Actions

Work Header

Mirrorbright

Chapter Text

The journey from the Ash Worlds to the Mid Rim usually lasted upwards of twenty-four standard hours but Senator Ben Organa-Solo's pilot seemed determined to cut that travel time in half, judging from the way the Banshee was currently hurtling through the starlines on the whine and whirr of its Class-2 hyperdrive. While it was likely that Commander Poe Dameron was relishing the novelty of steering one of Mendel Baudo's prohibitively expensive, custom-designed yachts, it was likelier still that he had been instructed by General Leia Organa to deliver her son to Naboo as quickly as possible, given the recent spate of political assassinations at the hands of a shadowy junta calling itself the First Order. Even though Leia understood— perhaps better than anyone else did— how important it was that the fledgling state of New Alderaan be represented at the Festival of Light, she had insisted that Ben travel undercover, without the official trappings of a military-escorted consular ship that would make him an easy target. There are leaks everywhere, she had told him. I'm trusting no one with your life but the Jedi and my own men.

 

Ben was of the opinion that his mother was a little too paranoid but he kept it to himself; similar talk abounded in the Senate halls as of late and he had no desire to fuel such gossip. Still, he wished that Leia would stop interfering in his affairs— he was almost thirty-one years old, after all.

 

The Banshee' s inner compartment was furnished in the traditional gauzy tapestries and floral-patterned silks of Alderaan. A holo occupying much of the far wall depicted one of the famous grass paintings that had burned up with the rest of the planet but was immortalized here in a ten-minute loop of wind blowing through the starblossoms and the gingerbells. The vid flickered slightly in tandem with an almost imperceptible shiver along the durasteel bulkhead— Poe was easing the ship into realspace, which meant that they had reached the Chommell sector.

 

As he lounged on the settee, Ben's gaze darted to the music ball on the table in front of him. For lack of anything better to do, he leaned forward and picked up the spherical silver device, giving it a gentle shake. The opening glissando of Plexo-33's "Wish You Among the Stars" filled the room; he groaned at such a sappy, dated song but, before he could switch over to the next track, the cabin doors slid open and his bodyguard— who had been specially appointed for this trip— walked in.

 

Her name was Rey. That was the only thing Ben knew about her aside from the fact that she was his uncle's most promising student. Luke Skywalker spoke of her fondly, with quiet pride, but Ben would have to take the old man's word for it, considering that Rey barely came up to his shoulder and had the clearest, most innocent-looking hazel eyes he'd ever seen. Even now, dressed in somber brown robes with a lightsaber hilt glinting at her side and her chestnut-colored hair pulled back in three severe buns, she looked more like a schoolgirl than a Jedi Knight.

 

Plexo-33's vocalist hit an embarrassingly heartfelt high note, and Rey quirked an eyebrow at Ben. She didn't say anything about his taste in music, but that somehow made it worse. He rushed to give the sphere another shake; the treacly ballad faded into the pulsing, juvenile bass beat of a heavy-isotope remix that would not be out of place at a Coruscanti nightclub. That was hardly any better. He gave up and deactivated the music ball, tossing it aside.

 

"I liked that last one, actually," Rey commented.

 

"Such is the folly of youth," Ben deadpanned. "What brings you to this part of the ship, Madame Jedi?" He hadn't meant to sound quite so patronizing— or perhaps he had. Something about the unflappable demeanor of the Jedi Order made it a compulsion for him to try getting a rise out of them. It was a character failing of his that exasperated Leia to no end.

 

Rey did not take the bait— which had admittedly been deployed without much finesse on his part. "Bad news, I'm afraid, Your Worshipness," she replied in even tones containing no trace of sarcasm. A master, this one. "A bomb went off on the Celanon docks while we were in hyperspace. I regret to inform you that Senators Tolik Yar and Kvarm Jia are dead."

 

Ben tried not to flinch. He had been on amiable terms with both men— he and Jia, in particular, had been discussing the possibility of a trade agreement between New Alderaan and the Tapani sector. "What were they doing on Celanon, of all places?"

 

"As far as we can surmise, they happened to be finishing up their respective conferences in the Outer Rim when they decided at the last minute to meet on the nearest spaceport and travel to Naboo together. According to the logs, there was a message beamed from Celanon to Theed, informing the welcoming committee that Yar and Jia would be arriving at the same time. One hour later..." Rey trailed off, allowing Ben's imagination to fill in the details.

 

"So the leak appears to be on Theed's end," he mused.

 

"General Organa believes so, yes." Rey hesitated, and perhaps that in itself already spoke volumes, or perhaps he had inherited his father's talent for having a bad feeling about this, because his hackles had already started to rise before she continued, "Since it is apparent that the Festival of Light has been compromised, the General also believes that it would be in the interests of your safety for us to turn back. I am certain that Queen Vestralla will understand."

 

"Will she?" Ben drawled. "I did not realize that the nuances of intragalactic relations were part of my uncle's curriculum on your little backwater moon."

 

The line of Rey's mouth hardened. "You're right, I'm no politician. But I was tasked by Master Skywalker to keep you alive. Therefore, my authority overrides yours."

 

He stood up, making use of their considerable height difference to loom threateningly over her. Even as he did so, he cursed himself for noticing the freckles splashed across her nose and cheeks, eliciting a twitch of interest from certain parts of him that had been woefully neglected as of late. "I am not returning to New Alderaan with my tail tucked between my legs because of an assassination that took place on the other side of the galaxy!"

 

Rey lifted her chin, matching his glare with composed eyes that were more brown than green. "The fifth successful assassination in three months," she reminded him. "The First Order is moving fast, and they have spies everywhere. It's better to be safe than sorry."

 

Before Ben could argue, the ship suddenly rocked to the side, glow-panels dimming in a near-rhythmic pulse to the screech of alarms.

 

They were under attack.

 

*

 

Among the ranks of the Resistance, Poe was legendary for keeping his cool even in dangerous situations. He nodded politely at Rey and Ben as they ran into the cockpit, plunging the Banshee into a sharp dive to avoid the turbolasers aimed their way from a Marauder-class corvette that had materialized beyond the viewport. Ben would have careened into the walls in a rather undignified manner had Rey not stretched out an arm to hold him in place with the Force while keeping herself rooted to the floor at the same time.

 

"Who is it?" she barked.

 

Poe squinted at the insignia on the side of the enemy ship. "Guavian Death Gang."

 

"I knew we shouldn't have taken a damned pleasure yacht," Ben hissed. "We may have fooled the First Order but, without a military escort, we look like easy pickings to a bunch of pirates."

 

"What is the Guavian Death Gang doing all the way out here in the Chommell sector?" Rey demanded. "This isn't their usual turf."

 

"I don't think now's the time to ask them if they're lost," Poe quipped as the corvette spewed out five Preybird- class starfighters that were quick to surround the Banshee, barraging its shields with cannonfire.

 

"The First Order isn't above working with criminal organizations," Rey muttered, brow creasing. "I think this is an assassination attempt masquerading as a pirate attack."

 

You're as paranoid as my mother is, Ben wanted to scoff, but the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

 

"Only one way to find out," Rey concluded. "Commander Dameron, take the shuttle complement into the Rimma. If this is an attempt on Senator Solo's life, they'll assume he's on the escape vehicle and follow you. If it's piracy, they'll stay locked onto the yacht. I'll head up the Enarc Run and comm you when we're clear."

 

Poe nodded, scrambling out of the pilot seat so that Rey could take his place and disappeared into the rear end of the ship. No sooner had he ejected from the Banshee when the formation of Preybird-classes changed course, following his shuttle as it sped towards the Rimma Trade Route.

 

The faintest of smirks darted across Rey's face as she took the controls. "I hate it when I'm right."

 

"Somehow, I don't think you do," Ben remarked.

 

The Guavian corvette had stayed with the Banshee— which, while far from ideal, wasn't exactly a surprise. No self-respecting pirate would pass up the chance to loot a Baudo- class yacht, whatever the circumstances might be.

 

"You can't outrun a Marauder- class in this thing," Ben told Rey as she fired up the thrusters. "Your best bet is to take advantage of the maneuverability—"

 

She hurtled straight through the flurry of wreckage from a starfighter that Poe had shot down, coaxing the yacht into a tight barrel roll to avoid the chunks of floating debris. The pursuing corvette swerved too late, a shard of wing smashing into its hull.

 

"Like that?" Rey asked wryly.

 

"My apologies," Ben said through gritted teeth.

 

She flashed another one of those vague smirks and then motioned to the gunner's booth. "How's your aim, Senator?"

 

*

 

The next few minutes raced by in a blur of star-strewn darkness and whirling metal. In spite of the damage it had sustained from the collision, the corvette managed to position itself between the Banshee and the hyperlane, raining down lasers. Without missing a beat, Rey darted below the enemy ship's plane of flight, giving Ben the perfect opening. He squeezed the trigger and a blast of plasma energy flowed from the yacht's lone turret, lancing through the belly of the Marauder- class.

 

It was oddly beautiful, how splinters of durasteel broke away from the point of impact like a flower unfurling its jagged, fire-licked petals amidst clouds of smoke. Ben was entranced; the sight sang to his blood. He stared at the disintegrating corvette until Rey made the jump into the Enarc Run, the scene beyond the viewport transmuting into a frieze of silver and black.

 

*

 

In the safety of hyperspace, Ben crawled out from the gunner's booth and made his way over to where Rey was hunched at the dashboard. Peering over her shoulder, he scowled at the coordinates flashing on the navicomp. "I lay no claim to astrographic expertise in this vast galaxy of ours, but it appears to me that Naboo is in the other direction."

 

She didn't so much as turn around to look at him. "We aren't going to Naboo."

 

"Don't be ridiculous."

 

"Senator." Her voice was like ice. "Did you by any chance forget that people were trying to kill you a few minutes ago?"

 

"Did you forget that I proved to be more than capable of handling myself?"

 

"If you could just let me do my job—"

 

"— at the expense of mine?" he spat, glaring daggers at her back. "I represent New Alderaan on the galactic stage. If I turn back now, what will that say about my homeworld? That we are cowards? That we are easily intimidated—"

 

"Or perhaps that you have common sense?" Rey suggested under her breath.

 

Ben wanted to grab her by the shoulders and spin her around. Make her face him. There were few things worse than arguing with someone whose expressions he couldn't gauge. He resisted the urge, knowing full well that laying a hand on her could result in grievous bodily injury on his end. For all their moralizing, the Jedi were lethal when they put their minds to it. " Listen to me," he grated. "For the past two years, I have been working to advance New Alderaan's reputation as a key player in the Outer Rim Territories— particularly as a Republic foothold in the Ash Worlds with significant diasporic ties to the Core. All of that will go to waste if I skip the Festival of Light because of what cannot be verified as anything other than a pirate attack. I must put on a show of strength."

 

"No dice," Rey said firmly. "I am under strict orders to bring you home posthaste. Your mother—"

 

"— has let sentimentality undermine her political sense!" Ben railed. "She should know how important it is that we don't concede to destabilizers. The only difference in this case is that I happen to be her son."

 

"Well, your uncle signed off on this and he happens to be my master. I have my duties, too—"

 

He couldn't take it anymore. He tugged at the sides of the pilot seat; it swiveled, revealing the tense set of Rey's features and the annoyance simmering in her tawny eyes. Part of him exulted in the fact that she wasn't completely imperturbable but that satisfaction was eclipsed by his own temper, how it flared and rose within him, higher and higher as the seconds passed. "Turn this ship around!" he barked.

 

"No!" she shouted— she actually shouted, right in his face. He would have been surprised by that, had his fury left room for anything else.

 

Ben lunged for the controls, all rational thought vanishing beneath the potent mix of anger and desperation. Rey bolted out of her seat to stop him, raising her arm. She was going to immobilize him with the Force, he knew that with blistering certainty, understood it deep in his bones. Sheer instinct overtook him then; he curved his wrist behind her neck, not fully cognizant of what he was doing, no thought left to him except to block, defend himself, get what he wanted. Energy poured from his fingers, as rich as blood, as primal as a heartbeat. Rey's eyes drifted shut, her limp body sagging against him, into arms that automatically shot out to catch her before she could hit the floor.

 

It was over in a matter of seconds and, yet, the ensuing stillness that rang through the cockpit seemed to last for hours, the silence broken only by the gentle tick of the Banshee' s droid brain and the hum of its hyperdrive. Ben Organa-Solo, widely considered the most formidable Populist of his generation, nephew of Luke Skywalker, and illustrious scion of two political dynasties on his mother's side, stood frozen at the dashboard of a Baudo- class star yacht, carrying a Jedi Knight and bodyguard whom he had just rendered unconscious with the Force equivalent of a wallop to the head.

 

"Sithspit," he said out loud.

 

*

 

The gullipuds were always noisier in the summertime. Beneath the velvet press of a purple dusk, they croaked amidst the soft, thick reeds, occasionally joined by a sleepy avian hoot from some overhanging branch in a chorus that the honey-warm breeze filtered in through the windows, mingling with the Bith love song playing from the music ball on the nightstand. Ben was already regretting his impulsive decision to bring the device in from the ship— it was only one more thing that Rey could throw at him when she woke up.

 

He was crammed into an armchair at her bedside, struggling not to gawk at her face and failing rather abysmally. Her sun-kissed features were languid, almost romantic in repose, gilded by amber lamplight. She had a high forehead, sweeping chestnut brows, long lashes that fanned over the tops of sharp cheekbones, a narrow nose, delicate yet alluringly pink lips, and a strong chin. She was cute but not stunningly beautiful, certainly nothing to write home about. So why couldn't he stop staring?

 

"If only I could let go and cry," warbled the music ball. "I know you did the best you could..."

 

He shouldn't have lost control back on the yacht. Ben had kept a tight leash on his Force abilities all his life; what credibility he'd garnered despite being the grandson of Darth Vader would swiftly erode if word got out that he possessed the same powers. But he had been so furious, so frustrated, and it had felt like the most natural thing in the world.

 

Too much like Anakin, Luke had once said, peering down at a ten-year-old Ben in sorrow. I sense his darkness in you. The darkness that lives in me as well.

 

A slight chill had permeated the room as true night began to fall. Ben reached out to draw the quilt over Rey's still form, the Bith song rolling on. "Now that you're not around, the walls are cracked and dry. The mercury is gone from this eight-valve heart..."

 

Slender fingers suddenly clamped around his wrist, digging in hard enough to bruise. His gaze darted back in the direction of the headboard, where a pair of absolutely virulent hazel eyes was narrowed at him. That was the one thing he registered before his chair was sent flying by a blast of raw telekinetic energy. He grunted in pain as he hit the wall, the hapless chair splintering as it crashed to the floor that gravity dropped him on only a half-second later.

 

Rey got to her feet, her face pale and twisted in utter wrath as she stalked towards him. "You dare," she snarled in a voice that didn't sound like her own, raspy, feral, and brittle. "You dare use the Force against me—" The bedchamber's foundations began to shake, furniture rattling and various ornaments rising into the air, and in that moment Ben was one hundred percent convinced that he was going to die.

 

However, Rey must have belatedly recalled that her mission entailed the exact opposite of killing him. She exhaled slowly, and the room stilled once more. He lay crumpled at her feet, his throat dry while she towered over him, the scene glossed with a surreal quality by the song still playing from the music ball. "It's amazing how sad I get, remembering the past, and all the things you said and did to scramble my chloroplasts..."

 

Rey flicked her wrist towards the offending device, switching it off. "Where are we?" she demanded, glowering at Ben with such ferocity that he was mildly surprised that the skin didn't shrivel off his bones.

 

"Varykino," he replied. "My grandmother's estate in the Lake Country."

 

"Naboo?" Rey snarled. "You knocked me out and dragged me to Naboo?"

 

"You left me no choice." And, because he apparently had zero self-preservation instinct, "Although it is gratifying to know that you are in possession of a temper, after all, Madame Jedi."

 

Her arm lashed out and he braced himself for more pain but, instead, she merely summoned her lightsaber from his belt and into her palm. "This is abduction, Senator."

 

"Technically, it's not," he argued. "As my bodyguard, you are charged to accompany me wherever I go. This is a win-win situation; I get to attend the Festival of Light and you get to successfully accomplish your duty."

 

"How generous." Rey looked down at him with contempt. "Sorry if I don't feel particularly grateful at the moment."

 

"It's all right— I forgive you." Stars, he really had to switch off before she ended up doing the First Order's job for them. It would be all too easy for her to pin his murder on assassins.

 

She displayed no visible reaction to that last taunt, her expression unchanging as she crossed her arms and watched him clamber to his feet. To be fair, it was already a supremely pissed off expression. By Jedi standards, anyway. She appeared to have retreated into a modicum of the composure for which Luke and his band of acolytes were renowned, but Ben couldn't help thinking about earlier— her wildness, the power emanating from her slim frame in weighty currents. There was more to his bodyguard than met the eye. Of that he was certain.

 

"I suppose I should be glad that you didn't immediately go waltzing into Theed," Rey pronounced in clipped tones. "Your plan is to travel there undercover, I assume?"

 

Ben nodded. She was very quick on the uptake. "Theed is a couple of days away by speeder bike. We'll get there with plenty of time to settle in before the Festival starts."

 

"Not so fast. I need to contact General Organa and Master Luke first."

 

He had been expecting that, but he groaned inwardly upon hearing it. "Fine."

 

*

 

Varykino's communications bay was located in the north wing. It was a far cry from state-of-the-art, considering that House Naberrie had little use for the villa these days, but Rey managed to patch through to D'Qar on an encrypted channel. Ben was reluctantly impressed, a feeling that dissipated once he was on the receiving end of a ten-minute lecture from his mother while his uncle— who, as luck would have it, happened to have dropped by the Resistance base in time for Rey's comm— watched with an aura of mild concern.

 

"That's not how you use the Force and that's not how we raised you," Leia's flickering, blue-tinted hologram admonished. "You owe Rey an apology, especially now that she's going to have her work cut out for her if anything should happen on the road to Theed. Caraya's soul, Ben, what were you thinking? Incapacitating your security detail during a high-risk situation— I never—"

 

"Can you honestly say that you wouldn't have done the same thing?" Ben interrupted. "If you knew that what you were doing was right, if you knew that it would help your people—"

 

"You won't be able to help anyone from beyond the grave!" Leia snapped. "Two days riding through a wilderness you haven't been to in years, with a single armed escort—"

 

"Careful, Mother, now you're sounding like you doubt my bodyguard's skills almost as much as you doubt my ability to make decisions for myself—"

 

"If I may interject," Luke said, "before the two of you reenact the Galactic Civil War, or before the First Order traces this comm—"

 

That shut Ben and Leia up. The longer they kept this line open, the greater the chances of surveillance equipment either tapping into it or deciphering its point of origin.

 

"Rey." Luke's hologram turned to his student, who had so far been observing the scene in embarrassed silence. "I'm sure you already know the basics. Keep to the forest cover whenever you can, no fires at night, avoid other travelers as much as possible."

 

Rey bowed. "Yes, Master."

 

"Ben.” Luke’s solemn gaze shifted to his nephew. “Follow Rey's lead. You have already brought her there under duress, and now you must let her do her job as she sees fit."

 

"Yes, Uncle," Ben grunted.

 

"Leia." Within the confines of the holographic field, Luke placed a hand on his sister's shoulder and murmured something too low for the audio feed to pick up. Whatever it was, Leia nodded— albeit a bit stiffly— and proceeded to address Rey and Ben in a calmer tone.

 

"I will inform Commander Dameron of the change in plans and have him meet you at Theed with a few soldiers who will serve as guards for the remainder of your stay," she said. "Ben, please abstain from making any more rash decisions. Rey, thank you for not wringing his neck the moment you regained consciousness."

 

Rey's lips curved into a small smile— the first genuine smile of hers that Ben had seen since she walked into his life forty-eight standard hours ago. "You're welcome, General."

 

"May the Force be with you," Luke said, and then his and Leia's holograms winked out of existence.

 

*

 

In the early days of his term, Ben had once hosted a dinner for two Ash Worlds monarchs whose planets were embroiled in a blood-soaked territorial dispute over a cubirian-rich asteroid. His guests had come to blows during the soup course, but even that had been less uncomfortable than the meal he was currently sharing with Rey.

 

They regarded each other warily from opposite ends of a long table laden with meat and cheese from Varykino's larders, fruit from the orchards, and a bottle of Rydonnian spicewine dug up from some musty corner of the ancient cellars. "Who prepared all of this?" Rey finally asked.

 

"Dorian Accu," said Ben. "The estate's caretaker, as his father was before him. He's already retired to his quarters for the night," he added, because Rey was glancing around the dining room as if expecting the old man to pop out from behind one of the red marble pillars at any moment.

 

"And he was not alarmed by our... entrance?"

 

"Not at all," Ben lied through his teeth. Poor Dorian had nearly had a heart attack upon seeing Master Ben emerge from the star yacht carrying a passed-out young woman in his arms. A woman wearing Jedi robes, no less.

 

"Hmm," was all Rey said, but Ben felt the Force prodding at his mind like inquisitive tendrils, trying to determine whether or not he was telling the truth.

 

He cast his shields, blocking her more harshly than he'd intended. He hated having people inside his head. "Didn't my uncle teach you not to be so rude?"

 

"Didn't he teach you at all?" she shot back. "I had no idea you were Force-sensitive, he never mentioned..."

 

"It's the big family secret. I've learned how to mask my signature, which is why you couldn't detect it." Noticing that she had started helping herself to the food, Ben followed suit. "If you're wondering why I didn't train on Yavin 4, it's because I realized early on that I would make a terrible Jedi."

 

"You would," she agreed. "But most children dream of becoming Jedi, don't they?"

 

"Did you?"

 

She shrugged, nibbling on a hunk of cheese. "I dreamed of many things back then." She talked with her mouth full and, as the minutes passed, he noticed that her table manners were rather atrocious for someone who carried herself with such eerie composure on a regular basis. She chewed loudly, was all elbows, ate fast, as if this meal was the only thing standing between her and death by starvation.

 

He had so many questions tangled up together on the tip of his tongue. Who were you before this? What did you think and what did you do? It took him a while to settle on, "How old were you when the Jedi came?"

 

"Is exchanging life stories over the cold cuts an Alderaanian tradition?"

 

"No, but awkward silence is bad for the stomach."

 

Rey seemed torn between laughing and rolling her eyes. "Eleven," she grudgingly offered. "I was eleven. It was Master Saa who found me."

 

Ben nodded in recognition. T'ra Saa, the shapeshifting Jedi who had survived Order 66 and gone into hiding on Kashyyyk, resurfacing to take her place in Luke's New Jedi Order. She was a handful of centuries old, which made her a mere sapling by the standards of the Neti species.

 

"The X'us'R'iia caught me unawares on my way back from the Graveyard," Rey continued. "Master Saa practically tripped over me three days later, out there on the dunes. I was dehydrated, half-dead... She saw the Force in me, used the Force to learn that I had no people of my own, and brought me with her to Yavin 4, where I recovered from my ordeal. Where I stayed."

 

"How long ago was this?"

 

Rey's brow creased as she did the math. "A decade, more or less."

 

For some inexplicable reason, Ben's stomach dropped. She was twenty-one. Older than she looked at first glance, younger than he'd— hoped. That was the best word for it, and he was annoyed with himself. It wouldn't have mattered even if they were the same age— she was a Jedi Knight and, therefore, off-limits. "The X'us'R'iia?" he echoed.

 

"It's what the Teedos call the weather storm," she explained. "They believe it's the breath of their god."

 

The mention of the Teedos was what made it click for him, made the pieces of Graveyard and dunes fall into place. "You're from Jakku."

 

"Yes."

 

A junkyard, his father had once scoffed. A bad old place where nothing grows.

 

"I have no idea why I'm telling you all of this," Rey complained. In the mellow light of glow-panels turned down low, her eyes were the color of sun-drenched forests. "I just wanted to know why you didn't follow in your uncle's footsteps, but I ended up giving away much more personal information. They were right about you— you are a skilled deflector, and silver-tongued."

 

"Comes with the job." Ben took a sip of wine, admiring how she hadn't hesitated to call him out on his bantha fodder. "What else do they say about me?"

 

"I think I've stroked your ego enough for today," she retorted, startling a chuckle out of him.

 

"So, all good things, then?" he prompted, smirking at her over the rim of his glass.

 

"Good night, Senator." Chair legs scraped across the floor with a ringing finality as Rey stood up. "I'd advise you to take it easy on the alcohol. Long day tomorrow." She had resumed her professional aloofness and he was sorry for that, but it wasn't until she had left the dining room that he realized— she had deflected as well, had stopped him from asking any more questions about her life with a subtle appeal to his own vanity.

 

Shaking his head in amused disbelief, Ben raised his wineglass at her empty chair in a toast. "To your sharpness, Madame Jedi," he said to himself. "May it refrain from leaving me bloodied."

Chapter Text

Despite the cloud-soft mattress, eiderdown pillows, and lush silk sheets that adorned the canopy bed of the master suite, Ben tossed and turned for what seemed like hours, sleep eluding him no matter how stubbornly he screwed his eyes shut. Varykino had always made him restless, even as a child. Back then, Luke would calm him with the Force or Leia would sing to him or Han would tell him outlandish tales until he drifted off. But this time, he was on his own— unless he counted his bodyguard in the guest quartersand somehow he didn't think lullabies or stories were part of Rey's job description.

 

"Damn it," Ben mumbled, getting out of bed. Feeling his way around in the dark, he padded into the living room on bare feet, wearing nothing but a pair of loose trousers. At first, he thought that there were two figures sitting on the divan, but of course it was only a trick of the moonlight spilling in through the windows.

 

Or an echo in the Force.

 

He grimaced. They were here. They were why he couldn't sleep. Some part of them lingered in these shadowy hallways, where the galaxy's fate had been written in the space between two hearts. If he had more training, he might have been able to shield himself from the remnants of the past, but, no, that was not the path he had chosen...

 

I can't. We can't.

 

Ben activated the vidscreen on the wall, flipping through HoloNet stations until he found one playing an opera he liked. He turned up the volume in an attempt to drown out old ghosts and then made his way to the balcony, resting his hands on the parapet as he peered into the darkness. Night in the Lake Country was a net of stars and their reflections, and the sound of water lapping ceaselessly at the shore. The wind blew cold on his bare chest, a welcome respite from the perfumed summer heat that had collected indoors.

 

We could keep it a secret.

 

"Senator."

 

He almost jumped out of his kriffing skin. Almost fell into the lake below. He whirled around to see Rey framed between the open balcony doors. Freed from the three-bun style, her chestnut hair flowed past her shoulders in thick waves rumpled by sleep. She wore an over-sized nightshirt that ended above her knees, revealing slim, shapely legs that went on for miles in the moonlight. However, Ben was distracted from this pleasant picture by the gleaming metal rod held at the ready in her hand. It had seemed off to him earlier when he disarmed her while she was unconscious, but it wasn't until seeing the hilt wielded in offense stance like this, a second away from being activated, that he finally realized what was odd about it.

 

"It's longer than average," he mused.

 

Looking back, he shouldn't have been surprised by her reaction; she'd grown up on Jakku, bastion of crude, gutter-mouthed spacers. But he knew her only as a Jedi, so he was understandably confused when her gaze flickered past his hips, and then completely, utterly mortified when he replayed the sentence in his head.

 

"I meant your lightsaber hilt, naturally," he said with as much senatorial dignity as he could muster, wondering if it was too late to jump into the lake, after all.

 

"Naturally," she deadpanned. A flush stained her cheekbones in the silver glow of Ohma-D'un, the Water Moon, most prominent of Naboo's satellites. "It's a saberstaff."

 

"How novel."

 

"Yes, well, I didn't understand the concept of a weapon with only one lethal end," she muttered, before telling him in a firm voice, "Given the recent attempt on your life, Senator, I must insist that you steer clear of all ingress points. That includes this balcony."

 

"Of course. Wouldn't want to make it too easy for the sniper who's been crouched on the far shore the whole night on the off-chance that I'd go for a stroll and whose blaster bolt can reach the island before I move a muscle."

 

"Air strike, gunman on a gondola speeder, amphibious assault," Rey promptly enumerated.

 

Ben raised an eyebrow. "Should I be alarmed that you know so many ways to kill a man?"

 

"None of which I have been sanctioned to use on you, unfortunately."

 

He sucked in air through his teeth. "Ouch. Good one."

 

The corners of her lips twitched like she was trying not to smile as she cocked her head in the direction of the gloom behind her. "Come inside."

 

His heart gave a funny little jolt at those words. He followed her into the living room, attempting not to fixate on the slight sway of her hips or how the breeze occasionally flattened the nightshirt against her curves. "Trouble sleeping?" he guessed.

 

She shot him a wry glance over her shoulder. "Your opera woke me up."

 

He should apologize for that, as well as for the manner in which he had brought her to this place, but his pride was in the way. " The Brief Reign of Future Wraiths is a classic."

 

"Not really my thing." She sat down on the divan, curling up against the armrest on one end. This particular HoloNet station was audio-only, the vidscreen showing nothing more than a panel of blue that lay reflected on the planes and angles of her face.

 

Could you live like that?

 

He tentatively occupied the other end of the divan. Despite the courteous distance between them, the breeze carried the scent of millaflower soap. His cock twitched, and he thanked Grimtaash the Molator and all the other guardians of the Great Houses that he'd decided to wear his loosest pair of trousers to bed. Had it been so long since his last lover that the mere act of sitting beside a woman who smelled like flowers was enough to undo him?

 

The opera crashed into its finale, a shrill aria splitting the air. Rey winced and, taking pity on her, Ben stretched an arm out, tapping a button on the vidscreen and switching to a station that was playing the upbeat, silky rhythms of Quenk jazz. As he drew his arm back to his side, he noticed that she was staring at him, her line of sight aimed directly at his bicep.

 

She was quick to avert her gaze, however, shifting position so that she was turned to him in profile. "The bed's too soft," she blurted out, and, while he had a sneaking suspicion that she had seized the first topic that came to mind, he also sensed on an instinctual level that she was telling the truth. "That's the main reason I couldn't sleep, not your music. I felt like I was drowning in the mattress."

 

He thought, then, of the bolt-holes of Jakku, of the conditions under which she must have lived. He had a feeling she wouldn't respond well to empty sympathy from someone like him, who had grown up in staggeringly different circumstances, so he teased her gently, flashing the soft smile that few people ever saw. "I shall file a complaint with Dorian tomorrow."

 

"You mean today," she corrected, glancing at the chronometer on the table. "And what about you? Why can't you sleep?"

 

"Varykino holds memories for me and my family," he said, wondering how much Luke had divulged, and then deciding that, in any case, she deserved one of his truths in exchange for giving away one of hers. Fair play and all that. "This was where my grandparents were married."

 

Rey's eyes widened. Her gaze traversed their moonlit surroundings with a mixture of curiosity and awe. "I won't go as far as to say that Anakin Skywalker is my favorite among the Old Republic Jedi, but he has always fascinated me the most, ever since I learned that he eventually became Darth Vader. I reflect on his story quite often. Mostly, I ponder how..."

 

"How he fell? Surely my uncle has discussed that at length," Ben ventured. "He never shied from using Vader as a cautionary tale with me."

 

"Not that. I understand that." Rey made an impatient gesture with her hands, as if waving something away. "I was a scavenger on Jakku, my life at the mercy of lesser men. I understand how the darkness can spring from that, how the grime sticks to your soul, how you carry it with you." She shivered, although Ben couldn't tell whether it was from the night air or from the bitterness of her memories. "It's his relationship with Padme Amidala that stumps me. To think that whatever lay between them was so strong that they defied an entire galaxy for its sake— I can't imagine loving someone that much." She bit her lip, peered at him in the gloom. "Can you?"

 

It would destroy us.

 

"The thing is—" Ben said after a while, but his throat was dry and the sentence cracked in his mouth. He tried again. "The thing is, I can. That was the one thing from the old stories that I readily accepted. That I never questioned. That kind of all-consuming... fervor, that was what I understood, even as a child. And that is why I did not choose the Jedi path."

 

She was quiet, waiting for him to continue. As he carefully arranged his thoughts, the music from the vidscreen skipped through the spaces in brass rhythms. "I am too much like Anakin," he admitted. "My Force abilities manifest whenever I pull from my anger and my fear. I used to give my father 'the creeps,' as he called it. And I would see Vader in my dreams. This strange trace of him lived in my head for the longest time. It was as if someone was looking over my shoulder everywhere I went. Finally, when I was twelve years old, my parents and my uncle had a, shall we say, spirited discussion about my future."

 

"Spirited?"

 

"You can still hear the echoes if you go into that wing of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant."

 

Rey laughed. More accurately, she started to laugh and then attempted to stop herself, which resulted in a choked, very un-Jedi like snort that Ben found oddly endearing. "They came to the conclusion that whatever was going on with me was unnatural. Uncle Luke maintained that it couldn't be his father because Anakin had already found peace in the Force. Someone— something— was trying to get a foothold into my mind, if it hadn't already, and training me how to use my powers might further open that connection."

 

"So they made the choice for you?"

 

"Not quite. It was more like they showed me that I didn't have to be a Jedi. I had previously expressed interest in my mother's work, so she started taking me with her to Senate sessions and diplomatic talks. Perhaps that was when I became fascinated with politics, but I'm not certain— I only remember that I was happy to be spending time with her, when, before, I saw her so rarely."

 

Rey draped her arm on the backrest of the divan, leaning her face into the crook of her elbow. While she was still giving Ben her undivided attention, the line of her mouth had softened. "It's a bit surreal, the thought of you as a little boy tagging along with the General to all these important meetings."

 

"She was still a senator then. And don't be impertinent," he chided, causing Rey to hide the lower half of her face in the curve of her arm. He wondered if she was smiling. "I also learned more about my grandmother— what she accomplished as Queen of Naboo and then her work in the Senate. The years passed and we moved to New Alderaan and, as I immersed myself more and more in politics, my strange dreams went away and that presence in my head faded."

 

"Did you ever find out who or what it was?"

 

"No. And part of me doesn't want to know, either." He shrugged. "Perhaps it was just echoes."

 

"Perhaps."

 

"My grandparents gave me two legacies," Ben concluded. "In the end, I chose Padme Amidala's."

 

"I think it was for the best," Rey quipped. "You really would have made a terrible Jedi. But, as a senator, you're not so bad."

 

"That is tantamount to glowing praise, coming from you. Dare I hope this means you are more well-disposed towards me now?"

 

"I"m just making the best out of a situation that is less than ideal. As long as you bear in mind that Master Luke put me in charge, we should have no further problems."

 

He grinned, admiring her fire, the spirit with which she peppered every concession. This woman would take a mile for every inch and he could respect her for that. "Duly noted."

 

They continued talking well into the night as the HoloNet eased from one song to the next. It was parlor conversation for the most part, no topic as serious as what they had touched on earlier, but it flowed well. After years of having to negotiate the minefield of political machinations disguised as pleasantries, Ben found it a refreshing change of pace to be able to let his guard down. To allow himself to feel at peace, even if only for tonight, with jazz music and lake water and the light of Ohma-D'un. He and Rey gradually fell into the sleep that had eluded them both, and the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was the silhouette of her still figure in the dark, the vidscreen playing "Those Ole Spacer's Blues."

 

*

 

Ben woke up with a crick in his neck and an impression of warmth and silence and flowers. The vidscreen had gone dark— possibly because the late-night station had signed off with the coming of the dawn— and he was stretched out on the divan, as if his body had subconsciously sought a more comfortable position while he slept.

 

The second thing he noticed was that Rey was sprawled on top of him. Her head was pillowed on his chest and his arms were around her waist. His cock knew nothing about ten-year age gaps or Jedi Codes— it had registered only the soft, sweet-smelling feminine figure pressed against it and had thus risen valiantly to the occasion.

 

Oh, this was bad. This was very bad.

 

Ben attempted to wiggle out from underneath Rey, to put a safe distance between his raging erection and her stomach, but he froze when she mumbled something under her breath and his entire life flashed before his eyes.

 

Thankfully, she didn't wake up, her unintelligible words tapering off into a sigh. He peered down at her, and even more blood rushed south at the sight of her long brown hair spread across his pale skin. He chanted an apology in his head— to Rey, to his mother, to Luke— as he once again attempted to free himself.

 

This time, Rey moved. She clutched at his bare shoulders and parted her legs until she was straddling him, her hips undulating against his. Ben automatically clamped his hands on her thighs in an effort to immobilize her before he embarrassed himself, but that way lay ruin because the hem of her nightshirt had ridden up and his palms met smooth, supple skin. She whimpered in the back of her throat at the touch, her lips grazing the line of his jaw.

 

"Please," she whispered, and he nearly came right then and there.

 

She was obviously dreaming. He'd thought that the Jedi would be above such base fantasies but apparently one of their order wasn't made of stone, judging from the way she writhed above him, grinding down on his hard, pulsating length. It would be so easy to help her out, to just inch his fingers towards that hot, wet spot between her legs that he could feel through the thin layers of fabric separating her from him...

 

Somewhere within the villa, a door was slammed shut. It was probably the caretaker going through the cupboards to see what could be scrounged up for breakfast. That, or the First Order was attacking and Ben was going to die with the worst case of blue balls known to humankind. The sound reverberated loudly through the early morning stillness, and Rey woke up.

 

Their eyes met.

 

There were so many things about her face that he could blame for what he did next— the flecks of gold in her irises, the freckles splashed across the bridge of her nose, her parted lips, her dazed expression framed by that glorious, tangled mass of chestnut hair. Whatever the culprit was, it made his hand drift upwards, it made him trail two fingers from the lobe of her ear to the curve of her chin in a tender, intimate gesture that he wasn't even fully aware of until she recoiled from it, scooting away from him until her back hit the armrest of the divan and she could retreat no further.

 

He steeled himself for her wrath, for all manner of accusations, even for a world of pain. What he hadn't expected was the fierce scarlet hue that crept onto her cheeks, the heave of her chest, the way she abruptly crossed her legs. She was struggling to gain control, he realized, much like he was. He bolted upright into a sitting position, careful to angle his hips in a manner that kept the evidence of his lust out of her line of sight. The silence that followed was punctuated by their ragged breathing, by the faint lilt of birdsong from outside.

 

"Why did you do that?" Rey demanded after what seemed like an eternity, her voice trembling. "Why did you touch my face?"

 

So that was what mystified her? Not the fact that he'd basically been fondling her thighs while she dry-humped him in her sleep? "Believe me, I have no idea," Ben rasped.

 

She stood up and, stars, if she didn't look like the most commanding thing he'd ever seen, even all messy-haired and clad in nothing but an overlarge shirt. "I'll make a deal with you, Senator," she offered. He recognized that careful calm for what it was— the same form of meditative serenity that his uncle wrapped around himself like a cloak during emotionally charged situations. As good a mask as any other. "Let's just forget about this. It happens, doesn't it? It's mere biology."

 

I don't want to forget it, he thought. But out loud he said, matching her brisk, blank tone, "That seems like the wisest course of action." And, because there was a part of him that would always be his father's son, no matter how much he wished at times that it wasn't so, he added with a trace of irreverence, "Although this surely warrants us being on a first-name basis now."

 

"That wouldn't exactly be forgetting it, would it?" Rey said archly. "I'll see you at breakfast, Senator."

 

She exited the room and, after a while, Ben went back to his suite. He was in dire need of a long, cold shower.

 

*

 

They left Varykino on an Ikas-Adno 22-B Nightfalcon loaded down with their respective personal effects and enough supplies to last until Theed. Rey had surprisingly let Ben take the controls, although he suspected that she'd agreed for the same reason he'd asked— the thought of spending hours on the road with his groin one false move away from her derrière was unconscionable. This wasn't much better— her small hands clutching at his waist, her body practically molded against his, with slight dips in altitude and sharp turns pressing her soft breasts to his back— but at least he was distracted by the task of steering the speeder bike through the rolling green terrain of the Lake Country.

 

The sun was high in the sky when they stopped for lunch in a grassy field overrun with herds of plump, peacefully grazing shaak and wild kaadu galloping in the distance. Ben spread the picnic blanket over the ground while Rey unpacked a selection of sandwiches and dried fruit. He cast furtive glances at her while she did it; they were both in plain traveling clothes, and the vest, shirt, and leggings that she wore clung to her trim figure like second skin. Why did his Jedi bodyguard have to be so pretty? Was this his uncle's idea of a joke? No, Luke Skywalker was above that particular brand of humor...

 

At first, they ate without exchanging a single word, still hung up on the awkwardness from the morning, but Ben eventually noticed that Rey was studying their verdant surroundings with a wistful half-smile, and she shifted nervously when she caught him watching her. "I didn't have this where I grew up," she explained. "So much green, everywhere I look— until Master Saa brought me to Yavin 4, I didn't even think it was possible. My early childhood seems so ugly now." She took another bite out of her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "Not that it was spectacular to begin with."

 

"You're well away from there," Ben said. "You never have to go back."

 

She blinked those magnificent eyes at him, as if seeing him for the first time. "The thing is," she mumbled, "I didn't even want to leave in the first place. When I woke up in the Jedi Academy's medbay, I was furious. It all worked out for the best in the end— I know that now— but part of me still wants to go back. And part of me still thinks that, if time somehow reversed itself and I was given the choice to remain in Jakku or to accompany Master Saa, I would have chosen to stay."

 

"Why?"

 

"I was waiting for someone. Maybe several someones?" She shrugged. "I was left in the hands of the junk bosses when I was very young. I only have a vague memory of a woman telling me that she would be back, and of a ship disappearing into the skies as I begged whoever was in it not to go. I do realize that the Jedi gave me a better life, that they made me strong, but I can't help thinking— what if I missed my family's return by a day, or even by a few hours—" She stopped herself, shooting him one last unhappy look over the picnic spread. "There I go again, telling you my secrets."

 

"I've told you quite a few of mine," he pointed out. "I'd say we're even."

 

"Hardly. Why have you thrown in your lot with the Populists?"

 

Ben grimaced. "Is this a transparent effort to get me to stop asking personal questions or would you truly like to know?"

 

That endearing little half-snort broke through Rey's lips again. He was seized by the strangest of desires to hear her laugh for real. "I suppose it's a little bit of both," she confessed, "but more of the latter."

 

"Surely it's not so difficult to believe that I would advocate a greater degree of sovereignty for all Republic planets."

 

"Not difficult, per se, but most Coreworlders I've met are Centrist."

 

"I'm not from the Core."

 

"You grew up there, and New Alderaan is a Core diaspora. You said so yourself."

 

"A diaspora whose ruling council is composed chiefly of the surviving Great Houses," Ben clarified. "Nobility is always given to pursuing their own interests, Madame Jedi, and, right now, as they are struggling to rebuild fortunes lost during the Civil War, those interests run contrary to a stronger central government that would impose high taxes on business ventures and more bureaucratic red tape."

 

"Are you after the same thing, then, Senator?" Rey asked. "Wealth and glory?"

 

"I seek to serve my constituents, as any upright politician would," Ben smoothly replied.

 

She wrinkled her nose at him. "That's a good answer, but not an honest one."

 

He smirked. She had zero tolerance for the eloquent wordplay that his career hinged on, and he was liking her more and more for that. "It all comes back to the issue of legacy. Centrism is too reminiscent of my grandfather for my liking, while my grandmother was one of democracy's staunchest advocates in the last days of the Old Republic. True democracy means that every world has a voice."

 

"They were so different," Rey mused. "Anakin and Padme, I mean. They believed in such different things."

 

"The men in my family gravitate to women who challenge them on a regular basis," Ben blurted out before he could consider the weight of his words. He quickly looked away, disconcerted by the beginnings of an unfamiliar warmth rising to his cheeks. No twenty-one-year-old was going to reduce him to a blushing schoolboy. He categorically refused to let that happen.

 

He was gazing out over the plains now, and he experienced a fleeting moment of flickering double vision— a tall, lean figure balanced atop one of the shaak until he was inevitably thrown off, outlined against the blue horizon wreathed with purple mountains. Ben imagined that, for Anakin Skywalker, it would have felt, before he landed amidst the grass stalks, exactly like flying.

 

There was another ghost in this field. She whispered to Ben as he sat there, sun in his eyes, the breeze rustling across his face as if a hand were reaching out across the span of years: This is where I was happy.

 

*

 

They reached the glimmering shores of the Paonga in the early afternoon, stopping because Rey noticed that the speeder was listing slightly to the left. "It's the gyro-stabilizer," she announced, elbows deep in the circuitry panel while Ben stood to the side and felt rather useless. "Nothing a bit of tightening with the hydrospanner won't fix. Shouldn't take long."

 

"Jedi Knight, ace pilot, and now master mechanic," he remarked. "Any more talents of yours that I should be aware of?"

 

"Putting up with hotshot senators." Obscured as she was by the hull of the Nightfalcon from the waist up, he heard the smile in her voice rather than saw it on her face. He smiled in return, ducking his head.

 

Located at the edge of the densely thicketed Lianorm Swamp, the lake served as the entrance to the underwater city of Otoh Gunga; it wasn't long before a cluster of its lanky, fin-eared denizens surfaced, dripping all over the reeds. Most of them were carrying drums and the large, curved horns known as bawoonkas, and Ben nodded in greeting while Rey— after doing that thing Luke did wherein he assessed the Force for potential threats— threw herself into her work with a renewed vigor. Ben was starting to suspect that his bodyguard had antisocial tendencies.

 

"What brings you to the Paonga, outlanders?" asked the Gungan who appeared to be in charge. She was of the Otolla lineage, with skin the color of sunset and orange eyes perched on top of retractable stalks, and she spoke in her people's accented, burbling variation of Basic, her tone curious but friendly.

 

"We are en route to Theed, for the Festival of Light," Ben replied, and Rey's head immediately popped up to shoot him a look of pure horror.

 

"How fortuitous!" exclaimed the Gungan. "We ourselves surfaced to rehearse for the parade."

 

"Would you mind terribly if the lady and I stopped and listened for a while?"

 

The Gungans were happy to oblige, but, from her crouched position beside the speeder bike, Rey sprang to her feet and all but dragged Ben out of earshot. "What are you doing?" she hissed, glaring up at him, a spot of grease smeared on her left cheek. "You're too exposed here and we're under strict orders not to delay—"

 

"My mother and my uncle will understand. Not even they would turn down the opportunity to watch the Great Municipal Band perform on a beautiful day such as this."

 

And it was a beautiful day, the air bright and clear and the sun's rays scattered across the water's surface like diamonds. Ben made himself comfortable on one of the rocky ledges jutting out from the shore, patting the empty space beside him in a conciliatory gesture. Rey lifted her chin, lips pursed in annoyance, but sat down, careful not to let any part of her body touch his.

 

The Gungan conductor offered a theatrical little bow. "I am Radassa Jowil, daughter of Augara, who was the finest musikagung of her time."

 

"It's an honor to meet you," said Ben. "My companion is Rey of the Jedi and I am Ben Organa-Solo." If he thought that Rey had looked annoyed before, the expression on her face now made it clear that she would love nothing more than to whack him over the head with the hydrospanner.

 

"So much for traveling incognito," she snarled through clenched teeth, but it was lost in the furor as the Gungans repeated Ben's name among themselves, interspersed with snatches of Senator and, finally, in a chorus that drifted over the lapping of the waves, Amidala, Amidala, Amidala.

 

"We know just what to play for you, Senator Organa-Solo," Radassa told Ben, flourishing her baton. Moments later, the "Symponik Nabooalla" exploded from the waterline in a crescendoing five-pitch movement that trilled lovely and vibrant at the height of the summer afternoon. Composed by Augara Jowil to celebrate the historic meeting of Boss Nass and Queen Amidala in 32 BBY, it was a joyous medley of drums and bawoonkas and sweet voices, stirring and hopeful, resonating in the chambers of Ben's heart as it struck the chords of some long-buried ancestral memory. Glancing beside him, he noticed that Rey was having a hard time maintaining her pinched expression— he could almost swear that her right knee was bouncing ever so slightly to the beat, but she stiffened when she became aware of his scrutiny. He suddenly had the odd urge to put his arm around her, although he had no idea what for.

 

*

 

Ben could have happily listened to the Municipal Band for a few more hours, but a discreet cough from Rey soon signified that she'd fixed the gyro-stabilizer and it was time to get going. They bid farewell to Radassa and the other Gungans and, as they walked to where the Nightfalcon was docked, Rey informed Ben in a tone that brooked no argument that she would be the one to drive. "We need to cover as much ground as possible before it gets dark," she added with a hint of reproach, as if it was his fault— and, technically, it was— that they'd lost some daylight.

 

"Are you very angry with me?" he teased as he mounted the seat behind her.

 

"Why would I be?" she grunted. "You only blew our cover the first chance you got, is all."

 

"What was I supposed to do— give them a fake name? And then smile and wave from the balcony during the Festival? That would be a grave insult."

 

"The priority is to make sure that you are able to attend the Festival in a condition suitable for smiling and waving, not in a body bag."

 

"I hardly think Naboo's preeminent orchestra is in league with the First Order."

 

"Better late than never for you to start thinking, I suppose."

 

He allowed himself to wince because she couldn't see it from where she was sitting. The woman pulled no punches when she was in a mood. He had half a mind to comment that she was the least Jedi-like Jedi he'd ever met, but he was in no position to argue. So, instead, he touched her shoulder as she was revving the engine. She craned her neck towards him and he wiped away the grease stain on her cheek with the pad of his thumb. As he did so, he wondered if it would always be like this, a little shock of electricity running through him every time his skin touched hers. And he wondered if she felt it, too. Her slight shiver, the way her eyes fluttered shut so briefly that he could have been imagining it, surely those meant something.

 

All too soon, however, she jerked her face away. "I'd thank you to keep your hands to yourself, Senator."

 

"I apologize," he said. There were parts of him that meant it and parts of him that didn't. "It was bothering me."

 

*

 

The hours whirled by as the Nightfalcon roared through the Lake Country, hitting the banks of the Solleu River when the sky had taken on the melancholy purple tinge of dusk. Ben's stomach growled and he was about to yell a suggestion at Rey over the drone of the engine that they stop for the night, have supper, set up camp, but—

 

Movement, at the corner of his eye. Several menacing shapes emerged from the treeline— five heavily-armed black speeder bikes accented with stripes of red, each one piloted by a brawny figure clad in obsidian armor that reminded Ben of the Empire's shadow stormtroopers.

 

"E chu ta," Rey swore under her breath and, despite the urgency of the situation, Ben quirked an eyebrow. She definitely hadn't learned that at the Jedi Academy.

 

Putting the thrusters into overdrive, Rey managed to gain some distance but it wasn't long before laser bolts started whizzing past, kicking up clouds of dust as they rent the earth. "Hang on tight!" she shouted, and Ben flattened his torso against her back, wrapping his arms around her waist in a death grip as she wove from side to side to avoid the lethal barrage. This proved successful only for the next few minutes; an abrupt lurch in momentum made him look over his shoulder to see that the repulsorlift had been hit and was now leaking smoke and sparks.

 

"She's going to blow," he warned, and Rey cursed again before barking, "Give me some cover!"

 

Ben twisted around and, with some difficulty, fished a blaster out of the satchel fastened to the side of the cargo hold. Scavenged from Varykino's vaults, the DH-17 pistol was a relic of the Galactic Civil War, but it would have to do. Taking aim, he waited until Rey had completed her next swerve, and then he fired off a headshot that knocked the nearest assassin to the ground, their speeder pivoting wildly out of control and crashing into the one behind it.

 

Two down, but the remaining three had outflanked the damaged Nightfalcon, which was now trembling and sputtering dangerously. "Jump!" Rey yelled.

 

Ben hesitated. "What about you?"

 

She turned to him, just for a few seconds, but it was long enough to brand the look on her face into his memory— a mixture of disbelief, frustration, and wonder. It was the look of someone who wasn't used to people worrying about them. Time slowed, the world narrowing down to tangled, windblown chestnut hair and the constellations of her freckles against a blur of trees and river and sky.

 

"Are you out of your mind?" she screeched, jolting him from his reverie. "I'm a Jedi. I can handle myself! Now jump, or I'll kick you off!"

 

As far as threats went, this was rather effective. Ben hurled himself onto a patch of grass that unfortunately did nothing to soften the landing. The pain robbed him of breath but he wasted no time in scrambling to his feet, watching as the Nightfalcon's hull started to tear from the internal stress, its circuits catching fire. Rey pulled the disintegrating vehicle into one last sharp turn, ramming the First Order speeder on her left and then leaping away from the explosion that followed. She somersaulted in the air and twin blades of sapphire shrieked into existence as she dropped onto the pilot seat behind the assassin on her right, plunging her saberstaff through their chest. The speeder crashed into a tree trunk; she emerged a beat later from the haze of splinters and smoke and metal shards, all set to confront the last remaining assassin—

 

who immediately threw their speeder into reverse and then turned and fled, soon becoming nothing more than a shimmer of fumes on the horizon.

 

"Into the trees," Rey panted before Ben could say anything, before he could even close his mouth that had fallen open at the way she'd moved and fought and left destruction in her wake. "We don't know if there are any more of them out here. We have to hide."

Chapter Text

The swamp forests of Naboo were old and vast, overgrown with towering, gnarled Cambylictus trees, rust-red chak-root, and fat tentacle ferns. Fur-covered, yellow-eyed ollopoms paddled beneath the water's surface, chomping on the abundant green strain of glie that was toxic to humans and weaving amidst the mushroom-like bubble spores that the Gungans used to build their cities.

 

Once in awhile these bubble spores would release clouds of translucent purple seeds into the air, wreaking havoc on Ben's pollen allergy every time they drifted past. His nose was stuffy and his throat felt like it had been scraped raw, but they had no medicine. They had nothing that could possibly aid in their trek except Ben's blaster pistol, Rey's saberstaff, and the flashlight that she'd unclipped from her utility belt and was shining onto the forest floor as they slogged their way through mud and roots and muja bushes and thick vine curtains.

 

They also had the music ball that Ben had pocketed before leaving Varykino, but he doubted Rey would appreciate such a gadget when she was concentrating so deeply on using the Force to discern the correct path to Theed. She whipped her head around to scowl at him whenever he coughed or sneezed, her patience evaporating the tenth time it happened.

 

"For the love of—" She shoved him none too gently against a tree trunk, tugging at his elbows in an unspoken command to sit down. Even in his woozy state, he noted that she'd at least made sure they were well away from the flooded areas. There were more dangerous creatures than ollopoms in the swamp waters of Naboo.

 

She nudged his legs apart and dropped to her knees in the space between, levitating the flashlight over her shoulder, the narrow beam trained directly on his features. He must have looked as ill as he felt but she said nothing as she cradled his face in her hands. This close, he could see pent-up rage simmering in her eyes; however, she closed them before he could ponder the source, and she took a deep breath and—

 

And the Force flowed from her and into him in pulses of healing energy, light pouring into his veins. Her saber-callused fingers traced a resonant path from his brow to his cheekbones to the line of his jaw and he felt it again, that magnetic pull that he had been trying to stifle since Varykino— perhaps even since that first fight on the Banshee. Or perhaps even since New Alderaan, when she had been ushered into his office fresh from Yavin 4. He'd been perusing a report at his desk when the doors hissed open and, even before he looked up, even before she greeted him in that dulcet voice, he'd gotten a fluttery sensation in the pit of his stomach that his life would somehow never be the same.

 

Her eyes were still closed but her face seemed so much nearer to his than it had been a moment ago. He didn't know which of them had leaned forward; he knew only that the Force trilled a song of newness and spring, and that he was being drawn to her by some strange connection that tensed and coiled like strings of fate. His gaze fell to her mouth, lingering on the unexpectedly sensual swell of her bottom lip. He wondered what it would feel like between his teeth.

 

"I—" Rey pulled away with a shuddering breath. Her eyes snapped open and she stood up, glaring at him. "We'll have to find another path through here. One that doesn't offend Your Worshipness' sensibilities."

 

"Either your bedside manner leaves much to be desired," he remarked as he followed her deeper into the woods, away from the bubble spores, "or you are irritated with me for some reason."

 

"Irritated?" She spun on her heel, jabbing a finger at his chest. "Believe me, I have gone beyond 'irritated.' As a matter of fact, I'm absolutely livid!" She all but screamed that last word while he stood there frozen, blinking, stunned by her outburst. "From the moment you and I met, I have executed my duties to the best of my ability but you have undermined me, refused to listen to me, and generally made my life hell at every turn. And now, thanks to you, we're spending the night in a godforsaken swamp, with no gear, no food—"

 

"Thanks to me?" Ben echoed. "How is this my fault?"

 

"You told the Gungans who you were—"

 

"— they had nothing to do with—"

 

"— a few hours later the First Order latched onto our tail—"

 

"— coincidence— why would the Gungans ally themselves with—"

 

"— you have to admit that it's highly suspicious—"

 

"— they remember my—"

 

"— and that's all, Senator!" Rey shouted. It rang through the trees like the crack of a whip. "That's all that connects them to you. They don't know you. To them, you're nothing more than a memory." Her eyes appeared strangely wet in the glow of the flashlight and, while he could tell that it was the harrowing onslaught of recent events that had pushed her to her breaking point, there was something about her tone indicating to him that the conversation had strayed into emotional territory that had little to do with the past few days. "You have all these noble ideals but sometimes you just have to accept the fact that people can be cruel and treacherous. You shouldn't trust anyone."

 

"Including you?" he challenged. It was instinct, the desire of a politician to have the last word in an argument, and when she flinched he felt like he had won nothing at all.

 

"You shouldn't trust me, either," she said darkly. "This is my first mission and it's turned into one big mess." She was thinking about what happened on the divan in the villa. He could see it on her face. "I was so excited to prove myself to the Council. To have purpose. To protect someone my master loved. Instead—" She turned away with an exhausted sigh and resumed walking. "I told you before that you would be a terrible Jedi, but I'm starting to think that applies to me as well."

 

It took Ben a while to identify the hollow pang in his stomach as guilt. Over the course of his career, he had acquired the skill of putting himself in other people's shoes— to understand where they were coming from, what made them tick. How could he have failed to do the same with this woman? How could he have forgotten what it was like to be in one's early twenties, chafing under constant instruction, so eager to find a place in the galaxy?

 

He wanted to apologize, but she had set as brisk a pace as the muddy, uneven terrain would allow, and it was all he could do to keep her and her flashlight in his sights as the undergrowth thickened and the night wore on.

 

*

 

After some time had passed, they stumbled into a clearing that seemed like a decent enough place to catch a few hours of sleep. The ground was relatively dry and the wide gap in the forest canopy opened up to a black velvet sky dotted with stars and the pale orb of Ohma-D'un. They settled down at the base of one of the Cambylictus trees, in a hollow formed by the tangle of massive roots protruding from the earth. Both of them sat with their backs against the wood, legs stretched out over grass and dead leaves. Ben assumed that he would find sleep hard to come by in these conditions, but weariness hit like a blow once he reclined, and he soon dozed off.

 

It was light, fitful slumber because he was hungry and all keyed up. It felt like mere seconds later— although in reality at least half an hour must have gone by— when he was roused by the sound of movement and chattering teeth. Beside him, Rey was huddled in on herself, knees to chest as she rubbed her bare arms. It was a summer night but the woods were cool and there was a breeze.

 

"Come here," Ben said, his voice low.

 

"Why?" Rey asked caustically.

 

"You're freezing."

 

"I'll manage. Everyone thinks a slight chill will do me in, but temperatures in the desert drop at night, you know—"

 

Her sentence cut off in a squeak when he reached over and hauled her into his arms, tucking her body against his so that her cheek was pressed to his chest and her legs were bracketed by his own. She struggled at first, probably called him all manner of names in her head, but he tightened his grip on her waist, hugging her closer to him until she stilled.

 

And, after interminable ages, relaxed. Just the slightest bit. Just a barely perceptible loosening to limbs that had been all wound up. But it was enough for Ben, who, in all honesty, felt much like the way he had when he finally left the Senate floor after an eight-hour filibuster. He rested his chin atop her head, another wave of relief coursing through him when she allowed such a gesture— or, at the very least, didn't flay him alive for doing so.

 

"You're like a furnace," she grumped, her words muffled by the fabric of his shirt.

 

"The better to serve you with," he quipped, and she snorted. The ensuing silence was the most amiable one they had shared thus far, drowsy and peaceful. She burrowed deeper against him, as if seeking more of his warmth, and he ran a soothing hand down her side, seized by an unfamiliar sense of protectiveness. Which, frankly, was ridiculous— they were only being practical, he was only doing this to stop his bodyguard from turning into a block of ice. That was the rational way to look at things but his instincts hadn't gotten the memo. As if of their own volition, his lips brushed across her hairline as he tilted his head to sort of— nuzzle at her temple. He didn't understand it, the need behind such an act; it wasn't lust but somehow it was just as primal.

 

Rey's hands fisted in his shirtfront. "Tell me something."

 

"What?"

 

"I don't know." She sounded scared. And, oh, so young. "Anything. Whatever's real."

 

There were secrets buried deep in Ben Organa-Solo's heart, secrets he had sworn would never see the light of day. But perhaps the light of the Water Moon and all these stars would be all right, would judge him less harshly. "I know that people can be cruel and treacherous," he said at last. "I look at all the chaos in the galaxy, the corruption at the highest levels of government, the interplanetary conflicts over the smallest things, all the time that the Senate wastes pontificating on issues instead of solving them, and I think— I think perhaps Sheev Palpatine had the right idea, after all." Bile rose to the back of his tongue just to say it but, strangely, it felt good to finally be able to tell someone. "I think I can do better, that I can work towards something more effective if I join the Centrists. And then I think about why I never will."

 

The woman in his arms didn't respond for so long that he began to think she'd fallen asleep. However, just as he was about to close his eyes, she spoke. "I dream of touch," Rey whispered. "I dream of not being lonely. What happened in Varykino... I've been waking up like that a lot these past few years, aching all over. I know that isn't the Jedi way but I can't help it. I think about kisses like I used to think about food back when I was starving on Jakku."

 

You're welcome to kiss me, was Ben's lecherous initial reaction. He'd never claimed to be a morally upstanding individual, anyway. But that wasn't why she'd shared something so personal about herself, and it was his turn now. "I don't like my father," he said. "I love him because children are supposed to love their parents, but I was very quiet when I was younger, sensitive to everything that was going on, and he was loud and brash and grated on my nerves. He still does. I resent him for giving my mother such a hard time, and I can't help feeling that he resents me in turn for becoming just another politician. Then there's the stigma I've had to fight all my life, in the kind of social circles I have to navigate... I shouldn't be ashamed of being a smuggler's son and I shouldn't be angry with him because of that. But I am."

 

Rey's hand found his in the dark, their fingers tangling together, tentatively yet with an almost desperate compulsion. "I resent, too," she mumbled. "There's a part of me that thinks I would've found my family by now, if only I'd stayed. It's this little what if that preys on my mind and, as long as we're being honest, taints my view of the Jedi Order. It's been ten years but I still haven't forgiven Master Saa for taking me away, and I'm afraid that I never will."

 

He brought their joined hands to his lips and kissed the side of her palm. It was comfort the only way he knew how to give it, and yet it seemed more intimate than anything he had ever done with past lovers. Ohma-D'un gleamed like a cold coin overhead, whisking the Cambylictus trees into silver-stained ghosts of themselves, and he recalled snatches of an Alderaanian lullaby that his mother had used to sing. "Mirrorbright shines the moon, its glow as soft as an ember. When the moon is mirrorbright, take this time to remember those you have loved..."

 

Now, as before, Ben fell asleep with that old melody in his head. The ground was hard and the air was cold and he was technically on the run for his life but, somehow, with Rey gathered in his embrace as her breathing gradually evened out against his heartbeat, he had never felt more at peace.

 

*

 

She shook him awake early the next day, when the sky had just begun to lighten. They extricated themselves from each other quickly but with none of the horrified abruptness of that morning in Varykino. In fact, the smile that she flashed at him from the corner of her mouth as she stood up and ran a hand over her hair was shy but with a hint of sweetness. He supposed that two people could hardly spend the night telling secrets without becoming friends of some sort.

 

"Breakfast?" he hopefully inquired as they left the clearing.

 

"Pick it yourself," she shot back, gesturing at the muja bushes clustered along the path. "But I think we're near a town or maybe a city. It's starting to feel... busier. If that makes sense."

 

He nodded, understanding how what one picked up in the Force could sometimes be difficult to put into words. Leia had multiple stories of him as a baby gurgling Dada seconds before Han commed to let her know that he was back from off-world. Ben did not get along with his father, it was true, but he'd always been able to hone in on his presence. Han Solo was larger than life, it seemed.

 

The muja fruit was summer-ripe, elastic crimson skin bursting with tart, sugary juices on Ben's tongue, clusters of edible seeds providing a pleasant crunch. As the sun rose higher and its golden rays filtered in through the forest canopy, birdsong suffused the air. He felt like he and Rey were in a fairy tale from the holobooks of his boyhood— just a couple of adventurers wandering through some mystical glade.

 

Unfortunately, the illusion was soon dispelled when a flock of nuna waddled onto the trail, their pear-shaped bodies balanced on long, disproportionately slender legs ending in clawed, three-toed feet. The comical reptavians otherwise known as swamp turkeys gobbled and clucked as they pecked at the mossy ground, oblivious to the two humans blinking at them in amused disbelief.

 

"Stop that," Rey warned Ben upon noticing the smirk on his face. "They can't help the way they look."

 

"I am certain that they possess many hidden qualities," he deadpanned. " Extremely hidden."

 

She almost laughed at that. He could see it in how she bit her lip and looked away, only to peek at him out of the corner of her eye while her mouth curved upwards. Encouraged, he continued, "I heard there's good eating on these things."

 

"Senator, no. Never mind the fact that we'll have to start a fire— I'm not going to butcher one of these helpless animals with my lightsaber when we're not in any danger of starvation." She resumed her calm, steady pace through the forest and he trailed after her, leaving the ridiculous nuna behind.

 

"Speak for yourself, Madame Jedi," he said. "I could eat a horse."

 

"You've already put the muja bush on the endangered flora list," she serenely pointed out.

 

"I require protein," he countered.

 

She glanced over at him and color began to stain her cheeks. Oh, he would definitely be wondering about that for the rest of the day. "If you want to try your luck with that blaster, be my guest, but I'm not skinning or gutting anythi—"

 

In retrospect, the veermok had most likely been lurking in the undergrowth while Ben and Rey were too caught up in their banter to keep in mind that wherever a flock of gamebirds had gathered, a predator would doubtless be nearby. But in that moment it seemed as if the large, hulking primate leapt out of nowhere in a blur of shaggy gray fur, tackling Rey to the ground with a ferocious bellow that revealed sharp yellow canines as long as a man's forearm.

 

Even though she was flat on her back, Rey managed to pry the veermok's jaws apart with both hands to prevent it from taking a bite out of her neck as she struggled to buck it off. Raising his pistol, Ben fired at the tussling mess of limbs on the forest floor, hitting the beast on the shoulder. It reared back, howling in more surprise than pain, and then charged at Ben with deadly speed, the earth vibrating from its thunderous steps. The next few rounds from the blaster had about as much effect on the veermok's thick hide as a smattering of mosquito bites, and Ben holstered his weapon with some vague idea of scrambling up the nearest tree, when, suddenly—

 

Rey moved faster than should have been humanly possible, sweeping in from the side and placing herself between Ben and the primate. "Stop!" she shouted— she commanded— raising her hand in the matching gesture.

 

The veermok halted in its tracks mere inches away, nostrils flaring as it stared at her with slitted red eyes. It roared again, a deep, menacing sound that shattered the forest stillness, spittle flying from its fanged maw, but Rey didn't flinch. Ben felt her tugging at the strings of the Force, sending out a placating aura to wrap around the creature's primitive brain.

 

"We are not your prey," she murmured. "We don't want to hurt you. Go."

 

With a low, rumbling growl, the veermok backed away. It shot Ben and Rey one last wary look, teeth bared, before disappearing into the undergrowth, leaves and branches rustling in its wake.

 

Ben heaved a sigh of relief. He was about to congratulate Rey on a job well done when her slim frame collapsed against him. "Now, now," he teased, catching her in his arms, "I ought to be one fainting after—"

 

The rest of the sentence withered in his throat and the blood in his veins ran cold at the sight of her face— the sickly gray complexion, the pale, parted lips. It didn't take long to discern the cause; the bottom half of her shirtfront was soaked through with scarlet, rapidly expanding and dripping onto the grass. He laid her down gently, resting her head on his lap and bunching her shirt up just below her breasts. Three jagged, angry-looking claw-marks bisected the golden skin of her stomach in diagonal red lines that slashed all the way to her hipbone.

 

"Rey," he grated out, attempting to quell his rising panic as he bent over her, cradling her face in his palms and gazing into her clouded hazel eyes. "Rey. We have no medpacs. You have to heal."

 

"I do believe that's the first name you've ever called me by my name, Senator," she breathed, dazed and fading fast. "Sounds nice in your mouth— wait, forget I said that—"

 

He stifled a frantic laugh. "I'll call you whatever you want as often as you want after you pull through this— please—"

 

She shook her head weakly. "I don't think I can. I'm not very good at healing myself, especially when it's this serious." She was losing so much blood; it streamed in rivulets down her side, drenching the earth beneath. "I've never—"

 

"Listen to me." Ben hunched further down, pressing his forehead to hers. Here is touch, here is your anchor. "You can do this. You're a Jedi Knight. One of the strongest I've ever met. I know you have your doubts but... what happened with the veermok, the way you calmed it? Luke Skywalker could not have done better. Trust me. Come on." Tugging at her limp wrist, he placed her hand over the enormous, gaping wounds. "There is no emotion, there is peace," he coaxed, summoning from memory the Code that his uncle lived by, the Code that he himself had pored over and analyzed in days long gone. If he concentrated, he could still see the words scrawled in High Galactic on musty, yellowing paper. "There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is no passion, there is serenity. There is no chaos, there is harmony..."

 

Rey closed her eyes. "There is no death," she whispered as light began to flow from her fingers, suturing her mangled flesh, "there is the Force."

 

*

 

When it was over— when the outpouring of energy subsided and she returned to herself— he explored the smooth plane of her taut stomach with a trembling hand. Blood came off on his palm but her wounds were gone, leaving no indication that they had ever been there in the first place. Except for a pale, needle-thin line, courtesy of the claw that had cut deepest. It gleamed almost silver against her skin and he ran the tip of his index finger along the length of it, from the base of her sternum to the edge of her navel to the curvature of her hip. He was mesmerized, drawn as always to the sheer immensity of the Force and what it could do, and yet he couldn't allow even a hint of regret to surface from the depths of his heart. That way lay ruin. That way opened the door to monsters.

 

Rey's breathing was coming out in shallow bursts. Ben realized, much to his chagrin, that his touch was bordering on not-so-clinical and that his other hand, the one that had remained curled beside her face, was now stroking her cheek. He stilled his movements, embarrassed, but it was a full minute before she took mercy on them both and sat up.

 

They washed off at a nearby burbling stream, taking care to stick to the shallows. The last thing they needed at this point was one of Naboo's aquatic predators dragging either of them into the water. Little could be done about Rey's bloodstained shirt unless she took it off and wrung it out, and they were both decidedly not keen on that. The sharp, electrifying tension had coiled between them once more and it wouldn't take much to make it snap. He wondered if they'd ever get around to talking about it but, then again, what would be the point? They were from different worlds, literally and figuratively speaking. The vows he had just recited— her vows— made that all too clear.

 

*

 

It was approaching midday when they broke through the tree line to find that this part of the swamp forest ended on a small hill. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue, and the familiar silhouette of Theed beckoned from the distant horizon in flashes of sunlight glinting off tinted clari-crystalline windows and domed rooftops. Much nearer, though, was the city of Spinnaker, a few miles away from the bottom of the hill that Ben and Rey stood on.

 

Nestled along the banks of the Solleu, Spinnaker looked much more austere and industrial than Theed, but it was civilization nonetheless. Ben's mood lightened considerably at the thought of hot meals and soft beds and, as he and Rey made their way down the hill, he retrieved the music ball from his pocket. Rey wrinkled her nose at him as the jaunty roboto tune of "I Wanna Weld Your Hand" filled the air.

 

"This is an older make," he explained, holding up the sphere with a trace of defensiveness. "Its datachip is outmoded."

 

"Ancient," she corrected.

 

"What sort of music do the youth listen to these days, then?"

 

"Oh, music," she scoffed. "Who has time for that?"

 

"It is one of life's finer pleasures. The soul must be nourished, Rey."

 

"I don't have time for pleasure, either. And my soul gets enough nourishment from the Jedi Masters' lectures, thank you very much."

 

"Is my uncle a good teacher?" he asked, suddenly curious.

 

She shrugged. "He mostly lets us do our own thing. Commune with the environment, meditate with the holocrons, stuff like that. It's really Masters Saa and Tano who implement some semblance of structure with the methods that they themselves were taught." She hesitated. "Master Tano—"

 

"— was my grandfather's apprentice, yes," said Ben. "She was invaluable in reconstructing his history prior to becoming Darth Vader. She must be very old now."

 

"The Force grants long life. When was the last time you saw her?"

 

"Seven years ago, when I visited Yavin 4." He frowned. "I should have been introduced to you then, surely."

 

"I was probably off exploring," Rey mused. "Seems like the sort of thing I'd have been busy doing seven years ago. By the time I was knighted, I knew the jungle like the back of my hand. We weren't technically allowed to go very far, but..." She trailed off with a secretive, mischievous half-smile.

 

"Yes," Ben muttered, taking in the way the bright sunlight danced across her freckle-strewn features, "I have a feeling you were quite the little rule-breaker."

 

The curve of her mouth grew by a fraction. "I actually found a bunch of interesting ruins. Stone temples, mostly, like the Jedi Praxeum, but they were either in pieces or sealed up or already reclaimed by nature."

 

"Your Praxeum was originally a shrine to Naga Sadow, constructed by Massassi slaves when the Sith fled to Yavin 4 at the tail-end of the Great Hyperspace War. Over the centuries, the Massassi built a number of smaller temples as well."

 

"I had no idea you were a historian, too, Senator." Rey's tone was curious, teasing.

 

"I read a lot. I might have been a scholar in another life," Ben quipped. "We'll never know."

 

"I guess not."

 

They trekked on in companionable silence, heralded by Old Republic melodies. They were a stone's throw from the welcome arch of Spinnaker when the music ball segued into "Crazy Wicked Witch," and Ben snorted. "This is my father's favorite song," he informed a puzzled Rey.

 

Her eyes widened in rapt fascination for a fleeting moment before she apparently remembered herself and cleared her throat. "Sorry. It's just that— I heard a lot about Han Solo while I was growing up. He's something of a legend among spacers, smugglers, pirates— the sort of people who would frequent Jakku, basically."

 

"I can imagine," Ben muttered.

 

"All those daring exploits aboard the Millennium Falcon," Rey continued, oblivious to the souring of his mood, "how he did the Kessel Run in fourteen parsecs—"

 

Twelve, Ben thought, but didn't bother correcting her.

 

"— and it seems so silly now but when I was a kid I'd run flight simulations, fantasize I was his co-pilot—"

 

"Should I warn Chewbacca that you're gunning for his job?" Ben sniped.

 

Rey looked at him askance, biting her lip. He was fairly certain he hadn't meant to sound so awful but it was annoying that the first time his pretty bodyguard displayed an emotion close to charming girlishness would be on account of Han Solo. It was just like his father to ruin things for him even though they were entire solar systems apart—

 

No, Ben admonished himself sternly, suppressing that train of thought before it could take him to the old dark places. He was no longer that resentful, sullen child on Coruscant, and he had to take responsibility for his actions.

 

"Forgive me," he said to Rey. In his earnest desire to wipe the heartbreakingly guilt-stricken look off her face, he told her the truth in a manner that he hoped was self-deprecating enough to downplay the gravity of it. "I was jealous."

 

"You flatterer," she accused, startling a chuckle out of him. "Anyway, I should have remembered that you and Han don't get along. I'm sorry, too."

 

Ben nodded, not knowing what else to say. He was somewhat taken aback by how open, how honest they were with each other despite their tumultuous beginning. Yes, as a senator, he was well-versed in compromise and conflict deescalation, and she, as a Jedi, would naturally be skilled at reading people and resolving arguments, but this went beyond all that. They'd only met a few days ago but he felt as if he'd known her his entire life.

 

Upon reaching Spinnaker, he pocketed the music ball and paused to let Rey walk beneath the welcome arch first. A shivery current glided down his spine when she gently brushed past him, their bodies maintaining contact for one dizzying second longer than necessary, and that was the moment it truly came into focus and descended upon him like a chill— the realization that he might be in danger of making Padme Amidala's mistakes.

Chapter Text

Despite boasting the elegant architecture and graceful blue domes characteristic of Naboo's human settlements, Spinnaker was still unmistakably a supply center for the rest of the planet. The streets were congested with three-meter-tall binary loadlifter droids lugging heavy boxes from the factories to the spaceport, where a constant parade of cargo freighters alternated between docking and taking off. The Solleu River flowed into the harbor, carrying with it sun-burnt fishermen on their rigs and gondola speeders bearing produce from numerous farmlands.

 

In the midst of the busy atmosphere, however, were little nods to the Festival of Light— parapets adorned with colorful bunting, repulsorcab operators hawking discount fare to Theed, holoposters detailing the main attractions of the event and where to stay and dine, and sale announcements on various storefronts.

 

"Would you like to go shopping now or get something to eat first?" Ben asked Rey.

 

"Shopping?" she repeated blankly.

 

"Our clothes for the Festival went down with the ship, so to speak," he reminded her. "I suggest we shop now. Your flair for accessorizing has begun to draw attention." True enough, passersby were casting wary glances, doing outright double takes, and giving Rey and her bloodstained shirt a wide berth. It was only a matter of time before a security officer marched over and started asking questions.

 

They eventually located Trader's Plaza in the heart of the city and Ben almost couldn't believe his luck when he spotted a familiar-looking sigil among the sea of shops. About time I caught a break, he thought wryly as he ushered Rey into an establishment marked by the most discreet of signboards— the golden silhouette of a kreehawk, a symbol of the Cato Neimoidia purse world, emblazoned on a rich scarlet background.

 

The interior was liberally perfumed with the sweet, cloying scent of Tarisian roses. Bolts of Fleureline weave, Cyrene silk, and other luxurious fabrics lined the handsome laroon wood shelves. Here and there were mannequins artfully draped in opulent robes, Bosph starcrystals and night pearls, yards and yards of lace. The Neimodian species was notorious for becoming easily distressed, and the petite shop assistant was no exception— her green-gray skin turned an alarmed shade of pink at the sight of Rey and she fled without a single word.

 

"Oh, honestly, it's not that bad," Rey huffed as Ben tried not to snicker. "It's only a little blood—"

 

"My dear," interrupted a droll, smoky voice from the back of the shop, "you look like a crime scene. I don't know whether to classify you as the murderer or the hapless victim." A tall, regal figure emerged from the flower-scented shadows, followed meekly by the nervous-looking assistant. " Wahr koom, Senator Organa-Solo. I assumed you would be gracing Naboo with your presence at this time, but also that you would head straight for the capital. I did not expect to see you in this in-between place."

 

" L'a heeting, Lady Datza." Ben kissed the aquamarine hand extended towards him, his lips meeting the cold gem of one of the many rings adorning Taifnu Datza's long fingers. "I could say the same of you. Does Theed no longer hold enough excitement for the finest couturier in the galaxy?"

 

"Sky-high rent and too much competition cutting into my profits, darling. Moving my operation to Spinnaker was the best decision I've made in years. The merchant class here is doing rather well for themselves and they're eager to augment their newfound status with pretty clothes, and my old aristocratic clientele has proved willing to make the trip out to see me. After all, I am 'the finest couturier in the galaxy'— I see you're still using the same old tricks." Taifnu playfully slapped his shoulder. "Why do I keep letting you get away with it?"

 

Ben unleashed his most charming smile, the one learned at Leia Organa's feet. "I think we both know why, my lady."

 

"Oh, you handsome devil," cooed Taifnu. "All right, all right. How may I be of service?" The last word was emphasized with relish, punctuated with a coy smirk.

 

Ben glanced at Rey. For some reason, her posture had stiffened while she was listening to the exchange, and now her fists were clenched and her eyes seemed to be flashing in the silvery-soft mood lighting of the shop. "My bodyguard and I ran into a spot of trouble on the road," he said, returning his attention to Taifnu. "She will require a change of clothes. Nothing too fancy, just traveling attire."

 

"As you wish," the Neimoidian readily agreed. She'd been in the business for over three decades and, according to rumors, had spun gowns for the mistresses of royalty and veils for secret weddings and funeral shrouds for rightful heirs. It stood to reason, then, that she saw no need to ask questions— it would probably take more than a bit of blood to faze her at this point. "I have a selection of cloaks and tunics that would fit her like a dream after a few adjustments. Shouldn't take more than an hour."

 

"That same spot of trouble also claimed our garments for the Festival— hers and mine—"

 

"Absolutely not," Taifnu sniffed. "Even if you take a liking to any of my existing pieces, my assistants and I will have to make alterations, sew all those little accoutrements... It simply cannot be finished in time. The Festival is tomorrow."

 

"I have every faith in you, Lady Datza," Ben smoothly replied, "and you will, of course, be well-compensated for your efforts..."

 

That was the signal for negotiations to begin. It took a while but at last they managed to settle on a flat rate, and that was when Rey intervened, sounding equal parts incredulous and exasperated. "Senator, I cannot condone this. The dress robes I brought with me weren't worth even a fraction of what this new gown would cost, and there's no way I'll ever be able to pay you back—"

 

"I'm not going to make you reimburse me," he snapped, annoyed that she would believe this of him. "This is—" He almost said a gift, which was the truth, but that would not have gone over well— "a necessary expense that I'm happy to shoulder. It would reflect poorly on my office if you attended the Festival in clothes markedly inferior to mine."

 

Rey sighed. "All right, but nothing elaborate. I'd still like to be able to do my job should the need arise."

 

"That would certainly liven up that dull ceremony," Taifnu quipped. There was a cunning gleam in her ruby-toned eyes as she looked from Ben to Rey but, whatever she was thinking, she kept it to herself. "Now, come this way so you can both make your selections."

 

*

 

Ben chose his garments fairly quickly, rattling off his desired specifications to the personal assistant droid that had been summoned to take note of such things in addition to his measurements. The droid then disappeared into the workroom of the shop with the selected clothes, and Ben went in search of the women.

 

He found Taifnu and her Neimoidian assistant standing outside a cubicle partitioned off by a shimmering holographic curtain, the latter holding a bundle of plain Tarelle sei-weave in her arms. "Iarsa and I must go alter these now," Taifnu informed Ben. "Should your lovely bodyguard require assistance... well, you have experience in helping women out of their finery, don't you, Senator?"

 

There was a thump from behind the holo-curtain, as if Rey had missed a step and consequently dashed some part of her body against the wall.

 

"By the way," Taifnu continued, "I was thinking we should have dinner later, just the two of us. To catch up."

 

"Dinner would be wonderful," said Ben, who needed the couturier in an amenable mood if he wanted to show up at the Festival in something other than rags.

 

There was, as his uncle might have called it, a disturbance in the Force— a thorny knot of jumbled emotions that tore at the air. All of Ben's focus shifted to the woman hidden from view by veils of static. "Everything all right?"

 

"Everything's fine," came the reply in a clipped, icy tone that made him blink. Taifnu and her assistant— Iarsa— had already walked away, leaving him alone in the white waiting room.

 

For the next several minutes, there was nothing but the rustle of fabric and the scrape of zippers. And then total silence, followed by Rey's grudging voice, "I need help."

 

"Of course." Ben stepped forward as she deactivated the holo-curtain. And the world promptly fell out from under him— in a metaphorical sense but it might as well have really happened, the breath catching in his throat and his stomach flipping in on itself and gravity a distant, half-remembered dream.

 

The gown was sewn from Denebrillan star silk in shades of glittery scarlet that gently darkened into the color of the midnight sky. The bodice... simply did not exist. Instead, wide, bell-shaped sleeves revealed an inch of creamy skin above black elbow-length Emori leatherwork gloves and intersected at Rey's waist before tapering off into a sheath skirt that clung to her hips like she'd been poured into it. The cut of the gown displayed the valley between her breasts all the way to her toned stomach, so daringly draped over her torso that it seemed like any sudden movement on her part would bare her small, pert breasts to him. It was a gown designed to excite, to arouse, and Ben was struck dumb.

 

Rey shifted nervously, the discomfort on her face and in her body language piercing through the haze of lust that had descended upon him. "I put it on but now I can't take it off," she mumbled.

 

He hated that she sounded so unsure of herself. It wasn't like her at all. "There's no rush." He smiled at her. It was not his politician's smile. It crinkled the corners of his eyes. "You look beautiful."

 

She blinked in surprise but said nothing as she held her left hand out to him in a silent request. Feeling a bit foolish, he let the smile fade and began to tug the form-fitting glove down her arm, his fingers wedged between the smooth leather and her soft skin. There was an odd intimacy to this moment; he bent his head to concentrate on the task but he felt her gaze stray to him every once in awhile. By the time he finished removing the second glove, his heart was pounding fast with a kind of dreadful anticipation for what would come next.

 

Rey turned around and Ben's self-control took another savage beating. The back of the dress was more conservative, but he had to undo the clasp holding it together. It had snagged on a stray thread, and the act of working it loose took longer than it should have because his hands were trembling like a schoolboy's. She in turn shivered when his knuckles skimmed between her shoulder-blades; before he could write it off as an effect of the cold air in the shop, he made the mistake of glancing at the fitting room mirror. Her reflection was staring at his, her luminous hazel eyes filled with sheer heat.

 

We're in trouble, he thought even as he met her gaze in the mirror. So much trouble. Despite the lust on her face, she also looked mildly terrified and he didn't blame her one bit.

 

And, if he was being honest with himself, some secret corner of his soul liked it, too. The bewildered innocence, the deer-in-headlights mien. It was the same part of him that had made him realize long ago that he could never a be a Jedi.

 

The clasp was released at last, and Rey automatically crossed her arms over her chest, gathering the folds of scarlet-black fabric to her torso before they could fall to her waist. Ben all but growled at the sight of her now-exposed back, the freckles dusted across her scapulae, the graceful ridges of her vertebral column that seemed like perfect places to press his lips to. His hands dropped to her hips as he inched closer, molding his chest to her back and nestling his growing erection against her silk-clad derrière. Stars, she felt good— warm and soft, and he would have her right here and now if she'd let him—

 

Footsteps echoed down the hall, steadily drawing nearer. He hastily retreated from the cubicle and Rey activated the holo-curtain once more, but not before he managed to glimpse the curious mixture of disappointment and relief on her face.

 

*

 

In the end he never got to find out which of the seemingly endless parade of gowns she chose. He only heard Taifnu proclaim, "This is the one!" from behind the holo-curtain, to which Rey responded with something pitched too low for him to discern.

 

"Nonsense, let him see it at the Festival," came Taifnu's strident tones. "It's nice for a woman to have a secret every once in a while."

 

When Rey emerged from the cubicle, she was wearing the Tarelle sei-weave attire that Taifnu had brought back newly altered. It was a dove-gray tunic worn over leggings and cinched at the waist with a belt of the same shade of royal blue as the cloak that the Neimoidian couturier draped over Rey's shoulders like a finishing touch.

 

"I'll have your formal wear ready by tomorrow morning. Theed is only two hours away by repulsorcab, so you'll have plenty of time," Taifnu said to Ben. The Festival would not start until late afternoon. "See you at dinner, Senator."

 

*

 

The hospitality industry in Spinnaker was on the rough side compared to that of Theed's, but Ben and Rey eventually found an inn that he declared "tolerable." It was no Hotel Manarai but the rooms were clean and the dining area overlooked the Solleu River, and the name of the place was not without its charms for Ben, who appreciated that kind of humor.

 

"In sailing, the 'bitter end' is that part of the anchor cable abaft the bitts— those large vertical timbers mortised into the keel of the wooden fishing rigs here on Naboo," he told Rey. "Nice pun, yes?"

 

"I'd probably hurt your feelings if I don't agree," she muttered, "considering that you've been chuckling about it every five minutes since we got here."

 

And you have been in a mood since we left the dressmaker's, he thought, but held his peace. She was more than likely worn out from their eventful trip, not to mention rattled by what had happened in the fitting room. Or what had almost happened, anyway.

 

*

 

The first stars had just come out when he tapped the buzzer to her suite. The door slid open with a hiss of hydraulics and she blinked up at him, her gaze lingering on his freshly-shaved jaw in a way that made him vaguely self-conscious.

 

"I'm off to dinner with Lady Datza," he announced. "You'll be all right on your own?"

 

Rey tensed. "You don't want me to come with you?"

 

What he wanted was for her to get some rest. She looked pale, and there were bags under her eyes. "I release you from your duties for the night."

 

Surprisingly, she didn't argue. Instead, an odd emotion— hurt? Anger? He couldn't tell— flickered across her features before her unreadable Jedi mask slammed over it. � I missed something, he thought blankly. Something important.�

 

"As you wish, Senator." Her tone was like ice. "Have a wonderful evening."

 

"Rey," he started to say, but she shut the door in his face without another word.

 

*

 

That brief yet terrible exchange haunted him all throughout his dinner with Taifnu at a little restaurant in the city center not far from her shop. The conversation was mostly about politics and mutual acquaintances and Cato Neimoidia— because she missed her homeworld and was entertaining the thought of going back for a spell— but, halfway through the main course, she picked up on his brooding and joked, "Aren't you a bit too old to be having girl trouble, Senator Solo?"

 

Ben weighed his options, mapping out all the different ways that the talk could go from here. He simply did not have the energy for verbal swordplay tonight, he realized, and, besides, Taifnu was an old family friend. "Is it that obvious?"

 

She laughed. "Very much so. But, for what it's worth, both of you fail at subtlety. Earlier at the shop, I thought Rey was going to wring my neck."

 

Ben was confused. "Why would you think that?"

 

Taifnu studied him for a worryingly long time, lips pursed. "I confess myself rather shocked, Senator," she said at last. "I expected that a grown man of your reputation would be capable of telling if a woman was jealous."

 

"My reputation?" he echoed through the sudden dry lump in his throat. "I assure you, the rumors of my prowess are vastly exaggerated." He could count on one hand the number of women he'd been with, all of them fleeting affairs with the mutual sole purpose of expediting a physical release. His demanding political career left no room for courtship or commitment. "And it is impossible that Rey would feel like that," he continued, "for she is a Jedi."

 

"Yes, I saw her lightsaber." Taifnu did not sound impressed. "Least Jedi-like Jedi I've ever met, if you ask me. Also, she is very young." The couturier's ruby eyes narrowed at Ben with a hint of reproach. "A young woman like that, currently, I'm sure, confused and struggling with her vows, and here you are having dinner with someone else."

 

Ben pushed his plate away. "I merely accepted your invitation," he hissed.

 

Taifnu shrugged. "Perhaps it was wicked of me. But I needed to get you alone to confirm that I wasn't imagining things, and this city is so very lacking in diversions, and I did want to spend some time with my dear friend Leia's son. Although you look more and more like your father as the years pass," she added fondly. "You may take your leave now, Senator. Go and clear the air with your pretty little bodyguard. And remember to be careful with her."

 

*

 

The three moons of Naboo lit Ben's way as he hurried down the streets, back to the Bitter End. Devoid of the hustle and bustle of the working day, Spinnaker had taken on the appearance of a quiet, sleepy riverside town, and now he understood Taifnu's sentiments— compared to Theed, this city was an absolute bore.

 

He kind of liked it.

 

When he reached the lobby of the inn, a whisper of intuition— that Force mumbo-jumbo, Han would have said— led Ben to the common dining area instead of up the stairs to the suites. It was packed; the Bitter End's guests mingled with Spinnaker locals helping themselves to a late-night meal and the bar's extensive liquor selection. Rey was seated at a table by one of the large windows that let in moonlight and the rhythmic lapping of the waves, barely audible underneath the cheerful tune of "Boot Black and Bachani Blossoms" playing on the jukebox in the corner. She was frowning down at the laminated menu in her hands.

 

"I recommend the Antakarian Fire Dancer," Ben drawled as he slid into the chair opposite hers. "Although I wonder what my uncle would say if he caught one of his Knights drinking on the job."

 

"You released me from my duties, remember?" Rey looked so grumpy that Ben's heart turned over in his chest with a fond ache. "Anyway, Jedi don't get drunk."

 

"Clearly," he said, noticing for the first time the two empty glasses on the table. He beckoned at one of the hovering service droids and ordered a Chandrilan Blue '439 for himself and the Fire Dancer for Rey. The jukebox segued into "Dobra Doompa" while they waited for their drinks.

 

"I thought you'd be gone longer," Rey finally said, not quite looking at him.

 

Ben leaned back in his too-small seat as he chose his next words with care. They would at some point need to talk about their strange connection and how to deal with it, but first he needed to establish that he hadn't gone off to cavort with another woman after spending the past few days feeling her up every chance he got. "Lady Datza is one of my mother's friends and I felt obliged due to the enormous favor she is doing for us," he said, "but I cut dinner short because there was somewhere else I wanted to be."

 

Rey exhaled slowly. "Oh."

 

"Yes." He smirked, playfully nudging her foot under the table with his. "Oh."

 

The droid returned with their drinks, setting fire to the surface of Rey's cocktail with an aplomb that reminded Ben of C-3PO. Rey's eyes widened, a grin tugging at her lips as she watched the bright gold flames dance atop the jewel-toned concoction and then wink out of existence, the scent of fruit and spice wafting into the air on a curl of smoke.

 

Ben took a sip of wine to hide his own smile that had formed at her uncharacteristic, girlish delight. The night rolled on and the drinks flowed and, eventually, there was a break in the music as a group of diminutive Chadra-Fan huddled at the jukebox, arguing loudly in their burbling language over what song to play next. This particular species of rodent-like humanoids from the Slice did not often venture into the Mid Rim but, then again, people from every corner of the galaxy were attending the Festival, some of them taking the long way to Theed in order to see more of Naboo. The momentary silence was swiftly patched over by the collective buzz of dozens of various conversations, and then the table next to Ben and Rey's broke into song.

 

"The pay is lousy, the food is even worse..."

 

Recognizing the tune, Ben turned towards the impromptu choir— seven grizzled, middle-aged men, each of them sporting either scars or cybernetic implants or both, and Spinnaker locals, too, from the looks of it, jolly and red-faced and clutching mugs of frosty Corellian ale.

 

"But we're tougher 'n' a Wookie's stomach, and meaner 'n' a Princess' curse..."

 

They look younger than my father, Ben thought as he stared at them, which means they must have been, what, eighteen, nineteen, maybe even younger than that—

 

"Yer in the Rebellion now, farmboy!"

 

Ben called for the service droid again. "Another round for the gentlemen," he instructed in a low tone, gesturing towards the veterans' table, "with my compliments."

 

"I'm not sure if you're being sincere or just a typical politician," Rey commented after the droid had trundled off.

 

"Can't I be both?" Ben asked good-naturedly.

 

She shook her head, the faint smile playing on her lips an indication that she was only teasing him. "There are no pincere soliticians—"

 

"What?" He laughed as she bolted upright in her chair, looking absolutely horrified by her gaffe. "I think you've had too much."

 

"I told you, Jedi don't get drunk." She was pouting. It was adorable.

 

"There's hardly any shame in it," he continued airily as if he hadn't heard her. "Five cocktails is a respectable amount."

 

"Yes, well, you're looking a little flushed yourself, Your Worshipness."

 

It was his turn to be affronted. The Chandrilan vintage was more potent than he'd expected, warming his veins after only three glasses, but— "I can drink you under the table any day."

 

Her eyes gleamed in challenge. "Bet?"

 

He shouldn't. He really shouldn't. But it was a nice night for it, moonlight sparkling on black water, jukebox music in his ears, and the taste of grappaberries from the famed Nayli vineyards on his tongue. "Bet," he confirmed.

 

It was swiftly decided that they had to be drinking the same thing in order to ensure a fair competition. Rey turned her nose up at the wine, claiming that it would be more fun if they sampled all of the Bitter End's cocktails instead, and Ben gave in. Maker knew she didn't get to do this often enough, and he might as well indulge her, even if mixed drinks weren't particularly to his taste. They chugged citrusy Desert Blooms and cool Cyclonic Highballs, had a tall glass each of the shimmering neon Green Galaxy that swirled with bursts of light and the Rancor Blood that was dark red and salty and made Ben feel like vomiting— but it was worth choking it down to hear Rey's stifled laughter at his pained grimace.

 

He drew the line at the Elshandruu Pica Thundercloud, though. "That stuff is lethal." And, in all honesty, an early twenties kind of drink. He could already feel the hangover coalescing in the back of his skull while Rey seemed blissfully unaffected. Ah, to be young again. "If you really want to try it, we'll have to share one."

 

"Fine," she said without batting an eye.

 

And that was how he ended up transferring his chair to her side of the table, the two of them squished up against each other as they gazed dubiously at the copper mug their service droid placed in front of them.

 

"Is it supposed to be doing that?" Rey wondered when a miniature cloud of ionized gas formed above the drink.

 

"Hence the name." Ben was vaguely aware that he was slurring. "It's meant to resemble an electrical storm."

 

They took turns sipping the strong, fizzy concoction. Somewhere along the way his arm draped over the back of her chair but she didn't appear to mind, even leaning into him a little. A new melody started up on the jukebox, and she gasped, "Oh— this is my favorite song."

 

"Hmm, so much for not having time for life's finer pleasures," he japed. "And why do I get the feeling that this isn't your first drinking spree, either?"

 

She scowled up at him but it lacked the usual vitriol. The first verse of the song floated through the room in a woman's husky voice. "Just one more round, friend, then homeward bound, friend. Don't forget me in your dreams..."

 

Ben's gaze dropped to Rey's lips as she spoke. "If you must know, some of the Praxeum students used to smuggle in alcohol when they returned from visiting their families off-world. Do not tell your uncle I said that. And I occasionally sneak in a few drinks during long missions with the Resistance, if I'm working with someone I trust, like Commander Dameron or Lieutenant Pava."

 

"Aren't you quite the rebel," Ben murmured, distracted by Rey's lips. They were very pink, and looked very soft, and he was very, very drunk. "Hopefully this means you have had practice using the Force to sober someone else up."

 

She dimpled at him. "Why? Do you concede?"

 

He should have been embarrassed by what he did next but the alcohol had quite thoroughly decimated any semblance of impulse control, or shame. He dropped his head onto her shoulder with a low, rumbling sigh. "I concede. What's the forfeit?"

 

"I don't know." She gently carded her fingers through his hair. "We didn't establish one."

 

There was warm laughter in her voice, and he grinned into the crook of her neck. He had no idea how long they sat there like that but, as she continued stroking his hair, he eventually mustered up the courage to press a soft, chaste kiss to the base of her throat.

 

"I think I want to go upstairs now," Rey said.

 

*

 

He walked her to her suite. It was the polite thing to do, even if it wasn't so much walking as it was stumbling down the sparsely-lit corridor on unwieldy legs. She had managed to summon enough healing energy so that they could handle the stairs, but there was still a considerable amount of alcohol in their respective systems that made the world seem a little less real. Before he was even aware of what he was doing, he started humming the song from the jukebox— the one that she had proclaimed her favorite— under his breath.

 

"Just one more dance, friend. Just one more chance, friend." Rey hid a giggle behind the palm of her hand and, encouraged, Ben continued, "One more chorus, one more tune..."

 

They stopped outside the door to her room. As she fumbled for the keycard in her pocket, he wrapped his arms around her waist, startling another giggle out of her. It was music to his ears, more so than the lyrics he sang against her temple. "It's not the end, friend. If you're a friend, friend, then you'll come back to me soon..."

 

The door slid open. She clutched at his shoulders and the two of them staggered clumsily over the threshold, unwilling to let go of each other. The motion-activated glow-panels flickered to life and they stared at each other for a long moment in the yellow light, before he bent down to nuzzle at her nose. "Now it's goodnight, friend," he sang, his mouth centimeters from hers, "goodnight, but not goodbye." He deliberately injected a warble into the last note for comical effect, and she laughed, tipsy and carefree and beautiful.

 

She was still laughing when he kissed her, a tentative, questioning brush of lips that ended too soon, too abruptly, when he pulled away to gauge her reaction. Her eyes were wide, darkened by a mix of curiosity and fear. "Senator," she whispered.

 

"Ben," he corrected through a foolish, lopsided grin as he leaned in once more. "My name is Ben."

 

"Ben," Rey breathed, and he shivered at the sound of his name rolling off her tongue, and he kissed her again.

 

At first, it was obvious that she was new to this, content to follow his lead as he languidly explored the contours of her lips and the warm sweetness of her mouth, his hand running down her spine to span the small of her back. Eventually, though, she was mirroring the sweep of his tongue and the pulsing slant of his lips, her fingers winding into his hair.

"You're a model student," he remarked, breaking the kiss to catch his breath.

 

She smiled crookedly up at him. "I could do with a few more lessons." Her voice had gone all throaty, hushed with promise, and his cock twitched in his pants.

 

What followed was a blur of more kisses, of blindly grasping at the wall to dim the lights, of shoes being hastily kicked off, of falling back onto the mattress, of clothes being tugged loose or pushed out of the way. The tension had been building up for so long that going slow would never in a million years have been possible— by the time the tiniest trace of awareness filtered in through the haze of lust and alcohol and pure instinct clouding Ben's mind, he was already shirtless, sitting up on the bed with his back to the wall while Rey straddled his lap and did her best to kiss him senseless. Her leggings seemed to have magically disappeared, even if he did have a vague memory of peeling them off of her and pressing his lips to her bare thighs as they were revealed inch by inch. She deepened the kiss that she was giving him, her hot little tongue enthusiastically lapping at his mouth with such ardor that he saw stars behind his closed eyes. A woman who could kiss like this, brimming with such passion and intensity, was wasted on the Jedi.

 

His hands were curled at her waist; the right one drifted upwards to work her hair free from its buns, carelessly flicking away the elastics and then burrowing into her loose, silky tresses. She nipped at his bottom lip with an air of challenge, and he growled into her mouth before angling his head to the side so that he could suck a punishing bruise into her neck. Starting in his arms, she tried to twist away from the sharp new sensation, but he was quick to soothe the sting with his tongue, his left hand wandering down to give her buttocks a playful squeeze.

 

"Oh," Rey squeaked, sounding equal parts intrigued and scandalized, and the dark streak in Ben Organa-Solo's soul blossomed into a wide, wicked current. He palmed the supple flesh of her shapely ass as he ravaged her neck, his fingers creeping beneath her panties in a counter-rhythm to his lips and teeth and tongue. She clung to him, her hips bearing down to rub the damp apex of her thighs against the hardness in his pants. She was so responsive that it was damn near driving him out of his intoxicated mind.

 

I dream of touch, she had said to him deep within the moonlit forest, and remembering that caused a throat-knotting tenderness to mingle with the flames of his arousal.

 

"Rey," he grated out, hearing the strain in his own voice, "take your shirt off. Please, sweetheart."

 

A shudder running through her body at the endearment, she immediately complied, pulling the offending garment over her head and tossing it somewhere into the shadows of the room. His mouth went dry at the sight of her breasts, small yet perfectly proportioned to her lithe torso, and he wasted no time in leaning forward to wrap his lips around one dusky nipple.

 

"Ben," she gasped, yanking at his hair as if for purchase. She seemed to be fascinated with his hair and he wasn't complaining; it felt good when she wound it around her fingers to direct the angle of his head, her nails raking his scalp as he sucked and laved at her chest.

 

Before long, his hand that had been groping her ass slipped to the front of her panties. She keened at the first brush of his fingers and he eagerly swallowed the sound with his mouth, kissing her slowly, heatedly, as he caressed her slick folds. She was so wet that he was tempted to just tug her underwear to the side and sheathe himself in her, but he resisted the urge. She'd never done this before and, also, a combination of pride and possessiveness demanded that her first time be the best, the one that she would hold all subsequent experiences up to. It was, he supposed wryly, a noble intention— one that was sorely put to the test when he nudged a finger inside her and his world momentarily blanked at how tight she was, stars, how amazing would this feel around his cock—

 

Rey's whimper at the intrusion jolted Ben back to what remained of his senses. Feeling like the worst kind of brute, he pressed an apologetic kiss to the corner of her mouth. "Lie back for me," he murmured, and, slowly, she did, her long hair splayed across the pillow, her body golden and glorious against the sheets. Her eyes were luminous, beseeching, asking him for something she couldn't name, and, with no thought left to him but to give her everything she wanted, he followed her down.

Chapter Text

He lingered over her as Ohma-D'un glowed through the window above the bed, peppering every inch of her skin with kisses. He kept returning to her mouth, because she seemed fascinated with the act of kissing itself and drank him in as if he were the last drop of water in the desert she had left behind, and to her breasts, because he liked the way she sobbed and writhed and pushed at the back of his head as if commanding him to take her deeper, to swallow her whole.

 

She explored him, too, biting into the tendons of his shoulders, tracing the ladder of his ribs, twisting up to cradle his hips between her legs. They were both completely naked now, and eventually she wrapped her fingers around his throbbing length and gave it a few experimental pumps that, for all her clumsiness, made him bury his face in the crook of her neck.

 

"If you keep that up, I'm going to come all over you," he warned her. It was self-sabotage, the mental image forcing him to grit his teeth against the orgasm that threatened to be a very real possibility within the next few seconds.

 

"That wouldn't be the worst thing in the world," Rey said, sounding breathless and dazed and maybe just a little bit evil. "But perhaps you should try to distract me."

 

If there was one thing Ben had learned from being a politician, it was how to take a hint. She was still maddeningly tight but more prepared this time, spreading her thighs wider, angling her hips just so as the minutes passed. Between the two of them they found a rhythm, rocking into each other's hand, tongues tangling in messy kisses, hearts racing as one. "Look at you," he babbled, because she was magnificent and he would die if he failed to convey that to her, "taking my fingers so well, that's my girl, that's my strong, beautiful girl—"

 

Rey arched back, her mouth hanging open, her fist on his erection now haphazard in its movements as she chased her orgasm. "Ben," she whined, "I'm going to—"

 

His wrist picked up speed, his fingers thrusting in and out of her with obscene wet slapping sounds as his thumb honed in on the tiny bundle of nerves atop her folds. "Yes, that's it, sweetheart," he rasped, "let me make you come, it's okay— come for me, cyar'ika—"

 

And she did, letting go of his cock to rake her nails down his back, pressing her body up into his as she tipped over the edge with a soft cry. The sensation of her inner walls fluttering around his fingers coupled with the pleasure-pain of her clawing at his skin was too much, he was too far gone to stave off his climax for even a second longer than necessary. He rose to his knees and hooked her right leg over his shoulder so that he could nip at the silky flesh of her thigh while he tugged furiously at his erection. She watched him, biting her lip as the aftershocks washed over her, her breasts heaving and all marked up by his teeth. She was the picture of debauched innocence, and it was her eyes that he was gazing into when he came, shooting thick white ropes all over her abdomen and lower, lower still, until he had emptied himself on the glistening, deliciously pink lips of her sex.

 

And then it was his turn to watch, in disbelief and in awe, as she dragged her hand through the mess he made and tasted it, her tongue darting out to lick her fingers clean. She did this with an air of curiosity rather than seduction, but it was one of the most arousing sights he'd ever witnessed and it elicited another spurt of come from his tip.

 

Ben huffed out a shaky laugh, resting his forehead on Rey's knee that was slung over his shoulder. "You're going to be the death of me," he groaned, and meant it.

 

*

 

The hangover was about as bad as he'd expected when he woke up the next morning to a room drenched in agonizingly bright sunlight. He was fortunate, however, in that he didn't have to endure the splitting migraine and parched throat for long— his head was carefully transferred from the pillow to a soft lap, and cool fingers latched onto his aching temples, the pain receding with each whispery nudge of the Force.

 

The ends of Rey's brown hair grazed his bare chest as she bent over him; he reached up, lazily twirling a few strands around his fingers. "You're really good at healing," he told her, his voice husky from sleep.

 

"I feel like I shouldn't be," she admitted. "Especially after betraying my vows last night."

 

He grabbed her hand and kissed it. "We can figure it out."

 

"Can we? I don't regret what happened but perhaps it's for the best that we didn't—" she hesitated— "go all the way." She said this as if the term was strange in her mouth, as if it was meant to be spoken by someone else, someone who lived a different kind of life. And then she leaned against the headboard, stroking his hair. The act was a compulsion to her and he didn't mind at all. "I wasn't even that drunk." She sounded mystified. "There was this— this dark, wild thing inside me, begging to be freed, and I was absolutely certain that if I didn't let you kiss me I would have, I don't know, burned alive— at least, that's what it felt like—"

 

Realizing that she was on the verge of full-blown panic, he hauled himself into a sitting position and faced her. She was wearing his shirt, practically swimming in it, each too-large sleeve rolled up at the elbow and her slender legs tantalizingly bare. The sight melted his heart but there were other more urgent things to take care of, such as her eerily dilated pupils and the quiver of her bottom lip. He had to fix this. He had to calm her down— and himself as well. Already he was starting to feel the razor's edge of that same panic as morning light continued to seep in through the window, casting the room and their faces in reality's harsh glare. He had to defuse the situation before they ended up lashing out at each other.

 

"First things first." Ben adopted the neutral yet slightly imperious tone that had aided him in many a back-channel negotiation. Something about the fact that he was thinking about this in terms of secrecy set off an alarm in his mind, but he resolutely ignored it. "Neither of us regrets what we did last night, and I think that is what we should focus on. Three days ago, in Varykino, you used the term 'mere biology.' That applies here as well, yes?" Because she could make him see stars, she could make him open up to her in a way that no one else had ever been capable of, she could look all too lovely in his shirt— but she could never be his footnote in the history of Skywalker mistakes. He would never wish that on her. "Even if there was alcohol involved, we are two consenting adults. I see no reason why this should cast a pall on the rest of our time together."

 

"I don't understand what you're saying." Rey looked down, fiddling with the borrowed shirt's hem. "I don't know what you mean."

 

He could have cursed himself. She wasn't a politician and, in hindsight, it had been rather disingenuous of him to talk to her like one. He slid one finger under her chin and tipped it up gently so that she would meet his gaze. "I am saying that, while I am aware of the complications, I should very much like to kiss you again. I am saying that even senators and Jedi can be human sometimes, and perhaps there is a way for us to see where this goes while mitigating the aforementioned complications. After all, once you've seen me safely back to New Alderaan, our paths might not cross again for quite some time."

 

Rey's brow creased. "You're propositioning me."

 

"Not exactly. I am suggesting that we continue from here on out on the most amicable of terms, and if anything happens again—" he shrugged— "then it happens. Naturally, no more indiscretions will take place after we have left Naboo and returned to our normal lives." Maybe this way, Ben thought, we can both get what we want without all the heartache. It was the most practical solution to this problem they were having of not being able to keep their hands off each other. Anything more would be... too difficult.

 

Too much like Anakin.

 

"I took an oath," Rey said at last, low and terse and cold, "to serve the galaxy at the cost of the self. I swore to dedicate my life to the light side of the Force. Now, while a politician might think nothing of going back on their word, I assure you, Senator, it's different for me. I am a Jedi."

 

"Did you even want to be one?" he shot back, immediately put on the defensive by a prickle of guilt— and the fact that she had called him by his title instead of his name. It stung more than he cared to admit. "You said it yourself— this life was forced upon you—"

 

"That doesn't mean I can't still make it my own."

 

"So you haven't yet?" There it was again, his ugly instinct to win an argument, to zero in on the cracks in his opponent's armor. "You're twenty-one, Rey. If you don't feel like a Jedi at this point, then you will never—"

 

"It doesn't matter if I feel like one or not!" She scrambled off the bed, planting her bare feet on the floor and clenching her fists at her sides as she glared at him. "It's what I am. The Jedi are the only family I've ever known and you're asking me to betray their trust for— for a summer romance!"

 

"Then why did you let me touch you last night?" Ben hissed. "The morning we woke up in each other's arms in my grandmother's villa, you were all for forgetting it ever happened. I completely understand that because you were asleep at the time. But last night you sure as hell weren't asleep, and you admitted a few minutes ago that you weren't even that drunk. So, I have to ask, what changed between Varykino and last night, and what changed between last night and this morning, because all of these mixed signals are—"

 

"You're one to talk about 'mixed signals.'" Rey let out a disbelieving, humorless bark of laughter. "Had I known that you were hoping for a mistress instead of a bodyguard to accompany you on this trip, I would never have let your actions and pretty words fool me into believing that you wanted something m—" She broke off abruptly, clapping both hands over her mouth as if she was deathly afraid of finishing that sentence.

 

There was a hollow clench in Ben's gut, some instinct whispering to him that, just like yesterday, he had missed something again. "Rey, what—"

 

"Get out." With a flick of her wrist, his balled-up pants catapulted off the floor and smacked him upside the head. He almost expected her to telekinetically strangle him with them in the mood she was in but, instead, the pants were swiftly followed by his shirt, and he caught a fleeting glimpse of her naked torso before she wrapped a blanket around herself.

 

He hurriedly pulled on his clothes and left her suite in a huff. So much for not lashing out at each other.

 

*

 

The journey to Theed was the longest two hours of Ben's life. He and Rey sat at opposite ends of the repulsorcab's passenger booth, their formalwear stuffed between them inside silk bags that were each fastened with a pin in the likeness of the Neimoidian kreehawk, wings spread in mid-flight. They didn't speak at all; she crossed her arms over her chest and stared straight ahead with a stony expression that didn't falter until they reached the end of the roadway connecting Spinnaker to Theed.

 

The repulsorcab screeched to a halt. "Main Boulevard's been shut down for the parade," announced their driver. "You'll have to walk from here."

 

Ben paid the fare, grabbed his and Rey's bags, and scrambled out of the vehicle while Rey exited via the door on the other side. It was a warm day, and the intricate ceremonial gates of the capital city of Naboo sparkled in the sunlight as masses of festival-goers streamed through on foot.

 

"You can give me my bag now," Rey said to Ben.

 

"It's fine, I can carry it," he grunted.

 

She rolled her eyes. "There's no need. I am perfectly capable of—"

 

"I said it's fine," he barked, holding the bags out of her reach.

 

"Fine!" she spat, throwing up her hands in disgust and stomping towards the city gates. He trailed after her gloomily, wondering how things could have gone so wrong.

 

*

 

Theed was a riot of noise and color in the midday sun, the Festival's cheerful, frenetic atmosphere whirling around Ben and Rey as they navigated a path to the omnipresent blue domes of the Royal Palace that looked so deceptively tiny from afar, looming over the rest of the city at the edge of a cliff lined with shimmering waterfalls. Amidst the elegant sprawl of tall alabaster buildings, tourists and residents alike crowded the side streets, alleyways, and bridges off Main Boulevard, watching buskers of every shape and color juggle knives, dance, perform card and coin tricks, blow bubbles, sketch caricatures, and pose as living statues. Ben paused to admire a particularly convincing Jabba the Hutt frozen in a death rictus, the wrinkled, slimy costume all tangled up in a facsimile of the chains that a twenty-three-year-old Leia Organa had strangled the real Jabba Desilijic Ture with, but, when he looked around, Rey was already several paces ahead, striding purposefully through the throng. He broke into a half-jog, dodging perilous gusts of flame from fire breathers and lethal flourishes from sword swallowers as he caught up to her.

 

There were stalls, too. Some sold various memorabilia such as crystal mood-vases, glazed ikopi figurines, novelty hats that made the wearer look like their head was popping out from the jaws of a frighteningly realistic Opee sea killer, laser pinwheels, falling-star domes, holographs depicting the Theed skyline, the Great Grass Plains, and the Caves of Eleuabad, and framed miniatures of Dechen Vestralla, the Queen of Naboo. Other stalls were doing a brisk trade in food— deep-fried nuna legs, fambaa pies, beebleberry ice cream, fizzer-sweets, and more, the aromas of smoked meat and burnt sugar combining with the usual layers of sweat and perfume that built up wherever masses of people were gathered.

 

Rey spared nary a glance for any of the sights, although she had a determined way of not looking that made Ben suspect she was actually intrigued but didn't want to waste time. True enough, when the crowd thickened near the narrow obelisk known as Queen Yram's Needle and they were forced to stop walking for awhile, he saw her darting surreptitious looks at the stall to her right. Cases of jewelry were on display, and her gaze lingered on a snowbloom pendant crafted from Harterran moonstone, suspended on a length of fragile silver. It was a rather unremarkable piece to Ben's practiced eye, but Rey looked at it wistfully as if it were the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. He could feel it in the Force, how she itched to touch the graceful, flute-like petals, to run her fingers along the sparkling chain.

 

He had no idea what made him do it— he'd probably gone mad from heat exhaustion— but, when she returned to scanning the crowd for an opening they could squeeze through, he slipped the necessary amount of credits to the vendor and pointed to the necklace with the same finger that he then held to his lips in the universal gesture for secrecy. Han had used to do this during Fete Weeks on Coruscant when he wanted to give Leia small tokens without the accompanying embarrassment— the seller would then call Leia over and present the gift under the guise of it being free for a pretty lady, although this usually became free for— oh, my stars, Senator Organa! once they had gotten a good look at her face.

 

This vendor, a middle-aged woman with gray-streaked auburn hair, smiled widely. She removed the snowbloom necklace from its case and then, to Ben's utter shock and fury, called out to Rey, "Excuse me, dear? A gift. From your young man."

 

Rey blinked at the proffered item and then at Ben, her expression incredulous. He glowered at her, a crimson blush rising to his cheeks. This was not his finest moment.

 

"He already paid for it, dear, and I don't accept returns," the vendor crooned, tucking the necklace into a small velvet pouch.

 

Left with no choice, Rey slipped the pouch into the inner lining of her cloak. "Thank you," she mumbled to Ben, not quite meeting his eyes, before she turned away and resumed walking.

 

"I won't forget this," Ben snapped at the conniving vendor.

 

"Oh, good." She waved him off with the serene charm characteristic of the Naboo. "Then you'll invite me to the wedding."

 

*

 

The Resistance must have posted sentries all over the city because, by the time Ben and Rey arrived at the entrance of the Palace Courtyard, Poe was already racing out to meet them, flanked by several men and women wearing the uniform of the Royal Naboo Security Forces.

 

"You're late," Poe said. "You were supposed to get here yesterday. General Organa's been checking in nonstop."

 

"We were attacked on the road," Rey told him. "Lost our speeder and had to cut through the swamps on foot."

 

Poe nodded. "Yeah, I wanted to send people out to look for you but the Lake Country is enormous—"

 

"And just how do you know what happened to us?" she demanded.

 

"Come with me," he sighed. "I got a man here who wants to do some defecting."

 

*

 

Lying to the east of the Courtyard, the barracks housing the Palace Guards division of the Security Forces was as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of Theed. "I am about to introduce you," Poe announced as he led Ben and Rey down a series of airy, well-lit corridors, "to the galaxy's unluckiest individual. He arrived in the city last night and hit up a cantina hoping to find someone who would provide passage to the Outer Rim in exchange for honest work. Very resourceful guy. Too bad for him, though, some drunken scumbags were getting too fresh with the waitress, and our man stepped in to defend her honor. The result was an all-out brawl. Wasn't long before law enforcers were called to the scene and everybody got tossed into the cells."

 

"What does this have to do with anything?" Ben asked tersely.

 

"Patience, my young padawan," Poe quipped with an irreverence borne of knowing someone since childhood. "I'm getting there. So, the police branch of the RSF ran the usual background checks and, much to their consternation, our man had zilch to show. No birth records, no identity cards, no positives on facial recognition tech, nothing— in Republic databases, anyway. I got wind of the news, had a hunch, went on down to the precinct to talk to him. Once he found out I was with the Resistance, he sang like a bird and I convinced the RSF to turn him over to me." Poe reeled off a smart salute at a couple of Palace Guards stationed outside one of the holding cells. After returning the gesture, the men punched in the necessary security codes and stepped aside to let Poe, Ben, and Rey enter through the door that had hissed open.

 

The prisoner looked to be in his early twenties, broad-shouldered with dark skin and close-cropped black hair. He was sitting down on a metal chair and staring at the floor, but, the moment Rey laid eyes on him, she—

 

sent him flying backwards with the Force, pinning him to the wall. "This is the assassin who escaped," she snarled. "Ben, get behind me—"

 

"Rey, it's all right," Poe hastened to explain. "Finn wants to defect. He gave us crucial information about the First Order, he means no harm, I swear—"

 

"Finn?" Rey echoed blankly at the same time that the prisoner croaked, "How did you know I was—" He then caught himself, grimacing. "Oh, right. Jedi."

 

"His designation within the First Order was FN-2187. That was the only name they ever gave him," Poe said to Rey. "I didn't like that, so I asked if I could call him Finn and he agreed. He was taken from his family when he was a baby and trained as a stormtrooper, eventually working his way up to the elite hit squad. But he doesn't want that life anymore. Right, Finn?"

 

The man in question nodded slowly, dark eyes fixed on the woman holding him immobile. She relinquished her telekinetic grasp after what seemed like ages, but warily stepped in front of Ben like a human shield, one hand poised over the hilt of her lightsaber, as Finn sagged to the floor.

 

"I'm listening," she said quietly.

 

*

 

As Finn spoke, Rey studied him with an aura of intense concentration, the slight crease of her brow the singular tell on an otherwise emotionless face. She was tapping into the Force so deeply that Ben could feel it from where he was now standing— beside her, as he'd stepped forward to listen more closely to the former stormtrooper. Rey was searching the man's imprint in the vast web that connected all living things, poking and prodding at his thoughts, his intentions, for any trace of deceit. And she did it so painlessly, too. Once in awhile Finn would shudder, his voice faltering, as her power raked through him, but it was the kind of shudder caused by a sudden gust of cold air, not the soul-searing agony of a mental interrogation at the hands of a careless or ill-trained Force user.

 

It must take a tremendous amount of control, Ben thought, glancing at Rey's profile, to be so strong, and to not use that strength to bend others to your will. He remembered with a pang of guilt the things he had said to her during their argument back at the inn. So what if she didn't feel like a Jedi? He was unsure of a great many things, too. What mattered in the end was that they were both trying their best.

 

"This isn't a trick," Rey concluded when Finn had fallen silent at last. "At least, not as far as I can see." She turned to Poe. "You should take him to the General as soon as possible. I think I can handle B— Senator Solo's security detail from here. Unless the First Order is planning to attack the Festival itself?"

 

Finn shook his head. "They don't want to openly declare hostilities on the Republic yet. They're starting small, picking off the Populist senators and the ones they can't corrupt, all the while making sure that the Resistance has no concrete evidence of wrongdoing."

 

"That is no longer the case," said Ben, a plan beginning to form in his mind. "Before you head off-world, we should speak with a certain important personage. I'm sure she will be very interested in what you have to say."

 

*

 

The Queen of Naboo was seventeen years old but anyone would be hard-pressed to tell, draped as she was in opulent red-and-black ceremonial robes and the wine-colored Jewel of Zenda glinting from the golden headpiece that framed her white-painted face. Seated at her desk in the cavernous, marble-walled throne room of the Royal Palace, she scrutinized Ben, Rey, Poe, and Finn with cool gray eyes.

 

"I am relieved that you made it to Theed in one piece, Senator Organa-Solo, and it is my honor to bid you and Jedi Rey welcome." It was in Vestralla's clear voice that her youth became apparent, and yet she spoke in a confident, formal tone that didn't surprise Ben in the least. She had been groomed for this all her life, just like Padme. "It is odd, however, that you would request a private audience so close to the start of the parade. I do hope that nothing is amiss."

 

You have no idea, Your Majesty, thought the part of Ben that would always be his father, as he cleared his throat and began to explain.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing upon which Ben could commend the Naboo, it was their flair for hospitality. While the guest room that had been prepared for him in the Royal Palace was furnished in the sumptuous fabrics and vibrant colors favored by Theed's noble houses, here and there were little nods to Alderaanian tradition— a vase of gingerbells on the dresser, muskwood in the fireplace, a bottle of Emera wine in the oak-paneled conservator. It was a shame that he had no time to savor any of it; the meeting with Vestralla had lasted a while and, even though Ben had showered, shaved, and dried his hair at lightning speed, there were only a handful of minutes left to spare before the parade began.

 

Standing in front of the full-length mirror, he hurriedly donned the clothes from Taifnu Datza's shop. Not bad for an eleventh-hour selection, even if they were a touch more embellished than what he normally preferred. Like the trousers, the suit jacket was made from blue chaughaine so dark it was almost black, with embroidered silver cuffs that matched the ornate high collar of the ivory-hued shimmersilk shirt he wore underneath. Completing the ensemble was a wide-shouldered veda cloth cloak shot through with silver gemweb to create the illusion of a starry night sky.

 

There was a knock on the side door that connected his room to Rey's. "Come in," he called, preoccupied with adjusting the cuffs of the suit. The door creaked open and she... suffused the air. He didn't know how to explain it; she had such a bright light in the Force that he was hyperaware of her presence even if she wasn't in his direct line of sight.

 

You and I have a big problem, kid, he thought wryly as he turned away from the mirror, head bent over his right sleeve. "Are you all set?" he inquired.

 

"Yes."

 

He finally looked up. And his heart caught in his throat.

 

Rey's gown was made of the same ivory material as his dress shirt and Ben wondered fleetingly if this had been intentional on the couturier's part. While she was completely covered by the high neckline and the long sleeves that ended in diamond points past her wrists, the bodice was skintight, cut up by an intricate gold band accentuating the curve of her slender waist before flaring out into yards and yards of shimmersilk.

 

In stark contrast to her fancy attire, her face was simply scrubbed clean, although she had foregone her usual three buns to sweep her hair into a neat twist at the back of her head. And, even though the gown had been designed to catch the eye, it was her bare features that he kept coming back to. She'd gone from cute to dazzlingly gorgeous in a matter of days, and he couldn't figure out how that had happened. Was there something in the water on Naboo?

 

She was staring at him in much the same way he was staring at her. Upon realizing that, Ben was spurred into action. He closed the distance between them in measured strides and, placing his hands on her slim shoulders, leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.

 

"Senator," she murmured in a low, conflicted voice that contained a wealth of immeasurable sadness.

 

"You called me Ben earlier in the holding cell," he said gruffly, cupping her cheek, stroking the pad of his thumb over her freckles. "I much prefer that, I think."

 

But she stepped away, shaking her head. "We're going to be late." She turned to lead him out into the corridor, and he discovered that, as if to compensate for its conservative front, her gown was backless, revealing an expanse of creamy skin all the way to her lumbar spine— a few inches lower and that magnificent little derrière would have been revealed to him in all its glory.

 

Dameron was wrong, Ben groused as he fell into step behind Rey. It's not Finn— I am the unluckiest man in the galaxy.

 

*

 

As was the case with events of a similar nature on most other worlds, the parade was an opportunity for the Naboo to gawk and gossip about their elected officials. There was a smattering of Gungans present but, for the most part, the planet's other dominant species dismissed the Festival of Light as a human affair— it was, after all, Theed and not Otoh Gunga that had joined the Republic hundreds of years ago. However, in keeping with the customary show of good faith, Boss Marsune had sent the Great Municipal Band to herald Queen Vestralla and the other members of government in a procession of vehicles and floats that wove down Main Boulevard and Pergola's Bridge and the Street of Glory before passing beneath the Triumphal Arch that trisected the wide avenue known as Palace Plaza.

 

Ben and the other dignitaries were waiting to receive Vestralla on the Overlook stage, a circular marble-paved terrace rimmed with stone balustrades. It was tradition for one of the assembled senators to escort the Queen to the podium, symbolizing the Republic welcoming Naboo into its fold. Right before the ceremony started, Ben had been informed by a harried protocol droid that he had the honor this year.

 

When he stepped forward with his arm extended to Vestralla, an enthusiastic cheer rose from Theed's noble families, soon picked up by the other spectators. It was too warm to be mere politeness and, so, a confused Ben's gaze flickered to the crowd. He saw a sea of smiling faces, the more wrinkled ones wet with tears, as the banners of House Naberrie waved proudly in the air. And then he understood.

 

"She was our greatest monarch," Vestralla told him, slipping her hand into the crook of his elbow. "We remember her as a champion of democracy until the very end. When she died, Naboo's love for her cemented her place in our legends. Even when the truth came out almost a decade ago, we rallied behind your mother. For how could we forget that, in the days of the Galactic Civil War, our soldiers went into battle with Padme Amidala's name on their lips?"

 

The orchestra struck up a new melody as Ben led Vestralla to the podium. It was "Tialga Hath Fallen," a traditional Alderaanian composition about a warrior-queen who made a stand against impossible odds. Leia Organa should have been here, Ben thought, but she was off fighting, trying to save the galaxy once more. This time, he silently resolved to give her whatever help he could.

 

*

 

"Nine hundred and two years ago, Naboo joined what we now call the Old Republic and, to this day, we are proud to consider ourselves part of the new one that rose in its stead." Vestralla's regal tones rang out from the podium on the Overlook stage beneath a dark indigo sky. "The Festival of Light is a happy occasion for our homeworld as we celebrate peace and intragalactic cooperation, but it is also a time to reflect on that troubled era in our history when we were unable to celebrate it at all, cast as we were in the shadow of the Empire. Today, I must also request a moment of silence for Senator Tolik Yar and Senator Kvarm Jia, who were assassinated on their way to Theed."

 

As everyone else bowed their heads in respect, Ben chanced a glance over his shoulder. Rey was an unmoving silhouette in the alcove behind the stage, deep in a meditation trance that would allow her to detect any danger. She was also scanning the assembled crowd, Ben knew, for signs of treachery. While Finn had been unable to provide any names, he'd confirmed that there were First Order collaborators everywhere— in Naboo as well as the rest of the Republic. Not only that, but there was a double agent in the Resistance, someone who must have presumably been listening in on the transmission from Varykino in order to give Finn's squad the information that Ben and Rey would be traveling via the Lake Country route.

 

Vestralla resumed speaking, and Ben exhaled in relief at her next words. He'd been afraid that she would change her mind at the last minute. "This afternoon, I received definitive proof that Senators Yar and Jia were killed by an organization calling itself the First Order." The hushed silence of the crowd was so thick that it could have been cut with a knife. The collaborators' pulses would be accelerating, drops of cold sweat beading down their spines, or so Ben liked to think, wishing for a moment that he was trained enough to be sensing all of this in the Force as Rey undoubtedly was now. "Operating out of the Unknown Regions, this military junta seeks to destroy the Republic and all that we hold dear. Their goal is a return to the dark days, when all inhabited solar systems cowered in fear under an oppressive, tyrannical regime." Whispers and mutters rippled throughout the audience like wildfire, the myriad holocameras surrounding the stage hovering closer to zoom in on Vestralla's face, broadcasting her speech to every corner of the galaxy. "I ask you, my people, my honored guests— will we allow it?"

 

Ben had been counting on the patriotic fervor that normally spiked to an all-time high at celebrations like this. He had been counting on the senators who had been friends with Yar and Jia to want justice and, perhaps, vengeance. Most of all, he had been counting on the fact that people would realize that the Queen of Naboo would not risk her political career and her homeworld's stability by making such an incendiary announcement at such an important event unless she knew that it was the absolute, irrevocable truth.

 

The gamble paid off. When the first impassioned chorus of No! in response to Vestralla's question started, it originated from Ben's fellow senators, many of whom had met Leia's claims with skepticism.

 

Vestralla continued, "Will we allow our hard-won democracy to be taken from us yet again? Will we allow these destabilizers, these cowards, these Imperial fanatics do as they please?"

 

More cries of No!, steadily increasing in volume and ire. Like any good stateswoman, Vestralla drew from her rapt audience's energy, hitting her stride as she declared, "There are thousands of old battlefields littered with the bones of those who never made it home. There are regions of space through which float the debris from countless ships whose crews knew they were outmatched but fought anyway. This Republic of ours was built on blood and sweat, on tears and sacrifice. Will we allow all of that be in vain?"

 

No, no, no, from the politicians gathered behind Vestralla on the Overlook stage, from the spectators on the repulsor-platforms, from the streets of Theed where people were watching the Queen's address on vidscreens, until it seemed like the defiant cries filled the world and the sky above it.

 

"Then let this year's Festival of Light be a message of our resolve in the face of this new threat," Vestralla concluded. "Let the records show that, as early as now, Naboo is taking a stand— and inviting our allies to stand with us— against terror and in defense of freedom." She paused, as if gauging the atmosphere to determine how her next words would be received. And what she saw and felt made her say, "May the Force be with us."

 

In the days of the Rebel Alliance, that was a battle-cry. Here and now, judging from the way the crowd roared— well, it was very much the same. Vestralla left the podium, and that was the signal for the orchestra to play and the fireworks to begin. To the joyous, vibrant swell of "All Stars Burn As One," dazzling explosions of multicolored light unfurled above the Royal Palace. They blazed and spiraled against a backdrop of glittering constellations, taking on the shape of birds and flowers and crosses and comets and other Republic emblems before vanishing in wisps of smoke.

 

While similar displays would continue to illuminate the skies all over the city for the rest of the night, this first one lasted for only thirty minutes, and Ben didn't see much of it. As soon as the formal proceedings came to an end right after Vestralla's speech, he went over to Rey in the alcove. They stood side by side, her magnificent eyes raised to the heavens in wonder, shards of jeweled light dancing over her face in shifting veils, and he found himself looking at her instead of at the fireworks.

 

*

 

Taking advantage of the balmy weather, the afterparty for visiting dignitaries was held in the Royal Gardens, which were picturesque— almost magical— in the glow of Naboo's three moons and the near-constant flare of pyrotechnics in the distance. The air was suffused with the powdery fragrance of Rominaria flowers, and a live band performed on the marble gazebo while guests milled about the expansive courtyard, nibbling on appetizers and drinking wine. Some took the time to marvel at the lush exotic blooms, the sparkling fountains, and the artificial waterfall that mimicked the ones cresting over the cliffs beyond the Palace walls, but mostly, people were breaking off into small groups and discussing in low tones what to do about the First Order. The more prominent Centrist senators, in particular, were concerned that they would be implicated in the assassinations and were going to great lengths to assure colleagues that their loyalties ultimately lay with the Republic. Ben didn't need the Force to feel alliances transmuting and battle lines being drawn all throughout the garden. Senate meetings promised to be utterly cutthroat in the months to come.

 

However, as of the moment, he couldn't care any less. The adrenaline of his plan being set into motion was fast wearing off, leaving exhaustion in its place— an exhaustion that twinged with a melancholy ache every time he looked at Rey. Still in bodyguard mode, she'd stationed herself at the perimeter of the courtyard, keeping a watchful eye on him. He couldn't very well spend the entire party talking to her but, stars, how he wanted to.

 

"You seem a little distracted tonight, my boy."

 

Ben's attention shifted to the woman who had spoken. He automatically leaned down to kiss her cheek in greeting before he remembered where they were and bowed instead. "My lady."

 

"Oh, come now, none of that," huffed Pooja Naberrie, his mother's cousin, drawing him into a matronly hug. "Everyone here knows we're related. After that little stunt Casterfo pulled a few years back, there's hardly any need to keep it a secret." She was referring to the time Leia's true parentage had been revealed to the Senate, thoroughly damaging her reputation. "I heard from old Dorian that you and your lady friend stayed at the summerhouse."

 

Ben blushed. His dignity was no match for the woman who had watched his younger self run around Varykino in diapers. "She's not— we're not— Rey is my bodyguard." The words sounded hollow even to his own ears.

 

Pooja quirked an eyebrow but gallantly changed the subject. "So, how are you, Ben? Why are you over here hiding behind the feather ferns?"

 

He grimaced. "Honestly, it's because I've had enough of politics for the night."

 

She threw her head back and laughed and laughed. "I'll bet! All these senators cozying up to you, trying to get back into Leia's good graces. My, how the tables have turned. And, yet, it's all so predictable, is it not?"

 

"It is."

 

"You're holding up very well, though." Pooja reached out to pat his cheek. "We are so proud. You look more and more like Anakin as the years pass, but you have my beloved Aunt Padme's grace."

 

Ben blinked at her. It was slowly, belatedly dawning on him that she'd known them both, that she had memories of both. "What do you think about it?" he blurted out. "Their relationship, I mean."

 

Pooja regarded him with a trace of apprehension, as if she knew precisely why he was asking even if he couldn't admit it to himself just yet. Then she softened, and sighed. "I was very young when Aunt Padme died, Ben. Leia and I served together in the Imperial Senate. We were good friends, and all that time we both had no idea... I was shocked when she reached out to me after the war and told me the truth. She did it mostly for you, you know. To give you a sense of your roots. I've had plenty of opportunity since then to reflect, and you know what I think? We can point fingers to our heart's content, but, after this many years have passed, there's no use in blaming anybody and casting judgment on what they should or shouldn't have done. At the end of it all, your grandparents were just two young people who wanted to be happy. That's all anyone wants, isn't it? I can only hope that there is a next life and that, there, they found each other again."

 

*

 

The conversation with Pooja was still weighing on his mind hours later as the party was winding down. Extricating himself from a cluster of senators where it was painfully apparent that no one was sure if they were making small talk or hurling accusations or negotiating, Ben ducked into an empty stone-paved path obscured from view by rose trellises on both sides.

 

Rey followed him, as he had known she would. "Senator?" she called out, concerned yet hesitant. He stopped in his tracks and she glided towards him, a vision of ethereal loveliness in the light of the Water Moon. "Are you all right?"

 

I need you, Ben thought, ached so badly to say. Their time together was almost over, and he didn't want it to be. The band on the gazebo was playing their last song, a poignant melody that drifted through the air like the scent of the roses.

 

"Like a meteor cutting across a starless night, he brightens up my darkest hour..."

 

"Dance with me," Ben said.

 

Rey gaped at him. "Are you drunk?"

 

He thought about it. He really did. "I've had a little wine—"

 

"Ah." She nodded sagely.

 

"— but only a glass and a half at most," he persisted. "I'm not even the slightest bit tipsy. I promise."

 

"Well, sorry, but I skipped the cotillion part of my training."

 

"At least you're aware it's called a cotillion. That's a start." Before Rey could protest, Ben took her by the waist, pressing one palm to the small of her back, the spot that he had been dying to touch all night. The feeling of her bare skin beneath his fingertips was electrifying, but, at the same time, it soothed that part of his soul that was always hungry, that was always searching for more, something, I don't know. She froze in his arms, and it wasn't dancing, not really, he was sort of just shuffling her around and it was so, so awkward, but he didn't care. He would pick this any day of the week over mind games and banal chatter with people hiding ulterior motives behind polite smiles. Finn and Poe were on their way to Leia, the Republic now knew that the First Order meant them harm, Rey had commed the list of suspicious senators to Luke on Yavin 4— there was nothing more that could be done, and they had what was left of the night to themselves.

 

"And so I follow him, like the tail of a comet. I'm just his satellite, never stray into any other orbit, not while he's around..."

 

Ben kissed the crown of Rey's head. "I don't want a summer romance," he mumbled helplessly into her hair. "I don't want just one more day. The things I said to you this morning back in Spinnaker— I was upset by the similarities to my grandparents' situation. I think I panicked a little."

 

"A little?" Rey scoffed. "Your pupils were so huge I could have flown a dreadnought through them."

 

"So were yours," he retorted, and then quickly, quietly apologized for it by rubbing her back, his hand tracing soothing, haphazard circles along her spine. "Anyway, my darling—" the endearment slipped out, much to his chagrin, but she melted against him, and hope surged in his chest— "After you escort me back to New Alderaan, I want to see you again. I want to see you every day. Every hour. But you don't have to— I mean— I'm not making you choose between me or the Jedi. I just wanted you to know."

 

It was a far cry from the best speech he'd ever given— he suspected, in fact, that it ranked among the worst— but Rey lifted her head to smile up at him. A genuinely sweet, happy smile. It was like watching the sun rise. "I feel it, too," she said. "But I didn't take you up on your first offer because, if I had to defy the Jedi Code, it had to be for something that would last. Something worth fighting for. I owe that to the Masters."

 

Ben rested his forehead against hers, closing his eyes. "I apologize for that callous first offer. I'll make it up to you, I swear."

 

"You can start tonight."

 

*

 

In his room inside the Royal Palace, with the windows thrown wide open to let in the summer breeze and the moonlight and the glow of the fireworks, they carefully undressed each other in the dark. Once the gown fell to her feet in a pool of embroidered shimmersilk, a slow grin spread across his face at the sight of the snowbloom pendant around her neck, the little flower nestled in the dip between her collarbones. It looked good there, the crystalline moonstone sparkling against her golden skin, and he traced its petals with the tip of his finger.

 

"I'll wear it every day," Rey promised.

 

A dark, possessive heat coiled through him. His hand continued its lazy trek down her sternum, drifting to the side to cup her left breast. She was so responsive, her nipple hardening beneath the gentlest brush of his thumb. He encircled his free arm around her waist, pressing their naked bodies together, and kissed her fiercely, still fondling her breast, what felt like all of his blood rushing south as she gasped into his mouth when he pinched her nipple between thumb and forefinger.

 

"The other one, too," she said against his lips.

 

"So bossy." He scooped her up into his arms and carried her to the bed, wasting no time once she was laid out on the mattress in lavishing attention on her neglected right breast with his teeth and his tongue. She whimpered and undulated beneath him, tugging at his hair, arching her spine, and he didn't relent until both her nipples were wet and flushed, until the sounds she was making had edged into more pain than pleasure. "I want to suck on your tits until you cry, cyar'ika," he whispered hoarsely, scattering kisses along the line of her jaw as his hand crept between her legs. "Is that very wicked of me?"

 

"Yes," Rey moaned, her hips canting upwards at the slow, even strokes of his fingers that never made it quite all the way inside her, just dipping and teasing. "Ben, please, I need to..."

 

"All in due time," he said with a smirk.

 

Perhaps he was being too smug for her liking because, almost before he knew it, she rolled them over with a surprising burst of strength. Suddenly he was the one on his back and she was on top of him, pinning his hands to the sheets as she straddled his hips, her eyes narrowed down at him in a predatory glare. He hadn't expected that his cock would be able to get any harder but it did— he was throbbing painfully, fit to burst.

 

"What are you going to do, Rey?" he asked in a soft voice, reaching up to free her hair from its already unraveling twist.

 

"Knock Your Worshipness down a peg."

 

"Ah." Don't say it, don't say it. "Is that your pet name for my—"

 

"Ben!" She erupted into peals of embarrassed laughter, her hair cascading down her shaking shoulders in glossy waves. "You are the most infuriating man—"

 

He chuckled as she collapsed on top of him, pressing her heated face to his bare chest. He'd never done this before, laughing with a woman in bed. It was strange and wonderful at the same time. It felt like a gift. "I love hearing you laugh," he said wistfully, tracing circles on the spur of her hip. "I'll make you laugh a lot. We'll be happy. I promise."

 

She nodded before stealing the breath from his lungs with an earth-shattering kiss. And, from there, it was the simplest and most instinctual of things to gently push her down onto his length. She was wet enough to take him but, worried that he might hurt her, he rocked up into her with shallow strokes, even if the sensation of her inner walls squeezing him made all rational thought evaporate and he had to bite down on the round of her shoulder to stop himself from just simply rutting into her like an animal.

 

"Oh, Ben," Rey sighed, kissing his neck. He could tell that she was uncomfortable at first, but after a few agonizing moments she began to meet his thrusts and he was able to go a little deeper, a little faster. She really was a quick study. "Ben, Ben, Ben—"

 

"I could do this forever,” he murmured, his tender tone a stark contrast to the quickening pace of his hips. “Could stay inside you forever, feel you around me for always, so tight, so good, my beautiful girl—”

 

"Should've known you'd never shut up," she gasped, "even in bed—" And that was the last sensible thing he got out of her before he clamped both arms around her tiny waist and drove the full length of his erection into her wet heat. She muffled her soft, hoarse scream into the crook of his neck, held onto him as if for dear life as his hips snapped against hers, as he found a particularly sensitive spot inside her that made her sob out his name. The friction was delicious, the sounds she made were intoxicating, and he couldn't hold out for much longer.

 

"Let me make you come," he grunted. "Please, Rey, please come for me, that's all I want—" He waited for her to nod, and then he flipped her onto her back once more, dropping sloppy, feverish kisses all over her face as he slammed into her and slipped his hand between their bodies to touch her clit, coaxing her to her peak. She shuddered and tightened even further and fluttered around him and he was a man unmade, thrusting into her wildly all throughout her orgasm, and then having only the barest presence of mind left to pull out.

 

And perhaps it really was wickedness, pure and simple, that made him straddle her midsection between his thighs, that made him slam one palm heavily into the mattress beside her head as he hunched over her, his other hand working himself to completion all over her heaving chest. Thick ropes of come spilled out from his cock, splattering the curves of her breasts and the valley between them, a few drops leaking out onto the fine silver chain around her neck as she blinked up at him in the languid daze of her afterglow.

 

"Your Worshipness really likes doing that," she remarked. "If only it could clean up after itself."

 

Ben's ears were still ringing, so he wasn't sure at first if he'd heard her correctly. And then he laughed, warm and sleepy and content. "I'll get a towel."

 

*

 

Afterwards, they lay in his bed, his arm keeping her tucked securely into his side and her head pillowed on his chest, the two of them watching through the window as the fireworks cast pulsing beats of emerald and sapphire and ruby and silver all over the rolling floodplains below Theed.

 

Ben knew that they needed to talk about what would happen next, how to deal with the complications that would doubtless ensue, how to handle their relationship in the light of what would be required of them in the months— perhaps even the years to come as they fought side by side against the First Order. But all of that could wait until morning. For now, there were the fireworks, there were the stars, there was Rey falling asleep in his embrace. And there was Ohma-D'un hanging in the sky, shedding her pale, cold, benevolent rays over this lush green world where Padme Amidala had been loved so completely and so well. Where she had fought for freedom, and tried for happiness, and left lessons for her daughter's child.

 

Mirrorbright shines the moon, Ben thought. Those you loved are with you still. And that old lullaby that his mother used to hum drifted up to the heavens, and became one with the song of the universe.