Actions

Work Header

And the Light that Shines in Darkness

Chapter Text

twin cities black sky

 

***

From the time they were very small, Leia and Luke had known their lives could take only two paths: the Crown or the Church. Born so quickly that no one could swear as to which had come first into the world, their fates were undecided even as they were absolute. For the Crown had claim to one of them but the Church too held out its hand, palm upturned: we too have a tithe.

And so the Queen raised her children to know that one would wield the scepter and the other the staff, and left them to stare at each other across tables and and rooms and the strange space between twins; left them to decide which would take the hard path, and which the hardest path.

***

It was not until their nineteenth year, the yawning-wide summer full of so much death and destruction and discovery, that they decided.

They were collapsed in a field staring up at the sky, their chests heaving from the miles they had run from the capital. The screams and explosions still rang in Luke’s ears; he could taste dust and smoke on his tongue. Their guards were long dead; they were not long to follow, given the inhuman speed of the Emperor’s storm troopers behind them. But their feet had carried them a day and a night and could go no further. If they were to die, Luke thought, at least it might be some sort of rest.

Into the silence, Leia said, “I want the crown.” The grass under her shoulders rustled as she squared them, even here, lying prone and gasping and waiting for the enemy to cut them down.

Luke craned his neck to look over at her; behind the stubborn tilt of her nose he could see the high wheat waving, and beyond that, the billowing smoke of their home.

“You can have it,” he said, and began to laugh at the hollow whole of all they had lost, the meaninglessness of what Leia sought to gain. The crown sat on a burning corpse in the ruined palace as the Emperor’s Dark General laid very precise waste to the rest of the capital in search of them. Vader would not rest until Luke and Leia were dead; the Empire would roll over their country with all the awful certainty of an avalanche, leaving nothing but rubble and silence in its wake.  They had already failed and here was his sister, always the better part of him, planning for victory.

“Good,” said Leia, and years later — decades later — Luke would recall that it was that moment that he began to believe. (In what, he could not say.)

***

They did not die. They did not fail.

The historians called it the Starkiller War, though as with all history — and all names — it fell short of reality. Palpatine’s scientists had created a weapon, one that could destroy a city in a single blow; with it they leveled Naboo and advanced on Alderaan, where the Queen’s Rebellion had retreated under the protection of King Bail. Leia’s victory was impossible against such odds; but she continued to fight, her army growing and shrinking with each new offensive, with each new slaughter.

It might have dragged on for years if not for Luke the Skywalker, prince turned pilot turned spy; whose mission, it was whispered years later, was at odds with his sister’s, meant not to grant her victory but ensure his own. He infiltrated the Emperor’s inner circle, claiming to bow to Palpatine and Vader, and for months played the puppet flawlessly (too flawlessly, it was said). And then one night he seized control of the Starkiller weapon and turned it on the Emperor — and the capital itself, killing three hundred thousand people in a matter of moments.

There was nothing but rubble and silence in its wake.

***

The final truce was signed nearly five years after the destruction of the capital, and at a stroke Leia wore not one crown, but two. Palpatine’s kingdom was now hers, and she could call herself Empress, speak of lands far beyond the sea that she had never seen save on a map.

Instead, she found Luke and offered him another choice, a new choice. “You are the only one I would trust to rule with some shred of sense,” she said, a half-insult the way all her kindest words come out.

“And you are the only one I would trust,” Luke pointed out. “We agreed; one for the Crown and one for the Church. You will make a better ruler than I ever would.”

Leia did not feel much flattered — Luke’s most cutting words always came out as kindness. “I would be happier with your choice,” she told him frankly, “If you seemed less happy with it.”

The laugh that surprised from him was not the first laugh she had heard since the beginning of the war; her brother had always been more given to joy than she. But it was the first one that did not prompt in her an answering smile, for she still did not understand him, and she wanted to.

Luke seemed to sense it, as he sensed so many things about her; he had been the one to tell her of Han’s regard, all those years ago, had later been the one to tell her that her daily sickness did not mean an inept poisoner but that she and Han should marry quickly to avoid scandal, even amongst the chaos of war. He had known her to her bones all his life, but he was still as strange and unknowable to her as the sky.

“I would never have chosen the crown, Leia,” he told her, easily, as though that were something she ought to have realized a decade before. “Even if the Emperor had left us in peace, if our parents still lived and you and I were still saddled with that choice. I never wanted it.”

“You cannot tell me you want the Church,” Leia said, because Luke’s head had nodded off too often onto her shoulder during the sermons they had endured as children to believe Luke capable of any claim to a holy calling.

“I want peace,” replied Luke, harsh and honest. “And I want a life that tells me what tomorrow will bring. The Church can give me that; and I will take it. I deserve that much.”

Any number of responses could have tripped off Leia’s tongue: she wanted to denounce his cowardice as much as she wanted to praise his insight, but in the end she could only think that there was no word in their language for the opposite of envy, for as he looked at her future with fear, so she looked at his with dread.

She said, “We have both seen the folly of a Crown on the head of the one who most wants it.”

“We have both seen the folly of a Crown that takes anyone’s desires into account,” Luke pointed out. “So have a care, sister, and make sure Ben grows up with more regard for the hearts of his people than his own. Unless you have another child, he will not have our luxury of choice.”

“I will,” Leia promised, and thought how strange it was to make such a promise; as though he were telling her his last wishes, as though he were dying.

***

Chapter Text

***

It turned out that breaking your leg was amongst the most boring injuries that could afflict a soldier.

Poe had reason to reflect upon this profound truth the first day of his confinement, glaring at the contraption that held his right foot suspended by series of complicated ropes and wires, encased in a thick cast that might double as a weapon should the Rensters try and invade. Complete immobilization for the better part of six weeks, and crutches for two months after that. “The war might be over by then,” he’d protested to the doctor.

“Pray to God that you’re right,” Dr. Maz had replied serenely, glancing up. “You’re in the right place for it.”

Which was true enough. The civil war had necessitated any number of improvisations, and so Poe was imprisoned not in a proper military infirmary or ward but in a church, of all places, its pews replaced by an ocean of crisp linens, wounded soldiers, and harried professionals. At least the stained glass windows were interesting, and the high ceiling kept the air from feeling too close; Poe had already had his fill of wards crowded with the stench of infection and death.

But he was already restless, and the sun had barely dipped below the horizon, the windows still turning the grey stone into a riot of color. Inactivity did not come naturally, and he cast about for something more engaging than the truly terrible novel the orderly had pressed upon him earlier in the afternoon.

A priest sat nearby with some other poor bugger a few beds down. He looked quite elderly — nearly fifty, if Poe was any judge — his sandy-brown hair turning to grey, with a remarkably plain face. Despite that, Poe found himself looking more closely: there was something familiar there, in the tilt of his head and the stubborn point of his chin, though he could not place it. The shadows thickened, making Poe’s examination more difficult; he flinched at the first flare of a lamp.

Evidently concluded with his conversation with, or benediction of, the patient he’d been attending to, the priest rose from his chair and looked up, catching Poe’s eye. Another priest, this one a young woman with dark hair, approached the first and murmured something to him. Poe looked away, down at his bandaged wrists; when he glanced up, both of then had drifted off into the gathering dark.

Dinner was served, and Poe seized the opportunity to trade a dinner roll for another half an apple with the soldier next bed over. “I don’t remember the last time I had a whole piece of fruit,” he said, fitting the two halves together. They weren’t a perfect match, but he bit into them nonetheless.

His trading partner, a fellow pilot named Pava, rolled her eyes as she scraped the meagre dab of butter onto her extra roll. “Don’t get too excited,” she advised. “The archbishop has an entire orchard at his disposal; we’re afflicted with apples the way some wards are afflicted with pinkeye.”

“Or crabs,” Poe added helpfully, and Pava snorted. “So this is the archbishop’s seat? Rarified air we’re breathing.” Poe was hardly a historian, but he knew as well as anyone that the Queen’s brother had taken holy orders after the Rebellion and had risen, with alacrity, to the post of archbishop of Alderaan and Naboo. He had been condemned on both sides for keeping the Church neutral in the civil war thus far; the last Poe had heard of him, Queen Leia had been muttering something about exiling her stupid brother to Dagobah for the trouble he’d caused her, a few minutes before she’d given him orders for the mission that had gotten him stranded here.

“Father Luke is about as rarified as a potato,” Pava said, devouring the roll in two bites. She chewed thoughtfully for a moment, swallowed, then added, “But a good-hearted sort of potato. So long as you don’t try talking to him about literature.”

Poe was set to ask why when Dr. Maz descended upon him once more, checking the rigging and glaring at him when he asked questions. “You’re lucky you’re not dead,” she pointed out when he brought up again his probable length of recovery and how it might be shortened. “The First Order isn’t known for letting its prisoners out alive, much less in one piece — even if it is a bit broken.”

Poe had to concede the truth in that. He still wasn’t entirely sure how he’d managed an escape; the crash had rendered most of the previous week a blur, though he could remember the prison cell and the restraints and Kylo Ren, watchful from the shadows. Poe had no memory of the pain, though there were fresh scars on his skin that Dr. Maz had clucked over and pronounced “thoroughly nasty work.” But there was another face he could dimly recall, dark brown eyes and a solemn expression that had broken into a broad grin. His next clear memory was waking up here, staring up at flying buttresses and stained glass. “I still think—“

“Go to sleep,” Dr. Maz ordered, and moved on to harass Pava.

Easier said than done. Poe shut his eyes as the ward went quiet, the silence punctuated by coughs or whispered conversations, but oppressive all the same. He couldn’t seem to turn off his brain; he kept wondering if the information he’d smuggled out before capture had made it to the Queen, if their plan would work, if he could remember the name of that man. His body, too, wouldn’t stop pestering him, reminding him that whatever horrors had been inflicted on him would not be lessened by the fact that he could not remember their origins.

At last he gave up on sleep and reached for the book on his bedside. It was nearly impossible to make out the words in the faint light, and after a few struggling pages he wondered if he could ask for a candle. There were a few others along the ward, faint pools of light that didn’t seem to bother anyone overmuch, and he wondered how many of those souls were faced with the same difficulty he had, unable to sleep in this sanctuary.

Poe’s predicament was solved by the sound of quiet footsteps along the aisle between the rows of beds; not the quick patter of Dr. Maz or the plod of the orderly, but someone else. “Hello?” he ventured.

The footsteps — and the figure — paused, and turned toward him. “Good evening,” came the reply, in a rather grave tone of voice.

Poe couldn’t see much beyond the black frock. “I was hoping you were a nurse,” he said. He felt strangely guilty, as though he’d just interrupted some ritual.

The priest stepped forward, and Poe could make out his features — it was the same one from earlier, who had such a familiar chin. “I’m sorry to disappoint, Captain.”

Commander, thank you,” Poe replied, but with a smile to let him know he took no offense. “Though I suppose my bars aren’t too visible on this hospital gown. Poe Dameron,” he added, holding out his hand.

The priest looked down at his hand and hesitated, which Poe was set to take a good deal of offense at, before he lifted his right hand — or rather, his right arm, the cuff folded neatly over the missing hand. “I seem to be making a very bad first impression, Commander.”

“Oh,” Poe realized, then switched hands to extend his left. “And if you’ve lost that one too, we can just substitute a manly nod.”

His grasp was warm and confident; a soldier’s grip, with a soldier’s rough palm. Hardly a surprise, considering that most men that age had fought in the Rebellion thirty years ago. “You wanted the nurse for something?”

Poe tried to recall. “I couldn’t sleep,” he admitted. “I thought I might try reading; I nearly set fire to my bed a dozen times as a boy, sneaking books after bedtime.”

“That’s hardly the kind of story that inspires me to fetch you a candle,” said the priest, though he was smiling. He examined the book in Poe’s lap. “You have good taste, at least.”

Poe snorted. “Best pick of a bad lot. Whoever your librarian is, he’s got a regrettable fondness for dreck.”

The priest looked wounded. “The midst of a civil war is hardly the best time to begin a lending library. Besides, some people quite like the War of the Stars series.”

“You’re the librarian, aren’t you?” Poe said with a grin.

“Amongst other things,” the priest admitted. “I can fetch you a candle, but you really ought to try and get some rest.”

“I certainly ought,” Poe agreed. “But if I made a habit of doing what I ought, I wouldn’t have joined up for this bloody war, would I?”

“A fair point.” He had a kind smile, and Poe wondered if he helped with the wounded and dying; he seemed a calm presence in the midst of all this misery, and Poe could well imagine taking some sort of comfort from that plain face, in the last moments.

“I didn’t get your name before,” he realized. “Although I suppose I can just call you Father, though it does seem so impersonal.”

“No more so than ‘Commander’ must seem to you, surely,” said the priest.

“That sounded very much like an evasion,” Poe said, teasing. “Are you the archbishop or something?”

The priest pulled a face. “I prefer to go by Father Luke, if you don’t mind.”

“Christ,” said Poe, “You are the archbishop?” Through his horror came the thought that at least it accounted for the familiar-looking chin: and now that he looked closer, he could see the resemblance between him and the Queen — not so much in appearance, but in their carriage, the tilt of their heads.

“Blasphemy, Commander Dameron,” said Father Luke, looking torn between disapproval and amusement.

“Should I take note of it for confession on Sunday?” asked Poe. “Or do you keep track of everyone’s sins while they’re under your roof?”

“We are all under God’s roof,” Father Luke replied. “And I imagine keeping track of your sins would be a taxing endeavor.”

That surprised a laugh out of Poe, though he tried to bite it off as quickly as possible, mindful of the hour. “You’ll have ample time to find out, Father,” he said.

“I have no doubt,” he sighed. “Good night, Commander.” And he faded back into the darkness, his footsteps echoing down the aisle. Poe fell asleep still smiling.

***

Poe, Jess, and Luke argue while Rey judges silently

 

Despite his fears, the days went by tolerably well; the priests had evidently put some amount of thought into the well-being of those under their care, and took pains to provide not just comfort but entertainment. There were films shown twice a week — old films, to be sure, nothing that Poe could recognize from the past five years — and a bingo night, and various other harmless activities designed to keep those recovering from injury or illness from brooding.

Poe even took up knitting, although he was abominably bad at it. “What do you think?” he asked Father Luke, during one of the priest’s late-night excursions. (Poe rarely saw him before sunset; inquiries as to whether or not he was a vampire and if so, had he somehow opted out of the “ageless beauty” aspect Poe was given to understand was part of the benefits, had met with an unimpressed silence from all sides.) He held up the section of scarf that he’d managed to cobble together so far.

Father Luke squinted at it. “You have a remarkable lack of talent,” he said, sounding impressed.

“I’d like to see you try,” Poe muttered, before recalling Luke’s injury. “I’m — I didn’t mean—“

“I’m sure I could do a much better job with my feet, Commander,” Luke replied; Poe dared a glance up at his face and found him smiling, reluctantly. “But I look forward to your inevitable improvement.”

“Inevitable?”

Father Luke shrugged. “You can hardly get any worse,” he said as he wafted off, leaving Poe to stab at the yarn resentfully for another hour or so before admitting defeat for the evening.

There were also any number of people to talk to; those of his fellow soldiers who were ambulatory — or who could sneak out of their beds when the orderlies weren’t looking — would come by in search of amusement or gossip. The doctors and nurses were less inclined to chit-chat, but to Poe’s surprise, a number of the priests were willing to sit with them.

“You’re not hoping to save my soul, are you?” Poe asked one evening, as one of them came by to share the contents of the week-old newspaper she had managed — God only knew how — to procure.

Mother Rey blinked, then resettled the paper on her lap. “If you didn’t want to hear the funnies section, you could have just said,” she replied.

“I just wondered why you were all so…” Poe searched for a word.

“Fussy,” Jess supplied, from where she was sitting with two extra pillows and Poe’s scarf wrapped around her neck, because Mother Rey had thought she looked cold and assured her that the best way to avoid looking at Poe’s hideous abomination of a scarf was to wear it.

“Attentive,” Poe corrected. “It isn’t as though you lot volunteered for the war effort.”

Mother Rey (who was, Poe had discovered, a good ten years younger than him) looked at him for so long he began to get uncomfortable, but at last she sighed, and slouched back in her chair. “We did, in fact,” she said. “Not to fight, and not to take sides; but the archbishop asked that every church in the country open its doors to the wounded and helpless, and almost all of them have. There are wards like this all over — although the Cathedral is most impressive,” she added with the casual pride evident when any priest spoke of this place.

“All over?” asked Jess, scratching at her neck. “Do you mean to say there are churches turned over to wards in Renster territory?”

“Of course,” said Rey, sounding surprised.

What?” said Poe and Jess, in unison.

Rey was prevented from answering by Father Luke, who came wandering up from devil knew where. “I sensed a great disturbance,” he said, eyebrows raised.

“You told your minions to throw open their doors to the Rensters?” Poe demanded, aware that his indignation didn’t have quite the same impact when he was lying flat on his back.

“Minions?” said Father Luke.

“I’m Jewish,” Poe pointed out. “I don’t know your command structures. And my point still stands.”

“So that’s why you asked about saving your soul,” said Rey, sounding amused.

“It wasn’t a request,” Poe warned her. “I quite like my soul the way it is.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said, laughing at him now.

Father Luke shook his head. “To answer your question — yes, we have thrown open our doors. To anyone. The wounded soldiers of the Knights of Ren — misguided as you believe them to be — deserve just as much aid as you do, Commander.”

“I disagree with every facet of that statement,” Poe said, sitting up.

“And you are alive to do so because of places like this,” Father Luke snapped, the first sign of temper Poe had seen from him. “This war has stolen a hundred thousand lives already, Poe — you would have me stand by and watch a hundred thousand more die of disease and infection, when I can prevent it?”

“Your family is the one causing this war,” Poe shot back, ignoring Jess pointedly clearing her throat. “You could have prevented the entire mess from starting.”

Once again, Poe felt the weight of his words too late; he forced himself to watch as they hit Luke with all the violence of a slap to the face.

But Luke didn’t flinch, or grow red-faced with anger; he simply looked tired, as though they’d been having this argument for years. “I live with that guilt every day,” he said. “But I’m not such a fool to think that whatever I do now can erase that. These wards — and the sanctuary the Church provides — are not salves to my troubled conscience: they are to help the people, not me. We are none of us blameless in this war; and I would rather save what lives we can. Let those survivors decide who is responsible for the lives we’ve lost.”

Poe opened his mouth to reply, but couldn’t find anything in himself to say; and at any rate Father Luke didn’t wait to hear it, but turned and left, as quietly as he’d come.

Rey rattled her paper. “Can I read the funnies now, or are you going to have another fit?”

***

Poe stewed for the rest of the day, but by nightfall he was regretful. When he heard the steady step coming up the aisle, he called out. “Father Luke?”

He heard Luke sighing in the darkness, before approaching the bed. “You really should make at least a cursory attempt to sleep during regular hours.”

“You don’t,” Poe said.

“For any number of reasons,” said Father Luke, “I am hardly a model to emulate. What did you need?”

“I wanted—“ Now that the moment was on him, Poe faltered. He cleared his throat. “I don’t think your conscience should be troubled,” he said.

Father Luke blinked. “I see.”

“I know what they say about you,” Poe continued, hurried. “How you should have stepped in when Snoke tried to seize Naboo. That if you’d thrown your lot in with one side, the other one would have buckled right away.”

“Is that what they say about me these days?” he asked, though he didn’t seem all that curious. “I suppose it’s an improvement — before this new war they said I ate children for breakfast and could choke the life out of any man who crossed me with my mind alone.”

“Can you?” Poe asked, intrigued.

“No.”

“Oh. Well,” Poe said, remembering his original aim, “I wanted to say — look, I’ve met them both. I’ve served in the Queen’s guard since the war began, I know her about as well as anyone could, taking her orders. And I’ve met—“ he lowered his voice, “—Kylo Ren now, too.”

It was a risky admission. Kylo Ren had been blamed for — had taken credit for — the abduction of Prince Benjamin, the start of the war itself. And the Queen had called for his execution in speeches throughout the country from the first. There would never be peace, she promised, while Kylo Ren’s head rested on his shoulders; no peace while her son was held captive by that monster.

But Poe had a list of those who knew the truth, and the Archbishop of Naboo was very near the top.

Father Luke frowned at him for a long moment, but all he said was, “There aren’t many who have.”

“Perks of the job,” Poe said, trying for a winning smile. Best if Luke thought his knowledge of Kylo Ren’s identity had been earned during his captivity.

It seemed to work; Luke’s expression cleared, though he didn’t look any happier. “I take it these means you’ve remembered more about your time as a guest of the First Order, then.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. I remember—“

He remembered enough; the calm, almost regretful look on Kylo Ren’s face as Poe had been first interrogated, then tortured, then finally beaten. The Monster of Coruscant had been painted by the Alliance as something inhuman, the Minotaur escaped and given an army to wreak his havoc; but Poe had watched him as closely as he’d been watched himself, and the most dangerous thing he’d found was a kind of strange compassion there.

But even with his compassion, Kylo Ren had nearly killed him — had already spilled the blood of over seventy thousand of his own countrymen. That compassion could be used, perhaps, but it could not overpower his obsession with power.

“There was never any chance at peace,” he said.

“No,” Father Luke agreed. “No, there wasn’t.”

“I’m sorry,” Poe added. He wanted to be clear on the point. “I shouldn’t have brought up your family like that. I was just… I’ve lost a lot of good men and women under my command, in this war.”

“And some you didn’t lose, because there were places like this to take care of them,” Luke pointed out, but gently. “Your role in this war is clear, Commander, and I would not have you stray from it — but we must each play our roles.”

“You called me by my name before,” Poe reminded him. “When you were yelling at me.”

Luke looked embarrassed. “I apologize. I was a bit—“

“No, I liked it,” Poe said. He held out his left hand. “Perhaps if we dispense with the roles between the two of us, Luke, we won’t find ourselves on the outs quite so much.”

Luke considered his hand for a long moment, but finally took it. “Very well, Poe.”

***

Poe had his first chance to test his new moral perspective just a few days later; the midnight bell had hardly stopped ringing when there was another noise, the high drone of the ambulance corps arriving with newly injured. Dr. Maz and her gaggle of doctors and nurses rushed past, and then there was a great deal of arguing at the door.

“What’s going on?” Jess asked.

Poe rolled his eyes. “I’m only five feet closer than you.”

“Then use it.”

He gingerly sat up, using his hands to lift himself an extra few inches. He could see Dr. Kalonia making some very firm gestures to someone in uniform — an Army sergeant, by the looks of him — and beyond that, some figures milling about in the foyer of the Cathedral (Luke had told him repeatedly that it was not, in fact, a foyer, but Poe could never remember). “There’s people,” he reported back. “And they’re arguing.”

Jess snorted. “Stunningly insightful, Commander.”

“Indeed. Now lie back down before Dr. Maz throws you in the crypt,” Luke said as he breezed past on his way up the aisle. Poe slumped back down in his pillows.

“Coward,” Jess said, though he noticed that she was making sure to lie back obediently.

They had their answers soon enough; whatever the fight had been about, Drs. Maz and Kalonia had won it, and a handful of stretchers were brought in, carried by surly-looking soldiers and supervised by an elderly priest who walked with a stoop. Luke was at his side, speaking in low tones, and Poe was about to call out to ask what the fuss was when one of the stretchers arrived at the bed to his left, its contents dumped unceremoniously onto the thin mattress.

“Careful!” Dr. Maz snapped at the soldiers, who appeared ready to strike out at her. Poe looked at the patient and felt his own fists clench.

The woman wore the dark grey uniform of the Knights of Ren. From the detailing on her sleeve, she was a captain; from the wounds across her belly and throat, she would be dead before morning. And from the way she was struggling, she seemed determined to take at least a few more of Poe’s comrades down with her. A half-dozen nurses and orderlies, as well as the two soldiers who had brought her in, were called to assist.

“Keep her still, unless you want a faceful of blood from an arterial spray,” said Dr. Maz as she got to work, another orderly running in with a rolling cart of the essential instruments.

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” one of the soldiers rumbled, holding down a foot as it tried to lash out at her.

Dr. Maz pointed a frightening-looking scalpel at her. “If she dies,” she said, “I’ll come looking for you, young woman. And I do not recall any sanctuary being called in your favor.” The orderly pulled the screen around them, and the rest of the operation was shielded from Poe’s sight. He could hear nothing but Dr. Maz’s curt orders and the sound of flesh in unnatural configurations, and he wished — not for the first time — for a radio to drown out the noise.

Luke and his new friend were still hovering nearby; he caught Poe’s eye and came over. “I trust you don’t have any immediate homicidal impulses,” he said.

“I don’t think they’ll be necessary,” Poe admitted, jerking his head to indicate the gruesome sounds coming from behind the curtain. “Can you tell us what happened?”

Luke glanced over at Jess, who had plumped up her pillows in preparation. He sighed. “There was a battle in Tuanul. The Alliance came upon a squadron of the First Order massacring civilians — and in turn massacred them.”

“So much death,” said the old priest, tottering up beside Luke, who pulled out a stool for him to sit on. “You would think we could wait more than thirty years between attempts at self-annihilation, but—“ he made a helpless gesture. He seemed to recall himself, and peered at Poe and Jess in succession. “But you appear to be bright young people. Dare I hope that you’re not involved in this terrible business?”

“I’m afraid we are, Father,” Jess said, pointing at herself. “Army Lieutenant, and that one’s a Commander, but he’s in the Aeronaut Corps so it’s not a real rank.”

“It’s real enough to have you scrubbing latrines,” Poe threatened.

“No, it isn’t.”

“Give me my scarf back.”

“I can see why the Alliance is such a force to be reckoned with,” Luke observed.

The old priest looked heartbroken. “But you’re so young,” he said.

Poe felt the need to protest at that. “I’m nearly twenty-six, Father,” he said, glancing up at Luke when he makes a noise. “What are you laughing at?”

“Absolutely nothing,” said Luke. “Twenty-five is an advanced age indeed.”

“Compared to, what, fifty-nine?” Poe guessed.

Luke scowled. “Forty-six, thank you very much.”

“And I’m twenty-two, so I shall take your observation as a very hard-won compliment, Father,” said Jess to the old priest. “I won’t ask your age, but what’s your name? Father Luke’s been very rude in not introducing us — I’m Jessika Pava.”

“And I’m Poe Dameron,” Poe added belatedly, sitting up enough so that he could hold out his hand. The rigging that held up his damned leg protested mightily, but nothing seemed on the verge of collapse.

“Yes, introductions,” said the old priest. “I am Father Lor San, from the Tuanul village. Or what remains of it,” he added, as though recalling all over again what had happened. “Oh, dear God.”

“You should rest,” said Luke, his hand on Father Lor San’s shoulder. “There’s a cell in the cloister, I can have Rey make sure you’re comfortable.”

“Dear Rey,” Lor San murmured. “At least she is free of this mess. I suppose — should I—?”

“Your people are being looked after,” said Rey, who’d appeared in the time Luke had mentioned her. “And I wanted to discuss a text I found in the archives last week; it held some interesting implications…” Her voice faded as they walked slowly down the aisle toward the cloisters, her arm looped in Father Lor San’s.

Luke noticed Poe’s gaze following them. “Father Lor San used to visit often, before the war,” he explained, putting the stool back in its place. “He and Rey have always had a peculiar bond rooted in their mutual love of obscure religious texts.”

“You don’t share that love?” Jess asked, yawning mightily.

“I much prefer the company of trees,” Luke said. “And I make sure to be out in the orchard whenever they start arguing over hagiography.”

“Probably wise,” agreed Poe.

“Try to get some sleep.” Luke nodded at the bed to Poe’s left, still screened off and filled with awful sounds. “If you can.”

“Can’t I at least have a cudgel for self-defense?” Poe asked.

“From what I saw,” Luke said, “That soldier will hardly be in fighting form any time soon.”

“She was missing half a lung and she still nearly knocked a nurse on his—“ he bit off the word he was going to use, settling for, “Teakettle. I’m not taking any chances.”

“You can always use your cast as a blunt instrument,” Luke advised him, and padded off with a sunny smile.

Jess, still yawning, gave a chuckle. “I like that one,” she said.

Poe opened his mouth to tell her off, then remembered something. “What does ‘hagiography’ mean?”

***

The Renster wasn’t much for conversation. Poe woke up the next morning to find her staring at him; he squashed his first impulse to make an undignified noise of terror and instead offered a wave. She did not wave back, merely narrowed her eyes at him.

“I don’t think she likes me,” Poe said, turning to Jess.

“Pity,” said Jess. “If you got married, your children might actually be tall enough to fight in the Army.”

“I’m demoting you to lance-corporal for that,” Poe told her, almost forgetting the enemy at his back. Almost. “Isn’t the Army supposed to teach you mindless obedience to the common cause?”

“That’s her lot,” Jess said, jerking her chin past Poe where the Renster was presumably still trying to bore a hold through the back of Poe’s head. “And speaking of which…“ She looked over at the sound of boots shuffling along the stone floor, and Poe’s gaze followed.

Mother Rey was leading a handful of men and women in various condition up the aisle toward Poe’s neighbor. One of them, with a broken arm and some sort of bandage over the entirety of his back, glanced at Poe—

A dark room and a chair, nothing more than that (“nothing more is needed, sire”) and the smell of old blood—

“Here you are,” said Mother Rey in a cheerful voice. “Like I’ve told you, your commander is quite safe. She’s not up to talking yet, but—“

So cold, bare feet blistering against the floor but his head on fire, “I had no idea we had the best pilot in the Alliance,” his throat was raw and someone was screaming—

Mother Rey flourished a notepad and a pen. “You should be able to communicate. Only please don’t make any attempts at escape just yet—“

Hands on his wrists, warm and gentle, hissing at pain he can’t even feel anymore, the bruises and blood happening from far away, “I’m here to rescue you,” the first honest thing he’s heard in weeks, years, lifetimes, a smile of relief in a kind face and then—

“At least two of you have concussions and the rest of you are really in no better shape, and the front line is still quite a ways away.” Mother Rey handed the pen and pad to the captain and stepped away, allowing the soldiers to crowd around the bed. Poe took a deep breath and looked down at his hands — pink new skin encircling his wrists, the bandages off. He didn’t dare look up again, but he was nauseatingly aware of the young man whose face had been in every dream and nightmare for the past month.

There were quiet mutters coming from the group, punctuated by the scratching of pen on paper and scuffing feet. Poe looked over at Jess, who was frowning at him. “What?” he asked.

“You’re looking peaky,” she replied. “Are you going to be sick or something?”

“I’m fine,” Poe said, and smiled. He’d spent almost nine months spying on the Rensters, he ought to be able to fool an Army grunt.

Ought to, of course, being the operative word. “What is it?” she pressed, her gaze flicking up past his shoulder, where the enemy conference was still in full swing.

“They smell absolutely foul,” he said, which had the dual benefit of a) being true and b) being overheard. A few of the soldiers turned to glare at him, one of them even making a start toward his bed. Poe grabbed a pillow from behind his head and held it aloft like a weapon. “Have you lot ever heard of hygiene? Or is it another word your supreme leader has forbidden you to say?” He glanced at the young man; he was keeping his head down, standing next to his commander. Clever, but not experienced at subterfuge; he’d draw more attention to himself staying out of trouble.

“I see you’ve all made each other’s acquaintance,” said Dr. Maz, coming up to Poe and snatching his pillow away from hm. “This is, believe it or not, an infirmary, not a cantina. If you want to kill each other, you’ll have ample opportunity once I’ve wasted my time and talents in patching you up.” She shooed the Rensters out of her way, peering over the bed at the commander. “What’s your name, young lady? Or does everyone just break down weeping in front of you?”

The smile seemed pulled out of the captain, unwilling and quickly stifled. She set her jaw, but there was a scratch of pen on paper and Dr. Maz craned her neck to read.

“Phasma.” Dr. Maz snorted. “I’m sure it is. Very well, Phasma — now that you’re awake, and you’ve seen that your people are all ambulatory and on the mend, it’s time we talk about your injuries.” She looked up, seeming to notice that the Rensters were all still milling about. “Go on,” she said, flapping her hands at them. “Back to your beds, there’s good children.”

Poe watched them go, a few still scowling in his direction. The young man, however, looked straight ahead. Jess had dozed off again, so Poe forced himself to pick up his knitting — another scarf, hopefully this time the same width all the way down and without as many holes.

Whatever discussion Dr. Maz was having with Phasma took some time; dinner had been served and cleared away by the time Dr. Maz sighed and stood up, arching her back. “You,” she said, pointing a finger at Phasma, “Are an idiot.”

Phasma wrote something on her pad. Dr. Maz read it and laughed.

“All right. But don’t forget what I said. Injuries like yours don’t heal in a week.” And she hobbled off, presumably to enjoy her own dinner somewhere that had an actual table and chair and utensils sharper than a spoon.

Poe risked a look over; Phasma was staring at him again. “Is there something on my face?” he asked, making a show of brushing at his mouth.

She scowled, but shook her head. It wasn’t encouraging, but Poe had used worse openings.

“I’m Poe,” he said, extending a hand — if he reached all the way over, and she did the same, they might just touch fingers. But it was important to be seen to be trying. “Poe Dameron.”

Instead of reaching out, she picked up her pen again, writing quickly. She tore off the sheet and handed it to him.

I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. THE ESCAPED PRISONER FROM VINDICTA. YOU’RE ON EVERY WANTED LIST IN THE SECOND EMPIRE.

Poe made a face. “I have to say, that’s a terrible name. It’s just the old territory of Naboo with a few miles added on; no need to get so dramatic about it.” He handed the paper back. “Although if you were slaughtering innocents in Tuanul, clearly the Knights of Ren are making some progress.”

The comment hit, he could tell; she was well-trained but the flinch registered in the corner of her mouth, a shift of her head. But she took the paper calmly enough, wrote something down and handed it back.

THE KNIGHTS OF REN DO NOT ANSWER TO YOU. NOR DO I.

“You’ll answer to someone,” Poe said cheerfully. “Turning traitor against the Queen is one thing, but people might not be so understanding when news of the massacre gets out.”

Just then, Luke made an appearance; with him was exactly the last person Poe wanted to see. “Go on,” Luke said to the young man, encouraging. Phasma watched both of them, clearly suspicious.

The young man licked his lips and cleared his throat. “Captain,” he said, and Poe wanted to drown out the noise by crumpling the sheet of paper in his hand. “The archbishop wanted to know if — I have some medic training, and I thought—“

“It was me who suggested it, actually,” Luke said, putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “The Church is a bit short-staffed; vows of poverty, you understand. And as long as you and your people are here, we could use his expertise.”

Poe could hear three short strokes of the pen, followed by a long one.

Luke sighed. “Very well,” he said. “But I’ll say it’s a very short-sighed view. I would have thought—“

Phasma made a noise — the mess at her throat obscured it somewhat, but it sounded like a laugh. She was writing something more now, and Luke read over her shoulder as she did so.

Whatever she wrote, it wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear. “I quite understand, Captain,” he said, this time his voice colder. “For the good of the Empire — by God, if only you knew how foolish you sound when you say things like that.” He caught Poe’s eye and added, “All of you.” And he took the young man, who still hadn’t glanced at Poe, back down the aisle and out of sight.

Poe hands Phasma her piece of paper, slightly wrinkled. “Let me guess,” he said. “You said ‘no.’”

She snatched the paper from his hand and wrote something quickly, thrusting it back into his hand. YOU KNOW HIM.

Poe frowned, ignoring the clench in his gut. “Who, Father Luke? I’ve been here for a few weeks—“

She gestured for the paper, impatiently; when he handed it back she scratched something out and scribbled more.

YOU KNOW <s>HIM</s> FN-2187. HOW?

“FN — what?”

She didn’t write anything more, just watched him. After a moment she underlined something and held it up again.

HOW ?

“This FN-whatever it is,” Poe said, “Doesn’t he have a name? FN—“ and Poe bit down so hard on his own tongue that he could taste the blood in his mouth.

“That’s the only name they ever gave me.”

FN — I’m going to call you Finn, is that all right?”

“Finn… I like that,” and a broad smile in the darkness, a forest—

Phasma was rattling a piece of paper at him; he took it with hands that he tried to keep from shaking.

WAS HE THE ONE WHO HELPED YOU ESCAPE THE INTERROGATION CHAMBER?

“For someone who prizes loyalty, you aren’t very trusting,” Poe said. “If your little FN buddy helped me escape, wouldn’t he have come with me?”

The plane now in view — a one-seater, a relic from the last war. “It should get in the air,” Finn’s face, solemn and terrified but his jaw set. “The rest is up to you.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

A takeoff, and gunshots, and the front line and then the ground, rushing up too fast—

The writing was hard to read, as if she’d written it too quickly, too eager. YOU DID NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION. WHICH IS A BETTER ANSWER THAN I HAD EXPECTED. Her smile was all teeth as he looked up from what she’d written.

If he could move he would strangle her right now; instead he wadded up the piece of paper and dropped it on the floor between them. “You’re a long way from the interrogation chamber.”

Still smiling, she turned away, staring up at the flying buttresses overhead. Poe stared at them, too; stared at them and wondered how he could have been so stupid.

***

Chapter Text

It was a central tenant of life in the Church that, barring disasters either natural or man-made, days should have a settled rhythm, weeks and months and years spinning on their appointed axes. Father Obi-Wan had claimed this helped each priest and monk to focus on prayer, although Father Yoda had told a different story — that such repetition would help in hurrying the days to paradise. Luke had his doubts about both explanations, but he couldn’t deny that most of his flock, be they disciples or congregants, took some measurement of comfort in a daily order: Prime at dawn, the bells at noon, Vespers as the sun went down, the Night Office toll, and between those quarters each day passed like the one before it, assuring that tomorrow would hold no surprises for the survivors of today.

When he had first come to the Church, Luke had been desperate for that order; desperate for anything that could tie him down to earth after flying too high and too long in the last war — the Starkiller War, they called it now, although never when they thought he could hear them. He had gone from pilot to spy to mass murderer in a span of just a few years; and so he spent all his time in prayer; sometimes in the nave but most often in his cell, eyes fixed on the cross and reciting words that echoed in his chest, clawed at his throat. Yet even while he spoke them he knew they offered little in the way of salvation — what hope was there for him, who had lost his soul along with his hand that night in Stellamortis, what hope for the Sky Walker who could destroy any city beneath his wings? The Church couldn’t save him — God wouldn’t — but he kept praying, hoping that one day the rhythm might let him forget what he owed, what would one day come calling.

What had come calling instead was Father Yoda, passing by his doorway on an unremarkable spring morning. “Still on your knees?” he’d asked, sniffing at Luke with a thoroughly unimpressed expression.

Luke had frozen, unsure of what to say. The Abbot rarely left the monastery, preferring the company of his monks and his orchard to the “pomp and performance” of the archbishop’s cathedral. Before this moment Luke had never exchanged words with Yoda.

“Yes,” he’d said. It was whispered that Father Yoda could snatch your own thoughts from your head; best to be honest from the start, they said, or get the truth dragged out of you anyway.

Yoda had sniffed again, and thrust something at Luke. “Then do something while you’re down there,” he’d said. “Come along.”

It was a spade.

Yoda and Luke

***

And thus the years began to speed along as promised, Luke’s days too full of work to spend on prayer. Father Yoda taught him about the gardens that surrounded the Cathedral and Abbey, usually while sitting peaceably in a chair that Luke had wrestled out of Yoda’s chambers and into the sunshine. Luke, for his part, learned everything on his knees; digging through the black-brown earth, pulling up weeds, transplanting flowers or new trees with a trowel or shovel.

His fellow priests — as well as several of Yoda’s own brothers — protested the arrangement. “If Father Luke wishes to dig in the mud,” one priest sniffed, “Perhaps the Cathedral is too lofty for his tastes.”

But Father Obi-Wan smiled and said nothing, and Luke continued to dig. He was now too tired to sit for hours in prayer until the Nocturnes; Father Yoda was forever changing his mind about the configuration of this patch of the garden or that new transplant in the orchard. His sleep was not dreamless, but it was deep, and when he woke up the morning sun no longer hit his face like an accusation. Over the years he was given other responsibilities, teaching the acolytes and orphans herbs and then history, or assisting the monks with their salves and tinctures. His rank climbed without him taking much notice.

There was no way to know what might have happened to him had the new war (its name changed every week, it seemed; the Traitor’s War, the Hag’s War, the War of Two Crowns) not come crashing down on all their heads. Perhaps he would still be in charge of the plants and the children, archbishop in name only after Obi-Wan’s death, the Church spinning in its staid circle around the calendar.

Instead he was once again a leader in wartime. But at least in this war, he could stand for something other than death. He’d ordered the churches to open their doors to the doctors and nurses who clamored for safety and refuge to practice their medicine; he commanded the Cloisters (Father Yoda long since dead, Mother Ahsoka in little need of command) to take in the orphaned and widowed who turned to their faith for more than spiritual aid now. The war raged on, but he had snatched what victories he could in the lives of those under the vault of his Cathedral, the small lights of the other churches not yet snuffed out.

It was, Luke reflected as he made his way through the orchard, too much too hope for that it could last.

He was keeping a good distance between himself and his charges: Rey and Lor San, their heads bent toward each other as they made slow progress through the trees. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Rey’s posture indicated she was taking no little of Lor San’s weight; he had refused Maz point blank that first night, but in the weeks since he seemed to have grown only more gaunt and pale, as though some injury was leeching away at his strength.

Perhaps it was.

At long last the pair came to a bench, and Rey lowered Lor San onto it with the brisk efficiency that she only brought to bear on those she truly cared for; looking up, she caught Luke’s eye and nodded. Satisfied that she could manage, Luke returned to his examination of the old growth section of the orchard.

Here at least, there was little sign of the war; the orchard continued to flourish, even under the drone of planes and the shudder of the earth as soldiers marched out from New Theed in grim formation toward the front lines.

His assistant, still halfway up a tree where Luke had abandoned him to keep an eye on Rey and Lor San, was swearing creatively as Luke approached.

“Something amiss?” Luke asked.

“Um.” The pause was lengthy and anxious. “The cat won’t come down. And it’s mean.

Luke bit on the insides of his cheek, instead nodding thoughtfully. “Artu has always been a bit… independent minded,” he said. “Best to leave him where he is.”

“But he’s pissing on the — I mean, he’s doing his business, Father — on the branches. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not eat an apple that’s got cat… business on it.”

This time Luke did laugh. Finn — not his real name, Luke suspected, but a good enough substitute, and one the young man answered to readily enough — had taken his commander’s order not to offer assistance with good grace but a heavy heart; Luke had recognized his expression all too well. Once Finn’s injuries had healed sufficiently, Luke had conscripted him.

“You might as well earn your keep while you’re here,” he’d told him cheerfully, over Finn’s protested concern about Captain Phasma’s probable reaction. “And I’m sure the captain would agree that pruning trees and digging up weeds is harmless enough. We’ll even send you back to the Empire with a bushel full of apples, as payment for services rendered.”

Finn had proven to be a conscientious gardner — perhaps to a fault. “Father, with all due respect,” he huffed down at Luke, “It’s not funny.”

“It’s somewhat funny,” Luke disagreed, and held the ladder steady as Finn came down. “Artu has been the chief mouser here for… good lord, as long as I can remember. It’s a little late to try and change his nature at this date.”

“I always thought the saying was ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ Father,” Finn replied, giving him that wide-eyed earnest expression that Luke had already learned to distrust.

“Indeed,” said Luke. He bent down to retrieve the basket which contained the shears, pocketknife, and other assorted necessities. “Come on, let’s go to the next.”

Finn pulled the ladder away from the trunk and slung it over his shoulder, wincing. Luke watched him closely; out of all his comrades, Finn’s injuries had been the least severe, but Luke was well aware that stitches could tear and wounds could reopen even now. It was likely a terrible idea to have Finn working at all, but Luke was well-known for his terrible ideas.

“How long as this place been here, anyway?” Finn asked, as he set the ladder against the next tree.

“It depends on which place you mean,” Luke replied. “The Cathedral is the youngest, by far.”

Finn frowned. “I’d’ve thought — so the monks started the orchard?”

“Oh, no,” said Luke cheerfully, herding him up the ladder. “All the texts from the founding of the Abbey some seven hundred years ago indicates that it had been there at least a few centuries years before then.”

Finn paused halfway up. “So you’re saying this orchard has been around for a thousand years?”

Luke retrieved the shears from his basket and handed them up to him. “It’s probably not a direct descendant from the tree in the Garden of Eden, if that’s what worries you.”

“Not until just this second,” Finn muttered, but took the sheers and climbed up the rest of the way.

***

Not all Luke’s charges were so compliant.

Luke could hear the argument almost as soon as he stepped into the hall. “Stop being such a whinging child,” Maz was saying, over Poe’s protestations of, “Are you conspiring with the enemy, doctor? What can you possibly be waiting for?” and Captain Phasma’s low growl of “the enemy is right here, and rest assured none of you are worth the risk.”

By the time he’d arrived, all three of them were arguing at a pitch fit to make God himself wince at the noise. “Everyone,” he said, low but loud enough to cut through them, “Draw a breath.”

Poe, of course, did nothing of the kind. “Luke, Dr. Maz is insisting on another week like this,” he said, rattling his leg trapped in its cast and suspended wires. It did sound a bit like a whinge.

“And Commander Dameron is being impossible, which is par for the course,” Maz answered back. “He thinks he can heal a broken leg by complaining about it.”

Captain Phasma — and Sergeant Pava, who’d been watching the argument with badly-concealed amusement — snorted at that. Luke sighed.

“Poe,” he said, as patiently as he could, “Generally speaking, doctors are better-informed about things like broken bones than you or me. Dr. Maz being the best doctor I have ever known, it might be wise to follow her instructions.”

Poe looked unconvinced, but nodded reluctantly. “Sorry for accusing you of high treason,” he added to Maz.

“It’s not as though I wouldn’t betray you all in a heartbeat for a quiet life and a cottage on the seaside,” Maz replied, her good humor restored. “Although the Second Empire’s retirement plan could use some work, if you—“ and this was directed at Captain Phasma — “are any indication.”

“I’m thirty-one,” Captain Phasma replied, with more human outrage than Luke had ever seen her display. He made sure to keep his smile to himself as she seemed to realize it, reverting back to her normal sullen indifference.

“Excellent,” Luke said, as Maz turned her attention to Sergeant Pava. He was about to make his own exit when Captain Phasma’s raspy voice caught him.

“Archbishop,” she said. “I would like a report on my men.”

Luke turned back to her, eyebrows raised. “Have they been skipping your morning muster, Captain? I was under the impression that you considered that a court-martial-worthy offense.”

Captain Phasma glared at him. “That ‘muster’ would not be necessary,” she reminded him, “If you allowed us to remain together.”

“An inconvenience all around,” Luke agreed. Captain Phasma’s injuries had been life-threatening; even now, two weeks later, she posed little in the way of flight risk, her stomach and chest stitched together and only now beginning to heal.

Her underlings had been more fortunate — or less. Their wounds weren’t as severe, and so they were placed under a sort of house arrest, occupying one corner of the Cloisters. It was generally understood that Captain Phasma, not guards, guaranteed their good behavior and continued stay at the Cathedral; but as their health improved, so too did the Republic’s case for taking them to be tried — and hung — for war crimes.

Thus far, Luke’s attempts to keep them here had not met with much success.

As if on cue, there was a commotion from the front doorway; a new arrival. There were no ambulance sirens, but Luke still made his way to see who had come in such a state.

He was greeted by the sight of Lando Calrissian, alighting from a very modern vehicle, pausing on the footboard to look around. As well he might; Luke had not clapped eyes on Lando for years, and to the best of his knowledge Lando had not availed himself much of religion in general, and the Church in particular.

Behind him (and pushing him out of the way as he too emerged) was Nien Nunb, holding a battered briefcase and an irritable expression. Luke made a quick sign of the cross and descended the stairs to greet his guests.

“Luke!” Lando came bounding up, his hand outstretched. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”

“I’ll take exception to one of those descriptors,” Luke said.

Lando clasped his arm, laughing. “How is it that this war has changed everything but you? Like the Northern Star or the laws of gravity.”

“God is a constant,” said Luke. “I can only hope to a pale imitation.”

“It’s good to have hope,” Lando said.

Luke could feel himself scowling. Lando had always had this effect on him; two parts disapproval to three parts affection. He’d had come barreling into their lives along with Han decades ago, while Luke and Leia were busy scraping up a Rebellion from the shattered fragments of their country and their hearts. The pair of them offered their services — for a price. Leia had paid them and cursed them; Luke, already in the air as one of the fledgling Aeronauts, learned about them second-hand from her rants, given as she paced up and down whatever tent or burned-out building or hastily converted shed they were using as a base of operations. He had been prepared to detest both of them.

Instead, he’d found himself unwillingly charmed, by Han’s sullen dependability and by Lando’s easy-going devotion, and by both men’s total obliviousness to their true passion for the cause. Every other month, it seemed, they were on the verge of leaving to tend to their own business; but there were always excuses for them to stay, a new opportunity that meant they couldn’t go anywhere. Luke realized soon enough the reason behind Han’s reluctance to abandon Leia, and for a while he thought that Lando might harbor certain sentiments of his own. But after the war ended, Lando had promptly married a terrifying former soldier who presented him with seven daughters in eight years, named for various Greek goddesses but known more widely in Court as the Seven Deadly Sisters. He had been fond of claiming, however, that had he tried a bit harder, he might have been able to secure his own royal spouse to match with Han’s, and Luke had never managed to convincingly contradict him.

Now Han was dead, buried in a simple grave on the outskirts of Corellia, and rumors had abounded in recent years that Lando’s position as chief advisor to the Queen was due not just to his civic responsibilities. Luke didn’t believe a word of it, but it was hard to deny that Lando was a compelling figure, still handsome and dashing, though he was rising sixty; a charming rogue turned political operative.

Which put Luke all the more on guard as he stepped back from Lando’s embrace. “I take it you’re not here for a holiday.” He nodded to Nien, who had come bustling up the stairs after conferring with the driver and — Luke narrowed his eyes — two armed soldiers accompanying them.

“The Queen wants a report on the state of the infirmary wards under the auspices of the Church,” Lando said brightly. “And I thought, why not begin at the top and work our way down?”

Luke was powerfully tempted to remind Lando that lying was a sin, but he doubted it would have much impact. “I’ve written a letter to Leia once a week for the past twenty-three years,” he pointed out. “I would think she’d be sick of hearing about the wards at this point.”

Lando shrugged as they made their way up the stairs. “Probably more sick of hearing about them from you,” he pointed out, with the cheerful viciousness that Luke remembered keenly. “But I’d certainly be willing to sit down with you for an interview.”

“With or without your escort?” Luke asked. They passed through the doors and into the foyer, where Lando and Nien were divested of their coats. The guards, silent, held onto their coats and their weapons.

“It’s a precaution, not a threat,” Lando said; for the first time he wasn’t smiling.

“A precaution against what, I wonder?”

“The front line is less than twenty miles away,” Nien interjected. “Or have you forgotten? You are hardly safe here, Father.”

“In war, there is very little safety,” said Luke. “Shall I take you on this tour you are so eager to conduct? And then we might discuss why you are really here.”

***

It was after midnight when Luke was finally able to make his own rounds, Lando and Nien — and their escort — safely tucked away in the guest quarters of the rectory. (“Where is the lamp?” Lando had asked, looking around the room, and glared at Luke when he presented him with a candle and matches. “Twenty years later, and you’re still not funny,” he’d grumbled as he’d taken them.) Luke acknowledged a temptation to lock them in; the oak doors had not been replaced since Charlemagne’s era and were about the same weight and solidity as the stone that surrounded them. But he’d only have to let them out again.

The tour, and the visit itself, had been the pretext Luke suspected; no sooner had they sat down then Lando informed him that he would be returning to New Theed with the First Order soldiers in the morning. “The people are angry,” he’d said, his fingers steepled and his expression grave. “They want justice.”

“Justice, or vengeance?” Luke asked.

“What we want,” Nien replied, “Is a resolution to this.”

“The Church is not beholden to the Crown,” Luke pointed out. “You cannot force me to give them to you. And I won’t, if all you intend is to put them on the gibbet.”

“It will be a fair trial,” said Nien, but he had been frowning down at the papers in his lap as he did so, distracted.

“I can’t force you,” Lando agreed. “But I’m hoping I can persuade you.”

“Well,” said Luke, “It’s good to have hope.”

Now his feet took him through the courtyard that separated the rectory from the familiar hulk of the Cathedral, up the small flight of steps and down the mean hallway that he’d travelled down so many thousands of times before. The storm that had threatened earlier in the day had at last broken, thunder and lightning chasing each other across the sky and the wind competing with the rain, so he paused in his office to change out of his wet cassock and into a new one. There were no lights — the storm had knocked out the power — but long familiarity allowed him to move in the small room with only a minimum of bruising.

Poe had asked him a few weeks ago how he could bear it, living in the same place for so long. “I’m going half-mad already,” he’d said, although his grin belied his mental state. “Can’t stand sticking around one place for too long. But here you are, practically worn a groove in the floor.”

Luke had made some offhand reply, but the comment had stuck to him, following him down hallways and into sleep. He would catch it in the corner of his vision sometimes, when he was thinking of something else.

Perhaps it was that he was surprised to hear Poe — a pilot, a solider — express pity for him, in however roundabout a way. He had never looked at his own life from outside; he had never dared, thinking of those who had already looked and passed judgement. Perhaps there had been something to deplore, once: a prince returning triumphant from war, only to accept his fate in the Church. But Luke had been inside for too long, knowing what worse fates could have befallen him.

He was just pulling out his new, drier cassock when he heard something from the direction of the ward — a crashing noise, as though one of the beds had overturned. Luke rushed through the transept and into the nave, calling for the orderlies on duty in the apse.

As he rounded the corner, lightning crashed just overhead, and in the blinding light he saw two figures — three — wrestling with each other over one of the beds; even as he watched, some of the more able-bodied patients were approaching to lend assistance. “Stay where you are!” Luke commanded, pushing his way past them. “We will deal with this — go back to your beds!”

He arrived at Captain Phasma’s bedside — to a horror show. Poe was hunched over her, balanced on his one good leg, his hands around Phasma’s throat as she gasped and clawed at him. Luke lunged for him instinctively, but Poe saw him first; the relief on his face checked Luke.

“Thank Christ,” Poe said, “Where’s Dr. Maz?”

“What?” Luke said.

Poe made an inarticulate growling noise. “Someone’s cut her throat,” he snapped. “Again. And I’m pretty sure I’ve rebroken my leg so I’d like to let go and lie down, but that’ll probably kill her. Not that you don’t deserve it,” he added, addressing Phasma.

“What the hell happened?” shouted Maz, shoving Luke out of the way. A phalanx of nurses and orderlies trailed after her, as well as a handful of priests and monks, drawn in by the commotion. “Dameron, I swear by every holy relic in this Cathedral, if you just undid all my hard work—“

“It wasn’t me,” Poe said, in such an offended tone that Luke believed him.

“I don’t care,” Maz replied. “No, you stay precisely there until I tell you to move, unless you want me to just chop off your hands, since they’re infinitely more useful than you.” She glanced up and seemed to notice Luke for the first time. “Present company, et cetera,” she added.

“What’s all this?” Luke turned around to see Lor San, leaning heavily on his cane. “I heard—“

“Luke,” called a voice from the crowd; it was Lando, pulling on his jacket. “What’s happened?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Luke said, offering Lor San his arm as he guided them all away from the scene. “Someone has attacked one of our patients.”

Lando frowned. “Which patient, exactly?”

“Which do you think?” asked Luke, more sharply than he’d intended.

“Someone tried to murder her?” Lor San shook his head. “In a house of God. What has become of us, Luke?”

Luke sat him down on a chair before turning to Lando. “Come with me,” he said, taking off toward the Cloisters.

Lando followed him at a brisk jog. “Where are we off to?”

“To chase a wild goose,” Luke said over his shoulder. “I hope.”

He turned back to nearly run face-first into Sister Kala, drenched and exceedingly unhappy. She had Artu under one arm, looking mutinous. “Your cat,” she said, glaring at Luke and holding Artu out for inspection, “Has managed to once again sneak inside the Abbey and piss all over the newly-cleaned vestments in the chapel. I’m about set to use that moggie’s guts for the stew, Father—“

“Artu isn’t my cat,” Luke pointed out, but he took Artu from her and gestured for Kala to follow them back outdoors to the monastery, Artu yowling at the rain. “Sister,” he said, once they’d gotten safely inside again, “Have you been near the soldiers’ rooms tonight? Have you heard anything?”

Kala’s frown deepened. “I was in the chapel; Mother Ahsoka and I were trying to catch your hellbeast for the last two hours.”

They were climbing the stairs to where Luke had stationed the First Order soldiers. They were held in three rooms, doubled-up for the sake of giving them company and reminding them that they were, technically, under some form of arrest. The compromise for that was that their doors locked from the inside; and only Luke had the key that could unlock them all.

Kala, seeing him fumbling for his chatelain, put her hand on his arm. “What’s happened?”

“It’s fine, Sister,” Luke said, desperately afraid that he might be lying to her.

It turned out that he was.

All three doors were unlocked; the first was slightly ajar, and Luke pushed it open carefully. The storm had died down and so there was no convenient flash of lightning; instead the smell of fresh blood and the utter silence of the room confirmed what Luke already knew.

“Mother of God,” Kala breathed from behind him. “Who could have done this?”

“Have you heard anything in the past few hours?” asked Luke, moving on to the next room.

“You mean aside from the crashing and wind and howling rain?” She retrieved a torch from an alcove, left there for nights like this when the lights had failed. “Please, let me.”

Luke relinquished his place and Kala opened the second door, looking inside. She swung it around the room. “Well?” Luke asked.

“Dead, Father,” she said, businesslike. “Throats cut.”

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Lando murmured.

The last room, Luke realized, was the one Finn shared with one of his comrades. It was probably the height of cowardice to let Kala go first, but Luke squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, listening to Kala move into the room. Artu, still grumbling, struggled in his grip, and he let the cat down onto the floor, where he promptly disappeared down the stairs toward the kitchens.

“There’s only one of them here, sir,” Kala reported.

The poor boy on the bed was not Finn; the other bed had been slept in but was empty and free of blood. Luke shouldn’t be relieved, but he blew out a breath all the same.

And then frowned, taking a sniff. The tang of blood in this room was almost overwhelmed by the smell of—

“Is that cat piss?” Lando asked, wrinkling his nose from the doorway.

“Finn must have smuggled Artu indoors when he saw it was going to rain,” Luke said.

“That creature has an unnatural ability to make friends,” Kala muttered, temporarily distracted from the carnage. “Considering it’s made up of urine and hatred.”

“So one of them’s missing?” asked Lando.

“Yes,” said Luke, “Which is a hopeful sign he’s alive.”

“Just because the kid’s not dead here doesn’t mean he’s not dead somewhere else,” Lando observed, leaning against the wall and looking less than concerned.

“Thank you,” Luke snapped, moving past him. “Sister Kala, would you go and find someone to help administer to the bodies? I need to find Finn.”

She nodded, brisk, and hurried down the hallway; she had been a soldier in her native country, Luke remembered, years before taking holy orders. Death held little horror for her anymore.

Luke took off in the opposite direction, Lando still following. “This is a pretty grim scavenger hunt you’ve got here, Luke,” he said.

“I’ll be sure to cross it off the list of our Easter plans,” he replied, taking the stairs two at a time down to the undercroft.

“Do you have any idea where to start looking?” Lando asked. “Just out of curiosity.”

“I’m following the cat,” Luke replied.

“Of course you are.”

Down in the undercroft, the sound of rain and thunder was muffled by earth and stone and the great brick ovens, working night and day to supply food for the seven hundred souls it served. Luke offered up a prayer, quick but heartily meant, as he pushed open the doors to the kitchens.

A half-dozen of the gas lamps had been lit, giving the room a soft, almost cheerful glow. Sitting at one of the long tables with his back to the door was Finn. He had Artu perched on his shoulder; as Luke came into the room, Finn turned and smiled — but not at him.

Rey and Finn and Artu

“Just the thing!” exclaimed a voice. Luke peered further into the room to find Rey rummaging in the ice box, emerging triumphantly with a small jug of milk. She caught sight of Luke and her eyes went very, very wide. “Father, um.”

Finn jumped to his feet, spilling Artu onto the floor with a yowl of protest. “Father Luke,” said Finn, brushing at his face; Luke could see a plate full of crumbs on the table. “I, um. Good evening. Morning.”

“Follow the cat, huh,” said Lando, shaking his head.

Between relief at having Finn whole and the sight of his two proteges sharing a stolen midnight snack, Luke could feel the laughter bubbling in his chest. He tamped it down savagely. “How long have you been down here?”

“We were just talking,” Finn blurted. “We didn’t — I wouldn’t—“

I certainly didn’t,” Rey interjected, clutching at the milk. “I would never—

Finn looked over at her, clearly at least somewhat insulted, but added, “No, she wouldn’t, and neither would I, I promise—“

“I have no doubt,” Luke said, raising his hand to forestall their protests, “That the two of you were merely enjoying each other’s company. Which, I’ll remind you, is not a sin. But I need to know how long you’ve been here.”

“Not that long,” Finn said quickly — too quickly. “Maybe five minutes, or ten, or so. Maybe less!”

Rey sighed and put the milk down on the table. Artu hopped up to examine it; she absentmindedly stroked his back. “About an hour and a half,” she said, looking pointedly at Finn. “A few minutes after Nocturnes.” The implication was heavy in the air, but Luke let it pass — agreeing to meet with a friend was hardly a crime, and the bodies upstairs had not been dead more than an hour.

“Did either of you leave?” Lando asked, looking around the room. He seemed cursory, but Luke could tell he was scouting the exits. “Go off to go get something, maybe?”

“No, General,” said Rey, frowning at him. “Why?”

“That wouldn’t have been time enough,” Luke reminded Lando.

“You’d be surprised what can be accomplished in a few minutes,” Lando replied.

Luke gave him a look. “Would I?”

“What’s going on?” Rey asked, concern replacing her panic.

“Something has happened,” Luke said, turning to Finn. “Someone has—“ he paused, trying to think of the best wording.

“Someone’s killed all your friends,” said Lando. “And they’re most likely looking for you.”

Luke glared at Lando. “As tactless as that was,” he said, “It’s true. Captain Phasma was attacked as well, though she was alive when we left her; the doctors are working on her now.”

Finn sat down again with a thump. “Who?” he asked. “Which ones were — I — you can’t mean everybody.”

Luke took the seat next to him. “I’m afraid so,” he said gently. “It seems that the killer, whoever he is, took advantage of the storm and the lights being out.”

“But I—“ Finn took a deep breath. “I suppose I don’t need to ask why someone would do that.”

“Smart kid,” Lando remarked. Rey, standing behind Finn with her hand on his shoulder, glared at him.

“Surely the Court doesn’t condone such action,” she said, lifting her chin. Lando blinked at her. “Or has the Queen abandoned law and order for mob rule?”

Lando sighed. “Let me guess, you’re Rey.”

Mother Rey, thank you,” she snapped. “I was anointed in January and you haven’t answered my question. None of the soldiers here have been accused of a crime, much less convicted. But your attitude suggests—“

“My attitude suggests that we’ve got bigger problems right now then my attitude,” Lando told her. Luke watched them with a curious feeling of deja vu; he could remember snapping his mouth shut in the exact way Rey did now, in the face of one of Lando’s more cutting ripostes. “Whoever did this is still out there, and at least one of you is still alive.”

“Two,” said a voice from the doorway. “At least for now.”

Luke rose to his feet; it was Poe, hopping on his one good foot with his arm slung around Sergeant Pava. His hands had been scrubbed clean, but there were still streaks and spatters of blood on his hospital gown, and a smear of it across his right cheek. Aside from the cast, he looked like a vengeful wraith, descending upon them.

“What in God’s name are you doing down here?” Luke demanded as Sergeant Pava hauled Poe over to the chair. Finn scrambled to his feet and helped Poe sit down, and Poe heaved a sigh of relief.

“We’re fugitives from justice,” he answered, carefully putting his casted leg up on the abandoned chair. “Well, after a fashion. Maz was all set to make a citizen’s arrest on me for attempted murder, but fortunately by then she’d managed to stitch up enough of Phasma’s throat for the charming captain to say that she wasn’t sure who it had been, but she knew it hadn’t been me. Apparently I smell very distinctive.”

“That’s one word for it,” said Pava, wincing as she pulled out a chair for herself. Third degree burns on her thigh and waist, Luke recalled; received when she was trapped in a burning building, rescuing her squadron leader.

“Then who was it?” Lando asked.

Poe blinked up at him and looked set to argue before he noticed the stripes on Lando’s jacket. He still took a moment or two to answer. “I don’t know, sir. The storm had knocked out the lights — I won’t pretend I’d been sleeping through that noise, but I didn’t realize anyone was there until dear old Phasma started thrashing around and I saw someone leaning over her. I couldn’t see his face — or her face, I suppose — but there was something in his hand. And like I said, dear old Phasma was making a big fuss. So I tried to disentangle my foot from its suspended prison and was, I’d say, at least three quarters successful.

Luke remembered the crash that had summoned him.

“I tried to grab hold of whoever it was, but between the cast and the fact that I haven’t stood upright in a month and a half, I couldn’t do much. I was able to stab him a bit, though.”

Rey blanched. “You had a knife?”

“Knitting needle,” Poe said cheerfully. “Not sure where it landed, but I know it landed somewhere. Anyway, he got away and that’s when I realized dear old Phasma was gurgling instead of yelling at me, like she usually does. I tried to keep her together until help showed up and,” Poe gestures expansively at Luke, “Lo and behold, it showed up.”

“I’m sure Captain Phasma is very grateful for all you did,” Finn said quietly.

“I’ll expect a bouquet and a chocolate arrangement any day,” Poe agreed. “Anyway, Pava here had the nasty thought that whoever tried knocking off dear old Phasma might have tried it on the other ones. And sure enough, your monks are running around even as we speak because apparently there are five corpses in the Abbey right now. So we figured we’d try and get a finder’s fee for Lucky Number Seven.” He smiled at Finn, who was leaning against the table, his shoulders hunched. “If you’re in need of a bodyguard, my rates are very reasonable.”

Finn nodded, a tight smile on his face. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Poe said.

“Will the Captain pull through?” asked Luke.

Poe shrugged, although it didn’t fool Luke for a moment; he had seen too many instances of Poe throwing yet another atrocious scarf at her head, or negotiating an exchange of pudding, to believe Poe indifferent. He thought back to just a half-hour ago, when he’d seen Poe’s hands around Captain Phasma’s neck and assumed the worst. Seeing Poe now affect indifference so badly made him ashamed.

“She’s stronger than two oxen with their tails tied together,” Poe said. “And just about as biddable. I’d say she’ll survive just to ensure you the trouble of executing her,” he said, looking up at Lando. “That is, if the killer doesn’t make another attempt.”

“I’m sure we’re all crossing our fingers on both hands,” said Lando. He smiled at Luke. “Most of us,” he amended.

Luke ground his teeth together. “If you’ll excuse us,” he said, pulling Lando just outside the doors. The young people, he noticed, all gathered around Finn as they left, even Artu pushing his head against Finn’s shoulder. The young man was staring down at his hands, grey-faced.

“I trust you’re no longer hoping to persuade me to give up my patients,” Luke said, keeping his voice low.

“Sounds like they would have been safer in our custody than yours,” Lando pointed out. “If nothing else, we’d’ve been a lot nicer than a knife across the neck.”

“But no less prompt, I suspect,” Luke said.

Lando blinked. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I’d like to get to the bottom of this before handing anyone over,” Luke said, crossing his arms. “And I’d like to know the real reason you’re so eager to take them into custody.”

“They slaughtered an entire village.” Lando’s voice was flat. “I can understand how that might not be reason enough for you, but—“

“Soldiers have slaughtered entire villages before in this war,” Luke pointed out, his stomach roiling but his voice level. “And yes, the war before that. All without the personal attention of the Crown.”

“It’s a matter of law,” Lando said, leaning forward into Luke’s space. “And of principle.”

“And of expedience,” Luke retorted, placing his hand on Lando’s chest and pushing back. “Better to put the monsters to death for the crime before anyone asks why they committed it.”

Lando clenched his jaw, looking like he would very much like to slap Luke’s hand away. “Why they did it doesn’t much matter. Five hundred people are dead—“

“Six hundred and thirty-one,” Luke corrected. “Four hundred eighty-three villagers, eleven Alliance soldiers, and one hundred thirty-seven of the First Order. One slaughter followed by another. The village must have been taken completely by surprise — how much more was the First Order surprised by the Alliance?”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Nothing, yet,” Luke replied, and the twitch in Lando’s . “But your request from my sister to hand over the soldiers is denied. Not until I find out who’s killing them off.”

***

Easier said than done, of course, which was a recurring theme in Luke’s life as of late. Phasma and Finn were transferred to the rectory; Poe and Sergeant Pava, two of the only people Luke was sure hadn’t attempted to kill them, were press-ganged into service.

“When I said I’d be his bodyguard,” Poe complained as he was wheeled across the cobblestones, “I didn’t actually mean it.”

“Lying in a house of God, Poe?” Luke said, walking beside him.

“We’re outside, for the moment,” Poe said, squinting in the sunlight. The wheelchair’s support made Poe’s leg stick out a comical angle. Finn had volunteered to push, and was doing a singularly bad job of hiding his grin. “And if you’ll recall, this isn’t a house of my God, anyway.”

“I’m not well-versed in the Hebrew faith, but I’m fairly sure bearing false witness is frowned upon in any location.”

“I’ve still got a broken leg, you know,” Poe said, wiggling his naked toes in emphasis. “What good will I be if your mass murderer comes barreling through the door?”

“We’ll pray diligently that it doesn’t come to that,” Luke said. “But as I’ve said before, surely you can use your cast as a bludgeon to good effect. Or possibly your head.”

“The whole damned world is against me,” Poe decided.

Sergeant Pava was less nervous, but more reluctant. “You want me to stay with her? In the same room?” she asked, frowning. “I… I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

“It’s not ideal,” Luke allowed, “But I suspect whoever was behind this will make another attempt, and you and Poe are the only ones I trust to fight them off.”

“I don’t know that we’d fight them off that much,” Sergeant Pava replied, but she smiled as she did so. “All right — on one condition. Call me Jess, and I’ll call you Luke. It’s not fair if Poe gets special first-name treatment.”

“You have a deal,” Luke promised her, and shook hands.

His investigation did not go nearly so smoothly; whoever had slipped into the monastery to do away with Phasma’s soldiers had done so before making his attempt on Captain Phasma, but no one had seen anything. Sister Kala advocated interviewing everyone in the Chapel, where the smell of urine still lingered. “Twenty minutes of that and they’ll say anything to escape,” she pronounced. Luke put her in charge of interviewing the monks and priests, and turned his attention to the patients in the ward.

There he was met with even more resistance. Phasma had been the only First Order solider there, and with the possible (and reluctant) exceptions of Poe and Jess, had not been popular. Luke had assumed that this rancor would die down once an actual attempt on her life had been made; on the contrary, the patients seemed disappointed that it hadn’t been successful.

“I’m beginning to suspect we’re in the midst of one of your terrible novels,” Poe said when Luke mentioned his difficulties a few days later.

“How so?” Luke asked, taking a seat in an armchair. The cells in the rectory were, by and large, more lavish than those in the monastery, priests being notably less amenable to mortifications of the flesh — or indeed, mild inconvenience of same — than the brothers and sisters of the Cloister. Finn and Poe’s chambers contained two beds, two armchairs, and a rather enthusiastically rococo writing desk that probably belonged to a long-dead archbishop and had wandered, as most Church belongings do, into and out of the possession of a dozen men and women who had lived here before.

Poe shrugged expansively from his position at the window. Maz had grudgingly granted him permission to use crutches, and Poe had taken to them with gusto — so much so that he’d slipped his first day using them and nearly fractured his wrist. But it was hard to convince him to sit down anymore, on the reasonable grounds that he might never get up again. “It’s like one of your tea-cosy mysteries, where it turns out that there’s some vast conspiracy and it’s up to the hardbitten detective to reveal the truth and save the day.”

“I take it I’m the hardbitten detective in this scenario,” Luke surmised.

“I don’t know,” Finn chimed in, “You’re always dressed all in black and everything. Maybe you’re the bad guy, hiding right beneath our noses.”

Luke gaped at him, torn between outrage and concern that Finn might actually think that — the Empire had told no cheerful tales about the Sky Walker, as he recalled, and no doubt even worse horror stories in the past twenty-odd years.

But Finn was grinning at him, and so Luke merely huffed in mock exasperation. “Then does that make Poe the hardbitten detective? Or you?”

“I get dibs on the femme fatale,” Poe interjected, grinning. “She always gets the best clothes. And usually a love scene.”

Luke felt his eyebrows raise. “And more often than not, a death scene, too.”

“Yeah, but she gets to die in the arms of her hardbitten detective,” he counters, shifting position. “With a great last line.”

Finn made a face. “On second thought, I’ll stick with being the victim,” he said. “You can be the hardbitten detective.”

“Thank you for that,” said Luke heavily. “If this were a novel, I would be able to catch the fiend in the act or summon all the suspects to a parlor and unmask him after some brilliant deduction on my part. And, naturally, a suitable mourning period for the death of my assigned femme fatale,” he added magnanimously.

Poe snorted. “Naturally.”

“But why can’t you?” Finn said, straightening up in his seat.

“Well,” said Poe, “Father Luke here is a priest, and the whole femme fatale—“

Finn waved him silent. “I mean,” he said, “Why can’t you catch him in the act?”

Luke leaned forward. “It sounds to me like you’ve got a plan,” he said.

***

Chapter Text

***

The Holy Church and the military were at opposite ends of the war, in many ways — not differing sides, but differing ideals, one wanting peace at any price and one demanding victory at all costs. It was strange how alike they were. Both had their daily musters  (although Luke always looked put out and protested that they were called “benediction services”). Both had a hierarchy that would baffle any outsider or fresh recruit. And both had people right at the top who were about as sane and sensible as a drunk hatter.

“Absolutely not,” he said for what he estimated to be the thirtieth time.

Luke pouted. He’d likely call it something else, but Poe was the eldest of an entire bevy of cousins and knew what he was dealing with. “I hardly see how I need your permission.”

“You need my cooperation,” Poe replied, “Which you are absolutely not getting. You’re barely getting my help in the first place.”

In fact, after hearing Finn’s plan, Poe’d scribbled out his last will and testament and handed it off to Luke for safekeeping, only to have Luke lecture him for an hour about the power of optimism.

The plan, such as it was, was this: Jess and Phasma would have a public argument, and Jess would loudly declare that she refused to spend another night in the same room with her. Phasma would then storm off alone to somewhere secluded and wait for the murderer, who would (hopefully) then hear about the row and seize his chance to take another stab at her. “So to speak,” Finn had concluded.

Phasma had, shockingly, given it her full support. “The newer injury is healing well,” she said, as though a near-decapitation was nothing more than a paper cut, “And even in my condition I should be more than a match for whoever hopes to catch me by surprise again.”

“For someone who’s gotten her throat cut twice now,” Jess had said, sounding almost admiring, “You’re very confident.”

“The archbishop has been telling me about the importance of an optimistic outlook in life,” Phasma said, deadpan. Poe had tried not to snort.

It had been almost three days since Finn had laid out his mad, bad, and dangerous plan — much to Poe’s horror and Phasma’s worrying enthusiasm. Poe had spent most of the intervening time forbidding one or both of them from embellishing it any further.

And now Luke was getting himself involved. “You are absolutely not to go anywhere near Phasma while we’re trying to lure out the killer,” Poe said firmly.

They were in the orchard with Finn, Mother Rey, Phasma and Jess; the other four were a bit farther down the row, Finn holding court on how best to check the progress of the budding apples. The six of them had taken to making such excursions all in a group, on the theory that anyone who had been careful to wait for a thunderstorm to slit throats in the dark would be clever enough not to make his second attempt in broad daylight. Still, Poe was keeping his eye on them.

A difficult feat, with Luke being so utterly impossible. “But if I’m there as a witness when the killer attempts to strike, surely that will carry more weight in court—“

“Aside from the fact that there won’t be a trial and you and I both know it,” Poe said, choosing brutality over patience this time, “There’s the very real possibility that whatever madman plotted revenge against the Rensters won’t hesitate to try for you too, if you get in his way.”

Luke squared his shoulders. “I’m sure I could manage,” he said, before his gaze shifted to something just over Poe’s shoulder.

Poe turned quickly, balanced precariously on his one foot and the damnable crutches, but he couldn’t see anything. “What is it?” he said.

“It’s a red admiral,” Luke said from behind him, his voice hushed.

“A what?”

Vanessa atalanta,” Luke said, stepping closer, his right arm on Poe’s shoulder to orient him. Poe startled, his heart hammering — but he looked again, following Luke’s left hand pointing at something in the nearest tree.

After a minute, Poe said, “Luke?”

“Yes?”

“Are you talking about that damned butterfly?”

“Of course.” When Poe turned back around to glare at him, Luke blinked at him for a moment before a faint flush crept up his cheeks. “Ah. My apologies if I was too…familiar. I didn’t intend any—“

Poe can’t help smiling at that, because of course Luke would worry about being too familiar. “I thought our murderer was lurking in the branches,” he said. “But no, it’s just you and your penchant for wildlife-spotting.”

“In my defense,” Luke said, smiling despite his blush, “You don’t often see red admirals this far south.”

“A truly momentous occasion for us all,” Poe said. “Let’s catch up to the others before you find a hyena-spotted moth or something.”

“That’s not a species of moth that I’ve ever heard of,” Luke said mildly as they made their way toward the rest of the group. “But there is a leopard-spotted butterfly, in point of fact.”

“How the hell do you know that?” Poe asked. “Do you supplement your terrible novel habit with the occasional ornithological tome?”

“The study of butterflies is lepidopterology,” Luke said primly. “And I studied them as a boy, before the first war. I never had the heart to catch any of them, but the illustrations were very educational.”

Poe laughed. He’d spent no little time trying to imagine Luke as a young man — it had been surprisingly difficult. Propaganda images of the Prince and the Queen during the Starkiller War were everywhere in New Theed, had surrounded Poe as he’d grown up in the shadow of freshly-minted peace. But there was little to show that the Twins of Light and Dark had ever been children, even though the Empire had invaded before they’d reached their majority. Since the end of the war and the establishment of the United Realms of Naboo, the Queen had become an icon while her brother remained a shadow, shrouded in more mythology than iconography. Poe could still recall the counting song he’d sung as a child:

One, Two, Three, Four
Who comes knocking at the door?
Five, Six, Seven, Eight
Skywalker is walking late
He walked east, He walked west
He walked into the cuckoo’s nest
Drank their wine and ate his fill
How many cuckoos did he kill?

Poe had been well into his adolescence before he’d learned that the Prince was still living; he recalled how surprised he’d been. Surely the spy princeling had died in the fiery destruction of Stellamortis, a disaster that had killed three hundred thousand people along with the Empire’s stranglehold on the continent. No one could have survived.

There were rumors, of course, whispers that the spy princeling had been a traitor almost to the very end, only returning to Naboo after the Empire’s destruction had been all but ensured. Poe hadn’t given those rumors much weight, and less after he’d met the Queen; the woman who went to war against her own son would never have tolerated a brother she couldn’t trust.

It was even harder to believe the rumors now, knowing that the Skywalker of song and story wasn’t just the archbishop of the Church but a man who read horrible novels in his spare time, who would point out butterflies and couldn’t bring himself to kill them.

***

Another difficulty was in finding the appropriate ambush site. The cathedral and the monastery were lovely in their construction and rich with history, even if it was a bit lost on Poe most of the time; but strategically, it was a shambles.

“We need to find a secluded spot with only one point of entry and at least one position where an ally will be able to step in,” said Phasma, frowning at the map.

It was not an official blueprint of the cathedral; Poe had vetoed that with extreme prejudice. “Not that I don’t trust the captain who slaughtered four hundred civilians in one night,” he said, snatching the blueprints out of Luke’s hands as he’d made to offer them, “But I don’t trust her.”

Phasma had rolled her eyes and produced her notepad — by now a bit worn at the edges, more than half the sheets missing. She’s long since stopped needing it to communicate, but Poe’d seen her scribbling on it often enough to make him nervous. She’d flipped pages until she found what she’d wanted, and showed it to Poe. “I trust I can use this, then?”

It was a depressingly detailed outline of the cathedral and monastery, including the grounds, the garden walls, and a few outbuildings Poe hadn’t even noticed. Finn, Jess and Mother Rey had all crowded around to examine it more closely.

Luke had appraised it, as well. “I think it may be more accurate than these,” he’d said, waving the blueprints.

After that, Poe had insisted more out of sheer bloody-mindedness than anything else.

Still, even with Phasma’s eerily accurate map, there weren’t a great many options. Poe and Luke examined a few alcoves and shrines, crossing them off for one reason or another — too small, too big, too exposed.

At one point they ran into old Father Lor San, still looking frail, seated in one of the alcoves and staring up at whatever relic was housed there. He blinked up at them, clearly startled. “I did not expect to disturb anyone here,” he said, looking uncertainly between Luke and Poe.

For a second, Poe didn’t catch the meaning, but a delightful blush on Luke’s cheek gave it away quickly enough. “I was simply showing Commander Dameron some of the more interesting aspects of—“ and Luke’s embarrassment seemed to get the best of him. How he’d ever been a soldier, much less a spy, was baffling.

“Of the Church,” Poe supplied. “I’m thinking of converting.”

Father Lor San smiled; it seemed to add years to his face, rather than taking them away. “Why, that’s excellent news!” he said, getting to his feet with difficulty and shaking Poe’s hand. “At least some good has come — another soul saved from the fires of damnation.”

Poe took the hand and bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. “And a close call it was, Father.”

After they made their escape, Luke murmured, “I apologize for that. Lor San has a rather… direct interpretation of Church doctrine.”

“Are there other interpretations?” Poe asked. It came out sharper than intended, though he didn’t take it back.

“I don’t think your soul is destined for the fires of damnation, if that’s what you’re asking,” Luke replied mildly.

“An archbishop holding out hope for a Jew? What a topsy-turvy world we live in.”

“God deals with us all, in time,” said Luke as they made their way to the next possibility on their list. “I would not presume to question His judgement. But I’d imagine there are any number of people in line before you.”

Poe was all set to tease him about which people and for what reason, but Luke’s tone was a bit too somber; Poe looked over and saw him frowning at something unseen, his brow furrowed. The desire to stop him with a touch at his elbow or a hand on his shoulder was so strong that Poe’s grip on his crutch slipped and he staggered, overbalancing.

Strong arms caught him before he could fall, and Luke’s face was now frowning at him, his hand tight around Poe’s waist.

“So is this what Father Lor San was intimating you do with young men in secluded alcoves?” Poe asked before his brain could catch up with him.

Sadly, Luke did not blush this time, but heaved a sigh and stepped back after making sure Poe had his balance again. “We’re hardly in a secluded alcove,” he pointed out.

Poe shrugged. “No, but perhaps our next destination will provide you an opportunity. I’m joking,” he added, when Luke’s expression didn’t clear. “You hardly seem the sort to ravish young acolytes in the shadows.”

“That sounded dangerously like a compliment,” said Luke. He looked back toward the hulk of the cathedral. “Lor San doesn’t trust any priest who joined the Church past his eighteenth birthday; we’re too much of the world, too practiced in indulging our temptations.”

Are you?” Poe asked, grinning.

That got him a different, heavier sigh.

They had emerged into the enormous kitchen garden, yet another of Luke’s strange domains, which apparently fed not only the priests and monks but half of the starveling orphans that congregated around the cathedral doors at mealtimes. Between the gardens, the orchard and the cloister, there was more green within the sanctuary walls than outside it.

Ahead of them was an old and disreputable shack of a building, which even Luke had been surprised to find on Phasma’s map. “I can’t imagine Phasma coming here to vent her frustrations,” Poe said, as Luke tugged at the door handle. It opened with an ominous groan. “It’s looks more suited to a haunting than anything else.”

“The old archbishop used to live here, I believe,” Luke replied, stepping in. Poe followed him. “If any soul was likely to delay his ascent to Heaven in order to supervise matters, it would likely be Archbishop Qui-Gon.”

From outside, the place had looked abandoned, but other than the dust the inside seemed in remarkably good order, at least in the green half-light that came through the vine-covered windows. The floor plan was simple: a sitting room and a bedroom. The only mystery was a door with a padlock on it. “What’s behind here, then?” Poe asked. “A secret dungeon? A priest hole, perhaps?”

“That would be rather ridiculous,” Luke replied absently, looking around the room with an expression of vague dissatisfaction.

“Why?”

“Several reasons,” said Luke. “For one, priest holes were for those of us who were fugitives, persecuted for our faith; amongst Naboo’s many flaws both in the past and present, it’s never declared the Church or its priests in violation of law. For another, we’re on Church property, with a rather,” and he gestured around them, encompassing not just the walls of the hovel but the Abbey to the south and the Cathedral to the east, “Conspicuous amount of buildings around. Hiding isn’t precisely what we do here.”

“So then what would you call that?” Poe asked, jerking his chin at the locked door.

“I’d call that a precautionary measure,” Luke said. “Archbishop Qui-Gon was fond of making alcoholic concoctions; apparently his recipe for scrumpy could make you breathe smoke, if not actual fire. After his death, his existing apparatus and whatever experiments in fermentation he’d been working on were all sealed away in his laboratory. There’s a general understanding that if anyone opens that door, the air that rushes in may well cause the entire place to explode and leave nothing but a crater in the middle of the pumpkin patch.”

He said it with such a perfectly straight face that Poe had to laugh. “Well, if the Rensters ever get so far as the cathedral, at least you’ll have a homemade weapon to fight them off.” He looked around again. “Not even a loo for His Grace? If the man had a laboratory, you’d think he could do with some indoor plumbing.”

“Archbishop Qui-Gon was, from what I heard, a humble man,” said Luke. He turned in place. “No doubt he made do with a chamber pot and a shovel.”

Poe made a face. Whatever else the new century had brought with it, at least it had brought them toilets. “So why don’t you live here?” he asked instead. “If this was the archbishop’s cottage?”

Luke shrugged. “Qui-Gon died before I was born, and Archbishop Obi-Wan, for whatever reason, chose to live in the rectory. By the time I became archbishop, it seemed rather… ostentatious, really, to live in my own cottage.”

“Yes, this place just reeks of extravagance,” said Poe, running his finger along the mantlepiece. It came up grey-black with dust and dirt.

“A matter of perspective, perhaps,” Luke allowed. “My cell in the rectory is even more dire than this; I’m sure you’d find it appalling.”

“Depends on if I was in it alone, I suppose,” Poe said.

Luke scowled and looked down at his list. “I’m afraid this won’t do as an ambush site, either. Too many windows to keep track of, all of them large enough for him to escape through.”

“That’s good if we want him to believe he can escape,” said Poe.

“But bad if we want him not to escape,” Luke pointed out.

“Well, it’s this or the belfry tower, and as much as I’d relish the opportunity to see Phasma flung off the side of it, I don’t think it’s the best choice.”

“Well,” said Luke, as though it had just occurred to him, “There’s always the Judas hole.”

“The what?”

***

“When you said ‘it’s down in the crypt,’” Poe told him, fighting the urge to bolt, “I thought you were being metaphorical.”

Luke glanced at him, amused and unearthly in the flickering light of the sconces along the walls, lamps held up by — Poe shuddered and refused to look. “You do remember we’re in a cathedral, do you not? Every church and cathedral in Europe has one of these. This ossuary is rather famous, in point of fact.”

“Presumably because it’s fucking horrifying,” Poe hissed.

“Language, Poe.”

Poe didn’t apologize. The crypt stretched out in front of them; most of the details were lost in the dimness, but from the stone floor to the ceiling, the walls were made of bones. Skulls, femurs, ribs, in dizzying patterns that must have delighted whatever morbid gravedigger worked out his artwork down here. They looked centuries old, which wasn’t as much a comfort as it might have been. The Church was, as he’d always suspected, full of absolute nutters.

“Come on,” Luke said. “I have an idea.”

Poe stayed as close as possible as they wound their way through the crypt. Poe tried not to look at anything, but he noticed that the bones were getting— “I take it this is the more recent bit,” he said, trying not to grimace.

“Yes, these bones are probably no more than a hundred years old or so,” Luke said. “The process is really quite interesting, and involves—“

“Luke,” Poe said, “If you’ve ever harbored a single kind thought for me, I beg you not to continue.”

“Oh, very well.”

They arrived at what looked like some kind of preparation room — this time the bones were neatly placed on shelves, tidy rows of skulls looking out into the chamber with every appearance of bright-eyed interest. There were two slab stone tables in the center; to Poe they looked like resting places for a coffin. “I hate this place,” he decided.

“You might enjoy this, then.” Luke crossed the room and reached out to pick up one of the myriad skulls; just as Poe was about to voice his objections to Luke handling someone’s head, especially a dead someone’s head, there was a clicking sound and a section of wall swung inward. Luke turned around, robes spinning, skull in hand, to beam proudly back at Poe.

 Luke, with skull

“If you’re waiting for applause,” Poe told him, “You’ll be waiting a while yet.”

Luke shook his head, putting the skull back. “Young people today,” he complained, “So difficult to impress.”

Poe made his way toward him. “So this is a Judas hole, is it?”

“Apologies for the name,” Luke said, “But it has the advantage of being accurate. During the Terrors of the seventeenth century, this cathedral, as well as a few other churches in Naboo, hid—“

“Hid my people from the Sith Inquisitors,” Poe finished, grinning at Luke’s surprise. “We do learn more than just prayer at temple, Father Luke. History has to be preserved and remembered and taught.” Poe thought of Rebbe L’ulo, glaring fiercely at whoever got caught sleeping or talking. “We can’t forget who our enemies are — or our friends.”

“What a pragmatic people you are,” Luke said thoughtfully.

“Thank you, I think.” Poe peered into the hole. It was actually a passage, leading down into darkness. “Where does it go?”

“To a copse of trees about a half-mile from Church grounds,” Luke said, plucking a lamp from its sconce to better illuminate. The walls within the Judas hole were, Poe noted with relief, mundane stone and mortar, the floor tightly-packed dirt. “I believe back in the day it was used in both directions, depending; those fleeing the Inquisition could sneak into the Cathedral and place themselves under Sanctuary Law; and once the Sixty-Sixth Bull was approved, they could use it to hide from the Sith and, potentially, escape back into the world.”

The Sixty-Sixth Bull. Poe shuddered, and not just from the draught coming up from the passageway. “Probably saved countless lives, then.”

“Hardly countless,” Luke replied. “Father Yoda found the records kept by his predecessor — apparently the Abbess at the time was the one who oversaw this tunnel’s construction. Four hundred and seventy-two people were saved, according to her record-keeping.”

“A fair number,” Poe allowed, impressed in spite of himself. The Sith Inquisition had been as comprehensive as it had been brutal; to have saved a dozen would’ve been outstanding.

“Not enough,” said Luke.

He looked in danger of brooding, so Poe changed the subject. “How many people know about this place?”

“Me,” said Luke. Poe blinked at him, and he blinked back. “The entire point of a Judas hole was that the Church authorities didn’t know about it.”

“You’re the archbishop,” Poe pointed out. “Isn’t that the very definition of the ‘Church authority’?”

Luke seemed to give this serious consideration. “I suppose so. But knowledge of this has been passed down from archbishop to archbishop for at least the past hundred years; I learned of it from my predecessor, and he from his.”

“This being the infamous Qui-Gon of scrumpy fame?”

“The very same,” Luke affirmed. He stepped inside. “There’s a latch inside, so should someone make an attempt on Captain Phasma, we’ll be able to avert disaster.”

Poe was about to make a comment about how an attempt on Phasma hardly qualified as a disaster when he noted the first person plural in the sentence. “‘We’? At the risk of repeating myself, there is absolutely to be no ‘we’ in this endeavor.”

“I showed you the Judas hole,” Luke said; if it weren’t for the fact that he was nearly fifty years old and an archbishop besides, Poe would have called it a whinge.

“For which you get the thanks of a grateful nation,” Poe said.

Luke flinched at that, curiously, but recovered before Poe could ask. “Moreover, you’re hardly in a state to be able to prevent an assassination, if Captain Phasma is in danger.” He gestured eloquently to Poe’s leg, still encased in plaster (for the next two weeks, according to the cruel and tyrannical Dr. Maz). “And Sergeant Pava and Rey will be guarding Finn, thus unable to lend their assistance.”

“Jess and Mother Rey and I can all hole ourselves up for days at a time and no one would notice,” Poe pointed out. He moved over to one of the slabs and leaned against it, laying his crutches to one side. He’d already grown to loathe the things. “Your absence, however, would spark comment after half an hour. And as I’ve said before, if you do anything so inconvenient as get yourself killed, the consequences would be unlovely for those of us who managed to survive.”

“All the more reason to include me,” Luke said, pulling the false partition shut and replacing the lamp. “Whoever killed those soldiers, they’re hardly going to risk killing the archbishop in their next attempt.”

Personally, Poe did not share Luke’s conviction on that count, but now was hardly the time to get into the political realities of the war. “All the same, I’d rather risk Captain Phasma’s life than yours.”

“Very thoughtful,” Luke muttered. He settled himself against the other slab across from Poe, their feet almost touching. “But again, how will you manage to thwart anyone in your condition?”

“You always did say I could just beat enemies to death with my cast,” Poe said, grinning.

“Poe,” Luke said reprovingly. In the lamplight, his disapproving expression looked quite ominous.

“I’ll manage.”

“How?”

“With this,” he said, exasperated, and pulled the sidearm out from where it had been tucked underneath his jacket. “Mind you, it’ll make an almighty racket down here. But I’m hoping it won’t bring the entire place down on our heads.”

Luke looked truly outraged. “Where in God’s name did you procure that?” he demanded.

Poe put the gun back, a comforting weight in its holster. “As fond as I am of you, Luke, you can hardly expect me to tell you.”

“I—“ Luke bit whatever he was about to say off, jaw clenched. “I won’t have more blood shed in this place.”

It was tempting to make a flippant remark, or say something spiteful and true — that Luke Amidala, His Royal Highness the Skywalker, the prince turned spy turned traitor turned hero of every children’s song, was hardly in a position to complain about a little blood. But Poe reached out and gripped his shoulder, feeling the tension beneath warm wool. “I promise,” Poe said, catching Luke’s gaze, “If I can spare you that, I will.”

Luke studied his face for long moments, and Poe let himself be studied. For months before his capture, Poe had been a charming viper in the Empire’s nest, winkling out what information he could from lonely soldiers and boastful officers. He’d learned quickly how to keep his facade by replacing one with another, different versions of himself always in reserve for the next mission. Recovering here, he’d found himself as much injured by that constant pretense as he’d been by the broken leg or the scars left from his stay at Vindicta. He often wondered if Jess or Mother Rey or Phasma or even Finn, with his wide-open face, had seen who he really was.

With Luke, he felt no such fear. It was strange to be so well known, as though Luke had found his favorite book and seen all the underlined passages, the cracked spine that caused the book to fall open at a well-loved scene. But there was a relief there too; he wanted to sit next to Luke and have him read the words aloud, curl into him and listen to his voice.

At long last, Luke nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and smiled slightly. “Would you like to leave now?”

God, yes,” Poe said, and Luke chuckled, straightening up. He was very close, and Poe’s hand was still on his shoulder, and for a moment Poe thought he might pull him closer still—

“Then let’s go,” Luke said, turning away. Poe’s hand slipped off, and he reached for his crutches.

***

After that, it was just a question of waiting for the right moment. Poe and Jess agreed that another thunderstorm would be best, but it was late summer and storms were hard to come by. At last, one week later — only a week before Poe was free of his blasted shackle and crutches — there was a weather report: a storm headed their way, likely to hit in the late evening.

Phasma was dubious. “If my attempted murder is to take place in the crypt, I hardly see how it would be an extra incentive for my would-be murderer to be put off by something so inconsequential as a clear night,” she said, arms crossed and looking as intimidating as one could in hospital scrubs. They were all crowded in Poe and Finn’s room, minus Luke who was leading some sort of prayer circle and Mother Rey who was, presumably, helping him by telling him which bits he’d forgotten to do.

“We don’t know who this spy is,” Poe pointed out, “If he’s someone on staff, a patient, or if he’s on church grounds in the first place. I’d like to present him with as close to an identical opportunity as possible.”

“I think you’re just worried about your performance,” Jess said, sprawled out on Poe’s bed with her feet on his pillow. “You’re worried you won’t be able to be convincing when it comes time to shout at me.”

Phasma’s expression evoked someone who’d just eaten a rotten pear. “I can assure you, I’ll manage.” She shifted her glare to Finn, who was standing at attention, like he always did whenever Phasma was in the room. “Although I’m by far the least accomplished actor here.”

“Right,” Poe said, clapping his hands, “Early bedtime for everyone, we’ll need to get plenty of rest before any and all assassination attempts tonight.”

Finn only relaxed once the door had closed behind Jess and Phasma, and even then, every line of him was painted with misery. “What if the assassin gets her this time?” he said, leaning against the door.

They’d talked, in a roundabout way, about what had happened in Vindicta; Finn’s entire division at the prison had apparently been assigned to Phasma’s command as a punishment for the role Finn had played in Poe’s escape, though he had thought at the time that no one knew who had been responsible. “But she knows everything now,” Finn had said, sounding more resigned than afraid. “So I’m facing a firing squad from both sides, once I step foot out of here.” Poe hadn’t had a clever response.

Now, Poe weighed his options. “I can arrange that,” he said, pitching his voice carefully. “If that would be helpful.”

Finn looked puzzled for a moment, before understanding dawned. “No — no,” he said. “I might want to throw Phasma head-first into a trash compactor, but I don’t want her dead. I don’t want anyone else dead. I’m not — I’m not going to kill for them. Doesn’t mean I want any of them dying for me.”

Poe put his hands up in surrender. “Just offering.”

“Have you—“ Finn paused, bit at his lower lip. “They said, when you were at Vindicta; they said you were a spy. That you’d killed over a dozen officers.”

“Seventeen, actually,” Poe said, because it was the truth, and because if Finn was going to trust him, he deserved at least that much. “And no, they didn’t all die painlessly. But I made it as quick as I could.”

It didn’t seem to help; Finn was gaping at him, horrified. “There are rules,” he said, “Rules about engagement —“

“Yes, there are,” Poe said evenly, although he felt his jaw clench. “And I violated them; a good deal more than seventeen times, in fact. But then again, this is a civil war, and as such is illegal in the first place. What crimes are there to be committed anymore?” He spread his hands. “The massacre of a village, perhaps.”

“That wasn’t us!” Finn snapped, then looked as shocked at himself as Poe no doubt looked at him.

“What?” Poe couldn’t quite believe it. “Then who was it?”

Finn swallowed and looked away. “I — I mean, it was us, but we were ordered—“

“No, that’s not what you meant,” Poe said, scrambling to his feet. Instinctively Finn reached out to help him up, and Poe grabbed hold of his collar, twisting the fabric in his hands. “You meant that someone else killed those people. Didn’t you?”

For a moment, Poe was sure Finn was going to break and tell him everything; but instead he stepped back, a mask over his features. “The First Order does not answer to to the Alliance,” he said, a phrase Poe had grown heartily sick of.

“You will,” Poe replied, but Finn got into his bed as though he hadn’t heard. It was just past noon; the bells had rung only a few minutes ago. If they slept now, they’d be ready for their ambush tonight.

Poe crawled into his bed with minimal difficulty, turning his pillow over to the side that didn’t have Jess’s muddy bootprints on it. He stared up at the ceiling and thought about what might compel someone — anyone — to claim responsibility for a crime they didn’t commit.

When the Vespers rang, he was still examining the ceiling, no closer to an answer.

***

Poe was the first to get into place, although he was reluctant to leave any of them to their own devices. Getting down to the crypt without being seen was a bit of a trick; fortunately, whatever service Luke had been conducting seemed to be over, and the cathedral was once again quiet as the thunder began to sound in the distance. He managed to slip through the door without a creak to give him away, and once the solid oak was shut, he could hop down the steps with only a slight risk to life and remaining limb.

The sconces were still lit along the walls. There were no windows this far down, yet it was somehow more unnerving, knowing that outside it was closing dark with a storm on its way, than it had been the other day with Luke. Poe made his way as quickly as he was able along the passageways, hoping his memory was guiding him. Luke had supplied Phasma with an addendum to her sketches, showing her where to go (though Poe had forbidden him from telling her about the Judas hole). But Poe was relying on the number of paces, the turns he remembered, and sure enough, he arrived at the chamber with the twin slabs of stone and the walls full of skulls and—

“What the hell are you doing?” Poe hissed.

Luke, sitting cross-legged on one of the slabs, a book in his hand, looked guilty; his, “Blasphemy, Poe,” sounded more reflexive than reproving.

“I’ll give you blasphemy right up your arse,” Poe retorted. “You were given strict instructions.”

“I wasn’t sure if you could remember which skull was the right one,” said Luke, although even he must’ve realized how feeble it sounded.

Poe made his way to the wall with two wide swings of his crutches and picked up a skull. On cue, the passageway opened with a faint gravelly grumble. He replaced the skull carefully and turned back to Luke.

“Well done,” said Luke. He hopped down off of the slab. “Now, if we can just—“

“‘We’ are not about to do a damned thing,” Poe said firmly, putting his hand on Luke’s chest. “You’re going to go back upstairs—“

The lamps in their sconces flickered. “Someone’s coming,” Luke whispered.

“I despise you,” Poe muttered, and shoved him into the Judas hole.

From this side, the door needed to be pushed closed. “Let’s hope that latch is still working,” Poe said quietly as it clicked shut.

“I checked beforehand,” Luke assured him. In the pitch blackness, he was only a vague presence to Poe’s right. “While I was waiting for you.”

“How did you know it was me in the first place?” Poe whispered. He couldn’t hear anything, but it was best not to take chances.

“The sound of crutches is rather distinctive,” Luke said, moving about, his elbow catching Poe on the chin. “I beg your pardon.”

“What are you—“ but before Poe could make his exasperation understood, Luke had slid open a narrow partition. Light from the gap danced through dust motes; it was a small spy-hole, just large enough for someone to see outside. Poe looked through and was relieved to see both that Phasma was approaching and that the spy-hole was not cleverly aligned with any of the skulls’ eye sockets.

“Are you impressed now?” Luke murmured, leaning close, his breath tickling Poe’s neck.

Poe flailed at him until he was able to push him far enough away not to be distracting, then pulled out his gun. He had no idea how long it would be before the assassin turned up, but it was best to be prepared now. Luke, from somewhere in the darkness, made a noise of disapproval, and Poe glared blindly at him, hoping that whatever light came through was enough to illuminate his own irritation.

By the time he looked out into the chamber again, Phasma was peering at the wall near the Judas hole. “Where are you?” she called out. “I can hear you scuttling about like a rat.” She hesitated. “Unless it is a rat.”

It was the most he’d ever liked her in that moment, but he still hissed, “Keep your voice down.”

Which, of course, allowed her to triangulate their position with depressing speed. She leaned down to the spy-hole and squinted at him, her head blocking most of the light. “Comfortable?”

“It’s a four-star hotel back here,” he replied.

“I wondered where the Judas hole was in this place,” she said, ignoring him.

Poe considered the merits of killing them all, but he only had one bullet, ammunition being harder to procure than firearms. “Well done, mystery solved. Now, if you’d like to solve the other mystery of who’s been trying to kill you…”

Resentfully, Phasma straightened up again. “You’ll be pleased to know your compatriot played her part to the hilt,” she said, wandering around the perimeter of the chamber, giving every impression of examining the skulls for insubordination. “Said all manner of vile things and stalked off. She was so loud, I almost forgot she had a collapsed lung.”

Any reply would only encourage her; Poe bit his tongue and checked his gun in the dim light. He had only one shot, if he had to take it; he’d rather keep his promise to Luke, but he’d been fighting far too long to worry about breaking such promises now. Besides, he’d at least try to aim for a knee.

The silence was unsettling, and Poe checked out through the spy-hole; Phasma was examining the — damn Luke to every hell the Church had a name for, Poe thought bitterly — novel that had been left on the slab. She was flipping through the pages, an unsettling smile on her face. “I didn’t think you’d ever be bored enough to read this,” she said. At least her voice was pitched low this time.

“I didn’t,” he said, “That belongs to my very unwelcome guest in here, Father Luke.”

Phasma shut the book, frowning. “Father Luke is with you?” she demanded.

“Hello!” Luke called cheerily, and Poe wonders anew at how he could have ever been a spy. He aimed for Luke’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Ow,” Luke added.

“You brought the archbishop with you?” Phasma’s tone was contemptuous, but Poe squinted through the spy-hole; she was looking around, looking nervous. “Were you afraid of the ghosts?”

“I know exactly what restless spirits are coming for me,” Poe shot back, watching her closely. “And none of them have remains housed here. But how many bodies from Tuanul have come here for burial, I wonder?” He paused as that sank in under Phasma’s skin. “I’d wager there’s a legion’s worth of spectres who’d like to have a word with you for the sins you’ve committed. Violating one of God’s ten commandments, no less.”

“Yes, yes,” Phasma said, sounding bored, “Thou shalt not murder—“

“Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Poe corrected. An awful thought occurred to him, and he turned to Luke’s disapproving shadow. “That is one of them in your faith, I trust?”

“It is,” said Luke, as though he’d like to chisel it out of the stone then and there just to spite him.

“What are you talking about?” Phasma said.

“Who killed those villagers, Phasma?” Poe asked her. “It wasn’t you, I’ll wager. But you’re taking all the credit. Why is that?”

“The First Order does not answer to—“

“Who does it answer to, then?” Poe asked. Phasma tossed the book on the slab and looked away, folding her arms. “We’ll find out sooner or later, Phasma.”

“Sooner, I’d imagine,” she said, glaring at him through the spy-hole; it hit him right between the eyes. “I’m sure all your late-night talks with FN-2187 have been marvelously fruitful.”

Astonishingly, it took Luke’s stiffened posture for Poe to realize what she meant; he couldn’t help the snort. “I assure you, Captain,” he said, “Your underling’s got no eye for me.”

“I caught him writing poetry the other day,” she snapped, her fists clenched.

The preposterousness of the situation was too much for Poe; he leaned his forehead against the wall and took a deep breath, because bursting into laughter at present was bound to cock up their plan spectacularly. He shut his eyes and took another breath. From behind his eyelids, the light dimmed for a fraction of a second.

Poe tightened his grip on the gun and looked out. Phasma evidently understood the significance of the flickering lamps; she nodded once, deliberately, and began pacing noisily up and down the chamber, her head bent down. Poe watched the hall, hoping Luke was right about the latch’s state of operation. They would have precious little time between the murderer’s appearance and his attempt.

“Hello?” came a querulous voice, just as the shape of a man and a cane came into view. “Is anyone here? Luke, is that you?”

“Oh dear,” Luke said, sounding embarrassed. “It’s Lor San. He must’ve seen me come down here earlier—“

Poe clapped his hand over Luke’s mouth. “I don’t think so,” he whispered, very quietly.

Phasma had stopped her pacing. “It’s not Father Luke,” she said, and stood just to the left of the spy-hole, her hands behind her back.

“Ah,” said Father Lor San, coming into the light of the chamber. He wasn’t leaning on the cane anymore; it was hooked over his arm, and he walked easily. But what Poe noticed most of all was the knife in his hand. “That's excellent news.”

***

Chapter Text

Luke had met Lor San at a gathering of priests and bishops in New Theed, a few weeks after he’d taken orders and was still reaching for things with his nonexistent right hand. He’d been jittery and nauseated in the thick, tight wool, bound up just as he’d been in the stark uniforms of the Empire’s elite, and he’d been sure that everyone could tell that he didn’t belong here, just as he hadn’t belonged in Stellamortis — or in New Theed, after the peace.

For the most part, he was right; his fellow priests had largely avoided him during the conference, nodding awkwardly to Father Obi-Wan before their eyes caught first his face, then his missing hand, and skittered off. Obi-Wan had, of course, smiled serenely at everyone. “They’ll come around soon enough,” he’d assured Luke.

But they hadn’t; he’d been given a wide berth and suspicious looks, and so he’d kept to himself, reading in corners while others conferred.

The Mysteries of Udolfo,” a voice said one day, sounding pleased. A middle-aged priest, hair already white, was peering at the book in his hand. “Miss Radcliffe certainly knows how to engage her audience, does she not?”

“Yes, Father,” Luke said; he wasn’t sure what else was appropriate.

The priest sat down next to him. “I myself am a scholar of the holy texts, or at least I consider myself so,” he said, “But I’m happy to admit there is often nothing quite so satisfying as reading a novel to clear my head. At least in a novel, you can be fairly sure of the plot. Not to mention who’s good and bad. Quite a bit more complicated in the real world, wouldn’t you say?”

“Did Father Obi-Wan send you?” asked Luke, suspicious now. This sounded very much like an allegory.

The priest laughed. “I sent me,” he said. “I thought you might do with a reading companion.” And he pulled out his own book — a well-loved copy of Dracula.

Their friendship was one of shared love of penny dreadfuls and a mutual incomprehension of the other’s hobbies; Luke learned the catechisms but could never interest himself in the ancient scrolls and manuscripts Lor San buried himself in each day, while Lor San nodded along amiably as Luke described his plans to modify the Cathedral gardens without the least sign of understanding. But as the years went on, Luke found a comfort in reading Lor San’s enthusiastic letters about the latest translation, and Lor San always replied with bewildered delight at the pressed flowers and leaves that Luke included in his own missives.

The day he introduced Lor San to Rey (who was still scowling at the readers Luke had scrounged up and would bolt at the slightest provocation), Lor San asked what she knew of Archaic Latin. When she simply stared at him, all suspicion and dirt smudges, he patted her on the head and said, “Never mind, it’s quite easy to pick up once you’ve grasped the basics. And then we can move onto — would you prefer to learn Greek or Aramaic next?” He came back the next week with a half-dozen dusty tomes written entirely in Latin, and smiled encouragingly at Rey when she plucked at them with dirty hands.

Luke had found Rey that night curled in an alcove of the cathedral, sounding out words with a huge Latin dictionary in her lap and one of Lor San’s books in her arms. He left her to it, thinking that he could forgive Lor San anything.

***

Poe’s hand was still clapped over his mouth, tight and relentless. “Don’t. Say. Anything,” Poe whispered in his ear, a ghost of breath. “He’ll kill her if we’re not careful.”

Luke nodded and Poe’s grip loosened as he moved to peer through the spy-hole again. Luke made no attempt to look; he could hear all too well.

“I thought it might be you,” said Captain Phasma. “Father Luke was so sure it couldn’t have been a priest. But you can be killers, just like the rest of us.”

“Not like the rest of you, no,” said Lor San. His voice sounded stronger than it had in weeks — had he been fooling them all this time with his frailty? “But justice must be served.”

“In the middle of the night with a butcher’s knife?” Captain Phasma sounded contemptuous. There was the sound of movement, her voice further away. “What a marvelous justice system you have here.”

Beside him, Poe tensed. Luke wondered what prompted it until he saw Poe’s hand on the lever: Captain Phasma was maneuvering Lor San so his back would be to the Judas hole. Clever.

“Better to cut a few throats in the darkness than what your people did to my village,” said Lor San. “Women and children—“

“I’m so tired of that phrase, you know,” Captain Phasma interjected. “‘Women and children.’ Women have been fighting in these wars for a thousand years. And children have been dying in them for much longer than that.”

“You butchered the helpless—“

“As well as the strong and able, Father.” She was, if Luke’s hearing did not deceive him, now on the opposite end of the chamber. Lor San’s voice had grown closer, but presumably he was facing her and not the wall. Luke saw Poe ease the latch open, very quietly, and hold position. “That’s what war is. There is no fairness in it, not on one end of a knife or the other.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Lor San, which Poe must have taken to be his cue — he hauled the partition open with both hands as quickly as he could, his gun tucked into his belt.

Luke only had a moment to act; as the door swung open and Poe staggered back from the effort, balanced on one foot, Luke slipped through with his arms raised. “Lor San,” he said, “Don’t do this.”

Lor San gaped at him, his weapon — a sizeable butcher’s knife, rusted along the handle, unfamiliar — wavering between Luke and Captain Phasma. “What are you—“ His expression hardened. “You should not have interfered, Luke.”

“Why would he stop now?” Captain Phasma muttered. Lor San swung the knife back toward her, and she sighed, crossing her arms over her chest as she leaned against a shelf.

“This does not have to end in violence,” said Luke, his hand out. “Give it to me.”

But he was already shaking his head. “I can’t do that. Her sins — all their sins — it goes against God in every conceivable way.”

“Then she can do penance for those sins,” Luke said, “As I have. Whatever blood is on her hands, mine are ten times the bloodier. And I only have the one,” he added, smiling slightly.

It goaded a reluctant answering smile from Lor San, though it was replaced quickly enough with a scowl. “She doesn’t deserve it.”

“All God’s creatures deserve forgiveness.”

“This isn’t about forgiveness. This is about justice.”

“No,” Luke said, sharp. He stepped between them. “It’s about vengeance. You are putting yourself before God, deciding what lives are worth which deaths.”

“And what did she do?” he retorted. “This is for the good of our people. We swore to protect them—“

“We swore to guide them, and shelter them. We cannot avenge them, or else we become the wolves and not the shepherds.”

“Then so be it,” said Lor San, and adjusted the grip on his knife.

It was an absurdity, he knew — even with the knife, even with Captain Phasma’s injury and Luke’s one good hand, Lor San was hardly a threat. But he still swallowed back the familiar fear in the pit of his stomach, dread that comes when an enemy is approaching.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Poe said, emerging from the Judas hole.

“Good God, how many people are in there?” said Lor San, sounding more exasperated than angry.

“Just me,” said Poe. “But I’ve always believed in the value of quality over quantity. I don’t want to have to shoot you, sir,” he added, cocking the pistol, “Because I promised Luke I would try to avoid killing anyone. But I’ll do it if I have to.”

“Then you’re as guilty as she is,” snarled Lor San.

“I suppose I am,” Poe said breezily. “Which is to say, not guilty in the least.”

Behind him, Luke could hear Captain Phasma shifting position. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to run or try for the knife; either way, he clenched his left hand into a fist: hold. There was a pause, then a dissatisfied huff, but she settled back against the shelf.

“Just because they had orders—“ Lor San started, but Poe shook his head.

“They had orders to claim responsibility, I think,” he said, glancing up at Captain Phasma. “But someone else carried out the massacre.”

“That can’t be true.”

Poe examined Lor San for long moments. “Where were you?” he asked him in a voice gone gentle and kind. “When it began?”

“I was… I was asleep,” Lor San said. For a moment his knife lowered, before he readjusted the grip. “My cell is in the basement of the Church; I didn’t hear a thing until one of the deacons found me. And by that time I couldn’t — it was all over. The soldiers were just… standing there over the bodies.”

“And what did they look like?” asked Poe.

“Poe, what on Earth—“ Luke started, but Poe waved him silent.

“They looked… like Stormtroopers,” said Lor San helplessly. “Faceless, in white—“

“But their armor, was it covered in blood? In dirt?”

Lor San flinched at the word “blood,” but after a moment, he frowned. “No. No, they were… clean. Not a mark on them.”

“But the people who were killed, it wasn’t guns or rifles,” said Poe, conversational. “Most of them had their throats cut, didn’t they? It’s why you used a knife on those soldiers. On the Captain. To repay what they’d done to your village.”

“Yes,” said Lor San, though he sounded far less certain now. But he still held the knife in a tight grip.

“What the hell are you doing?” Captain Phasma hissed at Poe.

“I’m trying to solve a riddle,” Poe told her. “And since you’ve been decidedly unhelpful, I thought Lor San could assist me. The First Order didn’t kill those villagers at Tuanul; I’m not sure who did, but I’m confident you, Captain, can enlighten us.”

“The First Order does not answer to—“

“Yes, I know,” said Poe, pulling himself up onto one of the preparatory tables, his crutches leaning against the stone. “But who do you answer to? Kylo Ren? Did he and his little goon squad butcher all those people? Leave you to take the fall for it?”

Luke risked turning to gauge Captain Phasma’s expression. She had her jaw clenched, as though this were an interrogation — which, in a matter of speaking, it was. “The First Order does not answer to the Alliance,” she repeated.

Poe sighed, then to Lor San said, “If it’s all right with you, I’ll just shoot her in the knee to start with. It’s remarkably effective to get someone to talk. Plus, she’ll never walk properly again. What do you think?”

“Poe!” said Luke, backing up so that he was directly in front of Phasma. “No one is getting shot.”

But Poe just chuckled. “I’m sure that’s meant to be a very noble sentiment, but you’re a good foot shorter than she is,” he said. “It’s rather like watching a giraffe try to hide behind a goat.”

“Well,” muttered Captain Phasma, “At least I’m not the goat.”

“If you’re not responsible, then who is?” said Lor San, raising the knife.

For a moment, Luke thought that he might hear the crack of a gunshot. But Captain Phasma answered, as though it were forced out of her with bellows, “I don’t know. And that is, whether or not you believe it, the truth.”

“But such a small part of the truth,” Poe pointed out, swinging his good leg carelessly. “Surely you can do better than that.”

“We were given orders to search the area surrounding Tuanul.” Luke might suspect her of lying if she hadn’t said it so spitefully. “But when we arrived, the village had been… flattened. A half-dozen survivors had escaped — into the church,” she added bitterly. “And had only come out to accuse us of killing everyone. And by then, the Alliance soldiers had arrived, and didn’t stop to ask questions.”

“Then why not say something afterward?” Luke asked, turning to her. “Why have you let everyone think you had done it?”

Captain Phasma looked at him for a long while. “Do you know, Father Luke, how many children’s stories there are about you in the Empire? Even before this war was declared, we knew about the Sky Walker. Bad children who didn’t do as they were told are taken in the middle of the night — the Sky Walker comes for them, turns them to ash in their beds. And all the charming playground rhymes. ‘If you don’t take back what you said, Skywalker will shoot you dead.’”

“‘If you don’t say your prayers at night, Skywalker’s been known to bite.’ Yes, I’ve heard that one,” Luke said. He could feel the same bile in his throat as he’d tasted the first time he’d heard the counting songs, sung by cheerful children in the Cathedral courtyard.

“Do you realize how much we hate you?” she asked, looking almost interested in the answer. “Three hundred thousand souls burned to death because of you.”

“Because of the Emperor, too.”

“The Butcher of Bespin, the Skywalker, the Traitor Prince,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard. “And after all that, you’re just a man. Not even a particularly impressive one. We wasted so much time hating you, blaming you, when we could have used it to become stronger.”

“So what, you wanted to distract the Alliance?” Poe asked, sounding skeptical. “From what?”

Captain Phasma glanced up at Poe, contempt in her eyes. “From asking yourselves something that you should have asked me five minutes ago, a month ago. What was it that we had orders to search for?” She sneered at them all. “A miracle we haven’t crushed you all yet.”

“What were you looking for, then?” said Poe.

You, of course, you imbecile,” Captain Phasma replied. “Or did you think it just coincidence that we all ended up here? Are you really that stupid?”

I certainly am,” Luke said to himself. Lor San was looking more perplexed by the moment, his knife half-lowered to the ground. If Luke lunged for him, would he be able to knock it away?

“We knew you’d escaped, but until six weeks ago we didn’t know what had happened once your plane crossed the border. Imagine our lack of surprise to find out you’d crashed, somewhere near—“

“Somewhere near Tuanul,” said Poe, frowning.

“About seven leagues south of us,” Lor San agreed. “We heard the crash — the Mayor herself sent for the ambulance corps to see if anyone had survived.”

“Well done,” said Captain Phasma. She turned back to Poe. “Our orders were to capture you and bring you back to Vindicta. Preferably in one piece.”

“All this,” Luke asked, flabbergasted, “For him?”

“Are you saying I’m not worth the trouble, Father?” Poe said, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“The First Order captured you in the first place, Commander, and they weren’t done with you when you escaped.” Captain Phasma said. “They believe you’ve gained information; information that belongs to us.”

“I’ve gained a lot of information,” said Poe, slowly.

“Yes, you have,” snapped Captain Phasma. “And we want it back.”

“I don’t believe any of this,” Lor San said, loudly. “You — this is all a trick. I saw you, standing over the dead as if you’d like nothing more than to kill them a second time.”

“What are you going to do, kill me in the middle of your precious Church?” said Captain Phasma, glaring back at him.

“I’ll save him the trouble,” said Poe, drawing his own weapon again. “After all, I don’t care about this fusty old pile. As long as you’re dead it makes little difference to me where it happens.” He glanced at Lor San. “Unless you’d rather do the honors, Father?” And he offered Lor San the gun.

“Poe, what are you doing?” Luke demanded.

“What’s necessary,” answered Poe, as Lor San hesitantly took the gun, still holding the knife in his other hand. “Whatever dear old Phasma knows about me, it’s more than I can risk at present. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise, Luke,” he added, though he didn’t sound terribly sincere. “But at least this way Lor San can have his precious justice.”

“Lor San, please—“ Luke said, but Captain Phasma put her hand on his shoulder.

“It’s all right, Father,” she said calmly. “I had a feeling it would all end like this.” She sneered at the other two. “What’s it to be, Father: on my knees with the gun at the back of my head? Or am I to hold still while you make another attempt to slit my throat?”

“The important thing is that you die, I should think,” Poe replied. “Any last words?”

Captain Phasma looked set to make a snide remark, but then shut her mouth and looked down at Luke. “Actually,” she said, looking strangely…wistful, he might almost have called it, “Father, I do have a request.”

Luke glared at Lor San and Poe. “Captain, I won’t allow them to—“

“It’s all right,” she said again, as though she were the one offering comfort. “But tell Sergeant Pava — tell her…” and she hesitated, at a loss for a moment. Then her expression firmed and she grabbed him by the front of his cassock, pulling him close. For a moment he thought she was going to kiss him—

And he was entirely correct. It was a businesslike kiss, almost pointed; if Luke were a more devoted connoisseur of kisses, he’d probably have more to say.

Captain Phasma shoved him away and he staggered back against the wall; by the time he was able to reorient himself, Lor San was sprawled on the floor, the knife and gun both out of reach and one of Poe’s crutches pressed against his chest, keeping him down. “And stay there,” Poe ordered him, brutal.

“Poe,” said Luke; he was not altogether sure what he wanted to convey, but Lor San winced as he shifted position, clearly in pain.

“He might have killed you,” Poe said, not even looking at Luke. “Killing Phasma, I don’t much object to — but killing the archbishop in the middle of his own cathedral would’ve caused gossip.” He added, “You and I, Captain, are going to have to have a long talk about suitable diversionary tactics. I don’t know what they’ve taught you in the First Order, but kissing poor defenseless priests isn’t on.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Captain Phasma. “Have you got anything to tie him up with?”

Poe blinked, and looked up at her, chagrined. “I assumed our murderer would be someone we’d be able to shoot.”

Captain Phasma heaved a very put-upon sigh and turned to Luke. If she felt the least bit embarrassed about the kiss, she hid it well. “I don’t suppose you’d care to loan him that, Father?” She gestured at his midsection.

“What? Oh,” Luke realized. He untied his sash and handed it to her; she accepted it with a solemn nod. He watched her kneel behind Lor San and tie his hands behind his back before standing up — or trying to. “Are you all right?” Luke asked her, as she wheezed, one hand at her throat.

“I’m fine,” she snapped, her voice rasping; but as she pulled her hand away Luke could see blood on her fingers. There wasn’t much on the bandage, but some stitch must have ripped; Luke was about to kneel down for a closer examination when Poe stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Go get help,” he ordered, bending over to pick up the gun. “Before our primary witness bleeds out all over again. I must say, Phasma, keeping you alive has been—”

Luke had hardly moved toward the door when Captain Phasma lunged at Poe, knocking him against the nearest slab and sending him toppling. There was a flash of metal and she straightened up, the gun in her hand. “Father,” she warned, “Stay where you are.”

Luke rushed to Poe’s side, ignoring the gun pointed at his head — at this point he was getting used to it. Poe’s face was slack, but his chest was still rising and falling; Luke pressed his fingers to Poe’s neck and felt the strong and steady pulse.

“Now what do you propose?” Luke said, glaring up at Captain Phasma, who had at least lowered her weapon. “You’ll kill us, I imagine.”

“I don’t kill people who are on their knees, Father,” she replied, “Whatever else you think of me, believe that.” She glanced at Lor San, who stared up at her. “Both of you.”

“Then what will you do?” Luke asked. “You’ll not get far — they’ll have every soldier between here and the front lines looking for you.”

“And it’s hardly as though I can blend in,” she agreed. “But better to die on your feet, is it not, Skywalker?”

“What about Finn?” asked Luke, desperately. “If you desert him—“

“I do not interest myself in traitors,” Captain Phasma said. “And you should remember that a man who betrays once might make it a habit. I wouldn’t turn your back on him.” She tossed him his book, forgotten in the confusion. Luke managed to catch it; there was blood along one edge, as though someone had given themselves a nasty paper-cut. “I’ll be sure to give your nephew your regards.”

He looked up, but she had vanished down the Judas hole, her footsteps lost in seconds.

Luke got to his feet and retrieved the knife. He sliced through Lor San’s bonds and heaved him to his feet. “Go get help,” he ordered, twitching at the echo from just a moment before.

Lor San gaped at him. “But she—“

“Yes, she’s escaping,” Luke agreed, dragging Lor San toward the hallway. “She will never see justice, and that is your fault. But if you do not go and get help, this boy’s death will also be your fault, and God will have mercy on you for every life you’ve ended but He will not forgive you this,” Luke swore. “And neither will I.”

Pale and gaping and somehow so much younger than he’d ever seemed, Lor San at last nodded, and made his way quickly down the hall toward the entrance.

A noise from Poe brought Luke back to his side. He was shifting around, and Luke caught one of his flailing hands, pulling him into an awkward half-embrace as Poe blinked and looked around.

“That was very…” he shut his eyes again.

Luke patted him on the cheek firmly. “Poe, stay awake,” he commanded, wishing (not for the first time) that he had a voice like Leia’s that could galvanize legions and strike terror into friend and foe alike.

“That was very romantic,” Poe finished. “Rescuing your damsel in distress.”

“I thought you were the femme fatale,” said Luke, brushing the hair off Poe’s forehead. His fingers traced over the angle of his brow, along the curve of his cheek; Luke watched his hand without any sense that it was under his control.

“Clearly that’s Phasma’s role, since she just laid one on you and killed me in cold blood,” Poe complained, smiling at him. “Is it strange that I’m more angry that she got to kiss you? I’ve got a feeling I’m supposed to be upset about the other one.”

“I’d hardly qualify what the Captain did as a kiss,” Luke said, because Poe’s eyes were open and he was still speaking in complete sentences and Luke needed that to last as long as possible.

“What would you know about it?” Poe asked, his words slurring slightly.

Luke smiled, his heart in his throat. “The Kiss of Peace is a common greeting amongst those in the Church. I’ve probably kissed more people than you have.”

“I’ll accept that challenge,” said Poe. His eyes drifted shut again. “But I suppose that means you still won’t kiss me, since I’m not in the Church.”

“If you stay awake until the doctor comes, you can kiss me whenever you like,” Luke promised, reckless and brave, brushing the back of his fingers against Poe’s lower lip. “Just stay awake.”

“Whenever I like?” Poe repeated, delighted. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

“See that you do,” Luke said softly, as shouts came echoing down the halls.

Luke and Poe in the crypt

***

After Dr. Maz and her minions bundled Poe out of the crypt, Luke escorted Lor San back to his cell. Lor San was silent, his eyes over-bright and face pale. They arrived at Lor San’s door, and Luke’s stomach lurched as he realized there was no lock, no way to bar the door save from the inside. But he ushered him in all the same, still holding the knife.

“What will you tell Rey?” asked Lor San.

“The truth,” Luke answered him, and wondered if that was a lie. “She deserves to know.”

“You always did have a cruel streak,” Lor San said, sitting down stiffly on the cot.

“It’s a strange time you chose to care about her.”

“I’ve cared about her all this while,” said Lor San, but his voice was tired, not angry. Down in the crypt he had looked strong and fearsome; his cane was still down there, forgotten, but now when he moved he seemed once again the gaunt and frail old man he had pretended to be these past few weeks.

Then Luke turned over what Lor San had just said. “Finn,” he realized. “That’s the reason Finn hasn’t been harmed. Because of Rey.”

“And you,” said Lor San. “I’ve known you a long time, Luke; you see the good in people too easily. It’s the darkness you miss. But I don’t think Rey would have put her faith in a man who was wholly irredeemable.”

Luke tightened his grip on the knife. “So you spared Finn out of a conviction of his innocence.”

Lor San looked down at his hands. “I wish I could claim to be so rational,” he said. “That night — that horrible night, I was determined to end them all, but I — I was in the corridor and I heard Rey’s voice. She was laughing at someone, talking about that cat of yours. And someone else answered and I realized she was speaking to one of the soldiers. They went down the hallway and I… I let them go. That was all there was to it. No greater decision than that. I let them go and I killed the others and now I find out that it was all a waste.”

“It always was,” said Luke. He looked at the contents of the room, the small pillow and thin blankets, the cross on the wall. He wondered if he ought to remove anything that might double as a noose; wondered what culpability he could bear, if Lor San sinned again.

“You would know,” Lor San said, startling him. Had his thoughts been so obvious? But then he remembered his own words of a few moments ago.

“I have no way to hold you here,” he said instead. “Will you give me your word that you’ll stay put?”

Lor San looked up at him, something genuine in his surprise. “Where would I go, Luke?”

And after that there was nothing Luke could say, so he shut the door.

What would he tell Rey? There had never been any secrets between them; it had been a condition, from the first time he’d found her hiding in one of the alcoves, fast asleep with a staff by her side. Over the past ten years he’d had to tell her many difficult things, awful things; but those had been only about himself. This was different.

Luke made his way to what Poe had taken to calling the Archbishop’s Manse, where they had agreed to ensconce Rey, Finn, and Sergeant Pava until the culprit had been flushed out. Walking out into the courtyard and approaching it now, Luke could only marvel at how unprotected it was; how easily the murderer could have chosen to pursue Finn and not Phasma first, and how obscene it was to count them lucky that the murderer had been someone who loved Rey so much.

He knocked on the peeling paint of the door, a rhythm they had worked out beforehand, and it was pulled open to reveal Sergeant Pava’s pale face and a steady hand holding a gun.

“Someone is going to have to reveal their source for those,” Luke sighed, slipping inside. Rey and Finn were sitting at the table, a half-finished card game between them, both looking tense and worried.

“Is she all right?” said Sergeant Pava, lowering her weapon. “I mean — did the operation, was it successful?”

“We caught the murderer. Captain Phasma escaped in the confusion; but the last I saw, she was perfectly fine. Commander Dameron sustained a concussion, and seems to be the only casualty today.”

“Who was it?” asked Finn, rising from his chair. “The killer?”

Luke carefully set the knife down on the table and stepped away from it, his throat too tight. He had prepared for so many contingencies, but this had left him inexplicably off-balance; as though he were back on the Falcon, blindfolded with only his sword and his deceptive senses.

Rey had not moved from her seat. “It was Lor San, wasn’t it?”

There would be time later to ask how she’d known, or guessed; it was as brave as Luke could be in that moment to nod.

There was a long silence, then Rey nodded back. She stood up and smoothed the front of her cassock, tugging at her sleeves — she was still outgrowing her clothes, bony wrists sticking out from the wool and cotton cuffs. “All right,” she said. “What do you need me to do?”

All three of them looked to him for their orders; it was a curious sense of deja vu, here in the middle of his fourth life. “Send a message to Father Antilles, and tell him I will be bringing a guest to the Cross,” he told Rey, taking a deep breath. “And one to General Lando—“

“But the General wants to execute Finn,” Rey protested, her aplomb vanished in an instant. “You can’t turn him over!”

“And I won’t,” Luke said, though he addressed it to Finn, whose face had gone grey and stoic. He turned back to Rey. “Do not mention either the Captain’s escape or Finn’s current whereabouts in your message to the General; say merely that he can meet me at the Penitent’s Cross, and I will answer his questions there.” He looked over at Pava, who looked more watchful than concerned. “I would request a favor of you, Sergeant. Lor San will need a guard—“

“Of course, Father.”

“Excellent.” Luke waited until Rey and the sergeant had left; Finn was still standing at the table, his knuckles pale against the back of the chair.

“Thank you, sir,” said Finn. He was so quiet that Luke might not have heard him in the echoing halls of the Cathedral; here in this small hut, the silence took in his words like pebbles dropping into a pond.

“For uncovering a friend’s treachery? I’ve done worse,” Luke admitted. He held the door open. “And it seems that you have, too.”

Finn looked up from the knife, his eyes wide. “Sir, I—“

“You’re guilty of something, Finn,” said Luke, “And you and I and Commander Dameron are going to have a nice little chat about it now.”

“Didn’t you say he had a concussion?” Finn said, sounding half-hopeful even as he followed Luke out into the gardens.

“Somehow I doubt a head injury has ever seriously impeded the commander before.”

***

Sure enough, Poe seemed to be in fine form already, his head swathed in bright white bandages and propped up in his bed at the rectory. “Do I get a hero’s reward?” he asked, the moment Luke came through the door. “Or at least a mortally wounded soldier’s last indulgence?”

“You’re not mortally wounded,” Luke informed him. They had run into Dr. Maz en route; she had both filled him in on Poe’s condition and shaken her finger in Luke’s face and warned him that the next soldier he re-injured after she’d taken the trouble to get them nearly fixed up again, she was going to lop off his other hand.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t get a last indulgence, does it?”

“This isn’t going to be about kissing again, is it?” asked Luke, biting down on his cheeks as Finn nearly ran into the doorsill behind him.

“What?”

Poe heaved a dramatic sigh. “Your commanding officer,” he said to Finn in a very serious tone, “Is an utter bastard.”

“I — all right,” said Finn, sitting down slowly on his bed.

“Dr. Maz informed me that you have a mild concussion.” Luke settled into a chair, keeping an eye on both men.

“Mild being in the eye of the beholder,” Poe said, reaching up and touching the bandages. “But I suppose it can’t be all that serious, if I’m sitting here making witty remarks.”

“I’ll leave it to someone more impartial to judge the wit of said remarks,” said Luke. He leaned back in his chair. “Now, since you’re the injured party, Poe, I suppose we should start with you.”

The first glance between Poe and Finn told Luke a great deal. “What do you mean?” Poe said, all bright inquiry.

“I mean that the two of you have been keeping some sort of secret,” said Luke. This time, Poe held his gaze steady, but Finn swallowed and looked away. “And whatever secret it is, Captain Phasma knows it, too. So either one of you is a spy, or one of you is a traitor.”

“Or both,” replied Poe.

“It’s me,” Finn said, shoulders hunched. “I’m the traitor. I helped Poe — Commander Dameron — escape from Vindicta.” He looked up at Luke with a reluctant smile. “I guess you knew that, though.”

Poe winced, and put his hand to his head again.

Luke could sympathize. “I had my suspicions,” he admitted. “As does Captain Phasma, and the fact that she is returning to the First Order with both her suspicions and the knowledge that you are still alive puts you in a certain amount of danger.”

“With all due respect, sir,” said Finn, “I’m already in a certain amount of danger. I know you told Rey — Mother Rey — that you wouldn’t turn me over to the Resistance, but I don’t see that you’ll have much of a choice. Even if the Queen is your sister.”

Luke glanced at Poe, who blinked innocently. “Was it the commander, the captain, or my acolyte who told you about me?” he asked, more curious than anything.

Finn frowned. “Told me about — you mean that you’re the Sky Walker? Father, there isn’t a soldier in the First Order who doesn’t know what you look like. You’re… part of the training.” He hesitated, and Luke had a fair notion as to what kind of training involved pictures of him and thousands of soldiers, learning how to shoot.

“Be that as it may,” Luke said, “It’s a rather moot point; General Lando can hardly have you tried and executed for a crime you didn’t commit.”

“Then you…” Finn looked from Poe, back to Luke, then to Poe again. “You believed me?” he asked Poe.

“Of course I did,” said Poe, as though offended. “And even better, we got a full confession from Captain Phasma. Right before she walloped me,” he admitted, “But there are three witnesses, two of them priests, even if one’s a murderer. So I’d say you’re in the clear. Just as I promised,” he added.

Luke, once again struggling to keep up, lifted his hand. “Are you saying that all that nonsense with threatening to shoot the captain — that was all part of some scheme of yours? You might at least have consulted me.”

“Are you more angry that I threatened to shoot someone, or that I didn’t let you in on it?” Poe shrugged. “I thought it would be more believable if you were the one who could vouch for the story.”

“I suppose I should be flattered,” said Luke. “But Finn, General Lando will want to speak with you about the massacre; he’ll probably want a good deal more than that, if you truly intend to join the Alliance.” I’m the traitor, Finn had said, looking lost and miserable. Luke could remember the weight of that word all too well.

“I — join the Alliance?” Finn’s eyes grew wide. “I’m not — I don’t know, Father.”

“Would you want to go back to the First Order?” Luke asked. Poe made a disapproving noise, but Luke glared him into submission. The Empire had, back in the day, boasted of their military, soldiers taken as infants and raised into model fighting machines. The First Order, it was rumored, had already resumed this tradition, but the soldiers of Finn’s generation could still remember their families, what they had been taken from. Some even beleived in the cause they fought and died for. “Would you want to go home?”

Finn shook his head. “I don’t have a home, Father. Not outside these walls. I want to help the Alliance, it’s just that I don’t know…” He looked down at his hands, his fingers tangled together. “I don’t know if I can.”

“We’ll find a solution,” Luke promised him. Had Poe felt like this, recklessly promising to prove Finn’s innocence? Seeing Finn take a deep breath and nod, as though some of the weight had lifted, Luke could hardly blame him for being spurred into such action.

Luke was suddenly, absurdly reminded of Leia, the night before the first Battle of Yavin; the way she’d stayed still as he’d braided her long hair into a crown. There had always been a peculiar need to protect and obey her in equal measures; he had flown and fought and killed for her, not because she was his sister but because she was his queen.

Finn likely had no royal blood; the Emperor’s line had been obliterated by Luke’s treachery, and most of the Empire’s nobility along with it. But it was not so difficult to see the leader that Finn was afraid to become, even now.

“The archbishop saves the day again,” said Poe, shattering the moment. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eye sockets. “I have the devil’s own headache — is that a good sign or a bad one?”

“It’s a sign that you’ve got a concussion,” said Finn, disapproving. He looked over at Luke. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t fall asleep for the next few hours; Dr. Maz said if he stays awake until midnight he should be clear.”

Luke swallowed back his first thought, that he could stay with them — there were a dozen things that needed to be done: letters written to his sister and to the council, arrangements to be made. He had wasted enough time here in this chair, indulging his own curiosity. “Then I shall take my leave.” He stood up, brushing off his habit.

“I haven’t forgotten your promise, Luke,” Poe after him as he opened the door.

Luke turned back; Poe’s eyes were even sharper than his smile. Luke cleared his throat. “Get some rest, the both of you. Tomorrow promises to be a rather interesting day.”

***

His prediction was an understatement of monumental proportions, although it began quietly enough. Luke rose with the sun and made his way to Lor San’s cell; the sooner they were on the road to Penitent’s Cross, the better for all concerned. He had gotten word back from Wedge late last night: Trust you to thwart a murder in the middle of a war, it had read in Wedge’s sloppy, affectionate hand. We shall expect you.

He stifled a yawn as he made his way up the stairs, the sluggish noise of the Cathedral beginning its new day pushing him along. He and Rey had stayed up well past midnight making arrangements; she had been tight-lipped and unnervingly quiet, but any attempts to get her to speak had been met with either glares or pointed questions about Church supplies for the next fortnight. Luke had ordered her to bed a few hours ago, but instead of sleeping himself he had written a letter to Leia, putting the entire sordid episode down on paper. It would no doubt be filed away, unanswered and perhaps unseen, but he felt better after writing it.

At last, Luke came to the fifth floor; Sergeant Pava was sitting outside the door to Lor San’s cell in a rather ornate chair dragged from God knew where, her eyes red-rimmed but her back straight, the gun in her lap. “Will it be any use at all to ask where you and Commander Dameron acquired those pistols of yours?” Luke asked, as she got to her feet.

She opened her mouth to answer, but it turned into a tremendous yawn; he could hear the crack of her jaw. “If sleep deprivation is your idea of a cunning interrogation technique, Father,” she said, “I can just say I got it much worse in school. Although I was a thoroughly terrible student,” she added.

“Has he said anything?” Luke asked, glancing at the door. There were sounds of movement from within, which was unsurprising; he and Lor San shared the same early habits.

“I checked in on him a few times; he seems a bit adrift, to be honest,” she reported. “Although he did say I should ask you about Captain Phasma’s last request?”

“Did he indeed?”

“Well, no,” Sergeant Pava admitted. “But Poe came wandering by on his crutches a few hours ago and complained about how Captain Phasma took an awful liberty with her last request, and he said he blamed me entirely for the assault on a harmless priest. Which I assumed meant you,” although she looked doubtful.

“How nice to know that the commander is up and ambulatory already,” muttered Luke. He took a deep breath and managed to make eye contact with Sergeant Pava. “I cannot relay the message in its… entirety, but suffice to say that I believe she was very reluctant to part company with you and wished you to be aware of her more… amative inclinations. Toward you,” he added, since Sergeant Pava’s expression had not cleared.

“‘Amative’?” she asked, brow furrowed.

“She kissed me,” Luke clarified, damning Poe and his reckless mouth.

“Sounds like whatever ‘amative’ means, she inclined it toward you then, Father,” Sergeant Pava said cheerfully.

It was very nearly believable, but she had flushed a brilliant red, and Luke was not such a sheltered fool as to misunderstand. He waited her out.

It did not take long. “We never did anything that — whatever else you might think, we wouldn’t desecrate the church, Father,” she said. She looked down at the ground. “I didn’t even think she liked me.”

Considering the number of Sergeant Pava’s terrible jokes that Captain Phasma had, if not precisely laughed at, at least smiled at, this seemed like willful blindness. “She still abandoned you,” he told her. “Make no mistake about her loyalties, Sergeant. The captain has made her choice, however much she may come to regret it.”

“I’m not about to let her win,” she replied, “No matter how well she might have kissed… you.”

“That is good to hear. Now go and get some rest; you’ve earned it.” He turned to go inside, but Sergeant Pava’s hand on his elbow stopped him.

“Do you think she’ll regret it?” she asked. Every muscle in her body looked frozen, as though if he pushed her over she might shatter into a thousand pieces on the floor.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. Or what she regrets,” he added, because there were a million souls on the battlefields right now — twenty times that number whose lives depended on the outcome of that bloodshed — and all of them were there because of two people who regretted every choice they’d made for years. “None of that can help.”

Sergeant Pava let him go; the unconvincing smile on her face was bright with unshed tears. “You don’t believe that true love conquers all, Father?”

“It can,” he allowed. “But I’ve never seen it.”

“Then what do I do? Just — live with this?” It did not sound like a question.

“Yes,” Luke told her. He put his hand on her shoulder; she took a deep breath and looked up, and he smiled down at her. “You are stronger than you can imagine, Jess. I would stand behind your broken heart against the entire force of the First Order.”

She nodded, wiping her eyes. “We’re all of us broken in one place or another these days, I suppose,” she said, her voice wavering only a little. “And if you of all people can go on, the rest of us have at least got a role model.”

She smiled again, a better one this time, and marched off down the hallway, leaving Luke to stare after her and wonder which broken place in him she had meant.

***

Chapter Text

One of the nicest aspects of his faith — a faith which, Poe was ready to admit, he didn’t store much personal faith in — was its essential mobility. Thousands of years of persecution in one form or another did have its uses; the People of Israel had learned long ago to ensure that their holy texts and scant relics were light enough to carry over one’s shoulder.

Those days may have been in the uneasy past, with synagogues both old and new standing proud in every large city (and a handful of small ones), but Poe grew up reciting the kaddish in living rooms and parlors, sneaking off during the recitation of yahrzeit to play upstairs with his friends. He had celebrated weddings in cramped kitchens and dull green commons, sat shivah in the hushed darkness of bedrooms, the mirrors covered and someone crying in the next room. His faith — or at least his small corner of it — was not given to grandiosity, to the pomp and circumstance of the christian churches that surrounded them. And he had never seen the need for it; huge cathedrals that loomed over the people might inspire awe, but what else could they do, monstrous and immovable from their great height?

His time as a patient, or prisoner, of the cathedral had thus far done little to change his mind, but two days after Luke abandoned them for Penitent’s Cross, Dr. Maz removed Poe’s cast and pronounced him able to walk, with care and a cane and a limp for now. “And I suggest you walk first to the baths,” she advised, wrinkling her nose.

“No one told me it would smell,” Poe complained, but allowed Rey to bully him toward the washrooms with a pair of clean trousers.

Once he had reacquainted himself with the world of the upright, Rey lost little time in press-ganging him into service. “The Archbishop, as well as his chief assistant gardener, have both gone,” she said, handing him a battered apron and a pair of pruning shears. “We all have to do our part.”

“Dr. Maz said I shouldn’t overexert myself,” Poe said feebly.

“She also said the worst you’d be risking is a slight limp. No doubt it will add to your rakish charm.” She looked thoroughly immune to said rakish charm, so Poe sighed and accepted the apron and shears. All things considered, he probably got off lucky.

Luke had taken with him not just Father Lor San, but Jess — and Finn. Poe had not been privileged to attend, but apparently the argument Luke and Rey had had prior to his departure had been loud, comprehensive, and highly unsatisfactory to both parties. Jess and Finn’s inclusion in the group had been a last-minute decision, after a telegram from General Calrissian had arrived. Apparently he wanted to debrief Jess and interrogate Finn, and since Penitent’s Cross was closer to New Theed than Tattooine, he saw nothing wrong with ordering Luke to bring them along like so much extra baggage. There had been a great number of promises exchanged regarding Finn’s well-being, but Rey, as she had doubtless made clear to Luke and continued to make clear to Poe, saw this as a capitulation to the evil machinations of the Crown against the Church.

“This is nothing more than bullying on the Queen’s part,” she announced more than once as they hacked at mysterious bits of plant and tree life. Poe would point out that Luke was very bad at being bullied, if past history was any indication, and the chances of Finn being anything more than slightly inconvenienced by the trip were low. “It’s the principle of the thing,” Rey would sniff back.

Poe forgave her the treasonous rhetoric; every time Rey talked about Finn, she would pick at her own fingertips, as though trying to scratch off the fingerprints. Poe had long since trained himself out of such obvious tells, but he could recognize them easily enough.

“At least we know he won’t be prosecuted for what happened at Tuanul,” Poe reminded her, which mollified her somewhat but had the unfortunate side effect of getting her interested in what just had happened in Tuanul, and who had killed all those people if not the First Order, and why had they been there in the first place? Poe nodded earnestly along and proclaimed himself as baffled as she was, although he made sure to praise her amateur sleuthing as appropriate.

“Have you ever thought of another profession?” he asked her one day, as they shivered together in the belfry tower of the cathedral. The church bell was a comforting hulk behind them, silent between its midday and evening cacophony. The view beneath them stretched in all directions; the town a jumble of grey streets and red roofs, the trees snaking green threads through until they took over at the edges and swallowed the rest of the world in a green quilt. From here at least, there was nothing but peace and the forest — and a faint wisp of smoke to the south, where the front line lay just past the horizon.

It had been more than a week since Poe’s liberation from the tyranny of his cast; he and Rey often ended up here after their stints in the gardens, shivering in the wind and complaining. Neither of them discussed it, but somehow they always stood on the east (and windiest) side of the belfry, facing out past the river and down the long King’s Road. Penitent’s Cross was miles away, and there had been no word; still, they came up here and bickered and watched the horizon, squinting against the rising sun or cursing its absence as they huddled into their inadequate coats.

“The Holy Church isn’t a profession,” Rey said. “It’s a calling.”

“My mistake,” Poe allowed. “But you’ve never thought of any other calling? You would make an excellent detective, or drill sergeant.”

“Thank you,” she replied, in that way she had that made her sound exactly seventeen years old.

“And?”

“I have to stay here.”

Poe was set to tease her at the conviction in her voice, then he looked at her; saw her fingers, red from the cold and fidgeting. Poe had spent the past — too long — winkling secrets out of people, finding out the things they wanted to keep hidden. This didn’t feel like a secret, but he spoke softly all the same. “Why’s that?”

She bit her lip; her hands clenched into fists as she pressed them against the parapet. “My family left — they left me with a guardian, in a village south of here. I was about seven, I think. That’s my best guess. Unkar never told me for certain; said I could have birthdays on someone else’s account, not his.” She cleared her throat, as though ridding herself of even the thought of her guardian’s name. “We were near the border, but this was before the war had started; they must have thought I’d be safe there. I waited… a long time for them to come back. Four or five years; I’m not sure. I wouldn’t eat for days, because the old women of the village said that if you want to grow up big and strong you have to eat. I was afraid that if I grew too much my family wouldn’t recognize me when they came back.” She spoke faster now, as if she only had a few minutes left to tell him. “But the war came first, like it always does. Jakku burned down in just a few days. Unkar and the house and everything I knew along with it. I couldn’t stay — I tried, but the Stormtroopers were thorough.”

Jakku. Poe remembered hearing about it, one of the first battles in the new war; it had been what had pushed him to sign up. He kept quiet.

“I heard there was a church up north that would feed children if they looked hungry enough. I thought I might be able to steal something, then I could sneak back to Jakku and keep waiting. Stupid idea, in the middle of winter. I lost a toe to frostbite. But I came here and there were — there must have been hundreds of children, just like me, fleeing north ahead of the fighting. And they didn’t just feed us, or give us warm clothes. The Church was finding them places to stay, sending them to other villages further from the fighting. But I wouldn’t — I didn’t want to be sent so far away that I couldn’t go home. So I’d hide in the gardens, or up here, when they’d collect a new group of children to send north.

“One day I came up through the trapdoor and there was a priest standing there. I thought he was going to drag me downstairs by the scruff of my neck, but he just smiled and said, ‘You must be Rey.’” She looked down at her hands again, flexing them flat against the stone. “He let me stay; he needed help with the children — I was one of the oldest by then. And then when the flood of orphans slowed a bit, he taught me how to read, because he needed help with the accounts of the Church. And then he taught me the catechisms, because he needed help teaching others. I even learned to sing — he’s got a voice like a dying pig.”

No points for guessing who the priest had been. “And he needs you to sing at services for him?”

She shook her head, just a touch too violently, squinting against the sun. “No. That’s just it — he never needed me. Not really. But I’ve been useful here. And he saved my life. I realized a long time ago that wherever my family is, whatever happened to them, they’re never coming back. But Luke does. Every time.”

To a cathedral made of thick stone and consecrated for a thousand years; a home that wouldn’t, couldn’t, be burned to the ground, not by anything less than another Starkiller weapon. The wind died down for a moment and Poe could hear the distant sounds of the village, hundreds of feet beneath them.

“Well,” he admitted, “The view alone might be worth all the religious nonsense, I suppose.”

Rey glared at him even as the wind teased her hair out of its severe style to whip in her face. “‘Nonsense’?” But there was a smile at the corner of her mouth, a bit trembling but real all the same.

“Still after my soul, Mother Rey?”

Rey harrumphed and scooped the hair out of her face; it immediately blew back. “I would hardly know what to save your soul for.”

Poe made a wounded noise and leaned against her, shivering. The day had turned even colder since they’d climbed up, summer finally eliding into autumn with frost at the edges of the the evenings. He winced at a spasm in his leg, the bone still oddly tender. 

“We should go inside,” he said, rubbing at his thigh. “It’s almost time for Vespers.”

“I would take your knowledge of the prayer services as a better sign,” said Rey, “If I didn’t know you only remembered that because dinner is served directly afterward.”

“I can hardly help my excellent priorities,” he said, and was about to say more when he heard a plaintive chirping noise, like an irate kitten. It was coming from a gargoyle at the edge of the parapet, its face worn down by rains and wind and time.

“What in heaven’s—“ Rey muttered, leaning dangerously over the side in order to peer into the mouth of the gargoyle.

Poe grabbed a handful of her cassock. “If you fall,” he answered her disbelieving glare, “Luke and Finn will never let me hear the end of it.”

She rolled her eyes at him and leaned out further still, sticking her hand into the mouth with all the nonchalance of one who was certain of her fate in the afterlife. Poe clenched his fingers in the rough wool as she pulled something out.

It was not a kitten, but a battered and bedraggled black bird — a raven, Poe guessed. It flapped uselessly against Rey’s grip but was clearly too exhausted to put up much of a fight, one side of its face caked in dirt and blood.

“One of the cats must have gotten it,” Rey said, carefully gathering its wings and holding it still. Poe pulled off his scarf; he could feel the bird’s heart beating a staccato against his palms as they managed to get it cocooned in the warm wool.

“How he got up here with one good eye I’ll never know,” Poe said as it huddled into the crook of Rey’s elbow, complaining at the world with its odd chirps. Poe reached out with a careful hand, expecting a screech or even a warning nip, but instead it examined his fingers with interest, before realizing that they weren’t edible and giving him a resigned glare out of its one good eye. “But he’s a game fellow.”

“If he were a cat, I’d say he’s on his ninth life,” Rey agreed. “I wonder how many lives ravens have.”

“Eight, perhaps.”

***

It was agreed between them that Dr. Maz would take a dim view of their newest patient. “I doubt she’ll approve a request for gauze and that bacta ointment,” Rey sighed.

“I doubt she’ll approve of it full stop,” Poe said. They were hiding (“we are not hiding,” Rey protested) in Luke’s quarters, the raven still swaddled and grumbling as Rey tried to clean it off. It had a missing right foot to match its missing left eye, though that injury looked long-healed — clearly this was not an animal who understood when to run from a fight.

Rey scowled and put down the cleaning rag, picking up the bowl of nuts and dried berries she’d scrounged up from somewhere. “It’s not as though I need permission to help one of God’s creatures,” she said stiffly, offering the bird a raisin. It grabbed at it with relish.

Poe, tasked with the duty of holding onto the poor creature, couldn’t help his snort. “Then why are we here, instead of in your quarters?”

“Because I live with three other acolytes and I don’t wish to disturb them.” She sounded very nearly convincing.

Poe laughed. “When Luke finds out you’ve used his room as a rookery, I think he’ll be quite a bit more disturbed,” he pointed out.

“We’ll think of a better solution.”

“‘We’?”

“If you don’t care to assist me,” said Rey, “You are of course free to leave, Commander.”

“You sound exactly like my mother,” Poe sighed.

“Your mother calls you ‘Commander’?”

Poe’s mother was fifteen years in the grave, but now was hardly the time. “At least Luke doesn’t own anything for a bird to foul up,” he commented, looking around the room. The bird muttered something that sounded very much like agreement.

“A man — or a woman — of God has little need for worldly possessions,” Rey lectured both of them.

“The Lord provides, I’m sure,” Poe agreed.

He was rewarded with another glare, but the evening bell sounded before she could make a reply. Instead she handed him the mostly-empty bowl, rising to her feet. “I’ll come back with some food,” she said as she went to the door.

“Why am I the one who has to stay here?” Poe protested.

“Because my presence will be missed,” she replied, cheerful, “Whereas everyone will assume you’ve wandered off to mope in the gardens.”

“I do not mope,” he said, or tried to, but she’d already shut the door behind her by the time he’d gathered his indignation sufficiently to respond. The raven chirped at him. “I don’t,” he informed it.

The raven, for its part, seemed to feel it had been docile long enough and began to struggle more adamantly against its woolen enclosure. It made a strange croaking noise, like a bullfrog with the hiccups, and wriggled its head back and forth.

The only window in the room was shut, the warped pane probably older than Poe’s entire ancestral line but no doubt sturdy enough to prevent even a determined raven from making its escape. “If I let you go, you have to promise not to shit on me,” he bargained, and loosened the scarf.

The raven scrambled upright at its first opportunity, balancing with its one leg on the thin blanket. It made no attempt to move away; for a moment Poe was touched, until he remembered he had the bowl of food.

“Opportunistic, I appreciate that in a person,” Poe said, and offered it to the bird. It peered over the rim critically, then gave a hop and managed to land right in the middle of the bowl, to its evident satisfaction. Poe laughed and the raven looked up at him, its head cocked, before opening its beak and uttering something that sounded eerily similar. “And mockery, too,” Poe observed. “You could have a future as a spy for Her Majesty’s Army.”

The raven, busy with its nuts and berries, made no reply. The bells had died down and Poe could hear the soft scuffing of feet on the stone, quiet voices as people passed by. After a few minutes, the noise drifted off, leaving the room quiet and dim.

It occurred to Poe that he was alone in Luke’s room; over the past few years Poe had had opportunity to see the private rooms of any number of powerful figures, through one method or another. The routine was always the same; examining papers, sliding a hand under the mattress and behind picture frames, checking the underside of whatever furniture there might be. Poe had prided himself (if that was the right word) in his efficiency, knowing that even the most elaborate boudoir could not hold its secrets for long once he was inside.

But he was confounded by these four walls. Luke’s bed wasn’t much more than a straw pallet; the pillow was, Poe suspected, stuffed with horsehair. A small chest of drawers stood beneath the window, and halfway up the wall hung a simple wooden cross. Poe eyed the cross and did not examine the chest.

And that was all. There were no photographs, no mementoes. No letters on the chest, no notes to himself. Nothing to indicate a man had lived here for the better part of a quarter-century. Poe swallowed back the ache in his throat, but it did not feel like sorrow, exactly.

Poe had served with a few veterans from the Starkiller War, men and women who talked about it after too many drinks or didn’t talk at all. Most of them kept their barracks like this, devoid of any personal effects, everything swept away. Poe had assumed they’d left their things back home, wherever home might be for them. Better to keep sentiment off the battlefield.

Rey was wrong; this was not the room of a priest. It was the room of a soldier, still at war and far from home.

The stupidest thing in the world would have been to shut his eyes, which was probably why he did it; he dreamed of his mother’s sapote tree, struck by lightning on the last night of the Starkiller War while all around them were cheering crowds. The crowds morphed into trees themselves, reaching out to Poe with twisted branches, wind hissing accusations as he fought through the underbrush. A raven called overhead and Rey answered it — no, not Rey, Finn, eyes bright and afraid, a dagger in his back and his throat slashed to the bone but still leading Poe onward deeper into the forest. “Can you fly?” Finn said — no, not Finn, it was the raven asking him, its one good eye staring down at him.

“I can fly anything,” he said, and then he was hurled into the night, the world dropping away; he wasn’t a pilot, he was a raven himself, wings straining against the air itself. He swooped and span and skimmed along the surface of the earth, images flashing past. His father’s house with his mother’s tree, now a shrivelled stump but with some green shoots crawling toward the sky; New Theed in the distance, never getting closer while the black cloud to the south kept steadily gaining. Poe opened his mouth to taunt the cloud but it rushed forward, down his throat and into his stomach, burning him from the inside. He screamed.

“Hush,” said a voice, patient and not a little exasperated. “It’s just a dream.”

Even in dreams, Poe thought sourly, Luke was always practical. “Of course it is,” Poe replied; they were in the cathedral now, in some darkened room — the skulls on the walls grinned down at him. “You’d never be so nice to me in real life.”

“Do you have so little faith in me?” Luke smiled down at him, wearing his priest’s frock, then a soldier’s dress uniform, then nothing at all. A promising start, Poe thought, and reached for him.

“I’ll work on my religion,” he promised. Luke’s hair was soft between his fingers, his pulse strong under his thumb, and Poe thought that this was altogether a better sort of nightmare than he usually had.

“What sort do you usually have?” Luke said, wearing a bloody, torn jacket and dirt-caked trousers, his nose broken, younger than Poe had ever known him, younger than Poe was himself or could ever remember being. There was fire all around them, closing in as the snow fell and the sound of cannon fire echoed along the stone.

“These kinds,” Poe sighed, and let go, drifting back into the dark.

***

He was awoken by a boot to his hip and a hissing, “Wake up, you’ll sleep through the second coming at this rate.”

“It’s not coming for me,” Poe muttered, blinking his eyes open. The raven was perched on the pillow next to his face, examining him thoughtfully; Poe was mostly certain it hadn’t been the one talking to him.

Sure enough, Rey huffed down at him, carrying a tray with coffee and something that smelled like eggs and toast — which wasn’t nearly as significant as Jess, grinning at him from over Rey’s shoulder and shaking her head theatrically. “Sergeant!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and pulling her into an embrace. “When did you get back?”

“Last night,” she said, pushing him away. “And not a single ‘welcome home’ parade for us, either. Luke was terribly disappointed.” She ruffled his hair. “Although if he’d known what was waiting for him in his private quarters, maybe he’d have been less grumpy.”

Poe’s stomach dropped. “He — you came home last night? When?”

“Oh, quite late,” Jess purred as she nudged him in the shoulder. “And I saw him this morning; he looks very tired.”

“Sergeant Pava, what a thing to suggest,” said Poe, even as he tried desperately to remember his dream from last night. Luke smiling at him, his skin warm and the rasp of stubble against Poe’s palm.

“I’m not suggesting a thing,” Jess said, that damnable grin still on her face.

“Where’s Finn?” Poe asked, desperate for rescue.

At that Rey’s expression darkened — or darkened further — and she thrust the tray at him without answering. “I’ve been ordered not to discuss it,” she said, and folded her arms across her chest. From behind her, Jess grimaced.

Poe felt his eyebrows lift even as his stomach growled; whatever shortcomings the cathedral might have in its medical care, no one could deny it fed them well. But he put the tray down on the bed (where it was duly examined by the raven) and asked, “Discuss what?”

“As I said,” Rey ground out, “I have my orders. Apparently the military takeover of our lives here is now complete. If you’ll excuse me, I have duties to attend to.” And she swept out, the door very pointedly not slamming shut.

Poe turned to Jess, who was still looking uncomfortable. “I assume the boot just now was your contribution,” he said, rubbing his hip dramatically.

Jess rolled her eyes. “I didn’t realize pilots were such delicate creatures. Besides, she’d been standing here for five minutes trying to get you up.” She flopped down on the bed. “Good lord, is this thing made out of bricks? I didn’t think anything could be worse than the hospital cots.” The raven squawked from its perch on Poe’s plate, flapping its wings as it hopped toward her. She extended a curious hand, and the bird nibbled at it hopefully. “So this is your latest patient? Poor little thing. We’ll have to get him an eyepatch.”

Poe knew a prevarication when he heard it. “So what is it Rey’s been ordered not to talk about?”

She shifted her weight and bit her lip. “It was Luke who ordered her,” she began, sounding apologetic. “Otherwise I think she’d be ringing the bells shouting ‘Sanctuary!’ at the top of her lungs.”

“And what are your orders?” Poe asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Not from the archbishop, that’s for certain,” she retorted, and pulled a folded envelope from her jacket pocket. “General Calrissian had me pass this on to you. Orders for both of us.” She waited until Poe had opened it before adding, “And the Army’s newest recruit.”

Poe froze, the sting of the paper cut he’d just recieved forgotten. “Finn,” he realised, and Jess nodded. Poe sat down on the bed. “No wonder Rey’s about to set fire to everything. What on earth got him to agree to it?”

Jess rolled her eyes and made a bid for the coffee, which the raven had thus far ignored in favor of making a mess of the toast and eggs. “The general’s silver tongue, I suspect,” she said. “The whole way there Luke kept assuring Finn that he would be in no danger, and Finn ended up walking out from under Luke’s protection of his own free will. He thinks it’s his duty.”

“But—“ Poe tried to picture Finn back on the front lines, an Alliance uniform instead of the Stormtrooper armor weighing him down. It still didn’t seem to fit. “What are they using him for?”

“Us,” Jess corrected him. “What are they using us for.” She nodded toward the forgotten letter in Poe’s hand. “The only thing the general would tell me is that whatever muck we’re in, the three of us are in it together.”

Poe unfolded the paper and read. It was not highly illuminating:

Rogue Black — work yielded. Report tomorrow to HC for new assignment.

“Tomorrow.” He refolded the letter and put it back in the envelope. He patted at himself for a lighter. They would have to leave tonight — this afternoon.

“They even arranged transport for us,” Jess said, tossing him a matchbox. “Whatever it is they’re plotting for us, Calrissian is quite excited about it.”

“At least we’re not being court-martialed, I suppose.” Poe struck a match and touched it to the corner of the envelope; it went up quietly, and Poe held onto the corner as it flared over the length of the paper, blackened words shining out for a few seconds until the curled into ash. He dropped it on the stone floor and stamped out the flames, leaving a black smear on the floor.

“Nothing nearly so pleasant,” she said as she got to her feet and went to the door. “I’ll collect my things — we can leave as soon as you’re ready.”

The raven, still gorging itself on the eggs and toast, made an inquiring noise at Poe after Jess left. “I’m fairly sure I can’t pass you off as an NCO,” he told it, stroking its head carefully. It crooned and arched into his touch, oblivious.

***

Less than an hour later, Poe climbed the steps the the belfry tower, his newly-freed leg still protesting at the exertion. The door was already half-open; he peered through and braced for the wind.

Luke — who hadn’t been in his office, or the gardens, or the wards or even the crypts (which Poe had forced himself to check, at a brisk clip) — was leaning against the stone parapet, his eyes shut and face turned up toward the sun. He clearly didn’t realize Poe was there, so Poe took the moment to capture the image in his head. He had a good eye for pictures; it had served him well so far during the war.

Objectively, he knew, there wasn’t anything remarkable to see. Even the famous Victory painting, which had its cheap copies in every government office and on a thousand different postcards, didn’t turn Luke into some sort of beauty — and that had been painted almost twenty years ago, by an artist who knew how to flatter her subjects. There was the crooked nose and odd, deep creases along his cheeks — laugh lines, he’d have thought, if the idea of Luke laughing often enough to make them didn’t seem so unlikely. His mouth was thin and plaintive, his eyes more grey than blue. It shouldn’t be a face that would inspire anything passionate or fearsome. Poe cleared a throat gone suddenly dry.

Luke opened his eyes, startled. “Hello?” he called, looking round.

Poe stepped out from the shelter of the doorway; sure enough, the wind jabbed at him immediately, sending him huddling into his jacket. Luke, clad only in his vestments, appeared unaware of the cold. “You’re a hard man to get hold of,” he complained as he approached.

Luke didn’t seem to hear. “You look—your leg, how is it?”

“Serviceable,” Poe said, hopping on it for emphasis and grinning as Luke flinched. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“I didn’t realize,” he said. “I thought you’d already left.”

“Without saying a proper goodbye?” Luke smiled at that, and Poe pressed on. “Besides, I wanted to hear all about your priests’ minyan at Penitent’s Cross before I left. Since you and I were the detectives that cracked the case.”

“I thought you were the femme fatale,” Luke replied, smiling slightly.

“Ah, but since I actually survived, that elevates my rank,” Poe told him. “So how was the minyan? Was justice delivered?”

“It wasn’t a minyan.”

“Well, no, it wouldn’t be. But I’m betting there were quite a few priests involved in dealing with Lor San. What do you call a group of priests, anyway?”

“An argument,” Luke muttered, looking so disgruntled that Poe had to laugh.

“Fair enough. What did you tell them?”

The expression on Luke’s face was too shrewd by half. “Not as much as I knew, which is one reason I left the military altogether at the end of the last war. It doesn’t feel pleasant to lie to friends and colleagues.” He narrowed his eyes at Poe. “Does it?”

“What do you think I know that I wouldn’t confide in a priest?” Poe asked. It probably wouldn’t work — Luke had invented some of the training undertaken by people like him — but he felt honor-bound to try.

Instead of answering, Luke said, “You must have been a pilot at some point, at least — you flew that plane very nearly across the front line before you were shot down. But I don’t think my nephew would have gone to such lengths in order to recapture a pilot.”

His nephew. Poe hadn’t forgotten, exactly. But it felt like new information. Perhaps it was; Kylo Ren wasn’t just a bigger monster in a war full of them. He had family: a mother, and an uncle.

An uncle who was altogether too good at this. “How long have you known?”

“That you were a spy?” Luke looked almost offended. “Give me a little credit, at least.”

“Am I that obvious?” Poe asked, grinning. He probably shouldn’t be.

“Only to someone like me.”

“I’m safe then,” he decided. “I can’t imagine there’s anyone else like you.”

“Spare me the flattery,” Luke ordered. “What did you do?”

A priest, even one that had saved his life, couldn’t be privy to this information. Not even a retired officer, or a nobleman, or the brother of the queen herself could be told anything without authorization. But Luke deserved the truth, what parts of it he could give out.

“I killed someone,” Poe said at last. “Or rather, I caused someone to be killed.”

Luke blinked. “There’s quite a difference between those,” he observed.

“Not so much as you’d think,” Poe admitted. “I was going to kill him after I’d gotten the information I needed. But he had a cyanide capsule — difficult things to take measures against.” He rubbed his face. “I was able to find out that he’d begun working on… something. What it was, however,” and he spread his hands theatrically.

“Another starkiller weapon, you think?”

Poe wondered what it cost Luke to ask that question. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t think so. But whatever it is, it’s wrapped up in this massacre at Tuanul. I’m sure of it. I just don’t know how yet.”

“I thought you went to all that trouble down in the crypt to prove that the massacre wasn’t caused by the First Order,” Luke said.

“I did. And they didn’t. That’s why I think there’s a connection.”

Luke shook his head. “This is another reason I left the military. I was never good at — what did Han used to call it? I can’t remember. Collecting information I could do; figuring out what it all meant, that beyond my abilities.”

It was on the tip of Poe’s tongue to assure him that he’d done just fine as a spy, but he swallowed it back and said, “Well, lucky you have me around, then. I’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“I hope you do,” sighed Luke. “We all need answers. Even if we don’t have the clearance to hear them.”

Since the conversation was already morbid enough, Poe indulged his curiosity. “So what was the verdict? With Lor San, I mean,” he added off of Luke’s puzzled expression. “I’d hazard a guess you won’t be putting him before a firing squad — that was Rey’s worry, though I said it was far more likely you’d err on the other end and he’d get no more than a slap on the wrist.”

Luke sighed. “He’s to be confined to the grounds of the Jakku Abbey until such time as he’s no longer a danger to society, a determination which will be come to by the archbishop in conjunction with the Council of Cardinals. In short, for a good long while.”

“That sounds a bit like a slap on the wrist to me,” Poe said reprovingly.

“We can’t all merit firing squads, Poe.” Luke looked out toward the horizon. They weren’t facing east this time, but south; the black cloud of the front was darker in the clear daylight. “What Lor San did was terrible. He’s a murderer now. But so am I. So are you. War can make justice impossible; perhaps the most we can hope for is mercy.”

“I’d like that speech a bit better,” Poe pointed out, “If you’d come back with Finn.”

For the first time Luke truly did look guilty. “I would have liked it better, too,” he said, “But it was his choice.”

“General Calrissian’s a better spy than I am,” said Poe, ruthless. “He could convince a fish to take flying lessons. Finn’s not  a soldier, Luke, you know that.”

“And he still isn’t,” Luke insisted. “He’s — well, you’ll find out when you get there. I did the best I could.”

That was exactly the sort of remark designed to excite surmise, as Poe’s father used to say. But just then the noon bell rang, an almost physical blow. Poe clapped his hands over his ears instinctively; Luke, a wry expression on his face, just suffered through it. The noise died down, but Poe’s head still buzzed. “That was uncalled for,” he complained.

“On the contrary,” Luke said, sounding more cheerful now that Poe was so clearly irritated, “The Cathedral’s bells have served their purpose for over five hundred years; they can be heard from over forty miles away, when the wind is right. Did you know that?”

“How interesting,” Poe grumbled. “If the First Order comes marching in, you can just ring the bells at them and they’ll be sure to scurry off.”

“I have every faith that the bells would save us, in a fashion,” Luke replied serenely. “If you hear the peal, surely you’d come to rescue us.”

Poe glanced up at the sky. If they left now, they’d get to New Theed by tomorrow morning. Barely.

“I almost forgot,” he said, pulling something out from his inside jacket pocket. “I was worried you wouldn't get back until after I'd gone, and I'd have to break my other leg just to say a proper goodbye. So I thought I’d give you these.” He handed over the tissue-covered parcel. “To remember me by.”

Luke tore open the tissue; inside were the socks that Poe had been attempting for the better part of a month. “You shouldn’t have,” Luke said sincerely.

“Probably not,” Poe agreed. It was hard to be offended; the socks weren’t just different colors, but different sizes and shapes as well. It had, after all, been his first attempt. “I would have given you the scarf I made, but a bird’s been shitting all over it for the past day.”

“I did mean to ask you about that,” Luke said, pocketing the socks. “Rey mentioned a stray the two of you adopted a stray and elected to put in my room.”

“It was Rey’s idea,” said Poe.

Luke laughed. “I’m sure it was.”

“She’s already promised to take good care of it while I’m gone,” he assured him. In fact she had stormed back into Luke’s room a half-hour ago while Poe was chasing the raven in an effort to wrap it up again and take it with them. She’d scoffed at the idea that Poe would be in any position to have a pet while busy slaughtering; she hadn’t promised so much as threatened him with some unnamed divine retribution if he didn’t leave the raven with her. Nevertheless, Poe felt the need to add, “You wouldn’t want to be responsible for a priest having to go back on her word, would you?”

“Just as long as she doesn’t continue harboring it in my room,” Luke said. “It startled me nearly as much as—“

It was the flush on his cheeks — even in the cold — more than his bitten-off comment that made Poe grin. “I did think that was altogether too pleasant a dream, last night,” he said, daring to lean just that bit too close.

Luke tried his best to look reproving, but it had never really worked that well for him. “I merely tried to help; you sounded very — it seemed like a very unpleasant dream, at first.”

Poe shrugged. “Just the usual — memories of the front lines. You’d know better than most.”

“True,” he allowed. “But I hope you don’t suffer them too often.”

“Well,” Poe said, emboldened by the red in Luke’s cheeks and the note of concern in his voice, “If I have them again, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Luke swallowed. “Why?”

Poe leaned close. “Because being kissed is a very pleasant way to wake up. And you did promise, Luke, that I could kiss you whenever I wanted.”

Something warm pressed against his chest — it was Luke’s hand, fingers splayed, not quite pushing him away but not letting him any closer. The barrier around the archbishop made real, Poe thought, and leaned back.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sure if he was telling the truth.

“That’s quite all right,” Luke said quietly — that was certainly a lie. But he smiled stiffly. “Thank you for the gift, Commander. I’m sure it will come in very useful this winter.”

“And thank you, Father — for everything. I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to save my soul.”

“I did save your life on a few occasions,” he retorted, heading toward the door. “Surely that’s worth something.”

“Oh, it is,” Poe assured him as he held the door open. “Although I do worry about leaving you here all by yourself — who’s going to soothe your nightmares?”

He meant it as a tease, one last tug at Luke’s pigtails; somehow the idea of leaving had become too large to take seriously, and he wanted the last image of Luke to be laughing, or rolling his eyes — anything but the solemn smile he faced now.

“Not to worry, Poe,” Luke said. “I learned to stop dreaming a long time ago.” And he lead the way down.

***

For centuries, Theed had been called the Great Jewel of the Continent; its sidewalks paved in marble, with gold statues and silver-limned buildings. Poe’s mother had been born there, but it was his Papa who liked to tell them all stories about the city — how beautiful it had been, how clean and bright and somehow good, radiating goodness from the very streets. And its people were no less lovely, he’d always added with a wink at Mama; educated, compassionate and prosperous, kind to both the foreigners and the wide-eyed country boys who bumbled along the sidewalks (at this Mama, who was always quiet and distant when Papa talked about Theed, would make a scoffing sound and smile). The people of Theed had been the best of Naboo — the best of the world, offering with an outstretched hand.

But even then Poe thought that the people of Theed hadn’t been kind so much as secure; secure in their home at the heart of a mighty kingdom, whose neighbors kept to their own borders and who saw only peace stretching out to the end of their days. There was no need to be unkind; what could hurt them?

The rise of the Empire had put paid to that, and Theed had been leveled like so many wooden blocks on a playground as its queen burned alive on her throne. Afterward, Palpatine had ordered that the ground be salted, in a ceremony he forced his conquered foes to watch. Then they were put to the sword, tens of thousands — Poe’s grandparents amongst them — left to bleed and die where they fell, the Stormtroopers marching ever north.

New Theed had been built out of nothing but an empty field and a sluggish stream, ten miles east to the site of its namesake; Queen Leia and Prince Luke, the stories said, had rested in that very field on the first night of the war, and vowed together to reclaim their home. What was definitively known was the Queen’s part in rebuilding; she’d helped set the stones of the Republic House and the Palace with her two hands and a lot of shouting at her husband (who shouted back, with interest). She’d planned their new capital with the same ruthless zeal with which she’d won the Starkiller War, and in the twenty years since its inception New Theed was already a triumph. It had no gold statues and its sidewalks were regular brick and stone, but Poe thought his father would recognize the people here, at least.

Poe and Jess presented themselves at the High Command office promptly at eight o’clock the next morning, only a little worse for having travelled all night in their uniforms (which didn’t fit either of them after months of convalescence). They were waved off toward a stairwell and told to report to Room Zero-One-Three. “Number thirteen?” Poe muttered as they trotted down the stairs.

“I’d worry if it was number Zero-Zero-Four,” replied Jess.

The basement hallway was windowless and stuffy, file drawers crammed along the walls and boxes of files leaning precariously against them. It looked like something out of one of those two-reel horror films; any moment a man in black was going to jump out at them from around a corner with an ax.

Instead what they found was Finn, sitting in a chair opposite Room 013 in a plain suit and tie, a harmless hat clenched in his hands. He leapt to his feet as they approached.

“Good god,” Poe said, clutching at his heart, “You nearly sent me back to the cathedral with a damn heart attack.”

Finn, looking nervy and miserable, nonetheless smiled and accepted Poe’s embrace with good humour. “I’m sure your heart’s just fine,” he said, then frowned at Jess. “Did you tell him?”

“Yes,” Poe answered for her, “And you’re an idiot.”

The trip to New Theed had consisted largely of Jess explaining what had gone on at Penitent’s Cross while Poe made a series of ever-more pained noises. With the information provided by Father Lor San, General Calrissian had been ready to dismiss any charges against Finn and allow him to remain in Naboo for the remainder of the war — under supervision, of course. The General had gotten as far as suggesting that Finn stay at the cathedral before Finn had opened his stupid, kindhearted mouth and stuffed his foot into it: offering up his expertise, his knowledge of First Order targets and POIs, and his very life to the service of the Alliance.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Finn said, his eyebrows drawn together.

“Signing up to get yourself killed after you’ve just escaped summary execution may be the right thing to do, but it’s not particularly smart,” Jess observed.

Finn glared at her. “This, coming from two of the most reckless soldiers I’ve ever met in my life?”

“Right, this is an argument we’ll have to have at another time,” Poe decided. He looked up and down the hallway; dead quiet. “Who are we supposed to be meeting, anyway?”

“The General’s inside with some lady, I think,” Finn said. “I didn’t get a good look at her, but he told me to wait out here until you arrived.”

“It must be her office, whoever it is,” Jess said. “No nameplate, but if we’re going to be working for someone who’s been banished down here, doesn’t speak well to any medals of valour in our future.”

“One way to find out,” said Poe, and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a woman’s — the lady’s — voice.

The office wasn’t any more glamorous than the hallway — if anything, it was worse. Shelves lined every wall, piled high with an assortment of books, folders, various small boxes and other strange paraphernalia. In the middle of the room sat an ugly, too-large desk of heavy dark wood, paperwork gathered in drifts along its surface. General Calrissian was perched on one edge, looking amused at something.

Poe was prevented from greeting him properly when he saw who else was there, sitting behind the enormous desk: Her Royal Majesty, Queen Leia.

He had seen her in person once or twice before; she’d supervised the aviation division at the beginning of the war, given some good rally-the-troops speeches that had puffed everyone up before going up. When he’d become a spy, his orders had come through more byzantine routes; better to keep a certain distance between the Crown and the espionage unit. And in truth he’d always been discomfited by her — those grey-brown eyes of hers saw altogether too much. Despite that, he’d liked her in that way one likes a beautiful building, or the view from the top of a mountain: as a great impersonal thing that has nothing to do with you.

As she opened her mouth to speak, a thought struck him, ridiculous and stupid: this was Luke’s sister.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, getting to her feet and holding out her hand. Poe took it; her grip was strong, businesslike. Jess and Finn, dumbstruck and clearly both hyperventilating, followed suit. “I would ask about your trip, but I’m afraid my time is at a premium these days, so I’ll not waste time on pleasantries. Lando?”

“Her Majesty is here to witness your oath of fealty,” General Calrissian said, staring hard at Finn before addressing all three of them. “As well as your oath upon taking office.”

Poe was the first to be able to find his voice. “Office, sir?”

“This office, to be precise,” said the queen. “Your work, Commander Dameron, has been exceptionally profitable — even this latest misadventure has proved… advantageous.” She smiled at Finn, who smiled tentatively back, and added, “I’m sorry to put it in such crass terms, but your decision to help the commander here escape Vindictus was not only incredibly brave on your part, young man, but useful. And we think you’ll be of more use to us yet.”

Finn looked almost relieved. “I’m glad to help, ma’am,” he said, before glancing around the room. “I mean — Your Majesty?”

“‘Ma’am’ will do fine,” the queen assured him, “In light of what I’m requiring of you. I have need of your particular skills, and in a particular role.”

That sounded ominous. “What role would that be, ma’am?” Jess asked, wary.

“The impossible,” General Calrissian muttered, only to get jabbed by a royal elbow. Rubbing his arm theatrically, he said, “We’re looking for a new Spymaster.”

“A what?” asked Finn, clearly too confused for deference.

Queen Leia took a deep breath. “The position of Spymaster is an old one in the royal court, so old that it’s considered more of an honorary title.”

“Like a court jester,” General Calrissian added cheerfully, and got another elbow.

“Lando — the general,” she corrected, with a wry smile as General Calrissian bowed to her, “Has acted in this capacity since the death of my last Spymaster, but I have need of him elsewhere.”

Poe had a good notion of where that was: the Minister of Defence had recently died, after a protracted illness, and Calrissian’s name had been at the top of the list for replacing him. No doubt it would be difficult to run both the war and the espionage ring.

“Besides,” said the general, “It’s better to get someone younger — easier to train them up.”

“I don’t know why I allowed you into this meeting,” the queen sighed, before refocusing on them. “But he’s not far wrong. The most effective Spymasters, in my experience, are a mix of rogue, rascal and mercenary, allergic to the limelight but charming enough to skirt around it when the need arises.”

“Which one of us fits that description?” Poe asked, absently wondering if he should be offended. It was dwarfed by the much more pressing enormity of what was being said — the spymaster would be answerable to the Queen only, and sometimes not even to her.

“None of your by yourselves,” Queen Leia admitted with a smile. “But the three of you together — that, I think, would make for an interesting experiment. All three of you have proven exceptional skill at intelligence gathering; Dameron’s work behind enemy lines, Finn’s information regarding the First Order’s weaknesses, and of course Pava, your operation with the First Order captain was extremely lucrative.”

Poe kept his eyebrows from lifting clear off his head even as he saw Jess stiffen very slightly out of the corner of his eye. He’d have to make sure both of his colleagues received counter-espionage training immediately; it would be no good to have spymasters who couldn’t keep a secret worth a damn.

Then again, if Jess had lied about Captain Phasma this entire time, she was a far better spy than he could ever hope to be.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Finn, “But — Commander Dameron and Sergeant Pava I understand, but I’m fresh off the First Order’s payroll. Isn’t there someone else—“

“No,” said the queen. It wasn’t harsh, just final.

“It’s an unusual arrangement,” said General Calrissian into the awkward silence, “But I think the three of you might not screw it up too badly.”

“You’ll work out of this office,” said the queen, “And you’ll report to the general for the time being, although you’ll have to draw lots as to which of you attends court functions and the like. Count yourselves lucky; I never have a choice.”

Jess and Finn both glanced at Poe, who knew his cue when he heard it. “We’ll do our best to fill your shoes, sir,” he said to General Calrissian

“It’s not my shoes you should be worried worried about,” he replied, and this time managed to avoid the elbow.

“Whose shoes should we concern ourselves with?” asked Jess, smiling.

The queen didn’t return the smile; instead she looked them all over in turn, as though weighing them up. “Your own,” she said at last. “This is a dangerous post, and I want you all to know that before we go any further. The last man who held it — the last man before Lando — survived a dozen attempts on his life before he was murdered by his own son.”

“His son killed him?” Finn asked, looking sick. “I — what happened?”

That did prompt a smile from Queen Leia, though it was not a happy one. “To his son? I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him for a long time. But to answer your question more fully, the murdered man was Han Solo, my husband. So you see,” she concluded, sweeping over all of them with her gaze, “The shoes you have to fill are very large indeed. It’s a job that requires absolute loyalty not to me, or to the crown, but to Naboo itself. Nothing you will do here will ever eclipse the sacrifices that have already been made in service to this country, but I will expect you to spend every day of your life trying. Is that clear?”

***

The first letter arrived two months later.

Roughly half of Poe’s life had become reading letters and telegrams; when Finn and Jess and he had divvied up their various new duties, he’d drawn the short straw and was thus responsible for all written communication that came in. He frowned at the unfamiliar handwriting for a moment, but most of his correspondence was unmarked. At least this one, he noted absently, had a stamp on it, unlike a plurality of their mail which was evidently stuffed under the front door at every hour of the night.

Then he looked closer at the postmark: Tatooine.

He slid the letter opener beneath the fold, slicing the envelope neatly, and pulled out the single sheet of paper.

Commander,

I was recently informed that you have settled in New Theed, where no doubt your talents are being put to good use.

Poe could practically hear the reproving tone; he leaned back in his chair and made himself comfortable.

Your bird is still in residence. Rey wanted to name it Benedict, after a saint who once was nearly poisoned by a jealous priest but who gave the poisoned bread to a raven, asking it to take the bread far away where it could not harm anyone. Personally, I believe too much credit is given to Benedict for this episode — it was, after all, the raven that did the work. But it was pointed out that the creature could just as easily be a “Beatrice—“

Of course you would put that in quotes,” Poe muttered.

“What?” asked Finn, from the other side of the room where he and Jess were excavating twenty-odd years of files from yet another false bookcase. (Renovation of the Spymaster’s office had been slow, hampered by their periodic discovery of some new secret entrance or hidey-hole.)

“Nothing,” Poe said, and got matching scowls from his colleagues.

—So we have compromised and christened it BB, which I hope will meet with your approval. If not, it’s rather too late. But BB is doing very well and seems to enjoy ambushing Artu in the orchard. Thus far there has been no loss of life, nor indeed anything more serious than some missing bits of hair, but Artu’s relationship with Rey is perhaps permanently damaged.

Rey herself seems greatly consoled by BB’s presence; I’m sure you understand that she had a difficult period of adjustment. The departure of a friend can be hard to bear when one is young. Even old men such as myself can feel that loss.

I hope you are busy doing good, and doing well.

—L

Poe folded the letter up and put it back in its envelope, slipping it into his pocket. There were dozens of other missives piled on the desk; the thought of Luke, sitting quietly at his own desk a hundred miles away, could wait until later.

But it kept creeping back into his head as he read the rest of the morning’s correspondence, as he finally allowed himself to be persuaded to help Finn and Jess move a ridiculously heavy bookcase to see where the secret passage behind it lead to (the sewers, just like the third and eighth passages had done), as he met with General Calrissian at the Palace and then with an agent in the middle of the marketplace, as he argued with Finn over the details of an operation to be put in place the following week. It didn’t distract him, precisely; if anything it sharpened things around him. He had new information, valuable information — even if the entirety of that information could boil down to a friendly letter, written by a priest.

He managed to go all day before pulling it back out and examining it at his leisure in the cramped flat two blocks away from High Command. He lit a lamp and smoothed his hands over the paper; cheap linen and pulp, used either by the truly poor or the sort who took pride in only owning one pair of shoes. The handwriting itself told him more: the odd slant to the words that reminded him that Luke had been right-handed, once upon a time, but now had to write with his left (but the handwriting was quick and confident, from someone used to writing, someone comfortable with it).  The way the line had wandered a bit over the story of Saint Benedict, as though Luke had closed his eyes to remember it, only to open his eyes and correct the next line. The flourish of the letter “L” at the end. The slight thickness at the base of the letter “l” in the word “loss,” where Luke had paused for a moment before going on.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, staring at the letter, but at some point the lamp went out.

***

Chapter Text

Luke writing

Poe reading

 

Dear L,

I’m doing very well, and thank you for asking. It’s heartening to see that you still remember your correspondence lessons from the last war — no leading questions, circumspect about the company I keep, writing about everyday life at Your Location. I’m afraid I do have to deduct points for giving out R’s name, not to mention BB’s and the cat’s. Very bad form.

If you notice a sudden change in R, you should know that I’ve mentioned to a certain ingenue — or did he style himself the victim?— friend of ours that it would be acceptable to initiate a correspondence, if such was desired. You needn’t worry for R’s reputation: I undertook the job of Censor before the letter was mailed, and can attest to its scrupulous purity, on military and moral grounds (though God knows if you’d trust my judgement on either at this point). Still, I think both of them deserve what happiness they can get at present. There’s no virtue in loneliness; we have to offer and take comfort in each other until we see better days.

My days are spent, for the most part, reading reports — it seems that is what one does in positions such as mine (I am not telling you what that position is; not only out of security concerns but out of the conviction that it would bore you to death, which would upset the line of succession even more than it already is). It’s gotten so dire that I’ve actually gone out and purchased some of those tea-cosies I used to tease you about. They’re dreadful, and I always guess who did it by the third chapter, but at least it’s a change. Besides, stories about harmless old ladies or pudgy private detectives solving gruesome murders seem almost quaint. As though there’s a solution for death.

The weather has turned cold here (you’ll no doubt try to crow over this as a careless reference to the weather which could pinpoint my location, but I have made inquiries and have been reliably informed that it is cold everywhere on the Continent). Have you had occasion to wear my socks yet? I hope you think of me when you see them in your drawers, sad and useless, serving only to be a nuisance as you look for a better pair.

Yours,
P

***

P —

I confess one reason I enjoy my detective novels and other assorted penny-dreadfuls is the self-containment of each. There is a murder, there is the deduction, and then there is a result. It’s satisfying to think that somewhere, even if it’s only an imagined world, there has been a gesture toward keeping the peace.

At the risk of having this letter confiscated or censored, how goes our own “tea-cosy”? Has there been any progress? Since you have been promoted to “co-detective,” it would be remiss not to ask. And before you inquire after my own progress — there is little I can do from here. The “scene of the crime,” as I am sure you are aware, has now been taken over and so arranging a trip to see it for myself is out of the question, at the moment.

But the “mystery” of it still troubles me greatly. One murderer was apprehended, but we still do not know who or what caused the original crime. I am the last person on earth whose calls for justice should be heeded, but I find myself returning over and over to the scant evidence we have.

Regards,
L

***

Dear L —

I’ll see what I can do about moving the front line back a few miles for your convenience. In the meantime, I can say only that yes, your faithful leg-man has been hard at work gathering evidence. And even though you claim to be rubbish at synthesis, I’ll be sure to keep you updated as it’s feasible.

To hone your skills, I enclose one of my most recent purchases. It’s a decent enough waste of time, and there are thirteen mysteries instead of one. The detective reminds me of you, which I know you won’t take offense at: a harmless-seeming old lady who has her fair share of secrets, but who’s adored by those who know her best and relied on by even the local constable himself when things get tricky.

Yours,
P

***

Dear P:

Thank you for the book, although between this and the socks, I am beginning to feel the asymmetry of gifts acutely. If I had income of my own I would make amends, but as R no doubt has told you, the life of a servant to the Church is not one given to extravagance.

I thought the story itself — and it is one long story, with assorted mysteries in between, a device I haven’t come across before — was an interesting one. I didn’t guess half of them correctly…

***

…just as well you can’t give me anything; I’d only demand something else. I’m greedy to a fault — everyone says so — and as soon as I get anything at all I’m apt to want more. You would find me very hard to satisfy.

I sometimes pass by the local cathedral here; the other day I ventured inside. It, too, has been converted to a hospital for the war effort. If anything, its patients are in worse condition than those under your care. I can’t say it was pleasant, speaking with the soldiers who were awake and clear-headed enough to bear company, but it felt like something I should do. Your influence, I imagine — you really do have a lot to answer for, you know…

***

…winter has finally arrived in force, with nearly a foot of snow on the ground and drifts coming up to one’s waist. We’ve dealt with a fair number of refugees from not just the war but the cold, which happens every year, but thus far it’s been manageable.

“Every year.” It seems obscene that this war has gone on now for over five years. There are children playing here in the gardens who have never known Naboo at peace. And what’s worse is to think that it still isn’t the longest war we’ve fought in recent memory. I’m sure historians will lecture to earnest students decades from now about the difference between the Starkiller War and this, but it all seems the same to me. Violence and fear and death, once again…

***

…easy to forget that it’s not the first one in this century, or even this generation. I suppose it doesn’t feel horrible so much as grinding, at least from here. There’s too much to do and the things I can do can make a difference. Perhaps that’s why it’s so frustrating for you, stranded from influence. Although you should know that it’s your own bloody fault.

I’m sure you’ve seen the papers, talks of a truce. I have no opinion one way or another — or rather, I have, but disclosing it in an unsecured letter would get me executed for treason. I’m sure you have opinions enough for the both of us.

One development that you’ll find amusing: I’ve had to learn how to ride a horse. Certain Dignitaries of our mutual acquaintance have laughed a lot at me for this, but apparently some parades call for everyone to look smart on horseback. Even worse, my compatriots already know how — J apparently was born riding, and our mutual ingenue friend learned as a matter of course. So it is yours truly who has to suffer the indignity of weekly lessons, and a sore backside. If you were here I’d demand one of those kisses I’m holding in reserve…

***

…I believe the exact terms of our agreement was that you could kiss me anywhere you liked — dragooning me into kissing your backside is well out of the question.

But I am sorry you’ve had a rough time of it. As you might guess, I have long known how to ride. I enjoy it a good deal; one can see the world better from astride a horse than from inside a train or an automobile. Lately I’ve even had the opportunity to indulge myself; the Cathedral was gifted a half-dozen horses from a “personage” whose daughter was treated here. I suspect that the gift was at least in part intended to offset his own burdens — horses eat an alarming amount — but we have added them to our stables with minimal difficulty. One of them, an irritable old grey named Tauntaun, has been my particular mount for a few months, by sheer dint of the fact that he won’t let anyone else ride him…

***

…& everything here is now mud, mud, mud. I’m glad the warmer weather has come — we thought spring would never arrive and she’s welcome now, tardy as she is — but I’ve taken to tucking my trousers into my boots en route to work every morning like some sort of provincial farmer. It’s not at all becoming.

Preparations are underway for the Queen’s 47th birthday, and I am clever enough to have deduced that it will be your birthday, too. I’m sure you’ll celebrate in good priestly fashion, which is to say you’ll work extra hard in the gardens, but let R make a little fuss over you. Our ingenue friend, who is alarmingly terrible at keeping confidences, asked me the other day what sort of birthday celebrations my family had given for me when I was a child. When I asked him what prompted this, he said that R had asked him what a good birthday tradition should be. It’s strange how these two, for such different reasons, have similar gaps in their understanding of childhood — or maybe not childhood, but what it is to be loved. I’m glad R has you to show her.

As for our ingenue, he’s been slowly learning all that he’s lost, but while you would expect him to be bitter or resentful, he is instead boundlessly curious. He was particularly interested in the notion of a birthday cake, which I can understand.

Butter and eggs are in short supply these days, not to mention sugar, but don’t be terribly surprised if there is a somewhat clumsy cake waiting for you. And I’ve sent along another few books that you might enjoy, and a matching hat (you didn’t think I’d given up knitting, did you? You’re not nearly so lucky)…

***

…I refuse to ask from where you got butter and sugar and say only that the treat was appreciated. R ended up eating most of it, which I think is only fair since she made it, too, and kept the cooks here at the Cathedral at bay somehow while she worked. I have already read one of the books you sent me — the one about the ridiculous man who ends up solving the crime — but the hat has technically been given over to BB, who uses it as an ersatz nest and clucks at me from the corner of my desk while I’m trying to write.

It’s strange and perhaps impolitic to admit it, but I am more comfortable accepting the tokens of R’s affection than I am yours. Perhaps because your presents are always tangible in nature, physical things that clutter up my cell or my office. A cake can be eaten, and it leaves a warm memory and nothing else; but things have to be dealt with.

That sounds ungrateful. It isn’t; I’ve already put the books you’ve given me into circulation here at the Cathedral and they are wildly popular; some of the patients will read to each other at times. They have done a great amount of good amongst the recovering soldiers. The socks are, as you’ve said before, almost entirely useless, but I find them not so great a burden as I’d assumed they would be. That alone is a bit troubling.

I must come across as a mad old man, talking about a pair of socks as though they were a millstone or an albatross around my neck. But it has been a long time — longer than you’ve been alive, in fact — since I’ve had anything that was for myself. It’s a strange sensation…

***

…isn’t strange at all, and as for you coming across as a mad old man, I’ve only ever noticed you as a man.

You’ll probably take delight in castigating me for this, but I couldn’t let this letter go out without mentioning the infirmary closing up shop. I’m sure you and R, as well as the rest of the do-gooders amongst you, are sorry the soldiers had to leave, but with the fighting pressing slowly northward it would do no one any good to have you trapped. After all, you and your priests and monks are protected by sanctuary laws — thus far the First Order has honored that, but they have made it clear that soldiers, even helpless ones, are exempt.

Still, there’s a certain pang I feel in thinking of your cathedral standing empty now.

You asked before that you be kept abreast of any developments in the tea-cosy. There has been some progress; I do not like to say what in a letter, but there might be an opportunity for us to speak in the near future…

***

…it would be nice to see you again, although I can’t imagine you’d have the time to come here at the present moment. The delivery of timely newspapers grows less and less frequent as the fighting draws nearer, but I know that the talks of the possible truce have increased over the past few months. Doubtless you, in your nameless role, will have a good deal to keep you occupied.

I can put your fears at rest about our idleness; the front line now being where it is, we have more refugees than ever, and are kept busy providing for them and, when possible, sending them on. But of course    we would always welcome you.

How goes the horse riding? It has been an uncommonly warm April and everyone is enjoying the outdoors. BB, who usually resides either in my office or on R’s shoulder, has decided to accompany me on the occasional ride. This alarms Tauntaun a great deal, particularly since BB is still only an indifferent flyer due to his injuries and often collides headfirst into Tauntaun’s neck instead of alighting on the pommel…

***

…although I am very pleased to hear you’d welcome me, you’re quite correct in your surmise that I can’t make the trip all the way down to Tatooine right now. But fortunately, I don’t have to; Certain Dignitaries are hosting a ball, a celebration of the new truce. If you attend, we can converse freely there (or at least, relatively freely). And I would very much like to see you again — does the church have formal dress, or will you come in your plain cassock and sash?

Yours,
P

Finn writing

Rey reading

Chapter Text

***

***

***

Chapter Text

After he detonated the Starkiller weapon, after he escaped with a plane and a corpse as Stellamortis screamed beneath him, after he landed in an abandoned field near Endor and built a pyre — clumsily, his mangled right hand no doubt past saving — after he watched Darth Vader’s body burn for hours, after everything…

Luke found Leia and Han, Lando and Chewie.

Han caught sight of him first, but it was Leia who came forward. She felt so tiny in his arms, frail and fragile in a way she never had before; in six months she had gone from slender to near-skeletal. It frightened him more than the Emperor had, those last moments. “You’re back,” she whispered, and her embrace was still strong. “You’re back, you’re alive, you’re back.” She pulled away and took his hand in hers. “What happened?” she demanded. “What did they do to you?”

It was almost a relief, hearing her orders again. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “I’m sorry it took so long, I tried—“

It wouldn’t be fair to tell her of all the things he had tried to do; tried and failed.

Instead he pulled his broken hand away and smiled down at her. “It’s done,” he promised.

As the other three drew nearer, Leia smiled back. “It’s just started,” she whispered.

***

…although I am very pleased to hear you’d welcome me, you’re quite correct in your surmise that I can’t make the trip all the way down to Tatooine right now. But fortunately, I don’t have to; Certain Dignitaries are hosting a ball, a celebration of the new truce. If you attend, we can converse freely there (or at least, relatively freely). And I would very much like to see you again — does the church have formal dress, or will you come in your plain cassock and sash?

Yours,
P

Luke carefully put the letter down. “I would very much like to see you again.

The past ten months had been measured by post, Rey’s vigil at the front door each afternoon waiting for a new letter now as much a part of daily life as Matins or the Night Office — even as the front lines drew nearer and the wagons were grew more erratic.

Luke shielded her from the disapproval of the other priests, but he could not help but wonder how much of that was selfish self-recognition. He never lingered on the doorstep for distribution of the post, but each evening as he dealt with the official correspondence of the Cathedral, he looked first for an envelope written in careless, scrawling print, with a postcode from anywhere and everywhere on the Continent and several times from beyond that.

He never asked why Poe was in those places, or what he was doing. But they discussed harmless things: the state of the apple crop, the progress of Poe’s recuperation, the humdrum details of their lives outside this endless war. Each letter had felt to him like… a holiday, was the closest approximation he could come to. He had never experienced a holiday in the way that common men and women did: in his youth, such days had always been spent in public appearances where he and Leia smiled and shook hands until their faces and palms were sore. And here in this life, he’d always worked harder on the festivals, grateful to give those who typically toiled a respite. But Poe’s letters loosened his shoulders and settled him back in his chair in a way he imagined a day of rest would to someone else, as he smiled over the antics of Poe’s friends and colleagues or his adventures in keeping his own flat for the first time, learning to light a stove without “setting off an explosion that would land me in the local constabulary’s.” It was, for a few minutes out of his day, peace.

And now Poe would very much like to see him again.

He took a deep breath and pulled out a sheet of paper and uncapped his pen.

Dear P,

It is good of you to ask, but I’m afraid that leaving now would be quite difficult. I’m sure you will not need my help in the tea-cosy “synthesis,” as you say, and I have found my presence an unwelcome one in most public celebrations. I hope you can understand, and allow me to offer my congratulations to you for whatever part you have played in this much-welcome truce. Thank you for thinking of me.

Yours,
L

***

No new letters arrived. That was encouraging; Poe had been indulging him, a kindness the young man had so often declared himself incapable of. Now with the sting of a refusal, Poe would lose interest in the correspondence, leaving Luke alone to recommit himself to his work. It was for the best.

Until one morning Rey came to fetch him in the orchard. “You’d better come down,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun. BB was perched on her shoulder, peering suspiciously up at the tree where Artu was supervising Luke’s work.

Luke peered down at her from his vantage point in the crown of the tree. “What is it?”

“There’s a carriage outside.” She said it with all the revulsion of one who’d grown up in the world of automobiles. “With footmen.”

Luke hurried through the nave and out the front door, Rey on his heels. Sure enough, a familiar carriage stood waiting, complete with four coal-black horses in gilded harness and plumage. “Oh, dear,” he murmured.

Rey glanced at him. “Who is it?”

“Trouble, I’d imagine. That’s the royal carriage.”

“Then—“ Rey’s eyes went wide. “Is that the queen?”

Luke couldn’t help but smile. “You never sound that impressed with me.

“You’re not the queen.”

“I’m her heir. Technically,” he amended, because the line of succession at present was one of the many, many things he was careful not to think about too carefully.

“I always forget that you’re important,” Rey admitted, with the brutal honesty of the young. BB croaked an agreement.

Luke went down the stairs. The driver, seeing him approach, knocked briskly on the roof, whereupon a footman jumped off the back and opened the carriage door. A man — big, bearded, and unfamiliar — stepped out, looking round with interest before his gaze alighted on Luke. “Your Highness,” he said as he made a painfully correct bow.

“‘Your Grace’ will do,” Luke said firmly, ignoring Rey’s snort. “I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure.”

“Wexley, Your Grace, Temmin Wexley. I have the honor to be an officer in Her Majesty’s air force.” His tone conveyed the implication that his rank was a trifle too high to be dragooned as a courier, but he was bearing up under the indignity.

“You’re a long way from New Theed, Mr. Wexley.”

“Yes, Your Grace, but I have been entrusted with an important task.” He held out an envelope, cream-colored and heavy.

Luke took it gingerly. “I see. And what is this?”

But instead of explaining himself further, Mr. Wexley bowed again to him, then gave a bow a fraction of an inch less deferential to Rey, blinked at BB (who winked back), and turned heel back to the carriage. It was out of sight around the bend in the road less than a minute later.

“What in heaven’s name was that about?” Rey asked.

Luke handed her the envelope. “You have the quicker hands,” he said. “Open it.”

“If this turns out to be poisoned somehow, I’ll haunt you forever,” she promised, but she tore open the flap and pulled out an embossed card. “It’s — oh dear.”

He already knew, but he waited as she cleared her throat.

“‘Her Royal Majesty, Queen Leia of Naboo, requires the presence of The Most Reverend Archbishop Luke of Naboo to the Royal Celebration to be held at the Winter Palace on June the Twelfth at Eight O’Clock.’” She flipped the card over. “There’s nothing else written.”

“No,” Luke sighed, accepting the invitation and envelope back. “No, there wouldn’t be.”

***

Preparing for his departure consisted as much of explaining to Rey what a ball was as it did anything else. “But what are you supposed to do at one of these things?” Rey demanded, sitting cross-legged on his floor while BB hopped about on his bed, pecking at his various belongings.

Luke had been given a saddlebag from storage; it smelled of horse and, distantly, of chamomile. The Winter Palace was only twenty miles or so from the Cathedral — a tricky distance from the front line, but no doubt Leia was sending a message with her choice of location. At any rate, he would not need much; but it was still difficult to know what to take.

“It depends,” he answered.” I suspect this will feature a great deal of dancing and speeches and mingling.” He pulled his formal sash out of BB’s curious beak and refolded it. BB eyed it, and Luke put it into the saddlebag, adding a glove and a scarf and Poe’s dreadful (but, it turned out, very warm) socks. BB complained at the loss of his new love object, but Rey reached out to stroke his head and he settled, grumbling, onto Luke’s pillow.

“Mingling?” She sounded suspicious.

“Make conversation with people one doesn’t like, whilst pretending to like them,” he explained.

She seemed to take this under serious consideration. “Like our conversations with the wounded soldiers, then,” she concluded; off of Luke’s puzzlement, she scoffed. “It isn’t as though I liked them all the time.”

This time he could not conceal his smile. “Exactly. I’ve found that if you pretend everyone you speak to is grievously injured and about to die, you’ll do just fine.”

You’ll do just fine,” she amended, looking alarmed. “I shall remain here and make sure the Cathedral doesn’t fall to pieces in your absence.”

“A task to which you are imminently suited,” Luke assured her.

***

The Winter Palace had been one of the few great buildings left intact after the Starkiller War — not out of any appreciation for its beauty or historical significance, but because the Emperor had found use for it, a base of operations whenever he ventured out of Stellamortis. Luke had visited him once, toward the end of the war; there had been talk of moving the Empire’s capital north, now that Naboo had been so thoroughly conquered. “You, my lad, would no doubt relish the opportunity to live in the splendor you once enjoyed, would you not?” the Emperor had asked him, his withered hand clutching at Luke’s arm as he’d tottered out to the balcony.

“I would be grateful for any kindness you choose to offer me, Your Highness,” Luke had replied, but at the time he’d thought only how obscene it was that the view was the same from here. It should have looked different; but the fields were still a beautiful lush green, the sky still faultless and blue.

For a few months after the end of the war, Leia had considered using the Winter Palace as the base for a new capital, a place with enough open space and roads to support a fledgeling city. But ultimately it had remained merely a site for the occasional royal retreat and events like this, that could not be easily held in the serviceable but cramped Amidala Palace in New Theed.

It certainly had the room; as Luke rode up the meandering drive, passed by automobiles full of merry-makers, he was struck anew by its sheer bulk. He was used to the the scale — the Cathedral, he fancied, was a bit larger — but most of that bulk stretched upward into the towers and its soaring roof, a testament to the Church’s eternal reach toward God. But the Winter Palace, built centuries later, had only people to consider.

Tauntaun snorted and tossed his head, decidedly unimpressed. Luke patted him and urged him toward the stables at the side. Doubtless they would be more accommodating to his mount than the long line of drivers he saw at the front gate.

There was another advantage to arriving on horseback: it allowed him to enter the Palace through the servants’ entrance, his drab cassock shielding him from any suspicion that he might be amongst the party-goers. Instead he was allowed to drift along the lesser corridors that housed the real workers, getting closer to the party (which, at nine o’clock as the bell tolled, sounded already well underway) without having to suffer through glasses of champagne and canapés just yet.

When he finally came through a doorway that opened to the second floor of the ballroom, the dread he’d been ignoring all day came rushing up his throat. He might have turned tail then and there if not for a voice calling to him from across the balcony. “Master Luke! My goodness, Master Luke. It’s been such a long time! I am Cee Threepio, perhaps you do not remember me—“

“Of course I do,” Luke said, relieved that he could smile with real feeling. Threepio would be a difficult man to forget. He had been the royal butler once upon a time, overseeing dinners when Mother still ruled their kingdom and Father still sat at their table. The war had shown his resolve and his genius, and Leia had given him duties when her title meant nothing, then a proper post when her word commanded men once more. There had been ugly mutterings about his ambition, but Threepio’s devotion to Leia was absolute, the devotion of a planet to the star whose system it inhabited. “How are you, Mr. Threepio?”

“I am very well, sir, very well indeed,” he burbled, sticking out his right hand before wincing. People around them, who had already been staring ever since Threepio called out his name, now narrowed their eyes.

Luke reached out with his left hand, clasping Threepio on the shoulder. “That’s wonderful to hear,” he said. He could still feel eyes on him, so he turned to walk along the balcony; Threepio fell into step beside him, all bright eyes and obsequiousness. “The party seems lively,” he observed. Below them on the ground floor, dancers whirled in formation. “Is the queen here yet?”

“Not yet, Master Luke,” Threepio said carefully, and Luke remembered how often he had been a witness to the arguments between them. “But she was anxious that you should attend. It was good of you, sir.”

“A royal summons is difficult to ignore, even when it’s from your sister.”

“Especially when it’s your sister, I should imagine.”

Just then a series of bells rang out from the front of the ballroom, where an impressive staircase allowed visitors to make a stately descent down to the main floor as their names and titles were announced. From the looks of it, an entirely new contingent had arrived.

“Are you planning to make an entrance, sir?” asked Threepio. “I’m sure it could be arranged without the slightest bit of trouble.”

“That,” Luke told him, “Would be a terrible idea. But thank you.”

Threepio hesitated. “It was — a long time ago, sir. I’m sure you have no enemies here.”

There was very little to say to that, and so Luke smiled and accepted the glass of champagne from a passing footman, resisting the urge to drink it all in one gulp. Threepio, to his credit, stayed with him, attempting to cajole various dignitaries into conversation. It worked only moderately well; those who didn’t recognize Luke on sight seemed to shrink from him once they learned his name, and made their excuses as soon as was reasonable. It looked to be an exceptionally long evening.

There was another ring of the bells: more entrances to be made, no doubt. By this time they had wandered down to the main floor, and as Luke cast about for someone harmless to speak to, a flash of gold braid caught his eye on the staircase.

It was Poe Dameron — not slouched and smiling in hospital scrubs or windswept in that abominable scarf, but solemn in regimental blues, medals of valor pinned to his chest. There was no hint of a limp as he made his way down the steps, and a veritable throng descended upon him as he reached the floor; admirers or friends, Luke had no way to know, but Poe smiled at them all, laughed at a joke one of them murmured in his ear. With his clean-shaven jaw and his neatly-combed hair, he looked like a commander, like everything ever promised to Luke’s country: fresh and bright and beautiful.

Luke could feel his stomach clench at that, but it enabled him to turn his back and listen to Threepio’s kindhearted chatter with as much attention as he could muster. They were soon joined by Wicket, another relic from the past, who luckily had never been either impressed by or afraid of Luke for a moment of his life. Before long Luke became embroiled in what sounded like a decades-long argument between Wicket and Threepio about some horrifically obscure point of administrative procedure that both men sounded ready to spill blood over. Luke breathed a slight sigh of relief, not only for his narrow avoidance of Poe, but for the fact that whatever else had gone wrong in his life, he never had to endure such bureaucratic battles.

His luck did not hold out for long. “Father Luke,” said a voice behind him, as a hand touched his elbow. “You have been remiss in congratulating me.”

Luke turned to face his accuser. Poe looked even more heartbreaking up close; a dream of patriotism. The sparkle in his eye, however, was hardly regulation. It was on the tip of Luke’s tongue to make some bland apology, but instead he asked, “What have you done worth congratulating, Commander?”

Poe gestured to the medal around his neck. “Didn’t you read it in the papers?”

“We’re a bit close to the front lines for papers at the moment,” Luke reminded him. He was aware of Threepio and Wicket still arguing behind him, and moved away toward a quieter area of the ballroom, if there was such a thing.

“Not to worry,” Poe said, unbuttoning the front of his uniform to pull a slim wallet from his breast pocket. He opened it and took out a newspaper clipping, still crisp. “Here.” He relieved Luke of his champagne glass, replacing it with the clipping.

Sighing, Luke scanned the article entitled DARING PILOT RISKS ALL, SAVES TOWN. “Impressive,” he allowed.

“Impressive? Is that all?” Poe looked outraged, and snatched the clipping back. “I’ll have you know I rescued an entire village. The mayor wanted to give me a goat.” He pushed the flute back into Luke’s hand as he carefully stowed the clipping back in the wallet and the wallet into his pocket, buttoning himself up again. Luke watched his fingers work deftly, thinking that the official uniform must have nearly as many buttons as his cassock, which had always been an unpleasant trial.

“And did you take it?” Luke asked, trying to remember the conversation. He looked up to see Poe smiling at him.

“Of course. It lives in our office and eats all the papers we need to destroy for security purposes. Very effective. Jess wanted to name him Chewie, after the admiral, but in the end we decided on Darth Maul.”

Luke was surprised into laughter. “I’m sure Chewbacca is heartbroken.”

“I’m sure that if we’d named it after him, he would’ve heard about it all the way from Kashyyyk and come back for the express purpose of ripping my arms off,” said Poe.

“That would be unfortunate.”

Poe shrugged. “You seem to do just fine,” he said, with a smile that had Luke instantly wary. “But at any rate, it made me think that I really ought to collect on rewards more often.” His gaze flicked down to Luke’s mouth. “For example, from you.”

Luke clutched at his champagne and endeavored not to break it between his fingers. “That was not a reward, that was—“ he searched for the appropriate term, even as Poe loomed ever closer. “A bargain. Made under duress.”

“Close enough.”

“I never agreed to—“

But Poe, always impatient, took Luke’s right arm and lifted it. With a stern glance, he compelled Luke to leave it there; caught between curiosity and defiance, Luke paused just long enough for Poe to tie a string around a button at the cuff, a dance card dangling from it.

“This is your favor?” Luke asked dubiously, holding his arm further up to inspect the card spinning slowly on its string. “That I mislead people into thinking I intend to dance?”

“Whether or not you intend to,” Poe said, “You’re committed for all four waltzes, as per your card.” He bowed deeply over Luke’s hand, stole his champagne, and disappeared into the crowd before Luke could protest.

He was left with both arms raised uselessly and a headache blooming.

“Oh,” said Threepio brightly from behind him. “Do you know Master Poe?”

***

Grand Staircase

Leia arrived, in all her requisite splendor, a half-hour later, while Luke was busy hiding behind the buffet. This time it wasn’t bells, but a flourish of trumpets and Threepio’s high voice announcing, “Her Royal Majesty, Queen Leia Organa Amidala of Naboo,” amidst the expected fanfare.

Luke watched her descend the staircase and was struck at how much she reminded him, in some way, of Poe — a symbol, a pledge to the country in the way she waved and smiled at the throng. As though she were more than just flesh and blood, but a tangible promise. He took a deep breath and made his way through the crowd, ignoring those who didn’t realize who he was and harrumphed, and those who did and flinched.

Threepio, who was clearly underpaid no matter what his salary, pointed him out to Leia. She turned and spotted him from her vantage point, still a few steps from the ground. “Brother!” she called, holding out her hand. The crowd parted like a chattering sea, allowing him to meet her as she alighted onto the ground, her sensible heels bringing her up to just a few inches shy of him. She promptly tucked her arm under his, smiling through her teeth at anyone staring. “Eleven years as archbishop,” she murmured, plucking at his sleeve, “And you still can’t dress to the occasion.”

Luke allowed her to lead the way, the crowd thinning as they approached the edge of the dance floor. He didn’t expect to find her irritable criticism so comforting. “You never liked what I wore even before I took orders,” he pointed out.

“I suppose I should be grateful you came at all,” she said. “Even if I did have to resort to a royal summons.”

Luke blew out a breath. It was useless, and always had been, to try politeness around Leia. Not that she was rude; but she’d never seen the value in idle pleasantries. Still, the ghost of their mother prodded at his conscience. “You look well,” he tried. She looked resplendent, in fact; the Burnished Queen had been her nickname for a time, after memories of the Crownless Queen and then the Soldier Queen had begun to fade. Luke couldn’t say what they called her now.

You look peevish,” she volleyed back. “What’s got your back up this time?”

“The royal summons, for one.”

“In that case, you’re going to be even more peevish in a minute,” she said, ominous. They had been making their way to the opposite end of the room, toward the royal dais; for the first time Luke noticed two chairs, one a throne and the other clearly scavenged from the Palace Chapel. Leia’s fingers dug into his arm, dragging him along.

He balked anyway. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at her. “I’m not sitting up there with you.”

“You most certainly are sitting up there with me, and you’re going to do it with a smile on your face. You are the closest thing I have to an heir, as horrifying as we both find that. And the heir is expected to sit with the Queen for the opening dance. After that, you can scurry off back to the shadows, but right now,” and she marched up the stairs of the dais, “You are going to do your duty.”

It was remarkable how easily she could take him from resigned affection to outrage to resentful cooperation, but thus it always was with sisters, he supposed. “You know everyone in this room is afraid of me,” he muttered, handing her into place as the fanfare began. He could feel the room standing at attention, waiting for their queen.

“Of course they are,” she said serenely. “It’s part of what’s kept me alive this long.” And she lifted her hands for silence, the music fading away as quickly as it had started.

“My friends, my countrymen, my fellow warriors,” she said, her voice still strong and warm, echoing down the ballroom. “We are here tonight to celebrate a night without cannon fire, without the drone of bombers or the crack of gunshots. The truce has held for nearly three days already, and we have hopes it will bring about a lasting peace, one in which we can find a way toward reconciliation. For our enemies are also our neighbors, our loved ones, and our family. So it is with a lighter heart than I have had in years that I welcome you tonight, and share your hope that many more such nights shall follow.”

The musicians, knowing their cue, started up again, this time with a lively quadrille that had nearly everyone under thirty rushing to the floor. “Nicely said,” Luke said, just loud enough for Leia to hear. He caught sight of Poe, dancing with a young woman. Their uniforms were a near-perfect match as they bounded through the steps.

Leia smiled. “Mother always did say a speech should be short enough to get through in three breaths.”

“An example to follow, to be sure. Where in the world did you find musicians who remembered these songs?” he added as the quadrille came crashing to its conclusion. “I haven’t heard this since we were children.”

“The vagaries of fate,” Leia replied, shrugging. “One of the only archives not destroyed in the last war was an archive of every royal ball, from the Renaissance to just before the Empire struck. Sheet music, guest lists, menus — everything. Mr. Threepio suggested we recreate our coming-out ball, and I thought it was just ridiculous enough to be a marvelous idea.”

“Good lord,” Luke realized. “That’s right. Biggs ate too much cake before the opening dance and threw up right about…” he listened carefully as the violin made a final, plaintive screech, “Here.”

Leia covered her face with her hands. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“Of course you did — they were my shoes. No doubt Mr. Threepio was delighted at the find.”

“You should have seen him,” she said, leaning over the arm of her throne. “He was in raptures for days, kept calling it ‘an invaluable anthropological resource.’ I nearly beheaded him.”

“I supposed it’s better to be an anthropological resource than a historical artifact.”

Leia snorted. “Give us a few more years.” Her tone was sour, but she grinned as she said it. Just for a moment, they were sixteen years old again, an impossibly wonderful life ahead of them with nothing to fear.

The moment was interrupted by the end of the song and the subsequent arrival of Poe, still breathless. “Good evening,  Your Majesty,” he said, with a deep bow to Leia.

“Mr. Dameron,” said Leia. She cocked her head at him. “Are you here to ask me to dance?”

“Nothing would give me more joy, ma’am,” Poe answered smoothly, “But I am, alas, not a free agent at present.” He made a bow to Luke, whose headache was returning. “This gentleman has a prior claim on my attentions, if you would be so good as to release him.”

Luke sighed.

Leia frowned. “A prior claim?” Her expression cleared and she took hold of Luke’s dance card, still dangling stupidly from his cuff. “I beg your pardon, Commander,” she said, nodding deferentially to Poe. “You are quite right.” She made a shooing gesture at Luke as he got to his feet. “Really, Luke. Where are your manners?”

Poe bowed again to her, then extended his hand. “Well, Father?” he asked.

“A lecture on my manners from you two is—“ Luke bit off the rest, and accepted Poe’s hand with all the grace he could drudge up from a childhood of protocol lessons. “Don’t expect me back,” he informed Leia as Poe lead him away.

“I’ll pray for it,” she called. Her voice carried far enough to turn more than a few heads, and Luke set his jaw as the hush rippled outward.

Poe glanced back at him, but he smiled and squeezed Luke’s fingers, just a little. “Do you remember the steps?” he asked as they reached the center of the floor.

“I’m given to understand it’s just like riding a bicycle,” he muttered.

Poe laughed and put a gentlemanly hand at Luke’s waist. Luke would have liked to object, but between Poe’s half-inch advantage and whatever ridiculous dress boots he wore, there was little use in arguing the frame. Instead he rested his hand gingerly on Poe’s shoulder, his wrist rasping against the epaulette, and held up his right arm. “You may find this more of a challenge, Commander.”

“Are we back to honorifics, then?” Poe asked. He had not yet stopped smiling, and he carefully took Luke’s right wrist in a loose grip, his thumb brushing aside the string that held Luke’s dance card. “Or is this some interesting form of punishment? I thought you believed in mercy.”

The music began; Luke was careful not to look around, but he could sense the space around them, how the other pairs were careful not to drift too close. “I shouldn’t have come,” he realized.

“Then why did you?” countered Poe.

“Because—“ To lie to Poe would be useless, as well as sinful. But he lifted his chin and said, “Because my sister commanded it.”

As he’d feared, Poe simply laughed. “I have missed you,” he said. “I know of no one else on Earth who lies as badly as you do, and so charmingly.”

“Thank you,” Luke muttered.

“You are very, very welcome.” He leaned closer, his hand warm on Luke’s waist. “So,” he murmured. “Do you still want to hear about my progress on our tea-cosy mystery?”

For a moment, the words made no sense in the jumble of Luke’s head. “I — yes,” he said at last. “Of course.”

“Excellent,” cheered Poe, “Since we’re in the one place in this entire pile that I can be assured no one is eavesdropping.”

“I see.” That explained the theatrical request to dance, Poe’s ostentatious attentions. It had all been cheerful playacting. “Thank you for going to such lengths to ensure our privacy, although your reputation may suffer for it. I imagine most people here are convinced you have designs on me.”

“Because you are a man of the cloth and because I have boundless respect for you,” Poe said, “I will not reply to that comment. Suffice it to say I’d risk far more than my reputation to get you alone.”

“We’re in the middle of a crowded—” he snapped his jaw shut on himself, because Poe would spin him around in circles all night at this rate. “Have you found out who did it, or why? Or how?”

“Not the how,” Poe admitted, “And certainly not the why. But I may have gotten a line on the who.”

Luke blinked. “Who is it?”

“Grakkus the Hutt,” said Poe, adding, “Possibly. He’s certainly involved somehow.”

What surprised Luke most was how little he was surprised. Still — “I assumed he was still in prison.”

“Oh, he is,” Poe assured him. “Safely ensconced on Magna Sera Island, the wardens assure me. But he still manages to run quite a, how shall I put it, active business.”

“Of course he does.”

Poe’s eyebrows lifted. “I take it you’re familiar with the family?”

A pleasant side effect of Poe’s friendship was that Luke never had to hide his contempt. “Whatever your new job in Her Majesty’s service, I’m sure it doesn’t reward such ridiculous attempts at pretending ignorance,” he said.

Luke had little idea of what reputation Grakkus Hutt had now, but in the early days of the last war he and Jabba had threatened the Alliance nearly as much as the Emperor himself. A ruthless confederation of criminals, linked not so much by blood lineage as by gleeful malice, the Hutts had prided themselves on playing both sides against each other. Luke’s own encounters with the family — with Grakkus at the infamous Nar Shadda fighting pits, with Jabba in Carkoon — were probably not quite the stuff of legend, but Poe no doubt had heard the stories; even now, Leia was referred to as “the Huttslayer” by some.

But instead of admitting anything, Poe tutted at him. “You’re playing the game all wrong. The next move is to tell me of your past feats of daring, so that I can be suitably awestruck.”

Luke considered it. “There really weren’t many feats of daring,” he admitted. “Not that I'd care to share, anyway. And what game are you talking about?”

This was clearly not the right response, if Poe’s exaggerated eyeroll was any indication. “You know what your trouble is, Luke?”

“I feel certain that you do.”

“You can never go along with anything. That’s the game; people play it all around you, and instead of abiding by the rules you insist on pointing out when someone is cheating.”

“Isn’t that what I should be doing?” Poe was smiling at him again, which made Luke clear his throat. “Anyway, I was never good at games.”

“Perhaps that’s because you never had the right partner,” and this time it was lower, with a curl to Poe’s voice that meant Luke didn’t dare look him directly in the eye.

He addressed a nearby column as it whirled past. “Aren’t you the opposing player?”

Poe laughed. “I may be a spy, Luke, but I’m not that good a spy.”

Now Luke did look at him; his eyes were open and friendly and utterly untrustworthy. “You’re exactly that good a spy,” he pointed out.

“Is that a compliment I hear?" Poe said, grinning. "Because it sounded dangerously close to a compliment."

This conversation had veered wildly off-track. “Have you discovered anything else?”

“I don’t think I’m getting nearly enough credit as it is,” Poe grumbled. “But yes, as it happens. It seems that Phasma was telling the truth: her division was given orders to find me and bring me back unharmed, or at least no more harmed than I had been before. And her orders came directly from Kylo Ren.”

“From — good Lord,” Luke muttered. The gut kick whenever his nephew was mentioned had never quite gone away, even after years of scar tissue had built up around his memory; but Luke had many more years of experience in setting aside the realities of family betrayal. He glanced back to the dais, where Leia was speaking with assorted nobles. He didn’t have to ask if she knew. “What does that have to do with the Hutts?”

“That’s a bit less clear. We haven’t found any evidence of communication between Kylo Ren and the Hutts before the Tuanul massacre — but there’s been quite a bit since, and none of it pleasant. It seems that whatever the Hutts did, or didn’t do, the First Order is very unhappy with them. At the same time, the Hutts have come into a large sum of money from mysterious sources.”

“They are criminals,” Luke pointed out.

“Thank you for that insight,” Poe said solemnly.

“So whatever happened in Tuanul,” Luke said slowly, “Was unconnected with the Stormtroopers.”

“And me,” Poe agreed, “Which I have to say is a bit of a relief. It’s not much fun to think you’re responsible for the deaths of innocent people.”

“No, it isn’t,” Luke agreed absently. It was a great deal to mull over. Had the Hutts gone from smuggling and the occasional kidnapping to mass murder? Grakkus had been trying to get into the drug business when Luke had put an end to his career prospects; it seemed a stretch to think Jabba’s offspring could graduate to wholesale slaughter on demand.

The song ended and Luke recalled himself to the present moment. “Thank you for the dance,” he said, inclining his head slightly to Poe. “I imagine your dance card is full, so I won’t keep—“

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Poe offered his arm. “I’ve been living off of letters for almost a year; I’m not giving up a chance at a conversation with you that takes less than a month to conclude. Besides,” he added as they retreated from the floor, “I don’t trust you not to disappear before I collect on my other three dances.”

So instead of hiding behind the buffet again, Luke found himself paraded up and down the length of the ballroom, side-by-side with Poe and talking about more mundane matters, including every story Luke had not had space to tell about BB’s various antics in the Cathedral and Rey’s absolute refusal to get rid of the creature. Poe laughed at everything and shared stories of his own, and it was an odd halfway between their easy banter back at the Cathedral and the deeper conversations they’d shared in letters over the past year. Luke realized, with a sinking heart, that he had been justifying himself by thinking of Poe as two separate people; it could not be so very bad to exchange correspondence with the thoughtful and witty soldier who wrote to him, because it must be someone different than the flirtatious young man whose smiles had once been so distracting.

But it was one man after all.

The strains of another waltz began, and Poe turned to him. “How does the old phrase go?” he asked. “‘They’re playing our song,’ I believe?”

Luke had been on the verge of offering an excuse — any excuse — but he was now driven to frankness. “This is unwise, Poe.”

“You afford me more intelligence than I actually have,” Poe confessed, breezy, as he led Luke once more out onto the floor. “Besides, it isn’t as though we’re doing anything scandalous. Alas.”

“My very presence here is scandalous,” Luke pointed out. His back ached from holding himself so stiff, but he could not find it within himself to relax. “You’re dancing with the Butcher of Bespin.”

“That’s what the Emperor called you,” Poe reminded him. “Here, we refer to you as the prince, or the Archbishop of Naboo, or Father, or that royal pain in the arse. Depending on who’s doing the referring.”

“What do you refer to me as?” he asked, before he could shut his mouth.

Poe’s hands tightened, drawing him in. “I like to think of you as Luke.”

Dancing

A change of subject, Luke decided, was necessary at this point. “How is Finn? And Jess? I thought they might be here tonight — do you see them often?”

“I see them rather too often,” Poe replied, sounding vaguely surprised at the question. Did Poe think Luke had forgotten them somehow? “Jess is working hard, which I don’t imagine will come as a shock. But I make sure she eats and drinks water at appropriate intervals when I can.”

Luke nodded. Captain Phasma’s name had never come up in their letters; Luke was reluctant to ask Poe how much he knew, or guessed, about that kiss in the ossuary. “And Finn?”

“Doing well, but I suspect that’s due more to a certain correspondence than my influence.”

“Yes, Rey enjoys hearing from him as well.”

“A very proper reply,” said Poe, as they completed another circuit around the room.

Luke offered up a small, perfunctory prayer that the song would end. It didn’t work. “You’ve said before — they both lost a great deal as children. I’m glad that they’ve found each other to help make up for that loss.”

Poe readjusted his frame slightly. “Yes, but I do worry,” he said thoughtfully as his fingers drummed against Luke’s spine.

“About what?” Luke cleared his throat; the words had come out more high-pitched than he’d intended.

“The future, I suppose,” Poe replied. “What happens if Rey falls in love with him? Would she leave the church for love, do you think?”

“I couldn’t presume to speak for her,” said Luke. He could now see the rasp of stubble at Poe’s jawline, too subtle to be seen from further than a few inches away.

“No, I suppose love wouldn’t be enough,” Poe mused, as though Luke had said something else. “It would have to be duty. Like you.”

This was moving far too quickly for Luke’s peace of mind. “Me?”

Poe shrugged. “You’re next in line for the throne. If the queen dies without naming another heir—“

“Or reconciling with her son,” Luke interjected, more out of instinct than any real understanding of the conversation. But tonight of all nights, it was important to remember the reasons behind this war, the addresses that had been given about hope for Prince Benjamin’s return, even while they called for Kylo Ren’s death.

Poe’s expression eloquently conveyed his feelings, but he obligingly amended, “Or reconciling with her son — you yourself will have to leave the Church.”

“I try not to think about it.”

“You ought to,” Poe said, not unkindly. “When this war ends, things will be very different.”

“Not for the Church, or me, or Rey.” It was another lie, and Luke barreled on before Poe could laugh at him again.

He still received a skeptical eyebrow. “You may be surprised. About Rey and Finn, that is,” Poe added.

“Well,” Luke prevaricated, “It’s a moot point — there’s no reason to believe he has fallen in love.”

This made Poe smile, though it wasn’t like the coy smirks and grins Luke had endured up until now. “I would think his feelings were obvious. Painfully so.”

Luke had, in the entire course of his life, never been accused of any particular insight. Things that were clear to Poe — or to others — often still left Luke uncertain, groping in the dark. Looking at Poe now, he felt bound up in the web of Poe’s cleverness, aware of his deficiencies more acutely than ever. There was no glib remark he could make to push them away from this; he could only keep quiet.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Poe said, as though Luke had made some inconsequential reply. “The life of a priest must surely be preferable to the life of someone married to a Spymaster.”

Any other concerns were driven out of Luke’s head at that statement. “What?” Several nearby dancers started at his yelp. Biting his tongue for a moment, he hissed, “You mean to tell me that you — that Finn is—“ he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

For the first time that evening, Luke’s remark elicited a frown from Poe. “Yes,” he said. “Or rather, no. Jess does her part as well.” His frown deepened; he kept hold of Luke as the music ended. “Do you really never speak to Her Majesty at all?”

Luke gave that remark all the attention it deserved; instead he stepped out of the frame and made for the dais.

It was empty. Luke stopped a passing footman, who blanched only slightly at the sight of him. “Where is my sister?” he demanded.

“Her Majesty? She — she’s on the outer balcony, Your Highness. But I believe she’s with—”

There was little time and no interest in correcting him; Luke climbed the stairs to the second floor, Poe in hot pursuit. He caught up with him at the doorway, the guards keeping an eye on both of them as Poe said, “What on earth’s gotten into you?”

“Poe,” Luke said, keeping his voice level and his shoulders relaxed, because all around them were courtiers and officials — aristocratic gossips, as far as Luke was concerned, and he’d learned long ago not to give them what they craved. “Thank you for accompanying me. You should go downstairs; enjoy the evening. It was a pleasure to find you fully recovered.” He made a small bow, an appropriate salute for a royal heir toward a valuable official.

It was clear Poe understood; clear he didn’t want to. “Good evening, Your Grace,” he said, and once more took Luke’s hand to bow deeply over it — not an appropriate salute — before making his way down the stairs. Luke forced himself not to see if Poe glanced back; instead he signaled to the guards to open the doors that lead to the outer balcony.

The first thing he saw was not Leia, but Lando — hardly a surprise, given his heavily-embroidered cape that signified his new rank as Minister of War. “This thing is more useful as a target than a cloak,” Biggs had complained decades ago, when Leia had first presented it to him, laughing at his dismay. “I’ll be shot dead before the week is out.” He’d always looked faintly ridiculous in it, apologetic as he’d swept down hallways, trailing after the Queen and her consort. It looked better on Lando; more assured, his bulk filling it out, but was still a target even beside Leia’s gold-and-silver gown that glittered in the moonlight. Perhaps that had been the point of it all along.

“Your Majesty,” Luke called, ignoring the sound of hands tightening on sidearms as he stalked toward her, “A word, if you would be so kind.”

“I rarely am,” she replied, sipping at a glass. “But for you, dear brother, I shall always make an exception.”

Lando came between them, a warning hand on Luke’s chest. “Whatever you’re thinking of doing,” he began.

“I’m thinking of throwing someone off a balcony,” Luke replied. Even in the darkness, he could see Lando’s face go gray. “And if it’s one thing I’m good at it, it’s that.”

“Luke, stop being so provoking, you’re making the guards nervy.” Leia came up beside Lando and put her own hand on his shoulder. “I simply need a moment with my brother. You may leave us.”

Lando looked positively mutinous at the order, but he and the other guards filed out the door. “I’ll go find a trampoline, Your Majesty,” he said as he shut the door.

In the silence, Luke’s words ran out of him. Leia simply waited, still holding her glass — water, no doubt. He couldn’t remember the last time she had drunk anything else. He took a moment to examine her, with the distance of nearly five years: older and somehow shorter, her hair styled differently than he’d seen it before. The diadem she wore had been a present from the King of Alderaan, almost a quarter-century ago; Luke had been there to watch it placed on her head amidst the call of trumpets and the cheering of a grateful throng.

“I take it you have not enjoyed the party,” Leia said at last, moving away toward the balustrade. “Imagine my surprise.”

Luke tried to hold onto his anger, but he could feel it slipping through his fingers even as he joined her in leaning against the railing. “It’s not what I’m accustomed to,” he replied. “But I wouldn’t have thought to find you hiding out in the balcony.”

“I can hear the accusation in your voice,” she told him, “And I can assure you that Lando’s virtue is entirely safe with me.” She took another sip. “I’ve been informed that you enjoy the benefit of great heights yourself, these days; the belfry of the Cathedral seems a bit extreme, but whatever keeps you happy.”

“Poe Dameron wasted little time informing you of current events,” Luke muttered.

“I am his commanding officer, after a fashion,” she pointed out.

And just like that, the anger came back, comforting. “Yes, after a fashion. Any particular reason you put three of my latest patients in charge of your Spymaster ring? Or were you so awed by their performance at the Cathedral that you handed over the post?”

“So that’s what has your cassock in a bind,” she said, looking amused. “Worried that I had them spying on you, dear brother? Why on earth would I do that?”

“You can tell me — you were always the better tactician.”

“And you were always the better liar.” She smiled thinly. “They weren’t given the post as a reward for espionage against you, if that’s why you’re here in self-righteous fury.”

It would have been better if she had slapped him, or thrown the drink in his face. There was a particular terror in being so badly understood. “It isn’t,” he said, his own voice thin and unconvincing. “It’s — they’re so young.”

“They’re all of them older than we were,” Leia said. “And we managed to win an entire war.”

“Yes, but we survived it,” he said. “They won’t.”

“Yes, I’ve learned that Spymasters aren’t made for long lives,” Leia replied. “Hence three of them; not only a more diffuse target, but if one of them dies, we can replace them more easily. I’m only disappointed I didn’t think of it before.”

“How marvelously efficient of you,” Luke hissed. “But — all right, why them? Poe I might understand — he’s clearly been one of your spies for years. But Jess? Finn? The poor lad’s no fighter—“

“On the contrary,” Leia interjected, “He slit the throat of a would-be assassin only last week. I gave him an entire half-day off. He was very grateful; apparently in the First Order, one doesn’t get holidays as reward for thwarting enemy plots.” She shrugged — a sure indication that she had something important to say. “I needed people close to me that I could trust, Luke. People who weren’t part of that,” and she waved her free hand at the doors, indicating the entirety of the palace, “But who would serve faithfully.”

“But why did you think they would?” Luke asked. He wasn’t angry now; anger rarely lasted around Leia, if it wasn’t her own. “What made you think you could trust them?”

“Because you did, you idiot,” Leia said, exasperated. “The debacle at the Cathedral with your murderous priest friend and the Rensters — Jess told Lando everything, including how you took all three of them into your confidence. You, who hasn’t trusted another living soul for nearly thirty years. Including your own.” She lifted her eyebrows. “I concluded that anyone who passed that test must be worthy of further consideration. Although given Dameron’s conduct tonight, clearly something more than trust has been shared, Father Luke.”

Now was not the time to indulge Leia’s propensity for teasing. “I wish you had told me,” he said. “I would not have recommended them for this post.”

“Why, because you don’t think they’re qualified? Or because you don’t want them put in harm’s way, for one reason or another?” Leia’s eyes, as ever, were far too shrewd. “This is war, remember? We’re all in harm’s way. For one reason or another.”

“We have a truce, Leia,” Luke reminded her. “A chance to end the war. For your oft-touted reconciliation, remember that?”

She made a dismissive noise. “It will never happen.”

Luke clenched his fist. “That sounds like a hope, not a prediction.”

“Call it a mother’s intuition,” she said. “Believe me, I would love to end this — horror. But not with a truce and a ball.”

“Then how will it end? With Ben’s head on a platter, or on a spike at the gates of New Theed? What ends this, if not you?”

“Don’t give me your platitudes, Luke. The Church has picked a sorry time to lecture me on the pitfalls of warmongering.”

“The Church,” Luke retorted, “Seeks to promote any possibility of peace.”

Leia rolled her eyes. “The Church seeks to keep its hands clean, as you’ve always done,” she said. “Retreating into your cathedral won’t win this war, Luke.”

“That’s three wrong things you’ve said,” Luke pointed out. “Firstly, if by ‘the Church’ you refer to me, I still only have the one hand. Second, I can assure you that as recently as this morning, they were covered in the blood of one of your subjects, a girl no older than seventeen shot by the First Order, who nearly died on the altar of my cathedral. And third — I don’t care about winning the war. I only want it to end.”

“Which is why it can’t. Don’t you see that? Whatever he calls himself now, my son won’t be stopped with a truce.”

“What will he be stopped with? A bullet to the head? A sword to the stomach?”

He stopped. It was the age as much as the anger in his own voice that gave him pause; that and Leia’s own face, lined and thinner now, but still beautiful, the way things out of reach can be beautiful.

“How many times have you and I had this argument, Leia?” he asked. “I can hardly remember when it began.”

“It began the night Ben killed his father,” said Leia softly. “He waited until I arrived, did you know that? Waited until I could watch — watch and do absolutely nothing. Waving that sword around like a child playing at knights and dragons, before running Han through with it. And then he turned and left without a word.” She looked up at him. “You think I want to win this war to stop him, that I want what’s best for our people. And I do. But when I stop him, it will be with a bullet to the head or a sword to the stomach. He’ll get no mercy from me; not anymore.”

***

Poe found him in the stables, readying Tauntaun for the long ride home. Luke heard the clocking of boots on stone and tensed, before the rhythm made it clear who had come. “I’m afraid I’ll have to miss the other waltzes,” he called out. “My apologies.”

“How did you know it was me?” asked Poe, appearing around the stable door. Tauntaun eyed him suspiciously before going back to his grain.

“I recognized your gait,” Luke said. “You really should work on strengthening that leg; you’ve still got a bit of a limp.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said as he leaned against the doorway. “Leaving so soon?”

Luke checked the girth; Tauntaun was clearly holding out his gut, but it wasn’t yet time to mount, so he left it for now. “I did say it was a mistake for me to come.”

“Think how much greater a mistake it will be for you to leave, then,” Poe replied. He came inside, the hay under his polished boots making a shushing sound in the silence. “Why are you angry?”

“I’m not angry,” he lied, but even the words turned sour in his mouth and he had to immediately amend, “I’m not angry at you. Or Finn, or Jess. I’m more angry at—”

“Your sister?” Poe guessed, his hand careful on Tauntaun’s neck. The horse snorted and nibbled curiously at the gold braid on his shoulder.

Luke was not prepared for any of this. He hadn’t thought to prepare himself; he had thought tonight would be a series of exasperations and humiliations, but not this. “At the war,” he said, “And at those who continue it day after day.”

“So you are angry at me,” Poe concluded, stepping closer. Luke moved to check the saddlebag, but Poe’s hand on his elbow stopped him. “Luke. Whatever you think about the war, or your sister, or us — me — please don’t go away angry.”

“Why not? Oh, yes,” he answered himself, “Because any one of us could die at any moment. Best not to part ways on bad terms.” He tightened the girth, Tauntaun grunting in disapproval. “Believe me, Poe, I’ve been parting ways on bad terms my whole life. It won’t do you much lasting harm.”

“I don’t care what harm it does to me,” Poe said, suddenly very close. “I don’t want you — I want you to—“

It was easy — the easiest thing in the world — to slide his hand through Poe’s hair, brushing his thumb across that odd, dear scar at his hairline. Poe’s eyes shut, and for a wild moment Luke could imagine everything. He tightened his grip on Poe’s hair, and Poe gasped, his mouth parting.

Tonight had been a series of frustrations and revelations, none so devastating as this terrible desire he’d ignored for so long. Poe had been a torment from the start: first an aggravation, then a distraction, and finally a great immovable absence lodged somewhere in Luke’s chest, a hole he might trip into at any moment of the day or night. Even now, he could feel himself at the edge of it, pulled down and in.

Taking a deep breath, Luke pressed a kiss to Poe’s forehead. “If there was a way to keep you safe,” he whispered, a strange sort of benediction. “If I had that power…” He took another breath — the last one — and stepped back. Poe’s dark eyes were open now, watching him. “I still wouldn’t. Because you don’t want safety.”

“I should think that much is obvious,” Poe murmured. He took hold of Luke’s right arm, pulling him in close again. Luke braced himself for — what, he wasn’t sure. But Poe merely turned his attention to the damned dance card, still fluttering on Luke’s wrist. “I’ll take this,” he said, untying it deftly, “And consider it an IOU. For the next time we meet.”

“The next time we meet may not be at a ball,” Luke said, trying to keep himself still.

Poe laughed as he unbuttoned his jacket, pulling out his wallet once again. The card was carefully placed alongside the newspaper clipping. “Then I’ll have to drag along a string quartet wherever I go from now on.”

“You might find that inconvenient in your current position,” Luke said, leading Tauntaun out of the stable.

“I’d suffer far greater inconvenience for another waltz,” Poe replied, and there was that smile again, the one that Luke couldn’t categorize just yet.

It was quiet in the stable, most of the handlers no doubt vying for a chance at the spare pastries and wine, and as they stood there Luke could hear a distant bell begin to chime midnight — the Cathedral bell, he realized, carried all the way from Tatooine.

“I should be off,” he said. “Thank you for… an interesting evening.”

“It was my pleasure,” Poe made a show of looking around. “Oh dear, there seems to be no mounting block. Perhaps I could help you up?”

In answer to that, Luke pulled himself up into the saddle with only mild complaining from his leg and arms. “A generous offer, Commander.”

“Can’t blame me for trying,” said Poe, his smile broad and beautiful. He patted Tauntaun’s neck before stepping away. “Remember, Luke. Two more dances — I won’t be put off for much longer.”

“Something to be certain of in this uncertain world,” Luke agreed, and nudged Tauntaun into a brisk trot, away back into the darkness.

***

Chapter Text

***

Magna Sera Island had been given many names over the course of its human occupation; before that it had been nothing more than a spit of land far out at sea, home to an array of birds and seals. With humans had come names, and these names had changed with the kingdom or empire who had most recently claimed it, or the king who had most recently ascended the throne, or even the birth of a particularly promising heir. It suffered the occasional influx of hopefuls, thinking they could tame the island; they’d wrestle with the island’s rocky shores and unforgiving tides for a few years at a time, before abandoning the island once more, only to return a decade or a generation later with another doomed plan. None of them succeeded; the island was a worthless, barren waste.

Then one day, in the long-forgotten past, one of these kings had need of a prison. Thus the island had been given a new name, a new importance, and a very old job. What couldn’t be accomplished with soldiers’ industry or tradesmen’s craft was instead achieved with the twin advantages of prisoners’ time and prisoners’ labor. Nowadays the island was almost welcoming; one would be hard pressed to see in Magna Sera’s grand towers the wild outcroppings that had once been so daunting to prospective colonists.

Magna Sera had long enjoyed a kind of semi-autonomy, granted by the fact that it held the Continent’s most dangerous prisoners. Its sole natural resource — isolation — was invaluable precisely because it was worthless; its dependence on the outside world for any resources other than labor and granite gave it a strange international influence. The condemned men and women left to die there had done what no one else could; they made it very, very profitable.

Queen Padme had never sent anyone to Magna Sera, and her daughter followed her example — though the criminals of Naboo might not have thanked her, since she employed the rope instead of the boat. But as their vessel sailed under the stone archway that lead to the island’s lone harbor, Poe knew which one he’d prefer.

“It gives me the creeps,” was Snap’s succinct opinion.

“Thank you, lieutenant,” muttered Poe.

“It gives me the colly-wobbles,” Kare piped up.

“Thank you, sergeant.”

Security concerns meant that visitors, prison transports, and cargo all came in via the same route; once through the gate they were ferried along the same narrow tunnel, with regular openings just large enough for an armed guard to knock an arrow at the passengers. Magna Sera had never lost a prisoner.

The harbor itself was just large enough for a handful of mid-sized vessels to dock; all around them were sheer stone walls, taller than even the cathedral and made of the same sturdy stone that comprised the rest of the island. (It was said that there were prisoners here so pale that you could see the blood in their veins; looking at the windowless expanse, Poe could believe it.) A narrow walkway encircled the harbor, adorned with more armed guards.

But the dominant figure was a pair of massive, metal gates, at least two stories high and wide enough to fit a tank through: the Grey Gates of Magna Sera. The only other feature was a balcony, directly above the gates, where a half-dozen more guards watched their approach into a nearby dock with rifles casually aimed. One of them, a tall grey-faced woman, was unarmed; Poe recognized her from his briefings.

“Not a bad place to spend a holiday,” said Kare, craning his neck to look around.

“Let’s not stay any longer than we have to, children,” Poe said as the ferrymen on the docks roped the boat into a dock. They climbed out under the watchful eyes of the guards. “Any sign of the Warden?” Poe asked under his breath.

“Not anymore,” murmured Kare, jerking her chin toward the balcony. “She disappeared from up there as we docked. I’d say she’s either coming down or we’re in much bigger trouble than we thought.”

“Lovely.”

Before he could get nervous, a door — hidden cleverly in the stone — opened outward, and Warden Luta stepped out. The door shut behind her and became once again an indistinguishable part of the wall; as far as Poe could tell, there would be no way to open it from the outside. Another security measure.

The Warden of Magna Sera was an elected post, in theory — guards chose one of their own — but it was a lifetime position, and Warden Luta had been alive a very long time indeed. It was rumored that she had conspired with the old Emperor himself to rig the election in her favor; but no one had ever found fault with her methods. Escapes from Magna Sera had once been relatively common — through bribery or insurrection — but her tenure had been markedly peaceful. Suspiciously so.

“Look sharp,” Poe muttered to Snap as Luta approached.

“Consider them razors, sir.”

Warden Luta came to a halt in front of them, her hands clasped behind her back. She said nothing. Poe glanced at Snap, who made a grumbling noise under his breath but stepped forward to greet them. “Greetings from the kingdom of Naboo,” he said, making a bow. “I am—“

“Yes, you are,” Luta said, ignoring Snap entirely as she gazed at Poe. “You are Poe Dameron. The one they call the Spymaster.”

There was a slight, disbelieving emphasis on the pronoun, but Poe merely bowed. “I have that honour, Lady Warden,” he said. “I am at your service. Her Majesty asked that her good wishes be passed—“

“I’m sure that’s not at all true, Commander,” she replied. “The Queen of Naboo has little regard for us here; but you have done your duty. I understand you wish to speak to Grakkus.”

Poe hesitated. On one level this was going quite well; on another level, his hackles were up. “If it is possible.”

“With the Lord’s grace, all things are possible,” Luta said. “But if I agree to your request, you may not appreciate the terms. You may have heard of the rather… unique governmental structure of Magna Sera.”

He had, but he simply tilted his head to convey spellbound interest.

“Our guests — you might call them prisoners — police themselves in exchange for freedom within the confines of their keep. In this harbor, I can ensure your safety, but once you pass the Grey Gates, I can guarantee nothing other than this: you will take nothing in and take nothing out; you will survive, or not, according to your own abilities. I assume you are armed?”

“Only so far as would not cause offense,” Poe replied, keeping his expression attentive. This was more or less what he had expected, but it was hardly welcome news.

“My offense is the least of your concerns,” she said. She looked him over dubiously, then with the air of one making a great concession, said, “There is a small chapel in the harbour, if you wish to commend your soul before making the journey beyond the gates.”

From behind him he could hear someone — probably Snap, but possibly Kare — make a noise like a badly-stifled snicker. “That is very generous of you, Lady Warden,” he said. “I did not know the island had a chapel.”

“Oh, yes,” she said, the first smile he’d seen on her face. “When I first took this office, I made it a priority — we have more need than most to seek God’s guidance and wisdom. I have even spoken with the Archbishop himself about stationing a priest here; he has been very kind in his consideration.” There was an extremely telling trace of color in her cheeks as she mentioned Luke; not lust or even a schoolgirl crush, but the ardor of a zealot.

Religion was a tricky lever; it was easier by far to pull the strings of someone in love with a person or even a place. But the danger weighed against the rewards, and so Poe said, “Archbishop Luke’s kindness knows no bounds — I was fortunate enough to be a patient at his cathedral for some time last year, when it was used as a ward for the injured. He is truly a man of God.” A man who would wriggle his nose when it itched like a five-year-old, but Warden Luta didn’t need to know that.

“You have been a resident of the Cathedral?” she asked; it was clear that she had half-forgotten his reason for coming. “I have long wished to make that pilgrimage, but my duties here—“

“Of course,” Poe said understandingly, “And your duty does you great credit, as I’m sure the Archbishop agrees. But I hope you will get a chance to go one day; it is truly a place where God’s presence can be felt.”

“Is it true that the archbishop tends to an orchard?” she asked. “They say the apples there can cure disease, even bring those at death’s door back to life.”

“It’s true he has an orchard,” Poe said. “I cannot vouch for any curative properties, you understand.” He winked, and wondered how long Luke would lecture him for it.

“Oh — oh, I see,” said Warden Luta, nodding in understanding. She blinked and seemed to recall where she was. “But I have kept you, Commander. Please,” she said, turning toward the gates, “Follow me.”

With an alarming groan and rumble, the Grey Gates opened a fraction — not inward or outward, but sliding apart as though they were on massive bearings. Through the gap was a street of some kind, dusty and deserted, with buildings considerably more ramshackle than the sleek outer walls, though made of the same omnipresent stone. There was no sign of life; no sound or movement. Poe took a deep breath and stepped through.

“I shall pray for you,” the warden called after him; Poe glanced back in time to see the nonplussed expressions of his subordinates as the gates shut.

There was a song Poe could vaguely recall from his childhood: “I am the lord of the great grey gates of Magna Sera isle,” it began, one of those tunes that people hummed under their breath while they worked away at something. Mother would sing to herself as she whittled away at a block of wood in the evenings, the shadows from the fireplace twisting across the walls. It ran through his head now, as he stepped out onto the dusty road.

In my court of stone, on a padlocked throne, the hours I beguile.

What had seemed like a deserted street at first glance turned out to have plenty of people, peering out from open windows and around corners. A raggedy pair came out from the nearest building, holding an intriguing set of improvised weapons.

My turnkey is sweet Cassia Fett, with hair of fiery red,

Who took the Queen of Hoth to wife and killed her in their bed.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” he said, smiling brightly. “Might any of you be willing to take me to see Grakkus? I would be most appreciative.”

The smile seemed to faze them almost as much as the question, but they recovered quickly. “I’ve got a better idea,” said the tallest one. “How about you give us everything you’ve got, and we’ll let you live.”

My chaplain is Kyrie Yavin, the Bishop of Mos Heth,

Who anoints me with the hands that burnt three hundred souls to death.

Sighing, Poe raised his hands. “All right, all right,” he said, and reached slowly into his pocket, making sure they could see what he was doing. “All I have is this,” he warned them as he tossed it on the ground in front of them.

My cellarer is Tik-Tan Tosh, the Gunpowder Marquis;

My butler did a tidy trade in poisoned filigree.

“What’s—“

Poe shut his eyes, but the flash still seared through his eyelids; he managed to get the gas mask on just before the cloud of smoke reached him. His assailants were less lucky, and he managed to relieve them of their weapons as he bolted down the nearest alley.

And what of you? I hear you cry, What crime have you committed?

Within such company to be these thirty years admitted?

My crime was to be nobly born, the brother to an heir

Who thought me envious of he, upon his golden chair.

After that, it was a bit of a blur; but it ended about an hour later in front of what could only be Grakkus’s palace, with Poe dangling upside down (by his bad leg) while a dozen inmates armed with extremely illegal rifles glared at him and an elderly, twinkly-eyed man beamed at him from the doorway.

Now here I sit behind these walls, in state fit for my birth:

Lord prince and judge, yet prisoner, of the murdering scum of Earth

Grakkus and Poe

“Ah, the famous Poe Dameron!” the elderly man boomed, his arms spread wide. “Welcome to my home. I am Grakkus.”

“An honor to meet you, sir,” Poe managed, blood rushing to his head. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“So I’ve been told, so I’ve been told. And I believe I know what else you’ve been looking for, dear boy! But before we begin, I must ask that you refrain from causing any more… excitement than you have already. My men had quite the time running you down! I would much rather conduct our meeting in a civilized fashion — so no killing anyone, at least not within my walls. Does that sound reasonable?”

“Perfectly, sir,” Poe said, and the seven-foot behemoth who’d been holding him aloft let go.

“That trick with the gas canisters was quite clever,” Grakkus said in a confiding voice as he lead the way into the palace. The inside was as ornate as the outside, with lavish and lascivious artwork decorating the walls, priceless furniture and rugs on the stone floors. “I can see why the Queen sent you, instead of one of the other two Spymasters. Though I must admit I’m somewhat disappointed; I’ve heard such stories of Jessika Pava’s beauty!”

“She suffers horrible seasickness, sir,” Poe said. “But I’m sure she shares your dismay.”

“Oh, I imagine so,” Grakkus replied as they passed through into a courtyard, complete with burbling fountain. “I very much imagine so, when she hears of who else has come visiting!”

From around the spray of the fountain stepped none other than Phasma, looking starched and constipated in her foul First Order uniform. Poe’s hand twitched toward the one weapon he hadn’t lost yet, but he managed not to kill her on sight. “Did you have her swear not to kill anyone while she was here?” he asked Grakkus, who only chuckled.

Phasma, for her part, just looked disgusted. “Dameron. I might have guessed.” Her nose wrinkled unattractively as she got a better look at him. “How in hell did you get so dirty walking here from the gates?”

“How in hell did you just walk here?” Poe demanded in turn.

“What do you mean, ‘how’?” She looked baffled. “I simply stated my business and the two fellows at the entrance brought me here.”

“The tall one and the one with the missing ear?”

She scoffed. “He wasn’t that tall.” With a sniff, she conceded, “Maybe he was to you.”

“Well, well!” Grakkus clapped his hands together, rubbing them happily. “As good as it is to hear such old friends as yourselves catching up, I understand that you both have questions for me. Though I suspect,” he said, “Not quite the same questions. So who would like to go first?”

Phasma’s jaw was clenched so tightly Poe could almost hear the creaking from here. He bowed low to her. “Ladies first,” he said.

“Oh, I insist, Commander,” she said, with a bow of her own.

“Such manners! I am quite overcome,” said Grakkus. “Your cordiality deserves a reward — I shall see about getting you some refreshments!” And he tottered off through another doorway, calling out to someone for wine and cheese.

“What are you doing here?” Phasma hissed, the moment he was out of earshot.

“What are you doing here?” Poe retorted. “And keep in mind, there are probably spies listening.”

“Thank you for that egregiously obvious observation,” she sniffed. “Grakkus was imprisoned by the Empire, if you recall; you have no claim on him.”

“Grakkus was imprisoned by the Old Empire, if you’ll recall. And Magna Sera strips all prisoners of nationality — you haven’t any better claim than we have. Besides,” he added, “We don’t have to resort to exercising a ‘claim’ over someone in order to get them to talk with us.”

“Oh, yes, tales of your skills are known throughout the Continent, I’m sure,” Phasma snarled. “But I very much doubt Grakkus will be interested in whatever it is you have to offer—“

“On the contrary!” Grakkus came bustling back in. “I am sure both of you have something I find quite interesting!” 

He was followed by several harried looking inmates carrying trays of wine and foods that Poe hadn’t seen since the start of the war. He could feel his own eyebrows go up, and for a moment as he glanced at Phasma, sharing a sense of solidarity in disbelief. “Where did you get all this?” Phasma asked, plucking a bottle off one of the trays as it passed by. The inmate grabbed it back. “This wine costs more than a year’s wages.”

“I will be exceptionally kind and assume that is not the question you would like to ask, my dearest Captain!” Grakkus said, waving them toward a table. “Sit, sit! And we shall discuss business like civilized people!”

Keeping his eye on Phasma, Poe sat down; she took the chair opposite. It was difficult to appreciate the wine under such circumstances, but Poe managed to say something about the vintage as they glared at each other over the rims of their glasses.

“Yes, a fine year, I am told! I am glad you enjoy it. Now!” He clapped his hands again. “I have been thinking about our little dilemma here. Quite a pretty problem — both of you would like something from me, and I would so love to provide you with what humble knowledge I can bestow. But to whom should I confide?” He smiled at them both beatifically. “I am no friend of the Empire, either the Old or the New. But on the other hand, the Traitor Prince of Naboo is hardly in my good graces either — which reminds me, how is His Grace? He attended the celebration of the truce last month — I understand he is still quite the dancer.”

Poe froze; Phasma’s glare was now sharp enough to cut glass. “He asks to be remembered to you,” he said, raising his glass.

“As though I could forget the man responsible for my capture!” Grakkus’s laugh was remarkably insincere. “But no matter! For I think I have solved our problem.”

“Pray tell us, sir,” Phasma said through her clenched teeth. “We are agog.”

“I thought you might be.” Grakkus leaned forward, the smile — and the twinkle — gone. “So here is my offer. I will provide my information to one of you, and one of you only: the one who breaks me out of this monstrous, hellish pit of a prison.”

***

“Well,” said Jess, the next morning in the relative safety of their horrible office, “That isn’t likely to happen, is it?”

Poe clenched his fists, then forced them to relax. “No,” he answered, suppressing the urge to say something a good deal less polite. He had taken three separate showers in the twelve hours since he’d left Magna Sera, but he still itched. Something about Magna Sera got under your skin, like a sunburn or a scab. “We’re back where we started.”

“Maybe not,” said Jess thoughtfully. “You said Svetan — Phasma had a different question she wanted answered.”

“I’m not sure,” Poe said, half-distracted by Phasma’s first name. He’d braced himself against telling Jess about who else had been there, but she had taken the news with little more than a wince. “Grakkus seemed to think our purposes for being there were different; that’s not proof he was right.”

Jess gave him a look. “I doubt very much that the First Order is interested in our current side project.”

It was tempting to argue the point, but she was right. Their “side project” — investigating Tuanul’s massacre — had roused little interest from either side; there had been other and more egregious crimes in this war in the ten months since. Part of Poe even agreed with them. The investigation had been at best a hobby, at worst a distraction from more important matters.

But that was before last week, when Rey had sent a letter to Finn. She had reported something “altogether peculiar” — the handful of survivors from Tuanul who had settled in Tatooine had vanished.

Not like a magician’s trick; they packed bags and said their goodbyes and left very calmly. But no one seems to know where, or why, or even precisely when ; I myself only noticed a few days ago that all our newest congregants had stopped coming to services, one by one. I asked around a bit — most had found spare rooms in town, so it was simple enough to ask the landlords — and it seems like they each received a visitor a day or so before they gave notice. But the visitors were just their fellow Tuanulans, and no one heard any loud voices or anything remarkable during them. It’s altogether peculiar!

Poe and Jess had agreed; more importantly, so had Leia. “A massacre is one thing,” she’d said, “But if someone’s kidnapping my people, I’d like to know about it.”

Despite that blessing, it was highly doubtful that Leia would thank them for breaking Grakkus out of prison — even in Magna Sera he was one of the most dangerous criminals on the continent. Outside of it, he could wreak as much havoc as he had during the Starkiller War. They were stuck again.

Jess chewed at her thumbnail for a moment. “Is it worth the risk to ask Finn, do you think?” she asked, her voice lowered.

Despite knowing better, Poe glanced up at the high windowsill where Finn would usually perch himself during their morning conferences, kicking idly at the wall with his heels and hunching his shoulders into the warmth of the sun. Finn had been gone for nearly two months now, sent back into the lion’s den of the First Order with nothing but a stolen uniform and Ello Asty, a fellow renegade who had done his fair share of undercover work; but his absence still felt wrong, uncomfortable — another itch Poe couldn’t scratch. Finn’s desk had always been kept pristine while he was here, but over the past few weeks it had begun a gradual descent into the chaos that ruled over Jess and Poe’s desks already. There was no way of knowing what Finn would be more irate over: Poe and Jess’s perusal of his correspondence, or the state of his workspace when he returned. Poe was almost looking forward to the yelling and handwaving.

Poe shook his head. “I don’t think this constitutes the emergency we agreed on,” he said. “But if Phasma’s involved in this — do you think whatever it is she wants from Grakkus, she wants it badly enough to help him escape?”

Jess scoffed. “Why are you asking me?”

Poe crossed his arms, expectant.

“You’re awful and I hate you,” Jess groaned. “Yes, perhaps — it depends if this is under orders, or if she’s doing it on her own recognizance.”

“Like us.”

“Just so. She wouldn’t do it for herself; but she lives and breathes the First Order. If they want her to get information from Grakkus, she’d do worse than stage a jailbreak, I’m certain.”

“So if we want Grakkus to talk to us—“

“We have to get him out first,” Jess finished.

“Or just make sure she doesn’t,” said Poe slowly. An idea was forming in his head; he felt almost unbalanced, as though if he was jostled he might lose it all. Warden Luta’s piety had at first seemed like just another tool — but perhaps instead it was the key. “At least not just yet.”

Jess frowned. “What do you mean?” she asked. “If neither of us get him out — that doesn’t exactly advance us.”

“There’s someone else who could,” Poe said. “But we’ll need a certain amount of… misdirection.”

“Sounds right up your alley,” Jess snorted. “What’s the plan?”

Poe leaned forward. “You’re not going to like it.”

She didn’t.

***

Rotta Pedunkee, Esq., maintained a respectable suite of offices in New Theed, with a view of the estuary and a brass plate on the door. “It’s mostly so that people can spell my last name correctly without all the awkwardness,” she burbled, settling herself back into her chair.

“I wouldn’t think it would be that difficult,” Poe said with a broad smile as he took a seat. The offices were comfortable and well-appointed, the sort that Poe’s parents would have felt ill at ease in with their calloused hands and mud-caked boots.

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” said Rotta. “Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Dameron, was it? I see from the message that you were interested in financial planning! I’d be happy to assist—”

“Not quite,” Poe admitted. “I’ve come to discuss… a family matter.”

“Oh yes?” she asked, eyes bright and interested.

Poe felt almost guilty for what he was about to say. “It seems that the name on that brass plate of yours is not the one you were born with,” he said. “And this is strange place for you to settle down, in the same city as the woman who killed your father, Miss Hutt.”

That got her attention. “Who are you?” she demanded, mouth agape.

Poe spread his hands. “I am a man whose job it is to know things. My formal title is Her Majesty’s Spymaster, but I like to think of myself as more of a diplomat.”

“Dameron,” Rotta muttered, “Dameron — I’ve heard of you. You’re the one who scandalized everyone at the ball last month by dancing with the archbishop!”

Inwardly Poe winced, but he managed a smile. “The very same.”

“I thought it was rather nice, myself,” Rotta admitted. “I don’t imagine priests get to go dancing very much.” But she was still on her guard, eyes darting around the room. Not for a weapon — for an escape.

So Poe kept himself relaxed and open, harmless. “Well, I am a very nice man.”

“I’m sure,” she said with deep suspicion. “What do you want?”

“You’re in no trouble, Miss Pedunkee, and if you wish to continue to be known by that name, you’re in no danger of losing it. But I would like to know if you’ve spoken to your uncle in the past few months.”

“My uncle — no,” said Rotta, putting her hands up. “No, I’m afraid I cannot help you, Mr. Dameron, whoever you are. I have no interest in that sordid — I have washed my hands of them and endeavored to live a respectable life. And have done so, might I add,” she said with an irate wave of her hands at the surrounding walls.

Poe looked around appreciatively. “That you have, Miss Pedunkee. And this isn’t a threat, or blackmail, I promise you.”

“Then what is it?” she demanded, looking very near tears.

“It’s a warning,” said Poe. “The First Order is attempting to break your uncle Grakkus out of prison; we are doing our best to stop them, but I can’t promise you we’ll succeed.“ He shrugged. “I’m aware your activities here in Naboo have been strictly proper — moreover, the Queen herself is aware that you have kept the Hutts’ more… damaging activities out of her kingdom. And she appreciates that. But should Grakkus be freed—“

“If that odious slug comes back, Naboo will be neck-deep in shit, is what you’re saying?” She blushed, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. But this isn’t exactly how I planned my morning to go.”

“I can sympathize,” said Poe. He could; from all available reports, Rotta had kept herself free of the muck that her family rolled around in. He had no illusions that she was a truly upstanding member of society — the Hutts were not known for moral revelations — but her desire for a simpler life seemed sincere, at least. “The First Order officer in charge of your uncle’s… situation, is Captain Svetan Phasma. Should you wish to take any appropriate action.”

Rotta looked at him for a long time in silence. “I won’t hurt her,” she said at last. “I won’t have her killed. I don’t care who you are, I won’t do it.”

Poe stood up. “That’s one reason we came to you, specifically,” he told her, buttoning his jacket. “I have quite enough blood on my hands; most of us do, this far into the war, but I’d rather you not have to wrestle with that particular demon.”

“Then why come to me at all?” she asked. “Why would you trust me?”

“Oh, we don’t,” Poe said cheerfully. He put on his hat and opened the door. “But we’re absolutely counting on you.”

***

A few weeks passed and Poe began to worry that it hadn’t worked; then one morning a note was dropped in one of the black boxes, and ferried to the office.

 

Lawyer came through — 1 st attempt by Dryad is explosives smuggled into routine contraband shipment, disappointingly trite. Have removed explosives  and rerouted shipment to Hoth with your compliments. Dryad v unamused when we sent her a copy of Lord Jar-Jar’s thank-you note.

Jess wrinkled her nose at the note. “‘Dryad’?” she asked, rattling the paper.

“We needed a code name for Phasma,” he said, plucking it from her fingers and handing it off to Darth Maul, who was making the rounds this morning. The rest of High Command had taken a shine to the goat, and so instead of being carted off to a nearby farm it had been given its own ramshackle shed in the courtyard and a weekly rota, although apparently a few of the petty officers were concerned about its diet. Someone had apparently started a whip-around to get some carrots.

“Better than calling her Valkyrie, I suppose,” Jess muttered, settling down at the desk.

Poe refrained from making any comment about that, and instead said, “It looks like Rotta’s proving a valuable ally.” Darth Maul bleated agreement and made a go at his cufflinks.

“She’s as determined to keep Grakkus on Magna Sera as the Warden is, I’d wager,” said Jess. “But we can’t keep this up forever, Poe.”

“We don’t need to. We just need Phasma to fail enough times that an alternative proposal will be… suitably attractive to Grakkus.”

“Yes, I know that,” Jess retorted. “But your ‘alternative proposal’ hasn’t agreed to do any proposing. You haven’t even asked him yet, have you?”

“Oh, I don’t imagine he’ll refuse me,” Poe said, retrieving his sleeve from Darth Maul’s mouth.

***

“No, absolutely not.”

Poe gaped at Luke. Of all the contingencies he’d planned for, this had not been amongst them. “What?”

Luke had a particular stance whenever he was affronted by something; his shoulders back and his chin high, his hands clasped in front. Or rather, his left hand clasping his right wrist. It was astounding how someone so short could look so loomingly disapproving. “I believe you heard me, Commander,” he said. The chin went just a fraction higher. “The answer is no.”

Poe took a deep breath, and put the picnic basket down. He’d had a very specific itinerary today: come to the cathedral, see Rey and make up some extravagant lies about why Finn hadn’t been writing to her lately, find Luke and tell him what to do, treat him to a slightly contraband lunch of pastries and wine, try for a kiss, get brutally rebuffed, then go home.

Luke was, as per usual, ruining everything.

“Perhaps I didn’t explain it well enough,” Poe tried, putting on a smile. “If you’d just—“

“You explained perfectly well, Poe. You want me to promise the Warden of Magna Sera a place in the priesthood — after the war is over — in exchange for which she will give you Grakkus — now, rather than after the war is over — in exchange for which Grakkus will give you information — information you have no way of knowing will be of any value. Assuming the Warden agrees, and assuming Grakkus agrees — something which you have given no indication of, might I say — you will then whisk Grakkus off to some location to get… I believe you call it a debriefing?”

“Only because that’s what it’s called,” Poe said.

Luke glared at him. “The number of ways in which this is a preposterously stupid plan simply stagger the imagination. I’m the one who had him locked up in the first place. What on earth made you think I’d agree to set him loose again?”

“I’m hardly doing this for fun, Luke,” Poe protested. “I’m trying to get Grakkus to talk in order to solve our little tea-cosy. I thought this plan would appeal to your inner hard-bitten detective.”

“You thought you could manipulate me and my feelings for you in order to get your way,” Luke snapped. “I don’t appreciate it.”

“Your feelings for me?” Poe said, startled at the sound of his own voice. “What feelings?”

“Irritation, mostly,” said Luke, and stalked off toward the gardens. Poe picked up his basket and jogged after him.

It had been a little over a year since he’d been back; perhaps it was just the season, but nothing had changed from what he could see. The stone walls encircling the orchard, the gardens in the corner, that ramshackle cottage one step closer to ruin. Perhaps it was a sign of growth, or age, or just the relentless pace of the war; but where Poe had once been horrified by Luke’s existence here, now he found himself almost envying the monotony.

And it was truly beautiful.

Luke was already halfway up the path; Poe put on a burst of speed. “Luke,” he called. “Luke, wait.”

Luke stopped and turned around. He didn’t look angry anymore, merely tired.

“I know this is asking a great deal,” Poe said. “Perhaps it is asking too much of you. But this is a way forward that won’t cost lives, that won’t put anyone in danger—“

“Of course it will, Poe,” Luke said, scoffing. “You stand there and you tell me that Grakkus the Hutt won’t put anyone in danger? When you think he’s got something to do with the deaths of two hundred people and when I remember—“ He stopped himself. “You have no idea what he is. What he could do if he was set loose again. No information is worth that.”

“I know he’s dangerous—“

“No, you don’t.” He said it flatly, a teacher reproving a recalcitrant child. “And you don’t know what I had to do in order to have the Emperor agree to have him condemned.”

“Then tell me,” Poe said, at the end of his patience. “What magic did the Sky Walker perform in order to get Palpatine to do your bidding?”

Luke’s breath caught; he twitched his right arm behind his back, as if hiding something in his missing hand. “I’m sorry, Commander,” was all he said. “I can’t help you.”

“You certainly can,” Poe said. He’d had enough of this. “You just won’t.”

It would have been very satisfying to stalk off back to New Theed and leave Luke to his trees and penitence, but before he’d gotten halfway down the cathedral steps he heard the door open behind him. Poe’s heart tried to sink and leap at the same time; it felt like indigestion.

You thought you could manipulate me and my feelings for you in order to get your way, Luke had said — accused, really. And he hadn’t argued the the point; hadn’t said anything to refute it, too distracted by the confession itself. Poe wrote back faithfully, two days after every letter he received; he smiled and teased and demanded dances and held the promise of a kiss over Luke’s head like the threat of mistletoe; but he’d never thought he was risking anything more important than his own battered heart. He had never thought that getting his way with Luke would involve anything more than the sort of exasperated affection Poe had garnered throughout his life.

But Luke’s face when he’d said it — the dark line of his brow and the tightness in his jaw — that was something more than Poe had intended. Poe had meant to manipulate; but he had always been much better at knowing when to stop.

Poe wanted nothing more than to head off any further argument. “Look, I’ll find another way,” he said, turning around. “I won’t ask you—“

It wasn’t Luke; it was Rey, her robes flapping around her and BB perched on her shoulder, huddling against her ear for warmth. She held a small sack in one hand. “I heard you’d come for a visit,” she said, smiling uncertainly. “Are you… you’re leaving?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He was still holding the picnic basket; he offered it up to her. “But I brought something to soothe the pain of my absence.”

“Most gifts are nothing more than bribes or manifestations of guilt,” she said. It sounded as if she was quoting something, but she took the basket in her free hand. “What’s in it?”

“Bribes, of course. And manifestations of guilt.” Poe reached out to BB, who looked at him with interest if not exactly recognition. Then all at once it chirped and hopped onto his outstretched arm, walking unsteadily up to his shoulder where it turned its one good eye on him. After a moment, it delicately took a lock of his hair and tugged.

“That means ‘hello,’ we think,” Rey said, peering into the basket. “Where on earth did you get strawberries?”

“State secret, I’m afraid,” Poe said, as BB made a clumsy takeoff from his shoulder into the air. “Should he be flying?”

Rey glanced up, tracking Poe’s gesture to where BB was perilously close to colliding with a tree. “He’s fine,” she dismissed, and shut up the basket. There was a distant squawk that implied otherwise, but she ignored it. “You look well. Finn once mentioned how you still saw each other in town. He said,” and she bit her lip. “He said you were well.”

“Yes, we see each other fairly regularly.” He braced himself for the next question, the one she was sure to ask — Finn had been gone for months, and unless he was truly suicidal, he’d no doubt eschewed his correspondence with her. He’d thought up a half-dozen convincing lies for Rey on the way here.

But instead she asked, “How is he? Is he well?”

“Yes, he is. He’s very busy,” he added, because Rey didn’t look like any jilted paramour he’d ever met.

She smiled — not a real one, but something that might convince a layman. “I’m glad.” She thrust the sack out to him, stiffly. “I thought you might — he mentioned once that the apples in New Theed weren’t as good as the ones here, which obviously would be the case. So here are some for him. And you, I suppose, if you want some.”

“A bribe?” Poe teased, but he took the sack of apples.

“I only said most gifts,” said Rey. “Well, I won’t keep you, I’m sure you have to get back.” She let out a piercing whistle and BB came careening back, landing with a very erratic clop onto her arm. “Thank you for the strawberries and things.” She started back up the steps.

“Finn asked me to say hello,” Poe called after her. “He wanted to come with me today, but there were—“

“Please,” she said, her back still to him, “Don’t. I’m sure Finn has much better things to do with his time. I’m only sorry I wasted mine as well as his.”

“It wasn’t a waste,” Poe said, climbing the steps after her. “It isn’t — I know he would write to you if he could. And that he will write to you again.”

“He doesn’t need to,” said Rey. Poe drew even with her; she snuffled into her sleeve and glanced at him with over-bright eyes. “It’s very windy out here,” she explained.

“Extremely windy,” he agreed, offering her his handkerchief. She took it and swiped at her cheeks. “Rey, listen to me — if there’s one priest in this blasted church who will, it’s you. I promise, on any holy book you’d care to chuck at my head, that if Finn could pick one place on Earth to spend the rest of his life, it would be here. With you. Do you understand?”

She did, he could tell, but she said only, “I don’t think he would make a very good priest.” She considered. “Or a monk.”

“I think he would be anything you asked,” Poe told her, and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, much to BB’s disapproval. “I’ll let him know you’re doing well, and that you’re doing something different with your hair. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the information.” And he jogged back down the stairs with a curious sense of accomplishment.

***

A few days later, Poe received a summons from the Palace. The officer who’d brought it hovered in the doorway at uncertain attention, surreptitiously trying to push Darth Maul (who was visiting again) away from the braid along her dress uniform pants as Jess and Poe read the note.

It didn’t take long. “‘Dameron, report to HRM offices promptly.’ What did you do?” Jess asked, handing the paper to Darth Maul. The officer opened his mouth to make some objection, but Darth Maul chose that moment to break spectacular wind.

“God knows,” Poe groaned, heaving himself up to his feet. He was starting to feel old, at twenty-six; starting also to suspect that the infamously short lifespans of Spymasters was due not to murder but to stress and bad eating habits. He couldn’t remember the last time he looked a vegetable in the eye; perhaps he should steal a few of Darth Maul’s carrots. “Am I presentable enough for royalty?” he asked Jess.

She made a tsking noise over his tie and undid it, shaking her head. “You keep thinking a Kessel knot is a good look and you keep being wrong,” she said, retying it into something she preferred.

Normally Poe would fight her on this, but she had been taking point on the mission to disrupt the First Order attempts to free Grakkus; it was her idea to recruit Rotta to their cause, her work that went into anticipating Phasma’s next moves. Poe had never suffered Jess’s particular misfortune, but the past few days had given him an all new appreciation for the consequences of using your heart as a weapon.

When she was done, he reached up to feel the knot. “What have you done, tied it in a bow?” he asked.

She slapped his hands away. “I’ve made you look almost respectable,” she said. “Do you want me to come with you?”

“I’ll be all right,” Poe assured her. “Besides, you’d probably end up trying to rebraid her hair and then we’d both be strung up.”

Jess snorted, but let him go.

Amidala Palace was one of the few truly impressive buildings in New Theed; rumor had it that Leia had argued ferociously with her husband against such “nonsensical frippery,” but the consort had won that particular battle. People needed to see the monarchy — and by extension, the kingdom — renewed, if not wholly restored. The Queen couldn’t lead her people from some ramshackle flat off Main Street; at least not for more than that first year.

So the Palace had been built in record time. It always reminded Poe a little bit of the cathedral, with its imposing front door and the belltower that soared overhead. Certainly the aim was similar in both buildings (albeit for very different reasons): impress everyone who passed by and overawe anyone who ventured within. It was an architectural wonder that recalled past glories while being entirely modern — unlike the Old Palace, which had apparently kept its dungheap in the cellars.

One other notable difference between the new palace and the old was the absence of a Throne Room; the memory of Queen Padme’s burning corpse was still vivid in the country’s imagination, even twenty-odd years later. The central hall had a dais for state functions and such, but no business was conducted there. Instead Leia had a suite of offices for meeting with foreign dignitaries and speaking with various subjects who came to supplicate; it was in its way just as impressive as a Throne Room, with the benefit of no courtiers who could skulk in the corners.

Leia never used it for real business; for that she preferred a cramped, ugly set of rooms up in the belltower, whose only advantage was a tolerably good view of the city from the dirt-streaked windows. There was no lift; Leia liked to say that she would be safe from attack here, because anyone armed well enough against her guard to get through would be too weighed down to make it up fifteen flights of stairs. Poe suspected she also enjoyed the fact that people would arrive at her office too winded to do much more than gasp and nod at whatever she said.

Threepio brightened as Poe came into the outer office, his escort long since abandoned on the sixth floor. “Ah, Mr. Dameron, how good to see you,” he said, rising from his desk. “I’ll just let Her Majesty know.”

“Is that Dameron?” Leia’s voice drifted in through the half-open door. “Send him in at once.”

She was sitting behind the same ugly desk Poe and Jess had thrown out shortly after moving into the Spymaster’s offices, the one Han had evidently made with his own two hands shortly after taking over the post as Spymaster. God only knew how she’d had it carted up here; she’d never mentioned it and Poe hadn’t dared bring it up, but it still made him feel a bit guilty every time he visited her here. Perhaps that had been the intent; or perhaps the Queen was just sentimental enough to be human. He’d probably never know.

“I understand you’ve been trying to recruit my brother into your spy ring,” she said as he shut the door behind him.

“Ma'am—“

“No use denying it, Dameron. I have his half-legible letter right here,” she said, waving it. “‘Contrary to common decency and respect for the holy office.’ Coming from Luke, that’s practically profanity.”

“Yes ma’am,” Poe said, standing at attention in front of her.

She sighed, then flapped an irritable hand at him. “Sit down, Dameron, you’re not getting court-martialed because my brother is having a temper tantrum.”

“Thank you, ma'am.”

She regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “I take it Grakkus is aware of these machinations of yours, thwarting the First Order at every turn and not making a move as yet yourself. He won’t thank you for it.”

“He’ll thank me when I make him a free man.”

“True enough. Although when this is all over, no doubt I’ll have to order you to deal with him in some fashion.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

She drummed her fingers against the desk. “So he’ll only speak with whomsoever gets him out,” she mused. “I take it this warden is susceptible to this plan.”

“I believe so, ma'am. As you know, Magna Sera is an independent protectorate of twenty-three different countries, and part of the treaty it holds with all states is that no ruler can recall a prisoner for any reason, not even if the prisoner is found innocent.”

“It’s long been considered a feature, apparently,” Leia said. “And I take it Warden — what was her name?”

“Luta, ma'am.”

“Warden Luta would be even less inclined to listen to me, since we’ve supplied her with no new business in the past fifty years.” She frowned. “But she’d listen to Luke?”

“Yes, ma'am. She is extremely devout; she even built a church on Magna Sera for the guards.”

“But not for the inmates.”

“She feels prayer is wasted on them.”

Leia took her glasses off, tossing them onto the desk. “So you think a religious fanatic is running the prison, and therefore she’ll do as Luke says?” She didn’t appear altogether convinced.

“When you put it like that,” Poe admitted, “It doesn’t sound as clever.”

“So Luke’s participation is necessary.”

“No, ma'am. I am devising an alternate strategy.”

“What is it?”

“Being devised, ma'am,” he said, in a moment of regretful honesty.

But it made her laugh. “Han would have liked you,” she said. “One reason he was such a good Spymaster is that he himself didn’t know what he was going half the time, so his enemies had a much harder job predicting him.”

“Thank you, ma'am.”

“And he would have liked your faith in Luke,” she said, gesturing at the letter. “With this scheme, I mean.”

“Even though it was clearly misplaced, ma'am?” The words were out before he could stop them.

“Misplaced?” she asked, amused. “Luke’s refusal was certainly inconvenient, but I believe he made the right choice. At least for him.”

“Yes, he’s good at making the right choices for him,” Poe muttered.

“Careful, Dameron. That’s the heir to the throne you’re talking about.”

She didn’t look particularly angry, but Poe was aware of just how far over the line he had just leaned. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I just — I expected a different answer from him.”

Leia got up from her desk and went over to the window, leaning against the sill. “D’you know, Dameron, for a few months while he was off playing dutiful traitor to the Empire, I thought he might have actually turned on me? Everything he was doing over there seemed to benefit him and leave us worse off than ever. I came close to ordering his assassination a dozen times.”

“What stopped you?”

“It wasn’t sisterly affection, that’s for certain. No, it was Han. He believed in Luke, absolutely. ‘Luke will come home and he’ll have destroyed the entire Empire on the way,’ he’d say, the way you’d hear madmen talk about the Earth being flat. I didn’t really believe him — not really. But then Stellamortis… happened. For a day and a half I was holed up in this tiny village, trying to find out why the Empire’s entire line had collapsed and why enemy generals and admirals in all directions were offering us surrender. But Han just said, ‘he’s coming home,’ and lo and behold, Luke did, albeit with a crushed hand and a crushed spirit. He’d destroyed the entire Empire on the way. Just like Han had said.” She glanced at Poe, a wry smile on her face. “Since then I’ve learned better than to doubt my brother.”

“So you think he’ll help, after all?”

“I think he’ll surprise you,” Leia said. She came back to her desk and sat down, putting her glasses back on.

Poe stood up; he had been dismissed. But at the door he paused. “I never asked –" He wasn't sure what to say. "The stories about him,” he tried. "The stories about that night. They never talk about his hand.”

"I always wondered who ‘they’ were," Leia said, peering at some papers on her desk. "Is this your way of asking what happened?"

"it's my way of asking if you think he’d ever want to tell me.”

That made her look up, blinking at him over the rims of her glasses. “There aren’t many people that would make that distinction."

“Well, as you can tell, I am not most people."

"I had noticed," Leia said. “Now, what else? Tell me about Finn and Asty.”

***

The next report they got regarding the operations at Magna Sera was in person, Kare still dripping wet and spitting mad. “They were trying to get him out through the sewers,” she hissed, wringing her socks out through the open window. “What kind of mad bint is this Phasma, anyway?”

“A resourceful one, clearly. How did you stop them?” Poe asked. Jess was too busy covering her face with her hands to debrief.

“Sabotaged their boat, sir. Then when Grakkus came dog-paddling out we swooped in and whipped him back around to the front gates before First Order had their thumbs out their arses.”

“Did Grakkus know who you were?”

“He thought we were First Order, and swore at us for about ten minutes about retribution or disrespect or some poppycock until we threw him overboard just inside the harbor.” She caught his expression and added, “Very gently overboard, sir.”

“And what made him think you were First Order?”

Kare shrugged expansively. “We may have — stolen is such an awkward word — liberated a pair of uniforms off the First Order’s boat when we were busy punching a hole in it, sir.”

“Impersonating an enemy soldier is highly illegal and I am very disappointed in you,” Poe said. Next to him, Jess’s shoulders were shaking slightly. “I’ll be writing you both up for a court-martial immediately.”

“Jolly good, sir.”

“Where is Snap, anyway? If I’m to go to all the trouble I should court-martial you both together.”

“He’s showering, sir,” Kare said. “The sewers were — I’d say ‘more unkind’ to him, if you catch my meaning.”

“Oh, dear,” Poe muttered, and Jess let out a snort.

***

It was easy for Poe and Jess, not to mention the rest of their department — known colloquially as the Billings and Services Agency — to forget that the truce was now entering its second month with no sign of breaking. Spies are notoriously bad at discerning war from peace, or at least that’s what Lando told them when they remarked on it.

Perhaps that was because there was still so much to do. Finn and Asty’s infiltration of the First Order, plans for Grakkus’s escape, the larger mystery of Tuanul — all of those were often subsumed in the daily task of keeping up with the movements of enemies both foreign and domestic. They were balanced out, of course, by their own schemes to misdirect said enemies at any possible opportunity.

“Why are we sending Mothma to surveil the new fighter planes?” Jess said, hunched over her desk and peering at a piece of paper in the inadequate light of a desk lamp. It was two o’clock in the morning, and Poe couldn’t remember when he’d last seen his own bed.

“We’re not,” he said. “We’re telling people that we’re sending her to see who follows her and—“

“Yes, Spymaster Extraordinaire, I know that, I’m the one who thought it up,” she sighed. “I’m asking, what’s the reason we’re giving for why she’s going? Surely one of the Bothans, or Ackbar would be more appropriate?”

“I’ll think up an answer tomorrow,” he promised. He got up; the dispatches he’d been reading still didn’t make sense four hours after he’d received them. “I am going to sleep, for three entire blessed hours, and when I come back I can—“

There was a knock on the door, and Officer Connix, who was becoming in all-too-familiar face, peered in. “Her Majesty would like to see you,” she said. “There’s been a development on the Northern front.”

Missions against the First Order were, if anything, more frequent than before; the gritted teeth behind the smiles of friendship, Jess would say. With the army officially stood down (but unofficially keeping themselves sharp), the onus was on Poe and Jess — and Finn — to bring whatever they could to bear on the peace talks that were being proposed.

“All we know is that they’re not interested in peace, and we knew that from the start,” Leia said one day, during the daily briefing. “I hired you in the hopes I could get something more than that.”

“We’ll do better, ma'am,” Poe promised.

“I should hope.”

Which lead to more sleepless nights, more coordinating and subterfuge and impossible odds, and culminated in a message from Position Undisclosed. ASTY DEAD, it read through heavy encryption. 17 HOSTILES DEAD. PLANS FOR AW ASSAULT. GOD HAVE MERCY ON US ALL.

There was no time to mourn; if the First Order had a notion of breaking the truce with an invasion through the Alderaanian Wastes, there was barely time to breathe. Poe pulled Snap and Kare off the Magna Sera operation and posted them elsewhere; for now they would have to rely on Rotta’s intelligence to let them know if Phasma made another attempt. The priority now was the Wastes, and keeping Finn alive — in that order.

The Empire had used its Starkiller weapon only once before its destruction, on the kingdom of Alderaan to the east. It had worked exactly as intended; the Alderaanian Wastes were a perfect circle laid over the map, a thousand square miles. In the generation since its destruction, the land had recovered — trees and plants had grown back, wild animals had made their homes — but still no humans lived there. It was said no one could live there, or even stay there for a few days, without being driven mad by the ghosts.

The truce still held, even while Poe and Jess and their cohort found troop movements into the Wastes. So instead of bringing the army east, they began destroying the makeshift bridges that the Stormtroopers had made, or sneaking into camps and stealing the soap, or replacing all the First Order flags with Alderaanian ones, or any one of dozens of operations that left the soldiers unnerved and whispering amongst themselves.

Poe even went into the field himself again, briefly, an excursion to Coruscant to lay out more pointed discouragement against the assault. He met with some success, and he felt good for the entire duration of the journey home until he was met at the steps to High Command by Lando Calrissian.

“Am I getting my medal of honour already, sir?” he said, jogging up the steps to join him. “I’m not at all properly dressed.”

“There’s a problem,” Lando said, turning him around. “Take a walk with me, it’s a nice day.”

“The harbor’s half-frozen over, sir,” Poe pointed out as he fell into step beside him.

Lando ignored that, smiling idly at passers-by. “You did well in Coruscant, I hear.”

“The Wastes should be clear of Stormtroopers within the month, sir,” Poe said. “Although I confess I’m still not entirely used to operations in which no one gets killed.”

Lando glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Me, too.” They walked along in silence for a few more minutes. “The platoon our friend is in — the 2187.”

The mention of Finn’s assignment sent a chill down Poe’s spine. “What happened?”

“We’re not sure. They were bivouacked in some town called Trillia, up near the border—“

“I know where it is, sir. What happened?” Poe realized that he most likely shouldn’t take that tone with the Minister of War, but Lando ignored that, too.

“Like I said, we’re not sure. But the platoon is — we’re getting reports of some kind of massacre. Dead bodies — the only reason I got this instead of your fellows is that the enemy was so panicked sending transmissions that they broadcast on one of our frequencies.” He shrugged. “Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake.”

“It could be a trap,” Poe said, “But I’ll be careful—“

“Which is why I came to tell you myself,” Lando said, stopping in his tracks and forcing Poe to look back at him. “Listen to me, Dameron. You’re not going in. There’s no rescue operation. You know as well as me: our friend knew the risks. If he’s killed or they’ve sussed him out — he’s on his own now.”

***

Jess took the news about as well as Poe had; which is to say, not at all. They spent the better part of the next three days trying to convince Lando, then Leia, that a rescue attempt could be made without undue fuss; but they were firmly rebuffed. Even if the truce was nothing more than a sham, there was no question of being the first to break it. “And a covert operation into the New Empire’s territory to rescue a spy certainly qualifies,” Leia said.

For a brief moment — all of seven seconds, perhaps — Poe considered going against orders and sending in someone; going himself and damning the risks. It would be easy; he was expected to disappear for long stretches of time, expected not to tell anyone, even the Queen, what he was doing. It was his job to do the things that no one else could do, or would do.

“It’s both our jobs,” Jess said, shaking her head. “But you know we can’t. Not for this. Not like this.”

“Why not? Finn is our friend, he turned traitor for us, went back there because of us—“

“And swore an oath to put this country before his friends and before his own life. And so did we. An oath,” she repeated, stabbing at him with her finger. “It has to mean something; it has to mean everything. Otherwise what are we doing all this for?”

“What are we doing all this for, then?” He wanted to sound angry — he wanted to be angry. Instead it came out quiet and soft, dropped onto the ground between them.

She didn’t answer. “I’m going home,” she said. “It will be better tomorrow.”

It wasn’t better, but the next morning he cleared the files off of Finn’s desk, wiped it down with a cloth and readjusted the desk lamp and something that had been curled tight in his belly began to slowly unwind.

There was no time to do anything else. The collapse of the Empire’s plans in the Alderaanian Wastes meant they were scrambling for another option — and to Poe’s shock and Leia’s dark suspicion, that option turned out to be peace. All of a sudden, the talks which had been mentioned vaguely for months had a date and a location: here in New Theed, a small and unarmed contingent of the New Empire to meet with a large and heavily armed contingent of the Alliance. “In hopes of reconciliation of our mighty nations,” the message went.

Poe wasn’t fool enough to bless their good fortune; but he could find no intelligence that counteracted the Empire’s public declarations. He felt utterly useless, a wrench in a roomful of nails. And still there was no word of Finn.

Almost a week later, gnawing dread had turned into something that Poe could almost live with; at least enough so that when he saw a letter in his box with his name written in Luke’s familiar scrawl his first instinct was to roll his eyes and grumble, “Wonderful,” under his breath.

“What is it?” Jess asked. Poe flashed the envelope at her, and she smiled — it was stiff and forced, but it was better than they had been the last few days. “Glad to see you lovebirds are reconciling.”

“If this isn’t a groveling apology I’ll go set his sash on fire myself,” Poe swore, opening the envelope and pulling the sheet of paper out.

It was not an apology. “That complete and utter arsehole,” he said, halfway impressed even as his blood pressure threatened to make his head implode.

Jess propped her feet up on her desk. “Come on, poppet, what’s it say? Or do the sweet nothings he murmurs in your ear make for scandalous reading at eight-thirty in the morning?”

“I have no qualms in sharing this with you, after which I am going to take my own vow of celibacy, a very, extremely specific vow, I can assure you.” He cleared his throat and recited:

 

Perhaps I did not make myself clear the other day, but
under no circumstances will I assist in whatever ridiculous and
nefarious scheme you have cooked up.

Lest there be any confusion about our respective positions,
understand that your treatment here was no more than
base Christian charity and no more than any other
low-level solider would have received — indeed my church was a
zoo while you lot were here and I was, frankly, glad to
have the whole ordeal end earlier this year.

Might I also remind you that whatever you may assume, I
lost respect for the military many years ago — namely for its
oppressive and capricious demands — which you seem to
love with all the fervency of a cultist.

You seem to consider yourself some sort of 7 th Caesar and it makes me
livid. Kindly do not come back until you are ready to apologize.

 

“Of all the times to be a self-righteous prig with all the human emotion of a fucking statue,” Poe added, screwing up the letter. If Darth Maul was here today he’d have fed it to him immediately; as it was, he tossed it toward the inadequate fireplace.

Only to have it caught, mid-arc, by Jess. “I think,” she said slowly as she picked at the ball of paper, “That that sounded a bit odd.”

“A bit odd? It sounded like the holier-than-thou raving of a geriatric windbag, is what it sounded like.”

“And therefore sounded a bit odd. You’ve read me some of his letters before, remember?” Jess looked at him disapprovingly, the now-flattened letter in her lap. “And this is a bit of a departure.”

Poe waved his hand. “Well, we — argued a bit, the last time I saw him.”

“I’d never have guessed,” Jess muttered, “Considering the day you came back from Tatooine you nearly broke the door off its hinges because it was squeaking in an irritating way.” She looked down at the letter. “‘Seventh Caesar,’” she repeated.

“That’s him calling me Nero, I suppose.”

“Nero wasn’t the seventh emperor,” she replied absently. She frowned and scrabbled for a notepad on her desk, unearthing it from God knew where. Poe came over as she began drawing something on the pad — three circles within each other, sliced up like the world’s most miserly cake. Only after she began jotting down the alphabet in each slice on the outer section did Poe catch on.

Cypher

“The Caesar cypher?” he asked. “Really?”

“Well, he’s very old,” Jess said. “Probably the only one he remembers.” She counted out seven shifts and repeated the alphabet on the inner section. “All right,” she said, and thrust the wrinkled letter at him, “Read out the first letters of each line.”

Poe recited them faithfully and after a few more seconds a smile — a real one — spread across her face. She flipped the pad over so he could read it.

INGENUE/SAFE/HERE

***

“The first good news I’ve heard in a good long while,” Leia said when they came crashing into her office a half-hour later. She squinted up at Poe. “I suppose your next demand is that I let you go haring off to Tatooine and go fetch him.”

“Ma’am, we would never presume to demand,” Jess interjected. “But we might…” She trailed off.

“Forcefully offer?” Poe supplied.

“Why on earth I’d want all three of you reunited when the two of you give me enough trouble is beyond my powers,” Leia sighed. “Still, we’ve spent a lot of money on him; I’d like to recoup my investment. And Luke said nothing else in this very clever children’s cypher of his?” she asked, pulling out her glasses to peer at the letter now on her desk. “Why is it crumpled like this?”

Jess hesitated, then said, “We don’t have any more information than that, ma'am, but I do think it’s likely that Finn’s injured, perhaps badly; otherwise he would have come straight here.”

“Don’t be so sure of that, Pava,” said Leia. “The no-man’s-land between our forces is awfully close to Tatooine these days, with refugees still streaming north. Finn would have a much easier time blending in with the crowd there than he would if he’d tried to cross nearer the capital. Still, you may be right.” She handed the letter to Jess. “Just when I thought my position couldn’t get any worse. The delegation from the New Empire is due to arrive tomorrow; any thoughts on the members?”

“Brendol Hux is one of the few surviving nobility from the late Empire,” Jess said, refolding the letter. “He was a fairly high-ranking officer who was stationed in Kashyyyk when the Starkiller was unleashed; there’s always been rumors that he knew what was going to happen, but—“

“He didn’t,” Leia interrupted, clearly amused by something. “Continue.”

Poe picked up the brief. “He’s widely considered to be an artful bastard, but there’s no indication that he’s driven by any particular ideology — he rejoined the military after the First Order took over, but he didn’t have a history of political activity before that and even had some business interests here in Naboo. He married a Kashyyykian and had an assortment of children, the eldest of whom has been quite politically active.”

“Yes, Armitage,” said Leia. “I remember him from before the war; my steward would report on the various speeches he’d go around making. A remarkable little prick, I believe was the description. What else?”

Jess took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders a bit. “Hux is technically in the military, ma’am, but he’s being sent as the civilian negotiator; representing the First Order’s military branch is Commander Svetan Phasma, who—“

“What?” yelped Poe. “Phasma’s coming here? When did you discover this?”

“Just this morning,” Jess said, avoiding eye contact. “I was going to tell you, but then you became quite agitated over the Archbishop’s letter and I didn’t quite have time to catch you up.” She smiled blandly at Leia, who had leaned back in her chair and was regarding both of them dubiously. “As you know, Commander Phasma and I — and Poe — have history due to our time together at the cathedral at Tatooine, and I believe you would find my presence valuable to you during the negotiations—“

Poe made a manful effort not to snort, and very nearly managed it.

“—While Commander Dameron goes to the cathedral to debrief Finn.”

It took a few additional seconds for Poe to grasp the significance. “Yes! Yes, ma’am, I concur with my colleague, Commander Pava, this sounds like an excellent use of your resources and ensures that you have someone at your beck and call should the need arise.”

“I always have someone at my beck and call, Dameron,” said Leia. “It’s one of the perks of being royalty, not to mention the leader of a country. Although one drawback is that some of my subjects think I’m exceedingly stupid.”

“Ma’am—“ Jess started.

“We would never—“ Poe added.

She lifted her hand for silence. “As you intended, Dameron, that episode with you and Luke at the ball did wonders for his reputation; not all of them perfectly savory, since there’s at least three different and distinct rumors about whatever sexual relationship you might have. So you will be going absolutely nowhere near Tatooine for the foreseeable future, lest I have to fend off rumors that my brother has taken one of my Spymasters as a lover in an effort to usurp my crown or something similarly nonsensical. Pava,” she said, turning to Jess, “Go to Tatooine tomorrow, find out what happened to Finn. With the First Order sniffing around during these peace talks, the cathedral is probably the safest place for him for now, so there’s no need to bring him back — but find out what he knows.”

It was tempting to say something about Leia’s sudden interest in Finn’s safety, now that it was in Luke’s hands; but only tempting in the way a high cliff or a burning stove is tempting. Instead he stood at attention as Jess said “Yes, ma’am.”

Leia nodded at her and turned back to Poe. She smiled. “If you strangle me, Dameron,” she warned him, “Luke will have to deal with this mess, and he’ll be much more frustrating than I am.”

“I have no doubt, ma’am,” Poe said. “But I don’t understand why you want me instead of Jess here for the peace talks. Surely Jess would be a better choice.”

“I’m always a better choice,” Jess said.

“It’s true,” Leia agreed. “You would hardly be anyone’s choice as a diplomat, Poe; you’re excellent at being charming and getting information, but you are also well-known for being… what’s the term?”

“‘A bit of a shit’ is the term they usually use, ma’am,” Jess offered.

Who usually uses it?” Poe demanded.

“Besides,” Leia said, ignoring him, “As crushing as it may be to hear, I have very little use for either of you at these talks — spies tend to put diplomats off their feed. I have another task for you, Dameron.”

Poe had a sudden premonition of doom. “You want me to go speak with Grakkus,” he guessed.

“If Phasma is here in New Theed,” Leia said, “It means she isn’t making another attempt at getting Grakkus out of Magna Sera. Which gives you an opportunity. It’s been two months and five different attempts by the First Order, all of them failures; by now he must know we’re stopping them rather than trying to help him.”

“Which won’t make him happy,” Poe pointed out.

“What happened to your excellence at being charming?” Jess murmured. Poe unobtrusively stepped on her foot.

“But he’s had time to think about why,” Leia countered. “If he thinks we’re keeping him there for a reason,” and she spread her hands out expansively.

“He might be willing to offer something beforehand,” Poe realized slowly. It was a clever notion, assuming he could survive another saunter down to Grakkus’s palace in the first place.

Jess shook her head. “Ma’am,” she complained, “Has anyone ever told you how disheartening it is when you do their jobs better than they do?”

“Constantly,” Leia said, cheerful as she waved them off.

They made their bows out of the room and began their descent down the one-hundred-eighty steps to the ground floor. “Which one of us got the worse assignment?” Jess asked.

Poe huffed. “Me, by far.”

She opened her mouth to argue, then seemed to reconsider. “Let’s go get drunk,” she proposed.

***

They ended up in Jess’s depressing flat off Rapier Street, drinking appalling gin out of a pair of battered old teacups whose saucers had died long ago. “What sort of example are you setting, Pava?” he said, propping his feet up on the window ledge. “Gin at two o’clock in the afternoon and an unchaperoned man in your chambers.”

“I’ll have you know a man has never come near my chambers,” she hiccuped at him. “Besides, you’re supposed to be my role model, remember? Leading by example, and all that.”

“I’ll have you know I never once fell in love with a Renster.”

“No,” Jess snorted, “You fell in love with a priest. Well done, Commander.”

“Here’s to us, and our exquisitely bad taste,” Poe said. They clinked and emptied their cups, and Poe reached unsteadily for the bottle.

“D’you suppose Finn is more or less stupid than we are?” Jess asked, holding out her cup.

It was at this point difficult to aim properly, but Poe concentrated and managed to avoid getting much gin on the floor. Successful, he leaned back and poured his own drink, before remembering the question. “What?”

Jess shrugged. “He’s fallen in love with both an enemy and a priest, but I’d give him even odds of getting lucky before either of us.”

“That is an offensive remark and an utterly inappropriate wager to make,” Poe said, “Not to mention, a ridiculous one. I’d put any amount you’d care to wager on our superior prowess in the seductive arts.”

“Very well,” Jess said, plucking the near-empty bottle out of his hands and waggling it at him. “A bottle of top-shelf whiskey, then. None of this rotgut; I want only the finest alcohol money can smuggle. If Finn comes back from his Tatooine holiday with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, I’ll expect my payment on my desk within the month. And if you or I manage a bag,” she added, burping, “I’ll endeavor to do the same.”

“Hang on,” Poe said, “What guarantee do I have that should you and the lovely Captain share an evening of bliss, you’ll actually tell me about it?”

That seemed to give her pause. “Good point. In that event, Finn will owe both of us a bottle.”

“There’s something not quite right about setting the terms of a wager with someone who isn’t involved and making him pay more,” Poe observed, “But I’m not inclined to care.” And he shook Jess’s hand on it. “Agreed.”

***

Between the hangover and the choppy seas, Poe was not in the best frame of mind when he washed ashore at Magna Sera the next morning. But he’d neither disgraced himself over the side of the boat nor lost his grip on the small satchel he brought with him, and that was the best he could manage on short notice.

He had barely stepped foot out of the boat when the hidden door opened and Warden Luta stepped out; as she approached he made a small bow. “Lady Warden,” he said. “I’m honored.”

Luta gave a slight, tight smile. “I’ve been informed you wished to speak with Grakkus a second time; I confess to some curiosity about you. Not many visitors, tasting the air of Magna Sera’s inner sanctum, go back for seconds.”

She had odd-colored eyes, a sort of pale and faded brown. They did not blink. Poe said, “I’m not here to help him escape, Lady Warden. That I can promise you.”

“I believe that,” she replied. “Your men have been the ones preventing the First Order from just such a plan, in fact — have they not?”

“Her Majesty Queen Leia does not wish to have Grakkus on dry land any more than you do, ma’am,” Poe answered the unspoken question.

“Is it the Queen you speak for, then?”

Poe smiled, and opened his satchel. “I think you know the answer to that, ma’am,” he said, pulling out an apple.

Luta and Poe

She inhaled sharply; her hand darted out like a striking snake, leaving him blinking as she cradled the apple in her hands. “You brought this — from his orchard?” she asked, breathless.

“From his favorite tree, from his own hand,” Poe lied. “On my honor.”

“I never thought I would… thank you, Commander.” She squared her shoulders and nodded her head at one of the guards. “My men will ensure your journey to see Grakkus is uneventful, Commander. You have my gratitude.”

“And I am grateful for it,” Poe said, bowing again.

Fifteen heavily-armed guards had their merits; he presented himself at the gates of Grakkus’s palace only ten minutes later, and he was right-side-up when he did so. The man who opened the door — some strange shadow version of a butler, and Poe was reminded of the song once again — glared at him. “They don’t come in.”

“I’m sure they’ll be able to contain their disappointment,” Poe said. “May they wait for me outside?”

With a grunt, the ersatz butler moved aside and opened the door wider; Poe stepped through and followed him down the hallway, still just as ostentatiously impressive as it had been the last time. Instead of taking him to the courtyard, the butler took a left turn and deposited Poe in a library, all dark-paneled oak and with a fireplace in the corner. There was a painting over the mantelpiece, immediately familiar; Victory, with the Queen one one side with her shield and the Prince on the other, his left hand lifted. Poe realized that the odd gesture he’d always puzzled over as a child was the benediction; he’d seen Luke do it a hundred times.

The painting looked, to Poe’s inexpert eye, indistinguishable from the one hanging in the Palace.

“Ah, you like it!” Grakkus’s foghorn voice boomed from behind him. Poe kept himself from yelping, but only just. “A friend of mine made it especially for me.”

“I was just thinking,” Poe said, “That it looked just like the original.”

“Alas! Only a poor forger’s copy. But I must take my pleasures here as I find them; the original would be a trifle hard to get. Once I collected treasures far more rare than this, and far more wondrous. But now I must confine my interests to more secular artistry.”

“Prison life forces many changes, sir,” Poe said sympathetically as he accepted Grakkus’s outstretched hand.

“Indeed it does,” Grakkus said amiably. He did not let go of Poe’s hand; his grip was just shy of painful. “And yet as much as I appreciate your sympathy, Commander, I am beginning to suspect that you are not giving my proposal as much respectful consideration as I had thought you would!”

Poe kept his gaze on Grakkus’s, even as he felt the bones creak in his hands. “Your suspicions are correct, sir. I have been doing everything in my power to ensure you stay on Magna Sera.”

It was clearly not the answer Grakkus had expected; he released Poe’s hand as though it had burned him. “You have come to tell me this?” he said, perplexed. “And you expect to leave my house alive?”

“I expect to be escorted out unharmed, sir,” Poe said, taking a seat on one of the plush divans. “Killing me will only ensure that the Queen continues to refuse Naboo’s aid in your endeavor; right now our causes are perfectly aligned, and you would be a fool to ruin that by wreaking vengeance on me.” He smiled up at Grakkus, and gestured to another chair. “Please, let’s talk this over.”

“I’m almost amused enough at your foolhardiness to indulge you, Commander,” he replied, but he did sit. “The stories they tell of your audacity are clearly well short.”

“Thank you, sir. Praise from you is high praise indeed.”

“But let me see if I can guess what it is you’ll say next: that Leia refuses to let you help a monster like me out of prison, particularly since I might possibly be harboring a grudge against her and her brother.”

“She did kill your cousin,” Poe pointed out.

“And Luke… ah, but I’m sure he told you the story,” Grakkus said. “You have single-handedly rehabilitated him in the eyes of New Theed’s high society, from what I’ve heard. People saw him smiling and dancing and all of a sudden, it’s as though his past is wiped clean!” He smiled, a rictus that held no actual mirth. “If only we were all so lucky to have a handsome young man handle our public relations.”

“But you do,” Poe said. “That’s the next thing I was going to say. Right now, Her Majesty thinks you want to trade information for freedom; but I can convince her that you want forgiveness more than freedom.”

This got a belly laugh from him; a strangely pleasant sound. “You propose to convince Leia that I am no longer an irredeemable villain but a repentant old prisoner?”

“Sincere repentance is the easiest thing in the world to feign,” Poe assured him. “And if she believes you have no expectation of reward, she will no longer look quite so closely into my handling of this. It will become yet another matter that has been dealt with, and she will move on.”

“How crushingly insignificant I seem in all this,” Grakkus said, still chuckling. “So you wish for me to tell you all I know, and in return I may one day get out of this hell-hole? Why should I not wait for the First Order to spring me out? Commander Phasma is a determined woman, you must admit.”

“Commander Phasma is in New Theed at this very moment,” Poe said. “If the peace talks are successful, the First Order will no longer have reason to break you out.” This was a gamble, of course; Poe had had little success in finding out just what Phasma wanted with Grakkus in the first place. But he said it with confidence and an easy smile.

It still didn’t work; Grakkus laughed even harder now, slapping his thigh. “Oh, my lad, you are a delight,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “You’re absolutely right — I’ll let you live, you’re far too entertaining to kill all at once.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Poe replied, bemused. “But I’m not altogether sure what you find so entertaining about me at present.”

“I know!” he said, still laughing. “That’s the beauty of it.”

“If you’d rather take your chances with the First Order, I can respect that. But—“

“I’d rather you had talked to me a few days earlier, lad,” said Grakkus. “Perhaps then you would have something a bit more substantial to trade away.” And he glanced at the clock (an ornate affair that had no business in a prisoner’s cell). “Aren’t your peace talks about to start?”

Poe could feel time slowing down, the clock ticking louder. “The peace talks — they’re a diversion.” Grakkus’s grin seemed to surround him, press him down into his seat when he needed to jump to his feet. “Do you know where the attack will come?”

“As I said, far too entertaining,” Grakkus said. He fumbled in a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. “You have made an old man laugh twice in one day, and that deserves compensation. And no, I won’t be giving you any information you seem to think I have, young man. I’ll simply offer some advice. Two pieces of advice, in fact; one for each laugh. The first is that you should look more closely at the bodies of Tuanul. Count them, and be careful. You will find something very interesting, I think.”

“And what’s the second?” Poe said, finally standing and too frightened for tact.

Grakkus shrugged as he put his handkerchief back. “The second is that you had better hurry. From what I understand, most of those bodies were buried in Tatooine. And soon Tatooine will not be in your control. The First Order has plans to take it tonight.”

***

There were a few times, a hundred times, during the long trip back to shore when Poe could have gone straight to the Capital. But each time his better sense was drowned out by the image of Stormtrooper boots, in their terrible formations, crushing crops and towns underneath as they marched north. He was able at least to send a message with the captain (who took it with a dubious expression — “Deliver it to the Queen?”) before wading onto shore somewhere near where the front line met the sea. But even so he could imagine Leia’s precise expression as she stripped him of his post and, in likelihood, threw him in the stocks for a week after this particular stunt.

If there truly was an attack coming, there was no sign of it here; from a nearby cliff, a handful of sheep watched him suspiciously as he clambered off the beach. The shepherd agreed to exchange his horse for Poe’s jacket — he even gave approximate directions to Tatooine, which he described as “the city.” Poe made a note to return with the horse and a stern lecture about offering assistance to strangers in time of war, and spurred the horse (“Her name’s Atat!” the shepherd called after him) into a brisk trot, trying not to wince at the squelch his trousers made in the saddle.

Even so, he had a long ride ahead of him — and the shepherd didn’t seem very clear on which side of the front line they were currently on. Poe had already thrown any identifying markers overboard but he had no illusions that he would escape detection if he crossed paths with the First Order. So he kept off the main roads, relying on his compass and the waning light to guide him and conceal him.

It was a few hours (he suspected) later before he met another soul; three elderly farmers, one with a small girl on her back, walking grimly west. They did not glance his way as he passed, but one of them made the sign of the cross and muttered a prayer. He hoped it was for him.

After that, the signs became clearer; burned-out buildings and the stink of charred flesh, trampled fields and the occasional bored sentry, easily dispatched in the growing darkness. From the North came the distant sound of cannons just as Poe reached the Mos Eisley Woods, stretching up to Tatooine.

He slid off of Atat and removed her saddle and bridle; a brisk slap to her rump sent the pony trotting back home, a good deal more briskly than she’d come thus far. Poe made his way into the forest, a borrowed rifle in his hands. He was able to avoid or dispose of the occasional scouts scattered throughout the woods; Poe had spent his childhood in the jungles near Yavin and whatever their virtues as soldiers, Stormtroopers made poor guerrilla fighters.

There was no way to know precisely where he was, other than deep within enemy territory; he didn’t dare leave any soldier alive for long enough to interrogate. But suddenly a sound broke through the gunfire and shouting: the Cathedral bells in full peal.

He dropped down into someone’s back garden just as another cannon blast cut through the air. Crashing through the deserted house, he could see no signs of any civilians on the street; the bodies he stepped over were soldiers from both sides. Even as he offered up formless, directionless gratitude, he wondered at it — he had come across massacres tonight, entire farmsteads wiped out and left where they fell. No one in Tatooine would be spared if the First Order took the city. And although the Alliance had a contingent just south of the village, but he could not imagine there had been time to evacuate.

It was not until he stumbled into the town square, with the bulk of the church walls before him, that he realized: they were all in the Cathedral. Luke had offered sanctuary.

“You idiot,” he hissed under his breath. And in that moment, the gunfire and the cannons — and the bells — stopped.

The silence itself had a sound; Poe crept around to the front of the cathedral, swearing at the same vague entity he’d just thanked as he stepped over ever-more Alliance bodies. The smoke had not yet cleared; he was able to get within striking distance of the Cathedral doors without being seen. He took position behind one of the gnarled oaks that comprised the northernmost section of the Mos Eisley Woods, and only then did he force himself to see if the doors had been breached.

They had not. One was open a fraction; lamplight spilled from within. It cut a slice down the steps and to the road, where a phalanx of Stormtroopers stood in formation, every one with their rifle drawn and aimed.

Aimed at Luke, standing before the door.

He looked like Moses or David or any of a dozen half-forgotten stories from Poe’s sleepy childhood lessons. This felt like a story, too — but the smell of gas and cordite that bit at his nostrils, the low hum of the automobiles and tanks behind the front line, the dazzle of white armor against the blush of red-gold leaves falling all around — it was real.

There was a blared command from behind the front line and the Stormtroopers raised their weapons as one, resting them against their soldiers. Poe was about to let out a breath when another command sent them marching in place, a deafening rhythm that seemed louder than the battle itself. Another command and they moved forward, across the road and toward the Cathedral.

Luke lifted his hand and for a wild moment Poe thought he was going to give benediction. But he could hear his voice over the din:

“Stop.”

Luke you dummy

***

Chapter Text

***

The first time Luke held Ben, he nearly dropped him.

It was the coldest winter in years, and the darkest part of the war. Alderaan had just been destroyed — not by anything human, but by some weapon they didn’t even have a name for. Any moment Naboo might be next; the price for their defiance of Palpatine. And in the midst of all the grim news and death, Leia and Han had gotten married and had a child; the marriage just eight months before, enough time for people’s raised eyebrows to be the extent of the outrage.

Leia had apparently been in the middle of a council when she went into labor, and Threepio had had to wrestle her into a carriage to go to the hospital — along with the three admirals and four constabularies she had been meeting with. All of them were now stuffed in the delivery room, finishing the meeting.

“Her Majesty had not anticipated delivery for another three weeks,” Threepio informed Han and Luke when they arrived, “And she said that motherhood would simply have to accommodate her schedule.”

Han and Luke, in contrast, had been banished into this ramshackle waiting room. Han had tried blandishing his way into the delivery room, but being the new Prince Consort didn’t have much pull when going against the Queen herself. Periodically a nurse or doctor would come into the room to squint at them. Luke assumed it was to assure themselves that Han really was as disreputable as the papers had made him seem during the wedding a few months ago, but enough of them had squinted at him too to make him nervous.

For his part, Han was losing what little remained of his mind, pacing up and down the room. “I can’t tell what’s worse,” he said, “Being stuck out here or being stuck with you, kid.”

Luke clasped his hands together and put them behind his head, pretending to relax for the sole purpose of getting Han to glare at him. “Relax, Your Highness,” he advised. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Whenever you think it’ll be fine, things blow up in our faces,” Han pointed out, but he sat down in the chair next to Luke. “I don’t think I’ve ever even held a baby,” he said, quieter.

Luke glanced over. Han had a habit of doing that: letting his guard down all at once without warning, so that even his confidences sounded like threats. “Not much to it,” he answered. “Just imagine it’s a very valuable, very fragile sack of contraband.”

Han snorted and laughed, finally leaning back and stretching out his long legs, knocking his ankle against Luke’s. “Thanks,” he said heavily. “So what do you think? Think she’s gonna pop out a boy or a girl?”

“Could be another set of twins. It runs in the family.”

“Christ,” said Han.

“Blasphemy,” Luke chided. Han grumbled but subsided, leaving nothing but the quiet of the room and the faint sound of voices down the hall.

He had grown up thinking of himself as the spare heir; now he really would be spare, in line after a newborn. It would be the most natural thing in the world to feel a trace of jealousy or resentment or even regret, knowing that Leia’s claim five years ago was set in ever more iron.

He couldn’t ever recall being so relieved.

There was noise behind the door; Han and Luke both jumped to their feet as a nurse came in, followed by faint cries from the delivery room. “You have a son, Your Highness,” he told Han. “Healthy and strong.“

“And already complaining,” Luke observed.

“Is the Queen all right?” Han demanded.

From down the hall Leia’s voice rose briefly over the sound of crying; the nurse flinched. “She’s doing just fine, Your Highness,” he said. “She’ll be able to see you soon.” The crying reached some kind of crescendo and the nurse excused himself, all but slamming the door in their faces.

Han looked at Luke. “Are they supposed to be that noisy?”

“I suspect my sister is trying to teach him about tactics or governmental infrastructure or something,” Luke said. “It used to make me cry, too.”

They were left waiting another quarter-hour before the door opened again and the military brass who’d been in the meeting with Leia filed out in an orderly, if clearly shell-shocked, line. “Congratulations, Your Hightness,” they all mumbled as they passed by, each one looking more haggard then the last.

Chewie brought up the rear. “Healthy lungs,” is all he signed. “Sounds like his father.” And he disappeared before Han could do much more yell “Hey!”

Soon after the nurse returned — this time carrying a small, extremely loud bundle. “Her Majesty asked if you would like to see your son, Your Highness,” he half-shouted over the noise.

“And have a few seconds of peace, I bet,” Han shouted back. He reached out hesitantly toward the bundle, then put his hands behind his back. “You — maybe later. I don’t want to drop him, I’d probably get arrested for regicide.”

The nurse looked horrified and clutched the baby to his chest. “Um,” he said.

Luke rolled his eyes and got up. “You’re royalty now, too, Han,” he reminded him, and held his hands out to the nurse. “I’ll take him.”

“Yes, of course, Your Highness,” the nurse said, clearly relieved to be speaking with at least one fully-functional adult in the room.

So eager was he to hand over the baby, in fact, that he let go before Luke had a good grip on the bundle of cloth and flailing limbs — he managed to keep hold, but it was a close thing, and when he looked up Han was right beside him, his hands hovering and unsure.

“Are they usually that… wiggly?” Han said.

“It stopped him crying, didn’t it?” Luke said, because it had — the baby was apparently so appalled at its rough handling that it had hiccuped itself into silence and was now staring up at the two of them suspiciously.

Luke stifled his grin as he got his first good look at his nephew. There was a tiny tuft of hair on his head; he had Leia’s serious eyes and he grabbed onto Han’s finger with determination. Luke had never seen anything as perfect.

“He’s got my nose,” Luke said, touching it carefully.

Han nudged his shoulder. “Didn’t you break your nose a few years ago?” He huffed. “All right, give him to me.”

The baby went peacefully enough to his father, who still looked faintly nauseated even as he gripped him tightly. “What do I do?” he hissed at Luke.

“Tell him hello,” said Luke, blinking at him as if it should be obvious.

“Hello,” Han told the baby. “I’m your… father. How’re you?”

Luke snorted. “Your manners are impeccable.”

“Hey, this isn’t easy, okay? Kid doesn’t even have a name yet and I’m probably already screwing him up.”

The nurse was still hovering in the doorway. “Her Majesty said she expected him back in just a minute,” he said, and to underline the point they heard Leia’s voice, strident and unhappy, drifting down the hall.

“Tell her royalness to pipe down,” Han said, but he brushed past him toward wherever Leia was shouting. “Come on, kid. I want to see the look on her face when she sees how I made him stop crying.”

I’m the one who made him stop crying!” Luke protested, catching up.

“Or maybe he’s just the only one in this family who knows when to shut up,” Han retorted.

***

The Stormtroopers did not stop all at once; one by one they seemed to falter and step out of turn, stumbling into each other as they piled up from the front. Luke kept his hand up and kept his eyes forward and soon there was only the distant rumble of thunder — or perhaps it was more cannon fire.

He had no notion of how long he stood there, his arm upraised; it might have been minutes or an hour. But then there was movement, and a black figure on a black horse cut through the stuttered troops and came to a stop at the foot of the stairs. The figure had a strange helmet on, and for a moment Luke feared the worst; but the helmet was removed and revealed a man Luke had never met, with bright red hair and a sneering mouth.

“Your Highness,” he said, bowing slightly from the saddle. “Please allow me to present myself: I am General Armitage Hux of the Empire’s First Order. It is an honor to meet you.”

Luke kept his hand raised. “Is it?” he asked. “I’m glad you think so; in which case you will remove yourself from my village immediately.”

Hux brushed some non-existent dirt off of his helmet. “Perhaps not quite that much an honor, I’m afraid. I have my orders, as I’m sure Your Highness can understand.”

“Orders to break a truce and slaughter innocent civilians?”

“Orders to find a murderer, Your Highness. A traitor responsible for the death of an entire squadron. There have been reports that he came this way.”

“Many refugees have come this way.”

“This one would have been very easy to spot — a familiar face, in fact,” said Hux. “A Commander Finn — at least I believe that’s what he’s called here. At home we have another name for him.”

He had always been terrible at this, terrible at the word games that could bury you in an instant. The Emperor had called it a charming idiocy. “You could never keep a secret from me, boy,” he’d say, taking Luke’s chin in his hand and shaking it affectionately. “I would know before you opened your mouth.”

Now he wondered how much Hux, clearly better-versed in the art of misdirection, would see from his face alone: that Jess had bundled Finn into a horsecart a scant two hours ago when the first sounds of battle had drifted across the forest, that the hundreds of villagers now huddled in the abbey could be cut down in moments — or worse, crushed by the stone itself if the cannons turned toward the great walls. That Luke would die here and now before admitting to any of it.

Hux smiled. “I do not blame you, Your Majesty; perhaps you took him in out of misguided charity, or even affection. But the First Order cannot let such grave crimes go unpunished. We require his return.”

“I should think the men and women killed today are ample punishment for whatever crime you think him guilty of,” Luke said. “But I’m afraid Finn isn’t here, General. You have come here and done all this for nothing.”

For a long moment there was nothing but the booming sound from far away — thunder, Luke decided, the cracks too high to be cannon-fire. Then Hux shook his head. “Then I have no choice, Your Majesty.” As he turned his horse back toward the waiting line, he called over his shoulders, “Perhaps you wish to go back inside, and give what blessings you can.”

“What of their choice?” Luke said, just loud enough for the soldiers to hear him. “Do you know what your men will choose?”

That got Hux’s attention; he spun his horse around, cruel on the bit and spurring the animal up the stairs to stop just short of Luke’s outstretched hand. “You traitor—“ he hissed, hand on his sidearm.

“Traitor or not,” Luke reminded him, “I’m still the Sky Walker. I’m the man who killed a city; I’m the nightmare of every soldier here tonight. I’m the man who stopped them all with this.” He clenched his hand into a fist. “Imagine what else I could do?”

For the past twenty-odd years Luke had tried desperately, single-mindedly, to forget the look on people’s faces when they found out who he was. It had dogged him every step of his life; all but a handful of people (Rey, Lor San, Poe) had shrunk away when they learned his name or recognized his face. He’d often wished that his face, not his hand, had been disfigured — anything to keep people from looking too closely, from seeing too much.

But he watched Hux’s fear skitter across his face and felt a dark satisfaction. “You may have Tatooine, General; that is what you have truly come for, and what your master will reward. But you will harm no one in this Cathedral, not even after they leave it. My sanctuary extends to the outskirts of this village and I shall be watching every moment.”

Hux’s jaw was clenched, in rage or against the chill; but he smiled and said, “Not a sparrow shall fall, I believe is the term. Do you consider yourself God now, Your Highness?”

“I’ve been called the Devil more often,” Luke said. He lowered his arm carefully, listening for the sound of soldiers moving back into position. “But I’m willing to be either. Whatever would rid me of you. And remember that I have been desperate to rid myself of enemies before, General.”

“We have not forgotten, Your Highness,” Hux replied. “Nor have we forgiven.” And he turned his horse away again, shouting an impatient command. The Stormtroopers scrambled into formation and moved north, parting around the Cathedral steps like water around a stone. Luke stood and watched them go — where, he could not muster himself to care just yet. They were gone, leaving dead bodies and mud and stillness.

Or not stillness — because a man was running from the woods toward him, a rifle in hand, yelling at him and Luke had just enough time to be disappointed in dying so ridiculously before he realize it was Poe, dragging him back through the Cathedral doors and slamming them shut.

“What are you doing here?” he said, as Poe dropped the crossbar into the open cleats. “Jess said you were—“

“Where are they?” Poe demanded. “Finn and Jess? Are they still here?”

“You got my note,” Luke said, still unable to quite grasp what was going on.

Poe glared at him. “Yes, and we’ll discuss your idea of a secure cipher at a later time, at length. Where are they?”

Luke glared back. A minute ago he had been facing down an army; now he was getting badgered by someone altogether more irritating. “They’re gone — I made them leave as soon as I realized what was coming.”

Poe didn’t look in the least impressed. “How? Through the Judas Hole? Phasma knows this place inside and out — odds are she had guards stationed at the entrance. If she hasn’t sent spies through already.”

“I had the entrance sealed off some time ago,” Luke said, offended. “I’m not entirely stupid.”

“Yes, you are entirely stupid,” Poe corrected. “I just watched you face down an entire army one-handed.”

“That was a terrible joke,” Luke told him, trying to get past him into the nave proper. “I should go let everyone know what happened.”

“What did happen?” Poe asked, not moving; in fact his hand came up to Luke’s shoulder, not pushing but not giving way. “And where is everyone? I thought they’d be clustered in front of the cross, but—“ he turned to look down the length of the empty nave.

“We thought it would be best to use the Abbey,” Luke said. He didn’t add why; but Poe turned back to him with a knowing quirk of his brow. “And I’m afraid I agreed to an occupied force here, in exchange for our lives. You’re technically in enemy territory right now.”

“No sanctuary for me, then?” Poe asked, though he didn’t smile. “I came all this way.”

Luke cleared his throat. “What are you doing here? Surely you didn’t think I would hand Finn over.”

He didn’t look any less angry, but he admitted, “No, I didn’t — I actually came to rescue you.” His jaw was still set but he was starting to look at least a little embarrassed.

“Well done,” Luke assured him. His blood was still humming in his veins, everything brightly-lit and sharp. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—“

Whatever patience Poe had been holding onto seemed to snap in that moment — he grabbed Luke with both hands and shook him. “If I’ll excuse you?”

“Poe—“

The door was solid and smooth against his back, the only real thing in the world, it seemed, as Poe pressed him up against it. “You stupid, reckless fool,” Poe growled, his hands fisted in the fabric of Luke’s cassock. “Excuse you — you should have died out there, do you know that?”

“They wouldn’t have dared kill me,” Luke said. Somehow he had forgotten, or made himself forget, how incandescent Poe was, how he seemed to shine in the light. He wanted to — so badly — brush away the soot and dirt on Poe’s cheek, curl his fingers into his sweat-soaked hair. He kept his hand flat against the wood.

“You know that, do you?” Poe’s fists tightened.

Luke shut his eyes. “I had to do what I could to save the Cathedral.”

Damn your cathedral, and damn you,” Poe said, and kissed him.

Luke had often skipped over what Poe called the “smutty bits” in his novels that he liked so well — not because he feared for any temptations they might stir in him, but because so often the imagery seemed more calculated to amuse than arouse. Phrases such as “tongues battling for dominance” and “cries of ecstasy” often caused him to laugh at inappropriate times, and so he found it more expedient to skim past any such interludes until the story resumed its less carnal plotlines.

But with Poe sliding his tongue along his, his teeth catching on Luke’s bottom lip — as though he were continuing their argument — Luke could remember only the helplessness espoused by the heroines in such moments. As though they were too overwhelmed by some force greater than themselves to surrender with anything more than token protest. Poe pressed himself up against him so that Luke was pinned to the heavy oak, Poe’s hand cradling his head. Luke shut his eyes and thought, yes.

Door kisses

The churchbell rang out — six o’clock. Poe pulled away from him, and Luke managed to open his eyes just enough to see that he was still frowning, his eyebrows low and ominous.

“Don’t ever do that again,” Poe told him.

Luke cleared his throat. “I could make the same request of you,” he said, but he could not imagine what power he held now, so thoroughly caught.

“I wasn’t requesting.” Poe leaned in again, his mouth — that dangerous weapon — scant inches from Luke’s own. “Were you?”

“Poe,” Luke said, and might have been able to say more, but Poe stepped back and straightened his jacket. “You stole that uniform,” Luke said instead.

For the first time, Poe smiled. “I’m in enemy territory,” he reminded him. Before Luke could reply, he darted in once more, pressing a kiss at the corner of Luke’s mouth. “Stay out of trouble for the next while, Father,” he murmured. “At least until we can retake Tatooine.”

***

The Alliance did not retake Tatooine — not the next day or the next week. There was no sign of them; no way to contact the capital, no information that did not come third- or fourth-hand. The First Order moved north and left chaos and death behind, for others to clean up.

But remarkably they did clean up, and press on. Luke had lived under an occupying force before, but he had forgotten how quickly one adapted. The First Order stationed a division in the village, requisitioning some of those same houses and spare rooms that had been so recently abandoned by the Tuanulans. But the Stormtroopers were almost scrupulous in their conduct; there were no reports of assault or threats to the villagers, not even rumors murmured throughout the congregation.

His charitable instincts prompted him to credit the good conduct of the villagers, but the slight flinch of each Stormtrooper as he passed by indicated that it was his presence, not the people’s behavior, that was keeping the peace at present.

In any case, he stayed on his knees an extra few minutes every morning giving thanks and asking forgiveness both. He knew Poe was right — that it was foolish, not to mention treasonous, to trade the village for its safety. No doubt when Tatooine was retaken, Luke would face any number of awkward questions from Leia. But the winter was setting in soon, the last of the harvest still to be brought in; none of them had time to waste on principles.

Still, time stretched on and Luke felt stretched with it, waiting for a reprieve that seemed less likely with each passing day. He watched his fellow priests and congregants acclimatize to the new norms within the village: each cart to be inspected going in and coming out; rations to be given on a strict per capita basis, allowances made for children, the elderly and the sick; the daily march of the platoon through the streets. It all felt almost bearable.

Harder to endure was his own dread at such a reprieve. When (or increasingly if) the Alliance retook the Cathedral, he would face more than his sister’s wrath.

He had been able, for a time, to lock away the smiles and teasing remarks, the dances and the promise of a kiss. Poe was an impossibility, one of thousands that Luke had suffered; but now at night he dreamed of a demanding, lush mouth and dark eyes, hands that bruised where they held him. And he woke every morning aching, made all the worse by the certainty that it was no longer impossible.

Fortunately (though he felt guilt for labeling it as good fortune) he had a sizable distraction in the meantime. Finn’s arrival last week, lame and bleeding, had sent Rey into paroxysms of delight and worry. At first the young man had not fared well, slipping into a feverish delirium brought on by infection and cold. Their doctors and nurses, not to mention supplies, had long gone, but Rey refused to leave Finn’s side and within a few days he began to recover. Once he was out of danger, Luke spent the better part of three hours devising a note to Poe — who hadn’t even appreciated it.

Jess’s arrival a day later had at first seemed like a happy reunion, despite her mission; Rey had even presented them all with chocolates she had procured from goodness knew where and which BB made tremendous efforts to steal. Luke had watched Rey laughing and thought that if God was anywhere in the world, He was here.

Of course it hadn’t lasted, and Finn had been bundled into the cart without more than a wave good-bye. Whatever grief Rey had felt at his absence had been put aside that night, hearing the sounds of soldiers coming ever closer.

And Rey was, if anything, better than him at subsuming her emotions into work; in the days and weeks afterward she reacted to her heartbreak with a fresh, not to say frenzied, round of inventory. On the one occasion Luke had tried to draw her out, she had glared at him and gone off to reorganize their entire supply of chasubles.

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Rey asked one day, folding the newspaper up irritably. Newspapers from Naboo had stopped long before the First Order had arrived; now they received the Empire’s, which Rey deemed highly inferior and with terrible comics besides.

Luke peered down at her through the branches. “What was that?” he called. It was hard to hear at present: Artu and BB were having their semi-weekly argument over who had supervisory rights over Luke while he gathered apples. A feather floated down from the top of the tree, followed by a tuft of cat hair.

“I said,” Rey huffed, “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

He climbed down the ladder, a basket full of apples in hand. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific, Rey. Do something about what?”

“About—“ she waved her hands. “Everything. Being occupied. The tyranny of the oppressor. Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of war hero?”

“Or a war criminal, depending who you ask,” Luke said as he handed her the basket.

“No one thinks you’re a war criminal.”

He gave her a look as he maneuvered the ladder to the next tree.

“No one whose opinion matters thinks you’re a war criminal,” she amended.

“That is very kind and extremely false,” said Luke. He settled the ladder against the trunk and paused, glancing around to see if anyone was within earshot. “What would you propose we do, then?” he asked.

She narrowed her eyes. “Is this a trap?”

“It’s a question. What should we do, if we are to do ‘something’?”

“I don’t know — revolt, I suppose. Cast off the chains of fascism. Put sugar in their fuel tanks.”

Luke laughed. “That last one at least has merit. But tell me this: when we revolt, what happens next? Assuming that the chains of tyranny are not so easily cast off. We would be caught.”

“I suppose,” Rey said, with the wariness of a student who suspects she is being taught.

“And how do you think the First Order would punish us? Two priests who care for their congregation?”

“They’d beat us. Or make us go without food. Or lock us up somewhere. Or kill us, I suppose,” she added as an afterthought.

Luke was able to go for entire days without recalling the horrific circumstances of Rey’s childhood, but these moments brought them back. “Do you think they would do it to us?” he asked. “Or would they punish someone else — someone we cared for, someone we did not want to see harmed?”

She blinked at him. “I… suppose.”

“But,” he continued, “What if someone else in the village — Cornelius or Ponda, they’ve got that renegade gleam in their eyes these days — does ‘something’? Putting sugar in their fuel tanks or laming their horses or stealing all their rifles, whatever they think will put the Stormtroopers out. Who do you think will be punished then, and made an example of?”

As a child, Rey had always been far too quick, asking questions with new questions layered on top of his answers before he’d gotten them out, thinking four or five or seven steps ahead. She hadn’t lost that impatient brilliance, but now she held back for a few moments, double-checking herself and circling back on the topic, looking at it from all angles. Still, she saw what he meant instantly.

“So our act of rebellion is to be the lamb.” She regarded him for a moment, then added, “No, that’s not right. I would be the lamb, or one of the others. They won’t kill you. Will they?”

“Not yet,” Luke assured her, climbing up the ladder. “But I am quite sure the Empire has brave punishments devised for me.”

***

Rey wasn’t so easily put off, however; a few days later (still with no sign of the Alliance) she presented herself in front of his desk just after Vespers, her shoulders stiff and her jaw resolute. Luke took one look and leaned back in his chair, abandoning all thoughts of getting any paperwork done tonight.

“Father,” she started, then modified, “Father Luke. I think that in light of our present circumstances, I might have found an opportunity for us to do some good.”

Luke waved his hand at the papers on his desk. “I’ve just been granted permission by our new overlords to distribute stores of food from the gardens to the hungry, which until now they have been claiming contravenes the Empire’s Food Safety and Requisition Act. ‘Good’ is relative, I suppose, but I would make an argument that we’re doing some good now.”

Her reaction, before she schooled her face back into obsequiousness, showed exactly what she thought of any good done through bureaucracy. “I meant something more… active,” she said.

“I see.”

Rey took this as an invitation to expound; she sat in the guest chair and scooted it forward, leaning halfway across the desk. “I was thinking that now that we’re in Empire territory, perhaps we can go to Tuanul. Since we’re technically on the same side now. Sort of.”

“Oh, Lord,” Luke sighed.

Rey protested, “We could find out if the people who disappeared—“

“Who left, Rey; they didn’t vanish in a puff of smoke—“

“If they went back, and if they didn’t, we could find out why—“

“Rey,” Luke said.

“And Finn said that in Trillia, the entire platoon had their throats cut, just like in Tuanul.” Her eyes widened. “We could go to Trillia, too! And find clues—“

“Rey,” Luke tried again.

“And perhaps we can help solve the tea-cosy mystery ourselves!”

Luke pinched his nose. “‘Tea-cosy mystery’?”

She hesitated. “That’s what Finn said Poe called it.”

“He does,” Luke allowed. “But that’s to make light of a war crime that is far more serious than one of those mystery novels. Rey, whatever happened in Tuanul — and in Trillia — you must understand that it isn’t just some puzzle to be solved.”

“But—“ she stopped. “But if we know who was responsible—“

“Then we know. And we may be able to do nothing about it; even after this damned war is finished and records can be called to account. It’s possible that the man or woman or thing that did this, that killed those people, can’t be brought to justice. Could you live with that?”

“Everyone can be brought to justice,” she replied, with earth-shaking conviction.

Luke took a deep breath, and looked down at his hands — his left hand, and his right arm, ending just above the wrist. He could still feel it, clenched in the rough fabric of an Imperial General’s uniform as it was sliced— “What do you know about the start of the past two wars?” he asked her.

Rey looked puzzled. “Kylo Ren infiltrated the court and killed General Solo,” she said, “And kidnapped Prince Ben. And the Starkiller — the last war was started when Darth Vader killed Queen Padme. Tied her to her throne and burned—“ she looked down at her lap. “That’s what they say.”

“They’re right,” Luke said, “And wrong, at the same time. Who is Kylo Ren?”

She glanced up. “Who is he? He’s—“ she shrugged. “A spy for the New Empire, or something. I don’t know.”

“I do,” Luke said. “He was a spy, of a sort. And he lives in the Empire now. But he had never stepped foot in it before he fled there, after killing Han Solo. And he went there alone.”

“Then what happened to the Prince?” She squinted at him, her lips barely moving as she thought through it. “No,” she concluded. “It… Prince Ben wasn’t…” She blanched. “He killed his own father. But why?”

“He’s hardly the first in this family,” Luke said. He rubbed his eyes. He had never had to confront the why before; Ben’s betrayal had been a simple fact, like stormclouds or earthquakes, something to be dealt with. “Ben was… a strange child. He didn’t look much like Leia or Han; no one in either family had coal-black hair like his, and even as a boy we could tell he was going to grow as tall as a Kashyyykian. Rumors began to spread, as they do.” He shrugged helplessly. “Rumors that there was another heir — a better one. Rumors I had sired a bastard, rumors that Han and Leia had somehow had another child in secret. No matter what we did, they would not die, and Ben…” He looked away, out onto the river. “He came to me once wanting to know more of the Church. He even made a joke of it — that should this magically perfect heir emerge from the depths of our family tree, he would have to take vows anyway. But it ate at him, I could see that. Hurt him to his core, this notion that whatever he was, it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if that’s what caused him to do what he did; perhaps he himself doesn’t know. But I suspect it had a role to play.” He shrugged again. “So, now that you know — what can you do about it? My nephew killed my best friend; he betrayed his country, waged war, tortured people. Tortured Poe,” he added, because Poe’s smiles and easy laughter made it too difficult to remember that he’d been broken on that wheel in Vindicta, even before Luke had ever known that smile or laugh. “What would it look like, to bring Kylo Ren — whatever his name — to justice?”

Rey floundered. “I would — you could have him executed. The Queen could, I mean.”

“And she intends to, if she’s ever able,” Luke told her. “But that won’t fix anything.”

She set her jaw. “It would repay his debt to society,” she argued.

“Repay his debt,” Luke echoed. He drummed his fingers on the desk. He hadn’t told this story to many — the last person who’d heard it was Yoda, in fact, lying on his deathbed and prodding Luke to confess his sins. But Rey had survived the knowledge that Kylo Ren was really Prince Ben with relative ease; perhaps this story, more distant in the past, would be easier to hear. “My father was a priest,” he began.

Rey frowned at him. “No he wasn’t.”

Luke bit back a smile in spite of everything. “I must be mistaken, then.”

“Your—“ Rey was still frowning. “All the — Prince Anakin was a general in the Army. He died defending her.”

“Right and wrong,” said Luke, making a seesaw gesture with his hand. “He was born in Tatooine, as a matter of fact; the bastard son of a blacksmith. My grandmother died years before we were born but she’s buried here in the churchyard. In a few more decades she’ll be disinterred for the crypt,” he realized. He shook his head and continued. “My father was a brilliant religious scholar, an acolyte under Father Obi-Wan, who was a good friend to the Royal Family. He introduced his newest pupil to the Princess and my father fell in love on the spot. Resigned from the priesthood the day he met her; he used to say that if God had ever made him feel that way, he would have stayed a priest the rest of his life.” He could still remember Father’s expression as he’d said it, smiling and wry and half-resentful that a love so staggering had come for him and swept him off his path. “Perhaps that was the trouble, really.”

Rey opened her mouth, no doubt to ask another question, and Luke held up his hand. “He did join the Army. He thought it would be better for him if he could protect his wife and kingdom and his two children. And then Emperor Palpatine took an interest in him. The Emperor was a theological student too, after a fashion; he would write long letters to my father, invite him to Stellamortis to see priceless relics and speak with learned scholars. And somewhere along the way, Palpatine convinced him that Naboo had become a godless, heathen kingdom, with no love for the Lord.

“My father would come home with plans to reform the government and bring God back into the hearts of his people.” He smiled at Rey. “It didn’t sound so very terrible to me, but I suppose I was always biased toward the Church. But my mother wouldn’t have it — at first, she would persuade him against it. Then, later on, she had to order him. And then she had to jail him.”

“She jailed her own husband?”

“Don’t worry,” said Luke, “She let him go. And then arrest him again: fomenting rebellion, inciting riots. Of course no one knew it was my father; he was calling himself by another name by then. Prince Anakin was off on a diplomatic voyage, or was indisposed with the flu, or traveling with the children; and no one seemed to recognize the mad-eyed zealot who had been causing all this trouble.

“Finally my mother realized that whatever had taken hold of my father, it couldn’t be cured by the methods she’d been using. So she summoned him to the palace and told him that unless he stopped — unless he renounced this madness — she would send him to Magna Sera and she would pronounce him dead to the world.”

Rey swallowed, her face pale. “What happened?”

“He tied her to the throne,” Luke answered, “And burned her alive.”

“Your father? Your own—“ Rey hunched down in her chair. “Your father was Darth Vader?”

“As I said, killing fathers — and keeping secrets — is a family trait.”

She ignored his poor attempt at a joke. “Did you know? About what he’d done?”

“Not right away,” Luke admitted. “Our mother’s charade hadn’t worked quite as well on us as it did on the public — we knew that my father’s monomania had gotten out of control, that he’d all but gone mad even while we read newspaper accounts of his charitable works outside the Continent. But we arrived at the palace after he’d left; we only saw the bodies. I think we wanted to believe that our father was amongst the dead; it was less painful. He’d fled to the Empire by the time we realized the truth, using his new name and his military prowess in the Emperor’s name.” He sighed. “The irony of course being that less than a year later, Palpatine implimented Order 66, calling for the destruction of any holy place or person within the confines of the Empire. And he had my father head the strike force..”

“But if your father wanted Naboo to be some sort of… theocracy,” Rey said, her confusion overriding her horror, “Why didn’t he refuse to follow Order 66?”

“I asked him that, when I met with him years later,” Luke said. Rey’s eyes widened and he answered, “Yes, I saw him again. But all he said was, ‘It is too late for me, son.’”

“What happened to him?” Rey asked, very quietly. “The history — they say he died in Stellamortis. Did he?”

“He paid,” Luke said. “Killed by his son in the name of justice. And I beg God for forgiveness for it, every day. So you see, it is not so simple as solving a crime and punishing the criminal. Even when it can be done, should it be done? There was no one else who could have carried out the punishment for the lives my father took — so I did it.” He leaned forward. “And who will carry out the punishment for my crimes, Rey? The lives taken by my father, my nephew — they pale in comparison to the lives I’ve taken. If I were put to death a thousand times it wouldn’t begin to repay the debt.”

“That’s different,” said Rey. “That’s—“

“No,” Luke said. “There’s no difference. Not to me. I want to know what happened in Tuanul so that I can stop it happening again, but I can’t pretend that justice will be served by finding the perpetrators.”

For a long time Rey sat there in silence. Luke wondered briefly where BB was; usually the creature was perched on Rey’s shoulder or head, making its own commentary. The quiet felt almost jarring.

“I still want to go,” she said at last. “I understand what you mean, and the risks — but if we can find out what happened, maybe stopping it from happening again would be enough.”

“Enough for whom?” Luke asked, but he didn’t really want an answer. “I can’t go,” he began.

“But the First Order wouldn’t think anything of two priests making the rounds, surely!”

“The First Order would think a great deal of the Archbishop, who happens to be the current heir to the Nabooan throne, wandering around the site of a recent massacre,” Luke corrected her. “Which means I can’t go.” He waited for a moment.

It took less than that. Rey sat back in her chair. “Oh,” she said.

“One priest, alone, conducting the offices of the Church — that wouldn’t arouse undue suspicion,” he said. “But it would be incredibly dangerous.”

She bit her lip, thinking. “Can I take BB?” she asked.

***

You’re not the usual vendor.”

Luke glanced up from the stall, where he had been arranging apples and pumpkins under the watchful eye of the Stormtrooper guards. It was the first Tuesday since Rey had packed her bag and set off with her staff and BB (and a rosary Luke had pressed into her hand at the last minute). She in turn had presented him with a long list of her daily and weekly duties, with the instruction that he not let the entire place go to wrack and ruin in her absence.

One such duty was manning the Cathedral’s stand on Market Day, apparently. Luke had always wondered where she wandered off to on Tuesdays mornings.

The man attached to the comment — a middle-aged, portly fellow with a long nose and doubtful eyes — gave a grunt. “Must be end times, if the Archbishop’s gracing us with his presence.”

“Then I’m glad to share these end times with you, Mr. Wuher,” Luke said. “Since we never see you at Service.”

He received another grunt. “Aren’t you lot always saying that God’s everywhere? Well, then he can be in my cantina, just like everybody else.”

Luke was careful not to smile at that. Chalmun’s Cantina had been a staple of Tatooine since before Luke was born, a disreputable tavern billed as the antidote to the piety found on the other side of town. He could still remember Father Obi-Wan shaking his head, one day when the subject of the tavern had come up. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” he’d said reprovingly. It seemed an apt description; still, Wuher was as much a public figure in Tatooine as Luke himself, and far more useful when it came to passing along information and the occasional bit of illicit merchandise, if the rumors were to be believed.

“And what does the cantina require today?” he asked, offering an apple. “Or perhaps some parsnips? I hear parsnip wine is all the rage these days.”

“I thought you were a man of God,” Wuher said, offended.

“I take Tuesdays off,” Luke told him.

In response, Wuher plucked the apple from his hand. “Doesn’t look fit for cider,” he scoffed, and bit into it. Before Luke could utter a protest he spat out the mouthful and handed it back. “Like I thought,” he grumbled, and moved on.

Reminding himself that charity was a holy act regardless of who one was charitable toward, Luke cast about for an unobtrusive spot. He was about to drop the apple down amongst the weeds growing up near the stall post when he noticed a small, grubby twist of paper wrapped around the apple’s stem, almost indistinguishable from a stray leaf. He tugged it off and put it in his pocket, reflexive as he smiled at the next customer who blinked in recognition and made some comment about the Archbishop himself manning the stall today.

It was only after the market had closed up for the morning that Luke, hurrying back for noon service, was able to untwist the note and read:

Watchit. Vindicta posted warrent for yr arrest.

***

He expected banging on the doors that night, but all was quiet — and quiet again the next day, and the next. The Stormtroopers in the village eyed him as he passed, but they seemed to eye everyone with that same jittery suspicion. Perhaps Wuher had been wrong.

But he was proven right on Sunday Mass.

The past few weeks had been somber affairs, and today was no exception. Even the choir, full of the boisterous children of the village and a few elderly people who were slightly tone-deaf but very willing, had been muted and quiet. Luke climbed into the pulpit and gazed out into the throng with a shabby homily clutched in his hand; he had been able to rally his people before but what use were these poor bruised words now?

As he took a deep breath, his gaze caught on a strange face in the crowd. Strange — but not a stranger.

Someone he had known very well, once.

Fear had lived in him, noisy and grating, for as long as he could remember. Even before the Starkiller war, he strove to keep quiet while his father sank ever further into his poetic fits of rage and violence and a kind of venomous faith. The war had been almost a relief — a steady drumbeat of terror that thumped in the chest. When this latest war had started, Luke had recognized the rhythm immediately. He had almost welcomed it; it was at least a change from the monotonous humming fear of life in the Church, where there were nothing but shadows and whispers and nothing making noise at all.

But this was another song altogether, as he watched the young man in the pews — tall and striking, unnaturally pale even in these winter months. This was fear that sang high and keening, setting all his teeth on edge.

“My friends,” he said, and the young man smiled. Luke looked down at his sheet of paper, still in his hand, and crumpled it up. He lifted his chin and took a deep breath.

“We often see ourselves the way we wish to be seen. On one side of a coin, or another. This war has engulfed us and washed over our heads and still, we think of ourselves as unchanged. If we were good before, we must be good now — morality cannot be simply a matter of geography, can it?

“But there is also something to remember in Scripture — that our holy land was once considered prerequisite for worship. Our brothers and sisters of the book make a pilgrimage to Mecca: that is a tenet of their faith. Goodness, in some cases, is a place, or a time. So how are we to be good in this time and in this place? Perhaps you think it is good to rebel, to fight back. Is that not also a product of our time and our place? Is our side of the coin so easily changed over?

“Perhaps it is. Perhaps it must be. Our time and place demand goodness; and so I urge you to examine what side you truly feel you are on.” He made the sign of benediction. “Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The congregation filed out, chatting amiably amongst themselves; as they thinned out Luke could see him, still sitting in the pews. With his hand clasping his wrist behind his back, he walked down the central passageway and into the pew in front of him.

For a long moment there was silence. “Look how old you’ve become,” Ben said.

“Something far worse has happened to you,” Luke pointed out, reflexive — as though this man were still the boy who would trade needle-sharp barbs with a wry grin.

If the comment stung, Ben didn’t show it. “That was quite a lovely sermon you gave just now. Tell me, how do these people stand listening to you? The Butcher of Bespin lecturing them about goodness. Why haven’t they torn you to pieces over your own hypocrisy?”

“I suppose because they know that tearing a man to shreds, even an evil man, would be an act of hypocrisy itself. A mob is the other side to justice, just as evil is the other side to good. Tearing me apart would accomplish little.” He took the moment to examine his nephew. How strange it was to have waited so many years — and now he had nothing to say. “You seem… in good health, at least.”

It was true enough; Ben had been a tall gawkling lad when Luke had last seen him, that lovely summer before things had gone so wrong, with elbows and knees that were dangerous to himself more than others. Now, even sitting down, Luke could tell he’d grown even taller — but he’d grown into himself, too, some assurance in even those small movements that reminded Luke of nothing so much as a coiled snake, waiting for the mouse.

Ben’s eyebrows dipped. “Did you think I’d have grown warts? Or my eyes would’ve turned yellow? What does treachery do to a man, Father? You would know better than anyone.”

“I’m not your father,” Luke pointed out.

That seemed to sting, a peculiar satisfaction. “Fortunate for you.” He looked around. “Where’s the girl?”

Again that shriek of fear sawed across Luke’s heart, unrelenting. “What girl?”

“The girl, the girl,” he said, impatient. “I hear nothing but talk about the girl you plucked out of the rubbish bin at the start of the war.” Ben tilted his head, an interrogatory tic Luke remembered as well as his own hand. “Plucked her out and put her on the right side of your little coin, didn’t you?”

“She isn’t here.”

“A common refrain of your, I’m given to understand. Soldier FN-2187 wasn’t here either, was he? So many good people leaving you.” He smiled, tight-lipped. “I’ll just have to stay here until she gets back. I’d hate to miss her.”

“I can notify you when she returns,” said Luke, “If you would prefer not to wait.”

Ben shook his head. “You think you can save her, don’t you? You think you can save all them, just as you did the other night, standing there on your steps with your words and your one hand. You think that you saved them. What did you save them for? For the same fate as Alderaan, or Stellamortis?”

“You don’t have a Starkiller weapon,” Luke said.

“We have something much, much worse,” Ben promised, standing up. “We’re marching on the capital as we speak. You can’t save a single person you love. I’d be very curious to know: how does that feel?”

Luke didn’t answer, merely watched Ben as he saw, out of the corner of his eyes, Stormtroopers coming up the side aisles to flank him. They held ropes — handcuffs would be useless for a one-armed man — but even the ones with rifles looked wary, hung back as if reluctant to touch him.

He continued to watch Ben as the ropes were wrapped around his waist.

When he had been a little boy, Ben had made up lies constantly — about harmless things, like stealing an extra bit of cake, or elaborate stories explaining just how the priceless vase had broken. It had been the subject of great concern, and was considered the consequence of either a repressive mother (according to Han) or a vagabond father (according to Leia). Luke, for his part, had suspected it was the result of too much time to himself and too little idea of what people were really like. He himself had never particularly worried about it, because he could always tell when Ben was lying.

“Luke Amidala, otherwise known as Luke Lars, or Luke Skywalker, you are under arrest for crimes against the Empire,” said Ben. “You are to be taken to Vindicta and tried.”

“And executed too, I presume?” Luke said. “The Queen may have something to say about that.”

“The Queen is shortly to be relieved of her crown,” said Ben, but his eye twitched. “The Empire has no truck with masters. Or mistresses.”

“The Emperor was better than you at turn of phrase,” Luke observed, trying not to wince at the rough rasp of rope against his wrist.

“The Emperor waged his war against gods,” said Ben. “Our New Empire has set its sights on earthly matters for now. Hence why your Churches haven’t been burned to the ground. You should thank me.”

“They aren’t my Churches,” Luke said. “They belong to God. And whether you admit it or not, this war is one you wage against God, as well.”

Ben’s face was so pale that it was hard to see, but it seemed for a moment that he went ashen. But he barked at the Stormtroopers, “Take him away,” and followed them out into the aisle as Luke was prodded toward the door, a bayonet at his back. “I’ll be happy to give her a message from you,” Ben called after him. “Since I’ll no doubt see her shortly before you do.”

Luke stopped, ignoring the bayonets, and turned. “My loved ones know everything that is in my heart already,” he said. “Don’t you?”

He was shoved outside and into the waiting automobile as the snow began to fall.

***

It continued to fall, and their progress South slowed to a crawl within a matter of hours. “Fucking hell,” muttered the driver, as the car skidded across the road for the dozenth time. “Captain, there’s no way we’ll get to Vindicta at this rate. Snow’s coming fast and wind’s picking up and if we’re caught out here—“

“Shut up,” said the Captain — Craig, Luke had heard the soldiers call him — with a warning glare at Luke as he spoke. “We keep going.”

“Turning around seems like the wiser course of action,” Luke commented, as mildly as he was able. “After all, the Empire has waited for twenty-three years to execute me for my crimes; surely a short delay wouldn’t hurt?”

Craig and the driver and the two guards all shared a genial chuckle, looking around at each other in their shared joke. Luke had not assumed that this day could get demonstrably worse; it seemed that he was to be proven wrong once again.

“The Empire’s not interested in killing you, your reverence,” Craig said, smirking. “Least not just yet. The Supreme Leader has plans for you. Nobody else in the whole wide world has what’s in this brain of yours.” And he reached out and tapped Luke’s forehead. It was somehow more invasive than anything else he’d endured.

“Such as?” he asked.

He didn’t truly need to hear the answer. When Luke had first joined his father in Stellamortis, the Emperor had welcomed him with open arms, clutching at his elbow as he guided him down labyrinthine corridors to a secret laboratory. “Behold,” he’d said with a pleased rictus, “My greatest achievement. My pride and joy — the Starkiller. No one will stand before us, my dear boy. At least,” he’d giggled, “Not for long.”

“It’s truly beautiful,” Luke had forced himself to say.

“Isn’t it? Isn’t it, my dear boy? I’ll tell you all about it someday,” Palpatine had promised.

He had made good on his word. In that regard, at least.

Luke had never told anyone — not Han, not Leia — what he knew about the Starkiller weapon. As far as the world was concerned, he had simply pushed a button and fled the carnage, as lucky as he was reckless (or bloodthirsty). No one had asked.

He had never considered for a moment that someone might have already known the answer.

The captain just tapped his nose and turned back to the driver. “Where are we?”

“Fuck if I know, sir, this forest’s full of trees and squirrel shit and not much else from what I can tell.”

“Right,” Captain Craig said. “You there, Sky Walker. You must know where we are.”

The name seemed to cool the cabin — already cold enough — another few degrees. “I do,” he replied. “And your lieutenant is right.”

“He’s just a sergeant,” said Craig, as the other two guards snickered and the driver made a rude gesture at them.

“My mistake. This is the Mos Eisley Forest; there are a few settlements scattered off the main road, but the nearest town is the one we just left.”

The driver shifted in his seat. “Sir, we could bring him back to Tatooine just for tonight and—“

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up? And you, Sky Walker, better be lying about the nearest town. Otherwise you’ll have a long walk ahead of you.

They didn’t get much further before they skidded again, this time bumping down into a ditch. By now the snow was well past the hubcaps; as the driver and one of the guards jumped out, it came up to their knees. The wind had grown harsher in the gathering darkness; the white of the Stormtrooper armor was swallowed up in the oncoming blizzard.

“Sir, we’ll need help pushing it out,” called the driver. “But I think there’s lights up ahead if we can make it another few miles.”

Craig hesitated, looking over at Luke. “I’m untying you, Skywalker,” he said as he took out an alarming knife, “But if you run, I’ll cut off your other hand and shove it down your throat, do you understand me?”

“I’m hardly dressed for the weather,” Luke pointed out. It was true enough, although he was wearing the horrible (but very warm) socks Poe had made for him centuries ago. He’d put them on this morning as a kind of perverse good luck charm; now it seemed like tempting fate.

With an unimpressed grumble, Craig sliced through the knot at his back and yanked him out of the car. “Here,” he said, shoving Luke toward the driver, “Make yourself useful.”

Luke worked his hand free. “Now,” he said brightly, “How can I be of assistance?”

The driver clearly had little time for his captain’s theatrics. “Left rear wheel,” he said, “On three, you push. Simple as that.”

“On three, or just after three?” Luke asked.

“Just you go and push,” snarled the driver.

Luke took position, the wheel cold as ice against his shoulder. He could hear another shouted conversation faintly over the wind, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Forgive them, my Lord. And forgive me.

From the front of the automobile came the count; on three, Luke heaved himself upright and ran for the nearby trees.

The crack of a gun followed him; next to his head a tree branch exploded into kindling. The snow was much lighter here, which wasn’t necessarily for the good; he could run faster, but so could they. He darted to his left as he heard the crash and gunfire behind him, shouted instructions and threats. They would no doubt assume he would make his way back to Tatooine, and so he ran south and west, further into the forest.

He must have run a mile before he stopped and listened; all he could think of was the knife-like pain in his throat as he gasped the freezing air. The cold had already begun to dull his brain but he forced himself to crouch behind a tree  to listen for sounds of pursuit. He could still hear something, but far-off with the shouting almost indistinguishable from the wind.

Only now did the enormous stupidity of what he’d done come bearing down on him. He laughed quietly to himself, thinking of how many people would kill him when they found out he’d died from the cold, lost in the woods. Perhaps it was a fitting end. Certainly a preferable one to whatever the Empire had in store for him.

But he kept moving, his world narrowed down to the few feet in front of him. Perhaps it was selfish not to want to die, but he had been selfish for years before this. Selfish in his self-regard and his self-preservation, selfish in his love, expecting too much, hoping for rescue from his own sentencing. It would be better to stop, to rest, perhaps not so very selfish after all—

He stumbled and fell into a snowdrift; he had ended up on the road again, or perhaps it was a different road. The sky was still grey-black and lightless, even the snow turned dark. Luke pushed his elbows into the snow — cold, so cold — and levered himself upright. It was now nearly waist-height; he wouldn’t get far trying to wade through it. But if he kept on the road, his body would be found quickly after the thaw; there would be no questions, no more rumors and whispers. He could lie down here and be at peace.

Over the wind there came a sound, not footsteps or the roar of a car, but the unmistakable snort of a horse. It snorted again, irritable at being out of his stable and champing to go home. It sounded like Tauntaun.

It was. The horse appeared like a specter out of the snow, nudging at his pockets even as he laid a trembling hand on his neck.

“There you are,” said a voice from the saddle, and that’s when Luke realized that he must be hallucinating, for it couldn’t possibly be Poe who jumped down and said, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

***

Chapter Text

***

The door gave way on the third hit, and Poe massaged his shoulder as he stumbled through. He couldn’t see much in the pitch black; there weren’t any obvious warning signs — just a cold, silent farmhouse — but he’d been searching for shelter for almost as long as he’d been searching for Luke, and he knew enough to be wary. Still, nothing seemed amiss.

He ducked back outside, bracing himself against the wind. Luke was still hunched over on the horse’s back, draped in the spare cloak Poe had flung over him, looking quite literally blue in the face. Poe managed to slide him gently off the horse’s back and into his arms, staggering. “It’s a good thing you’re shivering,” Poe told him, grabbing at the horse’s reins. “Otherwise you’d have to teach me how to perform last rites.”

Luke stared at him and didn’t answer.

“You can laugh at my jokes later,” Poe promised him.

It took surprisingly little prompting to get the horse inside; evidently it didn’t like this weather any more than they did. Poe managed to get the door closed; it wouldn’t latch now, of course, but he managed to find a chair and shove it against the handle. Between that and the snow piling up, they’d likely have to worry more about getting themselves out than anyone getting in.

The house, whoever its occupants had been, was relatively intact; there was no sign that the Stormtroopers had found this place. Poe himself wouldn’t have found it if it weren’t for the horse, trudging along the road until it got it into its head to veer off onto a cart track. “Remind me to thank you later,” he murmured to the horse, who just snorted and shook off its dusting of snow.

Poe left Luke leaned precariously against the horse’s side and went to make a quick sweep of the house. Upstairs had two bedrooms, cold and empty with blankets folded neatly at the end of each bed and sheets draped over the nicer furniture — the residents had not expected to be back for some time. There was a fireplace in one room, but no wood or matches, so he took the blankets with him and went back downstairs. The kitchen was dark and cold, as was the rest of the house, with no sign of food — not good if they were stuck here for more than a day. But the important thing was the set of matches he found next to the oven; he stuffed them in his pocket and felt his way through the dark to another, larger room: the den, complete with an overstuffed old sofa and ragged rugs on the floor and most blessed of all, a fireplace with logs stacked up next to it. His horrible flat in New Theed was heated (if that was the right word) by a very badly working radiator; Poe couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to light a fire. But he was motivated, at least; Luke was going to freeze to death in short order if he didn’t get him warmed up.

At last the fire was started and looking relatively stable; he stood up and found Luke, clutching at his cloak, weaving slightly in the doorway. “I thought I left the horse in charge of you,” Poe said, and sure enough the damned horse had wandered into the kitchen, thoughtfully examining an array of strung-up herbs above the oven.

Luke blinked at him, a bit more slowly than was probably ideal. “He kept trying to eat my hair,” he said in a very solemn tone. “And I am apparently still hallucinating.” He brought up his hand and touched Poe’s face, less in tenderness than in a sort of clinical curiosity. His hand was ice-cold. “What an interesting side-effect,” he said to himself.

“Right, this sounds like a nice spot of hypothermia,” Poe said, catching hold of Luke’s hand and dragging him toward the fire. “Come on, off with your — what do you call that, anyway?”

“I don’t have —“ and Luke shuddered, “—hypothermia. I’m perfectly — fine. Although I — very much doubt that you’re — real.”

“Your lips are blue and you’re talking nonsense,” Poe diagnosed, plucking at Luke’s robes uncertainly. There was an awful lot of black clothing and in the firelight it was hard to tell what was what. “Best cure for that is getting out of your wet things — which by the way, they are wet, because you ran off without so much as a coat — and huddle up by a fire.”

“Second — best cure,” Luke said, shivering in earnest now, but he started pawing at his own clothes in a moderately helpful way, and Poe was able to follow his lead with minimal tangling or tearing.

“And what’s the best cure, then?” Poe asked. He probably shouldn’t find this funny — hypothermia had killed a fair number of idiots as well as a handful of highly intelligent people in this war already, and had murdered countless thousands who were neither stupid nor clever but merely unlucky. But Luke’s nose was bright red with his horrible hair plastered miserably to his head, as though he were some mistreated puppy being forced into a bath. It was dreadfully endearing.

“Body warmth,” Luke said, then paused for a long moment while another shudder went through him. Poe hoped that was a good sign. “From someone else.”

Poe could feel his eyebrows raise. “I hope this means I get to take my clothes off, too?” he teased, although the joke lost some of its bite as he managed to wrestle the last of Luke’s shirts (no less than five separate shirts and tunics, all of them soaked through) off of him. Luke stood half-naked in the firelight, limned and beautiful in a way Poe had not prepared himself for. There were a dozen scars along his chest and arms, a star-shaped impression near his heart that could only be a bullet wound. Poe wanted to touch them, learn the history of them, wanted to trace his fingers along each one while Luke—

But Luke was still shivering and dangerously cold, so he went to his knees and busied himself with the boots, laces swollen and so difficult that after a moment Poe pulled out his pocket knife and sliced them open, guiding Luke carefully to balance first on one foot, then the other as he pulled them off.

“You’re wearing my socks,” he realized after a moment of wrinkling his nose at them. They were just as ugly as he remembered, and no doubt even more uncomfortable. “You didn’t have anything better?”

Luke’s hand was steady on Poe’s shoulder, and when he looked up at him, Luke was smiling slightly. “They — make for an excellent — outer layer in the — winter,” he said.

“You and your layers,” Poe muttered, and tried very hard not to think about what exactly he was doing as he unbuckled Luke’s trousers (which, in contrast, were fairly straightforward). Luke’s skin was freezing cold against the backs of his fingers as he tugged the trousers and underwear down, gathering what looked like three separate pairs of socks on the way.

“This is — not—“ Luke shuddered again, violent, “—how I imagined you — might induce me — to take off my — clothes.”

“So you imagined this, then?” Poe asked. It was difficult to keep up the lighthearted banter, not with Luke standing bare in front of him like every fantasy he’d harbored for a year and a half.

But he had to concentrate. He unfolded one of the blankets he’d culled from the upstairs bedrooms and wrapped it around Luke’s shoulders, urging him to lie down on the ugly sofa so he could ensconce him in ever more blankets. When he was done, there was only a sad tuft of hair to indicate a human being was inside.

It was good as he could do for the moment, so he went to check on the other visitor. A horse in a house felt like something out of a children’s story, but the horse seemed relatively unfazed by the strange stable. Poe didn’t see anything that immediately looked like hay or grains or such, but in the morning something might be more obvious. In the meantime he hauled a bucket of snow into the den and guided the horse in, shutting the door to keep whatever heat they could generate inside.

“This was certainly not my plan,” he said to the lumpy figure on the sofa. “You and me in front of a fireplace, certainly, but the horse is unexpected.” But Luke was still shivering, his eyes squeezed shut as though he were in some sort of pain. Poe took a deep breath. “I’d like you to remember,” he told Luke, “That this was your idea.”

His clothes were a good deal easier to get out of than Luke’s, even with the two separate sweaters he’d pulled on that morning. It was more of a challenge to insinuate himself onto the sofa and under the blankets, positioning himself so that Luke would be between him and the fire, getting warmed (at least in theory) from both sides. He hissed at the first brush of his skin against Luke’s — how long had that idiot been wandering amongst the trees? — but steeled himself and gingerly wrapped his arms around him, tucking his chin up against Luke’s shoulder.

If Luke objected, he didn’t give any indication; in fact he didn’t seem aware that Poe was even there. “Luke,” Poe said, softly against his ear. “Luke, try to stay awake.”

Instead of some snotty quip or ominous silence, Luke groaned, a heartfelt complaint that nevertheless sounded very much like another sort of noise. Poe bit his lip and recited security protocols in his head, for all the good it did when Luke shifted in his arms, turning into him so that they were flush against each other, Luke’s arm snaked around Poe’s waist. Poe held on, too, keeping Luke from falling, but it was wreaking havoc on his self-control.

“Luke,” Poe tried again; Luke’s face was inches from his own, his eyes still shut, some color returning to his cheeks.

This time it was not a groan, or a reply, but a kiss, a soft brush of Luke’s mouth against his. It was followed by another, this one more assured, Luke’s lips cold against him but warming quickly.

Poe reminded himself sternly that victims of hypothermia were hardly in their right mind, and managed to pull just far enough away to stay out of reach. Luke didn’t wake up — and Poe realized with a mixture of relief and affront that he’d been asleep — and he settled back with a sigh, his breathing evening out, the tremors growing less frequent.

Poe tried to stay awake — he should check that the curtains were tightly drawn against outside light, he should do a more thorough reconnaissance of the house to make sure no one would find them any time soon, he should make some attempt to find out where they were in the first place — but it had been a long, terrifying day, starting before dawn. It had started well before then, when they’d first gotten news that Kylo Ren would be within their grasp for the first time since the start of the war.

It had come, strangely enough, from Rey — or rather from Finn, who’d gotten her message. The push back to Tatooine had been planned for weeks, but the Army wasn’t set to march for another few days; and there was no telling how long Kylo Ren would stay in one place, especially if news of the attack got to him. Leia had ordered Poe this morning, grey-faced and grim, to assemble a strike force to infiltrate Tatooine. “Bring back my son,” she said. “Or whatever pieces of him you find. If you could retrieve my brother too, it might be nice to have the line of succession secured again.”

Finn, still weak and given to bouts of fainting if he exerted himself too much, of course had tried to attach himself to the mission. “I can help,” he’d protested. “You might need someone to…” and he paused, trying to think of what he could do in a military action at the moment.

“Yes, we might,” Jess had told him kindly. “But we need you to stay here and make sure the Queen doesn’t behead anyone in the next few hours as a sort of aperitif, all right?”

It had been well past noon by the time they’d managed to get near the cathedral, Poe and Jess and about twenty soldiers against the four or five hundred stationed in Tatooine. “It hardly seems fair to them,” Jess had said after their dozenth elimination, Stormtroopers panicking in the streets as they crept closer to the cathedral.

But they arrived too late; Kylo Ren was already gone by the time Poe worked his way through the cathedral guards, and the priests who’d been held there had little idea of where he’d gone — or even who he was. But that’s when a monk plucked at his sleeve and mentioned that Father Luke had been escorted away only a half-hour before, and did Mr. Dameron happen to know where he’d gone?

Those few minutes between hearing the news and flinging himself into the saddle of the nearest horse in the stable were a tight blur of panic, snow already brushing past his ankles and Jess tossing a spare cloak and a hat at him as he thundered toward the gates. Any tracks had long since vanished in the dark and none of the troopers they’d captured had been forthcoming; but Poe had pointed the horse south with a sharp and sawing certainty.

He didn’t need to think about that now. Instead he pulled Luke closer in, tangling their feet together — he didn’t want Luke suffering frostbite, it was only logical — and shut his eyes.

He dreamed of whirling endless snow and leaves, cutting his arms and face where they brushed against him. He was riding a great black horse — not a horse, a tank — not a tank, he was himself a huge giant, ground eaten up under his feet as he raced along a deserted road. Suddenly Rey was in front of him, Finn and Grakkus behind her, and Poe tried to stop before he ran her over. Rey held out her hand and the giant — it wasn’t Poe at all, it was something else — dissolved like mist, curling away into nothingness. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, but before Poe could answer Grakkus laughed and stepped up behind Finn, slashing his throat, blood spilling down the white of his armor. A crow — no,  a raven — swooped down and pulled Finn away and Rey chased after him, the figures growing distant in a matter of seconds. Poe stepped forward but fell into a snowbank; Luke was lying next to him, naked and warm and smiling as he handed him a sword. “You’ll know what to do,” he said, and reached out—

Poe woke up to the sun streaming in through a gap in one of the curtains (he should have checked after all), hitting him square in the eye. It took a moment to blink the world back into focus.

It hadn’t been a dream, then; at least not the best part. Luke was snoring quietly in his arms, no longer chilled but blazing hot. Their little cocoon was fairly roasting Poe alive, but he kept himself as still as he could for just a few moments. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d woken up with someone; before his elevation to Spymaster, at least. Certainly it had never felt like this, as though the rest of the world had faded just that much, leaving this moment vibrant and breathtaking in the center.

The horse, ever appreciative of the moment, chose then to lift his tail and leave a steaming pile on the carpet. Luke stirred, wrinkling his nose. “What on earth—“

It was very wrong to take such delight in watching Luke’s senses feed him different information at different moments; first had come smell, and then clearly touch was next, as Luke’s entire body stiffened at the realization that he was very much not by himself. Then his eyebrows furrowed as he heard the horse scrape an idle hoof on the wooden floor. And only then did he open his eyes.

“Good morning,” Poe said. He was grinning, helpless to stop it. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you.” It was obviously reflexive and Poe could feel his grin get even wider. Luke shifted slightly. “I should—“ He stopped, eyes going round.

Poe tightened his hold. “You have hypothermia,” he said, which wasn’t quite a lie. “So lie still, or you’ll roll right off this sofa. I promise not to outrage your virtue.” That was probably more of a lie; Poe had been aching since he’d woken up and there was little doubt of Luke’s own arousal, and there was nothing Poe wanted to do more than pin him down and outrage every inch of his virtue. But Luke was still looking torn between panic and disgust, and Poe couldn’t be entirely sure the latter was because of the horse.

“What happened?” Luke asked at last.

“I came to rescue you,” he replied. “More successfully than the last time, I might add.”

“And you brought me — where are we?” He tried to lever himself up, still tangled in the blankets and, Poe noted with glee, careful to keep himself covered to the neck, despite his extremely compromised position.

“No idea,” Poe said cheerfully, wriggling free of the blankets and maneuvering himself off the sofa while Luke inhaled sharply and turned his head. He kept having to remind himself not to enjoy this — they were behind enemy lines with no resources, possibly no food, an army searching for them and now horse shit on the floor. But the war had taken any number of pleasures away. He wasn’t going to deny himself the few that it gave him. “I’m going to have a look around, maybe find a shovel and a barn for this fellow.” He slapped the horse’s neck for emphasis. The horse made a go at his ear.

Luke still had his head averted. “I think,” he said, “I’ll stay here.”

“Excellent strategy,” Poe agreed, and pulled on his coat before leading the horse out into the front hallway.

It was bitterly cold in the rest of the house, all the warmth sealed up in the den, but at least the sun illuminated things a bit better. The broken front door had held up against the blizzard, which seemed to have mostly passed, but the snow was now up to Poe’s chest and the door was immovable. Tauntaun let out a derisive snort. “Quiet, you,” Poe advised, “You’re the first one to be eaten.”

A back door let out onto a small porch, which shared — saints be praised — a roof with a small barn, not particularly warm but free of any snow and made of sturdier stuff than the house itself. “At least you’ll be well-fed when we eat you,” Poe said, guiding the horse into one of the two stalls. He ignored him in favor of craning his neck out toward the hay bale. Poe had no idea how much was appropriate, so he grabbed and armful and dumped it at the horse’s feet. “You’d better be grateful.”

In answer, the horse let loose an impressive stream of urine. Poe cast about for a shovel and made his way back into the house. Luke was still huddled on the sofa looking a bit shell-shocked, which Poe thought made sense, given the past twenty-four hours he’d had.

“Your noble steed is safe and sound in a more appropriate venue,” Poe told him, scooping up the droppings inexpertly.

“My what? Oh,” Luke said, “You mean Tauntaun.”

That’s Tauntaun?” Poe asked. “No wonder it’s such a contrary beast.”

Luke blinked. “Well — thank you, anyway.”

“This newfound politeness of yours is getting very unnerving,” Poe said. That got him a glare, a welcome one, and Poe smiled back.

There was still a fair amount of horse shit left smeared on the rug, and after a moment’s consideration, Poe simply gathered up the rug and carried it and the shovel back outside. He flung the befouled thing over Tauntaun’s back, vaguely remembering some lesson about keeping horses warm, and got another snort for his trouble. “You’re welcome.”

The farmyard itself was a deep blanket of white, untouched and blinding in the sun. Poe managed to lever himself onto the barn roof; from there he could see nothing but trees and snow. There was no sound — no gunfire or engines, no calls of human or animal. Wherever they were, no one was going to find them for a good long while.

The kitchen, in the daylight, proved to be far more helpful than it had last night; their hosts had left a well-provisioned larder. There were a good deal of canned goods that looked wholesome enough for safe eating, and even a large wheel of cheese; they’d last at least a month, if they kept themselves rationed, and with luck they’d make their escape well before then.

Though perhaps, Poe considered as he found a bushel of apples, not too much before. He took a pair — no doubt Luke would sniff at their quality — and returned to the den. Luke was probably still hiding in the blankets, trying to determine how many Hail Marys he’d have to recite.

He wasn’t; instead he was struggling with the fire, trying to put another log on while keeping a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. It was a picture so ridiculous that Poe couldn’t help laughing, and Luke startled at the noise, turning around so quickly that a corner of his blanket fell into the fireplace.

Poe leapt to the rescue, jerking the blanket out and throwing it onto the floor, well away from the rugs or the sofa. He stomped on the conflagration a few times and looked about for any sign that the fire had gotten loose anywhere else.

When everything looked settled, he turned back to Luke, aware that he’d more or less yanked his covering off. But Luke had already bundled himself into another blanket, this time a hideous blue and green thing knit by someone’s blind grandmother. “Once again, riding to your rescue,” Poe said, still breathless from the adrenaline.

Luke stared at him. “I thought—“ he started, then colored very prettily; with that damned high collar, Poe had never before been able to appreciate the blush that spread down his neck and past his collarbones.

“I’m really not a hallucination,” Poe told him, holding out an apple. “I promise. I brought breakfast.”

As Poe had expected, Luke clearly disapproved of the apple, but evidently hunger was stronger than standards and he made an attempt to take it without imperiling his hold on the blanket. Poe watched him for a few seconds before mercy — or something else — got the best of him. He stepped in close and gripped both edges of the blanket with one hand, keeping it firmly shut, before offering the apple once more with the other.

Because life had never once been easy for Poe, Luke didn’t take it; instead he leaned in and took a bite, juice running down the skin of the apple and onto Poe’s wrist. It felt as though it were burning him, molten fire tracing a line down his arm. Luke took another bite, his lip dragging across the tips of Poe’s fingers, and whatever lies Poe had been telling himself about his self-control faded away like so much melting snow. It wasn’t fair — it wasn’t right — to have everything he wanted here in front of him and be expected to keep his hands behind his back.

Poe tossed the apple away and adjusted his grip, watching Luke carefully as he swallowed, eyes wide and dark. “Luke,” he said, a question and a warning.

There were any number of things Luke might say, and Poe had heard all of them in the endless loops he’d made of this exact moment, in a thousand variations. He had heard rejection and ridicule and anger and resentment, he’d weathered regret and pity and even a kind of resigned acceptance. It was strange to think that nothing Luke could say would surprise him — but Poe had already imagined every way this could go wrong.

Except this one.

“Yes,” Luke said, nodding, “Yes, I — yes—“

Poe didn’t dare wait; he pulled Luke in and kissed him, chasing the taste of apples on his lips. Luke fumbled against the blanket and Poe realized he was trying to free his arms, so he let go of the damned thing. It fell to the ground and Luke squeaked, instinctively making a grab for it, but Poe pushed Luke down onto the sofa before he could betray too much laughter.

“If you’re worried about your modesty,” Poe said, spreading himself on top of him and brushing a kiss along Luke’s jaw, “Perhaps you’d feel better if I took off—“

“Yes,” Luke said, more pleading than amused, his hand tugging uselessly at Poe’s shirt.

It was difficult, since every few seconds Poe would get distracted by the way Luke stared at him or smoothed his hand along Poe’s side or bit his lip, anticipatory. But he managed to get his shirt and trousers off and was able to fall upon Luke with all the hunger of a year and a half of badly-contained desire. Luke reached for him and pulled him down, just as desperate, and Poe shut his eyes to better feel the blazing heat beneath him.

He bit at that spot on Luke’s throat that had taunted him ever since the battle of Tatooine, wanting nothing more than to mark him in some way. Luke whined high in his throat and arched his neck, and Poe bit harder, listening to Luke’s gasps and feeling his cock grow harder against his stomach. It was intoxicating, to dismantle Luke so completely; Poe licked a long stripe along the now-darkened flesh as he wrapped his hand around Luke’s cock.

Luke gasped, his hips jerking up.

“Did you just—“ Poe could feel the hot spill of Luke’s come on his stomach, his hand. He lifted his head to regard Luke. “Just from that?”

Luke’s eyes were still squeezed shut. “I’ve never been — no one ever has,” he panted.

Poe couldn’t help but laugh. “No one’s tasted this?” he murmured against the bruise he had left, pressing closer in — God, he wanted to be closer. “No one has bitten you here—“ he drank in Luke’s harsh gasp as he scraped his teeth across the bruise — “and heard you make that noise?”

“No,” Luke said, “No.” His face was turned away as he added, quietly, “No one’s ever — touched—“ he swallowed, and met Poe’s eyes. “No one,” and he fell silent.

Poe couldn’t immediately parse the meaning, but as the words slotted into place he took Luke’s mouth in another kiss, lush and demanding and possessive. He could think of all sorts of responses, but they felt weak and inadequate in the face of Luke’s confession, the way he touched him uncertainly.

“Tell me—“ Luke said, kissing him with even more desperation than before, “Tell me what to do. I want—”

And so Poe closed Luke’s hand around his cock, tangling their fingers together. Luke squeezed too hard, his rhythm too slow — Poe came in a rush, tucking his head into Luke’s shoulder as he felt himself release.

All he could do was breathe in the sweet-tang taste of Luke, brushing his nose along the curve of his neck as he came back to himself. He could feel tense muscles in his back — ones he hadn’t even known existed — relax and go liquid with pleasure. For a moment everything, everything in the world, was perfect.

“It still smells of horse doings in here,” Luke said into the quiet.

With a colossal effort, Poe lifted his head to stare disbelievingly at Luke, who was smiling up at him; uncertain and perhaps a bit afraid, but it was the same smile that had caught and trapped Poe more than a year ago. He tried to glower, but it probably wasn’t convincing. “You have a positive talent for ruining the mood,” he said.

“I hope you’ll forgive me,” Luke replied, too soft to be teasing.

Poe tucked his head down again. He wanted to keep the smile in his memory, not whatever regretful moue that would take over Luke’s face in a moment. “I’m the one who kissed you,” he pointed out. “Twice.” It would be undiplomatic to put Luke’s hypothermic kiss in the tally, even though he wanted to — wanted to hold it out as proof of something, even if he didn’t know what.

“One could make the argument that you were collecting on a promise,” Luke said. He was holding Poe tightly, his knuckles running gently up and down Poe’s spine in proprietary abstraction. “But this is — not something I’d intended.”

“You didn’t run away from a death sentence into a blizzard with the intention of losing your virginity?” Poe asked, a bit more tartly than was wise.

And he got a pinch for it, right at the curve of his arse, that made him gasp and jerk his hips. He turned and saw that Luke was almost as shocked as he was.

“I should apologize for that, too,” Luke said, stifling laughter.

It wasn’t his fault, Poe told himself as he surged up and kissed him again, dragging his cock — half-hard again, needful — along Luke’s thigh. He pushed himself up slightly, sliding his hands down Luke’s biceps, brushing his thumb along the scar at the end of Luke’s right arm while his fingers tangled up with Luke’s left. “You should,” he mumbled against Luke’s mouth, “You absolutely should.”

“Poe, yes,” Luke whispered, spreading his legs to him, not hard again yet but yielding and beautiful, and Poe thrust into the hot join of his hip, still wet and slick from before and so delicious. Luke urged him on, his hand squeezing Poe’s and his legs wrapped around his waist. Poe came sighing into Luke’s mouth, feeling wrung out and sated and ready for another turn in about five minutes.

“For a novice, you’re already very good at distracting me from the conversation,” he managed.

Luke groaned in embarrassment, still smiling but abashed. “I’m sorry for that too,” he said.

“Stop asking bloody forgiveness, Luke, it’s giving me some very unwelcome God complexes.” Only Luke could take him from post-coital bliss to aggravation in less than ten seconds. He crossed his arms over Luke’s chest and propped his chin on them, looking down at him.

“What?” Luke asked, frowning back.

“You were saying something,” Poe reminded him. “About not being what you’d intended.”

Luke sighed. “Poe, this isn’t—“

“I know,” he said, quickly, like tearing off a bandage or pulling out a splinter. He did know; he’d known since he’d first kissed him, since a year before that; their entire friendship had been draped in knowing — I won’t leave the Church, not for this. Not for you. But he realized that he couldn’t actually bear the thought of Luke saying it. “Look,” he said, holding up a hand to Luke’s mouth. “The snow is nearly five feet high with no sign of melting; we’re stuck here for a few days at least. And I know we — we have different lives out there. And we’ll go back them. But here, in here,” he said, his heart in his throat, “Just in here, let’s have this.”

He slowly lowered his hand, but Luke didn’t answer right away. “You’d… be happier with that?” he asked.

“Of course,” Poe lied, smiling. “I mean, it isn’t as though we can go anywhere for the moment, is it? And we’ll need to stay warm.” His teasing tone pulled out a quick quirk of Luke’s lips, but it faded and Poe hurried on. “And that way you don’t have to — don’t have to worry about it afterward. I won’t pound on the door to the cathedrals shouting for your hand in marriage.”

“So what we do — together,” Luke said, as though he were trying the idea out in his own mind. “What happens here is—“

“Is just for here,” he said, carding his hand through Luke’s hair. “Nothing beyond this. When we leave it’s as though nothing had happened, and we’ll go on exactly as before.”

Luke wriggled out from underneath him and for a moment, Poe was sure he was going to get up, refuse him. But instead he turned and pushed Poe down into the sofa, insistent and real and so much better — and worse — than Poe’s fantasies. “All right,” he said softly against Poe’s mouth, “All right.”

It made something lurch in Poe’s stomach, something sick, but he wrapped his arms around Luke and held him in place.

***

“So when you said before than no one had ever touched you,” Poe said, much later on. “I think we should define the exact parameters of that.”

Luke, lying on his back next to him on the (surprisingly comfortable) bed, pressed his face into a convenient pillow. “Lord in Heaven,” Poe was fairly sure he heard.

“Now is no time for piety,” Poe said, grinning, smoothing a hand along Luke’s shoulder.

By midmorning they had come to the mutual conclusion that what the upstairs may lack in initial warmth, it more than made up for in absence of horseshit and half-burned quilts. Poe had been deputized to start another fire in the bedroom, complaining all the way, but Luke had pointed out that he was the one suffering from hypothermia. Once Poe’d gotten the room prepared to his satisfaction, he had his revenge by wrapping Luke in another blanket and tugging him upstairs, whispering filthy promises into his ear as his hands slid under the skin-warmed cotton, only to shove Luke down on the still-chilly bed and laugh as Luke’s bare legs — and other parts — hit the cold.

Fortunately, they warmed each other up quickly enough.

“What is it time for, then?” Luke mumbled, still muffled by the pillow.

In answer, Poe shifted down the bed, crawling over Luke until he was positioned very nicely between his thighs. “Perhaps a different virtue,” he said, running his lips along the velvet expanse of Luke’s stomach.

For so long, he had loved Luke in an abstract way, as a sense of understanding and kindness, teasing and challenge and everything wrapped up into a remote blonde figure in black. But his body, Poe was discovering, was another treasure altogether; pale skin and rough callouses, lean muscles and a soft belly, all of it given up to him. It made him half-drunk, half-mad — half-reverent.

Luke’s breath hitched and he pulled the pillow away to prop himself up on his elbows. “I — that doesn’t seem very virtuous.”

Poe licked a wet stripe along his thigh; Luke’s cock twitched in response, hot against his cheek. He wanted — he wanted. “Honesty is a virtue, isn’t it?” he asked, curling his arms around Luke’s legs and spreading him wide open. He was already addicted to the way Luke bent to him, almost clumsy in his eagerness to please. “So tell me, if I suck you down, will it be the first time anyone’s done that?” A bead of come gathered at the tip of Luke’s cock and Poe lapped it up, keeping his eyes fixed on Luke.

“Yes,” Luke gasped, “That’s — yes.”

“Are you sure?” Poe persisted, pausing to swirl his tongue along the crown. Luke cried out and bit his lip, his hand pushing at Poe’s shoulder.

“Stop, I can’t—“ he shuddered and took a deep breath. “I don’t think,” he said after a moment, “That I can withstand that for very long.”

Poe laughed and turned his head to kiss Luke’s palm, closing his eyes as Luke ran his hand along his cheek. “You’re not supposed to withstand it, Luke,” he said. “It’s not torture.”

“Don’t be so sure of that,” Luke muttered, and Poe nipped at his wrist.

“All right, then you set the pace.” He put Luke’s hand on his head. “Like this,” he said, and opened his mouth to take Luke in.

Instantly Luke’s hand tightened, fingernails scraping against Poe’s scalp, a counterpoint to the smooth hot length of him pressing against Poe’s throat. Poe watched Luke through his lashes as he pulled up, his lips wrapped around his shaft, before sinking down again. It felt — there weren’t words for it, how much he wanted to stay here, dizzy with the taste and smell and feel of Luke all around him, inside him. Luke’s hips twitched up into his mouth and Poe tightened his grip on his thighs, keeping him pinned. If he had to be helpless to this he’d make damn sure Luke was, too, forced to take every second of pleasure while he could.

o face

“Poe, you’re — I’m going to,” and he spilled into Poe’s mouth gasping his name, fingers still tangled in Poe’s hair, staring down at him in wonder. Poe could only rub mindlessly against the sheets as he swallowed him down. “Please,” Luke said, clenching just a little too tightly — and Poe groaned around his cock as he felt himself come.

Luke fell back onto the bed, chest heaving as though he’d sprinted a mile. Poe didn’t want to let go, but Luke tugged at him, dragging him up the length of Luke’s body until he was able to kiss him.

“Is this all right?” he whispered. “Can I — I want to—“

“Too late,” Poe managed, laughing into his mouth. “It seems you’ve got a hidden gift.” That prompted an answering laugh, and Luke pulling him into his arms, settling him against his shoulder as if they’d done this a dozen or a thousand times before. Poe curled into him, warm and spent and the thought crept into his mind: if a bomb dropped on their heads right now, it would be all right with him.

“You haven’t told me what happened,” Luke said after a while. “How you managed to find me — what you’re even doing here.”

“Still think this is all an elaborate hallucination?” Poe asked.

“I’m willing to be convinced otherwise,” said Luke quietly, brushing his cheek along Poe’s forehead.

“Very magnanimous of you. What happened is that your acolyte has become quite an accomplished sleuth. Not to mention a rather promising spy.”

Rey?” Luke asked, before his expression altered into something like horror. “Oh, God — Rey, she’s out there somewhere in this blizzard, I can’t believe I didn’t—“

He was halfway out of bed before Poe got hold of him, looking ashen and half-ready to collapse. “Luke — Luke! Listen to me! She’s fine, she’s safe — a good deal safer than we are, in point of fact.”

“She’s nothing of the kind,” Luke protested, trying to shake him off. “Ben asked about her, specifically; he’s looking for her.”

“He’ll have a hell of a job finding her,” Poe said. “Unless he can get all the way to New Theed.”

“New Theed—“ Luke sat back down on the bed, turning to stare at him. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Poe shrugged, enjoying the theatrics of this far more than he ought to. “I’m talking about Rey and her status as Leia’s most beloved new agent. She’s quite good, you know; you ought to think about letting her spy as a hobby of some sort.”

“None of this clarifies what you’re talking about,” Luke grumbled, and turned away from Poe.

“Rey sent a message to Finn a few days ago,” Poe explained to Luke’s back. “Apparently she’d been wandering around the ruins of Tuanul when she caught sight of a retinue of elite First Order troopers, including someone who carried a broadsword.”

“Ben,” Luke said, his shoulders tense and miserable. Poe knelt behind him and wrapped his arms around Luke’s waist, pulling him close.

“Yes. Apparently they’d stopped in Tuanul for some reason, and before they left she heard something about their plans to travel to Tatooine. Being on foot, she wasn’t in much position to outrun them and warn you; but she was able to cross into Naboo proper and get a message to Finn the next day, which is impressive for a novice, I’ll admit.”

“But what’s she doing in New Theed?” Luke asked, turning at last to face him. Poe kissed him; he’d learned from trying to train Darth Maul that it was important to reward the behavior you wanted.

“She was given a royal summons,” Poe told him after a few moments. “Leia didn’t want her caught in the middle when the push came, and told Rey that she had information vital to the war effort, and could she please join Her Majesty in New Theed? And before you start pouting that we didn’t inform you,” Poe added, “Bear in mind that you were behind enemy lines. Still are, in point of fact.”

Luke looked disgruntled at that, but said only, “And what information did Rey have?”

“No idea,” Poe admitted. “I left for Tatooine about ten minutes after she arrived — along with that damned bird of hers, in case you were worried about BB too — but from what I saw she looked healthy and whole and still fairly besotted with Finn.”

“You left for Tatooine — I see,” Luke said. “So you went there for Ben.”

“Amongst other things,” said Poe. “After all, if he was going to Tatooine, it probably wasn’t for Sunday services.”

“Actually, it was,” Luke said.

Poe looked up at him. “What?”

“I’ll explain later.”

He’d prefer if Luke explain now, but he sighed and continued. “We arrived just after you’d left; the townspeople were all abuzz that their bishop or their archbishop or one of their priests, anyhaps,” and Luke made a disapproving nose as Poe slipped into the accent of a Tatooine villager, “Had been kidnapped by those jackbooted thugs in the cathedral and driven off in the middle of a snowstorm. So naturally,” he concluded, lying back down and patting the spot beside him for Luke, “I stole a horse and came after you.”

“Yes, to rescue me,” Luke said, not sounding altogether approving, but he did lie back down next to him. “Did you capture my…” he drifted off for a moment. “You know, I still think of him as my nephew. A little boy. That’s what the propaganda posters call him — ‘bring back the Boy Prince from the clutches of the Empire.’”

Poe had seen those posters himself; they were all over High Command, the solemn-faced child who everyone thought looked so like his mother. “How old was he?” he asked. “When he killed his father?”

“Seventeen,” said Luke. He was staring at the ceiling. “It was his birthday, as a matter of fact.”

That much of the official story Poe remembered — poor Prince Ben had been spirited away to the Empire on his birthday, still spattered with the blood of his slain father, by the evil Kylo Ren. “Did he seem different? When you saw him yesterday.”

“Yes, he seemed quite different.”

“Well, six years is a long time when you’re that age.”

“‘When you’re that age’?” Luke echoed. “You’re barely older than he is.”

Poe affected a wounded expression. “I’ll have you know that I’m at least three years older.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” muttered Luke. He gathered Poe closer; Poe had no objection, but it was almost a shock to find how tactile Luke was, how quickly he’d adapted to their strange circumstances here. “You didn’t answer the question. Did you arrest him? Kylo Ren?”

“No,” Poe sighed. “He’d already left by then — and then of course, at the earliest opportunity I sprang on the nearest horse and rode after you.”

“I suppose that makes me the damsel in distress after all,” Luke said. He was frowning in thought.

“With flaxen hair and crimson lips,” Poe agreed, shifting so that he could kiss them, “And eyes like a summer storm.”

“Whose terrible poetry is that?” Luke asked, but he was kissing him back, his right arm curled around the base of Poe’s spine and holding him close.

“My poetry,” Poe said between kisses, “But if you’d like me to recite some limericks I learned about the old lady from Endor—“

And he was hit with a pillow before he could finish.

***

They slept well into the following afternoon, which brought with it no sign of either warmer temperatures or search parties; and so after a desultory check on the horse (who looked dissatisfied with the hay, leading Poe to assume that Luke was fairly regular with carrots and apples), Poe declared himself on holiday. “As are you,” he said, pointing at Luke. “After all, it’s Christmas Eve. Isn’t that one of your pet celebrations?”

Luke was presently ensconced in the kitchen, taking inventory complete with a pad of paper he’d liberated from God knew where. Poe had bullied him into one of his sweaters — “Unless you want me ripping off every button on that damned frock you wear,” he’d threatened, and Luke had looked momentarily intrigued before submitting crossly — and a pair of very, very old trousers they’d scavenged from a chest in the bedroom. He looked thoroughly ridiculous, but as Poe stood in the doorway watching him scribble, he could think of no better analogy than a present, untidily wrapped.

“I generally work on Christmas Eve,” Luke replied absently, peering at a jar of something brown and suspect. “And Christmas. I think this is either some sort of preserve or possibly lard that’s gone off,” he added.

“You generally work on Christmas?” Poe demanded. “Have you ever had a holiday in the whole course of your life, Luke Amidala?”

Luke paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Well,” he said, “When I was a prince, there really wasn’t much to take a holiday from; besides, our mother thought it was part of the duty of royalty to be always at the service of others. And then of course there was the war, which doesn’t really allow for time off. And then I joined the Church.” He said this last as if it ought to explain everything, an expectant sort of expression about the eyebrows.

“And God doesn’t let you take leave?” Poe asked, circling around the kitchen table to lean against it, jostling the various jars and tins Luke had carefully arranged.

As he’d hoped, Luke tried to push him out of the way. “God has plans for all his children,” Luke said, casting a quelling glance at him. “But I never found a need for it. Of course,” he added, now poking Poe in the side with the stub of the pencil, “If I’d known this awaited me.”

“Some plebeians might dream of desert islands or luxurious hotels,” Poe agreed, “But we’ve got everything we need right here.” He dodged the pencil and pulled Luke, complaining, toward the door.

“Poe, we should at least find out how much we have and—“

Kissing Luke was proving a very effective method of getting him to shut up about whatever he was going on about; although he couldn’t honestly claim that it was the primary goal this time, it was a nice side-effect. He took the pencil out of Luke’s hand. “Or,” he whispered, “We could celebrate the holiday.”

That at least got him interested, if reluctantly. “It isn’t your holiday, as you’ve taken pains to point out,” he said, even as he allowed Poe to pull him down the hall.

Poe shrugged. “Chances are that it’s one night or another of Chanukka, if that’s any consolation.”

They arrived at the den, where Poe had laid a new fire and pushed some of the more fiddly furniture against the walls. “What—“ Luke started, before catching sight of the gramophone Poe had unearthed earlier that afternoon. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes,” Poe countered, dragging him to the middle of the room. “I told you, I’d drag around a string quartet if I needed to.” He abandoned Luke to wind up the machine, the record already beginning to spin. At the sound of the click he dropped the needle; for a few seconds there was only the warm popping sounds of the fire and the record, and he collected Luke, unresisting, back into his arms.

The soft flare of trumpets began, and Luke’s eyebrows went up. “This isn’t a waltz,” he pointed out.

“The inventory is a bit lacking,” Poe admitted, “But I always preferred Alderaanian music anyhow — it’s much more romantic. Although I never understand the words.”

Luke glanced up at him from under his lashes (a thoroughly unfair tactic, especially since they were almost of a height). The singer began and Luke closed his eyes, wetting his lips as he listened. After a moment, he began to speak — no, he was translating.

 

 

 

 

“The long sobs of the autumn violins
Wound my heart with their languorous monotony.
It’s stifling and pale, and when the hour strikes
I remember days past and weep.
So I am going with the cruel wind, that pushes me to and fro
Like the autumn leaf.”

“Not as romantic as I’d assumed,” Poe said, although just the thought of Luke murmuring that in the original language had him wanting to pin him up against the nearest wall.

“It’s very romantic,” Luke protested, in what Poe had always suspected was his default position of contrariness. “It’s about remembering the past, even when it hurts to do so.” He smiled, searching Poe’s face as though trying to memorize it on the spot. “I can’t think of anything more romantic.”

“Your sense of romance is truly horrifying,” Poe sighed.

“You’re the one who wanted to collect your dances,” Luke reminded him.

“An excellent point,” said Poe, and as the song ended he pulled up the needle. “I’m keeping that last dance in reserve; I’m sure I’ll need it at some point.”

“So it’s back to dragging the string quartet around with you wherever you go?” Luke said, wandering over to examine the other records on the shelf. He frowned and plucked one out. “There was a waltz!” he protested, waving it around.

Poe stole it out of his hand and tossed it back on the shelf. “Let’s do something other than argue,” he proposed, pulling Luke in for another kiss. It was still just a bit terrifying, that split second before. But each time he would feel Luke warm and hungry against his mouth, usually smiling into the kiss; as though he couldn’t help sharing his joy. Poe wrapped his arms around Luke’s waist and basked in it.

“Such as?” Luke asked.

Poe wondered if he could install a wind-up device for his own brain; it took him about as long to piece together what Luke was saying. “Like…” and he was derailed again as Luke pressed his mouth at the hinge of his jaw, trailing down his neck. “A game,” he managed.

“A game?” He was doing something delightfully ticklish to Poe’s collarbone, so he didn’t seem immediately opposed.

“A guessing game,” Poe clarified, thinking of what he’d stolen from the kitchen. “I’lll guess that—“

“What are the rules?” Luke said, straightening up. “How do you win?”

Luke,” Poe sighed.

Luke kept a straight face for all of five seconds. “If it’s a game—“ he tried, laughing.

Poe growled and pulled out the bottle of oil. “I’d like to use this on you,” he said, and reached down to cup Luke through his trousers. “And I guess you will find it enjoyable.”

“Well,” Luke managed, “When you put it like that.”

***

By the time Poe managed to get him up the stairs, Luke was already getting distracted by practicalities. “I ought to make a tally of everything we use,” he said, even as Poe shed his clothes and fell back into bed.

“Later,” Poe ordered.

Luke paused in the midst of pulling off the sweater. “Already so overbearing,” he whined. “What happened to romance?”

“Romance almost froze to death saving your ungrateful life, so romance is also taking a holiday,” Poe said. He sat up and dragged Luke to the side of the bed, unbuckling his trousers. “Now, up you get.”

“Yes, sir,” grumbled Luke, but he kicked off his boots eagerly enough.

“None of that, or I’ll start calling you ‘Father,’” Poe threatened. Luke laughed and lay back on the bed, his arms behind his head, relaxed and golden and all for him. Poe suddenly couldn’t move — could hardly breathe, looking down at him, at the scars he had now touched a half-dozen times but whose stories were still unknown, at the swell of Luke’s cock nestled in the dark curls at his groin, at Luke’s half-lidded gaze, watching him. It was almost too much in some strange way; too good to last.

And of course, it wouldn’t.

Poe smiled, pushing it firmly out of his mind. “Are you ready?” he asked.

“You haven’t told me what I’m supposed to be ready for,” Luke pointed out.

“Well,” Poe said, grabbing the bottle and unstopping the lid. “Let me educate you. But first, tell me — what do you know about the sin of sodomy?”

He almost laughed as Luke’s cock twitched. “I — I know that it’s a sin,” Luke managed, looking embarrassed. “And I know… roughly how it works.”

Poe poured out a dollop of oil into the palm of his hand. “And how did you learn that?”

Luke cleared his throat. “There’s a hole in the cathedral’s rear wall,” he began.

That sounds like a very promising limerick.”

“And,” Luke said, a bit louder, “Couples would often sneak into the orchard for some privacy. I’ve come across quite a few people in the throes of… as it were. And they—“ he hesitated, before admitting, “They sometimes had some difficulty… separating right away. If things were — at a certain point.”

“The Archbishop of Tatooine, a scourge to young love,” Poe teased. “Well then, it sounds like you might have a few things to teach me.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” Luke gasped as Poe carefully spread the oil along the length of his cock, squeezing gently.

“Then if it’s all right with you,” Poe said, straddling his hips, “I think I’d like to direct this particular adventure. Ah, ah,” he admonished, as Luke bucked under him, already looking desperate, “Not just yet. Count jam jars in your head if you need to.”

“I had no idea sex was so frustrating,” Luke said through gritted teeth.

Poe laughed. “You truly have no idea,” he assured him as he reached for the bottle again, pouring a bit more into his hands. “But there are plenty of rewards.”

“So I see,” said Luke.

It had been a while since Poe had done this, but he’d always loved it; the feeling of stretch and heat and invasion. He twisted around and pressed two fingers inside himself, keeping an eye on Luke. “I’ll expect you to be taking notes on this, too.”

“Yes. All right. Whatever you’d like.” Luke’s hand was on his thigh, shaking slightly, which was a pleasure all its own. Poe pulled out his fingers and shifted up, sliding his cock alongside Luke’s for a moment. Luke hissed and jerked under him again, and so it was natural to take both in his hand, leaning into him as he rocked them together, Luke shuddering beneath him.

“You like to be spoiled, don’t you?” Poe murmured into his ear. The groan he received, helpless, tightened his grip. “You’re still just a little princeling who wants more. Greedy.”

“I — oh, ff—“ Luke bit his lip, even as his hips bucked. “Please, I can’t—“

“You will,” Poe promised him. “Because I’m in charge, remember? So you’ll do what I say.”

“Yes, all right, please,” Luke said, and it was truly intoxicating to know he could reduce Luke — Luke, the remote and chilly priest who had saved his life and smiled at his jokes and tried to impress him with a secret door in a crypt, once — to an incoherent mess of want and need. It was frightening how quickly he was beginning to rely on it; he’d made a bargain, and already he wanted nothing more than to break it.

He could not imagine any future, any reality at all, that forbid him from the sight of Luke, dazed and desperate, his lips bruised and his eyes glassy with need. “Please, Poe, please,” Luke murmured, and that alone was enough to undo him.

“I have you,” Poe said, gentle. He knelt over him and lowered himself down by inches as Luke gasped beneath him, his cock huge and thick and wonderful. “Stay still,” he commanded, his hand splayed on Luke’s chest even as he counted his own jam jars in his head.

But Luke was terrible at being obeyed and he sat up, nearly toppling Poe off before he wrapped his arms around his waist. Poe was going to be cross except that it shifted the angle; he slid further onto Luke’s cock, his own trapped between their bodies as Luke thrust up into him. Poe moaned into Luke’s mouth, abandoning any pretense of being in charge — it felt too good like this, his legs splayed wide and Luke’s clever hand sliding down his back, cupping his arse and then—

Poe nearly choked as he came, gasping at Luke — who was grinning, the bastard, his hand still resting where he’d smacked him a second before. “You,” Poe tried, but Luke wasn’t finished, still hard inside him. He fisted both hands in Luke’s hair and jerked his head to the side. “You’re going to pay for that,” he said, and bit down on the bruise at the side of Luke’s neck.

Luke spilled inside him, shuddering even as he laughed. “I probably ought to,” he admitted, and kissed Poe again.

indignation

***

Afterward, Luke insisted that he go back downstairs and finish his inventory. “Unless you want to survive on apples for our entire stay here,” he said.

Poe made a face, and followed him down. “This is not my idea of a holiday,” he complained.

“I’ll make a note of that, too,” Luke promised as he cast about for his pencil. Poe handed it to him. “Thank you. Besides, you’ll be thanking me later when we’ve survived for more than three days.”

“Luke, there’s enough here to feed an army for a month,” Poe pointed out. “You’re just taking inventory so you can repay whoever these people are because you are, at heart, deeply strange.”

“It’s not deeply strange to be aware that we are guests in someone’s house.”

“Abandoned house.”

“Clearly by necessity. And they shouldn’t bear the cost just because we were forced to stay here.”

“I’m going to take a lot of issue with the phrase ‘forced to stay here’ later,” Poe grumbled, but he wandered into the pantry and squinted in the dim light at the rows of unlabeled jars. “How on earth do you know what any of this is?”

“Mostly, I don’t,” Luke admitted. “The cathedral does our fair share of canning and preserving what we grow, but Yoda taught me to label everything, unlike our hosts. He always said that in five months you wouldn’t be able to tell a pickled beet from rhubarb jam and it was bound to be an unpleasant surprise either way.”

The mention of the name sparked curiosity; Poe leaned out of the pantry. “Who’s Yoda?”

“The Abbot, back when I was a young and callow priest,” answered Luke. “He taught me a great deal — granted, it was mostly about gardening. But when I first took orders I was… anyway, he was great man. And a very good gardener.”

Poe came out of the pantry and stood next to Luke, waiting until he looked up. “When you first took orders,” he repeated. “You were what?”

Luke looked away. “I can’t imagine it’s very interesting.”

“You don’t have a very good imagination, then,” Poe said. He pulled himself onto the table and dragged Luke in, caging him in between his knees. “When you first took orders.”

“I was broken,” Luke said, flat and matter-of-fact, keeping his eyes fixed on Poe’s shoulder. “Everywhere around me, people were celebrating and cheering the end of the war, and all I could think was that it had taken the deaths of thousands. Hundreds of thousands — deaths that I caused. It seemed too much, to continue on. Even the Church felt meaningless; I prayed for hours and I felt further from God’s grace with each passing day.” His gazed flickered up to Poe’s for just a moment, a wry smile on his face. “Yoda told me later it was because I was praying, and not doing anything else.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very reverent monk,” Poe observed. “Although admittedly my experience is limited.”

Luke tilted his head, thoughtful. “He wasn’t, really,” he said. “But he was — it’s a bit hard to describe. So many people, they believe in God — they have faith in something that they cannot see or touch or hear. But for Yoda, God was a fact of life, like the sun or the rain or seasons. God simply was; there was no need for reverence or piety or even prayer, because to him everything was prayer, every act was holy.” He shook his head. “He used to get into the most outrageous fights with Father Obi-Wan about it. I’d listen to them argue about the nature of good and evil and free will and destiny and for a long time, it was the only time the world seemed to make sense to me.” He took a deep breath, still not meeting Poe’s eyes. “I told you it wasn’t very interesting.”

Poe took Luke’s chin in his hand, tilting his head up as he linked his ankled behind Luke’s thighs. “I am,” he said softly, kissing Luke at the corner of his mouth, “Absolutely,” and he stole another kiss, high on his cheek, “Riveted.”

Luke chuckled, turned his head to kiss him properly. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?” he asked, leaning in just enough to put Poe off-balance.

Poe clutched at Luke’s shoulders to keep from falling over. “Actually,” he said, breaking off the kiss, “I am curious as to why Grakkus hates you so much.”

“Does he?” said Luke, looking less interested in Grakkus than in a particular spot at Poe’s collarbone. “I’ll have to write him a note, see if we can’t reconcile somehow.”

“You could always take me up on my offer,” Poe said, trying to remember what exactly that offer had been. “I’m sure if he found out you had a part to play in his release, that would go a long way to mending fences.”

“I’m comfortable with the fences as they are,” Luke said, pulling back. “It’s said that they make for excellent neighbors.” He regarded Poe through narrowed eyes. “Am I about to find out that all of this was a ruse, to get me to agree to your moronic scheme?”

“How dare you,” Poe said, half-laughing as he tried to sound offended. “Although I suppose I should feel flattered that you think I can conjure up a blizzard in order to further my so-called ‘moronic schemes’.” He pushed himself back up and into Luke’s space, locking his ankles together. “Now, spill the beans, Luke. Why does Grakkus have a portrait of you hanging above his fireplace?”

“That would argue that he doesn’t hate me all that much,” Luke pointed out, “But all right. He was — well. How much has Leia told you about our family?” He looked up at Poe, as if bracing himself.

And it occurred to Poe that Luke might think he didn’t know the truth already; that Luke was preparing himself to tell him yet another humiliating story of his failure — because of course Luke would think of his father’s betrayal as a failure, one more thing he’d done wrong. He opened his mouth to take it back, to change the conversation with a kiss or a quip about beans.

“I know who Darth Vader was,” he said instead. “And his role in Order 66, if that’s what you mean.”

Everyone in Naboo — and well beyond — knew Darth Vader’s role in Order 66; that had never been much of a secret. A little less than a year after Queen Padme’s murder, the Emperor had announced the coming of the Bright Age of Reason. “No more will we be shackled by the tyranny of gods,” was the phrase quoted most often. Every religious leader had three days to remove themselves from the Empire; if they remained, even if they were en route to the nearest border, they would be imprisoned for high treason. In truth there had been no imprisonment; instead those who’s stayed (and it was nearly all of them, refusing to leave their congregations) were executed, their bodies carefully displayed in town halls and commons as an example of what would happen to any citizen who put God before the Emperor.

Books by the dozens speculated why Darth Vader, who had begun his life as an itinerant preacher in Naboo and had agreed to assassinate the Queen because of God’s will, was amongst the vanguard of Order 66. Some thought it was a symptom of his descent into madness; others insisted that his faith had always been a ruse to conceal his true ambitions. Poe wondered if Luke ever found out, during those months he’d been beside Vader — according to Leia, he’d never said.

But Poe didn’t ask; the expression on Luke’s face was painful enough. “That’s… I suppose that’s just as well. A Spymaster should know, if anyone should.”

This time Poe did kiss him, a careful bite at his lower lip that he soothed away with his tongue. For a few minutes he indulged himself, revisiting the bruise on Luke’s neck that he was going to keep fresh for as long as possible, sliding his hands down his back against the rough wool, nudging their hips together until he could feel Luke against him. Afterward we’ll go on as if nothing had happened, he’d promised. What an idiot he’d been.

When he let go at last, Luke turned blindly to follow him, his eyes shut and mouth parted. He blinked a few times before he could refocus. Poe kissed him one more time, firmly. “You were saying,” he prompted.

“This is the strangest interrogation I’ve ever faced,” Luke muttered.

Poe grinned. “But probably the nicest.”

Luke’s mouth quirked. “I doubt very much anyone has ever described you as nice,” he said. “At any rate — yes, Order 66 was… comprehensive. Within a year every Bible and Quran and holy book of any faith had been rounded up and destroyed, along with any relics they could find or — anything, really. Which meant, amongst other things, that possessing anything religious could be very dangerous. But also extremely profitable.”

Understanding dawned. “Enter Grakkus.”

“Indeed. He’d taken over the family business, as it were, after my sister killed Jabba — which Grakkus didn’t seem to mind terribly when I first met him.”

“When was that?” Poe asked, frowning.

“During my stint as a traitor to Naboo,” Luke replied drily. “In fact, disposing of Grakkus was one of the Emperor’s first tasks for me — a test of loyalty. Palpatine suspected my motives at first; he knew that Leia had been crowned Queen in exile, which meant that by tradition, I was to join the church. That I hadn’t, or hadn’t yet, perhaps meant that I could be molded into something more useful for the Empire. But Palpatine wanted to be sure of me.

“And Grakkus was a proving to be a thorn in his side; he’d built up quite a little empire of his own in Nar Shaddaa, with his Gaming Pits and the tenebris he was giving not just to the fighters but to the audience, too. Not only that, but Palpatine found out that Grakkus had become a collector of certain religious items. It seemed like a prime opportunity for me to prove myself.”

“So he sent you to arrest him? Alone?” It would have been certain suicide.

“Oh, no,” said Luke. “He sent me to kill him. Kill him and destroy everything he’d collected. Not only that, but I couldn’t do it as an agent — the Hutts were criminals, but they were useful. So his death needed to be wholly unconnected to the Emperor.”

“That’s… quite a task,” Poe said. “To say the least.”

“It was. Fortunately, I had a plan. Which,” he admitted, “Went wrong almost from the start. I submitted myself as a contestant—”

Poe couldn’t help it — he burst out laughing. “You submitted yourself as — to the Game Pits?”

The Nar Shaddaa Game Pits had been, and still were, a notoriously nasty way to die. The Hutts held a controlling interest, and they knew how to turn a profit; every so often there were reports of another pile of bodies found dumped outside the city walls. During the peace between wars, when the Hosnian Republic was called neither the Old Empire or the New, Leia had tried any number of methods to shut down the Game Pits. Nothing had worked, and Leia had once confided in Poe that part of her was relieved that Nar Shaddaa became the Empire’s problem once again.

Luke had the good sense to look embarrassed. “Like I said, it went wrong almost from the start. I thought I could pass myself off as a gladiator type—“

Poe snorted.

“—But Grakkus knew who I was right away — although not, as it turned out, who I was working for. He billed me as ‘The Last Prince of Naboo,’ and put me up against some horrifying creature — a rancor, I think — armed with only a sword. His plan, it turned out, was to have me die and make him a fortune. Which I’ll confess was a much better plan.”

“It didn’t work out, though,” Poe pointed out.

“Not through any ability on my part,” Luke confessed. “Darth Vader caught wind of what was about to happen and sent out his own squadron to rescue me.”

“How touching.”

“I doubt it was out of any fatherly devotion,” said Luke flatly. “But whatever the reason, their arrival didn’t much help; I’d already been forced to take a goodly amount of tenebris and so what happened next was a blur, but apparently Grakkus tripped the pens that held all his fighters — human and animal — and they were released into the arena. The whole place erupted into chaos: people trying to get away, starving animals attacking whatever or whoever they could catch. At one point Grakkus and I were actually fighting together, trying to bring down some massive bear who was determined to eat us both. And in the end he even helped me escape; he said I’d earned it, for being the only man he’d met not to go mad after ingesting whole-leaf tenebris.”

“And you repaid him by—“

“By having him sent to Magna Sera, yes,” Luke said, shrugging. “It was harder to arrange than he appreciated; Palpatine still wanted him dead. I convinced the Emperor that Grakkus would be far better punished with exile and imprisonment. But in return,” he sighed, “I had to get rid of his collection myself. It took me three days to burn everything.”

Poe had set his share of strategic fires, to hide or destroy evidence or to deflect attention from some more serious infraction. He’d often felt regretful, in a distant sort of way, for whatever he’d burned down; but there was never much sense of what had been lost.

With Luke, it would have been a far different story. “I can’t imagine,” he said. He couldn’t.

“It was the worst thing I’d done, up to that point,” Luke said. “And what’s worse is that it showed me what I could do. Books and relics — they’re not people, of course. But the difference isn’t as stark as I’d have liked.” He shook his head, looking discomfited. “And that’s why Grakkus would no doubt like to see my head on a platter. Have I answered to your satisfaction?”

Poe smoothed his hands down Luke’s sides. “No need to get your feathers in a ruffle,” he said. “Now, if you’d told me this when I’d come to you in the first place—“

“I probably wouldn’t have,” said Luke, “Not then. But, seeing as how you arranged for an entire blizzard just to try and convince me to help you, I thought it was the least I could do.”

With a dramatic huff, Poe leaned back on the table, releasing his hold on Luke. “Go count your jars,” he ordered.

***

A few hours later, just as Poe was dozing off in an armchair he’d wrestled upstairs to put in front of the fire, Luke’s inventory paid off.

He heard Luke’s boots on the stairs and stretched, thinking idly of what they might try next, only to startle at the sound of aforementioned boots banging against the bottom of the door. He scrambled to his feet and opened the door. “What the—“

Luke beamed at him, holding two mugs proudly in his hand, his other arm carrying a tin of what looked like biscuits. “Look what I found!”

Poe took a deep breath. “Hot chocolate?” he said, mildly impressed. “Well done.”

“I used to drink it by the flagon when I was a boy,” Luke said, shutting the door behind him. “Normally I wouldn’t indulge, but I thought you’d enjoy it.”

“Yet another act of selfless sacrifice by Luke Amidala,” Poe said as he took the mugs from Luke’s hand, setting them down on the bedside stand. “I’m truly in awe.”

“Praise indeed,” Luke muttered, taking his own mug and stealing Poe’s armchair. In retaliation Poe snatched the tin from him and prised open the lid, only to find some rather sad and very dry-looking biscuits.

“Not quite the last supper material,” he said, grabbing one anyway. He settled himself cross-legged on the floor, his back against Luke’s knees and the fire warming his feet. “But it’s not the worst meal I’ve ever had.”

He could hear the soft tic of the mug placed on a convenient windowsill, and Luke’s hand dropped on his shoulder, kneading gently. Poe groaned and dropped his head, letting Luke press careful fingers into the sore muscles. “Pity I only have the one hand,” Luke said. “Han used to say I was quite good at massages.”

“How did Leia feel about that?” Poe mumbled.

Luke laughed, scraping his nails along Poe’s scalp. “She’d usually remind me that Han would make a terrible husband for me and was more likely to get hung for being such a terrible smuggler than ever be useful. And then, of course, she married him.”

“Stole him right out from under you, the snake,” Poe said sympathetically.

“Oh, I never set my cap at Han,” Luke scoffed. “But it was fun making Leia apoplectic about it.” His hand vanished as he picked up his mug again. He made a humming, appreciative noise. “This really is remarkably good, if I do say so myself. I can’t think why I gave it up.”

“Because you have an innate distrust of anything pleasant,” Poe retorted, twisting around to look at him. “Believe me — I’ve been trying to please you for almost a year and a half.”

Luke’s eyebrows lifted in consideration, even as he took another stip. “Hmm. Quite possibly. But this is very pleasant right now,” he said, spreading his knees apart slightly, the very picture of innocence.

Poe wasn’t fooled for a moment. “Does that mean you trust me?” he asked, sliding his hands up Luke’s thighs.

“I’m still not agreeing to your scheme to let Grakkus out, if that’s what you’re asking,” Luke said, but his breath hitched and his knuckles were white as they gripped the mug’s handle.

“Blast, because that’s really what I was hoping for at the moment.” He ran his thumbs along the outline of Luke’s cock, pressed up against the seam of his trousers. “But perhaps I can convince you to do something else.”

“I’m listening,” Luke said, taking another sip. He sighed in appreciation, though Poe couldn’t tell if it was the hot chocolate or Poe, tugging open his trousers and pulling his cock out.

“You’d better not spill on me,” he warned, kneeling up so he could take Luke into his mouth, hot and slick already. Luke slumped back into the chair, his right arm pressing down on Poe’s back as he clumsily thrust up against him. Poe braced his hands on the chair arms, letting Luke set the pace. Still, it only took a few moments before Luke was spilling into his mouth with a groan; his hair-trigger had already become one of Poe’s favorite things, the way he could become undone so quickly. Poe pulled off and saw, with his satisfaction, that Luke hadn’t had the presence of mind to put down the mug.

After a few minutes, Luke seemed to recover enough to move again. “All right,” he said, as if to himself. “Let’s see how this works, then.”

Poe sat back on his heels, hopeful. “Let’s see how what works?”

Luke set the mug down and stood up, wincing as he refastened his trousers. “I want to try,” and he waved at Poe vaguely.

“You want to try what?” Poe asked, blinking up at him.

“I have, for the record, no idea what I like about you,” Luke grumbled as he pestered Poe into the chair. He went down on his knees in front of him.

“Need a pillow?” Poe asked, taking a drink from Luke’s mug.

“I’ve spent more hours on my knees than you have,” Luke reminded him. “Now, it seems to me that you begin like this.” And he pressed the heel of his hand gently against Poe’s cock, stroking it through his trousers. “Yes?”

“Yes,” Poe said, all helpfulness.

“And then you do something like this,” Luke continued, fumbling open Poe’s trousers. Poe hissed at the feeling of his cock against the zipper, but Luke chose that moment to lean in and lick a long, thorough trail up the shaft. It was the image as much as the sensation that brought him to the edge — he’d had any number of daydreams about Luke, but they didn’t nearly measure up. Luke glanced up at him. “Like this?” he said, sheer wickedness.

Yes, dammit,” Poe moaned.

“Blasphemy,” Luke chided. But he followed it up by opening his mouth and taking in the head of Poe’s cock — a slight scrape of teeth along the ridge, enough to make Poe twitch — but he swirled his tongue along the tip and it was something beautiful, to have Luke like this. He pulled off with an obscene sucking noise and said hoarsely. “I want — tell me if I’m doing all right, I want—“

“Bloody hell, Luke, you’re doing fine,” Poe said, keeping his hands on the chair’s arms so he wouldn’t grab him by the ears. “Just — keep doing that.”

Luke didn’t seem convinced. “It’s just I don’t know if I can do what you were doing,” he said, abashed. “That seems a bit… advanced.”

“Your course work in beginner cocksucking is coming along just fine, Luke, please,” he said, and Luke sank down onto him again, wet heat and the same noises he’d been making while drinking that damned chocolate: pleased satisfaction. It only took a few minutes for Poe to get close and he said, “Luke, you might — Luke, move — move, dammit—“ and managed to push Luke away just a second too late.

The result of which was Luke, getting a noseful of come.

Poe and Luke on chair

“Oh, Christ,” Poe said, laughing even as he pulled off his shirt to help mop up Luke’s face. Luke, for his part, was looking positively outraged as he wiped it away with his right arm.

“I’m fairly certain that isn’t supposed to happen,” he said, submitting to Poe’s ministrations with bad grace. “It’s up my nose.”

“Better than in your eye, believe me,” Poe advised. “And I probably should have warned you sooner, but I wasn’t sure if you’d appreciate having to swallow. Not everyone does.”

“You do,” Luke said, sullen.

“Yes, but I’m an ideal to strive for, not an example to emulate,” Poe said, because now was probably not the time to start a discussion of his vast and occasionally unpleasant sexual exploits. “Besides, the taste is… acquired.”

Luke made a face. “I think I’m tasting it now,” he said. “Give me my chocolate.”

Between the orgasm and the cleanup, Poe’s muscles weren’t obeying him as well as they ought; he managed to knock over the mug and spill it everywhere. “Dammit,” he said, and once more deployed his shirt to clean up. At this rate, it would need an exorcism as well as three rounds in the laundry tub.

By the time he finished, Luke had mostly recovered and was regarding Poe with a contemplative gaze. Poe, shirtless and with his cock still hanging out of his trousers, grinned down at him. “See anything you like?” he asked.

“I was just thinking,” Luke replied thoughtfully, “That if I was good enough on the first try to make you lose all coordination, then you must be right: I do have a hidden talent.”

“You’re going to be insufferable from now on,” Poe realized mournfully.

In response, Luke clambered to his feet. “Since you spilled the rest of mine,” he answered, “I think I’m going to have your chocolate.”

***

One major disadvantage of their situation was that other than sex (which Poe had no objection to doing frequently) and tallying food (which Luke took some perverse pleasure out of), there wasn’t much else to do. The blizzard had long passed but the snow showed no signs of abating, and not even Tauntaun could get through it reliably. They were required to wait for either rescue or a thaw; and waiting was an activity Poe had never excelled at.

Fortunately, his two companions were unexpectedly — and no doubt unintentionally — adept at keeping him occupied. Tauntaun learned in just a few days how to let himself out of his stall; he greeted Poe at with a pile of horseshit carefully placed at the entrance so that he stepped in it first thing in the morning. “Your horse,” Poe declared as he stomped barefoot into the house, “Is a menace.”

Luke looked up from the stove where he was doing something to vegetables and one of the less suspicious tins of meat. “He’s precocious,” he said defensively.

“He was precocious all over my shoes,” Poe hissed, and went to find something to clean them off.

After that, the horse bent his considerable talents toward learning how to open the barn door. This time it was Luke who was greeted by a pile in the kitchen as Tauntaun nibbled at some dried cilantro on the windowsill. “That is highly unsanitary,” he lectured with his arms crossed.

Tauntaun defiantly shook his mane.

“I’ve heard horse meat tastes just like beef,” Poe offered from the doorway, only to get twin glares in return.

As for Luke — he was entertaining in other ways.

One night Poe came upstairs, bearing armfuls of firewood he’d found in the shed, only to find Luke lying on the bed reading. “I’m going to start shoveling a path toward the woods tomorrow,” he announced, dropping the wood into the rack. “We’ve got enough to last us another week or so, but I don’t want to take chances if another blizzard hits.”

“Oh dear,” Luke said, dropping the book to his chest. “I hadn’t thought of that. How much wood do you think we’ve used?”

Poe rolled his eyes and stripped off his clothes, burrowing under the blankets in short order. It was colder than it had been since they’d arrived here; Luke had insisted that Tauntaun stay in the den, for fear of him freezing to death in the middle of the night. Poe had privately thought it was more likely an effort to prevent Tauntaun from simply breaking in on his own. “You don’t have to repay them for the firewood,” he said. “It isn’t as though there aren’t plenty of trees nearby.”

“It’s the principle,” Luke sniffed.

Poe decided to live to fight another day and changed the subject. “What are you reading? I haven’t seen a single book here that wasn’t the Bible.”

Luke lifted his eyebrows and remained silent.

“You’re reading the Bible?”

“Might I remind you,” said Luke heavily, “That despite our… current…” and he waved his right arm in a gesture that might have conveyed more if he’d still had a hand, but probably wouldn’t have, “I’m still a priest. This book is rather popular in our social circles.”

“Yes, but I can’t imagine you read it for fun,” Poe yawned. He felt pleasantly worn-out. They’d spent most of the day preparing against the cold snap: shoveling the path from the house to the shed, moving what furniture they could out of the den so Tauntaun didn’t have a chance to befoul it, checking the fastenings on shutters and insulating what windows they could. Now, ensconced in his blankets in the bedroom, he pushed his feet up against Luke’s, who hissed like an irate cat.

“You’re freezing,” Luke complained, even as he gathered Poe under his arm and tangled their legs together. “Anyway, I do read it for fun.”

Poe yawned again. “You’re a very strange man,” he mumbled, shutting his eyes.

Luke sighed and Poe could hear the sound of pages turning, feeling Luke shift under him. “As the apple tree among the trees of wood,” he said, “So is my beloved among the young men. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”

Poe cracked one eye open. Luke looked down at him expectantly. “What was that?” Poe asked.

“The Bible,” Luke said, lifting it up illustratively.

“No it wasn’t,” Poe scoffed, even as he pushed himself up to look over Luke’s shoulder.

“‘He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love,’” Luke continued. Poe scanned along the dense text until he saw where Luke was reading from. “‘Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am faint with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.’”

Grinning, Poe snaked his left hand under Luke’s pillow. “I’d embrace you with my right hand, but it’s still a bit cold at the moment,” he teased, propping his chin on Luke’s shoulder.

“I doth appreciate it,” Luke said solemnly, and Poe laughed. He turned the page and read. “‘Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.’”

“All right, give me that,” Poe demanded, plucking it out of his hands. He rolled over onto his stomach so he could angle the book toward the firelight. “Is the whole thing like this? I might’ve considered conversion.”

“It’s the Song of Solomon,” Luke said, resettling himself practically on top of him. “And there’s no conversion necessary — it’s a Hebrew text, or was.”

“Then I take it back,” Poe said easily, skimming through. “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.’ That’s a clear invitation if I ever heard one.”

“Is it?” said Luke conversationally, his hand drifting down Poe’s back, slipping between his legs.

“Well,” Poe sighed, “It is now.” He reached for the oil on the stand (he’d absolutely forbidden Luke from calculating how much of that they had to replace) and twisted around as Luke pulled back the covers, straddling his legs.

“Don’t spill it on the Bible,” Luke instructed.

“Is it bad luck or something?” Poe asked, cheeky. Luke simply held out his hand and Poe poured some into his palm, before virtuously turning back to his reading. “Now, where were — oh,” he gasped as Luke slid two fingers inside him, slick and startling.

“We were right here,” Luke murmured, and it warmed Poe faster than the fire or the press of him inside.

He cleared his throat and (with some difficulty) kept reading. “‘I arose to open to my beloved—‘“

“Of course you’d find that passage—“

“‘And my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.’” He took a deep breath, arching back as Luke slid another finger inside him. “‘I opened to my beloved,’” he sighed, “‘But my beloved had turned and gone.’”

“Is that an invitation, too?” Luke asked, his hand stilling.

Poe growled and pushed against him. “If you dare stop,” he threatened, and Luke chuckled warmly as he withdrew his fingers.

“My beloved is radiant and ruddy,” he said, his cock pushing in slow and careful, Luke spread over him and inside him while he recited, “Distinguished among ten thousand, his head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.”

 

“Show off,” Poe gasped as Luke kissed the knob of Poe’s spine. “You’re just—“ he choked on his words as Luke began thrusting in earnest, no longer careful. Poe braced himself against the bedframe but he could do nothing more than take it, Luke keeping him pinned and wide open. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so used — so good. Luke curled his arms under his shoulders; the leverage pushed him deeper and Poe clenched down as he came, hearing Luke gasp in his ear as he followed moments after.

Poe lifted his head just enough to shove the Bible out from under it; it clattered to the floor. “Poe,” Luke said reprovingly, but he could tell his heart wasn’t really in it.

“Be grateful I didn’t spill on it,” Poe advised him.

After a few minutes, Luke managed to get to his feet; Poe stayed where he was, listening to the sounds of Luke putting on clothes. He disappeared downstairs but came back a short time later with a warm cloth and — of course — mugs of chocolate.

“You may have made a believer out of me,” Poe said after Luke had wiped him clean and rearranged the covers. Luke just smiled as he removed the odd assortment of clothes — Poe’s sweater and his boots, a blanket wrapped around his waist — and climbed back into bed.

***

Later that night as they were both drifting off, Luke curled up against Poe’s back, snaking his arm around him. “Poe,” he said. “Promise me something.”

“Mmm,” Poe replied into the velvet darkness.

“If the First Order finds us before the Alliance—“

“They’re not going to,” Poe said firmly, suddenly wide awake.

Luke huffed. “If they find us first, you can’t let them take me to Vindicta.”

Poe sighed. “Fine, I won’t. Even though I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

“I mean it, Poe. If it’s a choice between letting me go with them and — and shooting me, you can’t let me go.”

Poe propped himself up so that he could get a look at Luke’s face in the moonlight. He was stone-faced and stubborn, his chin lifted up. “Why not?”

Luke wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I can’t — I can’t tell you. You have to trust me — the Empire can’t get hold of me.”

And just like that, the pieces fell into place. “The Starkiller,” Poe breathed. “You know how to build it.”

Luke startled, which was all the confession necessary. “What?” he said.

“We’ve been getting reports that the First Order has a weapon — something devastating. Leia suspected it might be another Starkiller, but everyone who’d worked on it was killed in Stellamortis. Except you,” he said.

“To be fair, I never worked on it,” Luke said. “But the Emperor was very… proud,” he swallowed after saying the word, as if it tasted vile, “Of it. He liked to talk about how it worked, what it could do. And I listened very closely.”

“So you could set it off,” Poe finished.

He nodded, looking down at where his right hand used to be. “I stole some of the plans for it, before we — before escaping.” Poe caught the slip but said nothing as Luke continued. “But I ended up burning them. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else having them.”

“Not even us?” Poe asked. He was angry, or at least he thought he was; but it seemed like a small and sullen thing when balanced against the feel of Luke’s skin against his. “Leia could have used that weapon—“

“Yes, she could have,” Luke said darkly. “Which is why it had to be destroyed. Some weapons are too terrible, Poe. You can steal a cannon or a gun, or even a warship or an aeroplane. But the Starkiller was never something that could be repurposed for the side of good. Not even in the best of hands.”

“And that’s why you ran head first into a blizzard,” Poe said, “Rather than stay with the Stormtroopers. Better to freeze to death than be forced to tell the Empire what you know.”

“Well, their car had gotten stuck,” said Luke. “It was really a choice between freezing to death with them and freezing to death alone. And I really didn’t care much for their company.”

“They didn’t freeze to death, if that makes you feel better,” Poe said, lying down again.

Luke stiffened. “They didn’t — Poe,” he said, “Did you find them before you found me?”

“You knew the answer to that.” Poe waited for Luke to say something. “I’m not sorry I did it,” he said. “I’m not sorry I found you. I would have done worse.”

Still Luke said nothing. Then after a few minutes, just as Poe had convinced himself he’d dozed off, he rolled over to look at Poe. “I’m sorry you had to,” he said, touching Poe’s face. “I have to wonder what this war’s made of you — of all of us.”

“It hasn’t made us better,” Poe admitted. “Stronger, maybe. But it’s not what I grew up wanting to be.”

“What would you have done, if it hadn’t happened? Surely you had other dreams than this.”

Poe had to think. “Actually, no — not really. I joined up before the war ever started — I wanted to be a pilot like my mother, and for a simple lad from Yavin, that meant the Army and the Aeronaut Corps.”

“Your mother—“ Luke’s brow furrowed. “Good lord, was your mother Shara Bey?”

“You knew her?” Poe asked, faintly surprised.

“I was in the Corps too, once upon a time,” Luke reminded him. “Han and Lando and I practically founded it; your mother was one of the first to sign up. I remember hearing the news when she… when she passed on.”

“Plane crash, fittingly enough,” said Poe, talking past the lump in his throat he always had when he thought too much about it. “That’s why my father was so dead-set against me joining up; he didn’t want to lose me, too. But I had my heart set on it. And for a few years, I was the best pilot in the Corps. Won medals and everything,” he added.

Luke smiled faintly. “I’m sure you did.”

“And I always thought I’d like a life like hers. Stint in the army, then flying whatever I could convince someone to pay me to fly, with someone stout and sensible at home to take care of raising the offspring and cooking dinner. Of course I’d’ve been bored out of my mind,” he added. “Probably sitting on the porch in a rocking chair dreaming of adventures or intrigue or even just a good old-fashioned tea-cosy mystery. But I never had the chance to find out — the war crashed down on us and ever since then I’ve hardly had a moment of peace, let alone boredom.” He considered it for a moment, a smile on his face as realization dawned. “Except with you.”

“At the cathedral, you mean?” Luke asked. “I was about to say, I recall you complaining at length about how bored—“

Poe shut him up with a kiss, rolling over on top of him. “No, you idiot,” he said affectionately. “I mean with you I’m — I’m not bored,” he assured him, as he hunted for the right words. “But it’s… this is what I wanted. Even though it’s just this, here and now, it’s enough for—“ That wasn’t right either. “Without the war,” he tried again, “I would never have met you. And now I have, and I’ve had my adventures and and intrigues and mysteries and all of that — if I had to choose, I would’ve—“

It was coming out all wrong. Poe had written sonnets to lovers he despised, proclaimed lifelong devotion to people he’d killed the next day. Lying had been the easiest part of his work, smiling sincerely while he plotted behind his teeth. But the truth felt enormous and frightening and strangely fragile in his mouth now, liable to break at any moment.

But Luke kissed him again, deep and possessive, holding him in the darkness. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Poe dropped his head on Luke’s shoulder. He hadn’t expected a different answer; he’d been so careful for these past few days, making sure Luke had an escape hatch. It wasn’t fair of him to try to shut it now, no matter how much he wanted to. “Let’s just — we’ll take tomorrow as it comes, all right?”

“All right,” Luke said. "Whatever you want."

***

Then tomorrow dawned.

They were taking turns the next morning, shoveling out from the shed back to the nearest copse of trees — Luke might have just one hand, but he was quick nonetheless — when Poe heard a noise coming from the front of the house. He signaled Luke to stop shoveling and listened, stock-still. There was another nose; the sound of someone or something, moving through snow.

“Stay here,” he instructed.

“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” Luke said, and set the shovel into a drift.

Poe pulled it back out and pushed it into Luke’s hands. “If you’re not going to stay here, then at least stay armed,” he hissed.

Luke rolled his eyes. “And what will you be defending me with, then?” In response, Poe pulled out his sidearm from his jacket pocket. “Where did that come from?” Luke demanded.

“Be quiet.”

Poe crept toward the house; there were voices, low and conversational, followed by the shatter of glass. Scouts, probably — checking the house for residents.

He was just about to open the back door when there was a loud squawk and a black bundle of feathers came hurtling over the roof to hit Luke in the shoulder. He went down into the snowdrift with a yelp, and Poe nearly dropped the gun heaving him upright again; a task made harder by the flapping bird who was still clutching at his shoulder, making irritable and very loud noises.

“BB?” Luke said, holding out his arm so the raven could hop down and resettle its wings. “What—“

“Luke! Luke?” It was Rey, calling from the front of the house. “Luke, is that you?”

“Rey!” Luke shouted. “Hold on, the front door is—“

“Yes, it is,” she yelled back.

Poe said, “Tell her I’ll open it from the inside,” and went inside as Luke relayed the message.

This was good, he told himself as he knocked his boots clean of snow at the doorway. Luke had been worried about her. He could ignore the gnawing regret in his stomach because he’d seen Luke’s face as he’d realized who was shouting at him. Luke would go back to the cathedral with her and resume his life there and he was glad for that, for them.

But then as he walked down the hallway he felt the draught from an open window and heard the crunch of glass under his boots and he remembered. Two voices. Two voices, and the sound of breaking glass—

A hand darted out and grabbed him by the neck, lifting him up into the hair with ease. Poe kicked out at nothing, dropping the gun in an instinctive clutch at his throat, but already his vision was getting blurry, darkening at the edges, and all he could make out was a preposterously tall man with shaggy brown hair and glasses, examining him with almost clinical precision as he held him aloft.

“Let him go!” It wasn’t Rey or Luke — it was both of them, and Poe fell from what felt like twenty feet, collapsing on the floor and sucking in great, beautiful lungfuls of air as overhead, some sort of argument broke out. Rey was yelling at Luke, who was yelling at the giant shaggy man, who wasn’t saying much of anything.

“Honestly,” Rey muttered, crouching down beside him and heaving him back to his feet. “Are you all right?” Poe still couldn’t talk, but he managed a somewhat watery smile, which seemed to satisfy her. “I’m so sorry — I’d no idea I’d joined up with someone who was absolutely insane.”

“I did tell you stories about him,” Luke said obscurely, appearing on Poe’s other side to help him to his feet. “But you never believed me.”

Rey, helping to steady Poe on his feet, spared her superior a withering look. Over her shoulder, the shaggy giant was still giving Poe the once-over, and Poe resisted the urge to lunge for his sidearm. “I do now,” she muttered.

“What—“ Poe couldn’t get any more out; he coughed and wheezed and waved his hands in an effort to convey his desire to know what the fuck was going on.

“I’ll get you some water,” Luke said like the coward he was, retreating back into the kitchen.

“We’re part of the search party,” Rey answered Poe’s question, bouncing back from concerned to cheerful. “There’s dozens of us looking for you, under orders from the Queen. I’m glad we found you first.”

“Me too,” Poe managed.

Luke reappeared. “Here,” he said quietly, his arm touching his lower back as he pressed the glass into Poe’s hand. “Don’t gulp, or you’ll just be sick all over the floor.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Poe croaked. He glanced at the two newcomers — Rey was frowning at him, but the shaggy giant had refocused on Luke, eyes narrowed. Poe casually stepped away from Luke’s touch and took a sip. “So,” he said in a slightly clearer voice, turning to the shaggy giant. He held out his hand. “I’m Poe Dameron.”

The shaggy giant was still watching Luke.

Rey didn’t seem to notice. “Oh! Yes, introductions. Poe,” she said grandly, turning to her companion, “This is General Chewbacca.”

***

Chapter Text

***

When the second war was still in its infancy, Ben not yet given over to the darkness and Han and Leia still arguing over how best to address the nonsense rebellion of this so-called First Order, Luke had broached to the Abbess the idea of opening the Cathedral doors to the orphans and refugees fleeing north. He’d been careful to include a lengthy treatise about all the good they could do for the poor children. “And of course,” he’d concluded, “We would show them the kindness of God, which I’m sure they will be grateful for.”

Ashoka had given him a long, slow blink over the table. “Tell me, Father,” she said, “Have you ever met a child?”

Luke had hesitated; his experience had been limited primarily to his nephew. “On occasion,” he’d said.

“That’s what I thought,” Ashoka had replied.

Sure enough, he’d been unprepared. The “poor children” did not sit quietly for lessons on scripture; they did not have patience for prayer; in fact they staged an insurrection within the Cathedral walls inside of a week. During those first hot summer months, the courtyard outside the kitchen was known as their own personal fortress, and woe betide any adult caught there without candy.

That had all changed with the arrival of a small, grubby-faced urchin named Rey — who was even now thrusting something at him.

“We need someone else to hold the other end,” she said. On her hip she balanced Lily, one of their younger charges, a cherubic angel with black curls framing her face. “And you’re the only one as tall as me.”

“I’m taller than you,” Luke pointed out, even as he accepted what he suspected was someone’s clothesline.

She just sighed at him and took her place. “Do you know how to turn the rope?” she asked, shifting Lily to her other hip. Both girls looked dubious. “It’s very simple.”

Luke followed Rey’s patient instruction and the other children — all of them hellions who had been terrorizing the priests for months — lined up obediently to take their turns. Rey ruled the playground with a fist of iron, which was probably bad for her soul but good for Luke’s peace of mind. He guessed her age at nine or ten — no more than twelve, at any rate — but with the poise of someone well into her forties. He’d already made plans to trick her into reading and writing and, he hoped, a career as a deacon or (more likely) governor of Tatooine. For now he was content to let her exercise her more tyrannical impulses on the Cathedral orphans who, last month, had buried his shoes in the orchard.

Finally the rope was turning to Rey’s satisfaction and she nodded at the first pair of children, who leaped into the air as one, grinning a challenge into each other’s grimy faces. Luke found himself smiling as they sprang off the earth as though untethered.

Then they began to chant:

One, two, three, four

Who’s that knocking at the door?

Five, six, seven, eight

Skywalker is walking late

Luke’s swing stuttered; the children jumping in the middle didn’t notice, but Rey frowned at him. Luke forced a smile back on his face and continued turning as children in their pairs recited his sins.

How many cuckoos did he kill?

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven—

—And the abyss yawned under his feet, cold and depthless.

The rushing in his ears resolved to the whines of irritated children, two of whom were standing between him and Rey, looking betrayed. “Father Luke!” they protested in unison, just as they’d counted.

Rey snatched his end of the clothesline (Luke would have to have a word with her about that later) out of his hand and tossed it to the two jumpers. “Shut up,” she advised them. “Your turn.”

There was an even bigger uproar over that, but Luke didn’t wait, just turned blindly back to the safety of the kitchen gardens, where he’d originally meant to go. Before he could reach the safety of the vegetation, however, he was ensnared by a small hand at his robes, tugging insistently.

Lily brandished a shoe at him, laces dangling. “My shoe’s off,” she offered helpfully.

Luke looked at her grubby feet, then at the shoe. He had supervised the recovery of bodies from the outskirts of Stellamortis — row upon row of pale bare feet protruding from sack-cloth shrouds — and for a moment he could taste bile in the back of his throat. But Lily’s gaze was clear and expectant, and he sat down on the warm flagstones to fit the leather boot on, gently, as though she were a princess from a fairy tale.

"You’ll have to be patient,” he warned her. “I’m not very good at tying shoes.”

“Shoes are very hard,” Lily agreed with a sigh, and set herself onto the ground with him.

The chant started up again behind them. The Skywalker killed more cuckoos: seventy, eighty, a hundred. The priest on the ground plucked at a knot with fingers as clumsy as the first days after the loss of his hand.

If both children jumped thirty times to the minute, and the rope was turned ceaselessly, and they jumped from sunup to sundown and rested on Sunday, it would take them two weeks of jumping to reach the true tally.

Lily fidgeted, drumming her other heel on the ground. “I’m a bit slow, you see,” Luke said through the vise at his throat. “I only have one hand to do it with.”

“Oh. Don’t worry,” Lily said with five-year-old assurance, sitting up straight. “I have two. I can help.”

The joint effort proved successful, and when the knot had been tied to Lily’s satisfaction, he finally thought to ask, "Where's your other shoe?"

“She buried it,” said a voice over her shoulder. Luke turned to see Rey, a shovel over one shoulder and a very muddy, faintly-recognizable shoe in her other hand.

“Rey!” Lily wailed. “We’re planting a shoe tree.”

“Didn’t you try that last month?” Luke observed as he got to his feet. “With my shoes?”

“Yours were too big,” Lily said, snatching her other shoe from Rey’s hand and putting it on with a squishy noise. “They have to be small, otherwise they won’t grow.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said Rey, full of nine-or-ten-year-old sarcasm.

“Thank you for getting her other shoe,” Luke said, since Lily had already dashed off (and didn’t seem in the mood to be appreciative anyway).

Rey handed him the shovel. “Thank you for helping her with the clean one. It’s nice to have an assistant on occasion.”

“Glad to oblige,” Luke said, suddenly charmed beyond reckoning.

Lily had come back, curls bouncing. “Father Luke! I almost forgot, we made a present for you. You have to guess. You can’t guess, Mother Rey,” she added, pointing sternly at Rey.

I’m not a priest,” Rey said, scandalized.

Lily looked at her uncomprehendingly. “Then why do you boss us around?” She turned back to Luke before waiting for an answer. “We made you the most beautiful present.”

Luke smiled down at her, aware of Rey’s indignation behind him. “And what did you make for me?”

“A jar full of bugs,” Lily said.

God often had a swift reckoning. “That’s...very thoughtful,” he said.

“Yes, we thought about it a lot. We even thought of putting it in you room. So you’ll find it when you go to bed!”

“I’m sure I’ll be very surprised indeed,” Luke agreed.

Rey snorted. “Does this jar have a lid?” she asked Lilly.

Lily frowned at her. “Then they wouldn’t be able to breathe.”

“It could be worse,” Rey said as Lily dashed off again.

“Could it?” Luke asked.

“They could have put the jar in my room,” she offered.

***

“Are you sure you don’t want help?” Rey called up from the bottom of the stairs.

“Just a moment!” Luke answered. He had escaped up to the bedroom — their bedroom — on the pretext of gathering their things to make the journey back to the Cathedral. But now that he was here…

There were loud steps on the staircase and Luke turned to tell Rey (what, exactly?) but it was Poe, looking too pale, the bruise on his neck from Chewie’s introduction only beginning to come in. “I’ve got him managed,” he shouted down, not taking his eyes off Luke.

“Chewie says a storm might be blowing in soon,” Rey said, sounding doubtful. “We oughtn’t dally.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Poe muttered and shut the door.

Luke began stripping the bed; he didn’t dare look up. “I suppose we can’t take these with us and clean them—“ he said, bundling them up in his arms.

Only to have Poe take the bundle away and sit him down on the bed, hands on his shoulders. “Luke.”

He’d heard Poe say his name like that so often, now. “We can’t… keep them waiting.”

“We won’t,” Poe said. He was going to kiss him; run his hands through his hair, bite down on that spot on his neck, smile against his jaw—

“Don’t,” he said, louder than he’d meant to. He stood up, crowding Poe out of the way, and went to stand by the window. Outside he could just see the sled Chewie and Rey had come in by, pulled by two of the Church horses. Chewie was wading out to it, leading Tauntaun (still wearing the pilfered blanket).

He prayed that Poe would get angry, say something cutting that made it easy to lash back, storm out. Or that he would pull him back, ignore his protests and push him down again.

“We’ll have to leave the sheets here,” Poe said instead. “I’m sure you can add it to the bill.” His footsteps came closer and Luke braced himself.

The Bible — slightly worse for wear — was pressed into his hands. “I think whoever lived here,” Poe said, and Luke turned enough to see his smile, reluctant and half-hearted, “Will agree that you need it more than they do.”

And Luke smiled back, and nodded, and followed him out the door and down the stairs.

***

Chewie had already mounted the driver’s seat and BB was complaining from his shoulder as the three of them came out of the house. “Any fires still burning?” Chewie signed as Luke climbed in.

“No,” Luke replied.

“What about in your loins?”

Rey squinted at him from where she was greeting Tauntaun. “What was that last sign?” she asked Luke.

“Nothing,” Luke lied, offering up a quick prayer for forgiveness.

Chewie laughed his strange hollow laugh, took the reins and started them off almost before they’d gotten settled: Poe facing back, his sidearm resting on his lap, with Luke and Rey across from him bundled together under several rugs. “I didn’t know he was deaf,” Poe said, gesturing behind him. “Or a giant.”

“He’s neither,” Luke said. “Kashyyykians aren’t giants, just—“

“Raised on extra-tall beef?” Poe asked. “And what do you mean he’s not deaf? What about the—“ and he gestured with his hands in something he probably thought was a fair approximation of sign language.

“He got his tongue cut out when he was a pirate,” Rey supplied cheerfully. “Luke told me all about it. And,” she added, turning to Luke, “Chewie told me it was actually true.”

“All my stories were true,” Luke felt obliged to point out.

Poe laughed. “It’s good to see the two of you back together,” he said, eyes twinkling, and for a moment it was as if everything were still the same, and he could lean across the gap and kiss that smile. “Like two peas in a pod.”

“Yes, well, it’s been very inconvenient without him around,” Rey said, fussing at the rugs.

Poe caught Luke’s eye and his smile faded; he looked away into the expanse of snow surrounding them. “So what has been going on?” he asked. “And why are we parading around in broad daylight? Not that I don’t trust your non-deaf non-giant friend,” he added, craning his neck to look up at Chewie’s broad, phlegmatic back.

Rey wrinkled her nose at him. “For a Spymaster, you’re not very well-informed,” she said.

“We’ve been trapped in that house for over three weeks,” Luke pointed out gently. “Intelligence was hard to come by.”

“I’ll say,” Poe muttered. Luke kicked him in the ankle under the rug.

“I suppose,” Rey said, but he could already see her glee in providing information. “Well, the first thing to know is that the village is once again in the hands of its rightful ruler, Queen Leia. The Alliance Army has driven the entire First Order front line south of the Mos Eisley Woods.”

As she spoke, the sled bounced slightly; they had come to the main road, well-packed and piled high on each side with dirty snow. There were ample signs of humanity here, just a few miles away from their isolation: carts laden with various supplies, soldiers on horseback, even a slow-moving automobile.

“When Poe didn’t come back after haring off after you the night you were arrested, Her Majesty grew concerned, and once she arrived, one of the things on her to-do list was to find you. So she assigned me.” Rey looked pink with pleasure. “I’m in charge of two squadrons.”

“‘Squadrons’?” Poe echoed. “‘Assigned you’?”

“‘Once she arrived’?” Luke asked. “’Her Majesty’?”

“Oh,” said Rey, “Yes. I should explain.”

“By all means,” said Luke. From the driver’s seat, Chewie laughed again.

“I was on my way back to Tatooine when the blizzard struck,” she said, the rugs falling from her hands as she gesticulated. “I managed to hide in an abandoned tank, which I don’t recommend, particularly if you have a raven prone to histrionics. By the time I got back to Tatooine, the front line had already fallen back and Queen Leia had set up an encampment at the Cathedral.”

“She did what?” Luke demanded.

“Oh,” said Rey, this time considerably less cheery. “Yes. I should explain.”

“Isn’t that what you were doing?” Poe asked innocently. Luke kicked him in the ankle again.

“The Queen said that, because the Cathedral is so safe from the outside world, it stands to reason that keeping dangerous people inside would protect people, too. And you see, if she’s able to capture the prince — that is—“ she faltered, stealing a look at Poe. “Um. Kylo Ren, that is. Who isn’t the prince—“

“You,” Poe said, “Would make a terrible spy.”

“He knows who Kylo Ren is,” Luke assured her.

“As do I,” Chewie signed behind his back, one-handed.

“I wasn’t sure,” Rey said, defensive. “At any rate, the Queen explained to me that taking Kylo Ren to New Theed would be very dangerous, because he’d try to escape during the transportation and we wouldn’t want him loose in Naboo, so it would be an act of godly charity to hold him at the Cathedral and protect innocent people from danger.”

“So Leia’s installed herself as a guest at the Cathedral,” Luke concluded.

“Until they find the — Kylo Ren,” Rey confirmed, which set off another round of explanations. Apparently in the push southward, the Alliance had captured, then lost, their most prized enemy. Reports from the front lines indicated that he had not returned to the First Order’s loving embrace; his whereabouts were currently unknown.

“Then he’s most likely dead,” Poe said, flat. He turned to Luke. “It looks like you’ll be stuck with your sister until the spring thaw reveals the body.”

Luke flinched at the thought of Ben, lifeless somewhere in the woods, but he replied, “I can imagine Ahsoka’s delight at the occupation.”

“Oh, yes,” said Rey. “I should explain. You see, when the Queen arrived,” and now she was speaking very quickly, “She thought it would be safer for the Abbey and the rest of the priests and such if they weren’t right in the center of everything. So most of the priests and monks have been, er… relocated to New Theed. Because of the danger.”

“The danger,” Luke repeated. He knew he was angry, but he couldn’t quite decide how best to express it. Across from him, Poe’s shoulders were shaking with laughter. “So in the few weeks I’ve been gone, Leia has taken over my Cathedral, banished everyone, and made plans to install a potential prisoner — a prisoner so dangerous he cannot be taken to New Theed — somewhere on church grounds.”

“That’s — yes, about right,” Rey said.

He regarded her for a long moment. “Forgive me for possibly misremembering,” he said, “But haven’t you previously called my sister a despot bent on breaking the will of those who put God first? I could have sworn there was at least one late night where you presented your case for her excommunication.”

“Well,” Rey said, after a moment’s hesitation, “That was before I got to know her.”

“And how do you come into all of this, old friend?” Luke called up to Chewie. “I thought the Kashyyykians had better sense than to get involved in this mess.”

Chewie cast a glance back, then made a familiar sign over his shoulder.

Rey pursed her lips. “I don’t think that was a polite sign,” she decided.

“It wasn’t.”

“He came with Leia. Apparently Kashyyyk was considering a treaty with the New Empire and Chewie thought that was a bit ill-advised.”

“Oh, lord,” Luke sighed. “Whose arms did he rip off?”

“The Kashyyykian Prime Minister’s,” Rey answered glumly. “So, strictly speaking, he’s a fugitive from justice at present. But I’m sure it can all be sorted out,” she added.

“I’m sure,” agreed Luke. He thought over the chain of events. “You were on your way back when the blizzard hit,” he remembered. “So — did you get to Tuanul?”

“Oh,” said Rey. “Yes. I should — I haven’t — I should tell you. I’m afraid I… didn’t do very well solving the mystery. When I got to the village, you see, there was — I thought I’d find clues or something, but when I went to the Church,” and she stopped, looking sick.

Poe leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “You found the villagers,” he said shrewdly, his eyes searching her face. “The ones that survived the first attack on Tuanul. The ones who’d gone missing from Tatooine.”

She nodded. “They were all… in the Church,” she said. “Someone had laid them all down, very — um, tidy. And then whoever it was, he… cut their throats.”

Tauntaun snorted gently behind them, the clopping of steady hoofbeats dragging them back into the world. He caught Poe’s eye; Poe’s mouth quirked into something that was not a smile.

“It seems, Father,” said Poe, his thumb sliding along the stock of the pistol, “That our tea-cosy mystery has progressed without us.”

 

 

***

They arrived in good time at the Cathedral doors. “So we were ten miles away from Tatooine,” Poe said, jumping out and extending a hand to Rey. “I’m almost put out you didn’t rescue us sooner.”

Rey ignored him and leapt to the ground; Poe turned to follow her inside as BB flew ahead. Luke gritted his teeth as he got out, the cold seeping into his inadequate boots.

Chewie had already climbed down. “I didn’t know you had it in you,” he signed, after nudging Luke to get his attention. “Or did he have it in you?”

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you,” Luke said, glaring.

Chewie laughed as he handed off the horses’ reins to an ensign, running up from the stable. “Come on,” he signed, “You’ll love what your sister’s done with the place.”

He didn’t.

“You should know,” Luke said as he stepped into Leia’s office a half-hour later, “That you’re going to hell for this.”

She looked up from her desk (his desk, once upon a time, three weeks ago) and broke into a broad smile. “I’m going to hell for any number of reasons,” she said, standing up and circling around to embrace him. “Welcome back.” Ever the sentimentalist, she released him after a bare moment to hold him out at arm’s length. “What is that you’ve got on?”

Luke looked down at himself and realized, with a jolt, that he was still wearing Poe’s grey knit sweater and the nameless trousers they’d liberated from the house. He could smell Poe, just a bit, and now was not the time. He smiled and shook his head. “Still complaining about what I wear, Leia?”

“Always, Luke,” she said fondly. “I take Rey and Chewie were the ones to finally locate you.”

“Poe Dameron did first,” he said. “Right as the blizzard hit, as a matter of fact. We managed to find an abandoned house—“

“And no doubt you already have a list somewhere of everything you used, to recompense the householder,” she said, holding her hand out. “I’ll give it to Threepio.”

“Is he here too?” Luke sighed, but he fished out the paper and handed it over. “Did you leave anyone in New Theed?”

“Calm down, it’s only temporary,” she said, dropping the paper into a tray that Luke normally used for outgoing mail.

Luke sat down in one of the guest chairs. “I understand Chewie’s got a warrant out for his arrest too; now you have two fugitives under your roof,” he said. “Or rather, my roof. And that’s not even including the one you’re planning to imprison in — where exactly do you imagine he can be stored?”

“The storage rooms in that crypt of yours seem suitable,” Leia said, not missing a beat. “I’ve already had some nice thick doors installed.”

“How optimistic of you.”

“I have the sense, Luke,” she said, tossing her glasses onto the desk, “That you’re put out.”

“Quite literally, it seems. You turned my Cathedral into a war office.”

“Your acolyte didn’t seem to mind.”

“My acolyte is half in love with you already. Do you know, she’s been ranting about your tyrannical tendencies for five years, and it apparently took you all of five minutes to win her over.”

“I’ll have you know it took six and a half,” said Leia, although she did look pleased. “She’s a lovely child.”

“She’s almost as old as we were,” said Luke, “When the war started.”

“And I have no doubt that she would have won it sooner,” she said. “Rey has a positive gift for rallying the troops.”

“Quite literally, it seems. You had her in charge of soldiers organizing my rescue?”

“You’re welcome for that, by the way.”

“You had her in charge of soldiers, is my point. And as for installing Ben here — the Church and the Crown aren’t supposed to be quite this cosy, Leia.”

She had the grace to look at least somewhat apologetic. “It wasn’t my first choice,” she admitted. “But we need somewhere secure and I’m not bringing Kylo Ren anywhere near New Theed, once we have him.”

Luke was struck by the note of hope in her voice — as though capturing Ben was an outcome to be wished for and not dreaded. She thought he was still alive, Luke realized; believed he’d somehow survived almost a month in hostile territory, wounded and alone.

“That’s not his name,” was all he said.

She sighed. “It’s the one he’s chosen. And the one that the world knows him by. So I intend to use it. Besides,” she added, looking down at the desk, “I can’t imagine that anything in there resembles my son any longer.”

“So what happens when you find him? You’ll have him executed? Will it be a public hanging or the guillotine?” He folded his arms over his chest. “I’ll have to ask that you not use any of the apple trees.”

“No,” she said.

“No, what?”

“No, there won’t be an execution.”

Luke stared at her. “I assumed — you’ve changed your mind, then?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Leia sighed. “But he’s been a pawn for the Empire for years now. Long enough to make him a much more valuable piece.”

“I have the sense,” Luke parroted, “That you’re plotting something.”

When they’d been children, Leia had always been plotting something — a way to sneak into the kitchen for sweets, a plan to get out of a dull ceremony, a scheme to convince Mother and Father that they should have a pet rathtar. Luke had always objected and always gone along with them. Some had worked out well; mostly, he remembered the disasters.

“I aim to propose a trade,” Leia said. “Kylo Ren, in exchange for the Prince.”

The silence magnified the sounds from the hall: footsteps, murmurs of quiet conversation as people moved past. He envied them, suddenly and fiercely, for the fact that none of them were Leia’s brother. “A what?”

“Snoke can no more afford to admit that Kylo Ren is my son than I can,” Leia pointed out, with cutting blandness. “He was only able to seize power by claiming to overthrow the ‘oppression of the Amidala regency.’ And despite what they say, his hold on the so-called New Empire is weak. If Kylo Ren’s identity is revealed, it will damage him as much as me. Perhaps more.”

There was something in Luke — something very much younger, very much sadder and more foolish — that hated Leia in that moment. “So you’ll use Ben,” he said. “To do what?”

“To perpetuate a fraud upon the public, of course,” she said. She leaned forward, intent. “With your help.”

“Saints preserve me,” Luke muttered. “What is it you want me to do?”

And this, somehow, was the moment that Leia hesitated, watching him carefully. Leia, who had ordered the certain deaths of thousands, who had lead him and the rest of her people for decades now and who had lost her husband and son on the same dreadful night — whatever she was about to ask him, he suddenly wanted to promise.

Luke had known royalty his entire life; his own family tree and the extended, twisting branches of a dozen others. The Organas who had half-raised them, the families of Hoth and Kashyyyk, of Takodana and Coruscant. He knew more than anyone that being king or queen was, in spite of every propaganda, not a matter of divine right or predestination. Those who lead were not always, or often, the ones who could. But Leia was the one woman he’d ever known in his life to make him doubt his own doubt; she looked at him and he thought that if she’d asked him back then, he would have stayed by her side instead of retreating into his faith. God could move mountains but Leia had convinced mountains to move themselves.

And so it was almost inevitable to hear her next words:

“Leave the Church,” she said.

***

Luke made his escape after another few hours, shutting the door softly behind him. He felt wrung out like so much wet laundry, such a roil within him that he half-expected to burst out laughing any moment.

It had grown dark, lamps lit along the hallways by unfamiliar yet businesslike people. The mere sight of it ought to enrage him; he’d had half-formed notions all day of storming out of Leia’s office and demanding the Alliance’s wholesale removal from his Cathedral.

Instead, he made for the kitchens. He hadn’t eaten since that morning (Poe laughing as he fed him apple slices smeared in some disgusting marmalade, leaning against the kitchen table, warm down to their toes) and for the past hour his stomach had been grumbling. Whoever else might have been exiled from the Cathedral, they wouldn’t have forced out the cooks.

Before he’d gotten to the stairs, however, the bells began to toll: Vespers.

He stopped and listened, suddenly rapt. In spite of their evident proximity, Luke hadn’t heard the bells of the Cathedral during his time in the snow. He hadn’t missed them; hadn’t even noticed their absence. Now the sound crashed over him like some great and terrifying wave, leaving him breathless.

“It’s Rey,” said a voice behind him. Luke turned; Finn, his shoulders hunched from the cold, jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the bell tower. “She’s ringing them. She won’t let anyone else up in the tower.”

“Oh,” said Luke.

“She’ll be back in a few minutes. We were going to bring you something to eat. She said you’ve probably been starving, out in the woods.”

The taste of apples stuck to the back of his throat, but Luke shrugged. “Self-abegnation is part and parcel of the life of a—“ He stopped himself. “It’s good to see you. Have you fully recovered?”

Finn, smiled and hopped on his ankle. “Good as new,” he said. “Or at least as good as it was. Thanks for that, by the way. I didn’t get much chance to say it before.”

“You thanked us every day you were here,” Luke pointed out. It was true enough; although most days when he said it, he was gazing adoringly up at Rey, who was blushing and trying not to gaze adoringly back. “And your good health is thanks enough.”

“That’s what Rey said.” Finn shoved his hands into his pockets. “She was — we were all worried about you, but she lead the charge, you should know that. She wouldn’t rest until she found you; the two of them, her and General Chewbacca, were out every day looking. And when they found the car with all the — the First Order officers, she thought maybe you were dead somewhere, too.” He was watching Luke as he spoke, intent. “Leia convinced the priests not to ring the bells while she was in residence,” he said. “But Rey wouldn’t have it. She said it was the duty of the Church to speak for the people and to them, and to usher them to prayer.”

“She’s right,” Luke said.

“So they compromised,” he continued, relentless. “Leia said when the archbishop was back, she could start ringing the bells again. And Rey… she thinks that’s what’s happened.”

Realization dawned, ugly and grey and too bright. “You know,” he said. “You know what Leia’s asked me to do.”

Finn nodded. “She told me a few days ago — before we were even sure if we could find you. She doesn’t know,” no guesses as to whom Finn referred to, “I’m not allowed to tell her. But you could. If you decide to leave the Church. You could tell her the truth.”

There was no question as to who he was referring to. “I haven’t given Leia an answer.”

“But you will. Won’t you?”

“Is this how you usually spy on people?” Luke asked. “It’s a bit too direct, to my way of thinking.”

“Sir,” Finn said, “She loves God, but she worships you—“

“That is a blasphemous assertion,” Luke reminded him, “And I’m sure isn’t true.”

“Couldn’t you tell her?” Finn pressed, his eyes bright and pleading. “For her sake. Or mine. Or… anyone’s. Please, sir.”

Luke sighed. “Everyone’s asking me to do things today. You’d think I was entitled to at least one day back.”

“Sir—“

“Father,” Luke corrected. “I’m still myself, Finn. That hasn’t yet been lost.”

“Father, then,” Finn agreed. “Please. Just — think about it. She joined the Church because you were the only person, the only one in her whole life, who didn’t leave her. If she finds out you’ve left the Church without knowing why — she’ll think you left her, too.”

Luke couldn’t respond to that.

“Anyway, sir. Father.” Finn hunched still further into his jacket, looking very, very young. As young as he was. “It’s something to think about. Just — just remember that she was the one who came and got you.”

And he bowed his head slightly and went back the way he’d come, his footsteps echoing along the stone.

***

Luke spent the rest of the evening making his rounds, after a brief stop at his cell (untouched despite the number of rooms that had been taken over by various members of Leia’s entourage; he was unsure if this was respect due his rank or due to people thinking his cell was a storage closet) to put on a cassock.

“You changed,” was the first thing Rey said when she caught up with him walking down the orchard paths. BB croaked at him from her shoulder, hopping onto a nearby tree branch.

“Do you approve?” Luke asked.

She gave it serious consideration as she fell into step with him. “The sweater looked very comfortable,” she said. “Perhaps we can modify the dress code to allow for sweaters as part of the habit.”

“An excellent idea.”

As they roamed the hallways and underpasses of the Cathedral, Rey continued to fill him in on all the developments of the past weeks: the near uprising amongst the townspeople when Leia and her retinue came in, not out of any dislike for their Queen but because the New Theed people drank up Wuher’s entire supply of scrumpy the first night; the strange bond between Threepio and Artu, who had apparently expressed instant mutual dislike yet were rarely found apart these days; and of all the births and deaths and christenings that had been gerry-rigged in his absence. “The gravediggers wanted to exhume a few of the older graves and work on the ossuary,” she said, “Since the yard is getting a bit crowded. But I convinced them to hold off for now, since we’ve been barred from the crypt.”

That seemed to be the one thorn in her side. “Are we already holding prisoners there?” Luke asked. “I thought it was being saved for our imminent special guest.”

“It is, but they’re worried one of us will go mad and try to unblock the tunnel, or some such nonsense,” Rey huffed. “They say it’s just ‘security precautions,’ but I don’t see why the entire crypt has to be sealed off like there was a contagion down there.” She frowned at him. “And why doesn’t anyone refer to him by name? He’s got one. Two of them, in fact.”

“That’s part of the problem,” he sighed. They came out into the orchard, the full moon lighting the pathways through the trees. Luke sat down on the nearest bench and Rey followed suit, folding herself up to hug her knees to her chest. “So I take you didn’t encounter him in all the… confusion.”

He still remembered Ben’s final words to him: I’ll be happy to give her a message from you. Kylo Ren, the head of the First Order’s elite troops, feared by every child in Naboo, had a reputation for bloody battles and sudden ambushes. But so far as Luke knew (and he had been careful, these past years, to know as much as possible), there had been no reports of wanton cruelty, no rape or dismemberment, tormenting innocent civilians. Kylo Ren was a monster to scare children — well, so was Luke Skywalker.

Of course, there was also Poe, strapped down to a chair somewhere in the bowels of Vindicta and tortured for — what reason? He still had no idea.

Rey, unaware of his rumination, looked out into the darkness of the patient trees. “No. And Her Majesty says I’m not to speak with him even if he is captured. Everyone seems to think he’s going to breathe fire the moment he sets eyes on me. Can’t you let me meet him?”

“You want to meet him?” Luke asked, surprised. It hadn’t occurred to him. “Why?”

“He’s your nephew,” Rey said, matter-of-fact. “And goodness knows the last time he gave confession. It would be good for him. And — I don’t know,” she said, thoughtfully. “I suppose I just think it’s possible to have good people on both sides of this war.”

“Kylo Ren is nothing like Finn,” Luke pointed out.

“Everyone in the world is nothing like Finn,” said Rey with absolute surety. “But everyone can try to be.”

By the time she left him to go ring the Night Office, she was as cheerful as he’d ever seen her, despite her frequent asides to assure him how scandalized she was at the Queen’s preemptory takeover of the Cathedral. “First the orphans, then the invalids, then the Rensters and now royalty,” she’d said, but Luke had known her too well and loved her too dearly to miss the sparkle in her eye as she spoke of organizing the search parties for him every morning, mapping out likely locations and assigning teams.

“It’s a pity you decided to go into the Church,” he told her at one point. “Clearly you would have made a brilliant tactician.”

“You’ve only yourself to blame for that, Father,” she said, beaming.

“That’s… very true,” Luke managed. “Rey, I want to speak with you tomorrow morning. We have some things to discuss.”

“I should think so,” she said, blithely unconcerned as she whirled off toward the bell tower. “After Lauds, I’ll come find you!”

***

Now Luke climbed the last flight of stairs to his cell alone, his knees protesting slightly. He felt like a top spinning in place, wobbling only slightly but about to topple over.

Which is when he opened the door and found Poe, sitting on his bed. “Oh,” he said, and ran out of words.

“I came to retrieve my sweater,” said Poe, getting up. “The door was unlocked.” He’d changed, too, into a suit and tie that was the closest thing to a uniform he could get, his hair combed back and his jaw freshly shaven with a real razor, not the dull thing they’d made do with in the snow.

But it didn’t matter.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Luke said, even as he shut the door and leaned against it, barring his path. “You should go, you should—“

Already Poe was on him, his hands curled at Luke’s neck and his waist. Luke opened his mouth to him, letting his head fall back against the wood as Poe bit at his lip. He clutched at Poe’s arm, the scratch of thick wool against his fingertips as he pulled him closer, wanting more.

Poe pressed his thigh between his legs, urgent and presumptuous, and Luke gasped against his cheek. “Please,” he said, even though he couldn’t have told God Himself what he was pleading for.

But Poe stopped, still keeping him pinned against the door. “I know what we agreed. And I wasn’t — I didn’t come here to—“ he scattered a kiss against Luke’s mouth. “I didn’t come here for this,” he whispered, his forehead against Luke’s. “But I don’t—“

“It’s all right,” Luke said, even as he ached, half-mad with the need to tumble them both into his inadequate bed, strip them both of any shades of office and press inside him one last time.

(The last time had been this morning, Luke hitching Poe’s legs up in his arms and staring down at him, rapt, as Poe stroked himself, his hips snapping between his hand and Luke’s cock, expression dazed and desperate. He had spilled all over his stomach and urged Luke on with a wicked smile as he drew a finger through his own mess. “Come for me,” he’d urged, and slid his finger into Luke’s mouth, smiling up at him as Luke obeyed with a moan.)

“I’m going back to New Theed tomorrow,” Poe murmured, trailing kisses down his neck. “I won’t — I promise, I won’t do this again, I swear to you.” And he reclaimed Luke’s mouth, just as combative as the first time they’d kissed, with Luke only able to think yes.

He felt, more than heard, the first bell’s toll, reverberating through the wood and stone. The Night Office.

Poe froze, his face just an inch away. Luke hadn’t even realized he’d said anything, but now that he’d found his voice he said, “It was just for there, remember?” But he couldn’t help keeping tight hold, breathing in the warmth of him. “You said it was only for that time, and that place. That we’ll go on afterward as if nothing had happened.”

Now Poe smiled again, his nose brushing against Luke’s. “You must have known I was lying.”

It was more than Luke was capable of, to answer that. “Have you spoken with Leia?” he asked instead. “Or Finn?”

Poe frowned. “I — I spoke to Finn.” He half-smiled. “He’s the one who said I should come find you, that you had something to share. I didn’t make a crass joke about that, for which I think I deserve a reward.”

Despite everything, Luke chuckled. “No doubt you do,” he said. He should push Poe away, or get himself out of range; he shouldn’t have this conversation tangled up with him, here in his desolate cell with his queen sister lurking nearby and and his traitor nephew lurking who knew where, as dangerous as each other. But he didn’t move as he said, “Leia has asked me to leave the Church.”

From this close, he could watch the flicker of Poe’s pupils as he blinked. “What?”

Luke shrugged, the wood scratching against his back. “She was always going to ask me, one day. We had an agreement; it was useful for the public to know there was someone… familiar, if not necessarily beloved, to take over in case the worst happened. And of course there was always the promise of Prince Ben returning to us.”

“Which was never real,” Poe said. He brushed a strand of hair off Luke’s face, trailing his fingers down his cheek.

“Which was never real,” Luke agreed. He sighed into the touch. “But somehow I convinced myself… I thought that perhaps if they saw each other again — if somehow they were able to speak freely to each other — that they might reconcile. Somehow. But of course I was wrong.”

“So she’s going to need you,” Poe said.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Luke temporized.

Which was an understatement. It was, like all Leia’s plots, extremely complicated and only vaguely understood by those involved. Leia wanted to force Snoke’s hand: to make him admit that the Prince was dead (which wasn’t true) and that he’d been lying for years in an attempt to blackmail Naboo and its government (which was only half true). “But if we do that,” Leia’d told him, “I need to have you at my side. We can no longer pretend the Prince is coming back; you’re the Prince now.”

“You said said you had an agreement,” Poe said, dragging him back into the present. “What is it?”

“That she would allow me to permanently abdicate the throne, provided I… produce a suitable heir. Leia cannot have any more children, you see; she tried, but…” he shook his head. “So I’m the last of the line, unless I give the kingdom a child.”

Poe stepped back, letting Luke go. “Doesn’t sound quite fair to the child,” he said. “Or you.”

“Or whatever poor woman would have to agree to the scheme,” Luke said. “But it seemed worth it — worth whatever sacrifices had to be made — to ensure that I was never king.” He watched Poe, willing him to understand.

He did; just as clearly, he didn’t like it. “And then you’ll go back the Church,” he said. “In order to assure the people that you won’t actually take the throne.”

“Yes.”

“But in the meantime, you’ll play the dutiful heir for the purposes of propaganda and morale.”

“I doubt many people see my presence in the line of succession as particularly good for morale,” said Luke. It had been easier to think with Poe’s hands on him, his mouth. He missed them. “But yes. Lando will arrange for a suitable… person to marry, and that will be that.”

“And the Amidalas are famously faithful,” Poe said, sitting down on the bed. “Queen Leia never remarried after Han’s death; Padme and Anakin were — well, fidelity wasn’t their issue, was it?” He smiled as if to take the sting out of his words. “So if there was ever a rumor of an affair between Prince Luke and the Queen’s Spymaster—“

“I’m sorry—“

“Stop saying that.” Poe got up again, running his hand through his hair. “I don’t want your apologies.”

“I can’t give you anything else.”

Poe flinched. “I know. I know — I knew I shouldn’t have come here—“ he made as if to get past Luke, his eyes fixed on the door handle, but Luke felt rooted to the spot, an anchor sinking down into the depths. “I’ll go—“

“Stay,” Luke blurted out. “Stay. For tonight. I can’t — but please, stay.”

Poe didn’t move, his eyes still cast down, and Luke raised his trembling hand to touch his chin, urging his head upward. Poe’s eyes were dark in the dim lamplight.

“All right,” he said, and kissed Luke’s palm. “I will.”

But he was gone before the sun rose, the cell cold and empty when Luke woke to the sound of bells.

***

It was a few hours later when Rey presented herself at his door. “You asked to see me?” she said, fairly hopping from one foot to the other. BB, as ever on her shoulder, squawked and flapped its wings to keep balance.

“Yes,” Luke said. “I did. Let’s take a walk.”

He had been tempted at first, when he woke to find himself alone, to simply wallow. The various novels he’d read that dwelled (rather too much, he’d always thought) on romance tended to have at least one or two chapters relegated to the broken heart of the protagonist, featuring scenes of him or her pacing down deserted streets or drinking heavily or, depending on the quality of the novel, getting embroiled in fisticuffs. But regardless of Poe’s teasing gibes, he had never been cut out for the role of the hard-bitten detective; so he’d pushed himself to his feet and splashed some water on his face from the basin, then sat back down to think.

He had done very little of that in the past few weeks.

“Do you still want to solve the tea-cosy?” he asked Rey, as they stepped out into the orchard. “I mean about Tuanul, and Trillia — what happened to those people?”

She looked hard at him. “Yes,” she said suspiciously.

“Because I think there’s someone we can talk to who might help us.”

Rey turned it over in her mind for a few moments; he could see the moment she realized. “Father Lor San,” she said. “But he’s at the Cross—“

“Which is still in Alliance hands,” Luke reminded her. “I think the two of us should go and speak with him.”

“Why?” she asked. “He — he murdered those soldiers, but he couldn’t have murdered the people in Tuanul. Or Trillia. Can’t we just… leave him alone?”

Luke reached out to BB, who was watching him with interest. The raven submitted happily to a scratch on its head. “I would prefer to,” he admitted. “But I also think he has something to tell us about what went on in the village before the massacre.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that Commander Dameron mentioned something to me during our stay out in the wilderness. He said that he spoke with someone who advised him to count the dead from the massacre at Tuanul.”

“Four hundred and eighty-three,” Rey replied, rote and matter-of-fact. “And twenty-two dead at the Church.” She frowned. “Why is that significant?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But Lor San is the only survivor now, so it behooves us to speak with him.”

“When we capture Kylo Ren,” Rey said, “We could just ask him.”

“That’s not terribly likely for any number of reasons — not the least of which is that you’re not going anywhere near Kylo Ren.”

Luke,” she protested.

“Why are you set on meeting him?”

“Why are you so set against it?” she retorted, kicking up snow under her boots as she walked along. “Do you think he’s going to somehow rummage around in my head and pull out something he can use against you?”

“It’s not me I worry about.”

“Then who?”

You was on the tip of his tongue, but he was stopped by her confused expression, her impatience for an answer. And it occurred to him, with a drop to his stomach, that she might not believe him if he answered her.

“Do you remember the first time we met?” he asked.

She frowned at him. “Of course — up in the belfry. Don’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” he assured her. “But I’d heard of you for quite some time before that. People had started calling you the Ghost of Tatooine Cathedral; there’d be a loaf of bread missing or a candle stub, but nobody knew where they’d gone.”

“I was stockpiling,” said Rey, although she too looked amused at her past self, an indulgent smile on her lips. “It seemed very practical at the time.”

“It was. I’d been away for a week or so, and when I came back everyone was buzzing about this pest of a child who’d come in during my absence; she’d disappear for hours or days, she refused to take a bath—“

“I was perfectly clean,” Rey protested.

“And she kept threatening anyone who got near her with a staff. A staff which she knew how to use.” Luke could still remember one of his deacons staggering down the hall with a black eye and a bloody nose after having cornered her in a closet. “So I said that I would try and find you, and bring you down.”

“Which you did,” said Rey.

“Only after you nearly broke my wrist.”

Rey rearranged BB on her shoulder, which had become her default method of avoiding eye contact. “I thought you were going to throw me out.”

“I know,” Luke said, soft. “And I had thought that you should go north, with the rest of the children; somewhere warmer and safer, far away from the fighting. But you were so hell-bent on—“

“Luke!” Rey exclaimed, scandalized. “Blasphemy!”

“A phrase I picked up from Commander Dameron. An apt one, too. But my point is, I let you stay because I thought perhaps it would be good for you. But instead, I…” He took a moment. “I had opened our doors to the fleeing refugees out of a sense of duty and responsibility; each orphan or injured civilian was a good work to be done. But something changed all that.”

“What?”

“You,” Luke said. “That grubby, half-feral creature that almost ripped my other hand off the first time I met her. You weren’t just another good work, Rey. You made me see you. And when I saw you, I loved you. As I love you still, as dearly as my own flesh and blood. More, perhaps; I never had a choice but to love Leia, or even Ben. And perhaps I had no choice but to love you, too.”

There was a long silence, BB offering its own commentary as it hopped from Rey’s shoulder to the nearest branch and back again. Then Rey said, her voice very small, “Why did you tell me that?”

“Because Kylo Ren knows how I feel about you,” Luke said. He stopped and turned to face her. “He knows I would do anything to protect you. And it has occurred to me that it’s possible that you… you didn’t know that. So I wanted to tell you.”

Rey looked down. “Oh,” she said.

The hug took Luke entirely by surprise: and indeed it wasn’t so much a hug as a full-body tackle, nearly sending him into the nearest snowbank. But he managed to recover, even with BB croaking its indignation, and carefully wrapped his arms around her.

“I have never been more proud,” he murmured against her hair. “You are, no matter what the future brings, my greatest joy in life.”

“Even greater than the Church?” she asked, still muffled against his shoulder. “Greater than God?”

“I’m sure it’s terribly impious of me to admit it,” Luke said, pressing his cheek against the top of her head.

“You’ve always been a horrible priest,” Rey said, and pulled away. Her eyes were a bit red, but she cleared her throat and said, “Well, if that’s the only reason you don’t want me to meet your — to meet Kylo Ren, then—“

“It isn’t,” he said. “And there is another matter.” He guided her over to their bench from last night, an early morning dust of snow settled where they’d sat. “Leia has asked me to do something, and I have no choice but to do it. But I think we should talk it over beforehand — I have a plan.”

***

Penitent’s Cross sat at the top of a cliff face, overlooking the Jakku Lake. In its first millennia it had been an abbey and retained the blunt, bare facade even with its changing fortunes. Those who came upon it often remarked at how unwelcoming it seemed, for a house of God. “That’s because most of the people here are those that only God could welcome,” Wedge had told Luke once, smiling and wry. “The rest of the world might be better served elsewhere.”

Still, Luke had always had a certain fondness for the Cross. The archbishops had agreed, centuries ago in an effort to avoid outright war between the holy and secular powers, that while priests would only be subject to the laws of kings under extraordinary circumstances, they would not simply let their own go free when laws — either of man or of God — had been broken.

Which gave birth to Penitent’s Cross in its current incarnation. Priests and nuns and holy disciples from across the Continent were imprisoned here, some for months or years, others for the span of their lives. The joke went that most prisoners couldn’t tell the difference between the Cross and the Church, since their duties and isolation were barely distinguishable from the daily activities of a clergyman. Luke knew too much about the Cross to find the joke amusing, but he was glad for its existence — and never more so than now.

It had taken him more than a week to wrangle Leia into agreement. “If you want one last hurrah as Archbishop, I could arrange a party for you here, instead of you haring off across the countryside.” But he’d persisted, and at last yesterday she had told him to be off to the Cross, if it made him happy. “And take her with you,” she’d ordered. “No doubt she’ll find it educational.”

So he and Rey had taken out his sturdy little cart, with Tauntaun irritable and restless in the traces. Most of the trip had been spent ensuring that he didn’t run them off the road in an effort to turn round to his stable. “You can hardly blame him for being wary of long trips these days,” Rey had said reasonably after the third time Tauntaun tried to pull an abrupt turnabout the moment the lane was wide enough.

At last they made it safely to the Cross, where they were greeted by Father Wedge, looking much the same as he had last year: bemused, tolerant, and skeptical.

“How has he fared?” Rey asked Wedge, after greetings had been given and introductions managed. “Has he been eating? Have you given him books to read? He’s a voracious reader — I have sent some volumes, but I haven’t gotten any indication that they were received.”

Luke, walking between them, caught Wedge’s expression out of the corner of his eye. “Yes. The books. That was very thoughtful of you, Mother Rey. He’s expressed his appreciation for them.”

“Not to me,” said Rey, pointed.

Rey,” Luke said.

“I’m merely pointing out that depriving a prisoner of the right to correspond freely is cruel and inhumane, especially since Lor San was clearly not in his right mind when he — well, when he did those terrible things.”

“And I agree with you,” said Wedge, holding his hands up peaceably. “That was never the issue.”

Luke frowned. “Then what is?”

Wedge sighed as they presented themselves to a pair of guards outside a barred door. From within, Luke could hear sounds of prayer from an old and worn — and familiar — voice. “We cannot allow him anything that he might use to… cause injury,” said Wedge. The door opened and he hung back. “I hope whatever he can tell you will help you. And perhaps himself.”

Rey, ever the brave, squared her shoulders and walked in. Luke was about to follow when Wedge stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “Luke,” he said. “Be careful.”

There was a note of… not alarm, precisely, but something urgent in Wedge’s voice. “What’s happened?” Luke asked.

Wedge blew out his cheeks and for a moment he was once again the exasperated pilot Luke had known so well during the heady first days of the Corps, making one narrow escape after another and flirting shamelessly (and fruitlessly) with all the girls before, during and after actions.

“Most of the men and women here, they were driven to whatever it was they did, and they come to terms with it. For some, it drives them to still greater depravity. For others… they accept their past and try to make amends.”

“Sounds familiar,” Luke murmured.

Wedge’s smile is lightning fast across his face. “Indeed. But Father Lor San — he can’t accept it. And it eats at him a little more each day. I fear for him, Luke. I fear for his sanity, if he cannot reconcile himself.”

“I see,” said Luke. “Thank you.” And he followed Rey into the cell.

The door shut behind him with a loud groan and clank, and for a moment as his eyes adjusted, he was both blind and deaf, squinting as he tried to hear the whispered prayer that had floated through the barred window.

His adjusting sight at first made out one, then two figures kneeling on the floor in front of a nondescript wall — Rey had joined Lor San in his prayer, her voice a strong contralto reciting Psalm 51. Luke clasped his wrist and stood by, waiting. His eyes grew further accustomed and the wall was no longer nondescript — someone had drawn a crude cross on the plaster, with what looked like charcoal.

He half-expected them to pray all afternoon, but as Rey spoke the last words of the psalm she stood up, dusting off her cassock at the knees. “Well, that was refreshing after a long ride,” she said, clear and decisive over the continued whispers of Lor San. She took one of Lor San’s hands, still clasped, and heaved him to his feet. “Now, you should say hello to us, Father.”

Luke bit back a smile even as he watched the scene unfold. Lor San blinked a few times, the dim light of his bedside candle seemingly too bright for him as he squinted at them. “Rey?” he said, holding her hands in his. “Rey, is that… are you really there?”

“Of course I am,” said Rey, and perhaps only Luke could have heard the wobble in her voice as she said it. “I did tell you I would visit. I’m only sorry I took so long — you’ve grown the most frightful beard.”

“They won’t give me a razor,” replied Lor San, smiling down at her. “I’m sure I shouldn’t blame them.”

Rey glanced at Luke. “I brought Luke along,” she said, gesturing in what she probably thought was a surreptitious manner to him.

“Luke? Luke is—“ Lor San looked around and noticed Luke for the first time. “You really are,” he said, and seemed about ready to fall over.

“Why don’t you sit down, Father,” Rey instructed, maneuvering him over to his bed. “You’ll feel better.”

“It certainly sounds like Rey,” he muttered, and did as he was told. “But what on earth are the two of you doing here?” His face went slack with horror. “Please don’t — you’re not here, are you? You haven’t—“

Rey had never been particularly good at ministering to the weary, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when she let out an outraged noise. “Are you suggesting I committed some sort of crime?” she said, letting go of his hands and putting hers on her hips.

“You hardly have the best role models, Mother Rey,” Luke pointed out. He drew up the stool and sat before Lor San, who was still watching Rey with a kind of wonder, as though even apoplectic she was a miracle to behold. “Lor San,” he said, trying to get his attention, “We’ve come to talk to you about what happened—“

“Please,” Lor San said with a sudden gasp, “Don’t… I can’t bear it, Luke. No doubt Father Wedge sent for you in an effort to get me to — please, Luke, if you ever had a kind thought for me. Don’t talk about the Cathedral.”

Luke glanced up at Rey, who gazed solemnly back. “All right,” he said, careful. “We’ll not talk about it right now. But I would like to ask you about the village. Would that be all right?”

“The village? I — yes, I suppose so.” For the first time since they’d stepped foot inside, he seemed to brighten. “How are my people? Are they settled in well in Tatooine? I haven’t heard from them in a while but—“ he laughed, a wheeze turned into a cough, “I don’t get quite the correspondence that I used to.”

 

 

Rey said, “Father, they—“

“They’re fine, and send you their best wishes,” said Luke. He shifted slightly so that he could step, unobtrusively, on Rey’s foot where she stood beside him, and smiled up at Lor San. “In fact, that’s what we came to talk to you about. One of your people mentioned that there seemed to be a miscount amongst those that were buried, but no one could remember the precise number of villagers. And naturally, we thought of you — you’ve recorded every birth and death and wedding in Tuanul for a half century.”

“That’s true enough,” said Lor San. His shoulders straightened slightly. “Thought it’s no more than any priest should know about his parish.” Rey made a disapproving noise and he frowned. “What is it?” he asked her.

Luke turned to give her as meaningful a glance as he could afford, under the circumstances. She glared back for a moment, but turned to Lor San with a smile and said, “Oh, it’s just that I can’t imagine Father Luke even knowing the names of everyone in Tatooine, let alone being able to give precise counts of everyone within the town lines.”

Praying for the fortitude to withstand the judgement of children, Luke attempted to wrestle the conversation back to the subject. “Do you recall, Father — I know this will be difficult, but do you recall how many people died in the massacre?”

“Well, let me think,” Lor San said. “Twenty-three of us survived. Which meant there must have been… four hundred and eighty-one who were killed.” He shut his eyes for a moment, pain creasing his face.

But Rey was too good at arithmetic to allow him much time. “But Father — we buried four hundred and eighty-three people. Who were the others?”

Something else was wrong, too, niggling at the back of Luke’s brain, but he forced it aside to listen as Lor San heaved a breath. “I can’t… no, I do recall now. There were some young people staying at… oh dear, staying at the inn. I can hardly believe I’d forgotten them. Those poor souls. They had come in a few days before for… I can't remember why. But they were friendly, gregarious even. Attended services on Sunday — one of them even helped me with the eucharist, although his friends heckled him a bit. Claimed he’d always wanted to be a deacon, and that perhaps after the war ended he could…” he trailed off. “I’m sorry, it’s just very… very hard.”

Luke took Lor San’s hand in his. “You have nothing to apologize for, old friend,” he said.

“It is a sin to lie, Luke,” Lor San reminded him. “I have… so many things to apologize for. At the very least.”

Rey sat down on the bed next to him and took his other hand. “Father,” she said, “Why don’t you want us to ask you about what happened? At the Cathedral, I mean.”

Lor San tried to draw away, but Luke and Rey kept their grips tight, and after a moment he stopped struggling. “Please,” he said, very soft and faint. “Please, just let me—“

“It’s important, Father,” Rey said, lacing her fingers with his. “We think that what happened in Tuanul — it happened somewhere else, too. And if we can find out why, or how—“ she glanced at Luke, “Perhaps we we can stop it from happening again.”

“What I did at the Cathedral had nothing to do with Tuanul,” Lor San said, looking down at the tangle of hands in his lap. “You showed me that, Luke — you and that young man, Dameron. I killed those soldiers for nothing.” His grip on their hands grew tighter, his fingers white and bone-cold. “And yet I still feel — that’s why I cannot bear to think of it — I cannot feel anything but — but pride, and satisfaction. I killed them and I want nothing more than to kill them again. Cut them down where they lie and watch them bleed.” He let go of them then, to cover his face with his hands. “It’s unbearable, you know. To know this evil lives inside you. To know you are truly hidden from God’s light.”

Rey looked up at Luke, eyes wide. But what could be said in the light of that confession? Lor San had been, in all the years Luke had known him, a peaceable placid constant, unable to harm spiders that took up residence in his cell. Luke had been unable to truly accept Lor San’s guilt, even while standing between his knife and Captain Phasma’s all-too-fragile heart; but now in this ersatz confessional, he believed. He opened his mouth to offer something that everyone knew would be a lie.

“You’re nothing of the kind,” said Rey, before Luke could speak. “Father, you are simply wrong about that. You are full of God’s light. There is a dark side to all of us, Father. To you, to me, to Father Luke. It is how you find the balance between them that makes you who you are. The evil that you have done,” and she floundered for a moment, chewing her lip, before she continued, “Does not define the good you have done. And the good you will yet do.”

Lor San’s hands lowered, trembling; his eyes were bright with tears. “Do you truly think so?” He looked from Luke to Rey and back.

“Of course,” Rey said, pulling his attention to her. “What a ridiculous question. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.” She stood up, and it was as though some great matter had been settled to her satisfaction. Luke almost laughed. “Father Wedge said that you had been injuring yourself. You’re going to stop that immediately, and you’re going to start working on your translations of the Septuagint, which you have fallen dreadfully behind on.”

“Rey,” Luke tried, “It may not be so simple as—“

“Why not?” she asked, glaring at both of them as she straightened her cassock. “It seems to me that three of the best men that I have ever known in my life could be called little better than murderers, if you consider only the dark deeds done. Four, if you count Poe, which I suppose I ought,” and the grudging way she said it almost made him smile. “And you all go ‘round thinking of yourselves as sinners or traitors or downright evil. Well — perhaps you are. Or were. But that has nothing to do with who you will be. So, Father,” she said, nodding briskly at Lor San, “I shall be returning in a month’s time, and I will expect at least a chapter of work to review. Is that understood?”

“I—“ and Lor San, unbelievably, began to laugh. “One day, Mother Rey, you’ll be Archbishop yourself. And God himself will tremble at your sermons.”

Rey glanced at Luke, but answered, “God will tremble anyhow, if He doesn’t grant you some measure of peace.” And briskly, like a mother would to a recalcitrant child, she kissed Lor San on the forehead. “I’ll come back,” she promised. “One month, one chapter. Do you swear to me?”

Lor San shook his head. “Yes, I swear to you. One month, one chapter.”

“Excellent.” Rey said.

***

“You are wasted on the penitent,” Luke observed as they made their way home. Tauntaun had been fed, watered, and rubbed down while they’d held their interview with Lor San, so naturally he was even more recalcitrant on the journey home. BB, who had kept him company in the stables and had apparently charmed all the hands with his ability to fly into walls, had reclaimed his rightful perch on Rey’s shoulder, looking for all the world like it was giving her directions. “What you ought to be doing is giving speeches on the radio, stiffening the resolve of soldier and citizen alike.”

“You lied to him,” Rey said, ignoring the jibe. It had begun to snow again — not heavy, but enough to make the world hazy, the rising darkness softened to a kinder grey. “Why didn’t you tell him his villagers had been murdered?”

“Why didn’t you?” Luke asked, reasonably.

“Because I assumed you had a good reason for lying,” she said, chucking the reins, “And now I would like to know what it is.”

“I don’t know that I would qualify it as a ‘good’ reason,” Luke admitted. “It simply felt like a bit too much to rest on his shoulders at the moment.”

“And if you’d told him the truth,” said Rey, “You’d have had to spend at least a few hours comforting him before you could get your answers.”

Luke blinked. “I can say with perfect honesty that that was not my reason.” He considered the merits of being offended.

“No, I don’t think it was,” Rey said, “But it would have been a better one.”

“Thank you for the lesson in ruthless pragmatism,” he said. “As for the answers we got — what did you think?”

Rey looked over at him. “Me?”

“I didn’t bring you for the fun of the thing,” Luke told her. “I’m no good at putting things together — Commander Dameron has a talent for it, as does Finn, but both of them are off to New Theed. Which means we’ll have to make do.”

“Well,” Rey said slowly, “You said that Grakkus the Hutt told Poe about the bodies — that there were people killed at Tuanul who weren’t villagers. Which makes it likely Grakkus knew who they were. Which means…” She sank into thought. “Perhaps they were a couple of First Order spies?”

“The First Order would certainly have no qualms about killing their own people in order to further their ends,” Luke agreed. “But if that was the case, surely they would lay claim to the bodies along with the Stormtroopers that they retrieved from the site — remember, the Alliance came upon the Stormtroopers a short while after the massacre. There were bodies everywhere, the First Order could have taken the extra two with no trouble.”

“Then whoever they were, they weren’t working for the First Order. But they were working for someone. Perhaps Grakkus? No, he’s on Magna Sera.”

Luke shook his head. “As far as his criminal empire is concerned, Grakkus’s imprisonment has only ever been a minor inconvenience. He could well have been employing them.”

“And one of them helped with the Eucharist,” Rey added. “Why? Was he trying to poison someone in the village? If he could slip something into the chalice—“

“If he could slip something into the chalice,” Luke murmured. “If Grakkus could slip something…”

He almost had it; the answer was humming in his bones, he could feel it, just out of his hearing, like the inaudible noises that would make BB’s feathers stand on end in the middle of the Night Office. He pressed his thumb and forefinger to his nose, trying to think.

“Rey, what did Lor San say about the man? The one who helped him?”

She pulled Tauntaun to a stop and squeezed her eyes shut, her lips moving. “‘One of them even helped me with the eucharist,’” she quoted, her voice adopting the cadences of an old and defeated man, “‘Although his friends heckled him a bit. Claimed he’d always wanted to be—‘”

“‘—A deacon,’” Luke finished, holding himself perfectly still. Was this what Poe felt, when the pieces fell perfectly into place and the answer was there in front of him? He could barely trust himself to breathe.

“Luke, what is it?” Rey, ever mindful of the moment, shook him vigorously by the shoulder.

“I know who did it,” he said. “And I think I know how.”

“Who? How? And — wait, what’s ‘it’ exactly? You mean the original massacre—“

“The original massacre, the murder of the survivors, the massacre at Trillia. It was all him — the deacon, the one who was so helpful with the wine.”

“But he died a year and a half ago,” Rey objected. BB squawked in counterpoint. “He must have — both of the strangers did. They were buried.”

“Three,” Luke said. He could feel a highly inappropriate smile on his face. “There were three of them. Not two — Lor San said that one of them helped while his—“

“While his friends heckled him,” Rey echoed. “So he’s alive somewhere. Killing people off.”

“No,” Luke said, certain now, the dread sitting leaden in his stomach. “He hasn’t killed anyone. That’s the worst part of it.”

Rey’s breath puffed out into the air as she sighed. “It would be moderately helpful, Luke, if you’d just tell—“

The crack of the gun echoed through the trees; it had hardly finished ringing in his ears when Tauntaun stiffened, and Rey scrabbled for the reins to keep him from bolting.

But he didn’t bolt. A bloom of red appeared at the horse’s temple, and with one last exhale, Tauntaun fell over, dead in the traces. Luke could only stare down at him, the brown eye open and sightless.

“Oh God,” Rey gasped, and without hesitation she flung BB straight into the air with all the force she could muster, screaming, “THE CATHEDRAL, GET HELP!”

It was her shouting that roused Luke; he dragged her down and off the cart, away from the direction of the shot, thinking only to keep himself between her and whoever had just killed—

“Ah, I see you have some trouble with your horse!” boomed a jovial voice from behind him. “Please, allow me to assist you and your very lovely companion! After all,” added Grakkus as he came around the cart, beaming at them both, “I have waited such a long time for this.”

***

Chapter Text

After he’d asked Poe to stay—looking as old and frail as Poe had ever seen him—Luke had fallen asleep in his arms, the two of them tangled together in the impossible pallet in Luke’s dreary cell. Poe had curled himself around him and stared out into the welcome black of midnight and didn’t sleep at all.

The future had rushed up and grabbed him at some point today, cutting off one chance after another, until all that was left was this ragged stump of inevitability. Luke would leave the Church, but only to confine himself to another institution, one that offered no respite in snowy cabins—he would never subject a flesh-and-blood woman to the infidelity he had shown to a nebulous God.

Luke, Poe now knew, had very little of that old time religion in his veins.

So instead of a remote possibility that one day, perhaps, Poe might convince Luke to go on holiday again, he faced the certainty that Luke already belonged to someone else. A noblewoman, perhaps, one of Lando’s brood or a minor royal from one of the city-states. Someone suitably young, suitably fertile, suitably willing to be the wife of the most feared man in Naboo. Someone as unlike Poe as it was possible to be.

Poe pressed closer along Luke’s spine, sinking into the comfort and faint arousal he felt so close to him. He slid a hand down. He could pin him down, have him one more time; Luke would let him, would want him, and just this one last time might be enough.

Instead he extricated himself from the bed, stumbling to his feet. Luke made a faintly disapproving noise in his sleep and turned blindly toward where he’d been, his hand outstretched, and—

Poe gathered up his boots and grabbed the sweater folded neatly on the chair. He slipped out as quietly as he could, the stone icy against his feet but preferable to the warmth of that damned bed. The hallway echoed with silence; the hour too early and too late. Returning to Finn’s room, with its extra bed and warm fire in the hearth, was repellent. Finn would wake up and look at him and say nothing at all, just nod understandingly, and that one gesture might shred what was left of Poe’s sanity right out of his clutching fingers. So he went down to the stables, where the army’s automobiles vied for space alongside the cathedral’s horses. If he started now, he could get to New Theed by late afternoon.

A luckless stable hand greeted him at the door, cracking a huge yawn halfway through her explanation that Queen Leia had assigned him a car and she could get it right away, sir. Poe nodded and waited as she trotted off, keeping his mind on the surface, thinking only how strange it was that he still found it strange when young people called him “sir.” How strange it was that he was nearly twenty-seven and had begun using the phrase “young people.”

From out of the darkness of the stalls came an interrogatory snort; Tauntaun, no doubt irate that his nap had been disrupted, came to the door to his stall and reached out to him, his ears pricked for the sound of apples in Poe’s pockets.

“You bottomless pit,” Poe muttered, going over to him and making a show of his empty pockets. Tauntaun still insisted on a personal examination, whuffling at his shoulders and hips before butting him gently in the chest. “Take care of him,” he ordered, patting the horse on the neck. “See that he doesn’t get into trouble.”

If horses could have any expression other than “nervous constipation” on their faces, Tauntaun would no doubt be giving him an expression of disbelief. “I know,” Poe sighed, “It’s hopeless. Just do the best you can,” and he was saved from further discussion by the sound of the car pulling up. The stable hand staggered out, yawning again, and Poe made to get in.

He glanced up; Tauntaun had craned his head around the stable door, watching him intently.

“I’ll bring you some of Darth Maul’s carrots the next time I come back,” he promised, and shut the door.

He could hear the faint sound of a snort as he pulled out into the night.

***

It started pissing down before he’d gotten halfway there, which ordinarily he would appreciate—rainswept streets, a longing heart, etc.—but not while driving through precarious mountain passes on roads that had been in disrepair before the war. By the time he pulled up to High Command in New Theed he’d been swearing for the last three hours and was in dire need of a drink.

As though she were some demented god’s idea of an angel of mercy, Jess was standing on the front steps, umbrella in hand and squinting through the downpour. Poe left his vehicle with a steward and ran up the steps two at a time. “How did you know?” he shouted up at her.

“I sensed your presence,” she shouted back, lobbing a furled umbrella at him. He managed to catch it, barely, and opened it up more for the look of the thing than out of any hope it would be useful—he could feel the rain slipping down his collar and up through his boots already.

He got the damned thing working and upright and climbed the last few steps to join her. “Have you gotten any sleep at all in the past month?” he asked. “You look how I feel.”

Her smile wouldn’t have fooled a blind man. “Do you owe anyone a bottle of whiskey?” she asked. “I heard all about that shack in the middle of nowhere.”

“It was a very nice house, I’ll have you know,” Poe said. “And mostly it was the horse who kept us warm.”

“You voluntarily went near a horse?”

“You have to, to cut it open and huddle inside its guts.”

She shook her head. “Come on. We’ve got lots to do.”

As with most of Jess’s declarations, this turned out to be a massive understatement. “I was only gone a few weeks,” he protested, shaking out his umbrella and chucking it into the stand.

Jess glanced over at his desk—piled high with files and, from the smell of it, the remains of more than one abandoned lunch—and blinked in theatrical surprise. “Oh, dear,” she said. “How remiss of me not to keep the paperwork in order while the two of you were having it off with your beloveds.”

“Don’t be sour just because your beloved is on the other side of a rather messy front line at present,” Poe chided as he hung up his hat. “As I’ve said before, you’re the one with the poor taste to begin with.”

Silence greeted this statement and Poe turned, expecting a glare or possibly even a pair of rolled eyes in his direction. Instead Jess was looking—almost sick. “Finn didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?” But he was already starting to feel a sort of dread crawling up his throat. “She’s—is she…”

He should have been able to say it. Jess’s heartache notwithstanding, Phasma had been at best an annoyance and at second-best a mortal threat to their very lives from the moment they had met. Eliminating her would solve any number of problems begun in that cathedral hall all that time ago. He should have been able to smile as he asked.

Instead he stood firm as a wave of relief washed over him when Jess shook her head. “She’s alive. And well. She’s… they captured her, two weeks ago. She’s in the Adustio.”

Poe allowed himself one exhale; he couldn’t trust himself so far as to meet Jess’s eyes. “Well, she can keep Brendol Hux company,” he said, and began the process of moving the piles from his desk to Finn’s.

“Don’t you dare put any of those on my desk,” Jess said. “And no, she won’t—Hux was returned the the First Order two weeks ago.”

“What? When did this happen?”

“Two weeks ago, as I said.” She quirked a smile at him. “You’ve been away a long time, Poe.”

“A month! Not nearly as long as Finn was!”

“Yes, but Finn is special.”

Poe dumped his armful of files onto Finn’s desk with prejudice. “All right, then she won’t keep him company. Any news on who’s taken Phasma’s place trying to get Grakkus out of his prison?”

“Not yet. I re-reassigned Kare and Snap, but so far the shore’s been quiet. One amusing development; Warden Luta has barred both Alliance and Imperial vessels from the island until further notice. Apparently she’s gotten entirely over our ‘meddling in the island’s affairs.’”

“After I went to all that trouble to bring her an apple,” Poe tsked. “What news of Kylo Ren, then? Any chance he’s resurfaced?”

She shook her head. “If he’s back amongst his brethren in the Empire, they’re keeping it very quiet; it could be he was killed or badly injured and they don’t want to say anything as of yet. Or…” and she made the same seesawing motions that Finn had made last night, when they’d discussed the matter.

“Or he’s hiding somewhere in Naboo,” Poe agreed. It wasn’t such a ridiculous notion; before he had been Kylo Ren, he had lived his entire life here, learning what he’d need to know to rule well. Leia had once said that all their losses had come from the simple fact that Prince Ben had been a far better student than even she had imagined. “Have there been any sightings?”

“That’s where we run into another problem,” Jess said. “Sightings of whom, exactly?”

She was right. The Queen had neatly bifurcated Kylo Ren from her son in the public mind—one a despicable villain and the other a helpless innocent—but whatever the propaganda might be, they were still one and the same man. If Kylo Ren truly had hidden himself somewhere in the kingdom, he could lay claim to either identity.

“Not to mention,” Jess added, “That the last time anyone saw Prince Ben, he was a sapling lad of seventeen. He’s what, twenty-three now? Twenty-four?”

“Twenty-five,” Poe said. “There was the celebration a few months ago.”

“Ugh, I’d forgotten,” Jess shuddered. As well she might—the festival had been intended as a rekindling of hope for the Return of the Lost Prince, but the affair had been entirely too grim: everyone in the hall knew the exact scope of the lie they were participating in. “Anyhow, that’s a long time for a lad, and no one knows what Kylo Ren looks like behind that helmet of his. Except you,” she added.

“Yes, lucky me,” Poe muttered. He’d tried giving a description three separate times, but although Kylo Ren’s face was still as fresh as a new bruise in his memory, he couldn’t for the life of him convey it—all the resulting sketches had looked like deformed monsters, eldritch things from another world. He thought back to Luke’s recounting of his own encounter with Kylo Ren. “Luke might know, too.”

Jess frowned at him. “He might?”

“When Kylo Ren came to arrest him—Luke said he sat in the middle of the congregation and waited him out.”

Jess curled her lip. “Isn’t that just like a snake in the grass. Do you think he could give a good description?”

“A better one than mine, certainly. Though I don’t know what it would help,” Poe sighed. “Are we looking for Kylo Ren, or the Prince?”

“A fair if depressing point,” said Jess.

At last he finished the last of the transfer of papers, and used one of Finn’s discarded ties to dust off his desk. “All right then,” he said, and sat down, tossing the tie into the bin. “Let’s get to work.”

***

Rotta Pedunkee sent a message a few days later:

My office, 2 pm today.

Poe took Jess with him. “Are you afraid of a financial advisor?” she asked as they walked through the streets.

“I’m merely exercising prudence,” he said, returning a nod from a fellow pedestrian. A handful of people had touched their caps as they’d passed—the perversity of the Spymaster’s position as both a public face and a master of shadows still baffled Poe on some fundamental level. “Miss Pedunkee is a lovely woman, but however far she may have fallen from the family tree, I’ve had too much experience with that particular forest not to be cautious.”

“So, yes,” Jess concluded. “You’re afraid.”

“I miss Finn,” Poe said mournfully.

“He’ll be reunited with you soon enough,” Jess said. Queen had sent word that she intended to travel back to New Theed within the next two weeks, bringing her retinue back with her. The push into the First Order’s territory had, for the moment, gone as far as it could; the business of the kingdom needed its ruler back in the capital. “Although I can’t imagine he’ll be happy to be torn from the breast of his true love.”

“I doubt her breasts have been utilized in that particular manner,” Poe said. “Theirs is, I think, a love of holding hands and sighing out of windows.”

“Finn’s a soldier,” Jess pointed out. “Just like us. Would you consider us easily satisfied with hand-holding?”

“Finn is a good man,” Poe replied. “Unlike us. Would you consider him the type to press for what he wants?”

“I’m never going to get that bottle of whiskey from him, am I,” Jess sighed as they came upon the offices. The front door was now graced with one of the more festive holiday wreaths Poe had seen in his life; a glance inside confirmed that the front offices had been similarly adorned. The clerks, from what he could tell through the imperfect glazing, looked beleaguered.

Sure enough, when they stepped inside they were assaulted with the smell of pine resin. “Merry Christmas!” said Rotta, bustling out of her office and setting off a round of groaning from the clerks. “Hush,” she commanded them, to little avail, before turning back to Poe and Jess. “So glad to see the two of you.”

“And a happy holiday to you and yours,” Poe said, shaking her extended hand.

“Although it’s January,” Jess observed.

“The Christmas spirit is one that we should endeavor to foster throughout the year, I think we can all agree,” Rotta said brightly. She gestured toward her office. “If you would care to step inside?”

One of the clerks watched them a fraction of a moment too long as they followed her in; Poe glanced at Rotta and her lips pursed in acknowledgement. “They seem busy out there,” he said as she shut the door.

“They are,” she replied briskly, and sat down behind her desk. “Thank you both for coming—I’ll admit I was only expecting Miss Pava. I’d heard you, Mr. Dameron, were stuck in a blizzard down south?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I rather missed Christmas this year,” he said.

“You and His Grace, I’d heard,” Rotta pressed, a twinkle in her eye that reminded him uncomfortably of her uncle.

He managed a smile. “Queen Leia should have offered the post of Spymaster to you, Miss Pedunkee. Your sources are clearly superior to ours.”

“In more ways than that,” she told him, all trace of humor gone now. “I’ve gotten news—news that you won’t have had yet.” She clasped her hands on the polished oak of the desk. “Warden Luta is dead.”

Jess let out a low whistle. “Well,” she concluded. “How did it happen?”

“Suicide, if you can believe it, which I can’t,” said Rotta. “Found in her rooms with the doors locked; it all sounds like one of the cheaper sorts of mystery novels if you ask me. Her second-in-command has taken over; some fellow named Deacon.”

“Any word on Grakkus?” asked Poe. Some part of him was remembering the sharp intake of breath when Luta had seen the apple he’d brought for her, the gleam in her eye.

Rotta shook her head. “As far as I’ve been able to determine, my uncle’s still there. But I’ve no doubt this improves his prospects—Luta had her faults, but she was sea-green incorruptible when it came to her charges. A new Warden might be more open to… negotiation.”

Poe nodded at Jess, who sighed. “Thank you for telling us,” he said. He was about to take his leave when he remembered the clerk in the other room. “The fellow out there,” he said, jerking his head behind him, “He wasn’t here the last time. Do you know who he’s working for?”

“The First Order, I imagine,” she said, looking halfway cheerful again. “Him, I have little enough trouble with; I’ve been trying to attract their notice enough to acquire a spy, but it’s almost insulting, the calibre I was given. No, the one to watch for is the one from my family.”

“You have two spies in your employ?” Jess asked, her brow furrowed. “I don’t wish to sound patronizing, Miss Pedunkee, but are you certain that’s wise?”

“Wise? Perhaps not. But it gives me more options than I might’ve had otherwise. And there’s a certain comfort in knowing that my loyalties are so well understood that I can entertain three different sets of spies in my offices in one morning.”

“You’re a good deal more resigned to your position,” Poe observed, “Than you were the first time we met.”

For a moment it seemed she was going to make another glib response, her smile unaltered; but she hesitated a moment, as though considering. “I suppose I am,” she said, slow and thoughtful. “When you first approached me, I had thought only of staying out of it. But I realized afterward that it might be my only chance.”

Poe waited. “Chance for what?” he prompted, after a few more moments.

Rotta looked at him for just a moment, then out the window. “When I was a little girl,” she told the passers-by on the other side of the glass, “I was kidnapped. I’m not sure if they wanted to kill me or simply hold me hostage; all I remember was being afraid. No—I also remember that my father didn’t come to my rescue. It was Queen Padme; she sent two of her finest to bring me back, good men who were kind and honorable. I never knew their names, but in the few hours I spent with them, they acted more like my fathers than my real father ever had. I can still see their smiles, the silly faces they would pull to try and make me laugh.

“When they returned me to my father, he didn’t thank them, he didn’t tell me how glad he was that I was back. He went out and he murdered my kidnappers. That very day. He called it payment. And then years later, when he had a chance to show Padme’s children kindness in return for what she had done for him, he tried to kill them, too.”

She dashed a tear rolling down her cheek, briskly. “When I found out my father was dead—that I no longer had any ties to his world, his disgusting code of—I won’t even call it honor—I promised that I would serve Queen Leia faithfully the rest of my days. She is the Huttslayer, and I thank God every day for her and her brother. This is my chance to fulfill that promise. And it will never be enough.”

***

Long before there was a New Theed—long before the end of the Emperor’s war, when the Prince and Queen of Naboo were still nobodies in exile, hunted and destined for a messy execution—the Adustio had been built in the forgotten wastes. It had been built for a very specific purpose: to house those the Rebellion needed but could not trust. Prisoners of war, traitors, those who couldn’t be turned or killed for one reason or another—Leia’s version of Magna Sera.

“That’s hardly fair,” Jess had pointed out back at the office. “She’s released any number of prisoners from the Adustio over the years.”

“After they’re guaranteed to be no longer a threat,” Poe had reminded her. “And Phasma will be a threat until the day she dies.”

It had taken him a full day to get here, just past the fourth checkpoint in the bowels of the prison, listening to the echoes of footsteps and voices as they bounced off the glistening walls. Four hours of driving and more hours than that of paperwork, interviews, examination of his credentials. If the Queen herself had shown up demanding a prisoner, it would have been just the same. No one got in, or out, of the Adustio—without the right documentation.

He loosened his collar as the (by his count) 17 th guard squinted at his identification in the flickering light. His breathing felt thick and heavy, as if the thousand tons of rock above him had compressed the very air.

Which, in a sense, they had. The Adustio was built in the midst of a geothermic marvel, hot springs that moved up through the rock to burst into the air in an impressive series of geysers. It made for an extremely secure prison, but not a pleasant one.

“Fine,” the guard grunted at last, thrusting his slightly dampened papers back at him. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Last cell to your left and don’t get close. She’s a nasty one.”

“And how,” Poe muttered under his breath.

The twelve cells he passed were dark and empty, the seventh on the right likewise: beds made and chamber pots upside-down and (presumably) pristine. Poe stayed well to the right as he came up to the last cell.

It was dark, too. Phasma, in the prisoner’s uniform of tank and shortened trousers, was watching him from her position kneeling on the floor, as though she’d been tracking him since he’d come down to this level. As though she’d been tracking him since well before that.

Poe glanced down the hall, where the guard was keeping a careful if clearly bored watch, and sat cross-legged on the ground. “If you’re praying,” he advised her, shifting to get comfortable, “I’ve got it on good authority that it doesn’t work this far down.”

It got the faintest hint of a smile from her. “Whose authority might that be? Father Luke’s?”

“I thought you called him the Skywalker.”

“That’s the danger of wearing as many hats as he does. Who is he when he takes everything off?” She cocked her head to the side. “I’d venture to guess you’ve found out.”

Poe resisted the impulse to throw his hands up in the air. Had it been tattooed on his face? Instead he shook his head. “Alas for you, Phasma—if I’m blushing, I can just blame it on the heat.” He leaned back on his hands, regarding her. “They must be very upset with you, putting you all alone in here.”

“I’d assumed I was being rewarded,” Phasma said.

“Or perhaps,” Poe said, “They don’t want anyone else to know you’re here. Or for you to know who else is here. Which one would be worse, do you think?”

“I take it this means you haven’t caught Kylo Ren yet,” she said, looking satisfied. “Excellent. Although I can’t say I’m surprised; he’s much smarter than you are.”

“I take it that means you’re unwilling to share any information you might have as to his whereabouts.”

“Ooh, perhaps not so much smarter, if you’re able to make such insightful deductions.”

“What a pity,” Poe sighed. “And here I thought I might be able to help you to a cell with windows. Or a breeze. Or a lavatory that wasn’t a pot.”

She bristled. “If you’re implying that you think there’s a chance in Hell of breaking me—“

“We prefer to use the term ‘turning,’” he said. “But no—they, or we, or whoever’s in charge at this point, have been told in no uncertain terms that you cannot be trusted and won’t be turned. So if that’s what they’re keeping you here for, they’re wasting their time, aren’t they?”

Phasma was far too clever not to be suspicious. “The Alliance has always excelled at wasting time. And resources.”

“True,” Poe said cheerfully. “They patched you up, after all. Twice.”

“And look where that got them.”

“Look where it got you.” He loosened his collar further, pulling his tie off and leaving it in a pile on the floor. “You escaped that debacle a few months ago, with the ‘peace talks’ from the First Order—did you know that was just a diversion, by the way?”

“There’s not a good answer to that question,” said Phasma. “If I say I knew about it all along, I look like a suicidal fool for going along with it.”

“And if you admit you had no idea, you just look like a fool.” As strange as it felt, he could sympathize. “But you were able to escape. Pity not the same could be said for Brendol Hux.”

Brendol Hux, who had been as big a headache as any Poe had dealt with. Poe had returned to New Theed after his headlong race through the Mos Eisley Woods and that thoroughly pleasant (if infuriating) encounter with Luke at the cathedral doors only to find Jess as close to homicidal as he’d ever seen her. “I was pinched,” she’d hissed at him, “And if it weren’t contrary to about seventeen international laws I would have already cut his hands off.”

Thus had been Poe’s introduction to General Brendol Hux, an expansive and expensive potential asset that Poe, Jess and Finn had all agreed more or less instantly would be worthless as a spy: the craven type who would do anything you said, provided you were standing directly in front of him.

Phasma snorted. “I’ll admit I was disappointed to hear you hadn’t killed him. On sheer principle, if nothing else.”

“I’ll have you know that Brendol Hux has already been given back to the First Order.”

“For a few bottles of prime Hosnian brandy, I’d assume,” she replied. “More than he’s worth.”

Poe bit back a laugh. “Be careful, Phasma, or they’ll accuse you of collusion with the enemy.”

“They already have,” she said. She said it simply and without any trace of self-pity. As if she were remarking on the weather. But Poe circled around the statement for a few moments. An accusation of collusion, her steadfast refusal to cooperate in any way, her apparently determination to rot down in this hell of her own making…

“They know about Jess,” Poe realized. “They found out that you—“ He stopped. “How?”

She looked surprised. “What do you mean, ‘how’? I told them. I assume Sergeant Pava did the same.” Her eyes narrowed. “But no, you thought I would keep it a secret. That my love was stronger than my loyalties.” The curl of her lip indicated what she thought of that. “I hope you think more highly of her, considering her new position in your ranks. Tell me, in that Spymaster office of yours, which one of you gets the desk? Her, or you—or do you switch off?”

“We just got another desk,” Poe replied. “Not every exchange has to have a winner and loser, Phasma. Sometimes there are compromises that can be made.”

“Hardly my experience,” she said. “But I’m sure I’m keeping you from more important matters, so—“

“Why were you trying to get Grakkus out of Magna Sera?” he asked.

She stood up, dusting off her knees. “As I was about to say, Dameron, I give you leave to go.”

He got up with her. “When we met on Magna Sera you were as surprised to see me as I was to see you—and Grakkus said we weren’t there to ask the same question. So what question did you have?”

“You can’t seriously think I’d tell you,” she said, almost pitying.

“No,” Poe admitted. “If we thought you could be moved by sentiment, Jess would have come instead.” He stepped closer to the bars, ignoring the guard’s pointed clearing of her throat. “But all right. If you won’t show me yours, I’ll simply show mine.”

“Setting aside the fact that I have no desire to see yours,” Phasma said, “Wouldn’t showing it to me be somewhat stupid?”

Poe shrugged. “You won’t be released—not until the end of this war. And if you find a way to swim through boiling-hot water, then I suppose you’ll have earned your escape.”

A single lifted eyebrow was her only reply, but she didn’t turn her back on him.

“We think Grakkus was involved in the massacre at Tuanul,” he told her. “Somehow.”

“You think a man who’s been behind bars for over a quarter-century is responsible for the deaths of a village two years ago?”

“You know as well as I do that he’s still in charge of the Hutt crime ring. What’s a little mass murder to a man like him?” He watched her closely; she had turned away, gazing thoughtfully at a small steaming spring that ran in a rivulet down the back wall of her cell. He took a deep breath. “The reason we think he was involved was because of letters we intercepted, between the Hutts and someone in the Empire.”

He held his breath. Telling her what they had intercepted—even if it wasn’t everything, even if it was barely anything—was technically treason. Technically punishable by death. Technically stupid. But Phasma had sat in perfect silence since the day she had been captured; according to all interrogation notes, today is the first time she’d talked to anyone. Now was not the time to be beggarly with information.

“It wasn’t a question,” said Phasma, holding herself still. In profile she was striking—she had always been interesting to look at, but in that moment Poe saw her with Jess’s eyes, the lightning-quick brain that was as ruthless as it was reluctant. “What I was sent to say to Grakkus—it wasn’t a question. It was an order.”

“An order for what?”

“I can’t tell you that,” she said, impatient.

“Then what can you tell me?” Poe snapped. “The Empire was angry with him—we don’t know why. Certainly it had nothing to do with concern over the hundreds of lives lost. Why would you care about that—“

“Poe, please.”

His voice stopped of its own accord, his throat still working against words that had gotten stuck. She was looking at him now, not angry or disdainful or contemptuous. It was an expression he had never seen on her face; one he would have sworn before this moment that she couldn’t make.

“It was the wrong village.”

“Which village—“ but he knew. He thought of all the hundreds of people he’d met in and around the cathedral, the grumpy cooks and the quiet monks, the boisterous orphan children who terrorized everyone in the square, the doctors and nurses and the patients themselves, Rey and Dr. Maz and Luke. All the people of Tatooine who should have been dead and cold and buried, years ago, if only Grakkus had gotten the right village. “How long have you known this?”

“I can’t tell you that, either,” she said. “Now run along, Dameron. I’ll wait here for the war’s end or the Second Coming, and you can tell Father Luke and little Mother Rey that I’ll pray for both indiscriminately.”

“So you’re resigned to sitting here?” All the anger choked off at her use of his name (a fine strategy, he had to admit) came roaring back. “Just to—what, prove your worth?” He wanted to shake her by the shoulders. “You think this can be your test of penance for them? They don’t care; you can’t expect the same loyalty from them that they demanded of you.”

“I don’t,” she said. “I expect to die here, Dameron. That’s what loyalty really is.” She smiled faintly, a tear spilling down her cheek. “And it’s all I have left.”

***

“The wrong village?” Jess demanded. “Do you mean to say that—“

“That Tatooine was the intended target,” Poe confirmed, shaking out his umbrella and hanging up his coat. Darth Maul, on his weekly visit, baa’ed idly at him from atop Finn’s desk.

Jess collapsed back in her chair. “So Phasma wasn’t trying to get Grakkus out in exchange for information—she was getting him out to take him back to Vindicta. For—trial, torture, or execution, or whatever it is they do.” She glanced up at him and flinched away. “I should have guessed.”

“Well, Phasma never was one for asking questions,” Poe said. “Or answering them.”

“We should warn him,” Jess said.

Poe blinked. “Who, Grakkus?”

Luke, you idiot. Whatever the original plan was, it involved Tatooine—“

“Which the First Order captured and held for months before we swept in and retook it,” Poe pointed out. “Wouldn’t they have had ample time to do… whatever it is they hired Grakkus to do?”

“Perhaps Grakkus was the only one who could,” Jess said. Darth Maul, grazing on a pile of irate messages from Kryshyyyk demanding the return of the traitor Chewbacca, made a dipleased noise. “Or whoever Grakkus hired,” she amended.

“Whoever—the bodies.” He snapped his fingers, trying to remember Grakkus’s words. “He said to count the bodies of the dead villagers. We never did, did we?”

“We did, in fact—it turns out they were buried in Tatooine, for the most part,” Jess said, rummaging through a desk drawer. “And the more recent ones, the ones Rey found, they put them in the cathedral’s graveyard, too. Finn got a count from church records while you and the Archbishop were out playing amongst the snowdrifts.” She pulled out a piece of paper triumphantly. “Ah! Here it is—four hundred and thirty-five. The second lot was twenty-two.”

“Which means… absolutely nothing to me,” Poe realized. “Christ, I hate tea-cosy mysteries.”

Jess gave him a look but said only, “So either they buried too many people, or too few. Which means that either someone’s alive who shouldn’t be, or someone’s dead who shouldn’t be.”

“Lots of people are dead who shouldn’t be.” He was being contrary, he knew, but this entire affair was one bafflement after another.

“There aren’t any surviving records from Tuanul,” Jess said, referring to another sheet of paper. “The First Order’s ‘burn everything on the way out’ policy is still in effect, so I doubt we can know for certain how many people lived there in the first place.” She bit her lip, staring absently at Darth Maul (who had now started nibbling at some old dispatches). “That old priest might know. The one who tried to kill you all—Lor San Tekka.”

“To be fair, he only tried to kill Phasma,” he said. “The rest of us were just in his way.”

“That’s right,” said Jess, looking a bit more cheerful. “And she was the one who gave you the concussion.”

“I forgot to thank her for that,” Poe muttered. “Flip you for who has to go to Penitent’s Cross and talk to the old goat.”

“And deprive you of the chance of seeing your slightly younger goat?” Jess made a reproving moue. “Tatooine’s on the way to Penitent’s Cross, and it’s been nearly a week since you’ve clapped eyes on the Archbishop. I’m surprised he hasn’t sent that damn bird after you, begging you to come back.”

“The Archbishop’s hardly the sort to beg for anything.” And certainly there had been no begging—no anything, in point of fact. There had been a long, chatty letter from Finn (full of ruminations on medieval courtly love that were perhaps not as subtle as he thought they were) and several directives from the Queen. But from Luke, nothing at all.

“I don’t need to know about your sexual pecadillos,” Jess said, prim. “Be off with you. And make sure to take extra petrol; the First Order didn’t leave any stations intact between Tatooine and the border.”

***

This time Poe conscripted a driver, a bright-eyed child of perhaps fifteen (“I’m nineteen,” she protested) who drove with the white-knuckled grip of one who is more familiar with repairing automobiles than operating them. “How long have you been driving, Private?” he asked her as they made their way (slowly) out of the city and into the gathering dark.

“Specialist, sir,” she said. “And I’ve been driving for as long as I’ve been enlisted.”

“So, three weeks?” It was extremely wrong to tease the recruits, Finn and Jess had been united in informing him, but at his advanced age Poe couldn’t help but find the iron-pressed creases irresistable.

“Since my sister was killed,” she replied, eyes still fixed on the road. “Sir.”

Poe shut his mouth with a snap. “What was her name?”

“Paige, sir.” She glances at him, a quick and nervous flicker. “She was a gunner on the D’Qar.”

The D’Qar had been mortally wounded in a skirmish off the coast last year, close enough to make some rescue possible—but the enemy fleet had been too close, too ready to kill or capture whoever escaped. A handful of officers and enlisted men had stayed at their posts, firing everything in storage while the rest clambered into boats or in a few cases jumped overboard to swim toward shore. All told, the ship lost only twenty souls.

“The Queen awarded those killed the Star of Alderaan, didn’t she?” Poe asked, though he knew very well; he’d been tasked with ensuring that no one amongst the dead had been a turncoat, sinking the ship to sneak back to the First Order in the chaos. Paige, Paige—and then he remembered her: a cheeky grin on her identity papers, a disciplinary action against her untidy quarters during training, a commendation for bravery hauling an injured comrade through five miles of muck and mortar fire. Exactly the sort who would volunteer in a rearguard action.

She nodded. “Mother was very proud. Put it up on the mantlepiece.”

“So,” Poe concluded, “Not too much pressure on you, then.”

“I’m hoping we run over Kylo Ren on our way to Tatooine, sir,” she said, a smile just visible in the darkness. “That’s got to be worth at least a Corellian Cross, wouldn’t you say?”

Poe laughed, and settled himself comfortably in his seat. “Wake me up if you do, Specialist,” he ordered, and let himself drift off to the sound of the engine’s drone and Rose Tico, humming absently under her breath.

***

They arrived at the cathedral around noon, after a spirited debate as to whether or not the Cloud Bridge had been washed out or was perfectly driveable. Poe (who had taken over driving duties in the wee hours when his driver began yawning fit to crack her head in half) lost badly.

“It’s completely bollocksed, sir,” the guard said when they encountered the nearest checkpoint, scratching his nose with his whistle. “If you’d tried it you’d’ve been a hundred feet down and on your way up to meet your maker, and that’s truth.”

“Only if you assume we’re both good enough to merit Heaven, corporal,” Poe had replied, and they’d gone the rest of the way in very pointed silence.

Poe stopped the car at the front entrance to the cathedral; the soldiers at the door regarded him with the lethal interest of Leia’s best and brightest guards, which no doubt galled Luke no end. Poe waved at them cheerfully and turned back to Rose, who was straightening up and trying very hard to look like she hadn’t been snoring for the past five hours. “We’ll be stopping here for a bit; not sure how long,” he said, and got out of the car. He leaned down to the open window as Rose moved over to the driver’s seat. “Find yourself something to eat. I’ll want you in fighting form for Penitent’s Cross.”

“Are we likely to see much fighting there, sir?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Got to get you your Corellian Cross somehow.”

“Very kind of you, sir.” She got the car into gear and puttered off.

Poe took a deep breath, then turned back toward the cathedral and trotted up the stairs. Finn was there to greet him at the door, a wry smile and an outstretched hand. “Back again already?” he said. “We’ve hardly had time to miss you.”

“And yet I’m sure you pined away every day and night,” Poe replied as they made their way through the vestibule and into the cathedral proper. Leia’s stakeout had not altered the central hall the way its status as an infirmary had; the pews, which were no doubt the normal adornment here, looked odd and out-of-place. “And I’d like to commend you on your progress in cyphering, since that last letter you sent me was so well-encoded that I couldn’t find any message at all.”

Finn blanched. “You came all the way down here for that?”

“No,” said Poe, “But I thought it might bear some investigation while I was in the area.”

“Well, the thing is,” Finn said, wrinkling his nose, “That is to say, the letter I sent wasn’t so much intended as a brief so much as it was—I mean to say, I didn’t really—“

Poe debated the merits of letting him continue to suffer, but his better angels won out. “You didn’t encode anything, did you,” he said, as Finn opened the side door for him and they plunged into the eternal murky gloom of the side passageway. “It was just a long, whinging letter about your hopeless romance with a priest.”

“Of all the people in all the world who I’d think I would get some sympathy from,” Finn said, whinging, “It would be—“

“Poe Dameron,” said Leia, calling out as they passed the open doorway to Luke’s office—Leia’s office now, apparently.

They stopped and doubled back, nearly banging shoulders in the doorway. “Your Majesty,” Poe said, hearing Finn’s echo as he bowed.

“Yes, exceedingly convincing,” she muttered, flapping her hand at them. “Shut the door and sit, the both of you. Or is Pava about to pop out of the closet to pester me as well?”

“I left her in charge of New Theed, ma’am,” Poe assured her.

“Thank God for small mercies. Which I suppose we’re in the right place to do. But I’m fairly certain, Dameron, that I sent you away from Tatooine so that you, too, would be in charge of New Theed. And yet here you are, back again.” She smiled in a not terribly friendly way. “We can’t miss you don’t stay away.”

“Finn’s beat you to that joke, ma’am,” Poe said, but the suspicion was already blossoming. “Is there a reason I should be in New Theed? And not here?”

From the other chair, Finn cleared his throat. Leia glanced at him and heaved a sigh. “Oh, be off with you, Finn,” she commanded. “But let it be known you’re an abject and horrible coward.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Finn said, sounding so relieved that Poe was starting to become truly alarmed. But he waited until the door shut again before turning back to the queen.

She regarded him thoughtfully, drumming her fingers on the desk. It had not changed overmuch since Luke’s reign over the office; most of the piles Poe remembered were still there, carefully ignored by Leia’s own paperwork. She had moved High Command along with every battle in the last war, he remembered. Stayed with the troops, near the fighting, even if she couldn’t take part herself, and made do with whatever shelter there was in order to plan her next move.

The silence was beginning to get oppressive. “Does Father Luke mind you commandeering his office like this, ma’am?” he asked, because getting a rise out of her was preferable to the dread filling up the room.

It worked, after a fashion; Leia snorted and said, “If I’d run any part of my life according to what Luke minded, we’d be living quiet dull lives as exiles in Corellia or Kashyyyk. What are you doing here?”

A direct question from his direct superior couldn’t be fobbed off with any real delicacy. “I’m on my way to interview Father Lor San Tekka, down at Penitent’s Cross,” he said, “But I thought it might be necessary to secure the Archbishop’s blessing, as it were, beforehand, so I stopped by.”

Another snort. “Either you’ve become the world’s clumsiest liar over the winter, or you’re simply cursed,” she said. “Luke hared off for the Cross this morning—though he did take his protoge with him, so perhaps this wasn’t some horrible attempt at an assignation. Nevertheless,” she sighed, “I can’t let you go. Not if there’s a chance you’re going to see him. Your tryst in the woods has caused quite enough headaches for me.”

“Ma’am—“

“I warn you, Dameron,” she said, sounding more amused than aggrieved, “That if the next words out of your mouth are some sort of denial or equivocation, I’ll have you strung up by your foreskin.”

“I’m Jewish, ma’am.” Poe’s mouth ran off while the rest of him sat frozen. “You’d have the devil’s own time finding it.”

Leia laughed, and shook her head. “Point taken.” She regarded him and her smile faded. “At some point,” she said, “You will have to explain why you didn’t tell me about yourself and Luke. Under the circumstances I can under your reluctance to share your sexual exploits with your conquest’s sister, but it’s really not the sort of thing a spymaster should keep from his queen.”

“Under the circumstances?” asked Poe, ignoring the rest.

Leia lifted a letter—no, it was parchment, written in the careful script of Coruscant. “An offer,” she explained, “From Her Emminence Amilyn Holdo.”

“An offer of marriage,” he realized. Some strange pressure was building in pit of his stomach, nauseating and inescapable. “For Luke.”

“Just so,” she said, approving. “Amylin is one of the few women in the world who wouldn’t balk at marriage to the Butcher of Bespin.”

“No, I’d imagine she wouldn’t.” Holdo had titles of her own; she might not be able to compete with Luke’s, but her part in the last war—and this—had garnered its own infamy. “What does Luke think of this?”

“As I said, if I paid attention to what Luke thought, we wouldn’t be here. But what he does is something I have to pay a great deal of attention to, and I can’t risk him throwing this away. Do you understand me?”

“No, ma’m,” Poe said, “I can’t say that I do.” Anger, that was it, anger so huge and shocking that it was hardly recognizable. He was blindingly, helplessly furious.

“Careful, Dameron,” she said. “I welcome disagreement, but I won’t tolerate disrespect.”

“Then with all due respect, ma’am, you can’t possibly think I’m some kind of threat to this scheme of yours. Do you really assume Luke would choose his heart over his duty?”

“I think if his heart is continually getting himself underfoot, he might just trip over it, Dameron,” she snapped, her voice rising.

“Then perhaps it’s just as well you have a Spymaster to help you, ma’am,” he responded, “Who’s able to draw upon information that you might not have. And to the best of my information—which is extensive, ma’am, I’ve learned a great deal since becoming your Spymaster and I already knew quite a bit before then—to the best of my information, ma’am, Luke Amidala, the Prince, the Archbishop, the Sky Walker, the Butcher of Bespin, all the names you’ve given him, none of those names has ever chosen what he’s wanted over what you’ve asked him to do. And I can assure you, ma’am, he damn well won’t start now.”

He realized he was standing up, and the silence in the room buzzed slightly in his ears.

Leia didn’t shout back, or sack him, or call for the guards to come in and chop off his head. Instead she pulled open a desk drawer with a faint tinkling sound and procured a pair of stout tumblers and a bottle. She poured out two brisk measures and held one out to him, her expression softer than he’d ever seen it.

He took it, and sat down. “I apologize, ma’am. That was—“

“Probably well-deserved,” said Leia, and raised her glass to him. “L’chaim, I believe is your phrase, isn’t it?”

“To life,” he agreed, and lifted it in return. The scotch was too expensive to burn; instead it seemed to melt his throat, turning his insides into something undefinable and heavy beneath his ribs.

“I was supposed to marry Wedge Antilles, after the war was over,” Leia said abruptly. “He’s—he was, I suppose is the right terminology—heir to the duchy of Corellia, and of course he’d distinguished himself greatly in the Aeronauts. His father was eager for the alliance and it made sense. What the people needed after all that death and pain was stability.” She turned her now-empty glass in her fingers, watching the sunlight glint off the refracted glass. “When Wedge took orders instead, his father swore a blue streak; he didn’t have any other sons to offer me, you see.”

“Are you telling me you arranged to have Wedge Antilles renounce his title and take orders so that you could marry Han Solo?” Poe asked.

“No,” she said, smiling. “No, Wedge renounced the world on his own. But if he hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done. If I had had the chance at happiness, real happiness, only to be forced by honor and duty into a loveless marriage?” She shrugged, and poured herself another glass. “You’re right, in saying that Luke’s always done as I’ve asked him. And for whatever comfort it brings you, I know that this time I’m asking too much.”

“But you’re still asking it,” he pointed out.

“I am,” she said. “And I’m also—“

Whatever else she was about to say was interrupted by a brisk knock on the door, which opened to reveal Finn once more, looking slightly out of breath. “Ma’am,” he panted, “Poe. There’s something—you ought to come and see.”

“What is it?” But even as she asked, Leia was circling around the desk toward the door.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Finn said.

***

“You were right,” Leia said a few moments later. “I don’t believe this.”

BB was squawking its fool head off as it wheeled around the stable yard, causing the various hands and drivers, Rose included, to duck as it swooped overhead. Periodically it would crash land onto various automobiles to grab hold of some part of them—the windscreen wipers, the bumper, the bonnet ornament—and frantically flap its wings, as if trying to drag the vehicles out onto the road. At the sight of Poe and Finn, however, it took off once more, still shouting, careening toward them.

Poe was all set to swat the damn thing, Rey’s pet or not, but Finn calmly plucked BB out of the sky and held it gently in his hands, murmuring something that was no doubt soothing but seemed utterly lost on the bird.

“What on earth—“ Leia began, only to be drowned out again. “How do you shut it up?”

“Usually with snails,” Finn replied, in the same soothing voice, “If Rey’s letters are anything to go by.”

The word “snails” momentarily gave BB pause, but at the mention of Rey’s name it started squawking again, struggling in Finn’s grip until he bent down and set it carefully on the ground. It resettled its feathers, glared up at all of them, then hopped over on its one good leg to grab at Poe’s cuff, tugging him toward one of the cars. Poe took a step forward and BB released him, making a reluctant chirp of satisfaction, before hopping back to Finn and pulling on his leg.

“I think it wants us to follow it,” said Finn, and was rewarded by an approving squawk, BB flapping off toward the nearest automobile. It alighted on the hood ornament and spread its wings, expectant.

“Yes, well-spotted,” Poe said, and turned back to Leia. “BB’s antics aside, ma’am, I don’t think—“

She waved him silent. “That thing went off with Luke and Rey this morning, didn’t it?” she asked. “What time did they leave?”

There was a vaguely affirmative murmur from the stable hands, one of them piping up, “They took that old devil-horse and a cart, ma’am, ‘round about dawn.”

“So they ought to be there by now,” Leia said. She turned to a nearby driver. “Send word to the Penitent’s Cross and find out if—“

“They’re not on the line, ma’am,” said Finn. BB, outraged at no longer being the center of attention, began shrieking again, and he obediently moved toward the car, hands raised as though BB were armed.

BB fixed him with its one good eye and let out a noise Poe had never heard from it before; had never heard from any animal, but one he’d know anywhere.

A gunshot, cracking out across the yard.

“That doesn’t sound like antics to me, Dameron,” Leia said. “How far is it to Penitent’s Cross?”

“Fifteen miles by road, ma’am,” piped up Rose, who had emerged from cover now that BB was no longer trying to dive bomb anyone. “Ten miles as the crow flies.”

“He’s a raven,” Finn corrected, which earned him a glare.

“Whatever he is, it would appear he’s been sent with a message,” said Leia.

Poe took a breath. “Your Majesty,” he said, “In light of our conversation just now, I can understand that you might object, but I think I should—“

“’Conversation’?” she echoed, a smile at her lips and nowhere near her eyes. “Is that what you’d call it?”

But Poe could still hear the gunshot, imperfectly reproduced by an ever-more frantic creature. “Ma’am—“

She made an expansive gesture. “By all means, Dameron, go and find my brother.” Her tone was flippant but she had grown pale, her hands clenched into fists. “It would be a shame for our ‘conversation’ to have been wasted on a dead man.”

***

Finn stayed behind, despite vocal protest. “Two thirds of the Billings and Services Agency can’t go haring off into the woods after a couple of priests,” Poe told him. “And I was quicker than you.”

“But—“

Poe opened the driver’s side door. “When I inevitably get myself into a jam, you can be the cavalry. Something tells me we’ll need it.”

He was set to get in when Finn grabbed his shoulder, fingers digging in. “Poe,” he said. “I need you to promise… I need… she’s expendible to them, I know that. And expendible to us. But not to me. If you… promise me you’ll find both of them, all right?“

Promises like this one were a terrible idea at any time; worse in war time, and worst of all amongst people like them who could only ever rate loved ones as expendible. Finn had no business asking it.

“I promise,” Poe told him. “On my honor.”

Finn stepped back, his hands flinched behind his back. He opened his mouth to speak but instead just nodded, and Poe turned to climb into the driver’s seat.

Or would have, except that it was already occupied. “Other side, sir,” Rose chirped, all smiles and bright-eyed insubordination.

 

 

“Out, Corporal,” he ordered. “This is a mission—“

“That will need a driver who’s had more than an hour of sleep in the past twenty-four, sir.”

Keenly aware that Leia was still in the doorway and Finn less than five feet away, Poe hissed, “I slept on the way—“

“For an hour, sir, and just kept your eyes shut pretending to sleep for five. I may not be as experienced a driver but at least I won’t crash into a drift on the way to a rescue operation.”

Arguing was clearly not going to speed the process along; what was worse was that she was right. Poe circled around the car and gave a jaunty wave to the queen as he climbed in, the engine roaring to life and startling BB off the bonnet ornament.

The bird circled briefly as they lumbered out of the courtyard and down onto the road, then took off toward Penitent’s Cross. “Follow that bird, Corporal,” Poe commanded.

Specialist,” Rose reminded him, but gunned the engine with admirable dispatch.

Luke had often spent entire pages in his letters to Poe complaining about the “downright ungodly” intelligence BB displayed. Mostly it had been used for mischief, hence Luke’s despair, though there had been a few grudging accounts of the raven’s ability to fetch a pruning knife after it had been dropped from halfway up an apple tree, or alert Rey that someone was trying to pilfer a kneeling cushion.

Poe had cause to appreciate that intelligence now: BB kept close to the road, wheeling back to make sure they were still behind him before taking off again. “We should have given him a scarf or something, see him better,” Rose muttered as she squinted through the windshield.

“Fortunately,” Poe said, “The road only goes one way.”

“It’s the road that’s worrying me,” she replied.

Which was reasonable enough—the snows had melted only to freeze again, rendering the surface as smooth as polished glass under a light dusting of new snow. Rose swore under her breath as they crawled along, the sun slowly pushing the shadows out ahead of them. Poe kept his eye on the bird and tried not to tense every time they slid on the ice.

For long miles there was nothing; no other vehicles or wagons, not a sign of life. No road to Penitent’s Cross was ever popular, but it seemed an ominous portent that they met no one at all.

“So tell me,” he said, scanning for any trace of their wandering charges, “How did you know I wasn’t asleep?”

Rose coughed. “You wheeze in your sleep, sir,” she said. “And talk, a bit.”

That was certainly an unfortunate development. Poe wondered if you could be hanged for state secrets divulged while unconcious. No doubt Leia would be lenient. “Did I say anything interesting?” he asked, watching her carefully while keeping his head turned forward.

She frowned, her eyebrows a dark line of puzzlement. “You kept telling me to stop counting the damn jars,” she reported.

Poe was saved from answering for that by BB, who made a screeching noise and disappeared into the woods. Rose slammed on the brakes with an oath, the car skidding along the snow-pack. “Where the hell is he off to?”

“Fuck knows,” he replied, but he could see where something heavy—a truck of some kind, thick wheels and a high cab—and crashed through the drifts at the point BB had veered off. There was no question of their little car getting through. “Keep going,” he said. “Follow the tire tracks.”

He was right; the tracks went around the next bend of the road and revealed how awful being right could be.

In front of them lay the wagon Poe had seen Luke drive a dozen times, old and badly-painted and likely to fall apart any moment. The moment appeared to be now, the traces tangled and broken and a white horse —Tauntaun, it couldn’t be anyone but Tauntaun—lying dead in the drift, blood already browned and crusted where it had spread into the snow.

All of that Poe saw in an instant and brushed to the side, because kneeling beside Tauntaun with his hand on the horses neck was a dark figure, tall even bent over as he was, with a shock of bright-black hair. He’d looked up as the car approached and Poe knew that face far, far too well; had spent days staring at it in a dark room in Vindicta.

And then Rose gasped, “It’s the Prince,” and scrambled out. “Your Highness!” he heard her calling him, stumbling slightly on the slick road. “You—I’m Specialist Rose Tico and this is Commander Poe Dameron.” She waved absently back at Poe as he climbed more slowly out of the vehicle. “You’re in Naboo territory. You’re safe, your highness.”

“Oh,” said Kylo Ren, standing up slowly, “I very much doubt that.”

Perhaps it was that Poe had already spent all his rage earlier in the day, but somehow the hatred he expected to boil over at the mere sight of his erstwhile interrogator and tormentor didn’t come. Instead there seemed this vast… expectation, perhaps that was what it was. As though any moment now, something would come ripping out of the darkness and swallow him whole.

Poe took out his pistol. “Specialist,” he said in as calm a tone as he could manage, “We don’t know who this is.” Which was true enough. He and Jess had spent a handful of hours trying to work out all the ways Kylo Ren could reappear—but finding him on a deserted road hadn’t been one they’d prepared for.

Rose looked back at him, incredulous, and Poe tensed—if Kylo Ren were going to pull a weapon it would be now—but instead the prince lifted his empty hands, watching Poe with that same impassive mask over his features that Poe remembered like a slice to the skull. He clearly recognized him; but more than that, Poe couldn’t tell.

“I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he told Poe. “That much is true, Commander.”

“Of course it’s Prince Ben,” Rose said, gesturing at him with what probably was insufficient deference to royalty. “Look at him!”

So much for the theory that people wouldn’t instantly recognize the long-lost heir to the throne after so many years. “It’s a strange place to find you, my lord,” Poe said carefully, adjusting his grip. “You’ll forgive my skepticism. Especially since you’re standing over a dead horse and a carriage that doesn’t belong to you. And particularly because you know who it does belong to, I’ll wager.”

The mask slipped, just a bit, but Kylo Ren had managed to fool everyone he knew at a younger age than Rose. “If I’d been with them,” he said, jerking his head at the thick tire tracks, “I wouldn’t be here now, would I?”

“That depends on who they are,” Poe snapped. “And what they’ve done with our friends.”

“Commander,” Rose hissed. “This is—“

“Not who you think is, Specialist,” Poe said.

“Then ask him something only the prince would know,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. “You should be able to verify it, at least.”

Behind her, Kylo Ren shut his eyes; something very much like a smile almost threatened on his face.

And why not? If he had planned it for weeks—which he may very well have—Kylo Ren could not have orchestrated a better way to ensure his safety. Even if Rose was authorized to know the truth about the prince, which she assuredly was not, there was no time to explain; and although Poe would very much like to shoot now and ask questions later, there was the risk that she would put herself in the path of any bullets aimed at Prince Ben.

“All right,” Poe said, and Kylo Ren opened his eyes. “If my lord is amenable.”

“I don’t see any better ideas,” he replied. “Ask your questions, Commander.”

It was a threat and a dare, and Poe wanted nothing more than to pull the trigger. “How long did Han Solo live after Kylo Ren ran him through?” he asked.

Kylo Ren flinched, which was a surprise. “I suppose that’s the best question you could have come up with,” he said. “Well done.”

Sir,” said Rose, her mouth agape, “You—that’s—“

“That’s a question only the people in the hall when Han Solo was murdered could answer,” Poe reminded her, “And the prince was there. Weren’t you, my lord?”

Just then there was a rustling noise overhead and BB came wheeling in from god knew where, dropping down into the bed of the wagon with a thump and a faint grumble. It hopped up after a moment, onto the driver’s seat and peered at Kylo Ren with its one good eye.

Kylo Ren stared at it, then glanced back at Poe. “What is this?”

Poe ignored him. BB was still making its examination, chirruping quietly to itself as it eyeballed the prince. Then it heaved itself back into the air and toward Kylo Ren, who barely had time to duck before the bird was on top of him.

But instead of attacking, BB perched unsteadily on the prince’s hunched shoulder, and as he carefully uncurled himself it took a lock of Kylo Ren’s hair and tugged.

Poe had no illusions that animals could somehow detect good and evil in humans; they held all the same biases and a (only slightly) worse grasp of political conflict. But still—

“What is it doing?” Kylo Ren demanded, standing stiff.

“Saying hello, your highness,” Poe said, and put away his pistol.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

She was standing at the bank of a river. If she saw it now, it would probably be nothing more than a creek, but in her memory it had been as vast as the sea. Her father stood on the other side, laughing and beckoning her over; there was a time, surely, when she could recall his face, but now it was only the laugh, giving her courage. She gathered herself up and leapt, falling to the ground on the other side only to be picked up, whirled around in the bear hug of his embrace.

“My little ray of sunshine,” he had said, and she held onto him as they followed the call from the house, telling them that supper was ready.

 

***

 

Rey came to tied to a chair in the middle of a dirty, empty room, which struck her as a bit overdramatic. A half-dozen guards, weapons in hand and squinting suspiciously at her, seemed even sillier. “Is all this really necessary?” she said — croaked, more like it, her throat horribly dry.

They didn’t answer, but from somewhere behind her came that same booming, cheerful voice that had been the last thing she’d heard before — wherever she was now. “Ah, Miss Amidala! So pleased to have you with us again.” The old man with the beard came around the chair and into view, beaming obscenely. “You and I have so much to discuss!”

“I doubt that,” she said. It wasn’t even a room; she could smell animals and dung and the stink of fear. Some kind of stable, as though she were a prize pony. “Where are we? Where’s Father Luke?”

The old man spread his arms. “Forgive my manners, Miss Amidala! You are a guest of mine, at the Stadium of Nar Shaddah. And I am Grakkus Hutt, very much at your service.”

“Are you, now,” she muttered. “And Father Luke?”

“I’m afraid he is still indisposed,” Mr. Hutt said, his face a moue of regret that Rey didn’t believe for a moment. “It was quite a long journey, you see. And I’m afraid dear Father Luke is not quite the man he once was.”

“More of a man than you.” It was probably suicidal, but Rey had once known a jolly-faced old man just like Grakkus, sweet on the surface and rotten to his core. She knew what his kindly patter was gearing up for; no matter what she said, he was already planning the most effective way to hurt her.

Sure enough, his eyes narrowed even as his mouth kept that ridiculous grin. “Still such a fighter, Miss Amidala. I’m almost impressed.”

“That’s not my name,” she said.

“Is it not? Then what might your name be?” He waited for her answer with theatrical patience, then shook his head. “Ah, very well then, ‘Mother Rey,’ if you insist. A young woman who took such pains to reinvent herself deserves no less a courtesy! Though I do wonder how deep that vaunted faith of yours really runs.” His smile stretched. “We’ll see soon enough, shan’t we?”

This was the most irritating conversation she’d had since the last time Luke had lead her on a merry chase through Ephesians. “What do you want? Kidnapping Father Luke — is this all some sort of ransom scheme? He won’t cooperate. He’s never cooperated with anyone in the whole course of his life.”

Grakkus chuckled. “He’ll do exactly as I say, I assure you.”

He no doubt intended to frighten her, but she couldn’t help snorting. “You clearly don’t know anything about Father Luke.”

“You don’t think so?” The smile was gone now. “Mother Rey, you have so much to learn.” He turned to one of the guards, a bland-faced fellow with freckles. “You will give me your pistol,” he said, “And kneel on the ground.”

The guard did as he was told, looking bored. Grakkus handed the pistol to another guard, with brown-grey hair under his cap and a squint. “You will shoot him in the head,” he directed.

The guard did as he was told. Rey opened her mouth to shout, to scream, to order them to stop, but it was already done. She had been watching the kneeling guard, still with a bored expression on his face — his face that was now—

“You will clean this up,” Grakkus said, sounding more irritated than anything; Rey swallowed back bile as he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe blood off his trousers. He tutted slightly and turned his attention back to her. “You see, Mother Rey, I’m a difficult man to refuse.”

 

*

 

She was left alone after that; whatever this man Grakkus had in store for her, he needed her unharmed for now. Someone even brought her water and unshackled one arm so she could drink it, though it tasted of bracken and he tied her back up again the moment she was done. “The service here is terrible,” she called after the guard, who ignored her and resumed his place at the door to the cell.

But that meant she was more or less abandoned to her own thoughts. Was there someone coming for them? Had poor little BB even made it to the Cathedral? Could they find Luke in time?

The image of the freckled man’s face reared up in front of her, pushing past any practical considerations of rescue or escape. I’m a difficult man to refuse, Grakkus had said. What did that mean? He couldn’t think Luke would obey him as those guards had.

But it hadn’t been obedience, not exactly. A difficult man to refuse.

Grakkus had featured once or twice in the stories Luke told (always reluctantly) about his time in the Empire. He’d been larger than life in those stories, a monster of a man who could bend the entire city to his will, and had. Rey had long since suspected Luke used Grakkus the way people used him: as a boogey-man myth, to scare children into good behavior. Rey had never been scared, but now looking back on the stories, perhaps she ought to have been.

A difficult man to refuse. Grakkus had made his fortune in smuggling, in the drug trade and in trafficking, especially during the beginning of the war, when so many millions were desperate to escape Alderaan’s fate. Could that be what he’d meant? A crime lord would be difficult to refuse, especially if he had leverage. So Grakkus must have imagined he held some leverage, something that would ensure Luke’s cooperation.

He’d said they were at the Gaming Pits of Nar Shaddah — the Stadium, he’d called it. The Queen had long ago tried to close the pits, or so she’d heard, but the city had resisted every attempt; and then, of course, had come the war. Who had been in charge, while Grakkus had been locked away on Magna Sera? Did Grakkus have control over the city once again, or was Luke part of some greater scheme to wrest power? They were here for a reason; Grakkus wouldn’t have brought them to such an open, vulnerable place without a plan. A difficult man to refuse.

The freckled guard’s face loomed once more. Grakkus had shown her — what, his power over his men? But that wouldn’t translate to Luke, who had never done anything anyone had told him. The Queen had complained quite a bit about that.

It hadn’t been obedience. No one could look so calm, so bored, as he was preparing to die. The guards had both understood what was happening, at least as far as their ability to follow the command. But they’d been no more interested than if they’d been ordered to peel potatoes or scrub toilets. As though their minds had been—

The guard was still at the door; her chair was facing away but she could hear him. How had Grakkus put it?

She took a deep breath. “You will remove these restraints,” she said, just loudly enough to be heard, “And leave this cell with the door open.”

The guard came over, his brow furrowed. “What?” he grunted.

“You will remove these restraints, and leave this cell with the door open.” She could hardly speak past the fear at the back of her throat. It was an insane notion, this would never work, what had she been thinking?

“I will remove these restraints,” the guard repeated, his expression clearing, flattened into placid acceptance, “And I’ll leave this cell with the door open.”

She sat perfectly still as he took the shackles off her feet, then her arms, and walked toward the door. It could all be a ruse, she knew; a trick to play on her, to recapture her the moment she stepped foot out the door. But there was a way to be sure.

“And you will drop your weapon!” she added, hearing the clatter of the gun as it hit the ground.

Even then, she made herself wait, listening for an alarm, the voice of another guard, shouting or gunfire. But there was nothing; the guard had wandered away (down a hallway? Into another cell?) and left her to her own devices.

How long that would last was anyone’s guess.

“Right,” she said to herself, and got to her feet. “Time to go.”

 

***

 

Escape, of course, wasn’t an option. Not without Luke.

It turned out she had been held in a stable, somewhere below ground; the staircase she found went at least two more levels down, and countless levels up. Luke would be held somewhere considerably more secure and more lavish; no doubt Grakkus would want to impress his prisoner, not just frighten him. So probably not down.

The next floor up looked to be a more public space, hallways built for the audiences to get to their seats and enjoy the gore to follow. They were all but deserted now, the faint echoes of guards’ footsteps all that inhabited them. Rey went up another level — more large public hallways — but as she went into the stairwell to climb again, a door banged open from somewhere above and the clatter of boots descending sent her into the hallway, hiding behind some sort of booth with old, dusty displays of food and drink. It was a singularly terrible hiding place, she realized almost immediately.

The guards came through the door, chattering amongst themselves; clearly her absence hadn’t yet been noticed. They disappeared around the gradual curve of the arena’s hallway, which meant the stairs might be empty; she might have a chance of finding Luke if she kept climbing. Always assuming he was here and not somewhere in the Alderaanian wastes.

She slipped through the stairwell doors — and straight into General Chewbacca, the Queen, and Finn, dressed in the uniform of Grakkus’s rabble.

For a moment she couldn’t speak, or move, or breathe. All she could think was that she must have been killed, and this was her last moments on this Earth, imagining a fairytale rescue.

“Are you all right?” asked the Queen, hauling her the rest of the way into the stairwell and looking over her shoulder. She was wearing a uniform too, with a gun that was decidedly sleeker than anything Rey had seen so far.

“Yes,” she replied with slightly more confidence than she felt. Leia nodded and eased the door shut, signaling Chewbacca (who was not in uniform, no doubt because there wasn’t one made that could have fit him) to follow her up.

Finn, for his part, clearly found her answer inadequate. “What happened to you? Did he hurt you?” he demanded.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed, pulling Finn up the stairs after Chewie and the Queen.

Finn huffed. “We came for you,” as though it should be obvious. “And Father Luke.”

It was a lie, of course; they’d come for Luke. Luke was the heir to the kingdom, the Queen’s brother. It was spectacularly stupid of her to stage a personal rescue, but understandable; love and duty had prompted Rey to attempt no less a feat. It was a relief, really, that she’d run into them first, for she certainly wouldn’t have blamed them for getting Luke and making their escape without her. It would be the only reasonable thing.

From above there was a soft snort. Rey looked up; Chewbacca was signing, “—stupid plan was his idea,” with an emphatic jab at Finn, “And he couldn’t give a—“ some gesture Rey didn’t know— “about Luke. It was you he was after.”

Finn’s head whipped from Chewbacca back to her. “What did he say?”

“That it was your idea,” she answered.

Perhaps she wasn’t dead. The way Finn’s stolen uniform sat uneasily at his collarbones, too loose around the waist, the rough rasp of it against her hand as she took a fistful of it; she couldn’t have imagined that, or the silly officer’s hat perched on his head. This was real, it was really happening, and Finn had come for her.

She kissed him. She ought to have asked first — ought not to have done it at all — but his hands were careful at her shoulder and at her neck, his thumb stroking down her cheek as he kissed her, too, so it seemed he might forgive her. And she had wanted to, for so long, for longer than she’d known what it was to want anything; she’d felt pulled away from him all this time and now, now he had come for her and risked everything, risked the Queen herself, his own life. God would forgive her for this too.

He’d better.

There was a sharp nudge at her elbow. “Escape now,” Leia advised, her mouth quirked in a faint smile, “Kiss later.”

 

 

 

***

 

It turned out they already knew where Luke was. “Finding him wasn’t hard,” Leia said, stepping neatly over the prone form of yet another guard General Chewbacca had thumped into submission. They had climbed to the very top of the arena, with fewer and fewer patrols to contend with — no doubt they assumed any escaping prisoner would try to flee, rather than burrow themselves further in. Now they were following Finn, who seemed to have an idea of where to go.

“The problem will be getting to him,” Finn sighed in agreement. He opened a door and gestured them through, into some sort of antechamber. It reminded Rey of a great ship’s bridge, huge windows facing out into the arena and a great number of consoles, with levers and knobs that blinked unhelpfully. It was empty but clearly not abandoned; there was a mug of something on a nearby desk, still warm to the touch.

Then Finn’s words sank in. “Getting to him?” she repeated.

“And then getting us all out,” he added, almost an afterthought.

Rey had some decided opinions about that when General Chewbacca unhooked the pack from his shoulder and shoved it at her. He signed something.

“I don’t know that one,” she admitted.

“Uniform,” Leia said. “We got one for you and one for Luke; I trust you’ll be able to tell which is which.”

Sure enough, there were two of the ugly jackets, and trousers that looked fresh off the line. She looked up and saw the queen watching her, that knowing expression on her face that reminded Rey so much of her brother.

“You didn’t think we were going to leave you behind, did you?” she asked. “Luke would be so cross about it.”

“Begging your pardon, your majesty,” Rey said as she slid on the trousers under her cassock, “But he’s going to be cross no matter what, once he finds out you risked your life.”

“I didn’t have much choice,” she said, and handed Rey her jacket. “The instructions were quite clear.”

“What instructions?” Rey asked as she unbuttoned her cassock. She glanced from the queen (who looked annoyed), to General Chewbacca (who looked resigned), to Finn (who looked concerned). Understanding dawned. “This is a ransom. What on earth did that odious man demand in exchange? And why in God’s name did you go along with it? You can’t be so stupid as to think Grakkus will keep his word, whatever he promised you.”

“Brave girl,” Chewbacca signed.

Leia hit him in the arm. “You’re right,” she said to Rey, “I’m not that stupid. We got your message first, yesterday—that damned bird of yours came squawking into the cathedral, terrorizing everyone until we figured out what was going on. I sent Poe out to find you, but it was just a few hours later when the intended message arrived, from Grakkus. ‘I have something of yours,’ all the rest of it. I could either send Lando and hope for the best, or…” She spread her hands.

“He’s not going to let Luke go,” Rey told her, remembering the freckled guard with a twist of her gut. “He’s got other plans.”

For the first time, Leia’s smile looked real. She helped Rey into her jacket, tugging at the too-broad shoulders and smoothing out an errant cuff. “So do we.”

 

***

 

Two hours and a great deal of arguing later, Rey still wasn’t convinced that “plan” was the best descriptor for what Leia had in mind. “Cockamamie scheme” seemed a better fit, but she’d been overruled and was now stuck up here in this little room (“it’s a control booth,” Finn explained patiently, “For announcing the contestants during the fights”) while everyone else went off to their certain deaths.

Just as they’d said, Luke wasn’t hard to find — he was strapped to a large chair, some idiot’s idea of what a throne looked like, no doubt, in the middle of the empty arena. They’d been bickering for almost an hour before Rey noticed him, tiny and alone and perfectly still. “Is he—“ even alive was on the tip of her tongue as she’d stared down at him.

“He’s fine,” Leia had said, too dismissive to be doubted.

And now Rey could only watch and wait, since neither Finn nor Leia were inclined to involve her in the rescue attempt (Chewbacca had been game but had gotten firmly outvoted). Instead she kept an eye on the arena, watching the endless patrolling of Grakkus’s guards and Luke, now definitely awake, looking around and periodically making a half-hearted attempt at the straps holding him to the chair. He didn’t seem to be in pain, or even distress; typical.

To pass the time more than out of any expectation of being useful, Rey examined the consoles sluggishly blinking at her. Most of them seemed understandable enough — there were newfangled speakers all along the stadium walls, presumably to narrate whatever gruesome death was occurring on the floor, and microphones attached to consoles in the room. But some had more esoteric functions: an entire console was devoted to “gate fuse,” whatever that was, and another to “hatch function.” She rifled through the desks but couldn’t find any sort of manual or instruction booklet; it was all very frustrating.

Footsteps thudded from the hallway, raised voices; she had just enough time to turn before the door burst open and a half-dozen of Grakkus’s men came through, laughing at something. One of them noticed her and stopped short, the others piling into him. “What,” he said, with a heavy Shaddan accent, “The fuck are you doing here? Did William and Harry send you?”

“I was — yes,” she tried. Another of the guards, a tall, sour-faced man, narrowed his eyes at her. She straightened slightly. “They did. Send me.”

“And you know how to run all this?” he demanded, waving at the various consoles. “If they’re not going to bother showing up, let’s hope they sent a competent replacement. How do we get it running?”

“Um,” Rey said, her mind a blank. “That is—“

“Typical,” her interrogator muttered. He turned to another compatriot, a short round-faced woman with a medallion around her neck. “You’re sure you know how to work it?” he asked her. “Only Grakkus likes Harry or William to—“

“I told you, Tom,” said another one of them, ambling in from the doorway where he’d been half-hidden by the sour-faced man. He wore a captain’s cap at a jaunty angle on his head, curls tumbling out from underneath it. “She’s a mechanical wizard. Works anything with a set of gears or fuse box.” He glanced over at Rey and winked.

It was Poe Dameron, she realized with a shock. Poe Dameron, who’d evidently followed them all the way from that godforsaken road to Penitent’s Cross and wrangled himself into Grakkus’s rabble of guards. How he’d done it only God in Heaven knew, but she really oughtn’t have been surprised.

The first speaker — Tom — just sighed. “And what about her?” he demanded, thrusting his chin rudely in Rey’s direction.

“Excuse me,” she snapped, “But I have a name.”

Tom squinted at her. “Oh yeah?”

“It’s…“ and once again, her imagination failed her. This undercover business was a lot more difficult than she’d assumed. In Luke’s dreadful books all you needed was a disguise; failing that you could just shoot people.

Luckily, that’s when the sour-faced man stepped forward — and neatly smacked Tom across the temple with the butt of his gun, sending him sprawling. The woman with the medallion pulled out some sort of baton and felled another one.

The last one put her hands up, eyes wide. “Sorry about this,” Poe said cheerfully, taking his cap off and pulling some sort of vial out from under the brim. He unstoppered it and put it to her nose; she collapsed in a heap on top of Tom. “All right, they’re out for the next five minutes. Is there a closet in here?” he asked Rey, crouching down next to the guards. The sour-faced man shut the door quietly, positioning himself in front like a one-man barricade.

“Oh,” she said, trying to order her thoughts. “Yes.”

Between the three of them — the sour-faced man didn’t move from his spot by the door — they managed to wrestle the guards into the closet. Rey’s cassock was sacrificed to tie them up and gag them, which was probably for the best.

At least Poe shut the closet door and helped shove a desk up against it. He took a deep breath and turned to Rey, smiling slightly. “So. Good to see you. You’re all right?”

This last was said more gently. She nodded. “Thank you, yes.”

“That was quick thinking, dressing as a guard,” the woman piped up as she waved at Rey’s new jacket. “I’m Specialist Tico, by the way. Rose,” she amended, smiling and holding out her hand.

“A specialist?” Rey asked, shaking it.

“My driver,” Poe said, “Who has gotten ideas considerably above her station.”

“You weren’t coming up with any better ones,” Rose countered. Poe waved her off and she went back to the consoles, muttering to herself as her fingers hovered over the buttons.

Poe was still looking apprehensively at her, as though he wanted to offer her a hot toddy and a blanket. Rey rolled her eyes. “I’m fine, Commander. Luke, on the other hand, is in trouble.”

“When is he not,” Poe sighed. “But you weren’t hurt? They didn’t—“ He seemed loathe to finish the sentence.

Poe had been a strange figure in her life ever since he’d hobbled into it, an odd mixture of elder brother and ersatz stepmother. She had always assumed he considered her little more than an obstacle in his silly chase after Luke, someone to sidestep. When she was younger she had even resented him, his exuberant and shameless pursuit of a man pledged to God. But she was nearly twenty now. She understood.

“They didn’t,” she confirmed. “But there’s something about the guards, or at least some of them. Grakkus—did something to them.”

“What?” asked the sour-faced man, who still hadn’t moved from the door. “What did he do?”

Rey had to assume this was some sort of new recruit; no doubt Poe would castigate him later. She ignored him and said to Poe, “It’s as though they’re… I can’t explain it. You tell them to do something and they’ll do it, no matter what, no questions—I was able to get away by ordering one of them to remove my restraints and leave me alone.”

“It could be your winning personality,” Poe murmured with a reflexive smile, but his eyes were sharp. “So some sort of…compulsion? That might be useful.” This last was said to the sour-faced man, who looked, if possible, more sour.

“There’s something else you should know,” said Rey. “The Queen—“

“What about the Queen?” the sour-faced man demanded. Rose, still busy at the consoles, turned to frown at him.

Rey did too. “What—“

“Rey,” Poe said, not loud but forceful, “Don’t say another word.”

“Commander,” Rose huffed, “You can’t still think the prince—“

“The what?” Rey hissed. “You—“ She stopped, staring at the sour-faced man. The Prince. Kylo Ren. “You—“ But words were failing her entirely today. She’d been so eloquent, consoling Father Lor San, and now all she wanted to do was scream and scream and scream. “What,” she said slowly, “Is going on?”

“Mother Rey,” Poe said, half-introduction and half-warning as he gestured to Kylo Ren, “This is Prince Benjamin.”

“Are you, indeed,” she said, and did not extend her hand.

Nor did he. “So you’re Rey,” he said. “My uncle’s little…”

“His acolyte,” she snapped. She’d seen pictures of the Prince, of course, as a child. He’d grown into a man with a surprisingly punchable face. “Acolyte is the word you’re looking for.”

“Is it?” She hadn’t thought him ugly, but his smile was something to flinch from. She gritted her teeth against it.

“Right,” said Poe, taking a breath, “Despite the fact that we’re all in hideous danger right now, Rey, please step outside with me for a moment,” and he dragged her out the door, shutting it right in Kylo Ren’s face.

That,” she said, jabbing her thumb at the door, “Is not the prince.”

Poe ran his hand through his hair. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You know what I mean!” she hissed. “The prince isn’t just ‘the prince,’ he’s also—“

“Yes,” Poe said, “Which means that whatever you were going to tell me about the Queen, you can’t say anything. Not a word.”

Them? What about Rose? She’s not—“

“She’s not a very good driver, but no, she’s on our side,” Poe assured her. “But she doesn’t know—“

Realization dawned. “She doesn’t know who he is.”

“Exactly.” He looked dreadful, now that she had a moment to examine him: his hair a frightful tangle, dark circles under his eyes, stubble along his jawline. He probably hadn’t slept since haring off after them.

“How on earth did you end up in this mess?” Rey demanded.

Poe sighed. “It’s a long story. But I don’t think he had anything to do with your kidnapping, if that helps.”

It didn’t. “So what now? Do you have a plan? Where’s BB? Do you know what Grakkus has planned? How can we get out of here?”

“Those are all,” Poe reassured her, “Excellent questions, and ordinarily I would love to answer each one. But there’s no time. We do have a plan, albeit a terrible one, and I’m afraid that’s all I can say. Yes, Rey,” he said, as she opened her mouth to argue, “I know you could help. But at the moment, the best thing you can do is stay here with Rose and keep yourself out of harm’s way.”

Rey crossed her arms. It was awkward in the oddly-shaped jacket, the fabric bunching at her elbows, but she managed it. “So I sit demurely by while you and your—“ she couldn’t think of a bad enough word so settled on, “Assistant save the day?”

“I’m beginning to sympathize with Henry II,” Poe muttered. “Just — stay here, stay safe. We need to get Luke out, but the Queen would never forgive me if either of you came to any harm. And Luke would never forgive himself.”

It was patently unfair to use Luke and Her Majesty against her, but Rey knew when she was beaten. “Fine,” she muttered, and went back into the booth.

Kylo Ren hadn’t moved from his spot near the door. “Were you eavesdropping?” she asked him.

Rose looked scandalized at the mere suggestion, but Kylo Ren just smiled, unpleasant. “I might have done,” he said, “If you hadn’t been so loud.”

Rey went past him and took a chair, resisting the urge to kick it across the room. “I don’t like this plan,” she informed Poe as he checked his pistol and muttered some instruction to Rose. “For the record.”

Poe sighed, bundling Kylo Ren toward the door. “Will someone rid me of this meddlesome priest?” And then they were gone.

 

***

 

Rose clearly was some sort of mechanical wizard; as she fussed at the console, lights came on in the arena. “Well done,” Rey said.

“Just in time,” Rose said, gesturing down.

On the distant floor, a small group was moving toward Luke; Rey could see Grakkus at the head, waving at one of his underlings who held some sort of box. The underling squinted up at them, and Rey resisted the impulse to duck as he made a gesture at the box, then back at them.

“What does he want?” Rey asked Rose.

In answer, Rose flicked a switch. “Cross your fingers,” she advised.

“—of you awake up there?” came the voice through a crackling speaker. “Snoke hasn’t turned up yet, neither has Leia, but Grakkus wants to make sure the bidding is ready to start as soon as they do.”

Rose made a dive for the small microphone next to the radio. “Everything’s set up here,” she replied. “Er, Tom wanted to know if you want spotlights on the bidders, or just on the auction piece.”

Auction piece. Rey’s heart leapt and sank at the same moment, a strange vertigo of hope and terror. So this was Grakkus’s grand plan? A kidnapping, a ransom of a valuable target to the highest bidder? It was so…small. For years now, Rey had lived under the shadow of a war that itself was just an echo of another war, violence piled onto violence like so many discarded rags. She had lived with Luke, knowing him as a fussy old man who enjoyed his garden and also as the demon-figure that strode through the nightmares of a million people, a black-clad death-bringer whose shadow still caused simple folk to cross themselves as he walked by. If he was to die in enemy hands, Rey had thought his death would mean more than this.

She peered down; Grakkus had turned to say something to the underling, and faint through the speaker she could hear, “Auction piece! An excellent term for you, my little princeling.” It was possible Luke said something back, but the speaker didn’t pick it up.

“I told Tom,” the underling sighed. “He was supposed to tell you all of this. Where is he?”

“…Slipped out for a smoke,” Rose said, biting her lip. “Said I should confirm with you.”

“Confirm my eye. Yes, spotlights on them, we need to make sure they’re easy targets if this all goes belly-up. And don’t forget to reengage the locks on the stadium gates once they come through. Grakkus wants everyone in here until the bidding’s done; no Rensters or Naboots mucking the deal up.”

“Understood,” Rose said. Rey doubted that she did, but the underling seemed satisfied and turned back to whatever Grakkus was saying.

“How did you—“ Rey started, only to have Rose clap a small hand over her mouth, her palm sweaty and warm.

“The radio’s still connected,” Rose whispered, standing on tiptoe to whisper in Rey’s ear. “We can hear them, but they can hear us too, until we cut out. And we don’t want to cut out.”

“Why not?” Rey whispered, once Rose took her hand away.

In answer, Rose pressed her ear to the speaker. Rey did the same, almost nose-to-nose with her.

“So Rey gave you the slip, Grakkus?” Luke was saying, almost inaudible over the hum. “I did warn you not to underestimate her.”

“She’ll be rounded up soon enough,” Grakkus said. He wasn’t quite so smug as he’d been down in Rey’s cell; her escape must have rattled him for some reason.

Luke was talking again. “—made any number of grand pronouncements. Not many of them turned out well for you.”

“I have missed you, princeling!” Grakkus said, almost cheerful again. “No one disrespects me quite the way you do.”

“Oh, I have tremendous respect,” Luke countered. “I’ve only just realized the extent of your ambitions; what you’ve achieved already. It’s taken me almost two years to puzzle it out; you must think me dreadfully stupid.”

“I always did,” Grakkus said, with an indulgent chortle. “But if you think you’ve solved the… what was it you’ve been calling it? Ah yes, your ‘tea cosy mystery!’ By all means, impress me with your newfound brilliance!”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve solved it,” Luke replied. “I have the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ and perhaps the ‘how.’ But the ‘what’ and the ‘why—‘“ He paused, and through the crackle of the speaker Rey could hear a faint sigh. “Well, I wouldn’t understand the ‘why’ even if you told me.”

“Very likely you wouldn’t,” Grakkus said, his voice a parody of sorrow. “Well? Dazzle me with your who and where and how.”

“Kreel, for a start,” said Luke. “That’s the who. I remember him, your Gamesmaster here in the pits all those years ago. He used to tell me that he wanted to take orders, too, submit himself to the Church at the end of the war. Clearly he didn’t.”

“Not just yet!” said Grakkus. “But that is only the who, my dear little princeling!”

“Forgive me, Grakkus,” Luke said, with that flat insincerity that always drove Rey mad. “Very well, the where is Taunul, of course. Kreel helped Father Lor-San give communion — and put raw tenebris in the wine. Which is the how. Dosed on tenebris, the villagers simply…cut each other down. A clever enough way to orchestrate a massacre.”

“Tenebris?” Rose whispered. “What’s—“

“Ah, I thought you would impress me!” Grakkus cried. “How could it have taken you two years to realize that, my dear little princeling? You must have seen the bodies, no? Seen the violence, the rage in their deaths. Only my tenebris could have done that!”

“As I said, you must think me dreadfully stupid. I remember you used it here — in this very stadium,” Luke added, sounding almost thoughtful. “It would drive the fighters mad, make them fight the death. How you used it on me, and I almost tore your throat out.”

“But you didn’t! And did you never wonder why?” There was a long silence, followed by another one of Grakkus’s little chuckles. Rey was growing irritated with them. “You never did, did you? My dear, sweet princeling. My first triumph, and you never even knew.”

“Knew what?” Luke asked, his voice louder and clearer—had the man with the radio moved closer, or was Luke more afraid?

“That much-vaunted brilliance, I have yet to see much evidence of it! But I am in a generous mood tonight. In just a few hours I will have accomplished all that I set out to do thirty years ago, and you… well. You will live long enough to witness it, of that I can promise. And perhaps a good deal longer!” There was a sharp sound, hands clapping together. “So I will tell you what you were never able to understand yourself.”

“Very kind of you,” Luke muttered.

Rose made a face. “Is he always so sarcastic when his life is threatened?”

“Yes,” Rey said. “Even when it isn’t.”

“But surely you must have suspected something,” Grakkus said, dramatic in his disappointment. “Did you never wonder why you followed the Emperor’s instructions so very closely, after you returned from Nar Shaddah? Why you always felt such a desperation to please?”

The notion that Luke had at any time in his life ever felt so much as a vague inclination to please was so ridiculous that Rey almost snorted. But Luke didn’t say anything, not for long moments.

“Yes, I thought so!” Grakkus exclaimed. “Your incuriosity was such an endearing trait. The Emperor thought so, too.”

“What are you talking about?” Luke demanded.

Grakkus chuckled again. Rey was growing to quite hate the sound. “You really thought the Emperor sent you to me because of my little collection? Oh, my dear little princeling, you truly are delightfully stupid! You weren’t sent as an assassin, you were sent as a guinea pig!”

There was only silence, but Rey could guess the expression on Luke’s face.

“Ah, ever the skeptic, my dear little princeling! Ever the doubter — not at all suitable for a man of God, I think! But perhaps I can convince you. You remember, of course, that you were told that my assassination was a test? The Emperor was not so sure of you back then! So he sent you to me. But you see, it was at my request. For I had something he wanted — something he believed could win him the war and spread his influence across the continent. And all I needed to show him was proof.”

“You thought you could bargain with the Emperor?” Luke asked. He sounded almost pitying. “That was remarkably foolish of you.”

“Which I learned to my great cost,” Grakkus agreed, his voice less cheerful now. “But I suppose you thought back then it was only the innocent masses who were flattened under Palpatine’s rule. Only the poor blameless souls who sought freedom! I can assure you, many souls less clean than yours were working to get rid of him.”

“But not you,” said Luke.

“I thought we might come to a mutually beneficial arrangement,” Grakkus admitted. “I had told him of tenebris, how useful it was to bring out the rage in any man, shut down his more peaceable inhibitions and set loose a more primal side. I told him that it could destroy a city in a few hours. But he wanted something more… subtle. Something that would keep men under control. Compliant was his word. Men he could trust, because they could no longer think for themselves. And when you came stumbling into his grasp, ah!“ Grakkus laughed heartily. “What a pity the Emperor did not believe in God! For surely it was providential.”

“So it would seem,” Luke said.

“I went to a great deal of trouble,” said Grakkus. “The cost was considerable! But at last I had it — parte tenebrosa, my little joke — and so I told the Emperor that if he sent me a suitable subject, I would prove my worth. And lo, you arrived.” Grakkus made a tsking sound. “I see, I see; you thought you were something special to the Emperor, something valuable! And so you were, once I was done with you — a puppet whose strings were ripe for the pulling.”

“Compliant, you said.”

“Just so! And you no doubt did it all thinking it was your own free will. Perhaps some of it was! But the parte tenebris leaves a mind wide open to suggestion — be it an order, a command, even an idea idly spoken. All that was needed was the right words, and you would do anything.” Grakkus sighed. “I did think the Emperor would be pleased.”

“It must have been a shock when I arrested you,” Luke said, all false sympathy.

“Oh, it was,” Grakkus said. “I knew the right words, after all! I should have had at least as much claim over you as the Emperor! And yet when I told you to release me…” there was a pause. “You disobeyed. And for that I have found it quite hard to forgive you! But knowing you would not kill me — ah, that itself was a triumph. And after nearly thirty years of refinement, of experimentation — truly, banishing me to Magna Sera was a gift! So many eager subjects! I was able to create something far more effective. As I will be able to illustrate tonight!”

There was a long pause, and Luke’s voice was almost too quiet to hear: “What are you going to do?”

“I? Nothing, my dear princeling! I will do absolutely nothing. But you have already been given the full dose — it might have been interesting to see how much of the old parte tenebrosa was still in your system, but I prefer efficacy over sentiment, don’t you?”

“I see,” said Luke. He sounded remarkably calm. “So, Grakkus, allow me to reframe the question: what am I going to do?”

Grakkus laughed again, and there was a strange clinking sound, like belt buckles. “What’s happening?” Rey hissed as Rose peered over the ledge.

Rose blanched, her eyes growing wide. “They’re freeing him,” she reported. “He’s standing up. There’s—there’s men with guns surrounding him, Rey, we have to—“

“Tell me,” said Grakkus, “Do you know how best to find your precious acolyte, Luke? She is certainly somewhere here in the stadium, hoping to rescue you no doubt, but we’ve not been able to pin her down. You will tell me if you can find her.”

“Yes,” Luke replied, bland and bored and horrific. “I can find her.”

“Good. You will find Rey and you will bring her here. You will hold onto her until the envoys arrive. You will use this to cut her throat when I give the order.”

Rose gulped, her hand covering her own neck even as she whispered, “He’s handing Luke a—“

“Yes, I’m sure he is,” Rey snapped, because there were only a limited number of weapons that could be used for cutting throats.

She said it too loudly. Rose let out a small squeak and froze, and there was a muffled sound from the radio, as though someone had covered the speaker. Rey scrambled to her feet and looked out through the window, down into the arena itself.

There were other people, the men with guns Rose had mentioned before, Grakkus, the man with the radio, but Rey only saw Luke, his face upturned toward her, the glint of something sharp in his hand as he started toward the exit.

 

***