sleep in, and a crash course in space people hygiene, they tuck into the opposite sides of the bed. Rey lies stiff as a board, the cords in her neck visible, her hands balled into fists at her sides, above the covers.

            “Reychik?” he asks, hushed, after she has dimmed the lights. A soft glow emanates from the running lights that line the walls; there is just enough visibility that he can see the wary look she darts his way.

            “Yes?” she replies, her voice high. Breathless. Nervous?

            “Спасибо.” Spying her frown, he adds, “Thank you. In—my father’s tongue. Russian.”

            “Oh, I—”

            “I am glad,” he continues, “you are here. I am glad… I am not alone. It’s no good being alone, at times like these.”

            She stays quiet for so long he assumes she will not answer, so he lets his eyelids slip shut, and begins to drift. When she speaks, it is faint; he suspects that her answer is not for him, but just for herself.

            “No,” she murmurs. “It’s no good at all.”

 

Chapter Text

            Kylo Ren awakens to the yellow light of an alien sun shining on his face. He blinks, and squints into the sunbeam before raising a hand to shield his eyes. As he becomes aware of his surroundings, he finds himself covered by a handmade quilt, lying on soft, well-worn cushions, pleasantly warm, very safe.

            It takes him a minute to remember where he is, and why. He rubs his hand over his face, glancing around the cabin’s interior. Still here, on this planet called Earth, in what is either a dream or a nightmare. As the sun casts a golden sheen over the wooden floors, the homey furniture, he has trouble believing his luck, for good or ill. He cannot think of any place more idyllic. If only Rey were with him, curled up at his side, dozing in his arms.

            Rey is not here, as she hasn’t been for many mornings now. They are a month past the time when he would wake up to find her asleep in his bed. The difference now is that instead of being on his flagship, half a kilometer from where he sleeps, she is light years from him, if not millennia, if not a universe away. But Irena is here, just one room over, presumably still sleeping.

            Kylo sits up and his back twinges from the unfamiliar softness of the couch; he sighs, unable to believe how quickly he’s growing old. He stands as quietly as he can, but the hardwood floor creaks under his weight all the same. At first he simply tosses the handmade quilt aside, thinking that a droid will be along to retrieve, press, and launder it, then he remembers that there are no droids here, and that Irena will be left to tidy his messes. He stares at the quilt for a minute, then bends down and folds it, placing it over the back of the couch.

            He shuffles over to the bedroom and peers inside. There is Irena, sound asleep, mouth slightly open, chest rising and falling steadily. Like Rey, she snores softly as she dozes. She has pulled one of her pillows toward her in her husband’s place and wrapped her arms around it. Her hair is an untidy bun made untidier by a night of sleeping on it. In the night, she has kicked most of her blankets to the side.

            Kylo cannot take his eyes off of her. But for the placement of her scars—the one on her leg, the one on her neck, the lack of one on her upper arm—she might truly be Rey, his Rey, his love, his undoing. She lies on her side, and with the sheets out of the way he has a clear view of her shapely golden thigh, the curve of her calf muscle. Her legs are smooth and bare, unlike Rey’s, but he notices the fine downy hair on her forearms and aches to brush his fingers over it. The large sleep shirt she wears, likely her husband’s, has hiked up a little, exposing her underwear and her hipbone and the skin below her navel and his breath catches and oh, no, this thought is going down a path he dare not follow.

            He flees into the washroom and closes the door behind him.

            Once out of danger, he leans against the door and exhales. Irena is not Rey. He cannot think of her as though she is Rey. She is married to someone who wears his face, but is not him. He repeats these things to himself like a mantra until his heart stops racing.

            The washroom is fairly small and simple. A dual-use tub and shower, sink, porcelain toilet. The flooring is white tile with blue diamonds; he can imagine Irena and her Venya on hands and knees, their fingers white with grout, grinning like fools, and his heart aches for a reality that seems so far out of reach. Rey’s smile…

            Looking at the shower, Kylo gets the brilliant idea to wash all of his thoughts away, be they of Irena or of Rey. He pulls the plastic shower curtain aside and spends a minute or so frowning as he fiddles with the taps, trying to find the right balance of cold water and hot. It should be a cool shower that he takes, certainly not hot if he’s trying to douse his urges. At the last moment, he changes his mind and turns up the heat anyway.

            Of course, it has been several weeks since he and Rey last… went to bed together is the wrong euphemism, since they were on the floor of a smoldering hangar. Still, it’s no wonder he feels so on edge around Irena. In those intervening weeks, he hasn’t taken time for self-gratification. Certainly, he has made a few attempts here and there, overtures, but often by the time he’s relaxed enough to touch himself, he’s already falling asleep. Or, worse, he’ll begin the process, try to imagine the feel of Rey’s skin against his, the fit of him inside of her, and then remember that she cast her loyalties with her people and not him for a second time and immediately lose his erection to heartache.

            But it would help him now, he thinks as he sheds his borrowed clothing, to work some of that tension out of his body. He knows that he can’t seek relief with Irena; she is married. But seeing her sleeping so peacefully in her bed makes him recall Rey not as she was in the end — looking at him with sadness and desperation and fear as he turned her away — but as she had been in the luscious summer of their time together, so wanting and so warm, and so, he had thought, unguarded. That unmatched afternoon that she’d straddled him and given herself over to him fully, just as he had yielded to her. He had looked in her eyes, and felt safe. Wanted.

            Maybe even loved.

            Kylo climbs into the shower, closing his eyes as the water washes over him. He lets out an involuntary groan. That’s what Irena and her Venya have here in abundance, love. It’s fogging Kylo’s mind like the steam from the shower fogs the mirror glass, making him sentimental, and weak, making him long for what he cannot have. He had it once, but he had not cherished it enough, and now it’s gone.

            Before the melancholy can creep back in, he redirects his thoughts to lust. It used to be so much easier to do this before he had ever touched Rey, when he would entertain cruel thoughts of forcing her submission. Reality had been so much sweeter, so much more nuanced: there had been roughness, yes, but tenderness as well. Duality in all things. He calls to mind not their disastrous first coupling, but their third, which had been the second time she allowed him inside of her, sleep-sated and pliant. How the peaks of her small breasts had felt so soft under his palm, how the sweet little sounds had dropped freely from her mouth. Her body welcomed him that time, tight but yielding, and he felt the reverberations of her pleasure through their bond. Such a strange feeling, so new, so heady, to be a part of someone else.

            He wraps his hand around his cock, lets his head fall back against the tile, and he thinks of Rey.


            As seems to be the trend these days, Irena awakens not because her body is rested, but because it is wracked with discomfort. The most urgent and fixable of these discomforts? The undeniable certainty that within the next three minutes, she is going to vomit. In a close second: the fullness of her bladder, which feels to be almost at its limit. And in a less pressing but still uncomfortable third place: her tender, aching breasts.

            At least two of these problems demand immediate attention. So, groaning, Irena pushes herself to a seated position, then slides off the bed. The wooden floorboards are cool under her bare feet, and as she pads across the bedroom, the sun tumbles in through the windows, casting a cheery glow over everything. If she didn’t feel so sick, she might think it was a beautiful morning.

            She’s given half a twist to the bathroom door’s glass knob when she realizes there is sound coming from within. Water, running; Ben is in the shower. Блядь, she thinks, borrowing one of Venya’s favorite curses. If it were her husband inside, she would simply bust in. Do what she needs to do. Venya would understand — he would want her to. She doesn’t bust in, though. She remains frozen, hand on the doorknob. Listening.

            Her stomach clenches, making its intentions known. It doesn’t seem to care about manners or timing.

            “Fuck,” she hisses.

            Biting her lip, she raps her knuckles on the door. Waits a moment. No response. She knows she should leave him be — go vomit outside in the grass, or something — knows that Ben deserves privacy, and space. A stranger, she reminds herself. Not Venya. Not yours.

            But sometimes curiosity overrules propriety. Sometimes it even overrules very pressing bodily functions. Turning her head, she pushes her ear up to the door.

            Grunting: she hears deep grunting. Fast, and low, and rough. Ben is in the shower, and he is grunting.

            She bites her lip. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

            Despite her dismay, Irena doesn’t take her ear away from the door. It’s speeding up, the grunting. Now it sounds more desperate, interspersed with quick, breathy moans. This is awful. She should leave him to it.

            Before she can, he gives one final moan — long, crooning, almost reminiscent of a man in pain. Then things go quiet, or at least, there is only the sound of water streaming over a body.

            “Oh my God,” she whispers.

            Her stomach twists so sharply that she doubles over, which adds pressure to her already impatient bladder. Now. Now she really should walk away, give Ben a little time to recover from what sounded like a pretty decent orgasm, but… she really needs that toilet, like, twenty seconds ago. So she raises her fist to the door, and pounds on it.

            “Ben!” she calls out. “I’m really sorry, but— I need the bathroom!” Another thump of her fist. There’s still no response from within. “Please!”

            The tap is switched off. She strains to hear, face smushed against the cool wood, and can just make out the sound of shower curtain rings sliding along a metal rod. More silence ensues.

            “Ben!” She has seconds, maybe, before she is sick.

            The door is abruptly flung open. Inward, both to Irena’s fortune and misfortune, since it means she is not whacked in the face, but it also means that she is left crouching at the threshold of the bathroom, hovering in the air where the door was supporting her a moment earlier.

            “Oh!” She flicks her eyes up at Ben, whose gleaming bare chest is flushed, still beaded with water; his forearm hair is dark and plastered to his skin. One hand clutches the towel he’s wrapped around his waist. The hair on his head hangs drenched and lank, exposing his jutting ears. They’re slightly pink too, she notes, just like his chest and cheeks. From his activities or the water, she cannot discern. His dark eyes watch her, wary; there is an inscrutable set to his mouth.

            She’s definitely been busted. And any other time, she would be stammering and blushing. She would apologize. But the biological timer that has been tracking the countdown to the inevitable purging of her stomach hits zero, and Irena doesn’t have time for niceties. Brushing past him with a careless shove against his damp chest, she collapses before the toilet, and lets her body have its way.

            Vomiting, under the best circumstances—if any circumstance involving vomiting can really be described as best— is unpleasant. Vomiting while embarrassed, with tears streaming down her face, awful retching noises emitting from her throat, which burns from the acidic reverse flow of her stomach’s contents… is awful.

            Vomiting in front of a stranger with the beautiful body and face of your husband is the universe’s idea of a cruel joke.

            Irena wants to cry. She’s already crying though, another uncontrollable physiological response. Those seem to be taking over her life; she supposes it’s a phenomenon she should get used to.

            It’s finished, mostly — although she’s still dry heaving. Without looking, she reaches up and flushes. Maybe, she thinks, she should just stay here with her face hidden in the toilet bowl until Ben leaves. Maybe they can just never discuss this: the vomiting, or the fact that he caught her eavesdropping on him while he was… doing that. Maybe she will just expire from embarrassment.

            A hand, big and warm, lands gently on her back. Oh, no. If Ben is kind to her about this, Irena is not going to be able to keep from crying in earnest. He begins to stroke, slow passes up and down her spine.

            He clears his throat, and in her peripheral vision, she sees him kneel beside her.

            “I have you.” His deep voice is hushed, not much more than a murmur. Irena sneaks a peek at him; his head is cocked, a sympathetic-looking frown pulling at his lips. It feels nice, his hand on her back. Soothing. It’s what Venya might do, if he were here.

            I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry. The mantra is futile. He doesn’t need to show her this kindness, especially after she’d obviously intruded on his privacy. But here he is, comforting her, and so here she is — crying. Oh, it’s for real now, heavy sobs wracking her chest, and fresh tears spilling over her cheeks, dripping into the toilet water.

            “I’m sorry,” she manages to whimper, sounding pitiful.

            He shakes his head. “No. No, it’s— please… it’s fine.” His brow is furrowed; still, he rubs her back.

            “Okay. I— thanks.”

            Irena rests her arms on the edge of the seat, then rests her head on her arms. For a quiet second, they stare at each other. One side of his mouth lilts up, like perhaps he is attempting a reassuring smile. She coughs out a wet laugh.

            The second-most pressing of her body’s discomforts returns, rather urgently. “Hey, Ben?”

            “Yes?” he asks, looking every moment more at ease with this new job she’s forced him into, her consoler.

            “I appreciate you being so understanding, but—can you—get out?” A second’s worth of hurt passes over his features. “It’s just,” she rushes to explain, with a nod towards the toilet, “Nature calls.”

            “… Right.” His eyes chart a quick path down her body— oh shit, she realizes with a jolt, I definitely do not have pants on — then retreat to her face. “I’ll… go, then.”

            And he does, after one more gentle pass of his hand down her spine, like a reassuring little farewell. Gripping his towel against his abdomen — not that Irena notices, or is looking, or has the hysterical wish that it were covered with dark, ugly tattoos — he rises and shuffles out. The door clicks softly, when he closes it behind him.

            With a groan, she brings her forehead down onto the cool porcelain. She’s only ten minutes into her second day living with this not-Venya, and it’s already been more awkward, more embarrassing, and more confusing than the first.


            Rey awakens out of habit. The faint red glow of the chrono on the wall shows it to be just past 0530. Perfect. More than enough time to get up and start preparing before her classes are to begin, to drink down water and a cup of caf, scarf down a nutrition bar, and take a quick glance at the translated Jedi Texts to solidify her lesson plan. She begins to stir, and then stops.

            There is another person in the bed next to her— not Kylo, she reminds herself, but Venya. In the night, he had rolled toward her, maybe out of habit. If he had stopped there, that would have been fine. But he pulled Rey in as she slept, wrapping his limbs around her like he was a rathtar and she was prey. Rey is thoroughly stuck in place.

            One of Venya’s arms is limp by his side. The other curves around Rey’s waist, pressing her to his chest. Venya’s large, warm hand has slid up her undershirt and splays out against the small of her back. An ankle crosses over one of her calf muscles. Through the bond, and just from the depth of his breathing, she knows he is lost to his slumber. No offense intended. Merely instinct, drawing him toward the source of heat in the bed.

            Rey lets out a quiet exhale, and then she nudges him gently, hoping to prompt him to move without rousing him from sleep. Venya shifts slightly, but then stills without having budged a centimeter. So Rey whispers his name. “Venya.”

            “Mmh.”

            The previous day, Venya told Rey that she sounds like his wife. It is an unfortunate, awkward coincidence. Of course he wouldn’t think anything is out of the ordinary if his wife is asking him for something early in the morning. Rey tries to adopt a little more urgency to her tone and brushes up against his mind with a suggestion.

            “Ven,” she says. “I need you to move.”

            Venya noses drowsily at her jawbone, his lips brushing over her jugular. “Milaya,” he rumbles. “Five minutes.”

            Rey breathes, a small, shuddering inhale. That nuzzle crackles down her spine like lightning, sparking heat somewhere that she definitely wants to ignore. After all, this is— wrong. It’s very wrong. And yet it feels so good, to be held, to be wanted. Rey’s heart flutters behind her ribs like a caged Endor blue butterfly. She knows this is wrong. Venya doesn’t think she’s Rey, he thinks she’s Irena, a woman a universe away who he’s married, who is carrying his child, who has Rey’s face.

            But she is also reminded of waking up in Kylo’s arms every morning during her last stay on the Conquest II. She would find him at her back with an arm draped around her waist, or returning to bed after what she now knows to have been early morning training sessions, pulling her toward him for an embrace, and more. Their personal exercises would begin lazily, both of them flushed with warmth, and usually morph into something far more desperate, ending with Rey raking her nails down Kylo’s back.

            She tells herself once more that she is not with Kylo, and the man who is with her is not hers to hold. But Rey has been so lonely— and what’s the harm of lying still for five minutes more? Venya dreams of Irena. She should allow him that peace, since he will not know it in the waking world. She closes her eyes and begins to relax against his body.

            Just then, Venya shifts again, pressing his hips into Rey’s thigh, and Rey feels a prominent reminder that yes, there might be a great deal of harm in even five more minutes of pretense. He’s already half-hard and trying to bring her closer, which tells Rey that he and Irena probably have a very similar morning routine to the one she and Kylo had established in just a few short days.

            And this— this— Rey feels a blush begin to bloom on her face— wherever this is going, she can’t allow him to continue while he thinks she’s someone else.

            “Venya,” she whispers, placing both of her hands on his firm chest to gently push him away. When he grumbles and presses his face to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, she says, louder, “Venya.”

            He awakens with a start, and nearly headbutts her in the jaw as he pulls back. “Reychik?” he asks, unwrapping his arms from around her waist and jerking his hips away. Rey misses his body heat immediately and chides herself for it. He is not Kylo. He is not Kylo.

            “I’m sorry, you can keep resting,” she says, a little too quickly. She is glad that the room is too dark for him to see the color in her cheeks. She feels like she is constantly blushing around this softer, more emotive version of Kylo Ren. “I just have to go teach.”

            She can see him light up even in the semi-darkness, his eyes reflecting the chrono’s red gleam. Drowsily, he repeats, “Teach?”

            “Our— the students.” Rey sits up and pulls at her clothes, making sure she’s absolutely decent. “I told you about them yesterday. Kylo and I, we have students.”

            “Oh.” Venya blinks, a long slow blink. He must be waking from a dream he doesn’t want to leave. “Can I come with you?”

            “I— don’t know,” she replies, honestly. It wasn’t a possibility that had even occurred to her. “It could be messy. Your students might ask things of you…”

            “I won’t be any trouble,” he vows. “And I would rather be with you than here alone.”

            She is tempted, shamefully, to deny the request. But then she remembers how she felt being left to her own devices in this room with nothing to do, and how she’d chided Kylo for deserting her even though she was technically his prisoner. Her heart sinks. She couldn’t do that to Venya, leave him in this large, cold, empty room. He would go mad.

            “Okay,” she says, acquiescing. “But let me lead.”

            Venya bows his head. “Always, Reychik.”


            By 0630, Rey is in the training room, waiting for the students to gather. Venya is with her, dressed in Kylo’s garb, cape, boots, and all. Now knowing what to expect, he fidgets with the clothing less today, although the cape still seems to trip him up a bit. He peers around at the cavernous training space, visibly impressed, until Rey nudges him in the side to remind him that he’s supposed to have seen it every day.

            The Knights of Ren are also assembled, and Rey is not sure what to do about them. Fortunately only half of them are here today, the other sent off on missions to parts unknown, spying or gathering, trying to keep one step ahead of Armitage Hux’s First Order. Unfortunately, Aylu, the only one Rey really knows well, is among those absent, although her little brother Rikaj is assisting Rey with training today, as Kylo had ordered. As he had ordered before his disappearance.

            The Knights are all striking in the Force, their own shades of shadowy gray, and Rey is certain they must sense something off about their master. Venya has his own distinct presence separate from Kylo’s: calmer, more content, and curious— and the curiosity now overtakes his anxiety at his unfamiliar surroundings. Surely the Knights will notice the difference…

            But if they do, they don’t comment on it. Rikaj does keep looking through his mask between Rey and Venya, though, his own curiosity coloring his aura. Rey shifts her weight from one foot to another. Why is he doing that? Is she giving them away?

            And then Rey realizes that there is one very obvious explanation for why Kylo Ren would feel so much more at ease this morning— one that most definitely involves her. And since the usual strain isn’t present between them, she can’t exactly fault him for making assumptions.

            She coughs. Rikaj straightens and stands at attention.

            Not a moment too soon, the doors open and the students file in. Morning finds them in very different stages of alertness, some rubbing the sleep from their eyes, some sulking, some coolly appraising Rey, a couple whispering to each other. Among the military precision of the Imperium, with its Stormtroopers marching through the halls in perfect step, Rey is relieved to see the kids acting like normal adolescents, especially hers. Kylo’s seem unsure of what to make of her, but are keeping their opinions to themselves. For now.

            The students sit in rows on the mats before them, the smallest and youngest in the front, the oldest in the back. Rey feels surprise roll off of Venya in a wave, and glances at him to make sure that he’s still with her. His face is reasonably straight, but something about the students has shaken him. She pries a little deeper into his mind and realizes— it’s the ones who aren’t human.

            Oh, no. Rey hadn’t anticipated this, but in hindsight it should have been obvious. Venya has never left his home planet; he still thinks in terms of countries. His people might be unfamiliar with space travel altogether. Maybe he’s never seen anyone who isn’t human, much less a Togruta and a Twi’lek and a Trianii, which she had learned is the name of Taylin’s people, casually intermingled with humans, like it’s normal.

            It is normal, she thinks, trying to project ripples of reassurance his way. It’s a big galaxy, and there are many different kinds of people. But she knows he’s not going to be getting over this anytime soon, and she can’t offer him any words of explanation in front of these prying eyes, all fixed on them. All she can do is get on with the lesson.

            “Good morning,” says Rey, to the twenty-two upturned faces. Fourteen of the students are hers, and eight are Kylo Ren’s; if the six Knights of Ren are counted as a part of Kylo’s total, their sides are perfectly balanced between Dark side tutelage and Light. A few of Kylo’s students seem curious about her, others skeptical; some of her students seem excited by the new surroundings, others suspicious. There is a subtle dividing line between her students and Kylo’s on the mat, one not drawn but felt. It will be a while before these two groups learn to trust each other.

            “Good morning, Rey,” her students repeat back to her. Kylo’s students say nothing, just watch her.

            “To start off, I wanted to say that I know this feels a little weird,” Rey tells them. She lets herself glance at Venya for a moment before turning her attention back to her students. “These are new circumstances for everyone, and they’re going to take some getting used to. But I am confident that we’ll all adapt. Because it’s what we’re good at, right? Adapting. Moving with the ebb and flow of the Force.”

            From the back row, Tamar and Kaela offer her encouraging smiles. Kaela accompanies hers with a little thumbs up. Venya chuckles to himself, and Rey tries to shoot silent words of caution his way—Glower more!—but she’s not sure they get through. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices more than a few glowers from people who aren’t Venya, including the girl with short dark hair who had given Rey lip when Rey had come to “save” her, and including Taylin. Press on. It’s all that can be done.

            “I’ll be your teacher for the time being while Imperator Ren is commanding the war effort against the First Order,” she says, giving Venya a little nod. He nods at her in return, and she suppresses a smile. To recover, she adds, “But I’ll be assisted by a few faces that should be familiar to his pupils, at least.” And she nods at the Knights of Ren.

            “Now,” she continues, “we’re going to begin with meditation.”

            There is some grumbling in response.

            She asks, “Is there a problem?”

            “That’s not how we do it with Lord Ren,” says that familiar girl, crossing her arms. There is an unsettled murmur among Kylo’s students, who share nervous glances. “We always start with combat training.”

            Rey frowns. “Sure, but— he’s not instructing you right now. I am.”

            “How do you expect us to be able to focus through sitting still and breathing slow?” the girl demands. “Action leads to focus. Movement is the way to clear your mind.”

            “What’s your name?” Rey asks.

            The girl sits up a little taller, looking smug. “It’s Qwyn.”

            “Well, Qwyn, you’re right. Movement is a way to clear your mind, but it’s one way out of many. Today you’re going to learn another.”

            Qwyn looks to Venya for support. Venya manages to shake off his expression of confusion just in time, and says, “Listen to Rey.”

            “Master Rey, to you,” Rey corrects. “But everyone else can just call me Rey.”

            Venya’s mouth twitches in a way that is indeed very reminiscent of Kylo. “Ah. Master Rey. Of course.”

            Rey feels her heart thud against her ribcage. He is not Kylo. This is not flirting.

            Qwyn, for her part, looks slightly disgusted by this not-flirting. But she huffs, “Fine.”

            “All right, then.” Rey sits down on the mat and crosses her legs. She looks up at Venya. “Imperator, if you wouldn’t mind?”

            “Yes, sure,” says Venya, and he sits next to her, gracelessly brushing his cape out of the way so that he doesn’t sit down on it. Rey bites back a giggle. She has, from time to time, thought Kylo a generally awkward person, someone who doesn’t really know what to say or do in front of others. Somehow, this better-adjusted man in his Kylo costume manages to be more and less awkward simultaneously.

            By the Light, he makes her ache for Kylo. Her Kylo. She wishes he were here to see the joining of their classes. It’s what they had both wanted, in the end. Having Venya here might be easier—there is less tension between them—but it still isn’t right.

            “Close your eyes,” she tells the class, and Venya. “Reach out with your feelings. Don’t think about it. Don’t fight it. Don’t try to grab it and hold on. Just let the Force flow through you.”

            One by one, she watches as the students obey her instructions. Even the reluctant Qwyn, with one more glance at Venya, closes her eyes and settles into meditation. Rey lets her own eyelids soften shut and reaches out for the Force, feeling awareness unfurl all around her. Each of the students has a different presence, some bright and clear like the ringing of a bell, some clouded and heavy like the sky before a storm. Those storm clouds hang heavy over Taylin this morning; she’ll have to make sure to catch up with him after the lesson and see how he’s settling in. And while darkness similarly gathers around a few of Kylo’s students, some of them are surprisingly well-balanced and centered.

            You’re doing all right, she thinks, but wherever Kylo is, he can’t hear her. She wants so desperately to speak with him, to ask him about his own experience teaching, to compare and contrast their techniques.

            But Kylo is not here. Instead, Venya is next to her. He looks just like Kylo, but feels so different from him in the Force. He is a calm, steady presence, not a tempest in the body of a man. She senses his worry, his apprehension, his anxiety, about getting home to his wife. But she also senses his groundedness, his solidity, something that Kylo does not yet possess. If Kylo is the storm, all flashes of lightning and buffeting winds, Venya is the anchor that keeps the ship at its port and sees it safely through the night.

            Rey knows Kylo has the potential for such peace within him. She’d felt it, during those precious few days that they had truly been together, joined in mind, body, and spirit. How had Venya managed to attain it with permanence? She would have to ask him, later, about the choices he had made, and how they had led him to his Irena. Later, when they can be alone again, she’ll have him tell his story. And she’ll know with even more certainty that it isn’t too late for Kylo.

            And maybe, she thinks, allowing a glimmer of cautious hope to spring to life inside of her, it isn’t too late for them.


            Tea kettles seem to be the same in any universe, easy to recognize and easy to fill, but the heating element is of a rudimentary design, and Kylo’s first few attempts to turn it on are unsuccessful. He turns the dial that would seem to light a fire or perhaps activate an induction element, but he hears only a clicking noise, smells gas, and sees no flame.

            Trying not to lose his composure, although he can feel his nerves fraying, he looks around for what he is missing — and finds it. A lighter. Clumsy and large, but a lighter all the same. He picks it up, depresses the trigger, and holds it to the heating element, hoping that this is the correct thing to do, that he will not make a bad situation already worse. He is one more inconvenience away from throwing the kettle across the room.

            Thankfully, the flame catches and spreads around the circular element. He exhales through his nose and places the kettle on top of the stove, then begins rummaging through Irena’s kitchen cupboards for tea. He assumes it must be quite nearby, and trusts that tea in this universe is not too different from his own. He finally finds metal tins of loose leaves with enticing earthy aromas, and begins gathering the other necessary tools: a strainer and a white mug that has something written on it in the strange script these people use.

            Then all he can do is wait for the kettle to whistle, so he does, standing there with his hands clasped in front of him, wearing the clothes in which he had slept, doing his best not to dwell on what Irena may or may not have heard through the door. He feels impossibly large and awkward in her tiny kitchen, but he imagines Irena herself would fit very well here. He wonders if her Venya ever feels that he doesn’t belong, if he looks at his perfect tiny cabin and his perfect tiny kitchen and feels that he is the only thing out of place. Or perhaps he has come to a point in his life where he doesn’t question the good things that come to him.

            From the washroom, he hears the toilet flush and a tap run. That must mean Irena will come out soon. Hopefully she is finished purging the contents of her stomach. He wonders briefly if it was the burger that plagued her. Certainly the meal had been rich, full of savory, flavorful fats, but she had said it was her favorite, so she must be accustomed to such richness. Kylo himself feels fine. So her affliction might be a virus, or it might be—

            Oh.

            It might be.

            He recalls how quickly her moods had swung the previous day, from her cornering him on her veranda with a weapon, to kneeling down and comforting him, to all business, and then, later, that sudden plummet into hysteria. Even this morning, she had been quick to sob, and Rey is an easy crier, but not like…

            Abruptly, he inhales. He has little personal experience with pregnancy, and his sexual education had been incomplete to say the least, but even he knows how the symptoms present themselves in human women.

            Irena is going to have a child.

            Kylo feels as though he cannot move. The revelation that in another life he and Rey might be happy together, might have a comfortable home and live in peace and quiet — that had been more than enough to shake him to the core. But this— this! The idea that they should have all of that and a child on top of it all is almost too much for him to bear. He feels his eyes prick with moisture, and squeezes them shut, his mouth shaping silent words: it cannot be, this is not mine, this is more than anything I could dream of, she is pregnant.

            He hears Irena slowly shuffle from the bathroom to the living room just before the kettle shrieks that the water is finished boiling. These things are enough to snap him from his trance, and he knows that he has to care for her since her husband is not here to do it. He pours her a mug of steaming tea and draws a breath before heading out into the living room.

            Irena has cocooned herself rather despondently in a thick knitted quilt. She seems like she might be on the verge of tears again. He comes to her and, with some hesitancy, holds out the white mug. “Tea?”

            She looks up at him as though she’s surprised to see him there, then nods gratefully and accepts the drink. “Thank you.”

            Kylo nods back, and sits down next to her, his legs spread slightly apart, his hands on his knees. There is no rational place for him to begin. This woman, who is not Rey but is her, is pregnant by a man who is not him, but is him. This single thought has overtaken his mind; it has purged any lingering doubt or embarrassment he might feel over their run-in earlier.

            He swallows, and asks, “How far along are you?”

            Irena removes the strainer and sips miserably at her tea, then sniffles. She does not seem surprised by the question. “Six weeks,” she says.

            Six weeks! Six weeks there has been new life growing inside of her. His heart swoops and dives with this revelation. All of yesterday she had been carrying this child, and he had had no idea. Something is stuck in his throat; again, he swallows. “You must be very— happy.”

            “We’ve been trying for a while,” she replies. It is not quite a response, but he understands. How can she possibly be happy, with the man responsible for helping her conceive this child gone?

            “I’m sure Venya is happy,” he tries.

            “Oh, I don’t know,” Irena cries out. She sets the still-steaming mug down on the table and rakes her fingers mournfully through her hair. “I thought he would be. But he was weird when I told him. And then he…”

            She draws a sharp, stuttering breath that sounds almost like a hiccup. Kylo reaches out and places a hand on her shoulder. “He might be afraid.”

            “I wish he could see it how I see it!” It’s a near-wail. “I know he’s going to be a great dad. Everyone who knows him knows that.”

            “But maybe he doesn’t.”

            The suggestion comes out rough and quiet. Irena looks over at Kylo, and he looks down, away from her. He drops his hand back into his lap. He feels her eyes on him, studying him, but then sees her lean forward to pick up her mug again.

            “This is good tea,” Irena says. “You chose Venya’s favorite, you know.”

            “He has good taste.”

            She smiles faintly. “I guess they have tea where you come from.”

            “When I was in training at the Temple, we would perform the tasks usually left to droids,” he explains. “That included making tea. We would boil the water over an open flame, more often than not.”

            “The Temple?” Irena asks, pursing her lips and blowing on the beverage to cool it. “Are you religious?”

            Kylo isn’t sure how to answer that, but he tries his hand at the response that feels most honest, and says, “In a way.”

            “Venya is religious,” she says. “More of a broad spirituality. He used to be Eastern Orthodox, but now… it’s become a general belief in God weaving the tapestry of the universe.”

            Part of him wishes she would stop talking about her husband. Venya is not here, now, and Kylo is. That is the reality of the situation, one that they both must confront. But he understands the ache she must be feeling. He feels it every time he looks at her and thinks about Rey in her place, Rey carrying his child.

            “Do you believe in God?” she asks, startling him from his thoughts.

            “There are people who do,” he replies. “A god, or multiple gods. But all of the acts that people attribute to God are the work of the Force.”

            “You’ve mentioned the Force,” she says. “What is it?”

            “I don’t know that I can explain it.” He looks around. “There’s— nothing like it here. It would be like trying to explain sight to a blind man.”

            She cocks her head. “Would you try? For me.”

            “For you?”

            “Talking helps. I feel a bit better. Just keep me distracted and maybe I won’t feel so…“ She trails off, and at first he thinks she might just let that hang before she says, “Lost.”

            He nods. He knows the exact feeling. Rey is the same way, always looking to distract herself from uncomfortable truths. Irena isn’t so different. Strange, and yet natural, to realize that he knows her so intimately without knowing her very well at all.

            So he inhales, then says, “The Force is the balance and tension between all things, living and dead. It is what binds the universe. And it is a power that can some can draw upon. Or… one that draws upon us. Some would tell you that we’re all instruments of the Force’s will. Others would say the Force can be bent to ours.”

            “What can you do with it?” she asks. “Is it like magic?”

            “You can sense the hearts and minds of others. You can move things without touching them. You can anticipate the future.” He feels a stab of pain, recalling his visions of Rey in anguish. “And more than that. I told you, words can’t begin to describe it.”

            “Do you feel like a blind man without it?” Irena asks, and once more he finds himself impressed by her sharpness. He nods, and holds her gaze for a long moment.

            She looks back at him until something she glimpses over his shoulder breaks her concentration. “Oh, crap,” she breathes. “I have to start getting ready for work.”

            “What, now?”

            She nods and stands up, shedding her protective quilt.

            “But you’re sick,” Kylo protests.

            “I’m not sick,” she says, giving him a sidelong glance. “I’m pregnant, and I’ll be pregnant for eight more months. Now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system, I’m right as rain.” This, he can tell, is a falsehood. She looks pale and tired. But he lets it slide. “And besides,” she adds, “I’ll feel better if I’m making myself useful.”

            She bustles off toward the bedroom. Kylo gives it a moment’s thought, and then he stands too. “I’ll go with you.”

            Irena stops and looks back at him, incredulous. “What?”

            “I’m sure you could use the extra hands,” he says. “Just give me simple tasks.”

            She chews on her lower lip, uncertain. “You’ll have to pretend to be Ven.”

            “I’ll try to say as little as possible.” He looks at her with tenderness. He doesn’t want to leave her alone. But she, like Rey, will never accept that rationale, so he says instead, “I don’t want to be left alone again.”

            “I guess it would be good for morale, to have Venya put in an appearance.” Irena sighs, and relents. “All right. I’ll put you on the grill. But you do exactly as I say.”

            “Of course.”

            She jerks her head toward the bedroom. “Okay. Then get dressed. And fast, we’re already running late.”

            Kylo nods, and follows. He knows Venya runs the diner, and that he cooks. He has cooked in his lifetime. He’s certain that he can pull this off. Just stay quiet, keep his head down, and follow Irena’s instructions.

            How hard can it be?


            Capes are stupid. They’re awkward garments; it’s all too easy to get tangled up in them, when you’re trying to sit or walk or simply just exist. Does Kylo Ren think this cape makes him look… cool? Does he feel more powerful, wearing it? Venya frowns, then shoves his arm out for the millionth time, sending the cape back over his shoulder. He doesn’t feel powerful, just ungainly.

            Isn’t this supposed to be the future, anyway? It’s bad enough there’s a so-called Imperator, and that said Imperator is some version of himself, but the fact that he wears capes, or cloaks, or whatever this annoying shoulder-blanket is called… it might as well be Ancient Rome.

            This isn’t really the biggest of Venya’s concerns, but it does feel good to stew over something petty for a few minutes. After all, he’s standing in a training room — high featureless metal walls, a soft floor perfect for cushioning the falls of fledgling warriors — watching humans and aliens spar. With light swords.

            Light swords. Rey called them ‘training lightsabers,’ but he figures that’s just semantics. They’re swords made of light, or plasma, or something. Part of the reason that Venya has excused himself to the edge of the room is that he can feel the heat pouring off of them. Should one of the students stumble, or make one wrong move, he could find himself becoming two pieces of the man who was once Venya. Seeing as he’s still quite hopeful that Rey will find a way to send him back to Earth, such a turn of events would be less than ideal.

            They emit a droning hum and a kind of buzzing ‘nyewm’ sound, when they are swung. He finds them both fascinating and horrific, and is reminded of a blood-soaked hallucination he had once, in which Irena guided him through a dark labyrinth with a sword made of white flames. A shudder runs through him, at the memory.

            He’s not a fan, he’s decided.

            And then there are the aliens.

            There’s a cat boy. He’s a human body walking around on two human legs, speaking human words. He wields a sword with human — albeit fur-covered — hands. But he has two little feline ears poking out of the grey coat that covers his feline head; his irises are yellow, the pupils long black slashes. There’s a black little nose at the end of his snout. A grey-furred tail dangles out from under his shirt, slithering like a limb with its own sentience — at times acting as a counterweight, when the boy’s dueling partner strikes him off-balance. Like a cat.

            There are others, too. A girl with jade green skin, and two things — tentacles? — growing from her head, on which she wears ornate jewelry. Another, with slightly different head tentacles striped blue and white, skin the color of a sunset and chalk white markings across her full cheeks.

            That’s not all. Some of them — he recognizes. By name or personality, or by their faces. He could swear they look like kids who work or have worked at the Millennium Diner. Kids he and Irena have helped. Kids he knows. But they — like Finn — are not his version of those kids. They don’t belong to him, just as this place and this time do not belong to him. So he says nothing, only nodding to those who acknowledge him first.

            And that’s why even though the cape is the least of his worries, he continues to fixate on it, flinging it away from himself with irritation. It’s easier to be irritated with something as trivial as clothing than it is to confront the absurd reality of his situation.

            Yet with each passing minute that he stands here, with the aliens and the light swords and the so-called Knights of Ren — hisknights, according to Rey, and when they’d all sat there meditating, he could sense their essence among the others’, murky and grasping, searching for something in his presence that he’s not sure they found — he feels more numb to absurdity.

            Is it really so strange, at this point? Why not aliens and light swords? Why not doppelgangers of all our kids, of everyone I’ve ever known? He searches himself, and finds that he is not as shocked as he thought he might be. Bemused, mostly.

            Oh, there was an initial moment of surprise, of course, when they all filed into the training room. But then, they are on a spaceship, where he is recognized as an infamous space tyrant, being waited on by highly intelligent robots. It would have been stranger, he suspects, if Rey and Kylo had only human students. If he didn’t encounter more doppelgangers. If this place didn’t continue to be an uncanny echo of his own life.

            And anyway, didn’t Rey just inform him yesterday of the galaxy’s many systems, many suns, many planets? Why wouldn’t there be other life forms, in all that territory? It makes sense that there is.

            We’re not alone after all. Too bad Quinn — who forced them to sit through all those episodes of her favorite show, The X-Files, during the months she was staying with them — isn’t here to see this. The truth is out there, indeed. Venya coughs to hide a laugh, and from across the room, Rey turns slightly, meeting his eyes.

            She nods, sending him a small, hopeful smile. He returns it, and she resumes her sparring with the cat boy.

            Aliens or not, they are all of them very graceful. He feels a pang of regret, and wishes that he had studied fencing back in East Berlin like some of the other boys did. He has nothing to offer these children in the tutelage of martial arts; not unless they’re interested in bare-knuckle brawling, or taking someone apart with a knife.

            But these aren’t lessons for children. Not for the first time, he wishes that he had never learned them. He wishes he could unlearn them. Wishes he had taken fencing, stayed in school, never even spoken to Ivan Ivanovich Snoke. No, he reminds himself. It had to happen exactly as it did. It was all worth it, because it led him to her. Irena.

            If Irena were here, she could teach them Krav Maga. That might be useful for them. Far more useful than anything he could teach.

            Leaning back against the cold metal wall, Venya glances up at the high ceilings, then across the room at the sterile furnishings, scant as they are. A few sets of shelves and hooks built into the far wall, on which there are weapons and shiny plated armor. He wonders if Kylo feels about Rey how he feels about Irena. If the man with his face has any regrets, if he would take it all back, even if it meant losing Rey. Or perhaps, never getting to have her in the first place.

            His mind wanders further down that path, towards his light, his love — as it always does. Where is Irena, right now? Is she teaching one of her morning classes, or is she at the diner already? Is Kylo with her, pretending, like Venya, that he understands what’s going on? Or maybe his doppelganger is quick to adapt, as Rey pointed out. Maybe he’s more quicker than Venya.

            Maybe Irena likes that about him.

            He feels his hands balling into fists of their own volition, so tight that his knuckles crack inside his leather gloves. No. No. He cannot give in to jealousy. Or distrust. He knows Irena, he loves her. He trusts her, completely. She is his good girl, his volchonok, his tsarina. If anything has happened, it probably involved her kicking the Imperator’s ass.

            Venya huffs softly to himself at the thought. Maybe she’ll straighten him out. A man who hoards an intimate piece of clothing from his ex—or whatever Rey is to him—is not a man who is over that person. There’s something there, still. If the robe didn’t tell him as much, then the anxious, stumbling way Rey speaks about him and the woeful looks she gives him would finish the job.

            Whatever the Imperator and Rey have, it is not dead.

            He’s been trying not to look at her too much, this whole time. Trying not to think about how they awoke this morning, entwined, his cock half-hard and jabbing her in the thigh. The tips of his ears go hot, at the memory. He wants to apologize, but for what? An involuntary physiological response? Fuck. He should’ve taken the couch.

            It’s hard to keep his eyes off her for long, though: she is truly a vision, here on the mats with a light sword in her hand looking like she was born to wield it. She’s in her element, clearly, and he feels a kind of… peace, coming from her. And it’s as if a mirror has been installed in his heart; what she feels is reflected inside himself. Rey is calm, she is comfortable, she is enjoying this.

            Thus, on some instinctive level, Venya is too.

            Watching her spar is like viewing a film that has been double-exposed. He sees Rey, swinging and feinting, dodging and lunging. But he also sees Irena, how she is when she guides a student through a demanding Krav Maga maneuver. The calm smile she wears, how steady her voice becomes. How she steers her students— gently, but firmly.

            Of course, Venya has been witness to many of Irena’s classes, both Krav Maga and Aerobics. He’s even partaken, at times. And although he prefers the former to the latter, in truth he loves them all, because she looks so powerful when she’s teaching. When she’s guiding. Her troubles fall away from her—or at least, they are momentarily dispelled—and she is the fierce little fighter he fell in love with.

            When Rey picks up her light sword— Venya feels like he understands. This is the gossamer thread that connects the Rey of this world with the Irena of his. This—their shared need to protect, defend, and fight for what they feel is right—this is the nexus at which they meet and intersect, before rippling out away from each other into their own lives, their own selves.

            In this—this need—Irena and Rey are one.

            “For the record? I still think this is a bad idea,” drawls a feminine voice from beside him. A girl with a dark buzz-cut, diminutive and wiry, dressed in the same training attire as the other youths. Venya recognizes her; she’s the one who pushed back when Rey was introducing herself.

            She’s also Quinn. She called herself Quinn, when she spoke earlier. And indeed she is, or at least she’s a dead ringer for the runaway that he and Rey temporarily housed. It’s so strange; she seems to be familiar with him, and she seems to be expecting a response, and he feels like he knows her, and on the tip of his tongue is a joking retort, like he would usually send Quinn’s way.

            Not Quinn, he must remind himself. Not your Quinn. And now she is continuing, and Venya must try to focus not on his déjà vu, but on Quinn’s defensively crossed arms, the rigidity of her posture, the thin line of her lips. And on her words.

            “—and all that,” she is in the midst of saying, “on top of what she did to you!”

            Venya needs to respond, because she is frowning up at him, expectant. He goes with: “Ah.”

            “Don’t tell me you’ve forgiven her.” Quinn narrows her eyes at him.

            “Quinn,” he demurs, “Forgiveness is… important.”

            She curls her lip in disgust. “You can’t be serious. What are you, a Jedi now?”

            “Uh…” Venya studies her pinched little face. It doesn’t seem like being a Jedi now is a positive development, in her view. “No.” A correct guess, he supposes, because she exhales heavily, as though she is relieved. “But—”

            He has absolutely no idea what to tell this girl; he has no idea what she’s referencing. Rey did something to betray him? That makes no sense. But perhaps Quinn can help to clarify a few things.

            “I made mistakes too,” he tries.

            The flinty stare she levels him with clearly conveys how unimpressed she is. “You didn’t lie to her, though. You didn’t try to kidnap her students. You didn’t use her.”

            Venya glances at Rey. Quinn must be mistaken, surely. Could she have done those things to Kylo? He thinks he might be able to understand the kidnapping; if he is a bad man here in this place, it makes sense that Rey would try to rescue his students from him. And perhaps they would resent that, if they had aligned their loyalties with their tutor.

            But lying to him? Using him?

            Crime scenes, even those that have been cleaned up, leave a trail behind. Evidence, clues, forensics — whatever you want to call it. Venya knows this, of course, from his years of making messes and cleaning them up for the Bratva. He also knows this from the police procedurals he finds himself watching on insomniatic nights, when his mind reels from the violence of his past and he doesn’t want to disturb Irena’s slumber.

            The point is: Venya knows how to read a crime scene. Or he thought he did. But what was the crime here, and who committed it? When and where and how did Rey and Kylo run afoul of each other? Is there even someone to blame? Or is the blame to be shared?

            “Ren?”

            He works his jaw, drumming up a noncommittal reply. “We must… try to bear it.”

            She clicks her tongue at him, gives an imperious sniff, and spins on her heel, marching off to rejoin her fellow students. As he continues watching them, it dawns on him that when they are hit with the light swords, they are not fatally wounded. They hiss and grimace, but seem otherwise unaffected.

            What is true? What is not? The swords are not lethal, and Kylo—despite all evidence pointing to his being a monster—may not have been the lone culprit in whatever drove Rey and Kylo apart. Rey darts another look his way. He presses his lips together, and her expression becomes wary. Guarded. Hurt, maybe.

            And Venya? He is as much a fool as ever, deluged with uncertainty about everything besides this one point: later, when he and Rey are alone… they need to discuss this. Whether she likes it or not.

            The cape falls over his shoulder again, tangling with his arm, but Venya makes no move to push it away.


            “Oh, ho!” Quinn exclaims, as Ben follows Irena through the back-alley entrance into the Millennium Diner’s kitchen. “Look who decided to wander in, at—” she pauses, checking the clock on the wall, “—ten thirty AM!”

            It’s a long galley kitchen; to the left of the door they’ve just entered are the walk-in fridge and freezer, and stretching out before them is the hectic cooking space, halved by a long steel table and the shelves that sit on top, on which finished dishes go out and above which assorted utensils and pots and pans hang. The fryer, flat top, and ovens line the left-hand wall; to the right are sinks, and extra prep and storage space.

            Irena twists to shoot what she hopes is a reassuring smile at Ben, who looks slightly perplexed by the noise, the heat, the smells, and the chaos of the bustling kitchen. When she looks back at Quinn, she’s smirking.

            “Quinn,” she sighs.

            Softly, she hears Ben utter, “… Qwyn?” A quick glance back at him; his expression is that of a lost puppy, raised eyebrows and wide eyes. Shocked, and sad. That’s how he looks. Irena bumps him with her hip, to break his reverie.

            Quinn blows a raspberry at them. “Pfft, I’m just saying. It’s nice of you to join us, lovebirds.” Ben goes tense at that word, lovebirds, and purses his lips, like he’s fighting not to respond.

            “Whoa!” Irena needs to change the topic and quick, before Ben gives them away. “You make a girl kitchen manager for a couple weeks and the next thing you know, the power’s completely gone to her head.”

            Said kitchen manager, in whom Irena cannot help but see herself as she once was — all piss and vinegar, and snarky irreverence — is still smirking at them. Although Quinn’s dark hair is shorn close to her head, she’s wearing a bandana and bleach-stained kitchen clothes. She’s leaning on the shelf at the far end of the line, and pauses in her teasing to call out an order brought in by one of the new waiters. Taylor, she recalls, waving back when he offers a frantic little half-wave before spinning and disappearing out into the diner through the swinging doors.

            She makes a note to help the teen with his poker face. He’ll need one, if he’s going to survive future Sundays and the post-church breakfast rush.

            After the chefs have confirmed they heard the order, Quinn’s gaze lands back on Irena. “Me, mad with power? No way Irene, I am a kind and benevolent ruler. Everyone says so.”

            “Hm,” replies Yeager, the grizzled old-timer manning the grill station. He eyeballs Ben and Irena; she’s almost positive Ben is holding his breath behind her, and can only hope like hell that he’s arranged his expression into something that looks vaguely Venya-esque.

            Next to Yeager, Kaz works the saute station, slouched and sullen. Nursing a hangover mostly likely — as the resident college student of the kitchen brigade, he’s notorious for being uncommunicative and forgetful for the first few hours of his shift, until the coffee kicks in.

            But he’s a good kid, and a pretty good chef, she reflects. He always shows up, always does whatever needs to get done. He’s just… in a phase. Probably. Maybe Venya should talk to him, she thinks, then feels a hollow pain in her chest when she remembers that he can’t.

            When he comes back. He will come back. And when he does, he’ll have a talk with Kaz.

            Yeager throws his spatula down beside the flat top, and marches toward them. He removes his apron and tosses it in the laundry hamper near the sink. His dreadlocked hair has been tucked up under a baseball hat; he pulls it off then proceeds to shake out his hat head.

            “Got here at six, been waiting to take a smoke break since seven,” he growls. “Hasn’t let up all morning. Damn Sunday crowd.”

            Irena grimaces. “Oh, Yeager, I’m sorr—”

            “And,” he interrupts, squinting behind her, at Ben. “I was supposed to be off at ten!”

            She hears Ben clear his throat. “That was my fault. I was—”

            “Food poisoning!” Irena gapes back at him, eyes bulging.

            He catches on, understanding visible in his expression. “Uh, yes. Food… poisoning. It was—bad.”

            “Hmph. You feelin’ better, Ben?”

            Now it’s Ben’s eyes that go wide. At the name? Before she can give that much thought, Simon bursts in through the doors, lugging a full bin of dirty dishes and singing the chorus of some pop song that half the brigade joins in on. Discreetly, Yeager says, “Ben?”

            “Yes. Much—better,” he gasps.

            “Hm.”

            “Thanks Yeager! We appreciate it! We’ll mark the shift as overtime,” Irena babbles, trying to cover up the weirdness and get rid of the one line chef who has probably shared enough after-hour beers with Venya to recognize that the man standing here is not him.

            Another unimpressed grunt is all she gets, as Yeager turns and heads for the door.

            “We love you!” she adds, grabbing two pairs of purple nitrile gloves and shoving one at Ben’s chest; he takes the hint and dons them. “Please don’t quit!” she shouts after Yeager, only half-joking.

            He pauses in the doorway, one foot out in the alley, and gives them a tired salute. “Wild horses, Irene. Ben. See y’all tomorrow.”

            “Okay,” she says, turning back to Ben. “Time to get you on the line.”

            But before she can much do more than lead him over to the grill station and hand him Yeager’s dropped spatula, Kayla appears at her side.

            “Irene!” She’s pouting, which is never a good sign. Irena senses she’s about to be asked for a re-scheduling of shifts, and braces herself for the onslaught. But Kayla just informs her, in her sing-song girlish voice, “We’re all out of sun-dried tomato! People are, like, weirdly into mediterranean omelets lately?”

            “Shit. Eighty-six ‘em, I guess.”

            Kayla shifts, yelling to the brigade — who have clearly already overheard — that the sun-dried tomato is done. She continues, “Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but—I think Taylor is, like, sweating on the customers. We got a couple of complaints?”

            “Understood, Kayla. Thank you.” Flipping her red curls over her shoulder, Kayla beams at them, then turns and flounces away.

            “Now,” she grits out. “The grill.”

            Ben is standing there, holding the spatula downwards in his fist as if it’s a dagger.

            “Really, the grill station is not too bad, especially for breakfast. Kaz is handling omelets and waffles and most meat and we’re not serving burgers yet, so you all you have to do is sausage, bacon, home fries, and pancakes. And—I’m gonna help you, so—”

            “Hey.” Quinn has reappeared, disconcertingly close to her and Ben. Irena sends up a quick thank you to the higher powers that she got the gloves on him, because Quinn has a sharp eye for details. That eye, currently, is scrutinizing Ben. “Is he gonna puke all over the flat top?”

            “No, Quinn,” she huffs. Ben has been wise enough to remain mostly silent for the five or so minutes they’ve been in the kitchen, but he decides to pipe up now.

            “I’m fine.”

            “Oh, are you now?” Quinn gives him another knowing smirk, one plucked eyebrow quirked. “Feeling better, daddy-o?”

            “Much.” He turns his head, then lifts his chin, frowning down at the her. Is he actually trying to intimidate Quinn? Irena has to resist the impulse to groan and slap her forehead.

            Ben’s attitude doesn’t work, of course; Quinn is preternaturally resistant to intimidation. “You sure ?” she jabs. “Pretty unusual for you to take a sick day, especially with your old lady’s condit—”

            “Very sure.” His tone is curt, face darkening to a glower, until he catches Irena’s tight frown and the tiny shake of her head. “Er, thank you. For—asking.”

            “Ohh—kay. But as kitchen manager, if you really are sick, and you do ralph on the grill, I’m legally obligated to shut the joint down.”

            “Yes good thank you,” Irena bites out, exasperated. “You’re very diligent, Quinn, good job. We’re just going to get started now, if the interrogation is finished? And can you please tell Taylor to wipe the sweat off his forehead? It’s—not a good look.” Quinn rolls her eyes, and makes to walk away. A thought occurs to Irena. “Also—” she calls out, causing Quinn to swivel back around, “send somebody to ask Lando if he can go pick up a couple pounds of sun-dried tomatoes from the store?”

            “Sure thing, boss,” she says.

            “Lando?” Ben’s eyes are wide again, and if Irena is not mistaken, slightly damp.

            She swallows. Have they wandered back into difficult territory? “He—used to own—”

            “Ah,” he says. “Of course. The pictures.”

            “Ben, maybe this was a bad idea.”

            “No.” The hand not holding the spatula is clenched in a tight fist at his side. He shakes his head. “No. I can do this.”

            And Irena thinks what he’s trying to say is: I need to do this. But now doesn’t seem like the time to point that out, so she reaches into one of the shelves and grabs Venya’s bandana. “Lean down,” she directs, gesturing to the scrap of fabric.

            He does so, and she wraps it around his head, tying it firmly at his neck. And if she gets close enough that she can breathe in the tea tree oil scent from Venya’s shampoo in Ben’s ever-so-slightly damp hair — and if she inhales a little more deeply than she needs to — well, who’s going to tell on her?

            It’s just… now he doesn’t just look like Venya, he smells like him too.

            A sudden urge to cry makes her throat thick and her eyes sting, but Irena swallows it down and attempts a wan smile. Ben rises to his full height, spatula in hand, and for one sad second they simply stare at each other. He looks good with the bandana on, although his ears are tucked inside. Sometimes Venya pulls his ears out, just because he knows how cute she thinks he looks that way. Her eyes stray to his hidden ears.

            In that moment Irena misses her husband’s ears so desperately she nearly starts bawling. Again.

            “Uh, kinda need that short stack!” barks Kaz, shooting an irritated glare their way. He’s got three omelets going, plus several other pans with vegetables, sauces and one ribeye steak.

            Irena does a scan of the kitchen. Behind Kaz, Kayla is cleaning and dicing fruit. Simon, stationed at the sink and elbow-deep in dishes, is still belting out that damn pop song. Tam — always so quiet, Irena barely even noticed her until this minute — is operating the fryolator, two baskets full of fries bubbling in their hot oil baths. Quinn, standing on the other side of the long metal shelves, is busy helping Taylin load a table’s worth of dishes onto a tray, since he’s not quite adept enough yet to carry them out in his arms.

            This is not the time for sorrowful eye contact or wishing for things she cannot have. With a sigh, Irena motions to the flat top.

            “So,” she says, quietly. “Have you heard of pancakes?”

            Pulling the ladle from a giant bowl on the counter, she pours the batter onto the hot surface. Immediately, the smell of sweet frying bread rises up.

            “I’m familiar with the concept,” Ben grumbles. “...I think.”

            There are two strips of bacon that Yeager left behind on the grill; they’re well beyond burnt, so Irena tosses them. She pulls out a couple raw strips and a few links of sausage from the cold storage boxes, slinging them onto the meat side of the grill. “Bacon?” she asks. “Sausage?”

            Ben nods. “They look… similar to food I’ve seen before.”

            He’s still clutching the spatula in a tight fist—like it’s a weapon—flat-side down.

            “Here.” She reaches for him, laying her palm on the back of his hand, then uses her other hand to take the spatula and return it to him right side up. “Like that.”

            And Irena should let go now, should take a step back. But she doesn’t. She guides him closer to the stove. He casts a nervous look at her, then down at their hands, then over at the bubbling pancake. Carefully, she guides his hand into sliding the spatula under it. “Now,” she murmurs, “Pick it up, and flip it over.”

            She really could take her hand off his. Let him do this. He could manage it; flipping a pancake is a very simple task.

            But she doesn’t.

            Together, they flip the pancake. Together, they stand there, two thin layers of nitrile rubber the only thing keeping them from holding hands, skin against skin. Already the heat and humidity of the kitchen is start to make Irena’s hair curl, little wisps around her face and neck pulling free. She’s blushing, maybe. Her face is warm, very warm. A glance up at Ben confirms that he’s definitely blushing — the tips of his ears and his neck have gone red.

            They’re standing close. Too close.

            The pancake is just about ready. Irena swallows, and pulls in another fortifying lungful of air. “It—um, looks good.” Again, she directs Ben’s obedient hand towards the flat top, grabbing a plate from the shelf over the steel counter behind them. “When it’s finished, you plate it,” she whispers, noticing Quinn casting a curious glance their way. “Then shout, ‘order up!’, loud, so Quinn can hear you. A short stack is three pancakes. Full stack is five. Got it?”

            “Yes.” His voice is strained, and his eyes keep darting between hers and their hands, where they are still touching.

            “Hey, lo-ovebirds!” Quinn peeks through the steel shelves, snaps her fingers. “Kinda need that short stack, plus two home fries and a side plate of bacon. This morning please, if you could possibly quit being all weird and sexual for like, five seconds!”

            At the second instance of the word ‘lovebirds,’ Ben springs back from her, although she’s still holding onto his gloved hand.

            “Quinn,” she snaps, voice laced with warning.

            “I’m just saying,” a common refrain from Quinn, is the response.

            Irena and Ben blink at each other for a long moment. Too long, probably. She shakes her head and averts her gaze, breaking the spell.

            “These,” she says, forcing herself to let go of him and reach for a pair of tongs, “are better for the meat. Separate utensil, separate sides of the grill. Home fries,” here she points to a container full of par-boiled potato chunks, “get one big scoop per order. Cook them on the pancake side. Just squish ‘em down, let ‘em get crispy and brown. Okay?”

            Ben nods, nostrils flared. His gaze has stopped its frenetic bouncing around; he’s focused solely on her face. He opens his mouth, as if he’s about to say something. But he merely closes it and nods again.

            “G-good.” She passes the tongs over to his free hand, then crosses the kitchen, grabbing two aprons. When she returns, she directs him: “Bend down again.”

            “Ire—”

            “Irene,” she cuts in, under her breath. “Don’t forget, I’m Irene here.”

            Another sad little nod. He does as she’s asked. She loops the apron over his head, then circles him to tie it at his lower back.

            The bacon and sausage, which have been sizzling away, begin to give off a mouth-watering aroma. “That’s ready to be flipped.” She nods at them. With ease, Ben reaches over with the tongs, and flips the meat.

            “Hey, you’re a natural!” She beams at him, he arches an eyebrow at her. Is that the hint of a smile, tugging at the edges of his mouth? Irena can’t decide. It’s so slight; it could just be wishful thinking.

            “I just,” she says, on a deep exhale, a relieved sigh passed out with the words that follow, “I should go check on the front. Really quick, then I’ll be back. But—I think—this is going to work.”

            Ben looks down at the grill, then back at her. Then at the grill again. “Yes,” he says, visibly steeling himself with a deep breath of his own. “Yes. I think it will.”