This was a beautiful planet, decades ago.
For thousands of years, the Jedi brought their younglings to this planet to claim their kyber crystals in a ritual called The Gathering. These crystals, when nestled in a carefully constructed hilt, would produce their lightsaber blades. Blue, green, yellow, even amethyst, the crystals sang to the ones who were meant to wield them.
Then, long before the death of Luke Skywalker or the birth of the Jedi girl who they say can move the earth, this planet was looted for its crystals. A dark Empire arose, overturned the Jedi Order, and used the kyber crystals to create weapons of enormous scale. As those weapons claimed millions of lives, the crystals shrieked at being so misused.
But only in the ears of those who knew how to listen.
Ilum was a planet. Now, it hardly qualifies as one. Strip-mining tore away whole parts of the surface and significantly reduced planetary mass. Where lava had bubbled up like blood filling deep and jagged gashes, there are now only shiny obsidian scars. New rock formations have risen to replace the old, and the ice creeps slowly over new peaks and valleys, reclaiming its old domain, but the ruined planet remains badly misshapen, awkward and small and easy to mistake for an asteroid or a moon. It no longer shines from a distance as it once did, its icy surface reflecting the light of the stars.
In the intervening time, Ilum has rotated around its sun, Asar, alone but for infrequent visitors. The researchers who had set up semi-permanent bases there before the Empire’s conquest never returned, and neither did the Jedi pilgrims. A solitary man had come to study what remained of the planet, but he did not find the answers he sought, and quickly moved along. Yet the few remaining crystals—buried under volcanic ash or ensconced in glaciers—still sing their mournful song out to the universe, hoping to find the ones who might harvest them.
One ship now perches on the defaced surface of Ilum, and has for two-thirds of a rotation. And above the cry and whimper of the healing planet, a lone crystal rises up in song. A young student sleeps in the crew quarters of the Millennium Falcon, and hears this song in her dreams.
Nearby, the student’s erstwhile teacher, Rey—the Jedi, Rey—watches the stars. Only a handful of years older than her charge, Rey is already shrouded in legend. After all, this is the girl they say can move the earth. This is the girl who stokes the flames of hope that keep a rebellion alive.
This is the girl who stole a tyrant’s heart.
These days, Rey feels like anything other than just a girl. She feels as though she’s sped through early adulthood and skipped straight to the stage where she finds people more and more trying as a rule, where she tires easily, where she can’t awaken one day without something aching, whether old wounds, or new wounds, or the space between her lungs. She feels old. But the universe won’t stop in its tracks just because she feels some way or another. She has responsibilities, and her students are chief among them.
Rey has the best view of the skies from the Falcon’s cockpit. She sits forward to scan the stars, bright in the inky blackness, unobstructed by clouds. All clear. With a sigh, she sinks back into the captain’s chair and reclines with her feet on the dash, trusting that the Force will ripple with warning of any potential threat.
She glances at the co-captain’s seat as if hoping to see her old friend Chewbacca sitting there, but he isn’t with her this time. With Shyriiwook grumbles that he was getting too old to keep up with Rey, he had agreed to lend her the Falcon for this trip. He now stays temporarily on the Conquest II to chaperone the rest of her students, who adore him even if they can’t always understand him.
Rey smiles, thinking of what a time he must be having, and pulls her datapad back into her lap. For the past few days, she’s been working her way through an account of the Clone Wars, the galaxy-rending conflict that had predated and caused the rise of the Galactic Empire. This study is a bit less dry than that of the sacred Jedi texts she had liberated from Luke Skywalker’s care on Ahch-To, but certainly just as important. Rey finds where she left off and picks up the narrative thread. Only a few short years ago she would barely have been able to imagine the great battles and even greater devastation, but now…
“Captain’s quarters are all yours, Captain,” says a voice from behind her.
Rey jumps in her seat, and mentally chides herself for being so wound up. Just Rikaj, the Knight of Ren assigned to their protection detail. She hadn’t sensed him coming, though. That troubles her. He’s not a malevolent presence in the Force, but he’s present— a notable charcoal smear at the edge of her senses, even if he doesn’t possess the fire and fury of his leader, Kylo Ren. She should have felt his approach long before he reached the cockpit.
She cranes her head around to find him holding up his hands in surrender. The youngest of the Knights of Ren, he was only seventeen when Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple fell. He shares the same light brown skin, shiny black hair, dark sparkling eyes, and ease of manner with his older sister Aylu, whom Rey knows better. He’s taller than Aylu, though, and doesn’t have as prominent a nose, or the crescent-shaped facial scar that she bears at her temple. Although he could be called handsome, in a rakish way, his general manner undercuts that somewhat.
“Woah,” he says. “Easy there, Jedi. You’re among friends here.”
Rey is not certain how true that is, but she lets it drop for now. “I didn’t hear you,” she says, fumbling for an excuse. “I was reading.”
“Reading?” He peers over her shoulder. “Anything good? Racy?”
“So, no.” Rikaj groans. “Is having fun against the Jedi Code?”
“I have fun,” Rey mutters. “But this is important. I’m trying to learn more about the old Jedi. Who they were, what they did.”
“Huh.” Rikaj thinks for a moment. Rey can sense him weighing whether or not to say something. At last, he decides to go for it. “You should talk to Lord Ren. He has a lot of opinions about the old Jedi.”
Rey feels her shoulders tense. “I know he does,” she says. “He’s already given me recommendations.” She quickly adds upon seeing Rikaj’s raised eyebrow, “I asked for them. He saw I was interested.”
“Uh-huh,” says Rikaj, squinting at her screen. “Clone Wars, huh? Dry stuff.”
“You know about this?”
“Of course. We all learned about it back in the Skywalker days, before everything went to hell.”
“Oh,” says Rey, dully. She’s familiar with that story, though maybe not as familiar as she should be.
He scratches the side of his head. “Can barely remember a damn thing, though.”
“I wasn’t going to quiz you.”
“Eh, just as well. I would’ve failed.”
Thankfully, this is when Jessika Pava calls in her hourly report. Her voice is clear and strong over the Falcon’s comm unit. “Rey, you there?”
“I’m here,” Rey says, leaning forward. “Anything?”
“Nothing. All clear.”
Rey lets out an exhale of relief and feels her whole body sag with exhaustion. “Good,” she says. “That’s good. All right. Come down and rest for a bit. We’ll need you up there again in the morning.”
Rikaj leans into the comm and tossing his braid back over his shoulder. “You’re looking good there, Pava.”
Jessika’s reply crackles over the comm. “You can’t see me.”
“Yeah, but I know anyway.”
She sighs. “I’ll be right down, Rey.”
“Thanks, Jess,” Rey says. “I’ll speak to you soon.”
There’s a click as Jessika disconnects. Rey turns to Rikaj and asks, “Why do you do that?”
Rikaj whistles obliviously and looks up at the various blinking lights in the Falcon’s cockpit. “Do what?”
“You realize you make yourself less good-looking when you try that hard.”
“That’s still plenty of good-looking,” he points out.
“If you say so.” Rey powers down her datapad. Looks are only half the battle, she’s realizing. People mistake Poe for flirtatious when he’s just been endowed with an abundance of natural charm. Rikaj is overly flirtatious, although he hasn’t yet tried anything with Rey. Presumably, he values his life enough to know better.
Rikaj claps her on the shoulder. “C’mon,” he says. “It’s my watch, and you’re grumpy. Go get some rest.”
Rey crinkles her nose at him, but he’s right. She stands, stretches, and, after one last look up at the sparkling, empty sky, retires to the captain’s quarters for four hours of rest.
She falls asleep with the datapad in her hand, reading about how the Republic forces were led to victory on Ryloth by the Jedi General Anakin Skywalker.
The saber’s hilt flies into Rey’s outstretched hand in the forest on Starkiller Base. Snow crystals cling to the tendrils of her hair, blown about by the wind. She is terrified. She is enraged. Her face contorts with both fear and anger, into a snarl unlike any Kylo Ren has ever seen. She stands, and she faces him.
Retreat. Parry again. Thrust.
Rey sits across from him, miserable and soaked to the bone. Tendrils of firelight lick up her neck in a way that he himself cannot. Ever since they last met, she hasn’t just been on his mind, she’s taken up residence within it. The only woman to truly challenge him must be the only person to truly understand him, mustn’t she? With that first brush of her fingertips against his, he is a changed man.
Pivot left. Block a blow to the shoulder. Press on.
Now Rey fights at his back. She fights in his defense, with righteous fury, dancing across the throne room. He tracks her screams, her growls, the little yelp she makes when injured. She is an angel, the light within her a purifying fire. He thought she burned the same as him, that together their twin flames would cleanse the galaxy and reshape it into something not uncaring and cruel, but made for them. They would carve their own places in the universe.
But she denies him.
Advance. Attack. Attack again.
He has her against the wall of his bedchamber. He had fantasized about having her there for three long and lonely years. But now that she’s here, now that she’s looking up at him with her wide hazel eyes and he can feel the way her fear quickens her heartbeat and anticipation shortens her breath, he can’t do it. He can’t force his way into her body, pry her apart, undo her with pain and violence. If she were combative, if she kicked and screamed and tore at his clothes, he might have been able to lose himself to the struggle. But she is none of those things. She is quiet, she is still.
So he dares her, and says, “Kiss me.”
Back. Forward. The endless dance.
Rey has her hands in his hair. Her fingers are slim, and strong, and callused from years of hard labor, of working them to the bone. And her body, beneath his, is somehow firm and soft at once. The yielding flesh of her thigh where he grips her, the peaks of her breasts— soft. Her belly, the muscles in her arms, her teeth scraping up against his jaw as she lips at him— hard. He is engulfed by her, by her body under and around him, by her warmth, and by the near-transcendent experience of feeling how he feels to her, how she is filled and completed by him, the weight and warmth of his own body.
He turns his head to seek her mouth with his own. He drinks her in as though he’s the one who spent a decade and a half wandering a desert planet, and she’s the only water he has ever known.
A feint. A counter-parry. Strike.
Rey stands before him in a ruined gown, trying to tell him about opportunity. He cannot hear her, not because of the explosion that half-deafened him, but because his head, his entire being, is filled by static. The only thought he has is that the entire time they were together, the whole blissful week they spent talking and exploring and knowing, is now tainted. She was sent. This was a mission. He was her mission. But all she can do is stand there and tell him about what a chance they have now to bring their two sides into alignment, as if it didn’t matter that she had kept a part of herself from him under lock and key.
This time, he is the one who refuses her, and he is the one to leave.
Keep moving keep moving keep moving.
Rey sits in on joint Imperium-Resistance council meetings sometimes, but he sees her mostly in dreams now, terrible dreams that roil his spirit day in, day out. True dreams that only the Force can bring. In them, Rey cries his name. Ben. Her face is streaked with tears, her forehead beaded with sweat. She reaches for him but he can’t reach back. She suffers, but he cannot ease her suffering. And she only continues calling his name, the one that his parents bestowed upon him.
Ben, Ben, BEN.
The cry brings Kylo back from his ruminations. He is standing in the training room, drenched with in his own sweat, his chest heaving with exertion. Aylu, in her mask, is on the mat before him with his practice saber at her throat. She is propped up on one elbow, one hand outstretched as if she had thought to throw him back. Behind him, he hears two of his other Knights picking themselves up, groaning from bumps and bruises.
“I,” says Kylo. Rey was adamant about apologies, but the Knights are more lax. He owes them no apology, yet he feels as though he must say something. That’s her, lingering with him. “I was distracted.”
Aylu removes her mask and sets it on the mat next to her so she can draw a full, deep breath. Sweat glistens on her temple, and the dark hair bordering her forehead is damp. “I got that, milord.”
Kylo says nothing more. He clips the practice saber to his belt, then leaves the mat to pick up a towel. He leans against the wall, pressing a hand to his side. The deep stab wound from one of his own guardsmen had been healed by Rey; he forwent bacta treatments so he could keep the scar. It is remarkably close to the scar left by the bolt from Chewbacca’s bowcaster, the one he’d earned through killing his own father. Two wounds. Both cut deep. The scar Rey healed throbs when he overexerts himself.
At his periphery, he sees Aylu push up to a crouch, then come to stand. “Milord,” she says, with a short, huffy exhale. “What are you training for?”
Kylo, mopping the sweat from his brow, barely hears her. “What?”
“You’ve doubled your time in the training room these past few weeks.” She cocks her head at him. “It feels… intentional.”
He puts the towel down and looks at her, then past her, as if there he can see those visions of Rey in peril, Rey in pain. Every morning when he wakes he tries to grasp at every fleeting detail, and yet he cannot make out her surroundings, or what ails her. It’s torture, he’s certain, although he does not know what kind, and that leaves him unmoored, adrift.
He has not told Rey of his visions. They are not where they once were— not lovers, not even friends. But he has taken every precaution to protect her. Right now, she is beyond his reach, with their students on a mission he had only begrudgingly approved. The war is escalating, and their students need a means of defending themselves. He could not argue against that. And because he could not tell her the root of his objections, he had been forced to fold. But he extracted a concession from her: that she would travel with one of his Knights. Ostensibly, this is to keep the children safe. Kylo suspects that Rey might know better.
But he isn’t going to explain any of that to Aylu. It’s a personal matter if ever there was one. He is not having visions of a new Starkiller Base, of Hux’s First Order fleet descending upon them to destroy them all, only Rey. Just Rey.
So he replies, “That doesn’t concern you.”
“If something’s coming, it concerns all of us.” She nods behind her at her fellow Knights, who are now following the conversation. Aylu has always respected him, but never feared him, and as such she is the one others will turn to when truth needs speaking to power, as it sometimes does. It doesn’t now.
“Not this.” His tone leaves no room for argument. He walks back onto the mat to stand before his three training partners, who are now all back on their feet. Then he unclips the saber hilt from his belt, and ignites it, assuming a wide combat stance.
And he says, “Again.”
Four hours pass in a blink; Rey has scarcely set her head down on the pillow when she feels Rikaj shaking her awake. She nearly elbows him in the jaw before she remembers where she is, and instead gets up with a groan and wanders off to wash her face in the ‘fresher.
She then goes to the dimly-lit crew quarters to rouse the students. The four adolescents sleep on bunks that have played host to thieves and smugglers, rebels and vagabonds, pilots and princesses. Two of the girls—Tamar, an orange-skinned Togruta, and Kaela, a redheaded human—Rey has taught for more than two years. The others are newer to her: Qwyn, a spitfire who stands at no more than a meter and a half but compensates through the sheer force of her personality, and Simon, lanky and quiet, her near-exact opposite. They are pupils of Kylo Ren whom Rey has taken on as her own, for now, with his consent.
When Rey arrives, she finds them already awake. Simon reads by the light of his datapad, one of his feet dangling over the side of his bunk, Qwyn scowls at Simon’s dangling foot, and Tamar and Kaela talk amongst themselves. Upon seeing Rey, they all scramble to get ready for the day ahead, pulling on their fur-lined parkas. She can tell they’re getting sick of Ilum, sick of the perpetual night, sick of seeing the puffs of their breath materialize in the air before them. The change has been particularly jarring for Tamar and Kaela, who until recently had called the jungle planet of Akiva home.
Rey lowers the Falcon ’s ramp, and looks out at Ilum. She can’t quite blame them. Nights on Jakku were cold, but nothing compares to this chill. Privately, she dreads leaving the light and warmth of the Falcon. But she can’t let them know that. She has to set a positive example. She wraps her nose and mouth in a scarf, touches the saberstaff hilt at her belt for reassurance, and heads outside.
Tamar and Kaela follow behind her, and when they’re a little ways from the Falcon, they sit down on the dusty ground and begin cycling through their morning meditations. Simon and Qwyn trail after, and go off on their own. They exchange words— well, Qwyn lets a torrent of words loose in Simon’s direction while Simon mostly shrugs and reads from his datapad. Finally, having lost her argument with herself, Qwyn exaggeratedly rolls her eyes and sits cross-legged on the ground.
Once she’s settled, Rey wanders over to her. “Good morning,” she says.
Qwyn just grunts in response, but Simon looks up from his datapad and says in his surprisingly soft voice, “‘Morning, Miss Rey.”
“It’s just Rey,” she assures him. Then she looks at Qwyn. “Any more dreams?”
“Yeah,” Qwyn grumbles. “I can see it in my dreams. Out here I can’t feel a thing. I’m never going to find it.”
“You will if you trust your instincts,” Rey urges her, for what feels like the thousandth time. “Acknowledge those fears of failure, acknowledge what they’re trying to tell you, then let them go. You have to clear your mind like you’re asleep.”
“I am trying,” Qwyn snaps. “Maybe the fact that there’s a liar spy here is interfering with my whole process.”
Rey sighs. “Qwyn.”
“You’re the liar spy, by the way.”
“Yeah, I got that. But right now I’m your teacher, and I’m trying to help.”
“I don’t need your help,” Qwyn mutters. “I bet if you weren’t here I would have found the stupid crystal by now.”
One of them has to be the adult here. Rey tamps down on the urge to sigh again. “I know you’d rather Kylo were with us,” she says. “But he’s tasked me with guiding you. I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Like you didn’t mean any harm when you tried to steal us?”
Rey gives her a stern look but doesn’t dignify that remark with a response.
“Never mind,” Qwyn grumbles. “We’re not even going to find any crystals, at this rate.”
“Maybe we could synthesize them,” says Simon. “People used to synthesize kyber crystals, but the Empire outlawed it. They were too unstable—”
“You stuff it,” Qwyn snaps. “What do you need to synthesize crystals for? You already have yours.”
Simon’s hand wanders to his waist to touch the newly-constructed lightsaber hilt clipped to his belt. This quartet had all started dreaming of kyber crystals two weeks ago, but Simon’s had been the first crystal they actually found. Granted, they’ve only been trekking across the galaxy for a few days; it had taken longer to haggle authorization for this trip out of Kylo Ren than Rey had expected. But maybe she should have known better.
“I meant your crystal,” Simon says. He’s a tall, curly-haired boy of sixteen, slow to speak but always thinking, and he looks slightly nervous.
“We’re not going to synthesize my crystal,” Qwyn huffs. “I’m gonna find it. You watch.”
She closes her eyes again and shimmies her shoulders, draws a comically loud breath, and rests her hands on her knees in a comically exaggerated meditative pose. The Force ripples around her.
Rey takes that as her cue to leave. She heads back to the Falconand sits down on the ramp. When Rikaj walks out, wearing his mask and a black parka over his Knight of Ren garb, carrying his weapon—just in case—she gives him a little nod. He responds by stretching his empty hand up and back to stretch his shoulder and cracking his neck, which comically undercuts the menace of the outfit.
But Rey doesn’t smile. She simply gazes out across the great obsidian plane, one of the scabbed-over wounds left behind by the Empire’s strip-mining.
Through her galactic travels, Rey has seen firsthand the scars of the Empire that still remain on the galaxy. The quest for Simon’s crystal had taken them to Jedha, a cool desert moon that looked as though something had seized it like a Jogan fruit and taken a big bite out of the side. It had been a testing site, Simon informed her, for the first Death Star. In place of the deforming crater, a city had once stood, one holy to the Jedi. As with Ilum, they would make pilgrimages there to gather kyber crystals for their lightsabers. As with Ilum, the Empire had come along to take those crystals use them in their superweapons.
Rey recalls how she had thought of the starship graveyard on Jakku. Some days, it had been a playground; she would imagine the debris as a fleet, whole and proud, and re-envision herself as a galactic adventurer instead of an unwanted child. Other days, it had been a reminder that the galaxy was vast and unknown to her, and she would feel small and insignificant next to the massive starship carcasses. But she had never questioned, or even thought to question, the Galactic Civil War, its purpose, its point. She knew the stories, as everyone did, but marveled at them as tales from another age, ones that had no bearing on her. The war was behind them all.
Except it had never been behind them. The remnants of that war had shaped Rey’s life, her livelihood. It had shaped the lives of all her friends. No one had escaped its touch, whether they came from planets blighted, like Jedha, or whole, like Chandrila. What would be the legacy of the First Order? Of the Imperium? Of the Resistance? Only the empty pockets of sky where the Hosnian System once sparkled? Only blighted planets like Hays Major and Hays Minor, and others she knows nothing about?
Rey shivers in her parka and turns her attention back to her students. Simon sits by Qwyn, datapad in his lap and newly-minted lightsaber at his waist, trying to lead her into meditation by example. A little ways off, Rikaj leads Tamar and Kaela through some basic Shii-Cho drills. Somewhere far above them, Jess Pava circles in her X-Wing, patrolling the dark and cloudless sky.
It’s in these moments, these quiet moments when there is nothing to do, when Rey would normally meditate, that her thoughts drift toward Kylo Ren, who is thousands of light years away. Even at this great distance, he should be a stirring at the back of her consciousness, but he has locked her out of the bond they share. She cannot feel him. Even so, she can imagine the shape of his day: waking early, training, showering, shaving, dressing, then the war council. Rinse, repeat. She knows. She’s seen it.
There is so much Rey longs to ask him. Does he feel the same way she does about awakening alone in a cold bed? Although her betrayal still stings, does he miss her fingers combing through his soft hair? Does he seek her warmth, as she seeks his? Does he feel as old as she does when he finally stands up, back sore, joints stiff? She knows he does. She’s experienced his body. He is the only person in the galaxy who might know her bone-deep ache, one that comes from unimaginable burden, and from loss.
Suddenly, she hears Qwyn shout, and turns to see the girl spring to her feet and bolt away. Simon unfolds his legs and scrambles to follow. Rey doesn’t bother calling for them to wait. She finds Rikaj’s eyes through the mask, and jerks her head after the two adolescents. “Come on!”
Rikaj doesn’t need telling twice. He picks up a nearby satchel, says something to the girls, and they all take off running after Simon and Qwyn, who sprint toward the glacier. The insulated parkas and trousers they all wear hinder their speed, and every so often one of them skids on the ice-slick ground, grasps at the Force to stay upright, and keeps going.
Up ahead, Rey sees Simon and Qwyn slide to a halt in front of the glacier. Qwyn turns her head and says something to Simon, then squeezes into a small crack and vanishes from view. Simon shifts his weight from foot to foot, obviously uneasy.
Rey jogs to Simon’s side and asks, “What’d she say?”
“She told me to wait here,” he says, his voice cracking nervously. “She said her crystal was in there.”
“She’s mental!” Kaela exclaims, coming up beside them with Tamar.
“We have to trust that she knows what she’s doing,” Rey tells her. “The Force will be her guide.”
Kaela rubs the side of her nose.
Rikaj says, “Your teacher’s right, you know. And Qwyn’s a strong one. She’ll be fine.” But Rey hears him muttering under his breath as he eyes the crack.
“What do we do?” Tamar asks Rey.
Rey looks at the glacier towering above them, at the narrow ice tunnel down which Qwyn has disappeared, and then at the group assembled before her. Her charges.
She says, “We wait.”
“There’s no reason for me not to engage,” Rikaj says. “I’m not irreplaceable like some people.”
Rey turns around. “That’s not true,” she says. “None of you are replaceable. And none of you will need replacing, because we’re all going to leave here alive.”
Time ticks by as Rey’s group waits outside the narrow glacial cave, shivering in their parkas. After the first few minutes, Simon sits down cross-legged on the ground in front of the glacier and taps at his datapad. Rey thinks that, knowing him, he’s attempting to do some calculations to assess the structural integrity of the ice.
A minute or so later, Tamar and Kaela also sit on the ground. They stay a few feet away from Simon, preferring instead to huddle together against the cold. Rey sees them pull off their gloves and take each other’s hands, rubbing their palms together to keep warm. She feels the Ilum ice seep into the valves of her heart, and turns toward Rikaj, who is the only other person still standing.
“Hope she’s out soon,” he says in a low voice, glancing into the crevasse. Blue fades into black; it’s impossible to make anything out. Rey thinks they’re more likely to hear the small, stubborn girl clambering around before they see her.
“Be patient,” she advises.
“Patience is a Jedi thing,” Rikaj scoffs. “I’m going to be as impatient as I want.”
Rey’s mouth twitches under her scarf. The petulance reminds her a little of Kylo, even though Rikaj himself does not. “You’re not what I expected, you know,” she says, just to help the conversation along. “You and Aylu. And Simon, really.”
He gives her a questioning look. “Did you think we’d all be moody and glowering, like Ren? Or angsty and scowling, like Qwyn?”
“I didn’t not think that,” Rey admits. “I didn’t really know what to expect from darksiders. The only ones I’ve ever met were Kylo and Snoke.”
“You wouldn’t catch me saying it when he was alive, but he was a nasty piece of work.” Rikaj touches the point of his mask conspiratorially, as if putting a finger to his lips. “I’m glad he’s gone. Not so glad that Ren’s taken running the galaxy upon himself, but glad he’s gone.”
She looks sideways at him. “You don’t seem that dark. I mean, I feel it— I feel that you draw power from the Dark Side. But you personally are almost… easygoing.”
“It is a fine line between the Light and the Dark,” Rikaj observes. “I’m pretty sure my flaw is apathy. I don’t care enough. Also laziness. The darkness is right there, whenever you want to access it. To be a lightsider you have to really try.”
Rey mulls this over for a moment. She certainly knows the truth of that. How easily had Rey strayed to the Dark the first time Luke had her reach out to the Force? How often had she called upon her anger in battle? And how often had she forgotten the galaxy and given herself over to passion in Ben’s bed? She knows there is darkness in her. She has always been aware of it. Until recently, she thought she was doing a good job of balancing it with light, of practicing what she preached. After all that’s happened, she finds that certainty wavering.
But she doesn’t share any of this with Rikaj. She just nods.
Rikaj nods back, then shuffles away from her to offer Simon and the girls nutrition bars from his satchel. The adolescents accept the food with thanks, since they all wound up running here before breakfast could be served. When Rikaj holds a bar out to Rey, though, her stomach turns over and she shakes her head. Something in her body revolts at the thought of eating something so processed, even though she’d survived on ration packs for years. Rikaj shrugs—more for him—and lifts his visor so he can chow down.
Everyone but Rey is licking the last crumbs from their gloves when they hear a whoop from within the crevasse. Simon and the girls stand back up, scrambling over each other to peer inside. There’s some scraping, then shuffling, and then Qwyn appears, sidling sideways, sandwiched between two icy walls. In her hand, which she holds proudly above her head, is a twinkling blue crystal.
“I did it!” Qwyn exclaims, darting out of the glacier. “I kriffing did it! Look at that!” She holds the crystal in front of Simon, who blinks at it, then waves it at Tamar and Kaela. “Look at it!”
“Congratulations,” Rey says, trying to put a halt to the gloating. “I knew you could do it.”
Qwyn turns and gives her a sour look. “And I did. Without your help.”
Rey magnanimously chooses to ignore this remark. “Rikaj, do you have the parts?”
Rikaj nods and takes the satchel off of his shoulder, presenting it to her. “Here you are,” he says. “Everything you should need to build your very own lightsaber.”
Qwyn gives him an enthusiastic nod, takes the satchel, and begins digging through it. “This one,” she mutters as she sorts through, pulling parts out of the bag. “Not this. Definitely not this.”
“Can’t we do this on the ship?” Kaela asks Rey. She and Tamar are no longer holding hands, but they still stand against each other, as if they can exchange body heat even through their insulated parkas. “It’s freezing out here.”
“It’ll only take a minute once she’s got the parts out,” Rikaj points out. “And you don’t know Qwyn very well if you think that she’ll wait until we’re back on board the Falcon to start assembling her saber.”
“Hell no,” Qwyn agrees. “I’ve been wanting to do this for weeks.”
Kaela grumbles under her breath and leans heavily against her girlfriend, who rubs up and down the side of her arm. Simon glances at them, but says nothing.
Once Qwyn has sorted through the satchel, she plops down on the ground and scatters her chosen parts out before her. She carefully sets her crystal down among them and says, “Perfect.” Then she looks up not at Rey, but at Rikaj. “I know what to do. I can feel it.”
Rikaj gives her a thumbs up.
Qwyn closes her eyes. The parts begin to rise in front of her, hovering in the air and fitting themselves together. Rey feels her presence in the Force, focused and certain. Rikaj is right— this shouldn’t take long.
Suddenly, Kaela stiffens where she stands. “Something’s coming.”
Rey looks at her. “What? What something?”
“Coming from over the horizon.”
Tamar’s shoulders tense, and her hands stray toward her quarterstaff. “I feel it too,” she says. “Rey?”
“I—” says Rey, but she feels nothing. Her eyes scan the sky, searching for whatever it is she’s missing, as if there might be physical clouds obscuring her vision. But the perpetual night over Ilum is cold and clear.
Any interference comes from within.
“Rey?” Jessika’s voice over the comm makes her jump, and she fumbles to fish it out of her parka’s pocket. “You have company. Three of them, two TIEs and one Atmospheric Assault Lander, approaching from the south. I can engage.”
“Can you get them before they get us?”
“The TIEs, yes. But that assault lander has shield generators. It’ll take a couple of hits.”
“Lovely,” Rey says. “Then stay hidden. I don’t want the TIEs chasing you off and leaving us with no cover and Stormtroopers on the ground. See if you can get the jump on them while they’re distracted by us.”
Rey exhales through her nostrils, closes her eyes. She has to strain, but she feels the ships, malicious stirrings in the Force. This was always a risk. Ilum is in the 7G sector, and Starkiller Base had originated from that very same sector. Odds were good that the First Order would still have patrols in the region.
But her group took precautions before they set out. Although Kylo Ren had argued for a larger escort, in the end the chosen party was small in number so as to evade detection for as long as possible. The Falcon was kept powered down but for its essential systems, reducing its emissions and making it more difficult to detect. And Jess Pava has spent most of her flight path darting in and out of the shadow of a nearby moon.
The attack could have come at a better time, though. Their group is backed up against the glacier; the troopers could easily cut them off from the Falcon, their only means of escape. The plain is open and offers very little cover. Rey keys into the comm again.
“I’ll hold them off,” she tells Jess, and by extension Rikaj, who still stands at her side.
“You are crazy,” says Rikaj. “She is crazy. All right. Look, if I let you go out to face those troopers alone, Lord— the Supreme— the Imperator will have my head. And I like my head.”
“Our priority isn’t me,” Rey retorts. “It’s to get the kids to safety. I need you to cover Qwyn. She’s vulnerable until that lightsaber’s finished.”
“I heard that,” Qwyn calls, peeking one eye open. Her lightsaber parts fall to the volcanic sand, and she lets out a grunt of annoyance. She closes both eyes and gets back to work.
“There’s no reason for me not to engage,” Rikaj says. “I’m not irreplaceable like some people.”
Rey turns around. “That’s not true,” she says. “None of you are replaceable. And none of you will need replacing, because we’re all going to leave here alive.” She gives him a small nod. “I can keep them talking. I’m more of a distraction than you.”
“That’s true,” Rikaj admits. “But be kriffing careful, would you? I’m not sure you understand. If so much as one of your hairs is singed—”
“I know. I’ll be careful.” Rey can imagine exactly how Kylo would react if any harm came to her, and she doesn’t approve. Even so, longing sinks to the pit of her stomach like a stone. Not now. She acknowledges it, breathes in, and exhales to let it go. But she can’t. It gets stuck somewhere in her esophagus. She swallows and breathes again, trying to even out. The thud of her heart echoes in her ears. “Hang back,” she tells Tamar. “Quarterstaff’s no good against blasterfire.”
Tamar looks put out, but nods. Rey knows she’d rather have a blaster in hand, and feels a weight in her chest again at the prospect of having to arm teenagers. But isn’t that why they were here? The lightsabers…
She shakes her head, and begins to trek out a little ways diagonally from the group just as the ships appear over the horizon. Two TIEs and one assault lander, exactly as Jess had described. It seems meager compared to the small army Kylo had once amassed to greet her. She wonders if she’s being underestimated, or if the patrols that spotted them didn’t know exactly what they were seeing. Maybe both. Even so, this is no time to be overconfident— TIEs are short-range fighters. There are bigger guns nearby.
The assault lander touches down near Rey, between her and the Falcon, as she had expected. The TIEs hover, just waiting, a silent threat. Rey grounds her stance and her hand finds the saberstaff hilt at her belt, although she does not yet ignite it.
The ramp of the assault lander lowers, touching the glassy ground. Two columns of white-armored Stormtroopers exit the craft, their steps perfectly synchronized, a bronze-armored lieutenant in the lead. They halt when all stand on the planet’s surface, holding their weapons close to their chest, not yet primed to fire.
“Name and identification number,” the lieutenant demands.
Rey stands her ground and looks at him, afraid only for the people at her back. Combat, she can handle. Combat, she knows. She’s had to fight for her life since she was five years old.
Her lack of response unnerves the lieutenant. His discomfort is not in his stance, or his voice, but it can be clearly felt in the Force around him. “Travel in this sector is heavily restricted. You’re not authorized—” he begins, but then he really looks at Rey, and stops. “It’s her.”
“Turn around and leave now,” Rey says. “We can forget this ever happened.”
She keeps her voice cool and even, trying to implant a suggestion in his mind. There are too many soldiers, and unbalanced as she is, she doubts the effort will work— but she has to try. So much nervous hope crosses her mind: that Qwyn has finished assembling her lightsaber, that it works , that Rikaj is taking advantage of her diversion to subtly shepherd the students back to the Falcon.
“That’s not an option,” says the lieutenant. She can hear the unease now in his voice, although he’s taking pains to conceal it. Of course he finds it discombobulating that Rey would think to command him. “If you don’t come willingly, we’ll be forced to shoot.”
“Your mistake,” says Rey. She thumbs the activator switch on her saberstaff and plants her back heel as it thrums to life, singing in her hand. This she’s good at. This she knows. “You know who I am. You know what I’ve done.”
“Set to stun,” says the lieutenant. The stormtroopers shift to a firing stance.
Rey raises her saberstaff and readies herself for the volley, preparing to deflect as many bolts as she can.
And the first TIE fighter explodes in the sky.
War is monotony punctuated with brief periods of action.
At least, this is how it seems to Kylo Ren from the seat of the Grand Imperator. Oh, sometimes he gets to lead conquests against rebellious systems, his lightsaber burning in his hand as his army overtakes the planet— but that happens more and more infrequently as of late. After he ascended to the head of the First Order, most systems had quivered and bowed before the might of the force that had wiped out Hosnian Prime in a blink. The ones who hadn’t were summarily punished and made to bend the knee.
But that had only lasted so long, and then it became swatting at rumors of rebels as though they were flies, languidly shooting down Hux’s proposals for new superweapons, and waiting for Rey to show her face. The boredom alone would drive any man to near madness; Kylo’s simmering anger at the woman who had refused him took him the rest of the way. The only thing that broke through the haze had been the students the Force kept shoving at him, children who needed their talents nurtured in order to thrive.
And if he doesn’t nurture them, the universe asked, then who will?
For now, he has delegated that task to the woman he loves. For now, the Conquest II drifts in the Deep Core, near Vulpter. And Kylo drifts with it in the war room, seated at the large black hexagonal table with the emblem of the First Order writ large across its surface. They should really change that out.
There are a few empty seats around the table. The positions of generals who had deserted with Hux had not been filled in the weeks since his attempted coup. The remaining faces are either old—officers who had been contemporaries of Hux’s father, and regarded the son as a menace—or far too young—those promoted before their time who feared Kylo too much to cross him.
And FN-2187, of course. That is another thorn in Kylo’s side.
FN is speaking now, relaying the latest reports from the Resistance spies. He is an emphatic speaker, but the subject matter is nothing new: murmurs that Hux might be sending scouts out to poke at the Imperium’s defenses near the Western Reaches—
“And sightings of unauthorized TIE fighters near Batuu…” FN frowns and trails off, glancing briefly down at a datapad that rests on the table in front of him. “One of the last stopovers before entering the Unknown Regions. If the First Order were to block that route…”
Kylo watches FN’s face as he speaks. A handsome man, a brave man, a fairytale hero, not unlike his close compatriot, Poe Dameron— another thorn. And Rey enjoys his company. She is happy to have him with her on the Conquest II. Kylo has seen them from afar, sitting together in the mess hall, or chatting outside of their rooms; her shoulders aren’t as rigid, her forehead less creased.
He envies FN for that. No, not because he thinks FN is a contender for Rey’s heart. If she asked, he would have her. It’s obvious. She doesn’t ask, but she enjoys his company. She willingly spends time with him, and he with her. Kylo breathes out. Would that he and Rey could have that kind of easy companionship, that casual intimacy, instead of wanting to perish whenever they spoke to one another, for lack of words, for lack of knowing which words might suffice.
Even embarrassment is a feeling, even misery— he supposes he should count himself lucky. He knows she harbors other feelings, under a surface she won’t dare scratch. He thinks she might know what they are.
Rey knows his. Of that, there is no doubt.
FN-2187 continues to speak, but Kylo doesn’t register his words, lost to thoughts of Rey. Not long ago, Hux had handed her the opportunity to kill him. Whatever the reason, whether it simply wasn’t her mission or—as Kylo had thought—her heart wouldn’t allow it, she chose to do otherwise. He supposes he should at least be grateful for that, even in the face of her deceit. Still, he has now seen her in battle many times, and he thinks that Rey would be a lovely way to die. It would be a personal death, one full of clarity and intent and knowing— like the death he once said he would give her. She is a vision when she fights, when her lips curl back in a snarl and her loose hair sticks to her sweat-slick skin and her face flushes with exertion…
As his unguarded thoughts stray toward Rey, she seeps into his consciousness. He feels her, not just as a slight tightening in his trousers, but as a slight trickle of awareness, a sense of being here and transported. This happens from time to time. It is taxing to maintain a vice grip on their bond, although he tries to keep it clamped shut until he thinks she is asleep. He lets a little of her in, then pushes her away. He strays a little, and then he comes back into himself. He is unwilling to drink too deeply from a well that does not belong to him.
But when he feels her this time, the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in alarm. The bond isn’t open enough for him to know exactly what’s happening, but he knows enough. Something is wrong.
Abruptly, he stands, placing both his hands on the table. He draws a deep, shuddering breath, feeling panic wash away any lingering arousal. Then he turns for the door.
FN-2187 seems bothered by this. “Hey, wait. Are you leaving?”
Kylo ignores him.
FN doesn’t take the hint. “You can’t just walk out. What’s going on?” Some of the younger officers glance at each other nervously. They know it’s dangerous to tell Kylo Ren what he can and can’t do.
While Kylo knows he owes this man no explanation, he remembers Rey, an echo of a memory, sitting at the pre-gala party with her as she had argued passionately against the violent quashing of an insurrection. She had paid attention. She would want him to be similarly engaged. He can spare two words.
So he says, “It’s urgent.”
And those two words make him realize that if it is urgent—if Rey is truly in peril—then he will not reach her in time from the Deep Core. He swallows, and commands one of the junior officers, “Send the nearest medical frigate and two Star Destroyers to the rendezvous point at Rago.”
“Rago?” FN repeats. It takes a moment for all of the pieces to click into place. Then, he straightens. “Rey.”
Now the blind man sees.
Kylo does not acknowledge his epiphany. He says to the same officer, a long-faced young man, “Prepare the Harbinger.”
He thinks he sounds collected. He must not, because FN begins to move around the table and says, “I’m going with you.”
“It’s Rey,” FN insists. “I’m going with you.”
Kylo exhales through his nose. And, not because he has been persuaded, but because it’s what Rey would want, he acquiesces. “If you must.”
“Yeah,” says FN-2187. “I must.”
War is chaos, Rey has learned, no matter how orderly anyone tries to make it. The precise columns of Stormtroopers break apart the minute Rey starts deflecting their volleys with her saberstaff. The bolts she aims back at the Troopers merely stun—thank the Force they’re not fatal—but that’s incentive enough for the white-armored soldiers to scatter and avoid getting hit.
But even in the scattering there’s some formation, and she sees them breaking off into groups of three or four; one Trooper kneeling in the front, two behind. There’s still a good amount of distance between her and them, and, as far as she can tell, an even greater distance between them and the students, which is what really matters.
For her part, Jess Pava is doing a good job of keeping the big guns occupied. She leads the remaining TIE fighter in a hopeless chase. The assault lander’s gunner keeps swiveling his turret around, trying to get a better shot at her instead of providing cover to the Troopers. She sees Jess weaving in and out, trying to get the TIE between her and the assault lander so its blaster cannon will do the work for her. Clever. It should work. It has to work.
The sounds of blasterfire and the screech of the TIE blur together into a shrieking, near-deafening background noise, making it near impossible to hear anything. Rey is thankful that Rikaj has a comlink in his helmet.
“Qwyn’s up and we’re nearly around,” he says. She has the comlink tucked into her parka’s collar, but he still sounds faint. “Almost a straight shot to the Falcon from here.”
“I’ll start bringing up the rear,” Rey says, taking a few steps back. Warning tingles on her skin, and she sidesteps one blaster bolt, powers down her saberstaff, and rolls into a somersault to avoid two more.
One blast goes wide over her head and breaks off a massive chunk of the glacier, which falls to the ground with an earth-shattering crack. Rey rolls behind the ice boulder to catch her breath. It holds, for now. She pulls the comlink out of her collar. “Say when you’re clear,” she pants. “Don’t want them near you.”
There’s a pause, and Rey makes out some distant shouting. Rikaj exclaims, “Maybe too late for that!”
Rey risks a glance around the ice and nearly has her nose taken off by a blaster bolt. She looks again, raises a hand to freeze the next bolt that comes her way, and sends it ricocheting back at the assault lander, where it fizzles out harmlessly against the still extant shields.
Two groups—six men still standing, two fallen—keep Rey pinned down by covering fire while the other dozen or so Troopers, including their commander, have broken off. They head for the students now. Rey gasps. She’s the one the lieutenant recognized. She’s the one they should want. They should be coming for her.
Maybe they think the students are easier targets.
They are mistaken.
Rikaj, quickest to grasp the changing reality of their situation, pivots around and raises his long blaster rifle at the charging Stormtroopers. Rey has never seen one quite like it before— nor has she seen what it’s capable of. He fires off one long, rippling blast, a pulse that knocks four of the soldiers flat on their backs.
“Evens the odds,” she hears him mutter over the comlink, presumably to himself. Then he raises his voice, and shouts, “I only had one of those. Simon, Qwyn, protect the girls, I’ve got—”
Whatever he has, he doesn’t get the chance to tell them about it. The fire focuses now on him, and he focuses on returning it. But Qwyn doesn’t need telling twice. With a yell, she charges toward the Stormtroopers, her new lightsaber in her hand, its blade glowing green. Simon takes a few steps after her, but hangs back.
Rey makes another overture at leaving the shelter of her boulder again, only for another shot to narrowly miss her and hit the glacier behind her, which cracks ominously. She growls. If that comes down on her head, they’ll all be—
There’s an idea.
Rey raises her hand, reaching for the Force. It flows slowly through her, more slowly than it should, and she strains to exert control over it. Sweat beads on her brow as she feels the Force in the glacier, the places where it holds firm, the places where it’s cracking.
She presses on it, just a little at first, and then with more confidence. And in that moment, as time seems to freeze, several things happen at once.
The section of the glacier above Rey’s head explodes outward, showering the Stormtroopers with icy shards and leaving her unscathed.
The second TIE goes down in flames as Jessika Pava finally gets the drop on it.
Rikaj shoots the blaster out of the lieutenant’s hand. The lieutenant detaches a Z6 riot control baton from his belt.
And another Stormtrooper, one bringing up the rear of the group still advancing on the students, lobs a canister in their direction. It clatters on the ground between Simon and Tamar.
There is a lull in the exchange of blasterfire. Rey hears hissing, but sees no smoke. In that momentary quiet, above the crackling of the baton’s electric currents, she desperately yells, “Don’t breathe!”
Then Jess begins firing on the assault lander, and all hell breaks loose once again.
She can’t tell if the students hear her, but they seem to understand instinctively that the canister is a danger to them. Kaela coughs once, then Tamar roughly shoves her away from from the invisible gas. Qwyn is far enough ahead to be out of danger, but Simon and Tamar seem to get a good whiff of whatever it is, and Tamar doubles over almost immediately, one hand pressed to her forehead.
Simon coughs too, and tries to take a few steps toward Qwyn, then his knees seem to give out, and he falls forward. He’s able to steady himself with one hand, then rolls onto his side and lays still on the ground. Qwyn must notice her friend out of the corner of her eye, because she freezes in place, halfway to the Troopers who’d thrown the canister. She turns her head back to look at him, but she doesn’t move to help.
“No!” Rey shouts. “Qwyn!”
All color has drained from the girl’s face. She looks from Simon, to the Stormtroopers, to Simon again. And even as the enemy approaches, she stays in place.
With a shout, with fear and fury, Rey slams her hand out against an invisible wall and sends the last two soldiers near her flying backward. They land with a clatter in a two-man heap, but she doesn’t look at them. She runs to Qwyn, who appears to be paralyzed by something Rey can neither sense nor see.
Behind Qwyn, Rikaj engages the lieutenant in melee combat with his blaster, which seems to no longer be operational for some reason. He holds it two-handed, mostly using it to parry attacks from the baton. When he finds his opening, he jabs the business end of his dysfunctional weapon between the chest and abdominal plates of his opponent. The lieutenant lets out an “oof,” and falls to his knees.
Kaela has gotten Tamar to her feet, an arm around her shoulder, but is having difficulty dragging her to the Falcon. Tears trails shine on her cheeks. She’s saying something that Rey can’t quite hear— Rey thinks it might be her girlfriend’s name.
“I’ve got her, I’ve got her,” says Rikaj, coming to Tamar’s other side and wrapping an arm around her waist. Tamar is limp, like a rag doll. “Run to the Falcon. Can you fly? All right, good. Start getting her ready.”
Kaela jerks her head in assent, then sprints forward. The Falcon is only a couple of hundred meters away now, her ramp still lowered, her interior well-lit and inviting. Rey wishes again that Chewie were here; he’d have the Falcon off the ground the second they were all inside. With no one aboard now, it’ll take them precious extra minutes to get flying.
But Rey can’t think about that until they’re all accounted for. There is only surviving this moment. There is only the now. And she has to get Qwyn and Simon to safety.
She gulps down a deep breath stops beside Qwyn. She eyes the canister nearby, but it seems to no longer be hissing, having already expelled whatever its contents were. No time to wonder now. Keep moving.
“Qwyn!” she exclaims, grabbing the girl by her shoulder and giving her a brisk shake. “What’s wrong?”
Qwyn blinks, and seems to come back to herself. She stares, wide-eyed, at Rey, then looks back down at Simon. “He’s—”
“I’ll get him,” Rey assures her. “Can you cover me?”
Qwyn gives her a brief nod of assent, a soldier’s nod, then turns her back to Rey and raises her newly-constructed lightsaber again. Rey hears the change in the thrum as the bullets strike her blade.
She powers down her own saberstaff and works on getting Simon up from the ground. He is completely unconscious, dead weight; boys are always so much heavier than they look. With the aid of the Force, she hefts him over one of her shoulders. It’s not graceful, and Rey is privately thankful that Simon is as skinny as he is so she can keep him balanced.
“I’ve got him,” she yells to Qwyn. “To the Falcon, come on!”
And thank the Force for Jess Pava, because at that very moment she finishes wearing down the assault lander’s shields and blows it out of the sky. The last half-dozen Stormtroopers still standing fire off rounds as Rey and Qwyn retreat, but the explosion distracts them and their shots mostly go wild. Rey barely notices her breath coming short and ragged as she runs—all she sees is the Falcon’s ramp growing closer and closer.
Kaela raises the ramp as soon as they set foot on it. They’re halfway up when Qwyn slips, her boots damp from her excursion in the glacier, and in a moment of sheer panic Rey thinks they might lose her. But she steadies herself and practically falls into the corridor. Rey gently lowers Simon down as Rikaj jogs over to her.
“Make sure they’re secure,” she tells him, and he nods— he’s used to obeying orders. Then she bolts to the cockpit to get them off this planet for good.
It’s only after they’re in the air and speeding for the border of the Unknown Regions that Rey briefly turns the controls over to Rikaj and Kaela, and heads to the ‘fresher to be sick.
“Rey,” he says.
Rey springs to her feet, on guard before he can even approach her. “Ben,” she says. Then a second later, as if embarrassed at forgetting herself, she adds, “I’m fine.”
The journey back from the Unknown Regions takes too long— far too long, covering far too much distance. There is no direct hyperspace lane that connects Ilum to the greater galaxy, and the Millennium Falcon’s frantic flight stretches on and on, even with the combined forces of the Falcon’s advanced navicomputer and the Imperium’s shockingly thorough navigational charts. The initial estimate had been ten hours to reach Rago, but that didn’t account for the extra swerves and jumps the Falcon must execute to avoid being tracked by the enemy, which add minutes, which become even more hours.
Hours longer than Rey can afford, especially when the Falcon carries such precious cargo.
Rey’s confident pre-battle pronouncement had been correct. None of her people had died. But she feels like she’s failed all the same for not having been able to completely protect them from harm. Tamar and Simon, despite the efforts of Qwyn and Kaela, of Rikaj, of Rey herself, still haven’t woken up. They simply won’t. Or—the more more frightening possibility—they can’t.
They can’t wake up.
Several Stormtroopers, maybe more, had been left alive on Ilum. Rey assumes the lieutenant in charge is among them, based on how Rikaj had struck him down. That’s fine. Rey doesn’t care. She’s glad for fewer casualties. Jess Pava had taken out the assault lander and both TIEs, so it would be awhile before the First Order survivors left the planet. But they will get off world. The scouting party’s absence will be noticed— especially if the First Order suspected a Jedi or other Force-sensitive being on Ilum when they were dispatched. So the survivors will be rescued, and they’ll tell Armitage Hux what they have seen.
Hux might scoff at the Force, at the Jedi way, but Rey is certain that he’ll be able to put two and two together and figure out that she’s gathering kyber crystals. He should know that Ilum was mined for the Death Star, and presumably that the Death Star was based on lightsaber tech. Not only will he know what Rey had come to do, he’ll know why. He’ll know that she’s arming her students.
Rey doesn’t think that knowledge will be of much use to him, but she can’t be sure. His soldiers had only engaged with non-fatal stun blasts and that mysterious gas. He clearly wants them alive for some reason, and Hux is not a man given to whims.
But she can’t worry about that right now. First the task at hand, then everything else. For the past eighteen hours she’s piloted the Falcon with barely any breaks, because Tamar and Simon—
Rey streaks past the border of the Unknown Regions to find a medical frigate—newer, Imperium make—awaiting her just outside of Rago, flanked closely by two Resurgent-class Star Destroyers. The distress call she sent from the Unknown Regions must have gone through. She hadn’t been sure any of the right people would hear it. Unless Ben—Kylo—no. He has been more than clear about his intention to keep their bond closed. It was the distress call.
She brings the Falcon in for a landing that’s a little too hot; it rockets into the hangar and brakes just in time to avoid a major catastrophe. Rey touches the ship down, lowers the ramp, and dashes out.
Two hover-stretchers and half a dozen medics, human and droid alike, await her. Rey looks out at them wildly, then points behind her. “They’re— up there,” she pants. She hadn’t realized that she was so out of breath. “Two of them—crew quarters—I’ll show you.”
She sprints back up the ramp, the medical staff rushing into the Falcon’s narrow hallways behind her. Dimly, she registers Jess Pava’s X-Wing following the Falcon into the hangar, then the jolt as the First Order ships all make the jump to hyperspace once she’s landed safely. Presumably their cohort will regroup somewhere closer to the Mid-Rim, where the Conquest II or another First Order vessel awaits them.
Rikaj stands guard outside the door to the crew quarters, but moves aside when he sees Rey and the medics. Inside the room, Kaela sits on the side of the bunk where Tamar might simply be sleeping, and Qwyn sits on the floor by Simon’s bunk, watching him anxiously.
Rey nods to the medical professionals that they can take it from here; this is firmly their purview, not hers. They maneuver into the room with surprising ease given the cramped quarters, load the two unconscious adolescents onto the hover-stretchers with care, then bear them away, out of the Falcon, out of the hangar, toward the main medcenter. Kaela springs to her feet and follows them immediately, Rey and Rikaj a step or two behind her. It’s only when they near the doors to the somewhat imposing and extremely sterile-smelling diagnostic wing that Rey notices Qwyn lagging behind them.
“Oi,” Rey says. “Come on. They’re probably going to want to run tests on you too, if you were exposed to that gas.”
“Yeah,” is the sullen reply.
This is the moment where Rey reminds herself to slow down. They’re out of danger now. The injured students are receiving medical care. Her focus had been so narrowed in on getting them to this point that she hadn’t stopped to think about what Qwyn might need. Something had happened to her, out on that battlefield. She froze. It’s not very like Qwyn to just— freeze, and now Rey can feel the heavy clouds of blame hovering over her brow.
Rey slows her pace, falling back next to Qwyn. “Oi,” she says again, but softly this time, gently, with concern. “What’s going on?”
Qwyn turns her face away from Rey. There are tears in her eyes. “Leave me alone.”
Rey hesitates for a second. What can she tell a scared teenage girl? What would she want to hear if she were a scared teenage girl? “Qwyn,” she tries, “I know I’m probably the person you least want to talk to right now. But I also know you’re worried about Simon. He’s in good hands now, and it’s not your fault—”
“Go away!” Qwyn erupts, turning on Rey. There is fury in her face, although not, Rey thinks, the sort of fury that’s directed outwardly. “You have no idea about— about what it feels like! He fell, I saw him fall and I just, I just—” She pushes at Rey’s arm. “Just leave me alone!”
She storms away into the medcenter, leaving a befuddled Rey staring after her.
Rikaj takes a few steps back to stand beside Rey, watching the doors shut behind Qwyn’s small, angry figure. He takes off his mask, now that they’re relatively alone, and shakes out his coiled braid. “You’re right,” he says. “What happened isn’t her fault.”
“But why does she think it was?” Rey asks. “She couldn’t have kept the Stormtroopers from throwing that gas canister. If she wants to blame anyone, I’m right here.”
“Hey, no,” Rikaj chides. “You protected those kids as well as you could. You couldn’t have known they’d use that knockout gas or whatever it was.” He pauses. “I saw Qwyn. She froze.”
Rey turns her head. “That’s not uncommon,” she says slowly. “First real battle’s always a shock. But I’ve seen her in combat training, and in the simulations. She’s always on the offense. She never stops moving.”
“Sure,” Rikaj agrees. “She’s a good little soldier. It’s what she was trained to be.”
Something about the way he says that nags at Rey, like a loose thread in an intricately woven tapestry. She tugs on the thread until she recalls a conversation she and Kylo once had in a cell on the Conquest II, what seems like ages ago. How, Kylo asked her, was he supposed to deny the will of the Force when it kept shoving pupils in front of him? The first one had been…
Rey straightens. “She was his first student. Kylo’s. She was the Stormtrooper girl.”
Rikaj nods. “Yeah, she was. And they’re trained to leave fallen comrades behind.”
“Finn’s mentioned that.” That and a number of other disturbing things about the way they train Stormtroopers. Rey frowns. “So, Simon— she thought she should have left him?”
“Not exactly. She saw him go down, and the part of her…“ Rikaj taps his temple. “She had her weapon in hand, so the programming told her to engage. But the part of Qwyn that’s not just the sum of what she’s been told to do wanted to help her friend.” He pauses, then adds, “They’re a tight-knit bunch. Really care about each other. Even when they squabble.”
Rey nods. Qwyn had been giving Simon a tough time just that morning when they were talking about her kyber crystal. But it strikes her now as the sort of comradely bickering she’s observed sometimes between siblings. The smallest skittermouse in the colony nipping at a larger one’s tail. To think that her training since birth had told Qwyn to set that aside in favor of maybe just cutting down one or two of the enemy and likely getting herself killed turns Rey’s stomach.
She exhales. “Stormtrooper programming gets in deep. Finn says that even now, he wakes up reciting their mantras. And it’s been years.”
Rikaj shakes his head again, hooks his thumb in his belt loop. “Poor kid,” he says, looking at the medcenter doors. “I need to have a think about how I’m going to report all of this to… him. But if you need me, just shout.”
“Thanks, Rikaj,” Rey says. “And— thank you for coming with me. Without you…”
“You would’ve been fine,” he says, with a conspiratorial little nod. “There’s a reason, y’know.”
“A reason for what?”
“A reason he likes you so much.”
Rey feels her cheeks tingle with warmth. She doesn’t exactly want to get into whether she likes Kylo or Kylo likes her with one of his trusted Knights. So she deflects. “You’re veering into dangerous territory here.”
He flashes her a grin. Possibly not as wide or as bright a grin as he might have given her under less dire circumstances, but a grin all the same. “Just habit,” he says. “Can’t turn it off. S’not personal.”
Rey sighs. “Some day, you’ll have to take something seriously.”
“Fighting and flirting I take seriously,” Rikaj says. “I’ve found nothing else is really worth it. Here, I’ll wait outside the medcenter while you stay with the kids. You look like you could use the rest.”
She opens her mouth, about to protest that she’s not tired, that she could stand outside the medcenter, but then she notices for the first time the hairs poking out of Rikaj’s normally sleek, shiny braid, the faint traces of circles under his dark eyes, the stubble on his chin and cheeks. They’re all weary. He’s just offering Rey a moment’s reprieve from the stress. She must seem even worse off, if he’s being selfless in her direction.
Rey rubs her face. “All right,” she says. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
Rikaj shrugs. “This way I get to watch for any cute doctors going in and out.”
“By the Force,” Rey mutters, but a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. She shakes her head, then goes into the medcenter to sit next to Kaela.
It takes Kylo Ren longer than it should to rid himself of FN-2187.
Bad enough that the man insists on accompanying him aboard the Harbinger as it journeys through hyperspace to meet Rey’s escort near Glee Anselm. Even worse that FN elects to stand with Kylo on the bridge, anxiously watching the blue-white-purple of hyperspace stream past the forward viewports. Kylo would much rather fret over Rey’s fate alone and undisturbed. Even that small luxury he is denied. Unbelievable.
He knows the root cause, of course. The former Stormtrooper is obviously eager to see Rey, verify her wholeness or whatever condition she is in. Kylo can’t fault him for that. He would be a hypocrite. But it’s one thing to know on a theoretical level the close ties Rey shares with her friends, and another to see the strings binding them together. Rey shouldn’t need anyone else, a voice whispers in his mind, dark and sinister. Rey had him. Rey has him.
But, unfortunately, the stability of the Imperium-Resistance truce is somewhat dependent on FN-2817, and Kylo does need the Resistance’s intel. He’s not sure how many of the Imperium’s spies he can trust, how many might secretly be working for the First Order. He isn’t certain that he can trust the Resistance either, but at least if the two sides confirm each others’ information he can be reasonably certain that it’s true. And he may yet be able to trust his mother’s intentions, although it’s much safer to assume he can’t. Either way, it would be a political mistake to damage the two sides’ relations by being cruel to Rey’s best friend.
Treating people diplomatically is not exactly Kylo’s strong suit.
When they catapult out of hyperspace to see the small medical frigate and the two Star Destroyers escorting it, Kylo turns to FN-2187, looks at him, and pivots on his heels to go. The message here should be obvious.
“No,” says FN, spinning around to follow him. “We are not doing this again. You’re not leaving me behind.”
Kylo turns his head to give the stubborn man a withering glare. That usually works. But FN just picks up the pace to try and stay at Kylo’s side.
“You don’t have the clearance—”
“Like hell,” FN-2187 snaps.
They’re out in the hallway now, the stubborn rebel still on Kylo’s heels. The medical frigate is surely docking in one of the Harbinger’s hangars now. Kylo’s skin itches with impatience, but he doesn’t want to have this man present when he sees Rey and the pupils—
He exhales. Of course. They both care about Rey’s comfort. He says, “I’ve asked for the empty officers’ quarters to be prepared for guests.”
“And? What does that have to do with me?”
“And if you could oversee the preparations,” Kylo says through gritted teeth. “Make sure the rooms are suitable for Rey. I’ll send her up once she’s cleared.”
FN’s eyes narrow. “And if she’s not cleared?”
Kylo doesn’t want to contemplate that possibility. What if the terrible thing he’s been dreading all this time has already happened? But he thinks he manages to hide that dread from FN-2187 when he says, “I’ll summon you.”
“You’d better,” FN mutters.
A feeble threat. What would FN-2187 do if he doesn’t make good on that promise? Challenge him to fisticuffs? Call his mother? Kylo wishes badly that he could just flick his wrist and send FN careening into a wall, but quickly reminds himself of all of the reasons he cannot. There’s the politics, and then, politics aside, Rey would be very cross with him.
But giving the man something to do works, and FN-2187 willingly parts ways with Kylo at the turbolift. Thank the Dark for small favors— although Kylo does miss the distraction when he spends the ride down to the hangar fidgety and alone, unable to do anything but fret over Rey’s fate.
His feet carry him to the medical frigate as if his body has no say in the matter. Officers, pilots, and Stormtroopers scurry out of his path, freeze, and salute him; he ignores them. All he cares about is getting aboard that frigate and finding out what’s become of Rey and the students. She isn’t dead— he would know. Wounded? Possibly. The Force protests the closing of their bond, and with her nearness he can sense her clouded aura. It has been stormy ever since their separation. Is there more depth to the darkness now?
The first person he sees when he boards the frigate is Rikaj, standing guard by the doors to the medcenter. He leans back against the wall with his eyes half-closed; he might be dozing.
“What happened?” Kylo demands. “Where is she?”
The Knight immediately snaps to attention. “Milord,” says Rikaj, inclining his head with due respect. “Rey and the students are inside.”
“Scans must have picked us up, and someone called for backup— not enough backup, so I’m not sure they knew exactly who they were dealing with. But they had some sort of gas that took out Simon and the Togruta girl. They’re still out, as far as I know, but they’re stable.”
Kylo’s throat tightens. “And Rey?”
“As I promised,” Rikaj says solemnly, “not a hair. Not that she needed my help much.”
Kylo closes his eyes and exhales. The younglings, the ones who were caught in the crossfire, stable. Rey, unharmed. They should never have gone, but— this is the best he could have hoped for. Given the way misfortune plagues him, it would have been too much to ask the Force for all of them to come back unscathed. At least none of them were killed.
“You’re dismissed,” he tells Rikaj. “I’ll want a full report later.”
“And call your sister.”
“Oh, kriff,” says Rikaj. He adds under his breath, “M’not a kid anymore.” But he hurries out of the frigate to find a holo-booth all the same.
Kylo looks after him for a moment, wondering what it feels like to know that someone out there is so concerned for your wellbeing that they’ll sit up waiting for the word that you’re safe. Then he turns to the medcenter doors, which part for him.
The medcenter that takes up the majority of this frigate reeks of sterilization. It’s pristine, clean, all white walls and sparkling floors. Kylo hates it. The smell, the shine, the blinding light, the steady beeping of various machines, it all reminds him of sitting next to Rey through the night, anxiously watching her for signs of change as a machine pumped air into her lungs, kept her blood rushing through her veins—
The voice startles him from his recollections. He looks for its source, and his eyes first find the monitors, flashing steadily with figures that represent the health of the person they monitor. Then his eyes travel downward, down the wires, and he sees Simon laying still on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily without aid. Something lurches in behind Kylo’s ribs, as if his steady heart has been jerked back by tight reins. The nodes connect to Simon’s arm and forehead, monitoring his pulse and brain activity. All seems normal— he might be sleeping, if Kylo didn’t know better. And if Qwyn weren’t at his side, looking down at him as though he were a dead man…
“Qwyn,” says Kylo.
The unshakeable girl is more shaken than Kylo has ever seen her. She sits on a narrow stool at Simon’s bedside, looking down at her friend. Without her normal prickly armor, she seems very small, and young.
“I failed,” she says.
Kylo feels a pang of guilt that his first thought was for Rey and only Rey. He hadn’t considered that the adolescents in his charge might have been… he has to try harder. That’s how it always is, isn’t it? Try harder. He never asked for any of this, but now he has it. He owes his pupils that.
Some would argue he owes the galaxy that, too. But one thing at a time. He doesn’t know exactly how to comfort a sad teenage girl, but he knows how to speak uneasy truths. So he says, “You didn’t.”
Qwyn fiddles with the hem of her black tunic.
“You didn’t,” Kylo repeats. “Is he dead?”
The girl looks up abruptly. “No!” she exclaims. “But—”
“Then you didn’t.”
Qwyn exhales sharply through her nose, an almost-snort. But she doesn’t contradict him. She just folds her arms and looks at Simon.
Kylo approaches the side of the cot. He reaches for the boy with two fingers, resting them gently against his forehead. Then, he closes his eyes. He feels the Force around him, as a cold and rainy tempest brewing within Qwyn, and in Simon, his bloodstream, his bones, his organs. Everything functions as it should—he would know if it didn’t, remembering the way Rey’s lifeless lungs had felt as he coaxed air into them—but there is a flatness to Simon, a lack of dimension. Kylo frowns. The boy is very much alive, but something—
He hears a small, fluttering gasp from his left, and turns his head.
There is another girl across the room, dark-skinned and red-haired, sitting at the bedside of another unconscious adolescent, holding one hand in two of hers. She looks at Kylo with eyes like saucers, and Kylo feels her heartbeat jump in the Force. Kylo has seen this girl before, and although he cannot recall her name, he knows her to be one of Rey’s students. And she is frightened of him.
“Rey!” the girl says in an urgent whisper.
And finally, Kylo sees her. She’s half-seated, half-laying on the cot behind the redheaded girl, reclining on her side against a firm, standard-issue pillow. It seems as though she might have been in the middle of dozing off, and she blinks, coming back to her surroundings. Her hair sits in a messy knot at the back of her neck, there are streaks of dirt or soot on her face, and she looks somewhat ashen, as if she hasn’t slept or eaten for the better part of a day. But she is here, and she is whole.
She is, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing that he has ever seen.
“Rey,” he says.
Rey springs to her feet, on guard before he can even approach her. “Ben,” she says. Then a second later, as if embarrassed at forgetting herself, she adds, “I’m fine.”
Kylo opens his mouth, then closes it, and looks at Simon and the other girl lying supine on their cots. Her defensiveness stings. What reason has he given her to be defensive? All he did was enter the room. But maybe that was enough for her.
He asks himself what he thought was going to happen. Did he think Rey would run to him upon seeing him, crying that he was right, that she should never have left the Conquest II? Did he think she would swoon into his arms, that he would hold her slim body close as she hid her face in his neck? He might have hoped that would be the case, but… of course it isn’t. If anything, his rightness has pushed her further into defensive anger.
By the Dark, he’s such a fool. The only person he knows who rivals Rey for stubbornness is his own mother.
Well, and himself.
“You are,” he agrees. “And them?”
Rey comes to stand in front of her two students, the one who cowers from him, the other who lies unconscious. She stares up into his face, as if challenging him. It’s a game that two of them can play. He doesn’t break eye contact with her. He couldn’t if he tried.
She folds her arms, grounds her stance. “Qwyn and Simon both found their kyber crystals,” she says. “Two of the four. They have lightsabers now.”
“Two of the four,” Kylo repeats. “Two of the four can’t speak for themselves.”
Rey flinches, but says, “The med droids say they’ll make a full recovery as soon as the toxin is out of their systems.”
“No one’s sure,” Rey admits. “No one’s seen anything like it before. But now we know that Hux is weaponizing some kind of gas—”
Kylo feels his temper rising. She’s missing the point. Deliberately? Or is it just her nature, to keep plowing forward with the practicalities and shove her emotions aside? A perfect Jedi, some would say. “Was it worth it?”
She stops, blinks at him. “What?”
“Two lightsabers, was it worth it?” He looks around the medcenter. “Was it worth this?”
“They tried to take the kids alive,” Rey says, her voice rising with his. “If they can’t defend themselves—”
She’s not understanding. She doesn’t understand. It has to be deliberate. Kylo brings his hand down on a nearby surgical tray with a thunderous crash, rattling the instruments on it. Something drops onto the floor. He doesn’t know what it is. He doesn’t care.
The redheaded girl lets out a pained whimper. Rey says, her voice low and hard, “That’s enough.”
“I tried to keep you from going,” he yells. “And now—”
“By the Light, Kylo Ren!” she yells right back. “No one died!”
“No one died but they could have! You could have!”
Rey stares at Kylo, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Kylo’s hand clenches into a fist. He knows he’s said too much. He says nothing more.
“This isn’t only about me,” she tells him. Her voice shakes with anger, with stubbornness. “This war is not about me! Our students have to be able to protect themselves because of things like what happened today, and if you think I’m just going to stand aside—”
Both of their mouths shut like sprung womp rat traps. They turn and see the supervising human physician, datapad in hand, striding down the length of the facility, nearly red with fury.
“There will be no yelling in my medcenter!” the indignant doctor exclaims. “Patients are resting in here. Recovering . I don’t care who you are— if you disrupt that, I’ll have—” She stops, registering Kylo’s presence for the first time, and says, “... Imperator.”
Rey and Kylo look at each other. She looks a bit sheepish. In this moment, even Kylo has the decency to bow his head, somewhat chastened.
“I’m so sorry,” Rey says to the doctor. “We’ll… take this outside.” She looks up at him. “Imperator?”
“Yes,” he says. “Jedi. We will.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Then you’re—” It dawns on Rey, and she says with incredulity, “You’re flirting with me.”
Happy New Year, everyone! I'm trying out a new workskin on this fic (that does my indents for me and also justifies all the text) so please let me know if anything looks wonky on your browser or screen.
I'm also very sorry to have fallen behind on comment replies. I'll try to get to them soon! Thanks for your patience. :)
Just like that, Rey finds herself standing outside of the medcenter next to her former lover, a man who is, according to some, one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy. The doors woosh closed perfunctorily at their backs, as if to punctuate their shared ejection from the room.
Rey chances a quick glance at him. Kylo’s eyes are red-rimmed, and stubble dots his chin and mustache, where it tends to grow in fast. He doesn’t seem like he’ll ever sport a full face of hair, like Poe did for a couple of ill-advised months. Just chin and mustache. She remembers sitting on the overlong counter in his washroom and watching him shave with a razor, of all things. So old-fashioned, and it suited him so well.
Her chest hurts. She continues her examination. Kylo may not have slept or shaven, but he did shower; his hair is soft and shiny, not lank and lifeless. And ever since he’s assumed the title of Imperator, he’s added a little more ornamentation to his clothing, a dash of color. Rey sometimes catches herself wondering if he’s dressed up for her, if he’s showered for her, if he still cares—then reminds herself that he has an Imperium to hold together. Of course he would—try. If he looked as though he weren’t holding it together entirely, his remaining leadership might yet try to gobble him up alive, as Hux had.
Kylo, for his part, looks down at a spot on the floor a meter or so in front of his feet, but when he feels her gaze he turns his head to meet it. Rey abruptly changes course and stares straight ahead.
“You took a risk,” he begins.
“Can we not do this now?”
“And this happens—”
“Kylo,” she says, and she tries to say it firmly but her voice breaks on the last syllable. “I’m exhausted.”
He looks at her. Is he surprised that she didn’t call him “Ben” again? He himself forbade that. Or is he surprised at her admission? It’s vulnerable, sure, but she shouldn’t have any issue being vulnerable with him, should she? He’s seen her naked. Even more than that, he’s seen her stripped of her emotional armor, the determination and stubbornness she uses like a shield. The denial.
Things are different now, Rey reminds herself. She might not be able to afford that vulnerability anymore. He thinks he can’t. Even in such close physical proximity to him, she is barred from feeling the emotions swirling within him through their bond. He won’t allow her to access them. She understands, but she doesn’t like it. She would kill to know what he’s thinking and feeling, to feel those things too, especially now, when his dark eyes change, when he looks at her with something akin to sadness.
“I’m sure you did all you could to protect—” he tries again.
“Don’t,” says Rey. “That’s worse. Just don’t.”
He works his jaw. “Right.”
Rey folds her hands in front of her. It’s something that he often does, but she realizes that only after she’s done it. “Where are we?”
“We’re on the Harbinger, heading back to the Conquest II.”
Rey nods. “Ships in ships,” she muses.
He gives her a concerned look. “You should rest.”
“Yes, I’d like to.”
“Ah— well. I’ll show you to your room.” Kylo pauses, and he adds, “FN-2187 is waiting for you there.”
“Finn?” Rey picks up her head. “He’s here? Why didn’t he come see me?”
“I thought it might be… crowded.”
Rey lets out an exasperated sigh. “You’re such a—”
“I want to see him.”
“Well,” Rey huffs, “good. And the students?”
“Have rooms too. They’ll be looked after. And the ones who were exposed to the gas will be transferred to the primary medcenter when we dock.” Kylo looks over his own shoulder. “Qwyn will likely want to stay here.”
“Kaela too,” Rey says softly. “Tamar—the Togruta you saw—is her…”
She trails off, not sure that detail is hers to share, even though it’s no secret. She feels a little foolish having brought it up.
Kylo swallows. She hears the note of guesswork in his voice. “They’re involved?”
“Practically attached at the hip,” Rey says. “That age. Feelings are— stronger. More intense. You know how it is.”
“Yes,” says Kylo, as though he does.
Does he? Perhaps. Rey certainly doesn’t. She’s not sure she was ever that age, even when she was sixteen. She feels a little like she might be that age now, standing beside Kylo, wishing she could lean against his shoulder, wishing he would let her in. She’d kill to know what’s in his head. She might die for a touch. What’s a little more death? She feels like she’s dying already, having been on her feet for so long.
She’ll be on them for longer yet. They begin to walk, leaving the medical frigate, whose name she never learned, and entering the far larger hangar of the Harbinger, crossing it together. A Resurgent-class Star Destroyer like the Harbinger is nowhere near as large as a Mega-class Star Dreadnought like the Conquest II, but it’s still nearly three kilometers in length. It may be a while before they reach the officers’ quarters, wherever those are.
Rey keeps pace with Kylo in uncomfortable silence. She doesn’t know what to do or say in his presence now. She knows for certain that she shouldn’t have added that detail about her students being romantically involved, not because it’s improper, but because she is now thinking about how she and Kylo are no longer involved. She wonders if he’s thinking the same. Of course she has no way of knowing because he is keeping their bond closed—
She feels as though the silence will smother her if she doesn’t say something to him. So she chooses a neutral topic. Safe. “We had downtime on Ilum,” she says, “before everything. I was doing some reading.”
“Don’t sound surprised. Just because I come from a backwater planet doesn’t mean I don’t know how to—”
“I’m not surprised,” Kylo says quickly. “I’m just— were you reading those texts I suggested?”
Maybe this isn’t as safe as she thought. Rey pointedly looks at anything but him. “I’m nearly finished them.”
“Hm.” He sounds pleased. “Not too dry?”
“More interesting than anything I’ve read in awhile.” She doesn’t explicitly mention the Jedi texts. She and Kylo haven’t directly discussed them yet, although she wouldn’t be surprised if he knew that she was in possession of them. “Your grandfather had quite the career, before he became Darth Vader.”
“There were some holos,” Rey says. “What I saw of him reminded me of you, a bit.”
“Really?” She actually sees a tinge of color in his cheeks. It makes him seem more alive. He’s almost unnaturally pale otherwise. “I wasn’t intending—I didn’t think—”
“No, and neither did he, much,” Rey teases.
Kylo exhales. “Ah.”
“But he was a good fighter. He sounds clever.”
Rey blinks up at him. He sounds affronted. No teasing, then. No joking like she would joke with her friends. “I know you do, B— Imperator.”
“I only seem to have trouble in certain situations.” He exhales. “Around certain people.”
It’s an opening Rey doesn’t take. Dangerous. She pivots away from it instead. “Well, I don’t know if you thought I wouldn’t notice that the first account you gave me was written by an Imperial scholar—”
“Was it?” Kylo asks, rhetorically.
“It spoke so scornfully of the Jedi that at first I thought you were trying to prove a point,” Rey says, and his mouth twitches. She hesitates, before admitting, “But even the accounts written in the New Republic era don’t paint them in an entirely flattering light, although they’re slightly less critical.”
“And they never should have been running the war.”
His eyebrows shoot up, but he says nothing. At that moment, luckily, they approach the turbolift leading up and out of the hangar. Kylo calls it, and they step inside together, but he still doesn’t cop to his intent. If that was the intent.
Rey takes the initiative, and cocks her head at him. “That’s what you wanted me to see.”
“It’s what I think,” he admits. “I was wondering whether you’d think the same thing.” He clears his throat. “And my— uncle—” He doesn’t name Luke Skywalker, and Rey wonders whether he’s divorced their family connection from the man. “—shared this view, in case you don’t trust my opinion.”
“Why wouldn’t I trust your opinion?” she asks, although she realizes how foolish the question is the second it leaves her mouth.
“No idea,” he replies, with that sardonic humor she’s come to know. Then, in case his point hasn’t been driven home, he adds, “People usually don’t.”
“Well, maybe if you didn’t—” Yell. Break things. Order villages destroyed. Rey sighs. Her throat is raw, and she doubts she has the energy to fan the flames of a proper fight. “Never mind. Then I agree with you and Luke Skywalker. And the two of you agree on something, which frankly I never would have expected you to admit.”
“It’s humiliating,” he agrees. It doesn’t take Rey long to discern that humor is the shell inside which hurt hides.
They could have ended the discussion there and spent the rest of their trip staring at the turbolift doors in silence, mentally willing it to go faster. But the subject they were discussing genuinely interests Rey, so she tries again. “I can see why you’d agree. The old Jedi were blind to their own failings, and too proud. The ideals they were supposed to adhere to as guardians of the peace didn’t mix all that well with leading armies. And I’m sure they never trained for command.”
Kylo says nothing, but he studies her closely, keenly focused with his hands clasped in front of him.
“And they were inconsistent,” Rey continues, indignation rising in her voice. “Why stage a full-scale intervention on Mon Cala and not on Onderon? The situations are similar enough. In a way they were both proxy conflicts for the larger war. On the one side, a ruler either neutral or allied with the Republic, on the other an illegitimate claimant backed by the Separatists.”
Kylo watches her appraisingly for a few moments more, apparently taking the time to consider what he might say next. Then he says, “The Jedi did involve themselves on Onderon.”
“Only in training and arming a rebel faction, not in any coordinated assault,” she retorts. “And when it really mattered, they were ordered to withdraw. If it hadn’t been for the one apprentice—one teenage girl—who should have been too young for war in the first place—”
“How old were you?” he asks suddenly.
Rey blinks and, her thoughts so unexpectedly derailed, can’t quite formulate a response. “What?”
“How old were you, when we fought on Starkiller Base?”
The rush of blood to her cheeks is so rapid she’s surprised she doesn’t hear a faint woosh, but she stands her ground. “Older than Ahsoka Tano.”
“But not by much.”
“Three years,” Rey points out. “And it’s been three more years since then. Three years makes all the difference in the galaxy.” She rubs at the side of her nose, thinking of her own students. “By the Force, only three years. How can that be possible? I feel so old.”
Kylo exhales, one of those short, mostly nasal exhalations that come with that accompanying brief throat hum that she recognizes as the beginning of one of his laughs, one of the genuine ones. And it’s a laugh, Rey knows, because he’s asking himself the same question, right now. Oh, she can’t be certain of that, since he won’t let her in his mind anymore, but she’s felt his body, felt the aches and pains, how war has aged him prematurely, and her. The Resistance gave him its fair share of metaphorical and literal headaches, even as his military junta, whatever its name, slowly and inevitably expanded its reach.
“All I mean,” says Kylo, and although he fights to keep his tone as even as possible, there’s a faint crinkle of true humor at the corners of his eyes, a slight curve to his full mouth, “is that you shouldn’t underestimate the will of one teenage girl. And I learned that from the best possible teacher.”
Her eyes trace the scar that runs from above his brow and disappears under his collar. She knows how it continues, curling down over his collarbone to his right pectoral. The heat in her cheeks spreads to her ears, and she looks down at her feet and mutters, “You’re mocking me.”
It’s said so softly, and so sincerely, that she finds herself looking back up at him again. “Then you’re—” It dawns on her, and she says with incredulity, “You’re flirting with me.”
Now it’s he who goes red. “I’m just—”
“Speaking the truth.”
The resulting heat that lances through her belly burns away any giddiness. Maybe Kylo meant it as a compliment, truly. But it might be an underhanded jab at how, from his point of view, she’s been untruthful with him. Rey makes up a reason to find the turbolift wall very interesting, and devotes herself to the study of it. From the corner of her eye, she sees Kylo, too, turn away.
And they remain like that, red-faced and not looking at each other, until the turbolift slows to a stop. When they hear the doors open with that pneumatic hiss, Kylo steps out first, as if he can’t wait to take leave of her. But he pauses, and says without turning his head, “I’ll send you the records of Voren Na’al. I think you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you,” Rey says, as impartially as she can manage, as if he’s nothing more than a librarian who’s given her a recommendation.
He gives her the slightest of nods, then turns on his heel and walks down the hall, leaving Rey to simply stand there, watching him go.
She turns. Running toward her is an extremely worried-looking Finn, dressed smartly in his makeshift costume: white shirt, fitted black trousers, dark blue jacket. It’s not exactly the First Order officers’ attire, but it’s not the comfortable earth tones he’d wear with the Resistance, either. He finishes running down the hallway just as Rey takes one step forward to receive him and envelops her in a tight hug.
“Thank the Light,” he says. “I’m so glad you’re okay. When I heard—”
“I know.” She exhales into his shoulder. “Thank you for coming.”
“I kind of insisted,” Finn admits, releasing her from the hug. “I don’t think he would have brought me otherwise. And then he made me hang back while he went to get you!”
“I’m so sorry,” Rey murmurs. “He can be a real laserbrain.”
“Yeah,” says Finn. “I know. How are the kids?”
Rey hesitates. She doesn’t know if she can recount what happened for the third time that day. “Two of them are fine,” she says. “The other two are— out, but they’ll be okay, or that’s what the med droids say. We were attacked.”
“Oh, Rey.” He rubs her arm. It’s nice. It feels good to be touched by someone, even if she still feels like she’s missing something. But the hand on her arm at least reminds her that she’s alive, even if she feels like she already has one foot in the grave.
“I’m tired,” Rey says. “I’m just so tired.”
“Let’s get you rested up.”
She nods, and lets Finn lead her to the room that’s been set up for her, dead on her feet. She doesn’t remember the walk. She doesn’t even remember the rest of their conversation.
But before her head hits the pillow, Rey remembers one important thing, and she says, “I need to ask you for a favor.”
Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader of the First Order, stalks the halls of his flagship. The Conquest II drifts on a slow course through the galaxy with purpose, and yet aimlessly, through the Western Reaches. If a follow-up attack comes from the First Order, it will come in this part of the galaxy, or near it. There are only so many places Hux’s navy could emerge from the Unknown Regions.
With Rey safe, the students safe, Kylo had taken the opportunity to steal some restless sleep as the Harbinger traveled through hyperspace. It docked two hours ago, and the students have been transferred to the Conquest II’s primary medcenter. As Rey had predicted, her conscious students had wanted to stay with their companions, who still hadn’t awoken. Kylo could not fault them for it. In their shoes, with revenge off the table for now, he would likely do the same.
Everything has gone so sideways. He had never wanted Rey to go on that mission, even though he understood its importance. It should have been him. The result might have been the same, but he would have been the one in danger, not her. She would have been here and safe. But he can’t leave his seat at the heart of the Imperium. It’s exhausting, but it’s his post, one he didn’t ask for but had taken up all the same. If not him, who? He will survive this war or work himself to death— and either way, it will all be over.
For now, he has people to protect.
His destination is the medcenter. During those rare lulls in his schedule, he has decided he will sit and watch Simon. It beats sleeping. Beats nightmares. Perhaps Qwyn will be inspired to break her vigil and rest. And the boy will wake up. He’s been assured of this. When he does, Kylo doesn’t want him confused and disoriented. He wants it known that he takes full responsibility for his care and his condition. And he always will.
It is the very early morning by standard time when he reaches the medcenter; only a couple of sentient staff should be on duty. Mostly droids, tending to the continuous care of the injured and ill. But when he walks through the doors, he hears voices in hushed conversation. The first belongs to Qwyn, who’s been spending every spare moment at Simon’s bedside, consumed with her guilt.
“She sent you, didn’t she?” An accusation. Kylo barely needs to guess to know that the “she” in question is Rey. There are few other people Qwyn would refer to with such spite. She has made her disapproval of Kylo’s taste in lovers very clear, although he had not ever solicited her opinion.
“She told me you needed help,” is the response.
Kylo does not take another step into the room. He knows that voice. That’s the smooth baritone of FN-2187. Rey’s closest friend. The traitor.
“I don’t need help,” Qwyn retorts. “I’m fine. Obviously.”
Kylo is proud of her, even though he knows she’s lying through her teeth. He steps aside, concealing himself behind a wall, and uses the Force to sharpen his hearing. Why is the traitor here? What could Rey think FN-2187 possibly has to offer to Qwyn that Kylo himself cannot?
“I see that,” says FN. “You know who I am?”
“You’re a traitor,” Qwyn practically snarls.
“Yeah, okay. So you do know who I am.” He hears springs creak as FN-2187 sits down on an empty cot. “But I know you’re kind of a traitor too, right?”
Qwyn is quiet for a second. “You don’t know me.”
“That’s true. We’ve only just met. But…” FN-2187 pauses. “I mean, I betrayed the First Order. You have too. You’re still here with Kylo Ren.”
Qwyn doesn’t say anything to him. Kylo’s brow furrows. What is he playing at? Is he trying to recruit his student to the Resistance? Could he and Rey possibly be this bold— and this stupid? His gut churns at the thought that Rey might be plotting to betray him again, right under his own nose.
“I mean, all your conditioning says you should be with Hux,” FN continues, and Kylo exhales.
“You have to shut up,” says Qwyn. “He’s sleeping. You’ll wake him up.”
A pause, and then FN asks, “Don’t you want him to wake up?”
“I want you to shut up,” Qwyn retorts. “I don’t care why you do it.”
“Just— give me a minute, okay? That’s all I ask. You’re not going anywhere, right?”
A raspy, exasperated sigh. “Fine.”
“I just thought you should know that you’re not alone,” FN begins.
“Oh yeah?” Qwyn asks, her voice rising. “How could you know what it’s like? How could any of you know what it’s like?”
“I know because sometimes I still wake up sweating, because I ran away,” FN says. He doesn’t raise his voice. It’s patient, but full of emotion. “I see my fallen squadmates when I close my eyes, or when I do training drills with the Resistance. I hear the phrases we used to listen to before we fell asleep. You still hear those?”
Qwyn is silent for a long minute, and then she admits, “Yeah.”
“Messed up,” FN says. “I was taught that Brendol Hux was the man responsible for everything we were. For you it would have been his son, right? That guy’s a piece of work.”
“He’s a traitor, too,” Qwyn sniffs. “Not me. He betrayed Lord Ren.”
“But that doesn’t mean all the crap he put in your head is gone,” FN points out. “You probably fight with yourself every day over it. You catch yourself thinking he’s a benevolent leader and not the enemy, and then you hate yourself a little bit. And you think, ‘I’m never going to be normal.’” He pauses. “And that’s why you froze up. Because maybe you’re not going to be normal.”
Kylo hears a smaller sniffle from Qwyn, and then a little sob. And he realizes that she’s crying. And he also realizes that he has no idea what to do. If he were to step out now, or even if he were simply there in FN’s place, trying to talk her through what she’s feeling, he wouldn’t know what to say to her.
But FN seems to know instinctively. He says, “But that’s okay. I’m not normal either. We can be not normal together.”
“I didn’t help him,” Qwyn admits, her voice soggy with tears. “I saw him fall. Maybe if I’d gone to get him up, he’d be okay. Maybe he wouldn’t have passed out all the way, and he’d just have been a little dizzy—”
“You can’t think like that,” FN tells her. “You don’t know what would have happened. Maybe you would have been knocked out too. Maybe they would have captured both of you.”
“But he’s my brother,” she shoots back. “Not in blood, but in allegiance. What if it happens again? What if I’m out with somebody else, and I just freeze?”
FN thinks for a minute, and then he asks her, “Do you ever worry that you’re not good enough?”
“Yeah,” Qwyn admits.
“Me too,” says FN. “All the time.”
This admission surprises Kylo Ren. Everything seems to come easily to FN. He and Dameron together are the poster children for rebellious heroism—FN perhaps moreso, for having overcome Stormtrooper conditioning. He’s smart. Handsome. He knows how to talk to Rey. And he hadn’t wanted to serve as the Resistance liaison, yet no one could accuse him of doing a subpar job. Surely he must only be saying this to make Qwyn feel better?
Yet Kylo senses no lie in the former Stormtrooper’s heart. This is sincerity. For whatever reason, FN is being sincere. Perhaps he’s simply kind.
“But we go on anyway, right?” FN continues. “This time you froze. So you learned something about yourself. You know how it affects you when the people around you get hurt. And next time, you won’t freeze. Because next time, you’ll be ready.”
Qwyn sniffles again for another minute or so. Then, she says, “You walked away from it like it was nothing. Like it didn’t mean anything to you.”
“No,” FN says. “I walked away because I knew I couldn’t cut it. I was a bad Trooper. Maybe you are, too. But that means we can just be good at something else.”
“I’m not a very good Jedi,” Qwyn puffs.
“No, but I don’t think your— boss? Teacher?” There’s a pause; Kylo clearly imagines Qwyn shrugging. “Well, I don’t know that he wants Jedi, either. And he and I might not see eye to eye, but he sees something in you. So you gotta trust him on that one.”
“But you hate him.”
FN hesitates. “I don’t… not hate him.”
“I knew it.”
“But someone very special to me likes him a lot,” FN admits, and Kylo’s stomach tightens. “So I have to think… I don’t know. Somewhere in there, there’s someone who knows what he’s doing a little bit. Maybe just when it comes to you guys.”
“That’s encouraging,” says Qwyn with obvious sarcasm. She already sounds a bit less sad, and a bit more like her usual self.
“If you ever want to talk more about it, you know where to find me. If anything ever happens again, or even if it doesn’t. I’m around.”
“Don’t you like, have a job?”
“Technically.” There’s a pause. “But this is important to me. There aren’t a lot of people like us. We have to stick together.”
There’s a note of skepticism in Qwyn’s voice when she asks, “And you’re not just doing this because she told you to?”
“Rey’s the one who told me about you, but nah. I care.” Qwyn lets out a little disbelieving exhale, and FN adds, “I know she cares, too.”
“Ugh.” There’s another sniffle, and then shifting. Kylo thinks Qwyn might be wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Whatever. You wouldn’t get it.”
“She made sure you guys all got back, right?”
“I mean, I guess,” Qwyn admits. “You wouldn’t get it because you don’t have the Force. You can’t feel it.”
Another silence stretches out for a little too long, and then FN asks, “Is this about Kylo Ren? Is it a Kylo Ren thing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You really want to take his side? That guy’s a— mess.”
Kylo can tell that FN edited himself there, but Qwyn doesn’t seem to notice. “So what?” is her heated response. “Without him I wouldn’t even know there were other people like me. I wouldn’t know how to use the Force. I wouldn’t even have a point! I’d just have washed out the Stormtrooper program because I’m too short. I wouldn’t be anything without him.”
FN seems about as floored by this outburst as Kylo himself is to overhear it. He had always known he had Qwyn’s loyalty, but he hadn’t known he also had her respect. People seem to fear him much more than they respect or love him. And teacher was simply another role he hadn’t asked for, one that the Force had handed him with no regard for whether it suited him. He had told Rey as much, when she discovered the secret of his students. He understands why the Force had chosen her to teach. She has the temperment. She is unscarred by past teachings, fresh and clean. He doesn’t, he isn’t.
But on a day where everything has gone sideways, it helps somewhat to know he’s done one thing right, somehow, for someone.
“I… huh.” FN considers this. At last, he asks, “You really think you would’ve washed out because you’re too short?”
“I am too short.”
“Not because you care too much about other people?”
“Shut up. You don’t know anything.” Then, smugly, Qwyn goes for the killing blow. “You care too much about other people.”
Despite their circumstances, Kylo has to stifle a low chuckle.
“Yeah, I do,” FN admits to Qwyn. “You included. Do you think you can try to go to bed? You’ve been up for a long time, and you won’t help your friend by sitting here driving yourself crazy.”
“Maybe.” Qwyn yawns, as if being reminded of her fatigue made her aware of it for the first time. Kylo hears her plant her feet on the floor and stand. “You’re okay, for a traitor.”
“You’re welcome,” says FN, unruffled. “C’mon. Get out of here so I can go to bed.”
Qwyn sighs one last exaggerated sigh, then goes. FN follows her out the main medcenter doors. In the darkness, with the glow panels low, they pass Kylo without noticing him. He continues to look after them even once the doors have closed behind them, and they’ve gone.
Then he goes to Simon’s cot, glances at the monitors that show his life signs are still stable, and sits on the little stool nearby, taking Qwyn’s place at his side.
Rey awakens to a hand on her shoulder. It takes her a moment to recalls where she is— her first instinct is to call her saberstaff to her hand. But it barely rattles on the nightstand before she remembers herself. She’s on a firm mattress in a room on the Harbinger, sleeping off one of the worst days she’s had in a good few weeks.
“Woah,” says a voice. The voice is Aylu’s. Rey turns her head. The hand on her shoulder is Aylu’s. Kylo must have sent her to wake Rey up. That would make sense. All of her thoughts surface slowly, as if they’re swimming through treacle.
“How long was I asleep?” she asks, groggily.
“Almost fourteen hours,” Aylu reports. “You alright?”
“Been better,” Rey grunts, pushing up to a seated position. There’s no part of her that isn’t sore. Her legs burn, her back aches. She rubs her eyes. “But I’m in one piece. Simon and Tamar?”
“Still out, but they’re not any worse. Your girl’s still in the medcenter with them. Qwyn went to bed a while ago.”
“No worse is— good.” Rey massages her forehead, yet another part of her that throbs. She wonders if Finn had a chance to speak with Qwyn, and if that helped at all. She’d have to ask him.
Aylu nods. “Yeah, it is. You eaten?” Rey shakes her head, and the Knight scoffs. “I’m no medic, but I think caf and some grub will set you straight. And a wash. I’ll send for a droid.”
“Not a problem. Checking up on you is one of my easier tasks.”
Rey groans. “Tell him I don’t need to be minded, would you?”
“I can pass that along, but I can’t promise to get through to him.” Aylu pauses, then adds, “He’s preoccupied with something of late, but I’ve no idea what. You have any thoughts?”
Rey shakes her head. “No clue. We’re only sort of speaking. I think things were less complicated when we were enemies.”
“But it’s war,” Rey points out. “There’s probably a lot on his mind.”
This doesn’t seem to satisfy Aylu, but she hums assent nonetheless. “Well, the ‘fresher’s over there. Classes start in forty-five, if you think you can drag yourself to the training room. The younglings are going to have a lot of questions that I’m not equipped to answer.”
Rey nods. “I should. Thank you.”
Aylu gives her a small salute, then leaves her to get ready. Rey sighs, and pushes herself out of bed. She’d fallen asleep in yesterday’s clothes; it feels heavenly to finally peel out of them, sweat-stuck to her skin as they are. Fourteen hours. Kriff. She must have been even more fatigued than she thought.
The hot shower Rey takes in the ‘fresher—a real shower again, not just sonics, thank the Light or the Dark or whoever’s responsible for the former First Order not caring much for water conservation where its officers are concerned—is one of the best she’s had in awhile. Once the water has rinsed her mind clear, she spends a bit of time calculating how long it’ll take her to get from where the Harbinger is docked to the training room, and from then how long she has to get ready. Not long. But Aylu is right. It’s important for Rey to be there.
When she emerges from the shower, skin and hair dried by a blower cycle, she finds that a droid has left her a set of clean clothes, a jug of water, a steaming cup of caf, and a basket of pastries. Rey takes one, something braided, bread-like and flaky, which she’s never eaten before. Kylo could no doubt tell her its origin if he were here— but he isn’t. She nibbles at it cautiously as she dresses, remembering how much trouble she’s had keeping down her food. The pastry is rich and buttery but seems to agree with her stomach; Rey hopes she won’t regret it later. She sips the caf, washes everything down with a few deep swigs of cold, clear water, pulls her hair back from her face, and hurries off to class, her saberstaff hilt secured to her belt.
The cavernous two-story training room is as familiar to her now as the back of her own hand, after training here with Kylo and the last few weeks of conducting her own lessons here. The state of disarray in which she finds her pupils, usually seated in orderly rows when she enters, is not familiar. They’re on their feet instead, peppering Aylu, the two other Knights present, and even Chewie with questions.
“Oi!” shouts Rey. Her throat still stings from the day before, so she uses the Force to amplify her voice slightly. A cheap trick, but it works— all eyes find her, and the questions do too.
“Rey, what happened?”
“Rey, where’s Tamar? Where’s Kaela?”
“Are they hurt? Are they dead?”
Rey holds up a hand to stop the stream of questions. “No one’s dead,” she says.
“But where are they?”
Rey feels her grip on the situation—and her composure—slipping, as if the ground is crumbling away beneath her feet. Keep it together. “Before this goes any further,” she says, trying to sound calm, “here’s what you should know. Simon and Qwyn found their kyber crystals, but we were attacked by the First Order. Tamar and Simon were injured, but they’re recovering in the medcenter. Kaela and Qwyn are resting. Everyone’s either fine or going to be fine.”
“Where’s Rikaj?” asks one of Kylo’s students.
“He’s—” Rey frowns, and looks at Aylu, who shrugs. “I don’t know where he is,” Rey admits. “But he’s fine too. He’s probably off trying to flirt with somebody.”
This provokes a few nervous titters from the students and a hearty guffaw out of Chewie. Rey quickly adds, “Sorry, that was inappropriate. I’m just tired.”
“You’re not wrong, though,” Aylu calls. The two Knights who are not Aylu, a blonde woman and a Pantoran man, just frown at her.
Rey tries to move past this as quickly as possible, but she thinks the tension in the room has been diffused at least a little bit. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to treat today like any other day. Since you’re all so worked up, we’ll start with a bit of sparring, then meditation. Then once you’re grounded we can do some Force work. Reading and independent study in the afternoon. We’ll all regroup at night for discussion. Yes?”
Nods and murmurs from the students, who seem reassured to have a plan. Rey is privately relieved, although she tries not to let it show. She doesn’t get to lack confidence. They all depend on her.
“Good.” Rey nods back. “All right. Staves today, no training sabers. I don’t want anyone getting burnt. Go pick them out, then we can start on our warm-ups.”
The students head to the back wall with the Knights to retrieve their weapons. Some cast a glance or two back at Rey. Only one, though, ventures over to her, his ears pressed back against his head.
“Taylin,” Rey says. She leans down a little to speak with him on his level, although it seems as though the Trianii boy’s grown a couple of inches taller already in the few months they’ve known each other. “What’s wrong?”
Taylin’s nose twitches as he exhales. Then he asks, “Why are we here?”
Rey blinks. That’s not the question she was expecting. “We’re here for our protection,” she says. She’s said it dozens of times, as they relocated. “And we’re here so you and Kylo Ren’s students can learn together.”
“I don’t feel protected,” Taylin mutters.
“I don’t.” His tail swishes with irritation. “I liked it better on Akiva.”
“You hated Akiva,” Rey reminds him. “It was humid. Your fur always got wet.”
“I don’t like it here,” protests Taylin. “Nothing’s been good since we’ve been here. Tamar’s hurt. Everything’s gone wrong.”
“No, it—” Rey doesn’t know what to say to him. From his perspective, a lot has gone wrong. “We’re only here until we can find someplace to settle permanently. This is temporary.” Like all things, adds a snide little voice in her mind. It’s what the Jedi would say, isn’t it? Based on the sacred texts and the histories she’s read, it seems like a Jedi thing to say. All is temporary. We are here for only a short time, and then we are gone.
This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would comfort Taylin, who knows the temporary nature of life all too well. And that, of course, has something to do with his dislike of the Conquest II.
“It’s not forever,” Rey concludes, unable to find a better response. “I’m sorry.”
“Right,” says Taylin, and he turns away from her to retrieve his staff and join the others.
“The Imperator’s sent for you.”
“Really?” Finn groans. “What did I do? I haven’t even left my room yet.”
“You’re leaving?” Rey asks, when Chewbacca comes to her at the end of training, after the students have filed out.
Chewie howls his confirmation in Shyriiwook, and an explanation. Watching the younglings while Rey was gone left him longing for his family back on Kashyyyk, whom he has not seen for some time. He isn’t going to leave forever, but he wants to visit while things are in a state of relative calm.
“Oh, Chewie, I understand. I just—” I need you, she wants to say, but she knows that isn’t fair to Chewie. She can get along without him. And of course he would want to see his family. This war has dragged on far longer than any of them could have foreseen.
“I’ll miss you, old friend,” she says, after collecting herself. “That’s all.”
Chewie pulls her into a tight, warm, furry embrace. Rey closes her eyes and inhales. No matter how long he’s been away from Kashyyyk, he always smells faintly of its forests. Rey always found that scent comforting, and she thinks Chewbacca knows that. Wookiees are so long-lived that Rey wonders if she’s ever seemed like anything other than a youngling to him herself.
He huffs reassurances into her hair, and she chuckles.
“Of course I’ll still have Finn,” she murmurs. “But everybody else is still on the Vigilance. Even Artoo. I can’t really blame him for not wanting to make the trip, but you and the Falcon were here...”
Chewie lets out something like a low groan.
Rey blinks, surprised, and pulls away to look up at him. “You’re leaving the Falcon with me?”
Chewie corrects her gently.
“Lending her to me,” she amends. “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of her.”
He ruffles her hair with a giant hand, mussing it slightly. She manages a mock-scowl for him as she smooths it flat, but inside, she already aches at the prospect of his absence. “Let me know when you’re leaving, yeah?” she says, trying to muster even melancholic cheer. “I’ll come to see you off.”
Chewie nods and releases her. She smiles up at him, but it’s a watery smile. Chewie’s gone, Kylo barely speaks to her. Finn’s still here , she reminds herself. Thank the Light for Finn.
Finn turns off his alarm to sleep in that morning. It had been a late night, and the morning brings no war council meetings. He mutters thanks to whoever’s responsible, even if it’s Kylo Ren. Maybe. Let’s not go crazy, here.
Life on the Conquest II has been fairly monotonous for Finn. Meetings, reports back to Leia, Poe, and Connix, bringing Resistance findings and concerns to the table at the next meeting, and so on, and so forth. Finn is well aware the lack of action and stifling routine is actually a good thing—they’re not under constant attack, not fleeing a vast overpowering force—but it wears away at a person. He finds himself with an itch of which Poe speaks often: for something to happen.
His conversation with Kylo Ren’s student, Qwyn, had been the first thing to happen to him in a while that wasn’t just business as usual. He was wary of the request when Rey brought it to him, because he doesn’t know the first thing about talking to teenagers, but the idea of talking to a fellow ex-Stormtrooper had been too compelling to pass up. And besides, it was Rey who had asked. How could he refuse her?
It had been cathartic, in a way, to talk to that girl. So few people in the galaxy have experienced what they experienced and ended up walking away in a position to talk about it. Deserters from the First Order army trickled into the Resistance from time to time, but most of those were people who’d joined as adults. Volunteers. Qwyn, like Finn, had been raised by the First Order. She’d had her family replaced by a military junta with staunch ideals, as he had. Because of that, and in spite of her almost obligatory adolescent attitude, they were able to connect quickly. They had an understanding that Finn sometimes felt he couldn’t share with even his best friends.
He rolls over on his narrow bed, then stands, blinks around at his room. Standard quarters for an officer. A private room, private ‘fresher, closet, dresser, and bed. No frills, except a little room to stretch your legs. He washes, dresses, and heads to the mess to tell Rey how it went with Qwyn over lunch.
When he opens his door, he sees an officer standing there already, waiting for him. She wears a light-grey uniform: a junior officer, then. She jumps, as though he’s startled her, and he thinks she might’ve been about to knock.
“Good morning, err, sir,” says the officer. She stumbles over what to call him; he still has no rank in the hierarchy she knows. He doesn’t need one. He’s outside of it.
“‘Morning,” says Finn, with a little suspicion. “What’s going on?”
“The Imperator’s sent for you.”
“Really?” Finn groans. “What did I do? I haven’t even left my room yet.”
The officer gives him a sidelong glance, as if her pronouncement hasn’t quite inspired the fear she expected from him. Or maybe it’s the lack of general formality. The Resistance is much less stuffy than the First Order, or the Imperium, or whatever it calls itself these days.
“I don’t know, sir,” she replies. “He just sent me to retrieve you.”
“Consider me retrieved,” says Finn, cringing internally. “Let’s go.”
Rey is not moping. Jedi don’t mope. But it’s difficult for her not to feel a little sorry for herself when she enters the First Order mess hall and everyone stops talking, then resumes conversation while pointedly ignoring her.
She does her best not to let it affect her. After all, feeling like she doesn’t quite belong is nothing new. True, she has a place with the Resistance, but she knows not everyone is completely comfortable with her. When her close friends are away on missions or holed up in their workspaces, she often struggles to find a cohort with which to sit. Sometimes, if it isn’t raining, she’ll take her meals alone and go sit out on top of the Vigilance, feeling the currents of life on Akiva around her.
But “not fitting in” is different from the outright contempt she feels from the First Order officers. She glances around for Finn, who sometimes takes his meals here when he’s not in one of his endless meetings, but can neither find nor sense him in the room. With a sigh, Rey resigns herself to finding an unoccupied table.
She does miss the days of eating privately with Kylo Ren. Those first few meals had been excruciating, it’s true, but they had settled into their rhythm together, chatting over courses, Kylo trying to fend Rey’s fork off with his knife as she sought to steal a morsel from his plate. The food had been better, but everything she eats is so much better than the portions she ate for nearly a decade and a half on Jakku that the comparison feels nitpicky. Except the rolls. By the Light, she misses those rolls. The officers eat rolls too, but theirs aren’t hot and don’t have the same… she isn’t sure what.
Maybe it isn’t the rolls. Maybe it was never the rolls. Maybe it was the company.
Rey looks up to find Aylu standing nearby, waving at her. Aylu is the only Knight of Ren Rey has really connected with; they’d bonded after the battle that had split the First Order down the middle. Rey had been burned, but Aylu’s quick thinking probably kept her from being properly scorched. From then on, everything else had been easy. Unlike just about everyone else in the Imperium, Aylu doesn’t seem to think of Rey as someone apart.
Part of Rey wants to continue to wallow in her loneliness, but she knows that wouldn’t do anybody any good. “Oh, hi, Aylu,” Rey says, scooting her tray over so the other woman has room to put hers down if she wishes. “What’s going on?”
“Same as you,” Aylu grunts. “Just washed up. Anyone sitting here?”
“No, please.” Rey gestures at the spot across from her, and Aylu sits. Her tray is piled high with leafy greens and unfamiliar proteins. Rey looks at her own plate, which has a few more sweets piled up in the corner.
“How are my brethren treating you?” Aylu narrows her eyes. “Be honest. I can tell if you’re lying.”
“I can tell if you’re lying, too,” Rey retorts, like a testy youngling. “But all right. Rikaj is okay, at least.”
Aylu rolls her eyes. “He would be if he could ever get that head of his on straight. That brother of mine,” she scoffs. “Good in a fight, useless for everything else. Always chasing skirts. And not even successfully! A disgrace.”
Rey can tell that Aylu is trying to make her laugh; she almost succeeds. “At least he’ll talk to me,” Rey points. “And he doesn’t blame me for what happened with the… on Ilum.”
“And why should he!” Aylu exclaims. “The First Order carried out the attack. If you want to blame anyone—”
“I don’t think the others like me much,” Rey adds quickly. She doesn’t want to dwell on what happened. There’s no point.
“They’ll come ‘round,” Aylu says. “I’ve been advocating for you when I can. There’s agreement in the group that we should be arming the students for when the war inevitably comes to them, so that’s a point in your favor.”
“But I couldn’t protect them.” Rey spears some kind of long red bean with her fork and moves it around her plate. “Simon and Tamar are still in the medcenter.”
“The droids say they’ll wake up soon, right?”
“But nothing. They weren’t captured or killed, and if they’d had a less worthy protector they easily could have been. That’s because of you, too, y’know.”
Aylu adds, “Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you and Ren aren’t a little too preoccupied with making sure those kids have a childhood. Skywalker treated us more like adults than adolescents.”
“And that worked out so well for him,” Rey mutters.
“...Point taken there.” Aylu cuts into one of her mysterious protein blocks and chews a piece for a bit. “All right, I think I can help you make some inroads with the other Knights. You see Luca and Ingra?” She jerks her head toward the two Knights, the Pantoran and the blonde woman, who had been glaring at Rey during the morning’s training session. They’re talking with their heads tilted toward each other. “If you’ll get one of them on your side, the other’ll come ‘round eventually.”
“Well, they’re married.”
Rey drops her fork. “They’re married?”
“Yeah. For a few years now.” Aylu seems nonchalant about this. “Is that surprising?”
“No,” Rey lies, but when Aylu only arches an eyebrow in response, she sighs. “Yes. A bit.”
“Why? Because they’re different species?”
“No! Just— I don’t know.” Under the pressure of another questioning look, Rey insists, “I don’t.”
And she isn’t entirely sure why that prospect unsettles her, although she has her suspicions. From her readings, the old Jedi seemed to lead ascetic lives. Luke certainly had when she found him on Ahch-To. And Kylo, for all his railing against the past, doesn’t seem too different, with his uniform wardrobe and sparsely furnished chamber. Rey is gradually coming to realize that he had only made a display of his material wealth when— well, when she was around.
The Knights have always been a bit different. To Rey, they seem a bit more like a pack of Force-sensitive mercenaries than a cohesive order, like the Jedi had been. Perhaps they’re all still in a perpetual of adolescent rebellion against their old master, as Kylo sometimes seems to be.
Anyway, Kylo likely wouldn’t care about any of his adepts marrying each other. And as Rey builds the foundations of her new teachings she tries not to shun things like love, like marriage. But she realizes— maybe she never thought she would have those things anyway. Maybe she didn’t see herself being wed, starting a family. It never seemed like an option that was on the table. She’d be like Luke, spending her elder years on a holy island in a drafty stone hut, spearing fish and watching the stars.
Rey muses aloud, “Must be nice, being married.”
“Depends on who you ask,” says Aylu, returning her attention to her food. “It’s not for me, that’s certain. Can’t imagine being tied down.”
“You sound like your brother,” Rey almost-teases.
Aylu rolls her eyes. “Don’t get taken in by that act. Deep down, he’s a romantic.”
Rey pulls a face. “Are you trying to set us up?”
“I would never,” Aylu says, utterly aghast. “I don’t have a death wish. You’re much too good for him, anyway. Although there is something else you might be able to help him with.”
“Sure,” Rey says, abandoning her vegetables and pulling apart a sweet with her fingers instead. “I owe him one.”
“His blaster hasn’t been working right ever since Ilum. I know you’re mechanically minded. Any chance you might be able to take a look in your off hours?”
Rey mulls it over as she chews. “Hmm. I don’t have too many of those.” She swallows. “But I do have a friend who might be able to help.”
The junior officer leads Finn to the turbolift that will rocket him up to Kylo Ren’s throne room. She calls it, then turns to him, wearing a carefully neutral expression. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says. “This is as far as I can go.”
“Thanks,” says Finn, privately thinking she’s probably not all that sorry. The Imperator is a notoriously difficult person on a good day. “I’ll take it from here.”
The officer nods, and waits with Finn for the turbolift, since Finn doesn’t have the code cylinders that will give him clearance. When the doors finally part, she gives him a little nod, pivots, and walks off down the hallway. Her posture is impeccably straight, her shoes impeccably shined. There is not a single wrinkle in her uniform.
Finn hates this place. Hates it. Three years on his own with the Resistance and he’s basically forgotten how to be the perfect Stormtrooper he may never have been in the first place.
Most people would say that’s a good thing.
The turbolift spits him out in the throne room, a room he’s never been in before. The chamber is so vast Finn feels as though it’s going to swallow him up. Massive viewports line the left window, allowing him a view of inky blackness and glittering stars. To the right, exposed walls and durasteel beams stretching all the way up to the ceiling. To the left and right of the towering throne stand two Knights of Ren, masked and armored.
And on the throne, seated with a straight back and his feet spread apart, in with a cape as dark as the starless spaces outside the viewports, is Kylo Ren.
“FN-2187,” says Ren.
He is trying so hard to be imposing that the pageantry comes full circle into self-parody. That trick might work on the junior officers, but Finn knows better by now, and can’t help but find it all a little laughable. “For the tenth time,” he says, “it’s Finn.”
Ren doesn’t directly reply. Instead he raises one of his hands in an almost lazy gesture, and says to the Knights, “Leave us.”
The masked figures obey without a word, walking past Finn and leaving in the turbolift that brought him there. Ren continues to sit on his throne, regarding Finn from above. Finn stays where he is, meets Ren’s eyes, and doesn’t break the stare. This guy— well. He tried to kill Finn only a few years ago. Finn’s not thrilled to be in a room with him alone.
“Can you come down?” Finn asks. “It’s a little hard to hear you from all the way up there.”
To Finn’s great surprise, Ren obliges him, standing from the throne and descending the steps until they are both standing on the polished floor, albeit a few meters apart. He folds his hands in front of him and looks Finn over. Finn looks him over in return. And for a while they stand there, regarding each other.
“Stormtroopers,” Ren says, at last.
That was not the first word Finn was expecting out of this man’s mouth. He blinks. “Uh, yeah?”
“We have a problem.” Ren pauses. “Currently our ground forces outnumber the enemy’s. However—”
“The training academies are all in the Unknown Regions,” Finn interrupts, unable to hold his tongue. “Any of the soldiers they’re training from childhood are in the Unknown Regions too.”
Finn thinks he sees something like discomfort cross Ren’s face. “Yes.”
“They have replacements. You don’t.”
“And Hux dictates their training,” Ren says. “He has for years. There are concerns about whether those on our side have mental conditioning he can exploit. I was wondering if you had any ideas about how to handle them.”
This is so eerily close to the conversation he had with Qwyn—not the exact words exchanged, but the topic—that Finn’s head spins. He wonders if the girl said anything. She might’ve. For whatever reason, she seems to like him. The cynical part of Finn thinks maybe she’s just transferred that programmed obedience from her original COs to Kylo, but she’s so prickly he’s not sure that’s the case.
He stalls for time so he can process what Kylo has said. “You mean, strategically?”
“Because I feel like the way the First Order—the Imperium—whoever you guys are, you handle a problem by just burning it down.”
Ren doesn’t rise to the bait. He looks tired, Finn thinks. There are bags under his eyes. He takes one step toward Finn, then another. The closer he is, the more noticeable the height disparity is between them. That’s an intimidation tactic. “You’re here to contribute your ideas as a representative of the Resistance. Do you have any or should I dismiss you?”
Finn sighs, exasperated. It takes Ren absolutely no time to get under his skin. But he has a point. And, Finn reminds himself, he’s speaking to someone with resources and reach. More than the Resistance. It’s an opportunity— even if it’s not the one Finn would like. “Well, something I’ve thought about for a long time is trying to convince them to desert. Break the conditioning.”
“Would that work?”
It feels surreal having this conversation with Kylo Ren. Finn says, “I think you’d have to be careful about how you did it. But there’s precedent. Me. And we’ve got Cardinal—”
This seems to surprise Ren, whose head jerks back slightly. “Captain Cardinal? Who trained the children? You have him?”
“Yeah,” says Finn, frowning. “Did you… not notice he was gone?”
“It wasn’t my—” Ren’s nostrils flare as he exhales. “Purview. Never mind. I didn’t realize he was with the Resistance.”
“He’s not exactly with us,” Finn admits, rubbing the back of his neck. “He’s retired. The Resistance helped him resettle, but he’s not on our side. He does owe us, though, and if anyone has insight into Stormtrooper conditioning, it’s him. I’ve thought about approaching him, but…”
“What stopped you?”
A shrug. “No plan. And we were always busy with something else.” Finn squints at him. “Usually trying not to die. Because of you. In case you forgot.”
“I see.” Kylo falls silent again. Finn wonders what in the universe is going on in his mind. He feels like he’s spent an uncomfortable amount of time wondering about Kylo Ren lately, mostly when he catches Rey staring after him. Which is often.
Poe has his theories about what happened between Rey and Kylo Ren. He’s been vocal about them to Finn. “I heard this story,” he’s said, “about a freighter that was taken over by pirates. One of the crew members activated the emergency beacon. But by the time rescuers came, and it took a couple of days, the crew were on the pirates’ side. It happens sometimes, when people get captured. It’s like brainwashing, except you do it to yourself.” And then he’d added meaningfully, “Just to survive, you know?”
But Finn doesn’t think Rey’s brainwashed. She’s been different ever since her mission, but Finn thinks she’s— sad, more profoundly sad than he’s ever seen her. And maybe Kylo Ren hurt her; if he did, it’ll cost him his life one day. But maybe something else happened, and Finn doesn’t know what, but whatever it is… Rey doesn’t want to talk about it. Which means it has to be pretty big.
Finn can think of one big thing to do with Kylo Ren that Rey wouldn’t want to talk about, but he doesn’t know if— is it possible? I mean, what could this guy have going for him that Rey would— it just doesn’t seem—
Then again, Finn never imagined that he and Ren would be standing here, having this conversation. Maybe that points to some hidden depths. Or maybe that’s thinking too generously. He says, “But I’m not trying to not die now.”
“No,” Ren agrees. “You’re not.”
Finn eyes him. “Are you serious about this?”
Ren inclines his head. “Why what?”
Finn waves a hand. “Why this? Why all of a sudden?”
“It’s strategic,” Ren says sharply, and Finn knows this barely scratches the surface of his reasoning.
“But you don’t like me,” Finn points out. “At all.”
“Again,” Ren interjects, with some impatience, “do you have any ideas?”
Finn swallows down his other questions, other objections. “I hope you realize how hard it is to take you in good faith,” he says.
Ren doesn’t blink. “Yes.”
“Okay.” Finn holds out his hands, palms up, fingers spread wide. “Then yes. I have an idea…”
“He’s grooming you for leadership,” Rose says, her tiny bluish holoform flickering slightly as she moves around her workstation. Objects appear or disappear in her hands as she picks them up and puts them back down.
“He’s encouraging you to learn,” she says, a little slower, “so that you’ll make a good commander. Or empress. Or whatever the female form is of the—” She gestures vaguely with a Harris wrench. “Y’know.”
Rey scoffs. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, that’s not true,” Rose says. “Not with the amount of time we’ve all spent around Poe. I could name four more ridiculous things he’s said just this week.”
Sighing, Rey sits down on the bed in her temporary quarters and places Rose’s tiny projection on the nightstand, looking at it with some amount of longing. How she wishes Rose were here on the Conquest II with her. Rose was the only person she dares speak to with any frankness about Kylo Ren. It’s not that Rose knows their full history—no one does—but Rose has a sort of intuition when it came to these things, more than one might think for someone who has spent more time around machines than people. Rey seems to only have to say about a quarter of what she wants before Rose grasps the whole picture.
Then again, maybe Rose sees Rey’s love life as another puzzle to solve, assembling something with only a few of the necessary component parts. For Rey, this is an acquired skill, something she understood because she’d worked hard at it for years. Rose works hard too, but she has a knack for machines. Rey wonders from time to time whether she’d be drawn to mechanics if she’d grown up with a comfortable life, and comes up with no answer. She can’t conceive of the possibility. But Rose, Rey knows, would find a way to have a wrench in hand no matter what sort of life she lived. She views this gift as the way the Force manifests in Rose, although she also knows Rose would scoff if she brought it up like that.
Either way, Rose appears to view the whole Rey-Kylo business with fascination, if slight nausea; she can only get through the conversation if Rey doesn’t put a name to the frustrating presence in her life, that constant storm brewing on the horizon. It would be too much a betrayal of Rose’s revolutionary ideals to directly acknowledge Rey’s flirtation with the enemy. But after their conversation on the Vigilance, Rey knows she can only come to Rose with these problems, these… boy problems. Not Finn. Certainly not Poe. Definitely not Leia, wise though her counsel might be.
“I was the one who asked for supplemental reading,” Rey says. “It’s not as though he offered it up out of the blue. So I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.”
Rose looks skeptical, but she says, “Okay. I’ll bite. What do you think?”
With no small amount of reluctance, Rey says, “I think he’s… lonely.”
“No, I— Oi!” Rey grins for a moment despite herself, then clamps her mouth shut. “I’m serious.”
“What does he have to be lonely about?” Rose asks. “I can’t imagine he lacks company. He’s surrounded by people at all times. He’s in a war counsel half the day. He could just order his officers to chatter at him about battles, if he wanted.”
“You and I both know there’s no substitute for real human interaction,” Rey chides. “You can be just as lonely in a crowd as you can alone. More, even.”
And Rey knows this well, for how lonely had she felt with the Resistance? How lonely does she feel even now, with Finn for company? There are so many things she feels around her, so many mysteries she has to untangle, and prior to when she began to gather up her students she had to walk that path alone. Even her students aren’t peers; they are on a wavelength nearer hers, but still entirely different.
The only one who’d ever shared her resonance was Kylo Ren.
“Rey,” Rose says, now waving a hydrospanner in front of her own space. “I’m losing you.”
Rey blinks, shakes her consciousness back into her own body. “I’m sorry. Am I flickering out? Can you still hear me?”
“I was only metaphorically losing you.”
“You were in your own head again.”
Rey lays down on her side, setting said head down on her pillow. “Apparently I’m there a lot.”
“I know. I’ve noticed.” Rose holds one palm upturned, and taps it with the hydrospanner for a good minute. “It can be both things,” she says.
“He can be sneakily trying to prepare you for leadership and he can want to talk history with you.” Rose shrugs. “If he has an interest in it, then I’m sure he’s thrilled you share it.”
Rey rubs her eye. “He doesn’t even like me anymore, Rose,” she says, and she doesn’t mean for it to sound like the lamentation it is, but she can’t help exposing herself. “I saw to that myself. I can’t fathom why he wants to talk to me. You should have heard how he shouted at me in the medcenter yesterday.”
“He shouted at you?”
“I— We had a row.” Rey rolls onto her back. “The doctor kicked us out.”
Rose lets out a low whistle. “So he yelled at you, after you went on a quest which he didn’t want you to go on in the first place— oh,” she adds, at Rey’s curious look, “Don’t think I forgot our conversation about that.”
“I’d hoped you had,” mutters Rey, who was fairly sure she’d come off as a petulant child.
“A quest he didn’t like, and then a quest that went sideways,” she says. “You could have been killed.”
“But you could have been,” Rose says. “So you’re saying, after all that, he yelled at you.”
“He has a temper.”
“And you don’t?”
“Not like his.”
Rose frowns, and then she says, “I hope you told him where he could stick his temper.”
Rey turns her head to look over, surprised.
“He doesn’t have any right to keep you from going out whenever and wherever you want,” she says. “It’s a war. There will always be risk. You’re just trying to make sure your students are protected.”
“That’s what I said.”
“And he’s not your commander,” Rose continues. “Even if you two have a thing.”
Rey pushes up to a half-seat. “We don’t— we didn’t— what we had—”
“Have. Have a thing. Your thing is extremely present-tense.” Rose peers out at Rey very seriously from beneath her bangs. “Or you wouldn’t be getting into shouting matches with him in medcenters or historical debates in turbolifts. Or care what he thinks of you, at all.”
Rey drums her fingers against her bed covers. “I’m sorry to bore you with all this,” she says. “It’s actually not why I called.”
“You’re not boring me,” Rose says. She snaps a pair of welding goggles on her head, and adds, “But why’d you call, if not for this?”
“I have a— not a friend, exactly,” Rey begins. “It’s someone who came with me on the last mission. He needs some mechanical help, and I’m just not sure I have time to take on a project right now.”
Rose nods. “Well, you’re talking to the right person. I mean, I don’t have any time either, but I’ve never been able to resist a challenge. Except…” She peers at Rey. “You do realize I’m not actually there.”
“I know that, yes. But perhaps you could offer some guidance over a secure connection—” Rey is cut off by frantic knocking at her door. Three short raps, a pause, then three louder, longer. Then another three, with more determination.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly, sitting up. “Someone’s here. I have to go. I’ll call you back.”
“What—” says Rose, but Rey flicks off the holoprojector, effectively ending the conversation. She feels a pang of regret at her own rudeness, and makes a mental note to apologize to Rose later. Rose is a good listener. A good friend. She deserves better than that. Rey’s just been so damn jumpy lately.
Whoever is at her door must be determined to wear out their knuckles. Rey calls, “I’m coming!” She springs to her feet and hastens to press the button, which reveals—
“Kaela?” Rey asks.
Kaela nods, gasping for breath as though she’d run there. Her clothes are disheveled, and Rey realizes she hasn’t changed since Ilum. Her red hair is wild, her braids frizzing slightly.
“Kaela, what’s wrong?” Rey’s stomach sinks. “Is it Tamar?”
Kaela shakes her head, then nods, then looks up at Rey with wide grey-blue eyes. “I had another dream,” she says. “I know where both our crystals are, hers and mine. I know exactly where they are.” Her mouth presses into a thin, determined line. “We have to go there.”