A medtech finds the necklace in Ben’s pocket while she is shearing through his pant leg to examine the shattered right femur. The bone is cracked into four pieces and the skin has by now turned blue-black from a swelling of blood underneath. Rey has carried him to Ajan Kloss in the X-wing, cradled piously across her lap, and her whole front is dampened by his sweat; she has already made three attempts to heal him and recalls the old Jakku adage about how only drunks, beggars and penitents try to pour from an empty cup.
“Compartment syndrome,” the medtech pronounces, with neither interest nor any great contempt. She sets the shears aside on an alusteel tray to retrieve a scalpel. “Do I have your permission to begin fasciotomy, Master Rey?”
Rey sits beside the low examination table with her head laid alongside Ben’s. His hand is laced through hers, his gaze abstracted by the sedatives they have given him and his body drawn tight by the persecutions of suppressed pain. All through the Resistance medbay around them are droids and human hands laboring over crush wounds and full thickness burns, each body marked with a differently-colored tag whose corresponding significance is found on a plasticene information card about triage. The air smells like charred aramid-fiber flight suits and bacta spray.
She stares at the scalpel’s orderly, antiseptic blade, staring next into the medtech’s orderly, antiseptic mind, but then she notes what the woman is holding in her other hand.
“Permission granted,” Rey says. “And give that to me, please. It’s mine.”
The medtech drops a broken length of clay beads into Rey’s palm. Tied between every tenth bead is a tiny husk-doll, the way meditation knots are interspersed along a monk’s prayer garland. The string has been snapped between its fourth and fifth decades where he tore it from her throat on Pasaana.
Ben’s eyes narrow into focus. His gaze flickers down to their interwoven fingers.
“Ah,” he says. “If I had known dying was all the persuasion you needed, I’d have done it sooner.”
Rey cuts short a sob of laughter. She coils the necklace around her free hand and closes both fists around his just before the medtech glides the first blood-letting incision down Ben’s leg. He arches sharply but does not flinch away.
And she was dead, Rey has realized. She was dead and he gave his life to her. She was alone and he came back for her.
She reaches her mind towards his, the speech without speaking, until she comes to a small and isolated place within his head that for the first time in his life has grown completely quiet.
Be with me, Rey whispers into the silence. Be with me, be with me.
Rey cannot repair the necklace’s broken string and instead takes to wearing it on her left wrist like a piece of canny luck. Its beads are the color of midday in the desert and Rey enjoys hearing their dry clicks and clacks whenever she moves her arm or pounds her fist, as she often does during her hearings before the operatic pomposity of the Galactic Senate.
“If you want to see someone punished for Starkiller Base, General Armitage Hux is already dead,” she restates. “And Ben Solo wasn’t the one who burned the Jedi temple. He never harmed the other students. He turned to Snoke because he knew nobody would believe him if he said Luke Skywalker had tried to murder him in his sleep.”
The new chancellor is a woman from Coruscant with elegant bones and the magisterial yellow eyes of an osprey. “I must say, it seems a pity Master Skywalker didn’t.”
There is a cut-glass window in the Senate House’s domed roof. The oculus sends sunlight lancing down onto Rey as she stands there and it illumines her body like a rapture of rage.
“Yes, and it’s a pity every single one of the Core Worlds received General Organa’s distress call from Crait and didn’t answer it. It’s a pity we’re celebrating the decimation of an army made mostly of child-soldiers trained to know nothing else and it’s an even greater pity that a quarter of the governors here at this assembly have spent the last decade lining their pockets with profits they’ve made trafficking illegal arms to both sides of the conflict.” There is a stinging, stupefied pause, like the sort that usually follows a slap. “War leaves a lot to be pitied in its wake, all around.”
“We are discussing the fate of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren,” the chancellor says, “not the greater moral failings of the New Republic, whatever you conceive those to be.”
“We’re discussing the fact that you seem to think voting on a sentence of death or exile for one man you’ve taken to represent the whole First Order will purge you of everything that enabled the Order to rise at all. I would’ve thought democracy could be put to better uses.”
“And are you defending that one man for who he truly is, or for your own personal idea of him?”
“It isn’t in my power or yours to decide who Ben Solo truly is, Chancellor. Only he can do that – but it is within my power to be certain he’s heard, and it is well within your power to listen.”
The chancellor laughs. “I find it highly peculiar that we should all be asked to sit here and entertain a plea for the grandson of Darth Vader from no less a personage than the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. It strikes me as the death of irony itself.”
Rey touches the necklace around her wrist, a new but persistent habit. The tracery life-force she can feel within its beads is like the final stage of grief, their clay formed by a gradual weathering of rock until it becomes something changed and supple and awaiting a new shape.
“That name doesn’t mean anything to me,” she says, “but if you’re taking our defendant’s bloodline into account, then I agree that I ought to be subject to the same condemnation.”
The chancellor stands to dismiss her.
At night Rey cannot always fall asleep atop the box-spring bed they have given her and thus lays herself flat on the floor. The soft stones are sedentary, serene, endlessly patient, and their calm helps to encase that obsidian sliver of hatred Rey can still feel embedded in her heart.
Perhaps they really had wanted to protect her, she thinks, but then again they may have been afraid of her, as well. Perhaps they really had believed that Plutt would keep her safe, she thinks, that he was their best or only choice, but then again another place on Jakku like the Sacred Villages or even the inn at Cratertown would not have paid three hundred credits in trade for a child who could fit into small spaces such as are so commonly found within a wrecked star destroyer. She recalls the condemning eyes of the Senate and the hate drives itself deeper.
Then again, desperation and anger turn people into things they would rather not be. Then again, then again, then again.
Rey rucks up the hem to her nightshirt until it is just past the bow of her ribs. The clay beads at her wrist click in the room’s solitary silence.
She haunts a hand along her left side until she finds a new tracery scar that spreads its lacey branches across her skin, the place where he touched her and passed his life into her body. She spreads her own hand flat, so that her fingers are aligned with the places his have been, and after a moment the weight of a heavier hand fits itself over hers.
In the morning there is a dull, clean smell of his skin on her clothes.
They relocate him to a cell on Chandrila. The medics augur twelve surgical screws through the bones of his right leg so that it does not heal crookedly, however much it is likely to heal at all, and prescribe him an intricate daily dose of tranquilizers and painkillers that he flushes down the vacc tube. The guards shackle his wrists with a pair of psionic suppression cuffs and call him things to which he does not answer. His bed and desk are welded to the floor.
Rey goes to see him twice a day, at 600 and 2100 hours respectively, although she occasionally lingers five minutes in the hall outside to knuckle angry tears from her eyes or put her face over a blossom of steam rising off the water basins she brings him for shaving. Ben cuts himself at this task, once. He jerks at the initial pain but then watches blood trickle silkily down his neck with the numbed disinterest of regret. Rey presents a white cloth and wipes his face; it leaves blood on her fingers and Ben turns the cloth over to wipe them clean, as well.
“You don’t have to keep coming here for me.” Ben studies the intersecting lines in her palm. His temporary silence is compounded of gentleness and self-recrimination. “You’re free to go where you want. The dyad doesn’t affect that.”
“Good,” Rey says. “Then you’ll never have to wonder whether I’m really choosing you for yourself or not, will you?”
He has made the request to keep a veda pearl comb from amongst General Organa’s personal effects but has been denied this on account of a sharp point the comb tapers into at one end. They have allowed him to keep an aurodium-plated pair of golden dice, however, the kind used for playing Corellian spike, and he ties these on a string around his neck so that they can be worn against his skin even when he sleeps; Rey lies atop the stone floor of her quarters with the phantom warmth of their gold between her breasts and a sorrow in her heart that is as deep and wide as mercy.
She brings him other things during the weeks before his trial: pens, nibs, sheaves of writing paper, a box with a perforated lid and vials of jewel-green resin ink, and she stands behind Ben to watch him form calligraphic letters on the page. There are other pages, ones he does not show her, with nothing on them but a single vicious scribble that fills the whole blank space up to its corners. She clips a pungent flower from a bush on Takodana and holds it up for his inspection; in his prison cell three parsecs away, Ben identifies it for her as an Alderaanian flame-rose. She flits at the sky-black hairs combed down around his ears while he is alone trying to read; he fidgets with the clay beads around her wrist while she is trying to fix a droid’s bent antennae.
“Why were you wearing these?” Ben asks.
She looks up to see the likeness of him sitting beside her on an overturned crate.
“An Aki-Aki girl gave it to me as a present,” Rey says. If she listens closer she can hear his breathing, the pump of a blacksmith’s bellows. “Threepio told us the celebration they were having was called the Festival of the Ancestors – it’s how you found us, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Ben drops his gaze from hers. “I ordered an analysis run on it.”
“I don’t know what all these funny dolls are for, though.” Rey pulls at one of the braided husks. “I made a doll on Jakku, when I was little. I used some fabric from a Rebel pilot’s flight suit I’d scavenged. The name Dosmit Ræh was stitched into the collar – I had a dream where she taught me how to fly without a starship, but when I woke up I’d forgotten the secret.”
“Were you ever able to remember it?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Rey pulls at the necklace beads again. “Did the analysis tell you anything about why the girl would’ve given it to me? I never got to ask her.”
She is still learning to read the ticking, fleeting expressions of his brow and mouth, which seem to never stop moving. Ben purses his lips, relaxes them when he lets another breath go, rolls the tongue inside his cheek and blinks away the bright shine that stands briefly in his eyes.
“It means family,” he answers. He points to that break in the string. “I can fix it for you, if you want.”
“No, that’s all right.” The bracelet clacks when she lifts a hand to his face. “I like it this way.”
Ben turns his head to kiss her fingertips just before the presence of him flickers and disappears.
Oftentimes Rey will be coming from another meeting with the Senate and will reach into one of her pockets to discover a folded note that was not there ten seconds ago. The writing in jewel-green ink is at once antic and poised, like a bar of musical notes; she recognizes it as the same hand that has scribbled scrupulous annotations along the margins of all the old Jedi texts in her possession.
Tell the judge that he keeps misusing the word ‘clemency,’ one note reads, and please don’t cry so much on my account – whatever fate they’re planning for me is better than the one you’ve helped me turn from. Remember that.
But every few nights Rey will still close her eyes to see a vision of Ben dead in her arms, or else a vision where his body fades to nothing while she watches. Each time she will wake up, crying, and each time there will be a soft touch like moth-wings on her cheeks as he kisses her through the moonlight and the shadow.
Everyone knows it, sooner or later, but Finn is the first to say it aloud: aloud to her face, that is. Whatever other people say in secret or behind her back is none of Rey’s particular concern.
He does it while Rey is wedged beneath one of the Falcon’s panels, reconnecting loose wires. Finn folds himself in beside her. He has remained at the base on Ajan Kloss and there is a thick coat of loamy forest soil on his boots, as though he has been out for a long walk.
“I’m going to ask you something,” he says, “and I need you to tell me I’m crazy.”
He sits scrunched up with his knees pressed to his chest and his hands laid contemplatively atop them. His face is set and his eyes look older, even down here in the half-light that hums through the live wires.
“I’ll do my best,” Rey answers, “but Leia probably called you the sanest man in the Resistance for a reason.”
“It’s about you and –” Finn flattens mouth as if around a bitter draught “—him.”
“Yes, me and him.” The wires rain red sparks when they touch. “Or him and I. Which one’s right, grammatically?”
“Neither, Rey. Neither of those is right. I – he was the Supreme Leader of the First Order, Rey. He was Kylo Ren. You don’t –” Rey looks at him; Finn holds his head in his hands “—or maybe I don’t understand. Help me understand.”
Rey does not turn away from him. The confessional closeness of the hatch makes it somehow easier for her to find the words.
“You felt me die, on Exegol. Didn’t you?”
“And then you felt it when I came back.”
“He was the one who did that, Finn. He thought he was going to die, but he did it anyway. He’d had Palpatine’s voice inside his head since before he was even born, but he still came to stand with me against him at the end.”
“I know.” Finn puts a hand on her shoulder. “But that doesn’t mean you have to – one good thing doesn’t just wipe out everything else he’s done, you know. You don’t have to forgive him.”
“No, I don’t.” The wires grow hot between her fingers. Rey gives them another twist and it causes the beads on her bracelet to rattle. “He’s told me the same thing, and I’ve told him that’s the whole point.”
Finn’s hand withdraws. His presence in the Force pulsates like a firefly while he thinks. He does not say anything else to her, and does not touch her again, but he helps pull her out of the hatch when she is finished making repairs.
Three weeks later Rey is entering the nine-digit code to Ben’s airlocked cell door and sees by the twinned green lights that it is already open. Her saber is unhitched and her thumb set to ignite it before she hears Finn’s voice through the panels.
“—His name was Slip,” he is saying. “We were cadets together. His number was FN-2003, but everybody called him Slip because he couldn’t aim worth shit. He’s the one who – Poe shot him, in Tuanul.” Finn starts speaking low and fast. “I don’t blame Poe for that. I don’t. He had to. But sometimes – sometimes I’ll think about the other troopers, and all the stuff they did to us, and it’s like when you fall too deep into the water. You ever tried that before? Captain Phasma had this one exercise where they’d throw us off a boat with all our gear still on, and the whole thing was about getting everything off and swimming to the surface in time before you drowned – but if you sink down far enough, that’s where the sunlight doesn’t reach. Then all of a sudden you’re inside this circle of –”
“—Cold,” Ben finishes.
“Yeah.” There is a shuffle. “It’s like that, only it’s inside me somewhere. Somewhere I don’t go too often.”
“And what do you do, when you reach it?”
“Shut it out. Close it off. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
“No,” Ben says. “The deeper you push it into yourself, the more place you make for it.”
“What else can you do about it, then?”
“If I had a ready answer for you, we’d be speaking on very different terms.” Something whirrs like a pinwheel, or else like a card-sharp’s expert shuffle. “Are you going to make your next play sometime in the next eon, Finn, or should we consider this a forfeit by inaction?”
“Pretty stupid of you not to realize you lost this game four turns ago, Ben.”
Rey swishes through the airlock. Ben and Finn are seated cross-legged on the narrow bed with a spoil of cards and chips between them, Finn holding one between his middle and index finger as if about to set it down. The handgrip to an ion blaster sticks up from his waistband; the power-pack has been unloaded and left beside the door.
Rey steps in.
“What are you two gossiping about?”
“Nothing.” Finn slaps the card down and returns his attention to Ben. “Did you stack this deck?”
The sentence is presented to him amidst a towering cathedral silence, a bailiff walking down through the tiered seats of the Senate House to deliver it; Ben places his upturned palms one over another to receive the frail white slip of paper. Rey cannot read what it says, even from where she is standing beside him, and she cannot read what is in Ben’s eyes when he lifts them from the words to the chancellor looking down on him.
“A penance well-suited to the man they call the Jedi Killer,” she says, “and a pilgrimage well-suited to the woman they call the Last Jedi.” She stands. The rest of the Senate follows her example. “Surprise us.”
Ben puts his face into his hands and weeps.
The first Force-sensitive they trace is a small Twi’lek child taken from a slaver in the Unknown Regions. One lekku is shorter than the other where it has been chopped off as punishment for her third attempt at escape, a transgression the girl accomplished by believing that the wall to her pen was no longer there and then walking straight through it. She throws both arms over her head as Ben approaches but lowers them when she sees the composed limp with which he walks. Her Basic is limited and she must use her hands as punctuation.
“You have a –” she knots her fists and holds them tight against her chest; a change comes into her eyes as though she is squinting through a prism-glass to see him “— hurt.”
Ben smiles at her.
“I fell,” he says. “It was a long way down.”
A Zabrak spice runner on Devaron presents Rey with his teenaged daughter, named for a night-blooming vine and made mute by an enterprising rival businessman who came into the girl’s room one night carrying a pair of fire-tongs and a knife with which he had cut out her tongue; the girl, in turn, had sent the knife singing into her assailant’s leg from across the room while her hands were still tied. She shouts into Rey’s mind with such a vigorous, opinionated volubility that Rey cannot distinguish one word from another.
“Slow down,” she says. “It’s all right. We’ll have time for everything.”
Tell the maid to stop watering my dart-flowers so much, the girl persists. I wanted the pink parasol with the white lace, not the blue one with the yellow fringe. They keep putting clover honey into my breakfast tea and it tastes like a happabore’s hoof. They took away my bedroom carpet and gave me a new one but they didn’t scrub that Ugly Man’s blood off the floorboards and I can hear it screaming, screaming, screaming at me all day and night when I am trying to think. Remind Papa not to look so sad every time he sees me. Grandmama hasn’t been taking her medicine and she thinks that I don’t know but I do. Your boyfriend is very big. Please may I braid your hair.
“Of course you can.” Rey slips out the amber-beaded stick that is holding her hair in a loose roll. “Whatever you like.”
A human boy from the farsier stables on Canto Bight, sold by his parents to pay off a gambling debt, responds apathetically when Rey levitates a stone and expounds the central riddles of the universe for him.
“En, en,” the boy says, impatiently. “Kio pris –”
He lifts the yard-broom in his hands and swings it, making a whooshing, thrumming sound between his teeth as he slashes it through the air. Ben picks up a second broom and gives a gallant toss of his cloak before challenging the boy to a duel; the wild, flourishing swordsmanship that follows seems to furnish the boy with the necessary proof that they are, in fact, authentic Jedi Knights.
An orphaned Chiss boy living on the streets of Sanbra beats Rey in three straight games of sabacc and collects his winnings from her in a filthy caf cup; his other gift is a fantastical ability to correctly guess the number of fingers people are holding up behind their backs, however many hands or fingers they happen to possess. Ben unhooks the golden dice from around his neck and wins the next sabacc game in three subtle throws.
“Sweet kriffing bantha shit on a red-hot griddle.” The boy removes his cap in shining reverence. “Who taught you how to do that, huh?”
A Mirialan girl, born without limbs to a mother who has worked her whole life in the mines on Ruusan, sits on Rey’s lap and pulls at the husk-dolls dangling from her clay bracelet. She asks Rey if the dolls have names; Rey tells her they do not, and so together they think up a few. An Iktochi lieutenant of the First Order consents to a plea of guilty in exchange for the acceptance of his second-born son as a student, a boy who has been tormented since birth by unseen hands that claw his face and bruise his limbs; Ben takes the boy’s head carefully into his bare hands and the boy’s eyes go wide, his mouth moving without words, until he sucks in a deep, shuddering breath as though he has just finished crying for a very long time. An old, old Askajian woman on Tatooine, who makes her living weaving tomoun cloaks but still owns the bangled headdress from her time in the palace of Jabba the Hutt, merely laughs at them when they come to speak with her.
“I performed the Dance of the Seventy Violet Veils at the wedding of your parents, my boy,” she tells Ben, through the warp-weft strings in her loom. “I have buried a husband and borne four children and watched the moon rise on ten different worlds. I have known what it’s like to be owned body and soul and what it’s like to own myself again.”
“Yes.” Ben bows his head slightly. “I understand.”
“Then you’ll understand why I mean no disrespect,” the woman puts her sepia-colored hands into her lap; the shuttle keeps up its weaving, “when I tell you I’ve learned all the lessons I need for this lifetime and the next.”
“Of course.” Rey rummages through her satchel for the stoppered glass bottle of woad-blue dye she has brought as a gift. “We’re sorry to have bothered you.”
But the woman goes on studying Ben and Rey, still laughing, and gestures eastward out the opened door. The sun is rising far out over a plateau. “You may want to speak with my daughter on Geonosis, though, now that I’m thinking about it. She lives at the foot of the Im’g’twe Hills and she’s got a half-grown son who’s bound to cause her no end of trouble, from the look of him.”
“I’m sure I’ll know the look,” Ben says. “But I don’t know Geonosis all that well. Are the hills near the old foundries?”
“Bring me a map and I’ll point it out for you directly.”
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
“Her name is Leia, dear-heart. After the woman who set me free.” She looks at him more closely. “Can you understand that, too?”
Ben ducks outside and walks pensively sideways down a dune to where they have landed the Falcon. His cloak churns and flirts around him with the varying desert winds and Rey watches him as he goes.
When he is out of earshot, the Askajian woman taps Rey on the arm.
“Have you tried black melon tea yet?”
“You make it from the rind.” The woman demonstrates with a mashing gesture that imitates a mortar and pestle. “It tastes like twelve bastards, but it usually does the job if you can stand to drink it seven days straight just after your cycle begins.” She sits back on her stool to consider the matter from a more obtuse angle. “Unless your man’s the type who’d fetch a vial of fresh krayt dragon blood and bake it into a loaf of bread for you.”
“I’m sorry,” Rey says, in no great hurry to contemplate what twelve bastards might taste like, “but I haven’t got the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
The woman points to the clay beads around Rey’s wrist.
“That’s an Aki-Aki fertility necklace you’re wearing,” she says. “He doesn’t look like the sort who’d have trouble, but it happens to the best of them. There’s no shame in it.”
Ben climbs the dune again with a map rolled in his hands and must see something there on Rey’s face, as shimmering and insinuating as a bed of banked embers, because he does not speak to her until they are back aboard the Falcon together.
Rey removes one of her shoes and chases him around the galley with it.
“You knew.” She distributes a noncommittal thwack to his arm. The beads make their usual clicks and clacks. “You knew and you didn’t tell me.”
“I did tell you.” Her next swing glances lightly off his ear when he dodges the wrong way. “Ow.”
“Not like that, you didn’t. What must people have been thinking of me, all this time?”
“You like wearing it,” he says. “It isn’t anybody else’s business why.”
She aims one more swipe at his head, which Ben ducks around deftly while keeping his hands behind his back, and they both stop; Rey stands looking at him, at the depth of his chest and the breadth of his waist.
She hops her foot back inside its shoe.
“I think four’s a good number, don’t you?” Rey straightens the front of her robes. “Or six. That way nobody’s caught in the middle. If we’re lucky they’ll all inherit your nose and my excellent common sense.”
Ben turns his head quickly aside and sniffles with the stately appendage in question. His ears are flushed pink. “Is that what you saw when first we touched hands?”
“No. I just saw you.” She smiles. “I don’t think I need providence to tell me the rest, frankly. I can figure it out for myself.”
“Can you, now?”
She kisses him before he is finished speaking this last word. His hands can nearly reach around her waist and she is lifted up against him, enfolded by him while the clay beads snag on the coarse fabric of his clothes. She speaks so softly into his ear that he must hold his harsh breathing to hear her.
“Be with me,” she says, again.
Ben makes a sound that is only half laughter and nuzzles his mouth against the corner of hers. “What more could I give you, Rey?”
“Everything,” she says. “Everything.”