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Ashes of the Empire

Chapter Text

“Join me,” he said. “Please.”

Her eyes locked onto his outstretched hand, mesmerised by the way it trembled. She remembered reaching her own out to him, and the way that he hadn’t hesitated to take it. A part of her knew that she should reciprocate the gesture, but there was too much at stake.

“What will happen if I do?”

“I’ll order them to stop firing,” he vowed, and for the smallest moment her heart soared before he brought it crashing back down again. “I’ll order them to leave this system. Whatever dregs of the Resistance remain will be left behind to whatever fate awaits them.”

Her vision blurred with fresh tears. “So you won’t join them.”

He shook his head desperately. “No, Rey, weren’t you listening? The Resistance is gone, the Republic is gone. The Senate was destroyed along with the Hosnian system -- I didn’t agree with that, but it’s done, it’s over -- and the power vacuum that they’ve left behind will throw us into another civil war unless someone takes the helm. It has to be me. Of course it has to be me.” His voice trailed off, and his eyes had glazed slightly so that he wasn’t really looking at her. She realised he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince her.

Rey was taken aback by his apparent vanity, but she didn’t know enough about politics to dispute his argument. Up until two weeks ago she didn’t know about anything except the struggles of surviving in the Jakku desert.

“Will you be… good?” She didn’t know what else to ask. This moment felt so monumentally important, but she had no clue how to make the decision laid before her.

“No,” he answered, without hesitation. Another tear fell down her face. “Not the way you mean. This galaxy is a cesspool. There’s a lot of fighting left to be done. But once it is done -- once the galaxy is secure -- I’ll be just. If you’re beside me, I won’t have a choice.”

Rey tugged at her wrap where it draped across her hip, worrying the damp fabric between her fingers, still unsure. “And you’d listen to me?”

“Yes.” His voice was steady but his hand trembled again, bringing her attention back to it. She watched it for a moment, hoping it would bring some sort of clarity to her.

“Why did you come here, Rey?” he asked suddenly, breaking her concentration.

“For you,” she said, surprising herself. “Because the galaxy was losing its hope. Because I had faith in you.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Because I saw us together.”

He nodded earnestly, and suddenly it clicked.

He wasn’t perfect. He was far from it. But he was the best they had. The best she had. How many Resistance transports had been destroyed since they entered this room? If the spark wasn’t yet gone it soon would be. This was what was left, and there was goodness in it.

She moved forward to take his hand. Her offer was delicate, and so was his acceptance; the soft but secure way he wrapped his long fingers around hers convinced her that she had made the right decision. In the periphery she saw his other hand rising to her, and automatically she reached for it as well. She jolted when her palm met something metallic instead of the warm leather she had expected.

Her lightsaber. She had forgotten about it. He closed her fingers around it, and the gesture felt significant in a way she didn’t fully understand.

The elevator door hissed to announce that they were no longer alone. Rey turned to see a red-haired man in a prim uniform that she supposed revealed him to be some sort of high-ranking officer. She watched as he surveyed the room, and her, with abject horror. His face turned the same colour as his hair. Finally his eyes locked on Ben, and the frank loathing in them sent an unpleasant shiver through her.

The newcomer’s voice was strangled. “What… happened?

Rey turned back to Ben. His eyes hadn’t left her face.

“We murdered Snoke,” he said mildly. He was almost smiling. “He was a traitor to the tenets of the First Order.”

The red man was more of a purple shade now. “A traitor -- what kind of absurd -- he is the Supreme Leader!”

Ben turned to him suddenly, raising an arm, his fingers twisting as if he could crush the life out of anyone who opposed him, and Rey realised that he probably could. The knowledge didn’t frighten her as much as the incongruously gentle way his other hand held hers; his thumb stroked over her wrist lightly as he watched the other man struggle and gasp for breath.

Finally he released him, and the red man dropped to his knees, clutching his throat.

“He was the Supreme Leader,” Ben prompted.

“The traitor has been vanquished,” the red man wheezed. “Long live the Supreme Leader.”

Chapter Text

The elevator ride was awkward, with the red man -- General Hux, she now knew -- pressing himself as close to the door as he could manage while trying to appear unintimidated by Ben and Rey. He and Ben spoke in quiet, clipped tones about evacuation protocols. Rey didn’t understand why they were speaking of such a thing now, but she wasn’t about to reveal her ignorance in front of a stranger, so she nodded along stubbornly.

As they descended she became aware of an alarm blaring through the lower levels. When the doors opened Hux nodded stiffly to Ben, glanced witheringly at her, and turned to the left. They had alighted into the largest single room Rey had ever seen. She felt as though she could fit the entire Jakku desert in here, Star Destroyers and all. Hux walked away briskly, barking orders at anyone who would listen.

Few did. The floor was in chaos. Half-clad Stormtroopers swarmed in all directions, pulling on their armour piece-by-piece as they walked; BB units rolled along guiding pallet droids to move supplies; technicians drilled rapidly at key pieces of technology and removed it piecemeal from the interior columns so that it wouldn’t all be lost.

“We’re actually evacuating,” Rey said, stunned.

Ben frowned down at her. “Yes.”

“Why?” Surely news of Snoke’s murder hadn’t spread so quickly? And even if it had, why did it mean that thousands of people needed to abandon ship in open space?

Ben still hadn’t let go of her hand. The warm black leather was sticking uncomfortably to her fingertips, but she was grateful for it, because otherwise he would feel how sweaty her palm was.

He raised his other hand to her shoulder now, angling her to face him directly. “Because the Dreadnought is falling apart, Rey.”

As if on cue a beam buckled overhead. Her eyes darted to it, then to the deck in front of her where hundreds of people simultaneously agreed to avoid a particular area of the floor.

“I didn’t know,” she stammered. The immense ship had looked fine from what little she saw of it when she had arrived, and the inhabitants had seemed calm when Ben had led her through the hallways in handcuffs.

“The Resistance attacked while we were in the throne room. When you took my hand,” he said, slowly and carefully.

“Oh.” Her eyes continued to roam and she suddenly noticed that to the left -- where Hux had disappeared -- the entire ship was bowed away from them, as if something had sucked it outward. The vacuum of space, she realised.

“I didn’t notice,” she said sheepishly, turning back to Ben. “I was focused on you.”

The concern melted from his face and was replaced with something that resembled hunger. She couldn’t think clearly with him looking at her like that, so she dropped her eyes from his to look straight ahead, but that wasn’t any better. His hair was still damp with sweat from the battle, and the way that it clung to his neck was impossibly distracting. So she lowered her eyes again, but now all she could see was their still-joined hands. The blaring of the alarm seemed to grow even louder, but not loud enough to drown out the incessant beeping of the dozens of droids making their way past them. Everything was full -- of him, of this place, of the decision that she had made. Rey began to panic. After thirteen years of painful solitude suddenly she was desperate to be alone with her thoughts.

“Can I have a minute?” she pleaded, looking back up at him. Her voice sounded pathetic and childlike, even to her.

His expression neutralised. He shook his head and began moving in the opposite direction to General Hux, pulling her along with him.

“Not right now. We need to get to the SF hangar. Once we’re on the shuttle I’ll give you some privacy,” he promised.

“Okay. Yes, please. I need… I just need to…”

“I understand,” he interrupted, and she thought perhaps he did.

 



“Which of the Destroyers should we head for, sir? The Finalizer, Conqueror, and Harbinger are all intact.”

“The Conqueror,” Ben said after a moment’s thought. “Find out which transport Arin Ren is on and tell it to do the same.”

“Right away, sir,” the pilot saluted him.

“Arin Ren,” Rey repeated quietly as Ben led her away to the rear of the shuttle. It wasn’t meant as a question, but he took it as one.

“One of the Knights,” he said, and it was obviously meant as an explanation, though it meant nothing to her.

She looked up at him, raising her eyebrows.

“The Knights of Ren. My… people,” he said, uncertainly, as if he had never had cause to describe them before.

“How many Knights of Ren are there?” Rey asked, the wheels in her head turning.

He hesitated before answering. “Five,” he said, finally. “These are the sleeping quarters. I’ll make sure you’re not disturbed.”

They had paused in front of a door, and he reached out to the control panel to open it for her. Rey poked her head in to see a small, sparsely furnished room with two bunks. It was obvious that the shuttle wasn’t built for long journeys.

She was grateful that he had remembered her request for solitude, but her curiosity had been piqued and she knew herself well enough to know her mind wouldn’t settle until it was satisfied.

“Were there always five Knights? Or did there used to be more?”

She had thought it an innocuous question, but his expression shuttered, and even though he didn’t move his posture seemed a lot more unforgiving.

“More,” he said, tonelessly.

“Were there seven? Including you?” She could tell this line of questioning wasn’t leading anywhere good, but she couldn’t help herself. She was surprised when he continued to answer.

“Yes.”

This confirmed her suspicion. “Luke told me that you took half a dozen of his students, the night you, um, left.”

As the words left her mouth she knew she had gone too far. His features sharpened and he was suddenly very close, looming over her intimidatingly.

“I didn’t take them,” he growled. “They left with me because, unlike Skywalker, the Resistance, and your friend FN-2187, they possess a sense of basic loyalty.”

Rey wanted more than anything to rise up and growl back at him, but the reminder of Finn shot straight to her core, and she felt her eyes fill with tears for what must have been the fifty-seventh time that day alone.

He studied her face for a moment before pulling back. “I wasn’t trying to upset you,” he murmured. It wasn’t quite an apology, but she would take it.

“Neither was I,” Rey said, her voice wavering. “I just… I was trying to know something.”

Ben turned his body from her to lean heavily against the wall, sighing. The movement made her realise how exhausted she felt, emotionally and physically. She was about to turn and enter the room when he began speaking again, monotonously, as if he were reciting from a book.

“I went to the other students to tell them about Luke. Half of them stood with me. The other half didn’t. We left together and became the Knights of Ren. We crossed paths with the First Order -- you know how that story goes; you’re part of it now. One has since died,” his voice lowered, surprising her, “and one is in self-imposed exile. Four remain, and me. They’re loyal to me, and to each other -- you can trust them, and at this stage you should trust only them.”

He paused to take several deep breaths. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“Yes,” Rey said. Ben chewed at his bottom lip. “But not right now,” she added, trying to sound reassuring. “I think we both need a break.”

He nodded, looking grateful. He stood to his full height again and gestured with his chin toward the bedroom.

“It will be at least an hour before the remaining Destroyers figure out how to accommodate everyone,” he said.

“Okay.” She moved into the room slowly, trying not to think about how bizarre the situation was until she was fully alone. She looked back to find the second control panel, but paused when she saw Ben still watching her.

“When you’re ready I’d like to take a look at your wound,” he said, indicating her right shoulder. She twisted her arm to inspect the jagged cut she had forgotten about. It stung, but that was all.

“It’s not really bothering me,” she said.

He nodded. “Even so.”

“Okay.”

He must have pressed something on his side of the wall, because the door hissed shut. Rey turned and leaned back against it to slide herself to the floor. She hugged her knees and groaned into them. What the hell was she doing? Willingly crossing enemy lines; abandoning the Resistance; having friendly conversations with Kylo Ren about his unfortunate youth? Eight hours ago she had been a student under Luke Skywalker -- well, sort of -- and now she was sitting alone on the cold durasteel floor of a First Order shuttle.

She squeezed the heels of her hands into her eyes and thought of Leia, and the trust she had put into her to bring back the galaxy’s hope. She thought of Finn: had he even woken up? Would he ever? She thought of Chewie, waiting patiently on the Falcon for a signal that would never come. She even thought of Luke, and the pain and shame in his eyes as he finally revealed the truth of what had happened that night.

And she thought of Ben, and the way the Force kept bringing them to each other. The way he had reached out to touch her hand, impossibly, from so far away. The raging conflict she sensed within him. The very real risk that Luke was right, and that this wasn’t going to go the way she thought. What would Ben do if he decided that she was as traitorous as he believed so many others to be? Would she have to live with that fear for the rest of her life? Was it worth it?

She had no choice but to believe that it was.

She stood suddenly and slammed her palm against the control panel. The door sprang open, and she was shocked to find Ben sitting on the other side, legs splayed in front of him to almost reach the opposite wall of the small corridor. He overbalanced slightly, rocking back and looking up at her. His eyes widened with mirrored surprise; he hadn’t intended to get caught sitting on the floor outside her door, Rey realised.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Rey said. “I’m ready.” She held out a hand to guide him to his feet, and he took it.

“I didn’t realise that when you asked for ‘a minute’ you really meant you just needed a minute,” he said, half to himself. He sounded bitter, though she couldn’t understand why her speed irked him.

“Neither did I,” Rey admitted. “But, thank you. For…” she gestured at nothing in particular.

Ben nodded. “Show me your arm,” he said, sounding authoritative, and she supposed he was trying to compensate for the discomfort they both felt at the sudden camaraderie between them.

She turned her side to him and he led them both to sit on one of the bunks. He removed his gloves and placed one hand over her shoulder, wrapping the other one around her upper arm, so that he was framing the wound. Then nothing happened for several long minutes.

“I didn’t realise that when you said ‘look’ you really meant you were just going to look,” Rey said glibly.

He shushed her gently. “I haven’t done this before.”

Rey squirmed uncomfortably. “What, looked at someone’s arm?”

He shushed again, less gently. Finally he covered the slash with one of his palms, and she flinched, expecting the burning sensation of pressure against her raw flesh, but instead she felt a tingle spread from the point of contact through her entire body, infusing her with a rush of pure energy.

He lifted his hand and scrubbed gently at the dried blood. It fell away to reveal glistening pink skin.

“How did you do that?!” Rey gasped excitedly, forgetting for a moment where she was and who she was gasping to.

Ben frowned. “It will still scar a little. How does it feel?”

Rey took a few seconds to decide, rolling her arm around to see and feel it from every angle. “It feels better! There’s no sting, but still a bit of an ache.”

He nodded, looking disappointed. This, more than anything else that she had witnessed, convinced Rey that the man was insane.

“That was really good, Ben,” she said, enunciating clearly.

He nodded again and stood, motioning for her to precede him out the door.

Chapter Text

The shuttles and transports surrounding them filled the sky, vastly outnumbering the stars visible in the spaces between them. Everything was washed red by the tinted viewport, making the ships and stars alike appear bloodstained.

“How many people were on board Snoke’s ship?” Rey asked nobody in particular.

“Just over two million personnel on board the Supremacy,” the pilot responded, “sir… Ma’am. Miss.”

“I’m Rey,” Rey offered.

The pilot glanced beyond Rey’s shoulder before responding. She felt Ben shift beside her, but he didn’t speak.

“Lieutenant Jober Tavson, ma’am,” the pilot said. Rey wondered idly what sort of signal Ben had given him to make him choose the epithet.

“And how many are on board each Destroyer? Jober?” Rey used his first name, tentatively, feeling it was only fair since she had offered her own. She had no other, but he didn’t know that.

He didn’t seem to mind the familiarity. “Between seventy and ninety thousand, ma’am. And there are twenty-seven intact Destroyers.” He returned her small smile as he predicted and answered her next question.

Rey’s mind reeled with the numbers and she realised that maybe she really could have fit the entire desert inside the Supremacy’s main deck. She was very familiar with the concept of big ships, but she had never quite wrapped her head around the fact that so many people inhabited them. The population of Jakku wasn’t precisely known, but it was thought to be somewhere in the realm of twenty-five thousand. Just one of these First Order ships could evacuate all the hungry scavengers ten times over. A fleet of them might be able to supply the entire Western Reaches.

The horde moved slowly toward the already-retreating First Order fleet. An hour passed without them making much progress. Ben did nothing, and that made Rey uneasy. As far as she was aware only he, herself, and General Hux knew about Snoke’s death. How would the rest of the First Order react when they found out? They were about to cram two million extra people onto twenty-seven ships, and emotions were bound to be running high already.

The holopad flickered to life, and Hux’s form appeared, as if he had been summoned by Rey’s thoughts.

“Good men and women of the First Order. This is General Hux addressing you from the command bridge of the Finalizer. I speak with deepest regret to inform you that our venerated Supreme Leader Snoke did not survive the cowardly attack against the Supremacy. He gave his life in defence of our Order and in pursuit of our ultimate triumph.”

Jober gasped, and Rey was surprised to see that he looked truly saddened by the loss. She wondered what the ‘good men and women’ thought they knew about their Leader.

“However, in this time of grief we will rise with our resolve stronger than ever before! Lord Snoke’s apprentice, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren,” (Jober gasped again, more quietly) “will not hesitate to lead us to the victory that is now very much within our grasp! In his wisdom he has decreed that the fleet will leave this system intact and move Coreward to our next target. The Resistance has been all but obliterated, and a handful of survivors will be spared to spread the tale of their insurmountable defeat, so that every being in the galaxy will know that resistance against the First Order has been proven futile. History has been made today! The weak and corrupt Republic will never return, because we, the premier force in the known galaxy, will never allow it!” He paused, raising his chin, as if expecting applause. Whether or not he got any from the other transports would remain a mystery. The hologram crackled and faded.

Rey was cautiously impressed. Surely no one would guess that their retreat from the scene of the battle was in fact an act of mercy. She caught Ben’s eye and found that he didn’t appear to share her optimism. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile, but it only made his frown deepen.

“Forgive me, my lord,” Jober said quietly, breaking the trance between them. “I didn’t know.”

“No, Lieutenant,” Ben said, reluctantly looking past her to Jober. Rey wasn’t ready to turn from him yet. “I thought it best to let the General make the announcement, along with the rest.”

Jober sighed. “Supreme Leader Snoke. May he find his peace.”

Ben stiffened, his eyes darting to Rey and then to the viewport in front of him. “May he find his peace,” he agreed, in a voice that reminded her very much of the first time she had met him.

“Mayfindispees,” Rey said, clearing her throat awkwardly.

Slowly the small ships ahead of them broke their mish-mash formation to create a clearer path for their shuttle. It was still an unbearably slow process -- it took four more hours for them to reach the Conqueror -- but it would have taken twice as long without the luxury of Ben’s new status. Rey passed the time by making small talk with Jober, who seemed appreciative of the distraction. He was Arkanisian by birth, but had spent very little time on the planet during his life. His parents were recruited into the First Order before he had been born, and so this was the only life he had ever known. He didn’t seem unhappy.

Jober was deliberate to not ask Rey any direct questions, but she supplied carefully selected and somewhat embellished bits of her own history. She told him that she was a collector of Imperial remnants from the Battle of Jakku. At first she thought she was being very clever, but as time wore on she became anxious that she had revealed too much; that he would put two-and-two together and realise that she was just a scavenger. Ben didn’t react to anything that Rey said, except to become even more still and quiet each time she spoke, and she took that as a good sign.

When they finally docked in the Conqueror’s hangar -- no easy feat with seemingly every inch of the floor covered with transports or tightly-packed bodies -- Jober leapt from his seat, bidding them wait in the shuttle while he ensured things were prepared for the Supreme Leader’s arrival.

“You like him,” Ben said, when they were alone. He watched her face carefully.

“He’s nice,” Rey replied warily. “He’s interesting. I’ve never met anyone from the First Order. Besides you.” And Finn, she added silently.

“And you don’t like me,” he hazarded.

It seemed a ridiculous thing to say, after she had crossed the galaxy for him and they had fought for each other’s lives. But she couldn’t exactly dispute it.

“I think we’re beyond the point where it matters if we ‘like’ each other,” she said carefully. Then suddenly she realised that she didn’t know, so she asked “Where are you from?”

“Chandrila,” Ben said, quickly, as if he had been waiting for the question. It was a place that Rey had heard of: one of the capitals of the New Republic. But that was all she knew about it.

Jober returned before she had the chance to question him further. “My lord, commanding officer of the Conqueror is Colonel Oret Odai. He awaits you on deck. With your permission I will accompany the shuttle into orbit once you have disembarked, to make room for more transports.”

“Permission granted,” Ben said, standing. Rey mimicked him. As they walked past he added, almost as an afterthought “Well done, Captain Javson.”

Jober flinched and saluted, looking completely overwhelmed. Rey couldn’t help beaming at him, and then at the back of Ben’s head. He didn’t break his stride.

The hangar was packed with slow-moving bodies and craft. A small circle of floor had been cleared for them at the end of the loading ramp. Within it waited a tall dark-skinned man wearing a similar uniform to Hux’s -- Rey supposed this to be the Colonel -- and a brunette woman in black robes. Her cloak was pinned back over her right shoulder to ostentatiously display the silver lightsaber at her hip. Both pairs of eyes glanced curiously at Rey before fixing on Ben.

The Colonel stepped forward, saluting. “Colonel Odai, my lord. Welcome to the Conqueror. Unfortunately, given the circumstances I cannot promise you an entirely comfortable stay, though of course all available concessions will be made. I have made my own suite available to you, however I admit that I did not expect your companion. Arrangements will have to be made. Forgive me.”

Ben turned to the woman. She hadn’t moved yet. “You have quarters here, correct?” he asked her, and she nodded in response. “That will suffice for the three of us,” he said to Odai. “I’m sure you have a great deal to do. When accommodations for the soldiers and officers are settled I will address the fleet.”

Odai recognised the dismissal, and saluted again before striding off. When he left their little circle of space he was immediately flanked by three young, frantic-looking officers shoving their holopads toward him desperately. Rey almost pitied him.

The woman stepped toward Ben now. “Mass evacuation? Supreme Leader? And a new friend? You were gone for less than an hour, Kylo.” Her tone was firm and demanding, but laced with concern.

Ben shook his head. “When we’re alone,” he said, barely audible over the clamour of the crowd of thousands. He turned to Rey, raising his voice to combat the roar of the shuttle’s reigniting engines.

“Rey, this Arin Ren, of the Knights of Ren, of whom we spoke briefly earlier. Arin, this is Rey.” The introduction was proper but artless, as if he introduced people dozens of times every day. Rey was suddenly and strongly reminded of Leia. The princess-general’s image gave her the strength to extend her hand without trembling; though she’d admit (if only to herself) that she made a bit of a show of moving her lightsaber to the other hand first.

Arin took Rey’s hand lightly, a thousand questions burning in her eyes, but apparently she knew better than to ask any more right now. She beckoned for them to follow her, and the trio made their way through the ship, crowds parting for them as Ben’s unmistakable silhouette was recognised.

When the door of Arin’s quarters closed behind them Ben sighed, removing his gloves and throwing them carelessly on a low table in front of a lounge. They were in a small sitting area, with an archway in front of them leading to what appeared to be a kitchenette, and a closed door to the left, behind which Rey assumed was the bedroom. There was nothing in the room to suggest that it belonged to anyone in particular. The decor was plain chrome and black, like the rest of the ship.

Ben rubbed the back of his neck. “I need a shower.” Rey recognised his tone -- it was the same one she had used on the Supremacy, when she had begged him for a minute to herself. He had given it to her at the earliest opportunity, but it had never occurred to her to wonder if he needed his own time to process everything that had happened during this very long day. Suddenly she felt ashamed. No wonder he had seemed disappointed when she had opened the door again so quickly.

Arin rounded on him. “No you don’t, not yet. I need to know what’s going on, Kylo.”

Ben sighed, his eyes seeming impossibly weary. “I killed Snoke. Cut him in half with a lightsaber. I didn’t plan it, but” his eyes flicked to Rey for half a beat “it was necessary. Rey and I killed the Praetorian Guard. The ship split in half -- the timing of that was a coincidence -- and you know the rest.”

He turned to Rey, and some of his lethargy seemed to lift as he regarded her. “You were excellent, by the way. Still unpolished, but vastly improved from when we fought on Starkiller Base. I don’t know how you changed so much so quickly.”

Rey was pleased enough with the praise, and the fact that it was delivered in front of Arin (her head had whipped around to scrutinise Rey, as well) that she decided to ignore the urge to point out that her ‘unpolished’ style had defeated him in single combat and left a very visible reminder on his face.

“You were excellent too, Ben,” she said; graciously, she thought. In her peripheral vision she saw Arin flinch. Rey looked over to find her staring as if Rey had had the audacity to proclaim herself Supreme Leader.

Rey flushed. “Sorry. Kylo?” She turned back to Ben uncertainly, and was relieved to find that he didn’t seem concerned with her usage of his name. He hadn’t had any issue with it earlier, after all.

He shook his head lightly. “You may call me whatever you like, here, with people we trust. But when we’re in public… the First Order doesn’t know my birth name, so try to avoid it.”

Rey nodded, and he almost-smiled at her. Arin had turned from them and was wandering somewhat aimlessly toward the kitchenette. Ben moved away, too, pausing when his hand was on the control panel on the opposite wall.

“Laundry droid?” he called out.

“In the bathroom. Right-hand panel,” Arin responded flatly.

The door hissed open to reveal a small bedroom, confirming Rey’s suspicion, and he disappeared into it.

“Who are you?” Arin demanded the moment the door snapped shut behind him.

“I’m Rey,” Rey said. “I’m from Jakku.” She was getting a little bit sick of the question, and groaned internally when she realised that every single person she met from this point on would want to ask it. But what else was there to say that Ben hadn’t already divulged? He had told her that she could trust the Knights, but Rey didn’t want to reveal anything about the connection that bound her to him. It was private. Hers. She hoped he felt the same way.

Arin stalked toward her, folding her arms across her chest. “And how did you come to be here, ‘Rey from Jakku’? You’re clearly not affiliated with the Order.”

“I came for Be-- for Kylo,” Rey said, because it was the truth. Neither of them seemed to know quite what to say after that.

Rey took advantage of the moment of silence to really look at Arin. She was about the same height as Rey. She had similar brown hair, but she wore hers tied up in a single slick ponytail that fell down her back. She had a tiny smattering of freckles, too. In fact, the more Rey looked the more uncomfortably aware she became of the similarities between them. Her eyes were very different, though: they were a light blue colour that was almost grey.

“Come on,” Arin said suddenly. “You need a shower too, and some new clothes.” She began walking to the door that Ben had disappeared through, obviously expecting Rey to follow.

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Rey snapped. They weren’t as fancy as any of the stark First Order uniforms, but they weren’t tattered; when they were clean and neat they would be just fine.

Arin looked over her shoulder, frowning. “You look like a Jedi.”

Chapter Text

Arin rifled through several drawers before handing Rey a few articles of clothing. All black, of course. “This will do for now.”

“Thank you,” Rey said automatically. She turned in a small circle to examine the bedroom. It was impersonal, like the sitting room outside. The walls were bare except for the door they had entered through and another that could only lead to the bathroom.

“What do you do here?” Rey asked.

Arin bristled. When she finally answered it was with a sly caution. “The same thing that Kylo did on the Finalizer.”

Rey didn’t know what role he had played, either, but this was a test, so she nodded as if she did. They stood in silence for a few minutes while Rey fidgeted with the bundle of fabric she had been offered. She refused to break first, but apparently so did Arin.

She almost cried with relief when the bathroom door opened and Ben reappeared, accompanied by a faint mist of steam. She had expected him to take much longer. He took in the awkward scene before him impassively and motioned to her. “Alright, your turn.”

Rey moved stiffly toward him, confused but grateful when he followed her inside and closed the door behind them. He gave her a short demonstration of how the shower and the laundry droid worked. When he was done he turned to her and said “When you get in the shower--”

“I know what to do in there,” Rey grumbled, interrupting him.

Ben nodded, apparently completely unperturbed by her tone. “Yes. If you’ll allow me to finish: when you get in the shower, you can stay as long as you need.”

Oh. She still wasn’t used to this version of him, that was disarmingly thoughtful and considerate of her. A warm shiver ran down her spine, and a chill raced after it. Rey knew, somehow, that there were certain rules and conditions that she needed to follow in order for him to stay this way, but without knowing what they were how could she avoid breaking them?

You didn’t,” Rey said, and her voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “Stay as long you needed, I mean.”

“You’re concerned for me?” His voice was quiet but there was something powerfully earnest in it that compelled her to nod so as not to disappoint him.

“I can wait,” he promised. “Until the two of you are asleep.”

He left, and Rey stripped and stepped into the shower recess, confused. She had thought that he was alone, but there was clearly a friendship between him and Arin, and presumably that included the other Knights. They’re loyal to me, and to each other, he had said. If Ben and Rey had managed to take down Snoke and his guard then the five of them together -- seven, originally -- should not have had any problem doing so. And yet he had waited for her before finally making a move against Snoke. It didn’t make sense. She was missing some crucial piece of the picture.

Suddenly she felt a great sense of urgency. She knew that Ben and Arin would talk about her for as long as she stayed in here. What if he became convinced that Rey wasn’t worth the trouble? The desire to return to them quickly was paradoxically crippling, and she stayed frozen under the warm waterfall for almost half an hour.

When she finally emerged she saw her clothes folded neatly on top of the pile Arin had gifted her. She sorted through them all and decided to mix the old with the new, pairing her pants and boots with a plain black sweater. Her leather belt wrapped around the bare skin of her waist to act as a strut for her lightsaber, which she allowed to hang half-covered by the sweater’s hem. She congratulated herself on her ability to display her weapon without being completely ridiculous about it.

The bedroom was empty when she finally felt brave enough to open the door again. She moved into the sitting area to find Ben seated with Colonel Odai, discussing their course. General Hux was also present, in holographic form. Ben glanced up at her and beckoned her forward; at the same time she saw Arin beckon to her from the archway of the kitchenette. Rey decided that one unknown was better than two, so she moved to Arin.

“Are you hungry?” Arin asked, quietly, to avoid disturbing the conversation. Rey nodded. Arin shocked her by flashing a quick, pretty smile and moving to a small table. There were two matching black chairs, and a third chrome one which had obviously been pulled in from somewhere else. Rey chose one of the black chairs and began helping herself to the food. A platter of breads and cheeses lay in the center of the table, and although the aromas were new and exciting to her she recognised that this was probably a very simple meal by First Order standards, so she declined to comment.

Arin began eating too, shocking Rey again by offering information between bites. “Don’t worry, we’re not missing anything. They’re just discussing the logistics of jumping to Coruscant as quickly as possible while taking on the extra supplies we need.” Rey burned with the desire to know what Ben had said to her to prompt this change in attitude.

“What time is it?” she asked instead.

Arin nodded. “You’re right, it’s late. They’ve extended the day cycle to allow everyone to settle in. Tomorrow will be shorter, to compensate.”

They ate in silence after that. After Rey had sampled every cheese -- from the gooey blues to the flaky pinks -- she decided that a firm yellow one was her favourite, and continued nibbling on it. The conversation behind them died down, and Ben appeared.

“Four guards outside, so be mindful of what you say in the sitting area. They’re Odai’s men, not ours, so we’ll need to sleep in shifts.” He sat and pulled the platter toward him, cutting off a large piece of Rey’s favourite cheese. “Any preferences?”

“I’ll take first,” Arin said, “since I’m the one who hasn’t seen any action today.”

Ben nodded his assent and looked to Rey questioningly.

“I’ll take the next one, then,” she offered, assuming that this was the polite thing to do.

“Settled,” Ben said. “Rey, you sleep in the bedroom until changeover.” His eyes flicked to Arin, as if awaiting her protest. It didn’t come.

As if on cue the lights dimmed to indicate the transition to night cycle.

 



Rey woke a long time later, feeling refreshed. The chronometer on the bedside table indicated that it was close to morning. She frowned. Perhaps Arin’s apparent change in demeanor had been a fluke, and she had decided not to trust Rey with sentry duty.

She pulled on her boots and opened the door, remembering at the last second to run her fingers through her hair a few times to flatten it.

The sitting area was still and quiet. Ben sat on the floor opposite the main entry, legs stretched out before him as they had been on his shuttle, tapping at a datapad on his lap. That meant the lumpy shadow splayed out on the lounge must be Arin.

Ben looked up at her, closing down the datapad’s screen and plunging the room into even more darkness. He opened his mouth to speak, but Rey cut him off before he could get a word out.

“Why didn’t anyone wake me?” she whispered harshly.

He motioned for her to sit beside him, so she did, crossing her arms and legs stubbornly.

“I told Arin to wake me instead,” he said, his voice low. “I wanted to get this over and done with.” He relit the screen briefly to show her a page of text. “What I’ll say when I address the fleet this morning,” he explained.

“Oh,” said Rey. She stretched her legs out to mirror his posture, surprised that she was surprised when her foot only reached halfway down his calf. “I thought maybe you didn’t want me standing guard.”

Ben shook his head forcefully. “No. You’ve earned my trust, Rey. A hundred times over. Arin knows that, too. It’s as I said: I needed some time while you were both asleep.”

Rey nodded, satisfied with the explanation, and they sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes. Ben broke it by adding “and I didn’t expect it to be so quiet. I’m not used to that.”

His tone was almost reverent, and Rey knew he wasn’t talking about the ambient noise. Her heart raced. I see his mind; I know his every intent, Snoke had said. She knew now what it was like to have Snoke inside her own mind, to have every single part of her torn apart and twisted. She could still feel the echoes of it, if she listened for them. How many times had Ben felt that? She wanted desperately to ask him, and she knew that he would answer, but she couldn’t bring herself to break his reprieve.

“How can I earn yours?” he asked, and she was so caught up in her thoughts that she had no idea what he was talking about, and had to ask him what he meant. “Your trust,” he clarified.

“I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “I don’t even know who you are. Two days ago you were this… scary… thing. And you still are. You’re still Kylo Ren.”

“I am,” he said, without hesitation.

“You’ve done bad things. A lot of bad things.”

“I have.”

“But now we’re here, after everything, and we’re… okay. You saved my life. And you’ve been nice.” She couldn’t bring herself to mention the connection between them with Arin in the room, even asleep, but she hoped he understood that she was thinking of it. “I don’t know how the two pieces of you fit together.”

He exhaled, an almost-laugh, and grinned sardonically down at his lap.

“If you figure it out, tell me.”

Suddenly she understood why Luke and Leia and Han had failed. No one could save Ben from the darkness, because he was the darkness, and he was stronger than all of them. But he was also light, and that was just as strong. That’s why Snoke had failed, too. Ben would save himself. No one had ever believed that. Rey decided that she would.

“You’ll tell me first,” she promised him. Then, impulsively, she reached for his hand and pulled it into her lap, sandwiching it between her own. The warm weight of it convinced her that it had been the right thing to do, and she kept her gaze on it, knowing that if she met his eyes she would see the breathtaking intensity she was already so familiar with.

“Okay,” he breathed, so quietly she almost missed it.

Rey had to clear her throat before speaking again. “I’ll watch the door if you want to sleep. There’s maybe half an hour or so.”

He chuckled, and Rey was suddenly profoundly disappointed in herself for not watching his face so she could see it.

“I don’t have a chance in Malachor of falling asleep now.”

Chapter Text

Ben stood center-dais, Colonel Odai to his right, Rey and Arin to his left. One hundred and fifty thousand officers, technicians and Stormtroopers stood to attention on this ship alone. Those who couldn’t fit into the hangar (the biggest empty floor space on the ship) poured through the doors to line the corridors. It was the same on all twenty-six other Destroyers in the First Order fleet. And beyond them this same message was being broadcast to hundreds of billions of beings across the galaxy.

He looked impressive, in all black, as always. Rey had traded in her own clothes for a full black set today, hoping to draw less attention that way. But they were surrounded by cameras at all angles, and she didn’t doubt that her likeness would be captured by many of them. She had never been in a holovideo before, and felt oddly shy at the prospect, even knowing that every pair of eyes would be glued to Ben.

He was eloquent in a different way to Hux. Hux had an uncanny ability to persuade through his sheer force of belief in his own opinions, but Ben was straight and direct, compelling you to hang on to his every word, because it could hold nothing but truth. Rey was once again strongly reminded that he was Leia’s son. She couldn’t help but wonder what Leia would be thinking if she were watching this right now (if she would ever watch it; Rey didn’t even know if she was alive; so many of the Resistance had perished; and what about Finn?). Ben gave a scathing account of the decades of wasteful bureaucracy that the Republic represented to him. He glossed over the manner of their ultimate demise (I didn’t agree with that, Rey remembered him saying), and of Snoke’s, to reach his crux.

“There is only one solution to the endless cycle of war and fragile peace. The Second Galactic Empire will encompass all areas of the mapped galaxy and provide a single code of conduct to be adhered to by all citizens, so that none may encroach upon another again. Non-compliance will not be tolerated. Individual systems will be permitted a certain level of independent rule, at the discretion of the Emperor. Inefficiency and corruption will be detected swiftly and the perpetrators removed from power.

“In the coming standard year we will have three main priorities:

“One: To re-establish Coruscant, the Imperial capital, as the bastion of culture and technology that is its rightful state.

“Two: To remove the scourge of organised crime which runs blatantly rampant through the Outer Rim. This entire region has been wilfully neglected in turn by the Old Republic, the First Empire, and the New Republic. That cycle ends today.

“Three: To bring order and civilisation to the abandoned systems in the Western Reaches; another full sector of the galaxy that previous administrations have ignored in favour of their own interests.

“I, Galactic Emperor Kylo Ren, will be helming these operations. In one year’s time I will address you again to reaffirm the progress that we will begin making today, and inform you of our next set of goals.

“Unity In Strength, Strength In Unity.”

The slogan wasn’t one that Rey had heard before, and she was almost certain that no one else had either, but the assembled crowd roared it back obediently. Ben turned and descended the dais without further acknowledgement of any of them.

“Very suitable words, my lord,” Odai said as their small party filed in behind him. “But, forgive me, are the Western Reaches truly an urgent priority?”

“They are to me,” Ben replied coolly as they moved from the hangar through a marked-off corridor piercing the crowd.

“Wise, my lord,” Odai said, but he didn’t sound truly convinced.

“How much time has this broadcast cost us?” Ben asked.

“A negligible amount, my lord. We have had to slow our progress momentarily to divert power to the broadband systems. Now that transmission is complete we will return to hyperspace for the next jump. I am confident we will reach Coruscant on schedule, in three day cycles’ time.”

“Good,” Ben nodded. “You may return to your duties.”

Odai saluted and peeled off from them gracefully at the next turn of the corridor.

“I hate to say it, but I agree with him. You did well. Firm, but not too harsh,” Arin said approvingly. “And I like that you didn’t even bother to mention Hux at all. I bet his face is the same colour as his hair right now.”

Rey caught her eye and smiled, remembering that she had once thought the same thing of the General. Arin smiled back, even though she couldn’t have known that. She seemed to smile quite a bit, now that she had gotten over whatever had caused her initial aversion to Rey.

“I’m going to get in some training. Care to join? Or does the Emperor have more pressing things to attend to?” Arin teased.

Ben turned to Rey, as if it were her decision to make. When she took a moment to respond he prompted with “I need to reconvene with the COs, and look over some documents.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Rey decided.

They returned to ‘their’ quarters together and Arin changed into a less physically-restrictive outfit before leaving them. The obvious comfort in her movements as she sauntered out the door made Rey miss her own well-worn garments.

“Would it bother you if I wore my old clothes?” she asked. “Arin said they made me look like a Jedi. Which I don’t mind at all, but the rest of your people might.”

“You’re not a Jedi,” Ben replied, sounding bemused by the idea. “You may wear whatever you like. Though I did like that you wore black for the address. It’s a display of unity.”

“Speaking of the address...” Rey began, tentatively, “the part about the Western Reaches… you did that for me.” She curled her toes while awaiting his response, hoping that she hadn’t imagined it.

“I did,” he confirmed.

“I didn’t ask for that,” she said, unsure why she was questioning the gift. It was a good thing.

“No, but it’s what you wanted.” He waited for her to nod before continuing. “I knew. You’ve known what I wanted, too.” With each word his tone became more fervent and he moved a small step closer to her. “Yesterday, when you told me I hadn’t taken enough time to decompress. You knew.” His head cocked to the side and he grinned a little. “And then you tried to tell me that you don’t know who I am.”

“That was just a small thing.”

“Was it?” He looked down at her left hand, and she thought that he would take it, but he didn’t. “What else did you think? Of the things I said?”

It was hard to think anything at all with him standing so near, but she did her best. “It was good. It could be. You could do a lot of good things, Ben.”

“But?” he prompted.

“But… the Empire hurt people. And maybe you’re right, maybe the Republic did too. The galaxy is so big, and it’s so easy for people to be hurt. How do you know that you won’t be just like them, a year from now? That you won’t tell the same lies they told?”

He stepped even closer, and now his face was hovering over hers so that their noses almost touched.

“A year from now you’ll be standing beside me,” he said, and he had lowered his voice, but she could still hear him perfectly clearly; could feel the words fluttering against her own lips. “Truly beside me. You’ll speak too, and it won’t matter if I say bad things, because the things you say will be good.” There was no question behind his words. This was something that he was certain of, and she couldn’t rob him of that, so she nodded.

She was so sure and so terrified that he would kiss her, then, but he simply brushed his fingertips against hers and then stood back from her, looking completely unaffected by the proximity he had imposed upon them.

“And I don’t tell lies,” he added in a tone a little too firm to be called an afterthought. “I need to speak with Hux and the other commanding officers. What will you do?”

Rey considered, forcing herself to take calm, even breaths. “I’ll change clothes. And then I’ll listen. Then I’d like to see whatever training it is that Arin is doing.”

 


 

It turned out that the training routine of a Knight of Ren wasn’t as exciting as Rey would have expected. Arin was meditating when she arrived. She chose a small corner of the room to stretch in, to avoid disturbing her.

They were in a small offshoot of the main drilling hall, and it seemed to have been designed specifically for Arin. The walls were lined with spears and pikes, and multiple training droids -- each of varying height and build -- were crowded into a corner, awaiting orders.

When her meditation was complete Arin nodded to Rey, a little dismissively, and chose a weapon from the wall. She began to run through the motions of a form, very patiently and deliberately, and repeated this several dozen times before switching to a new one.

Rey moved across the room and selected a staff, moving slowly to allow Arin the chance to object. She didn’t pay her any mind, so Rey booted one of the training droids and began to practice against it. Her movements weren’t focused and repetitive, like Arin’s were; she let her instincts take over and switched up her technique whenever it felt right.

“Fancy a spar?” Arin said eventually. Rey nodded, a thrill of excitement running through her. Wordlessly they decided to trade in their weapons for identical poles.

Arin was a lot stronger than she appeared. Every strike she made seemed to be infused with more force than her lean body looked capable of -- and it took Rey far longer than she would ever admit to realise that the other woman was, of course, using the Force to augment her blows. Arin moved with practiced and maintained efficiency, but Rey got the impression that if she spent enough time watching her and learning her preferences that the style would become predictable.

They sprung from a clash that ended in stalemate, and Arin suggested they rest. Rey dropped to the floor gratefully, massaging a cramp out of her right shoulder. A not unpleasant tingle raced through her when her fingers swept over the wound that Ben had healed.

“How long have you known Kylo?” Arin asked, and Rey blushed, as if she had been caught red-handed with her thoughts.

She quickly counted. “Nine days.”

Arin’s head made a tiny, contemplative shake. “You move like him.”

Rey didn’t know how to answer that, so she lay down and began stretching her hamstrings to avoid any chance of eye contact.

“Thanks for the spar,” Arin said after a minute, and her tone was cheerful again. “It’s been a while since I had a new partner. Kylo uses his size too much -- not that I can blame him, but it gets tedious after a while -- and it just isn’t the same with the Troopers.”

“I’ve never sparred with anyone,” Rey admitted, sitting up again to face her.

Arin gaped. “What, never? Who trained you?”

Rey shrugged, a little shyly. “No one. There was no sparring in the desert; only fighting.”

Arin stood and moved to the wall, pressing an invisible panel with her palm to reveal a refrigerated recess stocked with beverages. “Impressive. It explains why -- something to drink? -- why you don’t have a formal routine.”

“Yes, please,” Rey said, gratefully.

Arin chose two bottles and moved back toward her, smiling. Rey was enjoying the atmosphere of casual friendship which was still so new to her, so she kept talking.

“I suppose some of the bandits came around often enough that fighting them became a little bit like sparring, but that wouldn’t have stopped them from taking advantage if they ever got the chance. So it’s always been real. Even with Luke it was a real fight.”

This was the wrong thing to say. Arin froze just as she was about to stretch out a hand to offer the promised drink. Her friendly expression dissolved and Rey was deeply disconcerted to see that she looked terrified.

Luke?”

Rey cursed herself for her carelessness. She couldn’t drop her guard for even three seconds without something going horribly wrong. It was pure dumb luck that none of her conversations with Ben had backfired yet. She put every ounce of strength she had into preventing her eyes from flitting to the exit.

Arin trembled, and Rey couldn’t quite place whether it was fear or rage that made her do so. “So you are a Jedi? I was being facetious...”

“I’m not a Jedi,” Rey said quietly. “He didn’t want to train me.”

“Does Kylo know about this?” Arin demanded.

“Yes. Of course,” Rey confirmed, and was rewarded by Arin’s posture relaxing slightly. The silence that followed was pregnant. “If I had said ‘no’ would you have told him?” she asked, purely to break it, already knowing the answer.

“Yes,” Arin said strongly. “Always. We don’t lie to each other.”

Rey was suddenly tired of feeling like she had done something wrong, and she met Arin’s gaze fiercely. “I haven’t lied, either,” she swore, knowing that it was a lie.

Arin nodded, seeming satisfied. She handed Rey the bottle, and that seemed to signal the end of the frosty air that had fallen between them. They wandered back to their quarters in detente.

“How long were you with Luke?” Arin asked, when they were alone on a long stretch of corridor.

“Three days,” Rey answered.

Arin laughed quietly. “You make friends quickly.”

“Not really. Like I said: we fought.” Rey didn’t offer any further details, and Arin didn’t ask for them. “How long were you with him?” Rey asked after a moment, thinking it was only fair.

“Twelve years. I was seven when I began training,” Arin said. There was an impassivity in her voice that Rey envied, even if it was just an act. She hoped one day she would be able to speak of her thirteen years in the desert so dismissively. What had those twelve years been like, to make Arin so antagonistic toward Luke, even now?

As they approached their wing of the ship the lights began to dim, startling Rey. “Shorter day today, remember?” Arin explained.

The guards parted for them and waved them inside. The sitting area was empty except for the mouth-watering aroma of some sort of roasted meat wafting from the direction of the kitchenette. Through the archway Rey could see four large closed platters stacked on the table, which she knew contained supplies for their meal.

Arin sniffed the air delicately. “Yum. You take first shower; I’ll dish this out, since you handled breakfast.” She moved away without waiting for a reply. Rey was fine with the arrangement, and grateful that she wouldn’t need to repeat the morning’s confusing process of figuring out what each food was and which of them should be paired with each other. It had all been delicious, in the end, but a small part of her missed the simplicity of her single daily meal.

Chapter Text

Rey entered the bedroom, freezing when she saw Ben asleep on the bed. She had assumed that he was somewhere else on board. Her first instinct was to quickly shut the door behind her to conceal his presence; she would wonder about that quite a lot, later. Her second instinct was to kneel beside him and study his face. She would agonise over that for a very long time.

He looked younger, with his face completely relaxed, and he would have seemed peaceful if his eyelids hadn’t been laced with dark circles. Rey remembered how little sleep he had gotten the night before, and wondered how often he got a full night of rest. Her eyes drifted down to where his left hand lolled on the bed, lightly folded around his datapad.

Rey knew, without knowing how, that he hadn’t intended to fall asleep. She saw an impossibly clear vision of him reluctantly moving to the bed, stubbornly deciding that he would just rest his eyes for a few moments. She felt how tired he was. Slowly she watched the hand holding the datapad droop as his breathing evened out. Rey shook her head to clear the image, pretending to believe that it was just her imagination.

She refocused on the real hand in front of her, leisurely moving her gaze up his arm back to his face -- and choked when she saw that his eyes were open, watching her. She sprang to her feet and turned away.

“Sorry,” she stammered, forcing her legs to move. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Dinner’s here. I need to clean up first.” She slammed the bathroom door behind her without looking back, squeezing her eyes shut against the humiliation.

Every shuddering pound of her heart told her that things would become worse with each minute she stayed in here. The only thing to do was to go back out there and face him like nothing had happened. She ripped her clothes off, tossing each item forcefully at the laundry droid, and ran the shower bitingly cold while she scrubbed at her hair and face. When she sat down opposite her companions seven minutes later her still-damp undershirt clung uncomfortably to her back.

Arin had set up three identical plates, each with a sampling of foods, with plenty more of each selection piled in the middle of the table. Rey had never seen any of these things before. She waited for one of the others to begin eating so she could copy whichever utensil they used, but to her horror Arin stood and walked away.

“Start without me, I’ll only be a few minutes.”

“We’ll wait,” Ben said.

Then they were alone. Rey hadn’t predicted this. She made a show of her fascination with a pile of round green vegetables.

“Arin told me you don’t have a training routine,” he said conversationally. Rey was grateful for the casual tone, but she resented it too, because she knew she couldn’t replicate it. She half-nodded, half-shrugged, taking a sip of water.

“When we’re settled on Coruscant we’ll decide on a schedule,” he promised.

“Okay,” she answered meekly.

“Are there any weapons that you’re interested in, other than your li--?”

“I saw you falling asleep,” Rey said suddenly, looking up at him. He frowned but said nothing, obviously waiting for her to continue. “I saw you, asleep, and then I… went back. To when you were falling asleep. I felt what you felt. What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, his eyes darkening and softening as they always did whenever the connection between them was referenced. “But I’ve seen things, too. When you woke up last night--”

The bedroom door hissed open and Rey shook her head frantically in silent plea.

“About time,” Ben said with an exaggerated sigh when Arin had reclaimed her place at the table, and she frowned playfully at him in response. The three of them ate together in a surprisingly comfortable silence. Rey smiled her gratitude to him when she was sure Arin wasn’t looking.

 


 

The next three days passed by fairly uneventfully.

Rey didn’t have any more visions, and was thankful for it. She was less thankful for the fact that she had such difficulty finding a moment alone with Ben to ask him to finish what he had begun telling her. Arin was with them most of the time, or else one of the senior officers, or else there was someone listening in via voice comm.

Ben and Arin spoke with the other Knights. There were two male voices and a female. They had been deployed to other areas of the galaxy; Snoke insisted on them being separated as much as possible. But those orders were moot now, and Ben had recalled them all.

Ryal Ren arrived on Coruscant ahead of their fleet. Ben explained to her, as they waited for a voice transmission to connect, that he was a healer, and had been stationed at a First Order medical facility in the Colonies.

“I don’t know what you were expecting, but you’re not going to find much resistance here,” Ryal’s voice said. He spoke with a slow, drawling accent that Rey couldn’t place. “First Empire flags are already hanging in most windows. The majority of the Coruscanti have been closet Imperialists all this time, waiting for this to happen.”

“I thought so,” Ben said. “The Palace?”

“It’s in good shape,” Ryal reassured. “Being treated as some sort of museum. Shouldn’t take too much work to make liveable.”

“Good,” Ben said, sounding truly pleased. “We should exit in the early morning; if things move smoothly the ‘invasion’ should be done with by the evening.”

“I have to ask,” Ryal began tentatively, “why the hurry? Your big speech is still all anyone is talking about; claiming the capital is going to get diluted in the shadow of it. A few days to let people wonder a bit wouldn’t have been a terrible thing.”

This question had occurred to Rey as well, but she hadn’t asked it, fearing that there was some obvious answer that she had missed.

Ben didn’t hesitate. “The navy built themselves up for battle that didn’t happen. All that energy went unreleased, and that’s a sure way to make the next encounter bloodier than necessary. But now I have an entire fleet of Destroyers that have been packed to over double their capacity for three and a half days. Everyone is desperate to get off these ships and eat something other than dried rations. They’ll make rapid work of whatever needs to be done so they can finally get a break. Quick and clean. If I waited longer their bloodlust would rise again.”

So the answer hadn’t been obvious at all, to anyone but him. Rey spent the rest of the day unable to stop herself smiling at him each time he caught her eye, leaving him looking puzzled but pleased.

They still slept in shifts, though nothing untoward ever happened. Ben made a point of structuring the schedule in a way that meant that he rarely had use of the bed, which seemed unusual for someone who had just proclaimed himself Emperor of the Galaxy. On the final night, however, he indulged himself, and Arin woke Rey in the early hours of the morning to take over her place on the lounge.

Rey set herself up in her usual spot, where she had sat with Ben on the first night, and performed some arm stretches to keep herself alert.

An hour later there was a knock on the door. She moved quickly to answer it with her hand hovering over her lightsaber. Colonel Odai stood on the other side, flanked by the ever-present guards.

“Pardon the disturbance, ma’am,” (that was all anyone ever called her) “but we will be leaving hyperspace shortly to enter orbit over Coruscant.”

She closed the door gently -- Arin was still asleep -- and padded carefully to the bedroom door, wincing when it hissed open loudly in the silence of the night, but still insisting on allowing it to close behind her. She paused in place for a moment, considering how to proceed.

Finally, without having really made a decision, she knelt by the bedside again. “Ben,” she whispered, after allowing herself only a few seconds to look.

His eyes opened instantly. Was he ever truly asleep?

“Odai was here,” she said, not quite sure why she was still whispering. “We’re almost there.”

For a full minute he did and said nothing, simply looking at her, and Rey wondered if he had heard what she said. She was about to repeat herself when he nodded slowly and rose, one hand scrubbing at his face. “We’ll watch from the bridge,” he said, his voice tinged with sleep. He moved to the dresser on the far side of the room and Rey noticed that he had laid out his clothes for the day. Suddenly she realised what an important moment this was for him.

“I’ll wake Arin,” she said, both because it was necessary and to give him some privacy.

Twenty minutes later all three of them had dressed and wolfed down a few mouthfuls of bread. Rey had dressed all in black again, remembering what Ben had said about it creating a sense of unity. His nostrils flared with a deep inhale when he saw her, which she took as an indication that she had chosen correctly.

The elevator door opened onto the bridge. Rey recognised most of the senior officers by now, though her eyes were drawn immediately to General Hux standing tall at the center of the throng. Seeing him in the flesh was jarring; she had begun to think of him as a hologram.

Ben nodded greetings to each of the seniors, and raised a silent hand to the junior officers dotting the room. This was a military campaign, so it was rightfully Hux’s time to do the talking.

Rey ignored his pompous speech in favour of the view. Beyond them all the dazzling streaks of hyperspace flew past. It reminded her of the Falcon, and Chewie, and everyone else, but her tinge of sadness was eased by the knowledge that she had done everything she could for them.

“Come,” Ben said, just to her, and led her to the front of the room to stand in the very middle of the viewport. He stood directly behind her, as if shielding her from the rest of them, and when she lifted her arms to lean against the console in front of her he cradled her elbows with his hands.

The whirl of stars slowed and then disappeared with an almost audible ‘pop’ to reveal her first glimpse of Coruscant. They approached the night side of the planet, and Rey’s eyes darted between the glittering circles of lights that covered the entire disc, joined by lines that extended from them like spokes from a wheel. Each one of those countless twinkles represented one of the fabled Galactic City skyscrapers: spires that extended kilometres into the sky and even further under the planet’s false surface.

“What do you think?” Ben’s voice murmured close to her ear.

“I couldn’t have imagined it,” Rey breathed.

The room continued to buzz behind them, but Rey blocked out the distraction, and she knew Ben did, too. They watched together as they drifted closer to the planet, spiralling lazily into orbit so that they met the dawn. Slowly lights started to wink out on the eastern hemisphere as a growing crescent of reflected sunlight took their place, and millions of people far below them rose to begin a day that would be remembered for a very long time.

“How many people are there?” Rey asked when she saw the fleet tighten around them into formation, signalling the end of her period of quiet observation.

“One trillion,” Ben said. He released her arms and took half a step back from her so she had room to turn to him.

Two million -- a number that her mind had struggled with mere days ago -- sounded paltry in comparison, and Rey felt her first sliver of doubt. How could such a massive obstacle ever be surmounted? She remembered what Ryal had said, about expecting little resistance, and threw all her hope against the thought.

Ben looked unconcerned. He moved back toward the raised platform in the center of the room, and she followed him. He took his place in the center of the small circle and Hux rearranged his own stance to be half a step behind him, on his right hand side. Rey had no choice but to do the same on Ben’s left, and Arin fell in next to her. Moments later the first transports poured from the Destroyers toward the planet’s surface.

They stood that way for hours, and Rey’s legs soon began to stiffen and cramp in protest, but none of her companions wavered and so she stubbornly refused to. Outside their little circle of stillness the bridge was in constant flux, with officers swirling around each other in an awkward dance, calling out names of sectors that had declared for the Empire and passing holopads back and forth between them. At the beginning Hux had called out frequent orders, but as the morning staggered on they became less and less necessary, because it soon became clear that the planet had accepted them.

By midday Ben decided to travel to the surface to officially claim the city. No one counselled against it. He turned to Rey and Arin and indicated they should both accompany him; unnecessarily, because Rey had no intention of being separated from him, and she knew Arin would feel the same.

Before they stepped off the platform Hux locked eyes with Ben and said, in the quietest tone Rey had heard from him: “You were right to do this. Any longer and our men would have been compelled to make a mess of things. Quick and clean.” He spoke completely plainly, as if it were obvious.

Ben nodded, and the two men shared a look that, while not warm, was completely devoid of antagonism. Rey clenched her fists to ward off the shiver that threatened to run through her.

Chapter Text

The Conqueror docked on a large paved field in the Palace Precinct which had obviously been designed with Imperial Destroyers in mind. Thousands of people were lining the pathway from the landing pad to the Palace, some of them waving banners, but most just looking curious. It wasn’t quite an air of celebration. It was as if people were exhausted after waiting for this day to come and no longer had the energy to be overly enthusiastic about it.

Ben paid no mind to any of them. His eyes had locked onto the Palace as soon as it came into view and had left it only by necessity so they could disembark. He walked toward it now with purpose; Rey, Arin, Hux, Odai, and two other COs followed him in a loose arrow formation. The walk gave Rey plenty of time to take in the immense building. It was the largest grounded structure she had ever seen. It wasn’t as tall as the skyscrapers in the background, but it was wide and solid, and if it weren’t for the hundreds of windows and balconies that dotted the face of it she could have believed it was one single gargantuan block of glimmering stone.

They climbed the smooth worn steps and found their path blocked by a man who was stranger than any alien that she had ever encountered, because he appeared so incredibly human-like. His skin was green, but Rey didn’t notice that right away, because she was so entranced by the way his unnaturally bright blue eyes were framed by angular geometric facial tattoos.

He inclined his head and stepped aside to let them pass, falling into step behind Rey at Ben’s right side. “I’ve had some simple supplies brought in already: food, furniture,” he said in a familiar drawl that she recognised: this was Ryal Ren. “Just enough to keep things civilised while you make more permanent arrangements.”

“Thank you,” Ben said without looking back at him. “The Archives?”

“Emptied, unfortunately. But there are plenty of entrances to the mountain -- I say plenty, because I found two without even looking, so there must be more -- and I’m sure we’ll find something stashed away in there.”

They had crossed the terrace now, and Ben reached out to take Rey’s hand as they stepped foot inside the Palace for the first time. She blushed, deliberately staring straight ahead so that she didn’t see anyone’s reaction to this. No one made a sound. She felt Hux’s eyes burning into the back of her head but was unsure how much of the sensation was fuelled by her own paranoia.

The door swung shut behind them and there was a beat when they seemed to be covered by a heavy blanket of silence, but then the eight pairs of footsteps echoed through the empty stone chamber.

Ben turned around to face the assembled party, his right hand crossing over his body to keep hold of Rey’s left one.

“We have a lot of work to do.”

 


 

Ryal led them to a large rectangular chamber three floors up (three floors meant twelve flights of stairs, because every ceiling was at least twenty feet high) and they seated themselves around a bare table. Ben took the head, of course, and the rest filed in on either side. No one dared to sit directly opposite him.

Colonel Odai placed his holopad in the center of the table to project a sprawling map of Coruscant. Ben demonstrated to them how they would divide the planet into three territories during this ‘preliminary phase’. Each of the Colonels would oversee one sector.

“You’ll be reporting directly to me, for now,” Ben said. “Once the regime is secure Grand Marshal Hux will be overseer of the day-to-day business of the City, in addition to his existing military responsibilities.”

The new title made Rey flinch, and opposite her she saw Arin and Ryal exchange a quick glance. Hux appeared smug as ever, completely unsurprised, and Rey realised that this had been discussed beforehand. She hadn’t been with Ben at all times during their journey on the Conqueror, and she knew that he had conversations with the senior officers ad hoc throughout the days, including when she wasn’t present. But Hux and his knowledge were a legitimate threat, and for a moment she was genuinely hurt that Ben had chosen to deal with him alone. On the heel of this thought came the realisation that she had no true reason to expect him to share any of his decisions with her. He hadn’t actually promised her anything. She clasped her hands together so that she couldn’t fidget with her sleeves.

Ben went on to explain that their focus would remain on Coruscant until Lissa Ren and Orax Ren arrived to join them, which may take up to several weeks. At that time they would hold a day of celebration to solidify their position, after which they would expand their view to the rest of the galaxy. Odai spoke up to ask if the Emperor intended to rearrange the existing, informal dividers that defined the galactic regions; Ben answered coldly that he had plans for how they would move forward, but it was not necessary for him to discuss them at this stage.

When Arin opened the chamber door they found the earlier oppressive silence had been replaced with the constant hum of footsteps and chatter, indicating that the rest of the First Order officers were getting settled in. As they filed out of the room Ryal held up a hand to halt them while his other tapped at a commlink. Three BB units rounded the corner and beeped obediently.

“This place is a horror to navigate. The footprint is a square kay -- of course a lot of that is the mountain -- and there are forty-four floors before you reach the spires,” Ryal explained. “I’ve programmed these units with a map to act as guides; we’ll need hundreds of them, when this place is filled again.”

Two of the BBs rolled away with the officers. The third was black and blue with BB-57 inscribed on its headplate. It led Rey and the Knights in the opposite direction to an ‘elevator’, which was in fact an open, levitating platform.

The platform rose far more swiftly than it had a right to, given its lack of safety features, and Rey’s stomach lurched. “Nothing will fall; it’s an electromagnetic tunnel,” Ben said quietly to no one in particular. He sounded like her Ben again, not the cold autocrat that had reached an understanding with Hux.

Feeling more at ease, she turned to Ryal. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand. They had sat opposite each other in the briefing room for over two hours, but there hadn’t been cause for them to interact directly yet.

Ryal locked his bright blue gaze on her and reached out. He didn’t grasp her hand in the customary fashion; rather he laid the flat of his two palms against it, to sandwich it. He pulled her in toward him gently.

“Hello, Rey from Jakku,” he said, his voice sounding very far away.

It was the first time her name had been spoken since the Conqueror had docked. Was he somehow reading her mind? Ben had done it, and that hadn’t been pleasant; Snoke had done it, and that had hurt; but she felt nothing at all right now.

“How?” Rey breathed, and he inclined his head slightly. She felt a faint breeze tickle the skin of her wrist, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away from his strange eyes to inspect further. The tickle spread up her forearm, which was impossible because it was heavily clothed, and she realised that the ‘breeze’ was the Force, and it was emanating from Ryal. Rey wasn’t afraid at all. She felt drawn to him, as if he held the answer to some great secret of the universe that she hadn’t realised she was desperate to find.

Suddenly Arin appeared in Rey’s peripheral vision to grip one of Ryal’s arms and tug it away. “Knock it off, Ry.”

He stepped back from both of them, laughing. Rey’s consciousness returned to the platform, which had stopped moving. She blinked a few times.

I told him about you,” Arin said, exasperated. “I thought you might want to avoid another cold welcome, like the one I gave you. I didn’t realise he’d be even worse. Sorry.”

Ryal was still laughing, and then Rey was too, because he was sweet and infectious. Her giggle broke off when she moved her eyes to Ben’s face and saw that he was watching her, smiling. She had seen soft ‘almost-smiles’ from him over the last few days, but this was a true grin which showed his teeth. She smiled back, feeling her face grow hot.

Together the four of them stepped off the platform and began moving down a wide corridor. BB-57 led them, but it was clear that Ryal already knew this place well. He explained that they were just below the roof, with only the spires continuing above.

He motioned to a door on their left after a few steps. “For Lissa and Orax. I thought it prudent that the rest of us be slightly separated from them.”

“Good call,” Arin said.

Next there was a stretch of wall that was recessed, with an intricate carving spanning a several metre stretch. It took a few seconds for Rey to take in the full image, and when she did she had to hide her surprise, because it was an embellished form of the same symbol that had decorated the floor of the ancient temple on Ahch-To. Beyond this was another door, and Ryal slowed down, motioning to Rey.

“This one is yours. Want to see?”

Rey nodded.

The door appeared heavy, but when she pushed it swung open with ease. The long room behind was empty. Ryal led them across the stone floor to another door which opened onto a similar room containing a simple bed and dresser. A third door to the left led to what he called a ‘primitive’ refresher that he didn’t bother to show them. The only other furnishing was a heavy slate-coloured curtain that covered the entirety of the opposite wall. He drew it back to display a balcony overlooking the city. The Palace was the tallest structure in the Precinct, so they had an impressive sprawling view of the comparatively diminutive structures surrounding them; but in the distance the skyscrapers soared, numerous enough to create a jagged false horizon.

After admiring the view for a few moments they continued the tour. Rey’s door was followed by another long stretch of corridor, but this was bare. The next door was Ben’s.

They entered, revealing that the distance between the two doors was because of the sheer size of this room. It was comparable to the bridge on the Conqueror, and Rey’s imagination filled it in with the officers who had swirled beneath them as they floated above the city. The opposite wall was made of glass, showing them the skyline again. There was a door on the left which lead to a bedroom and balcony, similar to Rey’s; and another on the right which was empty.

Back in the corridor they passed Ben’s expansive chambers to find a sprawling staircase which led to the roof; beyond this were two more doors which Ryal explained lead to Arin’s space and his own, which were more or less identical to Rey’s.

“Guards for all of these,” Ben said. “Your men will do for now.” Then he turned to Rey and said “Come with me.” He took her hand again, tugging gently in the direction they had come. Behind her Rey heard Arin and Ryal begin discussing how best to renovate their new rooms.

Ben led her up the stairwell. They rose to a large circular chamber that made up the base of one of the five spires. The staircase continued upwards, winding around the wall until it disappeared into the ceiling high above them. The room was dotted by archways that were open to the roof.

“What is he?” Rey asked, as they wandered out to the nearest railing. She let go of Ben’s hand to turn in a circle as they walked, taking in the full view. They were directly over their balconies now, facing the dropping sun.

“Ryal? He’s Mirialan. There aren’t very many of them now.”

Rey had never heard of such a thing, but her curiosity had shifted from the Knight to the building, and she leaned over the railing as far as she dared, her feet leaving the floor for a few seconds. Ben reached out to place a steadying hand on her back.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Rey shrugged as best she could in her horizontal position. “Looking.”

“For what?”

“I’ll know when I see it.” She swept her head to either side.

Whatever she was looking for refused to be found. The smooth walls fell away at an angle, making the building appear even larger from this vantage point, but there wasn’t anything of particular interest. Not in the way that she had expected, anyway. The dozens of bare pathways that criss-crossed below her were probably supposed to look stately, but to her they were a homogeneous blur, all washed in amber by the sunset. “Needs more green,” she said absently. She planted her feet back on the floor and decided to try a different strategy, looking out with her feelings, instead, the way that Luke had taught her.

She felt something familiar, and closed her eyes to better focus on it.

The Palace felt like the island, she realised. The entire place was infused with the Force in a way that other areas weren’t. It spiralled up and out in a million different directions, passing through and around every living thing in its path. And there was something under it, like there had been something under the island.

“The mountain,” she said suddenly, opening her eyes. She wasn’t surprised to find Ben watching her.

He nodded fervently. “Exactly.” This was the reason he had brought her here.

She turned around to lean back against the rail, gesturing with her chin for him to continue.

“This was Darth Sidious’ seat of power for thirteen years before my grandfather betrayed him. Before that it was the home of the Jedi Order for millennia. They built the majority of the structure. And before that there was just the mountain that they built around, and the Sith shrine that they desecrated because it was in their way. For thousands and thousands of years the Sith and the Jedi fought over this place, and all of the victors convinced themselves it was the last time the battle would need to be won.”

He finally paused for breath. “But all of them were wrong,” he finished, a bit pathetically, as if he couldn’t bear to complete the thought.

“You might be,” Rey said gently, in answer to his unvoiced question. “But you’re here. The only way for you to fail now is to not try; to think that the choice is already made.”

He smiled again, a real one, and moved forward to take both of her hands. Usually he cupped her palm lightly in his, but now he laced their fingers together before looking back up at her.

“Have you ever dreamed of this place?” His eyes pleaded with her to say yes, but Rey couldn’t fathom why.

“No,” Rey said, her mind going fuzzy at the edges because of his proximity. “I only dreamed of Ahch-To.”

His soft expression sharpened. “What? Ahch-To?”

Rey froze. Why was it that every single time she relaxed for a second she was stung by the reminder of everything that had come before? Did she need to second-guess everything she said for the rest of her life? Did she need to--

Her frantic thoughts were interrupted by Ben’s frustrated sigh. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head as if to clear it before opening them again.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must have misheard you.”

“What?”

“I misheard,” he repeated, firmly. “The wind, maybe. You said you didn’t dream of this place. That’s all.”

Rey’s mind scrabbled to understand. He had once abducted her and invaded her thoughts for this information that he was suddenly so willing to disregard. “Why?” But as the question left her lips she realised she knew why.

He pulled their joined hands to his chest, forcing her to take another step toward him, and leaned down to her before answering. He had hovered over her this way so many times now, always insisted on being so close to her, but this time the thrill that ran through her wasn’t tinged with any fear.

“Because I did dream of this place. Over and over. I dreamed of the five towers, and the libraries, and the Jedi gardens, and the Imperial banners, and the dark mountain underneath it all. And then one day, after years of me begging, Skywalker brought me here and I knew they weren’t mere dreams at all. When I walked through those doors I saw it all again, clearer than I’ve ever seen anything. And I saw today. I saw this exact moment.” His voice wavered, so he paused and swallowed, pursing his upper lip.

“So I didn’t hear what you said, Rey, because if I did it would separate us, and that’s unacceptable to me.”

She untangled her fingers from his and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face into the place where his neck met his collarbone. It was impulsive, but like all of her impulses with him it was apparently a good one, because he slid his own arms around her back and waist to embrace her securely. Rey had been hugged before -- by Leia, Finn, Chewie -- and the simple affection they’d shown her was precious, but this was something else. Ben held her as if the movement of his arms had swept away the entire galaxy, so that every decision she had ever made or ever will make had no meaning whatsoever, and she could stand here like this forever, if she wanted. She had never felt so safe.

She broke away from him simply because she wanted to see his face again. They simultaneously loosened their grip on each other so that her hands rested lightly on his shoulders, and his on her hips.

“I didn’t see that,” he said, looking as though he were trying very hard not to smile.

“Well, now you have.” Rey smiled for both of them.

She waited for him to take the next step, because it was his turn, but he didn’t. His eyes moved away from her to the right, his head turning slightly, and a few seconds later she heard voices floating toward them from the tower. They both dropped their hands reluctantly and Rey moved back a step.

Ryal and Arin appeared, each of them taking a few seconds to look across the entire panorama, as Rey had. Then Ryal approached Ben, looking sly. “So how are we going to celebrate?”

Ben shrugged. “We can worry about the details when the others arrive. A coronation, of course, and a festival throughout the--”

Ryal sighed. “No, your highness, I mean how are we going to celebrate? Us, tonight? On Coruscant.” Rey was struck, not for the first time, by the open and casual air that existed between the Knights. She hadn’t expected that at all. It didn’t feel all that different from the friendships she had observed at the Resistance base during the few days she had spent there.

“I’m sure you’ve already decided,” Ben said, sounding sceptical. “But whatever it is, I won’t be participating. It wouldn’t do well for me to be seen galliva--”

“Okay grandpa,” Ryal interrupted flatly, as though he expected exactly this answer. He turned to Rey instead. “Rey, you won’t be completely boring, will you?”

Rey felt drawn to him as she had before, but she felt no hint of the Force around them this time. She caught Arin’s eye, and the woman looked a lot more sensible about the whole thing than Ryal did, but she gave an encouraging nod.

“Okay,” Rey said. “It’d be nice to see more of the city.”

Ryal threw a green arm around her shoulders and lead her back to the stairs, talking animatedly to her and Arin about a ‘fusion restaurant’ he had been hearing about. Rey didn’t know what that meant, but she nodded along. She looked back to see Ben standing against the railing where she had leaned over, the sunset behind him outlining him in gold.

Chapter Text

Rey sat obediently before the mirror in Arin’s bathroom, which was far from ‘primitive’, by her standards. Arin had given her a fitted dress which covered her arms and neck, but stopped just above her knees. Rey had never worn anything like it, but she pretended to be unaffected by the odd sensation of having her legs bare. Arin poured salt into the wound by selecting fitted trousers for herself.

All black, as was customary.

Arin had combed out Rey’s hair, which had sent delicious tingles racing from her scalp down to her toes, and was now braiding sections of it with almost-painful precision. Every minute or so the reflections of their eyes would meet and Arin would give her a little smile.

“What did Be-- Kylo say to you, to make you stop hating me?” Rey asked after wondering for the millionth time.

Arin paused with a lock of Rey’s hair pulled taut between her fingers. “That’s a very strong word. I didn’t hate you. If I did, you would know.” The firm tone and the sting on her scalp told Rey that she knew what it was like to truly hate someone.

Do you hate Luke? she wanted to ask, but she ignored the instinct, because each time she thought of him he almost ruined everything.

Arin continued with a lighter voice. “Kylo told me that you were an ally. That you’d made sacrifices to stand by his side, and that he trusted you with his life.” The words seemed honest, but Rey had the feeling that there was more that she left unsaid.

“And what else?”

“He didn’t tell me anything else.” Another technical honesty.

Rey took a deep breath in preparation, taking care not to move her head too much. “I didn’t expect you all to be like this. Friendly. Telling jokes; making fun of him.”

The two braids were completed now, and Arin focused on twisting them around each other and pinning them up as she spoke. “We’ve been through a lot together. The boys are tall and strong now, but I have a lot of memories of them being skinny and pimply. That makes it hard to take them seriously all the time.” She must be seeing one of those memories now, because she smiled indulgently to herself before meeting Rey’s eyes in the mirror again. “And you’ve happened to come along when we’re all feeling extra fortunate. It hasn’t been like this for a long time. I can’t remember the last time Ryal was allowed to leave the treatment center.

“Do you miss your friends?” she asked after Rey failed to respond.

“Yes,” Rey said wistfully. “But it wasn’t like it is for you. I only knew them for a few days.”

Arin chuckled, shaking her head in disbelief. “Of course you did.”

It began to make sense to Rey, then, because she had already spent far more time with Arin than she had with Finn. She missed him so much after such a short friendship; how would she have felt about him if she had known him since she was a child? How could the Knights ever stand to be out of each other’s sight, even for a second? Rey swallowed a surge of bitter jealousy as she realised that no one would ever smile fondly when they pictured her in her awkward adolescent phase, because no one had cared enough to notice.

“Done!” Arin said proudly. “Do you like it?”

“I do,” said Rey, though truly she felt indifferent toward it. It had taken a long time, and she still looked like herself. “Can I do yours?” she asked, curious what it would feel like.

“That’s how this works.” They traded places and Rey began to comb out Arin’s long hair and work it into three buns: the only hairstyle she knew. The extra length of hair made the buns fuller and fluffier than they ever were on Rey’s head.

Arin smiled delightedly when she turned her face to either side to examine the finished product. “I adore it. This is nice, you know. Frivolous, obviously, but it’s been ages since I had another woman to be silly with. Or the time.”

“What about -- your friend?” Rey wasn’t sure which name belonged to the other female Knight.

“I haven’t seen Lissa in a year. Anyway, she isn’t really into this ‘girly’ stuff,” Arin explained. Rey didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wasn’t really into it, either.

They met Ryal in another large empty room on their floor which he had decided would be a communal living area for just them. Rey started in surprise when she saw him, because it was the first time in days that she had seen someone wearing a colour. His plain black slacks were paired with a light blue shirt that contrasted oddly with his green skin. Rey had the distinct feeling that if the combination were seen on any other person it would be hard to look at, but she felt drawn to him as she had earlier.

He took in the two of them with a smile. “Arin: wonderful. Rey: delightful.”

“Ryal: looking like a couple of lightsabers vomited on him,” Arin said.

He shrugged nonchalantly. “We’ll see who turns more heads tonight.”

Arin laughed. “You, of course, but you have a certain advantage. No one can help looking at you.”

“You mean other people feel that, too?” Rey blurted out.

He smiled at her. “I’m a healer,” he said simply. She had already been told this, but she didn’t know what made it an answer to her question.

He explained further during dinner. It turned out that ‘fusion restaurant’ referred to a fusion of different cuisines, and had nothing at all to do with hyperdrive engines, as Rey had begun to speculate. The appeal of the concept was lost on her; she didn’t know where any of the many tiny plates of food hailed from to begin with.

Over the course of the meal she learned that all Force-sensitives had some capacity for healing, which leant them the ability to recover more quickly and easily from injuries, but it was exceptionally difficult to project this energy outward to assist someone or something else. It became easier if you felt a particularly strong affinity for the target. Healers were rare, but they felt a unique connection to everyone which was often reciprocated, allowing them to channel the healing frequencies of the Force with the same ease that saber specialists channeled frequencies that augmented their reflexes.

Rey’s hand strayed to her right shoulder often as the night went on. I’ve never done this before, he had said. Her little secret made her feel giddy, so when they traded in the restaurant for a loud, sticky-looking nightclub she happily tasted every drink that was offered to her. Her favourite was a fluorescent purple one that was smoking lightly when it was delivered to them. Ryal ordered several rounds of it after she expressed her delight, and she drank hers faster each time.

“So, Rey. Rey: that’s nice, by the way. So, Rey, now that you’re happy you need to tell us. What” (he reached out to poke her nose, and they both chortled) “is the deal with you and Kylo?”

Rey shook her head emphatically. “Ben. I call him Ben. I like the way it sounds. Bennnn.” She dragged the consonant out for a few seconds before dissolving into a fit of giggles, and the others joined her, their three heads bumping together over the small table. It was this small intimacy that made her decide she would tell them.

She leaned back from them to sit up straight, speaking with as much dignity as she could muster. “Okay, you know to want… you want to know what the deal? What our deal? I’ll tell you! Right now!” She gripped Ryal’s shoulder in her left hand and Arin’s in her right, and they huddled in expectantly.

“I… do not... have... a bloggin’s idea, and neither does he!” She had intended to whisper conspiratorially, but her voice rose with each word so that the statement ended on a shriek. She was rewarded when her companions threw their heads back, laughing uproariously.

They all had tears in their eyes when they calmed down several minutes later.

When they had entered the club Rey had decided against dancing, because she didn’t know how, but suddenly it seemed like an excellent idea. She turned half-around on her stool to examine the throng of bodies on the dancefloor and convince herself she could keep up with them before making a formal suggestion. She had only intended to take a little peek, but the steady thrum of their movements was mesmerising, and she watched for several minutes, only half-listening to the conversation at the table.

Ryal had apparently moved his attention to ‘the deal’ with Arin and a name that was unfamiliar.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “He was a boring lump, and I knew you’d get rid of him. But tell the truth. He was an amazing kisser, right? I could tell just by looking.”

“I’m not telling you anything, you pervert,” Arin slurred.

“I’m not asking for details, just a conmir -- confirmation. Okay, who was best: Jax, Tarion, or Kylo?”

The pleasant fog in Rey’s mind disappeared as if it had been sucked away by the vacuum of space. Slowly she turned back to face them, her heart pounding.

Or Kylo. This was why he hadn’t kissed her that day on the Conqueror, or today on the roof.

Arin was practically doubled over the table with laughter. “Tarion? Are you kidding me, Ry? That was a complete fiasco!” The two continued to tease each other for a few minutes about nothing in particular.

They didn’t mention him again, as if the reference Ryal had dropped was completely inconsequential, and Rey was both relieved and furious. Eventually they noticed her silence and turned to her with concerned, but happy, faces.

“I don’t feel well,” Rey said, truthfully.

This had a sobering effect. “Hold the table, Ry,” Arin said, and stood up to take Rey’s hand. They stumbled against each other a few times as they made their way to the bathroom. Arin giggled each time, but Rey didn’t.

Arin pushed Rey ahead of her into a stall and closed the door behind them. She ripped a few paper towels from the dispenser and began fanning Rey’s face. “Sorry, we should have slowed down. You’ll be fine. Nice deep breaths.”

Earlier in the evening she would have basked in this attention, it still being so new to her; but right now it felt suffocating, and Rey decided she truly did feel nauseous.

“I’m fine, I just to -- I want to go…” Go where? Home? She didn’t have one. She had been stupid to think that anything could be hers. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks and she scrubbed them away mercilessly.

“Oh, shit, he’s gonna kill me. Okay, we’re going, let’s go.”

The ride back to the Palace was mercifully subdued, but Ryal and Arin began to giggle again quietly when they entered the dark, expansive atrium. The three of them stumbled along trying and failing not to break the silence. Finally they reached the row of levitating platforms that would take them back up to their rooms. Rey’s stomach lurched with the mere memory of the last journey, and she knew she couldn’t possibly tolerate it now.

“No, I need a minute.”

Arin wrapped an arm around Rey’s waist and pressed their sides together, cooing supportively. “You’ll be okay. We’re almost home.”

Rey suddenly knew what a blind idiot she had been. Of course he kissed her. She was pretty and strong and fun and nice. And Ben was Ben. And they had known each other their entire lives. Since he was ‘skinny and pimply’, but Rey couldn’t even begin to imagine such a thing, because she’d only known him as tall and deep and imposing. She’d only known him after, but these people had known him before, and so she would never truly be one of them, no matter how much they played with her hair and told her jokes and showed her golden sunsets.

She pulled away, her mind running through everything she had ever said to any of them and hating it all.

“I need a minute alone. You two go.” They both reached for her then, not understanding. She pulled away again. “Please,” she said. Finally they left her.

Her thoughts churned as turbulently as her stomach. She felt unhappy, and that was new to her, because to be unhappy you first had to know what the opposite felt like. She had been happy on the roof, so she had decided she wanted more and more, selfishly. Finn hadn’t been selfish, and that was why she missed him so much. He was a good friend; she would have to try to be one, too, even if it couldn’t ever be the same.

She sat on the cold stone floor, overwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was soothing. She could manage the journey this way. She scooted slowly to the next platform and had arranged herself carefully in the middle of it with her legs stretched out in front of her before realising that she didn’t know what came next.

“Forty-four, please,” she whispered uncertainly.

Nothing happened.

“Up. Go. I’m ready. Let’s do it, pal.” She gave the platform an encouraging pat.

Nothing happened. Even the building itself recognised that she didn’t belong there. She gave up and stared down at her lap, because there wasn’t much else to do.

“Where are you?” Ben’s voice said.

She lifted her head to see him lying on the floor in front of her, completely inexplicably. She didn’t have the mental energy to even begin to process what he thought he was doing.

“I’m on the floor with you,” she said, rather helpfully, she thought.

“I’m in bed, Rey.”

Somewhere in the back of her mind she understood, but the knowledge kept passing through her conscious thoughts like water through her fingers.

“Where are you?” he repeated.

“I can’t make it go,” she snivelled, because that was the only way to describe the enormity of everything she was feeling.

He stood and drew a robe from thin air, like a magician, pulling it around his bare shoulders. “Stay right there,” he said, and walked away, leaving her alone. That seemed like a fitting end to the night.

She drew her knees up to her chest and hugged herself, thinking of the loud repetitive music of the club, and was suddenly impossibly sad that she had never gotten to try dancing. The pounding beat that she imagined morphed into a rhythmic whooshing. The platform that Ryal and Arin had used was returning. Ben was on it, somehow, even though he had walked the opposite way just a moment ago.

He stepped over to her and suddenly they were ascending.

“How did you do that?!”

“I’ll show you in the morning.”

The swift flight wasn’t as nauseating as she had expected, and she relaxed her knees to stretch her legs out again. She leaned back on her hands, wanting to lay down fully but knowing that it would be too difficult to get up again. Suddenly Ben’s hand was in front of her face. She watched it, waiting to see what it would do next.

She heard him sigh, and then she was ascending again, but this time her body left the platform and there was something warm against her back and under her legs and then firm against her side. She saw the base of his neck, where she had pressed her face earlier, when everything had been golden, and her mind finally caught up and told her that the warm thing was Ben.

The warm thing transformed into a soft thing.

“This is my bed,” she said, with wonder.

“Yes.” He sat on the edge, looking down at her.

“You have one, too.”

“Yes.”

“You have lots of things.”

“I do.”

“You didn’t mind when I hugged you,” she reminded him, because his eyes were soft now like they had been then.

“No, I didn’t mind, kira.”

This cheered her considerably. “So that was okay.”

He grinned, as if she had said something funny, even though she was more serious than she’d ever been. “That was okay.”

“Well, good. That’s all I want then. Nothing else,” she said firmly, to convince both of them that she wasn’t selfish at all.

The grin faded. “Alright,” he said softly.

It was quiet after that. She knew there was something that was supposed to happen, but she just couldn’t remember. “Now what?” she was forced to ask eventually.

“Now you go to sleep, Rey. Goodnight.”

Of course. What a strange thing to forget. She closed her eyes obediently. “Okay. Goodnight.”

She felt the bed bounce lightly as his weight left it and heard the door sweep shut behind him.

Chapter Text

“You missed breakfast. How are you feeling?”

“Bad,” Rey admitted.

The common room had been bare yesterday evening, but now it was furnished with a large round table, six high-backed chairs, and a few empty bookcases. A long narrow shelf pushed against the wall abutting the doorway displayed drinks and an arrangement of food.

Ben sat at the table perusing a holographic map of Coruscant similar to the one they had seen the day before, but this one was addended with swathes of text that he enlarged and minimised as he flicked through the city.

Ryal had been standing by the window holding up different swatches of fabric to the light and studying them intently. He paused momentarily to continue addressing her.

“Have some water. A lot of water. And then try to forget this feeling so you don’t turn me down the next time I suggest a night out.” He looked and sounded as fresh as ever, though Rey knew for a fact he had been as intoxicated as herself when she had last seen him.

She helped herself to a glass of water and a round blue fruit and sat at the table opposite Ben. When she was settled in he powered down the holopad and the city flickered out of existence.

“Good morning,” he said.

Her head spun. “Hi.”

“Arin is setting up a training area for us. Later, if you feel well enough, I’d like to show you.”

Rey nodded, fidgeting under the table. “What should I do until then?”

“What would you like to do?” he asked.

She looked around the room, hoping an answer would become apparent to her.

Ben cleared his throat. Ryal suddenly turned and left the room, moving with small quick footsteps.

“Why did you make him leave?” she wondered aloud after the door closed behind him.

“So you would speak to me freely,” Ben said.

Rey frowned. “I speak to them.”

“Not the same way.”

She blushed, and didn’t quite know why. “Well, I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t even know what the options are.”

He reached down to engage his holopad again and brought up another map. “Come closer,” he said, and she leaned forward across the table. The size of it meant they were still separated by several feet. He raised his eyebrows at her ineffectual movement and nodded to indicate the chair closest to him.

As she stood to walk around the table the chair slid silently across the floor so that it was directly next to his. She blushed harder as she sat down, waiting for the headrush that she always felt when he was this close. In her peripheral vision she could see him looking at her, but couldn’t make out his expression. When she finally made eye contact again he looked concerned. “It’s alright, Rey,” he said gently. “I understand. I want to show you certain details. That’s all.”

She didn’t understand what it was he thought he understood, but she assumed that he was correct in whatever he was thinking, because so often he truly was able to decipher exactly what she meant. She remembered him coming to find her on the platform the night before and felt her heart skip a beat. “Okay,” she agreed.

This map showed the entire galaxy. There were markings and addenda on this one too, the most striking of which were the thick lines which ran through, dividing it into five segments.

“This is how I plan to arrange things,” he said, flicking his fingers so that the galaxy swirled before them. It slowed to a stop when the segment outlined in green was closest to them. Above it hung the word ‘Rey’.

“You’re naming it after me?” That was strange, she thought, but sweet.

“No. It’s a marker, not a label. This is the Western Reaches.” He indicated the true label, below her name.

Her eyes widened in understanding. “You’re giving it to me?”

“Do you want something different?” he asked, lightly, as if it would be a simple exchange.

She shook her head, and felt her stomach shake along with it, bringing back a wave of nausea that she had thought had been cured by sleep. “What do I do with it?”

“Rule it.”

She ripped her eyes from it to gape at him. “How?”

“I’ll help you.” The intensity of his tone was familiar, and she expected him to lean over her as always, but he didn’t.

She felt betrayed. “I don’t think--”

“I do. I’m going to have to come down on these planets with a very firm hand, Rey. Your goodness will temper it, for the few people who deserve a softer touch.” He lowered his voice so it was barely above a whisper. “They’ll adore you.”

She turned back to the galaxy, rolling everything over in her mind. It was so incredibly unfair that she was the one who would be sent away, after everything.

“I don’t want it,” she said, finally.

Everything was quiet and still, and then her attention was caught by his finger tapping a quick rhythm against the table. It was the first time she had ever seen him fidget. “Is there any particular reason?” His voice was strained.

Her face burned. “I don’t want to go back there. I want to stay here with you. I thought that’s what you meant, or I wouldn’t have come.”

His hand froze, then surprised her by reaching up to lay against her cheek, gently turning her face back toward him. “I would never send you away,” he said earnestly. He released her, slowly, making sure she kept her eyes on him. “You’ll need to visit your territories from time to time -- all of you -- but we’ll stay here together.”

“Why is it taking the others so long?” she asked, feeling overwhelmed and needing a change of subject to calm her swirling thoughts. “Where could they be that it’s taking them weeks to get here?”

“They’re on Ord Mantell. Mid Rim. The distance isn’t the issue: Lissa is about to give birth. They don’t want to risk hyperspace travel until she’s delivered.”

“They’re married?” She shouldn’t be so surprised, now that she knew them all a little better. Ben nodded in confirmation. “That’s why Ryal separated their room from the rest of ours,” she realised. It was a statement, not a question, and he recognised that he didn’t need to nod again.

After she fell silent he continued as if she hadn’t derailed the conversation, spinning the map slowly as he indicated each region. “I haven’t deviated very far from traditional classifications. The Core Worlds and Colonies.” Ryal’s name was indicated above these. “The Inner Rim and Expansion Region.” Arin. “The Mid Rim.” Lissa. “And the Outer Rim.” Orax.

“The Outer Rim is so big,” Rey exclaimed. One person alone couldn’t possibly know everything that happened out there. That’s why controlling the region had been impossible for millennia.

“He won’t be alone,” Ben reassured her, though she hadn’t expressed her concerns aloud. “None of you will: you’ll all have teams working beneath you, and me to guide you. And Hux will be leading his forces to the Outer Rim shortly. I expect him to be there for some time.”

The reminder of him was unpleasant. “To be there doing what, exactly?”

“Bringing order.”

Rey swallowed. “How?”

“By whatever means I deem necessary.” He sounded more like the Emperor now, and Rey couldn’t help squirming a little to readjust her position. “I haven’t planned everything yet. When I do you’ll be the first to know, just as you were with this.”

Rey heard his words but didn’t register them straight away. She found herself suddenly and intensely aware of the scar that split his face. The scar that she had given him, in the forest, when she had called him a monster. She had truly believed it not so long ago. He himself believed it. And what had he done, really, to disprove the notion? He had been kind to her, Rey, but she was just one person out of the billions and billions in the galaxy.

“Why did you show me first? You’ve known the others longer, and they… you all... care about each other a lot. I just got here.”

He watched her for a long silent moment before responding. “The reason I chose this particular moment was so you knew what your options are.” Rey detected the same technical honesty that Arin had used the evening before, and wondered if this was a trait they all shared.

 


 

Knowing her options, she chose to spend the day with him. Later she would reflect that she would have made this decision regardless of what else she was offered, in spite of the scar. They went to his chambers (which had also been quickly furnished overnight to allow them to serve as an audience room and office) and he spent the morning reading and writing, with frequent commlink interruptions from the senior officers. He made an obvious effort to explain to her what he was doing, but there were long stretches when he was silent and focused, and although Rey enjoyed watching him she realised she would need to find another way to fill her time and make herself useful. “You’ll find something,” he promised her when he noticed her restlessness.

They saw the Knights briefly in the early afternoon. Ryal handed her a commlink with a small display screen, explaining that they each had one and the channels were fully secure. After the four of them had lunch in another large room on their floor -- the eventual dining room, Ryal said -- Ben and Rey travelled down to level three to meet with Hux. It turned out that the levitating platforms were operated by completely ordinary control panels on the wall behind them. Rey blushed furiously when Ben showed this to her, his face devoid of expression.

They waited for a few minutes in the briefing room, and she took the opportunity to ask him about his homeworld, having wanted to do so since she learned its name. He told her the cities were similar to Coruscant, only on a much smaller scale, and the rest of the planet was green and blue. Rey told him that there were no cities on Jakku, and everything was yellow and brown; and she liked the way that he listened intently even though he already knew all of it.

She was bitterly disappointed when a junior officer opened the door to announce Hux’s arrival. But her spirits were buoyed again when he finally appeared, because his face revealed that he had not expected Rey’s presence and was disconcerted by it.

“I had thought we might speak alone,” Hux began.

“We are alone,” Ben said mildly, gesturing to the otherwise empty room.

Hux’s lips twisted. “Very well.” He sat down at the side of the table, leaving a seat between him and the head so he wasn’t directly opposite Rey. He turned to Ben and began to report on the goings-on in the city over the last day. There were several pockets that had seen some skirmishes overnight, but no casualties. Otherwise it was an ordinary, unseemly night on Coruscant.

Ben allowed him to continue for several minutes before interrupting firmly. “I read the briefings this morning, as well. Is there any information you have for me that I am unable to readily obtain for myself?”

To his credit, Hux didn’t flush the way anyone else would have. “Not at this stage, my lord. However, accessible as the information may be to you, you may want to allow me to filter out the trifles for you so that you might have more time for other pursuits.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Ben turned to Rey. “Do you have anything to address?”

I could address his obnoxiousness. She shook her head. “No.”

“Then we’re done,” Ben said. Hux waited half a minute before rising to his feet, saluting, and leaving.

Ben’s shoulders dropped when the door closed behind him. He turned to her, looking apologetic. “I know I said I’d show you the training room, but I need to make a few holocalls. You can stay, of course, always, but I don’t think you’ll find it particularly interesting.”

She didn’t know what had happened that was significant enough to change his plans. There actually was something else that she was interested in doing, but she worried it would seem petty and insignificant in the face of everything. She fidgeted under the table. “Well, I was thinking… If I’m staying… then that room is mine… and I could change it? Like the others are?” He didn’t respond to question, except to twitch the corners of his mouth, so she continued. “And, I was thinking--”

“It needs more green?” he interrupted. His words fell out just a little too quickly, as they sometimes did, when he was saying something he had been waiting to say.

Rey nodded, because that was exactly what she had been thinking.

He swallowed, pursing his upper lip. “Well, why don’t you go back to your room and look? Then you can decide how you want it to be.”

The words seemed to make sense, so it was only after leaving him that she realised it probably wasn’t the most practical advice. After successfully navigating the elevator controls she decided that Ryal would be the one to talk to about this. She nodded shyly to the guards outside her door and walked past her still-empty sitting area to her bedroom. She had left the sheets carelessly rumpled, but someone or something had since come and straightened the bedclothes. Otherwise everything was as she had left it.

She sat on her bed and looked around at the high, bare walls and the dull curtain that she hadn’t bothered to pull back since the tour. The curtain would be the first thing to change, and that thought helped her piece together exactly what Ryal had been doing in the common room that morning. She walked over to the wall to mimic his movements, lifting a section of the fabric and pulling it back so she could hold it to the light that streamed in behind it; and then she froze, because behind the curtain her balcony was green.

Rey toed off her boots excitedly and walked out onto the grass that lay impudently over the once bare stone, entranced by the soft, damp feeling of it under her feet. Lined up against the three outer sides (she noticed for the first time that a railing to the right was all that separated Ben’s bare balcony from hers) were dozens of potted plants of varying sizes and shapes and shades of green. She spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the grass studying each of them and imagining what they might be named. As the sun began to set she was interrupted by a hoverdroid peeling back the curtain and floating around the perimeter to water the leaves of each plant. “Hello,” Rey said to it, and it beeped pleasantly.

The fourth side of her little garden was made up of the Palace wall, of course, and that had changed too. It was covered in rows and rows of delicate-looking shelves made of intricately woven metal colour-matched to the stone wall.

When the hoverdroid had attended to each of the plants and lightly spritzed the grass floor it reached into one of its internal compartments and pulled out another pot. This was one was smaller, and sprouting from it were several deep purple flowers speckled with white. The droid placed them carefully on a wall shelf and left without saying anything.

Rey practically ran the short distance to the flowers and was delighted to find a small, neatly-typed card displayed with them.

Inisa: a flower native to the Cerean system. Its beauty is so admired by the Cereans that many of them name their daughters in its honour.

She lifted the bouquet to inhale its sweet scent before replacing it on the shelf reverently. Then, after a great deal of deliberation and lip-biting, she pulled out her commlink to tap a message to Ben which said simply ‘Thank you.’ She stared at the screen for a few seconds after it sent, but nothing happened, and she reluctantly placed it back in her pocket.

Seconds later the device chirruped, and she hopped in excitement before seeing that it was only Arin informing everyone that dinner had been delivered to their dining room. Rey supposed that it would be ungrateful of her to be disappointed, so she decided she wasn’t.

Chapter Text

Ben didn’t join them for dinner, despite having told her that he would before she had left him. This pattern continued for a month.

She saw him at breakfast each day, and for the first week he would promise to train her in the same breath that he used to apologise for failing to do so the day before. The promises turned into ‘time permittings’ and then into ‘maybe sometime soons’. He always looked tired.

Sometimes the Force would bring him to her, just for a few moments, and he would smile, but that was usually all, because it was rare that both of them were alone.

Lissa and Orax arrived at the beginning of the third week. She was a tiny waif of a thing with short blonde hair, and he was almost as tall as Ben, with black hair and matching almond-shaped eyes. Neither of them showed Rey the same warmth that Arin or Ryal did, being too caught up in their newborn daughter, Chali (who Rey learned in whispers was named for Chali Ren: the Knight who had died, and who had been Orax’s twin sister).

On the day of their arrival Ben spent time with all of them and announced that the coronation and official beginning of the Empire’s reign would happen on the first day of the Coruscanti summer, several weeks in the future. Each of them would have a part to play. This excited her, because maybe things would begin to change after that, but he still didn’t stay for dinner.

None of the others seemed concerned or surprised by Ben’s newfound penchant for solitude, because in fact it wasn’t newfound at all. Arin advised her during one of their daily walks through the mountain that there was no point in any of them approaching him until he decided he needed their help. If the advice had come from anyone other than her Rey might have been inclined to ignore it, but she felt it important not to overstep whatever boundary existed between the three of them, so she acquiesced.

Arin seemed convinced that the mornings she and Rey spent exploring the caverns beneath the Palace were the most important thing the two of them could contribute at the moment. Rey didn’t argue, because she liked their adventures, and the way that Arin was impressed with her climbing ability. Their searches never turned up anything of importance, but the chatter that filled them was nice. Rey learned by accident that Arin’s real name was Tanja, and was embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to her that the rest of the Knights went by pseudonyms.

Several days later, while helping him decide where to hang a banner in the dining room, Rey asked Ryal timidly what his real name was. “Lio Unduli,” he replied immediately, and then in response to her surprised look explained “They’re not a secret. We use our Ren names out of habit, for Kylo’s sake. Snoke wouldn’t allow anyone to use his birth name.”

But Snoke was dead, and Ben Solo still told the galaxy that his name was Kylo Ren.

The hoverdroid visited her little garden twice a day to water the plants, and every afternoon would add another flower to the wall with another neat card explaining where it was from. This was her favourite part of the day, because the flowers themselves were precious, and the fact that they were from Ben even moreso. Rey spent most of her afternoons laying on the grass in the sun with her holopad propped in front of her, reading about Galactic City, and the planets of the Western Reaches that she would soon be responsible for, and, occasionally, silly little fairytales about princesses with long flowing hair that went on grand adventures to fight for truth and beauty.

One morning, when there were thirty-six flowers on the wall, she paused after breakfast to chat amiably to the guards that flanked her door. There were two on each shift, so six in total, and Rey made a point to ask one of them a question each day, because their job seemed so terribly dull. Her attention wavered from the conversation when the door to Ben’s chambers opened and Grand Marshal Hux strode out, heading in her direction. She had only glimpsed him a handful of times since the day she attended his very short briefing with Ben.

Immediately she cut her conversation short and walked toward the elevators, hoping she would have time to begin her descent before he caught up to her. She was not so fortunate.

They stood at opposite ends of the platform, refusing to look at each other. He shocked her by speaking.

“Things are going well in the city,” he began, in a casual tone that made her skin prickle. She didn’t respond.

“Rather, they’re going well as they were before, I suppose,” he continued in a voice heavy with false contemplation. “Very unfortunate that we have yet to consider a strategy to aid the alarming number of displaced persons.”

“What do you mean?” Rey finally asked.

“Five hundred million homeless. And the number always rising. Tragic. But what is there to be done?”

They had reached the fifth level -- Rey’s destination -- and she stepped off the platform without looking at him or speaking again. When she was certain he had continued on she immediately turned to travel back up to the forty-fourth floor.

Ben smiled at her when she walked through the door his assistant opened for her. The sight was almost enough to calm her roiling stomach.

He rose to greet her. “I wasn’t expec--”

“Is it true that there are five hundred million homeless people in this city?” she interrupted, not caring about the pleasantries.

He shrugged. “True figures are impossible to ascertain, but yes, that’s a reasonable estimate.”

“A ‘reasonable estimate’? There’s nothing reasonable about it!”

Something in her voice must have made him decide to take her seriously, because he walked around his desk to stand before her, just outside of arm’s reach.

“Rey,” he said in a tone meant to soothe her, “I know the absolute number sounds unpalatable. But consider the population -- over one trillion -- and you’ll see that in comparison to many other major cities on Core Worlds the degree of poverty here really is quite reasonable.”

She absolutely hated how calm he was, and the way that she wanted to cry, and the fact that this was already the longest conversation she had had with him in weeks.

“It’s not fair,” she declared. “Not even a little. The majority of this place is completely empty; how can you possibly justify that when there are people out there on the streets, with nothing. Ben--”

But she broke off when she realised wasn’t speaking to Ben. She was speaking to the Emperor.

“It’s not a priority, Rey.”

She waited for him to continue, but he didn’t seem to think it was necessary, so she glared instead.

“I can’t believe you don’t care at all. Even Hux seemed to care a little, and he’s a complete sleemo.”

For the briefest moment he looked panicked, but then his face twisted with anger and his voice rose dangerously. “And did you take a moment to think why Hux was presenting you with these figures? What he could possibly have to gain? Or did you follow your first impulse and march up here to blame me for a problem that I didn’t create? He knew you would distract me with this!”

Rey bit her lip to crush the sob that tried to escape her, and his face fell. He turned from her and wrapped both hands around the back of his neck, tilting his head back as he sighed.

“It’s not you I’m angry at,” he said to the ceiling. “But, Rey, I need you to go now. There’s a reason that Hux did this today and I need to figure out what it is. Can you give me a while? Please?”

He was still facing away from her when he finished, which enraged her,

“Sure, Kylo, I can give you a while. No problem. You’ll ‘see me at dinner,’ right?” She slammed the door behind her before giving him a chance to respond.

Chapter Text

Arin knew her well enough at this stage to know that the best thing to do was to simply ignore the fact that Rey arrived late to their rendezvous, and cried silently on-and-off for most of the morning. It didn’t affect their planned route for the day.

As usual, they found nothing.

She skipped lunch to go straight back to her garden, typing furious inquiries into her datapad so she could learn the exact nature of the problem and argue logically that, in fact, it wasn’t reasonable at all.

At some point she fell asleep in the grass, and when she woke the afternoon sun made her feel overly warm which only fuelled her ire. She rolled over onto her stomach and stared down at the screen stubbornly.

“Hello,” Ben said, some time later. She looked up to see him leaning against the railing that separated their balconies. His was still bare. She had never seen him out here.

“Sorry,” Rey snapped. “I was breathing quite loudly, I hope it didn’t distract you.”

Her rancor didn’t appear to affect him. “I’m here to apologise,” he said. “May I come over?”

She nodded warily. He stepped over the railing with ease and sat cross-legged on the grass in front of her. She lifted herself up to mirror his posture.

When she was settled he caught her eyes with his and began, solemnly.

“I’m sorry, Rey. For so many things. I’ll list them, if you like.” When she didn’t demand an inventory he continued. “I had a second reason for coming here. May I state it?”

She nodded again. He pulled a datachip from his pocket and handed it to her. He explained as she fiddled with inserting it into her datapad and downloading the files within.

“These people reached out to me several weeks ago. I ignored them. It wasn’t a priority, as I said, and that remains true. But it is a priority for you. I should have recognised that before today.” She looked down at her screen to see a document labelled Sisters of Manarai. “This is an organisation -- one of several, but the biggest, I believe -- which reaches out to people in need and helps with food, accommodation, employment. I have to assume they’re critically underfunded, which is why they came to me. I’d like you to go and talk to them and see what they need most. Within reason. I can’t promise to give you everything they ask for.”

Her fury died with each word. “Thank you, Ben,” she said, with real feeling.

He relaxed. “And this will be a good learning opportunity, too, because I expect you’ll want to begin similar initiatives on Jakku, and other planets in your domain.”

This was indeed something she had considered often during the afternoons she spent sitting in this very spot. But suddenly she wanted to set it aside. She was touched, as always, by the fact that he had known exactly what she was thinking, and the desire was steadily building within her for him to know everything she thought: before and now and always. So she rested the datapad in her lap and told him the story about the Ghtroc 690, and about Devi and Strunk, even though it had been a long time since she had allowed herself to think of the incident, because it hurt. But it belonged to her -- it was one of the few things that did -- so she wanted him to know.

By the time she was done talking she was laying on her back looking up at the orange sky with dry eyes. Ben hadn’t moved.

“I won’t ever leave you behind,” he promised quietly when she was finished.

She smiled gratefully, but shook her head. “That’s not why I told you.”

“Why, then?”

She thought of that first day, and the long night that followed. Of the bridge and the fading light and the red beam thrusting through Han Solo’s back before he fell forever.

“Because I saw your lowest,” she said finally. “So it’s only fair that you know mine.”

She was lying, of course, because Devi and Strunk hadn’t been her lowest point. They were close. But they weren’t him. Nothing had ever dragged her down as far as Ben himself had on that fateful day in the forest, when she had cried and called him a monster and meant it so fiercely that she had wanted to run him through with her saber and feel the life bleed out of him onto her bare hands.

Ben had been her highest point, too. Over and over again. Every single thing he did -- touching her hand, fighting beside her, healing her wounds, sending her flowers -- sent her higher and higher until it was so exhilarating (because there was no end in sight) and terrifying (because it must end somewhere, and she had so very far to fall) that she didn’t know what to do with herself, or with him.

Occasionally there were moments like this one that were a different kind of high. When he sat beside her calmly and demonstrated how well he knew her and they listened to each other’s stories. In these moments she wasn’t being flung recklessly into the sun; she was being lifted steadily by a warm cushioned wave so she could look down at all their many problems and pretend that they were small. For a split second she wondered if Ben ever felt the wave, but she realised immediately that of course he did, because it was no coincidence that they had both hit rock bottom that night: he pulled her down with him when he fell, and in response she drove him even further, because they were destined to push and pull and anchor each other forever. It was an overwhelming thought, and she couldn’t quite figure out why she was so desperate for more of it.

The hoverdroid appeared then, as scheduled, and began spraying the plants. They both watched quietly as it made its way around the perimeter. Rey’s anticipation built with each minute, as always.

Finally the droid moved to the wall and deposited the thirty-seventh flower pot. She turned to Ben, unable to stop herself from blushing. “I have to look; just a minute.”

Today’s flowers were delicate-looking ruffles of pearly white that glimmered almost silver in the sunlight. She reached out to the silky petals for just a few seconds before turning her attention to the label. The name seemed familiar to her, but she couldn’t quite place it.

Kira Blossom: a perennial native to Chandrila, but able to be grown in most temperate climates. Also known as a Moonblossom. It is common for Chandrilan girls and women to wear these in their hair at the annual Moon Festival.’

When she turned back to Ben he was outlined in gold again by the setting sun behind him.

“I’ve missed you,” she said before she had decided to.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, his voice wavering. Then his eyes filled with tears, so she was before him again in an instant, folding her legs under her to sit on her heels.

“I can’t keep up,” he said, broken. “There’s so much. This is just one planet.”

She rose onto her knees to hug his shoulders again, remembering that he had said it was okay. He was smaller than he was five short weeks ago, so she squeezed him tighter. He pressed his face against her this time, and she felt his tears drip down her clavicle to wet the front of her shirt, but he didn’t make a sound.

There were so many things she wanted to say to him, but she wasn’t ready to break the moment yet. It was eventually broken for her by his stomach grumbling unhappily.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, pulling back from her and scrubbing at his tears with both hands completely indelicately, as a child would.

“Don’t be,” she said. “Where do you eat dinner?”

“At my desk,” he sighed. “I can’t come, Rey, not yet, there’s so much.”

She shook her head. “I know. But can I come to you?”

He looked sceptical. “You’d have a more enjoyable time with the others.”

“Maybe. That doesn’t matter. I want to be near you.”

She was near him now, because her rising up while he was slumped meant that their faces were level. He was flushed, and his eyes still shone from his tears, and the sun behind him poked through all the tiny little gaps in his curls. She was accustomed now to his intensity, but this was the first time she recognised that he was beautiful. She leaned back from him, scolding herself, at the exact same instant that he began to lean forward. They both froze, and he dropped his eyes.

“I’d like it if you came,” he admitted after a minute of silence.

She stood, offering her hand to him, and he took it to rise to his own feet. When he was standing tall, looking more like himself, he raised her hand up to kiss the backs of her fingers lightly before releasing it. Rey flew out of her own body to orbit the planet before breathing again.

“Sorry,” he whispered, for the millionth time that day, though this time she couldn’t imagine what for, so she told him it was okay after taking a few seconds to recover. “Friends can do that,” he explained quietly as they climbed over the railing and walked through his chambers to his office, and she was glad to hear it.

Chapter Text

They had dinner together every night after that, and Ben was correct in his prediction that it wouldn’t be very much fun for her. He barely spoke to her. He barely even ate; he stared and typed and sometimes would just close his eyes and hang his head in his hands. Every few minutes he would remember to take a bite from the plate sitting to his left, and she thought he did this just to placate her rather than out of any true desire to nourish himself. But at the end of the ‘meal’ he took her hand and walked her back to her room, and he kissed the backs of her fingers (even though the guards were watching) and he thanked her. Rey convinced herself that he didn’t look quite so tired every morning at breakfast.

She walked into his office one evening (because of course she no longer needed to be announced; could walk in any time she chose) and flinched when he and Arin paused mid-laugh to look at her in surprise. Ben flushed when he saw her, and Arin giggled as if they had been caught red-handed.

“We were talking about the coronation,” Arin explained, in a tone that suggested they hadn’t been talking about that at all.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” Rey said truthfully. Her thoughts were preoccupied by the Sisters in those days.

“We’ll need formal gowns, of course,” Arin said. “We’ll skip the mountain tomorrow to go for a fitting, how does that sound?”

Rey nodded, forcing a smile.

Arin left then to go to her own dinner, and Rey and Ben began their nightly ritual of sitting beside each other silently. Rey couldn’t help feeling resentful about the fact that she got stuck with the morose Emperor while Arin had sat here minutes earlier with the sweet, playful Ben that she hadn’t seen in so long. She must have made her feelings apparent to him somehow, because he pushed away his datapad and began telling her a story about a summer on Chandrila when he was nine years old. He was at a camp for budding politicians and leaders, as he so often was, and had found himself the ringleader of a group of the children of the inner cadre of Populist Senators. They began a childish war, made up of escalating pranks, against a rival clique of Centrist children, although none of them fully understood the ideologies of their parents (did the parents themselves even truly understand?).

Later, after he had finished off his plate and her giggles had subsided, she asked him why he had told her that story. He thought for a moment and explained that he had wanted to see her laugh, and it was the most recent memory he had that he thought would make her do so. When he took her hand a while later she couldn’t resist the urge to twist her fingers around his, the way he had done on the roof, so long ago.

The next morning, as she was working an embarrassingly gaudy dress back down her hips, Arin called through the privacy screen in a friendly voice to ask what she ‘thought about Kylo’, and Rey pretended not to hear.

She met with the Sisters of Manarai three times a week in a ‘small’ meeting room that Ryal had set aside for her on the third floor. The first meeting had been a disaster. Three of them arrived: two strict older ladies and one pleasantly plump girl not much older than Rey, who surprisingly turned out to be their leader. Immediately she was handed a datachip containing a report that had later taken her three hours to read, and an eighty-two minute long holovideo of images of starving and disease-ridden men and women wandering the forgotten labyrinths beneath the planet’s false surface. The Sisters were kind and gentle, but firm, and kept pressing her to name a number of credits that the new government would be donating to their cause.

Rey hated herself, because she so desperately wanted to give them an answer, but she had no clue how to do so. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to her that she didn’t know anything at all about money, having never had a use for it. Scrap had been her currency on Jakku. The First Order seemed to have no shortage of funds -- new furniture and amenities were still being added to the Palace at an alarming rate -- yet Rey had no idea where this money came from or what the numbers associated with it truly meant. She ended the meeting by saying a lot of vague things like ‘I’ll take this all under consideration’ and ushered the Sisters out.

The next day was spent in deliberation, because she didn’t want to go to Ben about this, lest he regret giving her the task. And she had no idea how often he and Arin had their private little talks -- which didn’t bother her in the slightest, obviously. Ryal was the best option, and as she knocked on his door she realised that as Palace Coordinator he would likely know the answers to her questions about where the money came from.

It came from taxes, he told her, and explained what they were. There were also significant private donations they received from wealthy Coruscanti who hoped to gain favour with the Emperor. Rey had seen these bejewelled men and women being lead through the halls of the lower levels, occasionally.

Ryal gave her a list of resources, and she thanked him, and asked him not to tell the others that she had come to him. He agreed, but reassured her that she had nothing to embarrassed about, even though she had never admitted to the feeling. She avoided him for several days after that.

She avoided Arin, too, and forewent their daily walks in favour of keeping to her room to read lists of numbers and work on her proposal. No questions were asked: she had only to say ‘I’m working on something for Ben’ for her absence to be accepted and expected.

A week later she opened Ben’s office door just before lunch and was unpleasantly surprised to find him with Hux. A map of the galaxy was projected before them, and a particular segment of the Outer Rim was highlighted. Ben didn’t smile to see her, but Rey understood, because of course he wouldn’t do so in present company.

“Do you need me, Rey?” he asked, cutting off whatever it was Hux was saying.

Yes. “I wanted to let you know about… that thing you asked me to do.” She chided herself for her childish instinct to clutch her datapad to her chest, and straightened her posture instead.

“Good. Sit down; we’re almost done.”

There were two chairs in front of his desk. One was occupied by Hux, and Rey took the other and dragged it to the side so she wouldn’t have to sit directly next to him. But as she went to release her pressure on the chair it decided to keep moving, sliding around the corner so that when she finally sat she was at Ben’s right hand.

Ben motioned nonchalantly to Hux to continue, and he did, speaking in clipped tones about spice smuggling and something called the Amaxines. Ben nodded -- approvingly, Rey thought -- and dismissed him with the promise of further discussion of the issue after the coronation in several days.

“He was lying. Did you see?” he asked her when they were alone. Rey shook her head no. “He leans slightly forward. Most people lean back. Not that I needed the tell: the Amaxines have been funnelling credits to the First Order for years. No doubt he plans to simply rebrand them as a legitimate business and take the profits for himself.”

“Why did you promote him if you know he lies to you?” she asked, filing away the knowledge that Ben himself had lied, too, by pretending agreement. She hadn’t ever considered that that was a possibility.

“A cur’s weakness,” he said, quietly and inexplicably. He cleared his throat, turning his chair to face her more fully. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Rey lit her datapad screen and brought up the document she had read a hundred times over before coming to him. She handed it to him, folded her hands primly in her lap, and began her prepared speech. Ben watched her with an impassive expression, unnerving her slightly; she had expected him to follow along with the written materials.

“In conclusion, as well as being the morally correct thing to do, these projects will bolster the existing workforce, making it a reasonable” (she only stressed the word a little) “investment.” She looked at him expectantly, stubbornly ignoring the urge to scratch her nose.

Ben was very quiet. His finger tapped against his desk, slowly and contemplatively. Finally he said “I didn’t expect this. I had presumed you would simply speak to them and report back to me.”

“Oh,” Rey said uncertainly.

He shook his head and the corners of his mouth lifted. “I’m not disappointed. Far from it. I can recognise how much work went into this, Rey, especially for you. I can barely believe you managed this in only a week, when not long ago you were just a scaven--”

Her heart fell, and it must have shown on her face, because he broke off, looking stricken. He reached to her lap to take one of her hands; the gesture was now so familiar that neither of them bothered to break eye contact as his fingers folded around her palm.

“No, kir-- no, I didn’t mean it that way. I only meant that I’m so very impressed you did this all yourself, without anyone ever teaching you how. You’re extraordinary. Most people spend decades learning how to do things like this. It’s not a coincidence that all of the politicians’ kids went to the same summer camp every year.”

She nodded sullenly, but gave his fingers a quick squeeze to let him know it was okay, and he released her.

He sat back and regarded her for a moment. “I will give you thirty percent of what you are asking for.”

“What?” she frowned. She had already given him the lower limit of her estimates. “But what about--” her protest was cut off by him lifting a hand to silence her.

“Allow me to finish, please. There are subtleties to the numbers that you haven’t quite accounted for. It isn’t as simple as dividing the population into segments and deciding what each person ‘deserves’, because there are certain expenses -- most of them rather large -- that benefit everyone. Waste disposal, air refinery, law enforcement. And, as I’ve already stated: this isn’t a priority. That hasn’t changed; you can’t change that.”

Rey clenched her fists. It was still a considerable amount of money. It would help a lot of people; just not all of them.

Ben smiled when he felt her reach the same conclusion he had reached long ago.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. I’d like to appoint an accountant to work with you, to help you use the funds in the most efficient way, if that suits you.”

Rey nodded obediently, because it wasn’t a question. Then she stood and held a hand out to him, not in her usual way, but with her fingers straight and firm: businesslike, because that’s what this was. A transaction. He obliged her by standing and shaking her hand, and for a moment it was polite and functional, but then he pulled her into him and lowered his face to hers, devouring her eyes with his.

“You’re extraordinary,” he repeated, an octave lower.

“Thank you,” she said tightly. And then, “I’ll see you at dinner,” before turning to leave. She skipped lunch to go to the training room for the first time and strike at nothing in particular, feeling the need to release the electric energy.

Chapter Text

Orax surprised Rey the morning before the coronation by asking for her lightsaber. She hadn’t spoken a great deal to him or Lissa, even after several weeks.

“I’ll make you a balanced replica. You need to practice without the threat of anyone losing a limb.”

“We each have one,” Ryal chimed in.

“I haven’t been getting in much practice with any weapon these days,” Rey said.

“That can change.” Orax was gruff, but not in an unkind way, and Rey supposed that this was his way of striking a friendship with her. She reluctantly handed over the saber; she had never had need of it within the Palace walls, but she still felt slightly unbalanced without the familiar weight against her hip.

After breakfast she and Arin made their way to the mountain at the center of the Palace, as had become routine.

“Time to try a new network,” Arin suggested. “Pick a number.”

Rey closed her eyes in mock concentration, sticking her hands out in front of her and waving them mystically. “Thirteen,” she said at random.

Arin made a ceremonial bow and pressed on the control panel with flourish. Both women laughed at themselves.

They found a niche easily. As they wandered through the caverns, guided by beams of light from torches propped on their shoulders, Rey told the story of a particularly close call when she had sprained her ankle during a trek in the Goazon Badlands. Arin tried, as she often did, to steer the conversation toward Ben. Rey had to admire her single-mindedness. The two subjects were particularly difficult to relate. She brushed her off with practiced ease, only feeling a little irritated.

But as they continued walking Rey decided she was more than just a little irritated. She was angry. In fact it occurred to her that Arin was being intentionally disrespectful, was a liar and a traitor, that she hated her--

Rey stopped dead in her tracks, because the terrible emotions weren’t coming from her at all, but rather from something high above her.

“Arin, how are you feeling?” Rey asked slowly.

“Pretty annoyed, actually,” Arin snarled. “I’m trying to help you--”

Rey swiped her hand across her body in a silencing gesture, cutting her off. “Stop. It’s not us. There’s something…”

Arin rolled her eyes. “Of course, there’s always something.” She drew herself up to her full height, which was only a hair higher than Rey’s, but her ferocity made her look much taller. Rey was suddenly very, very aware that Arin had a lightsaber and she didn’t.

She began to climb, because her only chance was to get to whatever that something was and destroy it somehow.

“Thaaat’s right, Rey, run away! Like you do from everything, you coward!”

After a few panicked minutes and a few more insults Rey forced herself to relax and focus on the climb, knowing that she was too high and too nimble to be caught, but still very capable of falling. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the next reach of her hand found a larger ledge than she had been expecting, and when she hauled herself up she had enough room to sit and catch her breath.

“You have to come down sometime,” Arin taunted from thirty feet below, and the beam of light from her torch was joined by the red glow of her saber.

Rey shuffled along the ledge until it opened behind her to form a crevasse she could wriggle along into the rock.

Arin’s voice was muffled now. “I’d be doing him a favour!”

A few claustrophobic feet later she stumbled into an open space. The ceiling was just high enough for Ben’s head to graze it at his full height, but she thought he wouldn’t quite be able to lay flat on the floor without being cramped.

In front of her, in a small hollow in the rock, she found the source of their malcontent. The palm-sized pyramid glowed the same colour as Arin’s saber, but even without the comparison Rey wouldn’t have had trouble figuring out that this strange object contained a strong source of dark-side emanations. She reached out for it, because she had no other choice, and when she made contact there was something disconcertingly familiar about its energy.

She shuffled back along to the ledge and sat, holding out the pyramid, knowing that Arin would be able to see the glow, even if she couldn’t possibly make out the details from this height.

She called out. “Arin, look: this thing is why you want to hurt me! It’s dark; it’s affecting our emotions. I felt it too. I need you to calm down so I can come down and show you.”

There was a long moment of silence and stillness, and then the darkness grew thicker as Arin’s saber withdrew into itself. She said nothing.

“Thank you,” Rey said, wary that this could be a trap, and that she would soon be climbing down, backwards, to her possible death. But she descended.

When her feet were on the floor she turned to see Arin looking haggard in the beam of her torch. “You need to put that thing back,” she croaked.

“I’m not climbing all the way up there again,” Rey replied, in an awkward attempt to lighten the mood.

“Rey…”

“No, really, I can’t. Whatever this thing is, it’s why we’re here!” She tried to inject some optimism into her voice.

Arin shook her head forcefully. “I thought we’d find Jedi holocrons, not Sith ones!”

The word was new to Rey, but now wasn’t the time to ask questions. “We at least need to show Ben.”

Arin’s head hadn’t stopped shaking, and now she clapped a hand to her forehead in anguish. “No, no, Kylo can’t know about this. Promise me, Rey, that you won’t bring this anywhere near him. You don’t know what it will do to him.”

“It will do to him what it did to you, and you’re fine now. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s just as strong as you.” Stronger, she wanted to say, but she was still in an extremely vulnerable position.

“You don’t understand,” Arin said, and now Rey was angry again, and it was purely hers, and it made her reckless.

“No, you don’t understand. He’ll be fine. You’re as bad as Luke, you know!”

She turned and began to walk back the way they had come, and when Arin reached out to grip her wrist she knew she had made a fatal mistake. But she didn’t hear the hum of a lightsaber or smell the tang of ozone.

“Wait until after tomorrow, then,” Arin said softly. “Please.”

Rey nodded stiffly without turning, and once she was released she kept walking. Arin trailed behind her for several minutes before finally stepping in beside her.

She told Rey, in a detached sort of voice, about holocrons and the ancient techniques that were used to make them -- of which not much was still known. This particular artefact had to have been made by a powerful Sith Lord, and might contain any sort of dark Sith knowledge, from basic lightsaber form techniques to the very nature of the Force itself.

When they were free of the mountain Arin turned to her. “Rey… those things I said…”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to apologise. I’m just glad it ended the way it did.”

Arin frowned, fixing her with a firm gaze. “I wasn’t going to apologise. I was going to say: they’re all true. I meant them. Maybe the delivery was a little overdramatic, but the sentiments were real.”

This was about Ben, of course. Rey’s shame welled up, and even worse than being caught was the knowledge that she hadn’t even bothered to feel ashamed in quite a while. “I’m sorry. I really am.” I can’t help how I feel, she wanted to say, but making an excuse would seem counterproductive to the point of the apology.

“I’m not the one you need to apologise to.” Arin sighed then, and reached out to give Rey a quick squeeze of a hug, signalling the end of their very unpleasant morning.

Arin scouted ahead and ensured the corridors were clear of Knights before allowing Rey to duck into her room with the holocron. She tucked it into a drawer in her bathroom, as far from Ben’s room as she could manage, still thinking the distance was unnecessary. Her shame dissipated as a part of her registered how unfair it all was because she, Rey, was the one who believed in him, and should therefore be the one who was free to feel whatever she liked.

Chapter Text

She was reading about the Atravis system, taking careful notes as she went, when Ben emerged from his bedroom door and hunched against the balcony rail.

“Finish what you’re doing,” he offered when she put her datapad aside to look up at him.

Rey shook her head. “It’s not urgent. Just getting to know some planets.”

He seemed satisfied with the answer. “They’re completing preparations in the throne room for tomorrow. Will you come and look it over with me, before dinner?”

“Okay,” she said. He turned to go back inside, but she wasn’t ready yet. You deserve this, she told herself. “Ben, wait. What are you doing today?”

Suddenly he looked very tired. “I’m meeting with Odai and traders from the Uscru District, and looking over a union dispute in CoCo Town, and reviewing the budget for the 500 Republica renovation--”

“Right, of course, work. Taking care of a trillion people,” she said. “When was the last time you left the Palace?” It was a rhetorical question, because she knew he hadn’t left since the day they had arrived. Rey had only left a handful of times herself: the first night with Arin and Ryal, and several times after with the Sisters of Manarai.

“I haven’t left since the day we arrived,” he confirmed.

There was a part of her -- the part that was connected to him -- that was absolutely certain he wouldn’t deny her if she made a direct request. But she still took a deep breath to help herself be brave.

“I want you to ignore all of those other things and leave with me. I don’t care where we go. Just for a few hours.”

His expression softened, and she was so sure that she had won. He moved back to the railing and leaned against it heavily. “I want that too, but not today. I’ve already put a lot of things on hold for the coronation tomorrow. Another time. I can’t promise when.”

Rey turned her gaze down and began tugging at a blade of grass next to her knee in idle frustration. “I know that these things are more important tha--”

“What?” he said, interrupting her, which was unusual enough to force her to look back at him. He was standing to his full height and he looked as if he were coiled to attack something, but she wasn’t sure what.

“I was saying,” she said slowly, “that I know the things you’re doing seem more important than taking a break, but you should at least get to--”

“No,” he interrupted again. “I don’t want you to ever feel that way.” His lips pursed and his fists clenched in obvious deliberation. He looked so incredibly conflicted that she almost felt guilty for triggering the feeling. Almost.

“Meet me in the hallway in ten minutes,” he said finally. She beamed at him and leapt to her feet.

Nine minutes and fifty-six seconds later his assistant burst through the door to his chambers, looking incredibly flustered, her arms piled high with holopads and carbon files. Ben appeared immediately behind her and took Rey’s hand to lead her up the stairs to the roof.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” Rey said. “Somewhere we can be outside.” She looked around the gray city skyline doubtfully. Was there such a place on this planet?

They crossed the roof to his shuttle and Rey was delighted to see Captain Jober Tavson waiting for them at the end of the loading ramp. “Hi!” she said.

“Ma’am,” he said politely while following her and Ben up the ramp.

“It’s Rey, remember,” she prompted.

“I remember, ma’am,” he said.

“Take us to Monument Plaza,” Ben instructed Jober when they were all seated.

The hum of the shuttle and the seating arrangement gave her a strong sense of deja vu. She thought back to the first day, and how confusing and turbulent it had all felt; and yet it all seemed quite simple in retrospect. She had come to him and asked him to choose, and he had chosen her. He had chosen a lot of other things too, and so had she, but they all paled in comparison.

Monument Plaza was a large paved arena on one of the peaks of the Manarai Mountains. It was probably once a sporting venue, but now it had been taken over by what appeared to be a high-end marketplace. Ben took her hand again when they disembarked, and she indulged herself by threading their fingers together. When he led her through the arena to a large archway that opened onto a dense green forest she knew she had made the right decision and gave him a grateful squeeze.

“This is one of the only places on the planet where trees can grow,” he explained as they walked below the canopy. Rey held out her free hand to watch the way tiny little spots of sunlight trickled down to form speckles on her skin. Instinctively she looked up at Ben to see the way it dappled his hair. It looked even more satisfying than she had imagined.

“You’re always gold,” she said, and then wanted to roll her eyes at herself because of course it wouldn’t make any sense to him at all.

But he responded casually with “you’re always silver,” and neither of them seemed to feel the need to elaborate.

After twenty minutes they came upon a lake that seemed to be the destination of most of the people walking through the trees. A buffet area was set up at the far side; and dotted around the perimeter were wide, fluffy lounge pillows which each sat beneath a trellis, so that every person who chose to recline would have their own personal canopy.

Rey pulled him toward one and plonked herself down. “I need one of these,” she declared. She had been dismayed the first time she had noticed that the grass in her usual spot had become flattened and dull. She had moved to a different place, but it was never the same. Some actual furniture would probably help.

“Ryal will know where to get one,” Ben said. He folded himself in beside her with as much delicacy as he could muster with his long limbs.

She flushed, realising how demanding she must have sounded. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Yes you did,” he said mildly. “It’s fine. You’ve asked for very little.” He surprised her by reclining all the way back so he was laying flat. She remained seated so she could peer out at the activity going on around them.

“Asking you to come here wasn’t ‘very little’. Thank you,” she said. When she glanced over at him his eyes were closed.

“You’re welcome,” he said without opening them.

Tiny little cogs began to turn in her head as she took in his relaxed posture. He was here with her, Rey, and not anyone else. There were so many things about him that she didn’t know yet, but she would stake her life on the fact that he wouldn’t be here with her if there were someone else he would rather have brought with him. He looked like he was hers, so maybe he was. Maybe it was that simple.

She was tempted to watch him, but remembered being caught the last time, so instead she turned her gaze outward to watch the trees ringing the lake. The ones closest to her had large multicoloured flowers hiding among the leaves. She watched all the many little petals moving in the breeze for a few minutes before realising her mistake.

“They’re birds!” she exclaimed.

“Florakeets,” Ben offered lazily, without looking. As if on cue, one of them took flight and moved to a neighbouring tree. The flash of bright blue she saw under its wing felt like a little secret just between her and it, even though she knew that was ridiculous.

She turned back to Ben. “There are birds on Jakku too, but not colourful. They’re kind of like…” she tapped him on the thigh to get his attention, and he flinched as his eyes snapped open. “Kind of like this.” She hooked one hand at an angle to imitate the sharp, unforgiving beak. “Vworkka,” she said, and splayed her other hand to form what would be the crest on its head.

Ben said nothing. He bent one elbow to prop his head up on his hand, ostensibly to get a better viewing angle. He had an expression of such intense concentration on his face that Rey decided her demonstration of vworkka anatomy wasn’t clear enough. She wiggled the fingers that formed the ‘crest’ to further demonstrate.

He laughed, loudly, as if it came right from his belly. “You look absolutely mad,” he said.

Rey dropped her hands, scowling. “And you look like a bloggin. They’re stupid, too.”

“Really? Show me,” he said.

“Not a chance.”

He sat up, and he was very close because she had shuffled nearer to him when he was reclining. He hunched so that his face was level with hers. “Go on, show me.”

“Why? So you can laugh at me some more?”

He grinned. “Yes.”

She tried very hard not to smile. “Not today. You need to earn it.”

“Alright.” He moved in closer, and at the last possible second leant to the side so his nose brushed her hair lightly. Now that she was facing him all she could see were the walls of their trellis, and it didn’t take much effort at all for her to pretend that everything outside of this place and the two of them didn’t even exist.

“We should go back,” he said against her ear.

“Okay,” she agreed. At that moment she would have agreed to just about anything.

He laid down again, and she laid next to him, almost touching him. They talked quietly about nothing for half an hour before silently deciding, at the same moment, that it was finally time to leave.

Back at the Palace they rode the elevator to level forty-four. Ben had decided to show her how to access the throne room from the roof, rather than via the ‘public’ entry. When they reached their level they saw a mass of people had parked themselves in front of Ben’s chamber doors, a few hundred feet down the hallway. The blood drained from his face, and he walked slowly toward them as if he were going to his own execution.

“Ryal is upstairs,” he began cautiously. “He can walk you through what will happen tomorrow. Is that alright?”

“Yes,” Rey said in what she hoped was a soothing tone. “And then I’ll join him and the Knights for dinner.”

He paused in front of the mural that led to her door. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be. Thank you for today.” She wanted to hug him, but there were so many people watching; the least of which were her guards just several feet away.

“Maybe I shouldn’t do it,” he almost-whispered.

“What?”

“One planet is bad enough. The entire galaxy… maybe I shouldn’t. Or rather: I should, I need to… but I don’t want to. I want this.” He reached out to take both of her hands and her heart soared.

“You can have both,” she promised, hoping that it wasn’t a lie.

“How?” he pleaded.

She released one of his hands so she could walk him slowly toward the crowd, talking as they went. “Do what you’re doing. You’re doing so well, Ben. But let us help you. Don’t work at dinner. And don’t feel as if everything will fall apart if you take a few hours for yourself on occasion. I won’t let it.”

They had reached her door, so she paused, because he needed to make the rest of the journey alone. He reached up to cup her face with one hand and she was sure, for the first time in a long time, that he would kiss her. And he did: on the forehead, lightly. He pulled back to look into her eyes, just for a second, and then he kissed her again on the forehead, and then between her eyebrows, and then three more down her nose until he reached the tip. She didn’t remember how to breathe again until long after he released her.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised before walking away. She could barely see where he was going, because the entire world had become a little bit blurry around the edges.

“I think he likes me,” she said, to no one in particular.

In the corner of her vision she saw her guards look at each other quickly before returning their gazes to forward attention. “Uh, yes ma’am,” one of them said tentatively.

Remembering herself, she blushed and refused to look at either of them as she moved toward the stairwell.

Chapter Text

She took a few minutes after dinner to take her lightsaber (you’re never leaving my side again, she told it silently) with her into the bathroom. She weighed it in one hand against the holocron in the other, and her suspicion was confirmed. There was no way to keep this from Ben now; he would think it unforgivable. But she would wait one day, for Arin’s sake, because she cared about her too.

His voice whispered to her as she was settling under the covers.

“Rey?”

She sat up and looked around, but couldn’t find him. Maybe this time was different.

“I can’t see you,” she said. “Can you see me?”

“No, it’s not that,” he said, sounding amused. “I’m outside.”

She realised that his voice was coming from behind her curtains (there were two of them now: a sheer white one for the day, and a heavy green one for the night), and blushed at her failure to see the simple truth.

“Oh.” Nothing happened. “Well, do you want to come in?”

“Yes, thank you.” The curtains parted to reveal him, ready for bed with a robe draped across his shoulders.

She shuffled over to allow him room to sit on the side of her bed. It felt natural, even though he had never come to her like this before.

“I need to re-form the Senate,” he said without preamble. “I can’t have the five of you oversee the entire galaxy. It’s not secure. They need to oversee each other, here, where I can supervise. I’m going to announce it tomorrow at the banquet.”

“That’s not so terrible,” she said, because his expression indicated that he thought otherwise.

“Maybe not terrible,” he admitted. “But what was the point of it all, then? I’ve begun drafting a new Constitution, which will limit the potential for corruption and bureaucracy as much as I can with mere words... but in time it will just be what it was before. Bribery and waste and pointless bickering.”

Rey answered slowly, to give her thoughts time to catch up to her words. “I don’t know the answer. But I know that no one has as good a chance as you do to make this work. You’re extraordinary.” She returned the compliment he had given her, because it had floated through her thoughts so often. “And maybe this is the solution. Something in between the Empire and the Republic.”

His head moved in a dismissive gesture somewhere between a nod and a shake, almost as if he were bored with the topic and was thinking of something else.

“When did you decide this?” Rey asked. He hadn’t mentioned anything about it earlier.

“Just now,” he said. “Hux called and wanted to change--”

“So this is about him?” Rey asked firmly, not caring that she was interrupting. “And not about what you think is best for the galaxy?”

“There are several reasons. However: him undermining me at every opportunity certainly isn’t what’s ‘best for the galaxy’, is it? It’s hard enough for me to keep up with Coruscant and fend off his attempts to hide things from me and push his own agenda. It will only get worse once other systems are involved, so I need their representatives here, where I can watch them.”

She pushed the covers off her legs, suddenly feeling hot and irritated. “So you’re making a very big decision -- which it appears that you do not think is the right thing to do, even though it might be -- just because you don’t want to be undermined? That’s crazy. You clearly don’t trust him and that’s just creating more work for you. Just get rid of him, Ben.” It seemed so obvious to her.

He looked at her with steel and defiance. “No.”

This stung. “You said you would listen to me,” she said, unable to keep the note of accusation out of her voice.

“I listened. And I’ve decided: no.”

“And will you decide to elaborate?”

The steel glinted. “I will, for you, though I have no obligation to. Hux controls the military. Very competently. That’s an asset that isn’t easily replaced; and it’s a threat, because the First Order is structured as a military organisation, not a political one. I need to treat it as both. And so I continue to have no intention of deviating from my original plan.”

There was something else that had been needling at her. “You said once that you were sending him to the Outer Rim. To wage a war that might not even be necessary. Are you still planning to do that?”

“Yes.”

“So then this is all completely pointless. You’re sending him away and you’re changing your plans? Who exactly is in control here?”

This was the wrong thing to say. He drew himself up to his full seated height and spoke with a cold, calculating tone that reminded her of pain and fear and restraints. “I’m in control, Rey. People will die because of my orders. It’s happened before and it will happen again. People have died at my hand, too. I can name them all for you if you like. Is that what you want?”

She said nothing. I won’t cry I won’t cry I won’t cry. Where was the version of him that had made her so happy just a few hours ago?

“Is that what you want?” he repeated, louder.

“No! Obviously!”

“Curious how you change your mind so often on the morality of murder. You certainly didn’t have any problem when I killed Snoke and his guards.”

“Snoke was evil.”

“Han Solo wasn’t.”

They realised at the same instant that it had gone too far, and withdrew simultaneously. Neither of them apologised. Rey had convinced herself so well that she wouldn’t cry that her eyes had become paradoxically dry and itchy.

“I’ve known Hux a lot longer than you have,” Ben said carefully, as though trying to convince himself that they really had been arguing about him all along.

Rey glared without true malice. “Oh, I’m well aware. Everyone has known everyone and everything a lot longer than I have.” This fact stung her bitterly no matter how many times she thought of it. “If all you wanted was someone to agree with you then maybe you should have gone to Arin.”

He groaned quietly. “I’m glad you two are friends, but do you really need to bring her up in every conversation? This has nothing to do with her.”

“Apparently it doesn’t have anything to do with me, either! Why did you even bother coming to tell me any of this if you didn’t care at all what I would think?”

“I care,” he said, and his expression wavered. “I came because I missed you at dinner.”

This was sweet, because it had been less than three hours since they were last together; and it made her want to scream, because she was so sick of the back-and-forth. I don’t know how the two pieces of you fit together, she had told him that first night, and it was still just as true seven weeks later.

When she said nothing he sighed and moved to stand.

“Wait,” Rey said, because she truly didn’t want him to go.

Resenting him, but wanting very much not to, she asked him to tell her something else. “Something that’s not about politics,” she specified.

It took him a few minutes of thought to find a suitable memory.

“Alright,” he said, and he turned to face her more fully. “This happened when I was young. The Senate was in session--”

“No,” Rey said firmly, “I said not about that.”

He bristled, as he always did when he was interrupted. “Well, if you’ll allow me to finish. The Senate was in session, and I was in attendance as a junior legislator. An assistant-slash-apprentice,” he explained in response to her puzzled look. “But that year I had started getting an ache in my legs during the afternoons. Growing pains, my-- she called them. So I was excused on this occasion, and a family friend took me to Lake Andrasha to fish for skor-fin. I think it was just supposed to be an afternoon, but we ended up staying for a week. I caught the biggest skor each time, but I was cheating… well, reverse-cheating, I told myself: I was reaching out to sense where the largest Force-signatures were and keeping them away from his hook. He never said anything, but I think he knew. On the third day we rowed out to this little island in the lake and found an abandoned house there: completely dilapidated, it must have been unused for decades. I insisted that we go inside, but Chewie didn’t wan--” he broke off, looking as though he was unsure how he had gotten to this point.

He swallowed before continuing. “Eventually I went in, and it was empty, and well… nothing much happened.” He frowned at himself. “That story went absolutely nowhere.” Rey was delighted when his cheeks reddened with embarrassment.

She shook her head, unable to keep the silly grin off her face. “I liked it a lot.” I like you a lot, she wanted to add, and it seemed such a bizarre feeling to have when they had been fighting so viciously just a few minutes ago, but it was true. She liked this Ben more than she had ever liked anyone.

“Do you… I mean, if you wanted, you could tell me more.” She didn’t want to push.

The colour in his face intensified beyond a simple blush. “You know the rest,” he said gravely. Her grin melted off her face as she realised that she had never told him, even though he badly needed to know.

“He brought me,” she said. “I told him what I saw, what you are, and he brought me to you. He didn’t hesitate. And then he went away to wait for my signal because he knew that it would come.” The signal hadn’t ever come, of course, but that was a moot point at this late stage. “He knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”

He shook his head, smirking to himself without humour. “I know what you’re trying to do, but I don’t hold any illusions. He was there.” His hand drifted to his lower abdomen and dragged her eyes with it.

“I was there, too. I gave you a scar, too,” she said, looking back up to his face. “And now… I’m here. And I’m not leaving.”

He took her hand, as she had hoped he would, and rubbed it between his palms absently as he looked out at nothing, apparently deep in thought. His touch shot straight up her arm and through her body to settle low in her abdomen, warm and heavy and turbulent. She shuffled her torso toward him, unable and unwilling to deny the deep and desperate pull she felt to be close to him, despite the emotional whiplash they had just put each other through. She still liked him more than anyone, even when he was somber and quiet. Even when they had been arguing. She wanted every piece.

He was so close. If she wanted to she could rest her head on his shoulder, or press her lips to his jaw. And she wanted to.

Why shouldn’t she?

“You don’t know how much you’ve helped me, Rey,” he said quietly. “I wouldn’t have had a chance without you. Not just with Snoke, but with every single thing since. I know you think I’m a miserable bore every night, but if you only knew how much better I’ve been sleeping… Your presence is soothing.”

It seemed incredibly unfair that her presence soothed him while his presence made her entire body feel like it was on fire and begging to be touched. He was so close. If she wanted to she could rise onto her knees and straddle his lap, could rock against him and finally soothe the ache in her pelvis, and no one would have to know, they could keep going for as long as they liked, they could do so many things… She was almost certain that he wanted it too; but even if he didn’t yet she would make him want it; would touch him and tease him until he begged for the privilege of pleasing her. She could do it. She had that strength inside her. She was so powerful--

Rey flinched when she realised where her thoughts were coming from.

The waves of influence pouring from the holocron were so thick she could almost see them, and they told her tantalisingly to give in, to be selfish, to take what she wanted. She pushed them back as best she could, keeping her body frozen so she wouldn’t squirm and give herself away.

She couldn’t completely blame the ancient device. It was only amplifying what was already there. Her desire was real, and so was her annoyance earlier that day, and Arin’s anger with her.

Rey took a moment to ponder the fact that acknowledging these emotions wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The incident in the mountain had led to a moment of honesty between her and Arin that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been pushed. It wasn’t complete honesty, because that was still unthinkable, but it was more than Rey would have allowed otherwise. And she wouldn’t have needled Ben into spending time with her if she hadn’t finally admitted to herself that she wanted and deserved it.

“We should get some sleep,” he said, breaking her reverie.

“Okay,” Rey said, and impulsively she slid over to the other side of the bed to give him room to lay beside her. He did, after a moment of apparent deliberation, taking off his robe and folding it with neat efficiency before sliding the covers up over himself.

“Goodnight,” he said, with a voice so steady and calm that she was paradoxically shaken.

“Ben, how are you feeling?” she asked quietly.

He turned his face to her, looking a little puzzled. “Fine. Better. Thank you.”

He doesn’t feel it, Rey realised. He was well within the holocron’s radius of influence, as she had proven without a doubt moments before, but it wasn’t affecting him at all. He had been so cold and then so warm; angry and gentle and everything in between; and all of it was purely him. She had known that he would be strong enough to resist but she had never considered that he wouldn’t even need to.

Why was that? Was it because he was so full of light that it pushed the shadows back effortlessly? Or because he was so twisted by darkness that this new sinister influence was just a drop in the ocean?

Did it even matter? Either way he was himself, Ben, and she was in love with him.

That silent admission, after such a long denial, gave her enough peace to finally escape the swirling tendrils of darkness, and if she had been comfortable she may have been able to relax enough for sleep to overcome her. However, she had given him the place where she usually slept; where she had carefully indented her presence over weeks and months. This side of the bed was still new and fresh and unable to cradle her body in the same way. Stubbornly she closed her eyes and waited.

She almost got there, but then he sighed and turned over, and then again, fidgeting restlessly. A few tiresome minutes later he finally spoke up.

“Sorry, I can’t stay.” He sounded deeply annoyed. She began to think that maybe the holocron was affecting him after all, but then he said “I can’t sleep on the window side. I know it’s petty.”

A warm wave rolled over her, but this one was different to the lust she had experienced earlier. This was pure affection.

“I don’t like this side either,” she said, fighting a smile that threatened to split her face. “We could swap.”

They did; he climbed over her carefully as she slid beneath him, both taking care to make sure their bodies didn’t touch. When they were both settled, flat on their backs, he reached over to stroke the back of his hand up her arm gratefully. His knuckles brushed the scar on her shoulder, and the sensation spread through her and settled: not in her core, as she half-expected, but over her heart, making her feel snug and happy and safe.

He returned his arm to his side and bid her goodnight again, but she only heard half of it, because the wave drifted her to sleep.

Chapter Text

She dreamed of hunger and mirrors and clutter, and then she was curled on her side beneath the harsh Jakku sun. She could feel it beating against her shoulder; so warm and so dense that it almost squeezed her. It began to rock her back and forth, slowly, which is a very odd thing for sunlight to do. She opened her eyes and found that it wasn’t the sun at all. It was Ben, gently shaking her awake.

“Good,” he said when he saw that her eyes were open. He rolled over to stand, and the mattress bounced lightly as if it protested him leaving it.

There was a dull roaring in her ears that persisted even when she shook her head lightly to clear the sleep from it. After a few tired blinks she realised that the noise wasn’t contained within her head; it was diffusing into the room from behind the curtain. She stood and stretched, pausing mid-yawn when she opened her eyes to find him watching her. Hastily she covered her mouth to hide the rest of the yawn.

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly.

“No,” he said. “It’s your room.” He turned to leave and she followed him, feeling the need to investigate the sound. He had left his robe on her bedside table and was bare from the waist up. She opened her mouth to alert him, but shut it again when some mischievous instinct told her not to draw attention to it.

Out on the balcony she learned that the constant rumble was the combined clamour of the thousands and thousands of people that lined the promenade leading to the Palace entrance far below.

“What are they doing?” she wondered aloud. “They can’t all fit in the throne room.”

Ben shrugged. “It’s an event. They want to be here so they can impress the people who aren’t. You fall asleep very quickly.”

The abrupt change in subject startled her enough that her mind was unable to process it right away. “What?”

“Last night,” Ben clarified, though it was unnecessary now that she had had a couple of seconds to catch up. “You fell asleep very quickly. How did you do that?”

She thought back to the previous night and felt an ache that was exciting because it was still so new. Truthfully she had never had much trouble falling asleep; but the strange, brave mood she was in decided to provide him with a different answer.

“Well, you helped,” she said.

“I did?”

Rey nodded as she stepped toward him. Her right hand lifted, almost of its own accord, and her knuckles bumped against the back of his hand before travelling up the outside of his arm to his shoulder. “Remember?” she asked, even though her touch was such an exaggeration of his action from the night before that it was something different entirely. And perhaps it had been a little less graceful than she would have liked, but Rey decided to blame the angle of his arm rather than her own inexperience.

His face had turned to watch the path she took. Her hand and his eyes lingered on his shoulder for a moment until her courage was spent and she withdrew. When he faced her again his expression was shuttered. “I don’t understand,” he said in an oddly toneless voice. “I’ll need some clarification.”

“Huh?” she began to say, before choking on the sound. His hand was against her now and he was mimicking her caress. When he reached her shoulder he travelled back down, and then adjusted so that it was his fingertips rather than his knuckles that traced their way up again. He lingered on the sensitive skin in the crook of her elbow to make a few lazy circles. His mask broke and he smirked.

“This put you to sleep?” he asked her, in a voice laced with curiosity so thick it couldn’t possibly be genuine.

It was a challenge. So she had no choice but to stubbornly say “yes,” even though every nerve ending in her body was so intensely charged that she knew she would never be able to fall asleep again. She fought to control her body’s desire to tremble and was pleased beyond measure when she won. Finally he stopped and wrapped his hand around her elbow lightly, and she had the opportunity to find more words.

Rey shrugged. “Maybe because it was so boring,” she fake-mused. She imagined crossing all of her fingers in hope. Her teasing had seemed to delight him yesterday, but perhaps that had been an isolated incident.

It hadn’t been. He rewarded her now with a broad smile that stole her breath.

“I’ll try to be less boring next time.”

His hand released her arm and she wanted to protest, because she needed it to be on her more than she had ever needed anything in her life. But apparently his stubbornness matched her own. He walked away from her and across the railing to his own balcony, and then he was gone.

Twenty minutes later, showered and slightly calmer, Rey was seated once again before Arin’s bathroom mirror, idly twirling a white kira blossom in her fingers.

Neither of them mentioned the events of the previous day. Arin had been warm, and made idle chatter as they worked, which was her usual pattern. Rey put her responses on auto-pilot as she warred with herself about the best way to ask Arin about Ben without asking. She was almost sure. But if she was wrong then they would know, and that would be catastrophic.

“Have you ever been to Monument Plaza?” Rey asked. She watched Arin’s face carefully in the mirror.

Arin shook her head. “No, but I hear the shopping is fantastic. Ryal ordered all of the fabric for the curtains from a boutique there. Do you want to go?”

“No,” Rey said. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind, but that’s not why I brought it up. I went there yesterday.”

“You should’ve invited me,” Arin said in mild reproach. Her words were muffled now by a hairpin that she held in her mouth as she re-adjusted a twist of Rey’s hair for the third time.

Rey’s heart pounded. “I went with Ben.”

“Oh,” Arin said. She popped the pin back into place and grinned, as if to herself. “Maybe not, then.”

Almost, thought Rey. Just a bit more. “Actually, I was wondering--”

Lissa’s voice called out from the bedroom and half a second later her head ducked through the open door. She hadn’t needed to join them for this first part, because her hair was short enough to not require any particular styling. Rey wondered if she should cut her own to match.

They slipped into their gowns with an obscene amount of wriggling and fuss, and then the ‘finishing touches’ were applied. Arin slipped the flower into the twist at the back of Rey’s neck, and straightened the back of her dress; or what little there was of it, because the so-called neckline dipped down to her waist in a V-shape. The front was thankfully a bit more protective, covering her chest and the tops of her shoulders. And Rey had to admit that she quite enjoyed the way that the skirt swished just a little with each step she took, even if she was constantly concerned that she would trip on the delicate black feathering.

Arin decided that they were all ready at some point that seemed completely arbitrary.

The six of them had breakfast together a little later than usual. Rey took in Ben’s pristine angular suit and billowing cape, and promptly avoided looking at him for the rest of the meal. Otherwise it would have felt like any other morning except all their movements were a bit stiffer and more controlled in their formalwear.

The throne room was a large circular space at the top of the central spire: the highest point of the Palace, that overlooked a wide expanse of Coruscant. Ryal had explained to her the previous afternoon that it had been used by Darth Sidious, and by the Jedi High Council before him. It was impressive, but it was an absolute pain to get to. Because it rested on top of the mountain one had to first cross the roof to the base of the tower and then make the long journey to the peak. Rey had been reassured that it would only be used for sporadic special occasions.

The ceremony seemed to go on for days. Ben sat on a chair next to his throne with all of them flanking his sides in a semi-circular pattern, except for Ryal who was officiating the proceedings. Hux, Odai, and other First Order senior officers formed a second half-ring behind them. Several men and women spoke: the officers wore an even more severe-looking version of their usual uniforms, while the other dignitaries seemed to have all made it their duty to look gaudier than the person next to them. Finally the pleasantries were complete and the Knights all stepped forward to get to the point. Lissa and Arin draped an ornate trailing cloak over Ben’s shoulders; the two of them together seemed to have trouble carrying it, but he bore its weight without moving. Orax fitted a large black jewel-encrusted ring on the middle finger of his left hand.

Finally it was Rey’s turn, and she stepped forward (taking great care not to tread on her gown) with his crown held steady between her hands. It was a simple golden circle free of any embellishment or adornment, which distinguished it from every other part of this strange ritual.

He knelt before her, turning his eyes to the floor just in front of her feet, and she placed the circlet over his head. He turned his face up when it was secure. The metal gleamed brilliantly against his impossibly dark hair (and now she knew it was impossibly soft, too), and the sight prompted a bizarre urge to blurt out what she had admitted to herself the night before. She swallowed it, and he rose to his feet without his eyes leaving her. Then something horrible was pulling her away from him, but it was only Ryal leading her back to her seat because her part was done.

Ben made a short speech which was basically an abbreviated version of the one he had made aboard the Conqueror. Then he took to his throne and sat for hours while delegates and royalty came to kneel before him, and the Knights and Rey sat obediently at his sides without moving. She wondered if it was as difficult and tedious for all of them as it was for her.

Finally the congregation filed from the room, but because of the unfortunate geographics the evacuation was slow-going as people bottlenecked in their haste to leave the tower and attend the banquet on the lower floors. Ben remained quiet and still the entire time, and Rey followed his example, though she noticed Lissa began fidgeting with impatience once the crowd had turned their backs. Ben shrugged off the ceremonial robe but kept the crown and ring.

The banquet was even worse than the ceremony. The opulence of everything was exciting, and the aromas and tastes were exquisite; but those same pompous people kept coming up to their table and interrupting Ben with mindless chatter so that Rey was sure he didn’t have a bite to eat the entire evening.

She was seated next to Lissa, and was pleasantly surprised to be engaged by her in a far more interesting conversation about the work she and Orax had been doing on Ord Mantell. The woman wasn’t as openly friendly as Arin, even after having some time to warm up to her, but Rey got the feeling that that was just her. She was impressed by the way Lissa managed to eat with grace and efficiency even while cradling Chali in her other arm.

“She’s getting so big,” Rey said. She hadn’t spent much time around babies and wasn’t sure what else she was supposed to say. The infant had her mother’s blonde hair and father’s tanned complexion.

“Sometimes I think that, and other times I feel like she’s still part of me,” Lissa said. Rey wondered, with a pang, if her own mother had ever had a similar thought about her. She turned her attention back to Ben on her other side.

He was being accosted now by a thin blue man who was trying very animatedly to convince him of changes that needed to be made to the consulate in Hanna City. Ben dismissed him with the suggestion that he make a formal appointment to discuss the issue. “Laser brain,” he muttered under his breath as the man finally relented and wandered away.

Rey stifled a giggle, and Ben turned to her with a grin. After that he waved away anyone who tried to approach him, unwilling to interrupt his description of Hanna and the ways it differed from Galactic City. Rey wanted to ask him to promise to take her there someday, but she didn’t have anywhere to show him in return, so she bit her tongue.

After the bulk of the attendees were done with their meals a small number began to filter to the large central space and dance. It wasn’t at all similar to the nightclub -- no one was sweaty or yelling -- but the rhythm was entrancing in the same way. When her conversation with Ben had reached a natural pause Ryal appeared behind her chair with an outstretched green hand.

“Care to dance?” he offered.

“I don’t know how,” Rey admitted. “Give me a minute longer to watch.”

Ryal shook his head, and his fingers wiggled insistently. “Absolutely not. Learn by doing, my dear. Anyway, I’ll lead you.”

She relented, and he led her to the center of the floor. They faced each other with her left hand in his right, and their free hands went to each other’s waist and shoulder respectively. He used his hands to guide her, so after a few minutes of figuring out the footwork Rey felt as though she didn’t look so out of place. Then she got a bit cocky and trod on his foot, and they laughed together.

“Why did you join the Knights?” she asked him. Arin and Lissa and Orax all had an intense shine to them that resembled Ben’s, but Ryal was cheerful and light. She’d never even seen him with a weapon; he was the only one who didn’t carry a saber at all times.

He thought for a minute. “Luke is a very good person,” he said carefully.

Rey waited.

“He always tried to see the best in others. After I had been at the temple for about six months word had gotten around that there was a healer in town. Locals had already been coming to Luke for help -- he had learned quite a lot of herblore by then, and he had some basic healing skills himself -- but I took over the bulk of the outreach work. There was one woman who came to me quite often with her three young children. They were very clumsy.” His voice tightened. “They tripped over things a lot, and bumped their heads against door frames, and spilled hot water on themselves.”

Ryal paused to examine Rey’s expression. Whatever he saw there seemed to convince him that he could continue.

“Then one day I met her husband. He had received a minor bite from a wild animal, but left the wound to fester for a few days. By the time he came to me he was quite unwell. By that point I had dealt with blood poisoning many times and it would have been a simple thing for me to drive it from him. But I told him there was nothing I could do.”

“Good,” Rey said firmly. Their movements had slowed, but he guided her to keep her feet moving.

“Luke didn’t think so. He thought me arrogant. He said that it was unnatural for me to interfere with the will of the Force. That if I had the ability to heal a man who crossed paths with me then it must follow that he was meant to be healed. That perhaps there was still some good that he might do.” He frowned now, and Rey could tell by the set of his face and pondering tone of his voice that this was something he thought about often. “But if the will of the Force was that I should have the abilities that I do, then surely it follows that I must use my own conscience to decide how best to use them. Otherwise why not give them to Luke himself? Or Kylo, or you?

“There were several years between that day and the night we left.” To his credit his voice only wavered slightly as he skimmed over the key detail. “I learned a lot in that time, and I’ll always be grateful for it. But when Kylo told me what happened I knew instantly that I needed to stand by him. It’s not even about him, really. Or Luke. It’s bigger than both of them.”

Suddenly he brightened, looking more like himself again. The solemn air faded as if he had blown it away, and their attention returned to their footwork. “And I couldn’t let myself be left out. Otherwise what was the point of the special code names? Would have been a complete waste of effort.”

So they had all been together even before leaving Luke. She opened her mouth to question him further, but he smiled gently and interrupted before she had the chance.

“I think you should ask Kylo. I don’t mind talking about it, but I think you might want to hear the rest from him.”

She nodded. She had been meaning to, but she had so many things to ask Ben, and had simply never gotten around to this one. The warm wave rolled over her again as she thought that she might never run out of things to talk to him about.

When the music paused they released each other to applaud the musicians for the third time since stepping out. Rey turned back to her partner, but suddenly Ben had appeared, as if summoned by her thoughts. Ryal moved away quietly.

Ben stretched out his hand, and Rey took it before he had a chance to finish his question. “Will you -- alright, then.” She beamed as she stepped into him. The galaxy folded down until all of it was contained in his eyes and lips and hands. Would it always be like this, now that she knew what it was like to want him? She didn’t bother to rip her gaze away from him as she once would have, because she was tired and sated and happy, and because he looked beautiful, and because she deserved to look at him after everything they had been through to get to this point.

He held her the same way Ryal had, but it was different in every way imaginable. His hand was pressed against the bare skin of her back, and of course Ryal’s had been too, but she hadn’t even thought to notice. It occurred to Rey that no one had ever touched her there before tonight, and she was disappointed that Ben hadn’t been the first. He must have had a similar thought because she saw his expression change as if a fog were slowly lifting. Softly, testing, his hand slid up to find a new, unexplored place just below her shoulder blade. His fingers trailed along the edge of her dress, following the V so they moved laterally as they rose.

Rey’s first instinct had been to not react at all, and now she very much wanted to rethink that; but then she saw his face, and the way that his nostrils flared and his lips tipped into the tiniest smirk told her that he very much wanted her to react, and so she stubbornly refused to.

Instead she moved her own fingers across his shoulder to the side of his neck to trace his pulse point, and was thrilled when she saw her own struggle mirrored on his face. She raised her eyebrows slightly in challenge. His eyes blazed as if a fire had been ignited behind them.

With agonising slowness his hand returned to its original position on the back of her waist, and then moved across the midline so the very tips of his fingers slid underneath the fabric of her dress. The act of breaching the barrier was so potent that her knees felt momentarily weak, but she kept herself steady. When he was sure she wouldn’t recoil he began to stroke her with the softest, subtlest circles in mimicry of what she was doing at the hollow of his throat.

She didn’t bother to hide the way her breath quickened, and neither did he, when she walked her fingers up his neck to tangle lightly in his soft hair.

Simultaneously they stopped dancing and moved their hands back to neutral positions.

Ben swallowed. “Rey, I need to know something,” he began, his voice low and husky.

Suddenly a wisp of white hair flicked over their joined hands, and they turned as one to glare daggers at the portly man who bowed low before Ben.

“Wonderful ceremony, your Majesty,” the man began in an affected Coruscanti accent. His hair whipped them lightly again as he stood upright. “Absolutely exquisite. My apologies for not introducing myself earlier, I am Sadon Kord--”

“I am so glad you enjoyed it,” Ben interrupted in a voice dripping with malice. “Perhaps you would now enjoy dancing just as much, if you would move away to find a partner.”

Sadon Kord obeyed, and Rey truly couldn’t tell if he realised Ben was furious, or if he simply thought it to be a pleasant-sounding suggestion.

Ben turned back to her with rough, desperate eyes. “Rey--”

She never found out what it was he needed to know, because somehow a floodgate had opened and one after another the revelers came up to him, perhaps emboldened by a few glasses of intoxicant. Eventually he released her, exasperated, but before he did he kissed her hand. Until now he had always brushed his lips lightly against the backs of her fingers, but now he pressed insistently against her palm where it met the base of her thumb, lingering long enough for her to wonder at the fact that his lips were even softer than they looked.

Rey moved back to the high table as he moved to the periphery of the room to continue receiving greetings, passing Lissa and Orax who were now dancing while holding each other a very respectable distance apart.

Arin and Ryal were still at the table, sitting with their heads bent over Chali, who was smiling cutely but so far incapable of doing much else. Rey sat in Orax’s vacated chair to join them.

“Isn’t it mind-blowing that this entire human came out of Lissa?” Arin was wondering.

“Absolutely,” Ryal replied solemnly. “I, for one, was expecting a Geonosian.”

Arin rolled her eyes at him as he laughed at his own joke. When he sobered he looked at her fondly, as he looked at all of them, and even though the look wasn’t for her Rey felt drawn in.

“You’re a natural, Arin. Maybe you should be the next one to try it on.”

Arin tossed her head dismissively. “I think the parenting thing is more of a group activity. I need a man first. Or a cute girl with connections at a donor bank.”

The wheels that had been turning in Rey’s head for the last two days grinded to a deliciously shuddering stop. “Don’t-- don’t you have one?” she asked, her tongue feeling thick and clumsy.

“No,” Arin said, waggling a playful finger over Chali’s abdomen. “I was dating this guy Jax -- one of the senior officers -- for a while, but it didn’t work out.”

Arin kept talking, but Rey had completely lost interest. This was the final thing she needed; and it was so painfully simple, because of course Ben was hers as much as she was his. How could she have ever doubted it? She looked out across the room to where he was still being accosted, and the distance between them seemed to warp and shrink. He turned his head, as if he felt her eyes on him, and gave her a small smile.

Rey wanted to scream out to him, not caring how completely indecorous it would be in the current setting, and she prepared herself to stand and make her way over to him. But the next person to approach him was Hux, and Ben motioned everyone else away while the two of them began what seemed to be a perfectly amicable conversation; and it was so jarring after what he had told her last night that she paused, unsure.

She knew that Hux was twisted and vile, but what had he actually done that was so much worse than Ben? People will die, he had said, and she had swept it aside and decided she loved him anyway. Maybe she was the twisted one...

There was a moment of painful clarity during which she finally became aware that she had killed, too: the TIE forces on Jakku, the Stormtroopers in the forest, the guards in the throne room. At the time it had felt like the right thing to do -- the only thing to do -- but did that keep her innocent? Any one of those men could have been another Finn just waiting for an opportunity to break free. Or another Ben, with blinding light inside of them that had gone unrecognised. Men just like them were now her allies and protectors. And men just like them were currently preparing to go to war again, possibly to disrupt innocent lives. Her mind swirled around and around the concepts, and she strongly understood the look she had seen on Ryal’s face earlier. She couldn’t find an answer. She didn’t even know what the question was.

A few minutes later Ben was next to her again at the high table announcing to the room his plan to instate a House of Representatives made of delegates from each planet, who would all reside with him here in the Palace, to ensure that no system would ever get left behind. The crowd applauded liberally, and he smiled down at her, and she had to force herself to smile back.

Chapter Text

The Knights and Rey made their way back up to the forty-fourth floor. Arin released a loud yawn the moment the platform was out of sight of the lower levels.

They said goodnight to Lissa and Orax at their door and continued on as a foursome. When they reached Rey’s door she turned to Ben.

“Will you come in? I have something to show you.”

He did, after bidding the others goodnight.

The instant the door was closed behind them he reached for her waist and pulled her close, lowering his face to rub his nose gently against her cheek. He exhaled against her jaw with an almost-sigh, as if he were releasing a great weight. She had to make a very quick and very difficult decision.

“Ben, no, that’s not what I meant.”

He froze. He pried himself from her slowly, as if it took great effort.

“I really do have something to show you,” she said before he could apologise. “It’s important. But then,” she flushed, but forced herself to maintain eye contact. “You could hold me afterwards, if you still want to.”

“Of course I’ll still want to,” he said plainly, even though his expression was anything but plain.

One of her hands rubbed at the opposite elbow. She missed her arm wraps. “Good. Um, sit down.”

The sitting area had been furnished with white and grey. It all seemed very sterile to her, but she hadn’t much minded what Ryal did with it, as she rarely used the space except to walk through it. She kept all of her trinkets collected in her bedroom.

They sat next to each other on a long lounge and she twisted to face him, disliking the way her gown restricted the movement.

“You know that Arin and I have been searching the mountain for leftovers and records.” He nodded, unnecessarily. “We found something yesterday.”

“The dark artefact I can feel, I presume.” This time his expression was plain.

Rey blinked a few times. “I didn’t realise you could feel it,” she said, finally, and a bit lamely.

“I felt you bringing it when you were returning from your walk yesterday.”

So Arin had been right. It did affect him more than them. Rey couldn’t even feel it now, here, when it was two rooms away. She could barely feel it in the bedroom.

“Why didn’t you say anything? I would have taken it back,” she said.

He regarded her coolly. “I wanted to see how long it would take for you to tell me.”

“I wanted to tell you straight away!” she said with feeling, poking herself in the chest. “The only reason I didn’t is because Arin asked me to wait until after the coronation!”

“Why did you want to tell me straight away?” he asked, and there was a challenge in his voice that indicated he was about to make a point she wouldn’t like.

“Because… we found it. Because we had been looking for something like it.”

He waited.

“Because I knew that you would want to know.”

The steel from the previous night returned to his face and voice. “You knew this, and yet you kept the information from me anyway. I don’t want you to do that again, Rey.”

Rey looked away. “I knew today was important and I didn’t want you to have an extra distraction.”

“That wasn’t your decision to make,” he said. He moved closer and tapped her chin with a finger to prompt her to face him again. “In the future, when you’re deciding how to deal with me, I would like you to follow your own instinct and not someone else’s.”

She nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

The steel melted and he was hers again.

“Ben, if you can feel it then why doesn’t it affect you?” she asked once she was sure it was safe.

“What makes you think it doesn’t?”

“You’re still you. Arin… changed. And I did too, a bit.”

He considered a moment, and one cheek retracted as if he was biting the inside of it. “I’ve felt worse,” was all he said.

He stood and offered his hand to her so she could do the same. At the bathroom door she paused and squeezed his fingers.

“There’s something else.” She took a steadying breath. “I think it belonged to Darth Vader.”

He took this in stride, like everything else, and she marvelled again at how strong he was. Without further hesitation she led him to the drawer and pulled out the red pyramid to offer it to him.

“Arin called it a holocron,” she said.

“She’s correct,” he replied. He lifted it from her palm and brought it up to his face, inspecting the symbols embossed on each side. “Did she tell you what that means?”

“A little,” Rey said, and told him what she knew. He continued to turn it over in his hands as she talked.

“That’s all true,” he confirmed when she was done, still not looking at her. “In addition: the holocron contains and reflects part of the spirit of the one who created it, so they may safeguard the information it holds against any they deem unworthy.”

Then he was still, and when Rey eventually reached out to touch his arm he flinched as if he had forgotten she was there. “What do you want to do?” she whispered.

He worked his jaw from side to side. “Well I need to open it, don’t I? What kind of scholar would I be if I didn’t?”

It wasn’t a word she had ever used to describe him, but it seemed fitting.

She led him to her bed and moved to sit on it, but he pulled her back. “No, not here. You’ve already had this thing in here for too long.” They moved to the balcony; her dress was uncooperative so he whisked her off her feet momentarily to carry her across the railing and promptly set her down again on the other side. Then she entered his bedroom for the first time since the day they arrived here.

It hadn’t changed at all. There was a bed and dresser, and nothing else. Rey was suddenly self-conscious of the way that she had made a point to collect frivolous things that she liked and dot them around her own room.

Ben sat cross-legged on the center of the bed and she tried to mimic him but struggled to find a comfortable position. After a few graceless attempts she stood and pulled the voluminous skirt of her dress up to her thighs and finally sat, pooling it in her lap when she was settled. While she had been fidgeting he had placed the holocron on the covers between them.

“You don’t need to be here for this,” he said.

“Yes I do.” She didn’t let her voice or her expression waver, and he seemed grateful.

They both turned their attention to the holocron. Rey felt the invisible dark tendrils around them ebb and flow seemingly at random, until suddenly they found a new purpose and pulled away from her, straining out to Ben in coordination. They never quite reached him, though. He pushed back, molding them and slowly squashing them back into the pyramid. Once the energy was contained the symbols on the holocron glowed red hot, as if a fire had ignited within, and after a moment of eerie stillness the sides fell away and a malignant red cloud rose.

It twisted into the form of a helmeted man in a cape: this was Vader, of course, but Rey could only see the back of him because he faced Ben. The hologram filled the space between them, but was slightly transparent so she could still make out Ben’s face. The features were obscured enough for her to have difficulty placing his expression: she saw victory, sadness, longing, fear.

The man and the hologram regarded each other for a moment, though Rey couldn’t imagine what the mask revealed.

Suddenly she was blind and deaf. Everything disappeared: she couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face; couldn’t feel the soft fabric of her dress laying on her knees. She tried to call out his name, but she was mute, too. Her panic slowly dissolved until she felt nothing at all.

Then she felt and saw a great many things. It began with fire. A red-hot inferno that consumed her entire body and melted her skin so that every nerve ending was raw and smoldering, and she had never imagined that such agony could exist. But then she felt the hatred and the anger burning white-hot from the inside out, and they were even worse. She felt her body being ripped apart and cold metal ruthlessly tightened against her raw flesh and she lost the ability to breathe. She was glad: she didn’t want to breathe anymore, she wanted to die, because that was the only way it could possibly end. But air was poured into her chafed and swollen lungs and she was forced to breathe in and then out, and then in, and then out, and the cadence was just enough to sustain her but never enough to fully satisfy her need for oxygen, so she was always breathless, always starving, and she knew it would continue forever and she had never felt so helpless.

And just when she was cracked and bleeding and at her ultimate limit a light shone through the seemingly impenetrable darkness and she saw the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. She was glowing, and when she smiled there was so much strength and goodness and love in her eyes that Rey decided that all of the rest of it had been worth it just for the chance to look at this angel, and she would gladly endure it again a thousand times over if this was what she got to see at the end of it all. But then the angel was in pain too -- she was crying and shaking and then her breathing shuddered to a stop -- and Rey knew somehow that she had been the one to stop it, and all the other pains paled in comparison because her own treachery was so unthinkable, so unforgivable, and the entire universe burned and shattered and twisted before reforming and forcing her to go on, to keep accepting air into her lungs with those slow deep breaths that so cruelly fuelled her.

She lost her vision again so completely that she felt as though she might not even have eyes; but she must, because hot painful tears were being squeezed from them. Sensation returned to her in fits and starts, so she was aware of the sounds of her gulping breaths, and then the sting of her fingers tugging at her own hair, and then the taste of blood from where she had bitten down on her lip. And then she floated away from it all and she felt something warm behind her back and under her legs and against her side, and this was familiar and it brought her back to herself.

Ben carried her back over the railing and set her down in front of her own bed. He pushed her shoulders gently to prompt her to turn around so her back was to him. He undid the ribbon at her waist and pushed the fabric from her shoulders so that her dress slid to the floor, and then took his robe from her bedside table and guided her arms through the sleeves. When her chest was covered he turned her back around so he could tie the sash and gently guided her to sit on the bed so he could kneel and take off her shoes. Then he helped her maneuver under the covers and pulled them up to her chin.

He never met her eyes. Wordlessly he turned to walk away.

“Won’t you stay?” she asked. Her voice cracked and croaked as if she hadn’t used it in years.

He was beside her again in an instant, kneeling by the bed. One elbow leaned against the mattress, and a hand fisted into the hair above his forehead so that his eyes were still hidden from her. His other hand was stroking up and down her arm, the way she had told him had helped her, so long ago. “Go to sleep,” he said, but she couldn’t.

After the shortest eternity he sighed, in frustration, in impatience, and turned around to sit down heavily on the floor with his back to her. “Go to sleep,” he urged, and she swore that she was trying. His knees came up to meet his elbows and his head fell into his hands. He stayed like that for a very long time without moving or speaking again. She didn’t move either; whether out of solidarity or fear, she wasn’t quite sure.

When the morning sun began to peek through the gap in the curtains he stood, seemingly with great effort, and walked toward it without looking back at her.

Chapter Text

“Go to sleep,” he urged her.

“I’m trying,” she said in the smallest voice he had ever heard from her.

His head was impossibly heavy, so he let it fall into his hands. Closing his eyes was a bad idea, because then all he saw was smoke and blood and raw stumps. So he kept them open and stared into his lap. Shutting out the memories left his mind disturbingly quiet.

Every inch of his skin was itchy and restless and crawling with the desire to act -- to break, to destroy, to do anything he needed to do to release his energy. But Rey was still awake, still staring at the back of his head, so he had no choice but to sit and stay and pretend he didn’t feel it. She was afraid, so he sat as still and quiet as humanly possible so as not to frighten her further.

After several hours it became clear that she wouldn’t sleep, and despair coursed through him, because it had come to her so easily before and now he had robbed her of it. But he couldn’t possibly apologise to her without making a sound, so he held it in and waited some more.

The black stripe between the curtains faded to grey and then to a greenish gold. He toyed with the idea of climbing into bed beside her and ignoring his responsibilities for another day. But he had foolishly declared himself ruler of the galaxy and that left him with very little wiggle room. He had already been feckless by taking one and a half days off.

He clenched and unclenched his toes as he wracked his brain for something to say to her. Nothing seemed adequate. It wasn’t the first time he missed the voice that once came to him at moments like this, when he was crippled with indecision. As his uncertainty grew he felt the smell of burning flesh percolate through his mind and desperately stamped it down. He still didn’t know what to say so he left without saying anything, because he needed to do something.

He paused in his bedroom to rearrange his thoughts. He tucked Rey safely into the place he always reserved for her, far far away from the memory of the holocron which churned and struggled under his heel -- his hold on it was tenuous, but it would have to suffice for now.

Dana stood from her desk and approached him when he opened the door that connected his bedroom to the main audience chamber. “Good morning, your Majesty,” she said calmly, handing him a carbon file. He blinked, because after the long night he had endured he had almost forgotten that his title and position had changed considerably. He scanned his schedule -- planned down to the minute -- and handed it back; he wouldn’t need to look a second time. They had given him ten minutes less than usual for breakfast, so he moved immediately to the dining room.

He sat in his place at the ‘head’ of the round table and gestured for the Knights to start eating.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Rey?” Arin said.

Ben shook his head. “She’s not feeling well.”

“Do I need to check in on her?” Ryal asked.

“She’s not ill,” Ben said, ensuring that his tone indicated the discussion was over. Arin tried to surreptitiously take out her commlink and type a message, and then spent the rest of the meal checking it every few minutes. She carefully avoided his eyes. Ordinarily he would have been incensed by this, but he was grateful for their shows of concern: it had been important to him from the beginning that they accepted her, and so far they had, without question.

The morning was spent in meetings with royalty and representatives from the Core Worlds, and he told each of them firmly that Ryal Ren was now their first contact for all Imperial matters; and they each tried to persuade him that their systems were special in some way and they deserved a direct line to him. By the third such meeting he had his responses prepared well enough to tune out of the conversation, but the moment he let his mind drift he was lying on a cold hard table and feeling dry air be pushed into his non-compliant lungs, so he forced himself to return and listen to their drivel. Each of them left looking satisfied, even though he had been direct about his expectations and made no concessions. Apparently it was possible to foster political relationships without hedging and equivocating. He wondered briefly if the satisfaction of feeding that back was worth the incredible risks associated with it.

Ryal rounded out the morning. They had been meeting once a week to discuss the renovations of the Palace and 500 Republica. These projects were now nearing completion, so Ben asked him to turn his attention to the Senate Building.

“I need it ready for House meetings as soon as possible,” Ben said. The day’s victories had convinced him that he would be successful in this, too, even though the decision to move forward had been sudden and irritatingly unpolished.

“A little more warning would have been nice,” Ryal said.

“It wasn’t possible.” Ben didn’t elaborate further, because he didn’t need to. “Once the House is ready we can re-purpose this regular slot. I plan to see each of you once a week to receive non-urgent updates, and discuss any concerns you may have.” Now was as good a time as any to decide on the details. He began to think aloud. “There are five of you, so Monday through Friday -- that works well. Saturday we will all meet together. And then…”

He couldn’t think of a seventh thing to round it out. He frowned at the invisible timetable he had mapped out in his mind, disliking the asymmetry of it.

“You could spend Sundays with Rey,” Ryal suggested with a sly tone.

Ben shook his head in irritation. Hadn’t he been listening? “No, Rey will be Wednesday.”

Ryal rolled his eyes. “I meant you could spend them not working.”

Ben felt the tips of his ears burn and refused to make eye contact until they settled. His mind flew back to Monument Plaza, and the notion that he could have that again made him momentarily lightheaded. He was almost certain that she wanted it. If she didn’t then she wouldn’t have looked at him the way she had on the dancefloor. The memory was so warm and consuming that he almost forgot what had come after. That was interesting. It required closer examination, so he put it aside for later.

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Ryal was continuing without any regard for Ben’s inner monologue. “I noticed your feet didn’t get stepped on.”

Ben looked back to him and said nothing. The topic was closed. He wouldn’t discuss her until it was settled.

Ryal smiled and glanced to the chronometer on the wall. “Is your next appointment on the hour?”

Ben nodded.

“I’m done, then. Take a few minutes. Breathe.” When he stood from his chair he planted one green hand on the desk and leaned across. His other went to Ben’s forehead and he pressed the heel of his palm there for a few seconds. The gesture was familiar enough for Ben to not feel the need to react.

When the door closed Ben looked at the time and mentally reviewed the carbon file he had seen earlier. Seven minutes. It wasn’t much, but it would be worth it.

In his haste he got one foot caught on the balcony rail and almost face-planted onto her grass. He quickly stood and smoothed his cloak, trying to look as if it had been deliberate and expected, even though no one had witnessed the clumsy moment.

Rey had left her bed, which was heartening. He waited three minutes for her to exit the bathroom, resisting the urge to jiggle his foot impatiently. When she finally emerged he couldn’t resist sweeping her into a hug, and his enthusiasm caused her feet to almost leave the floor. She was still wearing his robe. It brushed the floor when he wore it, so of course it pooled around her endearingly when he set her down. He pulled back to see her face. She looked at him with disconcerted confusion, and it hurt, because sixteen hours ago she had smiled at him and willingly stepped into his embrace. Now her arms remained limply at her sides.

“How are you?” he asked.

She chewed on her bottom lip, and her eyes darted around to look at anything except him. He badly wanted to repeat the question and move things along, but that might cause her to withdraw further. “Tired,” she said finally.

His seven minutes were up, and he tried very very hard not to resent her for her inefficiency. “I’ll come back,” he promised.

He ate a few bites of lunch as he reviewed a report about the current conditions in Hutt space, and the failure of those systems to accept his authority. Every so often the Rey that lived inside his memories would emerge from her safe place and stroke her fingers over his neck as he held her, or hold her breath as he whispered into her ear beneath the canopy. He gently tucked her away each time; unsuccessfully, because she was as beautifully stubborn as her real-world counterpart. She slowed his progress, but if an occasional distraction was the price for knowing that she wanted him then he would very gladly pay it.

When she failed to come to dinner he went to her. A dark cloud of tension lifted from him when he saw that she was asleep. He spied her commlink on the bedside table and picked it up, wrapping his cloak around it several times to smother any sound it might make. He took out his own and typed a message.

Come to me when you wake up. No matter how late it is.

He replaced her device after hearing the muffled chirp. Then he left her for the third time that day.

He spent longer than usual in the shower, and then decided he needed to shave even though he wasn’t due until the next day. He rearranged his laundry pile several times, just in case the droid’s programming decided to malfunction today. He checked in on Rey one more time -- she was still asleep. Finally, running out of ways to procrastinate, he stood at the end of his bed and stared at it suspiciously. He had no choice but to get in.

With great care he maneuvered his way to the exact center of the bed, then smoothed the sheet where he had ruffled it by doing so. He took a deep breath and finally moved inward to the place he had hastily stashed his memory of the night before. Knowing that caution wouldn’t help, he flung aside the makeshift barrier he had erected and forced himself to see it all again.

He exhaled so forcefully that the muscles of his chest ached with the effort. He was burning, freezing, drowning, falling. Darkness consumed him, and for a split second it was comforting. It filled every part of him and made him feel whole. But once it took hold it grew and festered, until every cell of his body was choked and swollen and fit to burst with power that rapidly spiralled out of his control.

It hurt. But when he was finished he started back at the beginning and went through again, carefully, to be sure that he understood. When he came back to himself he was covered in a cold sweat that had already soaked his bedsheets.

Darth Vader -- his grandfather -- had shown him this. Had given him a taste of the full extent of the unmatched power that the Dark Lord of the Sith had achieved.

A power so great couldn’t be attained without sacrifice, and Vader had shown him that, too. He had sacrificed his friends and allies. He had sacrificed his body. He had sacrificed the woman he loved. That last one hadn’t been intentional; but it had been inevitable. Ben saw that as clearly as Vader hadn’t.

He had never given his grandmother much thought. He knew she had been a politician, and surmised from this that she was probably exactly like every other politician he had ever known. But the woman he had seen in his vision hadn’t seemed to be a liar. She had been full of goodness and light; more than he had ever thought possible; more even than Rey had inside of her, because she had a dark streak -- of course she did, that’s what made her perfect...

The thought of her twanged inside him as if someone had struck him across the face. Suddenly he understood the vision. It was a warning.

He sat abruptly and looked to his dresser. Two twenty-six A.M. Why hadn’t she come? He called for a protocol droid to change his sheets, but just before it began its task he had a moment of inspiration and ordered it to go and change Rey’s first. When it returned at two forty-one he asked it if she had been awake. “Yes, your majesty,” it replied, but offered no further details.

He climbed back into bed, too numb to care that he was still sweaty and therefore dirtying the new linens immediately. He had sent her a message and she hadn’t come. He had sent a droid to her room in the middle of the night -- what kind of ridiculous idea had that been? -- and still she hadn’t come.

It had been less than a day. Maybe she just needed one day. One day was nothing. One thousand, four hundred and forty minutes. Round it down to one thousand. Just one. One was so close to nothing. He could endure it.

Flames licked at his back and legs and scalp and he ordered the sheets to be changed twice more before the sun had risen.

Chapter Text

When Rey didn’t come to breakfast the next morning Ben decided he needed to accept the fact that she didn’t want to see him. That was fine. He would gladly grant her the space that he so desperately wanted for himself but couldn’t take. His agitation peaked torturously in spite of his resolve, so when he found twenty spare minutes in his schedule he practically begged Orax to spar with him. It had been months since he had exerted himself physically (and fifty-two hours since he had slept) and the intense effort it required only left him feeling more frustrated. As he stormed out he demanded over his shoulder that they would need to start scheduling regular sessions.

“Good idea,” Orax said, sounding unmoved by his boorishness.

Ben’s stomach was rolling, but he forced down the bulk of the lunch he was offered, because he was now unable to deny how neglectful he had become with his training.

He was no longer accustomed to the feeling of a full stomach in the middle of the day. The heavy warmth sang to him seductively and made him even more painfully aware of his sleep deficit. He boarded an elevator to travel down to the lower levels and, after savouring the initial sensation of transient weightlessness, he allowed himself a few seconds during the descent to close his eyes. They shot open again when he wobbled dangerously to one side. Maybe it wasn’t the best place for a nap.

Orax was already in the briefing room when Ben entered and took his place at the head of the table. They were meeting with the senior officers to finalise plans for the cleansing of the Outer Rim. The region now belonged rightfully to Orax, and he had been strongly resistant to the military suggestions so far. He was always thinking a dozen moves ahead of the rest of them; his foresight was incomparable, but it often left him deficient in dealing with immediate matters.

A file slid across the table.“Your new training routine. I’ve worked it out with your assistants. No excuses.”

Ben felt a rush of affection for him. “Thank you,” he said. He knew apologising for his earlier behaviour was pointless, so instead he asked “how is Chali?”

Orax nodded, understanding. “Good. Only woke us twice last night.”

Was that impressive? Ben didn’t know anything about babies. “Ah,” he said, assuming an expression of neutral thoughtfulness. The officers began to file in before his knowledge could be tested further.

Hux advocated for the swiftest approach possible, surprising exactly no one. Orax advised caution, and stated that he was currently working on a plan for an eventual full integration of the region that would require minimal ongoing military presence. Hux stated that it was impossible. Orax stated that Hux was a one-trick pony without a unique thought in his head. The rest of the assembled voices remained cautiously unaligned, so of course it fell to Ben to mediate.

“Middle ground,” he said after a long period of silence. “Find it. I want a full itinerary within a week.” On any other occasion he would have simply told them what the middle ground was and been done with it, but a thick fog had settled within him and it made him slow. This was an immense failure on his part, and it didn’t go unnoticed by the assembled group.

“One week,” Hux said. “I won’t have my fleet hanging stationary in the Core -- at great expense -- for any longer than that. They may as well return to the Unknown Regions if you have no use for them.” His lip curled as though he had a bitter taste in his mouth.

He’s going to try to poison me, Ben thought, suddenly and wearily. If he were a less selfish man he might have insisted that Rey begin taking her meals with the Knights again, but he was honest enough with himself to know that he needed that time with her. In any case the rest of them weren’t completely safe from Hux, either. So he followed Orax back to his chambers to find Lissa, and instructed her to personally oversee the preparation of any food that would be delivered to their floor. She had studied herblore under Skywalker and would recognise any suspect plants that were added as “seasonings”.

He was still suspicious of his bed, but his lethargy won him over and he climbed into it anyway. The restless feeling returned to war with the fatigue. The strained, logical part of him knew that he was at his breaking point and needed to sleep before delirium set in. Three days was a long time. He had gone six days, once, and Arin told him that he was singing lullabies to the rest of them by the end. But the humiliation of knowing he had made a complete idiot out of himself had been less painful than seeing Uncle Luke’s face every time he closed his eyes.

He watched the chronometer until one fifty-eight, and then he must have fallen asleep. He dreamt he was trapped inside a dark vortex that pulled him apart cell-by-cell until he transformed into a mist and flew above everything. He felt the desperate urge to pull the disparate pieces of himself back together, knowing that it was important, but not quite why. He failed, and floated further away until the entire world was just a speck on the horizon. When he woke with his heart hammering against his chest it was two twenty-four. He saw twenty-five and twenty-six and twenty-seven, but twenty-eight never came. It seemed like it was an eternity away.

This time he dreamt of Rey. They were in the forest on Takodana. Maybe. Or maybe they were sitting next to the lake again, or maybe they were on Sarini Island. It was very very difficult to tell. But she was there, and she was smiling. Or maybe she was angry. There was one painful moment when he thought she might be crying, but it passed quickly and she laughed.

When he woke again at two forty-one his heart and body felt wonderfully and impossibly light. He sat abruptly from the bed, as if his body were a coiled spring, and scanned the room. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He had known she wouldn’t be here, but still a part of him had needed to check. His realisation had hit him with such incredible force that it reverberated through his mind and he knew that she must have felt some part of it.

It was so simple. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of it before. In fact he had thought of it before, but he had put it aside and never picked it back up again, because he hadn’t been operating at his peak.

Rey helped him push it all away. He should be with her. He would be with her. So soon he could almost taste it.

He had things to do today, and so did she, but when it was over he would have her and the pain would finally dull. He had never been more sure of anything. This restlessness was different to the angry irritability he had felt up until this point. It was almost fun.

He re-dressed and sat on the edge of the bed until three thirty. Just to be polite. Then he called Dana and told her to bring him all of the week’s briefings. “Yes, all of them,” he said in answer to her slurred, panicked question. His voice was quite calm and measured in comparison, he thought.

He spent the next few hours reading through the briefings, pleased with the pace he kept. Very occasionally the fatigue would seep in around his edges, and he thought that to be very odd, because he had slept and therefore he now felt completely energised.

Rey wasn’t at breakfast. That was still fine, because he would be seeing her very shortly. He dragged Ryal away from his half-eaten frittata and the two of them travelled to the Senate Building. They walked around the perimeter twice so Ben could inspect it, and then a third time so he could point out the changes he wanted to make. Ryal kept pausing and refused to speak until Ben made eye contact with him, and then he spoke very slowly, with careful enunciation. Perhaps he was feeling unwell.

After midday the exhaustion became too much to ignore. He thought of her freckles, and it helped a little, but every barrier he erected was weaker than the last. The memory of her had been strong, but she herself would be even stronger. He needed to see her. He needed to show her what he had discovered so that she could feel the way he felt.

A part of him whined and struggled and screamed that it never ever wanted her to feel this way; but the rest of him was already reaching for his commlink and sending her a message.

Are you coming to dinner?

Yes,” she replied, and nothing had ever given him greater joy. It anchored him enough to allow him to suggest they return to the Palace. Ryal must have been feeling better too, because they had a fairly normal conversation on the shuttle ride back.

His after-lunch appointment was with Colonel Odai, whose agenda today was primarily regarding water and waste management in his sector of the city. These were significant issues on Coruscant, because the planet’s natural water sources had either been polluted beyond repair or were trapped under kilometers of infrastructure. It proved for detailed but impossibly dull discussion, and Ben decided that this would be one of the first responsibilities he would pass to Hux now that he was Emperor. The idea cheered him, and as the conversation droned on he dedicated a part of his attention to making a list of the other things he could hand over. Meetings with Odai could be replaced with training with Orax; and The Works renovations could be replaced with meditating, or writing; and union disputes could be replaced with Rey; and the overcrowded prison system could be replaced with Rey; and complaints and petitions could be replaced with Rey; and eating and sleeping and breathing could be replaced with Rey; and Rey Rey Rey Rey…

He had thought she hadn’t wanted to see him, but she did, and she would be here at any moment.

“You need to leave,” Ben said abruptly.

Odai paused with his hand hovering above the door’s control panel. He turned and gave a slight bow. “Yes, your Majesty. You dismissed me.” He sounded very uncertain.

Did I? “Yes. I did. Go on, then.”

The door closed firmly. Ben watched it, because soon it would open again. Sitting still was excruciating, so he paced in front of his chair. But this meant that he didn’t have a full view of the door at all times. So he sat on top of the desk, quite indecorously, and tapped both feet noisily against the floor. His arms were by his sides, and then crossed in front of his chest, and then his hands were looped behind his neck.

He heard the faint beep of the control panel being activated from the other side of the door, and he was gripped with sheer panic, because he had focused so much on the thought of this moment arriving that he hadn’t bothered to prepare himself for what would happen when it did. He didn’t have a plan. And he didn’t have time to come up with one, because suddenly the door was open and there she was. But he had spent three days feeling itchy and restless and desperate to act, so he did.

Chapter Text

For the first two days Rey left her bed only to use the bathroom. Each time she would gulp down a few swallows of water from the tap, and that was apparently enough to sustain her. There were times in her life when she’d had even less than that. The hunger and thirst greeted her like old friends, and she laughed bitterly to herself that perhaps she did understand the bond that the Knights shared after all.

Some time after Ben left (it was impossible to tell how long) she heard her bedroom door open and then close again. She was still facing the curtain and didn’t see why it was necessary for her to do anything different.

“Are you hurt?” Arin’s voice asked.

Rey made a great effort to turn her head. Arin had closed the door behind her and was now leaning against it, as if she were trying to avoid stepping fully into the room. She watched Rey with wide eyes and chewed her bottom lip.

“I’m fine,” Rey lied.

“What happened?”

Rey looked away again, feeling utterly exhausted and desperate to be alone. “I just need to rest.”

She spent the remainder of that first day doing exactly nothing, but it wasn’t particularly restful. Time seemed to move forward completely at random. She once left the bathroom to find Ben outside waiting for her. He held her for what seemed like an impossibly long time, but then suddenly he was gone, and it couldn’t have been long at all because she hadn’t even had time to react.

The first night was hard because she napped fitfully and woke suddenly, only to lay staring at the ceiling before repeating the cycle; it was impossible for her to tell exactly how long each ‘sleep’ was, but the night seemed to drag on interminably. She had a strange dream about a metal man, and one about a vworkka.

When dawn broke on the second day she forced herself to begin thinking about what she had seen.

At first it crashed over her in one heavy, turbulent wave that overwhelmed her and left her breathless. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing until it passed. Then she let some of it back in: slowly, piece by piece, so she wouldn’t get lost. It was a painfully slow process, and she thought with a little bit of bitterness that, wherever Ben was, he was probably handling this a lot better than her.

She knew that she had seen the death of one man and the birth of another. And the death of a woman. She thought of Snoke and Ben and Luke and Leia and began to laboriously piece it all together.

When she was convinced that she understood the vision as best as she was able she began trying to tease out the motive behind it. This was much more difficult. She had no idea what Darth Vader could possibly have been thinking when he left this very potent piece of himself hidden beneath his master’s throne.

This was a low. A low low. She remembered thinking once that Ben had had brought her to both her lowest point and her highest. Would they have been able to lift each other out of this if they had stayed together? She had asked him to stay, and he had; but then he left and she hadn’t been brave enough to ask again. She didn’t know which one of them was to blame for the separation.

Her commlink buzzed and chirruped every few hours, but she ignored it. No one entered her room except the gardener hoverdroid passing through twice a day as always. On the second afternoon it paused as it passed by her bed and beeped at her.

/You sick?/ it said in a primitive form of Binary. It was the first time it had spoken to her; usually it returned her greetings with polite acknowledgement only.

“No, I’m not sick,” Rey replied.

/Be careful. Red one bad./

“What?”

It turned to the curtain and looked at it for a moment before continuing on its path slowly. She followed it, squinting in the sunlight when she stepped out onto the balcony. Ben’s robe was still wrapped around her, but it didn’t smell like him anymore.

The sight of her vibrant and colourful flower wall brought her back to the world. The day of the coronation had been the very first since her arrival that she hadn’t studied her latest gift. She did so now, and found a few large stalks, each of which was hung with dozens of tiny bell-shaped flowers. Every petal was a slightly different shade somewhere in between red and yellow. The accompanying card told her that it was Sweet Clover, a flower quite common to many planets in the Outer Rim, and that it had medicinal uses.

/Red one bad,/ the droid repeated.

“I understand,” Rey said, even though she didn’t. There was another new flower, from yesterday, and now the droid delivered today’s -- both purple. Rey dutifully inspected them as well, but the effort sent her back to bed again.

As she lay awake in the very early hours of the morning she pulled her datapad to her and searched its encyclopaedia for more information. Sweet Clover was in fact medicinal in the correct dosages, but large ingestions were toxic. The fact that the droid had been concerned for her wellbeing cheered her. She managed a quick nap, and when it returned in the morning she reassured it that she wouldn’t eat the flowers. It beeped sedately. She decided to go to breakfast.

They were already eating when she arrived. Arin leapt up to quickly embrace her, then pulled back to scold her. “You need to answer your comm. A simple ‘I’m alive’ would have been fine.”

“Sorry,” Rey mumbled. She looked across the room to Ben’s usual spot and saw that it was empty. Ryal was absent too. “Where is he?”

“You just missed him,” Arin said. “Said he had a big day.”

Rey nodded and sat to eat. She barely registered the conversation around her. She had guessed that he had been working, of course, because the world hadn’t stopped turning. That was wrong, she realised. They had both handled it so very wrongly. He should have been with her; she should have been with him; they should have been talking about it.

Arin, Lissa, and Orax each gave her small smiles as they filed out of the room to begin their mornings, and Rey didn’t have the energy to bother wondering how much they knew about what had happened.

She sat back down at the table to look at her commlink for the first time in days. She had twenty-two messages. Most were from Arin, a couple from Ryal, and even one from Orax, which surprised her. Her heart shuddered to a painful stop when she saw one from Ben. “Come to me when you wake up. No matter how late it is.

Rey had never been so infuriated. She wanted to slap herself for not checking her messages, and then slap him for being stupid enough to leave her a stupid message instead of just stupid waking her up and stupid talking to her.

There was also a holomessage from D’arial Tser, the head of the Sisters of Manarai, who Rey was ashamed to admit she had forgotten about in her brooding. The Sister said she was grieved to be told that Rey was unwell, that she hoped she would recover soon, and to please call her back when she did so they could reschedule their meeting. Rey called immediately.

The appointment was scheduled for the afternoon, which left her plenty of time to spend with Ben. She approached his office, resolved to demand that he forget about whatever he was doing and be with her; but she was stopped by one of his assistants who informed her that he had left the Palace. In her heightened state she felt a ridiculous bout of paranoia and insisted on inspecting the room for herself to ensure it truly was empty.

It was. Feeling sheepish, Rey decided that she would go to the training hall to try to drive off some of her angst. Orax was there, and when he saw her he paused in his routine to take a short pole from the wall and bring it to her. As he moved closer she saw that it wasn’t a pole at all: it was her lightsaber replica. She reached out gratefully to take it, and was surprised and impressed to find that it truly did feel the way her saber did, both in the way it fit her hand and in the balance of the weapon.

“Thank you,” Rey said. “How do you do that? Make it feel the same?” The pole was undeniably solid.

“Polymer mix,” he said, apparently not feeling the need to elaborate further.

They retreated to separate corners and Rey used her replica to take out her frustration on a training droid.

Orax called out to her after a few minutes. “I can show you a routine. Or are you just blowing off steam?”

Rey paused, panting. “I’m blowing off steam. But that would be nice. Thanks.”

They met in the center of the room and he began to demonstrate an insultingly basic set of maneuvers. “Shii-Cho”, he said. “Form One.”

Rey raised her eyebrows. “Thanks, but how was that any different to what I was doing?” When I was nine years old, she added silently. She tried to keep the belligerence out of her tone.

“You know the moves; you need to perfect them. The fundamentals are fundamental.” He said this last part with an affected air that told Rey he had heard the words spoken to himself many times before.

She gave it a try, and at first she was put out by the way that Orax kept talking: telling her how to adjust her grip and pointing out times when her stance became sloppy. But as she moved through the routine several times she found that his tweaks and suggestions were truly helpful, and the blows began to make her feel energised rather than taxed.

After half an hour of pure drills he began to teach her the optimum ways and times to infuse her strikes with the Force to make them more powerful. This part was much more difficult, because it meant she couldn’t rely purely on her muscle memory to complete the sequence. But he was patient, if still a little gruff.

She had particular trouble with one thrusting movement that stretched out a little too far for her to fully put both her physical and mental energy behind the blow.

“Try using the dark side,” he suggested, as if he were suggesting she try some sugar in her tea.

Rey stumbled forward clumsily before turning to him. Her vision clouded as she remembered fire and hatred and pain. “I-- I don’t… do that.”

“You were doing it several minutes ago,” he said expressionlessly.

“I was?”

He nodded at the same time she began to shake her head emphatically.

“No,” she said, because he was so horribly mistaken. “That wasn’t dark. That was just… that was me. That was the Force.”

“That’s an interesting perspective,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he thought it was a good or a bad kind of ‘interesting’. He studied her for a moment and then suggested that they end the session.

“How long have you known Kylo?” he asked as they towelled off.

“A few months,” Rey said. “Just before we came here.”

He didn’t seem to think a response was necessary.

She returned to her room to clean up before her meeting and to wait for her flower. Today was yellow, and the hoverdroid didn’t seem to think she required any warnings. As she lifted the pot to sniff the petals her commlink chirped.

It was Ben. “Are you coming to dinner?” Her heart pounded.

Yes,” she typed correctly, on her fourth attempt. Then, several minutes later, “Where are you?

She stared at the screen for eleven seconds before his reply came. “The Senate Building. Overseeing preparations.” Rey supposed she needed to be satisfied with this.

She met D’arial Tser in her lower level meeting room and they discussed the areas of greatest need in the city. When they were done with their official agenda Rey asked her to stay and discuss a new project.

“You may have heard that I’m now coordinating the Western Reaches,” Rey said.

D’arial nodded in confirmation. “I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing those worlds for myself,” she said politely.

Rey’s response was postponed by her commlink interrupting again. She excused herself, trying to convince no one in particular that she was the sort of person that received important communiques that were worth pausing conversations for.

I didn’t know if you wanted to see me,” he wrote.

Tears pricked her eyes. She clumsily replied “I ALWAYS want to see you,” because she needed him, and she was almost certain he needed her, and they weren’t doing each other any favours by being coy and withholding.

His reply was instantaneous. “I always want to see you.” She read it over several times before forcing herself to put it away.

D’arial pretended not to notice Rey’s distraction. “The Western Reaches?” she prompted gently when their eyes met again.

“Right,” Rey said, taking a deep breath. “I grew up on Jakku. There are a lot of homeless there. Not as many as here. And, well, they aren’t really homeless. But they... live in things that aren’t houses. So I want to start an organisation there like yours. What do you think?”

D’arial’s face had progressively lit up with with every word that Rey said. “You’ll need people to help,” she said excitedly. “Organisers, distributors, builders. You should recruit them from our clients. I’m sure you’d find many people are willing to relocate for steady employment.”

Rey loved this idea. The two of them began making plans and stopped only because D’arial was expected to assist with evening meal distribution. Rey couldn’t help smiling to herself as she made the journey back to level forty-four. She had begun the day on such a sour note, but a few examples of kindness from others -- from Arin, Orax, D’arial, and even the droid -- had turned her mood around completely. And the messages from Ben, of course.

Had anyone shown him any kindness today? She doubted it. She decided that she would, but the thought twisted inside her, feeling somehow inadequate. There were times when she felt like she could see inside his soul, but then there were times like this one when she realised she didn’t even know what he liked.

She walked through the door of his office at the usual time and immediately lost her breath, which was not usual. He had pulled her inside to shut the door firmly and then pushed her up against it, with one hand on her hip and the other planted above her head so he could loom over her.

“I haven’t gotten anything done all afternoon, Rey. I couldn’t stop thinking about you for even a minute.”

Rey had been thinking about quite a few other things, but she forgot them all now. He rested his forehead against hers and nuzzled her nose, releasing the hand above her so it could travel down to her other hip, brushing her face and her shoulder and the side of her breast along the way.

“I won’t kiss you,” he murmured, and it was an utterly ridiculous thing to say because his lips were a hair-breadth from hers and she breathed his words in. He leaned back, just a bit, and she missed him.

“Not yet. I have a plan for that.” He grinned, and there was a mischief in it that made her want to laugh, but she had forgotten how. “Even better than the last one. Before I thought you didn’t want it.” The grin widened, threatening to split his face. “But now I know that you do.”

“I do,” Rey admitted. She had no idea where this mood had come from, but it was better than anything else she had felt over the last three days, so she would take it. She reached up with both hands to stroke her fingers through the soft hair at the nape of his neck, as she had so wanted to do while they were dancing.

He leaned down again and spoke against her ear. “Do you remember when we danced?” he asked, as though he had heard her thoughts. She could only nod and tighten her grip on him. “That’s when I knew. I’ll never forget the way you looked at me.” He pressed his entire body against hers shamelessly and she felt the same selfish urges she had felt when he had come to her bed and she had wanted to climb on top of him -- but maybe they weren’t selfish if he wanted the same thing.

Apparently his no-kissing policy didn’t extend to her neck, because he kissed it now, starting just below her ear and travelling down slowly, somehow making each touch of his lips even more tender and insistent than the last. She moaned helplessly when he reached her collar, because in that moment she wanted to be bare more than she had ever wanted anything, so he could continue and spread the fire to every single part of her.

“Why did you fight it for so long?” he asked her clavicle before rising back up. When he faced her again his eyes were big and bright and pleading, but for the first time since entering the room she noticed his blown pupils and the dark circles underneath them. They washed over her like a bucket of cold water. When she had last seen him he had looked regal and composed, and she was almost certain that it had only been three days ago. But now he looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks.

It had broken her, but it had shattered him. Of course it had. She had been naive to think that they would be equals in this.

She slid her hands from his hair to his face, rubbing her thumbs gently along his jawline. It was a caress, but it also ensured he wouldn’t be able to turn from her. “Ben. You’re manic,” she said firmly.

“Yes,” he agreed ardently. “And why shouldn’t I be? Look where I am. Look who I’m holding.” He moved his hands around her waist to wrap her completely in his arms.

Her heart deflated. “You didn’t hold me that night. You said you would still want to, but then you didn’t.” She kept his face steady, but couldn’t prevent his gaze from arcing down away from hers. “We need to talk about it.”

“I’d much rather talk about us,” he said. The glee was gone from his voice and a part of her bitterly regretted hastening its death, but she knew it was the right thing to do. Because it hadn’t been the holocron that had done this to them; as always it was simply peeling away the lies they told themselves to reveal the truth that had been there all along.

“It is us.”

He began to loosen his grip on her, and that was unacceptable, so she moved her hands from his face to his upper arms and clamped down as tight as she could so he would keep holding on. If either of them let go everything would be lost.

“I want you,” she reassured him. “You have no idea, Ben. There’s nothing I want more right now than to be selfish and forget it all.

“But just wanting you isn’t enough. Even loving you isn’t enough.” His eyes shot back to hers when she said the word and his expression filled with such pure longing that she had to squeeze her own eyes shut against it to find the strength to continue. “I don’t know what the answer is. I won’t ever know unless you work with me. Do you remember that first night, on the Conqueror? You still haven’t told me how the pieces of you fit together. And I want you to. So I can have all of them.”

She opened her eyes again to find that his had filled with tears.

“I don’t know,” he pleaded. “I still don’t know. Just forget it. I’ll give you anything else. Everything else. Just be with me. You’re supposed to. We’re supposed to. Can’t that be enough for you? Please?”

She wanted to say yes, and for a moment she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to stop herself. Nothing in the galaxy had ever felt so right, and so wrong, all at once. They were meant to have each other; but not like this. They were two broken halves, and they could fit together perfectly -- fill up and smooth each others’ little gaps until they were almost invisible -- but then they would still be broken.

She couldn’t make the decision for both of them. He needed to understand, or none of it would mean anything. “Could it be enough for you, Ben? Because we could do it. We could lose ourselves in each other and laugh like everything’s golden, and I could tell you how beautiful and boring you are, and we could forget everything unpleasant that we saw and everything awful that we know, and we could avoid talking about your scars and how you got them. We could do that if that’s all you want. I’d never regret a minute of it… until the next time something horrible happens and we retreat to lick our wounds, alone, because that’s the only thing we know how to do.

“But there’s another way. A more difficult way, and I don’t know exactly what it is, but I want to find out, because we could have more. I’ve seen it, and I know you have too. And I know that right now it hurts because it seems so far away; but I’m not far away, I’m right here. So, if you want it too, we can face the truth: face the times that we don’t feel good, and -- and not defeat it, because I don’t think it can be defeated, I think that’s missing the point. But we can face it, and we can try to be happy and whole together, and it won’t be easy at all but we both deserve to try. I know we can do it because we already have, a little. I know you can lift me right up. I’ll help you and you’ll help me and even if we fail sometimes it will be okay because you will never be alone, I promise, even if you live to be a million billion years old. I’ll become a ghost and haunt you every day.”

She was rambling now, becoming more fervent by the second, and she didn’t realise there were tears streaming down her face until he reached up to wipe them away. His expression had relaxed and softened throughout her rant.

“Alright,” he said. His voice was deep and strong again. “I’ll try again for you. Of course I will.”

She may not know what the right way was, but she knew this wasn’t it. She forced herself to remain calm to answer him. “No. It can’t be just about me. It has to be about you. You have to do it for yourself. And I have to do it for myself, because,” she paused to take a deep breath, “because I don’t want to be on fire.”

He looked horrified. “Is that what you’re worried about? That will never be you. You’re good. So good. That warning wasn’t meant for you. I wish you hadn’t seen it. I’m so sorry.”

She wiped at her own eyes as she considered. His hands were still on her face so she brushed up against them with each movement. “Maybe it wasn’t meant for me. But I saw it, and I can’t forget it. It’s part of me, too.” She swallowed. “The darkness.”

“Yes. But you’ve never let it take you. You’re strong.” Then he spent a long time tracing his fingertips over her nose and cheeks and chin and lips. “You’re extraordinary,” he said finally, lowering his forehead to hers and closing his eyes. “I want to give you everything.”

“I don’t want everything,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Just you. And I can’t give you anything except just me.”

He hummed. “That doesn’t seem like a very fair exchange.” His tone was suddenly playful, and when he opened his eyes they bored into hers significantly. That’s enough sadness for today, they seemed to say. Her stomach flipped. This was exactly what she had wanted: for them to talk and explore, and then pull each other back up so they didn’t get lost. The fact that he had truly understood made her want to burst into tears. But instead she decided to tease him, the way she now knew he liked.

“You’re right,” she said, pretending to contemplate. “I’ll need you to keep going with the flowers, too. Otherwise what’s the point?” He smiled, in a crumpled sort of way, as if he were trying not to.

She leaned in to kiss the scar at the base of his neck and worked her way up, diverging from the imperfection to move toward his ear in a reverse-mimic of the way he had tortured her earlier. It was the first time her lips had touched his skin, and he was so warm and firm and smooth and him that she worried her heart would shoot out of her chest and straight into his. “You’re extraordinary,” she told him when she reached the top, and in response he held her so tightly that she lost her breath again.

“I’m tired,” he admitted when he pulled back to look at her. He looked very pensive, as though he were saying something incredibly profound. Rey had to bite the inside of her lip to refrain from commenting on how unnecessary the statement was.

She sat on his bed while he showered -- he had insisted on doing so, even though he was a little bit wobbly on his feet -- and when he emerged with another robe wrapped around him she immediately began plotting how she would ensure that he would leave it in her room again.

When they were snug in her bed she leaned over to kiss his forehead twice and then his nose three times, the way he had done to her when she realised that he wanted her. He knew the truth of her feelings now, of course, but she wanted to make sure. She lingered with her lips above his, and he smiled at her sleepily.

“Not yet,” he said, intriguing her. “Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Nothing and everything changed.

They all had breakfast together the next morning. The usual chatter filled the air as they ate. When they were finished Ben spoke for the first time.

“Now that we’re all here,” he began simply, as if the last three days had been a planned hiatus, “I’d like to discuss the roles each of you will fill in your respective territories, which now officially belong to you. The delegates from each planet will spend most of their time here on Coruscant, and so will you all, and it will be your responsibility to meet with each of them regularly to monitor their compliance and address any concerns either of you have. When you’ve established an understanding of the intra-regional politics you may, at your discretion, form groups and councils to make the numbers more manageable. A portion of each of your system’s taxes will be given to you, beginning from next month, to be used in whatever manner you see fit. Public works, for example. If you require anything more than this you will come directly to me.”

It was clear that he was finished. His ‘discussions’ were often quite one-sided. Rey and the Knights nodded.

Rey now spent her mornings alternating between training with Orax and searching with Arin. The part of the mountain that had hidden the holocron offered them a few more discoveries: weapons and encrypted datachips and odd, dull gemstones. Rey dutifully told Ben about everything they found, but never bothered to mention her suspicion that everything here had belonged to Darth Vader, knowing that he already shared it.

Rey piled the gemstones on her dresser and Orax studied the weapons. Unfortunately none of the Knights had any background in infotech. But they obviously couldn’t share their findings with anyone else, so the datachips went to Lissa and Ryal. They spent a week scratching their heads before finally deciding to just try forcing their way in. They were yet to have any success.

Afternoons were spent working. She began meeting with representatives from the many systems she was now responsible for. This was difficult. She had thought she had been diligent about learning the details of each planet and taking down notes, but it hadn’t prepared her at all for the reality of actually meeting these people. When she complained petulantly to Ben he told her that she would need to know the people she was dealing with just as well as the planets; maybe even moreso.

“I don’t know if that’s something I can be good at,” she admitted after a long pause. Before she would only have admitted things like this to herself, but now she was working on saying them out loud to Ben as well.

“You can be good at anything,” he said without missing a beat. “I wouldn’t have assigned you the task if I didn’t know you could handle it.”

He had promised all of them teams of assistants, but Rey insisted on hiring hers from the Sisters’ clients, since the people he suggested already had other jobs. Her team leader was Boz Nestino: a slight, skittish sort of fellow who had a wife and son. The family had been forced underground three years prior when his data entry job had been taken over by a protocol droid and he hadn’t been able to find alternative employment.

Despite the sometimes-overwhelming level of activity she made sure to take half an hour or so each evening to enjoy her garden before it was time to see Ben. A large canopied daybed had appeared several days after the coronation, with tiny red and blue flowers twisted into the thick foliage. “Very curious,” Ben replied slyly when Rey casually mentioned the new arrival. She kissed his cheek but said nothing else, deciding to allow him to pretend he was mysterious.

He came to join her on it occasionally. He would study his live-update map of the galaxy, and she would pretend to read while she watched him from the corner of her eye.

“What do you like?” she asked him one afternoon, because she still didn’t know. She was laying on her belly and he sat beside her.

“I like you,” he said absently. He was scrolling ponderously through The Works. There were a lot of annotations, but there was also a warm breeze rustling the canopy above them, so Rey decided she didn’t care.

“I know,” she said. “Besides that, though.”

He minimised the map and set it aside to look at her carefully. “I like… freckles.”

Rey blushed. “No--”

“I like it when you blush.”

She frowned. “Ben, I’m serious.”

“I like it when you’re serious.”

Ben!” she scolded. “Answer my question!”

“I did! Four times!” His posture shifted in a way that told her that he wasn’t being stubborn just for the sake of it; he didn’t know what else she wanted to hear.

Rey thought for a minute. She sat up and crossed her legs, and when her knee ended up resting half on top of his she didn’t bother to move it.

“You like fishing,” she said, remembering the story he had told her.

He chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Yes. Well, no. I like the water. It’s never still, even when it looks like it is.”

She nudged her knee against his encouragingly.

“And I like the way the light bounces off all the little bumps,” he continued. “I like birds. Not the ridiculous ones that you impersonate; I like regal ones. I like paper. I like the elevators.”

“The elevators?”

He shrugged, a bit self-consciously. The words tumbled out of him quickly, as if he wanted to get them over and done with. “Right when it starts to descend there’s a split second where your stomach seems to hang suspended, and every time you think you might stay floating there--”

He was interrupted by her launching herself at him. Rey didn’t know why, but his ridiculous elevator musings were her absolute limit. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and stifled a groan when she felt how firm they were. He had filled out again now that he cleaned his plate every night -- that was one of their rules.

She pulled back to see him struggling to furrow his brow in faux-irritation. Even if he had managed to perfect the expression it would have been completely incongruous with the way that his hands had wrapped automatically around her waist. “A bit rude, Rey. If you’d allow me to finish--”

“Nope,” she said. She bumped her nose against his, but didn’t kiss him, because that was another rule. She felt a tiny flash of bitterness that she quickly squashed down. “If you finish I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

“Anarchist,” he said in mild reproach. They silently decided to head inside. He held his hand out to help her step over the railing, and she took it and squeezed it, even though she was perfectly capable of clearing the barrier unassisted.

They sat on the same side of his desk, facing each other. Dinner hadn’t been delivered yet. “What do you want to talk about today?” Ben asked, as was customary, because it was her turn.

The guidelines that they had decided on together were simple, in theory. They were both required to eat at every meal. They got at least six hours of sleep every night. When they were together they focused on each other, but when they were apart they focused on all the many other things that needed their attention. They didn’t kiss. They didn’t do anything that might tempt the other to break the previous rule (they both accused each other on an almost-daily basis of breaking this one). And, most importantly, they took turns every evening to talk about something that they absolutely did not want to talk about.

The conversations worked on an honour-based system. They never pushed each other toward a particular topic; but they each had a responsibility to push themselves sufficiently so that neither of them got left behind. Rey had toed the line of this rule one evening when she chose to talk about her parents. She had needed to, of course, but she had also hoped it would guide him to talking about his own. He disappointed her the next night by talking about Vader’s holocron instead, but she was careful not to let it show.

Rey had initially protested having these talks in his office, because so much else happened in this room, and so it wasn’t fully theirs. But after the first difficult days she began to see the sense in it. Dinner would often interrupt them and they would both have a reprieve while they ate -- because of course there were no uncomfortable subjects allowed while eating -- and when they returned to the conversation it was often with some fresh perspective that had been gained by a bit of time and a full belly. They had promised to never ever leave the room until both of them felt satisfied.

“I want to talk about the rules,” Rey said presently, surprising herself. She made the decision in the same instant that she said the words.

A flicker of uncertainty crossed his face. “Alright,” he said obediently, because he wasn’t allowed to protest the topic she chose.

“I want to kiss you,” she said.

He swallowed. “I know. I want to kiss you. But we decided not to.”

It had seemed to make sense at the time, but every time she-- she paused the thought and took a deep breath. Out loud, she told herself. “It seemed to make sense at the time, but every time I look at you I almost forget why.” She couldn’t help the blush that rose from her neck to the tips of her ears.

Ben’s face coloured, too, but he didn’t look embarrassed. He reached forward to take both of her hands in his. “I feel it too. That’s the point, though. What we’re doing is already hard enough. It would be infinitely more difficult if I had the option of simply forgetting about it all and carrying you to bed. That was the mistake I almost made that day, but you stopped me, and for good reason.”

Her blush deepened, because she hadn’t said anything about that, though of course she had thought of it. Would she really have sat still and forced herself to talk about her parents if she knew that instead she could have perched herself on the edge of his desk while he settled between her thighs and--

“Okay, you have a point,” she admitted. “But I still don’t think it’s fair.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not fair that other people know what it’s like to kiss you and I don’t,” she said obstinately.

He looked at her as if she had suggested he burn the Palace to the ground. “What other people?”

“Arin,” she said quietly, refusing to squirm in her seat. “And… well, I don’t know who else.”

His eyebrows raised in mild surprise, but he didn’t hesitate to answer. “I kissed Arin, once, a long time ago. Neither of us particularly enjoyed it. I haven’t even thought of it in years. There hasn’t been anyone else.”

Rey nodded. She had begun to suspect all of this, of course, but she couldn’t help feeling the sting of jealousy when she remembered.

“Would you like to see?” he asked.

This was another thing that had become customary before dinner. Each time she said ‘yes’ he would open his mind to her so freely and honestly that at first she had been jealous of him, as well, because it was still hard for her to open up completely. But then on one occasion as she carefully sifted through his memories she had seen how truly difficult it was for him, and how very afraid he was that she would see something that made her change her mind and leave him alone after all. He was more afraid of this than she had ever been of anything, but he showed it all to her anyway, because he really was trying to give her everything. Because he was stronger than his fear; and that made her feel impossibly strong too, as if he were lifting her up with him.

“No,” she said, coming back to the present. “I really don’t want to see that.” Then after a moment of deliberation she added “but you can see if you want to.”

She led him to her memories of that first night on Coruscant: the awkward new feeling of her dress; how giddy she felt when she learned the truth about how he had healed her; the way everything had come to a grinding halt when she had learned that he wasn’t hers after all.

When he was satisfied he withdrew from her and lifted a hand to touch the sleeve on her right shoulder, over her scar. “I’d almost forgotten,” he said.

“Need a reminder?” Without waiting for a reply she dragged her neckline aside to expose her shoulder and clavicle for inspection. When she saw that his eyes weren’t on her scar she pulled the fabric a little lower than strictly necessary.

He responded by looking for a little longer that strictly necessary. “You really don’t have any respect for authority, do you?” he said quietly.

She couldn’t answer, because when his eyes finished meandering up to meet hers she saw something dark in them that made her mouth water and dry at the same time. She was spared from his challenge by the arrival of their food.

Chapter Text

“So, are you together or not?” Arin asked suddenly.

Rey couldn’t help smiling, and was thankful for the darkness of the tunnel. “We’re…us. Talking,” she said. Her fingers followed a promising-feeling crevice in the stone, but she only found a dead end. She gestured to Arin that they should keep moving.

“Right. Talking. About how very sad your lives have been.” Arin sounded appalled. “Where’s the fun?”

“We have fun,” Rey said, with as much regal indignance as she could muster. “The other day we talked about elevators.”

“Fascinating,” Arin said. Rey didn’t have to look over to know that her face was twisted with confused disgust.

Rey sidled up beside her to bump their shoulders together. “It is to me.”

Arin bumped back. “Whatever gets your hyperdrive going, I guess.”

One evening Ben told her about an explorer named Lor San Tekka. He talked a lot about the church of the Force, and Jedi artefacts, and Rey wasn’t quite sure where he was going with it all. After dinner she tentatively asked him why he had chosen the topic.

“I killed him,” Ben said easily.

“Oh.” Rey blinked a few times. “And… you regret it?”

“Not really,” he said. “At the time I thought he deserved it. Now I’m not so sure. But I can’t change what happened.”

“Why did he deserve it?”

Ben fidgeted with his plate, even though the meal was long finished. “He had the map to Skywalker, and he kept it from me.”

Of course he hadn’t wanted to tell her this, because Rey herself had once done the exact same thing. Had he ever thought about killing her? She had certainly thought about killing him, and almost did; and the only reason she hadn’t was because she didn’t want to give in to the call of the darkness. Because she didn’t want to be like him.

He moved to stand.

“No,” Rey said in a small voice. “We can’t go.”

This was the first time either of them had activated their contingency plan. Immediately he leaned forward and grabbed the armrests of her chair to drag her toward him. He had moved to the edge of his seat to frame her between his legs so they were as close as possible.

“Show me,” he said.

She did, though she had to remember the strength she had seen in him to pluck up the courage to do so. She felt him rifle through; the memories came to the surface easily because the feeling of him inside her in her vulnerable state was reminiscent of the first time.

Both of her hands were in his by the time he was done. “You were right to feel that way. Of course I don’t want you to be like me. But even at my worst I would never have hurt you. I’d rip the entire galaxy apart first. Do you want to see?”

She shook her head, because this was something she already knew. He was still hovering inside her, and he flitted over the confirmation of her confidence before withdrawing completely.

“I don’t know what else to say,” he said slowly. His thumbs brushed over her knuckles. “I want to say that this is one of the things that we’ll never resolve no matter how much we talk about it. That we may as well put it behind us. That it doesn’t matter anymore. What… what do you think? Am I just being cowardly?”

She turned her hands to twist all their fingers together. “You’re not a coward. I think you’re right. Enough has changed that those people in the forest… they’re us, but it’s not us. Does that make sense?”

“Not at all,” he said. For some reason that was the answer she needed, so she stood to indicate that she was ready to leave.

He began to lead her to the hallway, but instead she pulled him to his bedroom. “I’m staying here tonight,” she announced, sounding a lot more confident than she felt. They hadn’t shared a bed since the night he had been manic. “Can I have a robe?” Her own bedroom was on the other side of the wall and it would have been a simple matter to get her own clothes and come back, but that wasn’t what she wanted to do.

Ben left to shower, and she was glad to have a few minutes to herself to deliberate over how many layers of clothes she should take off. Eventually, frustrated, she removed everything except her underwear and tied the robe tightly around her mostly-bare skin. She rationalised that he ought to be comfortable with this, since he had clothed her the same way on the night of the coronation.

She kicked her clothes into a pile at the foot of the bed before realising that he would probably expect them to be folded neatly. Hastily she bent to rearrange them, but then the bathroom door was opening and she had no choice but to straighten and pretend that everything was exactly as she had intended.

His eyes travelled down her body to the pile at her feet. He looked at it for a few seconds too long. She blushed because of the mess, and her nakedness; and then she blushed harder when she realised she absolutely should not be blushing, because this was Ben and he had so far accepted everything about her.

They got into their respective sides of the bed and he turned toward her to stroke his hand up and down her arm. It was such a sweet gesture that she felt the paradoxical need to tell him why he should stop.

“Um, Ben? There’s a slight chance that what you’re doing doesn’t actually help me fall asleep.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Do you remember that morning when I told you it did?”

“Very clearly.”

“Well, there’s -- and, look, it wasn’t completely dishonest, okay -- but there’s a chance that maybe I was exaggerating, just a bit, just so I could… because I wanted an excuse to touch you. Just a bit. Maybe.”

“I’m shocked,” he said drily.

Her blush dissolved and she glared at him. “Why are you bothering with it then, if you’re so clever?”

“It’s an excuse, as you said. Though now that you mention it, I did promise to be less boring next time.”

His hand left her arm and moved to her face where he lingered for a few moments to trace the shell of her ear and line of her jaw, and she began to think that perhaps this could lull her to sleep, but then he moved to travel down her neck. Rey thought he would stop there, but he didn’t. He moved down to follow the edge of his robe where it crossed in a V-shape over her chest.

It reminded her strongly of the way he had touched her back, when they had danced. She didn’t bother to hide her reaction this time. He smirked at her, because of course that was his intention. Then, brazenly, his palm rested against her chest and he slid his fingertips underneath the lapel to stroke her sternum, in flagrant disregard of the ‘no tempting’ rule.

“You broke it first,” he said lazily. Somehow moments like these, when he deciphered her exact thoughts without any assistance, were even more intimate than the ones when he was literally inside her own mind and examining her memories.

Rey had to swallow twice. “I did not,” she said stubbornly.

“Really? So then it wasn’t you who demanded to sleep in my bed and then took off all your clothes?”

His perfectly smug expression thrilled and enraged her, so she reached across to fumble with the sash at his waist and opened his own robe so she could slide her hand across his abdomen. He hadn’t expected this at all, and his surprise gave her the opportunity to nudge him over onto his back and straddle him. One hand pushed down on his shoulder, both to pin him down and to stabilise herself, and the other ran languidly up and down the center of his chest in exaggeration of what he had been doing to hers.

“If I’m going to be accused of something, I may as well do it properly,” she thought aloud.

Ben did nothing except stare at her in open awe, so she moved on to touch the rest of him. There were a lot of lines, so she traced all of them. When she travelled down to circle his belly button he exhaled sharply; and when she brushed lightly over his nipple his nostrils flared; and when she stroked slowly up his side he squirmed.

That was odd. So she did it again, and when she hit the spot he squirmed again. The third time he giggled, and then very quickly bit his lip to silence himself.

“What?” Rey said, completely indelicately.

“Ticklish,” he said. She stared at him, and he stared back, and after a moment of this his expression changed from awe to curiosity to pure mischief.

He sat up abruptly, and she was disappointed to learn that her attempt to keep him pinned had been completely ineffectual. Her arms looped around his neck automatically. He opened her robe, and she forced herself not to blush, but he didn’t look at her anyway. His eyes stayed locked on hers as he worked one hand underneath the fabric and firmly gripped her hip. He travelled up her side, and his touch softened with every inch so that when he reached the skin next to her breast -- the exact spot that had caused him to react -- it was feather-light. The sensation shot through her body and she squirmed away involuntarily, squeaking.

Oh.

She expected him to continue with his retribution a second and third time, but instead he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her flush against him. “You really are mine,” he whispered, and bit his lip again as if he were trying to keep himself from smiling too widely.

She nodded, and the movement rubbed their noses together. Having so much of his bare skin pressed against hers was simultaneously the most comforting and the most exciting thing she had ever experienced. She warred with herself, because the urge to rock her hips against him was maddening, but the moment was otherwise innocent and lovely. The earnest look on his face made her decide to stick with innocent.

She could have stayed like that forever, but he said “We need to sleep or we’ll be breaking another rule.”

He lowered himself back down and she clambered off to lay beside him. Her robe was still undone, and when he looked over his eyes roamed freely -- Rey allowed it, since she had seen his chest several times now, so it was only fair -- before he reached to re-tie her sash for her.

“Goodnight,” he said as he settled in, sounding completely unaffected.

“You’re a liar,” she pointed out, because she had felt the proof of how affected he had been. The firm bulge she had felt pressed against her had been a completely new phenomenon, but some primordial instinct inside her had known exactly what it meant.

His eyes were already closed, so he grinned up at the ceiling. “I’m simply a law-abiding citizen. Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Rey woke before him, surprising herself. She didn’t exactly have a lot of experience with his sleep pattern, but he had woken first the other times they had shared a bed.

He looked different, and she reached out to rub her thumb down his jaw, and then back up to explore the scratchy feeling. His eyes had opened at first contact, and he watched her curiously.

“Your face is spiky,” she said as an explanation.

“I need to shave,” he said, and immediately left the bed to do so.

After a minute she decided to follow him into the bathroom. She sat up on the counter and swung her legs back and forth. Her heels made a dull ‘thud’ every time they bumped up against the cupboard door below. She knew this was something that would annoy him, but she continued anyway, being deliberately obnoxious about it, just to see if he would react.

For a moment he didn’t, and then he slid his eyes from his own reflection to lock his gaze with hers. Her movements slowed and then stopped. He looked back to himself, and she could tell he was trying not to smile. He had moved on from the intricate curves around his lips and was now scraping at the flats of his cheeks.

She wriggled closer. “Can I try?”

“So long as you promise to be more delicate than you were the last time you had a blade near my face.” His tone was light, and he held the razor out to her, handle-first, without any hesitation. But Rey found herself unable to do anything except look at it.

When she didn’t take it from him he glanced over to her and his face fell.

“I was joking.”

“I know,” said Rey, and she did. But he had hit a nerve that had been stripped raw the night before.

He made an impatient noise and began to work at his face more quickly, ‘tsk’ing at himself when he slipped while angling around the curve of his jaw. He leant forward to inspect the tiny spot of red that had bloomed.

“It’s nothing,” he said when Rey reached out for him. He was right; the nick was two millimeters at most. But she felt the urge to try.

She concentrated as hard as she could, though she wasn’t entirely sure what she was supposed to be concentrating on, and pressed the pad of her thumb over the wound. Now what? She tried imagining that it didn’t exist.

Her thumb lifted and she was unsurprised (but still disappointed) to find that her effort was unsuccessful. She shrugged apologetically, not quite sure what else to do or say.

Ben shooed her away gently and finished. When his face was clean and dry he kissed her temple and said “Thank you.”

His cheek was smooth and cool, so she couldn’t resist pressing her own against it. “I think you look very handsome even with the scar,” she said diplomatically, and the coolness dissolved into intense warmth.

That night, without any discussion whatsoever about the matter, Rey followed Ben to his bedroom and waited while he showered. Then they walked to her room together and slept in her bed. It made sense, because she had been the one talking that night. So it was only natural that every night that followed they continued the pattern and took turns sleeping in one bed or the other.

Orax joined them for dinner one evening to present a ten-year plan for a gradual integration of Outer Rim systems into the structure of the Empire. Rey thought it was brilliant, and was ashamed to admit that she had not expected something like this from the taciturn warrior. She could tell Ben was impressed, too, but he tactfully turned aside the plan and suggested they revisit it next year when things were ‘more stable’. Rey bit her lip hard enough to draw blood in her effort to silence herself from pointing out that this plan was the only way things would ever be ‘more stable’ in the region. But Ben had other ideas, as she was unfortunately aware.

Hux was still skulking about the halls of the Palace, and Rey learned to surveil and predict his movements both as part of the training Orax provided her and as an effort to avoid the smarmy sleemo as much as possible. But a month after the coronation it became very clear to her that Hux was trying to run into her, and after a couple of days of near-misses her curiosity took over and she marched herself to his offices on the thirty-seventh floor.

“I’m here to see General Hux,” she announced to the surprised officer in the entrance chamber. There were three doors leading out of the room, and Rey didn’t know which one he might be behind, but she made sure to make her voice loud enough to travel through all of them.

The young man blinked. He couldn’t have been any older than Rey herself, and that surprised her; but then she supposed that she had a lot more responsibility than he did.

“Is the Grand Marshal expecting you, ma’am?”

Rey smiled pleasantly. “No, he isn’t.”

“Then I’m afraid I’ll--” he broke off as a panel in front of him tinged. “Of course, right this way, please!”

He leapt from his desk and ushered her, with great pomp, four short steps to a door behind him. He swung it open and gestured for her to enter, saluting. She obeyed, and the door closed behind her with a strange finality.

The room she had entered wasn’t what she was expecting. This wasn’t a meeting room, or an audience chamber. It was a private office. The only chair in the room was the one Hux was sitting in. He stood, slowly.

Rey immediately turned to the right and began to inspect a display case on the wall. It contained a collection of badges and accolades, as well as some folded banners and trinkets that she assumed were Imperial artefacts -- very different from the ones she had once claimed to ‘collect’ on Jakku.

She said nothing, and neither did he, and this continued for eight solid minutes. She had made a lap around the entire room, including behind his chair, and was impressed when he didn’t move his head to follow her progress. Rey had decided when she entered the room that she couldn’t break -- and she had no reason to, because of course she was now well-accustomed to Ben Solo-level stubbornness.

But Hux was familiar with Kylo Ren-level stubbornness, and perhaps that gave him a slight edge.

When she was facing his desk again she pulled out her commlink to check her messages, and send a few replies. The representative from Ogem wanted to discuss a proposed update to their trade agreement, so she forwarded the request to Boz and asked him to schedule a meeting. She may as well let Arin know that they’d be searching level twenty-one the next morning. And a quick “Thank you” to Ben for today’s flower.

“I have work to do,” Hux said finally.

Rey looked up at a spot above his forehead. “Me too. So why don’t you tell me what it is that you want?”

“You came here.”

“I’ll leave then,” she said easily. But as she began to turn he spoke again.

“Things seem to be going well,” he said slyly.

Rey sighed. “What is it this time?”

She thought she would be relieved when he dropped the pretense. Instead she was chilled. He whipped around his desk to stand in front of her, and in her surprise at his audacity she made the mistake of allowing eye contact.

“Refugees are arriving from the Outer Rim every day. One hundred and seventy five million at last estimate.”

She glared. “And it is your soldiers in the Outer Rim who are causing them to become so afraid that they’re abandoning their homes. Weren’t you supposed to join them? And, you know, go away?”

“I don’t have soldiers,” he retorted. “The Empire has soldiers.”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Rey said, already deciding not to fall into this trap again. Even as her anxiety level peaked she felt a stab of malicious satisfaction knowing that Hux had gone to the trouble to try to plan this. That he recognised her as a threat.

But he had anticipated her resolve. “I know you know. And I know that you know the information I’ve provided is accurate. There’s one thing I don’t know, which is: how will you live with yourself if you ignore the knowledge you now have? Do you know?”

She didn’t. So, just as she was sure Hux had predicted, she travelled straight back up to level forty-four to confront Ben.

“Again, Rey?” he groaned.

“I know he’s manipulating me,” she said stubbornly, and hardened her glare when he raised a sardonic eyebrow. “But that doesn’t change the facts.”

“You’re right,” he said, and reached out to hold her waist. “What do you want?”

Rey put her hands on his upper arms and worried the fabric of his sleeves, conflicted. “I don’t want it to be like this. I don’t want you to do things just because I want them. I want you to want them because you know they’re right.”

“I won’t,” he said. “I won’t ever want to help these people the way you do; I won’t ever care about them. But I care about giving you what you want. That’s the way it’s meant to be. That’s why it works. The end result is the same, Rey.”

Something inside her told her she needed to be satisfied with this. To compromise. But she couldn’t help the way her gut twisted.

“The refugees are only part of the problem. There wouldn’t be any if the war stopped. You said it would. That first day. ‘The cycle of war and fragile peace’, you said. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” he confirmed. “I also remember promising to rid the region of organised crime; and I remember telling you it wouldn’t be a bloodless endeavour.”

She tightened her grip on his arms so that he wouldn’t release her; unnecessarily, because he had no intention of letting go. They held each other as stubbornly as they held to their opposing ideals.

“We want different things. Meet me in the middle and we can have everything,” he urged, and his eyes were so bright and brown and beautiful that her gut twisted even more, all the way around again and again until it finally settled back where it started and she had no choice but to comply.

He released enough funds to allow her to help D’arial Tser train recruits to train recruits to attempt to aid the influx. It wasn’t enough. In between sessions the two of them continued making plans for a shelter on Jakku, enlisting one hundred and eighty of the Coruscanti poor who were bright and eager to help. Two weeks later she interrupted Ben after lunch to tell him about the plans.

“It sounds fine,” he said mildly when she was done. “You don’t need my approval for this, Rey. That planet and those funds belong to you.”

Rey took a deep, steadying breath. “I know. I’m telling you the details because you nee-- no, that’s not true. I’m telling you because I’m stalling because I don’t want to tell you what I need to tell you, which is that I need to go to Jakku and oversee this because… because I need to know that it works. So I can do it other places. It won’t be long. A month. Maybe. At least.” It sounded like an eternity to her ears.

“Alright,” he said. And then, “I’ll miss you terribly,” and it was so simple and honest that her eyes pricked with tears.

That evening at dinner he reached out to touch her cheek every few minutes, it seemed, and each time she was compelled to turn her head and kiss his palm, because he smiled when she did.

He insisted on her using his shuttle and taking her guards with her. On the fifteen-minute walk from the Palace doors to the landing pad he held her hand and told her about the first time he had met Ryal. Ben had been fourteen years old, still trying to figure out how to build his lightsaber, and would burn himself three times a day when the kyber crystal discharged unexpectedly. Ryal had just arrived (Ben carefully skipped over where they were and how ‘arrivals’ happened) and reached out without hesitation to soothe the latest burn, before they had even been properly introduced.

He kissed her cheek when they reached the shuttle, and she wanted more than ever before to tell him how fiercely she loved him. “Ben…”

“Don’t say it,” he said suddenly. “Not as a goodbye.”

“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” she said stubbornly, even though the look on his face revealed that he did.

He smiled, a little sadly, as he lightly rolled her hair between his fingers. It was long enough now for her to pull it into a single braid and over her shoulder. “We don’t always want completely different things.”

Chapter Text

The one-and-a-half day journey to Jakku seemed impossibly slow and dull after the complete whirlwind her life had become over the preceding four months. The shuttle was occupied only by herself, Captain Jober Tavson, and her six guards. Her one hundred and eighty staff and all of the building and relief supplies they would need were following behind on a cruiser.

Catching up with Jober had killed a few hours, and she could always squeeze a few minutes of conversation out of the guards, but apart from that there wasn’t really anything to do. She had reviewed her planning and budget documents so many times that she could recite them by heart.

She spent a great deal of time thinking about Ben, of course, though she had no way to contact him while they were still in hyperspace; and apparently the Force was tied to the same constraints, because she never saw him.

And so Rey shocked herself greatly by smiling when she finally saw Jakku. It was mid-morning when she disembarked on Plaintive Hand Plateau to be greeted by Constable Zuvio. Rey had seen the Kyuzo man many times during her youth, but he had never spoken to her before she had reached out to him from Coruscant to discuss her ambitions. That was a good thing: if Zuvio ever had something to say to a scavenger it was usually a precursor to a warrant for their arrest. But he was quite possibly the most respected individual on Jakku, so she needed him.

Rey and Zuvio exchanged pleasantries while her team spilled out of the cruiser. Boz Nestino wandered over to join them, along with his wife Kalira and their son Elio. The boy was very young, thirteen or so, but Rey wasn’t about to split up a family and so she had happily agreed to let him come along. It suddenly occurred to her that the trio were too fair and blonde to be able to quickly acclimate to the desert.

Zuvio led them to their agreed-upon building site along Carbon Ridge. It was the ideal location because many scavengers used the nearby Pilgrim’s Road to reach the ship graveyards; and it was far enough from Niima Outpost for them to not be scared away by the ever-looming threat of Unkar Plutt, who no doubt hated Rey’s plan of breaking his hold on the scavengers by feeding them.

They surveyed the area and made small talk as the recruits set up tents and pavilions for their use during the building process. They required frequent breaks, because by now it was approaching midday and the merciless Jakku sun was a brand new phenomenon to these people who had spent a good portion of their lives below-ground. But no one complained.

When they were done Rey rallied them all around her to thank them again for coming, and announced that Captain Tavson would be taking small groups into Niima Outpost each day so that they could get acquainted with the surroundings and explore the marketplace. They would only be taking four of them at a time so as not to overwhelm the locals with the new arrivals, but everyone would get a turn. This cheered the crowd considerably, because although their wages were modest most of them had never had a disposable income before.

She travelled to Niima now with Zuvio, Kalira and Elio Nestino (Boz stayed behind to oversee the settling-in process), and two others. Elio pointed out the Sitter and asked about him, and she told an embellished version of the man’s mysterious history.

The boy nodded a little dismissively. “Next time you can tell me the version that’s not for kids,” he said, not impolitely, and Rey had to smile and admit to herself that she had underestimated him. It was the sort of thing Ben might have said at that age, she thought, with a little pang of longing at the reminder of him.

Suddenly her hearing blurred and he was beside her in the speeder, and Rey thought that perhaps she was correct in thinking they weren’t able to find each other through hyperspace. He smiled broadly when he saw her, indicating that he was alone, and she gave him a little helpless shrug in return to communicate that she wasn’t. He seemed content just to watch her for several minutes before blinking away.

Niima Outpost was different. Parts of it had been blown to bits the day she had left (by the pilots she had murdered on her way out, a treacherous part of her reminded) and these had been hastily rebuilt but still looked very temporary, as if the entire settlement might be blown away by a desert wind at any moment.

The recruits seemed impressed, though, and Rey supposed that they hadn’t ever seen anything like this before. They headed toward the market while she and Zuvio made their way to Unkar’s place. Rey scanned the faces at the sand baths, trying not to make eye contact. She was very aware of her crisp grey tunic and cloak.

It was now mid-afternoon and the line at Unkar’s window was at its peak for the day, but he unceremoniously slammed it down when he saw them approach. Rey mumbled “sorry” to the waiting supplicants while Zuvio used an authoritative tone to inform them that business would resume shortly.

A beaten-looking assistant droid appeared from a nearby doorway and ushered them inside.

“Young Rey,” Unkar said, and her skin crawled as it had every day for thirteen years. But not anymore, she told herself stubbornly, reminding herself of who she now was and why she was here.

“Unkar Plutt,” she began, assuming an air of what she hoped was authority. “No doubt you are aware that some changes are about to occur. You have several options--”

“Always straight to business with you isn’t it, my dea--”

Rey held up a hand. “Allow me to finish. You have several options: you may hire your ‘employees’ at a fair wage; you may continue your current freelance arrangement at a fixed pricing scale which I will oversee; or you may find some other avenue of employment for yourself.” She paused for a moment. “Which option will you choose?”

Unkar regarded her for a moment before turning his considerable size toward Zuvio. “Surely you know, Constable, that my business model hasn’t broken any laws.”

“I make the law,” Rey said, and the weight of her lightsaber at her hip helped her keep her voice steady. “Which option will you choose?”

“This is nonsense,” Unkar was saying now, to no one in particular. “The First Order has never interfered with benign local business before!”

Rey glared. “Which option will you choose?”

All of Unkar’s many chins wobbled with the force of his contemplative swallow. “I suppose I’ll take on a few of the more successful scavengers as full-time employees.”

“Good. We’ll work out the details later,” Rey said. “For today: every one of those people out there waiting for you will be given seven portions, in addition to the worth of whatever it is they’ve brought with them.” She paused before leaving. “There was a woman who was here before. She was… old. I never spoke to her.”

Unkar and Zuvio both regarded her with blank stares.

“She’s not out there now,” Rey said. “What happened to her?”

Finally Zuvio said “you might mean Sia. Haven’t seen her in a while.”

“Where does she live?” Rey asked.

Neither of them had any meaningful response.

On her way back to the speeder she stopped several scavengers, all of whom seemed shocked to be addressed, and asked them if they knew where Sia was. None of them did.

She’s dead, Rey thought. Or dying somewhere. That’s the only reason she wouldn’t be here. It was getting late. She climbed back into the speeder beside Jober and waited for the others, feeling numb.

Rey found her own tent easily -- it was flanked by two of her guards -- and lay down on the pallet bed that had been made up for her. She turned her commlink over and over in her hands restlessly, promising herself she wouldn’t use it. She didn’t want to need him so badly. She had lasted thirteen years on her own; one day wasn’t going to hurt her. She would be fine.

Her eyes apparently disagreed because they filled with tears anyway. And her mind, or her soul, or whatever it was that connected her to Ben must have disagreed as well, because her senses warped and he was with her.

“What’s happened?” he said, propping himself up on an elbow to look at her face.

“Sia’s dead.” She whispered because she wasn’t sure how soundproof the canvas walls of her tent were.

“A friend of yours?”

She shook her head, and the tears fell loose. “No. I never spoke to her. I don’t even know if that was her name. She was an old lady.”

Ben looked as if he were trying very hard to maintain a neutral expression. “You’re crying because an old lady that you never spoke to has died? The same thing happens millions of times every day, Rey.”

“No, she was…” she struggled to put the enormity of the connection into words. “She was me. What I would have been. She was old and alone and she came to the sand baths every day and she didn’t ever do anything except scavenge and scrub and wait and go to bed hungry. That was me. That would have been me, until I was an old lady too, if I hadn’t heard BB-8 that day.”

“No,” he said firmly. “Absolutely not. That never would have been your fate. I would have found you.”

She had to laugh at his innocent certainty. It came out choked, like a sob. “And how exactly would you have found me?”

He smiled and reached for her hand, laying his in the air so it appeared to rest on top of hers, though of course it couldn’t possibly make contact. “That’s an odd question coming from the woman who appears to be laying in bed beside me even though she is, in actuality, millions of light years away.”

“I think I called you here,” she said, wonderingly. “Earlier, too. Both times I was thinking about you.”

“Well that’s not fair at all, then, because I’ve been thinking about you all day, and you didn’t come.” He raised his hand reflexively to stroke her cheek and gave a little start of surprise when he couldn’t. The frown was real now. “I don’t want to be separated from you for four whole weeks.”

She leaned up on an elbow to almost-press her forehead to his. Then she asked about the others, because she missed them too, and she learned that Ryal had begun planning a grand tour of his territories and Arin had liked the idea so much that she insisted she would do the same. Each of them would be gone for weeks and months.

“Stay with me until I fall asleep,” she commanded imperiously when they both began to yawn and blink.

He raised his eyebrows. “Interesting. You become bossy, it seems, after gaining control of twenty percent of the galaxy.”

His light-hearted tone sent a thrill through her. “Okay, maybe I like it a little,” she admitted. “You should have seen the look on Unkar’s face when I did that thing that you do.”

“What do you mean?”

“That thing that you do. You know,” she held her hand up in front of her. “‘Allow me to finish’,” she said in the deepest voice she could manage.

He laughed in surprise. “You’re mad. That’s not a ‘thing that I do’. I don’t have ‘things that I do’.”

“You do,” she said earnestly. Her cheeks were beginning to ache from the size of her smile, but she couldn’t help it, because she had never been more delighted by anything than she was by his playful moods. “Everyone does! I bet I do.”

“Well…” He thought for a moment, watching her with an expression of such lazy indulgence that her smile threatened to grow even wider, because something in his eyes made her feel beautiful.

Suddenly he grinned. “Yes. That.” He scrunched his nose.

“Huh?”

He scrunched his nose again. “That’s a ‘thing you do’. When you’re very happy, or you’re trying not to smile, or both.”

She blushed, and she must have done the scrunching again, because he chuckled and tried to bop his nose against hers. “You’ll have wrinkles there when you’re an old lady,” he said teasingly.

“You’ll have to tell me when you see them,” she said. “And--”

“I will,” he promised solemnly during her pause.

She held her hand up, assuming a very serious expression. “Allow me to finish. And I’ll tell you when you have them right here,” she almost-poked between his eyebrows, “from frowning all the time.”

He frowned now. “Maybe I was correct in not allowing you to finish, if you were just going to say hurtful things.”

“You started it!” she accused, forgetting to whisper. “And--”

“I did no--”

He blinked away.

Inspiration struck her and she searched the bedcovers for her forgotten commlink. Finally she found it and began tapping a message to him: ‘You didn’t allow--’ but she was interrupted by an incoming transmission.

It was from Ben, of course. ‘You didn’t allow me to finish.’

She flipped over onto her stomach to smother her giggle-shriek into her pillow.

When she regained some humanity she erased her half-written message and paused for a minute to consider what else she wanted to write. ‘I love you’; ‘You’re beautiful’; ‘I want you to see all my old lady wrinkles someday’; ‘I want to feel you inside me’; ‘You make me so happy’. Instead she wrote ‘You’re extraordinary,’ hoping that he would know that she meant all of the other things together.

His response was almost instantaneous. ‘You’re extraordinary. Goodnight, kira.

So she had no choice but to reply ‘Goodnight, Ben’ and turn restlessly in bed until the very early hours of the morning.

Chapter Text

They hadn’t made any official announcements yet, but news travelled quickly on Jakku, especially among the scavengers. Before they had even completed the foundations they were getting visits from curious passersby on their way to Niima. Rey fed them and gently explained that she would offer them payment if they would help, but they all declined and hurried off with loaves of bread under their arms. She hadn’t really expected anything different.

They were right to be suspicious, because she didn’t truly have a long-term plan for them. She couldn’t feed and house the entire population indefinitely; the degree of poverty on Jakku meant that she received minimal taxes from the planet. They needed something more. Some sort of industry. Something to help her support them.

“It’s not your job to support them,” Ben’s voice said. She sat on her bed and held her commlink up with one hand as the other one cradled her chin. “They need to support themselves. The relief house is a good idea because it breaks the cycle. Once they’re free from spending every moment scavenging and hauling their finds they’ll be able to form some sort of community. They’ll probably start by bartering -- sharing supplies in exchange for help building, farming, and raising livestock -- and with time, and luck, they might prosper.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning, if you knew all along?” Rey snapped.

“I knew you would figure it out,” he said simply.

“But I didn’t!”

“You did. Just now.”

Rey stared incredulously down at the piece of plast that represented him. “No, Ben, I had no clue what I was doing, and then you told me what would happen.”

Ben sighed. “You were almost there. I just helped you put together the last little bit.”

This was a habit of his. He liked to act as though every good idea and thought and action originated from her in some way. She enjoyed the praise that came with it, but it was something they would have to work on.

Two weeks passed quickly, because she was busy, and because she was genuinely enjoying it. She spoke to Ben every evening, and sometimes saw him during the day. They didn’t discuss anything difficult, of course, because that wouldn’t be fair when they were physically separated. Arin sent her a few quick messages each day about the daily goings-on in the Palace; nothing much seemed to be changing in her absence.

One morning she entered the foyer of the quickly-rising Imperial House and was pleased to find that the air conditioning was finally operational. This would no doubt draw in more visitors who were desperate to escape the heat, if only for a few moments. She planned to add four more floors to the building, with emergency accommodation. But the success of completing the first big step in her project made her giddy, so she told her crew to take the day off.

She watched from the doorway as they began an impromptu game of chin-bret. She wondered idly how much it would cost to fertilise the earth around the House enough to allow grass to grow. Recreation wasn’t something she had considered in her plans, but as she watched the recruits laugh and bond she realised it was important.

As the sun moved across the sky they started getting the usual afternoon ‘rush’ of people timidly checking in on their way back from the Starship Graveyard. Rey and Boz took the time to greet as many as they could, and began taking notes on their names and locations, and any skills or interests that they may have. She was sure that most of them lied about the details, but they had no choice but to start trying.

A young girl -- no more than eleven -- approached with a boy even younger than her. Rey saw the scraps of metal she carried in a threadbare net on her back and knew that they were all worthless. Rey took them aside, and was pleased and relieved to discover that the girl hadn’t yet grown cynical and evasive.

“You could stay with us, if you like,” Rey said, speaking to her as if she were an adult and being careful not to sound as if she were pressuring her. “There’s lots of work to be done, but it’s easier if we have more people.”

The girl chewed on her lip with teeth that were still too big for her mouth, and looked down at her brother. “We can come back tomorrow. But we should sleep at our place. It’s safe.”

Rey’s gut twisted with worry for them, but she had been this girl once and knew that pushing wouldn’t help. “Okay,” she said with fake optimism. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then!”

She looked down at the boy as she walked them toward the exit. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked him.

“I like birds!” he said emphatically, and she grinned, remembering that Ben had said the same thing (albeit with a little more dignity).

“You could have lots of birds!” Rey said encouragingly. “And if you’re very nice to them they’ll lay lots of eggs for you and you can give them to all of your friends.”

He seemed excited at the prospect. The girl watched on curiously.

Rey glanced up away from them and did a double-take, because a man and woman were now heading toward her, and they were the last people that she had expected to see. Truthfully she hadn’t even remembered the details of what they looked like, but their identity was somehow unmistakable.

The smile melted from Rey’s face as her mother approached her and reached out to cup both of her shoulders.

“There’s our girl!” she said, beaming. “Look at you! All grown up!”

“Hello,” Rey said stiffly.

Her father reached over to place an awkward, sloppy kiss on her cheek. “Hello, sweetheart. So tall. And so generous! Food and fresh sheets for everyone, they’re saying!”

Rey couldn’t meet his gaze, because his hazel eyes made her want to gouge her own out of her head.

“Hello,” she said again.

Her mother gave her shoulders a little shake. “Is that all you have to say to your folks, then?”

“You left me,” Rey pointed out, as if she were pointing out an interesting part of the decor of the room.

Her mother gave an exaggerated pout. “I know, sweetheart, what an awful business that was. But we couldn’t feed you, see. You understand. But look at you now! You did so well! I always knew you would. You were smart enough to dig up that walker even though you were a wee little thing.”

Rey stared at her, replaying the statement over and over in her mind to ensure she understood the full depth of the cruelty. “You-- you knew. You knew where I was. You knew.” Her mind wrapped around the concept even though it burned her. The wound smoked and filled her thoughts with a dark fog.

Her father stepped in. “Well of course we did, sweetheart. We listened in to all the gossip. Had to check up on you. Had to make sure you were doing okay.” He tapped her elbow and then turned to examine the rest of the room with scavenger’s eyes.

I was hungry for thirteen years, Rey thought, with an odd detachment. I wasn’t ‘doing okay’, I needed you. She had thought they were dead. She wished they had been dead. Her lightsaber hung, cool and heavy, at her hip. She could reach for it, and it could all be corrected in an instant. ‘Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.

Instead she politely showed them to the kitchen (since that was clearly what they came for) and left, brushing off Jober and her guards and insisting that she take the speeder by herself.

She found herself outside her AT-AT, but didn’t remember deciding to come here. Going inside seemed impossibly difficult, so instead she sat heavily in the sand and watched the sun set. The temperature dropped quickly as the sky darkened, and over a decade of experience told her that she needed to either leave or go inside, because the sudden change in the atmosphere always brought with it a rush of wind that whipped sand through the air with enough force to sting her cheeks.

But she wasn’t ready to move yet. She remembered Lissa musing about how she still felt like her daughter was a part of her. But maybe it wasn’t like that for all parents. Maybe some of them weren’t cut out for it, especially if the children were difficult. Maybe Rey had been a horrible kid. It seemed unnatural that anyone could dislike a child, but maybe she had to be a parent to understand.

Her mind’s eye conjured a boy with dark floppy curls and a freckled nose, and she instantly fell in love with him. He wasn’t even real, but she would do anything for him. She would never, ever leave him. Not for a second. He could be the dumbest, most irritating kid in the world, and she wouldn’t have cared. Though, realistically speaking, it was impossible for him to be either of those things, because he would of course be as bright and sweet and earnest as his father.

Rey’s logic hadn’t quite caught up to her fantasy until this point. Now that it did she blushed, because Ben hadn’t even kissed her, and yet here she was daydreaming about a child that they may or may not have. But it felt right.

She called him.

“I miss you,” he said. He didn’t bother with a greeting.

Neither did she. “I saw my parents.”

A short pause. “That must have been difficult.” His voice was cautious and clear. “How did you find the site?”

He thought they were dead. ‘In a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert’. “No, not like that,” Rey said, disturbed by how easy it was to keep her voice calm. “They’re alive. I saw them when they came to the Imperial House for food. They seemed pleasantly unsurprised to see me.”

“I understand,” he said calmly. “And where are you now?” His voice sounded very far away, because of course he was. Millions of light years. She heard a faint buzz of whatever activity was going on in his background and forced herself to remember that he was hers and that she wasn’t alone.

“In the desert. Outside my old… house.”

“Alright,” he said. “Alright. I’d like you to go back to the camp and have a little something to eat. A piece of fruit, maybe; whatever you like. And then change into your sleepwear and get into bed. Will you do that for me?”

It all sounded very simple when he said it like that. “Okay. I’ll do that.”

“You’ll do what?” he prompted gently.

She took a deep breath. “I’ll go back, and eat, and change, and sleep.”

“Thank you. Do you want me to stay on the line?” His voice fizzled and echoed as the connection wavered.

“No,” she decided. “I need a break from… everything. Thinking. People.”

“That’s fine. Call me when you wake up, please. No matter how late it is.”

“Okay.” For some reason this was the moment that her voice chose to finally crack, and she couldn’t muffle the sob that escaped. “Sorry,” she gasped, even though she wasn’t sure what she was apologising for.

“You’re doing wonderfully, Rey. You’re so strong. One day none of this will mean anything to us. I promise.”

She wiped her nose on her sleeve inelegantly. “But today…”

“Today’s almost over,” he said, interrupting. “Today will be done, as soon as you’re finished with those four things. Just four. And then you’ll feel much better.”

The steady rumble of his voice was so soothing that she thought she might be able to skip straight to step four and fall asleep right here in the sand. But she forced herself to stand and move toward the speeder. She couldn’t resist looking back at the walker for a few minutes before finally leaving.

She truly did feel a little better when she woke the next morning, and told him so.

“Good,” he said. “Have you have breakfast?”

“No,” Rey replied. Her blanket was still twisted around her from sleep. “I called you as soon as I woke up, just like you said.”

“What does your hair look like?” he asked suddenly.

She wasn’t sure how to answer that. She pulled a few strands around to check, and found them looking exactly the same as they had for the last twenty years. “Um. Brown?”

He made a noise that may have been a sigh. “Yes. Of course. I’ll speak with you in a few hours.”

She felt almost normal as she went about her morning. The second floor of the House was now under construction, but she asked Boz to take a break from his supervisory duties and they retreated to a room she had claimed as her ‘office’. Even though her focus was on Jakku at the moment the rest of her planets required her attention, too. They did a quick inventory and found no new pressing issues.

Ben kept his promise and called again three hours later. She reassured him that she was feeling okay. He checked in again, three hours later, like clockwork.

“I’m fine, really,” Rey promised. “You don’t have to keep doing this. I’ll talk to you tonight, at our usual time.”

He agreed, sounding reluctant.

Three hours later Ryal called her. Very subtle, Rey thought, but she had only spoken to him once in the preceding two weeks and so she enjoyed the conversation anyway.

“We miss you,” he said easily, after describing the plans he was undertaking for his tour. Rey had to wander further away from the group she had excused herself from when her commlink began to beep, so that no one would hear the way her breath hitched.

“Did Ben tell you to call me? Did he tell you… anything?”

“It’s not like he held a blaster to my head,” Ryal said, with his standard light humour. “Not that he would ever debase himself by touching a blaster. But he said you were homesick and that now was a good time of day because you wouldn’t be too busy.”

That last part had been a lie, because it was now mid-afternoon, and Ben was well aware that it was her busiest time of day.

“He’s right,” Rey lied. “Thank you. I miss you too.” That part was true.

She slowly meandered her way back to the foyer, tucking her commlink away safely. It had never occurred to her to wonder if the Knights cared at all about her absence. She missed them, because she was away from home, but they all still had each other.

Home. The word had flitted into her thoughts easily, without her recognising the significance of it. But it was true: she was homesick. Coruscant was her home, and the Knights were her family, and they wanted her to come back. They were waiting for her. Rey knew all about waiting, but she had never been on this side of it. She needed to duck into her office and have a quick cry before facing the second half of the afternoon rush.

Her parents returned as part of the daily influx. They studiously avoided her, having apparently realised that making awkward small-talk with their offspring wasn’t a necessary step in obtaining the food and supplies they wanted. That was fine. They didn’t want her, but her real family did.

Chapter Text

“Today will be done, as soon as you’re finished with those four things. Just four. And then you’ll feel much better.”

It took him a few tries to cut the transmission, because his fingers felt fat and clumsy. The situation felt desperately urgent, but he knew he needed to approach it calmly, so he forced himself into meditation.

He emerged thirty minutes later with a clear mind and a slow, steady heart rate. He began to place the necessary pieces of his plan together, lightly, to see how they fit around each other. It was impossible for him to fix them in place, because there was still a large unknown right in the middle of them, and he couldn’t fill it in until he spoke to her again.

He summoned Ryal to him first. He would be breaking the sleep rule tonight, but this was an extraordinary circumstance, so she would surely forgive him.

“I’m going to Jakku,” Ben said, without bothering with pleasantries.

Ryal nodded slowly.

“I need you to stay here,” Ben continued. Ryal was planning to leave the capital within the next few days, but that was no longer possible.

Ryal was still nodding, watching the desk between them and looking pensive.

“I’ll be gone for five days at most,” Ben said. His confidence wavered, and he tried very hard not to sound as if he was asking for permission. The sudden decision wasn’t ideal, but he didn’t have any other choice.

“That’s fine,” Ryal said, still looking as though he was far away. “I’ll get a copy of your schedule from Dana and complete as much of it as I can.”

Ben tried not to reveal how relieved he was. “Lissa can help you. And I won’t be completely out of contact. I’ll check in every few hours. If it suits me. Otherwise I will proceed directly and you will hear from me in two days.”

Ryal, of course, knew that the statements were poorly-disguised questions. He dutifully framed his replies so that they didn’t sound like answers.

“It would be helpful for everyone if you checked in, though it will slow your progress. Things will be fine either way.”

They discussed a few of the finer details -- problems that Ben foresaw occurring within the next week, of which there were plenty, because there always were -- and Ryal pressed a hand to Ben’s forehead before leaving. He hadn’t asked any questions about why the sudden trip was necessary, and Ben hadn’t apologised for the inconvenience he was causing.

His assistants didn’t take the news quite as well. They knew better than to complain, but Dana looked as though she were half a second from bursting into tears. She began to splutter about appointments that had been made months in advance, and the next session of parliament. Ben stared her down until she finally fell silent.

“Prepare a transport now, to leave in the morning,” was all he said.

“What time, your majesty?” It was a reasonable question, because he always insisted on having things scheduled correctly, and never with ambiguities such as ‘in the morning’. But such pedantry wasn’t suitable today, because he couldn’t leave until he heard from Rey, and her sleep pattern was unpredictable.

“Whatever time I like. Whatever time I command them. I’m the Emperor. They can wait.”

When that was settled he woke Arin, Orax and Lissa and gave them strict instructions to hide his absence as much as possible for as long as possible. When Arin asked about Rey he responded only that she was well, but he needed to see her.

He tried to get a few hours of sleep, but lay staring at the ceiling, not wanting to risk missing her transmission. When the silence was finally broken by an insistent beeping he flinched so powerfully he almost bounced on the bed.

“I’m awake,” she said. “I feel better.”

“Good. Have you had breakfast?”

“No. I called you as soon as I woke up, just like you said.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation his stomach flipped, because he had spent almost a month growing accustomed to how endearingly messy she looked just after waking.

The conversation eased some of his concern, because she truly sounded secure. He could barely believe how brave she was. Had their situations been reversed… well, they had been reversed, once, and it had ended quite differently.

He was certain enough of her strength to tell his pilot to make the journey to Jakku in a series of small jumps, so that he could check in with her and with Ryal every few hours. This meant that the journey would take just over two days, rather than the one-and-a-half of a more direct route, but Rey was clearly more than capable of keeping herself safe for that long. The false-void of hyperspace was soothing, after having gone so long without it, and he slept soundly between jumps.

Ben surprised himself greatly by smiling when he first saw Jakku. He quickly made contact with Ryal to ensure that everything was running smoothly, but the conversation was a short and ridiculous one (“Well, now that you mention it, the entire planet is on fire. Is it supposed to do that?”).

He wasn’t surprised at all by the way his breath caught when he finally saw her. She was standing in the middle of the encampment talking animatedly to a group of Coruscanti. He was amazed to see that she was smiling. She seemed happy and light and completely in control, and although the sight brought him great joy it also made him feel the slightest sliver of doubt, for the very first time.

For a long time he had been convinced that she was his equal match in every way. But perhaps that had been vanity on his part. He knew for a fact that he wouldn’t have the strength to do what she was doing right now.

The uncertainty that he felt couldn’t stop him from moving toward her as if she were magnetic. At one point she must have spotted him out of the corner of her eye, because she turned her head slightly to smile at him before returning her attention to the group in front of her.

That did make him pause. She thought he was a vision. A flash of inspiration struck him and he followed it instantly, circling around until he was directly within her line of sight, taking great care to react visibly to the things around him. Her gaze flicked to him every few seconds, but she didn’t look at him long enough to take it in. So he stepped it up a notch and began making small talk to a (now very alarmed) woman who was loitering nearby.

Still she didn’t notice. Everyone else was beginning to notice him, now; the construction workers had all paused and were peering down at him curiously. If he couldn’t match Rey’s strength, at least he now knew he could easily outperform her perceptive skills.

He moved closer again, and she suddenly broke away from the conversation she was engaged in and surreptitiously beckoned for him to follow her. He inhaled deeply as he fell into step beside her. She was tanned after two weeks of re-exposure to the Jakku sun. Her freckles had doubled, and so had his affection for her, apparently, because his chest felt extremely tight.

She led him, silently, to a tent that was identifiable as hers by the guards that flanked its entrance. They stood to full attention when they spotted him. Rey blinked. “Relax, guys,” she told them.

“I’m alone now,” she announced when the doorflap fell closed behind her. The furnishings were neat but modest.

Ben smirked. “I can see that, kira.”

It went over her head, but that was alright, because she was smiling beautifully at him. “How was your morning?”

“Fine. And yours?”

She began to describe to him what she had just been doing, so he walked over to her bedside table and casually picked up a hairbrush, turning it over in his hands as if examining it closely, though of course he was watching her from the corner of his eye.

It still took her a few seconds, but she froze mid-sentence to gape at him.

“You’re here,” she said. Her eyes watered and her face screwed up, and half a second later she had barreled into him and forced her way between his arms.

All thoughts of being suave left him entirely. He eased her face back from where it was trying to burrow into his chest so he could see her eyes.

“Of course I’m here. I’d never leave you to do this alone.” He tried to catch every tear as it fell.

“I wasn’t alone,” she said, her voice thick. “I knew that, even when you weren’t here.” She said it defiantly, as if she wanted him to be proud of her. So he was.

He kissed the tip of her nose, because it had turned red, and it was endearing. “Good.”

After a few minutes of indulgences she readjusted herself and led him outside so he could see her progress. She showed him the House and introduced him to some of her staff. He was pleased with the obvious respect and affection that they showed her, but couldn’t help bristling each time someone called her ‘Rey’, or ‘ma’am’. He should just name her Empress and be done with it. There was no rule written about what they had to have done beforehand. And if there had been he would simply change it.

As the afternoon wore on she began to fidget, and her palm became sweaty against his. She made a significant effort to convince him that he definitely, absolutely, must see her office (though he hadn’t made any move to object at all, and was perfectly content to follow her anywhere). When they entered the room he found it was almost completely bare apart from a table and two chairs.

“What are you hiding?” he asked finally.

“Nothing,” she mumbled.

He watched and waited. Rey swung around to take his other hand in hers.

“I’m not hiding anything, I just think it would be a bit strange if you saw them.”

“If I saw what?”

She moved in close again, though he wasn’t sure whether it was to hide her face or to draw strength from him. Her cheek rested against his chest. “My… parents.” She said the word as if she wasn’t quite sure what it meant. “This is the time of day they usually come.”

She squeezed all of his fingers with hers, and he was grateful, because he needed something to ground him and keep him calm.

His voice sounded as if it belonged to someone else. “Your parents are still here. You’re expecting them. They have a ‘usual time’ that they come. I don’t understand. Why are you… why?”

She snuggled in even closer to him. “They don’t come for me. They don’t even talk to me. I suppose they moved back into the area when they heard about this place.” Her voice was steady, but quiet.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I didn’t want to talk about it. I’d rather talk to you about other things. Things that make us happy.”

“But that’s not what we do, Rey.” That had been her doing.

She was still talking into his chest. “I know. But… you were far away, and…”

“I’m not far away now.” He untangled his fingers from hers and wrapped his arms around her to prove it.

“No. But you will be again. And I won’t want to talk about them then, either.”

“Again?” He would never be far away from her again. He squeezed her tighter. “What do you mean?”

She sighed. “I’m so grateful that you came, but I can’t imagine how many things had to be changed and moved for you to be here… I know you can’t stay for two whole weeks.” Her face lifted and she placed a light kiss on the hollow of his throat.

The gesture was precious, so he hated to take advantage of it, but he quickly moved to grip her chin so she couldn’t angle away again, and forced her to look into his eyes. “No, I can’t stay. And neither can you. You’re coming home with me.”

She shook her head slowly. “No I’m not, Ben.”

“Yes, you are. I’m not leaving you here with them.”

She broke free of him, glaring, and took half a step back, drawing herself up to her full height. “No, you’re not leaving me here with them. You’re leaving me here with myself, with people that I chose, to do a job that I need to do.”

Her determination was entrancing, and he couldn’t resist reaching out and ducking into her thoughts to see what was behind it. He expected to find pain and sadness, and he did. But it was floundering, unable to gain an advantage; because she had galvanised herself against it with thoughts of her goals and desires and purpose. She had overcome her fears through the sheer force of her belief that she could. That singular certainty permeated every part of her. And underneath it all, buttressing her conviction, he was amazed to find himself -- others, too, but his vanity caused him to zero in on himself -- and the depth of compassion he saw was overwhelming. It cascaded through and around her in all directions, so that he felt how acutely aware she was of his attachment to her in exactly the same beat as he felt the reciprocation. The constant ebb and flow was very familiar to him: it was the Force. She was the Force. He was sure, more than he had ever been of anything, that Rey was the one thing binding the entire galaxy together.

Rey barely even noticed that he was inside her. She was still talking, and now she had lifted one of her hands to poke his chest with her index finger at intervals, as a form of aggressive punctuation.

And, you are not leaving me at all, no matter which stupid place you go, because you can never leave me, that’s the deal, you can’t just alter it, there are rules, you know!”

“I love you,” he said, impulsively.

And, you-- you what?”

It wasn’t the way he had planned it, but it felt so good to say, so he reached up to tuck her hair behind her ears and said it again. “I love you, Rey. I love how fierce and beautiful and ridiculous and kind and angry you are. You’re perfect. You’re mine. I’m yours. I love you.” It wasn’t charming at all, but it was honest, and hopefully that would be enough.

Her hands slid up his chest to rest on either side of his neck. “I know,” she said, very very gently. “I’m still staying.”

He swallowed. “Alright.”

“You’re still going.”

“Yes.”

“We still have so much to talk about. To do. It’s overwhelming.”

His heart contracted painfully. Too soon. This is why he had needed to plan it.

He opened his mouth to say something: an explanation? An apology? He wasn’t quite sure what, but he never got a chance to find out, because Rey pressed a finger against his lips to silence him.

Then, impossibly, she grew suddenly two inches taller. It wasn’t quite enough, so the hand still on his neck tugged softly to pull him down toward her. Their faces were very close, but she brought them even closer, so that the finger she held to his lips was also against her own.

He loved that finger more than he loved his own life, but at that moment he couldn’t help but be a little irritated at it, because it was separating them. Perhaps it sensed his ire because it slid away, and in its place appeared the words “I love you, Ben” as they left her mouth and crossed the small space between them to land gently on his. And then the space was gone and she was kissing him, or he was kissing her; he wasn’t sure which one of them had bridged the gap.

Ben froze momentarily, replaying and memorising the exact order of events to store them away safely. Their movements were slow and tentative enough that Rey didn’t notice the short pause. She pecked him lightly a few times, and then a bit more firmly, and then her lips parted and she focused on his bottom lip. With each pass she began to slowly draw it in between her own. The progression was fascinating, and at first he mirrored her movements obediently, wondering what she would do next.

Apparently her tongue was next, because he felt it slide against his lip, and it must have been a very good thing because she moaned and tugged lightly at his hair to pull him further down to her. That was the end of his passive observership. He hooked one arm behind her thighs to lift her up so they were level and used the other hand to lock her head against his. Rey, ever the clever one, sensed it was time to hand over the reins and began to take his lead instead. Her lips and tongue and (occasionally, lightly,) teeth felt impossibly good, and he couldn’t help wondering what they would feel like against the rest of him, and what the rest of her would feel like against his own mouth -- he had taken innocent little tastes over the preceding weeks, but it wasn’t nearly enough -- and his desire to explore warred with his very strong opinion that breaking this kiss was not an option.

His body began to scream out in need of something: her, he decided, and doubled his efforts, but that only made the need harder to ignore. He tried to puzzle it out, and failed, because suddenly he was aware that her legs were wrapped tightly around his waist. He hadn’t even noticed when that had happened, but now that he was aware it was the only thing he could feel.

She broke away from him. He sucked in a deep breath, and the alarm in his head settled, because the thing that he had needed was oxygen.

Rey was breathing heavily too, but managed to beam at him and give him one more chaste peck before settling her face against his neck, squeezing her arms and legs around him even tighter. He felt a little silly, holding her up like this in the middle of the room when there were plenty of suitable surfaces to lean her against, but she seemed to enjoy it so he supposed they would stay like that forever.

When their breathing had evened out she lifted her head and began the sequence again, perfectly timed against the first, as if it was a sacred ritual that had been ingrained in her. This time her movements were more confident, but somehow even more delicate, and she came at him from slightly different directions as if she intended to map the contours of his mouth. It was in her nature to explore all angles, after all. He pulled back when he felt her tongue again. Given their history he felt he had a duty to at least make a cursory objection.

“Isn’t there something we’ve forgotten? There was something-- ah, yes, the rules. You mentioned them just a few moments ago, in fact. What happened to ‘no kissing’?”

She lifted her chin to look down her nose at him as best she could from her current position. “This is my planet, actually. I make the rules. And I rule: not no kissing. In fact, I rule: lots of kissing.”

She kissed him again, firmly, as if proving a point. He decided he had no choice but to comply with her decree.

They mustered enough good sense to walk back to her tent, both trying their best to look dignified and official. The instant they were alone she grabbed his wrists and lowered herself onto the bed, so of course he needed to follow and land on top of her. The kissing resumed, and the horizontal nature of it seemed to encourage touching to be involved as well. She clutched at his chest and hair, and he followed the back of her thigh up to where it met the swell of her hip, and he had to do a bit of creative posturing so that she wouldn’t feel how hard he was.

“What are you doing?” she groaned between kisses after he angled his pelvis away from her for the third time. She kept trying to bring him back in, obviously not realising the implication.

“I don’t-- It’s-- I’m--” Why was it so hard to talk? “I want you,” he managed finally, proud of his ability to complete a sentence, though it was a very poor explanation for why he kept leaning away.

She seemed to understand nevertheless. “It’s fine. It’s good. You feel good.” She pulled him against her again, and then reached out to pull him into her mind -- why hadn’t he thought of that? -- and led him to a memory. She was on his bed, straddling him -- he remembered this perfectly clearly, of course -- and she had felt him then, too. He felt how much she had wanted to grind against him, and moaned helplessly into her mouth, and she seemed to take this as a sign that she may now fulfil her wish. She managed to flip them over so she was on top and began to roll her hips down to create the most deliciously torturous friction he had ever felt.

It was agonisingly tempting, but he kept enough of his logic to know that it was not suitable at all for them to have sex while there were hundreds of people outside, separated from them only by a few folds of canvas. At least not the first time.

Rey seemed to disagree, because she kept moving. The idea that she wanted this -- that she had thought about it, about him, about his body -- made him dizzy. She gave up on kissing him, because they had become too uncoordinated, and simply pressed her cheek against his. That was even worse, because her mouth was very close to his ear now, so he could hear every breath and gasp and moan. Twice she managed to whimper his name, and he had to release his grip on her thighs and dig his fingernails into his palms to prevent his orgasm. He moved his head away from hers and angled to kiss her neck instead, uncontrolled and messier than he would have liked, but that made it worse again, because her moans became longer and louder.

He decided to give in. He had already made so many concessions today, so what was one more? Resistance was useless; the only thing that made sense was to pause and lose their clothes so he could slide inside her and end the torture. He opened his mouth to suggest it -- this took a moment, because the noises she was making were very distracting -- and just as he was about to speak she froze.

She pulled back, panting, and rested her forearms on his chest so she could see his face.

“Um, I need to leave. For a minute. Sorry.”

What? He was desperate to object, but she had already wriggled off him and was now standing and trying to straighten her clothes. Her face was very red.

“I need to pee,” she squeaked. She smoothed her tunic. “Do I look okay?”

She looked delicious, as if he had just been about devour her, because he had been. But he slowly realised that that was the opposite of the ‘okay’ she needed to leave the room with her dignity intact. So he sat up and ran trembling fingers through her hair to help her flatten it. He couldn’t do anything to fix her swollen lips and blown pupils.

“You look… wow,” she breathed. “And you feel… really. Really. I’m-- I’ll be right back!” She scuttled away.

Ben flopped back onto the bed. Ridiculously, he heard Uncle Lando’s voice. ‘When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.’ It was a voice that he never wanted to hear, under normal circumstances, and right now was the absolute worst time for his mind to have conjured it. It washed through him like a cold ocean wave, dousing his desire. “Thanks, kriffwich,” he said to the ceiling, and then let out a little laugh, in spite of himself.

Chapter Text

Rey returned several minutes later, looking much more calm, and a little bit guilty.

“Hi,” she said gently. She sat on the edge of the bed and he rose to meet her, hunching his shoulders so they were level.

“Hi.”

“Ben, I don’t think--”

“This isn’t the right place--”

“--don’t think I don’t want to, but--”

“--I’m mad for you, but that’s why--”

“--we have so much to do and--”

“--we need to stay in control, because--”

They both paused. He was incredibly grateful that she was in agreement, because now the fog of lust had dissipated, and it left behind the terror of repeating past mistakes.

Rey smiled. “I love you.”

“I love you,” he said, and his voice wavered ridiculously with emotion, but it only made her smile grow.

They moved forward at the same time so their lips touched in the middle in a chaste kiss. There was no point going back from that part, at least.

Rey traced his cheekbone with a finger. “When are you leaving?”

“In the morning,” he said carefully, and paused to give her a chance to object if she wanted to. He would stay if she asked, though truthfully he had only made sufficient arrangements to be here for a night.

Rey inhaled deeply. “Then I’d like to show you something before it gets too dark. Is that okay?”

Ben nodded.

“I want to show you where I used to live. I didn’t want to go inside before. But now I do.”

An hour later they were standing before the collapsed walker that was vaguely familiar to him, from her memories. Rey began to push on a slab of durasteel that had been propped up like a door, but months of windstorms had half-buried it in the sand. Ben waited patiently for a few moments, not wanting to remain idle while she struggled, but knowing that she wanted to do this part on her own. Finally she realised that she could use the Force to lift the sand away, and he couldn’t resist lending her some invisible assistance. She smiled smugly when the ‘door’ was opened; he remained silent.

He had to stoop very low to enter. The inside was just as bleak as he expected. There was a workbench, and a hammock where she had slept, and little else. Why had she brought him here?

“It used to be called Hellhound Two,” Rey said quickly, her voice thin. “Which is a funny name, don’t you think? I meant to give it another one but I kept changing my mind. Once it was Serenity.”

Ben had never felt less serene. He was torn between listening intently and blocking out her words.

Two small cups rested on a nearby ledge, containing the dried stalks of flowers which had long since wilted. Rey noticed that they had caught his attention and dutifully began narrating, in the same skittish tone. “Oh, that one was spinebarrel, and that was nightblossom. That’s not what they’re supposed to look like. Obviously. You know that. But maybe I could find some living ones somewhere and show you. If you wanted. They’re not as pretty as the flowers you give me.”

Next to the flowers was some sort of rag that had been knotted up into a strange shape. As he looked at it he realised it was supposed to resemble a human. Rey’s hand snatched out to grab it, and it disappeared between her crossed arms.

“That’s Captain Raeh. She, um, lives here? With me. I mean, she doesn’t actually, she’s just a doll, she doesn’t have feelings or anything...”

The next thing his eyes landed on was a stretch of wall with thousands of scratch marks on it, and he ripped his gaze from it before he had a chance to fully take it in, because he knew what it was. He had seen it in her mind on Starkiller Base, but until now he hadn’t fully appreciated what it meant.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, breaking the silence he had kept since entering the ‘home’.

Rey lifted her gaze from Captain Raeh, who she was still trying to hide from his view. “What do you mean?”

“To this place. What do you want to do? Burn it? Bury it? Take it apart?”

Her brow furrowed in confusion. “None of those things. I just wanted to show you. Now we don’t have to look at it again.”

She tucked Captain Raeh into her belt and stood up on tiptoe to kiss his lips. He was so surprised that he didn’t have time to close his eyes and relish it before she pulled away.

“Will you show me, one day? Where you grew up, I mean.”

His heart pounded. He couldn’t. She would hate him. Ben Solo had grown up in a big house with a pretty garden and servants and two loving parents. When they gave him up -- when they finally accepted that they had no other choice, because he was too monstrous -- he had an uncle and a dozen Padawans surrounding him. He had eventually become too much for them as well, but it hadn’t mattered, because he had the darkness and the voice beyond it with him always (he still missed it sometimes, and hated that he did, but that made him miss it even more). He had no idea what it was like to be alone.

Rey was watching him carefully. Her mind wasn’t anywhere near his, but he wondered how much panic she could see on his face.

“When you’re ready, then,” she said. Seeing his anxiety seemed to quell some of hers, because her posture relaxed slightly.

The sun had fallen while they were inside, so he took off his cloak and wrapped it around her before they stepped out and replaced the door together. She snuggled close to him as they walked across the sand back to the speeder. For some reason that was the final straw.

He stopped and turned them to face each other. The rising moonlight illuminated her from behind, turning her edges silver, the way they did each night on Coruscant as she slept next to him in his bed or hers. Back when he had so foolishly convinced himself that he deserved to have her beside him.

“Rey. I thought we were the same, but we’re not. I fooled myself because I wanted it so much. I’m sorry.”

Curiously, she smiled. “No, we’re not the same.”

He huffed impatiently, because that wasn’t what he meant. “Of course we’re not the same, I know that. You’re good. I thought you were-- that we were meant to--”

“We are,” she said, with conviction.

“But--”

“No buts. This was your thing from the beginning. You always think about destiny, and this is what it is, okay? I’m yours and you’re mine.” Her voice lowered. “I know who you are, Ben. Do you want to see?”

Without waiting for an answer she reached out and reeled him in mercilessly.

He saw himself; or, rather, someone who looked very much like him. But this other-Ben was taller, handsomer, funnier, harsher, more generous, more calculating; better at talking, better at dancing, better at sleeping. He was good, but not wholly so. He had flaws, but he was working very hard to fix them, and somehow that made him more appealing than if he had been perfect right from the start. He was light and darkness and everything in between. He was the one thing binding the entire galaxy together.

Ben pulled away from her mind, but he wasn’t strong enough to pull away from her body. “That’s not what I am,” he croaked.

“It is to me,” she said firmly. “I love you.”

“I love you,” he replied automatically. As if they had said it to each other a thousand times before; but it was only the third time. It wasn’t enough, so he showed her herself, the way he had seen her earlier that day, so she could see how wrong she was.

Rey was nuzzling his cheek by the time they left each other. “I wasn’t wrong. We’ll do it together, then.” It sounded very right, so he kissed her, and that felt very right.

Later, as they lay curled up together on her pallet bed, she added: “My childhood being different to yours doesn’t invalidate the things that you felt. That you still feel.”

He had been stroking her arm when she began talking, but now he moved to stroke her face instead. “You never gave in. Even when they came back to face you. You let them live, you fed them, and two days later you were smiling as if it had never happened, even though they kept coming back. I don’t understand how you did that. No one else who has ever lived would be capable of doing that.” His father had come back to him, but Ben hadn’t been capable, even though Han had shown him love and forgiveness.

“I thought about killing them,” she admitted quietly. “I think it would have felt good. At least at first.”

“But you didn’t?” he prompted.

She chewed on the inside of her cheek, and the gesture alarmed him for a reason he couldn’t quite name. His thoughts flashed to his grandparents.

“No, I didn’t,” she said. “Killing is so final. They would be gone, but I wouldn’t, and so it would all be left on me. They don’t deserve that part of my soul.”

A hundred painful things passed silently between them. Her eyes never left his, and they made him decide to be as brave as her.

“When you come home,” he began slowly, “can we talk about it?”

Her eyes filled with tears; he wasn’t sure whether they were the product of her emotions or his own. “Yeah. Yes. Of course. For as long as you want.”

Chapter Text

Rey couldn’t resist using the shower on Ben’s shuttle before he left. Water was still a scarce resource on Jakku. One of her staff had shown her a sketch of a way he had imagined they could drill under the dry crust of the planet and access the water table far below, but they were still months and years from that being a reality. Sonics were efficient cleaners, but water showers were one of the many little Coruscanti luxuries that she missed.

Ben was another such luxury; but then perhaps he was a necessity; or perhaps he held some unique position that encompassed both concepts. It occurred to her now that if she had asked him to join her he probably would have. The thought caused her to use more water than usual, because it suddenly became necessary for her to imagine that the hands skimming over her body were his, rather than her own.

“I’m done,” she called out, after she had dried and dressed. He entered as she was squeezing the very last drops of water from her hair. She moved to the counter and began setting up to brush her teeth while he set up to shave. She now knew that he did this every second day. Huddling together with him over the sink was unexpectedly intimate, and she had the urge to giggle stupidly. Instead she lightly bumped her shoulder against his arm, causing his reflection to smile at her.

She finished before him and sat up on the counter to watch. Once she was settled he surprised her by handing her the blade and angling toward her.

“This is nice,” he said. The words were sweet, but the timing was stupid, because she was working on the intricate folds under his nose.

“No talking,” Rey snapped. And then she asked “What’s nice?”

“Not having--”

“No talking!”

He glared at her.

“You can talk to me without talking, you know.” When his expression didn’t change she feigned a loud sigh. “What a devastating conundrum to be placed before His Majesty,” she said. Her voice was very low and very affected, as though she were mocking someone, though she wasn’t sure who, or why she had the urge to be so silly. “Communicating without moving his mouth? He’d have to be able to read someone’s thoughts! Ridiculous notion.”

He laughed, unexpectedly, and it caused the razor to slip as she slid it over his chin. She corrected, but not quickly enough to avoid a little nick. She groaned in disgust at both of them.

“You’re funny,” he said, as if he hadn’t even noticed the injury. Rey was distracted: she saw the tiny bloom of blood and immediately placed her finger over it, reaching into the Force, willing it to cauterise and close over. But it continued to grow, defiantly, until it leaked around her seal and a drop began to meander its way down the side of her finger.

There hadn’t been this much blood last time. Was she somehow making it worse? She began to panic, and hardly even noticed when Ben removed her hand and replaced it with a tissue. He guided her to turn toward the sink and rinse off.

“You’re overreacting, Rey. I used to cut myself like this all the time.”

“Used to?”

“When I was learning. However, after this third incident, I think we can safely say that your record with weapons near my face is poor at best.” He dropped a light kiss onto her temple.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

He lifted the tissue to inspect the wound and then replaced the pressure, frowning. After another minute he seemed satisfied and turned back to her. The mark was mercifully invisible.

He hunched slightly to meet her eye level. “I think I know how to cheer you up,” he said softly.

She looked up at him from under her eyelashes. “I’m not uncheerful,” she insisted, and even to her it sounded petulantly morose.

Ben worked to smother a grin. “I’m serious,” he said, and lifted her chin. Suddenly he was very solemn. “When I return to the Palace I’m going to send out the order to recall the military from the Outer Rim. And we’ll begin work on the plan that Orax presented to us, to fully and securely integrate those systems. It’s slower, and it will be more arduous; and that will cause some suffering, just like the military approach did. It won’t be perfect.” He said this last part firmly, as if he expected her to object.

“Nothing’s perfect,” Rey said, reasonably.

His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward to kiss her, proving her a liar.

“You never told me what was nice,” she pointed out as he escorted her outside. She congratulated herself for remembering the unfinished conversation; thinking and talking were a lot more effortful in this new life, now that she knew how soft and pliant his lips were against hers.

“Not having to keep to a schedule was nice,” he said, quickly, absently. And then he demanded, “Why haven’t you said anything?”

She squeezed his hand to soften the coming blow. “You already know what I think, Ben. I knew you would do the right thing. Eventually.”

He swung around to face her. “It’s very important that you understand that this isn’t a completely peaceful solution. The problem with slow integration is that it’s slow. Ten years is a long time. Enough time for children to be born and grow into slavery, or something very close to it.”

Rey scratched her elbow with the opposite hand, considering. “And the problem with a quick solution is that it’s violent.” Suddenly she was unsure which was worse. From the beginning her body had reacted strongly against the idea of war, but somehow she now saw the landscape through Ben’s eyes and recognised that there was something temptingly clean about quick, vicious change.

“Both solutions have their advantages and drawbacks,” he said, a little too diplomatically.

“What changed your mind, then?” she asked.

“You.”

She swallowed. It was utterly unfair that she was beginning to doubt herself as soon as he was finally agreeing with her. “How will we know which one is better?”

“We won’t,” he said, and took her hand to continue leading her away from the shuttle. “But my way made you unhappy, so we have no choice but to try it differently. I’ll find something else to keep Hux occupied.”

The sudden reminder of him sent her back to the night before the coronation, when she and Ben had had a very similar discussion. She forced herself to think about all of the things that had changed and moved forward since then, to curb her frustration about this one thing that had stagnated. “It’s not your responsibility to keep him ‘occupied’. Send him back to the Unknown Regions and let him occupy himself.”

Ben tilted his head back and closed his eyes wearily, which wasn’t what she wanted. “We’ve discussed this, Rey. I still need the military, even once they’ve been pulled out of active combat. I’ve given you everything I possibly can. Just… trust me.”

“I trust you,” she promised. She lifted up onto her toes to wrap her arms around his neck, prompting him to look down at her. “And I love you.” His eyes lit up, like they had every time so far, and she wondered if he would still react that way even after he had heard it a hundred and a thousand and a million times. She hoped so. The exquisite warmth it sent racing through her was addictive, and she would gladly have endured several lifetimes in her Walker -- scratching countless days into the walls until every surface was scarred unrecognisably -- if this was what she got to see at the end of it all.

Something about the thought was hauntingly familiar, but she shook it away, because Ben was hugging her and murmuring goodbyes and ‘I’ll miss you’s into her ear.

“Will there ever be a time when we’re finished?” he said finally. “When we can just be…” he drifted off, but she knew how the thought ended.

“I’m already happy,” Rey said. “We can be working and be happy at the same time. And we can disagree and be happy at the same time.” She kissed him to punctuate the statement, and then a dozen more times, all over his face, until he laughed.

“If I don’t leave now I never will,” he vowed. Reluctantly they released each other and he re-boarded the shuttle (only looking back a handful of times, to his credit). It wasn’t until he was a small speck in the mid-morning sky that Rey realised she had been too busy being happy to remember that goodbyes were supposed to be sad.

Chapter Text

Rey expected the next two weeks to drag by with agonising slowness, but Boz kept her so busy that the time seemed to fly by. Suddenly she was scrambling to give instructions and make preparations for her imminent departure from the planet.

She was proud of what she had managed to accomplish during the trip. The Imperial House was three storeys high, and they had built a steady base of ‘regular’ clients who were keen to get involved in the next phase of Rey’s plan, which had been inspired by Ben’s assurance that the scavengers would, with help, learn to become self-sufficient. The accommodations were being used on an ad hoc basis, as planned, but they had also picked up several semi-permanent residents. Among them, much to Rey’s relief, were the two children that she had befriended several weeks earlier: Erisi and Zeak. Erisi had opened up significantly, though Rey still didn’t know where the children had come from, or if they had any family.

She began speaking to Boz about a long-term plan for water acquisition, using the idea of drilling deep beneath the planet’s surface. It still seemed a very lofty goal, and she reluctantly tabled it, because she had dozens of other planets that required her attention before she could polish Jakku. She mused out loud to Ben about it during their evening talks, and he kept his responses carefully impartial, though she knew that he agreed with her newfound pragmatism. He was otherwise incredibly optimistic and congratulatory; though of course he was invested in her success for his own selfish reasons. After all, the whole point of her coming to Jakku and personally overseeing these efforts was so that she could be reassured that similar models would be successful on other worlds. She was now free to supervise remotely from Coruscant.

Her parents continued to pop in every afternoon for their share of the food. She heard from members of her staff that they were otherwise uninterested in the initiatives that were being commenced and discussed. Rey genuinely didn’t have the time to pay them any particular notice; and even if she did, her family had picked up a curious new habit of calling her ‘just to talk’ in the mid-afternoons. She warred with the idea of confronting Ben about the obvious rotating schedule he had devised for her benefit, but ultimately decided to let him pamper her, telling herself that it was for his own benefit as much as hers.

She saw him through the Force with increasing frequency. The pattern of his appearances was impossible to discern: sometimes he would come when she strongly wished it, and other times they would both be so busy that they could barely spare each other a glance. Sometimes he would disappear in the middle of a sentence, and others he would linger long after the conversation had lapsed into a comfortable silence. She began to think that if the Force had a will then it must also have a strange sense of humour. Nevertheless she was grateful to see him every time, and made sure to imprint that in her mind, just in case It was listening.

Ben’s attitude differed, and he wasn’t as willing as her to simply accept the capriciousness of their connection. He insisted on experimenting with it, trying to discover its exact nature, and becoming frustrated whenever a pattern he thought he saw was inevitably broken. He always tried to touch her, though he had the grace to admit that in that respect his intentions were often less than scholarly.

A week after his departure from her he made a public address to discuss the situation in the Outer Rim. It was a compulsory broadcast and so was being played for everyone in the foyer and dining rooms, but Rey made her way back to her tent after breakfast so she could watch him unobserved. She was on top of her bed, laying on her belly as she watched him on the Holonet with Orax beside him and Lissa close behind. Ryal had already left the capital.

Her commlink beeped and she idly pressed the acceptance button. Arin’s voice projected from it.

“Are you watching?”

“Of course,” Rey said.

They continued to watch in companionable almost-silence, occasionally making noises of approval and short, mindless comments.

When he was gone and the Holonet had resumed its usual programming Rey felt the need to announce, “I kissed him.” It was something that was private between her and Ben, but it was also something that belonged to her, and she felt the desire to share it the way she knew that girlfriends sometimes did in the books she had read in her garden on Coruscant.

“Yes, I know,” Arin said.

“You do?”

“Of course. We’ve all known for weeks,” she said lightly.

Rey frowned at her commlink. “You can’t have. It only happened a few days ago. Last week. When he was here.”

“Yes,” said Arin, “but you’ve been sleeping together since the coronation.”

Rey felt her face flush and was glad there was no one around to see. “We haven’t -- well, yes, we have. We’ve been sleeping together. Going to sleep. Together. That’s all.”

Arin’s burst of laughter was so explosive that Rey flinched away from her earpiece.

“Sorry,” she managed eventually. “Sorry. That was rude. It’s just,” another giggle, “that’s just so like the both of you. Actually sleeping together. Force take us all.”

It took her another minute to settle down enough to ask, dutifully, what it had all been like. Rey told the story, hiding some parts and embellishing others so that it was far enough away from the truth to mean that the real events still belonged just to her and Ben. Arin ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed in all the right places, and by the time she was done Rey was curled up in her bedcovers, giggling into her pillow.

Neither of them bothered to mention the fact that Arin had once kissed Ben, a long time ago, even though by now she must know that Rey was aware of it. But for the very first time Rey decided it truly didn’t matter.

Their shared glee faded slowly into silence, and then Arin began again, in a more tentative tone. “Listen, I had another reason for calling… though, knowing what I do now, I think you probably won’t want to…”

“What is it?” Rey asked. Right now she was so full of happy affection for the other woman that she would have agreed to just about anything.

“I thought maybe you’d come and see me on your way home. I’ll be out here for two more months at least. I miss you. But I understand if you’re impatient to get back.”

Rey was impatient, but Arin was her family and loved her too. In some ways it was just as precious as Ben’s love.

“Of course I want to see you,” Rey promised.

They made plans to meet on Takodana, because it meant that they would both be travelling an equal distance out of their way, and because Rey had a desire to show her something, and it was the only other planet she knew well enough besides Jakku.

The lazy, giggly morning in bed made her want a lazy afternoon in bed, too. She gave her guards strict instructions that she wasn’t to be disturbed for anything galaxy-related. She had given herself to Jakku for almost a month, so it could do without her for a few hours. She reclined on her bed and pulled her datapad toward her and began to read a silly little story about a boy becoming friends with a dragon. The indulgent frivolity was welcome after weeks of relentless sun and sand and work.

There was only one thing that she would have interrupted her novel for, and he appeared about an hour later.

He had apparently jumped straight from speech-making to training, because he was holding his replica saber and moving through a set of forms. He wore a sleeveless shirt so that his shoulders were bare, and Rey developed a sudden and strong opinion that they really ought to begin training together regularly. She automatically dragged her eyes away from him before remembering that this was a new, golden world where she could look and touch and kiss as much as she liked. So she stared openly until he spoke.

He paused his drill and turned to her. “Keeping busy?” he asked drily.

Rey shrugged. It was obvious that she wasn’t. She was lazing at the foot of her bed with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee and her datapad propped up on her chest.

He moved behind her bed so that he was looking down at her, upside down. She beamed up at him, and his eyes softened. He knelt to hover his face over hers, and reached out to attempt to stroke a hand down her cheek. It went through her.

He sighed, and the force of it stirred the sweaty locks of hair over his forehead. “Not today, then,” he lamented.

Rey sat up suddenly, inspired. “Maybe we can find some advantage in it, though.” She reached out one hand and infused her will into and through the Force to call her own replica saber to her from where it was stashed under a pile of clothes in the corner. Orax had insisted she bring it with her, but she hadn’t touched it since arriving.

She stood and brandished it at him in challenge. “Of course, I’ll understand if your pride is still as scarred as your face.”

It was a risky joke to make, but he took it in stride and tightened his grip on his own hilt. “Come and find out,” he countered.

It was more difficult than a normal spar: because it was Ben, and he parried her every move as if he knew her intentions ahead of time, and because their phantom weapons and limbs sliced through each other. So of course it was impossible to tell who landed what blow, and who successfully countered what, and they spent more time bickering about the particulars than they did truly exerting themselves.

They silently called a timeout when they had both temporarily run out of barbs, and as their movements slowed Ben began to instruct her on the finer details of her techniques. Having him as her teacher was very different to her sessions with Orax, because Orax didn’t make a point of using a low and sultry voice, or of leaning in as close as possible to examine the way her body moved. It wasn’t long before Rey decided that this session wasn’t about lightsaber techniques at all, and she turned to announce the fact to him, but he didn’t anticipate the pause and his blow continued to careen into her.

Suddenly, without knowing how it happened, she landed on her back, heavily enough to have the wind knocked from her. Ben landed very closely next to her, and laughed, and the heat of his breath against her ear made her want to squirm.

Instead she froze, because her feeling his breath meant that his breath was here to be felt.

She saw realisation dawn on his features in the same instant, and then she could no longer see or guess what he was thinking, because his tongue slid into her mouth and her fingers slid into his hair and all of her thoughts became very difficult to disentangle.

His hands were working their way greedily under her shirt, and she had no choice but to help him in his quest to touch her skin. So she wriggled and struggled to work it up her body and over her head; the effort was worth it, because his eyes looked incredibly grateful as they took her in. She wasn’t sure what grateful fingers or a grateful mouth were supposed to look like, but in retrospect she would guess that they looked exactly the way Ben’s did as they roved over her chest and abdomen. And a grateful hand tugging at soft black hair would look exactly like hers, as it clutched and eased in response to every fantastic thing he did.

When she was breathless he paused and his face moved back to hers. One hand tickled the sensitive spot he had once discovered, and the other hooked into the waistband of her pants.

“Can I?” he asked, tugging down slightly so she knew exactly what he meant. She nodded frantically, and he worked her pants down her hips, taking her underwear with them. He was too eager to take them off completely and instead seemed satisfied when they were halfway down her thighs. It meant she couldn’t wrap her legs around him the way she wanted to, but her breath was coming in very short pants and she couldn’t fathom how to communicate such a complex concept to him.

He bent down to brush his lips against hers at the exact second that his fingers eased between her thighs, and then pulled back to watch her. He kept her gaze as he worked his way between folds of very sensitive skin, and Rey wasn’t quite sure whether the deafening roar of her pulse in her ears was in response to his touch or to the intoxicating hunger in his eyes.

He pushed the tip of one finger inside her, and they released identical groans of surprised satisfaction, but he continued to watch her face closely, and apparently he decided it wasn’t quite the reaction he wanted from her. So he kept exploring with almost systematic precision, and she had just begun to think that she might tease him for his scavenger-like instincts when suddenly he found what he was looking for and all other thoughts deserted her.

She bucked against him involuntarily, and apparently that was the reaction he had wanted. He smirked down at her with a self-satisfaction that would have been infuriating under any other circumstance, but in her frenzied condition only made her want him more.

When he found a rhythm and angle that brought her consistent ripples of pleasure he leaned into her and began to suck her neck. He was more experienced with this, so he found that perfect spot much more quickly, and it intensified everything else to an almost painful magnitude.

He was lying half on top of her, very heavy and very heated, and she could feel him hard against her thigh, so close to where he was meant to be. The ripples began to coalesce into steady waves, and then into a heavy pressure that settled low in her abdomen. It grew and spread until it threatened to burst--

Not again. She wriggled against him, but he seemed to take it as an instruction and dutifully began to increase the speed of his fingers.

She pushed more insistently against him. “Wait, I’ll be right back,” she half-sighed, half-pleaded.

He pulled his face away from her clavicle, but kept his body and hand pressed firmly against her.

“No,” he said. “You said that last time, too. I don’t think that’s what it is.” His voice was deep and smooth, and when she moved her eyes back to his face she saw that he looked calm and controlled. He watched her with an intensity that she recognised as the kind of deep concentration that he wore when he was voluntarily drowning in something. In a puzzle he needed to decipher, or a story he needed to tell exactly right, or in the Force itself. The calculating expression was so incongruous with the tightly coiled desperation displayed by the rest of his body -- his chest shook with shallow, uneven breaths; his hips pressed against the side of her thigh insistently; his fingers began to jerk and lose their rhythm -- and her pressure surged forwards and upwards dangerously, in a way that she knew wouldn’t have been possible if it had been anyone other than Ben touching her. He was such a powerful nexus of incredible contradictions that they bled out of him and into her, so that she wanted to scrunch herself into a tight little ball and fling herself wide open at the same time.

“It’s alright,” he promised. “Give into it.” So she did, and was very glad to do so, because when the pressure finally burst it flooded her entire body with warmth and light that was so potent she feared and hoped she would float away from the universe entirely.

She swam back down to her body to find that his mouth was pressed against hers. There were kisses, but they weren’t passionate; they were created by the way his lips moved to form whispers of reassurance and silly little endearments. He must have also been using them to pour more of his conflict into her, because she simultaneously felt perfectly satisfied and perfectly in need of more. Her brain was full and lazy, but her body seemed to know exactly what more was required, so it wrapped itself around him as best it could. It was struggling, because it was still restrained by the waistband around the lower half of its thighs, and it took a few minutes of wriggling and Ben’s affectionate laughter for her to remember that the body was her, and she was in control of it.

She half-sat up and began to work the offending garment down and off. Ben helped, though he didn’t do very much of the work; instead he simply followed her progress and traced kisses down the side of her thigh and calf, until he reached her ankle, which he gave a very light nip with his teeth that made her squirm away and giggle.

He began to get rid of his own clothes then, and perhaps she should have helped -- or at least pretended to -- but it seemed much more productive to simply lean back on her elbows and watch. His hair was already mussed into a dark, frizzy halo by the combination of sweat from his training and her pulling at it while he had touched her. He had to swipe it out of his eyes three times after getting his head caught in his singlet for a split second. The urge to rise and tuck it behind his ears was distracting enough for her to be surprised when suddenly his pants were gone, too, and he was kneeling beside her and nudging her legs apart so he could settle between them.

She had only a vague knowledge of what men were like: she had expected the long shaft that would go inside her (the thought made her entire body feel itchy with lust), but she couldn’t fathom the purpose of the heavy-looking fold of skin that hung behind it. She bit her tongue to refrain from asking him about it, because there would be plenty of time for an anatomy lesson later, but she couldn’t help craning her neck to take in as many details as she could before he nestled against her and the visual was lost.

The intimately familiar and simultaneously strikingly new feeling of his skin against hers had a calming and grounding effect. It focused rather than dampened her desire: the urgent inferno in her groin tempered into a rippling flame that suffused her entire body. Ben must have felt the same thing, because even though his eyes were still hungry, when he kissed her again it was languid and luxurious.

“Are you sure?” he asked quietly when he pulled back to look at her. One hand had lifted to cradle the back of her head, and the thumb was stroking over her temple. “Really? It’s so quick, and you’re on the floor… is that alright?”

“It’s perfect,” Rey said. “I don’t care where I am, as long as you’re here with me.”

If she had had any doubts they would have been swept away by the sarcastically unimpressed way he raised his eyebrows at her.

“Well, I use the term ‘here’ rather loosely,” she admitted, grinning.

He grinned too, and kissed her again; and it was lovely, but she couldn’t understand why he was remaining so perfectly still. She snaked an impatient hand down between them, and was delighted with the firm feeling of him against her palm, but confused with the way he jolted his hips away from her.

“H-hang on,” he stuttered, and a feeling of raw power flooded through her veins, because it was so unlike him. “I’m trying-- I need to--” She had learned so many hundreds of little things about him over the last five months, but her very favourite datum was the fact that Ben Solo, who was otherwise so pretentiously articulate, became unable to string a sentence together when he wanted her. She had first noticed it a week ago when he had been right here with her in this tent, and to have her suspicion validated was almost as satisfying as anything physical she had felt so far.

“I’m trying to calm down a bit,” he managed finally. He shook his head in response to her curious look. “Don’t worry about it, just… a minute.” He forced himself to take a deep, shaky breath and pecked her lightly on the lips, closing his eyes in apparent focus. Then he was gone.

What?!” Rey shrieked.

A voice answered from outside her doorflap. “Everything alright, ma’am?”

Oh no. The last thing she needed was for one of them to burst in here and find her naked, alone, on the floor. “Uh, everything is under control!” she called out. “Situation normal!”

That seemed to satisfy her guards, thankfully, because now she was on all fours and scrabbling for her commlink.

“You get back here this instant, Ben Solo!” she hissed into it when the connection sealed, without bothering with a greeting.

“You think I’m not trying?” Her fury began to dissolve, because he sounded so truly dismayed.

She sighed and heaved herself up onto her bed. “It’s so unfair,” she said petulantly. “It was so good. It would have been so good.”

“Y-yeah,” he said, and she was pleased that he was back to stuttering, and wanted to keep it going.

“I like how warm your skin is against me,” she said.

“Uh huh,” he mumbled.

“Especially, you know, down there. It was really, really warm.”

“Uh huh.”

“Ben?”

“Uh?”

“What are you doing?”

The response took a few seconds. “Touching myself.”

Adrenaline surged to the tips of all her fingers and toes. She liked that very much, so she told him so, and was rewarded with a groan.

She lifted her commlink to her ear so she could hear every strangled gasp. “What should I do?” she asked, only feeling the slightest twinge of embarrassment at her inexperience, because this was all new for him too; and even if it hadn’t been, it was Ben, and he wouldn’t mind her asking.

“Just keep talking,” he instructed. There was a high and breathy quality to his voice that made her ache.

Rey grinned up at the fabric ceiling. “I don’t want to keep talking,” she began, and his breath hitched and then paused. She knew that millions of light years away he had frozen completely, and felt guilty for the misdirection. “No,” she interrupted his apology, “I meant I don’t want to talk because I want to be the one touching you.”

That reassured him enough to continue, so she did too, even though the very obvious things she was saying felt a bit silly at times. She quickly learned that some lines of thought got more of a reaction than others. He liked it when she told him how good his fingers had felt, and he really liked it when she mused aloud about how much better it might have felt to have him inside her, and when she finally admitted that she had begun to touch herself too he cried out -- muffled, as though he had smothered the sound with his other hand -- and then panted heavily for a minute.

When he finally spoke again he sounded half-asleep, and she quickly realised he would be incapable of talking her through the same way, so she reluctantly removed her hand to a more neutral position. It would be selfish of her to expect it twice in one day, anyway.

“Rey,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he drawled. He sounded smug, as though he had announced some very profound truth, and ordinarily she would have teased him, but right now she could only bring herself to smile at nothing.

“I love you,” he said after a long silence, sounding more like his usual self with every word. “I love this. But, were someone to come upon this room right now, I could very well lose all credibility.”

She laughed. “It would only be Orax, and he’d never tell a soul.”

“I think you underestimate our friends’ abilities for gossip,” he said sagely. She remembered Arin saying ‘We’ve all known for weeks,’ and thought he might be right.

She told herself she was too tired and sated to put her clothes back on, but truthfully it felt oddly luxurious to snuggle in under the covers naked. And if it meant that she was prepared and ready for Ben’s possible reappearance, well, that was a secondary perk.

Chapter Text

Rey’s shuttle touched down on the northern shoreline of Nymeve Lake. She tapped her foot impatiently as she awaited clearance to disembark. When the ramp finally lowered she rushed down it to the soft forest floor. She inhaled the warm, damp scent of the trees and had a strong rush of deja vu; she had expected this, and had already braced herself against it.

Takodana’s sun was soothing in a way that Jakku’s wasn’t. Rey spent a moment basking in it as her guards filed out of the shuttle to flank her. When the activity behind her settled she opened her eyes and looked out across the lake at the ruins of an ancient castle.

“I’m going for a short walk,” she told them. “It’s safe, so you can all stay here and enjoy the lake while we’re waiting.”

They knew that there was no point in arguing with her.

She allowed her senses to wander as she picked her way through the forest. Life surrounded her. The last time she was here she had heard the sounds of the animal and insect families that lived here, and had seen flutters and flurries of them as they reacted to her; but she hadn’t known that she could reach out and feel them. She hadn’t thought to consider that the tall trees had their own strange and ancient life energy. The rocks and mosses and twigs called out in their own ways, too. Even the tiny flecks of nothing in the filtered sunlight had unique signatures. Every single life force connected and intertwined to form an overarching structure which was infinitely more complex than the gargantuan pieces of technology that Rey had once been awed by.

Her unorthodox, curious meditation led her unerringly to her destination. She wasn’t quite sure what she had expected, but she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the fact that this part of the forest looked and smelled and sounded just like all the rest. Selfishly, she had wanted the place where she had first seen Ben to be remarkable in some way. She wanted something -- some sign, some token -- to soothe the fact that it was a very unpleasant memory. She had been sad, afraid, angry; she had killed; she had hated him. It was outrageously unfair that that moment had led all the way to this one.

The trees watched her impassively, completely unaffected by her indignation. She looked to the ground and took a few purposeless steps until she saw a broken stone. She picked it up and strode to the nearest tree, leaning her wrist against the bark and pausing to consider how to best express her roiling emotions. But, unbidden, her other hand came up to press against her right cheek, and so she retraced her steps and knelt to press the rock back to the place she had found it.

Too many marks had been made that day.

The castle had certainly suffered the effects. Her feet took her toward it on autopilot, freeing her mind to continue pondering and her hand to stroke absently over the hilt of her lightsaber.

It was the first time she had seen the ruins up close, because of course she had no memory of leaving this battlefield. This castle had once been the biggest terrestrial building that Rey had ever seen, but now it was a pile of rubble. If she squinted she could imagine that the scorched ground was still smoking. She wanted to blame the First Order, but found that she couldn’t, because it wasn’t all on them. This devastation was the result of the First Order clashing with the Resistance. The extreme dissonance between them was the true destructive force at work.

And so perhaps it was appropriate that the forest was unscarred by her and Ben, because they were never truly at odds. Even in that first terrifying moment she had felt connected to him, and he to her.

She hadn’t been called back to the landing site yet, so she worked her way systematically through the ruins. She saw nothing of value. No weapons, no shattered armour, no scraps of broken furniture. To an untrained eye it might have appeared as though the extent of the chaos made it impossible for such relics to have survived, but Rey recognised that this place had been picked clean by scavengers. She resolved to assemble another team on her return to Coruscant and task them to come to Takodana. She willed the thought out into the air around her; but, although it was satisfying, it wasn’t conclusive. There was still some other truth this place would show her. So she persevered with her exploration.

She reached an area of rubble and, seemingly at random, began to excavate it with a combination of physical exertion and the Force. She was only mildly surprised to find a staircase leading down under the ground. Following it led her to a familiar stretch of dank stone corridor. Her lightsaber swung comfortingly against her with each step as she moved forward to the door that had, in retrospect, quite obviously been her goal all along.

Finally stepping into the cluttered room was like stepping into a dream. Her eyes and hands were drawn immediately to the small chest -- still laying open -- that had once housed her saber. She ran her fingers along its edges with purpose, but the gesture didn’t feel significant. It wasn’t what she was here for.

Her hands chose other random things in the room to touch and bump and weigh. Most of them were covered in thick layers of dust that she stirred with her movements, and more than once she had to cover a violent sneeze with the crook of her elbow. Slowly she made her way to a table tucked into the far corner of the room, covered with rusted bits of machinery and primitive beaded jewellery and, casually flung into the mix, a small perfect cube with gilded edges that fit comfortably into the palm of her hand.

The air whirled and sang around her, because it had been gently guiding her to the holocron since she had left hyperspace. Perhaps even before then.

It didn’t feel anything like the first one. She had felt Vader’s malicious emanations long before his holocron was even within her eyeline. This holocron radiated an energy too, but it was gentler and more subtle. Wise. She knew, without knowing how, that this device contained true knowledge of the kind that Ben had hoped to find in Vader’s pyramid.

Rey sat down at the shoreline of the lake with the cube cradled reverently in both palms. She didn’t quite remember leaving the castle and walking away from the ruins.

The temptation to open it was almost overpowering, but it didn’t belong solely to her. Nothing truly did. She shifted it to just one hand and reached for her commlink with the other.

“Good morning, Rey,” Ben said quietly. His tone was soft but businesslike, telling her that he wasn’t alone. She wondered if whoever he was meeting with could tease out the different threads in his voice, and if they were curious about them.

“Sorry,” Rey said. “I don’t want to interrupt.”

“It’s fine. What do you need?”

“Nothing. I’m okay. I saw something and I wanted to tell you about it, that’s all. Maybe I got a bit impatient.”

She heard a shuffle of activity, and then his voice, even lower. “I’m even more impatient for you.” He must have moved a few paces away from whoever he was with.

The air was singing again. They spent a few seconds listening to each other breathe. Rey looked out over the water, half-mesmerised by the way the sunlight reflected off all the little imperfections in the lake’s surface. He would like that. She stored it away to show him later, because once she was back on Coruscant he would once again be free to flow through her memories and ruminations and everything that she was and ever would be. The thought made her tremble with anticipation.

“I feel it too,” he said, even though she hadn’t verbalised it. A moment later he regained enough sense to end the conversation.

Feeling so connected to him paradoxically convinced her that she could and should investigate the holocron without him. He would see it all when they were together. So she brought it up to eye level and examined each of the six sides in turn. The esoteric symbols were still a mystery to her, but that was okay. She remembered Ben’s battle of wills with the Sith holocron and prepared herself for a similar test; unnecessarily, because the Jedi holocron’s energy reached out and drew her into its embrace as if it had been waiting for her.

The moment her consciousness brushed up against it it fell open. She expected to see the holographic form of some wizened old gatekeeper, but instead the air in front of her face was filled with a number of swirling images. It was vaguely reminiscent of the selection menu on her datapad, so she supposed that was what it was. She flicked through it methodically and found lists of names that she didn’t recognise; a map of the galaxy with pins marking dozens of locations; a holomessage from a grave-faced, bearded man who spoke about the fall of the Republic and the Jedi Order; and a lightsaber training video.

This last one caught her attention. The thought of surprising Orax and Ben with some ancient, forgotten technique that they had never seen sent a thrill through her. She glued her eyes to the instructor, who could only have been a wise and brave Jedi Master. Even though he was discussing weaponry she could see and feel the light and compassion radiating from him. He stood in the palm of her hand, but she imagined that in life he might have been as tall as Ben. His hair fell to his shoulders in similar loose waves, but it was light brown instead of inky black, and so wasn’t nearly as appealing.

She chastised herself, because surely it wasn’t necessary for her to compare every man in the galaxy to Ben, and re-focused on the lesson.

“I've made some adjustments to the classic Form IV techniques that I think you'll find work well against droids and other ranged attackers,” the Jedi Master said. “Here, I'll show you.”

And then Rey’s heart stopped, because he reached to his waist and pulled her lightsaber into his hand. It was a blue-tinged miniature, and it appeared much smaller in his hand than it did in hers, but the shape of it was unmistakable.

Anakin Skywalker swung his blade with a practiced focus that marked him as a disciplined warrior, but his eyes betrayed a smug, almost lazy confidence that he had passed to his grandson. He was good, and he was very aware of it. But his conceit didn’t venture into self-centeredness. He had made this video with the intent of passing on his strengths, so that younger Jedi might improve their skills and keep themselves and the galaxy safe. That was something that he keenly wanted. Safety, and peace. She was sure of it.

Too soon, he finished his demonstration. “Practice these exercises mindfully and you'll see improvement, I promise,” he said before fading.

Thick, silent tears had begun running down her face. They were for him, of course. For the woman who had loved him, and who she now knew he must have loved in return, because the man she had just seen was entirely too capable of every good and bad emotion that had ever been felt. Her tears were for Luke and Leia, and what they could have had. For Ben, who carried the weight of this great and terrible legacy; and for his children and grandchildren and the hundreds of generations who would come after them, because they would each hold a small piece of it inside them until the very end. And her tears were for herself, because she was part of it now, and all she could do was encourage them to be strong and hope that it was enough.

Her comm beeped and, expecting Ben, she answered with a completely un-self conscious half-sob.

“Rey?” Arin sounded alarmed. “What’s happened? Where are you?”

Rey took a steadying breath. “Nothing. I’m, uh, puffed out from hiking. I’m in the forest.” She looked out across the lake again and saw the outline of a second shuttle resting next to hers. She hadn’t even noticed the newcomer’s descent.

“Oh, good. Well head back, why don’t you? I didn’t come all the way here to make small talk with your pilot. We can still make it to the city for a late lunch if we leave soon.”

Rey rose, tucking the holocron safely into her pocket. She splashed her face with cool lake water, but had no way of assessing exactly how messy she looked. If she was questioned she could blame any redness on the exertion of her walk.

Twenty minutes later she emerged onto the opposite shoreline, genuinely red-faced and puffing from the trek. Arin waved her over and gave her a quick, perfunctory embrace before hastily pulling back. Her hair was different: she had cut one side of it very close to her scalp and brushed all of the remaining length over to the other side.

“It’s very nice to see you, but it will be nicer once you’re clean,” Arin said.

Rey took a quick sonic shower and re-dressed, tying her hair up into a single ponytail. She glanced at herself in the mirror and paused. She supposed that Arin would expect her to dress for the occasion, so she quickly changed her simple linen tunic for a silky dark green blouse.

Arin surprised and pleased her by firmly instructing all of their guards to stay behind so the two women could travel to Andui City alone. Apparently Arin’s entourage were similarly familiar with the futility of argument.

Arin talked -- lightly complained, mostly -- about her travels, and Rey nodded and mumbled appropriate responses as she guided their speeder away from the lake.

“I’d forgotten how dull it can get without all of you just down the hall. Ryal and I made plans to meet up regularly, but Kylo had him stay back on Coruscant, so now we’re out of sync and I’m not sure it will work.” She side-eyed Rey slyly. “So that kiss had better have been worth it.”

“It was,” Rey promised good-naturedly, and they both laughed. “How much longer will you be away?”

Arin sighed. “Another nine weeks. Ry won’t be as long, because his distances are shorter. I don’t know how Orax and Lissa will manage; their Rims are so big.”

This was something that Rey had already considered, because she didn’t want to ever be away from Coruscant for this long again. “They can break it up into several short trips. That’s what I’ll do, too.”

Rey slowed as they approached Andui. The ‘City’ earned the title only by being the largest settlement on the planet. It was nothing like Coruscant (but then, nothing in the galaxy was anything like Coruscant). The tallest building was perhaps eight or nine storeys high; surrounding it were single- and double-storey buildings that lined unpaved roads. A harsher critic might have named it primitive, but Rey found it charming, and the feel of grass under her soles as they wandered among market stalls was unexpectedly decadent.

They bought portable bowls of long, stringy bread topped with sauce and vegetables, and ate as they walked and talked, which only increased the charm of the place. They had both concealed their weapons, so no one paid them any special attention. Even so, Arin pulled her aside before they passed the door of a bar she had pointed out. It looked a little low-brow, like everything else about this place, but in a politely unassuming way. The large orange-skinned alien guarding the door watched them from the corner of his eye.

“Listen, in the interest of peaceful mingling, we should probably give him fake names,” Arin said. “Do you have one? Something else that you’re called?”

Rey did, so she nodded.

They approached the bouncer and craned their necks to regard him.

“Name and business,” he said, sounding a little too bored.

“Tanja Melorean,” Arin said, and Rey tried not to flinch with surprise at her using her birth name as a pseudonym. “I’m here for a drink.” She flashed a winning smile, and was rewarded with a subtle flick of the bouncer’s head.

He turned to Rey. “Name and business.”

“I’m Kira,” Rey said. “And, uh, I’m also here to drink.” She moved to walk past him.

He shifted slightly to block her passage. “Kira what?”

Rey’s mind whirled. It hadn’t occurred to her to prepare a second name, because she had never had one before. ‘Kira Ren’ was her first instinct, and it did have a nice ring to it, but it was hardly inconspicuous. The seconds were beginning to tick by, and pausing was worse than answering, so she blurted out her next idea without fully considering it.

“Kira Solo,” she said quickly, and immediately bit her lip to silence the groan that wanted to follow.

The orange man didn’t react, except to flick his head exactly the way he had for Arin. Rey shuffled past him hastily.

Arin took her arm and whispered, “Sorry. I thought you were okay. Otherwise you could have said Melorean, too. We could easily pass for sisters.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Rey grumbled.

She forced herself not to catastrophise as as walked through the tight entry corridor, but then they spilled into the main room and she wanted to slap herself. The decor, the bartender, the music, the patrons… everything about this place screamed out the fact that it was a smugglers’ haunt. And she had given them the name ‘Solo’.

“We need to leave,” Rey said quietly.

“That will be worse,” Arin said, and Rey could tell she was trying to sound reassuring. “We need to have at least one drink. Observe a little. We’re not exactly un-armed.”

The fact that the bouncer hadn’t bothered checking them for weapons was another glaring red flag.

They moved to the bar and tried to act natural. Acting became a lot easier after the second round. Rey had only noticed one man watching them, and his attention seemed focused on Arin rather than her. She let her guard drop a little bit, because a single man looking at a pretty woman wasn’t completely unheard of.

“Ready for another?” Arin asked.

Rey shook her head. She still had a few swallows left. They had both been a lot more conservative with the speed of their drinking after what had happened last time.

“It’s been over an hour, Rey,” Arin cajoled. “No one’s paying any attention to us.”

Rey shifted her chin subtly in their watcher’s direction. “Someone is,” she said, with equal mixtures of warning and teasing.

Arin promptly dropped her napkin on the floor and bent to pick it up, twisting her head slightly. Rey wondered if the movement would have been so impressively subtle if she had seen it with completely sober eyes. Her musing was cut off when Arin sat up quickly and turned back to her. Her face was as white as a sheet.

“It’s Maldon,” she whispered, as if to herself.

“Who?” Rey whispered back.

Arin looked as if she might cry. “One of us. He was. Before--”

“He’s moving,” Rey said, cutting her off. He was making his way toward the exit, obviously realising that he had finally been noticed.

Arin whipped around, and then back. “I have to talk to him. I think it’s better if I go alone…”

“Okay,” Rey said, half-understanding. “Okay.”

Arin squeezed her arm briefly before rushing away after him.

Seconds later Rey heard a voice call out from behind her.

“Kira! Hey, Kira!”

She turned to see a woman with straight black hair and a round, pretty face. She was making her way purposefully across the bar to sit in Arin’s vacated seat.

The woman clapped her on the shoulder congenially. “Is that really you? It’s been too long! How are you?”

Rey swallowed. She decided to try to shake her off, so plastered a smile of her own on her features. “Wow, fancy running into you here! How have you been? Can I buy you a drink?”

The woman was unperturbed. “We need to catch up somewhere more private. Come with me,” she said, with an eager tone that could easily pass for genuine excitement, but Rey knew that it was a demand.

Was this a good time to reveal her lightsaber? A subtle shift of her legs and a tug at her blouse would do it.

Instead she reached out with her feelings and touched the edge of the woman’s thoughts. She felt resolve and determination, and they alone might have been intimidating, if they hadn’t been buoyed by a strong undercurrent of genuine kindness.

Intrigued, Rey followed her.

Chapter Text

Rey followed the black-haired woman through the bar to a dingy corridor that led to an equally dingy stairwell. She stretched out with her senses and felt no threat, so she was completely blindsided when she went to put her foot on the next step and was suddenly crippled by a stabbing headache.

Her ears rang with the force of it, and she couldn’t resist crying out in distress and clutching her temples. She squeezed her skull as hard as she could, because if she didn’t her head was going to explode. Instinctively she flung herself away from her captor and stumbled awkwardly back down the steps.

The pain vanished just as suddenly as it had begun. Rey sucked in a few quick, confused breaths before reaching for her lightsaber and igniting it. She brandished it at the woman, who appeared genuinely shocked at this sudden turn of events.

“What was that?” Rey demanded, pleased with the level of savagery she was able to inject into it. “Some kind of electromagnetic beam?”

The woman blinked. “No, of course not,” she stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Any beam would have affected me, too.” The rationality of the answer only enraged Rey further.

“What are you trying to pull here, anyway? You wait for lonely women in bars and lure them into -- what, smuggling? Slavery? You thought I’d be your next target? Well you’ve made a big mistake! Do you know who I am? You’re finished!”

The woman looked truly terrified now, and her hands were held out in front of her in a plea of submission, but Rey didn’t care. She was completely lost to panicked fury, in a way that she never had been before. Dimly she registered that the woman wasn’t the true target of her ire -- was probably a victim herself -- so, without pausing to consider if there was any danger in proceeding, she barrelled up the stairs with her weapon held high.

The headache didn’t afflict her again, and that was curious, but the details could be figured out later. When she reached the next landing she turned left, on pure instinct, and crashed through the first door she found.

The two people inside the room flinched, and so did Rey, because one of them was General Organa.

She was accompanied by a man Rey had never seen before. They were seated hunched over a very low table, their heads bent toward each other as they studied some schematic -- or, rather, they had been. Once Rey announced herself they sprang to their feet in defensive positions.

“Leia?!” Rey choked.

“Rey,” Leia said. She had recovered quickly enough so that her voice did not reflect the same degree of shock.

The man flinched again. He took in Rey’s face, her weapon, her face again, and recognition dawned over his features.

That was all any of them had the chance to say to each other, because something incredibly powerful and solid smacked into Rey from behind, tackling her to the ground.

“Drop it,” the black woman’s voice commanded. Her forearm was pressed painfully across Rey’s shoulder blades.

Rey no longer had any intention of using the lightsaber, but she was shocked and afraid and couldn’t bear the idea of parting with it at such a moment. She compromised by lifting her thumb and causing the blade to retract. She looked up at Leia, who seemed to have completely regained her composure and now looked simply contemplative.

None of them moved for a long moment, and then the woman slowly, tentatively released her. Her body still itched with the desire to act, but she couldn’t possibly target it at the General.

Leia nodded to herself, frowning. “Poe,” she began, gesturing out to the man without looking at him, “go and prepare for evacuation.”

Poe. The name sounded familiar, but Rey couldn’t quite place its significance. Had they met before? It was all so long ago. She heaved herself to her feet and brushed her clothes down, slightly unnecessarily.

Poe began to protest, but Leia quickly shushed him. He approached Rey and they circled around each other warily so he could exit through the door she had almost cracked in her enthusiasm. The woman followed him, after fixing Rey with a warning glare.

Rey turned back to Leia. “Evacuation? Why?”

Leia regarded her coolly. “Well, to start, an Imperialist just charged in here with a lightsaber.”

“I’m not--” Rey began automatically, and then cut herself off, because of course she was. She course-corrected. “I’m not going to hurt you. I didn’t even know you were here.”

Leia sat back down, slowly, and released a quiet groan when she did. The dread that had plunged into Rey’s stomach on the stairwell was still present, coiled tightly, as if waiting for another opportunity to unleash.

Her commlink beeped, jolting her, and she dug through her pocket to fish it out. It was Lissa. She must think that Rey was still on Jakku and needed a distraction from her parents. But Rey definitely didn’t want a distraction from Ben’s parent, so she declined the transmission and stowed it away.

Leia was watching her closely. Even though she was seated and had her face tilted up to maintain eye contact she managed to make Rey feel very small.

Rey felt the need to explain herself. “I thought something terrible was happening. I thought people were getting hurt.” She gestured at the door, a little helplessly.

“It is,” Leia said. There was a hard edge to her voice that indicated she wasn’t interested in small talk. “They are. All over the galaxy terrible things are happening, and people are hurting. I thought you understood that.” She didn’t look angry; only deeply disappointed, and somehow that was worse.

No,” Rey insisted. “Not anymore. Things are better now. Or they will be!”

Leia said nothing.

This was all happening very suddenly, and her thoughts felt incredibly full, but she tried her best to untangle and verbalise them. “It’s hard, okay? Really complicated. So it took some time to figure things out. But it’s working now. There’s the House of Representatives, right? And, okay, the Knights. And the Sisters. Snoke is dead! Doesn’t that all count for something?”

Still Leia said nothing.

Another beep. Lissa was trying again. Frustrated, Rey shut the device off and then shoved it as deep as possible into her pocket, for good measure.

“If you came to Coruscant with me you would see. We’ve been working so hard, every day. Everyone -- well, no, some of them are sleemos -- but there are so many good people. Please believe me--”

“I did believe in you.”

Her expression hadn’t changed at all, but suddenly the desire to please her faded and Rey felt the first twinge of resentment. She and Ben hadn’t discussed his mother yet, so out of politeness she never dipped into his memories of her; but Leia’s expression of weary disapproval seemed intimately familiar, and so Rey must have somehow gleaned it from him.

“You didn’t. Not really. Believing in someone means you don’t stop believing, ever, even if they make mistakes.”

“Does it, now?” Leia asked, with a half-sarcastic tone that Rey had become immune to. “I’ve seen a lot more mistakes than you. ‘The brighter the light, the darker the shadow’. Luke told me that once, before my son was even born. I thought it was comforting. Now I know it was a warning. To think that I, who saw firsthand exactly what the Empire was capable of, have been indirectly responsible for its return--”

Rey interrupted forcefully. “You’re wrong. You’re so caught up in your fear of the Old Empire -- just -- let it die. Let it go. This is something else. So stop calling this the Empire. Call it the ‘Organisation for Happy Times’, for all I care, just let the past die! Ben isn’t Vader. Or Palpatine. He’s Ben, he’s your son, he’s my-- he’s good.”

Leia sighed and beckoned her forward with one exhausted hand. Rey automatically, dutifully moved into the room and knelt opposite her in front of the low table. When she was settled Leia fixed her with a purposeful gaze.

“You assume far too much, Rey. I’ve been a politician for fifty years. You think I don’t understand how difficult it is to do good in this world when all the odds are stacked against you? I’ve been a mother for thirty years. You think I don’t want -- need -- to believe that my son is a source of that good?”

“So, believe it, then,” Rey pleaded. “What’s stopping you?”

Leia’s features twisted to display an emotion that Rey had never seen on her face; but she had seen its twin on her brother’s. Fear. Was this part of Anakin’s legacy, too? Were they all destined to be forever afraid?

It didn’t make sense for them to still be hiding. Maybe it had been necessary, in the beginning -- when Rey herself had needed to jump through mental hoops to place her faith in him -- but everything had changed. Leia obviously didn’t understand. So Rey began to explain: she told her about the Imperial House on Jakku, about the Sisters of Maranai, about Ryal and his stupid jokes and how he truly cared about everyone he met, about Ben taking her to Monument Plaza because he knew she liked greenery, about his change of heart toward the Outer Rim and his desire to find a more peaceful solution.

As she spoke, Leia’s expression morphed from fear to scrutiny to deep consideration. But the small element of distrust never left her.

Rey paused, not sure what else she needed to hear. Leia finally prepared to speak and Rey prepared herself for a barrage of difficult questions: why the House; why not the Senate; how are the budgets being managed; what will happen to the military.

Instead she asked: “How did you kill Snoke?”

Rey blinked. It was so long ago and, in light of all the many things that had happened since, had begun to seem almost inconsequential. But of course it had been the beginning of everything. “I didn’t. Ben did.”

“Yes, but how? What did you do?” There was something pleading in her tone.

Rey thought for a moment. “I didn’t do anything,” she said, thinking aloud. “I just went to him.” And she hadn’t done anything since, really, except stay with him. It was the only thing he had ever truly asked of her. She had done other things, of course, things that she needed to do; and he had done things that he needed to do; and, through some impossible coincidence, or a very great deal of luck, they had aligned themselves perfectly.

“Will you talk to him?” Rey asked after a moment of silence. A part of her worried that she was overstepping herself; she didn’t know if this was what Ben wanted. But another, bigger part of her knew it was something he needed. And all of her knew that he would forgive her for her presumption.

Leia folded her hands primly in her lap, pensive.

“I will,” she said finally, delighting Rey. Just for a moment. She continued: “I will gladly meet with the Emperor, once he calls for a parlay.”

This was a clever move. It meant that Ben would need to publicly acknowledge the survival of the Resistance; and it would provide a clue to the rest of the galaxy, which was so very prone to gossip, about his true identity. Rey’s heart fell, because she knew that he would see this shrewd manoeuvre as an affront.

But she had implored Leia to believe, so it would be hypocritical of her to do otherwise.

“I’ll tell him,” Rey promised.

Leia smiled.

There was a third interrupting beep, and Rey almost groaned in consternation, but it was Leia’s commlink rather than hers.

“Perfect timing, as always,” Leia said quietly, as if to herself. Then, more loudly, “My transport is ready.”

Rey clenched all her fingers and toes to distract herself from the way her stomach churned. “You don’t have to go. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“Sorry, kid,” Leia said. “But I’ve been doing this for far too long. I can’t take any chances.” She stood, with a little difficulty, and gestured for Rey to do the same.

“Wait,” Rey said, rushing to her feet to stop her progress. “Is Finn--” her voice choked off, because she was ashamed it had taken her so long to ask, and because she was afraid of the answer.

Leia’s eyes softened and she reached forward to squeeze Rey’s shoulder. The contact made her scar tingle.

“He’s alright,” Leia said. “And so is Chewie, Artoo, and all the rest,” she added, anticipating Rey’s next questions.

“Luke?” Rey breathed.

“No word.”

Rey bit her lip. “Okay.”

Leia gave her cheek a gentle pat. “Hope is like the sun,” she said, mysteriously, and moved to the door. She paused with one hand on it.

“When my doorman told me about a visitor who gave the name ‘Solo’ I was expecting some cocky flygirl who fancied herself as my late husband’s protege. But it was you.” It was inflected as a statement, but the hidden question was unmistakable.

Rey blushed. “I’m-- it was the first thing I thought of. I don’t have a second name. I’m just Rey.”

Leia nodded and left her.

Rey slumped down into Leia’s vacated seat and took a few minutes to collect herself. She felt as though something significant had happened; as though progress had been made. So why did she still feel so uneasy?

She trudged her way down the stairs and back into the main barroom, and was shocked to find it completely empty. It was still early evening. A place like this shouldn’t shut down until the small hours of the morning.

The cogs clicked into place and she realised that the bar was the thing that Poe was evacuating, because the bar was the Resistance, hiding in plain sight for Rey to stumble blindly into.

Her dread began to unravel from where she had kept it carefully contained. It can’t have been a coincidence that she and Arin had been separated.

Rey ran out onto the street and spent a few moments ducking and weaving through the throng of revellers, but found no sign of her companion. Panicking, she drew out her commlink and switched it on, and then she panicked quite a bit more, because she had seventeen messages.

From Lissa, from Ryal, from Orax; but none from Arin. She chose Ryal, at random, and held her commlink close to her face as she continued to make her way through the crowd. She was sick of weaving, so she began to simply shove them aside, ignoring their tsks of indignation.

She was still looking about wildly for Arin, so she barely heard what he said, and had to ask him several times to repeat himself. Finally she paused in the middle of the street and asked him again.

“Who are you with?” Ryal asked instead. “Is there someone else you can pass the comm to? I know it’s a lot to take in right now.”

What’s a lot to take in? You haven’t said anything useful,” Rey snapped. She hated him in that moment, just as much as she hated every stupid person gawking at her, and this entire city, and this entire planet.

Furious, she broke the useless piece of plast in half and flung it away from her, not caring who or what she hit, and began running back through the streets to where she knew her speeder waited. Her thighs burned before long, but she ignored them; then her lungs burned, and she had no choice but to slow down. When the burning subsided the only thing she had left was the chill that Ryal’s news had poured into her; because, of course, she had heard and understood him perfectly well the first time.

She approached the speeder on numb feet. Arin was sitting in the passenger’s seat waiting, with frizzy hair and puffy red eyes.

“He wouldn’t come,” she warbled, “I told him--”

“We need to go home,” Rey interrupted, quietly, but in a voice that caused Arin to cut herself off mid-sentence. “Ben’s hurt.”

Her eyes widened in a way that might have been comical under any other circumstance. “What?”

“An accident, while training,” Rey parroted expressionlessly. “He hasn’t woken up yet. Ryal and the medi-droids are working on him now.”

Arin shuffled over the midline of the speeder into the driver’s seat and started poking around the controls. Rey couldn’t bring herself to be grateful for the gesture even as she clambered into the passenger side and leaned heavily against the headrest.

“What kind of accident?” Arin half-whispered as she drove them recklessly back to the lake.

“His head.” It felt like it was going to explode, Rey thought, and hated herself for not figuring it out sooner.

“He’ll be okay,” Arin said, as if trying to convince herself.

Chapter Text

Figuring out her next move was a bit of a fiasco. She had destroyed her commlink, but she needed to talk to Ryal, but she needed to talk to him alone, but she needed Captain Tavson present so he could begin preparations for the jump to hyperspace as soon as possible. After a few moments of jumbled chaos she wound up in the cockpit of Arin’s shuttle (the crew were all sitting by the lake, a little dumbfounded) while her own shuttle was being prepared for takeoff.

“He had an epidural haemorrhage,” Ryal was saying, in a very calm and clear voice. He must have had the speech memorised by now, after Rey’s tantrum in the streets of Andui. “It was an ordinary spar. A bit of a bump to the head; nothing that seemed serious. He made a sarcastic comment about it before the House meeting. So naturally I wasn’t concerned at all. In the evening he collapsed. The bleeding would have been slowly continuing throughout the day, until it reached the critical mass and his brain could no longer compensate. I was able, with difficulty, to convince his blood to clot. But the pressure and swelling from the bleeding will take time to subside, and, the brain is complex, so recovery from these events can be unpredi--”

“But you can heal him,” Rey said. “That’s what you do.”

“I can speed up certain processes, slow others, encourage--”

“So do all of that, then!”

“I’ve done my part, Rey.”

Her breath was beginning to quicken, and she sensed she was reaching the limit of her patience. But she knew Ryal well enough to know that he wouldn’t have left any stone unturned. “Why were you there in the evening?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Why are any of us ever anywhere? I felt the sudden need to go over the minutes of the meeting.”

“Thank you,” Rey said; and she meant it, but her tone was unavoidably brisk. The seconds were ticking by too quickly. “I’ll see you soon.”

She sprang from the seat and raced across the grass to her own shuttle, pleased to hear the engines roaring. She double-checked the navicomputer and thanked Jober for programming the most direct route possible. As they began to rise she slipped into the sleeping quarters, nodding to her guards who had already flanked the door, and shut the door tightly behind her.

Arin was sitting cross-legged on one of the bunks, and Rey joined her, forcing herself not to remember the time she sat in this exact spot with Ben.

She felt a twinge of guilt for leaving Arin out of the conversation -- though she hadn’t complained at all -- and dutifully relayed everything Ryal had explained.

“It seems crazy,” Arin said. “From just a bump? Surely it wouldn’t cause that much trouble unless there was…” she grimaced guiltily, unwilling to finish the thought.

“There is something wrong with him,” Rey admitted quietly, hugging her knees to her chest. “His blood doesn’t clot.” She remembered nicking him with the razor. It was the tiniest scratch imaginable, but his blood had dripped thick and hot down the side of her thumb, completely out of proportion to the wound. She remembered the little crease between his brow as he frowned in confusion, because he knew that it was unusual. But he quickly ignored it, because he had been too busy comforting her. Rey decided that, once he survived this injury, she would murder him a hundred times over for his idiocy.

Rey shook her head to clear it. “Let’s talk about something else. Anything else.” She was trapped in the purgatory of hyperspace for two days, completely unable to do anything for him, and she would go mad without a distraction.

Arin opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and said, “Maybe we should try to sleep.”

It seemed like a ridiculous idea, but Rey didn’t have any better ones, so they stretched out beside each other (it never occurred to either of them to move to one of the other three beds in the small room) and tried.

Against all odds, she did manage to sleep. She dreamt that she was back in her garden on Coruscant. She heard the steady trickle of running water and looked all around for the source, but never found it. When she woke she turned from her still-sleeping companion and tip-toed across the room to where Captain Raeh lay snuggled in amongst all of her clothes. Even though Raeh didn’t have a face she looked sad, so Rey swept her into a hug and snuck back to bed.

The next day was interminable. By mid-’morning’ she and Arin were desperate enough for distraction to begin a game of holochess. Neither of them really knew how to play, so they tried making up their own rules, but the semi-sentient pieces strongly protested their unorthodoxy and the match fell to a strange standstill.

“Do you want to talk about Maldon?” Rey asked finally, breaking the silence that had descended after lunch.

“How much do you know about him?” Arin asked.

“I had never heard his name until you said it,” Rey admitted. “But I knew that there had been someone else. In ‘self-imposed exile’, Ben said.”

Arin didn’t look at her as she told the story. She seemed focused on pushing back the cuticles on each of her fingernails until they were absolutely perfect semi-circles. “Right. We don’t talk about him. But back before… you know, before…” (“yeah”, Rey said quietly, to indicate that she understood) “there was always the four of them. Lissa and Orax and Chali and Maldon. And Kylo and Ryal were always…” she held up two fingers and twisted them around each other. “And then there was me. But that was okay. Anyway, Snoke always split us all up. And we all went along with it at first, because we didn’t-- because we thought that Kylo had some sort of plan, even if he didn’t tell us what it was. But then a year passed, and another, and a third, and nothing changed.

“None of us were happy about it, obviously, but we decided to wait. I think we all would have broken, eventually, but Maldon was the first. He started ignoring orders, leaving his post… it seemed harmless enough in the beginning, but even the slightest bit of dissent wasn’t tolerated in the First Order. Kylo did his best to keep it off Snoke’s radar, and for a while it looked like he was getting away with it. But then Chali got reassigned to another division, and they were tasked with overseeing a mining colony on Hays Major.”

Her voice began to crack. “The mines were toxic. All of the deployed staff wore biohazard suits, but there was some sort of malfunction with Chali’s gear and it took them weeks to figure it out. By that time the damage was irreversible. It was all some sort of ‘tragic oversight’, it was decided, later. But by then we knew better. That was Maldon’s punishment. And all of ours, for not stopping him. It took her months to die. And Kylo blamed Maldon for stepping out of line, and Maldon blamed Kylo for not stepping out of line, and it was all a big mess. Anyway, he left. And the rest of us were even more separated. Orax… you know, it was really hard for him. He used to talk a lot more, before. And Kylo seemed to grow even more loyal to Snoke. Until that day on the Supremacy, obviously.”

Arin released a shaky sigh and shrugged. Rey took that to mean that the story was over, and she was supposed to feel like her question had been answered. But it only brought dozens more questions to her mind.

She decided that it would be unfair to ask them all at once, so she chose the most pertinent one. “Why did you stay?”

Arin shrugged again. “Staying didn’t make sense. But leaving... Where would I have gone?”

“I know about waiting, too,” Rey said, and they shared a tentative smile.

Then Arin’s gaze became sharp and determined, and she more closely resembled the woman Rey had first met on the Conqueror. “Time for a rematch. I’m going to figure out this stupid game.”

Holochess was still incomprehensible, but a small weight had lifted from the air, so their misunderstandings of the rules became funny rather than frustrating. Rey went to bed that ‘night’ feeling more relaxed, and even brought Captain Raeh with her in the first instance, ignoring Arin’s curious look.

She dreamt of the garden again, but Ben was with her this time. He was standing on his own balcony, and he appeared to be working on something, but it was hidden from her view. She called out to him from her side of the railing. He turned, as if he heard her, but his eyes looked straight through her as if she wasn’t really there.

He dissolved away from her, and then returned. This new dream was a memory. She felt the bite of hard steel against her back and the echo of her own fear, and saw his outstretched hand hovering above her. She followed it to his face and felt a jolt of surprise, because he looked different. His eyes were dark and his cheeks were sunken; he was still handsome, but only if she ignored how very cold he was.

Suddenly he warped and he was parrying her blows, and she smelled burning flesh as she swung up and slashed his face; and now he was standing before her challengingly as rain whipped around them; and now he was sitting across from her and reaching for her outstretched hand; and now he was reaching out his own; and now hundreds of memory-Bens flashed before her. Some of them were sad, and a few of them were frightening, but most were smiling and holding her hand and talking gently to her; and one liked birds, and one tickled her, and one whispered that he loved her as she floated in the afterglow of her orgasm.

And then he was lying directly beside her, asleep. His eyes opened to look directly into hers.

Her heart was racing excitedly when she woke.

The suspense was lethal, so she swung one of his robes around her shoulders and raced to the cockpit. Jober must have still been asleep, because his copilot was manning the flight controls. He saluted when he saw her.

“Two point three hours to destination, ma’am,” he reported, before she had even asked.

Rey rewarded him with a smile.

She sonic-showered and dressed with great care. She wasn’t sure what would happen next, but it would be significant for all of them. Every inch of her skin tingled where the clean fabric of her clothes rested against it. This quiet but violent anticipation wasn’t completely new to her; she had felt the same thrill when she had tucked herself in the Millennium Falcon’s escape pod and delivered herself to the Supremacy.

She stood in the cockpit between Arin and Jober and kept her eyes on the viewport as they exited hyperspace. The night side of Coruscant glittered before them like a giant black diamond. This wasn’t new to her, either: she had felt the same awe and insignificance aboard the Conqueror, when Ben had stood behind her and created a space just for them amid all the chaos of the bridge. If she pretended hard enough she could almost feel his warmth on her back. It was very curious, and simultaneously not curious at all, that she should feel so many reverberations of the past as she hurtled through space toward him.

As the city below them came into focus her eyes travelled unerringly to the Palace and remained locked on it throughout their descent. Morning broke, illuminating it, as if it were a single block of glimmering stone. A sense of purpose and possessiveness overcame her, and it tasted perfectly familiar, because it was the exact combination that Ben had felt the last time she had made this journey. She hadn’t been aware of his thoughts at the time, but they bounced back to fill her now, because the Force was so ancient and omniscient that a time lapse of five months meant very little to It. All It knew was that he belonged to her, and always had. It sang around her, as if It were pleased that she had discerned Its intention.

She ordered Jober to ignore the flight controllers directing them to the landing pad, insisting instead that they land directly on the roof. He delighted her by breaking protocol and releasing the loading ramp before they had fully touched down, so that she was free to leap from it and land on the roof the moment it was safe to do so.

“Thank you, Major!” she called out over her shoulder as she ran for the stairs, knowing full well that she didn’t have the official authority to promote him, but that no one would dare to question it.

Several things surprised her when she burst through the door of Ben’s bedroom.

The first was him, of course. She had been afraid that he would look different -- sick, or weak, or thin -- but he didn’t, and she was now ashamed for even considering it. He just looked like Ben. He was laid out comfortably, and if she hadn’t had the unpleasant comm calls from Ryal that had brought her racing back here, she might have been able to convince herself that he was merely sleeping soundly.

The second surprise was the room itself. It wasn’t a room that Rey had ever seen before, though she was sure that she had barrelled down the hallway and through his chambers to a place that should have been very familiar to her. She took in the dimensions, and the faint line that divided the ceiling, and the matching doors on either side that she knew led to identical bathrooms; and she understood. This was Ben’s bedroom, but it was also her bedroom. The wall dividing them had been torn down in her absence.

It was appropriate, just like everything else had been that morning. Every sight and thought and feeling had been meticulously designed to lead her to the very simple conclusion.

Ryal and Lissa and Orax were present, standing vigil. All three plastered hopeful, sympathetic smiles on their faces when she finally turned her eyes to them. Ryal stepped forward, as if to embrace her. “He’s stable, which is reassuring. I’ve tried--”

Rey held her hand out and shook her head to silence him.

“I know what I have to do,” she said.

She clambered up onto the bed beside Ben and sat, cross-legged, against his waist. She pulled his hand into her lap -- it was limp and heavy, but that was okay, because it very soon wouldn’t be. She leant down to stroke his hair, which was very soft; and his cheek, which was prickly. He was both, always, just like he was everything else.

And then she did nothing. All she needed to do was be with him. All she had ever needed to do was be with him.

Her first two attempts to heal him had failed, because she had tried to bend and crush and warp the Force within her, not fully appreciating the fact that It had Its own will. Ryal had tried to teach her, the night of the coronation, but she hadn’t been ready to understand.

She didn’t need to direct the Force within her toward Ben, because that very same Force filled him as well. She opened herself up to It, to him, and gently reminded both of Them that They had worked together to tell her, across millions of lightyears, that she wasn’t alone. Ben hated lies, and she was sure the Force did, too, and so it was in Their best interests to keep this promise to her.

Ben’s mind had been eerily flat and calm, but now she felt a ripple flow through him. It travelled down his arm to the hand that she held, and his fingers twitched against hers once before stilling again.

The gentle flutter of pressure against her skin had contained an almost incomprehensible amount of information. There was love and gratitude; pain and fear; and, undercutting it all, a deep lethargy and weariness. He had been lost inside the endless sea of his own mind, frightened that the damage was irreparable, but still trying endlessly to find his way back. The effort had eased significantly with her beside him, but he still needed more time.

You’re doing wonderfully. You're so strong, she told him: another echo of the past. There was no response except for another ripple, because he wasn’t strong enough for words yet. But she was, so she gladly shared all of her words with him, and the ripples multiplied and grew until he began to bubble with new consciousness.

Rey turned back to the others. Arin had arrived, unnoticed, at some point during her meditation.

“He won’t wake for several hours yet,” Rey told them. Dozens of questions burned in each pair of eyes, but she just grinned. “I did my best, okay? But he’s stubborn.”

Chapter Text

Even though Rey assured them that he wouldn’t wake that morning, the Knights were reluctant to leave. She couldn’t blame them. If the roles were reversed she would have had even more trouble prying herself away from him. She mused, not for the first time, about the way that they had accepted her in spite of their own lengthy histories together. Arin’s story had helped to fill some of the gaps. They had all been frustrated, waiting for change, and Rey had brought it with her.

The five of them sat in a loose circle on the floor together, talking about Rey’s travels, and Arin’s, and what had transpired in the capital in the interim. The preliminary House sessions were complete, and all Representatives had been chosen and sworn in (and had all been given apartments on levels nine to twenty-three of the Palace) which meant that the next phase of government was officially in place. Ben would preside over each session, of course, and the rest of them would rotate so that there would always be one of them seated at his right hand. Rey hadn’t known much about the New Republic Senate, except for the fact that it didn’t seem to care about Jakku at all, so she wasn’t quite sure how this system was different. But the others seemed to think that the new government was unlike anything that had been seen before in the galaxy. She supposed it must all be in the details.

If an outsider were to happen upon the light conversation, and occasional laughter, they would have been hard-pressed to imagine that they had disturbed a sickroom. One by one the Knights themselves seemed to forget, too, and at noon they began to stand and leave, grimacing guiltily about the work they were putting off. Orax was the only one who still looked put out, and Rey realised that he must be struggling the most since it was his sparring session that had begun all of this. As the group moved as one toward the door she wrapped an arm around his waist in a half-hug, and he gave her a grateful squeeze in return.

Then it was just her and Ben. She leaned back against the door to take in the room. She had glanced around curiously at several points during the morning, but the change required more methodical examination.

Combining the spaces made sense, because their habit of alternating between his room and hers couldn’t possibly have continued forever. Her first impression of the new room was that it looked empty. Each room had been quite large in its own right, and now the space was doubled, but with even less furniture. He had clearly tried to compensate partially for this: the bed was brand new, and slightly bigger than either his or hers had been. But nothing else had been changed. Her own side was exactly as she had left it, and his remained bare. She felt a twang of disappointment, because if this place was going to be theirs then it needed to reflect him, as well. She tried imagining how she might fill it with things that he liked, but came up short of ideas. Stubbornly she decided that it was something he would need to figure out for himself.

The only thing that he had bothered to change on his side were the curtains, and he didn’t get any credit for them at all, because he had simply copied hers. They now had two large wall-sized archways, side by side, leading out to what she supposed was now a shared balcony. The thick green curtains had been swept aside and tied so that the sheer white ones, billowing slightly in the late autumn breeze, were all that protected them from the rest of the city.

She walked to ‘her’ curtain and brushed through it to inspect her garden. She was pleased, but not surprised, to find that it had been carefully maintained in her absence. She was surprised to discover dozens of new flower pots, revealing that the daily deliveries had continued even when she wasn’t here to receive them.

And she was surprised to hear the steady trickle of running water that she remembered from a dream. She turned toward Ben’s balcony -- the division was arbitrary, because the railing between them was gone -- and was shocked to find it immensely changed.

It wasn’t green like hers. It was brown and grey and ochre, and some other colour that could only be described as ‘warm’. On the far side a snug alcove had been created against the Palace wall, roofed over so it would be protected from any inclement weather. From her vantage point she could just make out rows and rows of shelves, similar to the ones that housed her flowers, but these contained sturdy-looking rectangles that she wonderingly identified as books. A desk sat below them, and two comfortable but practical-looking chairs (two chairs, even though it was his space; just like the daybed in her own garden could accommodate both of them).

The study nook was fascinating in its own right, but it paled in comparison to the floor that had been created. Half of it was covered in flat wooden pieces carefully arranged in geometric formation, but the other half was covered in water. The once-stone floor had been dug out and a pond had been created. Some magical feat of engineering had caused water to pour from the balcony wall itself to fill it. Colourful fish spread in every direction below the water’s surface, causing it to ripple and reflect the sunlight. The fish darted underneath the wooden walkways, not paying any mind to Rey as she stepped carefully above them. She walked around to the bedroom entrance and then turned and looked over the retreat from the same perspective that Ben would have if he stepped through the archway to observe it (though of course she had to rise up onto her toes to get a more accurate representation of what he would see). What she saw was very serene, and very ambitious. It didn’t represent him, exactly. It represented a version of him that could have been; perhaps (she thought with a little bit of guilt) should have been. The obvious thoughtfulness and longing infused into this little project touched her in a way that nothing else had so far.

He would never ever be this person. Not completely. Just like she would never be completely green and sweet-smelling, because the desert still lived inside her and always would.

Maybe in another lifetime they could have both had everything they wanted, but here and now they would only have a few stolen moments each day in these two places -- now one place -- that belonged just to them. She ducked her head inside the curtain to look at him still resting on the bed, and decided that that was enough. She walked over and stretched out beside him and leaned over to kiss him firmly on the lips, unsurprised when he didn’t respond. He was completely still apart from the steady rise and fall of his chest, so she allowed herself a few minutes to rest her head there and feel the movement. Not having much else to do while she waited, she decided she may as well try to rest with him. But she was still in her travelling clothes, so she slid off the bed again, taking care not to jostle him too much, and moved to his closet to steal a robe.

The door snapped shut behind her and, although she had never been here before, she moved instinctively to the back-right corner of the small room and took down one of several soft black robes from its hanger. She felt incredibly protected in here, where it was cool and dark and everything smelled like him. It would only have taken a handful of easy seconds for her to change, but instead she inhaled deeply and walked confidently back out into the main bedroom and stripped down to her underwear. It was a lot more difficult to be naked this way: standing, in broad daylight, without the thick fog of lust to distract her from her own vulnerability. But if they were were officially sharing a bed she supposed it was something she would need to get used to. Even though he was asleep it sent a thrill of anxiety through her: it wasn’t completely unpleasant, but she still double-knotted the sash at her waist.

The rush of adrenaline lingered for several minutes. Resting was no longer an option, so she went back out to her garden with her datapad in hand and inspected the four weeks’ worth of new additions to her collection. After the third flowerpot had been carefully replaced on its shelf she dashed back inside to her travelpack and retrieved Captain Raeh, who undoubtedly wanted to accompany her. Raeh preferred the large-leafed greenery to the colourful flowers, because from her diminutive perspective the potted plants were a true jungle, so Rey guided her to sit amongst them.

Inspecting and reading about the flowers drove time forward to the late afternoon. Rey curled up beneath the canopy of her daybed and watched the sun slink slowly toward the false-horizon, waiting quietly as the white light turned yellow and then orange.

Captain Raeh was less patient. Suddenly it occurred to Rey that she didn’t know the pilot very well at all. As a child she had always understood Raeh to be fiercely independent: the kind of plucky Rebel who didn’t need anything except her X-wing and her own wits. But Raeh revealed to her now that there was more to the story than that. She could handle any challenge alone -- that would never stop being true -- but that didn’t mean that she didn’t get lonely sometimes. Even the bravest flygirl needed a copilot to help share the burdens of the expanse of space.

Rey dutifully ignited her lightsaber and, very very carefully, cut off a large piece of fabric from her robe so that the right half of it now only covered down to her knee. She folded and twisted and tied it until it was Raeh-shaped. Except, of course, it wasn’t Raeh-shaped. It was Captain Jacen-shaped, because that was his name. Rey guided him into the jungle to sit beside his new friend.

Rey stood and dusted her hands off, unnecessarily, feeling quite pleased with herself. She looked back out to the skyline and felt her pulse quicken as she breathed in the sunset. Ben would wake up now. This golden time, straddling day and night but not entirely beholden to either, had always belonged to him.

She rushed back to his side, pausing only to draw both sets of curtains wide so he would have a view of their balconies from the bed. She sat beside him cross-legged again and quickly combed her fingers through her hair before taking his hand.

The minutes passed by slowly. The fading light from the sunset was caught in his hair and eyelashes, and she had been sure that that would be enough, but apparently he needed some other sign. So she brought his fingers to her lips and kissed them, remembering the first time he had kissed her hand -- that had been at sunset, too. But still he didn’t stir. So she bent forward to kiss his forehead twice and his nose three times, because that’s what he had done next. Still nothing. His cheek. Nothing. Lastly, his lips, and that had to be the right one. One of the stories that she had read had been like this, with a princess who slept for a very long time until her love woke her with a kiss.

But apparently that strategy only worked with princesses, not Emperors, because Ben didn’t react.

Finally she sighed irritably and pulled back from him, still holding his limp hand, running her free one through her hair. “You know, Solo, there are other things I could be doing right now,” she lied. “Really high-level stuff. I’m kind of an important person.” She rested his hand in her lap so she could brush her fingers up to his wrist, forearm, elbow. She paused there to trace a few lazy circles, following them with her eyes, knowing that even if he was awake the effect would be lost on him because there were clothes between them.

She left his elbow to impatiently move up his arm and across his clavicle to his neck so she could feel his bare skin, and then up to trace his jaw. In the corner of her vision she saw a perfect curl at his temple, so her attention left her own fingers to focus on it instead. She paused on the way up to admire the way his lashes fluttered as he blinked.

By the time she realised her mistake she had lightly twisted the soft lock of hair around her finger several times. She froze, her eyes darting to his, which were indeed open and watching her.

He was already smiling, apparently having had enough time to do so while she was clueless. “Hi,” he said, and reached up to kiss her, as if they had been parted by mere minutes and not by days filled with cruel uncertainty. It was just a quick peck, and then he settled his head back on the pillow again, realising that she needed some space to catch up.

“Ben,” she said, because it was the only word that could sum up her emotions.

“I am,” he confirmed. “And you’re Rey.”

She nodded, blinking quickly to clear her eyes. His hand moved to rest against her one bare calf, his fingers tapping against her affectionately. He didn’t ask why she had felt the need to mangle his clothes.

He anchored his other hand on the mattress and used it to heave himself up into a sitting position, wincing as he did. His eyes squeezed shut. “Spin,” he said as an explanation.

“Slowly,” she urged. “You’ve been laying flat for a few days.” She reached around his shoulders, both to steady him and because she simply wanted him in her arms.

His own arms wrapped around her waist, as if automatically, and he lowered his forehead to her shoulder. His mind gently nudged against hers and she felt his confusion. “Show me?”

She showed him everything, remembering at the very last second not to reveal where she had been when his injury had happened. Not yet. But she showed him everything else, up to and including the moment she had seen his lovely eyes open.

He was silent for a long enough time that the last rays of sunlight had faded when he next spoke. “If you like dolls we can get you proper ones,” he said gently.

Rey rolled her eyes. “They are proper,” she insisted, furious that that was the thing he had chosen to comment on.

His head shifted so he could press his lips against her neck, and then lifted completely so his forehead rested against hers. “You’re extraordinary, kira. I love you.”

The name ‘kira’ brought the hidden memories bubbling back up. He sensed them and began to follow curiously, but she pushed him back and out of her head.

“Yes, I have more to show you,” she said. “But not yet. You need to get out of this bed. Stretch. And eat.”

Rey stood and Ben followed obediently, stretching his arms up over his head. He wandered toward his bathroom, and she took the opportunity to summon a serverdroid and order it to bring food to their room.

“Not what we usually have for dinner,” she instructed it. “Something light. Fruit. And that yellow cheese.” The yellow was his favourite, she remembered.

When Ben re-emerged she led him outside to his retreat and they sat on one of the walkways, facing each other. The balcony wall was illuminated behind the artificial waterfall, spreading soft light out across the water.

“Am I allowed to, you know, touch the fish?” Rey asked.

“You may do whatever you like,” he promised. But although two bright purple fish hovered curiously around her submerged fingers they were too quick for her to make any contact.

When their food arrived she dried her fingers on a napkin and looked up to find him watching her intently.

“What do you think?” he asked, with an edge of uncharacteristic shyness.

Rey beamed at him. “It’s wonderful,” she said honestly. “I’m glad you did something just for yourself. We should eat out here all the time.”

“I didn’t do it just for me--” he began, protesting.

Rey shook her head and held her hands up. “No,” she interrupted, “I’m saying that’s good.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “Well, if you’d let me finish.” They shared a small grin. “I didn’t do it just for me. Rey, when I saw you on Jakku… when I saw how incredible you were, how you handled your past, with such extraordinary grace… I believe what I told you that day: no one could ever do what you did. But I’ll try.”

Rey nodded, slowly. He had been trying, ever since the holocron. She had tested him every day, and he had passed most of them with flying colours. But he had avoided the real challenge; and she had avoided pushing the issue, but she couldn’t any longer.

She thought of the day on the Supremacy, and his harsh words about her parents and the denial she had coiled tightly around her knowledge of them. A part of her had despised him for forcing her break down her own walls, but it was a momentary fury that had passed. Now she knew that she had needed to admit the truth to herself. If she hadn’t then she wouldn’t have been able to survive seeing them on Jakku.

It was time to return the favour.

“I saw your mother,” she began without preamble, knowing that he would prefer blunt honesty.

His face fell behind a mask of indifference, and she forced herself not to be disappointed. Baby steps.

“Do you want to see?”

It was a full minute before he responded. His face remained impassive, but she knew that her Ben’s face would have been twisted with indecision, with his brow furrowed as he bit the inside of his cheek.

“No,” he said finally. “I would prefer if you told me.”

“Okay,” Rey said, and told him. She stuck to the facts, draining the story of all of the many potent emotions that it stirred within her. She could add them in later, at his request.

As she spoke she reached one hand out between them, for him to take, if he wanted. He did, and the desperate way he clutched her was completely incongruous with his still-blank face. He released her hand when she was done, but she left it on her knee, palm facing upward, in case he decided to take it again.

Ben began talking, dutifully, as if this was one of their pre-dinner talks in his office. But this was different in one important regard: this was the first time that he hadn’t offered to let her see his thoughts.

“My parents weren’t anything like yours, Rey. My mother loved me very much. I think she still does.”

He said it as if it was something shameful, some secret that he had hidden deep within himself… and Rey realised that he had. She forced herself not to react as he continued.

“But she’s a fool, because I don’t love her.” The way his voice shook as he forced the words out told her otherwise, but he wasn’t ready to hear her contradict what he had convinced himself was fact, so she stayed still and silent. “I want her to hurt. I want her to be miserable. I think she probably is miserable, right now, somewhere out in the backwaters of the Outer Rim with whatever remains of her group of rebels… and I like that thought very much. Taking the galaxy was my destiny, but it was also the surest way to break her, and that was just as important.”

Emotion crept back into his eyes as he finished, and he stared at her with an odd expression. He was challenging her, but also looked as though he desperately didn’t want to. Rey struggled to understand, but she couldn’t.

She took a deep breath. “I have one question. Is that okay?”

Her Ben answered her. “Of course. Anything.”

“How do you think you would feel about Leia if -- if Snoke had never been there?”

He swallowed and his eyes left her, looking out toward the skyline. “I don’t know the answer to that, and I never will.”

Rey did understand this part. Snoke was gone, but his manipulations had been so profound that their effect would never leave Ben, because they had created him. Parts of him, anyway. Parts that were too big to cut out completely, because then what would be left?

“I love you,” she promised him, because she wasn’t sure what else she could do.

For the first time, he didn’t say it back. His mouth twisted into a shape that could have been considered an ugly smirk, but she recognised it as a grimace of pain.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t patronise me. You couldn’t possibly. Not like this.”

Rey wanted to slap him, and very nearly did. She ripped her hand from her knee in preparation, but instead of reaching for his face she reached for his upper arm and clenched her fist around it, hard enough so that she knew her nails were digging in enough to sting him.

“I can’t believe that this is the thing that you thought would break me. How dare you think that anything would break me. I didn’t follow you here because I thought it would be easy. You think I’m naive? You think I didn’t already know all of this? I watched you kill your father.”

He flinched violently, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret the words.

“Have you somehow missed the entire point of what we’re doing? I thought you understood why we have these meetings every night, but obviously you never did. ‘Not like this’? What does that even mean? I said every part, Ben, and I meant it. I don’t get to pick and choose what I love about you, and you sure as hell don’t get to, either.

“And don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve spent weeks avoiding any mention of your parents… I thought it was for your own benefit, because you were working up to it, or something, but now you’re telling me this? That I ‘couldn’t possibly’? Do you have any idea how insulting that is, after everything we’ve given each other?”

She plunged her hand into the water next to her and violently swung it upward, hoping to direct a deluge right into his stupid face. In her mind’s eye she saw it clearly: it would wash over him and he would be left sopping wet and humiliated. But she was still inexperienced with the physics of water, so the majority of her meagre handful slopped onto the boardwalk between them. A few droplets did splash his face, though, so she decided that her point had been sufficiently made and lifted her chin to look down her nose at him haughtily.

Ben’s expression had morphed from pained to completely dismayed throughout her speech, but after this odd display of attempted dominance he simply looked dumbfounded.

He swallowed. “Why-- why did you--”

The situation had unravelled so very quickly. Her fury melted and she had to bite her lip to keep a straight face and ward off the blush that threatened to spread over her cheeks. “You said I may do whatever I like,” she pointed out, reasonably.

Ben nodded, slowly. “Very well.”

They simultaneously returned to their meal. Rey had her fill of the cheese more quickly than she had anticipated, so she offered Ben the rest of her chunk and he gratefully accepted.

“When is the next House meeting?” Rey asked, breaking the silence.

“Next week,” Ben said. “Lissa was going to accompany me, but you’re more than welcome. We’ll be discussing the trade routes in the Colonies and attempting to open them up.”

“Is that important?”

“Yes. Private trade federations are usually fronts for crime syndicates. Darth Sidious used them to destabilise the Old Republic.”

“Oh. Then, yes, I’ll come. I’ll need to do some reading.”

“I’ll forward some reference documents to your assistant.”

“Thank you. I have a free afternoon on Saturday to go over them. It would be helpful if you’d mark anything that’s relevant to my territory.”

“Are we seriously not going to mention the fact that you tried to end your big speech by splashing me?”

“‘Tried’? I’m not giving a speech anymore, am I?”

“Point taken.”

She tried to go back to the food, but there was something different about the silence now. She glanced back up to find him watching her with a wary uncertainty that would have further enraged her several minutes ago, but now it just made her sad.

“I love you, Ben,” she promised again.

“I love you,” he said, the words tumbling out of him. “I’m sorry--”

She shook her head and clambered over their plates to settle across his lap. She rubbed her nose against his, to warn him of her intention, and then kissed him softly.

He kissed back, but ended it earlier than she would have liked. “Is it so wrong of me to want you to have the best of everything?” he asked quietly.

“I already do.” She unravelled her hands from behind his neck to take his own hands and squeeze them. “Can I see?”

She held his gaze unflinchingly, willing him to trust her. He did, beckoning her inside and bringing forth the Leia and Han that lived within him. She stepped carefully through his memories of them and the emotions that they evoked. The early ones were filled with childish happiness and innocent love -- but even these weren’t completely untainted. A thick shadow hung over even his earliest memories of his parents, so that when a laughing two-year-old Ben was flung into the air there was a hidden, fearful suspicion that Han’s smile would fade and he would decide to let his son fall.

Over time that fear turned into overt mistrust; open rebellion; anger that he feared was misplaced, and that only led to more anger. Silent, spiteful declarations that he might as well be the monster they imagined him to be. A desire and then a need to destroy everything they loved -- the Republic, the Resistance, that ridiculous ship, this ridiculous family -- and him, they loved him most of all, and so he needed to be destroyed more than all the rest.

Rey felt it all, and she knew that Ben was feeling her reactions in turn. Sadness, and fear, and even waves of nausea that were provoked by some of the truly hateful things that he thought. But he remained pliant and open and allowed her to examine even the worst parts.

You may do whatever you like,’ he had said, and he hadn’t just been talking about fish. It occurred to her that Ben really would let her do anything she wanted. To his mind, to his body, to his galaxy. He heard her realisation and nodded quietly to confirm.

Suddenly it occurred to Rey that she was finished. What she had said to him earlier in anger had been correct: she already knew all of this. She wouldn’t spend any more time tonight thinking about the past when they should be focusing on their present. Put all this away, she instructed silently. She didn’t want any more shadows hanging over them. He complied, and she helped. They tucked away Han and Leia and Luke and Snoke and even the Knights, until the expanse of his consciousness was neat (tidy was the best he could hope for; it would never be clean).

She was still inside him, so he understood what was coming next, and he wanted it just as much as she did. They did a second lap around the edges of him to make sure that they were clear, and then they kissed. Like the first time, she thought, so their lips met in dozens of soft presses that slowly deepened and opened. She felt his mind reverberate with pure happiness every time she moved closer, squeezed tighter, sighed softer. She told him silently, but firmly, that this is their present, and it was more important than the past. It was even more important than the future. Because no matter what the future held -- and it wouldn’t always be good, or easy -- this would always be their present. Did that make any sense at all?

Yes, he vowed. He stood up with her in his arms, somehow managing to do it gracefully, and walked inside to their bed. He laid her down gently and hovered over her, and finally broke the kiss so they could breathe and he could smile down at her. His hands went to her waist and he had undone one of her double-knots before she regained enough sense to push him away.

“Not fair,” Rey said, remembering last time. She still hadn’t touched him. She pushed them both up into a seated position and tugged at the waistband of his sleep pants to see him. She still didn’t know what all of the different parts were for, but that seemed highly irrelevant. He was watching her look at him, and she felt his mind twist with the overwhelming desire for her touch. But he remained silent, and other than the occasional twitch his body betrayed nothing. She flirted with the idea of teasing him, of refusing to give in until he finally relented and pleaded for her... But she had her own desires to consider as well, so she reached out without further hesitation to wrap a hand around him.

His sharp intake of breath was immensely satisfying. She squeezed a bit harder, and he breathed a bit harder, and she bit her lip. She wasn’t sure what came next. She mentally nudged him, requesting instruction, and in response he dragged her into a memory. Suddenly she was Ben, sitting on the floor of the training room, staring down at his own hand as it pumped up and down along the length of his cock (okay, so that’s what it’s called), struggling to maintain some semblance of control as Rey’s lovely voice floated through the air and told him how good he made her feel.

The shock of hearing her own voice forced her out of his memory and back into her body. But she had what she needed, so she began to stroke him the way she knew he liked, pausing occasionally at the head to rub her thumb over it.

Ben’s entire body was shuddering within minutes, and Rey was very pleased with her quick learning, but couldn’t help feeling disappointed by the knowledge that she had cheated. After all, he hadn’t required any help to please her; had figured out exactly how to touch her just by experimenting.

“New rule,” she said. “Just for tonight. No mind reading.”

Ben nodded fervently. She had the feeling he would have agreed heartily to anything she said, so long as she didn’t stop stroking him.

Rey could do some experimenting of her own, and move to touch different parts of him to see how he reacted, but that would be exactly what he was expecting her to do. She decided to take advantage of the fact that he was no longer able to predict her actions and impulsively shuffled her knees and hips back so she had room to bend down and rub her mouth over the tip the next time he was expecting her thumb. Her theory proved correct: he did in fact like her lips more, as demonstrated by the way he gasped her name in delighted shock.

Her pride doubled when her second theory proved correct (he liked her tongue, as well), but she didn’t even have time to develop a third, because very soon after he was pushing her face away and begging her to stop, panting heavily and squirming.

“Why?” Rey asked. He had been very obviously enjoying her attention…

Ben crushed his lips against hers, pulling harshly on the sash around her waist. “Inside you,” was all he managed to say.

He gave up on the sash and instead decided to work around it. One hand worked underneath the top half to rub at one of her nipples while the other snaked its way up her leg to stroke her over her underwear.

“Can I?” he asked, but Rey shook her head no. She couldn’t risk a third false start, or she might actually go insane with need.

“One,” she said, with a kiss, “minute.” Another kiss. “One minute.”

She tore herself from him, ignoring his cry of confused dismay, and practically ran to her bathroom.

She peed, and wiped herself quickly, and then decided to wipe a little bit more carefully, since that area was clearly his destination. The realisation sent her into a miniature panic and she had the second-quickest shower of her life, and then brushed her teeth as thoroughly as she could manage while still maintaining a sense of urgency. It had been much longer than one minute, and she had no idea what kind of mood he would be in when she finally returned -- had she ruined it all before it had even properly started? -- so ducked back into the bedroom with her towel wrapped around her, feeling a little sheepish.

Her embarrassment dissolved instantly when she saw Ben emerging from his own bathroom on the opposite side of the room, looking equally sheepish, with a matching towel around his waist. He was clean-shaven, and his hair was still damp -- apparently he was too impatient for even the sonic dryers -- and he looked more beautiful than Rey had ever imagined anyone could be.

She dropped her towel to the floor and walked halfway across the room to the foot of the bed, delighted when he did the same. He bent down to kiss her at the same time she reached up to meet him (she decided that she loved the way she needed to stand up on her toes), and it was as slow and careful as the last kisses had been quick and desperate.

“I’m sorry,” he said when they broke for air. “I got impatient.”

“Me too,” Rey admitted. “But, another new rule: no apologising for anything that happens in this bed. Okay?”

He grinned. “Alright.”

They lowered themselves onto the bed and shuffled up toward the head. It was probably an activity that was best handled by the individual, but Rey felt the need to be as close to him as possible, and clumsily dug the point of her elbow into his upper arm.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, automatically.

Ben raised an eyebrow.

“Fine, I’m not sorry,” she said. “In fact, I did it on purpose.” She nudged her elbow at him again, more gently, and he laughed.

They shared more careful kisses when they were laid out next to each other, and sent some careful hands exploring, but for all their good intentions their mutual sense of impatience quickly took over again and before long she had pulled him on top of her and wrapped her legs around him.

“Now?” one of them asked, and the other said “yes,” and someone said “please,” and finally he slid inside her.

Rey would have liked to see his face when he first entered her, but he had hung his head so he could watch the place where they were joining. His eyes remained glued there for the first few slow strokes, as if entranced. A long, low moan escaped his throat and he finally looked back at her. His eyes were wide and amazed, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. She dug her fingers into his shoulders to guide him down to kiss her, and he did, and because he was Ben he insisted on synchronising his lips and his hips. She decided to take advantage of this quirk and deepened the kiss, releasing a muffled giggle when he automatically began to increase the speed of his thrusts to match her cadence.

He pulled away from her to look down at them again, as if checking that it still looked the same, and had that same amazed look on his face when he returned to her. His eyes had glazed over and she found it hard to imagine what he might be thinking, so she broke her own rule and stretched out into his mind. It turned out that he wasn’t thinking anything at all. Ben was completely lost to pleasure and, as far as he was concerned, the entire universe had shrunk down to the point where their bodies were joined. She tried to follow his lead and pretend that nothing else existed, but she couldn’t: if nothing else existed then this act lost all meaning. Her pleasure was completely dependent on knowing and acknowledging everything that came before; and how many obstacles had stood in their way, trying to prevent this moment; and the way that they had crushed every single one of them, together.

Something about her musings must have summoned him back, because he re-focused his gaze and bent down to kiss her. It was sloppy and noisy, because he hadn’t fully regained control, and when he spoke he slurred clumsily into her mouth.

“Please tell me you’re close.”

“Close to what?” she wondered aloud. It wasn’t possible for her to be closer to him. Her arms and legs were clamped around him, and he had pressed his chest against her so heavily that she thought he might be trying to burrow them into the mattress. The biggest space that existed between them was the one between her thighs, when he rhythmically withdrew his hips before thrusting them back against her insistently. Even that space began to diminish, because as the minutes passed he had become less and less willing to leave the cradle of her body, choosing instead to stay buried and rock them together.

But now he pulled back, straightening his arms to perch himself high and examine her from above. Whatever it was that he saw, he apparently didn’t like it. His hips slowed and then stopped -- for just a little pause, and then he allowed himself one more deep thrust, as if he couldn’t help himself -- and then withdrew from her completely. He ignored her whine of protest and walked his hands down the bed on either side of her, his body following, until his face was level with her belly button. He circled around it with chaste little kisses until he reached the 6 o’clock position, and then his lips dragged down her midline and his hands reached down to lift her legs and hook them over his shoulders.

She realised his intention a few seconds before his lips made contact with her, and when she moaned in anticipation he paused to look up at her and smile mischievously before lowering his head again to wrap his mouth around that spot.

She had thought that nothing could feel better than the way his fingers had pulsed against her right there, but his lips or tongue (or both? She wasn’t quite sure which was which anymore, but whatever was happening down there was wet and hot and perfect) made her rethink that assumption, as well as dozens and hundreds of others that she had made about the importance of certain things, and what she truly wanted out of her life. She couldn’t decipher whether it took him minutes or hours, but he determinedly brought her up to the plane she had seen him on -- the one where nothing else mattered -- and then, infuriatingly, he stopped.

His mouth was somehow back on hers before she had even fully registered her intent to complain fiercely, and he was inside her again a split-second later. He was pressing even deeper inside her now, as if her body had decided to reward his efforts by becoming even more soft and pliant.

She knew when he reached the peak, because every muscle in his body spasmed and he groaned her name as if begging her to follow him. So she did, clenching tightly around him; and he froze and stiffened again, with a strangled gasp that told her that he hadn’t expected whatever it was he was feeling. The way that he gyrated helplessly against her a few more times before collapsing, moaning into her hair, revealed that whatever surprise he received had been a very good one.

They lay panting together, deliriously sated, until slowly his weight began to feel suffocating rather than comforting. He realised at the same moment she did and reluctantly rolled away to give her some air. She rolled onto her side to face him, their bodies close but not touching, and grinned.

“Good,” he said, his eyes fluttering closed as if he were mere seconds from falling asleep. “That was good.”

Rey wasn’t ready for either of them leave just yet, so she reached out a finger to tap his cheek pointedly, only feeling mildly guilty when she saw him struggle to re-focus and stay awake.

“It was more than ‘good’,” she said.

He smiled in lazy agreement and closed his eyes again.

Frustrated, she tried a different tactic. “Remember when you wouldn’t even kiss me?” she asked, with fake curiosity.

As expected, that got his attention. He opened his eyes and immediately narrowed them. “I wouldn’t not kiss you. I just wanted the first one to be meaningful.”

“It was,” she protested. The memory was her favourite: of him dropping everything to be at her side because he thought she needed him, and admitting he loved her even though she was arguing with him (or because she was arguing with him?), and then being clueless enough to be surprised when she kissed him. Nothing had ever been more meaningful. It had meant everything.

“Well of course it meant everything,” he said, echoing her thoughts -- though he wasn’t inside them. He had read her exact feelings purely from her expression, without needing any sort of wondrous abilities or cosmic guidance. He knew her mind because he knew her; and, right now, he knew her well enough to know that he could ignore the way her eyes filled with grateful tears. “It would have meant everything my way, too.”

Rey blinked rapidly to clear her eyes, not wanting to bog down the conversation. “How would it have been different?” She began to snuggle closer to him, but paused stubbornly at his next response.

“Well it wouldn’t have been on Jakku, for a start.”

“What’s wrong with Jakku?” she demanded, glaring.

“Nothing. It’s a perfectly serviceable junkyard.” He reached out to tuck one arm around her and dragged her in until her head rested on his chest.

“That ‘junkyard’ happens to be the birthplace of something that I know for a fact you enjoy very much.” She lightly sucked at the piece of pale skin closest to her mouth to drive the point home.

He shrugged, jostling her, completely unperturbed. “Flowers grow from pots of dirt.”

“Sand, in this case,” she corrected. She stretched her neck up to look at him, surprised when he made a face.

“Ugh.”

“What’s wrong with sand?”

His nose crinkled as if he could feel it scratching against his skin here, half a galaxy away. “It’s a little irritating.”

You’re a little irritating,” she tried to snap at him, but her body betrayed her by deciding to hook her top leg around his waist and pressing even closer to him.

He hummed lightly. “You weren’t too ‘irritated’ by what I was doing a few moments ago.”

“No, I wasn’t,” she admitted. She felt and heard his breathing even out and decided to finally let him sleep.

Chapter Text

Rey was woken by a shrill beeping that was quickly silenced. She jolted reflexively, and the arm that Ben still had wrapped around her tightened to soothe her. She nuzzled back against him compliantly, and heard/felt the deep rumble of his voice reverberate through his chest.

“Yes … what level … that’s fine … we won’t be at breakfast … later, then.”

She lifted her head slightly so he could twist to replace his commlink to wherever he had fetched it from. When he was settled again the arm that was cradling her relaxed back to a more neutral position, and his other hand came back under the covers to run lightly up and down the leg that she had draped across him. Rey stretched her neck to move her face up toward him, but was unwilling to open her eyes yet, so waited for him to do the rest of the work. His lips closed on hers and he kissed her slowly and sleepily for what seemed like a long time.

“Wawassat?” Rey mumbled when they reached a natural pause.

“Ryal. He wants me to have some tests done. Try to figure out what happened.”

He half-sighed and closed in again, but Rey was suddenly alert. Reluctantly she opened her eyes to meet his half-lidded ones.

“I’m coming, too,” she announced. She squirmed to try to get one of her arms underneath her torso and lift herself up.

His hand left her leg and came up to stroke her cheek instead. “Not until this afternoon,” he said, very gently, obviously trying to coax her back to the cosy place they had found. He was very warm, so she was more than willing to be held and kissed some more. It was incredibly soft, with all lips and no tongue, and something about that was so pure that it made her heart feel very full.

She decided to be a more active participant and shifted so she was laying half on top of him, freeing her hands to wander. The purity quickly melted; the kiss deepened, and she felt him steadily growing harder against her thigh. She quickly realised that if she let him take the lead he would pin her beneath him and replay the events of the previous night. They had been very good events, but they had also been loud and energetic and sweaty. That seemed appropriate for an evening of passion, but this was morning, and she decided that mornings were supposed to remain restful.

So she took command before he had the chance to, and slid further across his body to straddle him fully. Their height difference meant that she couldn’t continue the kiss and sink down onto him, so she reluctantly broke away and shuffled a few inches south to better position herself. Ben’s protest was cut off almost instantly, because he very quickly realised where things were headed, and eagerly reached down between them to help her guide him inside her.

Rey firmly pushed his hand away, feeling only a slight twinge of guilt. His enthusiasm was sweet, but it was also intoxicating, and if she lost her control the situation would unravel rapidly. She opened her mouth to explain, but he already understood. Obediently he rested his heavy hands on her waist and laid back against his pillow, awaiting her next move.

It didn’t work quite the way she had imagined in her head. He didn’t glide easily into her the way he had the night before. At this different angle she needed to wriggle slightly for them to fit together. And she had wanted to lay flat against him, so that their bodies were snugly pressed against each other, but it turned out that she needed to arch her back in order to gain enough leverage to move her hips. So she compromised by resting the flats of her forearms against his torso and lifting her shoulders and breasts a little, so that at least her tummy was still in contact with his.

Ben squeezed her hips encouragingly as she made a few more adjustments, and spoke softly about how amazing she felt; and for a tiny moment she thought he might be patronising her attempts, but one look at his face told her that he was genuine and loved everything she was doing, even if it was a bit clumsy. Finally she found the correct angle and position, and was able to fall into the slow rhythm she had been chasing. She bent her forehead down to his chest and released a happy sigh when he used one hand to pull the bedcovers back up to her shoulders and pat them down gently over her. The other hand was stroking languidly up and down her back, in time with her own strokes, and it was all exactly as cosy as she had been hoping.

It could have been made just that tiny bit more perfect if her face could reach his, so she strained forward to try, but fell inevitably short. Ben’s hands moved back to her waist and held her steady. She felt him brace himself against the bed and he moved his own hips up to meet hers, honouring the pace she had set for them. The new curve in his back allowed her to stretch out her own, and it was just enough to finally make contact and kiss him. Idly she decided that she was making up for months and months of kisses that had never been allowed to eventuate.

She wasn’t even sure of when they reached their peaks, but apparently they did, because his slow thrusts became even slower and then stopped, and they were both covered with a thin sheen of sweat. Rey suddenly understood why he had been so eager to fall asleep the previous night, because right now it was all she wanted to do. She began to relax on top of him, boneless, but he gently rolled her off to the side and left the bed. She was too sleepy to be curious so instead she fell into the shallow indentation he left and dozed in his scent.

It felt like only seconds later he was gently shaking her awake, so she was shocked when she blinked her eyes open and found him sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed and obviously freshly showered.

“I have to go. There’s breakfast here for you,” he said, lightly tracing the shell of her ear.

“But why?” she asked, unable to keep the whiny tone from her voice.

He bent down to bury his nose in her hair and inhaled deeply. “Two weeks ago I left for six days on an unexplained trip to Jakku, and now I’ve been missing for three days again. People will begin to think me unreliable.”

“They’re all bloggins anyway,” Rey informed him lightly, and he laughed. He told her to meet him and Ryal on level seven at two in the afternoon, and left her. She basked in the afterglow for a few more minutes before deciding that breakfast sounded like a good idea after all. There was something charmingly delicate about the tray that had been left out for her, down to the tiny little bell-shaped flowers that sat inside the seasoning mills (white petals jumbled in with large salt particles, and dark burgundy ones inside the pepper).

She wasn’t even scheduled to have arrived on Coruscant until later this afternoon, so she had the morning completely unplanned, and took full advantage. Two hours later she finally emerged from the bathroom after having eaten and showered and dressed. She wandered around for a while looking for someone to talk to, but it seemed they were all busy working -- it was late morning on a Thursday, after all -- so she retreated to her garden with her datapad.

Boz had already sent through preliminary plans for a shelter on Takodana, and Ben had indeed forwarded some references for the debate that would take place next week. She was pleased to see that Ogem, one of her planets, was at the center of the proceedings: she had already had some meetings with the Representative, so she knew more about the situation than she had given herself credit for yesterday. She sent a message to the man -- she had to wrack her brain for a moment for his name: Dhirh Bionte -- to inform him that she would be present and was more than happy to meet with him beforehand to discuss his position.

Then, indulgently, she decided that that was enough work for one morning. There was still some more reading she needed to do, so she closed down all of her official documents and opened an encyclopaedia. The first search term she tried was apparently far too broad, so she blushed and instructed her pad that she just wanted facts, she didn’t actually want to watch people engaging in the activity.

As morning turned to afternoon she began to make her way down to the medical wing, armed with a whole new vocabulary (it had never occurred to her that she didn’t actually have words for the things that happened to her body every month; after all, she had never needed or wanted to discuss it with anyone). A BB-unit led her through a maze of sterile-looking white corridors to a door that looked like dozens of others. But behind the door were Ben and Ryal, so she thanked the droid sincerely as it rolled away, beeping in apparent satisfaction.

Ben was sitting on a table in the center of the room, his long legs dangling off the side; and apparently the examination had already begun, because Ryal was flashing different coloured lights into Ben’s eyes and scrutinising him for some sort of response. A medi-droid hovered unobtrusively nearby, the pulsing lights in its headpiece indicating that it was meticulously recording its observations of the procedure.

“I’m early,” Rey said, defensively, when there was a pause.

Ryal looked back at her and smiled. “So were we.” He turned to the medi-droid and began to scroll through whatever data it had collected.

Rey took the opportunity to hop up onto the table next to Ben, not entirely certain that this was allowed, but encouraged when he bumped his knee against hers lightly. Being this close to him after everything they had done made her entire body flush, but this wasn’t the time or place to be thinking about it, so she fought to control her breathing and focused her attention on Ryal.

He ran more tests, showing Ben different images and tapping on certain tendons. Ben got bored very quickly, and tried to strike up a silent conversation with her, but Rey scolded him and sent him back to his own mind to focus. Finally the results were back from the blood that had been drawn before her arrival.

Ryal loaded up a graph on a datapad and rested it against his chest to display it to them. “The problem appears to be correcting itself. We’ve taken several samples from you over the last three days, and what you see here is the trend in the activated partial thromboplastin time -- in short, how quickly your blood is clotting -- and, as you can see, it is steadily returning to normal.

“The initial trigger remains a mystery,” he added, unnecessarily. “Emdee here has run a dozen genetic panels,” (the droid beeped in response to the acknowledgement) “with no positive findings. There are several viruses that can cause reactions like this. Have you been unwell?”

“No,” Ben said.

“Lissa had a head cold a few weeks ago,” Ryal prompted.

Ben shrugged. “I may have had a headache or two. Very minor. What about something environmental?”

“Unlikely,” Ryal said thoughtfully. “It would have affected us all. We’ve had the same exposures.”

Rey interrupted. “Maybe it has affected us all. This was going on for weeks before it became a problem. We could all be affected without knowing.” Ryal looked surprised to hear this, so Rey told him about the incident on Jakku, glaring at Ben for his failure to divulge the information (“I’ve been with you since I woke up,” he muttered defensively).

The theory seemed to grow more traction, and Ryal decided he would need samples from everyone to confirm. Rey held her arm out and he nodded approvingly. “Good idea, Rey. You’ll be our control sample, since you’ve been off-world for a month.” This wasn’t what she had intended at all, but she graciously accepted the praise.

The medi-droid drew a vial of Rey’s blood from the crook of her elbow, and Ryal hurried off to arrange for the others to come down here and have their own tests. Ben placed a hand on her lower back and began to guide her to the exit.

“Wait,” Rey said. “While we’re here, we need to see a doctor, too.”

He whipped around to face her and looked her up and down carefully, as if checking for injuries. “Why?” he demanded.

“I’m fine,” she said reassuringly. There was a short pause, because she had only seen the word written down and wasn’t completely sure of the pronunciation. “We need contraception,” she explained, after deciding which syllable to emphasise.

“Oh.” He relaxed and turned around to continue guiding her. “Don’t worry, I’ve already taken care of that.”

“You have? When?” She had read that either partner could be given the injection, and in one respect it was sweet that he had taken it upon himself, but she felt it was something they should have discussed first.

“A week ago. After… our sparring session.” He met her eyes and smirked. “After you proved that you didn’t have the self-control to discuss anything beforehand.”

“Oh, really?” she sniped back. “I don’t recall you complaining, or using your superior ‘self-control’ to try to discuss anything. In fact--” she paused, because they were in a more populated area and she didn’t want to be overheard. She waited until they were alone on an elevator platform before continuing. “--in fact I recall you making a special effort to remove my clothes, and then begging me to ‘give in’ to you.”

He smiled broadly and planted his hands on either side of her ribcage. “I won’t deny it. Can you blame me? Have you ever looked in a mirror, Rey?”

Her tongue began to prepare her next retort, but she became distracted when she registered that they were moving down instead of up. “Where are we going?”

His smile turned sheepish. “Next week’s debate has caused some tensions along the Perlemian Trade Route, and there’s talk of civil war between Tirahnn and Taanab. I’m mediating an emergency negotiation between their Representatives now. I had hoped to trick you into coming along with me…”

“Of course I’ll come,” Rey said quickly, and leaned up to kiss his cheek while they still had a few seconds of privacy.

When their platform reached the third level she was surprised by the sight of her gardener droid patiently waiting there. It was leading a pallet of different-sized plants and herbs, and it occurred to her for the first time that it had other duties besides watering her own garden twice a day.

“Hello!” Rey said, and it beeped politely as usual, before floating onto the platform that she and Ben were vacating and swiftly rising out of sight.

Ben led her to the briefing room they had used on their very first day on Coruscant. It had been embellished in the interim, but the long rectangular table was the same. Surrounding it she saw Arin (who oversaw the Inner Rim, where the two planets were located), Hux, Odai, several other senior officers, and two men in gaudy regalia who Rey supposed were the Representatives, obviously trying to out-dress each other. There was one empty chair next to Arin, as well as the seats at either end of the long table. Ben would take one, and she knew that the other would remain empty, because no one sat opposite him. But, before she had a chance to claim the seat next to Arin that she had guessed to be hers, Ben gently steered her to one head of the table. He left her there while he moved around to take the other head, so she had no choice but to sit there, keeping her eyes locked on him so that she wouldn’t see anyone else’s reaction, because the significance of his gesture wouldn’t be missed by any of them.

Arin ran the meeting. As far as Rey could tell, the planets of Tirahnn and Taanab were in an uproar over the planned abolishment of trade federations, because both planets’ economies were dependent on their exportation of crops. They both sent a large portion of their harvests to Coruscant, but since Taanab was closer, Tirahnn was convinced that free trade would favour Taanab and make them less competitive. Rey found it difficult to see the problem: there were plenty of other planets that needed food imports, though perhaps they weren’t as wealthy as Coruscant. That thought finally allowed the ‘problem’ to click into place: Tirahnn didn’t want to lose the Coruscanti market because it was more profitable than other planets that were in equal need of food. After that realisation the entire meeting seemed utterly petty, and she couldn’t help glaring at both Representatives each time they stood up to complain.

Ben seemed to share her opinion. His disdain was almost palpable. When the Tirahnni Representative finally came to his crux and declared that his people would be forced to declare war if the Taanabians refused to negotiate a private agreement, the Emperor spoke for the first time.

“It would be prudent of you to keep in mind that a declaration of war against any of my subjects is a declaration of war against me,” Ben said icily. He turned to the Taanabian. “Both of you would do well to keep that in mind.”

“I never!” the Taanabian declared. “We are not here because of any misconduct on my part!”

Ben ignored him, turning to the Tirahnni, who was still standing after his little speech, but his shoulders had collapsed. He had turned very green.

“I meant no offence, Your Majesty. Neither myself nor those I represent would dare to raise a hand against the authority of the Empire.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “So then your threat was idle? A mere bluff, to manipulate this committee into meeting your demands? A coward’s strategy.”

The Tirahnni’s shoulders heaved with each breath. “I am tasked with protecting the interests of my people.”

A bark of laughter shot across the table. It was Hux, and he rose from his seat, apparently ready to give his own opinion. He nodded deferentially to Ben, who didn’t react.

“The interests of your people are the interests of all our people,” Hux began. “The most sacred tenet of this Empire is unity. I see no unity in this room now. I see no unity in these threats of war!”

He went on in the same vein, continuing to defer to Ben at each pause; and in turn Ben began to nod his idle assent. Rey frowned uneasily. She had seen Ben and Hux agree plenty of times by now, but there was something suspicious about it on this occasion. It didn’t make sense for Hux to argue so forcefully against war. Hux liked war. He had pushed to bring it to the Outer Rim. Ben had once suggested that he profited from it personally in some way, but Rey thought that it probably ran deeper than this, and he simply liked destruction and pain for their own sakes.

If Ben shared her suspicions then it didn’t show on his face, and she didn’t want to risk reaching out to him through the Force in case she broke his obvious focus.

Hux took his seat again, and an uneasy silence descended. It seemed appropriate to her that Ben would address them again now, and all eyes turned to him expectantly. But he made no move to stand or speak. He simply watched her.

Rey rose. She hadn’t quite dressed for the occasion, but she stood as though she had, with her hands held straight and strong by her sides. She took in each of the faces that had whipped around to her, saving Ben’s for last: he suddenly looked eager, fervent, as though he knew something very significant was about to happen.

Rey took in his expression and immediately changed her mind about everything she planned to say. She had wanted to reiterate Ben’s words (and, to a certain extent, Hux’s), and tell them that they were all idiots that were arguing over nothing; that there were trillions of people in the galaxy with far bigger problems, and that was what they should be spending their time on; that squabbling like this over a few credits while there were people who would gladly kill for their next meal was disgraceful.

But even though all of those things were true, spitting them out now wouldn’t be helpful. That wasn’t her role. These petty men in their fancy clothes weren’t the true enemy standing in the way of the things that she wanted. War was the enemy. She had felt it deep in her bones from the very beginning. Ben had sworn to her that he would put an end to it, but he couldn’t. Neither could Arin, or Hux, or the Resistance, or the House.

Rey couldn’t do it, either. But she and Ben could do it together.

I’ll be just. If you’re beside me, I won’t have a choice. You’ll speak too, and it won’t matter if I say bad things, because the things you say will be good. I’m going to have to come down on these planets with a very firm hand, Rey. Your goodness will temper it. That’s the way it’s meant to be. That’s why it works.’

“There’s no need for this to continue,” Rey began firmly, but making sure to infuse a gentleness into her tone. She addressed both Representatives equally. “There’s no need for you to try to climb over each other, because we want the very best for both of you. No one will get left behind. You must believe what the Emperor said, about all of his subjects being under his protection.” Ben hadn’t said anything of the sort: he had threatened anyone who would dare to disturb his peace, and the threat had been necessary, but the tempering of it was just as important.

Rey took her seat again, to be on the same level as her listeners, but it was clear that she wasn’t done talking. “I think it makes a lot of sense for each of you to promise half of your yearly harvests to the capital, so that we can enjoy both. Don’t you agree? And there are thousands of systems who would gladly receive percentages of the rest, for fair prices.”

There was a moment of silence, and then the Taanabian fidgeted in his seat. Rey snapped her gaze to him. “Tell me what’s bothering you,” she encouraged.

“As Taanab is closer to the Core Worlds, it makes more sense for our exports to travel here -- I think only of the burden to the freight companies, you see! Now that there will be no trade tariffs to offset the costs of transport…”

“Deciding these things on proximity alone will doom the Tirahnni economy! We are not all so lucky to be neighbours with Coruscant and Corellia! You will throw us into a global recession!” his opponent cried out.

Rey interrupted them both quietly, keeping her tone calm. Everyone deserved one chance, after all. “If there were to be an adverse effect on either of your worlds, or on the private companies servicing them, that would be something that we would investigate and rectify. However, as it stands now, the Emperor’s plan is more just than the current corrupt system in place, and so it must be attempted. Don’t you agree?”

“But--”

“No, tell me: don’t you agree?” She thought of Unkar Plutt and remembered the tantalising taste of power she had felt when he bent to her will. She felt it on the tip of her tongue again, now, but she needed to continue playing her part.

The Tirahnni visibly bit his lip before answering. “I agree that the current system is corrupt.”

Rey nodded in satisfaction. “And as a member of the House of Representatives, I know that the pursuit of justice is important to you. That’s why we knew that we could count on your cooperation.”

He nodded, and some of the stiffness eased out of his posture. Rey beamed at him, and he allowed a small, polite smile in return.

It became much easier after that. Documents were drawn up and signed, and Rey had a moment of anxiety as signatures were scrawled onto pressure-pads, because she had come up with this compromise off the top of her head and wasn’t certain it would work. But Ben had clearly trusted her to ease the negotiation, and she trusted him to alert her if she had been steering in the wrong direction. She had barely looked at him as she had spoken, but she knew his eyes hadn’t left her for a second. He remained seated as the congregation filed from the room, nodding to each other and shaking hands as they went. When the door hissed shut behind Arin, leaving them alone, he practically leapt to his feet and stalked to her side.

He sat in a vacated chair and dragged her own toward him so they were facing each other directly.

“That was incredible. I didn’t even prepare you -- can you imagine if I had? Power suits you very well, kira.”

Rey bit her lip to smother her smile. “The power is nice… but I can’t help but feel a little bit guilty wielding it. I haven’t done anything to earn it. You just gave it to me.”

Ben sighed heavily, giving her a look of exasperated affection. He took both of her hands and she leaned in automatically, expecting a kiss, but instead he began talking. “‘Haven’t done anything’? You survived on your own in the desert when you were just six years old. You were starved and taunted, you were forced to beat off would-be attackers and rapists with nothing but a handful of stones and your own wits… And despite it all you grew, impossibly, into you. You took all that pain and decided that you would use it to help others, not hurt them.

“At first I thought it was pure denial holding you together. I saw the dark streak in you, and I thought you would succumb to it, the way that I did, when you finally accepted the truth about your past. But you didn’t succumb, and you never will. And when I finally realised why…” he closed his eyes as if he were reliving the moment, and relishing it. “The darkness seduces its victims by promising them strength, but you never needed it, because you were never weak. It offered you something, it always offers something… and you took what you needed, but you left the rest, and you returned to yourself.

No one can do that, Rey. That’s why Skywalker was so afraid of you: he never guessed what you could do. He expected you to get lost. But he was a fool to not see how extraordinary you are.” He did kiss her then, firmly, as though he was asking her for something. She didn’t know what it was until he pulled away to rub his nose against hers. “I want to be like you,” he whispered against her cheek.

Rey’s heart clenched. “You are,” she said. She searched inside herself for the only memory she needed to show him to prove it: the moment he had killed Snoke to spare her life, and free his own soul. She showed him the terror she had felt as she was forced to kneel before him, and the burgeoning realisation that maybe Luke had been right because it wasn’t going at all the way she had thought… and the way that all of her uncertainty had dissolved the instant she had crashed to the floor and she realised what had happened.

It was a satisfying memory, but it didn’t quite scratch the itch, because Rey hadn’t actually seen Snoke die. So she coaxed Ben to bring forth his own recollection, and was ecstatically surprised to discover that he hadn’t seen Snoke die, either. He had known what he had to do, and from that moment his eyes and his thoughts had never left her.

No one would ever remember the look of surprise, or betrayal, or pain, or whatever it was that had passed across Snoke’s face as he died, because neither of them had bothered to care about him in that moment. They had been too intently focused on each other, and the partnership that had been solidified in that throne room. Snoke was so insignificant, he meant nothing, he had been wiped from existence as if he were an insect crushed beneath a boot, and had received exactly as much fanfare. The vicious, biting pleasure that accompanied the string of thoughts gave away the fact that they had originated from Ben, and not from her. Didn’t they? Suddenly it was very difficult to tell where she ended and he began, with all of their thoughts messily tangled (just like their arms had tangled around each other), and all of their doubts flung aside (just like their clothes had been flung to the floor), and the reverent, approving way that the air itself pulsed around them (just like the aftershocks of their orgasms pulsed throughout their bodies). And then she was Rey again, and he was Ben, and they were helping each other put their clothes on and straighten their hair, and she couldn’t stop giggling at the state they were in, and he decided that they probably shouldn’t hold meetings in this room anymore.

It wasn’t until they had managed to find their way back to the elevators that Rey finally admitted that perhaps her self-control was slightly lacking, but he reassured her that this was another respect in which they were alike.

Chapter Text

Ben held her hand as they rode the elevator back to level forty-four, squeezing and releasing her palm in time with the rhythmic whooshing that surrounded them as the platform ascended past each level.

“You’re weird,” Rey told him, and nodded down to their joined hands in response to his questioning look.

He followed her gaze, and was smirking when he looked back up. “You like how weird I am,” he announced confidently.

Rey admitted that she did, and he stopped his pulsing to instead lace his fingers through hers tightly. She felt a burst of emotion radiate from him and had to inhale deeply to avoid getting swept away by it.

“Sorry,” he murmured, reining himself back in.

Rey shook her head vigorously, blinking away a few benign tears. “Don’t be,” she said. “I’m glad it’s still like this. From just touching my hand. After, you know, everything else.”

“Did you expect it to change?”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about the long-term consequences. More just about…” she gestured from herself to him, and back again, trailing off.

His expression intensified, and she didn’t need to read his mind to know why. Ben had been thinking of the long-term consequences from the beginning. Perhaps from the very first moment in the forest.

His lips twitched. “Before that,” he said. But he didn’t get a chance to say much else: they had reached their destination, and the intimate moment quickly dissolved into chaos.

Dozens of BB-units and hoverdroids were flooding the hallway, each carrying a different object or scrap of fabric. Ryal was visible through the throng, standing in front of the common room door, directing the handful of protocol droids that were acting as translators and shepherds for the smaller machines.

Ben strode toward him quickly, tugging Rey along with him (unnecessarily, because she had no intention of leaving his side). Ryal spotted them and moved to meet them in the middle.

“You were right,” Ryal said quietly, the moment he was within earshot. “We’re all affected. It must be something that we’ve all been exposed to.”

All?” Ben asked, pointedly.

Ryal allowed him a small smile. “Excluding Rey, who has been safe on Jakku. The offending substance must be here, likely in one of the common areas.”

“It must be food,” Ben said. “Test everything in the kitchens.”

Ryal began leading them up the stairwell to the roof. “I’ve already given the orders, but Lissa has been supervising the chefs, so that’s less likely.”

“Some other product, then. Detergent? The laundry droids--”

“Have all been evacuated and sent for analysis.”

“The water--”

“Have a little faith in me, won’t you? It’s all being taken care of.”

Arin, Lissa (with Chali) and Orax were already waiting for them on the roof. The six of them automatically arranged themselves into a loose ring.

“I was lax,” Ben said to all of them, in a tone that was very close to apologetic. “I should have ordered routine sweeps to prevent it from getting to this point.” Waves of fury were coiling around him -- but most of it was directed inward.

Lissa spoke up. “I’ve been in the kitchen watching their every move, and there’s not been anything remotely suspicious, Kylo, I swear.”

Rey couldn’t help the tiny involuntary flinch that overcame her every time she heard one of them call him Kylo. Even after all this time it was jarring to her. But her lapse went unnoticed by the group.

“I know,” Ben said, almost growling. “This is my failure. I had the suspicion but didn’t follow it through adequately. And--”

“And nothing,” Rey interrupted firmly. “Nothing happened. We’re all fine. You’re fine. You just slept for a few days.” She glared at him, and he stared back, and there was a long painful pause before he finally rose up out of the spiral he had begun to fall into.

He nodded, so infinitesimally that Rey was sure that she was the only one who saw it, even though they were all watching him. She rewarded him with a smile that she hoped was reassuring. “Okay. Good. Now what?”

They all looked at each other.

“It will take the droids hours to analyse all of the samples,” Ryal said. “Until we have results we need to assume that all of the common areas are contaminated.” He turned to Ben and waited.

“Our private quarters, too,” Ben said. “The bed linens, the bathrooms, our clothes…”

Ryal nodded along intently, but there was a twinkle in his eyes that intrigued Rey.

Ben continued, unaware. “And, although I trust your diligence, Lissa, we must assume the kitchens are a potential source…”

Ryal gave a final, triumphant nod. He held his hands out to all of them as though garnering their attention for a solemn proclamation. “I’m right with you, boss. I know exactly what you’re thinking.”

Ben drew back slightly, suddenly unsure. “I’m thinking that our wing isn’t safe until we have more information,” he said, slowly.

“Right. Completely reasonable conclusion. So, what you’re saying, is that we all need to put on brand new, never-before-worn clothes, and go out to dinner, before spending the night in a swanky hotel while we await the toxicology panel results.”

The scene froze for a moment. Ben, realising that he had talked himself into a corner, gave up on talking and started glowering instead. Rey caught Arin’s eye in time to see her smother a chuckle.

Ryal was unruffled, as always. He strode forward confidently, clapping Ben on the shoulder as he passed him. “Excellent idea. Couldn’t have come up with a better one, myself. We’ll all meet downstairs in half an hour, then?” And then he was gone.

The other three quickly followed, with awkward little laughs and half-shrugs. Rey moved to join them but was held back by Ben’s grip on her hand. When they were alone he folded his arms around her and tucked her head under his chin.

“I’m glad you’re safe, at least,” he said.

“I’m always safe when I’m with you,” Rey said, remembering the last time he had held her in this spot.

He kissed her lightly, and then less lightly, but she pulled away before he could completely distract her. “You’re not getting out of this that easily,” she said. He had the grace to look embarrassed by his transparent attempt to avoid an outing.

Rey had no shortage of never-before-worn clothes. She tended to rotate through the same few outfits, preferring comfort over fashion. She decided to make an exception today, because she understood exactly what Ryal was trying to do. The fact that someone or something was trying to hurt them was the scariest thing she had ever experienced: this anonymous threat, which could be any one of over a trillion people on this planet alone, was far more disturbing than a twisted old man taunting her from a throne. Even if they found and neutralised the culprit there were potentially millions of others that would spring up in his or her place. The majority of the Coruscanti had accepted the return of Imperial rule, but it might only take a small handful of dissenters to cause them serious harm.

She pushed the thoughts away stubbornly and rifled through the back of her closet, intending to follow Ryal’s plan of forgetting about the problem for just one night. Besides, they couldn’t act further until they had more information.

She chose a dress that made her feel pretty and feminine, supposing that was the best way to distract herself. The black bodice hugged her torso, but the skirt (which faded into white, with streaks of colour running through) was light and airy, and flowed satisfyingly around her ankles with every move she made. Her hair remained loose by default, since Ben had advised her against using anything in her bathroom.

The woman in the mirror looked very different to the Rey that she was accustomed to seeing there. But these were extraordinary circumstances, so she accepted the change and walked back into the main bedroom -- and couldn’t help gasping, because Ben was waiting for her, and he looked different, too. She had never seen him wear anything other than black, so the sight of him rolling the sleeves of a pristinely white dress shirt up his forearms was a (welcome) surprise. The vest he wore over the top was standard black, but there was a tuft of purple fabric peeking out from a pocket. After her surprise had rolled through she made note of the fact that the two of them had managed to match their individual decisions perfectly.

The slow smile that spread across Ben’s face revealed that he had come to the same realisation. He strode over to her in two long steps and lifted her hand to his mouth. “Can’t we stay here?” he whispered against her knuckles -- even though he knew full well that they couldn’t.

Rey smiled, shook her head, and broke away from him for the second time that evening to quickly duck outside and check on her garden. Thankfully, it had remained unmolested by the hoard of analyser droids, as had her dresser-top collection (coloured stones from the mountain, and the flower-filled mills she had pilfered from her breakfast tray, and the holocron that she still hadn’t had a chance to tell Ben about). Since Rey’s blood had been untouched by whatever toxin the others had been exposed to, the droids must have decided that her belongings were benign.

Ryal piled the group into a luxury transport and directed the chauffeur unerringly to The Imperial: a skyscraper hotel that could be a self-sustaining city all on its own. The lower levels housed boutiques, restaurants, cinemas, and entertainment arenas; the guest rooms were all at least two kilometers above the main entrance. The concierge recommended (after a lot of bowing and posturing) a Danteeli restaurant on the three hundred and ninety-fourth floor. “That’s on our list!” Arin said excitedly. Rey learned during the ensuing chatter that the Knights left the Palace to eat out at least twice a week, at Ryal’s insistence. It had never occurred to her that they did anything other than eat in the dining room while she and Ben were in his office.

They were ushered into a private dining room, each with their own personal attendant waiter, and automatically seated themselves around the table in their standard configuration. It wasn’t too different from when they all had breakfast together, except that Rey was very aware of the six waiters standing at the periphery of the room, probably making special note of everything they said and preparing to misquote them to the tabloids the moment they left the restaurant. She said a couple of intentionally silly things, to spite them (“Do you remember when my hair caught fire a few weeks ago? That was something.”), and the others caught on and quickly made a game out of it.

Ben was the unquestioned champion. After spending most of the meal watching quietly while the rest of them challenged each other with increasing levels of ridiculousness, he held up a hand to silence them all. When he had their attention he rose from his chair with an air of great ceremony and said, “It’s time to leave. Our knytix Masters will be awaiting us, with further instructions.”

The room was very quiet as they all stood and carefully fell into an impromptu procession behind him. They kept it up until they had left the restaurant and were back in the main tower of the hotel, at which point Arin and Lissa collapsed against each other, laughing.

Ben smiled proudly, and was a lot more talkative after that. They took a scenic route up through the hotel to their suite. The center of the expansive building was an enormous fish tank, with walkways tunneling through so that you could spiral up through the floors of the building and feel as though you were underneath an ocean, with schools of fish and large tentacled beings surrounding you on all sides. The group conversation naturally petered out and split off into several smaller ones. Ryal sidled over to engage Ben. Rey was intensely accustomed to walking beside him, but she decided to hang back and give the two of them some space, remembering what Arin had told her about how close they had always been.

Arin’s arm appeared and slipped through the crook of Rey’s elbow, as if summoned by her thoughts. The two of them slowed down to let the rest move ahead of them. Rey interrupted the conversation often to point out some brand new sea creature that had floated past.

“Can I ask you something?” Rey said, when everyone else was out of earshot.

Arin nodded absently, pointing up to a large winged fish floating above them.

“Why didn’t you like it when Ben kissed you?”

Arin missed a step, jostling Rey where they were linked as she corrected herself. “Oops, sorry. Um. I didn’t know you knew about that.”

Rey had assumed that she did, but perhaps that had been her own bias, because she had considered it so often. It made sense that it wasn’t on Arin’s radar; after all, Ben had told her that he hadn’t thought about it in a long time.

She wasn’t in the mood to tell the whole story from the beginning, so she simplified it down to a white lie. “Ben told me.”

“Yeah, of course. So then you know it was nothing.”

Rey nodded. “Yeah. But why?” She couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting him, and she couldn’t imagine him kissing someone unless he meant it. He had offered to show her what had happened, but the thought of watching it made her feel faintly nauseous.

Arin shrugged, a little warily. “Well, if you really want to know…” Rey nodded. “Okay. It was… weird. Unexpected? It happened here, actually. Not right here, but on Coruscant. We all came here with Lu-- Skywalker, and one night back at the hotel -- we couldn’t afford anywhere as fancy as this, but it was enough -- Kylo got me alone and made an awkward speech and then kissed me. I had never thought of him like that, but he was Kylo, you know. Powerful, and funny, and he wasn’t bad-looking, so I decided to just go with it. But he broke it off after a few seconds and made some excuse and left. He never mentioned it again, except for a few days later when-- why are you smiling?”

Rey was smiling, so broadly that her cheeks began to ache. She tried to smother it, with little success. Her entire body felt flushed with delight.

“He thought you were me,” she explained.

Arin shook her head. “No, this was years ago. I was barely twenty.”

“Exactly. He thought you were me.” Rey pulled Arin closer and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, even though they were alone. She told her about Ben’s vision on the Palace roof, and how he had tried to recreate it their first day on the planet.

Arin’s expression morphed from intrigue to a kind of exasperated affection as Rey completed the story. “That is the most disgustingly cute thing I’ve ever heard. Well, I’m happy to have played some small part, I guess.”

“Not small,” Rey said, and squeezed their arms together. They went back to watching the fish, and pointing out their favourites.

Their dawdling pace caused them to arrive at their suite several minutes after their friends. The doorway opened onto a large common area, the center of which coned down to a depression which contained a circular lounge. Ben, Ryal, and Lissa had already arranged themselves down there. Behind them rose a spiral staircase which Rey assumed led to the bedrooms. The entire back half of the room was walled with glass, displaying more of the aquarium they had walked through to get here.

Orax was bent over behind a waist-high table off to the side of the lounge pit. Rey could hear glass clinking, and only understood when he righted himself, triumphantly holding up a bottle of amber liquid and six small glasses. She settled herself between Ben and Arin as Orax poured a small measure of spirit for each of them. He silently lifted one of the glasses and, with his usual lack of fanfare, nodded to the rest of them before downing it in one swallow.

Arin, Lissa, and Ryal mimicked him dutifully. Rey had no intentions of drinking any alcohol tonight -- her previous two attempts had both ended unpleasantly -- and expected Ben to similarly abstain, but he surprised her by reaching for a glass. “I’m the Emperor of the Galaxy, I can have one drink,” he said to no one in particular before tipping his own head back. Rey offered him her own portion, but he shook his head and passed it on to Ryal instead, who graciously accepted it.

They lounged and talked about nothing in particular for a luxuriously long time. Even though they weren’t exerting themselves they managed to look increasingly dishevelled. Ryal and Lissa had both slid off the lounge to sit on the floor, leaning across the round table in the middle of the pit to argue heatedly about something insignificant. Orax was laying flat across the part of the pit he had claimed; it would have been easy to assume that he was asleep, if he didn’t keep suggesting at intervals that it was time for another round. Ben intrigued her most of all: he had only had the one drink, and had been mostly talking sedately from where he remained seated, but somehow his shirt had become rumpled and the buttons on his vest were undone. It wasn’t until he toed off his shoes and folded his legs up onto the lounge to sit cross-legged that Rey realised that he looked well and truly relaxed, in a way that she had never seen outside of their own private moments.

Ryal noticed soon after she did. He turned his head back and up to where Ben was sitting, and Rey saw his eyes light up. He eagerly slid one of his empty glasses (he had quite a few now) to the center of the table and pulled a handful of credits from his pocket. Then he promptly invented a game, challenging all of them to toss as many credits as they could into the glass. It was made very difficult by the fact that they were all cheaters, using the Force to gently guide their tokens to the target, while the ‘spectators’ conspired together to push back against each other.

The tournament necessitated all of them to slide to the floor and crowd around the small table, so all of their shoulders were bumping. Ben was once again the indisputable champion, and the Knights stubbornly teamed up to try to wipe the smug look off his face. He laughed, loudly and heartily, each time they inevitably failed.

It occurred to Rey very suddenly that Ryal hadn’t invented this game tonight. This scenario was very familiar to all of them: it was one they had sat through many times before, as a group. And this Ben was one that they knew well. He was the Ben they had grown up with, and loved so much that they followed him into the darkness of the First Order, against all their better judgments.

Rey couldn’t help feeling like an intruder after that realisation. The thought didn’t make her despair, the way that it once might have. She had grown to love every one of these people, and they deserved to spend a little time re-living the youth that had been so cruelly stolen from them.

Thinking about Ben did make her despair. Feeling lonely when you were by yourself in the desert was one thing, but feeling lonely when you were surrounded by people who loved you was something very different. It was wrong, unnatural, unfair -- like so many other things about his life had been -- and as she considered it her sadness warped, second-by-second, into fury, and she knew she had to leave before he felt it and the moment was ruined.

She stood, smiling and making her excuses (“I can barely keep my eyes open.”). Ben automatically began to rise to join her -- the credit he had been manoeuvring clattered to the table, and the Knights all cheered in triumph -- but Rey placed a firm hand on his shoulder and pushed down, urging him to sit.

“I really am just going to sleep,” she lied. He kissed her hand before allowing her to move away.

“Do over,” he said to the others, and a vigorous argument broke out about whether or not he deserved such a concession.

She glanced back at them when she reached the foot of the stairs. The circle had automatically tightened to seamlessly fill the gap she had left, as if she had never been there. That was okay. She knew that if she decided to go back right now they would gladly shift again to welcome her.

She chose a bedroom at random and flopped down onto the large, soft bed, turning on the holoprojector in the center of the room. A very serious-looking man in a fluorescent orange suit was speaking into the camera, with the headline ‘Galaxy secretly ruled by sentient insect overlords?’ plastered across the bottom of the screen. Rey laughed and switched the display off, deciding she would rather be alone.

When the bathroom door irised open Rey finally discovered what Ryal had meant when he said that the Palace bathrooms were ‘primitive’. This bathroom was just as big as the bedroom, and contained a tub so large that it should have rightfully been called a swimming pool. Rey eagerly filled it and slipped down into the water. She spent a long time fiddling with all of the controls -- some created multi-coloured bubbles, and some caused powerful jets of water to massage her back, and some caused the entire bath to swirl into a whirlpool current that carried her along. She lost track of time in there, but the skin on her fingertips had wrinkled and hardened by the time something crashed against the door unexpectedly, making her flinch. There were a few more bumps and curses before it finally opened.

“Good evenening,” Ben said clumsily. He leant against the doorframe, trying to appear nonchalant, but his posture was oddly strained and Rey realised that he needed the support of the wall to hold himself upright.

“You’re drunk,” she said mildly.

“I’m the Emperor of the Galaxy. I can have one drink.” He articulated well, as if his tongue had become accustomed to this particular phrase. Rey imagined he had been saying it over and over for the last few hours, before every ‘one drink’ he downed.

He half-walked, half-slumped over to the bathtub and sat down gracelessly to lean against the side of it next to her. “I need to tell you something. Important. Now.”

Rey reached over to brush away the hair covering one of his eyes, because apparently he didn’t notice that it was in the way. A line of tiny bubbles streaked across his forehead before they all popped in succession. “And what’s that?” she asked.

But he had become distracted by her fingers and was staring at them with quiet, undisguised awe.

“Ben?” she prompted.

Very slowly, impossibly slowly, his eyes moved up to hers. When they finally made eye contact he flinched, as if he hadn’t expected to see her there. “Rey. Good. I have something to tell you.”

The urge to laugh and reach out to take his face into her hands was maddening, but she didn’t want to derail him again, so instead she simply smiled patiently. “Okay,” she said gently.

He shuffled forward and hung his head over the side of the tub. She tentatively lowered her own to press their foreheads together, taking care to maintain eye contact.

“I want to see her,” he said.

Rey’s chest tightened painfully. It took her so long to provide him with a measured response that she worried he would forget what they were talking about. “Maybe that’s something you should decide tomorrow,” she suggested.

Ben pulled his head away from hers so he could shake it back and forth, vigorously enough to send his hair flying wildly. “No. This was before. I decided before.”

“Okay. Good. That makes me really happy, Ben.”

“Will you be with me?”

“Always.”

She left the warmth of the tub. Ben insisted on helping her dry off, but he was endearingly ineffectual, and became strongly focused on swiping the towel gently over her right shoulder, again and again, long after it was dry. Rey surreptitiously reached for another towel and dried off the rest of her body as he worked.

He took off his shirt and wrapped it around her gallantly (there was a stain on the right breast where he had obviously spilled his ‘one drink’), and she didn’t have the heart to remind him that they had brought sleep clothes with them. Besides, it was nice to curl into his bare chest while listening to his deep, even breathing.

“Thank you,” Ben said suddenly, breaking a long silence during which she had almost drifted off.

She rocked her face against him sleepily. “Hmm?”

“For letting me decide. I’m still practising.” Anyone else might have thought it an odd thing for him to say, almost half a year after he had decided to rule the galaxy, but Rey understood.

Chapter Text

“Will you tell me something?” Rey asked, raising her voice enough to reach Ben’s position on the opposite end of their balcony.

“Anything,” he said.

She carefully placed today’s flower -- light blue -- on its designated shelf and moved toward him, the terrain beneath her feet shifting from grass to wood. He sat in his study nook, reading, with a posture that was open enough to indicate to her that he was willing to be interrupted.

Four days had passed since the night at The Imperial. Ryal’s team of analyser droids hadn’t found any toxins or suspicious substances in any of the thousands of samples they had analysed. Ben had insisted on being the first one to return to the Palace, only allowing the rest of them to do so after a period of meditation had reassured him that there was no immediate danger. Still, he hadn’t been completely relaxed since.

“You saw me, years ago,” she began.

He closed his book and stood, twisting in the nook to tuck it away. When he turned back to her he was smiling gently. “Yes.”

“You thought it meant that we would be together.”

“I knew it meant that,” he insisted. He advanced toward her and began to lift his arms, as if he intended to pull her into them.

Rey took half a step back to let him know she wasn’t going to allow it. “So why did you kidnap me and torture me?”

Ben froze. He looked so completely blindsided that she felt a small sting of guilt for springing the conversation on him this way. “I didn’t torture you--”

“You did,” she said, pushing away her misgivings to stand her ground. “It hurt.”

“It only hurt because you refused to cooperate.” His voice took on a strange mechanical quality, as if he had removed his emotions from the conversation and was now presenting her with bland facts.

“I wouldn’t cooperate because you were a monster.”

He didn’t move to disagree, but she continued as if he had.

“You were. And I was just a scavenger.”

Her voice betrayed her, breaking on the last word. ‘Is it true? You’re just a scavenger?’ She had thought it was a taunt from an enemy, but now she saw what was really behind the words: disappointment. He had expected her to be more.

Ben spent a moment considering, chewing at the inside of his cheek. “We already decided to put all of this behind us, remember? You can’t hold it against me now. Just like I don’t hold this” he indicated his scar “against you. I didn’t love you that day; you weren’t my first priority.”

He was right: they had decided to leave their past in the past. But a belligerent fuse had been ignited inside her, so she stubbornly latched onto the bait he hadn’t intended to leave dangling. “When did you love me, then?”

“There’s no ‘when’. It’s not something I decided in a single moment.”

“You didn’t love me that day. I bet you didn’t love me the next day, either. So, when did you love me?”

“When I saw that you were my equal.”

Rey recoiled. “When you saw that I was worthy of you?”

“Yes. Of course. Why should it have been different?”

“So you wouldn’t love me if I really was ‘just a scavenger’.”

Ben’s nostrils flared. “You’re not just a scavenger.” His voice was strained with impatience, but that only infuriated her more.

“But if--”

“There’s no ‘if’.”

Yes, if! If you hadn’t decided that I was worth your effort what would you have done? Thrown me to Snoke for him to do whatever he wanted with?”

“That didn’t happen.”

“But it could have.”

“Yes, it could have! You’re right. Is that you want to hear? I wouldn’t love you if you were just a scavenger. I wouldn’t love you if you were crass and selfish and didn’t care about anything except where your next meal was coming from, and who you had to step over to get it. I wouldn’t love you if you had been content to rot in the sand forever; if you hadn’t wished to be part of something bigger and gone out to find it. I wouldn’t love you if you weren’t you, Rey. Why are you finding fault with that? What exactly are you offended by?”

She didn’t know, so she said nothing. At some point during his tirade her eyes had lowered to an arbitrary point on the ground. She kept them there during a long pause.

“Would you love me if I really was just a creature in a mask?” His tone was equal parts sarcasm and defeat.

Rey blinked, and the movement released tears that she hadn’t noticed building. “You’re not.”

“‘But if’,” he mocked her. Then he was suddenly directly in front of her, and she gladly returned his embrace. The warmth that spread through her from the physical contact seemed to signify the end of the argument. After a moment he asked: “Do you still want to go to dinner?”

“We said we would,” she mumbled into his chest. After discovering that the Knights went out twice a week to sample one of the millions of restaurants on Coruscant, Rey had decided that they would accompany them from now on.

She tugged his arm so he would follow her into the bathroom while she splashed cold water on her face, and then into her closet while she changed her clothes. He quietly told her what sort of things she could expect at the Trandoshan restaurant that Orax had chosen. They carefully refrained from mentioning their argument until he paused at the door.

“Is it behind us now?” Ben asked, with a pleading note in his voice.

“No,” Rey said. “Well, yes. But I can’t promise that I’ll never bring it up again. I do promise not to attack you with it like that next time.”

He nodded and smiled; rather graciously, she thought, so she kissed him. But, needing a bit of space from him, she spent the evening speaking mostly to Arin and Orax (who was in an unusually talkative mood, obviously pleased that the group approved of a cuisine he enjoyed).

Later, she sat on her side of the bed with the covers draped across her lap, fidgeting mindlessly as she waited for him to exit the bathroom. When he finally did, accompanied by a faint mist of steam, she blurted out: “Are we going to have sex?”

They had done so every night (barring the one at The Imperial) and most mornings, consistently leaving her pleasantly surprised that each time seemed even better than the last. But that afternoon had been their first argument since her return from Jakku, so she was unsure how to proceed. Maybe there was some sort of necessary cooling off period.

“Only if you want to,” Ben said.

“I want to,” she said. “Do you want to?”

He paused at the edge of the bed to rake his eyes down her body. “No. Absolutely not. What a ridiculous suggestion.” His attempt at dryness was foiled by the grin that he couldn’t manage to smother.

She rolled her eyes and rose up onto her knees to shuffle across the bed to him. They built up very gently, which was unusual only because Rey was the one slowing them down. Ordinarily by now she would have pleaded with him to hurry up and get on with it, while he resolutely ignored her requests and continued to tease her -- a different kind of torture, that she would gladly submit to again and again. But tonight she felt the need to touch every inch of his skin, and to have every inch of hers touched in return (he happily complied, with minimal prompting) before finally deciding her ache had become unbearable.

Ben stayed awake longer than usual afterward, providing her with a comprehensive catalogue of all of the things that she was, other than ‘scavenger’. “Disgustingly unromantic,” he added to the list, after she interrupted him to suggest that since they were still awake they may as well go for another round (“Faster, you know, to balance out the slow one,”).

“I’m just trying to make good use of our time,” she said indignantly. “Aren’t you always wanting to make things more efficient? You can talk during, if you want.”

“I would if I could,” he sighed wistfully, earning a laugh from her.

Ultimately they decided sleep was the more sensible option, since the trade debate was now just a few short hours away.

She knew how important the abolishment of trade federations was to Ben’s intentions for the Empire, but she didn’t quite comprehend how important this debate was to him until the next morning, when she was completely unable to tempt him into joining her in the shower. She sensed a focused purpose in him and wondered if it had anything to do with the secret she knew he had been keeping since he had woken from his coma. She had felt the edges of it that first evening, since she had entered his mind several times, but had only confronted him about it several days later. (“I’ll tell you, if you like,” he had said solemnly. “I don’t want to hide anything from you. But I would prefer to keep this one thing to myself, for now.” He had sounded so gravely serious that Rey had decided to drop the issue. For now.)

Rey spent a longer time than she would ever admit worrying about what to wear. She knew that Ben liked it when they all wore black, as a show of unity. But, although she was accompanying him to the debate, she was also there to represent her own interests and those of the billions of people who were under her care. She compromised by pairing black trousers with a billowy, asymmetrical tan blouse, and nodded approvingly to the confident-looking woman in the mirror.

Ben held her hand as they walked into the enormous cone-shaped Representatives Chamber, guiding her to a seat beside the one that was obviously his. The circular pod they were in then rose from the floor to hover at what must have been the midpoint of the cone, several storeys up, so she had an adequate view of every one of the thousands of other pods that were slowly being filled with beings of every conceivable species, from every corner of the galaxy.

“You haven’t told me what I’m supposed to do here,” she whispered uncertainly to him. The constant, frenetic movements of dozens of cameradroids circling around the room made her heart pound.

“I never have,” he confirmed, and squeezed her hand one more time before letting go and laying his forearms along the armrests of his throne-like chair. Rey folded her own hands in her lap and reached her senses out, trying to catch some glimpse of what her purpose might be today. But the Force was almost painfully alive with so many different thoughts and goals crammed into the Chamber, and it only took seconds for her to lose herself in its whirling flow.

She returned a few minutes later when Ben rose to address his audience, apparently deciding that the Chamber was adequately filled.

“My first act as Emperor, before any of you were even aware of my position, was to extend the gift of mercy to the band of warmongering insurgents who name themselves ‘the Resistance’. I had intended to leave them to their own devices, certain that they would be be swept cleanly away by the tide of change. I know now that that was a mistake.”

Rey’s heart leapt into her throat. He had confessed drunkenly that he wanted to see his mother, but they hadn’t discussed it since. What if he had changed his mind?

“Allowing the seed of discord to live was a mistake. And so, in the interest of Galactic unity -- in whose name I have made all of my decisions -- I will take this opportunity to extend an invitation to the rebels’ leader, Leia Organa, to meet with me at a time and place of her choosing and discuss the reintegration of her followers into civilised society. Any worthy concerns will be addressed; lies and petty disagreements will be dismissed along with their proponents. Duplicity will not be tolerated.”

He paused to take a breath. Rey poured as much of her strength into him as she possibly could, so that it wouldn’t shudder.

“I won’t delay today’s proceedings any longer. The Speaker may have the floor.” He sat down, the movement precisely controlled.

The Speaker was Ryal, of course, who was hovering very close to them in his own pod. He introduced the topic concisely before opening the floor to debaters.

Rey could barely pay any of them her attention; Ben’s anxiety radiated off him as searing heat, and she itched to reach for him. His face remained impassive. She was very aware that there were potentially billions of beings watching them through holoscreens; she had no way of knowing which of the cameras were focused on them, or if they were broadcasting at any particular moment.

“Thank you,” he said under his breath, his lips barely moving.

Why didn’t you tell me? she asked him silently, both because she wanted to know, and as a gentle reminder that he could speak to her if he wanted to.

I didn’t want you to be disappointed if I couldn’t.

She fought to keep her mouth from twisting in sadness. You’ve never disappointed me.

This soothed him somewhat, and she was able to focus on her surroundings again. She was delighted to see the Representatives from Tirahnn and Taanab steer their pods toward each other so they could face the House as one and speak in favour of free trade throughout the galaxy. But the new alliance would have been easy for anyone else to overlook, because the overwhelming majority of systems were in favour of Ben’s plan. The very few who argued against it were also those who were most lavishly dressed, she realised; their thin arguments were in fact excuses for them to try to protect their own profits. She wondered idly if she could have talked these men and women around the way she did during the negotiation last week. Ben caught her eye and smirked.

There was very little for them to do, because their so-called opponents were quickly shut down by other Representatives coming forth to deflect their arguments. Ryal and Ben stood to intervene several times when discussions began to get heatedly derailed. Rey remained seated during the entire meeting.

Shortly after midday the debate was called and the Representatives were asked to vote; the result surprised exactly nobody. A binding legislature document that had obviously been prepared earlier appeared on the datascreens in front of every chair, and Rey was sure that a shorthand version was being shown to every watcher outside of the Chamber.

“If they had voted against you, would you have overruled them?” she asked Ben quietly, when the cameras were gone and the room was slowly emptying.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s my right. But I’m very glad it happened this way.”

He was glad. His earlier anxiety had dimmed to a light simmer, and when she touched the edges of his thoughts she felt a reverberation of cautious optimism.

It was well-earned, because today had gone entirely in his favour. Leia was clever, but Ben was her son. She couldn’t, in good faith, reject an invitation so publicly offered in the name of peace. And the timing of his announcement had been very deliberate: Leia and the Resistance would have been compelled, afterwards, to watch the entirety of the debate, which had been fortuitously smooth. As Rey and Ben moved through the throng of people making their dawdling exits they heard nothing but surprised satisfaction. According to the many conversations they bypassed, it would have taken the Senate months or years to reach the same level of consensus, if it ever did.

“I’m proud of you,” Rey told him, sensing that it was something he wanted to hear, even if he would have preferred it said in someone else’s voice. That was a tightly-wrapped secret, kept even from himself.


 

It was mid-afternoon by the time Rey escorted Ben back to his office, teasing him when he didn’t even bother pretending that he didn’t want her to walk with him the twenty extra metres to his door. She extended her generosity even further and crossed the threshold with him into his audience chamber, then promptly rolled her eyes at the sight of Grand Marshal Hux.

“Your Majesty,” Hux began. “A great victory today.”

Rey wanted to roll her eyes again, but it occurred to her suddenly that Hux hadn’t been present in the Representatives Chamber, and instead had been forced to watch the event on holoscreen like the majority of others. The realisation inspired her to appear gracious and give him a beatific smile.

Ben nodded, automatically, the way he seemed accustomed to doing with Hux these days. “I have work to do,” he said, and squeezed Rey’s hand before releasing it and retreating to his office.

Rey, not having any other option, turned and left the room again, with Hux less than a pace behind her. She steeled herself for another one of his disingenuous speeches, but he didn’t bother today. They walked in parallel down the corridor for a few steps, each making an effort to pretend they weren’t trying to out-speed each other, before Rey reached her own door and paused while he continued on. She peered after him balefully for a few seconds.

The sight of her gardener hoverdroid making its way past him toward her cheered her considerably. She opened the door and allowed it to precede her.

/Be careful,/ it said, when the door closed behind the two of them, leaving them alone in Rey’s sitting room.

Rey blinked. “What?”

/Red one bad,/ it said.

Rey’s breath left her and she stood, stunned, while the droid made its way casually across the room to the opposite door and into her bedroom.

It had said those words to her once before, as she lay sulking in bed after the unpleasant experience of being sucked into Darth Vader’s memories. It had told her to ‘be careful’, right after it had asked her if she was sick.

By the time Rey’s body sprang back into action the droid was on her balcony, serenely making its way around the perimeter to water each of her plants. When she leapt through the curtains to confront it it turned to her and produced her daily flower: white. Definitely not red. Rey shoved it impatiently onto a random shelf without looking at the card.

“What do you mean?” she demanded. “Red what? Red flower, or red person?”

/Red one bad. You sick?/

“No, I’m not-- I mean, yes, yes, I’m sick! Do you know why?”

/Friend sick. Need medi. We go now./ One of its hand-attachments reached out to gently grasp at Rey’s clothes and it attempted to lead her away, presumably to the medical wing.

Despite the urgency of the situation Rey’s face split into a wide smile at the realisation that the droid, with its obviously limited programming, considered her a friend. She gently disentangled herself and knelt so that her face was level with what she assumed to be its visual probe.

“I’ll be okay,” she said, enunciating clearly. “Thank you. But I need to know: what made me sick? How do you know about it?”

/Red one bad. Friend sick./

“Yes, but how?”

/Show friend./

Rey stood up, scanning the shelves until she found the yellow-red Sweet Clover that the droid had delivered to her the day of the first warning. She had read that it could be toxic, but hadn’t thought much of it, since she had had no intention of ingesting the petals. She knelt again to show the droid.

“You showed me this one. Do you remember? Did this make me sick?”

The droid beeped an affirmative. Rey’s stomach churned unpleasantly.

“Does the red one have this flower, too?”

Another affirmative.

Rey almost tripped over her own feet in her hurry to get to her datapad. It took a torturously long time to insert an extension into the droid’s data port. When she finally managed it the droid fed her an overload of information -- the poor thing was a bit of a chatterbox, despite the meagre allowances of its vocoder programming -- and Rey was disgusted to learn that an anonymous weekly order of Sweet Clover was delivered to an uninhabited room on the thirty-sixth floor, but that the droid’s curiosity had inspired it to trace the order back several layers to Hux’s cost center.

Rey released a shaky breath. “Thank you, my friend. Will you allow me to override your programming with a new instruction?”

The droid allowed it, and she instructed it via her datapad to remain here in her garden until ordered otherwise by herself or the Emperor. She uploaded the entirety of her data interrogation to a chip which she wrapped her sweaty palm around. Then she walked to her dresser and used the other hand to pick up the salt and pepper mills that she had decided to keep for a reason that she hadn’t quite understood at the time.

She congratulated herself on the calm way she managed to nod acknowledgement to Dana before opening Ben’s office door. He looked up at her with concern, unable to be fooled by her outward placidity; she could only imagine what he was feeling in the Force around her.

“Hux poisoned you,” Rey said, and placed the data chip and seasoning mills on the desk between them as she sat down.

Ben understood, at least in part, immediately. His eyes lit up with a malicious hunger and he practically leapt across the table to seize the pepper. It looked very small in his big hand, and for some reason that was the thing that ignited her anger.

“He poisoned you, did you hear me?!”

“I heard you,” he said, sounding breathless. “I know. How did you figure it out? Where did you get these?”

“Where did I get these?” Rey spat. “I got them from my breakfast tray! Does it matter? There are probably dozens like them, you’ve probably been using them at every meal! Did you hear me?”

“I heard you,” Ben repeated, quietly.

Rey stood up again, feeling the need to pace. “You knew it was him all this time. How could you keep something like this from me?”

Ben stood too, carefully replacing the pepper on the desk and assuming a defensive position, for some reason. “I told you I wouldn’t keep anything from you, if you didn’t want me to,” he said, slowly. His hands were held out in front of him, as if to ward her off. “I didn’t want you to do anything impulsive.”

“Like what?” Rey demanded.

Ben said nothing, but his eyes left hers momentarily to look down toward her waist before flicking back up. Rey followed his gaze to the lightsaber that had somehow made its way into her hand and ignited itself. She gasped and released it, allowing the blade to withdraw. It dropped a few inches toward the floor before arcing up and sailing unerringly into one of Ben’s open hands. He placed it on the desk, as well. He took slow, cautious steps toward her, as if he were concerned that she was a wild animal who would be frightened off by his approach.

“Ben, I swear, if you don’t make him pay for this I won’t even need a lightsaber to slice you in half.”

The corners of his lips twitched. “I don’t doubt it. And I wouldn’t blame you. Of course I’ll make him pay. As far as I’m concerned, he’s already dead. But I needed proof. And here you are, handing it to me.” He had reached her now and his hands raised further to cup either side of her face gently. “As always, you’ve given me exactly what I need without me even asking. Without you even trying.”

His hands vibrated rapidly against her face, which was strange, because the rest of him was rock-steady. It took a moment for her to realise that she was the one who was trembling.

“Why do you need proof?” she bit out. “I hate him! Just get rid of him! I’ve asked you so many times!”

“He must stand trial,” Ben said. “I can’t risk the military deserting me to run rampage through the galaxy, or else staying to name me a tyrant. That’s not the kind of ruler I want to be. Not anymore.”

Rey shook her head, but brought her own hands up to wrap around his wrists so that he couldn’t move, because she needed him there. “No. He’s too dangerous to be kept alive. You almost died. Don’t you have any idea what that was like for me?”

Ben kissed her forehead, then her nose. “It’s alright. I’m alright. We won’t even be here, we’ll be far away. But I need you to calm down enough to tell me what you know.”

She struggled to do so, but he was so impossibly solid that she latched onto him and forced him to guide her. Finally she was open enough for him to peruse the memory of her conversations with the hoverdroid. When he was done he reached blindly behind himself to snatch up the datachip and tuck it securely into his belt, next to his own lightsaber.

Rey broke free of his other hand and slumped back into her chair. “Okay. No more secrets. I’ve allowed it to be tried once, and look how it’s ended.”

Ben smiled, despite everything. “I’d say it ended rather well.”

Chapter Text

Ben delighted her by leaving his office immediately to arrange Hux’s arrest. She was less impressed to discover that this meant simply that he was confined to his own chambers, under heavy guard, and was forbidden to send messages or receive visitors.

“I’ve explained this, Rey,” Ben said, in response to her raised eyebrows. “I need--”

“Yes, yes, I know,” she allowed. “I just expected something more. A dungeon. Some restraints, maybe…”

“And people think I’m the menacing one.”

She decided to insist on inserting one of her own guards (of whose loyalty she was certain) into the new roster supervising the prisoner, but Ben suggested it before she had the chance. Within hours a public announcement was made of the charges (high treason and attempted regicide, among others), and a judiciary panel was formed -- made up of Lissa, Colonel Odai, and the Representative for Coruscant -- to examine the evidence and prepare for a trial. Ben had clearly already made preparations for this eventuality. He ordered Arin to leave the capital the next day to continue her tour, and encouraged Ryal to do so within the next few days. “It’s important that we appear as unconcerned and uninvolved with the trial as possible,” he explained. “And both of you have already delayed your plans.” The six of them had a quick, late dinner together.

He tried to wrap his arms around her the moment they were alone in their room, but she wriggled out of his embrace with a mumbled explanation and rushed out to her garden, to find the hoverdroid waiting obediently, as she instructed. She thanked it again for its help and led it through to her sitting room, explaining that it was in a safe place and should power down until they had sorted out a few details. It folded itself unobtrusively into a corner and became still and quiet.

Finally she allowed him to hold her and trace soft kisses up her neck. When he reached her ear she heard/felt a short puff of laughter, and then a whisper. “You realise, don’t you, that a large number of our problems have been solved by you being so endearing that even droids can’t help loving you.”

She pulled back to look at him. His features shone with amusement, which always made him look younger. Innocent; even though he wasn’t (and neither was she).

“I’m sorry for calling you a monster,” she said. “Again.”

“I’m sorry for giving you a reason to.” His eyes slid methodically over her face, as if memorising it, and his fingers traced her clavicle and shoulder with a gentleness that made her knees feel weak. It was one of those soft, perfect moments that she had once convinced herself she would remember exactly, but now there had been so many that the details of them swirled together and became difficult to tease apart.

She smiled. “Okay. Clothes off, please.”

Ben paused, frowning. “That’s your way of seducing me?”

“I said ‘please’,” she pointed out.

He didn’t complain again, so she supposed that her ‘seduction’ was successful, just like all the rest that followed over the next four weeks. Despite the upcoming trial and the absence of two members of the group they managed to fall back into a routine. After breakfast they all separated to spend the bulk of the day training or working. Two nights a week they would all go out to dinner. The other five, Rey and Ben decided, would be unusually free of commitment. They might leave the Palace to explore the city, or they might sit on their balcony and do nothing. Sometimes they would continue working through the evening: they were a lot less strict about that now, with things between them mostly settled. There was still the occasional necessary difficult conversation to be had, and out of habit they would retreat to his office and sit on the same side of the desk and go back to the rules. During one such talk he revealed that just prior to her bringing him the evidence against Hux he had received a message from Leia, suggesting that they meet on Chandrila (neutral ground for them, Rey supposed) in several weeks, which would coincide luckily with the trial.

“You’ll come with me,” he said, not quite a question, but shy enough to make her stomach flip.

Rey promised that she would, of course, and had to bite her tongue to refrain from asking dozens of questions about the planet and what else they would do on the trip.

She finally showed him the recording of Anakin Skywalker that she had found on Takodana. They sat facing each other on their bed as the blue hologram danced in the air between them. When the demonstration was finished Ben closed the cube and put it aside. He took her hands and told her, very solemnly, that he understood, and that he would never stop trying.

“I didn’t mean that you need to try anything,” she said. “I just thought you’d like to see it.”

“I did like it,” Ben said. “Thank you.”

But he never mentioned it again, or asked to re-watch it.

Work was much the same as it had been before she left for Jakku, with the exception that Boz Nestino was still off-world and all of their communications were holographic. With regret she realised that she would need a new permanent assistant on Coruscant. D’ariel Tser was more than happy to assist her search. The Sister still met with Rey regularly, though there wasn’t much more that the Palace needed to do for the organisation and so the meetings took on more of a social tone; after all, the two women were closely-aligned in their goals.

In Arin’s absence Rey began to spend more time with Lissa, who was still a relative unknown. But after a fortnight of afternoons spent doing paperwork side-by-side, with occasional snippets of conversation, Rey learned that she was from a noble Corellian family, and in fact the Representative for Corellia was her cousin.

“Don’t worry, though,” Lissa said. “None of them would reveal me.”

“Would it be terrible if they did?” Rey asked.

Lissa shrugged. “It might give some other systems cause for complaint. Accuse us of bias, you know. Apart from Ryal the rest of us are nicely ethnically-ambiguous, so we should keep that advantage while we can. Besides, Kylo obviously isn’t in a hurry to reveal his own familial connections.”

Rey started and shifted in her seat. “What’s it like? Having such a big family?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Loud,” Lissa said. “Though I left when I was thirteen, to go to the temple. I suppose that was a different kind of loud family.”

As if on cue, Chali sat up (now able to do so independently) and began to make incoherent noises from the hovercot in the corner where Lissa had set her down for a nap. Rey looked on curiously as the infant was fussed over and transferred to a playpen, with a few quiet words of affectionate encouragement that she tried not to eavesdrop on. Orax and Lissa had never employed any form of childcare, though it was well within the Palace’s means to provide it. Instead they preferred to bring their daughter with them everywhere. Rey wondered if it was out of a sense of protectiveness, or whether they simply always wanted to be near her. Both, she decided.

That evening as she and Ben sat on the roof eating dinner (Rey liked dangling her feet over the side of the building, which was impossible on their balcony) she couldn’t resist asking, “Do you think we’ll have a child?”

“Of course,” Ben said, without hesitation, and the anxious knot her stomach eased a little. “I’ve seen her.”

Her?”

He reached out to tuck her hair behind her ear, even though it was already tucked. “Yes, her. She has your eyes.”

Rey flushed happily at the obvious admiration in his expression, but she couldn’t help setting him right. “You’re wrong. Our son has your eyes. I saw him when I was on Jakku.”

“No,” Ben said, stubbornly. “I’m sure I saw a girl.”

“Well, I saw a boy.”

“Girl.”

“Boy.”

He changed tactic. “If you were as certain about your vision as you claim to be then you wouldn’t have asked me ‘do you think’.”

“Well, if you hadn’t rushed off to get a contraceptive injection right after our first kiss, I wouldn’t have to doubt your intentions.”

He sighed and shuffled over to join her on the edge, leaning on the railing and dangling his own legs. “It wasn’t so long ago that we had trouble doing things like this with just each other. I don’t ever want her to feel like we don’t have time for her.”

Rey nodded, understanding, and reached out to tangle her fingers through his. After a few moments of quiet (the only sound being the dull, rhythmic ‘thud’ of her heels against the Palace wall), she said: “Him.”

“You’re incorrigible,” he chuckled, and bent down to kiss the inside of her wrist. “What made you think of all this?”

“I was with Lissa and Chali today. You know, it seemed nice.”

“It will be nice,” Ben promised. “But for now this is nice.”

Rey spent a minute trailing her eyes over the criss-cross of speeder lanes off in the distance, too far away for the rumble of their engines to reach her. “Yeah, this is nice.”


 

Hanna City had several space ports, and Ben chose his third preference for docking their shuttle. Rey would certainly notice if he directed Major Tavson to the port furthest from their destination, but the one he chose offered him a certain level of plausible deniability; after all, she had once asked him to show her his homeworld.

He had told her that Hanna was similar to Galactic City, but much smaller. Now that he had grown in both stature and station it seemed much, much smaller, with the tallest buildings having floors numbered in the dozens rather than the thousands. These buildings were also more likely to be devoted to scholarship and research, rather than pleasure and debauchery, and the streets were lined with tall trees which were more than enough to keep Rey happy.

Her genuine interest and the feeling of her arm looped through his was enough to keep him calm as he named plants and landmarks for her, though he couldn’t quite keep the distaste out of his voice when they walked down the Avenue of the Republic, or through Democracy Square, or past the Fountain in Memoriam of the Heroes of the Alliance. He could order these names abolished any time he chose, but decided instead to allow them to change organically with the passage of time. The New Republic had been born on Chandrila, but so had he, and he lived on while the former would slowly be forgotten.

They crossed through the grounds of the University where Ben had once wanted to study aviation and astrogation (with perhaps more than a few credits of political science), before his mother had suggested that he might first spend a period of time with his Uncle, learning to control the power that had clearly frightened her.

Eventually, of course, he had taught himself about the Force, as well as everything else he had wanted to know, and with arguably greater success than Han, Leia, or Luke could boast.

Rey had likewise shown a great affinity for the same three disciplines, and was also self-taught, but her abilities were buoyed by instinct and trial rather than theory and knowledge. There had been a time when he had disdained this and thought that part of his task was to teach her to be more like him, but she had proven her approach to be more than capable of matching his. Her flair leant her an adaptability that he couldn’t replicate, and (they were approaching the rendezvous point, but he ignored that and kept following the train of thought) with her natural perfection and his cultivated talents they could surely --

“Hey,” Rey interrupted, sharply. “Stop trying to distract yourself.”

It was exactly what he had been trying to do, of course, so he packed away his ruminations as she commanded.

A few minutes later they turned onto Barbican Road. He must have changed his gait in some subtle way, because Rey realised that they were very near to their destination.

“Thanks for showing me all this,” she said. “Even though that wasn’t your only goal.”

He drew her to the side of the path (he was the Emperor, but he was still a responsible pedestrian tasked with avoiding collisions) and cradled her face. “I have more to show you after we’re done here,” he announced. Planning the next step had been one of the only things that had helped him focus during the last few days on Coruscant, when final preparations were being made.

Rey smiled eagerly, and he memorised the crinkles beside her eyes so he could take them with him into the meeting.

They entered the building -- an unimpressive one, with event and office space for hire by the day -- and he was moderately pleased when the receptionist sprung to her feet, obviously expecting them. She offered refreshments, which they declined, and then directions to the seventh floor boardroom, which they accepted.

FN-2187 was waiting for them when the elevator door opened onto the seventh floor.

“Finn!” Rey almost-shrieked.

“Hey,” FN-2187 said, a lot more subdued. “You look like this girl I used to know.”

Rey, who was stubborn when it came to ensuring her affection was received by whomever she chose to bestow it upon, reached forward to close the gap and hug him. To his credit it only took him seconds to reciprocate the embrace.

“You feel like her, too,” FN-2187 said.

“I am her,” Rey proclaimed. It was strange, seeing her in the arms of someone Ben considered a traitor and therefore a liar, but Rey’s energy shone with happiness and that decided the matter for him.

Finn pulled back and finally smiled at her. “Glad to hear it.” They both half-turned to acknowledge the looming presence in the room with them.

Ben held his hand out stiffly, thinking of Rey and all of the things she deserved. “Hello, Finn. I’m Ben.”

They both gaped at him. Rey recovered first, rewarding him with a dazzling smile that made his chest ache. Finn cleared his throat awkwardly and clasped Ben’s hand lightly for one and a half seconds before withdrawing two steps. Good. They were on even footing now, having both made concessions for the woman that bound them.

Finn led them to the boardroom, giving stilted responses to Rey’s stream of questions about his recovery. Rey seemed, at some point, to realise that the injuries she was referring to were inflicted by Ben, and belatedly changed the subject. He began to warm up a little bit when she launched instead into a story about the underwater tunnels at The Imperial and promised to show them to him.

The boardroom was flanked by Chewbacca (who Ben had last seen aiming his bowcaster at him), Poe Dameron (who Ben had last seen bloody and screaming as he tortured him), and R2-D2 (who Ben had last seen whirring along happily behind Luke at the temple). It was at this point that Ben realised that his decision to come here had been beyond moronic.

Dameron approached him. “Leia insisted on seeing you alone. But no weapons.” He brazenly held out his hand; Ben didn’t move. After a minor stare-down he unclipped his lightsaber from his belt and handed it to Rey. Seeing this, Chewbacca loped away from the door so that it was now unbarred. It was a farce, of course. Every person in this room, and Leia herself in the room beyond, knew that he didn’t need a weapon.

“I’ll wait right here,” Rey said. Then she surprised him by standing up on her toes and pulling him down by his neck to kiss him. It was quick and chaste, nothing more than a light peck, but he was sure his heart skipped a few beats all the same. The fact that she had done it here, now, with all of them looking on -- as if she didn’t care that they knew she loved him, as if she was proud to be with him -- it took all of his self-restraint to keep himself from forgetting the whole galaxy and whisking her away to some secret place where his only obligation would ever be to hold her.

But her hand had now slid from his hand to his chest and pressed there in a gesture of firm encouragement, so he entered the meeting room and shut the door behind him.

Leia stood in one corner of the brightly-lit office, twisted to face him. She had obviously been pacing, and his entrance had been too sudden for her to make it back into the center of the room and maintain an appearance of controlled patience.

Her speed was also limited, he realised with unexpected sadness, because she was old. He had only allowed himself to imagine her several times over these last six years, but whenever he did the memory-Leia was young and lithe, with glossy brown hair that fell down her back in perfectly coiffed waves. His mother had been a rebel and a war hero, but she had never stopped looking like a princess. The woman in front of him, on the other hand, looked as though she had fought a brutal war. He couldn’t quite decide whether or not she looked like a victor.

“Hello,” he said, and then nothing else, because his planning hadn’t made it to this stage and he hadn’t decide what to call her. Mother? General? Traitor? He decided, too late, on simply ‘Leia’ (he had paused for three seconds, and she was bound to have noticed), so left the greeting to hang in the air alone.

“Thank you for coming,” Leia said, and she didn’t name him, either. She took a seat on one of the cushioned lounges by the window, her back held straight and her chin level. Her posture indicated that this was to be a formal meeting, but she hadn’t chosen to sit at the desk, so she was trying to avoid an air of inflexibility.

He knew all of her little tricks.

“Your group of rebels is to be disbanded,” he began. Leia raised a politely questioning eyebrow, but he plowed on. “I would encourage each of them to return to their homeworlds. I am willing to extend limited aid to them, as necessary, so that they may find gainful employment and hopefully learn how pointless and counterproductive any further rebellion would be.”

Leia was nodding along, her eyes hooded in apparent deliberation. “An interesting strategy. Keep everyone busy and fed so that they don’t question the details of what you’re doing in your throne room.”

Ben huffed impatiently. “I’m doing nothing in my throne room. All major changes are now being discussed in the House of Representatives, and each of those meetings are broadcast publicly, as I’m sure you’re well aware. I’m sorry to see that you’ve clung to your obsession with trying to find ulterior motives for my every action.”

He cursed himself for his tirade even before he had finished it. So much for keeping his arguments and language impersonal.

Leia stared him down for thirty long seconds before pursing her lips in apparent consternation and allowing her shoulders to drop.

“Why did you agree to meet me, Ben?”

He knew what the question meant. He knew that she was really asking ‘What did you hope to achieve?’, or ‘What were you expecting to happen?’, or perhaps even ‘What are you feeling right now?’. Leia had a way of getting answers to questions she had never even asked. But the answers she was looking for were too big, too much; so he decided to take her question at face value, like a simpleton.

“I’d had eleven shots of Port in a Storm,” he said.

Leia laughed a few low, raspy beats, and then silenced herself. It was a laugh he knew well: it was involuntary, and usually provoked by some small mischief of his that she would pretend to disapprove of before her own mischievous instinct overpowered her. She would rake her hand through his hair and say something like ‘I’m doomed to forever be surrounded by idiot boys’, or ‘You are exactly like your father, you know’, and she would look down at him with such unrestrained affection (even back then he could feel it flowing out of her and into the Force around them) that he would be compelled to promise her (untruthfully) that he would never misbehave again.

There was no simple love flowing from her now, because a long time had passed, and Ben had proved that he wasn’t at all similar to Han Solo.

“I won’t tell my colleagues where they can and cannot settle down,” she said, finally. “I plan to remain here, and if all of them want to crowd around me in my tiny little apartment then I won’t stop them. Planetary migration has been common for millennia. Or are you planning to tighten those laws?”

Ben clenched his jaw, biting out his next words. “No. But you apparently think yourself outside the law, so special provisions will be made.”

“I think no such thing,” Leia said. “But the law is nothing more than an agreement between all parties as to what behaviours are and are not acceptable. And so -- don’t, don’t bother, of course I know the formal definitions -- and so in order to help you make these ‘special provisions’ I have taken the liberty of drawing up contracts that each of my colleagues have already placed their signatures to, stating their rights going forward. In short, they will remain free citizens of the galaxy, and will not be held to criminal account for any actions that they undertook before your coronation. After all, the New Republic law was still in effect when the Resistance was formed, so you can’t possibly take offense to any infractions that were made at that time.”

Ben had no choice. He had no idea what the Resistance had been doing since his coronation -- had kept himself intentionally blind to it, for Rey’s sake -- and so Leia was correct, and there was nothing keeping him from pardoning them all. He read through each contract carefully (though there were hundreds, and they were all identical) before signing as ‘Kylo Ren’.

Then they were done. Leia was apparently determined to assume he wanted to be a tyrant (and maybe he had, at first), though he had done nothing to earn the assumption except use a title that she hated.

Well, he had done one other thing. But his name wasn’t mentioned even though it hung palpably in the air between them.

He ignored the cramp in his hand as she shook it, just like he ignored the desire to ask her if they would ever have cause to see each other again. He suspected not.

But then she asked “How’s Rey?”, apparently deciding that the formal proceedings were over. Ben froze before quickly withdrawing his hand from hers.

“She…”

What could he possibly say about Rey, to his mother, of all people? He couldn’t say that she was his, because Leia would think that he didn’t deserve her. He couldn’t say that she accepted every part of him, because she would wonder why (and so did he, sometimes). He couldn’t say that he missed her, even though he could feel her steady presence on the other side of the door, because no one outside of himself could possibly understand.

He never found the end of the sentence, but Leia smiled.

“That’s nice to hear,” she said.


 

“I told Finn he should come and visit,” Rey said, watching Ben’s face closely as he directed the rented speeder off the highway and toward the forest. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Ben said. And then, “he’s a ‘free citizen of the galaxy’ after all”, with just a touch of bitterness.

“Are we going to--”

“No. Not now. I have something to show you, remember?”

“Okay,” Rey relented. “What are you showing me?”

“You’ll see when we get there.”

It took hours to do so, and the sky was lit only by the moon when he manoeuvred the speeder into a small copse of trees and cut the engine. He walked her down a steep hill until the treeline broke and she saw that they had reached the shore of a wide lake, with an island rising from the water opposite where they stood.

“Oh,” Rey said, with vague recognition. “You came here for fishing.”

He nodded, looking pleased that she had remembered, and ferried her across the lake on a hoverboat which had clearly been set up for their use. But when Rey reached out through the forest with her senses she didn’t come across the presence of any other sentient beings in the area. She tried again to gently guide him toward talking about his meeting, but he brushed her off and said he wanted to focus on just the two of them for now.

Another trek through the trees (Rey was puffing slightly now, unable to remember the last time she had done so much walking in one day) brought them to an expansive but dilapidated house that was ominously outlined by the moon hanging behind it. She felt a slight twinge of unease.

“You’re not going to make me go in there, right?” As if on cue a pillar creaked on the second-storey balcony, and she was sure that the piece of roof it was supporting sank a few inches lower as she watched.

“No,” Ben promised, shaking his head. There was a nervous excitement about him that enchanted her.

They walked around the house, through a tangle of weeds that must have once been a garden, and came across a smaller building. This one was once made of glass, though half of the panes were now shattered by the thick vines that snuck out through the gaps to enclose the entire structure, making it look wild but also snug and secure. The place felt secret, ethereal, and Rey felt so drawn to it that it seemed to almost glow in the center of her vision.

They snuck through a gap in the vines together. Rey hadn’t imagined the glow. The space they had entered was luminous with moonlight that reflected off the petals of hundreds of kira blossoms that hung from the vines that had overtaken the greenhouse. They weren’t exactly like the ones she had back home in her garden that could fit comfortably in the palm of her hand. These flowers came in every size imaginable, from tiny ruffles the size of the tip of her pinky finger to large ones that would overflow Ben’s two hands cupped together.

Ben exhaled in relief and Rey looked up at him curiously. “I’m glad it’s the way I remember it,” he explained, grinning.

She left his side to examine one of the larger flowers at closer range, deciding to count how many gleaming petals it had and then immediately dismissing the idea. Her stomach was fluttering and there was something pressed hard against her sternum. Ben had been young when he first came here, based on the story he had told her. The place had obviously made quite an impression on him, because he still liked these flowers to this day. He had named her after them, before she had even known what the word meant. Before they had decided what they were to each other.

“I’m starting to think you like me,” she said slyly as she turned back around to face him.

He was already very close to her, and he reached out to squeeze her waist in a way that was both teasing and tender. “I do. In fact, I brought you here to tell you exactly how much I like you.”

“I already know how much,” she said, deciding to take a leaf from his book and drawing herself up smugly.

His smile grew. “This should be easy, then.”

He lowered himself to one knee, and she automatically began to mirror him, but he reached out to steady her and gently told her that she was to remain standing. She nodded, intrigued, as he took one of her hands and held it securely in both of his.

“Rey, I love you. I can’t promise that I always have -- at least, not the way that you deserve -- but I can promise that from the moment I fell in love with you until this one that feeling hasn’t left my thoughts for even a second, and it never will. I know I can’t keep you by my side always, because you have too much to do and to be. But I want you to always come back to me, until we’re old and grey and we leave together forever. I vow to do everything in my power to make you feel safe, happy, and anything else you want to feel. Knowing all this, will you marry me?”

Rey released an involuntary noise of confused surprise. It was sweet that he wanted her permission, she supposed, though she couldn’t imagine why he was asking for it now.

He pulled her hand closer, his eyes searching hers, and she saw her confusion mirrored on his face. “You can’t possibly be surprised that I want this.”

“No,” she said, very slowly and deliberately. “I’m not surprised. I wanted it too. That’s why I married you.”

He looked truly bewildered now. “I’m sorry, kira, but you’re mistaken. That’s not something I would easily forget.”

She frowned. “No, there’s no mistake. You told me you loved me, and we kissed, and we’ve been together ever since…” she trailed off, gesturing vaguely, because she didn’t know how else to explain something that was so obvious.

Ben closed his eyes and pursed his lips primly. Then he fixed her with a very deliberate gaze. “I need some clarification. Are you saying that you think we got married on Jakku?”

Yes, when--” she broke off when his shoulders slumped and his eyes rolled. “Hey! What’s your problem!”

My problem? You’re telling me that I entered into some sort of... desert pact, against my will and knowledge--”

“You just said you wanted it.”

“Of course I do.”

“Then what’s your problem?”

“That wasn’t marriage, Rey. Do you really think that every time two people kiss they’re getting married?”

“No!”

“Then what made you think we did?”

“Because it was important!”

His next retort died in his mouth. He finally stood from his kneeling position, his eyes very soft, and Rey found that it was much harder to glare at him when he was standing tall above her and stroking her jaw gently.

They managed to explain their positions to each other calmly. Rey told him that, among scavengers, two people were considered to be married whenever they chose to be so (and marriage was relatively common, as pairs were often the most successful in the Starship Graveyard). Ben seemed to think that some sort of ceremony was necessary, with witnesses. Rey pointed out that witnesses were pointless, since their private relationship had nothing to do with anyone else. Ben argued that it did, since they were politically prominent people, and their marriage would result in her being crowned Empress (which was something that Rey had never considered).

“Fine,” she conceded. “In that case, I suppose there can be witnesses.”

“Thank you.” He reached down to take both of her hands and drew them up to press against his chest. “There’s one more part. I have a ring for you. If you’d like to wear it.”

“Okay,” she said warily. Arin and Ryal often wore jewelry, but Rey found it distracting and so hadn’t worn any since the coronation. “What does it do?”

“It doesn’t ‘do’ anything. It’s a symbol of our betrothal. And during the ceremony we’ll each receive a ring and exchange them.”

Rey nodded, expecting something big and heavy, like the black stone he had worn at his coronation, or the coloured gems that her friends stacked onto their fingers. But Ben pulled out a slim black box which, when opened, revealed a twining silver-white band twisted into the shape of leaves and flowers, inlaid with tiny gleaming crystals. It was flat and unobtrusive, but the sparkle caught her eye every so often, and the sight of him sliding it onto her finger was surprisingly intimate.

She wrapped her arms around him in gratitude, promising that she liked it, and enjoying the happiness that radiated from him in response. “When do you get one?” she asked, wondering how she was supposed to go about finding something he would like.

“We’ll have to wait for things to settle down after the trial,” he said gravely. “But it will be simple enough to put everything together when we choose. I’ve already made some arrangements. Though I’m sure you’ll trample all over my plans, as always.”

“I don’t ‘trample’,” Rey protested.

Ben smiled, shaking his head, and ducked down to kiss her. “Of course not.”

He led her by the hand back the way they had come, to the hoverboat. “‘That’s why I married you’...” he muttered under his breath as they walked.

“What was that?” Rey asked innocently.

“Nothing.”

Chapter Text

Rey drove them back to Hanna City, missing the turn-off several times. Partially because it was now very late and there was no steady flow of traffic to help guide her through the unfamiliar terrain. But mostly because Ben’s hand kept straying to her arm and hair and face, and every time she looked pointedly at him his smile would catch her and she found it very difficult to turn back to the speeder lane.

She needed to distract herself in order to focus, so she told him more about what had transpired between her and the Resistance crew. Finn had quickly forgotten his initial frostiness and was happily enraptured by her descriptions of Galactic City and the people that lived there. Chewie had been quiet (by Wookiee standards) at first, but later sat by her and asked gentle questions about what she had been eating, and how often she got the chance to fly, and he promised that if she ever changed her mind he would have the Falcon waiting outside her door before she knew it. Her voice caught a little as she recounted this last part, and she kept her eyes steadily on the city lights ahead of her.

Poe Dameron hadn’t said much, and seemed to be watching her closely for some hint of betrayal. “But don’t worry, I gave him a few stinkeyes of my own when Finn wasn’t looking,” she revealed.

“Artoo called me -- well, I won’t repeat it, but let’s say it made its opinion very clear. It said ‘I can’t believe I had to sit through this -- stuff -- again’.” The astromech’s lack of tact would seem funny to her one day, she supposed. “But BB-8 wasn’t there,” she said finally, not bothering to hide her disappointment.

Ben, knowing her expectations for fair conversation, realised that the end of her story meant that it was now his turn. The details poured out of him slowly, so that he didn’t finish until long after Rey had parked the speeder outside their hotel and the engine had cooled.

“That’s a good start,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, because he looked like he would spring from the vehicle and run from her at any moment.

“I don’t know what you mean.” His eyes were fixed on his own hand, where it hovered above the control panel for the passenger door. “I likely won’t see her again.”

“You will,” she said. “Your lives are twisted together, just like yours and mine were.” She sensed the truth of that connection between them, which had never existed between Rey and her own parents. Maybe it was because the Force pulsed around Leia just as strongly as it did around Ben; or maybe it was something less cosmic, and it was simply because they loved each other.

It wasn’t until much later, when his head was resting on her bare chest and she was brushing sweaty hair back from his face, that he added: “She didn’t even mention him.”

Rey ran her fingers through his hair a few more times, for good measure. “She knew it would be painful for both of you.” She squeezed his shoulders so tightly that a part of her wondered if he could still breathe comfortably. And indeed his breaths became ragged and uneven, but the wetness on her sternum revealed that it wasn’t because of anything she was doing.

“I murdered my dad,” Ben confessed.

Rey blinked back her own tears furiously, realising how selfish it would be of her to dilute his grief with her own. “You did. It was horrible,” she said, and kept squeezing.

He squirmed until she loosened her embrace enough for him to prop himself up and look at her. “Can you forgive me?” he pleaded, childlike. His brown eyes were wide and luminous in the dark room.

“I already have,” she said. He leaned forward to kiss her and she allowed it, even though it was sloppy and desperate, and punctuated by heaving breaths that wracked through his body and into hers. When it became clear that he had no intention of stopping she cupped his cheeks and pushed him away gently. “I’ve forgiven you. But that doesn’t matter. You didn’t do it to hurt me.”

His eyes left her and he returned heavily to her chest, knowing what was coming next.

“Can you forgive yourself?”

For a long time the room was silent apart from his effortful breaths. One exhale formed itself into something that wasn’t quite a word, but sounded very much like “No.”

“Okay,” she said. “I love you.”

“Do you still want to marry me?”

“More than anything.”

.........

His mood had only slightly recovered by the time they had breakfast together in the morning, and there were circles underneath his eyes that revealed he hadn’t managed much sleep. The suite’s balcony was diminutive when compared to their own back home, but it overlooked a fruit orchard where florakeets flitted between the treetops, so they both liked it. When they finished eating Ben placed a holopad on the table between them and they waited for Lissa.

“Making the charges stick won’t be an issue,” her hologram told them. “But Odai is trying to drag the process out. Insists that there must have been accomplices, and a wider investigation needs to be launched. He’s calling for full military reform.”

“Of course,” Ben said. “He expects to inherit Hux’s position.”

“Will he?” The tiny Lissa asked.

Ben shrugged as if it were an insignificant detail. “That depends on what ‘reform’ he has in mind.”

Lissa hesitated. “There’s something else. We’ve had messages from hundreds of Representatives from worlds that have abolished the death penalty, calling for restraint and requesting a life sentence, or exile, instead of--”

“No,” Ben said.

“Right. Only--”

“No.” His nostrils flared, and Rey could feel him deciding to double down stubbornly on his position. “And this matter won’t be drawn out. I want it settled today.”

Lissa wasn’t a stranger to his temper, so she was uncowed. “I’ll do what I can, but remember you made me one third of a triumvirate, so the best I can promise is that thirty-three percent of it will be settled today.”

Rey spoke up for the first time, feeling a bit of mediation was necessary. “Tell Odai that once this trial is over and the military leadership is settled he’ll be able to put his full attention into whatever investigation he wants. Don’t look at me like that, it’s true. There’s nothing wrong with reminding him of why he might want to get this over and done with.”

Ben was still agitated when they ended the transmission, despairing that they would need to spend the entire day on Chandrila. Rey decided to break the cycle of his bad mood by dragging him into the shower with her. This was a dangerous activity on Coruscant, because it always made such a large amount of sense for her to turn and brace herself against the tiled wall so he could press his chest into her back and enter her from behind. After the third morning spent rushing desperately to dress themselves and leave for their respective meetings with still-damp hair, Ben had decided that they had two bathrooms for a good reason and that they needed to respect that.

But here, far away from home, they were doomed to share.

The sound of him collapsing onto the bed afterwards and promptly falling asleep was immensely satisfying. Rey took both of their commlinks out onto the balcony with her and firmly shut the glass door. She began to attend to her own chores: check in with Boz on Jakku and his counterpart on Takodana, review the rotating schedule of upcoming Representative meetings to ensure that she was paying them all equal attention, conduct today’s two meetings by holocall and add the issues raised therein to her ever-growing list of things to do. She was interrupted every fifteen minutes or so by Dana calling through on Ben’s comm with some very important update. Rey thought it a miracle that he apparently allowed this, knowing how he hated interruptions. But Dana was admittedly very good at her job, so perhaps he had already weighed her worth.

At midday she handed him a list of messages she had taken, along with her personal ratings of their importance. Ben dressed and took her place on the balcony, setting himself up for work without complaint (she had taken the liberty of waking him using just her mouth, so he was obliged to remain in a good mood for the foreseeable future). Then she sat on the bed and allowed her fingers to dance over the number displayed on her commlink screen for a few moments before finally pressing ‘Connect’ and lifting it to her face.

Finn suggested they meet at a restaurant within walking distance of her hotel. She almost walked past it, because she had expected a Ryal-style restaurant and so her eyes automatically glanced over and past the squat diner where the only menu was the one glued to one of the front windows. Inside was open plan, so you could see the greasy cooks working away in the kitchen, and all of the plates and cutlery were made of coloured plast. Rey immediately decided to like it, because it was very Finn. He seemed to know the city quite well, and revealed that he had spent time here on-and-off during the last seven months. But the Resistance had never felt safe enough to stay in one place for too long.

Rey was having difficulty wrapping her mouth around her juicy burger, but luckily it was Finn’s turn to tell stories, and he spouted a few funny anecdotes about his new friends. He was very close to Poe Dameron, and to Rose (the girl who had lured ‘Kira Solo’ away for questioning). She marvelled at the fact that she felt so comfortable with him, in spite of everything that had happened. She had only truly known him for a few days, but Finn had been her very first friend, and that was a bond that couldn’t be easily broken -- and even if it could, she didn’t want it to.

“Thank you for being like this,” Rey said after a natural pause in the flow of conversation. “The same. Even after everything.”

He reached out and wrapped his hand around her forearm, giving her a comforting squeeze. “Look, I’m just glad you’re okay. You don’t want to know the things that went through my head when I saw you on holovision with him, surrounded by the First Order.”

Finn was good, she realised, in a way that was pure and simple. It was refreshing, after spending such a long time thinking about how people’s natures were complicated and goodness was a point of view. She loved Ben so much that the magnitude of it still stole her breath sometimes, but she respected herself enough to admit that working through his layers was as exhausting as it was rewarding.

“I’m more than okay,” she promised. Finn’s answering smile was genuine, so she took a deep breath and, for the first time, spoke aloud of the real reason she had left Ahch-To to join Ben, and everything that had happened after. He deserved an explanation, and she deserved to talk about it. She didn’t reveal all of the details of their connection (Finn wouldn’t understand, anyway; no one would), and she skipped over the revelation of Luke’s dealings with Ben (since that story wasn’t hers to tell).

“So it’s like a Jedi thing,” Finn said tentatively when she was finished.

“Sort of. Except not all Jedi. And we’re not Jedi.”

Finn’s brow, which had been furrowed in confusion, smoothed out and his face began to light up. “So it’s like… a true love thing.”

Rey had to bite her lip because her smile threatened to stretch to painful extremes. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Finn shifted in his seat. “Cool. That’s cool. It’d be nice to have something like that. I mean, I’d like it.” He looked out the window and began to nod his head along to some inaudible tune, trying to affect nonchalance.

She nudged his foot with her own under the table, resisting the urge to giggle. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. It’s complicated.” He tried to wave it away, but his hand betrayed him by moving up his neck and rubbing it in a gesture of embarrassment.

Rey raised her eyebrows. “You think it’s more complicated than what I just told you?”

“Well, maybe not,” he conceded, laughing.

He still wouldn’t reveal himself, though, and she suggested that he might decide to do so when he came to Coruscant to see her again. He walked her back to her hotel and hugged her tightly before leaving.

.........

True to her word, Lissa did what she could, and she was almost successful. The judiciary triumvirate found Hux guilty of high treason and attempted regicide. But, as she had foreseen, the sentencing process became a public issue. There was immediate outcry from a group of pacifist systems who had banded together and decided this was a good opportunity to declare that the death penalty had no place in modern civilisation. Of course there were plenty of systems who felt differently, but none of them spoke up too fiercely, for fear of being labelled heartless aggressors.

Ben insisted on returning to Coruscant immediately, furious. “Who are they to tell me what does and does not have a place in my civilisation?” he asked the wall of the shuttle, angrily.

Rey pursed her lips. “No one is telling you anything. You aren’t part of this, remember?”

“Of course I’m part of it,” he said. “I am ‘it’.”

“You are,” she began delicately, “if you want to be. But you chose to handle it this way, and you need to stay faithful to that. That’s what you would tell yourself, if you were calmer.”

He had begun chewing his cheek as she spoke, and now he paused, indecisive. “What if it had been you? Or Ryal, or Chali?”

“Are you serious? I’ve wanted him gone since the moment I figured it out. Before that, even. You don’t need to convince me.”

Ben’s frown deepened. “Gone, not dead.” Rey resisted the urge to chide him for trying to argue for both sides, knowing that this was often part of his decision-making process and meant that he was trying to curtail his impulsiveness.

But she still hated Hux. “You almost died, Ben. He’ll never stop trying to hurt you. Some people don’t deserve second chances.”

There was silence. Rey snuck a peek inside and saw him piecing his thoughts together carefully.

“Whatever happens to Hux will be used as precedent for every minor scuffle for years to come. If I kill him then I’m allowing every ‘ruler’ of every backwater planet to kill their political rivals under the same guise. That was the old way.” He tapped his hand against his knee, eyes narrowed in concentration, as though he were focused on replicating some rhythm that she couldn’t hear. “We’ll put it to a House vote,” he decided. “This group making a fuss is likely a vocal minority. An anonymous ballot will reassure those who are too cowardly to speak up. And whatever is decided will become law in all systems.”

Based on what Lissa had told them, any vote would strongly favour capital punishment. She wanted that in this case, selfishly, but also saw how such a thing could be abused if left unchecked. Rey and the Knights were monitoring the way that the Empire’s laws were being adhered to in their territories, but the galaxy was immense and they could never know everything that was happening everywhere. She rubbed a hand up his arm soothingly and reached over the armrest to rub her nose against his. “I don’t know the answer,” she admitted.

He sighed, half-frustration and half-affection, and pulled her onto his lap, earning a squeak of surprise. “Then there isn’t one, because you’re wiser than me. It could be debated forever. But this needs to be settled so we can stop devoting resources to it and the First Order can return to its business.

“And I do have another reason for wanting this all to be over.” One hand brushed away the hair that was loosely hanging over her shoulder, leaving her neck bare for his lips to attend to. The other hand was resting heavily on her thigh, and she would have liked for it to be attending to something as well, but Jober was on the other side of the door and they were less than an hour from Coruscant.

Ben had been very free with his affection from the beginning, but there was something different about it since the hidden blossom house. He smiled against her mouth every time he kissed her (though it sometimes seemed a little sad), and when he held her hand he ran his fingers lightly over the ring she wore as if it were something incredibly precious.

“I don’t get it,” Rey said, feeling confused but allowing him to continue his attentions. He bit down gently in response, and she realised he must feel the vibrations of her voice against his mouth. “What’s going to change? Between us, I mean.”

He released her neck with a light smacking sound and pressed their foreheads together. “Nothing’s going to change,” he announced, as if he had won some great victory.

“Then why-- you know what, never mind. You’re nuts. Just go back to what you were doing.”

.........

They arrived home in the middle of the night, and by morning Ryal had arrived too, having left Corellia after finishing his tour. He later admitted that he had planned to spend several more days there, but came back when the verdict was announced. But he spent the next few days not doing very much at all, so Rey wasn’t sure why he had felt the need to rush back.

Ben ordered Hux out of the Palace to instead be housed at 500 Republica while awaiting sentencing. Rey still thought he was being too generous, but he argued that the building was a striking symbol of the corruption of the Old Senate (even after heavy renovations), and Hux would despise every second there.

She and Ben were congratulated heartily on their betrothal, though of course no one was surprised. But Ryal took her hand in his and tutted with apparent disappointment.

“I wish you had gotten my advice. I know an excellent jeweler. It has a nice sparkle, but it could have been…” he waved his other hand expansively “more.”

Rey snatched her hand back from him, covering it protectively. “I like it just the way it is,” she said, with finality. Ryal knew better than to argue the point, and Ben reached down to press a light kiss to her temple.

The five days that passed between their arrival and the scheduled Parliament were agonising. Rey found it hard to believe that they had all managed to make it through four weeks of relative normalcy while awaiting the trial. But it had been a lot easier to remain calm when Ben hadn’t been constantly on edge; his emotions often rolled off him in waves, but now his tense anticipation sliced through the air around him like bolts from a blaster, impossible to ignore. She was able to distract him for small pockets of time by asking him about the books in his study, or allowing him to teach her a new saber technique. But she couldn’t help the piercing unrest that he felt while asleep, and she wasn’t heartless enough to pry his body off her and escape to some other place to rest, so she counted down the days and waited. He would apologise every morning, and on one occasion admitted his disappointment (“I thought I was good at sleeping now”), and she would forgive him instantly and return his gentle kisses until she felt so warm and relaxed that she was sure their skin would melt together.

She had been satisfied to attribute his disturbed mood to the pending House meeting. She sensed him thinking a lot about the future, and surmised that he was feeling the weight of decisions that could affect the galaxy for generations to come. But one night as she drifted to sleep her mind brushed against his dream, and she jolted awake, because the face she saw tormenting him wasn’t Hux’s; it was Anakin Skywalker’s.

In spite of all of her rules she tried to wake him, her fury heightened when the first attempt failed and she needed to shake him vigorously.

“Why are you dreaming about your grandfather?” she demanded the second his eyes opened. His brow furrowed as if the haze of sleep hadn’t fully left him yet, so she repeated her question a second time, louder.

Finally he sat up and ran both hands through his hair. “No reason. It was just a dream.” It was the first time he had ever lied to her.

“Tell me the truth,” she demanded, sitting up to face him and crossing her arms over her chest sternly.

Ben had the grace to look ashamed of his attempt to avoid doing so. He rearranged himself on the bed so he was sitting cross-legged, facing her. “I’ve been seeking his guidance. It’s difficult.”

“Seeking how?”

When he didn’t answer straight away she plunged angrily into his thoughts (relieved when he didn’t resist her) to find what she wanted. She saw the mountain, saw Darth Vader’s holocron floating down from the hiding place she had restored it to, saw Ben communing with it, saw how much it hurt him, saw that he kept doing it anyway.

Why?” Rey said, suddenly more hurt than angry.

He reached out for both of her hands, slowly, as if concerned that she wouldn’t allow him to. “I’m trying to keep you safe.” Rey waited, trusting him to know that that wasn’t an adequate explanation. Ben licked his lips and swallowed loudly before continuing. “He had someone who loved him, who wanted to spend the rest of her life with him, and he fell anyway. I don’t understand why. I need to.”

Rey couldn’t believe how stupid he was. “Didn’t you think that maybe it’s a good thing that you don’t understand why?”

“Yes, of course, I just wanted--”

“What? You wanted to understand his point of view in case you agreed with it?”

No. All I want is to do is be with you. I just want to make sure it stays that way.” His face crumpled into the most painfully vulnerable thing she had ever seen. “When I was younger I wanted to be with my dad all the time,” he said, his voice breaking.

Rey understood, somewhat, and her anger eased. But she hated his refusal to accept how much things had changed, so her words sounded and tasted bitter. “You want to know how to make sure it stays that way, Ben? By keeping it that way. It’s that simple. You’re the only one in your head now -- well, and me, sometimes -- so if you don’t want to hurt me then just don’t.” She used his grip on her wrists to her advantage and dragged him down with her as she flung herself back onto the pillows. She wriggled toward him and guided him to wrap his arms around her and explained, in no uncertain terms, that she expected them to still be there when she woke up. When she closed her eyes she kept the frown on her face to let him know she was serious, but blindly reached out and lightly twirled a lock of his hair around her finger, to soften all the blows. “And I’m definitely not your father,” she mumbled as a finale.

One of his hands shifted to trace gentle circles over her shoulder blade. “I love you,” Ben said.

“I know,” Rey said, allowing her frown to relax.

“You’re beautiful,” Ben said.

“I know,” Rey said, and then added “that you think that”, so she didn’t sound vain. “I love you.”

“I know. I love you.”

“I know. You already said that.”

“I know.”

“Stop saying ‘I know’.”

“You started it.”

“I know.” She peeked one eye open to find him trying his best to look stern, but his narrowed eyes didn’t quite match the grin he was biting down. She tangled the rest of her hand into his hair. “I appreciate you trying to make everything perfect for me. I really do. But all I ever want or need is for you to be you.”

His face softened at the same time that his arms tightened around her, pulling her in for a kiss.

.........

“We’ve all been invited to the opera tonight,” Ryal told them at breakfast the morning before the vote.

“Woohoo,” Orax said, managing to sound even less enthusiastic than he usually did. Rey caught his eye and stifled a laugh.

Ryal reached out for another piece of toast and began to spread bright blue marmalade on it. “I think it’s important that we’re seen participating in cultural events. Makes us seem accessible,” he said.

Rey mentioned that she would like to see what the opera was, and then of course Ben agreed that it was worthwhile, and pretty soon it was settled that they would all attend. Ryal squeezed her shoulder in gratitude as they all filed out of the room to begin their day.

People dressed up for the opera, according to what she read on her datapad during a quick break between meetings, so when it was time to get ready she chose a grey garment that was halfway between a jumpsuit and a gown. Whatever it was, the shoulders and torso were embroidered with colorful flowers and birds, so it seemed suitable.

The small news screen in their transport displayed the highlights of the day, before flicking to a live feed of the Sun Festival on Naboo, which Arin was presiding over. She glimmered with the number of jewels adorning her, standing next to a woman in full regalia who Rey supposed to be the Queen of Naboo. Rey knew that Ben’s grandmother had once held the title, so she nudged him gently to draw his attention, and then said “It’s Arin” out loud to the others.

“Good,” Ryal said.

The Opera House seated one hundred and twelve thousand guests, and twice as many hologuests on top of that. Rey didn’t understand the language that the actors were singing in, but their melodies were infused with such strong emotion that the story (about two sisters who were separated by war) touched her anyway.

After the performance their group was escorted to a lounge area where the cast and producers were celebrating with drinks and large platters displaying very small servings of food. They had been there less than ten minutes when Ryal’s head popped between her and Ben and said “I’ll be back later. I saw a Twi’lek loitering outside that I’m sure has a very interesting personality.” Ben rolled his eyes.

The cast couldn’t seem to decide whether or not they were glad of the Emperor’s presence. On one hand it ensured that their night was very well-documented; on the other, he stole a great deal of their attention. Rey tried her best to ignore the flashes of the cameradroids that danced around the room, but she was sure she would never be truly comfortable with this kind of attention.

Ryal reappeared just before midnight, with a faint pink tinge to his green cheeks that made him look even more enchanting. Even though they were all very well fed and watered he insisted that they should all indulge some more, and smile broadly for the cameras. He seemed to have made it his personal mission in life to ensure that the people around him were as happy as possible. He would like Finn a lot, she decided, and told him so.

“I’d like any friend of yours, my dear,” he promised.

Rey beamed with pleasure.

“Have you thought about the colours?” he asked, bizarrely.

“Colours?”

“For the wedding.”

“I-- does it need… colours?” she wondered aloud. Ryal nodded solemnly. “Okay. Um, black, I guess? And white flowers. Kira blossoms.”

Ryal took her hand and looped it through his arm, leading her to a tray of bite-sized cakes that he had spied. “A classic combination. We can work with that.”

“And a little green, of course,” she said, nudging him with her shoulder.

The cameradroid that was hovering near them buzzed away and Ryal’s tone changed immediately. “Kylo seems more settled today.”

So that was his real purpose getting her alone. She knew that all of the Knights could sense something of his emotions through the Force, though of course not as acutely as Rey could. It made sense that Ryal was more sensitive than the others. “Yeah. We had a… talk last night.”

He smiled. “We do what we can.”

.........

Hux was found dead in his apartment-prison by the guards who delivered him breakfast.

The medi-droids were unable to provide an explanation. There was no physical injury, even on a microscopic level (Rey, as much as she hated the man, shivered a little at the realisation that they had cut out little pieces of him just to check). Tests showed that his airways and lungs were working perfectly. And his blood chemistry was pristine, apart from the fact that it had all congealed and coagulated in death. Brain, liver, kidneys: all exactly as you would expect for a human male in prime health.

He was definitely dead, but no one knew why. It was as if he had simply lost the will to live.

Many people speculated that that was exactly what had happened -- that he couldn’t stand the thought of being forever labelled a traitor -- but they didn’t have the knowledge that Rey had. Rey knew that life was more than just blood and organs and tissue.

She found Ryal on the roof, sitting cross-legged in a small meditation area that he had set up in the shadow of the spire that housed the throne room.

“You killed him,” she said.

He opened his eyes to meet hers. “I did.”

“How?”

He smiled ruefully. “I can speed up certain processes, slow others, encourage some to stop completely.” He didn’t look at all pleased with himself; but he didn’t look contrite, either. Just sad.

It had never occurred to Rey that his abilities could be used to end life as well as prolong it. It wasn’t the first time he had killed for his friends, she surmised. She sat heavily beside him and looped her arm through his green one, resting her head on his shoulder. Ryal’s healing ability meant that he felt a connection to all creatures, and maybe that had included even Hux.

“I wish you had told me,” she whispered. “I would have helped you.” He didn’t deserve to feel alone.

He reached his other hand over to pat hers where it rested in the crook of his elbow. “You’re helping right now.”

Chapter Text

Ben discovered the truth as soon as Rey did -- it was such an important piece of news that it bled out of her thoughts and into his the moment he brushed against her -- and an entire week passed during which he succeeded in completely failing to acknowledge Ryal’s existence. Ryal, for the most part, had the grace to pretend that nothing was wrong, and Rey stayed out of it. But suddenly there was a change and Ryal became so acutely miserable that the feel of it infused every breath of air in the common areas of level forty-four.

“What did you do to him?” Rey demanded, interrupting Ben’s lunch. “He thought he was helping you! Go and fix it!”

Ben took the time to finish thoroughly chewing his bite and swallow it down. “He’ll be fine tomorrow,” he said, with a flippancy that surprised and enraged her.

But Ryal was indeed fine the next day, making jokes at breakfast and talking to Ben in an incredibly ordinary way. Rey could have waded into Ben’s thoughts and discovered the truth of it all if she had wanted to, but ultimately decided that the two of them had a right to manage their friendship without her interference.

A modest state funeral was held for Hux, which Rey avoided attending with a conveniently-scheduled tour to Ogem, a trade planet whose Representative she had worked closely with over the preceding weeks. Ben wasn’t quite as opposed to the idea of her leaving Coruscant as she had thought he would be. She soon discovered that he had accepted their separation purely because it was a chance for him to experiment. After three days he triumphantly declared that he had finally discovered the secret of their connection and that he could now summon her to him at will. After that she didn’t hear from him for almost twenty-four hours; and after another twenty-four he reappeared and sheepishly admitted that perhaps he had been hasty.

Rey’s return to Coruscant was timed with Arin’s, and then it seemed her every waking moment was spent either working or looking at fabric samples. Arin seemed convinced that the dress Rey would wear on her wedding day, which would also be her coronation day, was the single most important thing that she would ever own.

“I like… that one,” Rey said, choosing between two completely identical (to her eyes) swatches of lace.

“Correct,” Arin said, sounding pleased. “The pattern matches your ring exactly, see?”

Rey nodded and smiled.

“Now, we won’t want the embroidery to completely cover you… maybe just up to here? And on the sleeves, of course.”

“What about up to here?” Rey said, and indicated the exact spot Arin’s finger had just left.

Arin tilted her head, considering. “You’re right, that’s better. Hang on, let me type this out so I don’t forget.”

Rey hid her laugh, and reciprocated by suggesting that Arin start planning her gown for her own ceremony, and accompanied her while she chose fabrics and cuts. Now that Rey’s position was secured Ben had decided to finally name the Knights as royal Dukes and Duchesses of their territories. Until now their positions hadn’t been officially named, and Rey hadn’t thought that to be odd at all, but apparently the rest of the galaxy did. All four of them would be invested in a joint ceremony at some point after Rey’s coronation.

Finn did come to visit after several weeks, and a guest room was prepared for him on their level, which he wandered around with wide eyes. “Wow, a balcony, too? It’s bigger than our entire apartment! Man this place is fancy.”

Rey decided not to show him her and Ben’s balcony, lest he be unable to ever leave. Instead she took him the The Imperial and they spent hours sitting inside the ocean tunnel (not caring when gaudily-dressed visitors looked down at them in alarm) watching the fish swim past.

“The wedding is going to be soon,” she told him.

“Oh? I mean, I figured that might… that you might. I mean, congratulations. You look happy.”

“I am. I really want you to come, Finn. I know you and he have…” she rolled her hands around each other in a vague gesture “...issues. But I want you there, and that means he does too.”

Finn knocked her knee with his. “I think you’ll find he’s the one with the ‘issues’. Yeah, I’ll come. Of course. Just tell me when and where.”

Rey beamed and looped her arm through his, settling back against the cool glass wall that probably wasn’t supposed to be leaned against. “And maybe you can bring your mystery person.”

Finn laughed. “I don’t know about that. There might be even more issues between those two.”

Rey raised a questioning eyebrow, but Finn was still tight-lipped.

Arin and Ryal were taking care of the bulk of the planning, but there was one responsibility that fell solely on Rey’s shoulders: she needed to pick out a ring for Ben. She had only seen him wear one piece of jewelry, his royal ring, and he hadn’t bothered wearing it since his coronation. She deduced from that that he wouldn’t want anything bulky, but didn’t know where to go from there. Ryal made himself available to help, after she made it very clear that she didn’t want something too flashy, and they travelled to Monument Plaza together.

She chose a ring of polished black tungsten with a thin band of gold through the middle. The jeweler made an unnecessary fuss over the advantages of this particular ring. “And what would you like the engraving to say, miss?” he added at the end, and she almost missed it because her attention had drifted.

“Engraving?” Rey echoed.

Ryal piped up. “It’s common for people to engrave messages inside rings. Some sort of endearment, for the recipient to always carry with them.”

Ben didn’t need a hidden engraving to know how she felt; he could access her feelings any time he needed to. She was so accustomed to it now that if her consciousness had a physical shape she knew there would be a Ben-shaped indentation at her core, where he had so often insinuated himself among her thoughts while he observed them. Although their connection was now a simple fact of her daily life the thought of it still made her feel warm and needy and needed, in a way that was purely hers, in a way that only one other person in all the galaxy could ever begin to understand.

And all of that, of course, was the reason behind the ring that was being held out for her inspection, so she supposed that she ought to give it her full focus.

“No engraving,” Rey said. “Keep it just like that.”

She took the opportunity to show Ryal around the arboretum (he had never explored it, despite coming here regularly to visit the boutiques). They walked in companionable silence until he broke it with a question. “I hope you don’t mind me asking -- just trying to be a thorough host -- have you given any thought to what you’ll be wearing under your dress?”

She hadn’t. “No. Why would I?”

“Well, you’ll take your dress off later. When you’re alone. I’m assuming, anyway; I don’t know what you crazy humans do.”

Rey would be blushing furiously at this point if she were having this conversation with anyone else, even Arin, but somehow Ryal’s words were completely devoid of anything that might cause shyness.

“What I’m wearing underneath won’t matter, because I’ll be taking that off, too,” she said.

Ryal shrugged. “Fair enough.”

They set a date, but Ryal was so efficient with preparations that all of the arrangements were settled a full month in advance, and the Palace continued on with business as usual. Rey sent a formal invitation to Finn and, with Ben’s permission, extended it to Leia and the rest of the Resistance.

“Sorry,” her commlink said in Finn’s voice, when she called to ask why he hadn’t responded. “I’m not available to accept an invitation on that day.” His voice was oddly strained, and the aloofness of his wording struck her as odd.

“Oh… okay,” Rey said, trying not to sound too disappointed. It was unreasonable of her to expect him to alter his plans for her; after all, she had disappeared from his life for months. “Let me know when you want to come for another visit, then.”

Leia sent her apologies in a very formal letter with a package attached. Inside was an impossibly soft purple shawl that was folded neatly underneath a label bearing Rey’s name. She wrapped it around her shoulders carefully before picking up the second object, an unlabelled slim black box, and handing it to Ben. He held it in both hands, unnecessarily, for a few moments before opening it to reveal a gold pen: a real one with real ink, Rey could tell, without needing to touch it.

“Why would she do this?” Ben wondered aloud as he stared down at it.

The question wasn’t intended for Rey, so she didn’t answer, except to lean up and kiss his cheek in a show of support.

She had time for one more tour -- this time to Kinyen, a mountainous planet inhabited by peaceful three-eyed beings that Rey decided she liked very much -- and suddenly it was the night before the wedding, and she was disgusted to learn of one last ritual that Ben had neglected to prepare her for.

“It’s just one night, kira,” he said, as he tucked his toothbrush and several other essentials into a carry case. “Need I remind you that you recently left me for five nights, and went much further away.”

That was a diplomatic visit,” Rey said haughtily. “Whereas this is stupid. Do you see the difference?”

He pecked her lips -- she enjoyed a thrill of sadistic pleasure when he had to lean up to her, for once, because she was perched on the counter -- and tapped her chin with one finger. “I’ll be right down the hallway.”

Rey shook her head. “Too far.” She bent forward to kiss him slowly and thoroughly, knowing this to be an excellent distraction tactic, and smirked victoriously against his lips when he wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her flush against him. She tightened her knees around him so he could walk them from the bathroom to the bedroom… and then she was unceremoniously deposited down onto her feet, and when she opened her eyes she saw they were standing at the door and he was preparing to exit through it.

Ben’s face ducked to give her one last, unreciprocated kiss. “I love you,” he said, and when she did nothing but glare in return he smiled and left the room.

Rey waited twenty-four minutes. Then when was snug in bed, and knew he was too, she reached into the Force to find the thing that connected them (it was a strange, indefinable thing, which is why it had taken them months to find it) and pulled.

Ben appeared next to her.

“Oh, hello,” Rey said, innocently, as if they were acquaintances bumping into each other in the corridor.

Ben sighed. “Really, Rey?”

“I missed you,” she said (just as she had planned), and his expression melted (just as she had known it would). He reached out tentatively to try to stroke her cheek. It worked, so he wriggled an arm underneath her shoulders and pulled her close. She twisted in his embrace and pointed out, as he nosed into her hair and pressed kisses into the back of her neck, that since it wasn’t yet midnight they weren’t breaking any of his rules.

“Will you behave in the morning, then?” he asked.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

She still hadn’t decided by the time dawn broke and she woke up alone. The desire to summon him to her again was strong, but she ultimately realised she was being silly; after all they spent hours and hours apart every day, and were yet to suffer any ill effects from it. In any case, Arin and Lissa arrived quite early. Rey had expected a repeat of the morning of Ben’s coronation, with a great deal of fuss and rushing about, but the three of them had a leisurely breakfast in Rey’s garden, laying about on the grass and talking about nothing in particular. Chali sat in the middle of their almost-circle and babbled up at them so enchantingly that Rey was soon able to block out the indistinct rumble of the crowd far below (louder than it had been last time, she thought).

At her request she did most of her dressing behind a privacy screen, only needing to call out a few times to reassure them that she was fine and that they shouldn’t be alarmed by her confused grunts. She emerged when she had done all she could; she had no hope of doing up the back of her gown herself, since it was held by dozens of tiny pearl buttons that took Lissa’s delicate fingers a very long time to fasten. Arin pinned up her hair in a similar style to that which she had worn on Ben’s coronation day: but the extra length she had grown in the intervening months added volume and softness, and rather than a single kira blossom she was decorated by a bejeweled floral comb which held up a gauzy veil that hung almost as long as the train of her gown.

Arin led her firmly to a mirror and arranged all of the fabric carefully. She gave Rey’s shoulders an affectionate squeeze and her reflection smiled brightly before disappearing. It was time for her to attend to her own dressing.

Rey heard the two of them rustling and moving about behind her, and Chali cooing from the pen that had been set up in a corner of the room. She studied herself carefully in the mirror. She certainly looked like a bride, based on what she had seen of them in the past months. Her gown had two layers: a strapless floor-length underdress of pristine white silk, with an overlay of richly embroidered lace -- mostly white thread, but spun through with bits of silver that caught the light -- that covered her chest and arms, and flared out from her waist to trail behind her for such a vulgarly luxurious length that it seemed quite impossible she would get through the day and evening without anyone tripping over it.

She was less certain that she looked like an Empress, but since she was to be the first one ever crowned she supposed that she must, by default. Besides, Ben looked like an Emperor, and it made sense for Rey to look like she belonged beside him, so that settled the matter.

“We’re heading up,” Arin said. She and Lissa were both in comparatively simple black gowns. “Do you have the ring?”

“Yeah,” Rey said, and carefully made her way across the room to her dresser. She retrieved the ring box and her bouquet of kira blossoms and began to follow the two of them to the door.

“Oh, not you,” Arin said. “Not yet. We need to make sure things are ready. You wait here.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Rey stood in the middle of the room alone, unwilling to move much for fear of damaging the dress. Now that her companions were gone the roar of the crowd was clearly audible through both balcony entrances; had it gotten even louder, or was that just her imagination? All of those people were there for her, she realised, though she couldn’t imagine why. Ben’s rule had been widely accepted as just and lawful, but Rey hadn’t done anything to affect anything beyond her own territories, and even there her work had been slow and careful.

She didn’t even know what being Empress meant, really. She had tried to ask Ben a few days after his proposal, but he had remained infuriatingly vague (“You’ll rule beside me.” “Yes, but doing what?” “Whatever you think is right.”), and she had been strongly reminded of the day in Snoke’s throne room.

She needed-- she wasn’t sure what, but she needed Ben, so she shuffled as carefully and quickly as she could back to the dresser for her commlink.

“How would you feel if I said I wanted to stop all of this right now?” she said when the transmission connected, not bothering with greetings.

A pause. “Do you?”

“No. Maybe. I just-- why are they all so loud?” Ben’s end of the conversation sounded very quiet by comparison.

Another pause, longer. “I’d like you to come up here, Rey,” he said firmly.

“But--”

“No buts. You agreed to this.”

“Did I? I just wanted you. And, no, that’s not even it! All I wanted was to show BB-8 the way to Niima, and I didn’t even know the Jedi were real, and then you -- and then I -- And now this? It’s insane!” She forced herself to suck in a breath to quiet her ramblings.

His voice was softer now. “Nothing’s ever been more sane. We’re waiting for you. Have faith in me, please.” A low chirp signalled that he had ended the transmission.

Rey tossed the now-quiet commlink in the direction of the bed and shook out all of her joints. She was being ridiculous, she knew. She had survived through plenty of official events, and none of them had been terrible, just a bit long and annoying. It was a very small price to pay to be able to come back here with Ben at the end of it all. And, she told herself, today was about her, so she wouldn’t even have to pretend to pay attention to whatever officer or politician or socialite was in charge of proceedings, as she did at other events.

That thought cheered her considerably, so she blocked out the sound of the crowd again and wrapped her hands firmly around the stems of her flowers. One of her guards walked beside her to guide her up the stairs and across the roof, though of course she knew the way. There were other guards stationed at the entrances to all four towers, so that they were the only two people walking across to the central spire.

“Expecting a riot?” Rey asked drily.

“No, a rave. Intelligence says that everyone down there is armed with neon jewelry.” The guards all knew they could talk casually and joke with her, and that in fact she preferred it that way.

She smiled up at him. “So why are you stopping them? I think that’s exactly the sort of tone I want to set for my rule.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, ma’am,” he said seriously, and she laughed.

Once they were in the central spire’s elevator it was very quiet again, and then she was standing at the entrance of the throne room and her escort moved away from her side, because she was required to do this next part alone.

“How many people are in there?” she asked one of the door guards, trying not to sound nervous.

“Twenty, ma’am.”

“Ha, ha,” Rey said. She smoothed down her dress and veil, needing to pass her bouquet from one hand to the other a few times, and nodded at them to indicate that she was ready.

The door was opened for her, and Rey squared her shoulders and walked into the immense circular chamber beyond with as much confidence as she could muster. She paused just past the threshold, only dimly aware of the heavy doors being closed again behind her, because she was too busy being surprised by the fact that there really were only twenty people in the room.

Most of them were gathered at the other end of the chamber, but the most important one was standing in the central aisle, not far from her. He turned when she entered, because he had apparently been pacing.

“Thank you for coming,” Ben said quietly, just for her ears, as he approached her. A wave of guilt washed over her as she realised that he had been genuinely worried that she wouldn’t.

“Of course, I was just… you know, the thought of all those people…” she didn’t bother explaining further, because he knew. “So, you called it off, then?”

He shook his head, smiling, but it took him a minute to verbalise his answer because he chose instead to run his eyes leisurely over her. One hand reached out to cup her waist, his fingertips running lightly over the embroidery on her dress, and the knuckles of the other hand brushed against hers as she held her bouquet tightly in front of her. “You look beautiful. No, I didn’t call it off.”

“Then where is everyone?”

He looked beautiful too, dressed all in black (unsurprisingly), with a relatively simple black cape rather than the heavy ornate Emperor’s cloak she had expected him to wear. “I still want to crown you, in front of everyone. That’s for the galaxy. But this part is just for us. I wanted-- I hoped you would enjoy it, rather than endure it.”

So the room was almost-empty by design. She stepped into him and he bent his head to kiss her (“Hey, not yet!” an indignant voice cried out from the other end of the room, but she ignored it). The hand on her waist snaked around her back, much more delicately than it would have under other circumstances; she was glad that he had remembered how intricate her clothing was, because she herself was very likely to forget.

“I hope you know that I wasn’t worried about this part. The you and me part,” she said when they broke. “Well, I wasn’t worried at all, about any of it, until a few minutes ago, and then I’m not sure what happened. But I always wanted this.”

“I know.” Ben was still smiling as he stepped back and dropped his hands away from her. “I’ll see you up there.” He turned and began to walk down the aisle.

“You’re seeing me now,” Rey pointed out, rushing to fall into step beside him, and pausing when he did.

“No, kira, you don’t walk with me.”

“Why not?”

“Because you walk to me.”

“But we’re already together.”

“Yes, so you wait here, and I’ll--”

She opened her mouth to argue the point, and immediately thought better of it, deciding to humour him just this once. “Okay. I’ll wait.”

He reached out to squeeze her hand gratefully, and was about to turn from her when a voice floated over.

“Sorry, could you hurry it up a little? Some of us travelled a long way to be here.”

Rey peeked her head around Ben’s shoulder to inspect the source of the familiar voice. She hadn’t paid much attention at all to the arrangement of people at the far end of the room, but now she saw that there were five people standing on the main dais, which was one more than she had expected.

“Finn?”

The heckler grinned and nodded.

She had more questions, but perhaps they would be better saved for later, so she nudged Ben away from her and took in the small gathering as he moved away from her and up the stairs to take his place. Ryal was standing at the center of the dais, with Ben now in front of him. Orax and Lissa stood to Ben’s side, and Arin and Finn were arranged opposite them, all apparently waiting for Rey to come and fill the gap.

In the front row of seats sat Chewbacca (Rey’s heart leapt at the sight; she wasn’t sure how she could possibly have missed seeing him earlier, he was so large), D’arial Tser, the Nestinos, Dana, and a smattering of senior officers that she knew Ben worked with closely. And, unable to take a seat, R2-D2 and BB-8 had arranged themselves on the floor by Chewie’s feet, uncharacteristically quiet (though BB-8 allowed itself one excited whir when Rey passed it).

Rey ascended the small flight of steps and turned to face Ben. He held out both hands and, because the train of her gown was still pooled on the steps, she needed to twist her torso awkwardly to pass her bouquet to Arin.

Ryal began his address, and Rey tuned out of it, because she had already heard the speech. It was a traditional script that was used on Coruscant and most of the core worlds, including Chandrila, and Ryal had gone through it with Rey several weeks earlier to ask if there were any adjustments she would like made. There were lots of pretty words about commitment and acceptance; words that seemed utterly redundant to her, because they were here, and that on its own meant everything.

Incredibly, she felt Ben’s attention waver as well. His eyes roamed over her face and down the long sleeves of her gown before finally landing on her chest. She mentally chastised him and he lifted his gaze back to hers.

I was admiring the embroidery, he told her, affronted.

Shouldn’t you be paying attention to the ceremony?

I can multitask, he promised.

“...Do you?” Ryal prompted, obviously not for the first time. They both turned to him hastily.

“We do,” Ben said, and Rey echoed him.

What exactly did we just promise? she asked when Ryal had returned to monologuing.

Ben’s fingers squeezed hers in warning. Something about hardships and triumphs. Leave me alone, I’m trying to listen.

Oh, suddenly you can’t ‘multitask’?

It’s time to say ‘we do’ again (they said it), looks like I’m better at it than you.

Rey withdrew from him and focused, just in time to see Arin and Orax hand over the ring boxes to Ryal.

“May these rings be blessed as a symbol of your union. As often as either of you look upon these things, may you not only be reminded of this moment, but also of the vows you have made and the strength of your commitment to each other.” Ryal turned to Ben. “Ben, please repeat after me.”

It was the first time in a long time that she had heard his name spoken by someone other than her, or himself. Maybe that was the reason that her throat grew tight and her vision grew misty as he repeated the vow. The words alone couldn’t have done it, because no promise he spoke now could ever mean more than the very first one he had made to her. Rey knew on an intellectual level that this moment was beautiful: her in white and him in black, surrounded by people who meant a great deal to her, the light filtering in from the high windows just so. But she couldn’t help thinking, almost wistfully, of the dark stormy night when she had sat on a dusty stone bench, cold and uncomfortable and alone, until he had appeared and promised that she wasn’t. She should have known that that moment would lead inevitably to this one.

The ring he had chosen for her was a simple band of square diamonds, slim and light. When he slid it down into place next to her flower ring it molded perfectly to her skin and before long she almost forgot it was there.

Then it was her turn to repeat after Ryal. “I Rey, freely give myself to you Ben, and take you in return. I will live each day beside you with understanding, truth, humour, and passion. With this ring I thee wed.”

Now you may kiss each other,” Ryal said, to his credit sounding only mildly bitter.

They did. Both of Ben’s hands were cradling her face when they parted. “We can leave now if you want,” he whispered. “The rest isn’t important.”

Rey shook her head. “I promised to share everything with you -- I think -- and that includes the crowds. Besides, the chair looks comfortable.” His throne had been shifted to the side and another had appeared beside it. It was impossible to tell which one would belong to her, because they were identical.

The group retired to a side chamber so that the throne room could be filled for the coronation. Ben released her hand only when it was absolutely necessary, seeming content to be dragged around the room by her. She felt him shift as if to move away while she embraced Finn and Chewie, and silently insisted that he remain with her.

“You told me you weren’t coming,” she said accusingly to Finn.

Finn beamed. “Well, actually, what I said was that I wasn’t available to accept an invitation.”

The cogs clicked into place, and she rounded on Ben. “You told him to say that!”

He shrugged, unashamed. “It was a surprise.”

“It would have been a surprise either way,” she admonished. It was a wonder, really, that he was still able to surprise her even now, when it was sometimes hard to tell where he ended and she began.

Finn had pulled a palm-sized package from his jacket. “Here, this is for you.” And then added dismissively to Ben, “I didn’t bother getting you anything.”

The gift was a small chrome cylinder which, Finn explained, was a hand-held telescope. “See, you enter the coordinates here, and it makes a sound when you’re looking in the right place. Now you can always see me!”

Chewie had two gifts: the Jedi texts that Rey had once stashed in a drawer on the Millennium Falcon (it seemed like such a long time ago), and a drawstring pouch containing an herb that he promised would help her ‘produce strong pups’ (Ben blushed more than she did).

The clamour beyond the door grew steadily. The non-royal guests left to re-take their seats. Arin helped Rey untangle her hair from the decorative comb; her head needed to be bare for the sake of her crown. They re-entered the throne room (now completely changed with the number of colourfully-clad bodies) in procession, and Rey learned that the throne to the left was to be hers. She and Ben allowed themselves to distract each other freely through the next ceremony, which wasn’t quite as long as Ben’s had been, but was just as arduous. But he had remained adamant that a certain amount of pageantry was necessary for their rule to be accepted by the majority who didn’t care for the details of politics.

Rey was first invested as Duchess of the Western Reaches. Ryal handed her a sceptre of twining strands of silver which, he explained to the congregation, allowed her absolute rule over the territories he had listed. Then Orax and Lissa hung a cloak over her shoulders (white, and much lighter than Ben’s had been), and Arin slipped a ring onto her right hand (Rey wasn’t quite sure if ‘ring’ was the correct term for the elaborate piece of jewelry which twisted around both her thumb and forefinger), and she knelt before Ben and was crowned as Empress Kira Ren. Kira’s crown was much more ornate than Kylo’s: a platinum and crystalline tiara which would make her neck ache if worn for too long.

“So,” Finn began later, when they were dancing (her gown had already suffered, because she wasn’t as good a teacher as Ryal had been), “why does your name have to change?"

“It doesn’t really,” Rey explained. “It’s just for official purposes -- no, you go left now -- and, unofficially, everyone else has two names, so it was only fair.”

“So I still call you Rey?”

“Definitely.”

The tone of their conversation must have still hung in the air when Finn decided that dancing wasn’t for him after all and passed her back to Ben.

“Perhaps I didn’t think this through.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I’ll need something else to call you.”

“You may call me whatever you like,” Rey said, remembering that he had once said the same thing to her.

“Alright… dear,” he said tentatively.

“Ryal calls me that.”

“Fine. Darling-- no. Sweetheart?”

Rey made a face.

He sighed with enough force to stir the hair on his forehead.

Rey laughed. “You’ll figure it out someday, my love,” she said teasingly.

Ben’s nostrils flared and the hand on her waist squeezed to pull her closer. “I like that one.”

“Okay, you can have it.”

“I’d rather you kept it,” he said, a little shyly, and her heart swelled with affection. She should have gotten his ring engraved after all, she realised. He would have loved it.

She leaned forward to rest her head on his shoulder, taking care not to poke him with her crown. “You’ve never asked me for anything.”

“I asked you for everything. Twice. And now you’ve given it to me, twice.” His fingers swept across her back, but her wedding gown was much more unforgiving than the one she had been wearing the last time they had danced, and there was no exposed skin for him to make contact with. He gave up and moved his hand to her chin instead, applying gentle pressure so that she lifted her head away from him to meet his gaze. “I do have one more request,” he said, his voice very low.

She needed to swallow before answering. “And what’s that?”

“Come with me somewhere else so I can take this dress off you.”

Rey beamed up at him. “That’s the only reason I put it on.”

Chapter Text

Ben pinned his focus on the sensation of Rey’s waist pressed into the crook of his arm, desperately trying to tamp down his impatience. She had agreed to his suggestion readily enough, but unfortunately they were royal guests of honour at this banquet, and so there were lots of congratulations to accept and pleasantries to be said before they could reasonably abandon the event. He began to think that Rey had had the right idea earlier that morning, and that perhaps he should have forgotten the whole thing and simply carried her off somewhere.

But then he wouldn’t know how pure and perfect she looked all in white, ascending the steps of the altar so gracefully that he had half-expected her to keep floating up high above all of them; he wouldn’t have been the first one to see how beautiful and right she looked with a crown on her head, somehow making him feel humble even though she was kneeling before him; he wouldn’t have spent the entire day convincing himself that he had reached his limit and that his chest couldn’t possibly feel fuller, only to be proven wrong, again, the very next moment.

All of that was worth a few minutes’ wait to get her alone, he decided.

The Queen of Naboo smiled serenely and flitted away from them, escorted by Arin and flanked by her Representative. Ben only had a moment to wonder if she suspected that her people’s blood flowed in his veins. Orax was approaching them now, looking thoroughly disturbed. Ben groaned inwardly, wondering what new tedium was going to delay them now.

Orax’s usually-placid dark eyes were wide and slightly manic. “Uh, Rey, that little orange ball said that you need to see its new antenna, and then tried to electrocute me. Could you maybe...” He hiked one thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the BB-unit waiting quietly several metres behind him, wobbling slightly on its spherical base.

Rey laughed and moved away from them, promising Ben quietly that she wouldn’t be long. She knelt carefully before the droid and dutifully admired its hardware. It whirred and chirped loudly at her, obviously pleased to have her attention. Ben couldn’t blame it, and couldn’t fight the smile that worked its way onto his face. Rey still didn’t understand how incredibly easy she was to adore, but today he had been granted a large amount of time to explain it to her.

“Don’t be fooled,” Orax said conspiratorially. “That thing’s sadistic.”

“It’s a droid,” Ben reminded him drily. “Though now that you mention it, it did once manage to steal a freighter.”

Orax moved away, muttering quietly to himself. Ben was shocked when Finn, of all people, sidled up to fill the space he had left.

The uneasy silence between them oscillated with something other than the Force (Finn was blind to it, though perhaps not as profoundly as some). Rey had now been engaged in conversation by a woman with golden reptilian skin, and Ben decided to break the silence, since she was unlikely to be freed for several minutes.

“Is this the part where you threaten to maim me if I ever hurt her?” he asked.

“No,” Finn said easily, surprising him yet again. “I’ve seen the way you look at her.” Silence returned, more comfortable now, until he added, “But, for the record, I would easily beat you down.”

Ben snorted his laughter inelegantly. “Oh? I seem to recall a slightly different outcome the last time you tried.”

Finn received the reminder with grace. “Your word against mine. I don’t have a scratch on me,” he lifted both hands in the air and pointed at himself, “whereas you…” his gaze lingered pointedly on the right side of Ben’s face, and he grinned. “I guess Rey can deal with you all on her own.”

Ben grinned back. “Yes, she can.”

The woman in question appeared beside them, almost breathless with delight as she asked, “What are you two talking about?”

“Fathiers,” Finn said quickly, at the same time that Ben said “Astrogation.”

The exact topic didn’t seem to be of any importance to her, judging by the way she beamed at them both.

“We need to head out,” Finn said, and BB-8 beeped an assertion. “It’s a long flight back to… the place… where we’re staying.” His eyes shifted to Ben with a suspicion that he suspected was half-hearted.

“It doesn’t need to be a secret anymore,” Rey reminded him.

Finn shrugged. “Habit.”

Ben declined her offer to join her in saying a final goodbye to Chewbacca, having reached the limit of his ability to be in proximity to the Wookiee during the small gathering after the wedding. Those wounds were still raw, even if his eyes told him that his abdomen had scarred over long ago. But this is the last time you’re leaving my side tonight, he told her warningly. I’ll meet you at the door. Rey nodded her agreement as she walked away, the train of her gown bunched heavily into one hand so she could manoeuvre more easily around the crowd (which parted for her anyway).

He began to move to the periphery of the room as inconspicuously as he could manage (which was not very), determined not to be waylaid again. But Arin sidestepped nimbly into his path and blocked his progress with a single outstretched finger.

“You may be the ruler of the galaxy, and my brother, but if you ever --”

“Sorry, the ex-trooper beat you to it,” he said, interrupting what he was sure was going to be a very vivid description of his untimely demise.

Arin deflated a little, pouting, and the sentimentality he had been feeling all day finally coalesced into a burst of affection for her. He reached out to tweak her ear lightly, making a face (he forced it to dissolve very quickly, to maintain his dignity, but found that he didn’t particularly care if anyone else had seen).

Arin gasped softly, freezing. “Oh… hey,” she breathed. “I’ve missed you.”

It was incredibly unfair that she should need to, since she had always stood by him, and a wave of shame washed over him that was more potent than those that were triggered by his mother, or Uncle Chewie, or even Rey.

She must have sensed something of it, because she plastered a smile on her face and attempted to lighten the mood. “He’s kinda cute, huh? Finn.”

“I suspect you’re not his type,” Ben said. “Nor is he yours, at the moment.”

Arin flushed. “You know nothing.”

“You ought to get back to your guest,” Ben needled. She glared at him, but ultimately acquiesced.

Finally he was at the door, and finally Rey joined him, and finally they were alone. He led her through the darkened hallways of the Palace to the elevators, ignoring the few stragglers they met along the way; all of them were wise enough to realise that the couple didn’t want to be disturbed.

He listened passively as Rey worked through the events of the day in her mind, replaying certain moments to commit them to memory (a habit she had picked up from him, he thought, smiling to himself).

“What were you doing with Finn? Really?” she asked, after remembering the way she had caught them in what had seemed to be friendly conversation.

“Reminding him of how easy he was to defeat,” Ben said.

Rey smacked his arm lightly and then snaked her own around it, squeezing it to her side. “Thank you.”

Ben pressed his nose to her hair, very carefully avoiding the prongs of her crown. “As your husband, it is my duty to to tolerate any vagrants you decide to become friends with.”

“Finn isn’t a vagrant. And I didn’t decide to become his friend; not really. We became friends because he was good, because he tried to protect me. Even when I didn’t want him to. Even though I had smacked him in the face, and he didn’t know who I was.”

The complete opposite of Ben, then, who had had some knowledge of who she was and allowed himself to be cruel to her anyway. Rey felt the self-disapprobation and countered by showing him a memory: she had sat basking in the sun on their balcony while he read to her, and she couldn’t quite remember the words he had said but his voice had lulled her to a place of warm security, and she had felt perfectly content. This technique was a relatively new one of hers, developed when she decided she never wanted to argue again about their past and so from now on when he was ‘sulking’ (as she had described it in a heated moment) she would simply remind him of their present. It didn’t absolve him, not at all, but it was a reminder of everything that they had become to each other, and that neither of them had the slightest intention of turning back.

“I won’t dwell,” he promised. “I don’t plan to dwell on anything today, except you.”

Rey smiled up at him sweetly, the implication of his words apparently lost on her. Perhaps he needed to learn to state his intentions more plainly, he thought.

“I meant I plan to--”

“I know what you meant, my love,” she said. The endearment made his fingers and toes tingle, even though her voice was dripping with amusement. “We’re almost there.”

She was correct, and they were presently stepping onto the elevator platform that would bring them home, so he swept her into his arms in preparation. Rey’s face pressed into his neck, and he heard her errant thought that she could easily fall asleep right here, cradled against him.

“You clearly don’t know what I meant, if you think you have any chance of falling asleep any time soon.”

“Perhaps I should state my intentions more clearly,” she countered. But then she didn’t tell him, she showed him; and he had been an idiot for thinking she had looked beautiful when he crowned her, because Rey (a genius, obviously) had imagined up an even more perfect reason to kneel before him.

He used all of his self-control to refrain from running down the hallway of level forty-four. But he managed to maintain both of their dignities until the moment he carried her through the door and closed it behind them. She wriggled her request to be lowered to the ground and pulled him down by his neck to kiss him, thankfully having the sense to remind him that they were both elaborately dressed and a degree of delicacy was required to remedy the situation. They uncrowned each other, placing the circlets together on a dresser, and she presented him with her back. Ben needed to inhale deeply and pluck at a meditative string to calm himself enough to unfasten the dozens of buttons that ran down the length of her spine. The top of her gown was sheer, the fabric impossibly light under his hands. At the points of her shoulder blades a thicker underdress began, and when he finally worked his way down enough to peel it open he gasped, running his fingers over the lacy something -- he couldn’t see quite enough to tell exactly what it was, but he liked it -- underneath.

“What have you done, kira?” he asked, even as he continued his quest to find out.

“Oh,” Rey gasped. She had forgotten all about it, apparently, and somehow that made the situation even more delicious. “I, uh, it was suggested that I think about what to wear underneath.”

Ben would have given just about anything to have been privy to those thoughts, but he supposed having the outcome in front of him -- in his hands -- was just as good. He had now loosened her gown enough to coax it down, allowing it to pool at her feet, and allowing him to see the full glory of her musings. She wore a white lace corset with matching panties and stockings that came up to her mid-thigh. Rey had never worn anything but the most basic underwear (not that it even mattered, because they were usually both completely undressed very rapidly). So this. This was new. This was very, very interesting.

His hands wrapped around her hips, almost of their own accord, and slid up and around her body to cup her breasts. Rey arched to press more firmly into his palms, the gesture very much appreciated when it afforded him a lovely view of the curve of her back.

One of Ben’s hands began to travel down, but she halted its progress and used him to steady herself while she stepped out of her shoes and turned to face him, now several inches shorter. The momentary pause was probably for the best, because it allowed him to come up with a much better idea.

“I need you to do something for me,” he said, his voice so low and dry that it almost croaked. He swallowed to soothe it and his eyes slowly meandered up her body to meet hers. “Take all this off.”

Rey rushed to comply, her fingers rising to the first clasp on her sternum and making quick work of it. Ben reached out and ringed his hands around her wrists gently, shaking his head.

“Slowly,” he pleaded.

Surprise crossed her features, and he knew she considered it an odd (and even counterproductive) request. “You like this, then?”

He brazenly tugged one of her hands down and pressed it against his crotch so she could feel how hard he already was. Understanding dawned in her eyes and she used his grip on her to her advantage, guiding him back until his knees hit the bed and he sat, heavily.

“You like this,” she said again, more confidently. She lifted one leg and placed her foot on his knee to steady herself. Her eyes, which had been firmly locked on his until this point, left him; he followed her gaze to watch her working to carefully unhook her garter strap before sliding her stocking down her thigh, knee, calf, with languid precision. She switched to the other leg, perched it upon him, and waited. It took him several moments of painful anticipation to recognise that she was offering it to him as a gift. He mimicked her movements, unable to stop his lips from dragging along her skin in the wake of his fingers, and enjoying the way her breath audibly quickened.

When her legs were bare Rey nudged his knees apart so she could stand between them. Her hands returned to her corset. She unclasped and opened it, little by little, using a low voice to recount the story of how and why she had procured it for them, and he had to remind himself that he had asked for this torture. The garment joined the others on the floor and she ran her hands over her own body, tracing her collarbones and circling her nipples. The hands worked their way down until they were hooked in the waistband of her panties, but instead of sliding the lace down her thighs the way he so wanted to watch her do, she diverted at the last second and snuck one hand further underneath the fabric. Her fingers were hidden from view but their movements were unmistakable as they worked into the soft, perfect folds of her skin that he knew so well. Impossibly, incredibly, she gasped his name. Ben was convinced, suddenly, that the last eight months of his life hadn’t been real at all. In fact it seemed the past fifteen years were simply a dream, and he was sure that he was still just a lanky teenager who would soon wake up from it, sticky and embarrassed. The desire to touch her was almost maddening, but it was drowned out by the need to see what she would do next, so he sat very still with his hands clenched on his thighs.

What she chose to do next was to continue, and he had no disagreement at all, because what she was doing was perfect. Her less occupied hand planted itself on his shoulder for support. She watched him watch her face as her gasps began to turn into moans. But after a few minutes he could sense her building frustration; he knew (because he knew her, because she was his and he was hers) that she couldn’t reach her peak this way; couldn’t find the angle or the pressure she required. He told her, gently, and she clambered onto him. He didn’t realise he was still fully clothed until she began to roll her hips into him, seeking the friction she needed.

Gently he guided her down onto the bed and claimed the place where she had just been standing. “Keep touching yourself,” he instructed, and was rewarded beyond belief when she finally removed the last of her clothing and allowed her knees to fall open, affording him a glorious view from where he stood above her.

“Hurry up please,” Rey said. One foot left the bed to reach out and nudge him lightly into action. He shed his own clothes quickly, not expecting the effects of a slow reveal to be reciprocal; but she grunted her approval as he bared himself, and began to buck her hips up against her hand. “Okay. Good. You’re so good. Now.” Her free hand reached for him and her hips canted up, inviting him in.

Oh, it was tempting. But… “I’m always doing all the work,” Ben observed. It wasn’t true, but this was a game, he decided, and was having fun discovering what the rules were. “I want you to make yourself come. Then I’ll touch you.”

Her answering whine originated from deep within her chest and he couldn’t resist stroking himself once, twice, to relieve some of the agonising pressure. He needed to be inside her; but he was a man of his word, and his integrity was on the line here.

Her efforts were much more successful in her new position. When he knew she was on the edge -- when her eyes were rolled back and her entire body began to quiver -- he wrapped his hand around her wrist again and plucked it away from where it was working, holding it aloft.

“H-hey! What--”

“Trust me, kira,” he said, and lifted her captured hand to nip at the inside of her wrist. He held her there for two minutes while her trembling slowed and then stopped; then he released her and bid her to continue.

She built again incredibly quickly, and he stopped her again, and her indignant cry made him feel truly guilty. “You’ll understand, I promise. You’re doing so incredibly well. I love you so much.”

“Then let me,” she complained.

“Soon,” was all he said, and waited. He let her fall even father back down the slope before releasing her to allow her to resume the climb. “I won’t stop you this time,” he promised.

Rey was suspicious, and perhaps rightly so, so she worked herself as quickly as possible, her breath shuddering and grunting with a mixture of effort and pleasure. Finally she found her orgasm, a beautiful plane of existence that drove her half-mad. Ben watched carefully, knowing she deserved for him to time himself to her perfectly, and when she began to tip over the edge and come back down again he moved forward to sheathe himself inside her, settling into a cadence that matched the rhythm of her own body. Her back had been arched so that she was looking somewhere up and behind her, but now her face snapped to his in wonder, her jaw slack. Her cries morphed into low, throaty moans that he bent down to capture with his own mouth, and her fingernails stung his skin where she clutched him tightly as she rode out this second, unexpected wave.

He maintained the steady pace while she spiralled all the way back down, though he had never been more eager to move faster, harder. When her body had softened completely he shifted his angle in preparation to pick up speed, but her palms flattened against his chest and she shook her head insistently.

“I want to,” Rey said, and of course he allowed her to roll him onto his back and straddle his hips, because she was utterly fascinating today.

She began seated high upon him, as if he were the throne she had been granted earlier (they should do this on a throne, he realised, and had to forcibly remove himself from the fantasy and re-focus on the present). Gradually she lowered until her forearms lay across his chest and every gyration pushed her hardened nipples into his own skin. Ben found himself immensely regretting the fact that he was a mere human with only two hands, because there were such wonderful expanses of skin within his reach, and it was infuriatingly impossible to touch her thighs and back and shoulders and scalp all at the same time. He compromised by rubbing along each of them in turn, and Rey didn’t seem to mind his inadequacies, as he sensed her reaching her second orgasm.

He was quickly hurtling toward his first one, the lower half of his body tightening with familiar acuity. He warned her (or perhaps the announcement was more selfish, and he wanted to see if she would do something to get him there faster). “Good,” Rey groaned. “You’re so good for telling me, Ben. You feel so good.” And, yes, that was enough; his eyes rolled back into his head and his feet planted themselves on the bed in preparation; and even when Rey, strangely, removed his hands from her and pinned them to the sheets beside him all he could think of was how amazing it would feel to thrust up into her as he came. So he didn’t see it coming, was completely blindsided, when suddenly she lifted up onto her knees and he slipped out of her with an obscene slick noise. The loss of her warmth was so profound that she may as well have doused him with ice water.

He tried to reach up to her, but she had his hands pinned with what seemed an unusual amount of strength. His hips tried to buck up, independent of his own will, though of course it was what he wanted; but they were pinned, too, by something he couldn’t see. As the intensity of his pleasure began to dissolve a strand of logic swam up through his mind to greet him, and he understood the nature of his predicament. He couldn’t believe that mere hours ago he had thought of this woman as pure, because the way that she smiled down at him now was enticingly, exquisitely wicked. He had been a fool, starting this game without realising that she would insist on being the one to finish it.

Rey waited, her breath just as ragged as his. Ben didn’t trust himself to speak, and prayed that she wouldn’t, because just the sound of her voice would be enough. His base desire for immediate gratification warred with his knowledge that this was good, that it was a gift, that when she finally allowed him to release it would be just as intense as her own had been.

Slowly she lowered herself back down, but didn’t take him inside her, to his dismay and delight. His erection became sandwiched between her and his own abdomen, and the weight and warmth of her was heaven, but then she began to rub herself along his length and his entire body burned.

It only lasted a few seconds before she had to lift herself again, because he was so close, painfully close. He heard her whimper of complaint and fell in love with her all over again, because she was close too but was forcing herself to hold back for his sake. “Only fair,” she mumbled, her eyes squeezed shut; it seemed appropriate that his co-ruler would have such a generous spirit, such a sense of justice.

When she finally began again she stopped just as quickly, looking down at the fluid that had begun leaking from him. “Ben,” she whined, only causing another drop to spill.

“I-- I think-- I just--” He swallowed, and then again, trying to regain some semblance of control. “I need you to stop.”

She swung off him and he propped himself up on his elbows, still panting, still close, but now beginning to ease. Before he could sit up fully Rey ducked her head to clean the small mess on his skin, and he had to ask her if she had any clue what she was doing to him; the way she smiled up at him, completely without shame, told him that she did.

He instructed her to lay back and arranged himself between her legs, turning his face to the side to nip lightly at the warm skin of her inner thigh. She watched him with equal parts elation and skepticism. “Do you have any clue? This is definitely going to finish you.”

It was probably true: nothing in the galaxy was as flawless as the sounds she made when she tangled her fingers in his hair and pressed his face down further into her, urging him on. But he couldn’t handle any part of her being anywhere near his cock right now, and unless she was willing to break out the holochess set, this was the most obvious activity to pass the time.

“Risk I’m willing to take,” he said, and without further preamble wrapped his lips around her clitoris and sucked, exactly the way he knew would drive her to the edge most quickly, because neither of them could handle dragging this out much longer. She came quickly, loudly, singing his name, and if he needed to release one of her thighs to reach down and touch himself, well, he was only human.

“Now can I?” he asked, fully intending to do so regardless of her response.

Yes. Please, she told him, still too breathless to form physical words. He knelt up and began to turn her over into her favourite position, the one most likely to eke out a third orgasm from her (her lying flat on her belly and him entering her from behind, which apparently caused him to ‘hit something really good’ that they were otherwise unable to find), but she resisted him and opened her arms, coaxing him into his favourite position, and he gladly lowered himself into them without further discussion. After all, it was his wedding night, so nothing made more sense than for him to finish inside her with her limbs all wrapped tightly around him.

The peace that the thought brought him allowed him to move slowly and purposefully, and it lasted longer than either of them expected. He stroked the ticklish spot on her side, and she lifted her head to whisper silly little sweetnesses into his ear, something which she did rarely enough that it always caused his vision to blur. When he finally came it was long and intense and draining, dangerously addictive, and he used his last shred of delirious energy to slide a hand between them and urge her to follow him.

It seemed a long time later that he found the strength to push himself off and out of her, the stickiness between them now uncomfortable rather than erotic. He searched the immediate surroundings for something to clean them off, trying to hide the obscene amount of pride he felt at the mess he had made, but Rey felt it anyway and laughed at him.

Her arms were wonderful, so he crawled back into them when they were decent enough to rest comfortably.

“That was nice,” Rey murmured against his forehead.

He lifted his head to look at her questioningly. “Nice?”

“Yeah.” She stretched out her body, and he shifted his weight to compensate for the slight change. “Other stuff, too. But nice.”

Ben snorted. “I’m so pleased you found it to be an adequate experience, kira.”

She smiled, ignoring his complaint. “I thought you were going to find something else to call me.”

“Well, since you liked none of my other suggestions, it will have to suffice until I find something more suitable.”

Rey stifled a yawn. “Why change it at all? I like that you gave me a second name.”

Ben’s hand moved from her hair to her face, following the curves and dips that still managed to steal his breath long after he had thoroughly memorised them. When one fingertip brushed against her lips she puckered them to apply a light kiss, and his heart soared. “I like that you gave mine back to me.”

“Will you use it now?” He had always known that she wanted this, but if he hadn’t the truth would have been revealed by the hopeful note in her voice.

Ben shook his head gently. “If they all know then I’ll only ever be Leia’s son. Vader’s grandson. I don’t-- I want… more.” It was selfish, he knew.

“Okay,” Rey said, sounding as if she truly understood. “But I hope one day you can have faith in your own legacy.” When he said nothing she continued, graciously flipping the subject back. “In fact, I have three names. If you count Ren separately.”

“Four, actually, Rey Solo.” He had taken care to ensure that she had married Ben Solo rather than Kylo Ren, since the distinction seemed important to her, and was a little annoyed that she hadn’t noticed.

“I did notice,” she hummed, and settled herself more fully into her pillow. “I’m glad. Kylo isn’t your nam-- it’s not your name.”

His reply died on his lips, because Rey, Kira -- whatever her name was she was her, his, perfect -- was asleep.

Chapter Text

Rey puffed heavily as she ascended the twisting staircase. The exertion was irritating only because it was so unexpected. It hadn’t been this difficult last time.

Ben turned back to her, concerned, for what must have been the fiftieth time.

“I’m fine,” Rey gritted out. “Keep going.”

“There’s a ledge ahead where we can--”

“I don’t need a break.”

She mounted the final step several minutes after him with a final, triumphant huff. “Now we can take a break,” she decided, sucking in deep breaths between every second word. “For your sake. You should see the view.”

Ben smiled indulgently at her. “Yes. For my sake.”

She took his arm and they moved across the grassy terrain to a jutting peak which would protect them from any unpredictable winds. Ben dutifully pretended not to notice how heavily she was leaning against him. When they reached their destination it took Rey several attempts to clumsily lower herself to the ground, and he only sighed a little when she brushed off his attempt to aid her.

He was doing very well, but she wasn’t sure he would last another month. And, truthfully, she wasn’t sure she would last either. It was only a matter of time before his constant offers (to bring her food, rub her back, brush her hair, carry her to bed) overcame her stubborn self-reliance. The carrying, in particular, was incredibly tempting at the moment.

“How far from here?” he asked, catching the tone of her thoughts.

“Up,” was all Rey could say.

“Then yes,” Ben said, leaving little room for disagreement.

Rey rubbed a hand over her belly and hoped, the way she had every day for eight months, that her child would be just like him. And then she clarified the thought, as she had every day. Be like this Ben, be strong and warm and generous. Don’t be lost, don’t be torn, don’t be afraid. You’re not alone, never alone, not for one second.

They sat looking out at the ocean in silence until Rey’s pulse was no longer pounding in her ears.

“This was the first place I saw Luke,” she said.

“What happened?”

Rey had never bothered offering to show him those memories, knowing that he wouldn’t want them. She extended a gentle invitation to him now, which he declined, so she used words instead. “I tried to give him my -- his -- lightsaber and he threw it over the cliff and stormed off.”

A small smile touched Ben’s lips. “He did always have a penchant for drama.”

“I’m so glad it’s not a family trait,” Rey said drily. Outwardly Ben appeared calm, and the surface of his mind was still, but when she raised a hand to his cheek he leaned into it gratefully. No more talking about Luke, then.

She knew that Luke Skywalker was gone. She had suspected it since the first time she had decided she wanted to come back here; she wouldn’t have suggested it to Ben, otherwise. It wasn’t until they had left hyperspace several hours ago that she was certain. She closed her eyes now and reached out to the island, willing it to tell her how it had changed in the five years that had passed since she had last been here; trying to find some clue of what had happened to the last Jedi; wondering if it missed him. But the island was both smaller and bigger than Luke, than her, and it didn’t understand the questions.

“My mother will know what happened,” Ben said, unexpectedly. He took her hand and moved it from his cheek so he could kiss her knuckles.

Her child began to stir inside her so Rey crawled into his lap (gracelessly, but he didn’t care, he was ecstatic that she had decided to come to him) and guided his hands to where he would most easily feel it. Ben rubbed his nose into her hair and hummed contentedly.

“As eager as I am to meet her, I’ll miss this,” he said.

“Him,” Rey corrected, absent-mindedly. “And there’s no law against us doing this again, unless you make one.”

“Right. We have some catching up to do.” The playfully competitive edge to his tone surprised her. Lissa had announced her third pregnancy just last week, but Ben hadn’t seemed affected by it apart from being appropriately pleased for them.

“How much ‘catching up’ are you planning?” Rey asked warily.

Ben hummed into her hair again, louder, more pensive. “You have, what, thirty fertile years left in you? You’ll need a few months to recover after each birth so--”

Rey interrupted him by smacking his thigh lightly. “I don’t plan on spending the next thirty years barely able to walk up a staircase.”

Ben sighed forlornly, sounding incredibly hard done by. “Do you listen to a word I say, Rey?” He braced one arm against her back and slipped the other under her knees and, incredibly, managed to stand smoothly while lifting her. “You don’t need to go up any staircases.”

Rey nestled against him. “Maybe just this once, then. It’s so high, and I’d only slow us down.” She guided him down by his neck to kiss her, realising that it was an unfairly harsh angle for him, but she wouldn’t make it last too long…

It lasted for a long time, and was broken only by a guttural cry of dismay that couldn’t possibly have originated from either of them, or from any human. Rey broke her lips away with a shamelessly loud ‘smack’ and turned to see one of the island caretakers staring up at them with abject horror.

“Oh, hello, again,” Rey said. She squirmed in Ben’s arms, but he denied her silent request to release her from his grip.

The lanai clutched her small basket closer to her chest and hurried away from them, muttering to herself in a panicked voice that rose in pitch each time she turned back (hesitantly, as if she couldn’t help herself) to look at Rey suspiciously.

“What was that?” Ben asked, with only mild curiosity. He began to walk in the direction of the peak that he correctly presumed to be their destination.

Rey settled back into the warmth of his chest. “One of the caretakers of the island. There’s a whole bunch of them. I don’t think they like me.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Ben said, sounding genuinely affronted.

………

Ben studied the mosaic on the floor of the ancient temple while Rey knelt by the natural door that led to the ledge that she had once sat on with Luke. The twin suns were beginning to descend. Perfect.

She laid out all of her materials in a careful arrangement, making a point of remembering how she had come across each one. It hadn’t been difficult, in the end. Once she had collated all of the information (from the Jedi texts, from the holocron on Takodana, from Darth Vader’s encrypted chips) the way forward seemed relatively simple. A lot of travel was required, and even more meditation, and a comfortable amount of tinkering. If someone were to devote all of their waking hours to the task then it might have only taken them weeks; but Rey had a large number of other responsibilities, so it had taken her years of snatched moments and rushed trips.

She ran her fingers over the shell she had created one last time, checking for imperfections. There were none.

“I’m ready,” she called to Ben. He sat before her. He was filled with thoughts and theories and musings that begged to be shared, but Rey shook her head gently. They could wait.

She took his hands and held them over the small pile of crystals and shards, and guided his meditation to the frequency she needed. As far as she knew this part had never been done before, there had never been two, but if it was at all possible then surely she and Ben would be the ones who would succeed. One rhomboid chip of crystal began to shimmer before her eyes and she reached out to it, delighted to find that it didn’t feel wholly like either her or Ben. That was what she needed. The chip must have felt her approval and revelled in it, because it spread its discovery among its friends until they were all vibrating together beneath Rey and Ben’s joined hands.

Rey methodically brought all of the necessary knowledge to the forefront of her mind and began to feed it into the crystals, feeling it pour from her in a delicate stream that left her feeling both bereft and energised. She poured everything that she knew about the Force, about herself, about Ben, about everything they were. She poured light and darkness and all of the infinite shades between them (and some shades beyond them), and felt Ben doing the same thing next to her.

The suns had set and the sky was dark by the time the holocron was complete. Rey walked through the archway to the ledge and clambered up onto it, beckoning for Ben to follow her. Together they looked down at the device in her palm. It was gilded and inscribed with symbols, reminiscent of the Sith pyramid and the Jedi cube, but not identical to either of them. This holocron was a perfect sphere, catching and reflecting the moonlight so perfectly that Rey could almost convince herself that it was a second moon, created to fit perfectly in her palm.

“That’s no moon,” Ben said. “It’s… alive. Aware.”

“Should we open it?” Rey asked.

“No, what-- why would we? You know what’s in there,” Ben said gently.

“Yeah. Us.”

“I hate to be contrary--”

“No, you don’t,” she interrupted.

“No, I don’t,” he admitted. “We could have done this at home.”

Rey shook her head. “It needed to be here. And it needed to be before our son is born.”

Ben mumbled a single word under his breath, and Rey didn’t bother asking him to repeat it. She chose instead to lean in to him and press her cheek against his shoulder. They sat in silence until a light sprinkle of rain began to fall.

“You know, there’s one place on the island that’s even more sacred than this temple.”

“Oh?” Ben said, with fake curiosity. He had already caught the train of her thought; his arm tightened around her and he pressed several soft kisses onto the crown of her head.

“Mm. I don’t think the caretakers will much like what I plan on doing to you there.”

Ben didn’t seem too thrilled about the idea, either, and Rey learned not to take his reticence personally when they entered the rebuilt hut that had once been hers. It was almost insultingly basic, with a packed-earth floor and exactly three pieces of crude stone furniture.

“I guess I remembered it differently,” she said, a little sheepish.

“Or maybe you’ve become spoilt, after living in a palace for five years.” There wasn’t any reproach in his tone; if anything, he sounded proud.

Rey stepped into him and hid her face against his chest. “This place is important, though. Really important. I sat there--” she pointed behind her, blindly-- “and you came and it…” She allowed herself to trail off, knowing that there was absolutely no need for her to explain the significance of the moment to him. “I wanted to show you.”

“I’m glad to see it,” Ben said. His tone was genuine, but there was something firm in it, and she knew what was coming next. “But I’m not going to make love to you here. Not now.”

Not while you’re pregnant is what he meant. They had needed to be a bit more creative as her belly grew, and Ben had become so incredibly careful (even when she begged him not to be), and there was suddenly a large number of pillows that needed to always be involved. Rey had reassured him so many times, had explained to him that half a dozen physicians had told her that it was completely safe for them to do whatever they wanted. But Ben had been convinced, from the very beginning, that her pregnancy was something completely novel and unique, the likes of which had never been seen.

(“This has happened before, you know,” Rey told him, the very first time he noticed a change in the contour of her abdomen. She felt his thoughts dissolve into a barely-coherent stream of awe -- life Rey growing how the most incredible nothing has ever -- and needed to laugh at him. “Women have become mothers before. Countless times.”

She repeated her words, at his request, after being kissed so thoroughly for so long that his mind had time to recover its dignity.

“But none of them had freckles,” he said, confidently.

“What? Of course they had freckles. People have freckles, Ben.”

“Not like yours.”

His hand moved to her face, and Rey realised that he wasn’t completely wrong, he just had it backwards: out of all the countless mothers who had ever lived there must have been billions who had freckles, but none of them would ever have constellations created on their skin by Ben’s reverent fingertips. Only Rey.)

She kissed him now, pleased to find that he tasted even sweeter than the memory. “Fine. Just hold me, then. And kiss me. And maybe touch on me just a bit. And then once you get over-- I mean, if you decide you want to, we can. Or not. Whatever you want.”

Ben’s frustrated sigh broke off into laughter. “I’ll hold you, then.”

………

Ben hadn’t been at all happy about her decision to travel to Ahch-To so close to giving birth. And Rey had to admit that perhaps he had had a point, when she woke in the middle of the night just two days after returning to Coruscant.

The twisting, squeezing pain subsided, and she remained still for what seemed a long time, waiting, before it started again. That confirmed things for her and she reached out for Ben. It took a few shakes, and a few mental nudges (there had been a time, years ago, when he would have woken instantly, but he slept so heavily now) but when he woke it was with full awareness of the situation.

The next eleven hours were a blur of white walls and white coats and sticky monitoring dots being placed all over her skin and needing to pee all the time. Ben tried his best to be a calming influence, and although Rey loved him with all of her heart she couldn’t help telling him how exceedingly bad he was at it: she felt his own distress and concern even more acutely than she felt her own.

The only one in the room with any sense at all was the one who hadn’t even been born yet. Her child was filled with adrenaline and purpose, but no fear, and when Rey finally held her son in her arms the first thing she told him was how proud she was. ‘Don’t be afraid’, she had told him, and he had listened.

She wouldn’t -- would not -- let anyone take him from her, and the attendants worked awkwardly around her to clean and clothe him. She placed all of her focus on him, and on Ben’s silent, dark head resting against her shoulder, while a medidroid fussed over her and placed bacta on the parts that were most tender. She couldn’t bring herself to care if she was injured, or how badly; it would be a waste of time to even consider it, when she knew she would gladly rip her own heart apart for the perfect boy she held.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Ben said quietly against her ear, the first sound he had made since their son’s cry had filled the room and Rey had collapsed against the bed in relief. But now that the floodgate was opened he continued to make noise, huffing impatiently when the staff found some other important task that needed doing right this instant, and grumbling at them when they asked Rey to stand so they could change the sheets. Eventually he snapped at them all to leave -- mere seconds before Rey would have lost her own temper -- and then it was just the three of them.

Ben insinuated himself beside her on the bed and, very carefully, pulled her across one of his legs so she could sit between them with her back against his chest.

“Look what you did.”

“What we did.”

“My part was incredibly easy.”

Rey laughed and guided one of his hands to their son’s head after sensing that he was hesitant to do so, feeling some mixture of fear and shyness from him that made her want to wrap her arms tightly around him. She could hear Ben’s pulse in his own ears, feel the soft warmth of the baby’s skin beneath his fingertips, smell her hair (damp and sweaty, but he liked the scent of her) every time he inhaled.

“I love you,” Rey said, not sure if she was directing it to the man, or the baby, or herself, or the entire galaxy and every life within it.

“What’s his name?” Ben asked after a long silence.

It wasn’t something that they had discussed at all, because every time they had tried they never managed to make it past the gender debate. Rey looked down at the infant appraisingly. His skin wasn’t as tanned as hers, or as milky pale as his father’s; he was some perfect mixture of both of them. But the sparse strands of hair on his head were the exact colour of Ben’s (but even softer, impossibly), and when his puffy little lips yawned she saw echoes of the contours that she knew so well. His eyes were an odd colour, a dull watery grey that was almost blue, but they would soon change and become bright, warm brown. Ben could write her a list of names a thousand lightyears long, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was only one name that was suitable for his son.

“His name is Kylo,” Rey said.

Ben’s finger was tracing Kylo’s tiny jaw, but now it paused. “If you want to name him after me I would have thought that you’d prefer Ben.”

Rey wriggled her shoulders to settle even more heavily against him. “Ben is a perfect name. Ben is every single thing that I love. But that’s a lot of things; so much, for just one person to be. Ben is Anakin, and Darth Vader, and Obi Wan Kenobi. Ben is Luke and Han and Leia. And Snoke. Ben is a Skywalker and a Solo and a Senator; a Jedi and a Sith; a Prince. And now an Emperor. Being Ben is hard, and I know that our son is equal to it, and I know that his life isn’t going to always be easy, but he deserves a clean slate. Isn’t that what you wanted, when you tried to stop being Ben? Weren’t you trying to create something new? Well, now you have. You had the right idea all along; you were just a bit impatient about it. You’ve always been Ben Solo, and this is Kylo Ren.”

Ben’s hands moved as if to wrap around her waist and squeeze her, but he hesitated at the last possible moment, wondering if that might hurt her after the strains of childbirth. Rey thought that perhaps it would, a little, so instead turned her face up and back to allow him to kiss her.

“Is that okay?” She had made a big speech without even bothering to ask if he had another name in mind.

Ben nodded.

“Good,” Rey said. “Because ‘Ben Ren’ is a ridiculous name.”

He smiled and kissed her again, a light peck. “So you had it all figured out, then.”

“Of course,” Rey said smugly.

“I just have one question, kira.”

“Hmm?”

“What would you have done if he were a girl?”

“Well, I knew that was impossible, because he was always boy. I saw him.”

Incredibly, Ben stood his ground, even now. “I saw a girl.”

“You saw wrong, evidently.”

“Foreseeing the future is a complex--”

“You were wrong, Ben, and I was right.”

He wasn’t completely wrong, of course, and when Skye was born three years later he made special and prolonged efforts to ensure that Rey remained very aware of his extraordinary precognisance.

Neither of them foresaw Jaina coming two years after her.

“We’re not sure exactly how far along,” Rey announced at breakfast one morning. “Between ten and thirteen weeks. We’ll know better after the scan today.”

“Why have you kept it a secret for so long?!” Arin demanded.

“You’re always saying everyone should be more like you,” Ben pointed out. Arin’s son was almost a year old, but the circumstances surrounding his conception were still a mystery. The pregnancy was only revealed when Orax discovered the unmistakable bump during a training session, and to date there had never been any whiff of a second parent.

“Oh. Well, in that case, carry on.”

………

“And I caught the biggest one!” Kylo told Leia, holding his eight-year-old arms as wide apart as he could manage, in a gross exaggeration of the size of the fish in question. “You can see if you want. We took a holovid to show Aunt Arin.”

“I believe you,” Leia said solemnly, a twinkle in her eye.

“Big big big fish!” Jaina contributed from her place on Ben’s lap. She was bordering on being too old to spend the entire meal attached to an adult when there was a perfectly serviceable high chair set up at the table. Rey wondered what Ben would do a year from now when he had no more toddlers to use as literal human shields between himself and his mother.

After dessert and a card game they were suddenly pulling their coats on at the door.

“Say goodbye to grandma,” Rey prompted, and all three of them obeyed with an enthusiastic melancholy. An entire year between visits was a strain on such young memories, but they were all able to sense the intimate family connection between them and Leia, and would always proclaim a fierce attachment to her after the first few minutes of uncertainty.

Leia reached up to kiss Jaina’s cheek and Ben hunched slightly to make it easier for her; the closest that mother and son ever came to physical contact.

“See you next year,” Ben said quietly.

Leia smiled at him. “Drive safely.”

Rey always drove them to Leia’s apartment to give him time to collect himself, and Ben drove them away so he could work off some of the energy he collected during the evening. Her arm had reached across the console between them so she could rub at his shoulder soothingly, but she paused when Skye piped up: “I’m gonna stay awake all the night!”

Rey turned back to her, frowning. “No, you will not.”

“I will! I want to see my friends!”

“You’ll see them quicker if you go to sleep,” Kylo said reasonably. “That’s better than waiting.”

They began to argue the particulars and Rey turned her attention back to the road ahead, trusting that the rebel would bow to her older brother’s opinion, as always.

All three children were still awake when the speeder stopped outside the restored manor on Lake Andrasha, but Ben picked up the two girls and carried them in anyway, earning squeals of fake-protest. Kylo self-extricated with a little more dignity.

“How many are there now?” he asked Rey as they crossed the garden together. Apparently he was too old now to hold her hand as they walked.

“One new one. Hope. So I think that’s… six?”

“How will they all fit?”

“We’ll manage,” Rey told him drily. Living his entire life in the Palace had left her son’s spatial awareness a little skewed. There was more than enough room in the manor to house Finn’s kids as well as hers.

Rey always found it difficult to decide which part of their yearly trip to Chandrila she enjoyed the most. They spent the first week at the lake completely alone and uninterrupted (at first it had been just her and Ben, then the three of them, then four, and now five), the only time of year that they allowed themselves the luxury of being uncontactable. Dinner with Leia marked the end of their reprieve from the rest of the galaxy, and the second week was always more chaotic, with Rey’s commlink interrupting at steady intervals and Ben disappearing for hours at a time. But the second week also brought Finn and his adopted children, and Rey loved spending time with him and watching her own children develop bonds and friendships outside of their cousins.

Finn devoted most of his time to an organisation that worked to reunite families that were separated by war. Rey thought that perhaps he held out hope of discovering his own long-lost family, but it was an impossible task. Finn had been taken in by the First Order at birth; he didn’t even know what planet he was born on. Even though Rey and Ben had eradicated inter-system war there were still occasional skirmishes and civil disputes on and between planets, and although the Outer Rim was now fully integrated there were wounds that would take generations to heal. So it was inevitable that during his work Finn would encounter countless displaced children, and over the years he had become a dad to five, and now six, multispecies former-orphans.

The newest addition, Hope, was a shy human girl about Skye’s age (her exact date and place of birth were unknown), and the two were fast friends.

“No idea where she’s from?” Rey asked Finn as they watched their combined litter working together to build an elaborate sculpture in the sand.

“She’s from Chandrila now,” Finn said, delighting her. He hadn’t changed at all over the years, except for gaining a second name. “But how are you?”

“Good,” Rey said. “I’m really good.”

………

She wasn’t always good. There were times when she was so overwhelmed by work that she wanted to forget it all and just go to bed. No one had ever handed her an instruction manual explaining how to be Empress and Duchess and sister and friend and wife and mother. But she managed to find the balance more often than not, and sometimes it seemed so easy that she convinced herself she had finally figured it out, that she could finally forget about the lonely little girl in the AT-AT and the tortured boy in the clutches of darkness. She once forgot them so thoroughly that when they suddenly came back to her in a dream she jolted awake so violently that Ben’s sleep was disturbed as well, and she cried in his arms while he gently promised that none of it mattered anymore and never would again.

But that was a lie, because there were times when it caught up to him too, and it mattered. He would never wake her; she would be forced to wake alone in the morning and find him on the balcony, staring at nothing and trying to hide the extent of his unease from her.

It was fair that it would be more difficult for him than it was for her. He had done more, had more done to him, and for longer. Rey had an entire section of the Palace wall to prove to her exactly how many days she had been happy (there were so many flowers now, thousands and thousands, and they spread out from her balcony up and down the wall so that the patch of colour was visible from ground level far below. The flowers now far outnumbered the scratch marks that she had once made in the desert; that was irrevocable, that could never ever be changed or taken away from her). But Ben didn’t have a visual reminder. He couldn’t possibly, because the exact date of his freedom was impossible to ascertain. Maybe it would never come.

“You’re my reminder,” he told her once. The sky was lightening around them and she had burrowed deep into his arms for warmth.

“Then why do you come out here?”

“You need to sleep.”

“Do not,” Rey mumbled stubbornly. “Not without you.”

………

Galactic Emperor Kylo Ren, Second of his Name (as far as the rest of the galaxy was concerned) was crowned on his thirty-third birthday alongside his wife. A lot of fuss was made in the media about the fact that Hope’s true background was completely unknown, until Rey took it upon herself to remind the galaxy that they still didn’t know anything about her own origins, and yet there had been very few complaints about her ascension to the throne. The media panic settled down after a couple of months. By that time Skye had already been invested as Duchess, and Ryal had named Jaina as his successor to the Core and Colonies, having never had any children of his own.

Relinquishing her title to Hope was initially a lot harder than Rey had imagined it would be. But after the endless weeks of posturing and ceremony that accompanied the handover of rule she quickly decided that she never wanted to attend another royal function again. After the final formal dinner she practically fell into their bedroom, exhausted, and flung her shoes off gracelessly before following Ben out onto the balcony.

Rey stood a few paces back from him, enjoying the way the moonlight highlighted all the places where his hair had changed colour. He had gone through a phase a few years back where he would playfully moan about that, and about how woefully unlucky he had been to fall in love with a woman ten years his junior… but Rey had grown her own silver streaks now, so he very tactfully stopped complaining, even in jest.

“What should we do now?” she asked him. Her accompanying yawn revealed that she had one specific activity (or non-activity) in mind, but he made no move to accompany her to bed.

Ben was looking up, so she followed his gaze to the night sky above them. It was always blank on Coruscant, even at midnight, because the bright lights of Galactic City drowned it. You needed a certain amount of darkness to be able to see the stars twinkle. Until now it had never occurred to Rey that she missed them. When she had been a girl on Jakku, so long ago, she had often wrapped her meagre blanket around herself late at night and climbed on top of her AT-AT to sit and look at them all, trying to guess which were the famous ones from the stories she knew.

He smiled to himself as he listened in on her thoughts. “I have a few ideas of what we could do,” he said, and showed them to her. Sprawling forests, rolling tundras, glimmering oceans, hidden valleys, sandy beaches, mysterious caves, cosy little towns, and bustling metropolises.

Rey laughed. “‘A few ideas’? That’s every idea. That’s the entire galaxy.”

He shrugged. “Well, the entire galaxy may be a bit ambitious. But we could see a good deal in the time we have. We’ve spent so long balancing it for everyone else’s benefit; we deserve to see the fruits of our labours, don’t you think? Explore the new order we’ve created?”

Rey’s smile widened. “Is that what you want to do? Be an explorer?”

“Only if you’ll join me.”

Ben held out a hand to her, and she took it.