“The galaxy will not know light unless you are out of it, Kylo Ren!” Rey’s voice was as furious as it was broken, and she drew her light saber to challenge him. “And if comes down to it, I will be the one to take you out of it!”
Kylo Ren supposed he had always known this moment would come, that the moment when she rejected his offer to rule with him had made this one necessary. They had been marked out as enemies forever. One side light, the other dark. Whoever was stronger with the Force would emerge victorious. And on this frozen planet, where the Imperial forces had come tracking a rebel base, he had found her again, hiding in the snow-covered woods. He had sensed her presence there. And she was ready for him.
He remembered months before, the way they had been united through the force field on the island, when she trained under Luke Skywalker, and how neither one of them knew what to make of it, or how to control it. But what started out with anger and vitriol gradually eased into pettier gibes as they resigned to the fact that they were at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control.
“What did the great Master Skywalker teach you today, sand mouse?” he would taunt her.
And she’d usually throw something at him for calling her that…once it was a fork she’d been eating roast porg with, which missed his eye by that much. But ultimately she’d wind up telling him a bare minimum outline of her day, because she was lonely and tired and wanted him to shut up so she could sleep. Every evening the pattern continued, altered slightly when Kylo started giving her small bits of advice to shock his uncle with her enhanced skills.
One night she came back to hut, soggy and sobbing.
“What happened, scavenger?”
“Oh, be quiet, you nasty thing!” she yelped. “I’m cold…and wet…and don’t want anything to do with you!”
“Working to balance on a cliff over the sea?” he surmised anyway. “Then got a reprimand after plunging downward?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Said…it’s darkness…pulling me,” she mumbled. “Said I didn’t fight hard enough…”
“He fears what he cannot grasp himself,” he growled. “Fight what should be fought, not a pull towards greatness.”
“I don’t see oppression as greatness!” she snapped back. “And that’s what the darkness is if you let it rule you!”
“And if you won’t face the shadows inside, you live a lie.”
She shuddered. “Leave me alone…want to sleep…” She started to curl up in her wet clothes, her back turned to him, when she felt something land on top of her and yelped. It was a heavy, velvet-lined black cloak. “What’s that for?”
“For training,” he responded.
“But why are you lending it to me?” she asked suspiciously.
The slightest hint of a wry smirk appeared on his face. “I went through it myself, if you recall. Need that kind of material for warmth during sea storms.”
Another night, Kylo was the one in a fit of mood.
“So what’s been enlightening your life, person of interest?” she challenged.
“Do not toy with me, mouse!” he spat back.
“Oh,” she twitted, “evidently young master is having a tantrum.”
He growled like an angered dog, “Do not mock me!”
Her eyes drifted to his hand as he took his glove off, and she gasped. “My stars, what happened?”
“None of your business!”
“It’s burnt bad,” she declared. “Put something on it, and fast, or the skin might grow together wrong!”
He stared at her blankly. “Why do you care?”
“Here,” she said, reaching for some grease from a pan in which she’d been cooking her supper. “Give me your hand to put this on.”
“Just do it; it’ll help.”
Reluctantly, he reached across the divide and she did as she had promised. He yanked back at the temperature. “It’s hot,” he complained.
“Not as hot as whatever you burnt it on,” she sighed. She blinked. “Do they punish you for…?”
“Don’t ask me that.” He sat down against his bunk, sullenly.
“Have you eaten?”
He grumbled. She raised an eyebrow knowingly.
“Come on, catch.” And she tossed him a drumstick.
He looked at it, and up at her thoughtfully, and then carefully ate it. And though they passed the evening quietly, there was some strange sense of trust being forged neither one could deny.
One night, they fell into talking about the thing that mattered most, and she dared to press it to the brink.
“He loved you, you know,” she said softly to him, as they lay in their respective beds, so many miles away. “Why did you…?
“You know he did. He wasn’t perfect, but he did.”
He was quiet, and turned away from her. “He was a weakness to be severed away from,” he ground out.
“Love isn’t a weakness…it’s a strength…”
“You refuse to grasp your own strength, the strength the Force offers you from its darkest depths. Who are you to speak of it?”
“At least…I know who I am.”
“You don’t even know your own parents.”
“And you do, and look where it’s got you!” She shifted in her sleeping bag. “You can’t get rid of him, Kylo Ren. Not altogether. Not the part inside you. And someday, you’ll know what I say is true.”
He gave her a fierce, dangerous look, and she began to wonder if he might not think twice about strangling her from where he was, the way Darth Vader had done when crossed. “Okay, okay…enough for now. G’night.” She curled up and turned to the wall.
He exhaled, the anger finding no where to put itself. “Go to sleep, mouse,” he instructed her wearily. “Just go to sleep…”
As time went by, she could not help but become more comfortable with him, and him with her. They were forced to be together, but they got used to each other, even found each other somewhat amusing, and a means of allaying the isolation that came with their powers. For Rey, he even became something of a living journal for her to spill out her inner heart. He was a murderer, and yet she could not help herself sometimes. And the way he silently listened, and his eyes flickered when he did, made her feel better.
“Can I call you by your real name now?” she asked him one evening.
“What name?” he demanded.
“Ben,” she answered. “That’s your name.”
“I have no part with that,” he said sternly.
She was quiet for a long while, staring into the fire. “You can call me Rey, if you want.”
They gazed at each other for what felt like forever. Then she reached a hand toward him, across the divide. He gazed at it, perplexed. “You don’t want to do that.”
He lowered his eyes. “I may have to kill you.”
She blinked. “What, now?”
“Maybe I’m not so easy to kill. Desert mice aren’t, you know.”
Her pluck made the edge of his mouth turn up, just a little. And very slowly, very cautiously, he had let their hands touch again.
And now, only a few months later, he was here with her, and they were ready to fight to the death, sabers singing, and…they clashed again, and again, and again.
She was good, very good. They had fought back-to-back, before; he was aware of her diligence and promise. But he also noticed how her emotions were toying with her in this encounter. Oh, yes, she thought she had to kill him…but she didn’t want to. And that can affect even the best of fighters, if their intent has not been hard-hewn enough to pierce through old, if brief, affections. And he intended not to be killed.
He let her emotions drive her harder than they should have, and worked, for once, to reserve his own self deep inside a dark shell. And so he was the first to let his saber bite into her, with a slash across the shoulder. And she cried out. And her voice shocked him by making him twitch. She looked at the blood, and sank to her knees in the snow, struggling to recover. And he just stood there, watching her.
He knew he should take advantage of her wound; he knew he should strike, and end it. He had felt the future clearly enough earlier that day, and he knew his fate would be decided here. One of them would never leave this place.
If he survived, he knew his destiny would be secured through her blood; he would cut himself off from his last weakness, overcome the last obstacle to greatness. For he had grown fond of her, in spite of himself, and fondness can easily lead to affection, and eat away at the heart and the mind, and sink the powers of a man.
He saw the vision coalesce, the image of him, Emperor of the Galaxy, the one soul grown harder than Vader’s, steeped in the blood of his own kin and any other being that stood in his path. And the blood would dry and strengthen him. He had but to shed it. And the universe would tremble in fear of his wrath.
And this girl, this scavenger mouse, what would become of her if she lived, instead? She’d fight on with her ragtag rebellion until it was crushed…or against all odds, came into its own. And then, if she survived to the end of it, she’d become a nobody again. What a waste of living! She did not even have the ambition to grasp for more! He deserved to live! He knew the potential it offered, and dared to stretch it to the size of his goals. He deserved to live more than she; he could cut her down easily in that moment.
She was emotionally drained now, and knocked off guard. She was an easy target now…easy, like Han Solo had been…easy, unable to resist the darkness of death which he could so deftly deal…
But he could not move his saber.
He saw her blood falling on the snow, and the pain and confusion in her eyes.
And he knew he had caused it.
And he could not move his saber.
Even when her shock exploded into a blind, desperate lunge for survival, and she struck at him with wild fury, expecting her blows to be repelled as they had been before, she met with no resistance, no defense.
He did not move his saber. And now he saw his own blood gushing on the snow, for one slicing thrust had severed his hand from his arm, and then torn open his rib cage. He saw the damage register in her eyes, and then the horror, and then the dread, waiting for his weapon to strike her down in vengeance.
But he did not…no, he very calmly turned off the saber, threw it to the side in resignation, and collapsed in the snow.
He had not thought of what it would be like to die in past battles, and to see his blood well up around him. In his fury, he had only thought of killing, and now, due to that same fury’s unexplained extinction, he had surely been killed. But he was still alive, still conscious, and he saw his mother there in his mind, but he knew she would not touch him. No one would touch him. He was alive, and dying, and dangerous. Of course he was! He should have wanted to rip the whole universe apart! And he was bleeding out, and no one would touch him…but it wasn’t anger he felt…just hurt…
And then somehow she was there, the one who’d killed him, whether through the strange transparency they had shared on the island, or right there, right then, knees to the ground, he could not tell. But he saw her eyes, pools of pity now, looking at the cut and stretch of her work. “Why…did you stop? Why…?”
He didn’t answer. There was no point in it. Then he felt the pain overwhelm him, and he fought to suppress a scream. He squirmed and clutched at her sleeve, like a babe clutches when first born, and he thought how similar death was to birth, how strange and terrifying and lonely. Perhaps, for the first time, he remembered his own age…he wasn’t very old, was he? Nineteen? That’s not very old at all…and her…seventeen…not very old at all…why had they come to kill each other? There must have been a reason…but he could not think of it through all the pain…
And soon he found his head in her lap, and found it was a warmer place to fall asleep than the snow. He did not know how much time passed there, just kept drifting in and out of dreams of a future that would never be, of regret and remorse and the touch of the scavenger girl who would not leave him to die alone, who would stay while he had a breath left in him, and kept stroking his face with the back of her fingers, gently.
And some deeper part of him was simply glad he was being snuffed out and not her, because right then, all he wanted was her to be there, not to leave him. All he wanted was her presence. She would turn his face back to meet hers when it drifted towards his handless arm and torn open side, which looked almost like a slab of butcher’s meat, with the ribs exposed, and he would start to shake convulsively in instinctive panic.
“Look at me,” she whispered, fighting back tears. “Don’t look there…just look at me…”
And when he did, she saw the eyes of a frightened little boy who hurt himself at play, and wanted someone to make it better although he knew no one could. And she knew then this thing, this very human thing of death and dying, lay at the crossroads of light and darkness, and transcended it. They were neither light nor dark now, just human beings, needing each other as the blood drained out of the one, and revealed the remnants of soul beneath the flood.
And then there were the seizures of blood, every couple of minutes, running out of his nose and mouth, with him wheezing through it till he choked, and even darker blood came up, and his shattered bones stabbing into him as his chest moved up and down. And he would cling to her arm as he struggled not to suffocate, and she would cradle him, and apologize over and over.
Why, he wondered, did she do that? He would never have apologized for striking her down…it was fair…she had no way of knowing he had stopped trying to block her…it was far fairer than some of the deaths he had delivered. Besides, one of them had to die; they both had known that. But he sensed that didn’t matter much to her at all…she had still caused this, and it horrified her. He doubted she had even known the extent of damage a light saber could do to the human body…or perhaps she had known, without truly knowing…not like this…
Perhaps it was this preserved innocence, and her simple, silly apologies that made him even gladder she was the one who was still going to be living in this world. The universe could use more souls like that…and less like his…
Then he heard her sing, like she had done on the island sometimes, old songs with old stories, like lullabies to ease restlessness…and he thought she did in now both to calm him, and herself, like a habitual normality that seems to be belie and contrast the surroundings. But this time, the words of her little song pierced with unintended irony:
“Father, O Father, I have lost the knife, I loved as dear as I loved my life…Go down to the broom no more…
“And I have lost a finer thing…I lost the sheath that the knife was in…Go down to the broom no more…
“Hold your tongue and make no din; I’ll buy you a sheath and a knife therein…Go down to the broom no more…
“But all the ships that ever sailed the sea won’t bring such a sheath and a knife to me…Go down to the broom no more…”
He heard her voice crack, and he knew way. There was another verse he had heard her sing, and yet she could not bear to do so now:
“And when you see that I’m lying dead, bury me in the dirt up to my head…Go down to the broom no more…”
Yes, he knew…he knew….he would go down to the broom no more…
He felt thirsty. A final thirst. He wondered if she’d understand. He tightened his grip on her sleeve, then moved his hand up to his throat. “Th-thirs…” The blood drowned his words and he struggled to let it spill over his lower lip. He blinked, and his eyelids trembled when they rested over his eyes, too exhausted to talk more.
But she had understood already, and had a handful of snow quickly gathered, and brought close to his lips. Slowly he ate a little of it out of her hand, painfully, trustingly, like an abused animal about to be killed for its own violence, when it hopes it has found some safety. She used the rest of it to clean the blood off his face. His forehead was burning; she touched it with her snow-white hand and cooled it. She brought a little more snow to his mouth and let him suck the moisture out of it.
When the snow was gone, her hand still lingered near, and something took hold of him, and he took her hand in his only one, trembling though it was, and pressed his lips to her palm. It was the only goodbye he could think of. He was a monster, to be sure, but even a monster can say…goodbye…to a mouse too kind to hurt him in his helplessness…
Now he heard her sob, and felt her tears fall down on his face. He was puzzled by the intensity of it. “Why…do you cry…?” he asked, with an almost simplistic confusion. In truth, it did not make sense to him. The galaxy could not know light until he was out of it, she had said.
She sniffled. “Because I see the light in you…I did on the island, and…I do now…”
And in that moment he felt some great burden lift from him. In a world ripped apart by dualities, she had held together apparent opposites and healed them through her love. And that was the answer to the ageless riddle, was it not? The Force which held together the universe, and every seeming contradiction on this plane of reality, was neither solely passion nor solely peace, but a deeper thing altogether, and he felt himself ready to let go and flow towards it…
Oh, he could see her future more clearly now…the war would end, and she would survive…she would marry the friend she had started her adventure with, Finn the defector from the storm troopers…they would have children, repair flying craft together…be nobodies…and he couldn’t have been happier at that prospect. There are much worse things to be…and he thought…he did not want to be remembered as any one of those things…
“Tell my mother…I could not kill you,” he rasped lowly, fresh blood running down his face. “I failed…too much his heart in me…” His voice drifted out and the tears came down his face, and he felt her fingers wipe them away with the latest trickle of blood down his mouth. He looked into her eyes again, into the fathomless ending of all his hopes and dreams and ambitions, and the strange sense of expansiveness that he found in that breaking of all finite boundaries. “Close my eyes…” he asked her softly as the light faded from them.
The last thing he felt was her fingers brushing across his eyelids, and then her lips on his forehead, and the last thing he heard was her speaking his name, “Ben”, and the squeak of his own last, small breath and his heart thumping loud inside, then softer, and softer…and he was asleep…